Two nights ago I went to see Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. It's a typical tweeny fantasy movie about demon-hunters filled with attractive young actors in leather jackets and a rather unremarkable plotline, and yet I walked away feeling like it was part of an important cultural movement that I've started to see come to light in recent years.
You'll have to bear with me on this one. I'll get to that part in a bit.
In the meantime, have you noticed that female fantasy archetypes that appeal to the sexual desires of men are everywhere? Of course you have. There isn't a female superhero in sight who's not in a second-skin catsuit with ample cleavage abounding; nor a beer commercial without a smoldering; seemingly sexually available cocktail waitress; nor a sports game without a bevy of buxom blondes to cheer on the action. And don't forget the creation of the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, who's popped up in a number of social critique essays this summer. Most notably, Laurie Penny wrote about the MPDG in the New Statesman, stating that for a long time she chose to embody her persona because it was the obvious one that culture presented for her type: "Manic Pixies, like other female archetypes, crop up in real life partly because fiction creates real life, particularly for those of us who grow up immersed in it. Women behave in ways that they find sanctioned in stories written by men who know better, and men and women seek out friends and partners who remind them of a girl they met in a book one day when they were young and longing."
As a seductress, I willingly play in the realm of fantasy all the time because I enjoy it, and so I don't feel the same exasperation as Penny does for the persistence of the hollow shells of tropes within our culture. Rather, I try them on like dresses, see which ones fit, decide which feel the most like me (meaning they best convey my values, interests and the stories I find compelling), and then I fill in the blanks with my own interiority as a human being where the archetypes may have a lack. This is a deeply authentic way to live, in my opinion. By drawing from culture to create a distinctive archetype for yourself (a "personal brand," as I explain in my book), you are creating an arresting visual shorthand for your passions and for the things that inspire you. You are letting the world know, in a cheeky, artistic fashion, what you love and what you stand for. Why do I always wear a red glass heart around my neck? Think about it.
What instead upsets me is that there has been thus far within our culture a lack of male fantasy archetypes that cater to the sexual desires of women.
In fact our culture often shamefully still has a pretty hard time imagining that women are even all that into sex. With Daniel Bergner's recent book What Do Women Want that literally came out just months ago, we learned that women are equally as turned on by visual pornography as men, that monogamy is no more suited to them than it is to the menfolk, and that female primates, unburdened by the human more of slut-shaming that came to us as a gift of the agricultural revolution, are just as likely if not more than their male counterparts to initiate sex. And I'm like... ummm, we're just figuring that out now? Wait you guys, women actually enjoy sex for reasons other than procreation? STAHP. Even Bergner himself, in a recent TED talk, says, "Why has this taken so long?"
I also blame The Rules, and not just because of my recent beef with them. By perpetuating a culture that advises women to play hard-to-get and play down their sexual desire for fear of coming off as slutty, desperate, and unwantable, The Rules and other books like it have shrouded women's sexual desire in shame and fear and caused many women to be fearful of expressing their desire authentically.
This was even more obvious to me earlier today when I happened upon an article in Psychology Today that posited that many men who find it important to be respectful to women find it very difficult to know when it's appropriate to express their desire in that raw, animalistic way that we always hear that women fantasize about. They want to make women happy and satisfy them sexually, but they're not sure when their advances are going to be welcomed, even by their own partners, and given the choice between frightening or annoying women with their aggression and possibly boring women with their inaction or politeness, they tend to err on the side of caution by choosing the latter -- and that to wait or ask for permission seems to defeat the purpose and ruin the fantasy. ("I simply won't take no for an answer, I must have you right here and now! ...Oh wait you actually mean no for realsies? Oh. So sorry. Please don't press charges.")
I was drawn to the article partly because I have known men like that, who in their quest to treat women respectfully (oh the feminist allies!) feel shame and trepidation surrounding their sexuality, and particularly their very masculine fantasies and desires, in a way that seems shrouded in a cloud of guilt left over from that "all penetration is rape"-era misandrist branch of feminism. If men have a hard time believing in the reality of women's sexual desire, then of course they're going to feel guilt about the things they fantasize about doing with them. And that's what struck me most within the article: the (male) author's statement that as far as his and his guy friends' experiences go, they and the rest of their fellow men don't even know what it's like to be sexually desired by a woman. "But men do not have the same need to be desired," he writes; "most of us, I would venture, have never had the experience of being desired, much less 'overwhelmingly' so. Men may feel loved and appreciated but not desired—they may feel needed but not wanted. And even when a woman does express desire for a man, he is often conditioned to question it or deny it, simply because he’s not accustomed to it." Ughh, what passive pillow princesses have these guys been dating??
This is also echoed sadly in the PUA community. So many guys turn to pickup because they unfortunately believe that they somehow have to trick or trap women into sleeping with them, that women's default state is to refuse sex, and that they must learn the magic words to open their hearts and legs. Seduction then becomes a concept not of courageously offering the possibility of mutual pleasure but of pulling the wool over someone's eyes, and that's sad. That women actually enjoy sex of their own accord is sometimes a treacherously mysterious concept to them, and much of that disbelief again stems from the shame that so many women feel in expressing any desire for sex. Girl on the Net recently published a delightful and hilarious essay complaining about how guys -- in particular the nerdy science guys she likes to hang around -- operate under the assumption that "girls don't want to hook up," even when there appears to be abundant evidence to the contrary. Even Darwin bought into it when he wrote that "the female... with the rarest exception, is less eager than the male... [She] requires to be courted; she is coy, and may often be seen endeavoring for a long time to escape the male." We've been romanticizing resistance for centuries.
I've been thinking a lot about the idea of shame and sex and how they feed off each other in that ouroboros kind of way. I wrote a song with my band earlier this year that was about one of my fuckbuddies and how turned on I got by the shame I felt in being so purposefully sexually available to him -- like, it was hot to me that he could text me at 2pm on a Sunday and I'd let him come over and do horribly painful things to me and leave an hour later. As a woman, wasn't I supposed to find this a terrible and pathetic arrangement? Wasn't this just me being desperate, hoping one day that my availability and willingness to please would open his eyes to what an amazing girlfriend I'd be? No! This man would have made a horrible boyfriend! But he did make for a stellar fuckbuddy, and putting myself in the role of his courtesan turned me on, because it was my fantasy. And so, turned on by the taboo of such a flagrantly sexual relationship, I penned my lyrics: Can you see it, how dark depravity becomes divine / Do you feel it, your baseness and his godliness entwined / Well don't you mind / Just say 'this body and this bed, this life is mine' / 'Cause you know that you're gonna go back in, time after time...
So yeah, if I want someone sexually, I will happily objectify him, fantasize about him, masturbate while thinking about him, and shamelessly rip his clothes off him when I get the chance to do so. I don't personally understand this female reticence around sex that these men seem to be citing, but okay, I've witnessed it in other women within enough group sex situations to know that it exists.
Like, do I have to herald this movement myself? Do I have to shamelessly confess my own sexual fantasies just to prove that women have them? Because I am pretty shameless in that regard, but then again, there are some things that deserve to be saved for my partners and not for the random guys who follow me on Twitter. Just take my word for it, for now.
So this is why I got excited leaving the theater after Mortal Instruments: I've started to see a trend within mainstream culture of a very specific fantasy male archetype who is designed purely, so it seems, for women's sexual appetites. Maybe we'll call him the Gothic Pixie Dream Boy.
We've seen him in recent years in Twilight and in Fifty Shades of Grey (although I neither read nor watched either of those; truthfully I was drawn to Mortal Instruments not because of the tweeny fantasy but because of the leather jackets and ass-kicking). His likely pioneer, for my generation anyway, was Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer; before that, possibly Lord Byron -- or, as one of my readers pointed out, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. He's the brooding, sexy, supernatural figure who appears out of nowhere as a guardian angel-demon to the unsuspecting heroine, and who loves her immediately despite the fact that she has yet to actualize any of her potential and is a pretty average teenager or graduate student thus far. (To Buffy's credit, at least she had earned herself a pretty impressive vampire-slaying reputation by the time Angel appeared in her life, although his fascination, love, and nurturing for her are still pretty fantastical at that point since they hadn't even had much of a real conversation let alone any development of emotional intimacy.) But hey, this is fantasy, and should be judged as such -- the moody Zach Braffs of the world didn't do much to earn the love and salvation of their MPDGs, and nor need their Kristen Stewart counterparts. What's important here is the creation of an archetype within commercially successful mainstream media that specifically caters to the desires of women.
And it's indelibly entwined with our newfound research on women's sexuality. People were shocked at the notion of such a scandalous book as Fifty Shades of Grey finding popularity with housewives all across middle America. That Bergner's book What Do Women Want is following so closely on its heels is, I think, no coincidence but emblematic of our culture trying desperately to wrap its mind around women's sexual fantasies, and not a moment too fucking soon if I do say so myself.
The Gothic Pixie Dream Boy is of course by no means the only male fantasy archetype that appeals to women. But I think it's noteworthy that on a commercial level (since that's one of the main metrics we use to judge popularity these days) he's been so successful, and also that he's oftentimes so far removed from the standards that our IRL boys strive for when they attempt to be sexually appealing. Most men who aim for sex appeal think that it's synonymous with buffing up -- but who's getting more play, Christian Grey or The Situation?
I think this is why I have had such a thing for rockstars in the recent past: because they knew how to deliberately appeal to fantasy. They dyed their hair, wore makeup, tore their clothes just right, and spent endless hours learning guitar or bass or drums, and even if they ended up just looking like another copy of Nikki Sixx or Marilyn Manson, at least they put out an energy that was passionate and at times almost otherworldly. When they were up there onstage and I was cheering them on or waiting for them in their dressing room, they were helping me play a role in my own fantasy, whether they were conscious of it or not.
So here's what I think we need to address, one gender at a time:
Women, start communicating your sexual desire to the men you want. No, you don't owe it to any guy to cater to him, but when there's a guy that you do want and he's doing things right, give him some positive reinforcement for fuck's sake. By giving in to the awful slut-shaming sectors of society that tell us to act demure and coy, we are apparently depriving many of the men we want from feeling the pleasure of what it's like to be an object of sexual desire, and we're depriving ourselves of the pleasure we might experience at their hands if they were only confident enough in our desire for them. If we start becoming more outspoken about the way we sexualize men, maybe men will start catering to our fantasies a little more often... since they'll like, maybe figure out what those fantasies actually are and maybe believe in the fact that they exist.
And men, it's time to repay the favor to all those women who have borne the mantle of fantasy for your pleasure. Put aside your shame, your self-consciousness, and your fear of looking stupid, and start to take a very open-minded and non-judgmental look at the fantasy material that women are consuming these days, the same way that so many women have spent the past several decades augmenting their breasts and getting blonde hair extensions quite possibly because of your fascinations with Pamela Anderson and her ilk. We've shouldered the burden of fantasy for a long time, and it's time you share some of the weight.
And if you're so worried that you won't know how to appeal to the fantasies of the woman you desire, do what I advised years ago and fucking pay attention. Another cool article in Time recently stated that as far as indicators of relationship success go, "knowledge of partner" fell in second only to communication, and that that knowledge meant knowing everything from your partner's hopes and dreams to her favorite pizza toppings. Seriously I will marry the next boy who asks me out while wearing a leather jacket and riding a motorbike not because my fantasy is that important to me but because it would demonstrate that he was paying attention to what I said I liked, so much so that he stalked my blog for the information. On a related note, I've decided I will dump any boy who doesn't read my book by the three-month mark, because if I'm dating someone and that person doesn't feel like it's important to read a book I wrote about what I think about dating then that really says something. (Consider yourselves warned.)
To play within the world of fantasy is to make a gesture of generosity to our partners and to ourselves, because to make someone's dreams come true is the stuff of romance at its best. More of us should be better at it, and more of us should be better at receiving it.