Songs about Jerks: “Every Step You Take”

There are a lot of songs on the air that refer to Jerks and Jerky behavior. Some continue to romanticize Jerky behavior, some bemoan being in an abusive relationship, some celebrate getting out. I plan to write several blogs about this, but I’ll start with a song that you might not realize is about a big-time, potentially dangerous Jerk.

The first one that comes to mind is “Every Step You Take” by The Police. I want to say up front that this is an amazing song – there is something about the haunting background rhythms and the pacing and selection of instruments that is simply brilliant. I enjoy listening to it for the musical skill and creativity alone. But many people see this as a “love song” and don’t realize this song is about an abusive partner essentially stalking his ex. I will fully acknowledge that it was many years after I first heard this song before I realized what the song is about.

Police lead songwriter Sting, who wrote this song, has been very clear in interviews that the song is about “something sinister.” As he himself said, “…he was disconcerted by how many people think the song is more positive than it is. He insists it is about the obsession with a lost lover, and the jealousy and surveillance that follow. “One couple told me ‘Oh we love that song; it was the main song played at our wedding!’ I thought, ‘Well, good luck.'”[12]

Looking closer at the lyrics, the themes are pretty clear. The singer is watching every move his ex-lover makes, including “every vow you break, every smile you fake, etc.” It becomes even clearer in the bridge, where he says “Since you’ve been gone, I’ve been lost without a trace,” and ends with the singer pitifully begging, “… baby, baby, please…” This connects strongly with the “Dependent Jerk” theme, where a partner makes it seem that s/he cannot possibly survive without you. This is often portrayed as “romantic” in films and books and songs, but is one of the most dangerous signs an abuser can give off.

It also seems to bypass us when the chorus rings out, “Oh, can’t you see? You belong to me!” This is a very controlling and possessive attitude, especially toward an ex who has departed, and suggests a kind of obsessiveness that is highly associated with stalking and indeed with potentially dangerous and violent behavior on the part of the “abandoned” partner.

To stress again, I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong or bad about this song – it is a brilliant and haunting depiction of an obsessive person stalking his/her ex-lover. What is so interesting is how many people (including me initially as well) sing along with this “love song” and accept these lyrics as representative of someone who is simply in love and pining away for his lost love. I think this lack of awareness reflects how deeply ingrained the theme of the stalker is in the romantic memes of our time. We really need to wake up and be aware of these themes if we want to change the culture that makes it so difficult for us to see the difference between love and dangerous obsession.

December 2017

Positive Movie Roles: “Leap Year”

While I spend a lot of time talking about common themes in movies and stories where Jerky behavior like stalking, emotional manipulation, insincere charm, jealousy, substance abuse, and aggressive sexual behavior are made to seem romantic, there are some movies that manage to be quite romantic while showing the male hero of the tale to be gentlemanly and respectful, and the heroine to show good judgment and self-respect. I was fortunate to watch such a movie just yesterday: “Leap Year”.

Our heroine. Anna Brady (Amy Adams), is a Bostonian who has plans for everything in her life. She has a well-to-do cardiologist, Jeremy (Adam Scott) as a boyfriend, and fully intends to marry him. Despite being together for four years, he does not seem to have any intention of proposing. So while he is attending a conference in Dublin, Ireland, she decides for once to be spontaneous, and takes the bold step of traveling to Dublin to ask him to marry her, taking advantage of the Irish tradition that women are allowed to propose to men on the 29th of February in a “leap year.”

As one might expect, Anna encounters one disaster after another on her way there, and after being dropped off by a boat captain on a deserted beach during a torrential rainstorm, she is forced to hire a seemingly cynical pub owner, Declan O’Callahan (Matthew Goode), to drive her from rural Ireland to her planned meeting in Dublin in time for the 29th of February. They encounter several more predictable yet amusing disasters on the way, and as they are forced to cope together with adversity, they understandably begin to bond with each other.

At this point in the movie, I start to get worried. This is usually where the new guy uses various kinds of charm and pressure tactics to manipulate the heroine into understanding that she needs to throw over her current beau in favor of him. But nothing of the kind ensues. Declan continues to behave respectfully, if gruffly, toward Anna, despite his obviously growing affection for her. He does tell her an old Irish legend that she correctly interprets to express suspicions that her relationship with Jeremy is not meant to be, but he does not try to charm her or convince her to connect with him romantically. That night, they are forced by the locals’ rigid mores to pretend they are a married couple so they can get a room at a rural B&B, and are pressured by the landlady into kising each other at the dinner table, and even end up sleeping in the same bed! But despite the temptation, Declan remains a gentleman and Anna remains true to her promise to propose to Jeremy in Dublin.

The next day, after being forced to take refuge from a hailstorm at a local wedding reception, Anna gets extremely drunk and for the first time begins to realize that she’s falling in love with Declan. As she is about to kiss him, she vomits on his shoes. Rather than taking advantage of her vulnerability, he takes her to a park bench and she sleeps with her head on his lap all night, and he never mentions the almost-kiss to her again.

How many movies involve a woman “losing control” while drunk and engaging in sex with a person she hardly knows? How often does the male character choose not to take advantage of such a situation? Most romantic movies would show the man as much more aggressive in pursuing his “quarry”, rather than taking the honorable road and protecting her from potential harm while continuing to respect her pre-existing relationship.

The next day, they finally arrive in Dublin, where surprisingly, Jeremy himself proposes to Anna in front of a big crowd at the hotel, while Declan respectfully makes himself scarce. Despite a look of longing in Delcan’s direction as he leaves the hotel lobby, Anna accepts the proposal and returns to Boston for the engagement party.

At the party, Anna overhears Jeremy explaining to a friend how he had to lie to the proprietor of their new penthouse apartment about the two of them being married in order to get the lease, and that he afterwards decided, “What the hell – we’re probably going to get married some day, why not now?” This not-so-romantic tale is enough for Anna to decide to test him out and see what he values. Without going into details, it’s fair to say he fails the test miserably, and she is done with him.

We are all relieved when she returns to Ireland and seeks out Declan, and despite a little twist, it’s a very romantic happy ending indeed. The writers do a great job of showing the building romantic tension between the two protagonists without resorting to any kind of intense jealousy, overwhelming “need” to consummate the relationship, nor manipulative tactics designed to “win” the heroine to the hero’s arms. It simply showed two normal but very different people tossed together by unexpected circumstances, struggling to figure out what they are supposed to do. It left me with a good feeling that maybe there is hope that Hollywood may yet stop promoting stalking and write love stories that involve healthy people who actually care about each other. And of course, it was refreshing to see that this time, the Jerk didn’t get the girl!

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and The Beast, a Love Story?

Anyone who has watched an hour of TV or Hulu in the last couple weeks has seen the ads: Beauty and the Beast! The biggest movie in the world! The beloved classic story! The romance! Disney's new live action Beauty and the Beast is a worldwide phenomenon!

In the first two weeks, the new Emma Watson version of Beauty and the Beast grossed $766 million in box office sales. It is an ancient story that speaks to many common themes in human experience - cruelty and kindness, love and violence, punishment and redemption - and for this reason, it has always been popular and well received in its many re-tellings over the years. However, from a Jerk Radar perspective, Beauty and the Beast sends some very disturbing messages about the roles of men and women in adult relationships.

(Read no further if you really want to believe in Belle's ability to magically reform the Beast with love, because I might just permanently ruin this story for you!)

Let's be clear about this: the Beast is an excellent example of an abusive partner. He imprison's Belle's father for taking a rose from his garden. He holds Belle prisoner in exchange for her father for months on end. He insists that Belle eat dinner with him every night and asks her to marry him, despite barely knowing her and despite her repeated refusals. He yells at the servants (and at Belle) and breaks things, and expects everyone to do his bidding and even read his mind, and feels justified in having a raging tantrum when things don't go his way. The servants are all terrified of his rages but make excuses and try their best not to upset him for fear of setting him off yet again. Yet in the end, he magically becomes a kind and handsome Prince due to Beauty's decision to love him despite his abusive behavior toward her and pretty much everyone else around.

Of course, we all know that Beauty and the Beast is a fairy tale, and that fairy tales are not real. However, it is very easy to underestimate the impact such stories have on our beliefs about life and love. Years of experience in domestic abuse relationships have shown me that the themes in this movie very deeply contribute to women's vulnerability to abusive partners.

Here is a look at a short synopsis of the plot of the 1991 animated version:

"An arrogant young prince and his castle's servants fall under the spell of a wicked enchantress, who turns him into the hideous Beast until he learns to love and be loved in return. The spirited, headstrong village girl Belle enters the Beast's castle after he imprisons her father Maurice. With the help of his enchanted servants... Belle begins to draw the cold-hearted Beast out of his isolation."

Notice a few things here. First, the Beast did not become abusive because he was put under a spell - he was put under a spell BECAUSE HE WAS ABUSIVE! The enchantress in question was posing as a poor old woman begging for food and shelter, and he scorned her and thereby earned her wrath.

(New rule: treat everyone nicely. The person you just disrespected just might be a magician with an anger control problem!)

Second, he needs to "learn to love and be loved," but it doesn't seem he's made much progress despite his punishment, as he KIDNAPS the person he is trying to learn to love! Despite over 10 years of suffering as "The Beast," he has not learned an ounce of humility or compassion, and all his servants, and at first Belle, are appropriately terrified of him.

Third, Belle, HIS PRISONER, is somehow responsible for "drawing the cold-hearted beast out of his isolation!" How did she manage to earn this enviable job?

This is a very disturbing message of this fairy tale - that a woman who is beautiful and kind enough can (and apparently should) take a person who has kidnapped her father for picking a flower, and then held her prisoner in exchange, a person who has infantile rages and breaks things when upset and has no apparent concern for anyone's feelings but his own, and "draw him out of his isolation!"

According to Fandango's summary of the tale, "Belle learns to see the good man hiding behind the Beast's monstrous exterior."

But in what universe is there a good man in there behind the monstrous body? He is in this whole predicament specifically BECAUSE he was a heartless jerk, and everything about his behavior suggests he continues to be a selfish jackass until Belle somehow magically (and unrealistically) transforms him into something different.

Worse yet, toward the end of the story, Belle manages to get a furlough from the Beast to tend to her dying father. She is able to see the Beast in the magic mirror and promises to return in a given time. When she fails to keep her promise (for various reasons, depending on the version you're reading/seeing), she sees in the mirror that the Beast is "dying of grief." And she, instead of being relieved to have escaped and letting the Beast suffer the consequences of his own abusive behavior, somehow feels like it's HER fault he is sad and miserable and she has to go back and make him feel better! In real life, this is not romantic at all, but could only be understood as a manifestation of Stockholm Syndrome (think Patty Hurst), where the victim of a kidnapping becomes unhealthily attached to the kidnapper as a way of surviving the abuse.

The real kicker is that she goes back and kisses him, and he turns into a handsome prince, who is somehow NO LONGER A JERK, despite there being zero evidence of his having reached square one in the "loving others" department before she arrived! So the ultimate message is this: if you meet an angry, hostile, controlling jerkwad, if you're a good (and beautiful) enough woman, you can magically transform him into the "good man hiding behind the Beast's monstrous exterior."

How many women have continued for years to try and encourage their partners to get into drug/alcohol treatment, to go to some kind of counseling, or otherwise change their abusive ways? How many women have continued to put up with violence and abuse and believed that it was their job to somehow "solve" the problem when the problem lies almost completely in the abuser's hands?

Of course, we can all watch such a movie just for the fun of it and suspend our disbelief. But in terms of having one's Jerk Radar tuned up, it's very important for you to take a good look inside yourself and see if you've ever felt the push to "take care" of someone who has not treated you well, and/or made excused for bad behavior by saying "he had a rough upbringing and just needs to learn to love." It may work in fairy tales, but in real life, giant assholes don't magically turn into loving, handsome princes just because you're good looking and are nice to them.

There is nothing romantic about falling in love with someone who holds you hostage!