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Grand Romantic Gestures Suck

From Lloyd Dobler to the lovelorn piano player of Bristol, all of these guys’ ideas are bad and dumb

In case you needed a reminder: Grand gestures — that thing in the movies where a guy stalks a woman mercilessly to win her love with a blaring boombox or a series of needy placards — rarely work out in real life, unless you consider a restraining order a positive. Nonetheless, men continue to take their best shot. Most recently, a man in Bristol went viral for his vow to play his piano in a local park until his ex gets back together with him.

Meet Luke Howard, a 34-year-old “romantic” who, after his relationship with a woman he’s only calling “Rapunzel” ended, took to the park, fingers to piano keys, to “let her know how much I love her,” the Bristol Post reported. He called his musical act the “last throw of the dice” to get her back, and he intends to keep playing, rain or shine or arrest.

While we don’t know what caused the breakup, or what other dice Howard might have rolled before transporting a giant piano to a public park, we know from the interview that the relationship/breakup “wasn’t anything nasty or bad, it was just life getting in the way.” (He said he wouldn’t have done this if it was a bad breakup.) He also claimed that he couldn’t think of anything else to do instead.

Rapunzel is some kind of manic pixie dream girl to Howard, who tells the Post, “It may sound whimsical but she completely changed my life. My entire world shifted.” It didn’t shift so much that he could prevent life from getting in the way when they were together, though, amirite? Howard went on to demonstrate that he did in fact know other things he could do to win her back, but they weren’t his style.

“I know people in my situation will send flowers or text or write letters,” he said. “But that only ever seems to make things worse. I wanted to do something that she might see, to let her know how much I love her, that she can see it and then take it or leave it.”

Flowers and letters, for the record, would absolutely count as something she could see and take or leave as well, whereas the literal sound of the piano playing in a public space is something no one can take or leave. (So, thanks for that.) The internet did its job and asked the correct and only question in response to this spectacle: Is this guy amazing or off his fucking rocker?

Many people found the gesture totally creepy, not to mention entitled.

And definitely a red flag for stalkery behavior:

Others found the backlash excessive:

For what it’s worth, the news media doesn’t have to romanticize stalker behavior because the movies have already done that for us. And people have long pointed out that romantic comedies are the worst offenders of this ill-advised move: Films like Say Anything, Love, Actually, Can’t Hardly Wait, 10 Things I Hate About You and scads of others all romanticize the irritating persistence of male protagonists who never take no for an answer.

In a piece at The Atlantic on how movies give stalking a happy ending, Julie Beck writes that such films “make stalking behaviors seem like a normal part of romance,” and studies demonstrate that viewers internalize these views in real life, too. Beck cites research that found that women view stalking more positively when it’s depicted positively in films, and negatively when it’s depicted negatively.

But it’s easy to see how the nuance in these gestures gets lost all the time. It’s one thing to surround your beloved with flowers — if you’re actually together, and she likes flowers and shit — and quite another to do so after she told you in no uncertain terms to never contact her again.

Any big grand gesture can absolutely be a romantic fun thing when it’s a way of demonstrating love toward someone who welcomes the act, yet also a terrible, terrifying thing when some dude you dumped won’t leave you alone and keeps showing up at your office with buckets of rose petals.

And yes, being willing to do “anything” to demonstrate your love and affection for someone you’ve hurt or taken for granted sounds romantic, but the trouble is, when someone has explicitly ended a relationship, this requires violating social norms, at the very least.

Bare minimum, you’re relying on a big gesture to make up for all the little ones you probably didn’t do well before the relationship ended. And if you take out all the creepiness, that’s really what is wrong with the grand gesture. It seems like it takes so much effort, but really it’s lazy: It’s the opposite of what love really is—showing up every day and making little boring choices all the time to foster intimacy and connection.

In this light, the grand gesture is the romantic equivalent of the deadbeat dad who never pays child support but shows up at your birthday party, uninvited, with a giant teddy bear, begging for your approval. In other words, too much too late can be just as bad as too little too late. This is what the grand gesture fails to understand.

But it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, as piano guy proves. As Jen Chaney wrote earlier this year on Vulture about why the grand gesture is unlikely to die, it all comes down to the desire “to see men and women really put themselves out there on behalf of the ones they love.”

And more and more women are getting in on the grand gesture action, at least in the movies and television; Chaney cites scenes in Trainwreck and Pitch Perfect where it’s women who put themselves on the line, and there are a handful of others. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, for instance, hinges entirely on a woman moving across the country to be near an ex she hasn’t spoken to in years—but then, the show’s very title illustrates how we view a woman who acts this way.

That most of the internet is calling piano guy nuts is a testament to our understanding that this is a desperate act by a flawed person, even in the best-case scenario. Chaney argues that it’s not that we want grand gestures to die, but maybe that, because they are so complicated and often stalkerish, and we’ve seen it all before, we’ve just come to “expect more from them.”

She’s talking about movies, though. What, exactly, would “more” look like in real life? Grand gestures would be reserved for actual, functional, blissful relationships. Just to show your devotion, or only when you fuck up, and want to make double sure, after talking and apologizing, that your beloved realizes you don’t take them for granted. In piano guy’s case, it would have meant not waiting until the relationship was over to realize it deserved big-ballad effort.

This way, we can preserve the grand gesture for when it makes non-creepy sense: for people actively together — not the lovelorn and rejected. In other words, most of the time, it would look like nothing at all.