OPINION

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before: now I see my expectations of men were too low

Noah Centineo and Lana Condor in To All The Boys I've Loved Before (Photo: Netflix)

A romcom may not be reality, but it taps into an interpretation of the purest hope we have of love, says Poorna Bell. Netflix’s new film might just be the exception

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By Poorna Bell on

The trope of the piss-poor expectations that heterosexual women have of men in any given romantic scenario has been fodder for lesbian comedians for quite some time.

To quote DeAnne Smith, who dated a woman who had predominantly dated men before her: “I just show her basic human decency and she loses her mind.” 

It’s a joke, but it’s also one that rings horribly true. While most of the time I am very good at sounding the Fuckboy Klaxon (that’s when a guy is behaving shadily, whether it’s with my friends or me), it takes daily vigilance to overcome the ridiculously low expectations I have of men. I have heard myself and friends use this gem as evidence that a guy isn’t a total turd: “He texts back on time.” Why not add “makes toast” and “occasionally washes self” to that giddy list.

Over the weekend, a tweet by Maddie Holden went viral, where she also summed this up: 

While I was wondering why it takes so little for a guy to get our attention – that tweet was liked 28,000 times – I also watched the incredibly popular To All The Boys I've Loved Before film on Netflix.

It has been hailed as a new type of romcom, and one of the reasons why it is so loved is because it actually depicts nice people, where the guy is doing kind things. Even the mean girl isn’t that mean – in fact, there’s even a point where she addresses that people aren’t emotionally black and white.  

The guy isn’t perfect – there’s a moment in a café where he ladles out a backhanded compliment about the girl’s sense of style – but he isn’t an aloof lost boy who crunches her hopes and dreams with his indifference and self-absorption. In short, it’s a romcom I wouldn’t mind my niece watching, because there is a lot that shapes our expectations of men, from the rigged system that has placed a woman’s worth lower than a man’s to our own family structures, but depictions of love in film, TV and books absolutely have an impact.

A romcom may not be reality, but it taps into an interpretation of the purest hope we have of love, and that we’ll meet someone who treats our hearts with kindness and care. Our stories are unlikely to take place at airport-departure gates, and when that spark of romance ignites it is even less likely that Coldplay will be playing in the background, but that yearning for connection is still the same.

But, growing up, the templates I had of men in those scenarios – as hot as they were – were staggeringly awful. I remember being obsessed with Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) from My So-Called Life. As Angela (Claire Danes) lusted after him, peering from behind her school locker, so did we. And off screen, we played out those scenarios in real life.

No wonder our expectations are so low, when what we’ve been taught is that if we aren’t lucky enough to have a guy to love us 'in spite of' our personalities or situations, then we must pursue anyone who flutters a bit of attention our way

I spent about 12 months hanging outside the Bromley HMV waiting for a glimpse of a boy I liked – come rain, snow or shine – hoping he would notice me. (He never did.) That sense of aloofness and broodiness was something I was drawn to for most of my teens and twenties, and every time I was rejected, I’d spend hours analysing what I had done, and then spend months adjusting, shrinking, cauterising parts of myself to make myself more loveable and more palatable.

And why? Partly because of Jordan Catalano and his ilk. I was so swept up in his curtains and his blue eyes, I didn’t notice the truth of the narrative. He basically ends up with Angela (after months of her trying to get his attention), pressures her into having sex and, when she refuses, he ends up shagging her best mate. And, guess what? She takes the human trashbag back!     

These men – indifferent lost boys who deigned to pay attention to a woman – were played out in so many films. Think of Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing. In both instances, these men “overcome” their initial distaste because she’s so charming that she wins them over. The dark and brooding (and psychotic) Christian Slater in Heathers is alluring because of his edginess, or Bender from Breakfast Club – a complicated guy, but still a complete dick to Claire, played by Molly Ringwald.

No wonder our expectations are so low, when what we’ve been taught since day dot is that, if we aren’t lucky enough to have a guy to love us “in spite of” our personalities or situations, then we have to pursue anyone who flutters a bit of attention our way.

I have learned – the hard way – that expectations aren’t about what car he drives or whether he cooks, but how you should feel in any given romantic scenario. And I’m not talking about how you feel about him, I’m talking about how he makes you feel about yourself. Because if the answer is “not good”, then your expectations need to get way, way higher.

Basic human decency is what you show to someone you’re standing in an easyJet queue with, or someone you buy a coffee from. A romantic interaction where you’re gambling the most precious thing – your heart – requires far more: reciprocity, safety and kindness. Values that we haven’t always asked of men, but that must change, along with our expectations.

@poornabell

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Noah Centineo and Lana Condor in To All The Boys I've Loved Before (Photo: Netflix)
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