4 Things Movies Always Get Wrong About Awkward People
I don't want to brag, so I won't: I'm incredibly awkward. It mostly sucks, but it's also one of the only subjects I can write about with some degree of confidence because I am, through no choosing of my own, an expert. This means that, while I have no idea if Hollywood is accurate in its portrayal of doctors or lawyers or functioning human beings, I can say with total certainty that, when it comes to writing about awkward people, Hollywood is absolutely dogshit.
Awkward Doesn't Mean Clumsy
If you're a Hollywood screenwriter and you want to demonstrate to the audience that your character is socially awkward, your job is simple: Just take a beautiful woman and have her trip!
That's all. The characters are all intelligent and attractive and capable and good at their jobs (which Hollywood displays by putting the woman in a pantsuit at some point), but they're also awkward, and nothing says awkward quite like tripping on a dress (or on 27 dresses, as the case may be).
Clumsiness and a general lack of coordination can be a part of awkwardness, but if you ask Hollywood, it's the only part. If falling down was the beginning and end of awkwardness, I'd be thrilled. I fall down a lot, certainly more than you'd expect from a person whose legs function, but I also turn bright red whenever I get nervous, which is always, and I will carry on a fake conversation on my cellphone if I'm at a party and don't know anyone for hours. I tell movie theater ushers "You too" when they tell me to enjoy the movie I'm about to see, and the other day when someone on the street asked me for directions to the beach, I said, "No thank you," because being awkward means finding new and exciting ways to say the wrong thing, always always always.
This is closer.
The "awkward" women trip and bump into things in their movies, but before and after they trip, they dance and smile and maintain healthy relationships and successfully navigate social situations that would be terrifying for a genuinely awkward person (re: all social situations).
Awkwardness Isn't Just Any Vague Series of Accidents
We use "awkwardness" so incorrectly and so often that it's lost all meaning at this point. Today awkwardness is used as a catch-all to describe any amusing circumstance that's vaguely accidental. Someone in a movie shows up at a party wearing the same outfit as someone else, and so another character yells "aaaawkward" and everyone laughs and someone does a skateboard trick and the credits roll (it's been a long time since I've been to the movies).
It's raining right in the middle of their kiss! How awkward.
I'm an awkward guy. I'm really wonky tonk in social situations because it's hard to connect with people and because I say things like "wonky tonk." I sweat from places and in amounts that would really challenge your idea of how much water a human body can hold. These things are rough, but they're just garnishes to awkwardness; they're things that go hand in hand with being an awkward fella. Here's what being socially awkward is really like:
Think of a scene from one of those movies where a guy owes a lot of money to a bookie or the mob. He borrowed money at some point and then lost it, and now he's just trying to avoid the mob. Then one day he's out somewhere having fun and then, oh no, a representative of the mob catches up with him! He sees a thug wearing a suit and adjusting his pinky ring in a way that says "I'm very menacing indeed. And you owe me." And then our guy who borrowed the money is like "Oh fuck, that's right, I was having such a great day until I remembered that I don't have that money anymore and I have no clear way to get it back and I can't involve anyone else and I'm completely on my own with no way out oh God oh no!"
That's what being awkward is, except the thug with the pinky ring is your brain, and it shows up all the time. I was walking down the street the other day in a rare window of feeling not uncomfortable, and then my brain showed up out of nowhere with a pinky ring and whispered, "You're clearly having a good time and I don't want to get in the way of that, but I just thought I'd point out that the way you walk is super weird and everyone knows it. Like you've been walking wrong your whole life. Again, don't even think about it. Don't think about your hands. Don't think about how strange the position of your hands is. Don't sweat -- if you think about sweat, you'll sweat, don't sweat. Hey look, there's a pretty girl over there. When you smile your cheeks get dumb looking and you have a wink that is off-putting to everyone who knows you so don't wink or think about your wink or try to wink or do anything with your face in the direction of this pretty girl at all. Anyway, don't think about it, but it's true. Have fun!"
Awkward Doesn't Mean Charming Sex Machine
Back in 2009, I was super excited when I saw previews for Adventureland. I liked Greg Mottola as a director, and I loved most of the cast, but mainly I was excited because it was about a scrawny, curly-haired kid with a stutter who took a crummy summer job at an amusement park while he figured out what to do with his life. The preview presents him as a nervous and awkward guy who doesn't seem to know how to talk to women. Now, I never worked at an amusement park, but I did work a crummy summer job at a summer camp when I was a scrawny, curly-haired kid with a stutter. I was nervous and awkward, and I barely know how to talk to women today, 10 years later (you aim your words at the face, right?). I saw Jesse Eisenberg's character and thought, "Yes, this is going to be great, this will be an authentic representation of my awkward summers. We are the same, Jesse."
I don't know which one to shoot!
I was expecting a movie about an awkward guy stuttering and fumbling around for a few months, striking out with girls and finding joy in hanging around his other awkward friends, making jokes about Star Wars.
If you haven't seen Adventureland, forgive my spoilers: Jesse spends the entire movie getting high and juggling relationships with the two most beautiful women at the park. And if you haven't seen my life, forgive my spoilers: That's not what being awkward is like.
Jesse, no! YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE!
Don't get me wrong, I still really like the movie, it's just always frustrating when you think things are going to be one way and then it turns out they go the other way. Every movie that's allegedly about an awkward kid (Superbad, I Love You, Beth Cooper, additional Michael Cera movies) inevitably involves the main character going on a CRAZY ADVENTURE and then ending up with his dream girl. There wasn't a second of Adventureland dedicated to Jesse's uncontrollable sweatiness or his fear of being touched by anyone or about how he never knows where to put his hands at any given time, and those are the awkward guy hallmarks. There was a show on MTV called Awkward and the arc of the first season involved the main character gaining popularity on her blog and secretly having sex with the most popular guy in school. At the risk of being redundant, no. No!
I thought Jesse's time at the kid-filled amusement park would be like my time at the kid-filled summer camp. For an awkward person, working with kids is actually great, because children haven't yet developed the social graces to realize what a clown-shoe disaster I was at interacting with regular, functioning human beings. Awkward people are terrible around babies, sure, but working with kids is easy -- it's like bowling with bumpers on. Children say exactly what they're feeling so you don't have to rely on being able to pick up on complicated social cues or worry about violating any unspoken rules of conduct. The kids just wanted to run around in the sun and pretend they were being chased by monsters, which was great, because I could totally handle that.
But I guess a movie about Jesse Eisenberg stuttering and chasing a bunch of second graders isn't as compelling as one about Jesse Eisenberg hooking up with the chick from Twilight.
Awkward People Aren't Looking to Be Rescued
There's a character in Can't Hardly Wait, William, who spent his whole life as a shy, awkward, quiet nerd who liked school and talking about science fiction with his two buddies. By the end of the movie, he sang and danced in front of his school, hooked up with two beautiful women, partied harder than he ever had, ran from the cops, and was, temporarily, the most popular guy in his school.
I know this is going to be hard for dynamic and interesting extroverts to believe, but some people are happy being introverts. Shy people don't stay in on a Friday night because they're broken, they stay in because they get more enjoyment out of reading at home than they do out of going to a sweaty bar or crowded party or loud concert or violent, I don't know, quinceanera. Quiet people avoid talking in large crowds not because they don't know how to talk, but because they prefer listening. Shy and awkward people are not looking for you to save them because they don't need to be saved. Why do we throw around the phrase "She really helped him break out of his shell" as if that's a good thing? If a turtle breaks out of his shell, he will die.
I talk about awkwardness a lot, but at the end of the day, it's not a disease. As paradoxical as it might sound, I'm actually super comfortable with my awkwardness. Even in high school. I wasn't cool; I played clarinet in the marching band, but that wasn't as cool back then as it is now.
Line up, ladies. Form a single file line so that you can, one at a time, kick my ass.
Even though I was the opposite of cool, I still had my little gang of similarly awkward people and had a blast. I didn't want to spend my weekend nights crowd-surfing at some big house party like the reformed nerd in Can't Hardly Wait; my nights were spent at diners with my buddies, trading jokes and talking about pop culture. Awkwardness wasn't something that needed to be fixed, and I was never waiting for some free-spirited hippie chick to break me out of my awkwardness and turn me into the kind of guy who sings Guns N' Roses at parties.
Extroverts look at introverts and think, "That poor thing; he just needs me to pull him out on the dance floor so I can teach him to let his hair down and enjoy the exact same version of fun that I enjoy. He's been waiting his whole life for someone like me to turn him into someone like me! I will save this lost lamb." No thanks, lady, we're fine. Stop trying to convert introverts into extroverts; you don't see us telling you to "shut the hell up once in a while."
(Although, hey, that might be nice, if you did that.)