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Urban Fairytale

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07/28/2011

Blair Chavis photo 

My sister’s favorite dinner conversation topic of late consists of her explaining to me, with an air of elitism, that she’s a member of “Generation X” and I’m a “Millennial.” Her theories about our supposed generational differences, and thus her superiority, derive from a combination of conversations she has had with friends, Wikipedia research and her obsession with author Jonathan Franzen’s 2011 commencement speech to Kenyon College.

Mostly, I think she and her friends—former Smashing Pumpkins- and Jesus Jones-loving grunge folk—like to sit around in their still-tattered flannels (now considered hipster—what great revenge on the formerly rebellious garb), and discuss how they are the scrappy generation, and those after them are not. According to my sister and her Doc Martin-loving cohort, members of Generation Y (who she insists are now miraculously Millennials) are lazy, need constant affirmation and happen to be great with technology. While I grew up with computers and I am comfortable with technology in ways that my sister has not caught up to, I resent, rather than resemble much of what “defines” a Millennial. I also don’t understand how I got lumped with the iCarly generation. Let’s keep Generation Y where I can see it, and leave the five-year-old computer wiz’s to the Millennials. My sister and I get into some fork slinging every time she brings this topic up with a smirk.

However, I will say that us, Generation Y-ers or “Millennials” (should you wish to accept that title despite birth-year discrepancies), are facing some new challenges. In a shortened essay reprint of Franzen’s speech in the New York Times, entitledLiking Is for Cowards, Go for What Hurts,” he described consumers’ affection/love relationship with their cell phones, and other social media devices such as Facebook.  

“Let me toss out the idea that, as our markets discover and respond to what consumers most want, our technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship,” Franzen said, “in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer.”

He said these objects of technology respond unquestioning to our needs in an indifferent natural world. In turn, he said our objects of love find themselves at odds with real love, and we humans, get a bit muddied about the concept altogether.

“Its (techno-consumerism’s) first line of defense is to commodify its enemy,” Franzen said. “You can all supply your own favorite, most nauseating examples of the commodification of love.”

Franzen cited the wedding industry, TV ads, etc. for responding to our desire for love with the push to buy things.

“A related phenomenon is the transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb ‘to like’ from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice,” Franzen said. “And liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving.”

Franzen went on to explain that technology allows us to exercise a narcissistic feedback loop that we could never play out with other human beings who won’t support an endless desire to be “liked” and have our egos stroked…or could we? 

Forgive me before I advance into a discussion, in which I tie in Franzen with a movie featuring Justin Timberlake. You’ve been forewarned.

Essentially, Franzen is addressing a technologically driven phenomena that has seeped into our social psyche—one which reinforces our narcissistic tendencies and simultaneously encourages us to avoid social challenges. It’s Ok to “like” something or someone, as long as you don’t have to commit to it—or rather, love it.

I would argue that the film industry, both a driver and reflection of social norms, is sending a similar message about modern, romantic relationships.

The cinematic seeds for this modern relationship paradigm perhaps were first observed in films like Pretty Woman, in which a prostitute was rescued off the streets by a cold-hearted millionaire, used for her “business,” and some where along the way she seduced and softened her millionaire into giving her the fairytale.

In many ways, Pretty Woman—a Cinderella/My Fair Lady combo packagedid not drift too far off the map from the original Cinderella tale. While Roberts’ character was bold and loud-mouthed, she knew her place, what with her lack of education…and well, prostitution. Let’s thank our lucky stars that debonair Richard Gere rescued her.

Somewhere along the way, with brilliant works of art such as Girls Gone Wild, The Girls Next Door, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Love and Other Drugs, women gained some societal permission to have casual sex without having to be prostitutes.

However, the modern alternative, as seen in films such as Friends With Benefits and its sister films, No Strings Attached and Love and Other Drugs, is in some ways equally deranged and sad. Some might hail these films as proof that women can have sex “like men,” casually and without consequence. However, if you read between the lines in the scripts, they can’t. Equally sad, you end up with a story about a guy and a girl who are so busy pretending to have no feelings, they’re both hurt, confused and miserable, until the guy wakes up near the end of the film and fights for his rescue/happy ending scene and sweeps the girl off her feet. What you have are Cinderella stories lightly veiled with a girl wearing “tough pants” until she puts on a dress at the end.

In the film, an emotionally damaged girl who feels injured for caring too much, and thus shuts down that which is human in her, finds temporary comfort in a guy that lives a by a philosophy that caring is a weakness. The two trick themselves and each other into being happy, just for a little while. Isn’t it romantic? I’m not sure the women in this film have figured out what it means to be liberated and exist in a healthy, equal relationship. But, it certainly does not look like this. Women are confused; men are confused; I’m confused. I think the film does reflect ambivalence, both from women and men, about what “liberation” and gender roles mean today.

In real life, rarely do “friends with benefits” result in lasting love relationships. By definition, the emotion is left out, and the couple is in it for the physical. After the physical grows tiresome or strained, the “friendship part” is likely destroyed—that’s assuming a friendship could exist under such conditions. As with Franzen’s description of our relationship with technology, “friends with benefits” relationships satisfy our immediate needs without talking back. In these films, however, love impossibly comes from this place, which lacks in trust, what it makes up in instant gratification.

Most troubling, is our new ideal to be indifferent, meanwhile hoping love finds it way through our grasping in the dark. Is this how we now have to arm and protect ourselves? Where do we go from here?

In his article, Franzen argued that to truly open yourself up to love, you have to allow yourself to be ugly and see the ugly in your beloved.

“This is not to say that love is only about fighting. Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific,” Franzen said.

Franzen added, “The big risk here, of course, is rejection. We can all handle being disliked now and then, because there’s such an infinitely big pool of potential likers. But to expose your whole self, not just the likable surface, and to have it rejected, can be catastrophically painful. The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of breakup, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking.”

Franzen asserts that we can either step into the world to embrace the pain and the love, or we can stand on the sidelines and give love and life a thumbs-up.

My hope is that both women and men find a way to leap.

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