Showing posts with label neologisms. Show all posts
Showing posts with label neologisms. Show all posts

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Hey Arnold! Theory of Asymmetrical Affection

Hey Arnold!, the classic Nickelodeon animated TV series about a kid growing up in the big city, gave us many gifts during its witty and often melancholy five-season run, not the least of which is what I like to call the Hey Arnold! Theory of Asymmetrical Affection.

The theory comes from “Arnold & Lila,” an episode in the show’s third season. In it, a series of Three’s Company-esque misunderstandings results in Arnold realizing he has feelings for his friend Lila, who, by the end of the episode, no longer feels the same way about him. (“I really admire you, and I treasure our friendship ever so much,” Lila says, as a way of letting Arnold down softly. “We can still be good friends, can’t we?”)

Afterward, while talking to another one of his friends about what happened, Arnold makes this astute observation:

It’s funny. When you like someone, and they don’t really like you back, it’s not so bad. But when you really like them-like them, but you find out they just like you, it hurts.

Here’s the theory in dank meme form, which I definitely didn’t make when a girl definitely didn’t turn me down for a date, because I’m definitely not a grown-ass adult who turns to late 1990s cartoons to seek comfort and wisdom when I’m feeling bummed.



It’s worth breaking down why this is true. When someone rejects you outright—not only do they not want to go out with you, but they don’t want anything to do with you—it sucks in the moment, but it’s easy to console yourself. They’re rejecting me because they don’t really know me, you can think. If they knew all the things that make me unique, if they knew my personality, my sense of humor, my quirks, then maybe it’d be different. In short, they just don’t have enough information, so they’re not rejecting me; they’re rejecting their incomplete idea of me—which, again, still kind of sucks, but you don’t take it too personally.

But when someone “partially” rejects you—that is, they like you, but they don’t like you-like you—that shit stings. You can’t hide behind the idea that they just don’t know you, because they obviously do: they like you! They see what you have to offer, and they totally appreciate it! They want you in their life—but not in that way. For whatever reason, it’s not quite enough for them to return your feelings. Why Arnold is right when he says it hurts is simple: they’re not rejecting you because they don’t know you; they’re rejecting you precisely because they do know you. (And double ouches if, in your heart of hearts, you know they’re making the right call—but that’s a different discussion for another day.)

The Hey Arnold! Theory of Asymmetrical Affection is often cited as evidence of the insidiousness of the “friend zone,” which is annoying for two reasons: the feelings Arnold is describing are a little more nuanced than the friend zone, and, more significantly, the friend zone is bullshit.

* * *

When I was in high school, the friend zone referred to the belief that if you’ve been friends with someone for too long, a romantic relationship was impossible. Nobody ever seemed to have the exact figures for how long was too long, probably because it was, again, bullshit.

It’s not that by being “just friends” for a week, or a month, or whatever other arbitrary length of time, you magically become undateable; we had several counterexamples all around us of people who were good friends first, then started dating. Instead, what’s happening is that, in that time in which you were just friends, your friend learned something about you, your personality, or your beliefs that made you unattractive to or incompatible with them—or, perhaps, something that seemed charming or intriguing at first became less so after repeated exposure to it. There’s also the harsh possibility that many find difficult to face: your friend was never attracted to you in the first place and at no point were you ever a romantically viable prospect.

Curiously, the idea was embraced by both guys and girls, with guys generally being the friend zoned and girls being the friend zoners. (The friend zone seems to be a pretty heterosexual—and, indeed, heteronormative—concept.) For guys, this provided a way to save face when he was rejected; it’s not that he was unattractive, but rather, the inviolable laws of the friend zone are what they are. For girls, this provided a gentle way to reject a guy—either because they wanted to avoid upsetting the guy by offering a real reason (“you too ugly, bro”), or occasionally because they didn’t want to think of themselves as the type of person who’d reject a guy based on, say, the fact that he too ugly, bro (“I’m not shallow; it’s just the friend zone”). It was an exercise in self-delusion, with both guys and girls having incentives to perpetuate it.

That, obviously, is less than ideal. (Are we enabling guys whose egos are so fragile that they have to comfort themselves with lies? Are we conditioning girls to avoid expressing what they really think to make guys feel better about themselves? Are we telling girls it’s better to be nice than to be honest?) In practice, though, it played out harmlessly enough: the friend zone was accepted and unchallenged, and the rejected guy could, after licking his wounds, go back to being friends with the girl. Encouragingly, guys who were purportedly friend zoned generally didn’t blame the girl (“Damn bitch friend zoned me!”) but rather themselves (“My bad, I waited too long”), which helped make guys and girls less adversaries in dating and more fellow travelers bound by the same principles.

* * *

Of course, my high school was different from other high schools. We didn’t have lockers. Nobody went to prom, even when MTV decided to record and humiliate us. Our AP calc class was as frequently about math as it was about playing Monopoly while watching the 2000 Nicolas Cage film The Family Man, apparently the only DVD our media center had. And I’m pretty sure at least a part of our campus was a repurposed Waffle House, which would explain both the smell and the despair.

This wasn't a scientific poll, but I'd say it captured our collective sentiment nicely.

So I’m not sure if I grew up with a different understanding of the friend zone, or if the definition has changed. But now, when a man complains about the friend zone, it usually takes on a much creepier vibe: I was so nice to her, and that bitch friend zoned me! She was just leading me on! Typical woman friend zoning me because I’m nice, yet she’ll probably go out with some asshole who won’t treat her right!

Obviously, some caveats: There are women who do lead men on intentionally and manipulate emotions for their own benefit (hey, free dinner!), because women are people and some people are shitty. And yes, there are women who find niceness unattractive and assholery attractive, because women are people and some people have weird issues. But I feel confident that these cases don’t represent the majority of friend zone whining.

(Also, as an aside, my pet hypothesis is that being nice isn’t so much an inherently attractive thing, but rather an intensifier if you already find someone attractive. Like, niceness won’t do much if someone doesn’t think you’re cute, but if you’re cute and it turns out you’re nice, it makes you that much cuter. It is in this way that niceness is a lot like eyeglasses, tattoos, and impeccable grammar.)

This mindset comes from the idea that if a man does enough nice things for a woman, he’s entitled to her time, her affection, or her body. In this view, a woman isn’t a person with her own desires, but rather a puzzle to be solved and a prize to be won. Or not even that—she’s a product to be purchased, which he deserves because he paid for it with his niceness. This is a point rebutted by an oft-memed quote misattributed to Sylvia Plath:




This betrays a serious lack of empathy. All of the men bemoaning how nice guys get friend zoned would disagree that, if a woman he found repulsive baked him enough cookies or gave him enough gifts, he should ignore his own desires because she earned him and that overrides his feelings. All of these men would recognize that they get to decide with whom they go out and have sex, and “because she’s really, really nice and really, really likes you!” isn’t sufficient for them to set aside their own preferences.

But they generally don’t extend that same courtesy to the women they want to bone. And I get it—you’re the main character in your own story, and she’s your perfect dream girl. Super Mario Bros. taught you that if you do the right sequence of things, you earn the right to some Tanookie Mario with Princess Toadstool, even if she has expressed no interest in you and your shoes smell like squished Goomba.

However, she’s the main character in her own story, too, and just like you want someone you think is gorgeous and lovely, so does she. And you might not be that person, no matter how nice you are. It’s okay. It happens sometimes. You just have to deal.

* * *

One of the worst things about the friend zone is that it makes some men embarrassed of their friendships with women. Being friend zoned is seen as a mark of emasculation, and since there’s supposedly no other purpose of being friends with a woman besides having sex with her, every platonic friendship with a woman is viewed as an implied rejection and thus a failure. Every act of kindness shown to a woman that doesn’t result in her ripping off her clothes isn’t just a waste but a pathetic act of self-torture (“You picked her up from the airport? FRIEND ZONE LEVEL 100! She had a bad day at work and you listened to her for a few minutes without getting any ass? FRIEND ZONE LEVEL INFINITY!”). These men will have fewer friendships with women, which means they’ll have fewer women they care about, which means they’ll be more accepting of whatever misogynistic nonsense they read on some creepy subreddit. And the cycle of toxicity will self-perpetuate.

The reverse happens, too. If women are constantly suspicious of their male friends’ motives, they may decide that male platonic friendships are more trouble than they’re worth. Who wants to deal with the hurt when someone you thought was a really great friend just wanted to have sex with you? Who wants to be accused of leading someone on or berated for being a typical woman who can’t appreciate a nice guy?

(Also, what’s the deal with people saying that if a man is sexually attracted to a female friend, it’s proof that he’s not really her friend, or that male-female friendships are impossible? If a woman is attractive, there’s a decent chance that at least some of her male heterosexual friends would be pretty stoked to sleep with her. But if she doesn’t want to sleep with them, it’s entirely possible that they’re okay with that and value and appreciate her friendship anyway. In fact, it’s kind of fucked up that “is sexually attracted to a woman” and “genuinely values a woman’s friendship” are often accepted as mutually exclusive concepts—what the hell does that say about us? In any case, as the great Mayor Diamond Joe Quimby says, it can be two things.)

* * *

During the rest of Hey Arnold!’s run, Arnold still crushed on Lila. And Lila continued to view Arnold as purely a platonic friend, much to his chagrin. But Arnold didn’t accuse Lila of leading him on or complain that Lila was a stupid bitch who friend zoned him because she couldn’t see how nice of a guy he was.

Yes, asymmetrical affection sucks for the reason Arnold articulated perfectly, but Arnold found a way to deal with it without being a self-pitying asshole. As with most things in life, we should all be like Arnold.

Or maybe Gerald. That dude has a field named after him and has some pretty rad hair. Let’s be like him, too.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Running a kindness deficit

When people use the phrase “kindness deficit,” they usually mean “a lack of kindness”; e.g., “Our society is experiencing a kindness deficit.”

People are free to use the phrase however they want, of course, but I don’t like that definition. First, it makes the phrase kind of unnecessary (just say “a lack of kindness,” right?), but more importantly, it ignores some of the nuances in using the deficit analogy.

Here’s a better definition: Just like a budget deficit occurs when a government spends more money than it takes in, a kindness deficit occurs when a person gives more kindness than s/he receives.

This is a more serious problem than someone merely not getting enough kindness. When people realize they’re giving much more love than they’re getting, they regret it. They feel stupid. They correct it by slowly closing their heart. They swear to never make the same mistake again.

And then the world becomes that much shittier.

It’s our job—all of us, collectively—to do what we can to prevent each other from regretting being kind. Look, we’re not personally responsible for rescuing every single human being, but we need to catch people when we can—when we see that the universe is kicking someone’s ass who doesn’t deserve it; when we see someone normally prodigal with their love start to be stingier with it; when we see the spirit and warmth start to fade from someone’s eyes.

It’s easy to talk a big game about wishing the world was friendlier and kinder and more wonderful, but this is what we can do to make it so. It’s one of the worst things in the world to make some regret being kind; corollarily, it’s one of the purest, most genuine acts of love to make someone feel good about it.

So yeah. We don’t even have to make them break even or anything. Most people don’t mind running a kindness deficit just as long as the deficit isn’t large enough to make them throw up their arms and say fuck it all. We just need to catch people when we can: large things are nice, but small things—a compliment, a candy bar, a hug, a thoughtful note—can nudge a deficit towards manageable and buy enough time until someone else more qualified can take over.

Human beings are warriors against misery, and we should be on the same team.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Can I declare “jackass bankruptcy”?

Instead of having to constantly apologize to all the people to whom I’ve been a thoughtless jerk, can I just declare “jackass bankruptcy”?

Like, can I just make it known that I’ve probably been a jackass to a bunch of people and I’m sorry and it’ll just save us all a lot of time if we just started over with everybody?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Jane Eyre Epiphany

"The Jane Eyre Epiphany":

Love is not a necessary component of respect, but respect is a necessary component of love.

Or, stated another way, you can respect someone without loving them, but you can't love someone without respecting them.

Many well-meaning people say things like, "You need a relationship based on love and respect." The sentiment is admirable, but it's not a good idea to separate out "respect" from "love." It implies that love can exist without respect, and it can't.

Love means different things to different people, and a universal definition is probably impossible to develop. But I hope we can at least agree that if you don't respect someone, you don't get to get to call what you direct towards them love. It may be fondness, or twitterpation, or horniness dressed up in flowery language, but it's not love.

If you don't trust them, it's not love.

If you control or manipulate them, it's not love.

If you dismiss their thoughts and opinions, it's not love.

If you don't care if they're happy, it's not love.

If you constantly belittle them, it's not love.

If you selfishly lie to them, it's not love.

If you knowingly waste their time, it's not love.

I agree that we should try to move beyond the idea of love as merely a fuzzy feeling, but we should be careful about uncoupling love and respect. It's not just a harmless pleonasm to say "love and respect"; it subtly changes the way we think about love.

Love should be observable and provable, and an "I love you" in its purest form shouldn't be some huge revelatory declaration, but rather a quiet affirmation of what your actions have already made clear.

Garden State at 10: Junioritis and home


On the first day of one of my sophomore year classes, our professor had us do a getting-to-know-each-other activity in which we all wrote down a dozen fun facts about ourselves on a piece of paper. Once we were all done, we'd introduce ourselves to each other, and, for every fact that somebody had written down that applied to you as well, you were supposed to put your initials next to the item.

I remember my fun fact that got the most initials: "I still love the movie Garden State," with the underline. More than half of the people with whom I spoke initialed it, and many of them actually repeated it back: "I still love it too," verbalizing the underline themselves. I'm not sure when the backlash against Garden State happened, but whenever it did, it happened hard enough that I felt compelled to couch my love for the movie with a defensive, self-aware still.

This past July was the ten-year anniversary of the movie (and this past week was the ten-year anniversary of me watching it), and many folks on the Internet have taken the opportunity to write thinkpieces on the movie -- either to smack it around further, or to offer some defense of it with an implied "It's not as bad as you remember!"

I don't have any unique, gamechanging defense of Garden State; rather, I'll just say that the hate for the movie is kind of absurd. It's not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination ("New Slang" did not change my or anyone else's life1, for instance), but there just isn't anything in the movie that should inspire anything worse than mild to moderate annoyance if it isn't your thing, let alone the accusations of cinematic malpractice frequently leveled at it.


Garden State, it's worth pointing out, got a very strong 86 percent at Rotten Tomatoes and a decent 67 points at Metacritic. Critics can be wrong, of course, but those numbers do suggest that the hostility towards Garden State isn't because it was a Terrible Movie That Everybody Agrees Was Terrible2.

In any case, the movie still means a lot to me, and I consider it among my favorite movies of all time. My DVD of the movie -- given to me, incidentally, by my AP comparative government teacher who bought it on my enthusiastic recommendation and subsequently hated it4 -- has been played more often than any other DVD I own, in part because Garden State has been one of my go-to AV comfort foods for a decade now. Here's why I think that is.

Junioritis

I saw Garden State at the start of my junior year of high school5, which is pretty much the best time for this sort of movie to have maximum impact. Consider this: Junior year is the oldest you'll be at high school without feeling like you're too old for high school.

In senior year, of course, high school feels irrelevant. You usually have the lightest course load -- a few AP classes here and there, or maybe a PE requirement you've been putting off, or study halls that transofrm into impromptu trips to the beach and/or Chili's. Or you've dual-enrolled at a local college and the physical high school itself is irrelevant. By October, you've probably applied to most of your favored colleges, and by January, most everybody knows where they're going after high school. It becomes very clear that your academic career will not end if you half-ass a SparkNotes-inspired Jane Eyre essay.

More importantly, the non-academic parts of your high school life start to feel irrelevant, too. Things that once seemed so important -- your friends' weekly movie night, emotional fallout from a failed relationship, trying to ask out someone you've been crushing on for months -- suddenly feel meaningless. As friends announce their plans to move to different cities, a sense of "We're probably never going to see each other again" hangs in the air; "We'll keep in touch on MySpace6" seems less an empty but well-intentioned promise and more an affirmation of just how far apart you guys will be.

Junior year is the opposite situation. College is still far enough away that high school still feels very real, but not so far away that you don't feel pangs of urgency -- oh shit, high school is halfway over! This is my last chance to leave this place with a bunch of amazing friendships, cool stories, and memories that'll last forever! It's this urgency that makes junior year so potentially transformational. It's the only year where high school feels both urgent and important because there's just enough time left that accomplishing goals seems both feasible and worthwhile but not enough time that you can afford to put it off.

And junior year is hopeful. There's hope that you really will be best friends forever with someone, instead of grimly thinking that all your high school friends are doomed to become "acquaintances with whom you occasionally get coffee and perfunctorily rehash old stories." There's hope that the parties or beach days or late-night coffee chats or road trips will still seem cool and significant and "what life is all about" two or three years from now. There's hope that a crush can be the one you love forever -- and not just your final pre-collegiate sex buddy a week before you each move into your dorms.

So if senioritis, broadly defined, is the apathy induced by the feeling that a particular stage of life (like high school) is no longer relevant because it will soon be over and nothing meaningful or important can be done in the time left, I think junioritis is the spurt of urgent activity caused by a realization that a particular stage of life is almost over coupled with the hope that there is still enough time left to do something meaningful and important.

Which brings me back to Garden State. The movie's main argument -- that allowing yourself to feel and experience life even if it hurts is better than numbing yourself to everything -- isn't exactly groundbreaking stuff, but for a junior who was very aware that high school was halfway over, it was a call to action: to build and deepen friendships and relationships, to trust my friends and share parts of my soul I had previously kept to myself, and to try to have completely original moments in human history.


In other words, typical high school angsty stuff. But I don't mean to sound dismissive; I'm grateful that Garden State was there to kick my ass into taking more emotional risks, and to assure me that whenever those risks resulted in some heartache, what I felt was better than not feeling anything at all.

Home and the "Garden State moment"

The other big takeaway from Garden State was one that only clicked once I came back home from college during my freshman year Thanksgiving break. In the movie, Zach Braff talks about "home":


You know that point in your life when you realize the house you grew up in isn't really your home anymore? All of a sudden, even though you have some place where you put your shit, that idea of home is gone. ... You'll see one day when you move out. It just sort of happens one day, and it's gone. You feel like you can never get it back. It's like you feel homesick for a place that doesn't even exist.

I wrote about this in my college newspaper as a part of a series of columns offering advice to freshmen. In the column, I defined the "Garden State moment" as "the moment where you feel that something with which you grew up that seemed so significant, comforting or protective just isn't all that relevant to your current life anymore," and offered as an example the moment when you come back home from college, visit an old friend, and discover that one or both of you have moved on.

What I didn't realize is that your twenties are a minefield of Garden State moments. Your twenties, after all, are these years that are filled with transition: new jobs, new cities, new people, new priorities. Your twenties are tough on every kind of relationship -- it's hard enough when you're making a conscious, concerted effort to maintain friendships; it's damn near impossible to rely solely on increasingly faded shared memories to keep them alive.

For all of Garden State's flaws, it does a remarkable job of capturing the feeling of lacking grounding and emotional homelessness. To be sure, there are more serious problems (e.g., actual homelessness), but for those wandering through their twenties, it can be soothing to the soul. I like this line from the now-defunct Premiere magazine's review: "Not since The Graduate has a movie nailed the beautiful terror of standing on the brink of adulthood with such satisfying precision."

I think Garden State is, in essence, a movie about not having your shit together, and the dislike -- if not necessarily the revulsion -- directed towards the movie is understandable if you have little patience for that. It's a movie that's awkward and heartfelt and messy and earnest, which can be tedious, but as far as losing your sense of home and finding a new one goes, "awkward and heartfelt and messy and earnest" is some kind of perfect.





1Except James Mercer's, I guess.

2Personally, I think it's some combination of: (1) how cool it is to hate Zach Braff now; (2) the navel-gazing films of often-poor quality that Garden State influenced; (3) a desire to put distance between one and a younger, presumably more embarrassing version of oneself that happened to like Garden State to prove unconsciously that one has matured; and (4) the desire for pop-culturally aware folks to show that they dislike the right things by being particularly vociferous about things that they normally wouldn't feel that strongly about, the way that people pretend to get all flustered and angry about Comic Sans3 even though nobody can articulate a real reason why they're that bothered by it. That, or they just really didn't like the movie. Whatevs, that's cool, too.

3Truthfully, I don't even like Comic Sans, but there's a smugness that permeates the Comic Sans hate, and smugness predicated on groupthink is kind of obnoxious. And the oft-stated reason for hating the font -- it's used in inappropriate settings -- doesn't really seem to justify the outsized scorn for it. WARNING: QUARANTINE ZONE - DEADLY AIRBORNE DISEASE! It looks weird, true, but do you really care? In conclusion, that's why all my emails and faxes at my previous job were in Comic Sans, and that's possibly why it is now my "previous" job.

4Well before the backlash, to his credit.

5I saw Garden State with who was, in theory, one of my close friends in high school. In practice, our friendship was kind of a disaster -- filled with angst and hurt feelings and so many awkward lunches in which none of our mutual friends were aware of how much we sometimes hated each other. But! She did become my go-to person with whom I could see off-the-beaten-path movies, a job that few of my other friends wanted, so I'm thankful for that. I remember taking her to see Brokeback Mountain, telling her it was a cowboy movie but omitting the fact that it was a movie about gay cowboys, and it was a moment of unbridled joy watching her shock at the first sex scene. I also took her to see Serenity; we went to a Sunday mid-afternoon show because I figured it'd be less crowded, but no -- we open the theater door, and we're immediately greeted with a packed theater and the scent of nachos and intense body odor. Yelling "For fuck's sake, Browncoats, I'm with a girl here!" was running through my mind. (She, like my AP government teacher, didn't really like Garden State, either.) 

6Yes, MySpace. This is a thing several people actually wrote in my yearbook. I'm old.