I was arguing with a friend the other day about which is true: that our (middle-class American) problems today are way too big or much too small. He thinks they’re too small — food, water, shelter, and sex are here in abundance, and everything is too easy.
I think the opposite. I look around and I see pandemics waiting to wreak havoc, I see violent ideologies gaining steam, and I see a breakdown in relations between the sexes. I know: One of these things is not like the other. But dang it, I’m 22 and single and it’s the last that keeps me up at night as I wrap an arm around myself and pretend it’s someone else’s.
I’ve read your bio and know you used to write comics for a website called suck.com, so I imagine you have at least a fingertip on the pulse of the more, shall I say, cynical side of the internet? If you do, you know that for every woman in America there’s an article about how men are the root of society’s ills, how men are so violent they must be rounded up and taught not to rape women, how men should be reduced to 10 percent of the population. And you also know that for every man in America there’s an article about how women are overgrown, spoiled children, how women have babies to use as pawns in nasty divorces, how women only like guys who will slap them across the face every once in a while.
I may be single and fairly young, but I’ve dated and known enough men to know that when women make their broadly disparaging comments, they’re speaking from bitterness and not reality. I can honestly tell those women, no, not all, and point to the possible good points of dating a man: security, honesty, excitement, and more.
I find I’m not as eloquent when I argue with the imaginary angry guys in my head as I am when I argue with the imaginary angry women. And so I wonder: What do men want, Polly? What could they possibly get out of a relationship with a woman that would be worth their dates with all those ditzy narcissists and manipulative gold diggers?
Not a Gold Digger, Just a Girl
So, if I’m hearing you correctly, you have no trouble explaining to women (in your head) that not all men are rapists, but you do struggle to explain to men (in your head) that not all women are narcissists and gold diggers?
How many women do you know well? Because I haven’t met a lot of truly terrible women in my 45 years on the planet. I also haven’t met that many truly terrible men. I’ve met a lot of great people, and some good people, and a few people who clearly had decent intentions but who were products of a wrong-headed culture, or scapegoats of their very unhealthy families, or victims of their own unexamined emotional turmoil.
If you grew up in a family that valued money above everything else, but that didn’t show you much love — to the point where you weren’t even sure what love was, exactly — then you’d be likely to conflate money with love. Money, to you, would look like survival. “Winners have money,” you’d think, “and losers swoon over other losers and get nowhere.” Hell, you might believe this if you only had a borderline shitty childhood and turned on the TV occasionally. Love, meanwhile, might just look like a sneaky joke to trick you out of your dress. And if no one you knew loved what they did for a living, or no one bothered to tell you what they did love, you might think having a career was a way of getting tricked into an endless miserable slog toward mediocrity.
Digging for gold might make simple sense under those circumstances. It might make simple sense under a lot of circumstances. For some women, years of abuse adds up to seeing men as the enemy. They don’t come up with that view in a vacuum. Do you know how many young women have already accumulated more than a few deeply traumatic experiences, the likes of which would test any woman’s ability to keep an open mind about the opposite sex? You’re very young and maybe a little bit lucky so far, so you’ll be forgiven for not having considered this before. Consider it now.
While you’re at it, familiarize yourself with the world around you. Consider the fact that women are treated like chattel on a good chunk of the planet. I get that you want to remain in the good graces of the men around you, but trust me, no one respects a traitor to her own gender. No one, not even a serious douche bro, doesn’t recognize that for the ignorant, self-hating, suck-up maneuver that it is.
And consider the fact that, all things considered, being an accessory on someone’s arm might just have its appeal, particularly if you grew up being told that 100 percent of your value depended on how pretty you were. When you’re young and men are the most interesting creatures in the room to you, it’s easy enough to encounter other women — angry women, older women, so called “desperate” women — as “bitter.” As you get older, though, you’ll find that most women come by their bitterness pretty honestly, either through truly terrible experiences or just by being immersed in a culture that diminishes everything — Every. Fucking. Thing. — that they do.
I called myself a feminist as a young woman, at a time and place when that wasn’t so popular. I raved about the glories of Adrienne Rich and Nancy Chodorow (a feminist sociologist who asserted that as long as females are the primary caretakers of children, children will grow up with a warped view of gender roles and of their own worth). But all along, I was an ally to men, first and foremost. Men were misunderstood! Men got the short end of the stick. Men were lovable and pure (like Hobbits!), and women were sneaky and bad (like Gollum!). “It wants an extra expensive birthday present from Barneys,” the women hissed all around me, but I wasn’t like them. I was pure and loving and still sexy and fun and super awesome!
You see where I’m going with this? Being 22 years old and single is its own particular challenge, probably now more than ever. But facing that challenge by making yourself feel superior to other women is not a good look, and it will leave you a million times more bitter than you’d become by making crass but pragmatic decisions about who to fuck based on their balance sheets.
Men and women alike are underestimated and mistreated by each other, by our culture, and by themselves. Men are up against a giant heap of tireless bullshit in their lives. I wouldn’t be a man if you paid me. I’m extremely thankful not to have had to take on that particular blend of emotional and societal pressure. But women have been treated like animals for much of human history. To close your eyes to that fact, and to not recognize how it still forms the guiding narrative of our culture, to remain ignorant to the strains of sexism and the raw hatred of women that’s embedded in everything we do EVEN TODAY, is self-defeating and ignorant in the extreme. Sure, it’s easier by far to paint men as oppressed and become an outspoken advocate for those poor guys. It will get you laid for a while. But in the long run, you’ll look back and feel queasy over it. You’ll be ashamed of your own ignorance. I get that this is your signature look right now, but trust me on this. You’ll look back on this time and cringe the way I cringe when I see photos of that one time I got a really bad perm WITH PERMED BANGS.
Opening your eyes to the sickness of your own culture doesn’t have to mean becoming “bitter” — although you’d be forgiven for feeling that way. Bitterness is something I myself embrace occasionally, but it’s the easiest route, just as easy as calling all women gold diggers and narcissists, or pointing to specific women who were raised to value money and their own good looks above everything else, and saying, “These humans are not only evil for surviving by believing exactly what they were taught, they are representative of an entire gender.” Same thing for men who were taught, by their fathers and their mothers alike, to treat women like their own personal handmaidens. We can only try to change this picture by recognizing how completely formed by our cultural norms we are, and by working tirelessly to change our culture, to change the gendered messages that kids receive about their value and their rights at a young age, to give kids and young people and adults the tools to choose their own destinies freely.
As far as the even bigger picture goes, my feeling is that if you have enough time to lose sleep over pandemics, you’re probably pretty goddamn lucky to begin with. It’s always the boom times that bring out the worry warts. I remember when I was 29 years old (in 1999) and I was deathly afraid of the Y2K bug. Thanks to Prince, I’d spent my whole life planning to party like it’s 1999 in 1999, but noooo, the fucking IT guys had to spoil it for me. (Please note: This is not a nod to current events; I wrote this Prince reference four days before Prince died. Prince forever!)
1999 was also the year that everyone was running around talking about the revival of Hollywood glamour (which they’ve somehow also been doing every single year since). I remember how much this talk of “glamour” rubbed me the wrong way. How dare they? People were barely fucking surviving out there, and all of these rich olds with their heads up their asses thought obscene excess was somehow not just okay but super fun and important and sexy. That show Cribs started the following year. People at the corner store were talking about buying Cisco stock. Boom time madness!
When you’re young and single, the whole world gets under your skin. You HAVE to believe the world is full of enemies, because you’re afraid that if you’re not vigilant, you’ll end up sleeping with some creepy mutant who secretly sees you as a subhuman half-person who’s going to blow him every night and make him scrambled eggs every morning, or a seductive cipher who secretly sees you as a bank account. But you have to remember that you’re not courting the entire human population. You’re just looking for one person who makes sense. That person is not going to be creepy, obviously. You will pay attention and you’ll make sure. That person will be a lot like you: somewhat bewildered, somewhat aware, constantly tempted to take the easier route to simple answers, to superiority, to alienation, to learned helplessness, but too deeply principled and too pure-hearted to ever stay in that easy place for too long.
You’ll find smart, good-hearted men and women out there. But in order to find them, NAG (how fitting, that even your acronym is an unfair stereotype of female behavior!), you’re going to have to set aside some of your preferred intellectual positions, the ones that make you feel cooler and better than everyone else. It’s funny because when I wrote for suck.com, I’d get a letter from an older person who told me the same thing almost every other day, and it always made me laugh out loud. “Haw, haw, haw, this old fucker thinks that my ability to see clearly how rotten and fucked up the world is is just an elaborate way of seeming cool!” I didn’t understand what these people were trying to tell me. They were trying to say, “OPEN YOUR HEART, DUMMY. Don’t keep yourself safe from the world. Don’t hide behind your bulletproof rhetorical positioning, just because you’re smart enough to try.” You don’t have to be the best, sexiest, most “I already knew that” lady on the block! You don’t have to be better than all the rest, just to have love in your life, just to feel strong and confident and sexy.
Love comes to the woman whose eyes and heart are wide open. Educate yourself. But then stop debating everything and feel what you feel. Dare to be vulnerable. Dare to care more than a tiny bit about the most embarrassing, soft, sentimental squishy things. Admit that it’s not JUST that pandemics seem scary. You’re afraid of being alone, afraid that the world could end and you’d still be alone, afraid that no one will ever see you clearly, that no one will ever see straight into your big, big heart.
You have to show your heart for other people to see it. Stop leading with your big brain, and show your heart. Show it even when people humiliate you for it. Show it even when it feels weak and sad to do so. When you show your heart, the whole world lights up, and love rushes in to greet you.
Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.
All letters to email@example.com become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.