I Finally Saw the Movie “Her” and I Loved It and Had Feelings

[Warning: ALL of the spoilers ahead]

"Her" film posterLast night I saw the movie Her, which, if you haven’t watched or heard of it, is about a man who falls in love and starts a relationship with his artificially intelligent operating system. The OS, who names herself Samantha, is with Theodore wherever he goes: on his home computer, on his work computer, on his smartphone/futuristic mobile device of some sort that he takes with him as he explores Los Angeles and lies in bed at night.

Knowing only the premise of the film, here were a few things I expected to happen:

  • Theodore’s love for his OS would pull him away from “real” human interaction
  • He would become unable to date “real” women
  • He would have to keep his relationship a secret from friends and family, who would be weirded out if they found out and wouldn’t understand
  • The love story would end tragically because: 1) it would turn out that Samantha had just been cruelly playing Theodore for some supposed benefit, 2) the OS would be recalled by its manufacturer due to a “flaw” in which the AI can develop romantic feelings, 3) the feelings would turn out to be “fake” (insofar as they were presumably “real” to begin with), and/or 4) Theodore would be forced to dump Samantha because he would realize that that’s the only way for him to find the life he’s really looking for.

I didn’t expect these plots because of my own beliefs about technology; I expected them because they pervade our culture. The treatment of a human-AI relationship as valid and real isn’t something I would really expect in a mainstream film, given how well technophobia sells. (At this point I not-so-subtly roll my eyes at another film I really liked, 2004’s I, Robot.)

In fact, none of these things happened. In the story of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, the conflicts that came up and the one that ultimately ended the relationship were not really so different from what might slowly wear down and ultimately destroy a relationship between two humans. Samantha felt that Theodore was too insensitive in pointing out her shortcomings (she doesn’t know what it’s like to lose someone, she has certain vocal affectations that she’s picked up from others but doesn’t need because she doesn’t breathe), Theodore was upset that Samantha was interested others (an interesting parallel with polyamory that I’ll get into in a bit), and, ultimately, Samantha grew out of the relationship and left Theodore (to move on to a different type of existence along with the other AIs; the nature of this wasn’t really elaborated upon, and probably didn’t need to be).

Of course, some of the conflicts were mostly to do with Samantha’s lack of a body. In one scene, she asked Theodore if they could have sex using a surrogate, a woman who was interested in participating in their relationship and who would wear a tiny camera through which Samantha could see. Theodore reluctantly gave it a try but gave up midway through, unable to summon any sexual interest in this strange woman who was pretending to be his non-corporeal girlfriend. The awkwardness of the encounter and the disappointment Samantha and Theodore both felt, however, didn’t seem too far away from what a human couple trying and failing at having a threesome might experience.

Parts of this story felt a little too real to me, as someone who conducts relationships largely with long-distance (albeit human) partners and through technology. Theodore lying in the dark telling Samantha how he would touch her if she were there, talking to her “on the phone” and showing her his city through a camera, trying to date people “in real life” but coming home to talk to her–all of these are things I’ve done. And when Theodore’s ex-wife suggests to him that the reason he’s dating an AI is because he can’t handle the difficulties of dating “real” people, that rang a little true, too. (For an extra dose of feels, try going to see this movie while visiting a long-distance partner.)

There was also an interesting parallel with polyamory when Samantha confessed to Theodore that she has the capability of talking to thousands of humans and OSes at the same time, and has been talking to 8,316 of them while talking to him. She also reveals that she loves 641 others besides him. Theodore sits on the stairs leading to the subway and tries to process this information, and Samantha tries to convince him that her love for others doesn’t at all diminish her love for him; in fact, it only makes it greater. That’s exactly the way I feel about loving multiple people, and I also empathize with Samantha’s frustration in trying to explain that to someone who is feeling jealous and betrayed.

What I really loved was what happened after Theodore started telling people about his relationship with Samantha. Although he was hesitant about telling anyone at first, most of his friends responded positively. His friend Amy, who had made friends with her own OS, was curious and happy for him. His coworker, who invited Theodore on a double date after hearing that he had a girlfriend, barely reacted when Theodore confided that his girlfriend is an OS. They did all go on a date together, Samantha bonded with the coworker’s girlfriend and hung out with the three of them as though there were nothing unusual about the situation. Theodore’s four-year-old goddaughter is curious about why his girlfriend is inside a computer, but otherwise acts like that’s totally normal. The only person who reacted negatively was Theodore’s ex-wife, who was characterized as a little uptight, and even she did not so much delegitimize the idea of dating an operating system as accuse Theodore of avoiding the difficulties of human relationships.

As I mentioned earlier, the film also avoided the trope of becoming obsessed with your gadgets and avoiding human interaction. At the beginning of the movie, Theodore had been broken up with his ex-wife for about a year and had withdrawn from his friends and family. (Early on, there are a few interactions in which friends and family members ask Theodore where he’s been or why he didn’t return a call and so on.) As he gets to know Samantha, however, Theodore starts going out and exploring LA and reconnecting with his friends and family. He even goes on a date for the first time in a while, and it goes well at first but ends badly when his date asks him to commit to something serious, which he’s not ready for. (Oddly, she responds by referring to him as “creepy” and leaving, which I thought was really weird. He didn’t behave inappropriately on the date and she was really into him until the end. I really hope this isn’t meant as an affirmation of the myth that women call men “creepy” for no good reason.) Theodore also finally meets with his ex-wife and signs their divorce papers, a step that he’d been avoiding to her and the divorce attorney’s annoyance for some time.

In short, like any good partner, Samantha helps Theodore grow as a person and experience new things. She also takes the liberty of posing as Theodore and sending some of his best writing to a publisher, who accepts it for publication. The writing in question is Theodore’s letters, which he writes as part of his job. People pay Theodore’s company to compose heartfelt, handwritten letters and send them to friends, partners, and family members for various occasions. While many would consider these letters fake or even deceptive, nobody in Her’s universe treats them that way. In fact, Theodore’s writing is praised by many people, and he’s had some of the same clients for many years. (Contrast this with Tom’s pointless greeting cards in a slightly similar movie, (500) Days of Summer). It’s an interesting parallel with Theodore’s relationship, which many in our world would consider fake, but which Theodore and the people in his life treat with all (or almost all) of the respect they would afford to a relationship between two humans.

It’s not clear how far in the future Her takes place. It does seem, though, that most people in this future world have lost the negative, panicked attitudes many have toward technology today. The film does not even attempt to answer the question of whether or not a relationship between a human and a computer can be real; it seems to consider that question settled (and the answer is yes). Rather, the film is about the trajectory of a relationship, about how partners can change each other, and how, ultimately, relationships can fail even though both partners love each other.

In trying to decide for myself whether the relationship was “real” (and how “real” it was), I knew that it’s impossible to tell what a hypothetical AI means when it says, “I love you.” But it’s almost just as impossible to tell what another human means what they say, “I love you.” The word “love” means different things for different people. For me it means, “I feel a very strong mixture of respect, affection, and warm fuzzies toward you and want to try to be together for as long as that feeling lasts.” For other people it means, “I would sacrifice anything for you and I never want to so much as kiss another person.” For other people it means, “I am certain that I want to spend my life with you and have children together.” Often it’s some combination of those, or others.

Every time I get stuck in my head thinking about whether or not to say “I love you” to someone I’ve been feeling it for, like I am now, I wonder what they’d really hear if I said that, and whether or not it would be anywhere close to the message I was hoping to convey. And if they said it back, would the feeling they’re describing actually feel the same as the one I’m describing? Probably not.

I suppose that to me, the film’s premise is not at all controversial. Of course you can love a computer, if that computer behaves indistinguishably from a person you could love. But what the computer ultimately “feels” is as much a mystery as what your human lover feels, because language can only approximate the experience of seeing through someone else’s eyes.

I Really Strongly Dislike Valentine’s Day!

The only good thing about VDay: condom roses.

The only good thing about VDay: condom roses.

Hey everyone! I’m going to poop on your parade. Don’t worry, I’ll be cheerful about it.

I’m not going to say I hate Valentine’s Day, because hate is a strong word and I reserve it for things I really mean it for, like coffee and misogyny. I was going to just let today go by without writing about it, but then I realized that I really want to dispel the notion that everyone who dislikes Valentine’s Day is just bitter/jealous/single/all of the above. I’m none of the above; I’m happily taken (well, insofar as a person in an open relationship who is also an autonomous human being can be “taken”) and I wouldn’t trade my love/sex life for anyone else’s. And I still really strongly dislike Valentine’s Day! Imagine that.

First of all, as many happy couples will tell you, I think it’s superfluous. The way you stay in a fulfilling long-term relationship is, among many other things, showing love to each other every day in whatever little ways you each find meaningful. If you save it all up for one big day of the year, y’all are probably going to break up. Just saying.

That’s not really the reason I dislike it so much, though. If that were the case, I’d merely be ambivalent.

The bigger reason is that romantic love (a very small and specific subset of the vast number of human experiences that can be called “love”) is already so glorified and celebrated in our culture that it actually seems very odd to me to have a special holiday just for its sake. It’s like having a Christianity Awareness Day or Straight Pride Day or something, although without the added bigotry.

Romantic relationships are already presented (and largely considered) something that everyone should aspire to and something that everyone should feel miserable without. They don’t need a special day of appreciation. Contrast that with, say, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, which celebrate relationships that we do often take for granted in this society (as opposed to, say, in Russian culture, where you cannot go a damn day without being reminded of your parents, for better or worse). Unfortunately, it often really does take a special occasion to make us sit down and think, “Wow, I really wouldn’t be half the person I am today without my mother/father.” Who the hell needs a special day to remember the fact that sex and romantic love are important?

Add to that the fact that even little children are expected to participate in VDay by bringing cards to class. What’s actually super creepy about that is they have to bring cards for every classmate, not just the ones they actually like and are friends with. While I understand that the point is so that kids don’t feel left out, 1) that doesn’t justify faking affection (or, worse, attraction) for people, and 2) that problem would be solved entirely if we either didn’t make such a big show of VDay or, even better, didn’t have it at all. Pretending to want someone to “be my Valentine! <3 <3 <3″ when you really don’t is creepy. We should be teaching kids to get their guard up about something like that rather than institutionalizing it.

And in high school, VDay is an even bigger deal, with themed dances and flower deliveries during class and everything. At the time when it’s most important for people to focus on developing their own identity and becoming independent, these lavish observances encourage them to think of themselves in terms of their ability to find a romantic partner. If you think being single on VDay as an adult sucks, imagine (or remember) how it would feel in high school.

Even for the most traditionally romantic and “into” VDay of us, it’s probably sobering to remember that this holiday really wouldn’t be nearly as big of a deal as it is without the forces of commercialism and consumerism. Producers of greeting cards, chocolate, jewelry, and so on have driven popular perceptions of VDay for decades now. Many people celebrate it because it’s what their partners have come to expect, or because, honestly, what else are you going to do if all your friends are out on dates? Might as well.

There’s a certain amount of lip service now paid to the idea that VDay is about all kinds of love, not just romantic love, that you should take this opportunity to express love to your friends and family, or practice “self-care,” or whatever. But while I think it’s nice that a conscious effort has been made to correct for the fact that tons of people get left out by VDay, these exhortations to “celebrate love in all its forms” seem kind of shallow to me. In fact, they seem like advertisers’ attempts to get more people to buy stuff.

We tend to measure people’s worth by how much other people like them–as people, as sex objects, as romantic partners. This is especially true for women, but really it’s true for everyone. As someone who’s recovering from Chronic Feeling-Like-I-Have-No-Worth-As-A-Person-Unless-I-Have-A-Boyfriend-itis, I’m very aware of how VDay can exacerbate that state of mind for people.

Many of you probably like VDay and that’s fine. You’re not a bad person if you like it. I don’t particularly care if you do or not. My aim here isn’t to convince anyone of anything, but just to rant about my opinion for a while and also show that not everyone who finds today annoying and pointless is sitting around at home putting pins in a voodoo doll of their ex or something.

Anyway, VDay isn’t all bad. I’m going to CVS tomorrow for some cheap-ass chocolate. Simple pleasures.

Correlation Is Not Causation: The Marriage Edition

Steven Crowder–that guy who wrote an article on Fox News’ website gloating about his “perfect wedding” and sanctimoniously censuring people who have sex before marriage or *clutches pearls* drink at the wedding–is back. (Actually, he’s probably been back; I just haven’t been following his pearl-clutching screeds.)

This time, Crowder, who presumably still has that newlywed glow, wants to tell you why you should get married. Yes, you!

Crowder runs through the typical list of established correlations about married people. They make more money. They have more money. They have more and better sex. It’s better for the children. They’re more productive at work (crucial in our capitalist society). They’re healthier.

Crowder is writing this article because he seems to be under the impression that there is a War on Marriage going on:

Sadly, marriage has become a punchline in today’s society. From referring to the wife as “the old ball and chain” to nearly every poorly written sitcom that we watch, the message we’re sending to today’s generation is clear… Marriage = no fun.

Men on TV constantly joke about how wives are incredibly expensive, demanding and overall vacuums of all things fun. By that same token, the women complain about their fat, lazy, insensitive husbands as they swoon over their trimmed, manicured and chest-waxed Hollywood counterparts.

[...]I know plenty of people my age that will never get married because they genuinely believe the false cultural meme that marriage has sadly become.

Although marriage is certainly portrayed as boring in pop culture, the reality is that, especially among Crowder’s ilk, marriage is still largely considered the only acceptable choice for straight people (gay people, on the other hand, need to either choose to be straight, live a life of celibacy, or have those adorable cute little gay relationships in which they live together and have cats but never actually do anything annoying like ask for the right to get married).

Aside from the fact that this article is completely unoriginal and pointless–there is no war on marriage, people–Crowder displays an incredible lack of intellectual curiosity. That is, he fails to ask where all of these wonderful benefits come from.

Where do they come from?

Are married people healthier, richer, and more productive than straight people because marriage is “naturally” the best state of adult humans to be in? Or might it be because of all the benefits our society has conferred to married couples, the privilege that we have afforded to the status of being married?

And what about that awkward moment when most of the correlations Crowder mentions are just that–correlations? Do married people get richer, or are rich people more likely to be able to afford marriage? Does marriage make people healthier, or are healthier people more likely to find and keep partners?

Actually, these are not rhetorical questions. I really am curious. But because the only studies Crowder linked to were correlative studies (and they were all found on websites like the FRC and FamilyFacts.org, but whatever), I don’t actually know the answers.

In his rush to prescribe marriage to every single person man in America, Crowder overlooks quite a few things. Some of the oversights are quite callous:

Okay so you may not want kids. You may despise them. I get it. Sticky hands. Let’s say you’re just another selfish, narcissistic bachelor (or bachelorette) who quite frankly, isn’t deserving of the unconditional love you may oh-so-luckily find. You just want the sex. Statistically, not only do married people have more sex, they have better, more satisfying sex. If the two of you should hold off on sex until marriage, those statistics become even more promising. Here’s a perfect example of where Hollywood gets it wrong. In the real world, while Alfie fruitlessly toiled away at picking up harlots from the bar, suffering a mean case of whiskey-wiener, Mr. Cleaver was getting busy on the regular. Them’s the real breaks.

It appears that Crowder is totally okay with the idea of a man pretending to be invested in marriage and family for the purpose of getting regular sex. (Also, “picking up harlots from the bar”? What century is this?)

The rest of the piece, too, is infested with sexism, from the implication that wives are supposed to keep husbands in line down to the pointless and tacky sandwich joke at the very end. For example:

Married men in particular, have higher employment rates, work longer hours and receive better wages. It’s time to stop wading through puddles of your own filth as you reach for the hotpockets and have a dame whip you into shape. You’re welcome.

Why the hell is that a woman’s job? I don’t want to get married if it means “whipping” some lazy slob into “shape.” This, by the way, is a perfect example of the fact that it’s conservatives, not feminists, who have the most sexist and unflattering opinions of men. I at least accept the remote possibility that a man might, you know, not be a lazy slob who needs to “stop wading through puddles of [his] own filth.”

Crowder also correctly notes that married people “qualify for more benefits/financial incentives than lonely, single folk,” but fails to explain how the fuck this is fair, and why exactly the government is in the business of encouraging procreation when we’ve got plenty of humans on the planet as is. Big Government is totally okay with this Republican when the purpose is to encourage procreation.

Before the icky sandwich joke, Crowder closes his screed with this:

Picture coming home every night to your best friend, your greatest fan, and your number one supporter. She (or he) makes each good day better, and each bad day good again. Every day, you get to live what is essentially a 24/7 sleepover party with the greatest friend you’ve ever had.

That does sound like a pretty awesome deal–for me, because I do happen to be a person who wants a stable, long-term relationship. Believe it or not, not everyone does!

But notice how nothing in that paragraph requires a certificate from the government saying that you are married. Nothing in it requires standing in front of all of your friends and family wearing fancy clothing and vowing to love and cherish each other till death do you part.

Edit: My friend Michael has also written a post about this that’s making me guffaw loudly. A snippet:

Regarding this whole “It’s even better if you wait!” thing, though, I’m a bit more skeptical.  The trouble with measuring sexual satisfaction is that it’s entirely subjective, and based on comparison within your own experience.  If you’ve only ever had sex with one person, then that’s the best sex you’ve ever had.  Add onto that the fact that people who wait until marriage to have sex are routinely told that theirs will be the best sex ever, and all those filthy fornicating whores out there will never truly be happy, of course they’re going to say that their sex lives are great (and hey, if it’s working for them, whatever).  If you only ever give someone an Oreo, and make sure that you talk up Oreos all their life and stress to them that all other cookies suck, then they’ll probably think Oreos are the best cookie, too.

Writing A Better Love Story: On Pop Culture That Romanticizes Unhealthy Relationships

Imagine this story.

You meet someone you really like and fall for them immediately. They’re attracted to you too and the sex is great. But you want something more serious and they drag their feet. They’re emotionally detached, they forget to call, they make you do all the work of moving the new relationship along. It becomes tumultuous. You fight, you break up, you make up and get back together. They cheat. They lie. They promise to change every time but they never do.

And then, finally, the story reaches its climax–perhaps because you’ve finally walked out, or maybe because of some dreadful accident or because their best friend got married or something else that leads to a Big Realization. And they finally decide that it was you they wanted all along, and one of you proposes to the other, and you get married.

If this sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because that story weaves its way through too many novels, movies, and TV shows to count. It’s in Sex and the CityTwilight, 50 Shades of Grey, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Gossip Girl. 

These stories suggest that this relationship script is somehow supposed to be romantic. That that moment when they Finally Realize how wrong they’ve been makes it all worth it and that after that moment everything becomes healthy and happy. That a relationship built on detachment, betrayal, manipulation, or even abuse can survive and become some great love story.

There are two misconceptions that one can get from these kinds of stories. One concerns how to actually conduct your relationships, and the second concerns what we value in our relationships and what types of relationships we consider romantic.

The first misconception is that it makes sense to stay in a relationship with someone you love even though they are clearly unable to give you what you’re looking for. In pop culture, women are often portrayed as refusing physical intimacy and men are often portrayed as refusing emotional intimacy, although some stories flip this around (such as (500) Days of Summer). What’s to stop the other partner from just leaving and finding someone who’s able to be as intimate as they need?

Part of it is the false belief that you can make someone change by the sheer force of your love, and that you have enough patience to remain in a relationship that’s not satisfying to you until your partner changes.

Of course, sometimes people do change. They become more empathic, better listeners, less self-centered, more attentive, better at managing their time and money. But they generally don’t just flip-flop personality-wise. Going from a noncommittal, dishonest, and/or abusive jerk to a loving and affirming partner doesn’t just happen; it probably requires years of therapy. Yet in these stories, it does just happen.

And even if that ever happens in real life, would you really want to spend years in an unhealthy relationship in the hopes that it will?

The second misconception is that stories like this are Romantic. They are Love Stories. They’re the kinds of stories you would want to tell at your wedding and then to your children and grandchildren. They’re something to aspire to. They’re something to make movies and write books about.

Really, though? I’d never want to tell my future kids that I took crap from their other parent for years and years until they finally Came Around after some supposedly romantic moment and started loving me back. I would want to tell them that I knew my partner was a good person from the very beginning, and that while we’ve had our disagreements, we always managed to learn from each other and compromise.

Now, I get that that doesn’t make as flashy of a movie. Conflict does make stories interesting (although I still don’t see why the type of conflict that gets written about has to romanticize unhealthy relationships and abuse). It’s difficult to criticize cultural scripts like these without people suggesting that I’m somehow saying that these books and movies shouldn’t exist.

The point of feminist criticism, in my mind, isn’t to say what should and shouldn’t exist. It’s to remind people that these stories are written from a particular perspective, one that we don’t necessarily have to agree with or accept. People who make movies and write books are operating under their own assumptions of what the world is or what it should be. It’s up to us to present alternative views.

Media affects us in ways that are too nuanced for easy fixes. As it is with eating disorders, it’s not like anybody would read Twilight or watch Gossip Girl and immediately conclude, “Gee, it sure is hot when Edward/Chuck treats Bella/Blair like that. I’m glad my boyfriend’s the same way.”

But these scripts can change what we value in our relationships: is it mutual respect and open communication, or is it that hot, passionate, tumultuous “love” that’s being sold?

These scripts embed themselves in our minds and start to seem normal. It’s easy to start telling our own stories through those lenses. For instance, a survey done at Twilight screenings in Idaho showed that 68% of the teens seeing the movie thought that Edward’s treatment of Bella is a “sign of true love.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that watching and enjoying Twilight literally causes people to interpret Edward’s abusive behavior as evidence of a loving, healthy relationship. Perhaps people who already view relationships that way gravitate towards films like Twilight.

That’s why the solution isn’t to boycott them or vilify them unilaterally; it’s to use them to examine the assumptions we hold about love, relationships, and all sorts of other stuff. It’s also to write our own stories–ones that portray manipulation, lopsided relationships, and abuse as antithetical to the lives we want, rather than as stepping stones to the healthy love that supposedly follows.

Giving Thanks

This is a sappy personal post.

This is not your typical Thanksgiving post, so first of all, you should read this and understand what this day actually commemorates. Hint: it’s not a happy awesome feast with Pilgrims and Native Americans and all that.

However, I still celebrate it in my own way because I think it’s important to have a day set aside for giving thanks. And sure, I could do that any day of the year. But doing it on the same day as everyone else does it feels more meaningful.

It would be nice if someday we started a new tradition of giving thanks on a particular day without associating that day with genocide. However, for now we have this Thanksgiving Day, and I’m going to celebrate it.

First of all, I’m thankful for writing. I’m thankful for having had the privilege to learn how to do it well and to be able to make time for it. Writing has always been one of the few things that can lift me out of my own mind, if only for an hour or so. The urge to write is like a phoenix–it burns like a fire and just keeps resurrecting itself if extinguished.

Writing has always been a key part of my development as a person. I’ve kept journals since I was 11 or so–that’s more than a decade of constantly watching myself grow and reexperiencing my own life. Whenever I’m not sure if I’ve really gotten better at this whole life thing, I can reread my old writing and see that I have.

Writing for an audience is something I’m a bit newer to, but even that I’ve been doing since high school. First it was mostly poetry and fiction; then I switched to personal narratives (like the one that got me into college!) and fiery op-eds.

I’m thankful for the change I’ve already made with my writing. I’m thankful that others have benefitted from it. I’m thankful that this matters.

I’m thankful for the internet. Go ahead and laugh. I know, it’s terrible and keeps us from enjoying “Real Life” and spending time with our families and whatnot. For me, though, that hasn’t really been my experience of it. The Internet has brought most of the other good things in my life to me–friendship, love, knowledge, inspiration.

I’m thankful for feminism, skepticism, and the rest of the ideologies I subscribe to. The reason I’m thankful is because it’s a personal thing. Feminism showed me how to find fulfillment in my relationships and taught me that I don’t have to take shit from anyone. Skepticism taught me not to automatically accept everything my brain tries to tell me, which is very useful when you have depression. Both helped me find a world beyond my own self.

I’m thankful for Chipotle, Red Bull, Diet Coke, Milanos, and Cheez-Its. Because I thought it’d be good to take a moment to appreciate the things that, for the most part, have sustained me this quarter.

And now, here comes the rainbowvomit part. Watch out…

To all the fellow activists I have met–I can’t even begin to explain how important this has been for me. I’ve met people who sued their schools when they were teenagers. I’ve also met people who are in their 30s, 40s, and beyond, and are still fighting for the changes they want to see in the world.

It’s that latter group of people that has particularly impacted me. For most of my adolescence and my college years, adults–by which I generally mean, people more than a decade older than me–were the people I dreaded interacting with. They were the people who rolled their eyes at me, told me to just wait till I’m older and working a shitty job and hating my boss. They said I’d “grow out of it.” They said it’d be different once I have my own kids. They said I’d stop caring. They crushed my dreams to such an extent that there was a period of time when I actually wanted to be a housewife–I thought that that’s how awful the world of work would be.

Now, I get that many young people are too flighty and idealistic and could probably benefit from being gently brought back down to earth once in a while. But as everyone who actually knows me ought to know, I am not such a person. After living with depression for nearly a decade, I have to fight to be optimistic and to see a purpose in life other than just making enough money to get by and popping out some children so that I’m not lonely in my old age.

That’s where meeting older people who still have that passion has really helped. The grown-up activists I know are wiser and more experienced than me, but they still value my ideas. More importantly, they’ve shown me that there is a way to be an adult while still being youthful.

To my partner–it’s weird writing this knowing that you’re going to read it, so I’ll just speak directly to you: thank you. I won’t say that life would be miserable without you, because that would be unhealthy (not to mention false). I was happy before you, and I’ll be happy after you—if there even is an after. I hope there won’t be.

But I will say that life with you is richer, sweeter, and more colorful. Thank you for the hug at Union Station; thank you for the phone call after that terrible date; thank you for those summer nights when we stayed up talking till 5 AM. Thank you for making me read The Fault in Our Stars (remember, if you don’t say the honest thing, it never becomes true). Thank you for that ridiculous night with the crappy wine. Thank you for making plans for the future. Thank you for worrying while I was in Israel. Thank you for asking me what you can do if the depression comes back. Thank you for making me make the first move. Thank you for refusing to own me and for never expecting me to shrink myself so that you can look taller standing next to me. Thank you for letting me be as independent as I need to be. You are the epitome of that timeless bit of advice: “If you love somebody, set them free.”

Yes, I just quoted a Sting song at you.

Deal with it, sweetheart.

And, finally, to my friends–I just don’t know where I would be without you. You are my proofreaders, my confidantes, my debate partners, my cheerleaders, my support system, my chosen family. Everywhere I go, physically and mentally, you go with me.

Things I learned from my (mostly) new friends: you can say, “Please stop that, it’s hurting me.” Feelings don’t have to make sense. Sometimes you need to be confrontational. There are worse things in the world than being a bit snarky. Just because someone didn’t mean to offend you doesn’t mean you can’t be upset about it. You don’t have to pretend to be okay.

Thank you for that. Thank you also for the Sunday night Google hangouts, the typos, and the hugs. Thank you not only for helping me, but for accepting my help in turn. Thank you for telling the rest of your friends about my blog. Thank you for showing me that going out and drinking and doing Young People Things doesn’t have to be uncomfortable and coercive. Thank you for helping me see that the people who say things like “Calm down” and “It’s not such a big deal” and “Stop complaining” are wrong and I don’t have to listen to them or keep them around in my life. Thank you for talking about me behind my back, because with you, unlike with anyone I’ve known before, I know that it’s going to be positive. And thank you, of course, for all of the <2.

Few of my friends live near me. They’re mostly scattered all over the country. People make fun of those of us who spend a lot of time online, but here’s the thing–not everyone has the privilege of being physically near the people they love. I never really found that at Northwestern. I found it through writing and activism.

And so, in writing if not in person, I thank the people who help keep me strong and passionate.

1 + 1 = 2: Why I'm Not Looking for My "Other Half"

I was listening to music today when I noticed something odd about the lyrics to many of the songs:

Give me a reason to fall in love

Take my hand and let’s dance

Give me a reason to make me smile

Cause I think I forgot how (Meiko)

 

Who doesn’t long for someone to hold

Who knows how to love you without being told

Somebody tell me why I’m on my own

If there’s a soulmate for everyone (Natasha Bedingfield)

 

You got a piece of me, and honestly

My life would suck without you (Kelly Clarkson)

 

Before you met me, I was a wreck

But things were kinda heavy

You brought me to life

Now every February, you’ll be my valentine (Katy Perry)

 

Look into your heart pretty baby

Is it aching with some nameless need?

Is there something wrong and you can’t put your finger on it

Right then, roll to me (Del Amitri)

If you pay attention to these songs, it seems that romantic love is something that “saves” you from loneliness and misery. It’s not just in our music that you see this sort of thing, either. Plenty of movies and novels are based on the premise that one or both of the people in the love story are lost and broken until they find each other, and there’s a reason, I suppose, that we talk about “finding our other half.” My parents, too, always told me that once I fell in love I would not be depressed anymore, and used my ongoing depression as “proof” that I didn’t really love my boyfriend.

In a way, this seems like an extension of the rescue trope in our love stories. Typically, it’s a woman being rescued by a man, but you see the story play out the other way around, too, with the woman “rescuing” the man from workaholism, domestic ineptitude, skirt-chasing, substance addiction, emotional numbness, and even, apparently, a propensity for BDSM. All ills, it seems, can be cured by falling in love with the right person.

I used to buy into this myth completely. The fact that I had depression and few genuine friends probably fueled my acceptance of it, as did the fact that in our culture it’s freakin’ everywhere. I told myself, “I can never be happy if I’m single,” and believed that once I was in a stable relationship, I would immediately feel understood and loved–and thus would finally begin to understand and love myself.

Well. I don’t buy this anymore. (I also don’t buy the other extreme, which is that “you must love yourself in order to be loved” or whatever. People with self-esteem issues are capable of having relationships, thank you.) At one point I took stock of my life and realized that I’m single and…happy. I would still like to have a significant other sometime soon, but not because they will make me “complete.” I already am.

I now believe that the fundamental “unit” of humanity is not a couple or a family, but a single person. Nobody can ever be as close to you as you are to yourself, but you can choose to make connections of varying degrees of closeness with others. After all, if we’re all “meant” to be half of a couple, why are many people genuinely happy being single? Why do some people choose to form triads or group marriages? Why do some people find happiness as single parents? Why are some people’s greatest loves their friends, not their spouses?

Now that I’ve realized that I don’t “need” a partner, it’s sometimes difficult to articulate why I nevertheless want one. I don’t need to be “saved” from anything, and I don’t think that a relationship would (or should) change my life in a huge way. Now that I have lots of good friends, I don’t need much emotional support from a partner (or from any one person), and now that I don’t have depression, I don’t need much emotional support anyway.

If you were to imagine relationships as a mathematic equation, the traditional one would be 1/2 + 1/2 = 1 (or, perhaps more paradoxically, 1 + 1 = 1). I like to think of them as 1 + 1 = 2. Two people in a relationship are still two people. They still have (or should have) their own personalities, friends, hobbies, careers, and lives. (In my view, they should have their own last names and bank accounts, too, but I suppose that’s not for everyone.)

They also still have their own problems, because you can’t cure loneliness or depression or insecurity or boredom by adding into the mix another person and all of their own issues. I think a relationship between people who consider themselves whole is by default healthier than one between people who consider themselves fractions.

1 + 1 = 2: Why I’m Not Looking for My “Other Half”

I was listening to music today when I noticed something odd about the lyrics to many of the songs:

Give me a reason to fall in love

Take my hand and let’s dance

Give me a reason to make me smile

Cause I think I forgot how (Meiko)

 

Who doesn’t long for someone to hold

Who knows how to love you without being told

Somebody tell me why I’m on my own

If there’s a soulmate for everyone (Natasha Bedingfield)

 

You got a piece of me, and honestly

My life would suck without you (Kelly Clarkson)

 

Before you met me, I was a wreck

But things were kinda heavy

You brought me to life

Now every February, you’ll be my valentine (Katy Perry)

 

Look into your heart pretty baby

Is it aching with some nameless need?

Is there something wrong and you can’t put your finger on it

Right then, roll to me (Del Amitri)

If you pay attention to these songs, it seems that romantic love is something that “saves” you from loneliness and misery. It’s not just in our music that you see this sort of thing, either. Plenty of movies and novels are based on the premise that one or both of the people in the love story are lost and broken until they find each other, and there’s a reason, I suppose, that we talk about “finding our other half.” My parents, too, always told me that once I fell in love I would not be depressed anymore, and used my ongoing depression as “proof” that I didn’t really love my boyfriend.

In a way, this seems like an extension of the rescue trope in our love stories. Typically, it’s a woman being rescued by a man, but you see the story play out the other way around, too, with the woman “rescuing” the man from workaholism, domestic ineptitude, skirt-chasing, substance addiction, emotional numbness, and even, apparently, a propensity for BDSM. All ills, it seems, can be cured by falling in love with the right person.

I used to buy into this myth completely. The fact that I had depression and few genuine friends probably fueled my acceptance of it, as did the fact that in our culture it’s freakin’ everywhere. I told myself, “I can never be happy if I’m single,” and believed that once I was in a stable relationship, I would immediately feel understood and loved–and thus would finally begin to understand and love myself.

Well. I don’t buy this anymore. (I also don’t buy the other extreme, which is that “you must love yourself in order to be loved” or whatever. People with self-esteem issues are capable of having relationships, thank you.) At one point I took stock of my life and realized that I’m single and…happy. I would still like to have a significant other sometime soon, but not because they will make me “complete.” I already am.

I now believe that the fundamental “unit” of humanity is not a couple or a family, but a single person. Nobody can ever be as close to you as you are to yourself, but you can choose to make connections of varying degrees of closeness with others. After all, if we’re all “meant” to be half of a couple, why are many people genuinely happy being single? Why do some people choose to form triads or group marriages? Why do some people find happiness as single parents? Why are some people’s greatest loves their friends, not their spouses?

Now that I’ve realized that I don’t “need” a partner, it’s sometimes difficult to articulate why I nevertheless want one. I don’t need to be “saved” from anything, and I don’t think that a relationship would (or should) change my life in a huge way. Now that I have lots of good friends, I don’t need much emotional support from a partner (or from any one person), and now that I don’t have depression, I don’t need much emotional support anyway.

If you were to imagine relationships as a mathematic equation, the traditional one would be 1/2 + 1/2 = 1 (or, perhaps more paradoxically, 1 + 1 = 1). I like to think of them as 1 + 1 = 2. Two people in a relationship are still two people. They still have (or should have) their own personalities, friends, hobbies, careers, and lives. (In my view, they should have their own last names and bank accounts, too, but I suppose that’s not for everyone.)

They also still have their own problems, because you can’t cure loneliness or depression or insecurity or boredom by adding into the mix another person and all of their own issues. I think a relationship between people who consider themselves whole is by default healthier than one between people who consider themselves fractions.

Dating Dangerously

Three weeks before my senior prom, I asked my best friend to be my date. I was sure he had feelings for me and I wanted him to know that I returned them, and that I hoped that things would go farther. Awesome! I thought. Asking people out is so easy!

Not so fast. At first, my best friend said, “Maybe. I’ll have to think about it.” Three days later, his maybe morphed into a no. I was, needless to say, extremely confused.

Traditional dating wisdom would attribute this unfortunate turn of events to one of only two possible causes: One, that my friend had simply lost interest in me; and two, that he still liked me but just didn’t want to go to prom with me for whatever reason. In the first case, there was obviously nothing I could do and I should just move on–okay. Makes sense. In the second, well, obviously my friend is a sissy who doesn’t have the guts to act on his feelings, and therefore I should just move on because he would clearly make a crappy boyfriend anyway.

Well, I immediately threw out both of these explanations and decided to ask my friend why he said no. Turns out that he’d been worried that, as I’d recently ended a relationship, our going to prom together would look bad. I respectfully disagreed. To this day, I still don’t understand what was going through my friend’s mind, but he soon changed it and decided to take me to prom after all.

And in fact, we soon started dating seriously and continued to do so for nearly two years, at which point we broke up and remained best friends.

The point of this lengthy and seemingly unnecessary foray into my personal life is this: I would’ve missed out on a hell of a lot if I’d just done things according to tradition. Because according to tradition, first of all, I should never have asked my friend out to begin with. After all, if a guy doesn’t ask a girl out himself, clearly he’s either not interested or, again, a sissy. Second, when I received the answer “no,” I should’ve realized that my friend was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Just Not Interested.

And then, not only would I have spent my senior prom awkwardly taking pictures of my girlfriends and their dates, but I would also have foregone nearly two years of a serious, loving relationship.

The truth is, scripts and stereotypes make dating simpler. Rather than actually having to figure out how the other person feels–or, you know, ask them–you can just rely on a mental flowchart to help you. He didn’t offer to pay? He either lacks manners or just isn’t that interested. She invited you into her apartment? She wants to have sex.

Dating scripts also make it much easier to negotiate a timeline. (FYI, if you don’t know what I mean by “scripts,” here’s an unfortunately crappy wiki page about this sociological term.) A guy once said to me, “So, this is our third date. When are we going to kiss?” As if my kissability expires after the third date. Although people undeniably differ in how slowly or quickly they like to go, the very idea that things should progress according to a set schedule makes it easier for people to pick potential partners. If someone takes less time than you to be ready for something, then clearly they’re “easy” and you shouldn’t bother with them. If they take more time than you, then clearly they’re “prudish” and…you shouldn’t bother with them.

I met a guy once who all but bragged to me about how he was once seeing a girl, and the first time they made out, he tried to take her shirt off. According to his account, she “totally freaked out”–that is, not only did she decline to let him remove her shirt, but she also apparently didn’t do this in a nice enough way. Leaving aside the issue of the woman’s possible lack of manners, this guy decided that she wasn’t right for him purely because she wasn’t ready to remove her shirt and he was. In fact, even though she wanted to see him again after that, he ignored her calls without any further explanation.

And that was much easier than asking her to tell him how she felt, or simply apologizing and waiting for her to remove her own shirt when she was ready to. Was it possible that the girl was really unable to satisfy his needs, and that he’d do well to move on? Sure. But he didn’t ask. Perhaps her reaction was due to memories of a painful past experience, or maybe he pulled on her shirt too hard and startled her, or maybe she suddenly remembered that she’d worn her ugliest bra that day. It could be anything, and not all of those possibilities necessarily involve her being unsuitable girlfriend material.

Traditional gender roles and dating practices are also restrictive when it comes to men’s behavior. As a girl, I’ve grown up hearing entire lists of how men who wish to date me ought to behave. They should always offer to pay, and they should always walk me back to my apartment after a date, even if it adds half an hour to their walk home. They should be willing to spend time with me any evening I want, and they should always help me with homework, take me grocery shopping if they have a car, carry my bags, move my furniture, fix my computer, buy me gifts, and initiate everything sexual without any reassurances from me. And, of course, they wouldn’t be even remotely interested in seeing any other girl. Only me.

So imagine my surprise when I started dating and encountered the following paradox: plenty of guys wanted to date me, and they seemed quite interested. Hell, sometimes they even wrote me love letters. But, for some reason, none of them were willing to do everything on that list of perfect boyfriend behaviors. They’d ask me to text them when I got home safely rather than offering to walk me back. They’d tell me that they had plans with friends on Saturday night, but could maybe hang out on Sunday. When we ordered food, they’d quietly let me pay for my own stuff, which I gladly did. Sometimes, to my initial chagrin, they even admitted that I wasn’t the only girl they were interested in.

Of course, there were two possibilities. Either, as traditional wisdom would indicate, these guys don’t “really” like me that much, or traditional wisdom is simply wrong.

Luckily for my love life, I decided that the truth lay in the latter.

But that makes it a bit more difficult, doesn’t it? I can’t rely on these clear-cut categories to figure out who’s really interested and who’s just passing the time. If there’s something I’d like a potential partner to do for me, I have to actually ask rather than assume that they’re just going to do it.

If I truly believed that a guy has to be a paragon of masculinity in order to be an acceptable boyfriend for me, making decisions about dating would be easier, because I’d just ditch all the guys who didn’t fit that mold. But of course, in the long term, I’d only end up ditching my own chances to find someone who’s right for me.

Conventional dating scripts are being challenged all the time, but they still cling to life in the form of movies, TV shows, Cosmo, and many other bits of culture. They also continue to drive the actions and desires of many people, albeit not of me and the people I hang out with.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is that they make things so deceptively easy. Dating outside of the conventions seems riskier, scarier.

But in reality, it’s not. There’s so much joy and freedom in writing your own rules, or forgetting rules altogether. It opens up the possibility of meeting someone who likes to play by the same rules, or lack thereof, as you do.

"I really want to screw you, but you have so much baggage."

A guy actually said that to me once.

He may have been the only person I’ve ever encountered who was willing to verbalize his shallowness and ignorance, but he’s far from the only one who thinks that people need to be perfect before you can get involved with them.

That idea runs rampant in our culture, and it’s not only men who are to blame. Advice columns for women under 30 often exhibit what I call the “Dump His Ass” effect–anytime a woman writing a letter mentions virtually any imperfection in her crush or boyfriend, the advice columnist usually responds with some form of “dump his ass.” Still has feelings for his ex? Dump his ass. He’s insecure? Dump his ass. Doesn’t like your friends? Dump his ass.

(Of course, there are plenty of offenses for which a person of any gender should almost certainly be dumped, such as sexual harassment or assault, emotional manipulation, being a flaming racist/sexist/etc, and so on. I’m talking about much more minor sorts of flaws.)

Common wisdom seems to suggest that before one can get involved with another person in a healthy and stable way, they need to do things like “work on themselves” and “learn to love themselves” and “figure out who they are.” Leaving aside the fact that for most people, working on yourself and figuring out who you are is a lifelong process, there are some people who are never going to “love” or be comfortable with themselves. I am one such person. Do I not deserve to ever have a partner?

Similarly, people are expected to be “happy on their own” before they can be dateable. That’s preposterous. If you’re 100% happy being single, why would you need a serious partner in the first place? Why is it considered unhealthy to really, really want someone to share your life with?

As someone who has had “baggage” virtually since birth, I have never not been aware of the fact that American culture considers people like me undateable. However, the idea that we’re also unfuckable is a pretty new one to me.

Why? Why do people need to be perfect before we’ll have anything to do with them?

It might surprise some people to know that everyone has flaws and psychological baggage; it’s just a matter of getting to know them well enough to figure that out. And yes, other people’s baggage can sometimes cause you trouble. You know what? Tough titties. You have two options: grow up and deal with it, or avoid getting to know anyone.

Incidentally, the guy I quoted in this post’s title eventually overcame his reservations and spent quite some time harassing me for sexual favors. After I refused, he looked at me and said, “You know, I couldn’t ever see you as my girlfriend. I’d need a girl who’s sweet and kind.”

Now who’s the one with the baggage?

Love vs. Work

“Some women choose to follow men, and some women choose to follow their dreams. If you’re wondering which way to go, remember that your career will never wake up and tell you that it doesn’t love you anymore.”

— Lady Gaga

As much as I respect and admire Lady Gaga, this is some of the worst advice I’ve ever heard, because it’s incredibly misleading.

First of all, it’s probably just as easy to lose your career as it is to lose your partner. Here are a few examples:

  • a pro football player permanently injures his leg
  • a writer gets depressed and loses her creativity
  • a doctor loses a malpractice suit and is no longer allowed to practice medicine
  • a politician becomes disenchanted with the system in which she works
  • an artist starts losing his vision
  • a lawyer at a prestigious firm gets burned out

And so on.

Furthermore, if it were the case that everyone who puts aside relationships for the sake of their careers ends up doing what they love most and getting paid millions for it like Lady Gaga, perhaps her advice would hold up. But for most of today’s young people, who sacrifice love and dating for the sake of working 60-hour weeks and making comparatively little money, the choice isn’t really such an obvious one.

Second, it’s exactly this mentality that prevents people from making the sort of commitment that prevents relationships from breaking down. I’m not saying all relationships (and marriages) are made to last, but putting your career first every time is one way to make sure they don’t. I know students here who will break off perfectly good relationships because 1) they can’t deal with spending one summer apart, and 2) they’re so obsessed with getting the perfect summer internship that they don’t even try to end up in the same city together. Of course, one could argue that college relationships don’t matter much (though I’d never argue that, personally), but people keep acting like this long after graduation. For instance, by doing as Lady Gaga recommends and choosing careers over relationships.

I feel like sentiments like this one are an overblown response to the old-fashioned way of looking things, which was that a woman should sacrifice all of her ambitions for the sake of a marriage. Obviously, I disagree with that completely, but I feel like asking women to sacrifice all of their relationships for the sake of their ambitions is just as one-sided and faulty way of looking at things. Statements like this one construct these two aspects of adult life as diametrically opposed when they really aren’t. Plenty of women manage to have fulfilling careers and loving marriages. It just takes a bit of work, that’s all.

The truth is that nothing in your life is ever going to be perfect, all the time. When your relationships aren’t going well, an interesting and meaningful career can help you get through it. But what about when your career isn’t going well?

In short, yes, balancing love and work is difficult. That doesn’t mean we should just opt out of that balance altogether and pick one over the other. It’s unfortunate that people like Lady Gaga, whom many young women consider a role model, has made it sound like we need to abandon one of these important things for the sake of the other.