To Text, or Not to Text, that is the Question.
Andreas was a classmate of mine in Sweden, he was curt and straightforward in a way only a German could be, and I had started to have a ‘thing’ for him. So one day, I found myself with the urge to unlock my phone and send Andreas some horrifyingly flirty message that I would probably regret. Or at least not be able to face up to later. Having just missed two classes, I had a legitimate reason to message him. I could casually send him a message asking him about the missed lessons, and then even more casually ask him to grab some coffee or lunch or maybe even drinks. But I hesitated, and with every passing minute all my self-doubts and insecurities unfurled over me, paralyzing me in shrill anxiety. I began to worry that if I asked him out, no matter how casual, I would be coming on too strong and scare him away.
In dating, like in every other interaction, there are normalized gendered scripts to follow, regulating how people should and should not (re)act.* It is expected that men are the ones to take charge by initiating contact with women, therefore limiting women’s role to accepting or declining his proposition. On top of all these gendered rules and scripts, today’s dating scene of ‘keeping things casual’ makes it doubly hard for women to exert their sexual agency. Not only do women have the pressure to do femininity by relinquishing their powers to initiate, they also have to keep in mind the current trends, namely the ‘no labels’, ‘no pressure’ attitude towards dating. The ‘it’ thing today is to put no labels and stay clear of committing to anything; appearing coolly detached because showing interest in anything is officially ‘uncool.’
But as our gender is evaluated for its authenticity, our very membership to a gender hinges on our ability to do femininity or masculinity, which includes how we navigate the murky waters of dating.** These gendered scripts are internalized and feed back into our ability to do our gender appropriately. All of this leaves very little room for experimentation in flirtation, creativity and improvisation in the progression of our romantic ‘things.’
In other words, we stick to trends and scripts because we’re scared that if we don’t behave normally the other person will like us less or think we’re crazy. I mean, how many of us don’t send the first text because girls aren’t supposed to come on too strong? Or how many guys keep it cool for fear of rejection and appearing too soft? We all censor ourselves—it’s normal—but it can also prevent us from actually doing the things we want to. We follow scripts that actually inhibit our agency to act in ways that we want all because of norms—how crazy is that?!
My dilemma in texting Andreas an inconsequential text stemmed mainly from this internalized script, since I was afraid that by initiating contact I would subsume the masculine role and along with it the masculine script, thereby failing to perform femininity. These expectations I internalized reinforced my role as an object of desire, and took away my possibility of being a subject with desires.
What does this all mean?
Well, by pigeon-holing myself as an object, I was able to maintain a cool distance from Andreas. Paralyzed as something to be looked at and acted upon, I could deny all claims to my feelings and keep myself safe from being hurt and rejected by Andreas. As sociological as all this can be, I was ultimately also afraid of my feelings, of having to own up to my very real desires for another person—it was all too much, and I simply put on a farce to make my feelings more navigable. Following the gendered script was safe. It was predictable, but was also highly constricting and unrealistic.
As an object, I lost my agency. I found I was acting in ways that, although following some abstract feminine script, were incongruent to my own self. I became another person, striving to reflect upon myself an image of a woman that I thought was desirous. A woman who could encourage and invite desire but not feel and act upon her own desire.
** Candace West and Don Zimmerman in “Doing Gender”.