We are not allowed to hold someone emotionally hostage until they give us what we want, forcing them to swallow their own feelings, desires, and needs in order to satisfy our own. That’s not romance. That’s abuse.
This year, Vulture declared that the grand romantic gesture will never die. It’s become such a popular trope in “chick flicks” and the like, including John Cusack and his boom box. Movies like Say Anything (1989) gave rise to Ted Mosby, who grated on our nerves throughout nine seasons of How I Met Your Mother with this type of dramatic display to win the hearts of several women, none of whom turned out to be the mother.
As an industry staple, I don’t see it disappearing from rom-coms and related narratives any time soon, but these sort of public pity parties that play on people’s empathy in order to achieve an end are not as romantic as television, movies, and music would have us believe. In fact, they are more akin to abuse.
Many of the tunes that we consider to be our favorite love songs have lyrics that are nothing short of harassment and stalking. I happen to be a big fan of The Script’s “The Man Who Can’t Be Moved” and I listen to it often, fully aware of its implications and its failures. The song intends to tell a story about a lost love and what one man is willing to do to have this woman back in his life, but the story that it ends up telling is about an attempt to manipulate her into rekindling a relationship with a very public display because he cannot handle their separation.
One Bristol man seems to have been inspired by the likes of Ted Mosby and The Script recently and gained public attention for it. Luke Howard descended upon College Green with his piano last week and vowed to keep playing until he won back the love of his life, a woman he referred to only as “Rapunzel.” Though he did eventually stop playing after allegedly being punched in the head, his short stay on College Green incited passionate conversation about his stunt and whether it was romantic or just plain creepy.
It’s actually beyond creepy. It’s manipulative, abusive, guilt-tripping, coercion, harassment, stalking, and gaslighting. A display of entitlement so great that, after four months of dating, this 34 year-old man thought it was okay to place the onus of this situation on the woman he claims to love, and so normalized that millions of people agree that this is an appropriate way to express romantic love for someone. This is not okay, and we need to acknowledge that.
On Easter Sunday, a man named Steve Stephens threw a temper tantrum and committed a murder on Facebook Live. Stephens blamed this behavior on his ex-girlfriend, Joy Lane, because she refused to speak to him after their break up. She had moved on, but he wanted her back, and so he created a public spectacle to get her attention and lull her back to him. She no longer wanted to be in a relationship with him, but he completely disregarded her feelings. He vowed that he would keep killing until she agreed to talk to him.
Instead of holding Stephens accountable for his own actions and interrogating the male entitlement and toxic masculinity that drove him to commit these acts, people were quick to echo his sentiments and blamed Joy Lane. She never should have broken his heart, they said. According to Stephens and everyone bizarrely on his side, she had no right to make her own decisions based on what was best for herself and her children. She needed to at least pick up the phone and just talk to him. She needed to take him back, despite the fact that he was clearly a violent man lacking the emotional maturity necessary to cope with a bruised ego. Or maybe she was the one who should have died instead of the innocent old man. Joy Lane was a victim, too, but that truth was lost on far too many people who were just as eager to blame her for the tragedy as Stephens was.
This is the far end of the spectrum, yes, but we have to acknowledge how the seemingly harmless display of Luke Howard connects with the murderous actions of Steve Stephens. The nexus where these two meet is where non-men are constantly expected to cater to the emotions of men while they are permitted to be out of control, and that lack of control can quickly be blamed on us so that the responsibility of pacifying them falls on us as well.
Our lived experiences are flooded with men who often use aggression, power, pressure and manipulation as ways to assert control. And when it is done so in the name of “love,” it means that our feelings often become completely invisible and trivialized in favor of men’s. Steve Stephens had no right to attempt to manipulate Joy Lane into coming back to him, just as Luke Howard had no right to attempt to manipulate “Rapunzel” into beginning a relationship with him again. We need a social intervention to evaluate what romance looks like and identify how normalized grand gestures like Howard’s are, in reality, practices in the same kind of entitlement that defined the violence of Stephens.
The issue is not only in how men are socialized to do these things, but also in how we are all socialized to find this behavior romantic and as evidence of their love and devotion, rather than as evidence of their willingness to blatantly disregard someone else’s feelings. This is about interrogating that entitlement, but it also about recognizing consent and when it is absent. People have to consent to being in a relationship with someone, and once they remove themselves from the relationship, their consent has also been revoked. Consent is mandatory and it is never okay to attempt to override someone’s “no.”
We are not allowed to hold someone emotionally hostage until they give us what we want, forcing them to swallow their own feelings, desires, and needs in order to satisfy our own. That’s not romance. That’s abuse. It’s time we learned the difference.