(This blog was co-authored by Hillard Heintze Directors JoAnn Ugolini and Adam Zoll.)

This Valentine’s Day many couples will celebrate by sitting down to watch a romantic comedy, the film genre most of us either love or loathe. But some experts say that a plot device common among so-called rom-coms is anything but harmless fun. In fact, it can be dangerous.

If you’ve watched enough romantic comedies you’re probably familiar with the scenario: A scorned suitor, typically male, goes to outrageous lengths to win or win back the affections of a member of the opposite sex. Think Lloyd Dobler holding the boom box over his head outside his ex-girlfriend’s house in Say Anything, or multiple suitors donning disguises to win Cameron Diaz’s affections in There’s Something About Mary.

Yet experts caution that such scenes in films can send an unhealthy message: that stalking behavior is acceptable, and even romantic.

Is it Actually Love?

A more recent film that has gained plenty of attention in this regard is Love, Actually. In this 2003 British rom-com a character secretly loves his best friend’s new wife, played by Keira Knightly, focusing the wedding video he shot for them squarely on her and showing up on their doorstep on Christmas Eve with cardboard signs confessing his feelings for her.

In romantic comedies such behavior is usually played sweetly, as evidence of just how much one character loves another, even as the other resists or is oblivious. And almost without exception the movie ends happily, with the target of the stalker-ish behavior relenting and falling in love with the stalker.

And true, sometimes persistence pays off in real life, just as in the movies. Many happily married couples share stories of how one of them initially was more interested in a relationship and how eventually he or she “wore down” the other. Some couples may even joke about how one “stalked” the other before they started dating.

But for too many victims, stalking is no joke. Unwanted phone calls, online lurking and controlling behavior can represent very real threats to the safety and security of individuals, often single women.

The Threat is Real

Just this week, news outlets reported about a man who has been pursuing actress Gwyneth Paltrow for 17 years, sending her communications and gifts in the hope that she would marry him. But stalking isn’t just a problem for famous people. A 2009 survey by the U.S. Department of Justice found that an estimated 3.3 million people age 18 or older were victims of stalking over a 12-month period, and that nearly 7 in 10 knew their offender. A greater percentage of women were stalked than men, although harassment was experienced nearly equally by each sex.

Our office assesses and manages cases involving stalkers who target people from all walks of life. In many of these situations, we find that the recipients of the unwanted attention responded to the pursuer’s gestures with non-committal responses or tried to “let them down easy,” hoping they would “get the hint” when, in fact, the best response is to be honest and just say, “no, thank you” without giving any excuses or reasons. 

Dating often involves subtle cues and fine lines. Movies make it look easy, but it’s not. That’s why movie romance shouldn’t be taken seriously. Real life is much more complicated.

The risk of workplace violence is pervasive. It doesn't discriminate between C-suites or cubicles.
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