Films, pop songs and mainstream popular culture all push the same message: that men must pursue women to ridiculous extremes, even if the attention is unwanted. Yet if women pursue men, they are seen as desperate, needy, and sad. Rachel Eastwell exposes the double standard.
Picture this: You’re a woman at a party and get talking to a man. He’s good looking and, even though you don’t really know him yet, you’re interested in him. You flirt, but he acts uninterested. Undeterred, you ask him out for a drink, but he flat out rejects you. Instead of taking the hint, you find out where he works or lives, and turn up there the next day with flowers. He asks you to leave him alone. Again, you ignore him. You start sending him expensive gifts, which he returns. You turn up at a social situation and declare that you love him, that you are perfect for each other and he should stop denying his feelings, that you’re not going to give up until he admits he loves you.
What would you call a woman like this? Obsessive, unhinged stalker? Borderline psychopath? Desperate weirdo? Probably all three. This kind of behaviour is not socially acceptable, and would generally be considered stalking, or at least harassment.
Apparently, though, it’s different for men. Take a look at a romantic comedy film. Go on, there’s enough of them out there, and about four plots to choose from. A common one is as I’ve described above, only with the sexes reversed. Man pursues uninterested female object of desire, she finally accepts she loves him, they live happily ever after. Very cute. How romantic and chivalrous of the man to go to such lengths to get the girl. Now imagine if it happened to you. At best, you’d probably be intensely irritated by this weirdo bothering you, turning up at your house and bombarding you with unwanted gifts; at worst, you’d be terrified, scared to answer the phone or go out alone, and end up calling the police. Stalking is a punishable crime. So why is it seen as OK, as good, even, when men use these dubious stalkerish techniques in films? And the women are supposed to find this attractive? Really?
He must be the one to pursue the female; he must ask her out, he must be the one to call her
It all comes down to one, age-old idea; that a man’s stereotypical role is a dominant one. He must be the one to pursue the female; he must ask her out, he must be the one to call her, etc. etc. Those things are bad enough, but chasing after a clearly uninterested woman shows not only a deep disregard for that woman’s feelings, but also a bizarre inability to accept rejection, and astounding arrogance in refusing to even consider the possibility that she just doesn’t fancy him.
A song I happened to hear the other day echoes these sentiments, albeit in a rather more disturbing way. And this comes not from any controversial rapper or rock band, but from the latest squeaky-clean, production-line boyband, whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch (does it really matter anyway?) In their debut single, they sing:
If you say that you don’t want me/ That’s OK, I'm gonna get you anyway/ If you think you can avoid me/ That's alright, cause I don’t mind a little fight.
Words cannot describe the feeling of unease and disturbance I felt when listening to these words. If this was from some misogynistic “cock-rock” band, I’d assume they were talking about raping a woman. However, as a clean-cut boyband this is obviously not their intention (okay, I doubt they write their own songs, but I’m referring to whoever did). No, as becomes apparent in the rest of the song, the singer is trying to get a girl to go out with him, or at least sleep with him. He presumably isn’t talking about physically forcing her into sex, and the ‘little fight’ he speaks of is probably the borderline-stalking so beloved of romantic movie heroes everywhere. He’s apparently just being ‘masculine’. But the violent connotations here are undeniable. Alright, so I’m probably reading too much into a silly little pop song for the early-teen market. They are not trying to be controversial, they’re not condoning stalking or rape. But the very fact that a pop band can perpetuate this kind of attitude (that a man should not take no for an answer, ie. no means yes) without trying to cause controversy speaks volumes in my mind. This attitude seems to be regarded as the norm by most of society.
men must pursue reluctant women: yet if women do the same to men they’re desperate, needy, clingy
An example: For those of you who have seen the excellent Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, think back to the first scenes where Joel and Clementine meet on the train (if you’re anything like me, you’ll remember it by the fact that she had blue hair). She tries to strike up a conversation with him, and he responds in monosyllables, clearly not wanting to talk. She, however, doesn’t give up and keeps on talking, even when he tells her he has work to do. He gives her a lift home from the station, she invites him in for a drink, to which he at first declines, but she insists. He has a drink and then goes to leave, but she asks him to stay the night, and when he refuses she practically begs him.
Watching these scenes, I found myself thinking ‘God, how desperate can you get? Why can’t she just accept his rejection and stop humiliating herself?’ Then I caught myself. If this was a man doing the begging, I would be thinking no such thoughts. It’s ingrained into our consciousness: men pursue women even if they are reluctant, and it’s okay. Women do the same to men and they’re desperate, needy, clingy, slutty, or any number of other derogatory adjectives. Ever waited by the phone for hours for that guy you met last night to call, getting yourself into a terrible state, even though you have his number? (Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones is a prime example of this kind of needless self-flagellating behaviour) Why don’t you call him? Because you’ll look desperate, needy, too keen? But if he calls you, he is none these things.
This all culminates in a general attitude in our culture which effects not only dating and relationships, but perpetuates the idea of women as passive and men as active. Men do the ‘doing’, women have it done to them. This idea can be related to stereotypical notions of pretty much any interaction between the sexes, most obviously the act of penetrative sex itself. It can also, rather more disturbingly, be used to justify harassment or even rape; if it is a man’s natural role to go after women, interested or not, then where do we draw the line between irritation and violation?
boybands can sing about love and make it sound like rape
And let’s not forget the pressure this attitude puts on those men who don’t want to be the ‘pursuer’; men who are shy, or lacking in confidence, or simply don’t want to subscribe to constructed gender roles. What are they supposed to do? If women aren’t supposed to take the lead, and many men don’t want to, then how is anyone supposed to get a date?
I am in no way proposing that my views here are anything novel. This is of course an issue that feminists have always been well aware of and fought against. I had just never until recently realised how integrated it was into our society and popular culture, to the point where we accept stalker behavior in films, and boybands can sing about love and make it sound like rape. Sex and relationships are just one more arena for old-fashioned attitudes to manifest themselves, and although things are changing, we still have a long way to go until a romantic heroine pursues a male love interest in a movie, or, even better, no one feels the need to stalk anyone at all.