Romancing objectification?

Film still, Ruby Sparks, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2012, 20th Century Fox
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Ruby Sparks (Film Still), 20th Century Fox, 2012.

Last year’s film Ruby Sparks is a fascinating exploration, not just of gender, but of how people objectify each other, and themselves, in romantic relationships.

In the movie an isolated, once-successful novelist, Calvin (Paul Dano) writes about a fantasy of meeting his perfect girlfriend, Ruby (Zoe Kazan) in the park. One day he returns home to find that Ruby exists and is living with him. After initial confusion, Calvin is delighted and throws himself into the relationship. But things sour as Calvin begins to become grumpy with the very things that he created Ruby to be. He tries rewriting her character, but his attempts repeatedly backfire. When he writes that Ruby was sad whenever she wasn’t with Calvin, she becomes needy and tearful; when he writes that Ruby was effervescently happy all of the time, he finds that equally hard to take. Ultimately, Calvin explodes in anger and tells Ruby what she is, forcing her to do things by typing them out as she stands in front of him. Horrified by what he has become, he writes a final line declaring that Ruby is free and she leaves.

On one level, Ruby Sparks is a lively deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl trope. In this common romantic plot, a man’s empty, emotionless life is given meaning when he meets a wacky, quirky woman whose wild and childlike ways help him to learn to love and to free himself from his self-imposed constraints.  The continued popularity of the manic pixie dream girl trope in indie movies of the last decade (think of Garden State or Elizabethtown) suggests that the ideal of the woman who is childlike and non-threatening and exists ‘for-others,’ as Simone de Beauvoir would say, is alive and well, and Ruby Sparks unmasks and criticizes the misogyny of this ideal.

The problem, of course, is that the movie does this so well that its upbeat ending is troubling. At the close, you see, Calvin bumps into Ruby in the park. She’s reading his new book—the one about her, now safely anonymous—but she has forgotten everything that happened, due to her being set free. They banter the way that they first met, as though Calvin had been given a second chance.

Why should a man who objectified a woman – trying to shape her into exactly what he wanted her to be, messing with her mental health, denying her freedom, and dictating her sexuality – be offered a happy ending?

For what it’s worth, my sense is that there’s a bit of Calvin in all of us.

Women’s and men’s magazines and self-help style books consistently offer to help us figure out the ‘opposite sex’ and get them to do what we want, sexually or otherwise. Actual relationships play out the ‘beauty and the beast’ myth, as people attempt to trick, cajole, or nag their partner into self-promotion, diets or better domestic habits. It is important to admit to ourselves the temptation to make little tweaks and alterations to a partner, at the same time as holding them back from changing in directions that we are not comfortable with, or feel threatened by. There is one horrific, utterly mundane moment when Ruby is singing a lovey-dovey made-up song, off-key, in the kitchen, and Calvin looks up from the couch and snaps something like ‘I’m trying to read.’ How many viewers won’t see a mirror of themselves in that scenario?

And suppose we find (or create) a partner who loves, respects, and is fascinated by us. Afraid of loss, don’t we mold ourselves into what we think they want us to be, or struggle to stay who we were when they fell for us? Don’t we end up failing and hating ourselves, or resenting our partner for constraining our freedom? Objectifying ourselves, we might even distrust the person who continues, so unnervingly, to love us, as though they didn’t realize how imperfect we really are.

If Ruby Sparks is about the way we objectify both each other and ourselves, its ending is more appealing. Calvin sets Ruby free in part because her well-being means more to him than continuing his relationship with her, which is perhaps the ultimate sign of embracing of another person’s freedom. He has seen the suffering caused by his regarding her as a thing, and maybe of regarding himself as a thing, as well.

The happiness of the movie’s ending may have been a commercial decision, but it’s based on the hope a truly mutual relationship, one that values the freedom of each partner, and supports that freedom, is possible.

Meg Barker

Meg Barker is a senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University and a therapist specializing in sex and relationships. You can read a longer version of Meg's thoughts on Ruby Sparks, including much more about the film and Simone de Beauvoir, at their own blog, Rewriting the Rules.

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