“I think one of the reasons that heterosexuality has to re-elaborate itself, to ritually reproduce itself all over the place, is that it has to overcome some constitutive sense of its own tenuousness.” (Butler 1996, 114)
Gigi: ‘It’s hard to focus on nutmeg when the guy who might be the guy of my dreams refuses to call me.’
He’s Just Not That Into You (HJNTIY) is, uncontroversially I think, one of the worst films ever made. It is utterly abysmal on questions of gender, sexuality, sex and relationships. For example, the majority of female characters in the film work together at a spice company, spending their days worrying about “cinnamon briefs”. Meanwhile the male characters are all high-flying businessmen. Luckily the film passes the Bechdel test, because there is a moment when a few of the women discuss bridesmaid’s dresses (phew).
Sometimes when I’m watching films, my critical queer feminist lens means that I just can’t enjoy them. But HJNTIY reveals such deep trenches of gender normalcy that it becomes absurd, and in turn, pleasurable.
For those unfamiliar with HJNTIY, the 2009 film was based on the best-selling dating-advice book of the same name. To add insult to injury, the book was based on a line from Sex and the City season six uttered by Carrie Bradshaw’s boyfriend of the time, Jack Berger (of all people).
HJNTIY follows the story of Gigi and her troubles in love. It also interweaves a bunch of other storylines about women failing to get the central message of the film: he’s just not that into you, but if he is, he’ll let you know. In other words: ladies just CTFO, the men have got this one.
So what are we to make of HJNTIY, and why have I watched it more times that I can count? But more importantly, what can HJNTIY teach us about sexuality and gender?
The real main lesson of HJNTIY is that “normal” heterosexuality, as we know it, is both challenging and unpleasant. The film acts as a diatribe against traditional monogamous male-female partnerships, showing that they start with battles and games, develop into domestic subservience, and end in heartache. The idea promoted at the conclusion of the film—that there is always an “exception”—is pretty hard to swallow after two hours of illustrating why heterosexual normalcy is incredibly difficult to achieve and pretty awful if you can get it.
As queer feminist theorist Judith Butler points out, heterosexuality often insists on forcefully reiterating itself. She argues that we find ourselves vehemently reproducing the “norm”, because of the difficulties of its successful realisation. In other words, normative heterosexuality is inherently unstable, so we have to work damn hard to keep it together.
In the case of HJNTIY, the obsession with heterosexual pairings means that the film is in fact haunted by a sense that male-female love is an archaic circus—the kind that still whips lions and has bears dancing on balls—just completely out of date, cruel and a spectacle that doesn’t seem quite right. Not only does HJNTIY teach us that attaining normative heterosexuality is a frightful battle, but that monogamy can be painful and marriage can bind and restrict love.
The main storyline, that follows the unexpected feelings that develop between Gigi and Alex, shows us that one must fight to achieve the rewards of heterosexuality. This is despite the fact that these “rewards” turn out to involve both antiquated gender roles and greater access to banality.
Gigi is represented as naïve in love, ostensibly falling for every guy that blinks at her. Alex, the cynical barman, comes along to save the day by crushing all of Gigi’s expectations, teaching her that if a guy wants a girl he will “make it happen”, or else he’s “just not that into you”.
When Gigi starts to fall for Alex, her time to shine comes when he throws a party. Gigi wants nothing more than to play girlfriend and amazing housewifey-hostess to impress Alex. But when a tall blonde woman usurps her dip making, Gigi is at a loss. At the end of the night Alex ignores Gigi (who is cleaning up), and plays videogames with the blonde woman. Instead of realising that Alex is a lazy asshole, Gigi hits on him. Here she learneth her lesson: he’s just not that into you.
Of course at the end Alex decides he does want Gigi. We know it’s real love when we see a closing montage of Gigi making dip for Alex at a party—her domestic dreams have come true. Here we see that not only is the trip to a secure heterosexual pairing one of many wounds, the prize is a ticket to the mundane.
The storyline of Beth and Neil is perhaps the saddest one, where we learn that marriage is an institution that you cannot escape if you wish to have a successful pairing. It’s either marriage or nothing.
Though Beth and Neil have been together for seven years, Beth insists on getting married (and on throwing out Neil’s favourite pants, which just seems unfair). Neil doesn’t believe in marriage, and so Beth ends the relationship. When they are reunited after Beth’s father is unwell, Neil finally crumbles and gives in to the institution that will guarantee access to his love once again.
Far from a happy ending, this story reads as a great capitulation to the strictures of contemporary love that can only be made real through the regulation of the law and state.
For others, effective coupling is never achieved. Janine and Ben are a seemingly “happily” married couple, save for Ben’s wandering eye. So when Ben meets the voluptuous and physically nimble Anna, all bets are off. Rather than sharing and communicating his desires with his wife, Ben chooses to cheat. Ironically, a secret affair is the only way to maintain the logic of obligatory monogamy.
The women of this storyline get burnt, bad. In the closing credits we see “confession cams” for each of the characters. Ben is shown as the perpetual player who can’t think of anything worse than marriage, his anti-hero status inciting us to negate this derision. Janine and Anna on the other hand are dampened versions of their former selves, meekly spoken and simply trying to pull their lives back together. The lesson is (and how many times do we have to say it): he’s just not that into you.
But here we also learn that monogamy is a madman’s game in the land of compulsory heterosexuality. Under these conditions, nothing can end well, though we should of course continue to invest in it.
All of these stories add up to an incredibly bleak picture. If you are a woman, not only is getting the guy a horrible process where you have little control, but if you can “lock him down”, he’ll probably screw you over. Such is the magic of romantic heterosexual life as we are taught to pursue and endure it.
Gigi finishes the film with a voiceover: “Girls are taught a lot of stuff growing up: if a guy punches you, he likes you; never try to trim your own bangs; and someday, you will meet a wonderful guy, and get your very own happy ending”. Aside from the blindingly awful moral that appears to encourage domestic violence, the message is to persist. Continue despite the injuries, the dullness and the painful codes to which you must adhere.
This is why HJNTIY is so spectacular: because it makes what is “normal” a horror show. While the message is he’s just not that into you, the lesson well may be that you just don’t need to be that into the lunacy of social expectations placed on heterosexual relationships.
Image: He’s Just Not That Into You
Hannah is a PhD student at the Australian National University, and recipient of the inaugural ANU Gender Institute scholarship. Her work focuses on the topic of feminine gender expression as explored in feminist writing and queer femme subculture. She has published on The Conversation, in Us Folk Magazine and the Australian Humanities Review. You can visit her blog at binarythis.com or follow her on Twitter @binarythis
Awesome analysis. Thanks, Hannah! I think you’ve painted an excellent portrait of why I avoid rom-coms in general.