by Jean Roberta
There is a variation on the theme of love-at-first-sight. It could be called hate-at-first-sight, and it’s an old literary tradition.
Shakespeare handled it hilariously in his comedies. Jane Austen handled it movingly, especially in Pride and Prejudice. Many Hollywood rom-coms are based on this formula: two people (usually a man and a woman) meet, and sparks fly immediately because they think they hate each other. Typically, each one thinks the other is arrogant and prejudiced. In extreme cases, at least one of them is confused about the other’s identity. The two characters exchange insults. They each tell their friends that they wouldn’t accept the other as a lover even if they were stranded together in the wilderness. (In some cases, this happens.)
The emotional truth is that they are both intensely attracted to each other and unwilling to admit it. The attraction shakes up their plans and even their general world-view. Besides this, each one fears that maybe he or she is the only one who feels the attraction. The fear of feeling drawn to someone who really despises oneself is unbearable.
The secondary characters (friends, relatives, even co-workers or classmates) usually feel an obligation to play matchmaker. Sometimes the friends carry messages or arrange for each of the reluctant lovers to see the other one’s best qualities. In some cases, circumstances force the protagonists to co-operate. There is a climax in the plot, in which all misunderstandings are resolved and the lovers confess how they really feel. Cue the music for the happy ending.
A plot like this can reveal certain deep truths about human nature, but only if it is handled well. There are groan-worthy versions of this formula. In romantic comedies from the 1950s and 1960s, the woman was often a “career girl” and the man was a crusty bachelor who disapproved of “working” women. The solution, of course, was for him to propose marriage and for her to accept on his terms, meaning that she would become a stay-at-home wife and mother – and love it.
In our own time, the dearest-enemies formula can be applied to m/m and f/f romances. The two protagonists can come from different communities based on race, culture, or lifestyle. A macho man in a dangerous occupation (firefighter, cop, soldier) can be surprised by his attraction to a sensitive man in the arts, the fashion industry or one of the helping professions (social worker, paramedic). And the macho guy can insist loudly that he’s normal, meaning that he’s not gay. Not at all.
A lesbian version of the dearest-enemies plot can involve different conceptions of feminism. Can a woman who has made her own bread and her own clothes while living in an all-female collective find happiness with an urban woman professional who works mostly with men? Can a woman who has never wanted children learn to live with a single mother and her dependents? Is a butch-femme combination hopelessly retro and patriarchal, or is there an updated version of this traditional combination that allows both women to have equal power in the relationship?
The presence of a transgendered character can complicate the relationship further, especially if the cis-gendered one is deeply invested in a self-definition as “gay” or “lesbian.” If an MTF (born physically male, but identifying as female) can be considered a woman-loving woman, that means that an FTM (born female, identifying as male) must be considered a man, which means that FTM plus cis-male form a gay-male couple, and FTM plus cis-female form a heterosexual couple.
In the real world, I’ve heard of a few long-term relationships between an FTM (the “husband”) and an MTF (the “wife”), and I can see how these two people might understand each other better than most other people they know. Despite appearances, however, they are not likely to be accepted as “straight,” if this means conventional.
The challenge in writing a dearest-enemies plot is to make the transition from an apparent feud to mutual acceptance as convincing as possible, and not just by forcing one character to give in completely. (Even in a BDSM plot, a complete change of personality just doesn’t seem sustainable.) The seeds of future compatibility have to be there from the beginning of the relationship, and negotiation scenes need to show a certain amount of flexibility on both sides.
At best, a dearest-enemies romance shows a dazzling glimpse of potential peace on earth and general good will. At worst, a story like that looks a string of unbelievable clichés.
The scary thing about this literary tradition is the way it has traditionally been taught to little girls as The Way Things Are in real life.
Long before I reached puberty, I was told why little boys pulled my hair, shoved me on the playground, or yelled “flea-males!” at me and my girlfriends. According to all the adults in my life, this kind of behaviour showed that boys secretly liked girls (or me especially) but they didn’t know how to express “mushy,” feminine feelings. Supposedly, they felt threatened (at age eight?) by the overwhelming attraction they felt every time a girl walked past.
My dad gave me several patronizing lectures about why boys can’t leave girls alone, and he ended most of his sentences with “honey.” My mother agreed with everything he said. (As she told me when I was married to a chronically angry man, “going along with him” is the key to a happy marriage.)
To see how an imaginary relationship between a harassing boy and a girl who “overreacts” to his taunting works out, read (or reread) Anne of Green Gables and its sequels.
I don’t really know what young children are taught by their youngish parents in the 21st century about the “Battle of the Sexes” (ha-ha), but it would surprise me if the old belief in male violence as a disguised expression of love has completely died out.
Looking back at my sexual relationships with males, I am tempted to ask my younger self what my parents, sisters and friends usually asked me when I was licking my wounds: “why didn’t you know what he was like? Did you really expect him to start treating you better?”
My humiliating answer was yes, I did. I wasn’t masochistically wallowing in the guy’s contempt for women in general, or for me in particular. I was waiting for the Big Reveal when he would show his sensitive side, his scarily-intense admiration for my big brown eyes, my sexiness, my intelligence, my honesty, my patience. He would confess that he couldn’t imagine living without me.
In real life, there was usually a Big Reveal which exploded my illusions. When I was younger, several guys revealed that they were already dating “nice girls,” as distinct from me, the available slut. When I grew older, several guys revealed that they were married with children, and not planning to divorce. In several cases, the guy’s insults escalated to a level that I couldn’t accept any longer – and after we parted, I never saw him again.
I was lucky. Some women who accept a man’s gruff exterior, assuming it’s the shell around a tender heart, end up dead.
IMO, children need to be taught that fictional plots are usually more satisfying than those of real life, and that it's never safe to assume that someone who expresses hostility toward you at first meeting will eventually become the love of your life.
In real life, all (potentially) romantic relationships should be labelled “Let the buyer beware.”