I recently watched the film Sleepless in Seattle with my teen and tween daughters. I hadn't seen this particular romantic comedy since it was first a blockbuster in 1993. I suppose I found watching the film a little bit like riding a stomach-dropping roller coaster—I have to do it every so often to remind myself why I don't do it more frequently.
Somehow I had forgotten that Sleepless is the archetype of the treacly "rom com" of the modern age. As soon as I saw Meg Ryan uttering the word "magic" to essentially describe what was missing from the relationship with her fiance, I thought Uh-oh, here we go. It was too late to pull my girls out of the film. But it's never too late to talk to them about the downside of chick flicks. As a Christian mom to four school-age children, I find myself often challenging the culture. Many times this means helping my children learn to engage wisely with it. As a single mom, helping my kids to think rightly about the God-given, necessary, and wonderful differences between the genders is a subject matter I pay special attention to. So maybe it's for my children's sake most of all I use the term "romantic pornography" to describe most romantic comedies. For the record, I can enjoy a good chick flick as much as anyone. Sleepless seems almost like a caricature. But Enchanted, for instance, is hilarious. And at least it's obviously a fairy tale. When you've seen one romantic comedy you've of course seen them all. There is some level of confusion involving a wonderful woman and an idiotic man. He doesn't know how romantic he really is until the wonderful woman shows him the way and reveals his fabulous, sensitive, romantic side that was aching to get out all along we find. He so wants to talk about his feelings, just like her best girlfriends! Who knew? Romantic man finally realizes he cannot live without said woman, and pursues her in an ever-so-sensitive if bumbling way. There seems to typically be a fountain involved at some point. If it's all not quite "magic," it sure is fantasy. That's where the pornography comes in. Just as sexual pornography twists an understanding for men about real women's bodies and sexual appetites, so romantic pornography twists the perception for women about real men and how they "ought" to behave toward women, which tends to amount to, well, behaving like a woman. I have a dear friend who once didn't like a fellow I was dating. Among other shortcomings, he didn't arrange spa treatments for me, she explained. Seriously. No more chick flicks for that girl.
The notion that the ideal fellow is sensitive and devoted to his woman didn't start with Nora Ephron or even Jane Austen, of course. Our true husband, Christ himself, "wept." And Scripture is clear that the ultimate bridegroom jealously pursues his bride, the church. In fact romantic pornography has a ring of truth to it, which is one reason it is powerful. A man in love with a woman is stubborn in his pursuit. Hence I've passed down to my children the maxim my mother shared with me: "Girls don't want a boy they have to call themselves." But both kinds of pornography go wrong by portraying genders as unidimensional. And the unidimension of men in romantic porn gets magnified because our mainstream culture has a "man bad, woman good" view that opposes traditionally male qualities (unless they turn up in women, but that's another column). In a symptom of what's going on in the culture at large, "rom coms" and many television sitcoms denigrate such traits such as aggression, competitiveness, a certain amount of stoicism, and even the desire to protect and care for a woman. As we value such men less, it seems we are getting fewer of them. In her book Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys, Kay Hymowitz presents the phenomenon of the disappearing man as a group suicide being committed by young men playing Xbox in their parents' basements. Kathleen Parker, writing in Save the Males: Why Men Matter and Women Should Care, calls it a homicide by the American culture.
Mainstream culture tolerates this insidious expectation for men to act like women. Any doubts? A married couple goes to a counselor, Christian or otherwise. The husband is steeped in sexual porn and dissatisfied with his wife. Is there a chance the counselor is going to encourage the wife to act more like the women her husband finds attractive online? Of course not. Now let's say she's steeped in romantic films and dissatisfied with her husband. There's an almost 100 percent chance the counselor will encourage the fellow to be more romantic and sensitive. Which might be a fine thing, except that typically it will be "sensitive" according to his wife's definition, even if that's not what he is wired for. One of the marvels of marriage is that God gives us someone so different from ourselves to love. It's easy to love someone just like me. It's hard to love someone so fundamentally "other." What a gift it is to be able to stretch in such different ways as we seek to love, serve, and appreciate at the deepest level an "other" who is also an image bearer. I admit that as a woman, I want to be wanted, pursued, protected, and cared for. I also have a desire to be "known," which I know will not be fully met in this world. But I hope that I have an accurate picture of how men as image bearers are typically built, how it's very different from me, and why that is quite wonderful. C. S. Lewis addressed the issue so well in his essay on chivalry:
The medieval knight brought together two things which have no natural tendency to gravitate toward one another. It brought them together for that very reason. It taught humility and forbearance to the great warrior because everyone knew by experience how much he usually needed that lesson. It demanded valor of the urbane and modest man because everyone knew that he was as likely as not to be a milksop.
In other words boys and men may need to be civilized, but never feminized.
I can't fix the culture at large, but I sure hope to affect it in my own home. So I tell my girls that I want them one day to look to marry a Christian man of faithful and strong character; whom they will respect and whose distinctly male characteristics they will appreciate; that I hope they will have a group of close women friends, and that they will never get them and their husbands confused. And yes, I tell my girls if they want to enjoy some good romantic comedies along the way, go ahead. I just encourage them to remember where fantasy meets reality, and to never, ever judge a man by whether or not he makes spa appointments for them.