In honor of Stalking Awareness Month, I’d like to explore how stalking and other forms of sexual harassment are depicted and discussed through the media we consume. Countless media portrayals regularly misrepresent stalking and other forms of violence, leading to victim-blaming, minimization, and disbelief from society at large.
These misrepresentations can often wildly skew our understanding of offender typology; this is especially true of films such as Fatal Attraction, Misery, and Swimfan – in which the main offenders are women, distracting audiences from the fact that men make up nearly 90% of stalking perpetrators. Beyond even misinformation, the media’s biggest blunder when it comes to stalking is its tendency to minimize and even romanticize stalking behaviors. While this problem spans a wide variety of popular media, I’d like to focus on music.
More so than movies and television, music has constantly attempted to explore the themes of sex, relationships, and love. And as we all know, where there’s love, there’s also the misapplication of it. While there are literally countless examples of romanticized violence in music, I’m going to focus on only two recent songs and their respective music videos: Maroon 5’s “Animals” (2014) and Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Possess Your Heart” (2008). I’ve chosen these two due to the extreme disparity in their styles, just to highlight the spectrum of these misinterpretations.
The narrative explored in this music video is a classic tale of stalking and victimization. Adam Levine’s character is a local butcher who develops an obsession with a female customer (eerily played by Levine’s real-life wife). The video includes shots of Levine following her down the street, going to the same clubs as her, and watching her through her windows at night.
His behavior continues to escalate, as the video depicts him breaking into her apartment and taking photos of her while she sleeps, even going to far as to lay next to her in bed. This sort of behavior has clearly been going on for quite a while, based on amount of photographs he has amassed.
Just to add to the overall predatory feeling of the video, the lyrics of the song itself are also highly aggressive, and use sexualized language to make these actions appear attractive and sexy. Some key points include “Baby, I’m preying on you tonight/Hunt you down eat you alive/Maybe you think that you can hide/I can smell your scent from miles” and “Yeah, you can start over, you can run free/But you can’t stay away from me”, which would ring very true to anyone who has experienced the desperation of trying to avoid the attentions of a persistent perpetrator.
The video ends with an extended fantasy of Levine’s character in which he is engaging in numerous sexual acts with the woman he’s obsessed with. Many of these sex scenes take place underneath a highly stylized waterfall of blood, effectively and alarmingly marrying the concepts of sex and violence in the minds of viewers. This brings me to the biggest and most basic issue with the video: hyper-sexualization of violence and harassment is nothing new, but that doesn’t keep it from being a deeply harmful trend, leading to the minimization of survivor’s experiences as well as the normalization of sexual violence.
Out of these two music videos, I find this one to be more subtle — which is extremely interesting, since the lyrics are anything but. The song begins with the singer asserting to the object of his obsession that he not only knows exactly what is best for her, but also includes his suggestions for how best she can hold onto his affections: “How I wish you could see the potential,/the potential of you and me./It’s like a book elegantly bound but,/in a language that you can’t read./Just yet…You gotta spend some time, Love./You gotta spend some time with me./And I know that you’ll find, love/I will possess your heart”
To complement these lyrics, the video is filmed in such an intimate way that the viewer feels like they’re in the same space as the woman being shown. However, the angles and focal points of the filming have such a voyeuristic quality that makes it impossible to feel that the viewer’s interaction is welcome. The shots tend to depict the woman in vulnerable situations such as sleeping, visiting isolated tourist spots, and traveling alone on public transportation.
These vaguely inappropriate images are paired with the increasingly demanding, desperate, and threatening lyrics of the song: “There are days when outside your window/I see my reflection as I slowly pass,/and I long for this mirrored perspective/when we’ll be lovers, lovers at last”. Only to conclude with a brief series of lyrics that are deeply frightening: “You reject my… advances… and desperate pleas…/I won’t let you… let me down… so easily./So easily”. This music video is especially insidious due to its attempts to disguise the harmful nature of its lyrics by using simple, romanticized, and beautiful images.
While it is hugely important to have critical and educated opinions surrounding media portrayals of sexual violence, it is even more vital to remain a safe and supportive ally when faced with a disclosure of stalking or sexual harassment. If you or a loved one is experiencing stalking or sexual harassment, please contact our free and confidential 24-Hour Help Line at 1-866-WE LISTEN or 919-967-7273.
Camille Zimmerman has been a Companion since 2013. She provides support and resources for survivors of sexual violence and is a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill. Her other writings for the Center include a guide to supporting survivors and a summary of global anti-violence campaigns.