Last week I wrote about wooing – that process where you fall in love with someone who isn’t exactly repelled by you, doesn’t give you a definite “No,” but also doesn’t see the same future in the relationship you do – and you convince them, by your patient and faithful devotion, to fall in love with you too. It’s a process that has a long an honourable history in literature, folklore, mythology and pop culture.
But it’s also a process that has become somewhat suspect and tarnished by the fact that, so often, men have used “wooing” as an excuse to cover everything from stalking, to refusing to let a woman leave a relationship, right up to rape and murder (for the man who believes that if he can’t have her, no-one else should).
I said in that last post that I was wooed and won, when I was young, and I still believe there’s a place, within a relationship of mutual respect where you truly view the other person as a person, for a little wooing. A little courtship. A little “winning her heart.” Not every guy who sets out to get the girl is, in my view, a boor who can’t take no for an answer. My husband certainly wasn’t.
But what about the flip side – the woman who falls in love with a man who’s not as interested? Unrequited love can strike people of any gender (and of course I’m talking here within the paradigm of heterosexual relationships, but there’s lots of unrequited love going around in same-sex relationships too).
For most of my young life, during my high school and college years, I was the victim of a series of unrequited crushes, one-sided love affairs that the guys involved were probably completely unaware of. I was that “just one of the guys” girl, firmly friend-zoned long before that term was popularized.
Years later, when I was raising my own daughter and she played the Taylor Swift song “You Belong With Me” for me, I recognized the voice Taylor was channeling instantly. I was that girl – the happy-go-lucky, easygoing “just a friend” girl who passionately hoped that guy after guy would recognize he was REALLY meant to be with me, instead of with his popular, pretty girlfriend.
(PS — whatever you think of Taylor’s music and what she’s done with her career since those days, I still think this is just the cutest video. Despite the difficulty of making young Taylor look like a nerdy geek girl, this is still the nerdy geek girl’s fantasy for many young women. Certainly it was mine in high school).
Mythology and literature have glorified the man who pursues the woman of his dreams – whether he is in fact the perfect courtly knight, or just an ass who won’t take no for an answer. Mythology and literature have not been similar kind to girls like I was, or girls like Taylor sings about in that song (I somehow doubt Taylor herself was ever one of those girls, though you never know).
Men who pursue women are either romantic or dangerous; sometimes, sadly , there’s a fine line between the two. Though anyone can fall victim to an unrequited passion, the power dynamics are not the same. Even if you could somehow leave out, or get over, centuries of cultural conditioning telling (some) men that they can take whatever (whoever) they want (“when you’re rich and famous they let you do it”) … even without that cultural conditioning, the simply physical mechanics of male and female bodies mean that it’s much likely that a man will be able to force himself sexually on a woman who doesn’t want him, and/or to “punish” her with physical violence for rejecting his advances.
As a woman, if you’re pursued by a guy you secretly kinda like; it’s flattering. If you’re pursued by a guy you really don’t like, who won’t leave you alone, it quickly progresses from being pathetic, to being annoying, to being scary. I’ve seen it happen, with a friend in college whose unwanted date turned into a stalker. He was small and physically un-imposing; her friends treated it like a bit of a sad joke when she clearly told him “I don’t love you, I never have loved you, and I never will love you” and he kept hanging around. But then he kept hanging around, and we all slowly dawned to the realization that she had had much earlier: even a small, un-scary guy becomes scary when he won’t take no for an answer. (Fortunately in that case the stalking ended without violence, but largely because she graduated and moved away from the area).
Because women are far less likely to be physically threatening to men, the unwanted female suitor is usually not perceived as scary: rather, we’re left back at pathetic or annoying. While there are numerous cultural tropes of the knight who wins the fair (and initially reluctant) maiden, female wooers have far fewer role models, and their stories don’t end as well.
In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Helena is in love with Demetrius. He used to be in love with her, but he transferred his affections to Hermia. We don’t know why; as Hermia’s father is pushing for the match, there may have been economic considerations involved. But Helena assumes it’s because she’s ugly and her friend Hermia is beautiful. She pursues Demetrius shamelessly, suggests that she will follow him around like a dog and be willing to be beaten like a dog as long as she can be near him, insists that his contempt only makes her love him more. Even the watching fairies take pity on her as she utters the lines that sum up the plight of the woman caught in unrequited love:
“We cannot fight for love, as men can do
We should be wooed, and were not made to woo.”
Helena’s wooing is fruitless, but a dose of fairy love-potion sets things right. Demetrius falls in love with her again, and he’s the one character the fairies leave dosed at the end of the play rather than resetting him to “Normal” with the love-potion antidote. Helena gets her happily-ever-after, but only because the man she loves is drugged into returning her love.
Victor Hugo sketched the classic friend-zoned woman in Les Miserables, though it took the musical and lyrical genius of Alain Boulbil and Claude-Michel Schonberg to bring Eponine’s character gloriously and sadly to life in the musical. She adores Marius, but because Eponine is both dirt-poor and not particularly attractive, he ignores her in favour of the beautiful (and middle-class) Cosette.
Blithely unaware of Eponine’s devotion, Marius takes advantage of her friendship to have her run across a battle scene to bring a message to his beloved. This gives Eponine the opportunity to belt out her show-stopper, “On My Own,” in which she gives voice to “just friends” everywhere. Then she makes it back to the barricades in time to die in Marius’s arms.
Death seems to be the best possible fate, literarily speaking, for a woman in love with a man who rejects her (if you can’t arrange for fairies to dope him up for you). Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid sits forlornly in Copenhagen harbour as a reminder to women everywhere that if you fall in love with an unattainable prince, you’d better be prepared to lose your voice, walk on feet that feel like they’re being stabbed by knives, be banished from your underwater home, and eventually lose your life – and still not get the guy. Disney gives the Little Mermaid a happy ending, but the original story is the more haunting one, and truer to the experience of any woman who’s been willing to give up every shred of her identity and selfhood for a dude who never recognizes her value.
Fast-forward to late twentieth-century pop culture, past the feminist movement, and you might imagine things have gotten a bit better for women who fall in unrequited love. The 90s sitcom Friends is remembered both fondly and … un-fondly … for one relationship: the ten-year-long agonizing will-they-or-won’t they of Ross and Rachel, who were each at various times in unrequited love, pursued each other, rejected each other, got married and divorced and had a baby together before finally putting each other and the audience out of their misery in the final episode. But the most telling unrequited love story of Friends’s seemingly endless run wasn’t Ross and Rachel: it was Janice and Chandler.
Janice was originally only one of Chandler’s many unsuccessful relationships. Like Jerry Seinfeld’s dates in his similarly endless 90s sitcom, the women Chandler dated were fodder for jokes about a man who was afraid of commitment and looked for ridiculous flaws in his women as an excuse to bail on them. But Janice’s nasal Bronx accent and her delivery of “Oh. My. Gawd” and “Chandler BING!” were exactly the stuff of hackneyed sitcom tropes, so Janice kept coming back and back. And since they kept bringing her back, the punchline had to be that she wanted Chandler and he didn’t want her, till eventually the mere mention of her name could evoke a hunted look in Chandler’s eyes and a burst of canned laughter from the soundtrack.
At least Janice didn’t have to die on a Paris barricade, or turn to sea-form on a Danish beach, for love. Instead, she got to live and be ridiculed by the man she loved, all his Friends, and a viewing audience of millions. All for the audacity of doing what men have always been encouraged to do: pursue the one you want.
Our cultural tropes have never been kind to women wooers. Can we imagine a different world, and different stories to romanticize it? Can we imagine a world in which men and women are truly equals, both equally allowed to fall in love, to pursue the one they love, and to say no if they don’t want to be pursued? Where both men’s and women’s broken hearts are treated as genuine losses, not punchlines – but where neither poses a threat to the object of their love, either?
I’d like to live in that world. And I’d like to hear the love stories that world would tell.
But we’ve got a long way to go.