Simulating relationships

A few months ago, I watched The Matrix for the first time as an adult. I knew about the films growing up, but I just didn’t think it would be interesting. But when Neo pulled out a Jean Baudrillard book from his bookshelf, the nerd in me jumped out. I had to explain its significance to my boyfriend at the time. I just had to.

But when I got to explaining the four stages of simulacra and simulation, I couldn’t give a proper example past the third stage. Since we were watching the movie, I was trying to take examples from the film itself, but as far as I could tell, the simulation of reality that the robots create are still Stage 3 (Stage 2 for the ones who take the blue pill, 3 for the ones who want to stay in the dream).

So for weeks it bothered me that I couldn’t think of a proper Stage 4 example. Until I overheard this girl on the train talk about how she got catfished over the weekend. It was as if a string of Christmas lights lit up in my dark, tired noggin, illuminating the path that I’ve gone through so many times over.

1 The first stage is the faithful image or copy of a true reality.

This is when a thing is what it says it’s supposed to be. The dress you ordered from Rosegal is an exact copy of the one you saw on the site. And now you can wear it on your date with the guy you’ve been talking to on Tinder, who is actually the same guy in the photos. No scams, no false advertising. Very simple. Everyone is happy.

2 The second stage is the perversion of reality, where we come to believe the sign is an unfaithful copy.

This is where the catfish comes in.

When someone tricks you into a reality that isn’t true. But it could also be a “soft” catfish – she’s still who she says she is, but she’s hiding her true (maybe, crazy psycho) personality for the third date. Or he’s definitely the same cute nerdy guy, who’s sweet and supportive, but he’s really a Nice Guy. I mean, seriously a Nice Guy. Don’t worry, there are also Nice Girls.

3 The third stage is the copy masking the absence of a “true reality”.

Now this is where things get tricky, but think of Your Favourite Rom-Com, or Your #1 Chick Flick. Mine isn’t a movie – it’s six seasons of Sex and the City.

The “This is How He Behaves If He Really Loves You” or “These are the Clue When She is Not Into You”. Or How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days.

These stories are based on reality. The men (and women!) in these stories are based on reality. Set in New York City, like many other shows and movies aimed at female audiences. They build this world using signs and symbols, a mixture of things in Stage 1 and Stage 2 (tropes!), and they make it a little more convincing that suddenly the story is Stage 3. It’s believable to the extent that it’s almost real.

Because a woman struggling in the big city is believable. So is having difficulty in a sea that is the (terrible) dating scene, where you pretty much find more trash than fish. It reflects your reality to an extent, and now you start to believe that this movie is somewhat real. This story is about you!

This is when the image, despite being fictional, becomes real. But it’s not in Stage 4 yet, no. But it will be soon enough.

4 The fourth stage is the copy being understood as the “true reality”. When the image/copy precedes reality. Pure simulacrum.

Raise your hand if you’ve said “but that’s not how it’s supposed to be!” when you’ve emulated something from Your Favourite Rom-Com and got the “wrong” outcome. No?

Ever driven across town to confess your love, only to find him with someone else? Oh wait, they made a movie about that too…

What about when you ended up fighting with a partner because they didn’t act the way you expected them to when you said something?

Did you ever expect your man to show up outside your door with flowers and a care package after you’ve told him you’ve taken a sick day? Then ended up in an argument because he didn’t? Was his response somewhere along the lines of “you never asked me to”? So you fire back with the trusty old “but you should have known!” after giving your best impression of the Shocked Pikachu meme.

Have you ever taken a step back and thought of why you have those expectations or what fantasies you’ve been drawing from?

That guy is not immediately an asshole because he left you on read – he was (probably) actually busy. Ask him. Communicate. Tell him what you “expect” from him, lay out the ground rules of your relationship. Cut out the “I want to be surprised” bullshit. Assuming crap is the fast lane to failed relationships because of miscommunication.

Of course there’s the common case… that you were actively ignored because someone else is in the picture. If she lies and says she fell asleep, when in reality another man is waiting in a car outside her door because they have (sexy) plans, that’s on her, not you. Your partner’s infidelity is not your fault. Not. Your. Fault.

As much as I love Fitzwilliam Darcy, Noah Calhoun, Westley, and Eric Northman, the reality is these men are not real. But did that ever stop me from dreaming of someone building a house for me despite having no contact whatsoever for a decade? Hoping that our love would be enough to bring us back together? Nope.

And honestly, it’s difficult to get out of this cycle of second-guessing a person’s feelings just because they didn’t act a certain way. That certain way is usually based on some scene in a movie.

Switch genders and it’s the same. Some Nice Guys expect sex after the classic dinner and movie because the stories on TV show women putting out after the first date. So they’re pissed when they don’t get invited in after dropping you off after a fancy dinner. Or when you actually watch a movie when he invites you to Netflix and Chill.

Or to take it further, feeling obligated to do something – like go out to a fancy place, or propose to the girl you’ve been dating for 5 years – because that is something expected of you, not because you genuinely want to. You didn’t really care for that nice Italian restaurant, but it’s Valentine’s Day and that’s what you’re supposed to do. You don’t really see a future with her, but you’ve been together for so long, so you buy a ring. Then you’re feeding into this horrible cycle…

Or in the case that you don’t, and she expected you to? Oh, boy. You just opened a can of worms. But a can of worms that needed to be opened, and thrown away. Let it go.

Truth is you can even extend this analogy to other relationships. Ever wished your mom was chill like Lorelai Gilmore? Or wish you had a twin, like in Parent Trap? Or felt some sort of FOMO jealousy because your friend group isn’t like Friends?

I could go on, but you get the idea. It’s so much easier to consume stories now, thanks to Netflix, but if we keep binge-watching and not living, our reality will probably be based on the stories we see on screen.

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