Caitlin Flanagan’s use of Rachel, the brassy Jewish character from the Fox television show “Glee”, as an anecdote for her Atlantic essay “Love, Actually” about the renewed interested in the “boyfriend story,” or old-fashioned romance, is a bit flawed. Yes, Rachel wants love, but she is hardly an innocent romantic. Early in the series she kisses her love interest while he is still dating another girl, and now she is juggling more than one love interest.
With Rachel we are not, as Flanagan writes, “back in Kansas.”
What might we expect as the next thing for today’s girls? They just spent the better part of a decade being hectored—via the post-porn, Internet-driven world—toward a self-concept centering on the expectation that the very most they could or should expect from a boy is a hookup. We didn’t particularly stand in the way of that culture; we left the girls alone with it, sat idly by while they pulled it into their brains through their ubiquitous earbuds and their endless Facebook photo albums and text messages. We said, more or less, “Do your best.” And then we gave them iTunes gift cards and Wi-Fi connections in their bedrooms, and we warned them about dangerous online trends only after those trends had become so passé that we could learn about them on Dateline. And now the girls have had enough.
In Flanagan’s essay, she proclaims that, in the ongoing cultural tug between Betty and Veronica, and Mary Ann and Ginger (yep, virgin-whore), the formers have reclaimed their turf. What Flanagan misses — and what a better assessment of the character of Rachel on “Glee” would have led her to — is that there is a third way. The battle between hook-up culture and romance is not a zero-sum game. Young women can be sexual creatures and romantics all at once, and hook-ups are not limited to, as Flanagan seems to think, group oral sex performed by high school girls.
As a teenager in a liberal Jewish community during the 1990s, I was fortunate to not have received any strong virginity until marriage messages. I never felt guilt or shame for my desires. (Funny, because outside Jewish culture, it seems as though Jewish women have a reputation for being either hyper-sexual beings or prudes. But most of us fit neither extreme.)
This put me in a good position to navigate hook-up culture. And it wasn’t that bad. As a teenager I found hook-ups to be empowering. So too was the intense relationship I had with my first boyfriend. In my 20s, hook-ups, or in their slightly evolved form as “friends with benefits,” allowed me to maintain a social and sexual life without having to commit to the emotional gravitas of having a boyfriend. I was able to juggle graduate school, had the space I needed to deal with my parents’ divorce, and still had someone to look forward to seeing on the weekends. It didn’t matter that he was not the man I was going to marry.
What Flanagan misses is that there is a spectrum of sexuality and romance that teenagers and young women explore, and that the Bettys and Veronicas of yesteryear have been replaced by Rachels who play the field of love — though only as long as it fits in between singing practice.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.
For Rachel Berry — and for Real Girls, Too — It’s Not a Choice Between Hook-ups and Romance