We all know the clichés of fictional break-ups. If you’ve ever watched a popular TV show, seen a movie, read YA or even most fiction, classic and contemporary, you know the protocol. It’s woven tight into the fabric of modern American society.
I’ve recently come across several break-up scenes, and wondered why it seemed like the characters behaved in predictable ways. Since when did heartbreak become a cliché?
In my youth, I used to watch some pretty trashy teen drama shows. I remember this one episode in particular: it starts out with the main character’s boyfriend breaking up with her. She immediately calls all her friends, crying, gets drunk, hooks up with some loser at a party, wakes up feeling ashamed and sad, goes to therapy, quickly processes the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—cartoonishly depicted with a fun montage sequence), then meets a new guy outside her therapy office—and this all took place in less than a week, or the span of one episode.
Ok, I know that we’re not supposed to take the lessons of teen dramas too seriously, but come on, I was fifteen. I was in for a pretty serious shock when I did get my heart broken for real.
I don’t think these clichés are unique to TV, or to young adult audiences. One of my favorite shows, Friends, contains tons of examples of this: in Season 4, Chandler breaks up with his girlfriend Kathy. The characters make jokes about the stages of his misery—first, he’s in the sweatpants stage, then later he’s in the strip-club stage. Monica and Rachel have specifically designated ice cream types dependent on the severity of the break-up (because, apparently, no heartbreak is so severe that ice cream cannot fix it). In Season 3, Monica breaks up with her boyfriend Richard. She mopes around, a sad punch line, for a few episodes. Okay, yes, I realize it’s a comedy show, but still I do think there’s something kind of wrong about depicting heartbreak as fun, something to make jokes about.
Having graduated from the scandalous drama of teenage breakups, I quickly learned from watching shows like Friends, Sex and the City, How I Met Your Mother, the first half the New Girl pilot, and pretty much all romantic comedies, that breakups consist of white wine, nail polish, ice cream & chocolate, supportive friends, calling in sick to work, working out and getting thin, going to clubs, and hooking up with gross guys because hey, free pass, you’re going through a break up. Basically, not much had changed since those teen dramas.
This is not limited to television and movies. Classics like Gone With The Wind, Jane Austen’s greats, and all the Madeleine Brent novels I love, set up the foundation for romance in novels today. While it’s very different, it’s also very much the same. Heartbreak, I think, is hard to translate into words, so collectively, over the past hundred years or so, we have come up with a standard set of ideas that represent what it means to have your heart broken.
The problem is that this is now informing how we act in real life. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been through a traumatic break up. It’s much more complex than the way it’s depicted in the media. But I’m also starting to think we’re less complex than I’d like to think we are. I’ve been party to wine and chocolate and ex-bashing, I’ve helped friends burn photos and letters, seen them engage in bouts of heavy smoking or drinking, go through “sweatpants” stages, drunk-text, work out a bunch, call off work, hit clubs, bring home mistakes. I’ve heard a friend declare tearily, “I’m so heartbroken!” while simultaneously texting all her friends about the break up. Another popular line is “I’ll never meet anyone else!” (It’s not like any of this is over short, meaningless flings, either—for the most part, I believe my friends were truly in love.)
So I wonder: are our lives so dominated by the heartbreak culture we’re taught in media that we’ve lost a certain degree of authenticity and originality in real life? And if that’s the case, how can we bring some authenticity back into our fiction? Is it too painful to really explore and expose the truth of that trauma in an honest way?
I know I focused primarily on mainstream fiction, shows, and movies in this post. Many directors (mostly indie/foreign) and authors combat this with refreshing originality. I recently read Junot Diaz’s collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her, a fabulous example. And my favorite book of all time is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. If you haven’t read it, do. It’s great. I think it succeeds in capturing real heartbreak beautifully and honestly.
So, taking inspiration from outside the box and inside the heart, let’s write about heartbreak. For real. Let’s dig deeper than all the stuff we think we’re supposed to feel or show, and instead get into the weirdness and the awfulness of it. Okay? Okay. Cool.