Because it’s the holiday season, I’ve been thinking about one of my favorite movies of recent years, Best Man Holiday, the sequel to the 1999 film Best Man, which highlights the many complexities of love and trust among friends.
Halfway through the movie, the boyfriend of Jordan Armstrong, a successful black career woman, confides in her, saying, “Believe me, your whole strong, independent, Olivia Pope thing is very sexy, but sometimes you act like you don’t need me.”
Without skipping a beat, Jordan responds, somewhat incredulously: “I don’t.”
When that moment occurred in the movie theater last year, I felt a collective pause from the audience. This was a rare moment in media – a successful black woman confidently relaying to her partner (a successful white man) that she did not need him.
The concept of “need” in pop culture is particularly prominent in depictions of romantic relationships, where one character is willing to go to great lengths, often resulting in acts of desperation and personal debasement, in order to secure the romantic love they “need” to survive. For example, although Jordan’s character is modelled after Olivia Pope, the frontrunner of the popular show Scandal, Pope actually quite clearly feels that she needs the men in her life – judging by the toxic and unbalanced relationships she consistently finds herself in. We could also compare this to Viola Davis’s character Prof. Annalise Keating, a successful and powerful lawyer in How to Get Away With Murder, who, in no uncertain terms, tells her cheating husband that she needs him (and thus is willing to protect him from potential murder charges and ruin her own reputation).
In fact, many of us base ourselves off of this model that all we really need is love – so goes the popular Beatles song.
The problem with this concept is the fact that need negates choice.
After all, what is the basis of need? For many women in particular, it’s often emotional fulfillment and/or economic protection. “I need this person to feel good about myself.”; “I need this person so I can feel worthy of love.” “I need this person so I can feel attractive.,” ; and so on, often coupled with “I need this person so I can pay my rent,” or take care of my children or otherwise achieve a certain level of financial security or entertain a desired lifestyle.
According to the Domestic Abuse Project, reasons like these are frequently the basis for why people, often women, feel that they are unable to leave abusive relationships. Indeed, perpetrators of abuse often work overtime to create this perception. Kerry Washington (who plays Olivia Pope) recently did a PSA on the way that abuse is perpetuated through the creation of financial need. Moreover, even if a relationship is not physically or emotionally abusive, people often define their romantic connection by the feeling that they need their partner or the things their partner can offer. After all, how many times have we heard (or uttered) the phrase, “I can’t live without you”?
Ughhhh. Noooo. Fitzzzz. #byefelipe
At that point, it doesn’t sound like both individuals are operating fully on the power of their own choice to be together. Rather, they are literally running on addiction and the fear of withdrawal. But in popular culture, that state of being is used to denote real romantic love – the type of love to which we should all aspire.
This is not to discount the very real pain that can occur when a relationship ends or when we feel betrayed by a person we trust (or when we perceive either of these situations to be possible). The brain processes heartbreak the same way it processes physical pain. It really does fucking hurt.
But what pop culture fails to show is that you can, in fact, survive heartbreak. It may have felt like you lost a limb – and that is a pain worth recognizing and working through. Unfortunately, every romantic comedy and drama in the universe (just about) defines the individual, particularly women, as an extension of their romantic partner. You are complete with another person; incomplete without. Under this direction, we are unable to recognize that the limbs we feel are missing are actually totally intact.
In reality, with or without another person, all of you is still there. We just aren’t taught to see that. We are not taught to value our own individual wholeness. If we were, we would stop needing things from other people. If we were taught to value ourselves, we would not need to predicate our worth on what others perceived of our value.
In that case, all relationships would be matters of choice – to stay or to leave or to partake in to begin with. It would not be a question of whether or not you need another person, but whether or not another person complements you – your lifestyle, your values, etc. Perhaps, in fact, you do not want to be romantically attached at all.
Personally, I feel a greater sense of desirability from my chosen partner when I know they don’t need me – that they already have the things they need, but choose to be with me anyway, because I add something to their life and vice versa. There’s no invisible connection forcing them to be at my side. They truly want to be there.
More importantly, I truly want to be there. I have the power to say, “I choose you.”
The inherent fear of choice is that it places responsibility on the individuals in a relationship – they’re no longer running on adrenaline and passion, but on the understanding that they have both made decisions to be in the situation they are in together. They are each responsible for their own emotions, actions, and reactions. People, naturally, are wary of responsibility.
But we are also taught that we don’t have access to that responsibility. We are taught that heinous acts of self-debasement or abuse or desperation are par for the course with love. We lose our minds. We don’t have a choice. This is often the basis for crimes of passion – the perpetrator of violence claiming, “You made me do it.”
The media teaches us that this is inherent. We are not only taught that this is the way things are but that that this is how things should be. Through TV and other media portrayals, we are taught over and over the value of desperate love – love so powerful that it destroys our sense of self and, sometimes, is cause enough to destroy another person.
But that doesn’t have to be the case. Imagine how much more power we’d feel over our own lives if we were taught to value choice and personal responsibility and the wholeness of our individual selves over the words “I would die without you.” How much more strength and autonomy might we have if we were taught to seek emotional connections that are not inherently corrosive?
What if we were taught that love, in fact, does not need to be corrosive? Certainly, love can make you feel all sorts of things – but there’s power in knowing that you have a choice in how you respond to those feelings.
Though the Olivia Popes and Annalise Keatings of our culture our propped up as showing human portrayals of women, particularly powerful women, in love, they do so only as far as how popular culture already tells us people in love behave. I look forward to the day when, like Jordan Armstrong, more characters on television and in movies and throughout pop culture challenge the status quo – being defined not by their (desperate) need for romantic love, but by their ability to choose it.
Perhaps then we, too, could do the same.