Musings of an Inappropriate Woman

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Rachel Hills
February 8, 2009

He’s Just Not That Into You may have tapped into the Zeitgeist, but it’s time to move on.

Illustration: Simon Rankin

I NEVER really liked Greg Behrendt. You might recall him as the Sex and the City writer-turned-author who, a few years ago, was all over TV informing lovelorn ladies with no-nonsense charm that He’s Just Not That Into You. Simple advice (too simplistic, many argued), but that was its charm.

Now Behrendt — or his philosophy, at least — is back, this time on the big screen. If you’ve been to the movies recently, you’ve probably seen the trailer. If you’re internet-savvy, you may even have stumbled upon the cutesy US advertisements full of such wisdom as “hanging out is not dating” and “break-up sex still means you’re broken up”.

The film features a cast of A-list actresses — Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Aniston and Drew Barrymore — who, despite the fact that most men would jump at the chance to date (or hang out with) them, are hung up on relationships that are a lost cause. Actually, using the word “relationship” here might be being kind.

They’re also incredibly insecure. Ginnifer Goodwin chases after an obviously uninterested man in a bar, while Barrymore is humiliated when a guy she likes leaves a flirty message for another woman on her answering machine at work.

It’s a pretty dismal view of both sexes: men are either childlike and confused or heartless players, while women are uniformly needy and neurotic. But it’s hardly a unique view, either. Similar portrayals are everywhere — across the romantic comedy genre, in magazines targeted at both sexes, and in the advice espoused by self-proclaimed “relationships experts”.

And I’ll be honest: they’re not entirely baseless. Pretty much every woman I know has turned into an anxious puddle over some man who didn’t call (or who didn’t call when he said he would, or who didn’t do exactly what she would have liked him to do at the exact time she would have liked him to do it, which would have proved that he really did like her) at one point or another — myself included.

But women don’t occasionally turn into anxious puddles because that’s Just What Women Do, or because we happen to be individually neurotic, messed up people. I’d like to suggest it’s more political than that.

It’s broadly accepted these days that we live in a society that places a lot of emphasis on the way women look, and that this has negative consequences — eating disorders, compulsive dieting, preventative Botox and poor self-esteem among them. Whether it’s designed to or not, the nagging suspicion that without youthful skin and taut abs we are nothing acts as a form of oppression, keeping us insecure and absorbed in a battle we can never win.

It’s not such a stretch to apply the same logic to a phenomenon like He’s Just Not That Into You. A self-help book doesn’t get picked up as a major feature film if it doesn’t capture something of the Zeitgeist, after all. And this one does.

To be female is to be subjected to a constant barrage of relationship advice which, even if it’s not intended to breed insecurity, often has that effect. “Has he called yet? If he really loved you, he’d … Better get married before you’re 30 and become a dried-up old hag … Did you hear about the man drought? If only you’d played more hard to get …”

I’m not just talking about movies and magazine articles: these messages are reinforced by friends, family, well-meaning colleagues — you name it. Perhaps the reason Behrendt’s book was so successful was because it reaffirmed what a lot women already suspected: that we weren’t doing the right things and that no matter how great we were (He’s Just Not That Into You always went to lengths to reassure readers of how “foxy” they were), the people we liked most didn’t like us back. At least, not the way we wanted them to.

Cumulatively, these messages serve to erode our confidence. Is it any wonder that when we’ve had it rammed home that if a man is interested he’ll chase and chase, that men only want women for sex and the thrill of what they can’t have, a lot of women freak out at the first sign that he might not be chasing — no matter how unwarranted it may be?

But while we “get” the link between beauty culture and self-destructive behaviour, there’s a conceptual wall stopping us from making the same links when it comes to our personal lives. And even when we do make the links, the voices to the contrary are loud and omnipresent, trumpeting ideology as though it is fact. It takes strength to stand in opposition to what everyone around you takes to be self-evident, and even more strength to stick to your intellectual convictions in your most private, unsettled moments.

Awareness is the first step, but if we truly want to break out of this destructive mindset, we need to band together.

We can start by calling out those who purvey these messages, but we also need to stop being carriers of them ourselves. We need to develop an alternative framework: one that acknowledges that relationships are complicated regardless of gender, and that doesn’t rely on men being distant and sex-crazed, or women being insecure and needy.

Films like He’s Just Not That Into You are light entertainment, the cinematic equivalent of fairy floss. But like fairy floss, too much of them will only make you sick.

Rachel Hills is a freelance writer.