Screw Your Preconceptions

Life is not Disney. Everything you know from Hollywood is wrong. “Common sense” is bullshit. How much of life’s misery could be averted by keeping these things in mind? Take, for example, relationships. If TV is to be believed, relationships are pretty straightforward: Meet someone. Fall in love. Dating turns into marriage. Kids. Happily ever after.

This is a fantasy, and it’s not the “gosh, that would be ideal” kind of fantasy. It’s the “complete work of fiction” kind.

Healthy relationships don’t just happen. They take work and commitment. Not every day is sunshine and roses. Sometimes you argue—sometimes about big things. And odds are good (like 100%) that this won’t always happen in the ways you anticipate.

Consider the romantic comedy genre (cue groaning). How many unique movies are there within this genre? Basically none. Take a look at that chart over there (→ that way →). X meets Y. X flubs meeting. X and Y get to know each other better. X and Y begin dating. Things go well. Really well. Then not so well. Big problem. The couple either splits up or seems likely to split. Additional hardships come, causing X and Y to rekindle their devotion to one another. X and Y overcome hardships. Marriage. Roll credits. The End. Happily ever after. X and Y are forever satisfied with their love, and there’s no more to the story.

* * *

Except in life, that’s not the end. Those vows you say to each other? They don’t mean anything. Only your actions have meaning, so your vows are only meaningful if you actually follow them. Half of all marriages* in the US end in divorce, so that “I do” is not the final word. (And if half of marriages end, more than half clearly are troubled, and odds are good that many of these involve the breaking of “serious” relationship rules.)

In fact, the entire romantic movie formula is absurd. Relationships develop out of preexisting friendships all the time, but you might never know that if you were to only rely on romantic comedies for your relationship advice. Additionally, not every couple encounters relationship-threatening events before marriage, and obviously not every breakup results in a later reunification. Not every happily-ever-after involves a marriage. What’s more, not every happily-ever-after involves the couple staying together!

I doubt many people sit down and try to schedule their lives according to this pattern (“Let’s make today the day I meet the socially awkward man/woman of my dreams!“), but it’s a very powerful idea. It’s so common that it’s easy to mistakenly assume it to be the normal state of affairs. What’s more, this message is often sold as what people should expect. Women are taught to want relationships like the ones from the movies, and men are taught that they must deliver. Failure to live up to these impossible expectations can spell ruin for a relationship.

This is where the Disney analogy kicks in. (Disclaimer: The most recent Disney films have begun to deviate from the previous ones, but the damage is already done.) I cite Disney only as an example, not the sole perpetrator; most children’s stories fall into the same (or similar) bad habits. You know what I mean, I’m sure. The princess is in a castle, and the prince must rescue her. Granted, modern princesses are increasingly depicted as possessing more autonomy than their forebears, but even strong “independent” female leads are written to adhere to a certain code of conduct: it’s okay to be strong, but don’t be too strong—that’s what the male protagonist is for. (Side note: I haven’t seen Brave yet, and I would be thrilled if it shatters this mold, but I don’t expect much of a revolution.)

Why are princesses such pushovers?

It’s because they’re supposed to be not just women but ladies. Being a lady is a big deal because that’s traditionally been how proper women attract high quality suitors. Ladies are docile, affectionate, and refined. Just ask this guy, a state Senator who proposed the following (note: since being announced on the 3rd, the event has been cancelled, presumably due to public outrage):

Later this month, Republican State Sen. Marty Golden’s office is holding a career-development event for women in his southern Brooklyn district teaching them “Posture, Deportment and the Feminine Presence.” … More details are also available on Golden’s Senate website, including the fact that women in attendance will be taught to, “Sit, stand and walk like a model,” how to, “Walk up and down a stair elegantly” and “Differences in American and Continental rules governing handshakes and introductions.”

There’s just so much packed into such a small space there! A “career-development event for women” that teaches them how to act “like a model” and to ascend and descend with equal elegance. Stop. Seriously, this guy believes that teaching women to be sexy will help them start new careers. (And not in modeling.)

What the fuck does this say about his opinion of women?

You want to get a job, right? No no, don’t worry about developing any actual skills that will make you a better candidate. All you need to worry about is looking good. As long as you’re physically attractive, men will hire you.To do what‽‽‽ That’s right, women: your only value is in the degree to which you can please men. If you don’t fall into social expectations of beauty, you’re unemployable. Sorry.


This is the same sort of mindset that brought us the traditional Disney movies with their helpless princesses; although, these princesses weren’t original creations by any stretch of the imagination. The stories have their roots in older tales from less sophisticated times. These preconceived notions of gender and behavior are ancient. Men have made a habit of dominating women all throughout the annals of history (exceptions exist, but they are relatively rare). The only redeeming thing about this Senator’s sexist ideology is that it’s plainly visible and thus easily attacked. Sadly, the fight against this gender-based oppression has caused just as many of these atrocious attitudes to “go underground” as it has supplanted with more egalitarian norms.

For example, a man who sleeps with many women is admirable, but a woman who sleeps with many men is a “slut.” I reject this double standard. Ladies** are as free to embrace their sexuality as men are. (The only rule is this: Engage in as much consensual coitus as you please with whomever you like, but be responsible.) Anyone who tries to shame you for being a “slut” is an asshole, and you should punch them correct their woefully misguided notions. Don’t put up with that nonsense.

Like so many other problems, this all stems from a lack of critical self-reflection. What are the arguments for our beliefs? If they aren’t well-reasoned and based on evidence, we have no use for them, and they should be discarded in favor of alternatives that more closely align with humanist goals. This is true for all beliefs, of course; the two I’ve cited here are just easy examples. The media seem almost incapable of depicting serious, complex relationships, and many politicians (generally conservatives) appear equally incapable of accepting the idea that women are actually people should be treated with all the same respect as men feel entitled to.

Is it beneficial for individuals or society at large to perpetuate systems of inequality? Is it acceptable for women—or any other group—to be less free? Clearly not.

There’s no reason to accept Hollywood’s model of relationships, and Shakespeare may have been a good storyteller, but Romeo and Juliet is as far from an ideal love story as you can get. We’re each free to determine how we live our lives, and that entails the freedom to determine the boundaries of our own relationships. We’re free to reject restrictive discriminatory traditional expectations of masculinity and femininity. This artificial segregation of people (including ourselves) into arbitrary categories is an inadequate strategy for managing interpersonal relationships. The world is a far more complicated place than such a simple-minded approach suggests. Let’s stop perpetuating bad ideas.


Post-script: This discussion is continued briefly here.

*  This is a misleading statistic, but I don't feel like going into that.
** See what I did there?

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