Recent years, and the Internet, have brought about an apparently irresistible opportunity to humiliate women online and in pop culture. It’s not just about the revenge porn, the sites collecting pictures of “ugly” women to make fun of them, or even invitations to “rate my ex-girlfriend.” It’s about the seemingly small and unimportant things, those that many men seem to think are genuinely sweet gestures: the website dedicated to winning a girlfriend back, or the public marriage proposal on YouTube.
Women, more and more, are put on the spot online and in public environments, forced to respond to charged questions like “Will you marry me?” and “Why won’t you come back to me?” in front of a live audience that watches their every move and judges them for having the wrong answer. It’s not just marriage proposals, either: Teens have promposals, for example, so even teenage girls are subjected to the pressure to submit. They’d be “crazy” to turn down these generous offers from their classmates.
The phenomenon of issuing a public declaration that comes out as a demand is an almost uniquely male one, and, even more so, a heterosexual one. While women can and do propose marriage, ask out prom dates, approach their exes about making another go at it, and take the lead on other relationship-related matters, it’s men who seem intent on doing it in as public a way as possible.
What men don’t seem to realize is how threatening, and humiliating, it can feel to be at the center of a public event focused on what should be a private matter. The actions of men in these cases may stem from a genuine desire to publicly dominate women, or the hopes that a woman won’t turn a man down if he forces her hand in public, but I suspect the truth lies in something much more basic: Men just don’t get it, as they don’t understand the larger culture of misogyny that surrounds being a woman in this society.
Because men don’t fully comprehend misogyny and the fear many women live with on a daily basis, they fail to understand how actions they might think are romantic actually come off as creepy at best, but intimidating and sometimes even threatening on the other end of the spectrum. Establishing, for example, an entire website dedicated to compelling your ex-girlfriend to return to you might seem like a romantic gesture to a clueless man, but to the subject of that website, it’s something much, much different.
The mysterious Shauna, subject of “I Love You, Shauna,” a detailed website put up by a groveling ex, can’t be feeling very good right now. Not only does the website’s URL contain identifying information that increases the chance that someone will be able to track her down—in fact, there’s enough information for Jezebel staffers to have gone Facebook stalking—but the site is, to put it bluntly, humiliating. It includes a long, rambling letter, along with a list of “promises,” and is drenched in pleas to take him back. The site verges on stalking, something that, rightly so, terrifies women.
It’s not the only recent and high-profile attempt to win back an ex. Robin Thicke released an entire album demanding that his wife Paula Patton take him back after an estrangement, which, as Global Comment’s Sady Doyle noted, is evidence that the stereotype of going to extremes to win back an ex is not, in fact, limited to women. Doyle made a trenchant observation about the album: It wasn’t just uncomfortable for everyone involved, but actively creepy.
Though it’s entirely possible to subject one’s unease with Thicke to detailed analysis, it may actually be more truthful and effective to say that he’s simply creepy: That he’s got a bad vibe, that his subtext reads all wrong, that there’s just something not-quite-safe about the guy. Even in his more ‘romantic’ mode, Thicke’s idea of sex is pretty grody; it has a lot to do with frilly lingerie and ‘treating you right.’
Romantic gestures in the Internet age are meaningless if no one saw them, photographed them, took a shaky video to upload to YouTube or Instagram, or put out a record about them. This puts women in the unenviable position of being the target of such gestures in sustained campaigns that might make them deeply uncomfortable—while, at the same time, they feel powerless to resist. Women are socialized to be polite and to avoid saying “no” at all costs, and the cost of saying “yes” to unwanted male attentions is extremely high.
Maren Sanchez, 16, was stabbed to death for refusing a prom invitation. Mary Spears was shot and killed when she declined to give a man her phone number. Women are well aware that situations like these could well happen to them, too.
Paula was both explicit and transparent, with a series of awkward lyrics that were enough to make the handful of listeners who bought the album want to stick their heads into paper bags, but no line was quite as unpleasant and obvious as: “Come back to me / Come home to me babe / Come on back to me / Pretty please darling.” Poor Paula Patton was put on a podium centerstage with that one and pressed for an answer, which she pretty decisively gave by filing for divorce.
Critics responded with overwhelming negativity about the album, specifically citing the high level of creepiness involved. “[E]ven cursory knowledge of their split makes this public and emotionally messy and revealing ploy for reconciliation teeter on, and sometimes fall over, the borderline into creepy territory,” wrote Sarah Rodman at the Boston Globe.
Neil McCormick at The Telegraph didn’t hold back his punches:
In an act of breathtaking career self-sabotage, he has followed it with a divorce album, 14 tracks picking over his separation from childhood sweetheart, actress Paula Patton. It is like eavesdropping on a one-sided marriage counselling session, with Thicke running the gamut from abject misery, self-lacerating guilt, lovelorn pleading, misty-eyed reminiscence, sentimental idealisation and pledges of eternal friendship and devotion, all shot through with an arrogant streak of lechery and deluded fixation on make-up sex.
Alexa Camp was equally sharp at Slant, pointing out that public humiliation is rarely an effective tactic for getting women back. Women aren’t objects to be “gotten back,” and yet, society is treating them like they are, even with the most romantic and loving of intentions. Men are failing to understand that their gestures don’t come across as commitment: They come across as creepy, scary, and sometimes threatening.
Patton wasn’t impressed by Paula, and while Shauna has reportedly given in to her ex-boyfriend’s pleas and come back to him, she’s an exception, not the rule. We’ll never know if she genuinely found the gesture romantic, or if she was too afraid of the consequences of saying no.