An App For Love

By maximizing efficiency, technology has transformed dating into a routine for the acquisition of sex. Love has been, literally, written out of the code for a generation afraid to catch feelings.





The future, as per usual, arrived first in Japan.

Last year fewer babies were born in Japan than any year on record. Roughly 1.001 million babies were born, and 1.269 million people died, leaving the country with 268,000 fewer people. In U.S. terms, that’s like if everyone in Newark up and disappeared last year. 2014 was just the latest record-breaking drop in a sharp, downward trajectory that began pretty much exactly 40 years ago.

For decades, the Japanese Government kept misinterpreting this negative population growth as a temporary dip rather than an sustained trend. The Washington Post created a graph based on the data from a 2014 working paper from Tokyo’s Waseda University, showing the government projections compared against reality —



 — an eerie EKG of a dying body being repeatedly defibrillated with mounting futility and desperation.

In 2013, the year adult incontinence diapers outsold baby diapers in Japan for the first time, Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research released a projection that, based on current trends, by 2060 30% of Japanese people will be gone.

Birth rates are declining across the developed world, but exactly what kind of Children of Men style apocalypse is going on in Japan?

“Japan’s under-40s appear to be losing interest in conventional relationships,” Abigail Haworth wrote in The Guardian. “Millions aren’t even dating, and increasing numbers can’t be bothered with sex. For their government, “celibacy syndrome” [sekkusu shinai shokogun] is part of a looming national catastrophe:

A survey in 2011 found that 61% of unmarried men and 49% of women aged 18–34 were not in any kind of romantic relationship, a rise of almost 10% from five years earlier. Another study found that a third of people under 30 had never dated at all. A survey earlier this year by the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) found that 45% of women aged 16–24 “were not interested in or despised sexual contact.” More than a quarter of men felt the same way. Japan’s Institute of Population and Social Security reports an astonishing 90% of young women believe that staying single is “preferable to what they imagine marriage to be like.”

“Both men and women say to me they don’t see the point of love,” says Ai Aoyama [a sex and relationship counsellor, and former professional dominatrix]. “They don’t believe it can lead anywhere.”


Mendokusai translates loosely as “Too troublesome” or “I can’t be bothered.” It’s the word I hear both sexes use most often when they talk about their relationship phobia. Romantic commitment seems to represent burden and drudgery. “I find some of my female friends attractive,” says Satoru Kishino, 31 “But I’ve learned to live without sex. Emotional entanglements are too complicated. I can’t be bothered.”

Eri Asada, 22, who studied economics, has no interest in love. “I gave up dating three years ago. I don’t miss boyfriends or sex. I don’t even like holding hands.”

“Gradually but relentlessly, Japan is evolving into a type of society whose contours and workings have only been contemplated in science fiction,” Demographer Nicholas Eberstadt wrote last year.

[But] aversion to marriage and intimacy in modern life is not unique to Japan. Many of the shifts there are occurring in other advanced nations, too. Is Japan providing a glimpse of all our futures?





“It’s a balmy night in Manhattan’s financial district,” writes Nancy Jo Sales in Vanity Fair, “And at a sports bar called Stout, everyone is Tindering. The tables are filled with young women and men who’ve been chasing money and deals on Wall Street all day, and now they’re out looking for hookups. Everyone is drinking, peering into their screens and swiping on the faces of strangers they may have sex with later that evening.”

Sales captures an essential ethnography of a world — told mostly through the words of its inhabitants themselves — where “an unprecedented phenomenon is taking place, in the realm of sex” as hookup culture collides with dating apps:

At a booth in the back, three handsome twentysomething guys in button-downs are having beers. They are Dan, Alex, and Marty, budding investment bankers at the same financial firm, which recruited Alex and Marty straight from an Ivy League campus. When asked if they’ve been arranging dates on the apps they’ve been swiping at, all say not one date, but two or three: “You can’t be stuck in one lane … There’s always something better.” “If you had a reservation somewhere and then a table at Per Se opened up, you’d want to go there,” Alex offers.

“Guys view everything as a competition. Who’s slept with the best, hottest girls?” With these dating apps, he says, “you’re always sort of prowling. You could talk to two or three girls at a bar and pick the best one, or you can swipe a couple hundred people a day — the sample size is so much larger. It’s setting up two or three Tinder dates a week and, chances are, sleeping with all of them, so you could rack up 100 girls you’ve slept with in a year.”

He says that he himself has slept with five different women he met on Tinder in the last eight days. Dan and Marty, also Alex’s roommates, can vouch for that. In fact, they can remember whom Alex has slept with in the past week more readily than he can.“Brittany, Morgan, Amber,” Marty says, counting on his fingers. “Oh, and the Russian — Ukrainian?”

“Ukrainian,” Alex confirms.

“I hooked up with three girls, thanks to the Internet, off of Tinder, in the course of four nights, and I spent a total of $80 on all three girls,” Nick relays proudly. He goes on to describe each date, one of which he says began with the young woman asking him on Tinder to “‘come over and smoke [weed] and watch a movie.’ I know what that means,” he says, grinning.

In his iPhone, has a list of more than 40 girls he has “had relations with, rated by [one to five] stars…. It empowers them,” he jokes. “It’s a mix of how good they are in bed and how attractive they are.”

They laugh.


Of the themes that emerge from Sales’ piece, one is efficiency:

At a table in the front, six young women have met up for an after-work drink. They’re seniors from Boston College, all in New York for summer internships. None of them are in relationships, they say.

“New York guys, from our experience, they’re not really looking for girlfriends,” says the blonde named Reese. “They’re just looking for hit-it-and-quit-it on Tinder. They start out with ‘Send me nudes.’ Or they say something like ‘I’m looking for something quick within the next 10 or 20 minutes — are you available?’ ‘O.K., you’re a mile away, tell me your location.’ It’s straight efficiency.”

“I’m on Tinder, Happn, Hinge, OkCupid,” Nick says. “It’s just a numbers game. Before, I could go out to a bar and talk to one girl, but now I can sit home on Tinder and talk to 15 girls — ”

“Without spending any money,” John chimes in.

“I’ve gotten numbers on Tinder just by sending emojis,” says John. “Without actually having a conversation — having a conversation via emojis.”

He holds up his phone, with its cracked screen, to show a Tinder conversation between him and a young woman who provided her number after he offered a series of emojis, including the ones for pizza and beer.“

“Now is that the kind of woman I potentially want to marry?” he asks, smiling. “Probably not.”

Neither Nick nor John has had a girlfriend in the last few years; Brian had one until recently but confesses, “I cheated…. She found out by looking at my phone — rookie mistake, not deleting everything.”

They all say they don’t want to be in relationships. “I don’t want one,” says Nick. “I don’t want to have to deal with all that — stuff.”

“You can’t be selfish in a relationship,” Brian says. “It feels good just to do what I want.”

I ask them if it ever feels like they lack a deeper connection with someone.

There’s a small silence. After a moment, John says, “I think at some points it does.”

“But that’s assuming that that’s something that I want, which I don’t,” Nick says, a trifle annoyed. “Does that mean that my life is lacking something? I’m perfectly happy. I have a good time. I go to work — I’m busy. And when I’m not, I go out with my friends.”

“Or you meet someone on Tinder,” offers John.

“Exactly,” Nick says. “Tinder is fast and easy, boom-boom-boom, swipe.”


Another theme is intimacy:

Asked what these women are like, he shrugs. “I could offer a résumé, but that’s about it … Works at J. Crew; senior at Parsons; junior at Pace; works in finance …”

“We don’t know what the girls are like,” Marty says.

“And they don’t know us,” says Alex.

Marty, who prefers Hinge to Tinder (“Hinge is my thing”), says he’s slept with 30 to 40 women in the last year: “I sort of play that I could be a boyfriend kind of guy,” in order to win them over, “but then they start wanting me to care more … and I just don’t.”

“Dude, that’s not cool,” Alex chides. “I always make a point of disclosing I’m not looking for anything serious. I just wanna hang out, be friends, see what happens … If I were ever in a court of law I could point to the transcript.” But something about the whole scenario seems to bother him. “I think to an extent it is, like, sinister,” he says.

“When it’s so easy, when it’s so available to you,” Brian says intensely, “and you can meet somebody and fuck them in 20 minutes, it’s very hard to contain yourself.”

“It’s rare for a woman of our generation to meet a man who treats her like a priority instead of an option,” wrote Erica Gordon on the Gen Y Web site Elite Daily, in 2014.

“I had sex with a guy and he ignored me as I got dressed and I saw he was back on Tinder.”

It is the very abundance of options provided by online dating which may be making men less inclined to treat any particular woman as a “priority,” according to David Buss, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in the evolution of human sexuality. “Apps like Tinder and OkCupid give people the impression that there are thousands or millions of potential mates out there,” Buss says. “One dimension of this is the impact it has on men’s psychology. When there is a surplus of women, or a perceived surplus of women, the whole mating system tends to shift. Men don’t have to commit, so they pursue a short-term mating strategy. Men are making that shift, and women are forced to go along with it in order to mate at all.”

Bring all of this up to young men, however, and they scoff. Women are just as responsible for “the shit show that dating has become,” according to one. “Romance is completely dead, and it’s the girls’ fault,” says Alex, 25, a New Yorker who works in the film industry.

“They act like all they want is to have sex with you and then they yell at you for not wanting to have a relationship. How are you gonna feel romantic about a girl like that? Oh, and by the way? I met you on Tinder.”

“Women do exactly the same things guys do,” said Matt, 26, who works in a New York art gallery. “I’ve had girls sleep with me off OkCupid and then just ghost me” — that is, disappear, in a digital sense, not returning texts. “They play the game the exact same way. They have a bunch of people going at the same time — they’re fielding their options. They’re always looking for somebody better, who has a better job or more money.” A few young women admitted to me that they use dating apps as a way to get free meals. “I call it Tinder food stamps,” one said.


And pleasure?

“What’s a real orgasm like,” says Courtney with a sigh. “I wouldn’t know. A lot of guys are lacking in that department.”

They all laugh knowingly.

“I know how to give one to myself,” says Courtney.

“Yeah, but men don’t know what to do,” says Jessica, texting.

“Without [a vibrator] I can’t have one,” Courtney says. “It’s never happened” with a guy. “It’s a huge problem.”

“It is a problem,” Jessica concurs.

According to multiple studies, women are more likely to have orgasms in the context of relationships than in uncommitted encounters. More than twice as likely, according to a study done by researchers at the Kinsey Institute and Binghamton University.

They talk about how it’s not uncommon for their hookups to lose their erections. It’s a curious medical phenomenon, the increased erectile dysfunction in young males, which has been attributed to everything from chemicals in processed foods to the lack of intimacy in hookup sex.

“I think men have a skewed view of the reality of sex through porn,” Jessica says, looking up from her phone. “Because sometimes I think porn sex is not always great — like pounding someone.” She makes a pounding motion with her hand, looking indignant.

“Yeah, it looks like it hurts,” Danielle says.

“Like porn sex,” says Jessica, “those women — that’s not, like, enjoyable, like having their hair pulled or being choked or slammed. I mean, whatever you’re into, but men just think” — bro voice — “ ‘I’m gonna fuck her,’ and sometimes that’s not great.”

“Yeah,” Danielle agrees. “Like last night I was having sex with this guy, and I’m a very submissive person — like, not aggressive at all — and this boy that came over last night, he was hurting me.”

They were quiet a moment.



“There have been two major transitions” in heterosexual mating “in the last four million years,” says Justin Garcia, a research scientist at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, quoted in Sales’ article. “The first was around 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, in the agricultural revolution, when we became less migratory and more settled,” leading to the establishment of marriage as a cultural contract. “And the second major transition is with the rise of the Internet. It’s changing so much about the way we act both romantically and sexually.”

In February, 2015, Sales writes, “one study reported there were nearly 100 million people — perhaps 50 million on Tinder alone — using their phones as a sort of all-day, every-day, handheld singles club, where they might find a sex partner as easily as they’d find a cheap flight to Florida.”

“It is unprecedented from an evolutionary standpoint,” Garcia says. We are in “uncharted territory.”

But out here on the drought-ravaged, California desert frontier that’s spawned the iPhone and Tinder (not to mention Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, Google, Facebook, etc., etc.), the humans creating the technology are drawing the maps.

In the Berkeley Journal of Sociology article, Morality and the Idea of Progress in Silicon Valley, Eric Gianella writes, “We’d like to be able to claim that making things more [efficient] is good. This justifies the countless products and services whose origins can be traced to someone noticing an opportunity for optimization. But there are many cases in which we need to question whether making activities more [efficient] is moral.”

And when it comes to romance, is efficiency even what we want?

I mean, if we do, we’re in luck. The Japanese have already figured out how to take that impulse to its ultimate conclusion. (Of course).

“In Japan today there’s a whole industry of relationship replacement services,” Ryan Duffy explained, in Vice’s 2013 travelogue through Japan’s Love Industry, “You can essentially replicate anything you’d get from a relationship, be it sexual, emotional, or otherwise, without actually having to have a boyfriend or girlfriend.” From the now globally famous Japanese host bars, where professionals simulate the companionship experience of a date (strictly conversation, not copulation) as-a-service — “Women are willing to affix a price for the experience,” a host who makes $800,000 a year casually explains, “It’s totally normal,” — to platonic “cuddle cafes,” where customers can order off a menu of services that includes getting to pet the cuddle hostess’s head, and gazing deeply into each others’ eyes for $80.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” Duffy asks Sakura Serizawa, his cuddle hostess, as he lies next to her, resting his head on her arm.

“Of course not,” she says, “Mendokusai. When I see happy couples during Christmas, I wish they would die. I don’t like seeing people being affectionate in public.”


“That’s interesting,” Duffy says, quietly horrified, “For someone who is affectionate with strangers for a living.”

“I have no emotional attachment to my customers,” Serizawa explains tonelessly, her artificially enlarged, anime-lensed eyes far away and hollow — like guacamole at Chipotle, eye contact with a human being in the land of efficiency costs extra.

“Nothing is weirder than this,” Duffy murmurs. “Profoundly, profoundly disturbing. We should stop this because it’s freaking me out.”

In voice-over Duffy later added, “I’ve seen a lot of perverse things in my life, but this pseudo-romance actually really got to me,” before culminating the Vice travel guide to Japan’s Love Industry at a Tokyo Hilton where a prostitute defecates in a bathtub and eats her own shit as a sexual service.

What the Japanese have realized is that why stop at sex? Every aspect of human contact can be commodified. Interaction without connection. What could be more efficient?

For Americans, that kind of streamlined optimization looks like this:

“Sex has become so easy,” says John, 26, a marketing executive quoted in Sales’ article. “I can go on my phone right now and no doubt I can find someone I can have sex with this evening, probably before midnight.”

“It’s like ordering Seamless,” says Dan, the investment banker, referring to the online food-delivery service. “But you’re ordering a person.”

But there’s a sense of absence in this paradise of frictionless efficiency. Some essential element’s gone missing in an invisible drought.

“When asked if there was anything about dating apps the young men I talked to didn’t like,” Sales writes, “’Too easy,’ ‘Too easy,’ ‘Too easy,’ I heard again and again.”

By reducing people to one-time-use bodies and sex to an on-demand exchange, dating apps have made what they yield us disposable and cheap. (Even Tinder is uneasy about its role in society being an orifice delivery service, disavowing it contributes to the very hookup culture its technology has not only branded but mainstreamed.)

“I call it the Dating Apocalypse,” a 29 year old New York woman tells Sales.

Or, in the vernacular of Silicon Valley: We have succeeded in disrupting love.

Enterprise Bridge, Lake Oroville, California


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If there’s one place where love is not dead, it’s the lab.

Anthropologist, Helen Fisher, and neuroscientist, Lucy Brown have been putting people who are madly in love into functional MRI brain scanners to find out what is going on up there, and they can tell you exactly where love lives in the brain:

This is your brain on love
This is your brain on love.

. .

[In] our study we found activity in a tiny, little factory near the base of the brain called the ventral tegmental area. We found activity in some cells called the A10 cells, cells that actually make dopamine, a natural stimulant, and spray it to many brain regions. Indeed, this part, the VTA, is part of the brain’s reward system. It’s way below your cognitive thinking process. It’s part of what we call the reptilian core of the brain, associated with wanting, with motivation, with focus and with craving. In fact, the same brain region where we found activity becomes active also when you feel the rush of cocaine.

There’s a very specific group of things that happen when you fall in love, and indeed, it has all of the characteristics of addiction. The first thing that happens is a person begins to take on what I call, “special meaning.” You focus on the person, you obsessively think about them, you crave them, you distort reality, your willingness to take enormous risks to win this person. It’s an obsession. As a truck driver once said to me, “The world had a new center, and that center was Mary Anne.”

In another lab, at Stony Brook University, the psychologist Arthur Aron and his colleagues succeeded in making two strangers fall in love as part of an experiment. The researchers wanted to know if they could create conditions that would make strangers quickly bond and form close friendships, even romantic relationships. They paired up random participants, seated them face to face, and gave them a sequence of 36 increasingly personal questions to ask one another and answer openly over an hour, including:

  • Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
  • What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
  • What do you value most in a friendship?
  • Would you be willing to have horrible nightmares for a year if you would be rewarded with extraordinary wealth?
  • While on a trip to another city, your spouse (or lover) meets and spends a night w/ an exciting stranger. Given they will never meet again, and you will not otherwise learn of the incident, would you want your partner to tell you about it?
  • What foreign country would you most like to visit? What attracts you to this place?

Even before the hour was up, participants typically identified strong feelings of closeness with their partner, often exchanging contact information and indicating a wish to meet up again. “In the original [1997] experiment we also tested an intense version of this with cross-sex couples,” Aron said in Wired in 2011. “And the first ones we tested fell in love and got married. And as of last year, when I last had contact with them, they were still together.”

The control group participants were paired up to engage in small-talk, never, obviously, to be heard from again.

“The effect is based on gradually escalating reciprocal self-disclosure,” Aron and his colleagues explained in their paper, The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings. “So are we producing real closeness? Yes and no. We think that the closeness produced in these studies is experienced as similar in many important ways to felt closeness in naturally occurring relationships that develop over time. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that the procedure produces loyalty, dependence, commitment, or other relationship aspects that might take longer to develop.”

This maps to the distinct brain systems Fisher and her team have identified for mating and reproduction:

  1. The sex drive, which, as Fisher says, “evolved to get us out there looking for a whole range of partners. You can feel it when you’re just driving along in your car. It can be focused on nobody.”
  2. Romantic love, “that elation and obsession which evolved to enable us to focus our mating energy on just one individual at a time, thereby conserving mating time and energy.”
  3. Attachment, “that sense of calm and security you can feel for a long-term partner, evolved to enable you to tolerate this human being at least long enough to raise a child together as a team.”

Right now our “dating” technology is built for the very particular, accumulative drive of #1. Not surprising, perhaps, considering who is (stereo)typically doing the building, but this experience design choice has created a template for imitation.

Co-founder, Whitney Wolfe, left Tinder (under circumstances, outlined in a sexual harassment lawsuit, that read, in excruciating screencaps of text exchanges, like a self-fulfilling indictment of the kind of pathological culture the product encourages) and created…. Tinder. Actually, it’s called Bumble. The Sadie Hawkins of dating apps, on Bumble it’s only women who are able to initiate a conversation once both parties have opted in to a match. Which is pretty much a branding gimmick turned into a product feature. The main differentiator becomes the type of person who would self select to use an app brand that flaunts female agency. But beneath that surface distinction the basic product experience isn’t really a departure from the app its founder left.

“[We know] from our work that if you go and do something very novel with somebody,” Fisher says, “You can drive up the dopamine in the brain, and perhaps trigger this brain system for romantic love. Mystery is [also] important. You fall in love with somebody who’s somewhat mysterious, in part because mystery elevates dopamine in the brain, [which] probably pushes you over that threshold to fall in love.”

Love, as it turns out, can’t be automated. (Who knew?) It doesn’t result from meeting or sleeping with more people. In fact, just the opposite. Love is triggered in a moment when we are able to experience something special in one individual, as everyone else fades away. As Proust said, “It is our imagination that is responsible for love, not the other person.”

Love loves rarity, not surplus, and it might actually hate efficiency, hearting, as it does, the out of the ordinary and unexpected and novel and non-routine. But from swipe to sex, the relentless, grinding repetitiveness inherent in every aspect of the “swipe app” experience, sabotages the very mechanics that trigger the brain system for romantic love.

In 2013, I wrote that “our technology is turning all of us into objects.

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - Season 21

The ubiquitousness of cameras and social platforms on which to share their output has made us all re-conceive ourselves and one another as media products. We are all selfies. We are all profiles. We are all hashtags. And we can’t stop. Now we swipe through thousands of instant people. We learn nothing of them and share nothing of ourselves to be known. We strip ourselves down to anatomy and stare at each other with hollow, cuddle-host eyes, and we become invisible. Independent contractors in the sharing economy of sex.

There’s obviously all kinds of reasons for why we fall in love with one person rather than another, but if the conditions for generating interpersonal closeness can be recreated in, of all places, a lab experiment, and if the neural mechanisms for how romantic love works can be understood, then perhaps the technological desert we currently find ourselves on is not only, as Sales says a “cultural problem,” it’s an innovation problem.

Love knows what it likes, and we could be building tech engineered for it — creating a match between the research and the product experience, as it were. But we aren’t.

In a time when it’s legal to marry whomever you love, love itself has become an alternative lifestyle.



“Anxiety is love’s greatest killer,” said Anaïs Nin.

In a 2014 survey by the American College Health Association, 54% of college students surveyed said that they had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the past 12 months. An increase of 5% from the same survey five years earlier. Nearly all of the campus mental-health directors surveyed in 2013 by the American College Counseling Association reported that the number of students with severe psychological problems had escalated at their schools.

In tandem, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt write in The Atlantic, “A movement has been arising at America’s colleges and universities, driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense,” (emphasis added).

Unlike the political correctness movement of the 80’s and 90’s, which sought to restrict hate speech aimed at marginalized groups, “the current movement is largely about emotional well-being; turning campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.”

“Trigger warnings” — signaling that something potentially uncomfortable lies ahead — are now being “demanded for a long list of ideas and attitudes that some students find offensive. Books for which students have called publicly for trigger warnings within the past couple of years include Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart [for describing] racial violence, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby [for portraying] misogyny and physical abuse, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (at Rutgers, for ‘suicidal inclinations’), and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (at Columbia, for sexual assault). In an article published last year by Inside Higher Ed, seven humanities professors wrote that the trigger-warning movement was ‘already having a chilling effect on [their] teaching.’ They reported their colleagues’ receiving ‘phone calls from deans and other administrators investigating student complaints that they have included ‘triggering’ material in their courses, with or without warnings.’ A trigger warning, they wrote, ‘serves as a guarantee that students will not experience unexpected discomfort.’”

Shielding people from experiences that might cause them emotional discomfort, however, doesn’t help them actually overcome their anxiety. “According to the most-basic tenets of psychology,” Lukianoff and Haidt write, “The very idea of helping people with anxiety avoid the things they fear is misguided. A person who is trapped in an elevator during a power outage may panic and think she is going to die. That frightening experience can change neural connections in her amygdala, leading to an elevator phobia. If you want this woman to retain her fear for life, you should help her avoid elevators.”

And if you want a generation to fear of intimacy, then help them avoid feeling anything uncomfortable. For what could be more fundamentally discomforting than love?

“You know, if you ask somebody to go to bed with you, and they say, ‘No, thank you,’ you certainly don’t kill yourself or slip into a clinical depression,” Fisher says. But people who are rejected in love do. “We live for love. We kill for love. We die for love. It is one of the most powerful brain systems on Earth for both great joy and great sorrow.”

Trigger warning: Love will make you feel.

It’s telling that amidst the 6,000+ words about the sex lives of 21st century 20-somethings in Sales’ article, “love” makes an appearance just once: “What about the still-flickering chance that somebody might fall in love?” she asks.

“Some people still catch feelings in hookup culture,” Sales quotes Meredith, a Bellarmine sophomore. “It’s not like just blind fucking for pleasure and it’s done; some people actually like the other person. Sometimes you actually catch feelings and that’s what sucks, because it’s one person thinking one thing and the other person thinking something completely different and someone gets their feelings hurt. It could be the boy or the girl.”

It’s an interesting turn of phrase, “catch feelings,” that has pervaded our contemporary conception of ourselves. It connotes that feelings are a contamination, a sickness you contract, a disease of some kind. An STD.

“People acquire their fears not just from their own past experiences,” Lukianoff and Haidt write, “But from social learning as well. If everyone around you acts as though something is dangerous — elevators, certain neighborhoods, novels depicting racism — “ feelings “ — then you are at risk of acquiring that fear too. “

In a sense, both the Japanese celibacy syndrome, and the west’s “psychosexual obesity” can be seen symptoms the same viral fear of our feeling selves. After all, if it makes you feel nothing either way, does it really matter how much sex you’re having, or any at all? You could practically hear the Americans in Sales’ article straining for the word mendokusai. Both cultures have convinced themselves that emotional necrosis is the cure; it’s too much trouble to feel.

“Love possesses you,” as Fisher says, “you lose your sense of self. You can’t stop thinking about another human being. Somebody is camping in your head.” That kind of insurgent invasion on our prized individualism has come to seem beyond trouble: it’s terror.

Ironically, it is through exposure and acclimation to that which we fear that we reduce anxiety. By confronting the things we’re scared of and realizing we can handle them, we rewire the brain to associate previously feared situations with normalcy. Anxiety is literally the inability to cope with what we feel. If all we’re trying to do is avoid catching feelings, never learning how to live with them, it’s no surprise anxiety would be on the rise.

What happens when a generation so terrified of even just reading something that might make them feel uncomfortable they’ll voluntarily censor classic literature rather than cope with the emotions art stirs up collides with technology that reduces us all to objects? And what happens when the people creating our technology have grown up in that same environment, mirroring its emotional bankruptcy back to us via the products they create?

“Keep playing,” Tinder encourages whenever a user gets a match. On this platform for finally, truly “gamifying” sex, there’s no room for feeling. People are prizes and bodies are points and feelings don’t accrue you anything, so what’s the point of having them? They are inefficient and invisible. (You can’t even post a photo; did they happen at all?)

Maybe one day in the future we’ll invent technology for that too. Botox the bugs in the brain that feel grief or sorrow or loss or love. Lobotomize ourselves into an Eternal Sunshine state of mind. But in the meantime, we are still human, feeling beings, who increasingly view their own feeling nature as a contamination.

Imagine a 13 year old today. Too young to have ever known how it’s like to to fall in love or go on a date or be in a relationship — but old enough to be on Tinder. What will coming of age in this environment be like for them? Porn is already how an entire generation learns how to have sex. What will being swallowed up into a ceaseless stream of swipe-able sex objects teach them about how to love?



“Who knows how to make love stay?” Tom Robbins asked in Still Life with Woodpecker:

1. Tell love you are going to Junior’s Deli on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to pick up a cheesecake, and if loves stays, it can have half. It will stay.

2. Tell love you want a momento of it and obtain a lock of its hair. Burn the hair in a dime-store incense burner with yin/yang symbols on three sides. Face southwest. Talk fast over the burning hair in a convincingly exotic language. Remove the ashes of the burnt hair and use them to paint a moustache on your face. Find love. Tell it you are someone new. It will stay.

3. Wake love up in the middle of the night. Tell it the world is on fire. Dash to the bedroom window and pee out of it. Casually return to bed and assure love that everything is going to be all right. Fall asleep. Love will be there in the morning.


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Our technology is turning us all into objects. And it doesn’t matter how you treat objects, does it?


I have been responsible for more selfies than most people.

I didn’t take them. They’re not of me. But I launched an app which allows users to easily create mirrored images. So the leap from this:

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno - Season 21

To this:

Was almost instant.

In the year since our app launched, our users have created over 5 million images. By now you’ve seen this mirrored selfie trend all over Instagram, not to mention throughout the greater popular culture.

To be fair, mirrored selfie-grams are far from the only way people engage with the app. They also use it to create stunningly beautiful, painstakingly crafted, kaleidoscopic works of abstract art:


But it’s the selfies — mirrored or otherwise — that have been on my mind a lot lately.



Right now, there are 50 million images on Instagram with the hashtag #selfie, and nearly 140 million tagged #me.

“Selfies,” Elizabeth Day reports in the Guardian, “Have become a global phenomenon. Images tagged as #selfie began appearing on the photo-sharing website Flickr as early as 2004. But it was the introduction of smartphones – most crucially the iPhone 4, which came along in 2010 with a front-facing camera – that made the selfie go viral.”

A recent survey of more than 800 American teenagers by the Pew Research Centre found that 91% posted photos of themselves online – up from 79% in 2006.

But the selfie isn’t just a self-portrait, it is a self-object.

“Again and again, you offer yourself up for public consumption,” Day writes. “Your image is retweeted and tagged and shared. Your screen fills with thumbs-up signs and heart-shaped emoticons. Soon, you repeat the whole process, trying out a different pose.”

“The selfie is about continuously rewriting yourself,” says Dr. Mariann Hardey, a lecturer in marketing at Durham University who specializes in digital social networks. “It’s an extension of our natural construction of self.”

But what is it we are constructing our selves into?



Before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way: unless you are a teenager right now, you do not understand what it means to grow up in a world where porn and Facebook are equidistant — in case you don’t know, that proximity is one click away, and apart. If you’re curious to understand what, in fact, this experience is like — in teenagers’ own words — you should read Nancy Jo Sales’ recent Vanity Fair article, “Friends Without Benefits.” But not until after you’ve finished reading this one because I’ll be drawing on it quite a bit.

If you are, at this moment, older than at least your mid-20s, whatever it is that you think you can draw on to relate to 2013 from an analog adolescence frame of reference, just put that away, because it is not a parallel to what is happening right now. What is, according to Gail Dines, the author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, is “a massive social experiment.” Here are some results from that experiment so far:

According to a 2008 CyberPsychology & Behavior study:

  • 93% of boys and 62% of girls have seen internet porn
  • 83% of boys and 57% of girls have seen group sex online
  • 18% of boys and 10% of girls have seen rape or sexual violence

But that was five iPhone versions ago at this point, so, you do the math.

“In the absence of credible, long-term research, we simply don’t know where the age of insta-porn is taking us,” writes Peggy Drexler on TheDailyBeast, but that we are in it, and that it is pervasive, is undeniable.

“What does this do to teenagers,” Sales asks in Vanity Fair. “And to children? How does it affect boys’ attitudes toward girls? How does it affect girls’ self-esteem and feeling of well-being? And how is this affecting the way that children and teenagers are communicating on these new technologies?”

In the the Guardian, Day describes one typical answer to that last question: “The pouting mouth, the pressed-together cleavage, the rumpled bedclothes in the background hinting at opportunity — a lot of female selfie aficionados take their visual vernacular directly from pornography (unwittingly or otherwise).”

“Because of porn culture,” says Dines, “Women have internalised that image of themselves. They self-objectify.”

“The girls I interviewed,” says Sales, “Even if they’re not doing it themselves, it’s in their faces: their friends posting really provocative pictures of themselves on Facebook and Instagram, sending nude pictures on Snapchat. Why are they doing this? Is this sexual liberation? Is it good for them? Girls know the issues, and yet some of them still can’t resist objectifying themselves, as they even talk about [themselves]. As the girl I call ‘Greta’ says, ‘more provocative equals more likes.’ To be popular, which is what high school is all about, you have to get ‘likes’ on your social-media pics.”




Harmony Korine’s, Spring Breakers, originally released in March, 2013, “Horrifies and entices in equal measure,” wrote NPR music critic, Ann Powers:

Flattening the hierarchies that separate trash from art, porn from erotica, and moral justice from exploitation by any means necessary, Spring Breakers… embraces and elaborates upon the prevalent suspicion that nobody lives on the stable side of reality any more.

“Pretend you’re in a videogame,” says one of the film’s female anti-heroines as they begin their spree of rampant self-abuse and crime. That’s what Miley Cyrus does, trying on new aspects of performance and sexual self-expression in her new persona. It’s also how the vulnerable models that Robin Thicke ogles [in the music video for his song, Blurred Lines] make it through the gauntlet that the video’s scene creates.

The childlike goofiness Katy Perry expressed with California Gurlz in 2010, or the sweet hope of Carly Rae Jepsen’s smash of last year, Call Me Maybehave intensified into something more unsettling. In this strange summer of too much heat, so many precariously excessive songs and videos now play on that line between healthy catharsis and chaos.



The summer would get stranger still. Punctuated in its final days by what may just be the most controversial MTV Video Music Awards performance of all time, featuring a duet by Cyrus and Thicke.

I would write about it:


From its very first steps, Cyrus’s performance felt, unmistakably, like watching a GIF happen in real-time. The act was speaking the native tongue — stuck all the way out — of the digital age, its direct appeal to meme culture as blatant and aggressive as the display of sexuality. The source material and its inevitable meme-ification appeared to be happening simultaneously. The  Internet was inherently integrated within the performance. It was no longer a “second” screen; it was the same damn screen. All the performances before it had been made for TV. This show changed that.

What I learned from the 2013 VMAs is that owning your sexuality is passé, but owning meme culture by exploiting your sexuality is now. Whatever you think of it, Cyrus’s performance was a deliberate reflection of where we are as culture.


A burner had been left blindly on. Something invisible and pervasive had accumulated. Watching the VMAs, a giant fireball exploded in our faces.

We were unprepared.

This, ultimately, would be why everyone freaked out. Cyrus became a highly visible target for embodying this shift on a mainstream stage, and exploiting it to increase her fame and drive her record to #1, but all she was doing was deftly surfing the cultural current.

By the end of August, she was exposing us to the new normal.



“In news that’s not at all surprising, yet another tech event was disrupted by a sexist joke,” Lauren Orsini wrote on ReadWriteWeb, within days of the VMAs:

“Titstare” was the first presentation of the TechCrunch Disrupt 2013 hackathon. Created by Australians Jethro Batts and David Boulton, the joke app is based on the “science” of how sneaking a peek at cleavage helps men live healthier lives.

The opening salvo cast an ugly shadow over the event, reminding attendees that, just like at PyCon and other technology conferences, “brogrammer” culture is still the norm.

Perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that Batts and Boulton presented immediately before Adria Richards, a programmer who rose to the national spotlight after she witnessed sexist jokes at PyCon 2013. Her gall to disapprove of the offensive jokes earned her death threats.


In the wake of the VMA article, I kept tweeting over and over, “Everything is changing….but into whatttttt?” By the early days of Fall, the culture had undeniably shifted. I kept kept seeing an escalating, atavistic gender warfare. Why is this happening, I thought.

Why is this happening?



Why is THIS happening?


Why is THIS happening??


That all happened in one day.

That week I was approached to speak at a women’s startup conference and felt, reflexively, offended. The idea that there should be segregated events seemed insulting and damaging — to everyone. I began to feel self-conscious that I had an app startup with a male business partner. I texted him, “What is happening???” and “Can’t we all just get along?” We laughed, but we began to feel like an anomaly.


Pretend you’re in a videogame.

“When we listeners find ourselves taking pleasure in these familiar but enticingly refreshed acts of transgression,” Powers writes, “Echoing the Michael Jackson-style whoops that Pharrell makes in Blurred Lines, or nodding along to the stoned, melancholy chorus of Cyrus’s arrestingly sad party anthem, We Can’t Stop, are we compromising ourselves? Or is it okay, because after all, it’s just pretend?”

And when the technology that I, you, and everyone we know use on a daily basis gets developed to the sound of this same, blurry, pop culture soundtrack (figuratively or literally), what happens then? How are the creators of objectifying technology supposed to know it isn’t cool — if all of our technology is used for objectification?

In Vanity Fair, Sales talks to Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus co-directors of Sexy Baby, a documentary about girls and women in the age of porn. “We saw these girls embracing this idea that ‘If I want to be like a porn star, it’s so liberating,’” Gradus said. “We were skeptical. But it was such a broad concept. We asked, ‘What is this shift in our sexual attitudes, and how do we define this?’ I guess the common thread we saw that is creating this is technology. Technology being so available made every girl or woman capable of being a porn star, or thinking they’re a porn star. They’re objectifying themselves. The thinking is: ‘If I’m in control of it, then I’m not objectified.’”

In October, Sinead O’Connor — whose video for Nothing Compares 2 U inspired Cyrus’s look in her video for Wrecking Ball — wrote an “open letter” to Cyrus, beautifully capturing, “in the spirit of motherliness and with love,” the generational disconnect at the heart of the cultural shift. “The message you keep sending is that it’s somehow cool to be prostituted.. it’s so not cool Miley. Don’t let the music business make a prostitute out of you,” O’Connor wrote, not getting it.

The familiar, analog, 20th century relationship in between objectification and commercialization has eroded. In its place, a new, post-Empire dynamic has arrived, built on a natively digital experience that O’Connor and an entire population still able to remember and relate to a world before the internet and mobile technology, can’t wrap their heads around.

“The blurred messages Thicke, Cyrus and others are now sending fit a time when people think of themselves as products, more than ever before,” Powers writes.

In the attention economy, self-exploitation is self-empowerment. We are all objects. We are all products. We are all selfies.

And we can’t stop.

“Social media is destroying our lives,” Sales quotes a girl in Vanity Fair.

“So why don’t you go off it?” Sales asks.

“Because then we would have no life.”

The ubiquitousness of digital cameras and social media platforms to share their instant output has not only turned  the idea that objectification is violation into an anachronism, but self-objectification is now, as Powers, writes “part of today’s ritual of romance.”  Nearly one in three teenagers is sending nude photos, after all.

Like the girls in Sales’ article, who tell her that “presenting themselves in this way is making them anxious and depressed,” but continue to do it anyway, we do not self-objectify because we’re in control. We self-objectify because it is the norm.

We self-objectify to rationalize, to placebo-ize that we had control in the first place.


We Can’t Stop.

“Both young women and young men are seriously unhappy with the way things are,” says, Donna Freitas, a former professor at Hofstra and Boston Universities, who studies hook-up culture on college campuses in her new book, The End of Sex  (which Sales suggests, “might as well be called The End of Love.”)

Sales writes:

Much has been written about hook-up culture lately, notably Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men (2012) and a July New York Times article, “Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game Too,” both of which attributed the trend to feminism and ambitious young women’s desire not to be tied down by relationships.

But Freitas’s research, conducted over a year on seven college campuses, tells a different story.

She describes the sex life of the average college kid as “Mad Men sex, boring and ambivalent. Sex is something you’re not to care about. They drink to drown out what is really going on with them. The reason for hooking up is less about pleasure and fun than performance and gossip—it’s being able to update [on social media] about it. Social media is fostering a very unthinking and unfeeling culture.”

College kids, both male and female, also routinely rate each other’s sexual performance on social media, often derisively, causing anxiety for everyone.

And researchers are now seeing an increase in erectile dysfunction among college-age men—related, Freitas believes, to their performance anxiety from watching pornography: “The mainstreaming of porn is tremendously affecting what’s expected of them.”


Or as ThoughtCatalog writer, Ryan O’Connell, (oh, hey, sup, a dude), put it, “This is how we have sex now:”

Porn has killed our imaginations. We sit and try to fantasize. We shut our eyes tight and think, ‘Wait, what did I used to masturbate about before porn? What image is going to turn me on right now?” But your brain gets tired and your genitalia isn’t used to working this hard so you open your reliable go-to porno and get off in two minutes. Later, you have trouble maintaing an erection during actual sex because your partner doesn’t look like a blow up doll from the Valley.

Our sex lives are having less and less to do with actual sex. Intimacy has morphed into something entirely more narcissistic. What used to be about making each other feel good and connecting is now about validation.

When sex does happen, when we finally make it through the endless hoops of text messaging, planning a date and actually sticking to it and you discover that you like this person (or could like them for an evening), it feels like an old faded photograph that’s been sitting in a shoebox at the bottom of your closet. “This orgasm feels like a vintage ball gown! Is this how people used to do it in the olden days?!” It’s terrifying!

In 2013, our phones are getting to have all the fun. They’re getting laid constantly while we lay naked in the dark, rubbing our skin, trying pathetically to get turned on by the feel of our own touch. We scroll through our camera and see a buffet of anonymous naked photos we’ve collected over the last few months for us to jack off to. Somehow, this has become enough for us. Getting off has become like fast food. It’s accessible, cheap, and most likely going to make us feel like shit after.

We are actively participating in the things that keep us from what we want. Feel good now, feel bad forever later. Stomachache stomachache, junk food junk food.


In a pervasively mediated culture, where porn primes our perception of ourselves and others, and our technology reduces us to selfies, objectification is inevitable.

And the trouble is — it doesn’t matter how you treat objects…. It’s not like they’re people.

What people want today is “to hurt one another” and “get back at the people that hurt them,” Hunter Moore, the founder of, told Rolling Stone last October.

In a September article on The Verge titled, The End of KindnessGreg Sandoval writes:

And Moore ought to know. He’s one of the pioneers of revenge porn, the practice of posting nude photos to the web of a former lover in an attempt to embarrass, defame, and terrorize.

While minorities and homosexuals are often targeted, experts say no group is more abused online than women. Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland lays out some of the numbers in her upcoming book, Hatred 3.0. The US National Violence Against Women Survey reports 60% of cyberstalking victims are women. A group called Working to Halt Online Abuse studied 3,787 cases of cyberharassment, and found that 72.5% were female, 22.5% were male and 5% unknown. A study of Internet Relay Chat showed male users receive only four abusive or threatening messages for every 100 received by women.

Moore has sold his site but scores of wannabes are cropping up. A check of these sites shows that victims are almost always women. At over 1,000 nude photos and new pictures are added nearly every day. Each post typically includes the name of the person photographed, their age, and the city they live in. The posts come with titles like, “Manipulative Bitch,” “Cheater,” “Has genital warts,” “Drunk,” “Meth User,” “This girl slept with so many other guys,” and “Filthy Pig.”

The Verge contacted several women found on some of these sites, including While all of them declined to be interviewed, they did acknowledge that the photos were posted without permission by an ex-boyfriend or lover. One woman said that she was trying to get the pictures pulled down and had successfully removed them from other sites because she was not yet 18 years old when they were taken (if her claim is accurate it would make the snapshots child pornography). She pleaded that we not use her name and asked that we not contact her again.

If the woman was upset and afraid, she has a right to be, says Holly Jacobs, 30, who has started a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending revenge porn and supporting its victims. Jacobs knows firsthand that these sites are killers of reputations and relationships. Three years ago, Jacobs was studying for her PhD in industrial organizational psychology and working as a consultant at a university when a former boyfriend began posting nude photos of her online. The embarrassment and terror was just the beginning. Jacobs’ ex sent copies of the photos to her boss and suggested she was sexually preying on students. Jacobs’ employers, fearing bad press, asked her to prove she didn’t upload the photos herself. She finally felt compelled to change her name (Jacobs is the new name).

In July The Washington Post published a story about men who post phony ads to make it appear as if their ex-wives or girlfriends are soliciting sex. One man, Michael Johnson II of Hyattsville, Maryland, published an ad titled “Rape Me and My Daughters” and included his ex-wife’s home address. More than 50 men showed up to the victim’s house. One man tried to break in and another tried to undress her daughter. Johnson was sentenced to 85 years in prison. His victim was physically unharmed but these ads can be lethal. In December 2009, a Wyoming woman was raped with a knife sharpener in her home after an ex-boyfriend assumed her identity and posted a Craigslist ad that read, “Need an aggressive man with no concern or regard for women.” Her ex and the man who raped her are both serving long prison sentences.



While people, trapped as we are by our digital avatars, are increasingly being reduced to objects, our technology seems to be benefitting from a transference of humanity.

Spike Jonze’s new movie, Her, due out in December, is being called “science fiction,” but the “future” depicted in the trailer looks essentially indistinguishable from the reality we all find ourselves in today. In it, a melancholy man, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and a Turing test-approved virtual assistant program, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, fall in love.

“Unlike the science fiction of yesteryear,” writes David Plumb on, “Her is not about the evolving relationship between humans and artificial intelligence. Instead, Samantha appears to be essentially a human being trapped in a computer. Her thus appears to be about programming the perfect woman who fits in your pocket, manages your life, doesn’t have a body (and thus free will), and has an off switch.”


Pretend you’re in a videogame.



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The Next 21st Century Superhero Will Be a Chick

A musician friend of mine was once seeing the best friend of a famous heiress and he told me this story: “I had been dating her for a month and one night she invited me out to go meet her whole crew for the first time. I was SUPER nervous. Meeting the group of friends of someone you’re dating for the first time can be nerve-racking anyway, but especially if they are like…. that. I drove there and I was standing outside like, ‘OK… I need to get my shit straight and go in there and own this place.’ All of a sudden it hit me: ‘Channel your inner Tony Stark!'” It worked, he said, “Game over.”

Hearing this story, I wondered, who was my inner spirit superheroine? What clever badass would I conjure for existential ammo in a situation like this? I started searching my mental pop culture database for an acceptable candidate and this is when I realized I could barely think of a single one. The only two vaguely applicable options coming to mind were both from a decade ago: Buffy foremost, and, more hazily, Trinity. But Buffy’s final episode had aired, and Trinity had devolved from enigma to boring love interest saved by her boyfriend at the end of the Matrix trilogy, both back in 2003. As far as contemporary, mainstream, pop culture was concerned, there was a giant void.

I turned to the Internet for help, and found a list of the 100 Greatest Female Characters, compiled by Total Film. While not exactly rigorous in its methodology (fully 6% of the list’s alleged 100 greatest female characters are not actually human; 3 — Audrey 2 from Little Shop of Horrors, Lady from Lady and the Tramp, and Dory from Finding Nemo — aren’t even humanoid), the audit is, at the very least… directional. Narrowing the list down to just those heroines who’ve graced the big screen within the past 10 years (minus the non-human entries) the chronological order looks like this:

Among these 15 possible spirit superhoreine candidates there are 6 victims of sexual abuse, 3 are dealing with some form of depression, 4 haven’t hit puberty, 2 are addicts — including one vampire — and, most notably, a full third who would sooner slaughter a party than charm it. New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis observed this trend last year, writing:

It’s no longer enough to be a mean girl, to destroy the enemy with sneers and gossip: you now have to be a murderous one. That, at any rate, seems to be what movies like Hanna, Sucker Punch, Super, Let Me In, Kick-Ass and those flicks with that inked Swedish psycho-chick seem to be saying. One of the first of these tiny terrors was played by the 12-year-old Natalie Portman in Luc Besson’s neo-exploitation flick The Professional (1994). Her character, a cigarette-smoking, wife-beater-wearing Lolita, schooled by a hit man, was a pint-size version of the waif turned assassin in Mr. Besson’s Femme Nikita (1990), which spawned various imitators. Mr. Besson likes little ladies with big weapons. As does Quentin Tarantino and more than a few Japanese directors, including Kinji Fukasaku, whose 2000 freakout, Battle Royale, provided the giggling schoolgirl who fights Uma Thurman’s warrior in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Mr. Tarantino and his celebrated love of the ladies of exploitation has something to do with what’s happening on screens. Yet something else is going on…. The question is why are so many violent girls and women running through movies now.

That question is particularly pointed since this genre is not exactly blockbuster material. Hanna was only slightly profitable. Sucker Punch flopped, as did Haywire and the Besson-produced, Colombiana; both Kick-Ass and Let Me In were “gore-athons that movieplexers don’t want to see,” and, in spite of all its hype, the American remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was a “huge box office disappointment.” And that’s all just in the past two years.

In an April, 2011, New Yorker article titled, “Funny Like A Guy, Anna Faris and Hollywood’s Women Problem,” Tad Friend wrote:

Female-driven comedies such as Juno, Mean Girls, The House Bunny, Julie & Julia, Something’s Gotta Give, It’s Complicated, and Easy A have all done well at the box office. So why haven’t more of them been made? “Studio executives think these movies’ success is a one-off every time,” Nancy Meyers, who wrote and directed Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated, observes. “They’ll say, ‘One of the big reasons that worked was because Jack was in it,’ or ‘We hadn’t had a comedy for older women in forever.”

Amy Pascal, who as Sony’s cochairman put four of the above films into production, points out, “You’re talking about a dozen or so female-driven comedies that got made over a dozen years, a period when hundreds of male-driven comedies got made. And every one of those female-driven comedies was written or directed or produced by a woman. Studio executives believe that male moviegoers would rather prep for a colonoscopy than experience a woman’s point of view. “Let’s be honest,” one top studio executive said. “The decision to make movies is mostly made by men, and if men don’t have to make movies about women, they won’t.”

Except, it seems, if those women happen to be traumatized, ultra-violent vigilantes of some sort. Perhaps these movies keep getting made because their failure is seen as a one-off every time, too.

“Men just don’t understand the nuance of female dynamics,” Friend quotes an anonymous, prominent producer. Although the conversation is about comedy (why men can’t relate to Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones, for example), it could explain why all these vengeful heroines seem to inevitably wind up defective. This violent femmes sub-genre — which expands the traditional Rape/Revenge archetype to also encompass psychologically violated prepubescents — by default demands female protagonists. But since their creators don’t understand how to make them, they stick to what they know. Consider that the title role in Salt was originally named Edwin, and intended for Tom Cruise before she became Evelyn and went to Angelina Jolie. The emotionally stunted, socially inept, tech savant protagonists of David Fincher’s two latest films — male in The Social Network, female in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo — are equally as interchangeable. From Hannah to Hit Girl, all the way back to Matilda in The Professional, it’s always been a father, or father figure who’s trained them. A woman, this narrative suggests, would have nothing to offer in raising a powerful daughter. When a film needs a Violent Femme the solution has become to simply write a man, and then cast a girl. (Failing that, just mix up a cocktail of disorders — Asperger’s, attachment disorder, PTSD; a splash of Stockholm Syndrome — where a character needs to be.) No understanding of female dynamics required.

“What if the person you expect to be the predator is not who you expect it to be? What if it’s the other person,” asks producer, David W. Higgins, on the DVD featurette for his 2005 film, Hard Candy, about a 14-year-old girl, played by Ellen Paige, who blithely brutalizes a child molester. Whereas for 20th century heroines like Princess Leia (#5 on Total Film’s 100 Greatest Female Characters), Sarah Connor (#3), or Ellen Ripley (#1 — of course), not to mention their brethren, overcoming trauma is what made them become heroes, for this new crop, trauma is what excuses them from seeming like villains in their own right. We love to see the underdog triumph, but do we really want to watch a victim become the predator, and a predator become the hero? The ongoing failures of films fetishizing this scenario suggest we’re just not that into this cognitive dissonance.

So much for movies no one wants to see, but what about those those every girl has? On the one hand there’s Twilight, whose Bella Swan is a dishrag of a damsel in distress so useless her massive popularity is a disturbing, cultural atavism. On the other, there’s the Harry Potter series, whose Hermione Granger (#7) might be “The Heroine Women Have Been Waiting For,” according to Laura Hibbard in the Huffington Post. “The early books were full of her eagerly answering question after question in class, much to the annoyance of the other characters. In the later books, that unapologetic intelligence very obviously saves Harry Potter’s life on more than one occasion. Essentially, without Hermione, Harry wouldn’t have been ‘the boy who lived.'” Meanwhile, here’s how Total Film describes Leia: “Royalty turned revolutionary, a capital-L Lady with a laser gun in her hand. Cool, even before you know she also has Jedi blood.”

And that is the one, simple, yet infinitely complex element that is consistently missing across the entire spectrum of stiff, 21st century downers: Cool. “Of all the comic books we published at Marvel,” said Stan Lee, the creator of Iron Man, Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, and more, “we got more fan mail for Iron Man from women than any other title.” Cool is the platonic ideal Tony Stark represents. It’s what makes him such an effective spirit superhero for the ordeal of party. But while Stark may be special he’s not an anomaly. From James Bond to Tyler Durden, male characters Bogart the cool. And it’s not because they’re somehow uniquely suited for it (see: the femme fatale). It’s because their contemporary female counterparts are consistently forced to be lame.

“You have to defeat her at the beginning,” Tad Friend quotes a successful female screenwriter describing her technique. “It’s a conscious thing I do — abuse and break her, strip her of her dignity, and then she gets to live out our fantasies and have fun. It’s as simple as making the girl cry fifteen minutes into the movie.” That could just as easily describe Bridesmaids as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Which is totally fucked, first of all. And secondly, it’s boring. You’d think there’d be more narrative to go around — though I suppose I did just see the once female-driven Carrie, and The Craft remade as an all-male superhero origin flick called, Chronicle. Perhaps we really have reached Peak Plot. In which case now would really be the time to be R&Ding some alternatives.

“I love to take reality and change one little aspect of it, and see how reality then shifts.” said director, Jon Favreau. “That was what was fun about Iron Man, you [change] one little thing, and how does that affect the real world?” Favreau’s experiment has yielded a superhero archetype that reflects a slew of Millennial mores, from the intimacy of his relationship with his gadgets, to his eschew of a secret identity in favor of that uniquely post-digital virtue of radical transparency, to his narcissism. “If Peter Parker’s life lesson is that ‘with great power comes great responsibility,'” I wrote in a post titled, Why Iron Man is the First 21st Century Superhero, “Tony Stark’s is that with great power comes a shit-ton of fun. Unlike the prior century’s superhero, this new version saves the world not out of any overwhelming sense of obligation or indentured servitude to duty, but because he can do what he wants, when he wants, because he wants to. Being Iron Man isn’t a burden, it’s an epic thrill-ride.” Breaking with the established conventions of the genre to create a uniquely modern superhero has made Iron Man a success, to the tune of a billion dollar box office between the two movies, and launched Marvel Studios and ensuing Avengers’ franchises in its wake. But there’s one 21st century shift Tony Stark will never be able to embody. And it’s kind of a big one.

From The Atlantic Magazine:

Man has been the dominant sex since, well, the dawn of mankind. But for the first time in human history, that is changing—and with shocking speed.

In the wreckage of the Great Recession, three-quarters of the 8 million jobs lost were lost by men. The worst-hit industries were overwhelmingly male and deeply identified with macho: construction, manufacturing, high finance. Some of these jobs will come back, but the overall pattern of dislocation is neither temporary nor random. The recession merely revealed—and accelerated—a profound economic shift that has been going on for at least 30 years, and in some respects even longer.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women now hold 51.4 percent of managerial and professional jobs—up from 26.1 percent in 1980. About a third of America’s physicians are now women, as are 45 percent of associates in law firms—and both those percentages are rising fast. A white-collar economy values raw intellectual horsepower, which men and women have in equal amounts. It also requires communication skills and social intelligence, areas in which women, according to many studies, have a slight edge. Perhaps most important—for better or worse—it increasingly requires formal education credentials, which women are more prone to acquire, particularly early in adulthood.

To see the future—of the workforce, the economy, and the culture—you need to spend some time at America’s colleges and professional schools, where a quiet revolution is under way. Women now earn 60 percent of master’s degrees, about half of all law and medical degrees, and 42 percent of all M.B.A.s. Most important, women earn almost 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees—the minimum requirement, in most cases, for an affluent life. In a stark reversal since the 1970s, men are now more likely than women to hold only a high-school diploma.

American parents are beginning to choose to have girls over boys. As they imagine the pride of watching a child grow and develop and succeed as an adult, it is more often a girl that they see in their mind’s eye.

Yes, the U.S. still has a wage gap, one that can be convincingly explained—at least in part—by discrimination. Yes, women still do most of the child care. And yes, the upper reaches of society are still dominated by men. But given the power of the forces pushing at the economy, this setup feels like the last gasp of a dying age rather than the permanent establishment. It may be happening slowly and unevenly, but it’s unmistakably happening: in the long view, the modern economy is becoming a place where women hold the cards.

That view makes even comedian (and father of two daughters) Louis C.K.’s pronouncement in a recent Fast Company article that “The next Steve Jobs will  be a chick” not unimaginable. And when she is, who will be her inner superheroine? Any of the girls brandishing medieval weaponry headed, like crusaders, for movie theaters this year?

Considering the cruel, dystopian premise of The Hunger Games, Katniss will likely get to have as fun as an overachiever prepping for the SATs. And while Kristen Stewart as persecuted maiden turned, apparently, warrior in Snow White and the Huntsman (whose producer previously suited up Alice for battle in Wonderland) couldn’t possibly be more joyless and blank than as Bella (….right??), my money’s on Brave‘s Merida to win in the the flat out cool department, here:

Either way, while Tony Stark is an archetype boys grow into, the above are all manifestations of one girls grow out of, and when they do, they will expect their own spirit superheroine to aspire to. Someone who doesn’t have to be brutalized to be a badass, or a predator to be a hero. Someone clever and charming and cool as fuck, whom you’d just as soon want to party with as have saving the world; who’s faced the dark forces that don’t understand her and threaten to break her and strip her of her dignity, and, like the century of superheroes before her, has overcome. The next 21st century superhero will be a chick. The girls coming for the 21st century won’t be satisfied with anything less.


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