[Written by Beth Leishman]
[Image Credit: Pixnio//pixel2013]
It’s 2019. We need to stop romanticising creepiness.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, there is an increasingly popular trend for female authors and screenwriters to tell romantic stories through the male gaze. Doing so allows them to showcase the hypocrisy and excuses employed to justify the mistreatment of women. This also taps into one of the integral elements of feminism; the need to examine and challenge toxic masculinities, for the sake of both men and women.
In 2017 Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person went viral; the short story skillfully examined the edges of consent and bad sex. In her more recent work The Good Guy, she takes the perspective of Ted who narrates details of his troublesome relationships with women, spanning from his very first kiss in the front of a car to his tenth-plus break-up which ends up in him going to A&E. Likewise, the new Netflix series You, adapted from the book by the same name by Caroline Kepnes, is seen from the perspective of Joe, who rationalises his stalker-homicidal behaviour as shows of affection and love towards the subject of his obsession, Beck.
In one sense, these narratives encourage the audience to empathise with the male protagonists, even though their actions inflict pain on to the lives of the women they claim to love. Joe’s care for Paco—his young next-door neighbour whose mother is trapped in an abusive relationship—encourages our sympathy, particularly when seen in conjunction with flashbacks to Joe’s own mistreatment by his guardian when he was a teenager working in the bookstore that he now manages. Similarly, Ted’s intense self-criticism, which manifests itself in his head as ‘a tribunal of all the girls who’d ever rejected him’, encourages pity from the reader, and goes some way to explain—if not excuse—his emotional detachment from romantic partners and the violent nature of his sexual fantasies: The story opens with the harrowing line ‘By the time he was 35, the only way Ted could get hard and remain so for the duration of sexual intercourse was to pretend that his dick was a knife, and the woman he was fucking was stabbing herself with it’.
The empathy we experience towards these male characters is misplaced, considering our full knowledge of their manipulative, perverse treatment of the women whom they sexually desire. They both display reprehensible behaviour; Joe kidnaps Beck’s lover, and Ted masturbates during platonic phone calls with his female friend. However, this is the intention of the writers. As our narrators repeatedly ensure us that their callous, inappropriate, even illegal actions are done solely out of kindness and protection for their unsuspecting ‘damsels’, we, the audience, are almost lulled into believing the same flawed logic enlisted by the abusers as justification for their wrongdoings. Particularly when watching You, viewers must actively remind themselves of the darker forces at play behind the glossy veneer of what appears to be a typical romance story.
Stories like The Good Guy and You showcase the need for a wider deconstruction of romantic tropes within film and literature, as creepy, controlling behaviour—think romantic icons like Christian Grey, Mr Rochester, even the fairy-tale figure of Prince Charming—they are not only deemed acceptable, but wildly eroticised. It is important to challenge the large-scale misconception of obsessive behaviour as romantic display, both on the page and the screen. By enlisting a male voice to narrate stories about sex, desire, and relationships, writers such as Roupenian and Kepnes begin to deconstruct the traditional portrayal of male figures within love stories as chivalrous and saviour-like to reveal the raw, vulnerable, and often sinister character facets which really formulate male romantic heroes.
[Image Description: a close-up image of a pile of heart-shaped sequins which change colour from red to pink to gold depending on the angle the light is hitting them.]