Turning 20: How An Iconic ’90s Film Normalized Stalking

There's Something About Mary (1998) Official Trailer

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In junior high school, I attended a sleepover where I fell asleep while watching There’s Something About Mary (1998), and because it was the sort of movie my parents would not have permitted me to see, I never finished it. Even then, doing so seemed like a waste of time. I was 13, after all—my schedule was already filled with brooding and bad poetry. Fast-forward two decades, when my husband prepared a Farrelly brothers introduction for me, reasoning that Dumb and Dumber (1994) and There’s Something About Mary share the prevailing theme of “comedic” stalking, and should therefore be viewed together.

Having emerged from this masturbatory hellscape, I can report (or just confirm) some of the Farrelly brothers’ most cherished topics: 1) male genitalia, 2) male genitalia in distress, 3) murdering small- to medium-size animals, 4) mocking disability—and any marginalized identity, really, 5) men stalking women without meaningful consequences, and 6) intense gay panic. In the context of There’s Something About Mary, which is categorized as a “romantic comedy,” men stalking women without meaningful consequences is the most prevalent. Referring to this movie as romantic, whimsical, or even good-natured constitutes a first-order definitional crime, though the film smugly believes itself to be a love story and encourages its viewers to regard it as such.

Stalking, in the world of the Farrelly brothers, only constitutes dangerous behavior in the most extreme circumstances. More than likely it’s the starry-eyed blunder of a man confounded by his own sexual awkwardness. But all is easily remedied through—what else?—a felicific relationship with the object of his fixation.  Accordingly, both Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary chronicle the hyperbolic—and intensely creepy—efforts of men to pursue women who, for a myriad of reasons, have never been or are no longer interested in them. Dumb and Dumber frames the buffoonish duo’s antics and overtures as harmless precisely because the men are so intellectually deficient.

The gaggle of stalkers populating There’s Something About Mary possess at least basic mental capacities, but still, the film is reluctant to acknowledge the severity of sexually motivated privacy invasion. There’s no surprise there: Humor that takes stalking seriously requires nimbleness and nuance that the Farrelly brothers lack; instead, they trade in crude jokes underpinned by the structurally misogynist “boys will be boys” mythos. The protagonist of There’s Something About Mary, Ted (Ben Stiller) meets the all-American Mary (Cameron Diaz) in high school, when, against all logic (Ted is a milquetoast doormat with a bad haircut), she asks him to the prom.

But poor ol’ Ted is the recipient of some bad luck. Before he and Mary depart for the dance, he catches his genitals in his zipper. He is then whisked to the hospital—after half the neighborhood takes a gander at his mangled package—and Mary slips out of his life. For the next 13 years, Ted seems to accomplish very little aside from nurturing an obsession with what might have been if not for his penile catastrophe. He hires the oily, conniving Healy (Matt Dillon) to track down Mary and report back with salient information—namely, is she still smokin’ hot, and therefore worthy of pursuit? Healy develops his own infatuation and, after collecting sufficient information about Mary’s interests, adopts a fake persona in hopes of wooing her. By the end of the film, there are no fewer than six men hovering over Mary, entreating her to choose them—and five of those men have lied to her, stalked her, spied on her, or committed all three offenses (not to mention others ranging from bizarre to sexually abusive).

Ideally, Mary would respond by abandoning all six men, seeking out multiple restraining orders, and buying a villa in Tuscany where she can cavort with the lovers of her choice. Ted, meanwhile, would find a better therapist. Roll credits. There was never any chance that the film would end this way, and its title is the first clue.

Ben Stiller as Ted and Cameron Diaz as Mary in There’s Something About Mary (Photo credit: 20th Century Fox)

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To claim “there’s something about Mary” implicitly renders Mary culpable for the sexual frenzy churning about her, and it all but condones the men’s behavior. It’s a cuter variation of the slut-shaming women experience at the hands of their abusers: “I couldn’t help it. She looked so hot. Did you see what she was wearing?” That Mary returns to Ted after learning of his deceit and gesturing to her horde of ignominious suitors, tells him, “I’d be happiest with you,” confirms what we already know: If a man like Ted—deceitful and manipulative, but basically nonviolent—recognizes the error of his ways, he is hailed as “one of the good ones.”

The film proceeds as if his character has been firmly reestablished and, for the most mediocre of penances, he’s rewarded with the woman he has long treated as little more than a prize. There’s Something About Mary doesn’t summon the cozy nostalgia that—alas—Dumb and Dumber seems to elicit. Generally, I hear it referred to disparagingly or even with disgust. That’s the appropriate reaction. Yet contemporary cinema still disregards the boundary between romantic pursuit and flagrant stalking. In 2016, Julia R. Lippman, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan, conducted a study revealing that women who watch films like There’s Something About Mary tend to regard romantic stalking as acceptable behavior.

They trade in crude jokes underpinned by the structurally misogynist “boys will be boys” mythos.

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Think too about Mark’s (Andrew Lincoln) antics in 2003’s Love Actually. Covertly videotaping his best friend’s wife throughout their wedding and reception? Showing up at her doorstep on Christmas Eve with a stack of maudlin posters? There’s Something About Mary appears to have aged poorly, but if you swap out the gross-out gags with Mariah Carey and London at Christmastime, we still reliably celebrate the very same behavior. During the credits, the cast of There’s Something About Mary performs a whooping lip-synched sing-along to the Foundations’ pop classic “Build Me Up Buttercup,” intended as a celebratory conclusion to a quirky romance.

Yet the lyrics tell a different tale, cementing the film’s position that women, not men, are sexual hazards: “Although you’re untrue, I’m attracted to you all the more/ Why do I need you so?” When there’s just something about a woman, what’s a poor boy to do?”

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by Rachel Vorona Cote
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Rachel Vorona Cote is a writer in Washington, D.C. Her first book, Too Much Is Just Enough, is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing. Find her on Twitter here.