The nightmare seemed so real that Amy began sobbing in her sleep. In it, she learned she was pregnant with her then-boyfriend's baby. Only there was no nine months of pregnancy, no long-drawn-out labor. "It was just all of a sudden I'm pregnant and then, boom, there's the baby!" says Amy, a stunning blonde whose green-hazel eyes still widen with terror when she describes the dream.
The shock of having an insta-baby only grew when she realized the new arrival was about to spit up. So she asked her boyfriend, an avid snowboarder who also worked as a massage therapist, to get her a towel.
He didn't say a word. Instead, he simply wandered off to his friend's house to get stoned.
For a year and a half, Amy had accepted her beau's constant pot smoking. But she remembers that nightmare, which she had about four years ago, as the moment she realized it wasn't a good idea to be with him any longer. "He actually woke me up because I was crying in my sleep, and so I told him about the dream," says Amy, now 30. "And he said, 'That's not how it would be!'"
Her response: "No, I'm afraid that's how it is."
Amy, a Lower Pacific Heights resident who works part-time for a green realty company while studying to get her master's in business administration, is no gold-digger. The nightmare wasn't about her man's income — it was about his attitude.
Her bad dream was a scene straight out of this summer's blockbuster comedy Knocked Up, where a phenomenally attractive correspondent for the E! television channel (played by blonde bombshell Katherine Heigl) and a bong-loving slacker dude (played by Seth Rogen) start a relationship after a drunken one-night stand results in an accidental pregnancy.
Chances are even those who missed director Judd Apatow's hit already know the storyline: A lost but lovable slacker meets the overachieving hottie of his dreams. He struggles, wrestling with urges to sink deeper into his prolonged adolescence with his crew of juvenile but good-hearted buddies. His choice eventually comes down to growing up or losing his love interest.
This trendy plotline has had a stranglehold on recent romantic comedies — especially over the summer movie season. It was dubbed the "slacker-striver" genre by film critic David Denby in a July article in The New Yorker titled "A Fine Romance: The new comedy of the sexes." In his essay, he contrasts today's romantic comedies with those of the past such as It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, and Adam's Rib, in which lovers actually come together once they become equals. That was, he says, before the lazy lout became a romantic hero, at a time when movies were made in which "men wanted something." As Denby sees it, in today's slacker-striver movies, women are portrayed as vehicles whose "only real function is to make the men grow up."
Recently, pop culture has been turning increasing numbers of women into the romantic saviors. Think of films like High Fidelity, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, About a Boy, Wedding Crashers, and Failure to Launch. In these fantasy films, the slacker dudes often undergo a rapid transformation, fast enough to drive (or run, or sail) off into the sunset with the gorgeous striver girl. On television shows like According to Jim and King of Queens, slacker dudes play the lazy husbands who somehow convinced smart, gorgeous women to marry them.
What about in real life? Don't count on it, slackers. I say the jig is up.
Women like Amy, who is now dating another M.B.A. student, have learned their lessons about dating slackers. While she finds movies like Knocked Up really funny, she knows better than to confuse it with real life. She's figured out what many in San Francisco, not to mention Hollywood, need to realize: A girl who's going places is simply too busy to try to raise her boyfriend, even one who has "potential."
That's right, slacker dudes: Smart striver girls are just not that into you.
Before we go any further, let's get a few definitions out of the way. First, let's address the strivers. Strivers are those who tend to work hard, have ambition, take responsibility for their actions, and often have personal and professional goals in mind. (Become an excellent athlete, learn to cook, be a good parent, fight for environmental justice, win a Pulitzer Prize. That sort of thing.)
Just as there are varieties of strivers, there are also numerous brands of slackers. There are the relationship slackers — those who can't commit, or who are comfortable in relationships only if their partners are making most of the sacrifices and doing the lion's share of the work. There are the career slackers — who may be unemployed, borrow money with no clear repayment plan in order, or simply scrape by while working in aimless jobs without side ambitions or passions to speak of. Don't forget the bad-boy slackers, who use their wrong-side-of-the-tracks mystique to lure women — whether they're holed up in San Quentin or living large in the suburbs. And, of course, there are the Knocked Up–style stoner slackers. What binds them together is what you might describe as a Peter Pan–inspired, man-boy approach to life.
Meghan, a San Franciscan who clocked about four years with her last slacker boyfriend, has clearly put some thought into the whole "What is a slacker?" issue. She further divides them into categories of "resistant" and "responsive" slackers. Resistants, she says, are those who either refuse to admit they have slackage issues, or won't change or do anything about them; responsives are those who are open to growth, change, or improvement. Whatever flavor she's dealing with, Meghan describes the bottom line as whether the person is ready to change. "That's all there is to it," she says. "They have to want to do it and to grow up. And quit the Peter Pan shit."
Meghan, 41, describes her ex-boyfriend as the epitome of all slackers: a "fashion slacker," a "relationship slacker" (he was noncommittal), and a "professional slacker" (he was unemployed throughout much of their relationship). "He was a 360-degree slacker," she says. But it wasn't his unkempt, shaggy hair or his lack of interest in his appearance that bothered Meghan as much as the months he spent unemployed, especially because he had three master's degrees. "Six months went by without him getting a job, and then it was nine months," she says. "Then it was a year. And, then, you know, it blew me away."
Meanwhile, Meghan has solid striver credentials. She already had a career as a fund-raiser, focusing on grant writing and consulting, before she began attending the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism (the alma mater of this reporter). She's produced Web sites for PBS, and uses her spare time to tackle projects like knitting and making chocolate soufflé. It's safe to say she felt she and her boyfriend had a serious ambition imbalance in their relationship.
Meghan remembers the "aha!" moment when she realized it was time to think about breaking up with her boyfriend — and move forward by leaving romances with Homo sapiens slackerus in the dust for good. It was reminiscent of another recent slacker-striver romantic comedy, The Break-Up, starring real-life exes Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn.
That moment came one night when Meghan — who now lives with three platonic male friends in San Francisco's Excelsior District — was cooking in the kitchen of the East Bay home she shared with her boyfriend in preparation for a dinner party. Simultaneously the doorbell started buzzing, the phone began ringing, their cats were freaking out, and "he just sat there," she says. Flashing forward to their future together, she saw a home complete with screaming children, dirty diapers strewn about the house, and endless nights making dinner with her boyfriend "sitting on his ass."
Their relationship didn't last terribly long after that night.
Meghan now has a loving new boyfriend, one who has dubbed himself a "fixer-upper" even though she says he's "fantastic." And yes, he's gainfully employed.
Of course, there are female slackers as well. But in the movies, it's the slacker dudes who are getting to be romantic heroes, so let's focus on analyzing just the guys for now.
University of California at Santa Cruz literature professor Carla Freccero, whose research focus includes contemporary feminist theories and politics, suspects the slacker-striver films reflect some men's feelings that their manhood is being attacked by feminism. "I don't like that genre of comedy at all," she says.
Freccero says the genre consistently revolves around male-focused plots, and is yet another example of antifeminist backlash. In this case, there's a presumed "economy of scarcity of men" who have their lives together, meaning successful women had better be willing to settle for serious slacker dudes. "It's not about truth, it's a perception," she says.
In recent years there's certainly been a lot of talk about the emasculation of the modern American male. There was the hand-wringing over the film Fight Club, when critics worried men were feeling so alienated that they needed to pummel each other bloody — or simply watch it on the big screen — to get back in touch with their masculinity.
"As the nation wobbled toward the millennium, its pulse-takers seemed to agree that a domestic apocalypse was under way," Susan Faludi wrote seven years ago in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. "American manhood was under siege."
No doubt, women's rights and the feminist movement have altered gender dynamics in this country over the past few decades. Those cultural changes have led to a significant shift in big cities — especially among Gen X and Gen Y folks. Increasing numbers of women are unmarried, working, and making strides to narrow the pay gap, according to a recent study by Queens College sociology professor Andrew Beveridge.
Beveridge conducted an analysis of 2005 Census data earlier this year and found women in their twenties who work full-time were for the first time earning higher wages than men in the same age range in select cities like New York, Dallas, and Chicago. (In San Francisco, there are nearly as many 21-to-30-year-old full-time female workers as there are men, although those women earn only 89 percent of their male counterparts' median wages. That's tied percentagewise with women in Detroit, and only four percentage points higher than women in Milwaukee.)
Beveridge attributed the rise of women's incomes relative to men's in part to a gap in education. Men, regardless of race or socioeconomic background, are less likely than women to get bachelor's degrees, and generally take longer to finish college, according to Department of Education statistics.
Anecdotally, Beveridge says women make up the majority of his stellar students in the classes he teaches at Queens College. "I really do think there's something weird going on with men," he sighs, adding that during a recent talk r
adio show he was trying to explain the statistics when the male host stopped him and asked, "Are you saying that the minute the patriarchy was dissolved, men just gave up?"
But has the patriarchy actually been dissolved?
I believe the answer is no. After all, while the pay gap is narrowing, it still exists. In addition, UC Berkeley sociology professor Arlie Hochschild points to the country's current patriarch — President George W. Bush — and the massive wave of outsourcing that has taken place under his administration. "I think there is a [portion] of male society that is downwardly-mobile," says Hochschild, whose book The Second Shift explores work and gender roles. "Not because of women, but because of outsourcing."
But, Hochschild says, the media often fall back on an old pattern: blaming women. That could be the neurotic and nagging wife — like Debbie, the slightly scary older sister who seems to hate her husband in Knocked Up — or the ball-busting female boss in movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin. And even many of the romantic comedy heroines — in Fever Pitch, High Fidelity, and Failure to Launch, for example — need to lighten up a bit. (Did somebody out there decide that while feminism has helped women have successful careers, it has somehow sucked out their souls and senses of humor in the process?)
Of course, we all know at least one superwoman, if not more. They're the ones kicking ass in their careers, raking in honors at college, juggling activism, extracurricular activities, and jobs while in high school, or raising amazing children. They may be professors, doctors raising triplets, or single women taking care of their families. And contrary to today's romantic comedies, these women aren't all humorless scolds. Plenty of men in the real world will tell you they don't feel oppressed by their striver women.
Take Jeff, a self-described slacker (albeit a "reformed" one) who grew up in Berkeley and now lives in Santa Cruz with his overachieving wife. While Jeff, a techie who telecommutes from home, makes more than his schoolteacher spouse, she's clearly the more active one in the relationship: She runs marathons, and after she gets home from work is often the one who cooks dinner. She also usually takes care of the plumbing, paints the house, and does remodeling work. He tries to be her "helper," but his chosen methods of relaxation generally involve videogames and golfing.
Jeff has talked with his male buddies about their superwomen wives, and he says they've decided that they are pretty comfortable with the current state of affairs. "We kind of joke about how women are taking over, and how maybe that's okay," he says.
Still, he admits to being a bit concerned over the different reactions he and his wife had to the recent spate of striver-slacker movies. Take Knocked Up, for example. Jeff found it hilarious — especially the scene during an earthquake where the lead character grabbed his bong and scurried off to safety, leaving his pregnant girlfriend behind to fend for herself. She was less amused. "My wife's response to it was, 'I just don't understand why she would stick with him,'" he says.
Jeff's wife isn't alone in her opinion. Many women who have seen Knocked Up can't fathom what the hell Katherine Heigl's character is doing with Seth Rogen's. It just doesn't pass the believability test — in real life, no woman that awesome would slum it with such a loser.
Oh, if only life were so black and white. True, Hollywood is creating the false impression that accomplished women are happily dating down in vast numbers. Still, the fact is that nowadays some awesome striver women do stick with losers. Which raises the question: Why would any woman in her right mind want to date them?
It's a tricky question to answer. Many slackers have a certain bad-boy appeal — these may include aloof musicians, men who consider themselves too brilliant to be gainfully employed, or guys who say they were only incarcerated because of the unjust nature of "The Man."
In Amy's case, her slacker guy was no felon — he was simply a lot of fun. She met her snowboarder beau at a ski resort soon after she'd ended a serious relationship with another man, one with whom she'd been planning a cross-country move and marriage. At the time she wasn't looking for a long-term boyfriend, and she enjoyed spending time outdoors with the guy. "I'm a better mountain biker and a better snowboarder because of the time I spent with him," she says with genuine gratitude in her voice.
Nonetheless, Amy is protective of her younger sister and keeps an eye out for the guys she brings home to meet the parents. The raver boy with "loser" actually tattooed on his neck (after he lost a bet) who briefly dated her sister was more than a walking red flag, she says; he wore "neon billboard identifying his character and goals." Her sister is now dating a great guy who runs his own business and has "much cooler" tattoos.
Gabrielle Revere, an accomplished celebrity and fashion photographer who has traveled the world doing philanthropic work, says she has no idea why she dated a more-than-decade-long string of slacker boys. It all started when she was in her early twenties and moved to the Bay Area to be with a San Francisco–based punk-rock musician, only to arrive and learn he'd started dating another woman. "I was a young and naive girl and I set my heart on something," she says. "He was a stupid punk rock guy and I was a romantic, and that's never a good combination."
Meghan says she was sucked in by the seductive "he'll change for me" notion that seems to help slacker dudes rope in strivers. She and her ex had an "excruciatingly dramatic courtship" following his breakup with another woman. She likens the thrill of winning him to that of a dog chasing cars. "You know, being elated," she says. "Wow, I finally got the guy. I never get the guy. I got the guy ... I have the guy, now what do I do with him?"
A common theme among women who date slackers is that they have an almost-maternal desire to rescue and rehabilitate someone they see as less together, perhaps even less fortunate, than themselves. Call it the White Knight Syndrome.
The White Knight approach to relationships should be familiar to anybody who's heard a fairy tale or seen a Disney movie. These savior stories have traditionally involved a male hero — a prince, for instance — rescuing a damsel in distress.
But Bay Area–based relationship coach Francesca Gentille says that during her 10 years of working with couples, she's increasingly seen the woman in the relationship taking on the White Knight role. Gentille suggests that cities like San Francisco and New York are national centers of female White Knighthood because they're full of nontraditional families. In the past, the knighthood role was traditionally male because men held more power, Gentille says, but this has been changing — especially in large cities — where women are finding success through career opportunities. "More and more women have the power, finances, and clout to imagine that they can save men," she says.
While Gentille agrees that stay-at-home dads can be a key part of a healthy family, it's unhealthy when the "female knight is trying to save the person in distress ... and builds resentment for the one who continually flounders in life." She calls it the "Beauty and the Beast" approach to dating, where the woman is determined that underneath a frog exterior there must be a prince. "She's looking at the Beast saying, 'I will bring that magical quality, and it will awaken, so suddenly rather than being drunk, my magical passion will bring clarity to him," she says.
Gentille adds that the "rescue relationship" (or "healing relationship") can be extremely compassionate and that it can work, especially if those in it are saving each other. Of course, that depends on both agreeing what needs to be saved, or at least agreeing that certain aspects of their respective personalities could use some work.
John Gray, the Bay Area–based relationship guru who wrote the best-seller Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, is more skeptical. "It's a recipe for failure when women take on men as projects," he says, adding that in reality, these types of relationships are "the most vulnerable, and have the greatest risk of failure."
Sure, Gray can laugh at films like Knocked Up, and says they have some good points, such as the transformative power of love, and the attraction women may feel to a male "clown" who can acknowledge his mistakes. But he worries about the way these movies promote gender clichés and "misleading messages." Real-life women in these "kiss the wound" types of relationships, he adds, can easily end up overgiving and feeling responsible for their boyfriends' successes while failing to give enough back to themselves. It often becomes difficult for the man to continue feeling sexually attracted to a woman who's taken on the role of "his mother," Gray says. In other words, if a woman takes on a "wounded bird" boyfriend as a project, she may heal him only to have him later leave her for someone else.
Okay, so admittedly this reporter was the rescuer type for a long time. Literally. Even while growing up, I brought home stray cats, lost dogs, and pigeons struggling with broken wings, and even launched a "Save Orangey" petition campaign to rescue the tom who'd fathered two litters with my cat (he was on death row at the humane society, labeled as undesirable for adoption due to his age and wild ways). Some, like the chipmunk I found trapped in concrete who'd suffered a broken back, didn't make it — but many wounded creatures rescued by the Spicuzza family went on to live healthy, relatively normal lives.
Sadly, my weakness for the wounded seemed to dominate my dating choices through much of my twenties. While sparing readers the gruesome details, let's just say that life lessons can teach a lady that those orange work-release/electronic-tracking device bracelets really aren't attractive at all, and an early-bird overachiever like me really shouldn't spend too much time dating a raver who regularly went to sleep after I woke up in the morning.
Dating a true slacker may seem to have a mellowing effect at first, but it can actually become stressful for striver types. Large sums of borrowed money that are never repaid, alongside bounced personal checks, are hardly soothing to a hard-working career gal's soul.
Still, for me, the definition of a slacker isn't about who makes more money in a relationship. And it's crucial to note that none of the strivers who spoke to SF Weekly said money was the primary issue in their definitions of slackerdom or the main cause of their breakups. That's because breaking away from the slacker-boy trap isn't about wanting a man with money. A guy who loves and supports his wife enough to become a house husband? Now that's hot. A non-alpha male who respects his partner's opinions, even when she disagrees with him? Definitely hot. A "wounded bird" type who wants to spend years wallowing while his girlfriend kisses his scarred inner child? So not hot.
For me, the defining characteristic of a slacker isn't a lack of income, but a lack of commitment or passion (or an inability to show it) to those he loves. One of my favorite romantic-movie heroes of all time is Lloyd Dobler, the John Cusack character in 1989's Say Anything. Lloyd, a high-school nobody, was kind of a proto-slacker, while his school-valedictorian love interest played by Ione Skye was a proto-striver. Despite some slacker tendencies, Lloyd had dreams — kickboxing, the sport of the future — and knew what he wanted. "What I want to do for a living is I want to be with your daughter," he told her control-freak father. "I'm good at it."
So, call me a traitor if you must — a slacker sympathizer, a striver sellout, whatever. But I'm going with my mom's words of dating wisdom, which were the last things she ever said to me before she died about a decade ago. "Honey," she told me, "any man who's lucky enough to be with you needs to know that he's the luckiest man in the world."
As for the other men? They are the worst slackers of all, and must be kicked to the curb immediately.