I grew up watching romance movies before actually experiencing romance, seeing violence on TV without ever knowing it in real life. These depictions are everywhere; the subplots were worked into endless kids shows and as a first-grader I listened to pop music about erotic trepidations without having any idea what I was hearing. It’s difficult for a six-year-old to pick up on the retroactive nuances on the media he is consuming, so obviously I made nothing of watching the occasional romantic comedy on television as a young kid.
I was told deeply detailed and convoluted stories of love before I was old enough to proverbially ‘write my own’. And most of those stories were nothing but trite fantasies, grounded not in reality but precisely in its opposite. Much entertainment serves as an escape from the truths of life; these stories, in which characters tenaciously attach themselves to goals and never let go, often don’t end happily in real life. “Let go or be dragged,” as they say.
In the same way that excessive viewing of pornography often leads to neurotically outlandish sexual expectations or performance issues, overexposure to romantic fantasies will screw up your love life. There’s a difference between the organic, completely circumstantial (and often remarkably biochemical) romance between two people in real life and the platitudinous falsified love we watch on TV or at the movie theater. TV love is built around plot arcs, demographic goals and marketing concerns. Real love is not.
I just saw the recent Spike Jonze movie Her. It is a uniquely well-done example of filmed romance. It’s also almost entirely theoretical and based in the future, allowing it certain liberties that other films cannot take. But for every Her there are 20 pandering cheese flicks that do little more than warp the worldviews of men and women alike concerning what love is ‘supposed’ to be like. Even a film like Her obscures reality insofar as it’s really good filmmaking. And that is manipulative, albeit incredibly beautiful and entertaining.
We all like a little romantic storytelling indulgence now and again, but my childhood cognitive dissonance with love stories reminded me that what you see is not what you get. Your experience is your own, and while there’s a certain level of romantic standardization that occurs as the result of basic biology and genetics, most of what you experience will feel very unique even if it’s not. The nuances of uniqueness are what make romance exciting, not the age-old tropes and myths. That’s a good thing. Experience doesn’t fit in a mold. People tend to perceive their subjective experience as ‘special’, not realizing that millions of others have likely shared many their thoughts and feelings. This allows for us to be sentimental creatures rather than machines. It’s great.
Marines who proudly self-enlist after an adolescence of Hollywood war films and Xbox gunfights leave battle (if they get out) with no delusions. The map is not the territory. If, as the sagely Pat Benatar once said, “Love is a battlefield,” we can expect similar results. If you go in expecting a Disney romance things will likely go awry. Romance, like most other innate human endeavors, is intuitive; we don’t need a screen telling us how to do it. We will fail often and learn from these failures. And that’s kind-of cool. It’s the game of love, after all.
And this extends beyond the love story. Artistic portrayals are meant to be cathartic, freeing and sensational, not realistic. It simply just isn’t like the movies. Don’t expect your life to follow a plot line. You can’t write the plot ahead of time. Allow yourself to be pulled in different directions and experience the weirdness that comes from learning comfort from discomfort.