On Wednesday Sept. 13, 2018, Professors Sue Langdon of the Psychology Department and Josh Rubin of the Anthropology Department held a lunch discussion centering on gender roles and sexual violence in romantic comedies, or “rom coms.”
The discussion is the first in a year-long grant series of monthly lunches coordinated by Bates Alumna Sadie James ‘17, who currently works as a project coordinator for the Bates Department of Justice and Office of Violence against Women campus program.
“We want to change the conversation from, ‘Oh, this is so bad, evil, etc.’ to really speaking towards a more primary prevention,” started Langdon, “because we do think we can bring down rates of sexual violence if we have these types of intentional conversations.”
As part of an opening exercise, Rubin asked those attending the lunch to think about some of the most “reductive, problematically, commonsensical conceptions of gender that come immediately to mind.”
Students and staff contributed keywords such as “Demure,” “Irrational vs. Rational,” “Assertiveness vs. Passivity” to start the conversation on some beliefs portrayed in popular culture.
After writing keywords on the whiteboard, Langdon turned back to the audience, “So let’s talk about some of the myths that we have, or society has, if you will, about sexual violence. Why don’t we primarily focus on stalking, because when we think about Rom Coms in regards to sexual violence—that’s what we see a lot of.”
Rubin responded, “Going backwards to another distinction, I was thinking about the mysterious and transparent. And this comes from this idea that there’s tons and tons of literature about the way that women are represented as a mystery that then have to be puzzled out by men. An extension that it might have in stalking is like if you could just know somebody and what they actually care about, you get under that mystery and know who they are. And so, like the trope of finding someone’s diary and reading their diary as like ‘I can see inside your head now! Your mystery is gone and now we can love.’”
After more conversation on common tropes in rom coms.” Langdon then turned on the projector to show a short video about stalker behaviors in rom coms. “The Washington Post, a while ago, posted a really nice four minute video clip which summarizes a lot of what we’ve been saying and also gives some really great examples,” she explained.
The video exhibited clips from movies such as “Say Anything,” with John Cusack holding a radio, and “Love Actually’s” poster scene. After reporting statistics of stalking in the U.S., the video played a re-edit of “There is Something about Mary” with eerie music playing over scenes depicting stalking and possessive behaviors—exposing the often overlooked instances of sexual violence in films.
After the video, students and staff discussed other movies in the genre that made light of possessive behavior and stalking including “The Notebook,” “You’ve Got Mail,” “Pretty Woman,” “Overboard,” and even “Groundhoug Day.”
“It’s a story of amnesia, in the sense that she’s living the same day over and over again,” said Rubin on “Groundhog Day.” “He gets to try different things and learn more about her, and then of course, at the end, because he’s realized how bad the previous iterations of himself were, she in effect had to suffer through all of those—if we take all of those days to be equally real. So it’s kind of like he gets this personal growth at the expense of her stasis.”
During the final moments of the discussion, Langdon asked, “How do we think about having healthier gender roles but still have fun, still have movies?”
Possible solutions from the crowd included the importance of communicating, keeping active in while listening, and thinking critically especially when watching romantic comedies or TV shows like “The Bachelor,” that depict problematic conceptions of gender roles and sexual violence.
To Rubin, critical thinking should not be a chore, but rather a rewarding exercise. “[There] is often this idea that you enjoy a movie and then you think more about it, and you then don’t like it. You’re like, ‘Oh, the tropes in this were really bad.’ But does that make thinking critically not fun?” he explained.
“I think that understanding why I like something is in fact a really rewarding and fun exercise. So if you watch a movie and like it, but there’s a trope in it that you can’t quite figure it out—go on Reddit!”