thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Bad Boyfriends and “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.”

In books, feminism on June 23, 2014 at 12:07 pm

Sarah Todd

I was a little afraid to read The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Adelle Waldman’s 2013 novel has a reputation for being unflinchingly honest about men’s attitudes towards women—or at least about the attitudes held by certain privileged intellectual men who inhabit Brooklyn and other hipster enclaves. Unflinching honesty in that particular realm sounded like it might be annoying. Or depressing. Or both.

“I guess if I learned about women what the book puts on display about men, I don’t know if I could function in some ways,” a male interviewer told Waldman last month.

I think it’s better to know what we’re dealing with than to be deceived,” Waldman replied.

What was inside this book? I wondered, all agog. Are all the sad young literary men actually just three hobgoblins standing on top of each others’ shoulders, bickering about the new sincerity? Do they poach baby unicorns and use their horns to trumpet explanations about neoliberalism and the brilliance of Louis C.K.?

As it turns out, Waldman’s bright, sharp comedy of manners is an invigorating rather than terrifying read. What’s more, I’m pretty sure the book does an enormous public service by describing the inner life of a dude who feels bad about hurting the women he dates—but not badly enough to stop doing it.

Men, Waldman’s novel makes clear, are only able to get away with treating women poorly because we live in a culture that dismisses close scrutiny of their behavior. Dating is seen as a trivial subject, the territory of light romantic comedies and books with tropical-colored covers. Who cares if a guy starts snapping at his girlfriend when she asks if he’s tired or whether he’d like eggs for breakfast? What’s the big deal if a dude pursues a woman for weeks only to do the fear-of-commitment dance when she finally agrees to go out with him?

The big deal, of course, is that misogyny often both underlies and excuses these kinds of romantic misdemeanors. And while Love Affairs is often funny, Waldman takes the patriarchal mores guiding the bad behavior of her titular character quite seriously. By peering into the moleskin-bound heart of the liberal chauvinist, she takes away his power.

Nate, to be fair, is hardly a monster. He’s just realistically awful to date. A Harvard grad who spent his twenties scraping by on freelance writing assignments that afforded him only the scratchiest toilet paper, he’s finally sold his first novel. Already it’s generating buzz. When we meet him in his early thirties, he’s at home in his circle of socially-conscious, theory-loving writers and editors and content in his sloppy apartment in a gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. All in all, it’s good to be Nate—except when a woman starts weighing on his conscience.

This happens fairly often. Dating feels to Nate “like treading on weakness.” He can’t understand women, “with their wide-open hopefulness, their hunger for connection and blithe assumption that men wanted it just as badly.”

Nate himself is confident that he can be a productive, happy citizen without needing some deep romantic connection—a conviction borne out over the course of his five-month relationship with Hannah, a smart, grounded writer with whom he could have found love, if he’d wanted to.

Instead Nate slowly starts turning down Hannah’s brunch invitations and spending more nights at his place, brooding silently over meals and subway rides and barking at his girlfriend when she asks if he’s feeling all right. His transgressions are often so subtle, so plausibly innocent in a different context, that it’s easy for him to paint Hannah as the irrational one when she gets upset at his behavior.

But as Waldman knows, and as most women know, Hannah’s not wrong.

*****

Nate is an expert in setting the women he dates up for failure. For one thing, while he’s all for feminism in theory, in practice he criticizes women for nearly everything.

Hannah’s large stand-alone mirror, draped with scarves and belts, is proof that women on the whole are vain and materialistic. Her unflattering jeans are proof that she’s not using her mirror correctly. His friend Aurit’s persistent interest in inquiring about his relationships just goes to show that women are obsessed with personal life and insufficiently interested in subjects like peace in the Middle East. His ex-girlfriend’s affection for books about women’s relationships with their best friends and mothers and sisters is evidence that she’s ultimately not that interested in serious literature, which statistically speaking tends to be written by men—not that women aren’t capable of great thoughts, of course.

These judgments against women are part and parcel of Nate’s insecurities about how the person he chooses to date impacts his social status and self-image. When he was dating his ex—the wide-eyed and delicate but “girly, high-maintenance” Elisa—Nate’s “stock rose subtly” among his circle of friends and acquaintances. “Other men sized him up with their eyes,” Waldman writes. “Waiters and maître d’s were more deferential.” In other words, Elisa was for a time the perfect accessory, her beauty a validation of Nate’s own worthiness.

On Nate’s first date with Hannah, however—a tall, pretty woman whom Nate describes on first meeting as possessing “the loose-limbed quality of a comic actor, goofy and self-conscious, good-humored but perhaps a bit asexual”—he realizes that his friend Jason would probably rate her as a seven. “He didn’t like the idea of dating girls Jason wouldn’t,” Waldman writes. “That seemed wrong, since Nate was clearly the better person—more successful as well as more deserving.”

The issue isn’t that Nate’s not attracted to Hannah: He is. It’s that his tendency to objectify women leads him to devalue her. In one particularly mean passage, he tunes out her conversation so as to better focus on the slightly loose skin of her triceps.

Nate also has all kinds of theories about women’s intellectual capabilities, or lack thereof. For one thing, he believes that while women are “just as capable of rational thought” as men, “they just didn’t appear to be as interested in it.”

“They were happy to apply rational argument to defend what they already believed but unlikely to be swayed by it, not if it conflicted with inclination or, worse, intuition, not if it undercut a cherished opinion or nettled their self-esteem,” Nate thinks to himself. He also finds that men are more willing to undertake a “disinterested aesthetic appraisal of literature or art” whereas women “were more likely to base judgments on a thing’s message, whether or not it was one they approved of, whether it was something that ‘needed saying.’”

What Nate fails to realize is that his insistence on prioritizing aesthetics over messages and rational argument over ideals has everything to do with his privilege. He has less of a stake in things that “need saying” because he’s a straight white dude with an Ivy League degree; nothing much needs saying on his own behalf. He has no clue that his opinions and ideas are just as much the result of the dreaded personal identity factor as those of the women he secretly looks down upon.

Waldman further reveals Nate’s internalized misogyny when he assumes that any woman who disproves his pet theories must be operating under the influence of a male authority. On his first date with Hannah, she offers up a contrarian theory about populism and literature. Since her position is unconventionally feminine, according to Nate’s understanding of the universe, he decides that she’s probably parroting a male professor.

This is far from the only time Hannah challenges Nate’s assumptions about women. He understands that she’s just as good a writer as he is, though not as successful—largely because she has less confidence about the value of her work. When they fight, she finds a reasonable way to resolve the disagreement before bed, a move that Nate both appreciates and finds to be a bit of a turn-off. He’d been so looking forward to proving that he was the rational one.

Ultimately, Nate’s understanding of his girlfriend’s many fine qualities does nothing to save their relationship. In fact, their brief time together makes it clear that Nate doesn’t want a relationship of equals. He wants a woman who will make him feel good about himself. And in order to feel good, he needs a woman who meets a more universally agreed-upon standard of extreme desirability, someone blonde and petite, smart but nonetheless intellectually inferior. Oddly enough, his respect for Hannah on a moral and intellectual level is part of what dooms the two of them from the start.

Nate himself comes to realize this after their breakup. “His relationship with Hannah had shown him things about himself that he wasn’t entirely proud of,” Waldman writes, “about what he really valued in a woman and what he claimed to value but could live without.”

Nate, as it turns out, can live without a lot of things, mutual esteem among them.

The news that there are men who think and act this way is hardly a shocker for members of the opposite sex, contrary to the fears expressed by Waldman’s interviewer. I would guess that most women who date men understand there’s a risk we’ll accidentally fall for a self-absorbed jerk who breaks our hearts. Yet we’re able to function just fine.

In fact, I’d venture that Waldman’s book is far more frightening a prospect for the Nates of the world, the unintentional cads. Just as Hannah shows Nate up to himself, so does the Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. force readers to confront the gender politics exposed by romantic bad form.

Nate’s fantasies and prejudices with regards to women are the product of the place he occupies in a patriarchal society. While he imagines himself as a liberal, feminist progressive, his actions in the dating arena prove that he’s actually absorbed a lot of very retrograde ideas about women. Moreover, his behavior toward Hannah and the other women he dates is self-serving on an individual and social level, perpetuating both his image of himself as a serious, rational, intellectually high-status man and a power structure in which women are under-valued and treated as alien. Seen in this light, the subject of men who treat the women they date with less consideration than they deserve isn’t at all trivial or easy to dismiss.

The good news is that women don’t have to date Nate. They can date reliably kind, open and straightforward people, who really do exist even in the wilds of Brooklyn. They can date no one at all and go howl at the moon by the shore of the nearest body of water while the wind whips through their hair, which is always a glorious option.

Dating is messy and confusing enough without throwing men who fundamentally don’t like or respect women that much into the mix. I’m picturing a future in which The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. lights up every woman’s Kindle on the F train, appears tucked between every lady’s pair of hands at the organic wine bar on a Saturday afternoon. If enough of us read Waldman’s book, the stock of the Nates of the world may just take a turn for the worse.

Related links:

Marriage Woes: “House of Cards” and Critiquing Marriage

“I Don’t Think We Owe Anyone a Second Chance”: Katie Heaney on Dating and the Single Life

“The Dating Obsession”

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