Tainted Love

We need to change the way we depict love in media. Some disclaimers. I’m mostly talking about hetero love. I’m no expert on queer representation except to say that we could do with some more of it. Today I wanted to talk about the way we depict hetero romances. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Guy pines over a girl, guy continues to pine for an unhealthy amount of time, he asks the woman out, end of story. Maybe the story is complicated by a boyfriend who just isn’t right for her. Maybe the girl hates the guy because a miscommunication caused the guy to say the wrong thing. There are some even worse examples. Examples were the guy follows the girl until romance happens, as seen in two separate episodes of Doctor Who penned by Stephen Moffat (Blink and the Christmas Special based on CS Lewis’ most famous book because god forbid you write your own goddamn story, Stephen). Apparently I still have some issues to work out with Stephen Moffat’s time on Doctor Who. I just have to remind myself. He’s gone now. He can’t hurt me. Anyway, another dodgy expansion of this horror show is where the girl repeatedly rejects the guy until he wears her down. Chances are if you’re on the same wavelength as me right now you can think of some examples. You might even get a sense of what’s wrong with telling this narrative repeatedly. Well, it’s time for another round of Zach had to unlearn some problematic shit and continues to regret his life choices.

For a time, far too long a time, my favourite movie was (500) Days of Summer. A movie that is far too pleased with how fucking twee it is. Where do I begin with this movie? Let’s start positive. The movie has an emotional resonance to it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is really good at playing sad puppy dog which if it weren’t so fraught (which I’ll get to) makes you remember those moments in your romantic life when you were like a kicked puppy dog. These feelings aren’t positive but they are true. Emotionally true. The expectations/reality scene captures the feeling of being alone at a party really well. The movie would be unremarkable if not for the non-linear way in which it tells its story, the film playing out like memories of events. Now, the bad. The film plays pretty heavily on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope which is, not great. The film uses Summer (Zooey Deschanel) as a catalyst for Tom’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) change in the film. In a certain way, Summer doesn’t get to be her own person. She is an object in Tom’s story. Summer’s depiction has elements of Born Sexy Yesterday. It’s irksome, to say the least.

The movie also has a nasty misogynistic streak running through it. The beginning opens with a disclaimer that this film isn’t about anyone. Then names a specific woman and calls her a bitch. The film uses Tom’s precocious sister played by Chloe-Grace Moretz to say some unfortunate things about women. These are supposed to be jokes. At the same time, the film could be about a certain type of guy. Tom is convinced that Summer is the one for him because she enjoys The Smiths. Tom and Summer have shared interests, mostly in twee indie music. His first attempt at a romance happens post-karaoke. However, there are elements of the film that critique Tom’s point of view. His sister does have some sage wisdom about shared interests not being the only indicator of compatibility. Tom never talks with Summer about her life goals, about her complex internal thoughts. In their last scene together, Tom still has this idea of Summer in his head. He is convinced that she led him on because they danced together while she was dating someone else. Tom notes that Summer wasn’t interested in being someone’s girlfriend but is now someone’s wife. There’s a subtext to that statement. ‘Why couldn’t I have been the one to change your mind?’. It’s notable that we never encounter the guy that Summer marries. We don’t get to see them as a couple. Mostly because Tom has a violent streak in this movie and might have beaten the guy senseless.

Basically, I am conflicted about this movie. Is the movie smart enough to be what I want it to be? Is it a condemnation of men who believe that they’re ‘nice guys’ but actually have misogynistic views and a desire to be violent to the world? Or is it a valorisation of men who believe that women led them on? See, Summer really is flaky and confusing. It wasn’t just your two-dimensional idea of women. It could go either way. Tom is initially pitched as a lovesick guy as a result of as the film describes ‘early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie The Graduate’. This suggests that pop culture has taught Tom some things that he will have to unlearn. However, it is countered by the narrator (who may or may not reflect Tom’s point of view). Summer is described by the movie as not loving anything since the disintegration of her parent’s marriage noting that the only things she loved since were ‘her long dark hair and how easily she could cut it off and feel nothing’. This frames Summer as a heartless sort of figure. Thus it could be upholding Tom’s point of view. In my early years of enjoying this movie, I would have accepted the second interpretation that women are unknowable shrews. In my later years, I saw the film as a brilliant subversion of the person I used to be. The person who favoured the first reading. Now? Now I think both interpretations can be read into the movie and the movie supports both. It is a chimera of complicated theming and messages which interlinks with the film rather well. Maybe this mismatch is because the writer knew what they were doing and the director didn’t. The commentary kind of bears that out a bit.

So, returning to the point about how we’re telling romances wrong. I think the way we frame pop culture around men’s experiences causes guys brought up in this culture to devalue women’s experiences and, particularly as this relates to rom coms, put women on a pedestal. The classic Madonna-Whore complex. Any woman who is not perfect is the scourge of the Earth. Is Summer saint or sinner? Somewhere between, I suspect. Like all of us. This dichotomy has manifested in certain ways in our modern culture. People are so ready to tear Kim Kardashian down because she doesn’t fit on the pedestal. Look, there are plenty of reasons to dislike the Kardashians as an institution. Their obscene wealth used as an aspirational cudgel by pop culture, the fact that at least two of them have come out in support of Donald Trump, certain other things that rich people do. However, let’s not condemn Kim because she built a media empire from a sex tape.

The other thing I think we need to address is incels. Perhaps this is putting myself too much in their shoes but I see a psychological framework to incels informed by rom coms. They see themselves in the romantic story and when their life doesn’t end up like a movie because it’s not a movie, they look at the attractive men on screen and start reviving phrenology. Movies lied to them about their dating prospects, they think. Because we only have our own experiences and pop culture, we believe things because they recur in pop culture. Shortcuts in writing become tropes, become clichés, become stereotypes. Then people see media and use it to base their life around things they’ve never experienced. I know because I did it and made me feel fucking alone. I had everything to be happy about at that time. I was successful in school, had a solid group of friends. None of it mattered at the end of the day though because I went home and felt alone because it felt like I was the only one who wasn’t with someone. Like I was alone at the party. And it was a bunch of bullshit. Only when I started to unlearn these expectations that I’d placed on myself did I start to be truly happy with being single. That’s when I started dating because people can tell when you care more about the idea of a person than the person themselves. Only when you get out of that, that’s when people start to see you.

 

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