Pop Culture’s Ugly Lessons on Love & Dating

The media loves to sell us on love. Practically every popular movie, TV series, pop song, or tabloid news headline is packaged with a love story.

And about 99% of the time, they get it wrong, wrong, wrongity wrong. There’s love, and then there’s Love™, the romantic equivalent of empty calories or knockoff couture.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t watch these shows or movies, any more than I would try to forbid you from eating ice cream or buying that street-corner handbag. But if we’re surrounded by these relationship messages every day, they’re worth a closer look, don’t you think?

Here are a few examples of pop-culture-approved relationship storylines that make me want to tear my hair out.

Ross and Rachel are a freakin’ train wreck.

This 90s power couple was written as a classic “will they/won’t they” story that keeps viewers coming back every week. But take away the Made for TV veneer, and you have a chronically insecure and borderline controlling boyfriend, and a girlfriend who gave him way too many chances.

(And really, Rachel, why? You could have any guy in NYC, and you take your chances on your best friend’s awkward, needy older brother?)

In real life, when Rachel finally has enough and asks for a break from the relationship, that should have been a hard-and-fast breakup. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that the vast majority of couples that “go on break” should really just break up. If you’ve gotten to the point that the idea of a break is appealing, well… that’s pretty telling about the long-term chances of your relationship.

rachel is hurt by ross

Just ask Chandler and Monica. Sure, they’re not perfect either, but both of them will at least own up to how neurotic they each are, and both of them made efforts to keep their crazy in check and apologize when they crossed the line. That’s a much healthier way of handling conflict than burying it in passive-aggressive teddy bears.

Ted Mosby makes even hopeless romantics cringe.

In the early seasons of How I Met Your Mother, Ted is kind of pitiful, but it seems like his heart is in the right place – he believes in everlasting love and wants nothing more than to share his life with the right woman. Aww.

But as the show goes on, Ted fumbles his way through one failed relationship after another after another, always asking Why me? All I want is true love! His signature move is the Grand Gesture of Romance, like the blue quartet in Robin’s apartment, the two-minute date for Stella, or the extreme lengths he goes to to help Victoria leave her fiancé at the altar. (I mean, really. Dick move, bro.)

What he sees as romantic just grows increasingly desperate. And desperation is not a good look on anyone. Ted’s approach to finding love is more like a teenage girl than a grown-ass man with a degree and a career.

ted mosby - something is seriously wrong with me

And yet, you change nothing.

Pro tips: When your relationships keep failing, the common denominator is you. When your closest friends go as far as to hold an intervention or even purposefully sabotage your love life, it’s time to wise up and get thee to therapy.

Sex. Is. Not. A. Bargaining. Tool.

jon stewart says noIf I had a quarter for every time a sitcom plot could have been resolved in five minutes by, oh, I don’t know, just talking to each other, I could do laundry for life.

Instead, fictional characters play Let’s Make a Deal with sex. Especially the married ones: a pissed-off wife withholding sex from her husband until he complies with her demands is a concept so common, it’s cliché. And often it’s one of her girlfriends giving her the idea to do so! Seriously, ladies, could we not do this to each other?

In real life, that kind of behavior destroys marriages. I’m not even exaggerating. Reducing sex to a commodity that can be bought with good deeds and used as punishment for bad ones, or held hostage to get what you want, is just an invitation for more conflict, not a solution to it.

It’s one thing if you’re not in the mood for sex because your guy or gal has done something to anger, hurt, or disappoint you. It’s another thing entirely to decide to withhold sex you actually want just to win an argument or prove a point. That’s bad juju, my sisters, and if the idea ever occurs to you, take it as a sign that it’s time to sit down and have a talk.

 

Of course, no one expects fiction to be 100% realistic. Art imitates life, it doesn’t replicate it. The kind of drama that makes for good TV ratings and sells movie tickets would make real life positively unlivable for all but the most royal Drama Queen.

If you ask me, though, the scary part of all of this pop culture nonsense is how it weasels its way into real life when we aren’t even totally aware of it. Any individual woman can and does rise above the noise and make decisions for herself. But when these themes are repeated in everything we see, it influences what we think of as right and wrong.

So when we find ourselves in conflict, we may not consciously think “Oh, this is just like Rachel and Ross,” but we may still follow in their footsteps just because that path is already so well-worn by the lovers, real and fictional, who came before us. (In fact, when I was looking for images of R&R for this post, the majority of the results highlighted their kisses, their wedding, and their make-up moments. Despite their very obvious incompatibility, they’re still regarded as star-crossed soulmates. Insert eye roll.)

Hey, no one is perfect. We all screw up sometimes. We hurt the ones we love, and are hurt in return. We pick silly fights over nothing. We choose the wrong partners for us and don’t see it until it’s too late. And we handle conflict poorly, as a species.

So this column isn’t here to lecture you about your life choices. You do you, in whatever awkward, messed-up, perfectly imperfect way you see fit. We just might all be a little wiser and happier to dispense with our expectations of Love™ and keep it real.

 

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