I wasn't going to start this blog with an intense, passionate rant. I was going to ease into things, post a casual introduction first and see where it took me. But last week I read Jordana Narin's essay "No Labels, No Drama, Right?" in the New York Times, and it's been on my mind ever since. Anyway, I'm an intense and passionate person, so I suppose this is more reflective of who I actually am.
One of the things that I am the most interested in and frustrated by is the way in which romance and love is portrayed in our society. Media, both fiction and nonfiction, has a tendency to take traits that are incredibly unhealthy, and sometimes downright creepy, and romanticize them, telling us that they are not just "normal" but desirable qualities in a relationship and that these are the things we should be looking for when choosing a partner. Romantic comedies often rely on this formula, having their dashing hero show up unasked or, worse, after he's been told to stay away or wooing his desired partner until she (it's usually a she) gives in and agrees to a date. And let's not forget the classic "couple breaks up over a misunderstanding and/or legitimate problem but everything is forgiven in the end because they love each other", which comprises the second and third act of most romantic books, plays, and films. These are the kind of things that we logically know are not acceptable ways to act, and yet these stories seep into our brain and stay there, whispering subconscious messages to us and shaping the way we view and approach love.
"But, Anna," people say. "These are just stories. It's not a big deal. They're fiction." True, these are fiction. But, as a storyteller myself, I do not believe there is such a thing as "just stories", and I am constantly in awe of the effect stories have on our lives. When you think about it, everything is a story. Our perception of the world is a story we tell ourselves to make sense of the events in our lives, which can be very empowering once you realize that you have the power to change that narrative. We needn't look too far to see the effects of common stories on our lives. How many people do you know who have said they are, "looking for their Prince Charming?" What makes these tales even more powerful is that we often absorb them during childhood and/or adolescence, times when we are still developing our sense of self and are particularly susceptible to external influences.
There seem to be two storylines that we are fed most often. When we are younger, we get the fairy tales, the happily-ever-afters, the "one-true-loves". We are taught to believe in soulmates, that romantic love is the most important thing in the world, and that once we find it everything will fall into place. We dream of handsome princes sweeping us off our feet and giving us everything. This often leads to unrealistic expectations and disappointment, so as we get older we see the rise of the opposite narrative: the anti-romance. Nobody is perfect, you must love someone for who they are instead of trying to change them, relationships take work, life never works out as planned and is often disappointing. None of these are inherently false statements, but when taken as fact with no alternative perspectives or context they are as dangerously oversimplified as the fairy tale ending. And while the idealized fairy tales lead people to hold out for a perfection which doesn't exist and to believe that love is a matter of fate rather than effort, the anti-romance leads people to stay in unhealthy relationships, to accept their partner's flaws even when it means compromising on their own very valid needs and desires, to rationalize "better the devil you know..." and to explain that no relationship is perfect without questioning whether that means that all imperfection should be accepted.
Narin's essay is a variation on this mentality. In it, she muses that the aversion our generation has to labels has created a new kind of relationship, one which is ambiguous, undefined, and ultimately unsatisfying, yet impossible to escape. And by doing so, she reinforces the idea that such relationships are "normal", the new way in which young people approach love. I am not sure how many teenagers and young adults read the New York Times on a regular basis, but seeing as this popped up on my radar because a friend's mother sent it to her thinking that she would relate to the struggle it describes (she didn't), it's safe to say that there's a chance it could get around to the younger crowd, if only through well-meaning adults. The problem is that what our young author describes is nothing new nor is it caused by an aversion to labels. It is, quite simply, an unhealthy relationship that lacks boundaries and communication, compounded by garden variety fear of rejection and failure. I think many of us have gone through something of that nature during the course of our romantic explorations, whether we labeled our relationships or not. I dated a young man for a year and a half, lived with him even, who made me feel exactly the way "Jeremy" makes Narin feel. He was my boyfriend in every sense of the word, and yet because I feared to speak up for my own needs and maintain the boundaries of our relationship, feared that doing so would mean the end of our relationship, I spent that time in a sort of relationship purgatory, never certain of his commitment yet sure that life without him would be worse than whatever I endured with him. The point that Narin nears, but never quite seems to reach, is that it is not labels that define a relationship but healthy and regular communication and the setting and keeping of boundaries. And she is absolutely right, it takes bravery to stand up and speak up for your own needs and desires, even to admit them to yourself, but that bravery is absolutely necessary because without it we cannot set hard lines of what we will not tolerate, cannot know whether the person we're with is willing to respect those lines, cannot free ourselves to find something better. We relinquish all our power to the whim of another or to fate or God or the universe or whatever we choose to believe in: the power to define what the relationship means to us, the power to ask for more, the power to walk away, the power to move on.
So I worry when a publisher at the New York Times decides to post this essay in a column titled "modern love", just as I worry when I see yet another movie featuring a young man stalking his love interest under the guise of romance or another female character waiting around to be rescued by a man. I worry when an independent film's answer to Hollywood idealism is, "stay together and be miserable." I worry for all the young girls and women who are watching this and soaking it up like a sponge, just as I did when I was younger. I think of all the tiny little misconceptions and false lessons we file away in our brain as "normal", and it makes me grind my teeth with frustration. Because it is no one person spreading these stories, so no one person is at fault. We are all the products of what we've been taught growing up, a vicious cycle of troublesome behavior presented as true love that we each internalize and then spread to someone else, like a contagion. Questioning these preconceptions holds the key to the cure, but first we have to realize that something is wrong.
Now I'll still admit to enjoying much of the media that spreads these messages. What can I say? I'm human, and I understand why drama is entertaining. But I am always hugely pleased when I read or watch something that subverts these tropes and presents their characters' relationships in more tender and healthy ways. I am positively gleeful when a character communicates with their partner rather than lying "to protect [them]" or asks for consent before laying a passionate kiss on someone. (You should've seen me in the theater at the end of Frozen. The poor man next to me shot me a very confused look as I bounced in my chair whispering, "He asked for consent!") And I believe firmly that we can write stories that present a healthier model to the young (or sometimes not-so-young) and impressionable while still remaining wildly romantic and entertaining. It's been done before, and it can be done again. Portraying the spectrum of the human experience includes all of our stories, even those that are less than ideal, but if there's a "happily ever after" in the mix, I hope it is one of trust, communication, and support rather than drama and insecurity. That is the narrative that I choose, somewhere in the area between "fairy tale romance" and "nobody's perfect". The narrative of, "people are flawed but I have the right to choose to reject the ones whose flaws hurt me." The narrative of, "my needs and desires are important, too". The narrative of partnership. Of love that gives back as much as you put into it. It is the one that, to me, is most rewarding and rings the most true, and the one that we see least often in print and onscreen. I can only work to ensure that it appears more frequently in the future.