The humble rom-com genre has been responsible for a lot of dire contributions to the world, not least of which is the deplorable dreck of the third Bridget Jones instalment. But perhaps its greatest crime has been the perpetuation of false ideals around how love is actually won and secured.
In the world of the romantic comedy, stalking suddenly becomes “not giving up”, while subterfuge and outright lies are depicted as a quirky way to someone’s heart.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a good rom-com. But the allure of romantic comedies is in the fact that they’re based on fantasies. We wouldn’t really want Lloyd Dobler to stand outside our window holding up a boombox to convince us of his love, because that’s creepy and weird.
Which is precisely why it’s so gross to read about the man who’s plonked himself in the middle of Bristol’s College Green and announced he’ll play his piano non-stop until his ex-girlfriend realises how much he loves her and wants her back.
Luke Howard – who, at 34, is old enough to know better – referred to the unnamed woman as his “Rapunzel”, which is enough to unleash a permanent winter on anyone’s nethers. According to Howard, the pair ended their four-month relationship for no reason other than life “getting in the way”. (I would personally be prepared to bet a million farms that “Rapunzel” cited some quite different reasons for severing their blink-and-you’ll-miss it dalliance.)
But this isn’t just about a poor musician with a misguided sense of large romantic gestures. While some people might be tempted to view this as harmless or perhaps even beautiful, it’s neither of these things.
Ostentatious displays like this are rooted in manipulation, not genuine desire or care for the objects of affection. In fact, that’s exactly how they’re being treated: as objects.
The American writer Ijeoma Oluo put it best when she wrote, “I hope that she never takes him back. I hope that every woman who ever dumped him calls him to dump him all over again. I hope that parents will walk their young boys by this pathetic display to point and say, ‘THIS is what happens when you feel entitled to women. You end up being a self-obsessed 34-year-old embarrassing himself in the middle of a f—ing park’.”
For her observations, Oluo has been harassed online and bombarded with abusive messages. How dare she tell men how they are and aren’t allowed to try to force women to return to them!
How dare she suggest there’s anything nefarious in this man’s actions – or indeed in the actions of any man who chooses to ignore the wishes of women who’ve cut off contact with them because they just really, really like them and want them to see what “true devotion” looks like?
Unfortunately, these are the lessons pop culture has imparted on men. It calls to mind the brilliant writings of Arthur Chu, whose 2014 essay ‘Your Princess Is In Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement and Nerds’ explored the way nerd culture and nerd media encouraged not only unhealthy obsessions with women but an unrealistic idea of how to “win” those women in order to assert manhood and masculinity.
Chu was inspired to write it after Elliot Rodger, angered by what he saw as women’s refusal to have sex with him, went on a fatal shooting spree in Santa Barbara.
Back then, Chu wrote, “The overall problem is one of a culture where instead of seeing women as, you know, people, protagonists of their own stories just like we are of ours, men are taught that women are things to ‘earn’, to ‘win’. That if we try hard enough and persist long enough, we’ll get the girl in the end. Like life is a video game and women, like money and status, are just part of the reward we get for doing well.”
It’s a narrative that plays out incessantly, one that’s informed by the basic sexism that comes from not seeing women as people but rather as measures of men’s success and status in a patriarchal system. It’s almost certainly why a man like Howard thinks that his stunt is not only appropriate but also romantic.
But here’s what it also relies on – the complicity of the observers he has made sure are now present to assist him in his quest. The ones who’ll watch his performance and coo over it, instructing the faceless, nameless “Rapunzel” to let her hair back down and allow the prince to climb her tower once more.
If she refuses, she will be hounded by some as being heartless, cruel and arrogant – all the things women are accused of when they refuse to indulge this kind of behaviour from men.
In fact, all the things women in general were called after Rodger’s Santa Barbara massacre. He wouldn’t have done it if women had been nicer to him. Women, think of that the next time you turn a Nice Guy down.
When Christopher Plakson murdered school peer Maren Sanchez in 2014 after she turned down his invitation to their prom, some people expressed the belief that she should have just said yes in the first place.
Because women have to agree to go out with men now if we don’t want them to get angry and kill us. But if we talk about this or acknowledge this in any way, then we’re demonising them.
Women do not owe men their time, their gratitude or their bodies. As Oluo says, “Women are not your property. You are not entitled to our company. We do not exist to make you better, or happier, or more complete. We are allowed to leave you.”
Men like Luke Howard need to learn a new tune because this old ditty has grown boring.