irlfriend Studies seems to have acquired interdisciplinary status based on the number of independent filmmakers making movies about the urban American dating scene and the superbly intelligent but sublimely estranged women who populate it.
While Woody Allen’s 1977 “Annie Hall” served as a modern benchmark for the Manhattan girlfriend experience, Allen’s ego underwrote that fable. By contrast, some of today’s better relationship films, including “Frances Ha” and “The Heart Machine,” though made by men, focus more attentively on how women respond to affection in the age of digital distraction and online second-guessing.
Girlfriend Studies needs a baseline, and mine is Girlfriend Zero, my first Manhattan companion. But before GZ, let’s go to the movies.
In Noah Baumbach’s 2012 “Frances Ha,” Vassar graduate Frances Halladay is a 27-year-old aspiring professional dancer who lives in a Brooklyn apartment and drifts from one life episode to the next while unable to identify either just who she is or what she might want. She has a best girlfriend who’s intensely sarcastic (a 21st-century badge of honor) and a potential boyfriend named Benji who never becomes a real boyfriend because tentative Frances isn’t sure what that might mean. She’s ebullient if socially clumsy, an extroverted introvert who struggles to focus her optimism. When she flies to Paris on a credit card lark she sleeps most of the time.
These escapades are amiably permissible because she’s “not a real person yet,” “too tall to marry,” and also messy, which to her means “busy.” In all, Frances (played to personable perfection by Greta Gerwig) is the lovely if unaccomplished prisoner of her own self-mocking static.
Frances leads aptly to twenty-something Ohio transplant Virginia, who anchors Zachary Wigon’s 2014 “The Heart Machine.” Virginia lives in the East Village and works as an office manager for a literary agency. She’s seen through the eyes of cyberspace boyfriend Cody. Virginia and Cody Skype constantly and stagger through the ritual of virtual sex. Skyping is necessary because Virginia has misled naïve Cody into thinking she’s in Berlin on a writing fellowship.
Virginia is a pessimistic version of Frances. Having failed at previous relationships, she badly wants a “connection” and sees a pretend boyfriend as protection against potential failure. Yet Cody’s virtual presence doesn’t stop her from app-driven hookups. Unlike Frances, she’s neither messy nor too tall to marry. Instead, she’s smitten by her own insecurities, which lack Frances’ comic relief.
The Skype gamesmanship amuses both sides until Cody discovers the narcissistic ruse and confronts Virginia, who struggles to articulate convincing amends. While Virginia likes the sound of, “I love you,” she says it best in an online dollhouse. Outside it she struggles.
My GZ, a New York poet, occasionally resembled both Frances and Virginia. She didn’t fully know herself. She was at times both insecure and confused. But GZ never lacked for purpose, or confidence, and if at a loss she worked hard to conceal, not herald, the shortcoming. She knew how to survive in a non-ironic world, with or without a partner.
I grew know all this because we talked incessantly — and unlike Virginia and Cody, in person — with verbal intimacy later turning physical. Her serving boyfriend was then dismissed, just as I was later rejected for another man.
Like Frances, GZ had no clear idea what came next, but it worried her less than it encouraged the creation of a personality independent of any suitor. This wasn’t feminism so much as awareness that retreating into adolescence was out of the question. GZ was often down but never out. In the absence of virtual sidetracks — none of us had that luxury — the complications of reality became a something of a habit. Needing money, GZ got a job in a bookstore. Foraging for deeper meaning, she wrote poems that clawed at them, eventually winning recognition, after which men flocked to her side, attracted as much by her talent as her unembellished beauty.
GZ was thoughtful, rarely sarcastic, and encouraging to other writers. Despite bouts of depression, she had a preternatural sense of right and wrong, part of a moral education, and sensed the importance of fleshing out personal and social priorities. Working to establish personality was a purposeful activity that in turn nourished sexual and intellect potency. As a result, she soon grew to know some of what she liked, and what not.
Like many around her, GZ couldn’t afford to brood unduly because the existing world, though anything but instant, was dynamically available.
That’s where 1950s-born GZ veers from postmodern fictional counterparts Frances and Virginia. She couldn’t doodle inwardly for any length of time. Nor could she indulge the personal uncertainties and life vexations some postmodern women coax by vocation. GZ lived and loved declaratively and to my mind unencumbered by the fashionable second-guessing that cyberspace connectedness imposes on most forward motion, paradoxically diluting it. To her, surviving New York obligated an imagined adultness.
Anxious Frances and Virginia are instead adolescent and cagy, as are their cohorts (men included). No one’s sure of much. Resolve changes by the message. Self-awareness dulls flirtation. The brazen is mistaken for the brave. As a result, entry into romance’s much-craved glee club is a deeply fretful process. Worse still, its fictional ranks ever more filled by precarious girls who’ve either lost their voices or forgotten how to sing.