On Wednesday 24th April 2019, I will be speaking (Bad Romance-related) themes at the Tortoise ThinkIn in London alongside editor Merope Mills and bestselling author Nir Eyal. Limited tickets are still available on Eventbrite!
Ordinarily, I love books that answer questions I never asked but Simon May’s baffling book has blown my mind. The self-deprecator in me wants to tell you I’m too stupid to understand a word of it. The rest of me suspects this is a sneaking yet sparkling satire on what a university will get you (£50,000 of debt and the capacity to pronounce a penguin cuter than a mermaid.)
I like the visiting professor of philosophy at King’s College London very much. ‘What is a bear with the head of a wolf?’ he demands. ‘Who is a human with cat’s eyes? What is the inner world of a sphinx “really”?’ He writes brilliantly and cites exuberantly. The problem is his subject. Early on he explains his approach to ‘Cute’ was inspired by Susan Sontag’s Notes On “Camp” and Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit. But the former was so of its moment and the latter so enduring, by comparison, The Power of Cute seems at best esoteric and at worst outdated. Most of the cultural artefacts of ‘Cute’ exhibited to us – E.T., Mickey Mouse, Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dogs, Cabbage Patch Kids – are twenty years old, at least.
Cute can’t be defined. Despite copious footnotes and a seven-page bibliography, it proves to be pindownable only in its ‘unpindownability’ and we are told this several times. But still, May makes bold claims for it. Cute, he reckons, was invented by the Japanese as a preserve against nuclear attack. ‘It’s a big jump in self-conception from Samurai to Cute, but it perfectly suits Japan’s historical position after the disaster of militarism,’ he argues. ‘Where, today, Germany does remorse Japan does Cute… a spirit which can magically make vanish everything about Japan that is aggressive and threatening.’
This may be a compelling idea to flaunt at dinner parties (I wouldn’t know- no one ever invites me.) But, much like the theory that the EU is what stands between European countries and all-out war, it’s a distraction from fact. What’s preventing another nuclear attack is what happened the last time there were nuclear attacks. It’s not that Cute has been unleashed ’as a Weapon of Mass Seduction’ nor that the Japanese army has included ‘doe-eyed anime waifs’ in its recruitment posters.
After connecting more random dots than exist in a Yayoi Kusama painting, May turns his attention to Cuteness as it exists in famous people. Initially, this seems like a fun game to play during a power cut or if you’re trapped for hours in a stuck lift. A whole chapter is devoted to it. Roosevelt, Churchill, George W. Bush, Golda Meir and Bill Clinton? Cute. Thatcher, De Gaulle, George Bush Sr. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton? Not cute. Madonna – he tells us – is borderline. Or Borderline. I’m never sure how ironic he’s intending to be.
One hopes a lot because his analysis of the relative cuteness of dictators is either perplexing or offensive. Stalin and Kim Jong-il are cute. Saddam Hussein is not cute. ‘There is nothing, but nothing, cute about terrorist groups like Islamic State or Al-Qaeda.’ Why is one murderous entity Cute and the other not? Because the Cute are ‘careful not to be seen, or known, to kill people by their own hand.’ Hitler isn’t mentioned – one imagines because with his natty moustache and habit of saluting (as Hello Kitty does) with a whole arm he’d be ‘Cute.’ Sure, he massacred six million Jews. But Stalin would win on death count in Top Trumps, so…
Where is this tending? Towards Donald Trump, of course. Cuteness ‘is key to understanding’ him. Here’s how:
‘In a superb analysis of the grotesque in nineteenth century fiction, Thierry Goater says of Thomas Hardy that it is no wonder he can baffle those who read him. For he “outrageously distorts reality and crudely combines genres and modes… to reveal and give form to the ever-changing… world, a world threatened by meaninglessness.” His aim is to evoke “the fragmentation of the world and of the subject, the inhuman, the abject, madness and death,” thus allowing his devotees “to experience chaos from a distance while sensing the threat involved” and, indirectly to posit a different and new existence.’
‘In short,’ May concludes, ‘the formula of Donald Trump.’
This is all very annoying because right at the end of The Power of Cute there’s a banger of a chapter about ‘the Cult of Sincerity’ which I’d love a brain like May’s to pick apart from me. ‘Publicly parading one’s tastes and feelings, one’s likes and dislikes,’ he writes, ‘all this owes an indelible debt to Rousseau.’
‘Bloody great,’ I thought, he’s going to explain why anyone, ever, Instagrams anything. But then the book ends. I hope he will write another one.
When I was young, I thought Bridget Jones was a joke. Ha, ha, I thought, what a load of bollocks, as she chain-smoked her way into Colin Firth’s boxers. But ever since I turned 30, to my horror I realise it is all true – with added déjà vu – because it is all happening, right now, to me.
Every man you meet is an emotional fuckwit. (If they were ever in the mood for love, they’re taken already.) Your boss will try to sleep with you. (And you lose your job afterwards.) Old friends, post the Pinterest perfect wedding, at which you got unacceptably drunk, are now smug marrieds and treat you as if you have a disease you might transmit to their husbands. You spend the whole Christmas period having to explain to everyone back home why you are still single – as if it is your fault and you have done it on purpose to spite them. And in reply, you never have come up with a line better than there are so many single girls nowadays ‘because beneath our clothes, our bodies are completely covered with scales.’
The only difference between Bridget and I, really, is that Bridget had hope whereas I can’t recognise the meaning of the word. If you’re single, aged 35, everyone seems to think you haven’t tried hard enough. Whereas what you’ve done is tried so hard for so very long you’d rather curl up and die than face a date with yet another Tits-Pervert.
Sometimes, when I’ve cracked open the prosecco at 3pm on a Tuesday, I get to thinking I might cheer myself up by buying that card they used to have in Scribbler which reads: ‘It is better to have loved and lost than to have spent your life with a psychopath.’ That could be my motto. Why does no one recognise this as a signature achievement? Akin to being crowned runner-up in the Great British Bake Off. Or winning bronze in a bout of synchronised swimming.
It seems as if, every week, I lose another comrade to pregnancy. You’ve always shared everything so now she’s holding forth on the state of her discharge, intent on becoming a baby-making machine for 2019, and limbering up to breastfeed in public with great gusto. She gained a ‘hubby’ and lost all sense of proportion. Soon, she’ll stop speaking to you. Because you stop calling her. You’re so grossed out by the updates on the ‘quality’ of her cervical mucus.
Yes, you like babies too. But have no means of begetting them. And seized by that strange lust, feel a desperate urge to smoke. When you’re so asthmatic that’d be suicide. You keep wanting to write to Helen Fielding and demand: What Would Bridget Do? For it is a truth universally acknowledged that Mr. Darcy is nowhere to be found on dating apps – so what on earth…?
I need such advice because the worst thing about being the reincarnation of Bridget Jones is feeling so alone. Socially – and culturally too. We have no single icons – save Fleabag – who is the married person’s wet dream of what single girls really are, underneath (so desperate and demented they’d do anything up to and including fucking their BFF’s man.) And Lena Dunham – who, I maintain, despite many howls to the contrary, just isn’t funny. And I read the whole of ‘Not That Kind of Girl’ so I know what I am talking about. It was no doubt Lena, and all her indepth accounts of the inner frothings of her vagina, that created the fashion for such grotesque confessions.
Yuck, I grimace, with a savage shudder. In 2019, we still single bastards need a new Bridget for the Tinder age. And so perhaps it is time to imitate her real achievement: consoling herself by writing it all down. Sod it, since I am her, I may as well take control of my life. And start a diary.
For more tales of Bad Romance come back on Sunday night or click here.
Potentially worrying news for the human race. If future generations are bred from those we want to sleep with, do-gooders are dying out. No one – no matter how depraved – wants to rip the socks and Birkenstocks off anyone.
Yes, if you want us to be brutal we’ll confess – when it comes to sex – we’d rather pull the balaclava off an actual mugger than the bib and clipboard off a chugger. And, worse and worse still, the boffins are on to us – exposing this weird, terrible (and, until now, mercifully secret) perversion. A team of researchers at Yale and Oxford has shown that while we admire people who spend their time helping impoverished communities and donating money for malaria-combating mosquito nets, we’re not keen on shagging them. In fact, we don’t even want to be friends with them. As human beings, we prefer those who concentrate their time and energy on friends and family rather than complete unknowns in dire predicaments.
“When helping strangers conflicts with helping family and kin, people prefer those who show favouritism, even if that results in doing less good overall,” explains Molly Crockett, who authored the study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Participants were asked to choose between two “equally moral” scenarios and overwhelmingly preferred those who – for instance – would choose to spend the day with their “lonely mother” over “building homes for Habitat for Humanity”.
As an ex-dating columnist, I was already aware of such bias. It’s even evident on Tinder. Dick pics are posted and no one bats an eyelid. But just try uploading a picture of yourself “do-gooding” on a “gap yah”. Some cruel soul is likely to screengrab and share it with the “Humanitarians of Tinder” Tumblr page. In app-land, all mockery is reserved for the well-meaning.
Of course, one could argue there’s not just psychology but sound sense behind our distrust of those who are so intent on doing good for others. After all, how are they to know what is best for people they don’t know?
In Strangers Drowning: Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity, the New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar explores why we are so sceptical of “do-gooders” and why their good deeds make us so uncomfortable. She cites the remarkable tale of two parents who founded a leprosy colony in India and chose to live there – in huts with no walls – even though their two small children might have caught the disease or been “eaten by panthers”.
She points to the Austrian social critic Ivan Illich, who made a speech to young Americans wanting to help out Mexico in 1968. “If you insist on working with the poor,” he said, “At least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing or what people think of you.”
But back to the sex. Do-gooding is all well and good. But unfortunately, when it comes to making babies and hence the future of humanity, we all prefer someone who can – quite simply – do us. So if your notion of “talking dirty” consists of a blow-by-blow account of constructing a mud hut from the brown banks of the Zambezi. Just stop. You’re doing it all wrong.
When I was a girl, my mother stuffed my head full of fairy-tales and the most fantastic of them all sounded quite banal at the time. It was about how families are made. One day (she was quite adamant) I would meet a man and love him so fiercely I’d want to make a tiny version of him in the form of a baby. We would all live happily ever after. The End.
For the past 20 years, I expected that to happen. Never questioned that it would. But now I find myself on the precipice of 35, when (according to NHS Choices) my fertility begins its dramatic fall. If experience has taught me anything, it’s that the very concept of a ‘soulmate’ is a hysterical joke played on the over-romantic and hopeful. It’s probably time to admit to the realities of the 21st century — where dating apps breed only casual sex, not screaming bundles in a crib. Like ever-increasing numbers of frustrated singles worldwide, I must get creative, joining the ranks of those creating new modern families.
Today, babies can’t always be made in the traditional way — for all sorts of reasons — but we are not admitting defeat. Some have enjoyed the full fairytale effect (falling in love, getting married) but with someone of the same sex, so a third party’s sperm or eggs are required to complete the domestic picture. For women, this can be relatively straightforward. Intrauterine insemination costs around £800 to £1,300 at a fertility clinic. It is successful only 22 per cent of the time, but lesbian couples have been making babies this way for decades.
For men, it’s much more complicated, because a surrogate is needed. The non-profit agency Brilliant Beginnings, which has helped create 800 families since it was founded in 2013, claims that £12,000 to £15,000 is ‘the going rate for UK surrogacy arrangements’. IVF is successful only 40 per cent of the time — and that’s among under-35s — so costs can escalate very rapidly.
As a result, many modern families try to incorporate the biological parent into the set-up — which is a lot less expensive, at least in a financial sense. Agencies such as Modamily facilitate co-parenting relationships with strangers, or some people reach more informal agreements with friends and family. In 2015, for instance, the TV presenter Mary Portas revealed that the child she was raising with her lesbian partner (the baby’s genetic mother) was fathered by her brother — meaning there was a genetic link on both sides.
One 31-year-old single, straight man, who wishes to remain anonymous, has told me that he is setting out to become a ‘known donor’ for two old friends — one of whom he met at high school, and her lesbian partner of eight years. After joking about the subject for several years, they are quite set on the idea. The baby will very much have two mothers as parents — he does not intend to co-parent and compares the process he is now engaged in as akin to donating blood.
‘They’re going to be much better parents than I can imagine myself being,’ he explains. ‘The idea is that I’ll be a godparent/semi-uncle — involved in the way I would be in any of my close friends’ kids’ lives growing up.’ But if it is a boy, he adds, ‘maybe there’s going to come a time when he’d have questions from a male point of view’. To save money, the trio are adopting a DIY approach. ‘I’m synced with ovulation cycles so I’m going over there to the bathroom with a mooncup to make the donation. It’s not quite a turkey baster, but it’s not far off.’
It’s not just gay people who desperately want children and are casting around for such inventive strategies. It’s singles — particularly single women — in their thirties and forties too. In our twenties, we’d meet up and drink too much wine, discussing our troubles with lovers. Now we obsess about babies. How we want them. How we’re afraid we won’t be able to have them.
We spend a lot of time reassuring each other that we are not mad or selfish. That it is very natural to want children. That it is OK to feel overwhelmed by the sudden fierceness of the need, because it is built into us to ensure our survival, like feeling intense hunger if we’re in danger of starving. That since the UK birth rate has plummeted from 2.4 children to 1.8 in recent years, it is even quite important that we do.
One friend is working so hard thanks to her recent promotion that she has no time to date and is looking into freezing her eggs. This strategy is so popular among high-powered career women that companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google offer this service as one of the perks of working for them. Another friend — a highly successful journalist — has given up on dating because she never meets eligible men and is talking through making baby plans with her very supportive mother. Two more friends — both in their mid- to late thirties — are going through the agony of failed cycles of IVF.
You might think that we are not romantic but we’re probably far more romantic than most. Despite the odds, we’re still holding out for the right man. We all tell tales of those who compromised their ideals in order to get married. Women who ‘want it all’ are frequently lambasted in the right-wing press.
But those who settled for half or a bit aren’t necessarily any happier. Two parents may well be better than one — but the ONS currently estimates that 42 per cent of marriages fail, and the emotional turmoil of separation and divorce isn’t an ideal atmosphere in which to raise children either.
In this context, co-parenting presents a possible solution. The Stork is a new agency that matches people who want to be parents for a fee that costs less than ‘a new car or a mortgage’ — or a divorce. It was founded by businesswoman Fiona Thomas to bring together those no longer prepared to keep gambling that if they only hold out long enough they will eventually find ‘The One’.
If you’re a woman in your late thirties, Thomas explains, ‘there are four outcomes. You can meet someone perfectly naturally and it’s all fantastic and wonderful. You can try to meet someone through an [agency] like mine and end up co-parenting. You can meet someone and it’s the wrong person — and you’d be amazed how many people do that; the large proportion of people on their wedding day who think, “I know this isn’t exactly what I want, it’s probably not quite right, but I’m doing it anyway.” And the fourth option, of course, is to do nothing. You get to 50 and you’re playing with your nephews and nieces.’
There are more single women alive today than at any point in history. And though we might have given up on men, we’re not all prepared to surrender our hope of a baby. The women who use her services, Thomas says, are bright, attractive and successful. ‘Just because it hasn’t happened for you doesn’t mean you’re some kind of freak or reject,’ she insists. ‘It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Everybody’s got a story about why it hasn’t happened to them, and it doesn’t in any way indicate failure.’
The conclusion is that we can’t all have the fairytale endings. But that’s OK, because those creating new modern families know there’s an opportunity to change the narrative. Our stories aren’t over yet.