Tuesday, February 12, 2013

the "Paperman" problem

This short, "Paperman," which originally preceded Disney's summer feature Wreck It Ralph, has earned a lot of praise, including an Oscar nomination. It is, indeed, a lovely short. But it's also a problem.

It's interesting that Alyssa Rosenberg cites "Paperman" in contrast to most romantic comedies, because I see in "Paperman" a perfect example of a basic problem with the genre. This problem was defined perfectly by The Onion: "Romantic Comedy Behavior Gets Real-Life Man Arrested." Think about the behavior here. The protagonist is very forward in pursuing a woman who he hasn't talked to at all. We know that there's mutual attraction, thanks to the nonverbal clues that we (as a disconnected audience) observe. In a Disney short, that's perfectly sufficient, and internal to the world of the movie, I find it sweet. In the real world, I think it's exactly the kind of behavior a lot of women are justifiably tired of. But our culture and media keep reinforcing it, and that contributes to unhappiness.

We are, I hope, slowly but surely moving out of a culture of routine street harassment and justification of rape. Part of that is redefining when it is and isn't okay to approach someone you're attracted to whom you don't know. At this point, I pretty much have a personal policy of not talking to any women who I don't know in some professional or social context. I wouldn't do what the guy from "Paperman" does, obviously, but I also wouldn't have asked for her number. Is that an overreaction to these changes? I don't know. I do know that I have read far too many women complaining about the obliviousness (and frequently, obnoxiousness) of men who approach them in public to want to risk being guilty of that sort of thing. So for me personally, it's out.

I'm not trying to speak for anyone else, and I recognize that this stance of mine is extreme. I'm too much of a romantic to say that a cold approach of this kind is always impermissible. What I want to point out is that the (I hope) increasing recognition that men are often far too aggressive and forward with women is necessarily going to lead to men being less likely to approach women who would actually like to be approached. Because we lack and will always lack perfect information about who is attracted to us. And as I will keep saying, it is precisely the awkwardness and lack of social graces that makes some men unattractive to some women that makes those self-same men incapable of correctly reading interest. Again, the manner in which we know, as the audience, that the female character is attracted to the guy is through a shared smile, a nervous laugh, a gaze-- all the sorts of things that socially awkward men have a very hard time reading, and can invent when it suits them. Indeed, what makes socially awkward men socially awkward-- and, in part, considered undesirable-- is exactly their inability to parse social cues and nonverbal messages. The notion that men who approach women who are "out of their league" or otherwise uninterested necessarily know that what they are doing is unappreciated is deeply wrongheaded in large part because it makes the problem seem easier than it is. If men always knew when women didn't want them to approach, we could at least speak about education and social norming against that behavior. But the problem is a bigger one because it stems from genuine ignorance.

And while we are of course responsible for our own behavior, and while there is a clear line between awkward or unfortunate approaches and outright harassment, I do have this sympathy for clueless men: our culture tells them incessantly that dogged pursuit is the key to romantic success. The importance of persistence as a key to romantic success as a heterosexual male is drilled into you by your culture pretty much constantly. Added to that is the common notion that what women want in a world of changing gender expectations is aggressive men-- a notion that can be hard to combat, because it is true of some women some of the time. The problem is that the sleazy, reductive world of sexual conquest advice speaks in universals and absolutes. Like any particular sexual or romantic preference, the desire to be pursued aggressively depends on the perceived attractiveness of the individual man. What we all want, at the end of the day, is to be approached by people we're attracted to and not by people we aren't. We also recognize this as an impossible request.

Moving towards a less sexually aggressive and more equitable social landscape is going to have consequences, and not all of them pleasant. That's adult life. For me, it seems as though the current reality of street harassment, the culture of rape, and assumed privilege of heterosexual men to approach any women makes it clear that we need to be far more careful about approaching strangers, and to require far more in the way of demonstrations of attraction before we decide to talk to women we don't know, particularly when they're alone. Perhaps that means that women who are interested in being approached will have to be somewhat more demonstrative of that in this future culture. I'm sure, though, that it will result in people not approaching and not being approached when they'd very much like that to happen. But like I said, progress always has difficult consequences.

I think I need the opinion of Phoebe Maltz Bovy on this.


JdB said...

Hang on, all that Paperman does is throw some paper airplanes. After that he gets bullied by fate, against his will. I don't think "very forward" is really the right way to describe what goes on in this cartoon.

JdB said...

Which I admit has very little to do with your point.

Anonymous said...

I think you might be taking this to extremes a bit.

There is nothing inherently wrong about striking up a conversation with a woman you don't know, just as it's ok to chat up men you don't know. Context is everything - there are situations where it's appropriate and it isn't. At the bar or a party? Good to go. City bus at 11pm? Not cool.

There's also nothing wrong with asking a woman for her number in a respectful way after you have talked to her a bit. The important thing is that you are willing to take a hint if one is offered.

In general as long as you are looking at the other side of the conversation as another human being, and not solely as a potential sex partner, you are unlikely to run into problems.

The big problems arise when men try to take physical liberties based on perceived signs of interest. This is treacherous ground and I think the level of expressed interest should indeed be quite high before acting on any of these impulses.

Anonymous said...

While I agree with the majority of what you said, but this is really taking it to an extreme: "I pretty much have a personal policy of not talking to any women who I don't know in some professional or social context.

Nick DeBoer said...

I think there is a certain geographic socialization component to this that is hard to qualify. I've spent time on both coasts, but have lived in West Lafayette for seven years now and find a lack of blatant harassment. That may also be attributed to the gender dynamics of this city being completely asymmetric. Those who would act so boorish (outside certain undergraduate subgroups) are quickly discarded.

Nick DeBoer said...
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Freddie said...

To be more specific, I don't approach women on the street whom I don't know. At a bar or a party, yeah.

Jake said...

Freddie DeBoer, Nick DeBoer = brothers?

Freddie said...

Nope! DeBoer (which, in the Dutch style, is technically lower cased unless found at the beginning of a sentence, as here) is actually one of the two or three most common Dutch last names. Not a lot of us where I come from at all, but out here in the midwest, it's much more common.

quixote said...

Guys (it does seem to be guys commenting and writing), this is not difficult.

Yes, there is something wrong with addressing women you don't know in public places. Our Host has that right. Any woman you want to accost gets jerked out of her own world all the goddamn time and really only wants to scream at you to leave her alone. It takes real effort to be polite about it. Trust me on this.

If she's interested, it's easy to tell. We're primates. This goes back millions of years. Female choice is expressed in eye contact. Long, intentional eye contact. A kind that would be staring, but it's got a friendlier vibe to it. If she's not looking at you like that, she doesn't want to hear from you. This is true of baboons, on up through chimpanzees, and all the way to humans.

It's true that women who are afraid or traumatized don't look at anyone. One sixth of women are raped during their lifetimes, usually at a young age. About one third have dealt with some form of rather overt sexual assault that might not technically be rape, but can still cause all the post-traumatic avoidance responses. Think about that. One third. The most effective way to simplify the process of meeting women would be for all the guys in the world to stop being too polite to call out the rude sexist jerks in their midst. Once women stop being attacked, they'll stop having to defend themselves. (I know. Weird.)

Oh, and about those phone numbers? Don't ask for hers. Give her yours.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

"If she's interested, it's easy to tell."

This is sort of the nub of the problem, though, isn't it? For a lot of people, it's really not easy to tell at all. People have different levels of ability to read social cues, and men are, on average, not as good at it.

quixote said...

"men are, on average, not as good at it"

That's the part I don't buy. Men seem to be fine at reading cues from their bosses. They're fine at reading cues from their drinking or other buddies. They're even pretty good at reading cues from their mothers and aunts. It's just women they're sexually interested in where it all falls apart.

So, no, I don't think they're not good at it. I think they're not paying attention.

As to why, my theory is that the ones with trouble are the ones who can't be bothered (barring people with bona fide autism spectrum disorders). They're not worrying about the woman's hopes and fears and dreams. They're worrying about their own. But that's just a theory. You tell me.

Nick DeBoer said...

I have met plenty of men who simply cannot read social cues even within exclusively male interactions. Overstaying their welcome, not understanding cues, being obnoxious or inappropriate. They otherwise seem like smart people within their field, but the bizarre facebook messages and text do arrive on our side as well.

Anecdotally, males will put up with this behavior through solidarity, often musing about the strange persons inefficiencies while not inviting them to larger social functions. It is when the females of the group start feeling harassed that as a group we will try to make it end. There's not a threat when a friend of a friend is just a weird guy, but when he starts making women feel genuinely uncomfortable we first try to speak with them (which uniformly fails) followed by complete expulsion.

But I reject the idea that many of the men with flat out poor social skills is completely isolated to romantic pursuits.

j r said...

"Yes, there is something wrong with addressing women you don't know in public places. Our Host has that right...

The most effective way to simplify the process of meeting women would be for all the guys in the world to stop being too polite to call out the rude sexist jerks in their midst. Once women stop being attacked, they'll stop having to defend themselves. (I know. Weird.)

Oh, and about those phone numbers? Don't ask for hers. Give her yours."

I'm all for adopting a set of common-sense norms that prevent women from being groped, harassed, even unnecessarily annoyed while going about their business in public. However, there's such an oddly Victorian conception of women in this rendering. As if all women are hothouse flowers who will wilt and fall to the nearest fainting couch every time a strange man says "Hello."

The other interesting this is the idea that it falls to men to enforce this norm among other men.

There are a lot of contradictory ideas at work here.

Phoebe said...

I totally have thoughts on this! But no time right now to watch-and-analyze this video. Soon I hope!

Jacob said...
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Gabriel K. said...

I was totally with you until you applied your theory of "the romcom problem" too broadly.

The men who women have to deal with on a regular basis, who harass, harangue, intimidate, accost, whatever? Those men don't care about "cues." These are men who believe, for whatever reason, that it's their job to aggressively pursue a woman as if she were a sales lead at work or a deer in hunting season. They could care less if she rebukes them, either explicitly or implicitly. They're morons.

It's a whole world of difference between what that is, and what you're talking about, which is just about expressing interest in a woman in a normal and casual way. That can be extremely difficult to pull off, but in the end it doesn't really matter whether you do it awkwardly or coolly. If she likes you, she'll give you her number, if she doesn't, then she'll say no or she'll give you a fake number or in any number of ways choose to end your interactions. At that point, you just stop pursuing, and problem solved. There may be some women for whom a simple, polite, unsolicited indication of interest will be seen as a threat, but that's no reason to give up altogether, it's just a reason to be cautious.

Kestra said...

My experience with men who harass me on the street, or who won't take "no" for an answers isn't that they're "misreading social cues" or that they're "morons". My experience is that my feelings are incidental to their own. They *want* the sexual thrill of saying something raunchy to a stranger. They *enjoy* it when their target is too polite to tell them off, and rather just shrinks away and hopes they'll leave her alone. They enjoy that feeling of power and intimidation. And they react aggressively to anyone who challenges their behaviour. It is all about their feelings, their pride, and their own satisfaction. The woman in these situations is just a stimulus-response machine to them: plug in "Hey Baby!" get back female attention. *Any* female attention. They know exactly what they are doing and how uncomfortable they make their targets. That is the whole. point.

George Kaplan said...

"I pretty much have a personal policy of not talking to any women who I don't know in some professional or social context."

Had I followed this advice, I would not be getting married this summer. I met fiancee on the train. The conversation flowed naturally and was not forward or vulgar, and ended with me asking her out. We've been together ever since.

Freddie does have a point here--catcalling is obnoxious, and romcom behavior is for the most part ridiculous. But I think his solution is a bit extreme, and doesn't allow for a chance encounter that could wind up starting something awesome.

Martin said...

Cracked agrees with you:


Sarahmint said...

You missed the point of the short. It is not just about persistence. It is about connection/communication. He wanted to communicate with her. The only signs she showed was of interest, not disinterest. I would hope most human beings can tell the difference.

D said...

There's a difference between cat-calling and approaching a girl you're attracted to and giving her a genuine compliment. In my experience they really like it, often blush, and sometimes give me their number.

Check out SimplePickup on YouTube.