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29.6.13

"Paperman" and love at random first sight

The short cartoon "Paperman" is widely regarded as a cute romantic story. But I think it also illustrates a common myth that helps to support the sexist behavior of many men trying to hit on women.


Paperman - Full Animated (Short Film) [VO|HD] by addictomovie

To summarize the plot: A Goofy Young Man in a boring job briefly locks eyes and smiles with a Pretty Young Woman on the train platform when the wind blows one of his papers into her face. She quickly departs on a different train, but he becomes obsessed with finding her, especially when it turns out that her office window coincidentally faces his. Eventually magic flying papers push the two together, and they live happily ever after.

This story is based on the "true love at random first sight" narrative. This narrative says that it is both normal, and highly romantic, to have a brief random encounter with someone who you immediately know is your soulmate, and who you must then pursue in order to fulfill your destiny. The story is usually told from an implicitly heterosexual male perspective, with a male lovable loser chasing down a mysterious, but very very pretty, woman. I'm focusing on "Paperman" because it's such a good illustration, but countless other pieces of media tell this same sort of story of the random unexpected encounter that produces true love. We almost never hear the story of a protagonist catching sight of a random pretty girl who he never sees again, or catching sight of a random pretty girl who isn't interested and can't be won over.

I think the prevalence of this narrative helps to explain the insistence of so many men that they need the right to hit on any woman at any time. This was a common refrain from men in the aftermath of "Elevatorgate" -- when women stated that there were times and places that it was inappropriate, and even threatening, to be propositioned, men wailed that they would therefore never be able to ask anyone out ever and would die loveless virgins.

Feminists attributed the men's position to an oversized sense of entitlement to women's time and bodies, and that is certainly true. The "love at random first sight" narrative helps explain why that sense of entitlement was so pointedly directed at this specific issue. Men have been told repeatedly that the way they will find love is to momentarily lock eyes with an attractive woman while they are out and about doing something else, and that they must then pursue that woman at all costs because she is their destined soulmate. Thus, being asked to refrain from hitting on people encountered in certain situations seems tantamount to saying you must risk blowing your chance at true love. After all, what if this one short elevator ride is the only time you'll ever have a chance to talk to The One?

In "Paperman," his persistence and irresponsibility are presented as cute and romantic and OK because we know that Man and Woman are destined to be together because their eyes met on the train platform. The actions of the magic paper help to excuse any worries about stalking -- if the non-human world is pushing for your relationship, it's destiny! But in real life, such actions -- even if facilitated by real magic paper -- would be creepy at best. In real life, there's no reason to assume that the person you briefly enountered would welcome further attention. (Her laugh on the train platform can be easily chalked up to either learned politeness, or to genuine amusement without any implication of further interest.) We need more stories where love is built out of shared interests and experiences*, and fewer where it's built on a brief random encounter.

*Though this can generate its own pernicious patterns, of the "I've done X with you for so long that I'm entitled to sex/a relationship" type.

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