4 Pieces of Relationship Advice Movies Need to Stop Giving
If you're anything like me, you had two parents: The Streets, and Pop Culture. When it comes to The Streets, I cannot give a higher recommendation, every kid should be so lucky to spend a few years in the school of hard knocks and so forth. As far as Pop Culture goes, however, there are a lot of irresponsible lessons being thrown around, especially when it comes to romance and dating. Lessons like ...
Not Being Able to Function Socially Makes Someone Attractive and Interesting
The Thing: "If she's a wide-eyed, crazy, eccentric free spirit, then she's actually just the gal you need to straighten your entire life out, man! Bursting out in song in the middle of dinner and not knowing how things work makes a person attractive!"
Worst Offenders: New Girl, Garden State.
This trope has been around so long that it's actually been given a name. Film critic Nathan Rabin calls it the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character and describes it as "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." It's any chick in a movie who is more style than substance, and whose free-spiritedness and unconventional approach to life is meant to cover up for her general inability to function socially. And and it's insulting to both genders.
Zooey Deschanel's character in New Girl is probably the clearest example of this right now, as that entire show is based around how quirky and eccentric and, as a result, lovable, Zooey's character (I think her name is "Eyeface") is. Except she's not so much "eccentric" as much as she is "bad at being alive and functioning socially, in the present." One of her main conflicts in the pilot is that she has a date at a fancy restaurant, but doesn't know what to wear so she puts on overalls! Classic Eyeface! And one of the male characters on the show goes goofy-eyed and clearly starts falling in love with her instead of, say, yelling, "You're 27 years old, how do you not know how to dress and function yet? Get your shit together."
"Sometimes I poop in toasters! I'm incorrigible."
It needs to stop because guys shouldn't live their lives expecting a woman like this to exist. No guy should be waiting around for a quirky, blue-haired, horn-rimmed-glasses-wearing chick to show up and fix his entire life, because what woman would want to deal with that expectation and level of pressure?
It also needs to stop because I don't want wide-eyed gals to think they need to act like vapid morons to attract guys. Because I'm an average, twenty-something male in 2011 America, I've developed a pop-culture induced soft spot for pale chicks with giant eyes and bangs.
You! You did this to me!
And, unfortunately, Hollywood is trying to convince women who look like this that being brainless goofballs who don't understand how life works is an appealing personality type, and I just can't let that stand.
Hollywood is still teaching women that "dumb" is "attractive," they're just hipsterfying it. I don't know when it happened (maybe after Clueless?), but sometime after the '90s, "Quirky Eccentric Weird Chick" became the new Bimbo. She's just as insultingly one-dimensional as the archetypal Ditsy Blonde Bombshell Valley Girl character that was all over the place a decade ago, except now she wears vintage knee-socks and listens to The Smiths, and that's supposed to be better, for some reason.
Being a Closed-Off Asshole Makes Someone Deep and Secretly Lovable
The Thing: "Who's that guy? The guy with all the tattoos who just punched that other guy in the gut and stole his car keys? The guy who called me a bitch and told me to stay out of his business? I want him to get me pregnant."
Worst Offenders:Wolverine from X-Men, Sawyer from Lost, Everyone True Blood (probably?).
As played-out as it is, this is a trope that I actually really love seeing (which is why it's so hard for me to push vehemently for its demise). I like this because, in movies and TV, the asshole character with a heart of gold is always the most interesting guy on screen. I can watch Cyclops objectively make the right choice, and fight for his woman, and help the school, and stand up as a reliable pillar of virtue and good intentions, but that doesn't matter, because Wolverine smokes, and smoking is cool.
"What's that, Cyclops, you saved an orphan? I can't hear you, because he's wearing a leather jacket look how cool!"
And there's the problem. We love those characters in movies because, in movies, a person can be a giant, manipulative, selfish asshole and also a sweet, deep, compassionate softie, because those people are actors, and most actors are capable of playing at least two different things.
If you're dealing with an asshole in real life, nine times out of 10, he's actually an asshole. And not "asshole" in the sense that he's confident and a little bit cocky, that's fine. "Asshole" here means a legitimate terrible person. Not every meth addict is Breaking Bad's Jesse -- an ultimately sweet kid struggling against his circumstances -- a lot of them are just, you know, meth addicts. In real life, the boyfriend who has been verbally abusive throughout your entire relationship won't suddenly wake up one day being kind and apologetic, because he doesn't have a screenwriter in the back of his mind writing empathy into his background.
And, yes, there are plenty of guys out there that are genuinely like Don Draper, they're legitimately kind people who are damaged enough that they throw up a wall and keep people away, but there are even more idiots out there who aren't Don Draper, they've just seen Mad Men and thought "Condescension and verbal abuse: that's what women want!" Hollywood keeps A) convincing women that every shithead is secretly poetic and amazing and beautiful, and B) convincing men that there's a lot of traction to gained in being an irredeemable prick. And there is. Right until you graduate high school, and everyone realizes how awful you are.
Being in a Healthy Relationship Means Not Changing Yourself at All
The Thing: "Damn, my relationships keep failing for eerily similar reasons. Whelp, I'm forced to conclude that whatever shortcomings every previous ex hated just adds to my charm: I will change nothing and learn nothing, and just wait around for someone who will love every last shitty thing I do."
Worst Offenders: (500) Days of Summer, How I Met Your Mother.
You've met people who believe this. Everyone has odd, often endearing little quirks, and strange habits ("I need to sleep on the RIGHT side of the bed" or "I'm very particular about the way I order food"). And everyone also has flaws ("I'm a dick"). These people see no difference between the two. To them, saying, "I want a guy who will love me even though I'm late all the time, and even though I snore in bed" is exactly the same as saying, "I want a guy who will love me even though I'm unreliable, emotionally unavailable, and romantically disconnected, and even though I snore when I'm awake." They're from the school of thought that believes everyone is perfect all the time, and no one needs to work on anything. A school of thought funded by Hollywood.
And here's your Dean.
How I Met Your Mother is a show about how awesome Neil Patrick Harris is, but there's also a recurring sub plot about a guy named Ted Mosby who, no matter how many of his relationships fail for very valid reasons, is convinced that he'll make just the perfect husband (as soon as there's a woman smart and cool enough to ignore all of the valid reasons to break up with him). In a sentence, (500) Days of Summer is about a guy who invents a girlfriend in his head and then gets mad when his actual girlfriend doesn't conform to his expectations.
Also, this happens.
In more sentences, the main character in Summer is a guy who is ready to meet his dream girl and then does, in the form of Summer (Zooey Deschanel, obviously). She likes the same music that he likes, and even though she explicitly tells him early in the film that she doesn't believe in love and hates the idea of being someone's girlfriend, she likes the same music that he likes so he concludes that they'll be perfect together. He's so excited about the idea of dating someone interesting that he never actually gets around to totally investing in or understanding his girlfriend. He's already fallen in love with Summer because he's a guy who falls in love a lot, and that's what he'll be, always, forever. They date for a while, and it's good for a while, and then they break up, obviously, because dating someone solely because they like the same shitty music that you like is never the best plan.
And there's an opportunity for our protagonist to learn something. He can realize, "Hey, maybe I'm wrong because I moved too fast too soon, or I expected too much based on my own idea of what a girlfriend should be, or because I based our entire relationship on superficial similarities." But none of that happens. Instead, the movie ends with him meeting a new girl. He falls in love with her because she's pretty, and because they both like the same building, or something, (which frankly seems like an even shakier foundation for a relationship than liking the same band). Similarly, How I Met Your Mother puts our protagonist through relationship after relationship, and instead of growing or changing with each relationship, he holds out hope that he's already the "right guy" for someone else, so all he needs to do is coast.
"I'm sure handling my next relationship in the exact same way I handled my last one won't be a problem."
I actually love both this movie and this show because they're realistic (no one ever really does learn anything), but as far as pushing bad lessons on romantic guy morons, they're both very guilty. The basic moral is "Learn no lessons from past relationships: If something didn't work out, it wasn't 'meant to be,' so just wait around for someone who does conform to all of your preset expectations." Whenever a character in a movie has flaws that are objectively detrimental, the movie will never teach us to, hey, maybe work on those flaws; the movie says, "No, you're fine, everyone else is wrong, just wait around for the PERFECT GIRL WHO WILL SOLVE AND ACCEPT EVERYTHING. Because relationships are easy and require absolutely no work, compromise, or self-awareness."
And sure, eventually someone will come along that DOES love all of the weirdest and quirkiest aspects of your personality, but assuming that all you need to do is sit around and imagine him/her is wrong. That attitude is just going to breed generation after generation of lazy people. Eventually, you'll get two people in a room together who were both raised on pop culture, both of them assuming that the other will accept and love all of their flaws, neither of them budging. And what happens then?
It could be worse, I guess. Hollywood could be teaching the opposite lesson and telling everyone that...
Being in a Healthy Relationship Means Changing Yourself Completely
The Thing: "Look, Baby, I know you were mad at me because you hated all of my friends, and the way I dressed, and my apartment, and everything else I've ever cultivated throughout my entire life that has contributed to my personality, but I want you to know that I've gotten rid of all of that. For you!"
"Oh, Darling. That's all I ever wanted! You had me at 'I'm a different person now.'"
Worst Offenders: Knocked Up, and basically any movie starring either a Wilson brother or a Heigl.
These movies take a good lesson, (being in a relationship sometimes means compromise, empathy, and growing the shit up), and taking it to the extreme, (by completely transforming yourself into the person your girlfriend/boyfriend actually wants to date). To get the girl in Knocked Up, the main character moves, gets a new job, and reduces ties with his old friends, and while there's something undeniably romantic about going to great lengths to please and impress the person you're in love with, it is in no way a healthy move. Because, eventually, he'll miss hid old life, the one he abruptly gave up to impress his girlfriend after they got in a fight. He'll miss the life that he loved and enjoyed, and he'll miss all of his friends and, eventually, he'll resent his girlfriend turned wife turned inevitable ex-wife, because she's the one who made him give it all up.
No one enters a relationship as the perfect boyfriend or girlfriend. There are always necessary adjustments. But Hollywood is sucking that message in and repackaging it, saying, "If you really care about someone, you'll respect that she would only like you if you were a completely different person, and you'll adjust accordingly." It's why Seth Rogen will become a new person over and over again, and it's why all of those whatshisnames will do all of those life-changing things to impress Drew Barrymore in those movies I've never actually seen. And when people do it in real life, it's why couples break up or get divorced.
Just once, I'd like to see a Hollywood movie about two well-adjusted, intelligent characters who have a mature relationship based on trust and mutual respect. They run into some problems, but they work through them together, because they're reasonable and they care about each other.
Actually, that movie sounds boring as shit. I changed my mind -- keep doing what you're doing, Hollywood. Maybe throw in a few more robots punching other robots.
Daniel O'Brien is Cracked.com's Senior Writer (ladies), and he's still watching New Girl despite his rage, (Zooey Deschanel).