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Rom-Com Buzzkills: Why the Portrayal of Stalking in the Media Matters

January 30, 2020

An interview with Julia Lippman, Ph.D. 

Dr. Julia Lippman is a Senior Research Specialist at the University of Michigan. Her research on the portrayal of stalking in the media suggests that media plays a role in how we view stalking—and that it can be a serious problem for the real world.

Dr. Lippman conducted a study to determine the impact media has on beliefs about staking. She showed individuals one of three types of movies: one that portrayed stalking romantically, one that portrayed it from a psychological thriller lens, and a one that did not portray stalking at all, which served as a control. The “study [found] that media exposure is capable of producing increases and decreases in the expression of stalking myths.”

Thanks to Dr. Lippman’s research, we have empirical evidence that the media’s portrayal of “pursuit scenarios” can increase our belief in harmful stalking myths. It’s not all bad news, though – media are equally powerful when it comes to giving us tools to dismantle these myths and create better stories, on-screen and off.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) Development & Communications Coordinator Kate Fraim Kight recently sat down with Dr. Julia Lippman to talk about the myths and media that help make up our view of stalking, how she and her students talk about stalking in the media, and how we all can make a difference.

(Interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

NNEDV: You joke in your Twitter bio that you are famous for ruining romantic comedies, or rom-coms—but that’s a critique many of us in the women’s rights and social justice field get all the time. After all, it’s just a movie! Why does the media we consume matter?

Dr. Lippman: Media teaches us what to think about the world—it’s easy to say it’s just harmless entertainment, and in some cases it is. But if you keep getting the same messages over and over, even if you know what you’re watching is fiction, it informs how you think about the real world.

Is there anything specific about rom-coms that matter more? Are we letting our guards down in a way we wouldn’t with say, documentaries?

For sure, that can be true. I found in my research that when you show people rom-coms, you don’t see attitude changes amongst all participants; you really only see it amongst people who are more engaged with the narrative.

Nobody who studies media assumes that media effects are uniform across all people. Individual experiences, situational factors, etc. all affect how we consume and react to what we are viewing.
When it comes to rom-coms, people who see those as guides for how to behave in relationships are often those who don’t have a lot of experience in relationships, or who may have only seen their parents or relatives as examples.

In your class, you ask students to walk through a script and ask, “when would you leave?” The responses vary widely. What were the students’ reactions to seeing when their peers would leave an abusive partner? Did those reactions change throughout the course?

This is an opportunity for students to think about what would cause them to leave a situation or relationship, to see how differently everyone picks up on red flags. In this exercise, we see some people picking up on them when it’s “too late.” It’s always important to note that, even if you stay to the bitter end, if you don’t leave the relationship, you still didn’t cause this to happen. Abuse of any kind is never your fault.
And absolutely, students see things differently after the course. Students commented that it really opened their eyes and helped them see things in different ways.

Your research provides examples of movies that treat stalking as a crime, and shows that people have a more accurate threat assessment after watching them. Can we extrapolate that calling out this behavior in real life, if you are safe to do so, is also helpful?

In some ways, it’s better if we’re the ones doing the work, and thinking about these issues as we watch. On the other hand, it would probably be preferable to not be fed a steady diet of messages that aren’t great. It’s not a problem if just one show or movie does this, but we have to ask ourselves: is there diversity across the things we’re encountering?

After doing this research, how do you feel about the casual usage of the term “stalking,” like “Facebook stalking?”

One of the things that started me down this path was being annoyed at that exact thing! I was interested in the cultural tendency to trivialize stalking. When we keep hearing this word used in a way that is joking, what effect does that have? Facebook stalking can be different than the crime of stalking, of course, but it’s still trivializing a serious issue.

Right, and trivializing technology-facilitated abuse as well!

Season 2 of the Netflix series “You” came out during National Stalking Awareness Month, and Penn Badgley himself had to jump in and remind people that his character was not someone they should crush on—but is that enough?

Where I start to worry about media effects with stalking is when stalking is glamorized. In “You,” you’re in his head, and he has many lovely qualities—it’s not like he’s all evil; just like in real life, not all stalkers are all evil. He’s charming, physically attractive, well-read, he has redeeming qualities, but he is also a murderer—kind of a deal-breaker. The show is interestingly self-aware—he references rom-coms as if that’s where he learned this behavior. But it crosses the threshold, and most people would see that what he is doing is wrong. At the same time, you are sort of sympathizing with him and seeing through his perspective. So, it’s hard to say where this show is at in changing the discourse.

If you could address a room of Hollywood scriptwriters, what is one thing you would say to them?

I would say: it’s very easy to write a story that looks like stories we know. This exaggerated pursuit and exaggeration of what romantic love looks like, that’s easy. Challenge yourself, see if you can tell the same story of love with different tropes.

What do you binge watch when you want to turn your brain off? Can you ever stop being a researcher and just watch a movie?

Ha! Lately, it’s been the series, “The Good Place,” and I haven’t at all thought critically about it!
My default mode of media consumption is not to sit there and analyze it. I don’t always have my researcher hat on. I don’t even think the goal should be to always having that part of your brain on. There are some things I can’t not see, but it doesn’t necessarily hinder my enjoyment.
It’s the leap a lot of people make that isn’t warranted: “oh, you’re telling me I can’t watch and enjoy this.” No, I’m just saying this wouldn’t be okay in real life.

It’s like—enjoy the thing, but enjoy it without ignoring the full tapestry of human experiences that make up our lives and stories.

Yes! I like tapestry metaphors.

Is there any last plug you want to make to our readers?

Support groups working to end domestic violence! It’s so important, and there are so many places that need more funding than they are getting.

That is a fact! Thank you so much!

Learn more about Dr. Lippman’s work on stalking and the media by checking out these articles featuring her research:

Take action: Help us build a future free from all forms of gender-based violence. Check out our Get Involved toolkit here.