You can almost hear the collective cringe in response to Robin Thicke’s creepy new music video/visual stalking handbook. The video is a strange mix of out of context violent imagery, groping and airing of private text messages.
Not having followed his career closely or listened to his music much, it would be easy to dismiss this embarrassing endeavor, part of an entire album named after his estranged wife. But as several feminist authors have pointed out, there is a troubling undercurrent that reverberates in our culture. As Jessica Valenti writes:
None of us know the ins and outs of the Patton and Thicke’s relationship outside of what’s public – they were high school sweethearts and they have a child together. But romanticizing the creepy and potentially harassing efforts of a man obsessed with this ex sends a dangerous message to young men about what “romance” really is. Hint: it has nothing to do with haranguing and publicly shaming us back into a relationship.
Thicke is hardly alone in his interpretation of what constitutes a grand romantic gesture. Stalking or behavior bordering on such is a huge part of the narrative around romance, especially in pop culture: the boy keeps trying to get the girl until she says yes. You need to look no further than the outrageously popular Twilight series – books and movies – to know that the stalker-as-romantic lead looms large in our cultural imagination. From There’s Something About Mary to Groundhog Day, the guy who would do anything to land the girl is supposedly the stuff women’s dreams are made of. (Of course, there’s no room for female protagonists or celebrities doing the same, like, say, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. She’d be called nuts in less time than it takes to get through the YouTube ad before a music video.)
Amanda Hess provides some context for earlier songs that might sound innocuous if you don’t listen too closely, but have a similarly disturbing message:
The music industry—which has spun romantic stalking narratives into some of its most celebrated pop songs—views things differently. Consider the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life”: “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man … You better run for your life if you can, little girl.” (John Lennon later expressed regret for writing the song.) Or the Temptations’ “Running Away (Ain’t Gonna Help You)”: “Running away sure ain’t gonna help you, I’m gonna get you girl.” Or Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road”: “Girl you know we belong together … You’ll be mine forever baby, you just see.” The Bee Gees’ 1975 song “Nights On Broadway” was self-aware enough to blame musical narratives for the singer’s stalking behavior: “Well, I had to follow you, though you did not want me to,” the song goes. “Blaming it all on the nights on Broadway, singing them love songs.” And Lionel Richie’s 1983 ballad “Hello” advanced the game by pairing its longing lyrics with an early music video where Richie plays a college professor stalking his blind student. Even artists who attempt to critique this damaging trope can see their work repurposed for romance. Sting claims that he wrote “Every Breath You Take” to read as “very sinister and ugly,” but that hasn’t stopped listeners from misinterpreting it as “a gentle little love song.” Meanwhile, the Plain White T’s successfully hid their creepiness under lovey-dovey language: Their 2005 hit “Hey There Delilah” sounds like it’s about a dreamy long-distance romance until you learn that singer Tom Higgenson wrote it after meeting runner Delilah DiCrescenzo just once at a party, got rejected, and penned the song to communicate his strange obsession.
Syreeta McFadden at Feministing links this to the very real and all too common threat many women face:
We may not ever know all the catalyst for Patton and Thicke separation and, honestly, the details don’t matter. However, in this album, Thicke has gone Full Stalker on his estranged wife. Do we need to collectively file for a protective order on behalf of Patton?
One in six women in the US have experienced stalking in their lifetime. The majority of victims are stalked by someone they know, and 66 percent of female victims are stalked by a current or former intimate partner.
Ending a relationship is hard enough without having your estranged partner making a very public spectacle of not letting you get on with your life, so I can only imagine how this feels for Paula Patton. At least critics–including mainstream publications like the Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly –are treating this like the uncomfortable creep show that it is.