Hollywood has perpetuated the myth of boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again, and they live happily ever after. The cinematic world is filled with scenes of meet cues and airport chases that can dangerously underpin the conventional wisdom of love and crime. A study published in the journal Communication Research found watching romantic comedies that romanticize a man’s “persistent pursuit” of a woman can make women more likely to tolerate stalking in real life.

“[Such movies] can encourage women to discount their instincts,” Julia Lippman, a professor at the University of Michigan, told Canada’s Global News. “This is a problem because research shows that instincts can serve as powerful cues to help keep us safe.”

Lippman sought to explore the “stalking is romantic” phenomenon by observing women's responses to a series of questions about aggressive romantic behavior after watching films with differing themes. Each participant was shown an excerpt from one of six films, including There's Something About Mary and Management, which portray romantic pursuits positively; Enough and Sleeping With the Enemy, which have negative portrayals of stalking; or neutral films March of the Penguins and Winged Migration. After the showings, participants answered survey questions about stalking myths.

In the study, "stalking myths" were defined as false or exaggerated beliefs about stalking that minimize its seriousness. This means someone who strongly endorses these myths will tend to take stalking less seriously.

The findings revealed women who watched films featuring persistent romantic pursuitThere's Something About Mary and Management, were more likely to accept stalking myths as normal behavior. Meanwhile, those who watched films that showed violent male aggression, Enough and Sleeping With the Enemy, or March of the Penguins and Winged Migration were less likely to tolerate stalker-like men. In this case, rom-coms encouraged women to ignore their instincts.

“At their core, all these films are trading in the ‘love conquers all’ myth,” Lippman said. “Even though, of course, it doesn’t. Love is great, but so is respect for other people.”

For example, the scene in the rom-com classic, Love Actually, Keira Knightley’s character discovers that her husband’s best friend has been filming her while also treating her horribly. He filmed her because he claims to be in love with her, and he treated her horribly as "a self-preservation thing." Here, the audience is manipulated to overlook his creepy behavior, and instead sympathize with his tortured, unrequited love. Hollywood ups the ante and has the “romantic pursuer” show up to Knightley's character's house and professes his love wordlessly — with posters — while her husband, his best friend, sits upstairs without a clue. This stalker-like behavior is one of the most beloved moments in this rom-com classic.

Rom-coms portray persistent pursuit as a romantic gesture by men as behavior that should flatter women. However, in a real-life context, stalking is anything but romantic. In the U.S., 6.6 million people are stalked every year, with 1 in 6 women having experienced stalking victimization at some point during their lifetime, according to The National Center for Victims of Crime. These women reported feeling very fearful, or believed that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed.

Does this mean women should stop watching rom-coms all together? Not exactly.  

A 2014 study found watching rom-coms with your significant other could save your relationship. Newlyweds who watched romantic comedies whose characters must resolve their romantic conflict, and then proceeded to discuss marital problems after the film, decreased their chances of divorce.  

So, next time you watch a rom-com, just think about the message it's sending.

Source: Lippman JR. I Did It Because I Never Stopped Loving You: The Effects of Media Portrayals of Persistent Pursuit on Beliefs About Stalking. Communication Research. 2015.