One of my annual Instagram traditions (one of them…one…) is to rewatch The Great Gatsby and perform something of a commentary on my experience of the movie via the app’s “stories” feature. I make sure these stories are only available for viewing by a curated list of “close friends,” a list I can modify whenever I want. When it comes time for this tradition, I ensure a very short list. Still, few of my friends engage.
Which makes sense, because a lot of my commentary on The Great Gatsby is about how much I believe it’s a beautiful and romantic love story. This, I’ve learned, is a controversial opinion. As a high school English teacher, I’ve taught the novel a handful of times, to grade eleven and twelve students who fight me on my rigid stance. During one fun free-write (where the prompting question was, “Why does Miss Abbass love chapter five so much?”), one of my smartest, cheekiest students wrote, “Ms. Abbass enjoys chapter 5 because she has allowed the romance between Gatsby and Daisy to close herself off from the fact that Gatsby is a creep.” For my grade elevens especially, there was nothing romantic about Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy. The majority of them, who definitely were not consulting SparkNotes for every chapter, were resolute in their ideas about him; they saw Jay Gatsby as nothing more than a representation of that elusive American dream.
I’m a good teacher. Of course I explained to them what else Fitzgerald may have been trying to communicate about class, hope, moral decay…one student wrote an essay comparing Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, pointing out similarities such as greed and single-minded ambition. Both men were natural feelers, the essay argued – toxic masculinity is what ultimately brought them to their knees.
@gendersauce, an Instagram account I follow for its “poetry, nonsense, [and] queerness,” is managed by a teacher in the United States. One recent photoset includes the following assertions:
Patriarchy causes pain for all living things. Men deserve freedom from this system.
Men deserve to know authenticity in their emotions. Men need space to cry and blush and laugh with joy, not just victory.
Men deserve to feel freedom. To know what life outside the compression chamber of toxic masculinity feels like.
Men are humans, victims of patriarchy, who wield their wounds against others.
Men are humans, who can develop their capacity to love, trust, and be gentle.
And then, the last one:
Men are humans.
@gendersauce’s caption on this set reads: I fucking hate that this is a hot take.
Which makes sense, because when I started reading and swiping, I felt my hackles go up in defence of…what?
When I was a teacher, I felt strongly that we needed to do more for our girls. In March 2019, I expressed as much on Facebook: We need to raise stronger women. We need to teach them independence. How to advocate for themselves. (Because it will happen no matter how many of us raise good boys) we need to show them no. And no again. And no for the last time and how dare you make me say it more than once. We need to teach them not only how to identify toxic relationships but how to evade them. We NEED to do these things because THEY need these things because if our girls don’t want feminism then what are we working for.
I felt strongly about this probably because it was most often girls who were coming to me for help, advice on how to break up with their boyfriends, how to manage feelings of jealousy, how to politely refuse sex. One of my students routinely hid in my classroom after the bell rang; her boyfriend would pass by en route to his next class, and she was often late for her own because of the hiding. More than once, I phoned her teacher with an excuse – finishing an essay, getting extra help – for why she wasn’t on time.
The boys I taught reached out less. Their emotions could often be gleaned from their behaviours. Those who did have feelings to share with me often expressed them in quiet, uncertain voices. I’d been taught by older colleagues never to shut my classroom door if I was alone with a male student. That open door, to me, felt like a betrayal.
Last night, home alone on a Friday and sensing it as good a time as any for my annual commentary, I rewatched The Notebook in lieu of The Great Gatsby. I wasn’t anticipating so many similarities between the two. I also wasn’t expecting to recognize behaviours from Noah, the male protagonist, that challenged my understanding of romance.
In The Notebook, Noah doesn’t take “no” for an answer. Minutes after he meets and is rejected by Allie, he jumps onto a moving Ferris wheel she’s riding with another man. He dangles at the height of the structure, gripping a metal bar with both hands. There, he asks Allie to go on a date with him. When she refuses, he lets go one hand – as his fingers slip, Allie shouts, “Okay, okay, fine, I’ll go out with you!”
And if that’s not romance, I don’t know what is.
(Which means, of course, that I don’t know what romance is.)
As a society, I think we’ve grown more receptive to the idea that “no means no.” It’s taken longer for us to accept this notion when the word “no” is coming from the mouth of a woman, but I digress – we’ve made at least some progress since The Notebook was released in 2004, and even more since Nicholas Sparks first wrote the novel ten years before that. Still, I continue to hold that Ferris wheel scene responsible for at least some of my toxic tendency to think of persistence as romantic instead of disrespectful.
A scene from this movie that I’d forgotten about was one where Allie cycles up to Noah’s house while he’s reading aloud to his father from a book of poetry. Sitting out on the porch, Noah recites:
…the real poems, (what we call poems being merely pictures,)
The poems of the privacy of the night, and of men like me,
This poem drooping shy and unseen that I always carry, and that all men carry…
“Not bad for Whitman,” says Noah’s father. He explains to Allie that Noah “used to stutter real bad” when he was a child; reading aloud worked to correct this. Though Noah is visibly embarrassed throughout the scene, it’s tricky to discern how much of it has to do with the poetry compared to the reveal that he’d struggled with his speech as a boy. In either instance, weakness is implied; but as with romance and disregard, I conflate weakness with vulnerability. I call it softness, and it gets me every time.
In hindsight, it must have been Noah’s vulnerability that persuaded me to root for him in the first place. It’s possible that his ability to express his intense love for Allie (“When I see something that I like, […] I go crazy for it”) offset whatever ickiness I may have felt as a biproduct of his persistence. I always forget that Noah is a veteran – he witnessed his best friend die on the battlefield. When he returns from the war, his father envelops him in a hug. And as a viewer, I’m surprised by the gratitude and relief I feel in witnessing such a given.
Surely a different Noah than the one he was when he left for battle, no evidence of change can be observed through thought or action. In the remaining 51 minutes of The Notebook, PTSD is not mentioned, let alone discussed.
In both The Notebook and The Great Gatsby, the female protagonist’s freedom is taken up in the context of her society, not her relationship. Allie’s freedom is referenced in one of Noah’s oft-quoted lines: “If you’re a bird, I’m a bird.” Allie begs him to say it, and Noah first insists that she’s not. But then she leaps into his arms and he concedes. This is meant to stir up fondness in the viewer, and it does. But what sits behind when I watch this movie now is the knowledge that Allie isn’t free to bird alone – Noah’s permission, then compliance, is the key to her cage.
Wealth, for both Allie and Daisy, allows for some degree of freedom in a society largely committed to maintaining class distinctions. Both women experience freedom in relationships with men who are poor – both women feel a loss of freedom when adhering to certain gendered conventions (assuming domestic duties; marrying rich). In neither story do we experience either woman as an individual. We know them only through their relationships with men.
Fast forward to today. In “Whatever Makes You Happy, Babe,” artist Anna Fusco writes about her experience as a heterosexual woman navigating romantic relationships within a patriarchal society. She speaks to the sense of self that is lost when she submits to love, when she gives herself over to the “annihilation” that seems to define the feeling for women. Fusco writes:
When I am alone, I hold myself completely to Her. […] The solitary me is not in or of a gaze. In relationship, it’s different. […] I no longer simply live against the backdrop of patriarchy – it begins to live inside of me. I don’t think I’ve had a boyfriend who has actively sought to disempower me, but often it feels as though our roles in union together are so deeply internalized that we don’t question them, perhaps because we don’t even know what to ask. […] Knowing what I do, for me to choose a relationship with a man in the context of the patriarchy is to choose a practice of self-erasure; to face death while being asked to embody life.
I am single now, and I have been for some time. Sometimes I think I should probably try to remain single for as long as I continue to watch movies like these with my heart in my throat. I can’t discern whether the longing I feel for a love like the ones depicted in these films is rooted in the male characters’ intensity, their persistence, or some dangerous combination of both. My parents, perhaps the best example of partnership I’ll ever witness, are neither intense nor persistent (though I would definitely describe them both as stubborn). Reflecting on my past relationships, only one mimicked Noah and Allie’s vehement push-and-pull dynamic. It was a relationship my students would have labelled “toxic.” It’s also the relationship I keep circling back to when I find myself bored with the Lon Hammonds of my life.
Alone with Her, I am certain of the kind of love I want. I’m less certain about whether it exists without the persistence I’ve conflated with romance. A friend of mine sends me a clip of Robb and Talisa as she rewatches Game of Thrones. “Their love was really pure,” I reply. (“NO IT WASNT KATHERINE THATS WHAT WE ARE TALKING ABOUT!”)
In response to my commentary on The Notebook, the same friend tells me we don’t watch these movies with our brains turned on. I’m not sure I agree, but I’ll use it as an excuse the next time I’m teary-eyed with longing for a guy to tell me what Noah tells Allie: “I’m not afraid to hurt your feelings. They have like a two-second rebound rate and you’re back doing the next pain-in-the-ass thing.”
Man, what a compliment.
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