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Friday, November 14, 2014

Hopelessly Romantic Part 3: Good Night Sweet Prince

Or: How Disney Princesses Ruined an Entire Generation of Boys

It’s probably safe to say that most of the people my age grew up watching the Disney classics. A lot has been written about the ways in which those movies brainwashed little girls to shy away from feminism and fall in line with our patriarchal society, but I’m not qualified to address that, so I’m going to address what those movies did to their male counterparts.

Aside from the strong chance that chivalry and feminism might be mutually exclusive, those movies completely scrambled the way my generation of boys perceived girls. In fact, almost all of the marketing blasted at us in unprecedented levels throughout the 80s and 90s focused on the ways in which boys and girls are different, and the often hostile ways in which they were encouraged to segregate themselves. From cooties, to Barbies and Hot Wheels, to pink and blue color-coding for unisex anything, everything (Literally. Fucking. Everything.) I was exposed to by visual media until age 12 was designed to remind me that girls were actually space aliens that would one day ensnare me with their evil magic, at which point all fun in the world would be brought to an end, and I’d be forced to play with Easy-Bake Ovens until I died.

But back to Disney.

The real damage caused by those movies is the way they prepared us (or abjectly failed to do so) for romantic relationships. From age 0, I and every other boy in America (and much of Europe) was taught that it was our job to sweep girls off their feet and rescue them from their problems.

And then we became teenagers and the internet happened. We stopped calling each other and started texting. We stopped hanging out and just posted things on one another’s Facebook walls. We gained so much information about the world through our computers, we forgot how to interact with each other without them.

The biggest obstacle to functional romantic relationships turned out to have nothing to do with evil step-parents, nefarious spell-casters, or dancing hippopotami. It's that we've forgotten how to communicate across gender-lines.

Girls my age don’t want to be swept off their feet. At least not any more than guys do, in the sense that any one of us would immediately swoon if we met a single one of our peers who wasn’t as self-obsessed and simultaneously self-sabotaging and awkward as we ourselves are. Many girls my age have spent the better part of their lives trying to navigate the tightrope between asserting the fundamental social equality more and more of us are admitting they deserve and trying to redefine their role in society, without completely alienating the important things that make them biologically different from guys. On top of that nightmare, the overgrown boys they have to choose from were all taught that we are supposed to be Knights in Shining Armor, saving damsels, slaying dragons, and dropping charming one-liners along the way.

As a result, most of us suck at that. Until I was 25 I couldn’t hang out with pretty girls without having a nervous breakdown from overthinking how I was supposed to be behaving to make them like me – a tendency that resulted in me behaving like exactly the kind of creep most girls rightly avoid; the kind of diluted shitbird that makes up most of the Men’s Rights "movement" (if you can call it that).

The worst part is that the only problems we could ever have a hope of “rescuing” our female counterparts from are based in the same generationally specific shortcomings we suffer from ourselves. The only way we can help each other is to realize that the things making us most miserable are universal and gender-neutral, and then first address those issues in ourselves. 

But that doesn’t make for a good Disney movie.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Hoplessly Romantic Part 2: Nice Guys Finish Last

I have this friend named Shea. He is without rival the most genuinely decent person I’ve ever known. To date he’s literally saved my life at least twice, and figuratively/hyperbolically more times than I can count.  His one primary motivation in life is to ensure that everyone he cares about (and, generally, everyone around him) is safe, comfortable, and happy. He doesn’t swear – ever – because, in his own words, “There could be someone around that is offended by those words and doesn’t want to admit it, and I wouldn’t want to unknowingly make them uncomfortable.” He’s basically the exact opposite of me.

The most aggravating thing about Shea is that, on occasion, when our group of friends would go out, he would go to the bar when we were most of the way done drinking and just pay for everyone’s tab without telling anyone. When asked why he did that, his simple reply was, “I wanted to do something nice for my friends.”

That’s just the kind of friend Shea is. That’s just the kind of person he is. He never expects reimbursement, or favors in return. He never talks about the wonderful things he does for the people around him every day. He just does these things, and lives his life knowing that because of his actions, the lives of his friends, relatives, and casual acquaintances are just a little bit better. That knowledge makes him feel good.

But nobody trusts it. Girls especially are more often than not creeped out by him. Several times he has had women on whom he made no romantic advances whatsoever tell him to never contact them again. “Some people obviously think that you want something from them [when you behave that way],” he explains, “Others think that you must think you’re better than them, or that you’re keeping score somehow. I just like doing things for people.”

On one occasion, I had a mutual female friend confide in me that she was annoyed by his simple offer to walk her 2 blocks to her house to get a coat one evening, as we all walked to a bar together. Her argument was that his attempt at chivalry implied a certain overbearingly protective anti-feminism; she thought he didn’t think she could do it on her own. Having asked him why he offered, I knew it was because he had nearly been mugged down the street from her house just a few weeks earlier, and would have made the same offer to anyone, regardless of gender.

I’d argue that the problems people have with folks like Shea are based entirely on assumptions. The assumed correlation between chivalry and chauvinism. The assumption that anyone who is being nice is hiding something. The belief that people who are polite are aloof or creepy. All these things reflect a cynicism that I’ve definitely felt myself, but am horrified by when I see it blatantly displayed like I did so many times when people told me they were suspicious of Shea.

He even tries to explain this assumption-based mistreatment he receives in empathetically lucid terms, “A big part of it is the environment you’re in. The big city mentality is about figuring out someone’s motivation and trying to figure out what they’re doing wrong. In smaller towns, people just accept that you’re being nice.”

I disagree with him. I think most people in most places these days are looking for the long con. Is Shea a creep? At worst he’s awkward and enigmatic. But that’s only an issue until you get to know him, and many people turn themselves off to him before they give him that chance. I know I probably would have if we hadn’t been housemates. And then I would’ve missed out on knowing one of the most unique, honorable, and altruistic people I’ve ever encountered. If that’s not evidence that something is wrong with our society, I’ll never find any.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Hopelessly Romantic Pt 1: Save the Last Dance

This is the first in a three-part series regarding the romantic failings I have observed in my generation. The key word there is "observed." I could be wrong, and I could be projecting, but based on what I've seen in my own relationships and those of people I've been close to, these are the ways I think many of us are similarly damaged, and while I don't know what we should do about it, I think discussing it is a good place to start.


Nobody dances any more.

For generations, in times when physical contact – especially between men and women – was more of a taboo, dancing was used as a surrogate for other, more intimate physical experiences. Until the sexual revolutions of the 60s, merely holding hands was a social expression of romantic exclusivity among couples. Our grandparents didn’t believe in casual hookups. When discussing sexuality was regarded as perversion, dancing was the next closest thing people had that allowed them to come together and explore the magic of touch, learning all those subtle things about one another that we can't express verbally. It was one of the only social activities available at the time, through which people could symbolically unite – in as close to a sexual manner as they dared in those days – and experience each other as parts of a greater whole.

Millennials don’t do that so much. I suppose we still dance, but generally, everyone’s dance is more an expression of their individuality. We don’t dance with one another, so much as we just sort of dance near one another, alone. The closest we come to what was once thought of as dancing is the behavior you see in clubs, where what people are doing can best be described as dancing at one another; the grinding gyration a much less subtle foreshadowing of the participants’ eventual intentions.

But if you look at it another way, all we do these days is "dance." Our every interaction has developed a suggestion of a deeper ulterior meaning. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d bet one of the big reasons people my age prefer texting (especially when feeling out new romantic potential) is that it leaves a certain ambiguity that face to face conversation doesn’t. Our conversations and interactions are all swaddled in layers of pop-culture references, turns of phrase, analogies, and representational truths. Simple social interaction has become a dance.

I don’t know if this happened because as humans, we need some degree of obfuscation of our intent to feel comfortable going out on a limb. Maybe it’s just a side-effect of the technological disconnect I keep hearing about. That’s not what bothers me.

What bothers me is that, much like music, dancing was a unique and specific form of nonverbal interpersonal communication. You could communicate things, in a dance, that cannot be said with words – things that are either too multifaceted, too esoteric, or that leave people too personally vulnerable to express plainly. The way you can say “I love you” a thousand times, but it will never quite resonate the way it does with the right single kiss, through dancing, you could once explore a whole range of more subtle emotions with someone you weren’t necessarily ready to kiss.

And now we gloss over that very important part of courtship. In fact, we seem to gloss over courtship itself, most of the time. Most of my failed romantic expeditions in the last decade, and most of the ones I’ve watched my friends struggle with all come back to the specific (if not simple) issue of people not knowing each other well enough before making an emotional commitment. The “dealbreakers” that come up a month or two into a relationship are often subtle personality traits that either should have been spotted earlier, or inconsequential surprises that get blown out of proportion. Maybe one waltz wouldn’t fix that. But if after 5, you noticed that your partner never lets you lead, it may get you thinking earlier about whether you really see eye to eye on life in general.

I don’t dance. It feels silly and vulnerable. I lose control at rock shows that move me, but like I said earlier, that’s an isolated expression of my interaction with the music, not the necessarily the people I'm surrounded by.

But I wish I did, because I bet it would be less lonely.