The 2003 holiday classic Love Actually remains one of the most divisive elements of the modern holiday experience. The “heartwarming” quotient of every aspect of the film — Colin Firth’s attempts at Portuguese; Bill Nighy’s relationship with his manager — is up for debate, save one: The infamous cue card scene and the allegedly “romantic” circumstances that led to it. The film’s approval of stalker behavior is fundamentally, unequivocally, scary and bad. Science says so.
At least, that was the argument put forth by University of Michigan psychologist Julia R. Lippman, Ph.D., in her study “I Did It Because I Never Stopped Loving You” — a title that captures the issue most people have with the situation between Keira Knightley and her husband’s BFF. This dude is not sweet; he’s a stalker. Just look at all of those close-ups in the wedding video he made! Lippman’s paper, published in the journal Communication Research in 2015, suggests that movies like Love Actually, which portray this sort of behavior in a romantic, idealized light, dangerously skew what people perceive as normal male behavior.
In her study, Lippman had her participants watch one of two types of movies: Either one in which stalking behavior was presented in a romantic light, as in Love Actually or There’s Something About Mary, or one like Sleeping With the Enemy, where stalkers were plainly presented as what they really are — scary. She found that participants who watched the latter type of film were much more likely to have fewer “stalking-supportive beliefs.” That’s not surprising, but what she discovered about the former group was much more troubling. The fraction of them that scored high in “perceived realism or transportation” — essentially people who easily blurred the line between films and real life — were more likely to endorse stalker-supportive beliefs. She concluded that “romanticized pursuit behaviors commonly featured in the media as a part of normative courtship can lead to an increase in stalking-supportive beliefs.”
Suddenly, the thought of watching Love Actually, together with your impressionable young relatives and maybe even your beau, sounds like a terrible idea. And if you really think about it, the cue card scene isn’t the only potentially creepy scene in the film; it was maybe a little weird that bumbling Prime Minister Hugh Grant would go knocking door to door looking for his secretary’s home in a dodgy neighborhood, just as it was maybe a little odd that Colin Firth rocked up, uninvited, to a Portuguese restaurant where his housekeeper worked when she wasn’t serving him tea and biscuits. Are these moments sweet or are they scary? It may help to imagine less endearing characters in those roles: What if it was Martin Shkreli that showed up to your doorstep with cue cards? Or Donald Trump, unexpectedly appearing at your office? Yeah. In light of Lippman’s research, this film is objectively terrible.
We revere science because it is unwaveringly unsentimental, but sometimes, even the most die-hard objectivists can’t deal with its brutal detachment. If you are a Love Actually fan like I am, I am sorry for bringing this to your attention and doubly apologetic for the fact that you will never be able to unsee it. For consolation, here is SNL’s parody of the cue card scene, which features a famously persistent politician in place of everyone’s favorite Christmas stalker.