When We Are Told What To Want

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I don’t get to the movies as often as I’d like these days, but I do watch a lot of TV. There’s a lot of good TV and a lot of great TV, and even in front of the mediocre stuff, I tend to be either working out or eating or just slumped in a puddle after a long day on set. So I spend a lot of time thinking about it, and its images and storylines often dominate my thoughts way more than they probably should.

Maybe that’s why, a couple of weeks ago, when I was watching The Crown, at the height of a lot of #metoo, somehow the two got stuck together in my mind. It was in a scene when Queen Elizabeth is getting ready for a royal event and her husband, Prince Philip, comes over and kisses her on the back of the neck, and she bats him away. I was struck by this: how this very powerful woman had to act like she didn’t want her husband to touch her, how he’s acting (knowingly) as a bad boy, doing something “naughty,” and it’s her job to stop him. And I thought, Man, we are so fucked.

Now, you can certainly point out that English royalty have a much more convoluted sense of propriety and duty than anyone else, and indeed, The Crown is all about that — but you could find a scene like this in virtually any show on TV. The idea that women don’t want sex or at least have to pretend like it in public while men can behave any way they want has dominated Western culture, if not all culture, for so long that it’s baked into everything. The whole concept of flirting as this dance where it’s the woman’s job to let the man know she likes/wants them, but in an indirect way in which she needs to do it with glances and gestures, because she can’t just come out and be up front about it, comes from decades upon centuries of that way of thinking. Men as the bad boys and women as the good girls is a social order that still — still — basically underpins societies around the globe. The wonderful “tradition” of French seduction that Catherine Deneuve and her ilk so feel they must protect: why does this exist? Why does the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” seem rapey but in fact probably isn’t? Why do we still have the fucking “third date rule”? Why are men still expected to initiate the first date/first kiss/first sex? Why does anyone still have the conversation, when talking about rape, about what the victim was wearing? Because we all are told on some deep and fundamental level that women aren’t supposed to want sex, and when they do, they’re sluts/whores/unnatural/wrong. Still.

And then, of course, with playing hard-to-get-good-girl the norm, everyone had to take advantage of the power of the slut, and sex became the greatest selling tool of all. From every 80s movie to nearly every beer and GoDaddy commercial you’re going to see tonight when you watch the Super Bowl to Entourage and its successor Ballers, women as sex objects have also been the flip side social norm forever. And even though none of it’s made for us as women, we’ve completely internalized it too. If we’re not the target audience for the product (and if it’s being showcased during the Super Bowl, chances are we are not), we are being sold the concept of sexy women who “own it” to sell other products, from fashion to lingerie to makeup to Lemonade and M.I.L.F.$and women and girls are buying. And the complicated part is that of course we should own our sexuality. The problem is that we let everyone else tell us how.

As women, we are groomed to be great listeners, great followers of rules, great adaptors. The self-help books used to be all about getting a man, from Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus to The Rules (both, in typical fashion, written by men). Now, they’re telling us how to improve our lives by tidying up better (since the home and cleaning it are a woman’s domain, still), or how to Lean In to succeed in the business world. But they’re still all about reaction — about making the best of our lot, coping with men, or being more like them, about adapting better to the system that they built and run. Everyone else but especially men tell us how to be, and we be. Beyoncé may be saying that girls run the world, but if every woman in the halftime show is gyrating in a skimpy outfit while she’s saying it, is that empowerment? I love the words of the message, but when you look at how it’s delivered, it looks to me like it’s still kind of all about men – because all that cleavage certainly isn’t for my benefit. We are still letting them tell us how to be what they desire as if that were the most important thing in our lives, and we are still — still — fucking listening.

All of this was already brewing in my mind when the Aziz Ansari incident came along. You can see how caught up in all of these cultural messages the poor millennial is who wrote about her terrible night with him. The girl doesn’t want sex, that seems pretty clear, but she is also giving him mixed signals — because that’s just how women are supposed to act. This woman is supposed to attract the guy by being sexy, forward and friendly (like she was when she met Ansari and gave him her number), then find a way to let him know what she actually wants, or doesn’t, in a way that won’t hurt his ego or his feelings. And I have to also pity Ansari, who seems just as caught up in these same mixed messages. It certainly sounds like he thinks his job, as the guy, is to coax and seduce her — because that’s what he’s been told, by film, TV, and clearly, porn. If he sees her being reluctant, playing hard to get, he’s supposed to bring the sexy to help her get past it, not considering that maybe she really doesn’t want it — because she’s supposed to want what she’s told to want…which is what he wants. Still don’t get his point of view? Just watch the last season of Master of None. The first ¾ of Season 2 are fantastic and creative and full of original ideas and execution. The last two episodes, however, devolve into a traditional romcom written by a dude. They focus on how Dev, Ansari’s character, is infatuated with, pursues, and eventual attains a Hollywood-conventionally perfect woman — beautiful (in a Hollywood conventional way, even though Ansari is not), sexily foreign, cute/fun-loving and new to New York (meaning he gets to show her everything in his world and she loves it), who has the obstacle of being engaged to someone else. And she’s absolutely, maddeningly a mixed message machine who doesn’t know what she wants. It’s his job to both figure that out and coax her into it. Watching these episodes drove me nuts even when they first came out, which was way before #metoo. The woman so clearly came out of the conventional romantic comedy playbook, a perfect object of desire because she fits right into the guy’s fantasy, with no real personality of her own to get in the way. The list of what Dev likes about her sums it up completely: the things that are actually about her are her beauty, her “magical”ness, and that she makes pasta. The rest are about him.

And it seems like so many of us are like this: we can be brilliant, unconventional thinkers, coming up with the most creative and unusual ideas, but when it comes to intimate relationships, particularly (but not always) with the opposite sex, we somehow fall back to our basest tropes and assumptions and stereotypes, our most superficial and stupid and unoriginal lowest-common-denominator ideas – and that’s what we go with. 

It’s going to be a long time until we all sort this one out. But one of the main subjects we’re going to have to talk about to do that are the messages that the media tells women and men about what they are each supposed to want, or not want. You can say that a lot has changed in this country in the past 50-60 years, but it’s surprising how much the underlying things the culture teaches us about how to be male and female haven’t. When you watch the Super Bowl tonight, in between watching the game (if you even are), pay attention to the parade of commercials directed at male sportsfan America, the performances of the cheerleaders, Justin Timberlake’s halftime show, and take some time to reflect upon what the media tells us about men and women every day. Until we give the conventions we live by a long hard look, and until more women get to positions where we can break them — and we’re willing to take the creative chances necessary to do so — we’re all just going to keep repeating our same bad choices out of the same stupid cultural playbook. 

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