Thursday, July 11, 2013

MPDG Postmortem

I came across this excellent article by chance the other day. I have never heard of the author before, but I understand from friends' comments that she is fairly prominent; in any case, the article does a very good job of elaborating on a matter which, to me, is intuitively incontrovertible, but has been difficult to enunciate:

Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story. Women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else's. 

In reading this response, you may at times feel the desire to suggest that I check my privilege or call the waaaambulance, and remind me that women have it a lot worse than men. I am not going to argue with you about that, primarily because you are correct. This is in no way intended to be a rebuttal of Laurie Penny's analysis. Being in possession of a penis, my ability to expound on matters of feminism is in any case very limited. However, what I can do is relate a tangential matter which I do feel I have the moral right to declare, as it is based on my personal history, both extended and recent. I would beg your patience in the realization that the perspective I am describing is a thing that exists (and is not limited to me alone). Indulge me in the acknowledgment of its validity.

Besides; this is my personal blog. This is where the waaambulance dumps is psychohazardous biowaste.

Laurie Penny's lament centers on the incontrovertible truth that people tend to perceive their romantic interests as idealized tropes, rather than real human beings with all the associated annoyances. The author herself is prone to the Magical Pixie Dream Girl archetype, and has become frustrated with being typecast as the storybook girl that comes into a bored, brooding man's life to provide magical lust for life and excitement. This, of course, is only a specific instance of the general outrage at the sad truth that while women end up shaping themselves according to the tropes of fiction, what men ultimately want in a woman is a sidekick; not a recurring appearance by the protagonist of a different intellectual property set in the same universe, but a support character in what is very much the story of the man's life.

But while this truth is sad, it is actually not universal. And while this cultural submission machine is certainly damaging to women, I dare assert that on some occasions, it is also damaging to men.

Penny is absolutely correct when she writes: "If we want anything interesting at all to happen to us we have to be a story that happens to somebody else". If you, the English-speaking and very probably Estonian-based reader, think this is an unfortunate tendency in your society, let me tell you - in the other cultural space where I occasionally go free-diving, it is pervasive to a stupefying degree. Greater Russia* is an astoundingly male-centered society, especially once you realize how practically matriarchal it is on the household level. The common wisdom is that after the Second World War, there were such a massive gender disbalance that the psyche crystallized the inherent value of a man, any man, in a woman's life, even a traumatized self-medicating cripple; place that over the practical farmer-sense of needing a large family to survive, season to taste with Russia's inherent age-old alcoholism problem, and stir. The self-worth issues that ultimately lead to women tolerating men's bad behavior start at a very early age, and I have to hold in my bafflement every time I am at a Russian party where the women do all the food prep, set the table, and clean everything up after everyone's done. (At a recent party where I was put in charge of logistics, I was expressly asked to kill some time and make sure the main group of people does not arrive at the venue for a couple of extra hours, "to give the girls time to get everything ready".) There may be some of this in Estonian/British/American society, and there's certainly nothing inherently wrong about the host taking pride in her home and making an effort to ensure that the guests enjoy themselves, but just trust me on this, Russians think about it completely differently. Imagine the worst Mad Men-style "girls, help me with the dishes while the men have their whisky and cigars in the parlor", and you're approximating it. It's not a generational thing (I've controlled for it in my observations), but the equivalent in Estonian society might possibly be less visible to me because my particular group of friends are zealous about independence from their parents. At my own movie nights, the person who ends up always cutting the vegetables as a long-term running joke is not one of the girls, but a tall, hairy man who runs his local chapter of the Social Democrats.

It's quite likely that my disdain for the Russian side of my cultural heritage informs my views on acceptable gender roles.

So yes, as Penny writes, quite a lot of men might fantasize about the Magical Pixie Dream Girl who would come and save them, yet ultimately want That Girl, a submissive sidekick; they would quite like the magic, but cannot stand the realism. They feel that the story they are living in is about themselves, and their romantic partner should be a supporting role in it.

But some men don't, and some men actually end up on the sharp end of the MPDG stick themselves. And hey - it sucks!

Penny talks about her experiences with sad, bright, bookish young men, who enjoy her company up until they realize she is not going to be the sidekick in their story; I would posit that in her travels, she's missed a particular subtype. It comes down to a very specific flavor of self-obsession and whether it gets channeled into self-reliance. The character trait of zealous self-reliance (sans social isolation) informs one's search for a romantic partner massively, and equilaterally. I've had an ex (who was then, and is far more so now, an ambitious and successful woman) tell me that I am far too independent; that I can always take care of myself, which is a turn-off, because a woman has to feel needed. The upshot of this self-reliance, though, is that I distinctly have no practical use for That Girl. At any given second on this planet, two men are having a hackneyed conversation**: that if you add up the price of a washer-dryer combo, a dishwashing machine, a maid that comes and cleans your house and does the ironing every fortnight, and a running tab at a reputable brothel, you are still probably spending less money than the cost of maintenance for a relationship that gives you the same quality of service. I'm not looking for someone to execute the function of a wife. Hell, even the biological imperative can be redirected - there was an article the other day how Estonian fertility clinics are desperately short of good male donors.

So what I need in my life is specifically a real woman, with ambitions and opinions and her own story, in which I can play a supporting role while I'm off-screen in my own. And for all the reasons Penny describes, that kind of woman is actually in very short supply. She's also likely to be difficult to find, for all the same reasons that I myself have trouble establishing a basic dating pool: a visceral dislike for all your usual meat markets. And there are only so many literary society events I can attend before I start flicking popcorn at hipsters.

I have no conclusive proof that the female protagonist of my dreams is herself looking for That Guy, an uncomplicated supporting character, the Dennis Thatcher type. But my past empirical experience would certainly support an assertion that a self-reliant woman would have no use for a complicated and flawed man. Some of the people dearest to me are deeply flawed - but in ways that, for whatever reasons, I find manageable and even endearing. But highly compatible personalities are at greater risk of having highly compatible neuroses, ones which resonate and reinforce each other to destructive ends. The effect of stories we're told on our life expectations that Penny laments also includes the consequence that, convinced by the promise of the eventual arrival of The One, a lot of people are simply unwilling to work on accepting a promising partner's flaws: if it's not perfect, it's not worthwhile.

And even if you luck out, or just play the numbers game until you find someone fascinating and attractive and kind, whose particular wavefront dampens down your own, there's always the risk of unforeseeable life events that arrive in a fragile relationship with the subtlety of a cartoon's falling anvil.

OK, this is getting really dark, and I honestly didn't intend that. Because we're finally reaching the point I set out to make.

When you spend long enough being alone, you get really good at it. You whittle away at all the things that keep you from being happy, one by one, until you're more or less done with everything that can be resolved rationally. You find yourself on the threshold of thirty: not rich but sufficiently productive to not have to worry about money; not strikingly handsome but healthier than you've ever been, and with the skillset to clean up nicely; not universally loved but with a handful of trusted friends in whom you can confide; not universally liked but with a broad enough social base that you can show up at your favorite pub on any given weekend and find someone to chat with; not on top of the world but with enough achievements under your belt to which you can objectively point when you start feeling like your life's been a waste. All of this is not simple, but it is eminently doable. You work at it, see what works and what doesn't, analyze, conclude, adjust your methods, and eventually reach a level you can be satisfied with.

Most aspects of your life, even the hard ones, are rational. But romance isn't. And in your search for the perfect partner, you come across someone who is imperfect, but is still really, really good. You suddenly begin to understand really well what drives all those ambitious men who settle down with That Girl. You find that the thousand-piece puzzle of your life is almost complete, and that there is a hole in it that is very simply girl-shaped. In your search for The One, as you're trawling the unexplored territory just beyond the outer fringes of your social circle, you come across someone who, for no objective or rational reason, dampens your waveform really well. You find that for a self-reliant person like you, just having someone in your life is enough; you may not feel like this person is the one you've been looking for all your life, the perfect blend of every quality you've ever wanted, and there's probably a few things about them that would've previously been either serious alarm bells or outright deal-breakers, but somehow no longer are. Because that person's very presence in your life means that all your low-level angst, anxiety and anger at the imperfection of the universe and the general stupidity of humankind just go away, and for the first time in years, you are quite simply happy.

Which is when, out of the blue, that person tells you that they are unsatisfied with the relationship; but it's not anything you've done or anything they can point to, you've really been wonderful and it's all been so great, and oh yeah, the sex is amazing; but they've been thinking about it for the last couple of days and there's just something about this whole thing that's nagging them, so they're going to disappear from your life now. Oops. Sorry. No hard feelings?

And all your precious, such precious happiness and contentment suddenly disappears in a puff of inexplicable irrationality, and you are left so utterly sandbagged that you aren't even properly heartbroken; the question isn't even "how do I go on from here?". The question is...


* A cultural space that overlaps geographically and demographically with Post-Soviet - significantly but incompletely. The two are not interchangeable.
** The most recent instance for me was earlier this year, driving to a Brazilian beach, with a local friend who is largely the stereotype of the introverted geek, but had just recently gotten married to a stunningly attractive woman. I tend to have this conversation with people I meet when I travel, because when they ask about my itinerary and travel practices, the inevitable next question out of their mouth is "so, you must be single, huh?".

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