My dream man would have a bedroom that looks something like V’s in V for Vendetta. He would not be wearing a black cape with a Guy Fawkes mask. But, by and large, I maintain that there is nothing sexier than a man who loves to read. Show me a bookworm protagonist and I’ll show you my latest fictional crush.
The truth is, though, despite my adoration for smart characters, I sure do spend a lot of time swooning over characters who are – well, kinda dumb. And I bet you do too. It’s a plot so widespread as to garner parody – illiteracy as the catalyst for romance.
Take an episode of Community, in which Annie has a daydream about her long-term-maybe-love-interest, Jeff. If you’ve ever watched the show you know that Jeff can be a bit of a slacker jerk and Annie can be a lot of a childish overachiever. And yet the two are fairly well matched when it comes to intelligence. Which makes it all the more interesting that Annie’s fantasy casts Jeff as an illiterate vampire. After killing another woman before her eyes, he turns and begs Annie not to run away.
“Wait! Teach me to read!”
We laugh because it’s so absurd. Annie sighs dreamily because she thinks it’s so romantic. And we laugh harder because we recognize the cliche.
But why is there a cliche to recognize? How has illiteracy gotten tangled up with romance in our cultural imagination?
Maybe the roots lie somewhere in good, old fashion narcissism. Like the sculptor in Pygmalion, carving his ideal mate out of a blank slab of stone, maybe we like the idea of falling in love with our own handiwork. Maybe we want to be the expert, creating someone from scratch so they can reflect back our image.
In My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins doesn’t fall for Eliza despite her ignorance – he falls for her precisely because she is ignorant. He likes that she is his project. He enjoys that Eliza couldn’t form a proper sentence or earn a living wage or conduct herself in polite society until he made a lady out of her. She is the culmination of his brilliant career and that is at least part of the reason why he loves her.
This theme is muted somewhat in Pretty Woman, but the undertone is still there. Edward enjoys being the white knight rescuer, the one to broaden Vivian’s horizons and teach her the difference between Prince and opera. One cannot help but suspect that he would not have fallen quite so hard quite so fast if Vivian had known for herself which fork to use at dinner or y’know, how to stop being a hooker. By saving Vivian from her own lack of education, Edward is able to simultaneously find love and boost his own ego.
Likewise in Clueless, where Josh helps transform Cher from a self absorbed airhead into someone worthy of his affection. While he reads Nietzsche and debates politics with his college girlfriend, he also finds time to guide Cher toward self awareness. ”If I ever saw you do anything that wasn’t 90% selfish, I’d die of shock” he scolds at a pivotal moment in the film, spurring Cher to volunteer at a charity fundraiser and pitch in at her father’s law firm and start watching the nightly news. Josh isn’t just Cher’s love interest, he’s also the wise teacher to her ditzy school girl. When he falls for her, he falls at least partly for the evidence of his own tutoring skills.
It seems then that in stories where know-it-all men fall for uneducated women, they are generally falling for a version of themselves.
Is the same true of stories where know-it-all women fall for uneducated men? While there is no doubt an element of Pygmalion syndrome in these stories, I would argue that the appeal is somewhat different for women. On some level, it’s about feeling needed.
In Felicity, Ben is a jock who got accepted into college on the basis of a completely fabricated sob story of a personal essay. Felicity has been in love with Ben since high school, but he was voted most popular and she was a geek, single-mindedly focused on her grades. The two never had much interaction until she started tutoring him through their first college literature course. ”On one side of my brain is the side that understands stuff and on the other side is poetry,” Ben complains at one point. His mid-term paper is so riddled with mistakes that Felicity feels compelled to rewrite it for him.
But Felicity doesn’t mind. After-all, if Ben were smart, he wouldn’t have any reason to talk to her. At least this way she can bring something to the table, offer some reason for him to need her even if he doesn’t want her.
While this attitude is painfully pragmatic, I submit that the primary appeal of these stories for women is wishful thinking.
In My So-Called Life, Angela has an obsessive crush on Jordan Catalano. While Jordan is clearly intrigued by Angela, he expresses only lukewarm interest, alternately disappointing and ignoring her through-out the series. As a result, most episodes find Angela either moping or in tears. However, when Angela discovers Jordan’s secret – that he can barely read or write – her giddiness is palpable.
Why such delight?
Perhaps because Jordan’s inability to read proves to Angela that there is something wrong with him – something that can be fixed. It isn’t that she’s undesirable. It isn’t even that he’s a jerk. It’s not his fault that he seems so indifferent. He just doesn’t know how to express himself – yet. There is hope for them after all.
Of course, the probable truth is that, like Annie from Community, Angela has fallen for someone who is emotionally crippled and incapable of ever fully returning her affection.
But what a seductively comforting fantasy, that the real problem is something external and easily fixed – just teach him to read and they’ll live happily ever after!
Hey, it worked for Belle.
I love Beauty and the Beast as much as the next girl, but it’s a dangerous message, isn’t it? That the combination of true love and reading lessons can change a violent monster into a gentle prince?