The Ickiness of Mistaking Obsession for Love

"A Woman's Courage" | Art by ertacaltinoz. Used with permission.
“I love Professor Snape,” my friend gushed. “He’s the real hero of Harry Potter. And his devotion to Lily Potter is so moving.”

I simply nodded along, not understanding her fictional crush but unable to deny Snape’s good intentions; he does protect Harry throughout the series, albeit while mentally torturing the boy for being the child of a man he hated. But then again, maybe I could have denied it. In fact, maybe I could have pointed out that Snape is an obsessive, cruel stalker and not a romantic hero at all.

For some reason, obsessive love is sentimentalized in books and media. And this is not a new trend. From Romeo and Juliet, Heathcliff and Catherine, to Bella and Edward, doing anything (and I mean anything) for your lover is portrayed as a desirable feat.

I raise an eyebrow when I see the image of a glowing doe accompanied by a cloaked, crooked-nosed figure and the word “Always,” Snape’s key phrase. It’s plastered on memes, throw pillows, and iPhone cases as a testament to devotion, but that’s not what it really represents. Snape is a fascinating and well-developed character, but to use him as a model for romance is a disturbing sentiment of a narcissist culture.

In Snape’s eyes, Lily might as well be the doe his patronus represents: voiceless, a helpless animal to tame and protect.

“He makes no effort to grow as a person,” says Hannah McGregor, one of two feminist scholars who host the podcast Witch, Please. “He ultimately supports the regime that directly leads to [Lily’s] death, and in the wake of it, doesn’t meaningfully become a better person, just remains fanatically devoted to her as an object he wanted to own and never got to have.”

Though many fans’ hearts were warmed by the reveal of Snape’s history with Harry’s parents in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a childhood feud with Harry’s dad and unrequited love for his mom doesn’t make the Hogwarts teacher a hero. It’s incredibly creepy that Snape continues to have feelings for Lily years after they stop being friends. Though he shouts something cruel at her as a teenager, which is what causes the rift in their relationship, he never tries to make amends. Instead, he holds on to his childhood feelings into adulthood—including his hatred for James—feeding the flames of his obsession with the desire to effectively own her.

It’s not until her life is threatened that he rethinks giving up her family to Lord Voldemort. He doesn’t have a problem with Voldemort killing her husband or her son, just with killing her. Dismissing what is important to the other person is not a testament of true love, however; it’s the opposite. In Snape’s eyes, Lily might as well be the doe his patronus represents: voiceless, a helpless animal to tame and protect.

“Severus Snape” by Ludmila-Cera-Foce (ludmila-cera-foce.deviantart.com).

When someone tweeted to J.K. Rowling, commenting that “Snape held no malice against Harry (which Harry came to know, eventually),” Rowling replied, “That’s not true, I’m afraid. Snape projected his hatred and jealousy of James onto Harry.” Even after Lily’s gone, Snape isn’t moved to real love; the ways in which he mentally tortures Harry and belittles Hermione for being Muggle-born, just like Lily was, demonstrate his bitterness and lack of understanding what real love is.

By treating her as an object and holding on to childlike memories of her, Snape has made Lily into something she isn’t—“When we find what we think to be a suitable ‘object’ for our idealistic affections . . . we invest more of ourselves than is appropriate—to the extent of worship. Rarely do we really know the other person well, but imagination and desire make up the difference,” writes Bruce Atkinson PhD.

We’re attracted to these romances because we think it takes a special kind of person—a strong woman—to love a difficult man.

Yet despite Snape’s creepy obsessiveness, he has become an icon for the very thing he doesn’t represent: devotion.

Though Lily doesn’t ask nor desire Snape’s fixation, many female characters we acclaim for their strength are accompanied by male leads who worship them. Gunther pines after Rachel throughout ten seasons of Friends, and it’s portrayed as cute. X-Men’s Logan is determined to have Jean Grey, even though she’s already taken. Despite a diet of human blood, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Spike follows Buffy around like a lost puppy because he can’t get her out of his head.

We’re attracted to these romances because we think it takes a special kind of person—a strong woman—to love a difficult man. But if he’s completely “devoted” to us, it’s worth it, even if that means sexual advances we don’t want during a time of vulnerability. In an episode of Buffy the Vampire, “Seeing Red,” Spike tries to force himself on Buffy in attempted rape so she’ll admit she has feelings for him. This season of Buffy is no stranger to dark moments, including Buffy’s return from Heaven, Willow’s addiction, Giles’ departure, and Tara’s death—but this one boasts a particular brand of terrifying.

James Marsters as Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

James Marsters, the actor who portrayed Spike, says the dark scenes in the show came from the writers’ own experiences; the director, Joss Whedon, encouraged them to pull inspiration from “the worst thing they’ve done, the thing they’ve buried and don’t talk about.” That scene was based on one of the female writers recalling a time in college when she was going through a breakup and thought if they could just make love one more time, everything would be better. She tried to force herself on her ex, who pushed her away.

“In switching the genders of the characters, though, the result is pure horror. Not just because Buffy, in the scene, is injured. It doesn’t really matter how strong she is, or if his brain chip will hold him back; Spike’s intention in the scene is horrifying,” writes Vivian Kane in The Mary Sue

Whedon noticed fans were being drawn to Spike and reminded them that Spike is a vampire, he’s not a good person, and this is not a healthy relationship for Buffy to be in. At this point in the show, Spike does not have a soul and is mostly driven by obsession.

“Love can be downright dangerous,” conclude a quartet of University of Oxford researchers in a 2013 study. “It may bind a spouse to her domestic abuser, draw an unscrupulous adult toward sexual involvement with a child, put someone under the insidious spell of a cult leader, and even inspire jealousy-fueled homicide.”

This type of love, this infatuation that has been romanticized over centuries, is damaging—not just to the couple involved, but to everyone they touch as well. Loving a man who thinks he can make her happy if he just tries hard enough is psychologically harmful to Buffy and that impacts the people closest to her, many of whom don’t understand what she is doing through. Spike gives her a way out from having to be vulnerable with her friends. Because he’s insanely devoted to her, she knows he’ll never abandon her when she admits the trauma she’s going through. Talking about emotional struggles is a real challenge for most people, and it means trusting the people you care about aren’t going to give up on you when they realize how broken you are. Buffy sees Spike as a safety net, even though her friends are calling to her from the ground, telling her she doesn’t have to jump at all.

The unwavering commitment Spike demonstrates, even though rooted in selfishness, is idolized so much because having someone passionately devoted to us is desirable. We’re pulled to the idea of being someone else’s entire world. The problem is, the reality of what that means distorts what true devotion looks like and where it should be stemming from.

“Peter Baelish” by Matt DeMino (mattdemino.deviantart.com).

Game of Thrones also presents neurotic love as incredibly disturbing, and there’s no shortage of examples. My favourite, though, because it’s completely insane and demonstrative of how destructive this love can be, is Petyr Baelish’s obsession with Stark women. Baelish, or “Littlefinger,” sits atop a throne of manipulation throughout the series, adding everyone he meets to the collection of puppets dangling from his hands. His ambition and mercilessness make him a key player in the game, triggered by Catelyn Tully’s initial rejection of him in favor of Ned Stark. However, her rebuff, her description of him as a “little brother,” and even her marriage isn’t enough to stop Littlefinger from pursuing her. His obsession with her is at the heart of everything he does, even after her death.

Though he’s trapped in it, Littlefinger understands the power of obsessive love, using it to manipulate Catelyn’s sister (who’s infatuated with him) into marriage, then telling her in Season 4, “I have only loved one woman, only one, my entire life… your sister,” before pushing her out the Moon Door where she falls to her death.

After Catelyn’s death, his affections are transferred to her daughter Sansa, and our discomfort threshold is tested by one of the grossest kisses in the show’s history (and that’s saying something in Game of Thrones). Littlefinger uses Sansa’s vulnerability to manipulate her, forming her into a bargaining chip so he can buy into power despite, or perhaps because of, his feelings for her.

“Maybe he thinks that by putting Sansa through hell, he will be preparing her or hardening her for the cruel world outside his power,” writes Salon’s television critic, Sonia Saraiya. “But surely he must realize that the first person she’ll want to destroy, once she’s empowered to do so, is Littlefinger himself?”

Sansa doesn’t feel special or loved because of Littlefinger’s obsession with her. She feels threatened (and probably icky). And that is the proper reaction, contrary to the romantic idealization of so much fiction. Littlefinger’s “devotion” is not devotion at all, it is a twisted love that doesn’t care about Sansa as a woman but sees her as an object in his plans to gain power.

Sansa’s Season 6 rejection of Littlefinger is a testament to her quiet strength and self-worth that speaks louder than any man fawning over her. She refuses to be divided from her brother, despite Littlefinger’s attempts at turning her against him. Sansa sets aside any anger or hurt, and any desire for power, for her brother—and that is what true love looks like. True love is Samwell Tarly saving Gilly from a White Walker, teaching her to read, and caring for her son like he was his own; it’s Missandei loving Grey Worm even though he’s an Unsullied—a eunuch warrior—and their relationship would be incredibly complicated; it’s Catelyn Stark continuing to care for Ned even after he brings a bastard home.

“Marry Me” by Joni Wagner (joniwagnerart.deviantart.com).

Love, true devotion, is genuinely caring for the other person and being willing to make sacrifices for their sake, valuing their wants and needs, not just your own. Outside of Game of Thrones, I noticed this type of commitment in an unlikely place: the Deadpool movie. The violent, smooth-talking, potty-mouthed antihero and his sarcastic, escort girlfriend understand a truth that none of those other lovestruck stalkers do—that it’s not about what they can get from the relationship, it’s about what they can give. Vanessa is not strong because Deadpool can’t live without her, she’s strong because she understands devotion means accepting each other as-is and not filling each other’s holes, but fitting their lives together—as Deadpool points out, “Your crazy matches my crazy, big time. We’re like two jigsaw pieces, you know.”

Deadpool does make a critical error in assuming his scarred appearance will matter to her, but it’s a mistake made out of love for her. He sees himself as a monster, he’s ashamed, and he believes she deserves better. He doesn’t hold on to a perfect image of her that distorts reality; he knows she’s just as messed up as he is, that her baggage rivals his, and that’s part of why he loves her.

Wade Wilson: I watched my own birthday party through the keyhole of a locked closet, which also happened to be my…
Vanessa Carlysle: Your bedroom. Lucky. I slept in a dishwasher box.

Though their relationship is physically driven at first, there is something deeper going on under the surface, something rooted in honesty, self-deprecating humor, and support.

This is the type of relationship that should be sentimentalized by our culture. The type of woman young girls should want to be is not the kind of person who is followed around by a man who would kill his brother if it would mean she’d grant him a kiss, but an individual whose psyche is not rooted in narcissism. It’s not about being idealized and worshiped; it’s about reality. It’s not about a power play, it’s about self-sacrifice (or self-deprecation, if you’re like me and Deadpool). It’s not about being desired above all else to the point of insanity; it’s about meeting in the middle. It’s not about obsession, it’s about real love.

Allison Barron

Allison Barron

Commander at Geekdom House
Allison is like Galadriel, offering wisdom where needed but turning treacherous as the sea when competitive games are involved. She is the executive editor of Area of Effect magazine, co-host of the Infinity +1 podcast, and staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture. When she’s not writing, designing, or editing, she is often preoccupied in Hyrule, Middle-earth, or a galaxy far, far away.
Allison Barron