When I was 21 years old, I went to a bar in downtown DC with a friend. In the middle of the evening, a man I’d just met who’d told me of his impending wedding held my arm and said, “Let me have the fantasy. Just for one night.”
As delicious as it is to imagine yourself a fantasy incarnate, the idea doesn’t play out so well in reality. I didn’t want to be whatever it was this man envisioned—certainly not as some sort of pre-marriage free-for-all. Although I’d had enough to drink that my mind was far from clear, I was clear on that. I spun away from him, never to return.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about that encounter a good deal, as the older I’ve gotten, the clearer it is that much of our media is an adolescent male fantasy writ large and repeated ad nauseam. Last week, in an article on Cracked.com, David Wong said as much—and then explained that your average guy, watching these fantasies day in and day out, tends to get a sense of entitlement where women are concerned. (Though he was absolutely correct on this point, he erred in other ways in that article—for a spot-on discussion of the article from a female perspective, see Amanda Marcotte’s piece Misogyny Isn’t Caused By Male Horniness.)
It is that sense of entitlement that leads a man to grab a strange woman’s arm in a bar and say, “Let me have the fantasy. Just for one night.” If all the world’s a stage, and we are merely players, then this man would be the Hero—the guy just trying to live the dream—and I would have been the It Girl.
Ah, the It Girl. She is Phoebe Cates in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, she is Marilyn, Britney, Miley. At the beginning of the twentieth century, her name was Evelyn Nesbit, and she sold Coca-Cola like her boobs depended on it. The It Girl has it goin on, cause the It Girl is fantasy made flesh. All for the low-low price of squeezing yourself into the curvy-but-not-too-curvy space carved out for you in an adolescent boy’s mind.
Not that there’s anything wrong with fantasizing. It’s as natural as skin to cast yourself as the sexy lead in your own mind, male or female. If the world were mapped according to my sixteen-year-old fantasies, there’d be an awful lot of Indiana Jones lookalikes running around, wearing hats and carrying whips and smiling sideways smiles that make you forget your own name. Hell, even Harrison Ford can’t do that anymore—he’s not supposed to. None of us are supposed to live up to the fantasy versions of ourselves: that’s why they’re fantasies.
The problem isn’t the fantasy, then. It’s the ubiquitous idea that reality should conform to fantasy at all costs. And not just any fantasy—a sixteen- year-old boy’s fantasy. Libidinous, inexperienced, and unimaginative—fine as far as it goes, and natural as the sun for the boy himself (I’m going to have a sixteen-year-old boy on my hands one of these days, and the last thing I want him thinking is that there is something wrong with his natural daydreams; the other last thing I want him thinking is that his natural daydreams should dictate his behavior for the rest of his life). It’s the punishing idea that we must all conform to this limited view of ourselves and of sex.
If the problem is that fantasy is being pitched as reality, how do we escape the suffocating environment of our cultural imagination? How do we release ourselves from the idea that the Hero and It Girl deserve a life of neverending ease and consequence-free sex whilst driving fast cars and running from exploding buildings and beating up muscular men with scarred faces?
We grow up, that’s how.
It’s more fun to pretend you can be the Hero or the It Girl—even if that pretense pisses you off and makes your girlfriend hate her body, even if the pretense makes you hate your body and wish your boyfriend would get over himself—than it is to face the blood and bones of everyday life.
The irony of it is that losing ourselves in fantasy has made the blood and bones of everyday life more difficult to bear.
It’s time we stopped allowing Beavis and Butthead to define our culture. By and large, men are the ones writing these fantasies—if they feel victimized by their desires, it is because, rather than taking responsibility for their desire on a cultural level, they have allowed their teenage fantasies free rein on the big screen. And that free rein has been very profitable.
Men and women who recognize that profitability is not worth physical and psychological damage need to get together and agree on some rules (those much-maligned boundaries for the teenage dream) for Beavis and Butthead. I don’t expect that process to be simple or easy—how to define the rules will be a matter of some debate—but the need for them is evident.
Once we’ve got some defined boundaries, fantasies can have their place—and by that I mean everyone’s fantasies. After all, fantasies are a nice place to visit. I just wouldn’t want to live there, not if it means losing everything that is most precious about reality.