Men, Women, And The Work Romantic Comedies Ignore

Some commenters felt like I came down a little hard on, or unsympathetic to, men who have a genuine desire to learn to interact more productively with women in last Wednesday’s post on romantic comedy scenarios where women play Virgil to men who are clueless about or resentful of the norms of dating. As a nerd in recovery, and as someone who’s invested in the idea that men need to be full participants in feminism, I certainly don’t want to suggest that guys shouldn’t try to do better and that women shouldn’t play a role in that. But what I object to is a sort of Platonic Manic Pixie Dream Girl ideal where a woman (or Will Smith in the case of Hitch) descends from the heavens to demystify the impenetrable realm of women to dudes who have been unfairly denied their due — and it’s part of larger problems I have with these sorts of stories.

This is true of romantic comedies with both male and female protagonists: they tend to be about the relationships that are the end results of a tremendous amount of hard work and romantic failures. They romanticize the ultimate result of that work rather than the work itself, and no matter how much we’re told that a character dates people who are bad for them or to them, they obscure the process—and the fact that it often takes a lot of repetitions of the same mistake to learn what the mistake is. As my friend J.P. writes:

Look, the training montage may work for Rocky, but it really doesn’t work for emotional development — which is what we’re really talking about when we’re looking at how someone becomes prepared to have an adult, mature relationship…

Not many recent movies capture this well and when it’s captured, it’s boring. High Fidelity is one of the few films that gets it. But it also gets boring an hour in, because you’re tired of watching the protagonist make the same mistake over and over. EXCEPT THAT’S THE POINT.

When Cusack’s character is making yet another mix tape for yet another love interest, he finally throws down his headphones and essentially cries out, “When is this gonna stop?!” This follows an entire film dedicated to cataloging the outcomes of failed relationships, and what made them such disasters. Cusack’s character realizes that there’s one factor that persists in his relationships: His own failure to grow up and settle down. He was pursuing people who weren’t interested in what he was interested in. He was always halfway out the door.

I actually think that High Fidelity is more entertaining than that in part because it’s about archaeology: if we were just watching Rob make the same mistakes repeatedly, it would be genuinely miserable, but instead, each encounter moves him forward. It may not be the world’s most rapid progress, but it’s there. And at the end, after he’s learned everything, we see Rob about to make the same mistake again after reuniting with his girlfriend. When that happens, there are real stakes because we know his history, and we know what messing up this relationship before cost him and cost Laura — it’s a late and subtle climax, but a deeply felt one, and it’s a profound relief when he chooses correctly.

Similarly, When Harry Met Sally takes the long arc perspective: when the two characters meet, they’re not really fit to be with anybody. And over time, they grow into their capacity for relationships and into each other. But the message of the movie is that it’s work to get there, and involves mistakes, and the risk that you’ll hurt each other badly along the way. This might be even scarier than the idea that you have do a lot of work before you get good at dating and then before those skills help you find someone: the prospect that even when you find that person, you can blow it up and do each other harm.

So in the end, I suppose I object to the idea of a Girl Guide as part of a large distaste for the idea of romantic miracle cures. Whether it’s the idea of the right person, the right tactic (something that’s expertly deconstructed by Harris O’Malley of Dr. Nerdlove), or the right advice-giver, there’s something dangerous and delusional about the idea that love isn’t constant effort. That doesn’t mean that a lot of that effort isn’t sexy, romantic, and emotionally rewarding, but it’s still work. Even if you find someone will love you for who you are, that kind of love may not happen instantly — most of us tell stories about ourselves that evolve over time, becoming deeper, richer, and more vulnerable. And it doesn’t mean that you’ll never fight with the person who loves you, that you won’t continue to grow, and change, and maybe even compromise.