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.