Inside the mind of a passive dater.
Can a guy be gutless and still get the girl?
about an hour into Fargo, the Coen brothers’ Oscar- winning crime caper about a botched kidnapping in rural Minnesota, the action more or less hits the pause button while Sheriff Marge Gunderson meets an old high-school acquaintance for a drink. It’s a strange, anomalous break, and viewers and critics alike have debated its significance: Does the interloper, Mike Yanagita, simply provide a humorous aside, or is he some metaphorical key to unlocking the entire movie?
My response to those four and a half minutes is more personal, and there’s one moment in particular that really hits home for me. After an exchange of life updates, Mike slithers around to Marge’s side of the booth, slings his arm around her and asks, “You mind if I sit over here?” Marge freezes. “No, why don’t you sit over there?” she says stiffly. “I prefer that.” And Mike, romantic aspirations squashed, is banished to the far side of the table.
Mike’s lame attempt at seduction, though borne of loneliness, reads somewhere between desperate and creepy. The guy not only misjudges the situation but also forces Marge to embarrass them both. (Whoever posted the clip to YouTube subtitled it “The most pathetic character in all of film.”) So what is it about the scene that resonates with me so strongly? The humiliation, mainly. You see: Mike Yanagita, c’est moi.
This sort of rejection, keep in mind, is a rare thing in cinema. Usually the movies instruct us that the lovable (male) loser, if persistent enough, will get the girl. This was the narrative I grew up on, so it was with feelings of manly purpose and misplaced confidence that, at my first school dance, I decided to go for it with Katie Sharpe, the girl I loved. Katie was in Grade 6, and I was in Grade 5, and that year between us felt like a chasm; while the mere thought of her made my guts swim down to my shoes, I doubted she even knew my name.
But Hollywood had led me to believe that precisely because of the impossibility of our love, it was destiny. So with the disco ball twirling, I strode boldly across the floor, right up to Katie, and asked her to dance. Except I hadn’t considered that our soundtrack was “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” which didn’t really facilitate the arm’s-length clutch and wobble of the elementary-school slow dance. “This song’s a little fast,” Katie told me gently enough—though no kindness could soften the deep, booming shame that sent me scuttling not just back across the gym but right out the door and home.
Other blunders in my formative years—a bold attempt at a kiss interrupted by a terrific fart, an illconceived letter confessing love to a female friend—were usually met with bemused dismissal. No one was ever mean, exactly, and my shame was the result of failure—my own but also that of some grander narrative of what being a man (or, sure, boy) was supposed to mean. So as I moved into adulthood, I became a little wary of trying too hard when it came to dating.
My strategies developed, or devolved, into something a little more… gutless, let’s say. Instead of pickup h
lines, for example, I favoured the “get drunk over here and assume she notices me” approach—which was captured with painful precision in a recent sketch by comedian Amy Schumer. “Hello, M’Lady” is based on two female friends’ experience with “those clingy, fragile guys who think they are dating you”—a.k.a. M’Ladying—and acutely lampoons the passiveness I adopted after my own failed attempts at Hollywood-style courtship. (The text one of the women receives—“I wish I’d kissed you just now”—is an exact replica of a message I sent to a fancy Parisian after unsuccessfully M’Ladying her for a week.)
This isn’t to say I haven’t had girlfriends. Remarkably, I’ve bungled my way into relationships with some truly wonderful people, although even they will joke about how impossible I was to read at first. (I do get better.) I guess my go-to method comes across as aloof—despite the fact that it’s mostly about self-preservation.
Apparently, I’m not alone in this. Many straight female friends of mine complain about the lack of social boldness among Canadian men: A smile across the bar often won’t be returned so much as fled from. Conversely, they also tell horror stories of an accidental glance being misconstrued as an invitation by a different kind of monster. As for the cowards, I wonder if their passiveness is partly meant to set them apart from this breed of overly confident—but equally clueless— macho man.
I suppose that somewhere between bullheaded overeagerness and total apathy lies the sweet spot of heterosexual dating. There’s likely no generically correct way to be—and if you’re looking to me for answers, may God have mercy on your lost and hopeless soul. But I do think that treating women with respect and dignity, and offering them a choice of saying yes or no, is always better than leering at someone from across the bar.
Many years ago, in the height of my M’Ladying days and after a few too many drinks, I insinuated myself into a young woman’s apartment— harmlessly enough, I figured, since I knew that I would be too chicken to make a move. But she didn’t know that, and she clearly didn’t want me in her home—nor did she much care for me passing out on her sofa. The next morning, of course, I awoke to a shame even more profound than if she had slammed the door in my face.
It was a good reminder that even the alleged progressives—and cowards!—among us are not impervious to certain socializations. The culture that makes a man feel fundamentally worthless for having a kiss turned down is the same one that makes a woman feel she’s obligated to kiss him in the first place. But whether a man is a shining light of Clooneyesque confidence or a grovelling wretch like Mike Yanagita, we owe it to women to accept rejection. And when we’re told “Sit over there,” “Leave now” or, simply, “No,” we should always listen, and it’s always okay. n
There’s likely no
generically correct way to be—and if you’re looking to me for answers, may God have mercy on your lost and