There were a lot of things in my head when I started writing Special Interests: a scene involving a boy giving a girl references so she’ll go out with him; Bob Woodward’s book about the 2008/2009 economic crisis, The Price of Politics; and the movie (500) Days of Summer.
I did not, for the record, hate the latter as much as many people did. (And I am going to spoil it in what follows. You’ve been warned.)
For starters, my own relationship to hipsterism is complicated. For a long time, I thought it was a word that Allen Ginsberg uses early in “Howl” and nothing more. Then one day in about 2006 I realized that it was a thing–a real, contemporary thing–and many of my friends demonstrated symptoms. Not in a bad way. Not in a pretentious way. But in an “Have you heard the new Wilco album?” “are you coming to my urban canning party?” “you did NOT just use a paper towel” way.
(I am, to be clear, not like that. I remember a fuzzy evening in a bar when a friend threw her arm over my shoulder and said, “You’re like the least hipster person I know.” I think this was a compliment. You don’t know me, so you’ll have to take my word for it when I tell you that I am sincere and unironic and deeply uncool.)
Way back in 2009, I had never really seen that subculture represented on film in a way that felt at all authentic to me. And at first, I found it somewhat honest and refreshing.
Until I realized how biased the narrative was toward Tom’s point of view. If you were looking for something to illustrate Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze, and for whatever reason Rear Window wasn’t available, 500 Days would suffice. Everything about 500 Days seemed designed to make the audience say, “Summer, you horrible person! How can you discard the wonderful gift of Tom’s love?”
All of the fantasies, the playing with time, even the sound cues reflect Tom’s values and desires. Summer doesn’t have an inner life, not that we see on screen. She exists to enthrall Tom and then break him so that he’ll get on with his life and find his vocation and meet Autumn. She is a manic pixie dream girl.
Now I could see how someone could argue that we’re so deeply in Tom’s POV that we see what he sees–and he’s deluding himself. But the extent to which the film asks us to identify with him against her and how its concerns and insights are broadly amplified in our culture disturbed me.
I wanted to write a romance that, when it reached the black moment, was somewhat incomprehensible to the hero but was utterly sympathetic to me (and I hoped to the reader, though I never expected to have any readers). I wanted to turn 500 Days on its head.
I don’t want to be spoilery about Special Interests because it just released (yay! holy cow I’m still buzzing from that), but for me, in the black moment, I am completely on Millie’s side. I think–I hope–she’s been as honest as she can be with Parker up to then. I think–I hope–she’s sympathetic and comprehensible to the reader. I think–I hope–that she’s vulnerable but also strong in ways that felt real to me, not like a cliche of a strong female character.
So I wanted to write a book about the emotional experience of my late 20s and early 30s that reflects the world as I see it, a world deeply soaked in hipsterism, but where we don’t have to identify against either the heroine or hero.
ETA: Reading this over, I want to be clear that in the black moment, I understand Parker’s point-of-view too. Being on Millie’s side doesn’t mean, for me, that I think he’s wrong or unfair. I don’t. But I do think that she’s more honest about her concerns and limits–the very things that fuel the black moment–than he is about what he wants. And despite her relative honesty, I don’t think he hears her particularly well. They’re both sympathetic to me, but she’s more so.
2 thoughts on “Summer Loving”
I don’t really remember this movie very well (he’s an architect and she was Zooey Deschanel?), but your comments about the movie wanting us to side with him against her reminded me of “The Nice Guy”. You know, the one who whines that he’s just so nice, why don’t women like him, why do women only go for bad boys? But instead of being nice, is really only demanding female companionship in return for his ability to pretend to be a decent human being.
(Not that this is Parker’s problem at all, without wandering into spoiler territory.)
Oh, yes, summary would have helped! Tom and Summer work together at a greeting card company. He’s instantly infatuated, she needs more persuasion, but they eventually start dating, and have this perfect hipster romance whereby they peruse record store bins, eat in diners, browse at IKEA, and argue about the end of The Graduate–until she breaks up with him and then promptly meets a guy she’s actually into. This sends him into depression eventually leading him to go back to architecture and at a job interview, he meets the perfect woman whose name is (drum roll please), Autumn.
I’m relaying this sarcastically. Setting aside the film’s politics, I found it structurally interesting (the film flips between different days in their relationship), but what bugged me was that Summer’s never given a chance to explain why she dumped Tom and even during their relationship, while we can see her pulling away, we don’t know why or if it’s serious. Even though we know she’s going to break up with him because of the fluid chronology, you feel blindsided.
As you’re saying, the narrative sensitivity to the hero’s POV and the tearing down of the heroine are endemic to contemporary rom-coms. For a genre that’s supposed to be for women, there’s a lot of misogyny there. But with 500 Days, I think it bugged me more than normal because the film captured a sort of cultural ethos that felt honest to me even as I hated what was happening politically.