Your first crush is a rite of passage. The fixations that follow it are just life. Nervous, awkward, sublime. Disastrous. Transcendent. Here, we celebrate infatuations, obsessions, and passions in all their exquisite splendor. Meet our “It’s Just a Little Crush” series. Isn’t she divine?
Sure, the Punic Wars lasted nearly 100 years, but the Mean Girls battles at my eight-year-old daughter’s school have felt longer. There’s drama and shifting alliances. Ceasefires. No bloodshed—yet—but plenty of tears.
In an effort to distract her from her woes on a winter weekend, I decided we could watch The Breakfast Club together. Some of the plot details escaped me, but I remembered its message about labels and their limits. I hoped it would feel like a respite. (The Breakfast Club is rated R, which probably disqualifies it as an appropriate watch in most parents’ minds. But I assumed the “R” was for language, and my household is unorthodox when it comes to profanity. Call me a “dummy” and you’ll get a time-out. Say “f—” quietly behind your closed door while trying to put on a pair of recalcitrant tights, and I’ll let it pass.)
Fewer than 15 minutes in, I had to turn the movie off, in part because it was more sexually frank than I recalled. But the bigger concern was that Bender, the “rebel” played by Judd Nelson, is…a [jerk]. In the space of nine hours—compressed to two for the movie’s purposes—he taunts Claire (Molly Ringwald) until she cries, then kisses her tenderly in a closet, then accepts her gift of a diamond stud. Cue triumphant fist pump to the sky as “Don’t You Forget About Me” plays.
“Does he like her?” my daughter asked over and over during the few minutes of the film she managed to see. “No,” I said. “I mean, he will. But, you see…the thing is—well, he’s a very angry boy and he has a sad story, AND I AM TURNING THIS OFF RIGHT NOW. IT IS INAPPROPRIATE.”
Whenever we watch old movies, our memories of their pitfalls and foibles a little faint, our main concern has always been that we will expose our daughter (and her brother many years before her) to what the MPAA rating system describes as “material inappropriate for children under the age of 13.” But there’s no ratings system to caution a parent that an old movie—or a book or a song—might contain backward ideas about relationships and affection.
Only a few weeks ago, my daughter announced that two boys at school had crushes on her “because I’m a good flirter.” She said she preferred one and was pretty sure it was mutual. When I asked how she knew this, she said, “Because he ignores me when the other boys are around. But on the field trip, when it was just the two of us, he was so nice to me.”
I’m not often speechless, but I needed a few seconds to recover from the feeling that my heart had just cracked in two. I have always wanted my daughter to feel she can talk to me about anything. It never occurred to me that her confidences would remind me of my own youthful mistakes and heartaches. I grew up around boys who lobbed lacrosse balls at my back and taunted me about my changing body, yet grown-ups insisted my classmates did those things because they “liked” me.
“Well,” I said carefully once I sorted out my own thoughts, “once upon a time, that was the old-fashioned way of a boy showing that he liked you, but the new-fashioned way is that the boy says he likes you and is nice to you.”
“Oh, Mama,” she said with a sigh. “I have at least 32 new-fashioned ways of knowing that he likes me.”
Later, she confided, “I think I’m a better flirter than I am a friend. Because I only have a few girlfriends, but so many boys have crushes on me.”
We watch a lot of old movies and television shows in our house. We read old books. The parameters are loose, but in general my husband and I want to find that sweet spot: entertainment that sparks our daughter’s interest without boring us to pieces. Green Acresis an unexpected favorite—surreal and goofy but good-hearted. We adore Seven Brides for Seven Brothers despite its problematic plot. (Six brothers kidnap women after they hear their new sister-in-law talk about the Sabine women. So, not great.) But in the end, the kidnapped girls are the true agents of their own fate, deciding which suitors they prefer. We have no problem with the violence in West Side Story.
But what to do with the countless rom-coms that begin with bickering? With sloppy men and “uptight” women? Fun guys and humorless gals—he needs to grow up and she needs to loosen up. Where’s the MPAA rating for “could possibly warp your daughter’s self-esteem for life”?
Notice these perils, and prepare to be disappointed. I have nothing but affection for Anne of Green Gables, but whether one chooses the book, the 1985 film, or the newer Netflix series, one has to contend with the fact that Anne’s future husband pulls her pigtails and calls her “Carrots” because he is desperate for her attention. The latest version, Anne With an E, has added much nuance and gallantry to this scene, but still, Gilbert pulls her pigtails and calls her “Carrots.”
Once you start to notice this trend, you can’t unsee it. The African Queen, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, My Fair Lady, Raiders of the Lost Ark—we’ve started to spend a lot of time “contextualizing” what we once thought of as wholesome entertainment.
I’m not about to give my daughter a paperback of the self-help book He’s Just Not That Into You, much less let her watch the episode of Sex and the City that spawned that phrase and franchise. (Although I would understand perfectly if you believe by now I am capable of doing that, given that I tried to watch an R-rated movie with her.) But the fact is she’s received the message it seeks to address all the same—he’s mean because he loves you.
If we tell our children that their soulmates might be unkind at first, if we accept light malice as a prelude to romance, what are we setting them up for? So many beloved stories are rooted in the idea that people who are destined for one another begin by disliking each other. My husband and I “met cute”—he spilled coffee on my desk when I wasn’t there and literally tried to blot it with my blotter—but I always liked him. When I confronted him about the mess he made, he admitted to it and, at my request, gave me a copy of his first book, inscribed “Do you want cream with that?” It would be almost a decade before we went on a date, but when we did, he just asked me straight up, with nary a shoulder punch or a cruel word.
So I tell my daughter again and again: If your crush really likes you, he will act as if he likes you. And I remind myself that even teasing within marriage, where love should be presumed, can go too far. Maybe I should throw a few more compliments at my spouse, especially within my daughter’s earshot.
The Breakfast Club is tabled for now, possibly forever. Bender and Claire aside, who needs another movie in which a thoroughly interesting girl has to reinvent herself as a conventional cutie in order to get the thoroughly boring boy? Better to watch Some Like It Hot, in which Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon disguise themselves as women in order to escape wrathful mobsters. When millionaire Joe E. Brown learns that “Daphne” is really “Jerry,” he doesn’t waver in his affection, delivering what is considered one of the greatest last lines in the history of movies: “Nobody’s perfect.”
And, like all sentient feminist households, we prefer Grease 2 to Grease, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Laura Lippman has written more than 20 crime novels, most set in her hometown of Baltimore. Her most recent book is the national best-seller Sunburn.