My favorite movie growing up was Tangled, an adaption of Rapunzel. Much like nearly all my runner-up choices for favorite childhood movie, the plot of Rapunzel can be boiled down as follows: damsel in distress meets impossibly dreamy male who saves her from said distress, all while a secondary, but ultimately more important, subplot details the two protagonists falling in love. Once you recognize this story arch, it’s almost impossible not to find it problematic. Why does society saddle its young women with the notion that they won’t be able to traverse the world without a strong man by their sides, or perhaps even more disturbing, the notion that those young women will never be happy in the absence of love?
I have had, as many other highschoolers can say, a few brushes with love, all of them brief and ultimately disappointing. To provide a metric, in the last year or so, five different people have told me they loved me. The powerful feminist in me wishes she could say she hadn’t let these men use the word “love” as a pawn to force her into submission, but that same powerful feminist knows lying won’t get her anywhere. Love is something that girls are taught subconsciously to yearn for from the time they can figure out how to get the CD player to run their prized blu-ray of Tangled. When those little girls grow up to be fifteen, a time when they feel worthless and ugly and all alone, and when a boy tells them that he loves them, they see their opportunity to escape from the tower they’ve been trapped in. If only life was like the media that had been crammed down their throats for the better part of a decade.
Maybe that’s an overgeneralization. In fact, I know that it is. I know that plenty of girls are either perfectly happy on their own, perfectly happy with in their romantic relationships with the opposite sex, or perfectly happy with their romantic relationships with the same sex (speaking of, forgive me for the unfortunate heteronormativity of this essay. I can, of course, only write what I know). I also know, though, that there are plenty of girls out there like me, who have been tricked into believing that love is the end-all-be-all to happiness. This is for them.
The first time a boy said he loved me, I was fifteen. It was over text, which definitely should have been a warning. I can still remember knowing deep down that it wasn’t true. But I was fifteen. Any sort of apprehension I might’ve had was drowned out by euphoria. It didn’t matter if I loved him back (for the record, I didn’t. In fact, I was forced to turn his advances down on multiple occasions because, for lack of a more eloquent way of phrasing this, he grossed me out); all that mattered was that I could finally be happy. After years of wallowing in my teenage angst and sadness, I was finally going to be set free. I had read about this in countless books, heard about it in countless songs, and seen it in countless movies: love was, without a doubt, to be the answer to all my problems.
The problem was, I didn’t love him, and I knew deep inside that he didn’t love me. But I certainly did not want him to know I didn’t love him, because what if I was wrong? What if he really did love me? I was counting on love for so many things! So I lied. I never told him I loved him, for that felt too egregious an offense, but I said it in my actions. I would text him nearly constantly, and when I wasn’t doing that, I would call him. I would help him with his schoolwork (even though he did everything in his power to convince me that he was far more intellectual than I, he certainly needed a fair bit of help figuring out synthetic division). I would walk with him to his classes, and I would always rehabilitate him whenever he talked badly about himself. If that seems manipulative of me, don’t worry because I ended up with the short end of the stick. When I eventually parted ways with him and began dating someone else, he took it upon himself to threaten to kill my date at a school dance, which ended in me being promptly broken up with and left to spend the rest of the dance crying my makeup, which had taken me hours to perfect, off in the bathroom.
Aristotle would call that relationship an example of love “for the sake of utility,” which of course, is not love at all. Love for the sake of transient things, like pleasure or usefulness, is doomed to end, “for each [does] not love the other person himself but the qualities he has, and these were not enduring.” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book IX, chapter 1.)
This boy used statements of love as a tool to get what he wanted from me, which was emotional support and math tutoring. Since I craved the validation and happiness that love promised, I resolved to do everything I could to make sure he remained “in love.” This was just as bad. When I inevitably got tired of feigning feelings, I stopped working so hard, and he felt the loss. I was free, but he was reeling, and in order to get back a sense of power, he sabotaged my next relationship.
The sad thing is, love doesn’t have to be true for its manipulative powers to take hold. In fact, true love holds no manipulative powers whatsoever. True love isn’t painful. Of course, that’s merely speculation on my part, but I’d be willing to bet that it’s accurate regardless.
I don’t want it to seem like I’m just ranting about an emotion that I don’t even fully understand. It’s true, I’ve never been in love, but sometimes, the absence of something can tell you a lot about its presence. When I’ve been in relationships where love was feigned, I felt like I needed to be at my best all the time so the object of my affection wouldn’t lose interest. When love is real, it doesn’t feel like constant work. In fact, it shouldn’t feel like work at all. It should just feel like you are at your best with whoever it is that you love, without even trying. Or at least that’s what I assume. It’s easy to feign love, though, when you think that you need it. So I guess that’s the real question that remains to be answered about love: why do people feel that they need it, so much so that they are willing to hurt and/or be hurt for it?
The explanation can be boiled down to this: young people don’t know what love is, but they do know that they need it. That’s a dangerous combination. It means that when they’re searching for this ever elusive “love,” their standards for it will be low. When I’ve been in situations where a boy told me he loved me, even if I suspected otherwise I always convinced myself to ignore those instincts. With no basis to recognize love, after all, how was I to know he was lying? Every time I have ever inquired as to what love feels like, I get the same answer: “You’ll know it when you feel it.” Sincere, maybe, but entirely unhelpful. There’s really only one work around that I’ve been able to come up with to alleviate this problem: self love. Cheesy, I know, but hear me out.
If you don’t love yourself, you’ll spend a lifetime searching for love from external sources, and you’ll never really know if that love is real. It’s hard to love yourself. I know that better than anyone else. It is infinitely easier to hear it from someone else. However, in the wise words of famed drag queen RuPaul Charles, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love anyone else?” Oh how I wish that quote wasn’t marred by profanity, because I would love nothing more than to use it in the school yearbook as one of my senior quotes. It’s something that every single person on this planet could use to hear. If RuPaul doesn’t quite get it done for you, though, take it from Aristotle.
Aristotle argued that a man’s relationship to himself is the beginning from where all his other relationships flow. It is important, therefore, that a man of good character “love himself best,” because that will ensure that he extends his noble traits to others, thereby benefiting society. (Nicomachean Ethics, Book IX, paragraph 8.)
If my relationship with myself is the starting point for how I deal with everyone else, then it’s all the more important I work hard not to fall for the fairytale ideal. If I wait for someone else’s love to rescue me from loneliness or boredom or imprisonment high in a castle, I’ll miss the chance to develop those skills for myself. And in underperforming I’ll wind up having less to give, not only to myself but to those around me.
Unfortunately, loving yourself is not a cure-all for the problems with love in young people. I hate to be the feminist who cried sexism, but it’s troubling to me how love accentuates an already prominent societal gender imbalance. I touched upon this briefly when I described how the media I consumed as a child fed into my fascination with love, but I simply cannot tell the full story of love and sexism if I don’t quote Margaret Atwood: “Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.” I know, block quotes are generally frowned upon, but if ever there was to be an exception, mustn’t that be it?
Women are taught that they must be appealing to men. That, in my mind, needs no further explanation. However, Atwood makes the point that in our male dominated world, it’s harder to escape the male gaze than one might think. Even in consciously trying to avoid living for men, isn’t that in some way buying into a fantasy of its own? In everything women do, there is a part of them that is catering to a male fantasy. A small part, maybe, but a part no less. I’m sure this isn’t accurate for every woman, but it’s accurate for me. So, in an existence so plagued by this notion of the male gaze, how am I not to fall victim to lovesickness? How am I not to long to be swept off my feet and carried off into the sunset by some man who noticed little old me?
Let’s return to Rapunzel. Lately I discovered that The Brothers Grimm, who are traditionally credited with writing this fairy tale, didn’t write it at all. In fact, there’s a very good chance that the original Rapunzel story was written by women. The Brothers Grimm, who are thought to have been quite sexist, adapted the original story into one that, instead of empowering women, taught them that they were utterly useless without men. How many other fairy tales were marred in this way? How much of the media I consume is subliminally convincing me that I need a man by my side?
Love has been used as a chain with which to bind young women. For girls who aren’t in relationships, there are constant reminders that convince them they can’t be happy until they receive the validation that a romantic partner would bring. For girls who are in relationships, love can be used to force them into submission. The only love that anyone can really trust is the love they have for themselves. So focus on that. Choose yourself. Forget Rapunzel. Forget Valentine’s Day. Forget the male gaze. Work on being happy with yourself. You are the only person that you will always have. Don’t forget that.
April 8, 2021