Romance is magic, isn’t it? With that one little word, all kinds of behaviour from the simply sexist to the downright stalkery can be transformed from “alarming” to “adorable” – a conjuring trick that reached its absolute perfection this century with the Twilight series. What could be more beautiful, girls, than a man who breaks into your house to watch you while you sleep, starts a fight with anyone he thinks might be a rival, and tells you furtively that your smell is so intoxicating that he might accidentally kill you because he’s a vampire? Phwoar.
And if that doesn’t get you hot for Edward Cullen, he plays the piano too, moodily, to show how just how many feelings Bella Swan is forcing him to have. Actually, if it wasn’t for keyboards, I worry that Romantic Men might never be able to express their emotions – or would even, oh horror, have to resort to actually speaking to women and maybe even listening to what they have to say. Men like Bath-based musician Luke Howard, for example, who appeared over the weekend playing a piano on College Green in Bristol, and announced that he would “keep playing and playing, rain or shine, day or night,” until he heard from his ex-girlfriend.
Howard didn’t name his ex but referred to her as “Rapunzel” – because what could be more romantic than a woman who falls for you because she’s been kept imprisoned in a tower and you are literally the first human she’s ever met who isn’t her jailer? (I know what’s more romantic: a woman who falls for you because you’re her jailer. Go with a Beauty and the Beast theme next time, maybe you’ll get the booty call.)
The whole stunt, to be honest, is baffling. The initial surge of interest (“Heartbreaking reason this lovelorn man has vowed to play the piano non-stop in public”, “Hopeless romantic isn’t going to stop playing the piano until his true love takes him back”) was followed by a heartily merited backlash: “Men, women are allowed to leave you. You are not entitled to a girlfriend. Media, stop romanticising controlling, stalker behaviour,” tweeted Sian Norris, and 37,000 people retweeted. Judging from the replies, a lot of them were women who were mightily relieved that someone had said it. (Funnily, the ones saying “but isn’t it romantic?” seemed to be mostly men.)
And then… nothing. No sign of Rapunzel racing across the grass to embrace the man she chucked after a four month stint. (“Darling, I thought I couldn’t bear for you to ever touch me again, but now you’ve banged out ‘Chopsticks’ al fresco, I know there’s no one else for me.”) No sign, either, of the social media accounts Howard was advertising – so if it was a PR stunt, it wasn’t for him. Just a weekend excitement, over now. But it doesn’t really matter why he did it. What matters is that there was a script for him to follow, a cultural narrative where boy meets girl, girl is just not that into boy, boy wears her down by kidnapping/harassing/publically humiliating her until she’s so broken that she just says yes.
It’s in movies. It’s in books. It’s in the stories that we’ve told girls from the time they were smallest, told them until they really believed that the only way to be female and matter was to be the docile princess waiting for a prince to win you, told them until they demanded the child-size dress and shoes for the role, and even if a girl never asks someone will probably give her the outfit anyway, reasoning that “this is what little girls want”.
Told them as they become teenagers, and have to negotiate that impossible line of desirable-but-not-slutty, which when you think about it, can only logically be resolved into a story about a beautiful boy who wants you so desperately badly that his overwhelming lust might wound you. Told them when boys actually hurt them – “he’s only teasing you because he likes you.”
And when the boyfriend won’t take no for an answer, we hardly need to tell them again: they’ve already thoroughly received the lesson that a man’s feelings are a woman’s fault, and it’s not just her job but her petal-strewn privilege to fix him. Everything that’s kind, generous, mutual in love is turned bitter and possessive by romance. Romance is a lousy con. This weekend, on College Green, a man played its theme tune, and an awful lot of women heard it for exactly what it was.