Features & Columns

The Book of Love

Pop culture has long given men a pass for bad behavior, but the rules are changing

The Book of Love | The Shame Exorcists

The roguish antics millennials grew up absorbing on film and TV don't fly anymore.

From Harvey Weinstein's desperate email to his industry bros asking for a "second chance," to Kevin Spacey's tone-deaf, "I now choose to live as a gay man" deflection, to Louis C.K.'s insistence on using the word "dick" in his apology letter, it seems that just about every Hollywood hotshot called out for sexual assault, harassment and misconduct has missed the mark when attempting to make amends. But can we really blame these men?

Well, yes. Of course we can. And we should—and will. But if the #MeToo movement is to amount to more than a collection of crushed careers and deflated male egos, our culture needs to undergo a larger paradigm shift.

And that starts with men—like me—recognizing how we got here to begin with; and, more important, what we can do to move away from and reject the societal currents that have spurred, exacerbated and even celebrated toxic masculinity.

Given that this all started with the toppling of a Hollywood studio mogul—and considering how many movie stars and television personalities have been swept up in its wake—it serves to take a look back at how movies and television have helped to mold and uphold the patriarchy.

As a millennial, born in 1985, I can personally attest that many of the films, TV shows and books that have served as cultural touchstones over the course of my life shaped my views on sex, courtship and gender norms. Now, in the wake of #MeToo, I—and my fellow millennial males—find that some of the titles we grew up on may seem more than a little dated.

Say Anything
In this John Cusack-starring romantic dramedy, Cusack's character Lloyd Dobler invades his ex-girlfriend's personal space (and her parents' private property)—blaring Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" on a boombox, which he has thrust defiantly over his head. Is this plucky persistence or something creepier?

Beauty & The Beast
Boys and girls alike have plenty of icky cues to take away from this film. For starters, Belle must choose between a stalker, Gaston—who can eat an alarming number of eggs, by the way—and a brooding, ill-tempered, man-bear-buffalo, who holds her prisoner. Furthermore, changing the beast's nasty demeanor seems to be wholly on our would-be princess's shoulders. He can be redeemed only with true love's kiss.

The roguish antics millennials grew up absorbing on film and TV don't fly anymore.

This Vince Vaughn- and Jon Favreau-starring buddy comedy may have been a genuine attempt to goose a little confidence into too-timid young men. If it was, too many shy guys missed the point. The movie is far too easily misinterpreted as a celebration of predatory misogyny—literally, one of the film's most famous scenes imagines Favreau's character as a bear and Heather Graham, a would-conquest, as his prey. There is a clear line to be drawn between Swingers and the pickup artist that would emerge in the early 2000s.

High Fidelity
It would be hard to overemphasize how large John Cusack films loom in this whole mess. In so many of his roles, Cusack plays a misunderstood underdog—the kind of dude guys are sure they are. If only she could see how intelligent, witty and sensitive Cusack's record store owner and DJ Rob Gordon is, she would leave that goober and get with him. But is he really a true romantic, or unbalanced? When he stands outside an ex's loft, in the rain, shouting "Charlie! You fucking bitch! Let's work it out," the answer is pretty clear.

Just as many of the men who are now associated with the alt-right were once called "South Park Republicans," it's inevitable that plenty of young bros failed to read the rampant sexism in this movie as a lampooning of old social mores—interpreting it instead as a kind of hilarious fart joke. I'll never apologize for liking Anchorman, but the womanizing antics of Ron Burgundy, Champ Kind and Brian Fantana aren't to be admired. Consider this movie a template for how not to behave in the workplace.

The Pickup Artist
It all came to a ghastly, Jamiroquai-top-hatted head with the VH1 show The Pickup Artist—a reality show where ridiculously dressed men attempted to teach poorly dressed men how to be more attractive and interesting, and how to avoid "the friend zone." This mostly involved a technique known as "negging," or intentionally being mean to women in the hopes that this would somehow make them more attracted to the poor saps on the show. Informed by tactics detailed in Swingers and the Tucker Max book I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell—among other dubious sources—this show, and the cultural moment it seized upon, represent the worst in our collective nature. Unfortunately it hit airwaves at a time when a sizeable chunk of the millennial cohort (born 1981 to 1997) were between adolescence and adulthood.

500 Days of Summer
While this Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt vehicle does perpetuate the misguided ideal of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, at least at the end of the film, our hopeless romantic seems to have truly moved on and appears to be genuine when he tells Summer that he hopes she's happy. Rolling into the 2010s, it would seem that some progress is being made.

The Mindy Project
Though other rom-com shows have featured strong leading-women—Will & Grace comes to mind—The Mindy Project feels like a turning point. While certainly very twee, here we have a professional woman of color pursuing love and sex on her own terms. This show, followed by other female-centered romantically driven shows, like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, served as primers to our current cultural moment.

Fifty Shades of Grey
When Fifty Shades went from the page to the big screen, it brought S&M into the mainstream. But experienced BDSM practitioners made a point of distancing themselves from the depiction of their sexual subculture in the wildly popular franchise. Combining sex and pain requires a level of self-awareness, communication and emotional maturity, but Anastasia and Christian's relationship is divorced from that kind of context. Before Ana even consents to being Christian's submissive, her new beau stalks her, tracks her movements through her mobile phone and computer, limits her social interaction and finally gets her to sign away her physical autonomy through threats and intimidation. From then on, Anastasia at times has sex because she's too shy to speak up or because she's afraid of losing Christian. While sexual domination and abuse can appear similar, they are very different. The 50 Shades books and the movies make no attempt to distinguish between the two.

I Love You, Daddy
What was set to be another movie about powerful, artistic men pulling beautiful young women into their orbit through their mental prowess turned into a cautionary tale for all those who would continue to perpetuate the status quo in Hollywood. Louis C.K.'s film, which had premiered to some favorable reviews at the Toronto Film Festival, lost its distribution deal after a number of women spoke out about C.K.'s exhibitionism.