This is a cold war: On romance

By | February 14, 2011

Sometimes I think I’m just a strange bird, my loves, and not only because I think of “Fat-Bottomed Girls” as a love song (and I do — it is also a sex song, and sex is often a part of love, though I affirm the right of others to take a different view of things — I can only speak for myself, after all).

My feelings with regard to Valentine’s Day are nonexistent, neutral, null; I have a lack of reaction to it. I usually forget that it’s happening. This has always been true. I have a romance problem, or rather a romance deficit. This is not to say that I have experienced a lack of romance, but that I lack an appreciation for romantic gestures. Passion, I understand. But romance has always made me vaguely uncomfortable. There is a pressure associated with being a female-identifying person on the receiving end of romantic shenanigans: I feel expected to giggle and coo, to blush and smile sheepishly, most of all, to be grateful. I’ve always felt a bit guilty about my lack of proper response to romance. Is my inner ladyness defective?

During the summer of 1997, between my sophomore and junior years of college, I spent four to five nights a week hanging out with a friend who’d recently broken up with a long-term partner. We usually spent time at my place, sometimes at his, listening to music and talking, sometimes watching a movie. Unfortunately, this led to my developing a brutal and overwhelming crush. Poetry was involved. Oh yes. At the end of the summer I revealed my feelings in my usual candid (albeit understated) way and suffered the worst response of all: the non-response. The “Oh, okay,” response. It was a tragic let-down, and no amount of copious props from my friends for my willingness to be honest could cushion the blow. I didn’t understand their amazement anyway: I had always been honest with people when I liked them. Sometimes it worked out; sometimes it didn’t.

My crush took the low road and decided to blow me off altogether after that. This decision still astonishes me, as I had made plain that even if nothing came of my confession, I cherished this person’s friendship — and I had been a good friend as well, supportive and reliable, regardless of my more-than-friendly feelings. I ran into my former crush in a local cafe immediately before an afternoon class the following January, and the interaction even six months later was stilted and awkward. By then I was over it, and I was mostly angry with myself for allowing my usually-sharp sense of people’s character to be misled with this individual.

Then I went to class and met the guy I would eventually marry. My interest in him at that point was exclusively physical, as he was obnoxious and arrogant and occasionally insufferable (still is). I tipped my hand early. After a few false starts, we were dating regularly, and what I’d planned on being a no-strings rebound turned into an epic lifelong project of a relationship that continues to this day. Since then there have been ups and downs and catastrophes and superlatives and awesome good times and it’s still a surprise to me that it’s even happened.

I never intended to get married before I was 30, if at all. My lack of interest in romance was always something about which I felt a sharp ambivalence. Shouldn’t I feel something? Am I frigid? Even as a teenager, while I had physical interest in (and physical relationships with) other people, I did not long for the sweet prom date, the stroll hand-in-hand on the beach, the kiss in the moonlight. I felt as though I was broken — in this way as in so many others — that I was deeply, deeply flawed, and I didn’t know if I wanted to be fixed.

On last night’s Grammy Awards, the criminally underrated Janelle Monae performed “Cold War”. I first saw the song’s intimate video (embedded above) in August of last year, and wrote half a blog post about it before I lost the thread of why it affected me so profoundly. Monae’s work speaks to society’s outcasts in a manner far too subtle for many people to hear — it requires us to stop talking, for once, and listen. The video consists entirely of a bare-shouldered Monae in close-up, singing the words to a lonely audience. At one lyric she falters: “I’m trying to find my peace / I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me.” She tries to shake it off, tries to smile, to bring it back, but she can’t and instead she cries. In three minutes and forty-four seconds, Monae embodies the frustration, the forced facade, and the sheer abject sorrow of finding oneself on the margins of culture and society, again and again and again. She dances a little at the bridge, bobbing her head around like this is nothing, this is who I have to be, and tears come anyway.

I would wager that most of the resistance to Valentine’s Day finds its roots in a similar desire to not be marginalized, to not be reminded that culturally, if you have no relationship — or at least no strictly defined, socially-acceptable relationship — you do not matter, and that you are not valuable until someone else loves you, that without that external validation your life cannot be complete. In this way we are taught to rely on outside approval for our self-esteem, and how well it’s worked out for all of us. Valentine’s Day is a day when even those who don’t generally question social constructions stop and notice that they suddenly feel terrible about themselves for no good reason, just because they are single, or at least not monogamously partnered.

This compulsion toward self-recrimination and reproach is grotesque and unjust and I wish I could tell everyone to ignore it — that it comes from nothing and it means nothing. Whether you long for the dizzy heights of epic romance or you want nothing to do with that, whether you prefer to be partnered or prefer to be solitary or prefer to not be pinned down or prefer not to have sexual relationships at all: there is nothing wrong with you. You’re not perfect — no one is. We are all damaged and flawed. We will all change over the course of our lives, sometimes by tiny shifts and sometimes by leaps and bounds. But there is nothing wrong with us, and when we hear otherwise it’s only the vapid babbling of a culture that defines us and places limits on our experience and calls us wrong.


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