Monthly Archives: October 2012

yes, but do you *like* me?

Like exists in a sort of sub-category of romantic love. When you are in love with someone, it’s assumed that you also like them. It’s assumed so unconsciously that we almost never think of it, much less question it.

I decided to question it last week. I can’t remember why, exactly. I suspect I was having one of those hopeless personal moments of thinking, Why on earth is special k so sure he wants to be with me forever? I could imagine that it’s mostly easy, that it’s habit to spend a lot of time with me. But I was suddenly curious whether there was more than habit and ease and – yes, and more than love and the kind of loyalty that love breeds. Whether there was an active desire to spend time with me.

So I asked him, “What do you like about me?”

It’s an exposing question. Surprisingly exposing. And of course it’s a difficult thing to quantify. The things you can say – the words you can put to your feelings – are more like roadsigns or clues to feelings than feelings themselves. I tried to answer the question back, and could feel a whole world of feelings that were frustratingly unexpressed. I could see special k’s answers were the same, like suddenly looking at each other across a wide space of things unsayable, but trusting and loving and smiling all the same.

Liking, I discovered, is sometimes more romantic than loving.

Love has a kind of “no matter what you do, no matter who you are” quality about it. It’s what makes families to fraught and so wonderful. But like is specific. It means, “only you, in all the world”. 

In romance, we don’t see people liking each other nearly often enough. There’s quite a lot of admiring or being confronted by qualities in each other. There’s more than a lot of loving no matter how painful love becomes. But hardly any sitting and watching the other person make tea because the particular way they make tea makes you happy inside; hardly any conversations that wind the other person out, then an admission of how very much you like talking to them.

After sketching out the ideas for this post I started reading Cecilia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone. It shouldn’t have surprised me that her characters really like each other – and not only that, but we see them come to like each other. It’s not surprising because Grant’s interested in the personal qualities that make sex important. That is, the physical, animal urge for sex has a short-lived kind of meaning and most mature adults can resist it; when you come to know someone and admire and respect and like them – well, then sex becomes a much more complex thing.

Will and Lydia become friends over a scheme to earn money at the card tables of London. Lydia is a mathematical genius and a card shark – and she tries to teach Will to calculate probabilities.

He surprises her by being quick and intelligent in conversation; she doesn’t have to explain herself to him. He is also respectful and trustworthy despite, by his own admission, being quite desperate to sleep with her.

She dazzles him by being ruthless – by being able to calculate the odds of five hands at a time while cleverly incorporating signals for him into general conversation and flirting ineptly – on purpose – with the gentleman on her other side.

It is such a joy to watch them open more to each other with each conversation. To watch Lydia unfold herself under Will’s attention, because here is a man who actively likes who she is. When they are coming to know each other better, Lydia says:

“Why should you care at all what I think of you?” She all but squirmed in her skin at the notion, and one more fact about her became clear: I want you didn’t discompose her nearly so much as I like you and I want to you to think well of me.

I really should have asked this question a long time ago

An old friend messaged me out of the blue on facebook the other day:

I have a question for you, it has been bothering me for a long time, but recently revived by watching new TV series.

Why does the classic structure of a romance novel and indeed of many many powerful stories & TV series (irresistible feelings for eachother, but misunderstanding, each thinks the other doesn’t want them, ultimately resolved in a great sense of relief and euphoria) appeal so much more to one gender than to the other?
OK maybe it only *seems* to appeal more to women than to men. And lots of men like Jane Austen and As You Like It. BUT. The relationship between Mal and Inara in firefly is in my head ALL DAY and keeps me all suspenseful and heart in my mouth each episode… doesn’t seem to have the same kind of itch or hold over Ben.
Would love your thoughts on this!!

My first reaction was: Wow. I really should have thought more about this before now. And my second reaction was to make up a bunch of science:

Not something I’ve thought a lot about, oddly enough, but my gut reaction is something like:

Women are powerfully interested in human relationships, and specifically in romantic relationships (and obviously this is massively simplifying/reductive). I assume this is part conditioning – we’re socialised to care about relationships, and until very recent history to judge our worth by our relationships – and part biology. There must be some biological urge to create safe, lasting environments for raising children, which means finding a partner with certain qualities. I.e. alone is bad, with man is good.

Men are stereotypically more drawn to action/adventure, which also has a classic story structure (similar to romance, but with a different end goal, more external rather than internal obstacles, etc.). So it’s really just what holds the interest of each gender.

Obviously personal relationships and love are super important to lots of men in real life.

My personal theory is that love/kissing/romance is private and personal it’s something you DO in real life, not something you externalise and obsess over. Action/adventure is completely fantastical and therefore an escapist form of entertainment you can get lost in. Whereas female fantasy is much more wrapped up in romance for the very non-scientific reasons I said above.

Hope that gives you some new thoughts to shed light on the matter!

So, seriously, why DOES romance grab women so much harder than it does men?

Puberty Blues

I feel a little bit smug. I’ve been watching a couple of bloody brilliant Aussie TV shows, and for once the rest of the world has to wait! (And here’s hoping other countries have the sense to buy these shows up.)

One of them finished last night, and the ending was so perfect I had that same glow-y feeling in my chest I get from a really great book.

Puberty Blues is about two best friends, Debbie and Sue, growing up in Cronulla in the 70s. Cronulla is an outer suburb of Sydney in an area famous in the 70s for its surfer tribal culture and more recently for the racist riots in 2005.

I tried to express, recently, the idea that a historical context allows us to explore female empowerment in a more emphatic way – but also lends itself to the kind of female empowerment that has nothing to do with finding love.

Puberty Blues is a subtle, impressive example of what I was trying to come to grips with.

Debbie and Sue are desperate to get in with the cool kids, and they eventually manage it by being a bit naughty and a bit mean, and mostly by catching the eye of the boys. Being someone’s girlfriend has nothing to do with liking or even knowing – it’s all about status and belonging.

Girlfriend duties include: sitting on the beach for hours watching the boys surf; buying meat pies and chiko rolls for the boys to eat when they come in, when you will also hand them their towel; and lying back to let him root you. Oh, and bringing the Vaseline – very important not to forget the Vaseline.

The casual rape culture depicted is absolutely chilling. It’s there subtly in the girls’ expectation of sex: it is not something you enjoy, it’s something you lie back and take. And it’s there overtly in the girl lying in the back of a panel van, a catatonic lack of expression on her face, while the boys climb in and out by turn.

Seeing that unsettles Debbie and Sue, but it doesn’t particularly stand out to them as wrong, or as having anything to do with them. The way they react to it – by not really reacting at all – is what makes it so chilling. They have no context to understand why it unsettles them.

They enjoy being the cool kids and having boyfriends. They also begin to experience the way a girl’s worth comes entirely from her boyfriend. The way a girl becomes a laughing-stock in a second if she goes against her boyfriend’s wishes – all ties of loyalty and friendship cut.

Again, they don’t consciously rail against this stuff. They don’t understand it, even while they don’t like it.

Sue starts to feel more and more restrained and angry inside her relationship. Finally, when her boyfriend’s a complete asshole to her in front of everyone, she says, “You’re dropped.” She doesn’t mean to – didn’t even know it was going to come out. It’s that part of her she doesn’t understand – the part that’s unsettled and angry – acting for her. But she doesn’t go all girlpower I’m-better-off-without-that-dickhead. She doesn’t understand herself or her actions and still craves the social belonging that comes with a boyfriend.

Debbie is dropped by her first boyfriend for being frigid (turns out all the Vaseline in the world can’t make up for really not wanting to have sex), then falls in love with the beautiful Gary. In heart-stopping, world-stopping first love. Sue asks Debbie over and over again to tell her the story of how she and Gary sat in her room and just talked all afternoon. Just talked.

But even the beautiful Gary is only a fucked-up kid, dealing with life outside of school.

Debbie and Sue have seen the reality of what it takes to be a cool kid, and they start, tentatively, to see the world on the other side of school – a world that’s bigger than just the cool kids and the outcasts.

They start to realise that the superpower they have is each other. In a world where all ties can be cut in a second if you act out of turn, they have the kind of loyalty that can get them through anything.

They see the girl in the back of the van again, the boys climbing in and out to take turns. They still watch her from a distance, and vow to each other that the world would have to go through one of them first, to get at the other. Then they realise: That girl doesn’t have anyone to stand between her and the world.

And then they realise: Maybe she has us.

It’s such a superhero moment when they decide to walk over. “We’ll just get up and walk,” they tell each other. They challenge those boys who are the gods of this small world, and they get the girl out of there.

They’re so high on what they’ve done – so disbelieving and amazed – that they want to do it all over again. So they do the next best thing. They go down to the beach, with a surfboard, and run into the water, where girls are not allowed to go.

The cool kids sitting on the beach call them every name they can think of, but Debbie and Sue just laugh back at them and say, “Get us a chiko roll!”

The girls, watching fully clothed from their “girlfriend” stations, watch with contempt but also with a kind of dawning confusion. And awe.

Debbie and Sue are a product of their culture. They don’t have the means to stand outside it and understand it. This made their eventual liberation so much more powerful than if they’d been on a crusade from the start.

Their liberation came from acknowledging that their own feelings about the world are the only compass they need. That they get to say what’s wrong and right.

This is how I want to use the historical context for my heroines. Not to have them understand right from the start: I am oppressed, and my fellow-women are oppressed! But to have their experience and their knowledge not match up. For that to be an unsettling thing, and for their anger and frustration to become more than they can keep inside. And when it comes out it’s not necessarily going to be comfortable, and they’ll probably want to take it all back.

In the kind of society Debbie and Sue are growing up in, the love of a teenage boy cannot empower or liberate them. But their friendship with each other can.