We all have an idea of the ideal man we would love to settle down and spend our old age with. This man, can however, be elusive to find. Are we always deluded by dating lies sold to us by pop culture?
Women and even men in their late 20s, 30s and even 40s are no strangers to the popular Mills & Boon novels, the poignant lyrics from early 90s RnB music, the million dollar Fifty Shades franchise or TV shows such as The Bold & The Beautiful and Melrose Place. Romance novels and movies are one of the most sold and profitable genres in entertainment to date, and with reason. In America alone, the estimated annual total sales value of romance came to a whopping Sh100 billion ($1.08 billion). This was in 2013.
Pop culture romance follows a familiar trend. Many of the romantic heroes follow a pattern: The fictional characters more often than not blatantly crossed, or sometimes blurred the lines of consent; often aggressively chasing women with little or no regard for their desires. Their behaviours were all portrayed as more charming than alarming. Although most reasonable people understand that romantic depictions in pop culture are largely false, they still create an image of romance that leaks into our collective psyche and may subtly shape people’s perceptions and expectations of love.
In a New York Post article, former dating columnist Julia Allison writes about her introduction to “Sex & the City” which first aired in 1998 while she was about to complete high school. She moved to New York and fashioned her life and relationships around Carrie Bradshaw, to her eventual emotional detriment. She often missed meals, wore handouts and could barely afford her rent. In her article, Allison comments, “I can say for sure that, as clever and aesthetically pleasing as the show was — and, as much as I agree with its value of female friendships — it showed too much consumerism and fear of intimacy disguised as empowerment.”
The lie: Relationships are all about “explosive fireworks”
Thirty-four-year old Rachel Wambui, is a media consultant and currently single. She shares how love in romance novels always had these mutual, never-ending electricity and fireworks between the main characters that carried over into the bedroom from the time they met until the end of the story. “We were sold these exaggerated ideas and now I have grown to find that the people who might bring you those so-called fireworks are not necessarily the ones who fulfil the role of a partner in a mutually healthy relationship.”
“You see, nobody taught me about relationships and even more so, sex. My first introduction was from romance novels,” Rachel adds with a laugh, “So I was the girl in high school waiting for this exotic prince to come and abduct me and take me on this impossibly romantic adventure. Only to realise in my adulthood that it’s actually possible to meet someone and have a relationship devoid of all the emotional drama that romance novels romanticised for us.”
Forty-four-year old Cynthia Otieno, Founder of Lamead Network Trust is happily married with two children. She discusses pop culture’s portrayal of “bad boys” as an ideal, “The bad, mean, callous, emotionally unavailable, damaged, dirty-talking, cruel guy was the one all the girls swooned over. And before I got married, I thought that this was the kind of man I needed to seek because I have a tendency to try and “fix” people. But then I got lucky enough and married a good guy and realised that what the world had taught me was completely off. Good guys are not in fact ‘boring’ and women aren’t supposed to think that the man who lifts a hand to them is “strong but troubled”. That was a wrong belief I personally had. Women need men who come into relationships already whole because only then will they make a better fit together.”
The lie: Sexual Harassment is Romantic
The Notebook, a movie most women have undoubtedly watched more than once was lauded as one of the most romantic movies of the early 2000s. We, however, chose to miss the uncomfortable method Ryan Gosling’s character Noah used to get Rachel MacAdam’s character Allie to go on a date with him. From asking her to dance before asking her name, recklessly jumping onto the moving Ferris wheel she was riding on to badger her even after she said no, and threatening to kill himself unless she said yes. Naturally, she was coerced into dating him. In real life, this is more like emotional blackmail than a romantic gesture.
According to pop culture themes, forcing you to do something you are not comfortable with is a show of uncontrolled passion. “It is true that the messaging has always been that when a woman you are interested in says no, you keep asking,” Jeff Gathu, 38 intones, “It took a long time to come to a point of equating this to sexual harassment. Just imagine the sheer discomfort and even fear of being pursued by someone you have no interest in who cannot respect your words unless you are ‘owned’ by another man? The bottom line is when an individual says no, we should respect that and no matter how passionate you feel you just can’t force yourself on someone.”
The lie: Being in love will “fix” everything
Lucy Kung’u, a counselling psychologist shares that people get into relationships for many reasons — good or bad. “It is worth noting that people are not perfect. They have their own share of problems, so expecting to be ‘fixed’ by love is a tall order for the partner you will share physical things with such as a home, food, clothing, and money. Any pain from the past, be it low self esteem, depression; those are innate problems that only the person going through knows and can find healing from. Taking your problems and placing them on someone else’s life and expecting them to be the ones to make you happy is what leads to frustration and resentment in relationships.”
Cynthia adds, “Pop culture really painted the man as ‘Mr Fix it’. At the end of every story he was your personal 911 rescue. He always had the right answer at the tip of his tongue and he solved all your problems! We forget that these are scripts that women tend to buy into. So when you get married and your husband says, ‘he doesn’t know’ something, you get shocked.
The lie: Every relationship ends with a happily ever after
“I like this particular movie called The Breakup in which Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn’s characters almost show the true reality of a relationship falling apart,” says Rachel. “In the movies, he always chases after her at the airport, appearing just before she boards to declare his undying love. But relationships are a lot of work, and sometimes you just don’t want to stick with it because the other person isn’t pulling their weight. Pre-marital counselling covers this because without commitment, it’s going to be easier to stay with this person when things get hard. But we were sold castles and fairytales, not bad morning breath, mood swings, no money seasons and make-up free faces. ”
Real life is a different story with ups and downs that you have to face. Kung’u says, “Dating is about getting to know the other person and establishing compatibility. These are two different people with different personalities, perceptions, ideas, backgrounds, and life philosophies meeting and having different expectations. Holding the belief that it will end happily even just at the dating level knowing that getting into a relationship that ends with marriage is a process is premature.” Kung’u further explains that assuming commitment too early and taking the relationship to a deep level when the other person could possibly be at the surface or exploring level is what leads to disappointment, frustration and anger when the other pulls out of the dating relationship. “These assumptions lead people to engage in sex or introduce partners to family or friends too early thus reinforcing a feeling of obligation and entrapment in an incompatible relationship.”
The lie: Gender roles are fixed
Pop culture perpetuates defined gender roles in many ways. Cynthia shares a case of a friend she knows who can fix cars better than her husband, and that caused her some bafflement because she expected him to know how to. “Growing up in the 90s, the chase was defined as a man’s responsibility and he always has to make the first moves. But in a real marriage it goes both ways. There will be seasons where he will be stressed or preoccupied with other things happening in his life or work that could weigh him down. You won’t withdraw at that point because the man is the chaser; you will do the pursuing with the understanding that he is also human and needs to feel affirmed and needed and valued just as you do. This is not an unfeminine concept. Marriage is a team effort.”
Cynthia also thought that because of prevailing societal views, her husband would not be deeply involved with caring for their children. “I thought it would be ‘too manly’ for him to help with things like diapers. I was so pleasantly surprised by how loving and fatherly he was towards our his children. When our first child was born, for the first two weeks he was the one bathing the baby because I was too scared to do it!”
The lie: Grand expensive gestures are the only way to express love and romance
Financial security is not a guarantee of everlasting happiness. It can make things easy for you but is not the only basis for a good relationship.
“Pop culture had sold us candlelight dinners, flowers, expensive gifts and trips as the only way to romance your loved one. This is a regular man’s nightmare. Imagine Nairobi restaurants on a 26-year-old freelancer budget! ” Jeff cries.
“If I expect a man to accept me with all my flaws, shouldn’t I also accept that he doesn’t have the ability to give me a ‘dream destination wedding?” Rachel says, “Society has told our men that they are not allowed to be broke. This is why they often don’t feel free to share when they are struggling financially and they end up ‘ghosting’ you. When you look deep into the issue, he just feels like he can’t measure up and would rather disappear, but if he had just been open he would probably have had his own version of treating you right that aren’t attached to a big bank account and you would have loved it.”
“Expensive means different things to different people, you must know them first and this is what dating is.” Kung’u says, “Attraction is what leads to dating. Dating is a time people try to put their best foot forward. To prove that they are worth loving, people bring out the ideal person not the real one and this is based on their perception about the roles, positions, responsibilities, rights and needs of men or women. They draw these from their experiences, what they have read, watched, heard either from their own culture or one they admire, and they make their decisions on what to do to impress the prospective partner.”
She further explains that a person can go out of my way to give very expensive things that won’t be appreciated if there is no real connection based on mutuality. “With skills in social charms l can manipulate and pretend just to meet my needs but not to express love.” Romance can be expressed simply with a flower picked as the two go on nature walk or a surprise that could be costly but is not meant to be a power play or manipulation tool. Many men are lonely or fail to ask ladies out because of this belief that it has to be an expensive affair. “These beliefs have been ingrained in both men and women, thus putting unfair financial expectations on men to step into,” she concludes.
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