It’s a standard romantic plot: Boy meets girl, falls in love, asks girl out, girl says no, boy keeps asking because eventually their [unhealthy] persistence will pay off and everyone will be happy. Except, not really. A more accurate retelling would be: “Rejected boy ignores girl’s very clear boundaries and insists on pushing his way into her life.” Make no mistake, although we use boy and girl pronouns this behavior impacts all genders.
Masculinity is often associated with the pursuit of prey and partners. Going back centuries, our most beloved fairy tales are littered with this archetype. Beauty and the Beast is possibly the most famous example, featuring a male love interest who is literally an animal who tries to pressure Belle into freeing him from his curse. His gruffness is seen as charming and his beastly nature is shown as a front for his kindness, supposedly excusing his controlling and volatile behaviors.
IMAGE SOURCE: Disney
This unhealthy idea of courtship goes beyond the stories we are told as children. People frequently cite the concept of “alpha males,” meaning that successful men are active hunters instead of passive gatherers. Problem is, the alpha theory has been denounced by the very scientist who created it. Humans haven’t developed an evolutionary need for an aggressive alpha male who takes whatever partner he pleases, no matter what that Youtube pick-up artists might say.
Still, we eat up narratives of a persistent man breaking down his potential partner’s barriers and accept the cinematic portrayal of dominating men with hearts of gold as the only representation of men, people want. We can see how common this character type is just by looking at Harrison Ford’s most celebrated roles. Han, Indiana, Deckard: They all have a particular way of interacting with the people they are paired with. They conflate coercion and seduction, believing that “when women say no, they don’t really mean it…that it’s just part of some courtship game” according to the Pop culture Detective.
IMAGE SOURCE: Warner Bros.
We don’t just see these ideas in movies (though we certainly are spoiled for examples there), they’re firmly entrenched in our sitcoms, too. How I Met Your Mother is filled to the brim with questionable relationship behaviors. Ted Mosby has chased Robin throughout the nine seasons of the show, having an on-again/off-again relationship with her that at times saw him declaring that he loved her on the first date, committing theft as a grand gesture, and explaining to a mutual friend that she doesn’t belong with her fiancé but with him instead.
IMAGE SOURCE: How I Met Your Mother/CBS
Instead of looking at Robin as her own person, Ted sees her as someone who should ultimately belong to him, despite their failed past attempts. We’re happy for him when he finally wins her over in the end. But in doing so, we ignore what Robin has been through. By having them end up happily ever after, the show completely disregards her reasons for not wanting to be entangled with him in the first place. The show’s treatment of her other relationships is equally problematic. Robin is manipulated and tricked for years by the men she is closest to, yet the show presents those friendships as strong and desirable.
The media we consume and the ideals that are instilled in us at a young age have lasting effects on how we relate to others. The idea that masculinity means “fighting for love” actively downplays the agency of whoever is being pursued. Unhealthy persistence can take many forms, from stubborn courtship to outright harassment to stalking. Instead of listening to what someone is saying and the intent behind their words, the pursuer nurtures the idea that a “no” is flexible and malleable, and that with enough pressure and coercion that “no” will become an enthusiastic “yes.” Treating relentless pursuit as passionate courtship reinforces the ideas of sex and relationships being a competition, and that consent is superfluous because the pursuer is entitled to a reward for their efforts.
When you treat the person you are pursuing as a prize to be won, you subscribe to the idea of masculinity translating into hunting and pursuit. It harms both conceptualizations and expectations of gender performance. Gender identity shapes how we experience the world and relate it back to ourselves. Stereotypes of women being passive and men being active create expectations that reduce our existence to harmful patterns that normalize ignoring the boundaries we set for ourselves. Masculinity doesn’t have to be this way, it can be something greater and more respectful. We just need to acknowledge the toxic ideals popular culture instills in us, and examine their effects and how to change for the better.