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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Bad Romance and Toxic Relationships in Pop Culture

That's how the worst year of my life starts--in a Mustang with steamed-up windows, with a beautiful boy who cries. - Heather Demetrios, Bad Romance
I've heard black-capped chickadees my whole life, but it wasn't until I was an adult that I even knew what that noise was. It's something I generally associated with mornings in the summer. Most of the time people say it sounds like they're saying "cheeseburger," but when I looked it up I saw that some folks think they are saying "hey sweetie," which I greatly prefer because that is definitely what they are saying, especially to me. Because there are some days when I could use it (this is all of the days).

Chances are pretty good that you've heard them, too. You either immediately knew what I was talking about, or are about to watch this video and say, "THAT'S WHAT THAT SOUND IS." It's so ubiquitous, but because these are forest birds, they like to get way back into the trees, so like the opposite of good children, they are almost exclusively heard, but not seen.

I think birds are great and bird songs are also great. But like virtually every opinion I've made on this blog, it's probably not the predominant one. Like all good opinions that I have and you don't (yet) but will because I am very persuasive, birdsong takes a little bit of work before you get it. The best example I can think of is when Cypher is showing Neo the code in The Matrix and he says, "You get used to it. I don't even see the code. All I see is blonde, brunette, redhead." This is gross, of course, but it works for this analogy.

There is a drastically different experience of lying in bed on a Saturday morning with nothing to do and the cat, who is convinced that she is literally starving to death, is locked out and it's light outside but it's still cool and the blankets are all in a mess but, like, a perfect mess, and you're awoken by screechy birds. It makes you want to run around and just put your finger on their little beaks and say "shhh. Could you just, for one second of your useless little unimportant bird lives, just be at peace? Do you really need a mate, bird? Does this world need another thing that eats bugs and makes noise and poops on cars and can fly and then does nothing but rub that fact in my face? WHY CAN'T I FLY, GOD. WHY."

Then you're awake and the covers are suddenly itchy and your cat has picked the lock somehow and is in your face and there's a note on your pillow that says that your wife has left you and you just know that it's all that bird's fault. And you really need to pee. Listen, we've all been there a million times. You won't see this on any report because it's not true, but it's a known fact that 80% of marriages end because of Saturday morning bird nonsense. Look it up.

That experience is way different when you can see the code, and by which I mean you know what you're listening to. Suddenly your yard is this frickin wildlife reserve and it's full of these wild animals that grace your presence for a few hours every morning, living this life that doesn't need you. There's something holy about that. If you've been hiking or camping and had a moment where you watched a deer or bear (from a distance) have a morning drink from the lake, or an osprey stoop and dive into the water and emerge with a struggling fish and then calling out like a red-tailed hawk like in the movies, you know this moment. That there's a whole world that exists apart from this one in which we're all very stressed about our jobs and relationships and whether or not we'll score a Super Nintendo Classic.

With a little knowledge and practice, you see wildlife everywhere. You hear it everywhere. And that thing that bothered you and ran away wives 3, 5, and 6 (and husband who was number 4) is now meaningful. It doesn't sound like noise, it sounds like blonde (house finch), brunette (chickadee), and redhead (you'd think this would be red-naped sapsucker but really it's just the neighbor who sings a lot). It's pleasant, then. It's like if you don't know a foreign language and think the teens at the mall are making fun of you in Spanish, but later when you know Spanish you still don't know what they're saying because slang is hard.

This can go both ways, though. I imagine that if you work for the CIA you look around you and think, nobody else knows how close we are to catastrophe every minute of every day. Or if you're an ecologist and look at every landscape and imagine it scorched by fire or overtaken by weeds along with the family cabin. You camp and look around at the beautiful forest and wonder how long it will hold up to a rapidly warming earth and put a smile back on and play your hand at cards around the picnic table.

I guess what I'm saying is that knowledge is always good, but sometimes it can ruin the things you love. For example, if you take some training about emotional abuse it will ruin virtually every romantic movie and TV show subplot. I mean there's the easy ones, like Twilight, that are basically an instruction manual for unhealthy relationships. Like, teen girls should be pretty suspicious of guys who are three years older than them showing an interest, let alone centuries. If a guy's only real redeeming quality is that he has a driver's license and half of a mustache, that's pretty weak sauce and girls his age see right through it. Imagine if he's lived through the entirety of US History and he thinks that 16-year-old you is "so interesting."

So Edward watches Bella sleep, pretty clear red flag there. When 50 Shades of Grey guy (I think is name is Gary?) lies, controls, and intimidates 50 Shades of Grey girl (Darlene?) a lot of us recognize it as very unhealthy. I mean, those books sold more copies than every book I've read combined even if you only counted women in my church ward, but there are zillions of think pieces about it. In most cases you take away those guys' money and suddenly it's a very special episode of Blossom, the one about protective orders.

Something in me is dimming, something that I already know I can’t get back. But you’re worth it. You are. I will tell myself this for several more months. And when I realize you aren’t worth it, it’ll be too late.

But the more you learn, the more skeeved out you get about the so-called "cute" romances. Like Ross and Rachel on Friends. Like Belle and Sebastian The Beast. Like Rick Grimes at the end of Love, Actually. Danny and Sandy from Grease. Even Snape. We think Snape's love is so pure, but it isn't. Snape's love is obsession without consent. It's romantic because we don't have to watch Lily Potter live every day of it, every day at school with him watching her from a distance and staring daggers at her boyfriend. Lily made her choice, Snape. Your pining isn't sweet or tragic. It's gross. Dumbledore is gross, too. Instead of helping a man in pain work through it and realize the thing that he thinks he lost is something he never had in the first place, he instead exploits it, wafting it in front of a broken man's nose like a carrot in a Bugs Bunny cartoon in order to get what he wants.

The thing that's so creepy about all of these relationships is a very simple prediction of how they would turn out if they actually worked in real life. We rarely if ever get to see it play out, because it's bad. The kinds of guys who pine over a woman who doesn't love them back see her not as a human being, but as a possession. Often they don't actually spend enough time with them to know them for anything other an an idealized fantasy they've built up. If they got together, there's no way she could ever live up to that standard, and so he starts trying to mold her into that through control and intimidation.

I looked through my blog posts, and while I've talked quite a bit about physical domestic violence, I've rarely talked about emotional abuse. This is a shame, because multiple studies show that emotional or psychological abuse has longer-lasting impacts than physical abuse, though it's barely discussed in the media. And, as we can see with only a cursory glance at pop culture, it's often glorified.

Once you've had some training on it, you see the warning signs everywhere. The old cliche where a woman is complaining about something a man is doing and he grabs her and kisses her hard. At first she struggles, and then she submits and it's very romantic. Yeah. That doesn't happen. Or the public serenade. Or the climbing of the fire escape or roof and appearing in someone's window. Stranger Things rules, right? But Jonathan taking pictures of his crush through her window without her knowing it is not cute and it's not sweet and it should land him in jail. I was at a live performance of The Music Man and during the Marian, Madame Librarian song, the joke was that he kept tricking Marian (The madame librarian) into dancing with him against her will. It was for comedy! The Music Man is one of my favorite musicals ever (Is he starting to memorize jokes from Captain Billy's Whiz-Bang? Are certain words creeping into his conversation? Words like "swell" and "so's your old man"? If so my friends, ya got trouble!) but still it gave me a bad taste in my mouth.

We put up with a lot of these things because we're rooting for the couple and we know they're going to end up together and really let's just get on with it. And big romantic gestures are fun when you like the person to begin with. The problem is when you don't. In these cases they are bad and we should not do them even if the movies tell us to. You don't bring flowers to a first date and you don't give elaborate gifts to someone who you don't know. Nobody gets to skip straight to boyfriend and girlfriend or husband and wife or whatever. You work on that.

When Robin Hood the fox competes in a contest to win a kiss from Maid Marian (who is also a fox in more ways than one, you guys), he's the only one who isn't creepy in that whole competition. Prince John is a creep for even suggesting it, and what's the deal with that turtle who is clearly a married dad getting in on that? That only works because they already like each other. "Hey, remember me? We were kids together. Will you marry me?" Man, I love that movie.

Anyway, I had this problem, you guys. This post is for teen me. I watched Can't Hardly Wait, and I was like, "this is about me." I had these epic crushes that lasted for years and imagined that graduation day kiss. But unlike the movies, this one didn't have a main protagonist that everyone was rooting for. Everyone was on their own and doing the best they could and the girls I crushed on actually got to make their own decisions about life and I wasn't in them which is totally how it should be.

I don't let it bother me that you sang that song to me last Christmas because it's not yours and you can't have it.

Wow, this has gotten long. Here's the book I read: It's called Bad Romance, by Heather Demetrios. It tells a deeply convincing story of an emotionally abusive high school relationship, based on the experience of the author itself. The story is told in retrospect, in which a scarred and cynical Grace tells her story to her abuser. No longer in the thick of it, she recognizes the warning signs, which at the time she saw as romantic.

She's obsessed with Gavin, the school rock star, who manages to be attractive in spite of wearing a fedora. Every girl wants him, and Grace is astonished when he chooses her. When he gets jealous, she gets it, and it makes her feel special that this guy loves her so much that he wants her all to himself. Even when things get bad, he'll pull a grand gesture and win her back. Always there is the threat that if she leaves him, he'll kill himself.

People who make each other this unhappy should break up. Duh. But right when I think I'm going to do it, something good will happen. Something that reminds me why you're my soul mate, like convincing the person who runs the mall's audio to let you sing a song for me, live, during one of my shifts.

Grace hates it at home, where her controlling stepdad keeps her and her mother under his thumb, her mother in turn taking it out on her. She calls her stepdad The Giant, because his footsteps terrify them and his voice booms.

He's an accountant with a business that costs more than it makes, but his true calling, I think, is acting: he's so very talented at pretending to be a good person.

If the story were told from the in love version of Grace, the one who only saw the good in Gavin, it would read like half of the romantic teen fiction (I'm told) is out there. He sneaks into her room when she's asleep like stupid Angel always did on Buffy. He watches her at school even after he's graduated. He writes songs for her and takes her on surprise trips. When he plays shows, every girl in the audience wants him and he singles her out special and sings just to her. You could see girls on social media pine for their own Gavin.

But Grace knows better now.

I wish I could warn every girl you're going to meet, tell them that your hotness and sexy songs and enigmatic smile aren't worth the cost of the ride. I wish I could put a warning label on you.

Demetrios clearly wants to counteract the messages teens are getting. She wants to teach the warning signs. In the back of the book there is a list of resources and her own story. But it's not a very special episode of Blossom. For one thing these teens swear so much, almost as much as real teens. And Grace still has fun. Her friends are great and funny and this book isn't as dark as it sounds. I think teens should read it, even though it can be pretty adult sometimes. Dudes especially should read it, both as a warning of what not to do and a warning of what to watch for. Emotional abuse isn't just perpetrated by men against women. It happens both ways. It's good to see the warning signs in your partners and yourself.

Also, learn the bird calls. Trust me on this one.

You're a maze, all high edges and endless loops. I can't find a way out, can't see where I've been. It's all running, lost in the dark of you. Trapped. Everywhere I turn is a dead end. I keep winding up back where I've started.