The other night, I was closing up at the coffee shop that I work at, and as we locked the doors and threw out the hardening croissants, a gentleman in a bowtie approached the counter. He had spent the better part of the evening penning a letter with full-blown amateur calligraphy from a table in the back and began conversing with my male coworker about what he’d been writing about. As I began to sweep up abandoned straw wrappers and half-used Splenda packets, they beckoned for me to come and read the letter.
They wanted my gentlewomanly opinion on the four-page, handwritten letter my bow-tie clad dude had been working on for the last three months in order to win back his ex-girlfriend. It was past closing time; in fact the doors had already been locked so I already knew this guy wasn’t good with boundaries. Nevertheless, I picked up his letter and within just a few of those sloppily drawn sentences I had come to a conclusion. He was harassing his ex-girlfriend.
I pressed him for details of their relationship, their breakup, and each of their behavior since. They had been seeing each other for only a couple of months before he called things off with a text. In the three months since he had lost his beloved, he had shown up at her office with a bouquet of flowers, just happened to be at the same bar she was at with her friends one night, and if this letter didn’t get the response he was gunning for, he had every intention of showing up at her front door just to talk.
If you’ve seen films like Love, Actually I suppose this could seem like a genuinely good idea. Boy meets girl. Boy never confesses his feelings for girl in an appropriate or healthy way. Boy shows up at girl’s house where she lives with her new husband, plays unconvincing caroler music while professing his love for girl over cue cards, and entrapping girl in an awkward and potentially life-altering situation. Classic.
I did my best to talk this modern-day Neruda out of all of that and get him to understand how wrong it is to just show up at someone’s place unannounced. But he didn’t want a woman’s opinion, he wanted me to swoon at his grandiose gestures of romance; to cheer him on as one of the few knights in shining armor still willing to write by hand all the reasons his ex will come to regret her silence. Rather than seeing his ex’s choosing to discontinue their relationship as a finite decision, he saw his ex-girlfriend’s insistence that they shouldn’t be together simply as a hurdle in their relationship. And he was prepared to jump that hurdle one page, flower bouquet, or unannounced visit at a time.
There is really no denying it, love makes us, all of us, do crazy things. But where do we draw the line between the innocent final shot at love, and full-on harassment? For men and women, that line seems to be very different. If you were to consult John Hughes or any of his leading men, the line before men cross into full on stalkers comes somewhere after they show up unannounced at your house, boom box over head.
Men are rarely allowed to show emotions, but when it comes to romance, it seems over and over again they get away with this kind of behavior — thanks, toxic masculinity! Men don’t like when women make decisions for them, especially when that decision is whether or not to be with them. Pop culture and romantic comedies have demonstrated that if they just don’t give up and really go that extra mile, they can eventually break us stubborn gals down into agreeing to be with them again. Take it from the original love guru, Shakespeare, who wrote in Henry VI, “She’s beautiful, and therefore to be wooed; she is woman, and therefore to be won.”
A friend of mine was at a bar once, trying to get the bartender’s attention, when a man approached her and began hitting on her. She politely declined his invitations and tried to get out of the conversation without hurting his feelings. Nevertheless, he persisted, and as she turned to take her gin and tonic elsewhere, he put his mouth onto her mouth. She was so taken off guard she actually apologized to him, as he meekly proclaimed, “I just thought that would work.” Later in conversation, we would refer to this moment as the John Hughes Effect — the ways straight men berate, harass, and even assault women under the guise of sweet romance.
Remember that guy who threatened to play the piano nonstop until his ex-girlfriend agreed to get back together with him? How many times does one’s phone number need to be blocked before one resorts to dragging an actual piano onto a public lawn and hoping one will go viral for it? For the most part, the internet didn’t let that one off the hook; Twitter users called him creepy and stalkerish. Realistically, what was he going to do if she hadn’t answered within a few hours, days or weeks? Play until his finger pads fell clean off? That’s not romantic. It’s invasive and manipulative. Threatening to put yourself in escalating physical pain until someone does what you want is cruel, and since when it that romantic?
Toxic masculinity hinders a lot of men from expressing emotions in a healthy manner. This isn’t as easy as stop writing creepy love letters (although you should). This problem is systemic and deep. If men were taught early on how to cope with sadness and pain, they might not feel they have to resort to desperate romantic gestures to stop that pain. And furthermore, if men understood more deeply that no means no, the idea of “winning her back” could be abolished altogether. Take it from Sixteen Candles heartthrob Jake, “I want a serious girlfriend. Somebody I can love, that’s gonna love me back. Is that psycho?” No, Jake, but recruiting the school nerd to steal your new love interest’s panties and then showing up to her sister’s wedding to save the day with a birthday cake certainly is.
Top photo: Say Anything
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