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The Age of the Narcissistic Male

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Sex is always interesting, but mix it with politics in a presidential campaign and it becomes downright sensational. First Amendment guarantees of free speech get lost in the protest when gay couples meet to make out at Chick-fil-A. Instead of ordering the spicy chicken sandwich, these men and men and women and women spice up their relationship with rage against Dan Cathy, the born-again president of Chick-fil-A, for saying he supports "the biblical definition of the family unit."

The focus on the controversy is silly, but in our media-saturated world, it's the way things play out, with lots of loud posturing and little reflection. So much public debate and discussion is joined over gay political matters that conflicts and concerns over cultural changes in heterosexual relationships are left to the popular culture to pursue, which happens with a passion, for better and for worse.

I frequently have been struck by the sad state of affairs in (and have often written about) young women's coming of age as depicted in "Girls," the new HBO series in which romance is dramatized in the dreariest and crudest ways. This is surely the low point of sexual liberation, circa 2012. Glib remarks such as Gloria Steinem's bitter gibe that "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" have morphed into satirical drawings of schools of female fish pedaling unicycles (probably in pursuit of male fish).

The knight in shining armor is long gone as a fairy tale. It was always fantasy, even though it captures a young girl's innocent desire to be cared for when she leaves the home of her parents. The story never followed the couple after the wedding, living happily ever after, because everybody soon learns that life is more complicated than that. Wish fulfillment stories with happy endings are fun to read, even to tell, but rarely forged from reality. They're the stuff that dreams are made of. Pleasant dreams.

Today our cultural stories offer a different tale. The latest one is based on direct observation, but it goes back to classical myth, captured wittily in a New Yorker cartoon of two young sophisticates sitting on the banks of a river in ancient Greece. As the boy stares at his reflection in the water, the girl asks pathetically, "Tell me, Narcissus, is there someone else?"

The sad state of contemporary male-female relationships is best told with a sense of humor, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily funny. The latest entrant in the popular culture to render this idea humorously is the movie "Ruby Sparks," which creates a contemporary myth of Narcissus in which the male star is a boy/man, the kind who seems so much with us these days. Calvin Weir-Fields, played convincingly by Paul Dano, is a novelist who loves himself to the point that he has to create a woman out of his imagination before he can fall in love. Fortunately, he's a novelist trying to shape a work of fiction, but the woman he creates on an old-fashioned Olympia electric typewriter becomes so real that he can relate to her only when he likes the way she acts toward him -- so he designs her behavior as a postmodern Pygmalion. When he loses creative control, he loses her, and the relationship is over.

While gays concentrate on seeking monogamous relationships and, in the ouch words of Kinky Friedman, exercising "a right to be as miserable as the rest of us," young heterosexual men such as Calvin seem to be avoiding that specific trap. As a result, many women in their 40s are sad and single without children or with fatherless children. In the 1970s, 1 in 10 women passed childbearing years without having a child. Today it's 1 in 5. More than half of women younger than 30 have what we used to call an "illegitimate" child. The New York Times calls it "the new normal."

Although "Ruby Sparks" looks superficially like an old-fashioned romantic comedy with the witty dialogue of a '30s movie starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, it quickly darkens to reflect an edgy sensibility. A young woman goes up against an educated and talented young man who has been psychologically wounded by a woman's assertiveness. You could say it's our Everyman, a morality tale.

"Ruby Sparks" gives us a funny narrative that offers shape, form and poignancy to the new heterosexual male in a story that lacks the vulgarity and glibness typical of Hollywood's movies and sitcoms about "relationships." Calvin, who was challenged by a real woman, prefers to imagine her literally instead of engaging in a living, breathing relationship. Underneath this fictional story is a homegrown truth: Men have become the second sex, and this is the masculine mystique. Betty Friedan might cry.

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