Big Bang Theory has some amusing and interesting insights into the world of nerds and physicists, and the way it depicts the social standing of nerds in America seems very familiar to an Australian viewer. But like most American shows, when it moves on to talking about relationships and gender relations, it’s a whole new world. Because the show presents an outsider’s view of the social relations of ordinary people, it can be quite brutal in its honesty about what I assume are standard American cultural practices, and when it talks about “dating” and relationships I truly find myself wondering: is America really this crazy? So, this blog post is a plea for my American reader(s) to enlighten me about American “dating” culture: is it really so hard for you guys, and is America really that conservative?
This isn’t a problem limited to just Big Bang Theory, either. Watching Friends, I’m struck by the pointless dufusness of the men’s behavior, the knee-jerk “I’m not gay”-ism and the puerile sex jokes that speak of writers uncomfortable with their own and others’ sexualities. Then there is the hideous conservatism of Sex and the City, that bills itself as being all about a new generation of liberated women, whose liberation boils down to … giving out blowjobs for nothing as if this were daring (and of course settling down for the older rich guy at the end). There is the strange and juvenile way that Richard Castle loses his train of thought any time Kate Beckett implies that she might once have done something racy. Or the way that the women in Buffy all fall over themselves to prove how they’re not “sluts,” and perfectly attractive women in even vaguely gothy outfits are routinely referred to as “skanks” – and this from a supposed feminist. But the good thing about Big Bang Theory is that it’s not just reproducing social norms: being a story about outsiders who sometimes try to fit in, we see them on both sides of the fence. Sometimes they engage in the standard mating rituals of the American male, and then sometimes – as in the outstanding episode where Leonard and Penny decide to be “just friends” – they take on those standard rituals.
In that episode, Leonard and Penny go out for a meal as “just friends,” and Leonard takes great pleasure in forcing Penny to pay for everything she consumes, because that’s what friends do. But the clear reason he takes pleasure in this is that, normally, he would be required to pay for everything.
Is this normal in America? When you go on a date, is the man supposed to pay for everything? I was confused about this, finding it really hard to believe that such a backwards ritual could apply in the modern world, especially in a country so supposedly open-minded and equal as America; and after all, television doesn’t depict life just as it is, but often as the writers would like to imagine life should be, so maybe it’s fake? So I did a bit of online research, and I worry that the show might be telling the truth. This Irish website gives tips to Irish men dating American women, and after “don’t get drunk” the number 2 tip is “pay for everything.” This (admittedly more than a little obnoxious) Guardian opinion piece ponders why American women expect to be shouted everything, even when they earn more than the guy (and blames it on that crappy book The Rules); and this dating advice website corroborates another part of Robert Kelsey’s point about American dating tips – that you shouldn’t “make yourself too available,” which is apparently a delicate American way of saying “don’t have sex when you want to.” I found a website by girls seeking advice about dating French men, too, and the top complaint by the women there seemed to be that their Frenchie doesn’t text them every 10 seconds to tell them how great they are – like maybe he’s got a life, or something. The strong implication I drew from these sites is that American women are high maintenance, requiring men to buy them lots of stuff and constantly tell them how great they are. Also something that a lot of people trying to get by in America seem to notice is that the concept of “dating” is unique to Americans. The dating tips website even talks about this as an identifiable social mode:
Whether you are new to the dating scene, are reentering the dating scene, or are a serial dater, you can use dating tips and advice
Well clearly I would need dating tips and advice, since I’ve seen many scenes but I’ve never heard of a “dating” scene. And what is a “serial dater”? Is that maybe someone who just can’t get a root? In Australia, we don’t “enter the dating scene,” we meet people and if we like them and they like us we have sex with them, and at some point we discuss whether maybe we should stop having sex with other people (although often this is just assumed, or just a touch too delicate so we just keep on doing it until we move in together). If someone is meeting a lot of different people of their preferred sex for dinner and drinks, their friends will say “ooh, he’s getting a bit isn’t he?” or “well she’s certainly enjoying her single life” but no one would say “I think Sheila’s dating again…” What a strange concept. Also, if Sheila is meeting lots of different Bruces, one can be fairly certain that most of those Bruces are expecting her to pay half of the bill. She is not, after all, an escort girl, so it’s not like dinner is a business expense. In fact, quite a few Australian women I have known would feel uncomfortable about the implied expectation of having a man pay for your dinner and drinks. How horrible would it be if a woman paid for my dinner and drinks, but I didn’t like her and didn’t want to see her again? I’d feel like a cheap fraud.
Finally, one night I had a long conversation with my (good-looking, well-adjusted) American (Californian) flatmate about this, and he told me that California girls are really complex, and that trying to become entangled with one is a real pain in the arse: not only do they expect you to pay for everything but the whole “dating” thing is a complex job-interview-like assessment, in which your current and future prospects and all you “have to offer” them is on the table. And you know they’re “dating” various other men – openly! – so that you know you’re competing, kind of bidding for a tender or something. I suppose it fits with the rest of the world’s image of Americans as having kind of commodified themselves, but to me the thought of going out looking for a root as being some kind of investment or marketing strategy is quite horrible.
So my question to my American reader(s) is: is Big Bang Theory right? Is it true that men have to pay for everything and women mustn’t fuck on the first date? Do you really openly admit to your dating partner – through the very use of the word “dating” – that you’re seeing other people in the same context, and kind of taking applications …? Just how cold and calculating do you think people are in their assessment of their dating “partners” in such a context? And are American women as complex and princess-y as your dramas suggest? I’ve never had the good fortune of “dating” (or anything else!) one of your Amazonian women, so your culture is foreign to me. So please do enlighten me! If I were Leonard dating Penny, and I refused to pay for her ice-cream, would that be a faux pas? And if so, what do you think of these strange rules? And have you considered moving to Australia, where the women are beautiful and fun and simple and sweet and, quite frankly, easy?
fn1: At least, that is what I’m led to believe happened – I don’t dare watch the show too much for fear my head would explode from the sheer horribleness of the main characters, not to mention the intense pain brought on by the concentration required to pretend that these hideous brides-of-skeletor are actually pretty women who are capable of sexual enjoyment (though admittedly, all their sexual enjoyment seems to come from giving blowjobs and then telling each other about it, so maybe this last part should make sense).
fn2: spent working hard to pay for the next date, maybe?
fn3: I think there’s a Monty Python scene about this, involving Death and a salmon mousse.
fn4: This is a slight exaggeration, but you get my point, I’m sure.
fn5: Actually, is it possible to be Californian, good-looking, and well-adjusted at the same time? Maybe I missed something!