From Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis to Shaughna making a play for Luke on tonight’s Love Island, human relationships have preoccupied us for millennia. So which are the books, films, songs and games that express romance in 2020?
The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson
One of my aunts, hearing I was planning on going to a register office to tie the knot, said she didn’t get why people are “still doing marriage”. Well, the marriage rate is declining (as, apparently, is divorce), but it’s true that for the last 10 summers of my life, weddings have appeared like heat rash.
Why people are “still doing marriage” is a question I find myself asking and being asked a lot. And not just by married persons like my aunt, though they tend to be its harshest critics. Also the unmarried in their late 20s and early 30s, surprised to find themselves increasingly outnumbered by peers who’ve decided to make things official – and not because of the legal incentives. I’m not moved to defend the institution in these moments. I’ve watched Marriage Story. I’d probably have opted for a civil partnership if one had been available, but it’s basically the same contract with less baggage.
Most of my family, if they did marry (always after having children), did so on the advice of an accountant. But the idea of involving the state in matters of love came less from my family than from my own peer group. It’s a pressure people from my parents’ generation tell me they never felt. But it’s not as simple as a social media-driven concern for status, which is what my aunt implied. Like flat whites, extravagant weddings have become the go-to boomer explanation for why no one my age can afford a deposit.
In her essay I Thee Dread, Jia Tolentino discusses the wedding-on-steroids phenomenon in terms of patriarchy, capitalism and delusion. She argues women are duped into it. That by spending crazy money on being the centre of attention for one day, only occasionally looking beyond the smokescreen of a wedding to the blue and distant horizon of “ever after”, a woman is distracted from the real sacrifice she is making when it comes to her (already limited) autonomy.
Yes, some weddings increasingly involve obscene displays of wealth, where drones hover as couples speak their personalised vows, but just as many that I’ve been to are BYOB in someone’s back garden. I think there’s more to it than the self-optimisation motive Tolentino identifies. Witnessing the unions I’ve been to – queer and straight, traditional and subversive, family-only and the kind where no one seems to know why they’re there – one of the shared, if less romantic sounding or unspoken desires that seems to underpin each is a desire for stability. For solidity, even. To cement unions, take part in rituals and mark milestones into adulthood.
Even as this desire focuses on the future, there’s a kind of nostalgia to it, perhaps not so different from the other forms swirling around in our political moment. For those of us who grew up in the 90s, when history was supposed to be ending, the desire to have love locked down seems to have got stronger alongside our uncertainty. I’ve noticed that when someone my age lets it be known that they’re not, in any form, going to formalise a romantic partnership, it can provoke surprising reactions from people who don’t think of themselves as conservative. It destabilises their own security somehow, and undermines the comfort they take from it.
I realised I was open to getting married when I read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which begins with her marriage to Harry Dodge hours before California revoked its legislation on gay marriage. As the book progresses, she describes the pleasure of being in flux but also, increasingly, in fixity, routine, and things that are dependable. Of course these are things that can exist without recognition from the state, and are not at all guaranteed by getting married, but I suspect part of what moves young people to follow in the footsteps of previous generations and “still do marriage” is that it’s an established path that suggests a more dependable future. Olivia Sudjic
To Catch a Dick, by London Hughes
“Personally, I like to leave the country. If someone took me on a surprise trip to Paris for the day…” London Hughes is dreaming of her ideal Valentine’s Day – and it’s no surprise she’s setting the bar pretty high. This is the standup who built a whole show around her outrage that, aged 30 and fabulous, she was still single. By chronicling a lifetime’s dating and fellating in her outré comedy To Catch a Dick, the Croydon comic blew the lid off the 2019 Edinburgh fringe and teed herself up for global superstardom. A Netflix special now beckons.
Characteristically, she doesn’t demur when I suggest To Catch a Dick (not to mention her dating podcast, London Actually) makes her an expert on modern romance. “A hundred per cent,” she says. “This show is the dictionary definition of love in the 21st century. There should just be a picture of me on that page.” The show was born, she says, out of frustration that “real-life dating is never really discussed. I’m a hopeless romantic, a huge fan of romcoms. But I’m also out here in the trenches. I know what it’s really like. So I just wanted to be real and raw and honest about my love life – and see if it resonated.”
It did. But why? Because, Hughes says: “People like to make it romantic and Prince Charming, but the reality is, I’m a single 30-year-old standup who slept with I-don’t-know-how-many people and none of them were my Prince Charming.” We hear about plenty of them in the show: the millionaire banker, the soon-to-be-famous boxer, the foot fetishist. And in lurid detail: Hughes demonstrates her favoured sex techniques, and obliges one male audience member nightly to do some demonstrating of his own. “Not one man has ever said no!”
The audience response has been overwhelmingly positive. She’d expected resistance – because “British people are so prudish. Everyone’s weird about being judged – whether that’s about sex or about being a woman. On television, you never see two women talking to one another about their sex life in a real way. It’s never like, ‘Yeah, I smashed him, he came inside me, I don’t know how I feel about it.’”
The only form of appreciation still denied to Hughes, six months on from fringe glory, is romantic love – about which she’s ambivalent. The point of her show, after all, was to say: “Yes, I am single. But it’s not, ‘Woe is me.’ It’s, ‘I’m amazing!’ It would be quite nice if I had a man – I’m shocked that I haven’t been proposed to. But I’m still a great person.”
She’d love to have a romantic Valentine’s Day. But in its absence, Hughes won’t sit at home moping. “I’ve always been a person who lives her best life no matter the circumstances, “ she says. “I got bored one day and took myself to Paris for dinner.” Brian Logan
Call Out My Name, by the Weeknd
It’s tempting to embrace the cliche of the virginal Silicon Valley nerd and say that none of Instagram’s programmers have ever experienced a serious breakup. How else to explain the cruelty of my account suggesting that I follow my ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend, complete with pictures of her on his feed? (I bitterly imagined an incel programmer cackling to himself in Palo Alto.)
It used to be one of the peculiar curses of fame, that only famous people would be forced to see their exes going out with someone else, be it on TV or in a celeb magazine. But in a world of relationship-status updates and performative romance (I too had been posting pics of my new girlfriend on Instagram), we now also fall in and out of love under a spotlight.
Perhaps that’s why pop stars, who are also living more publicly than ever before, are now writing a new kind of breakup song. Lyrics used to feature histrionic metaphor (“A total eclipse of the heart”), or were so plain they could apply to almost any breakup (“It must have been love but it’s over now”). In the age of social media, though, our breakups become more specific – she’s not just moved on, she’s moved on with this particular annoyingly handsome guy! – and so the breakup songs that resonate are more specific, too.
On Lose You to Love Me, Selena Gomez sings: “In two months you replaced us / like it was easy” – a reference to how her ex-boyfriend Justin Bieber started dating Hailey Baldwin shortly after their breakup. Halsey’s new album is full of nods to her doomed romance with rapper G-Eazy, while Ariana Grande’s Ghostin was about not being able to devote herself to comedian boyfriend Pete Davidson while grieving for her late ex, rapper Mac Miller.
Taylor Swift’s albums are so rich with allusion they should come with their own footnotes. And on Never Really Over, Katy Perry says she “can’t even go on the internet without even checking your name” and adds: “Two years, and just like that / My head still takes me back … oh, we were such a mess / but wasn’t it the best?” It was released shortly after she got engaged to Orlando Bloom, with whom she had earlier broken up.
You could say this is all cynical gossip-mongering, and it is. These singers never actually name anyone, because they know there’s something grossly thrilling in unpacking these meanings, and since we feel as if we know these people intimately via social media, the lyrics take on extra potency.
Take the Weeknd’s breakup song Call Out My Name, regarding Selena Gomez (yes, keep up), in which he sings: “I almost cut a piece of myself for your life.” It’s broadly metaphorical – which of us hasn’t compromised for the person we love? – but also very specifically alludes to the fact that he almost donated a kidney to Gomez. The song gains potency by moving from poetry to documentary.
Of course, we can never truly know these stars’ interior lives. But their specificity throws heartbreak into sharp relief. By facing the detailed reality of our failed romances rather than wallowing in vague pain, we can learn about ourselves – and then, hopefully, cue up songs about falling in love again. Ben Beaumont-Thomas
Animal Crossing, Nintendo
Dear Animal Crossing, you’ve been a part of my life for almost 15 years and it feels like a good time to think about our relationship. I first discovered you on the Nintendo DS. I was 12 and anxiously settling into a new school. I’d never met a game that just wanted me to spend my time fishing, gardening and socialising in a town full of anthropomorphic animals. You were cute and undemanding and you gave me the chance to play the stock market via the medium of turnips.
Since then, you’ve been through a lot of changes. You’ve acquired new traits . I remember so clearly when Animal Crossing: New Leaf arrived. I was 19 and figuring out what to do with my life while on a family holiday in Kent. I had just finished the first year of university and I was feeling overwhelmed living in London. What I needed was the chance to escape into a world where I could shake trees to find new furniture and have a giraffe judge my fashion sense. You gave me that.
Whenever reality has been turbulent, your bizarre menagerie of animal villagers have been there for me. Life may have demanded I march forward relentlessly, but all Marshal the squirrel and Astrid the kangaroo ever really asked of me was that I occasionally gifted them a peach.
My closest friend was always Aurora, a pleasingly rotund penguin with an elephant-shaped slide in her house. I spoke to her every day – she would come round to my house, compliment my decor, then ask if she could have the things I was carrying in my pockets. If my real-life friends did that, it would have been weird.
I love the way you express love and friendship, Animal Crossing. When I bond with villagers, they give me a portrait of themselves to place in my in-game home – perhaps a slightly egocentric gift, but then if I was an adorable penguin, I’m sure I’d do the same. When Aurora eventually left my town for pastures new, her picture remained in my home. On the back, she’d written: “Just keep your cool.”
I used to play the game with my partner and, after we split up, your villagers would ask after them. Your innocence and eagerness never reflected the complex realities of my life, but it’s part of the reason I love you. You made things simple. With you, I pottered about, watering flowers and catching bugs. We existed mostly in comfortable companionship.
Soon you are coming back in a new guise, Animal Crossing: New Horizons on the Nintendo Switch. This reminded me that I hadn’t visited you in years. So, with genuine trepidation, I dug out my old Nintendo 3DS and clicked on your icon. I felt a certain guilt – the same guilt we all experience when visiting a relative we should have made contact with ages ago. But what I discovered is that we are still somehow in tune. When I logged on, I walked straight into a party celebrating six years to the day since I’d last played.
My slightly bewildered avatar was suddenly surrounded by all the villagers I’d spent years of my life with. Even though I’d ignored them for many, many months, they celebrated my presence anyway. Just as I was starting to have a crisis over the passage of time, Lyman the jock koala wandered up and asked me to catch a crucian carp for him. Suddenly the world was familiar and comfortable again. In the end, this is what love does for us. Holly Nielsen
Progressive Touch, by Michael Portnoy
Oiled up, iridescent and alive with shimmering blue highlights on a glowing altar, a woman eagerly semaphores her partner’s entry. Her fluttering fingers mark the spot. Approaching the woman on her raised altar, her naked beau does a manly mince, all pelvic thrusts and menacing Māori grimaces to a booming beat, his gravity-defying erection cantilevering in the dark. And they’re off! Accompanied by arcade video-game explosions, thuddy bangs and gabbling shivers, this is 21st–century sex – on multiple screens. American artist Michael Portnoy’s Progressive Touch is a brilliant, banging new video performed by two real-life couples and two girls who are just good friends.
Currently on show at Vleeshal in Middelburg in the Netherlands, Progressive Touch spares us almost nothing in the genital and oral departments, the universal mime of body parts, extrusions and insertions. Brilliantly choreographed, stage-lit and soundtracked, Portnoy (could ever an artist have been better named for this work?) has the dream that young lovers might use these hilarious, sexy and joyful vignettes as instructional videos.
How about ripped-muscle anguish to a heavy prog beat, angular math-metal guitar rhythms and drumming discord, pompadour hair, boggle-eyed implorings, the gladiatorial torque of male torsos and the hydraulics and pneumatics of an oral encounter against shiny black curtains and a dangling cage. “I love physical comedy,” says the artist. “And you could almost see these as cartoons, like if Mr Bean was ripped and hot, had a dick in his mouth and studied dance in Brussels.”
The boy-on-boy action gives way to two pale young women, coming together with chirruping “Ooohs” and a cha-cha score, its exotica pace underscored by xylophones and primary-school percussion rhythms on a big pink grope-banquette. After a lot of tongue-twisting dabbling they sprawl amazed at the quantities of sci-fi goo dripping from their arms. They’ve been at it, up to their elbows.
‘‘Why should a tongue go directly to a clitoris? Can’t it travel through the room in complicated, swooping baroque patterns until it gets there?” Portnoy asks. Foreplay can be all free jazz, he told interviewer Haley Mellin, “but to get off we need a good ole 4/4. As a progressive rock fiend, and someone who works with choreography, music, and comedy the question is naturally going to arise: what is progressive sex? By that I mean, bodies connecting in all sorts of strange meters, tempo shifts, stops and starts, changes in dynamics, unpredictable flourishes and permutations.”
What’s love got to do with all this? Everyone needs to up their game now and again, to introduce the unexpected to the rumba, to remember humour and variety as well as duty. The girls collapse in laughter, the straight couple wind down, lit by a porno-blue strobe, while the boys, I’m sure, are at it again. Me? I’m off to the osteopath. Adrian Searle
Sex Education, Netflix
It took me a while to get into Sex Education. There was that very first scene. Here’s a teenager who can’t ejaculate. Maybe he smokes too much weed. Maybe the pressures of being the headteacher’s thick son, combined with that of having a legendarily large penis, are getting to him? (It’s the second, of course).
But all eyes were on Aimee’s breasts. Did we have to do that again – build every new narrative enterprise around a fresh opportunity to show some fabulous breasts, bouncing up and down? But I minded other things more: why was Asa Butterfield, playing our hero Otis Milburn, doing such a faithful, consistent Simon Pegg impression?
What were all these British kids doing at American Hogwarts? A truly weird school, Grange Hill on the inside, Dead Poets Society on the outside, stratified by jock and nerd (when did the baseball jacket and button-down shirt become a part of our aesthetic?), as if our entire youth culture had been transposed to Ohio and then filtered back again through Google Translate.
And as for all those gigantic houses, evenly planted forests and suburban buses – the globalised landscapes of Netflixania take some getting used to. But I stuck with it, because it was saying something genuinely new about sex and love. And soon I didn’t care about the faux-Amish chic of their living rooms.
Otis’s mother, Jean, is a sex therapist and, between one thing and another, he winds up supplying ad hoc advice in school. Apart from that marvellously intelligent premise, the core components of the drama could be any high school drama: kids fall in love, they don’t know if they’re in love, the person they love doesn’t love them back, the love they thought they felt turns out to have been lust, or pressure, or some other thing, and in many ways, it could be Beverley Hills 91210, with added sexual fluidity – because nobody said “pansexual” in those days.
The difference – which is even more striking in Season Two – is that the characters are radically open about sex. Even the ones who are crucified by sheer distaste at the idea of sex can still talk about that distaste. They don’t talk about going all the way, or part of the way, or first base, or top-half only. They talk about fingering, shagging, blowjobs and masturbation. Otis demonstrates his “clock technique” for fingering on an orange, and you think: “Wow. I thought I’d seen it all. But I have never seen that.”
Their anxieties, as a result, have shape, idiosyncrasy and definition, whereas in my day (stay quiet and listen to grandma), there were simply the two poles: repressed (boys) or frigid (girls); and shagger (boys) or slapper (girls). This gives a huge amount of texture not just to their sexual relationships but to all their relationships: it’s bizarre to be confronted by how different even a friendship is, between people who talk not so freely as specifically about what’s troubling them.
But more than that, it makes you realise how much of culture until now has been a teenager’s sex life, mediated through an adult view (plucked from memory) about teenage sexuality, policed by yet more adult opinion on what to prioritise, then ventriloquised by teenagers emphatically not speaking their own truth.
Adults tend not to talk about pleasure, as they try to help navigate a sexual awakening. This is because it’s so excruciatingly embarrassing. We are not digital natives. We grew up with mystification, not hyperlinks. We grew up with innuendo not Wikihow. We grew up with intense staring, not texting, let alone sexting, and would no more send a naked selfie than we would walk naked into a Lidl.
“Just Google it like everyone else,” Adam says, when Ola asks him a question about dreams that he doesn’t want – or doesn’t know how – to answer, as if conversation and Google were opposite solutions, old school and new school. In fact, there are things people only talk about because they’ve got Google. Before Sex Education, I’d never seen a show consider the flipside: what if limitless information is actually a good thing? What if the odd bit of gonzo porn is an irrelevance, set beside a completely new dawn of curiosity without shame?
I am deliberately not saying very much about what happens in season two, for fear of spoilers, but here’s one: the adults are much more messed up than any of the kids. Zoe Williams
Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand
Edmond Rostand wrote his play in defiance of the new naturalist theatre of his age. Its fashion for realism “infuriated and revolted” him, so he plucked out a swashbuckling figure from the height of 17th-century French Romanticism and gave life to his verse drama in 1897. Cyrano, the “extraordinary poet and fighter” who is blighted by a large nose but blessed by the power of poetry, speaks in Alexandrine (12-syllable) rhyming couplets and woos Roxane with it through the proxy figure of handsome Christian.
Martin Crimp’s Cyrano, currently at the Playhouse in London and starring a muscular, often bare-chested James McAvoy, rebels against the baroque language in Rostand’s script and replaces it with a contemporary realism that has its own heady rhythm and romance. This adaptation, directed by Jamie Lloyd, is written in rhyming couplets too but derives from the stripped down, streetwise language of rap and spoken word poetry.
Poets like Kate Tempest and Debris Stevenson have shown us how poetry can intersect with the urban demotics of rap or grime; Jay-Z regards rap as poetry and Akala has spoken of the connections between hip hop and Shakespeare. Crimp follows in this vein, using the cadences of street argot for the central, poetic, seduction.
TS Eliot believed that the protagonist’s poetic rhetoric was an intrinsic part of his identity and McAvoy’s Cyrano proves this point but reflects a much more modern and nuanced version of manhood than the “heroic masculinity” of Rostand’s original. The language embodies much of this modern masculinity and McAvoy’s Cyrano – an “all-time crazy genius of the spoken word” – seems vulnerable, urban and real. Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s Roxane, for her part, is a feminist who is not drawn to unreconstructed masculinity and attends lectures in “women and the male gaze in early modern poetry”.
In Rostand’s play, the verbal jousting among Gascon soldiers fuels the testosterone-fuelled romance of the story. Cyrano uses words to woo but also to vanquish his competitors. He struts and peacocks and words form part of that display. The verse in Crimp’s woos and vanquishes just as seductively, though the leaner verse couples of rap battles and poetry slams. The soldiers hold mics or spit out their verse on stands, occasionally accompanied by a female beat-boxer (Vaneeka Dadhria). And where the wordplay of the original sounds arch now, the riffing with words here is razor sharp.
But while this 21st-century Cyrano reminds us that definitions of poetry have broadened, it is still making Rostand’s point: that seduction is far more potent in poetry than in prose. When Christian tells Roxane “I love you very much” she replies “I’m so bored of being loved. Come on”, in the hope he can woo her with rhythm and rhyme.
“If she is really in love with me why can’t I talk to her simply?” Christian asks and his question gets to the paradoxical heart of this play: the language of romance, whether in Alexandrine verse or rap couplets, is entrancing but not wholly trustworthy. Cyrano’s verse is heartfelt and dissembling both at once. It lures to deceive Roxane and also to reveal the truest of feelings, however covertly.
Crimp’s script, in fact, goes much further than Rostand’s in interrogating the limits, or truth, of poetic language. The play’s third act, traditionally the balcony scene in which Cyrano ventriloquises for Christian from the shadows, takes place on plastic chairs in Lloyd’s production.
The scene shows the power that Cyrano’s words hold over Roxane but it then deconstructs that power. Cyrano begins by speaking lyrically of his fantasies: of kissing the back of Roxane’s neck, of doing up the “tiniest buttons” on her sleeve. The description of love, it seems, is more potent than the act itself and Christian sits at a remove, scowling.
But as Cyrano rhapsodises, his language gradually breaks down and shows us, in its collapse, that words can only be an inadequate approximation of the fluttering, soaring and ineffable feeling of love. “I’m speechless, speechless, all I can say is I want – I want – I want – there is no poetry – there is no structure that can make any sense of this – only I want – I want – I want – I want you, Roxane,” he says, and it is followed by a silence. For all of language’s power to seduce, this loaded silence is the most romantic moment in the play. Arifa Akbar
Todd Phillips’s Joker is the solitary diner on Valentine’s night, sat like a reproach at its table for one. It has a painted smile, an array of second-hand catchphrases and a clammy air of desperation. Its presence alone is enough to make the violinist break a string. But awkward, angry Joker isn’t here for your pity. Instead, what this film really wants is your love.
Whether it deserves it or not is open to debate. Few pictures in recent years have inspired such loathing. Few films would obviously so rather repulse than seduce. Bouncing around a Gotham City in meltdown, Phillips’s comic-book blockbuster – like Dickens’s Fat Boy – wants to make your flesh creep. It comes to show us the flip-side of the Batman myth, spinning a piece of revisionist history as written by the loser; governed by low cunning and coated in self-pity. Whatever passion it contains is unwholesome and twisted. The movie itself is an owl-eyed fanboy, infatuated with Taxi Driver and King of Comedy and referencing and manhandling them every chance that it gets. Its protagonist, God help him, is infatuated with himself.
As played by Joaquin Phoenix, lowly Arthur Fleck dreams of being a stand-up comic, a billionaire’s son; pretty much anyone except the nobody that he is. Everyone else is merely an enabler of his ambition or an extension of his torment. The only man who Arthur spares – the only one he seems to care about – is Gary, his bullied co-worker, who requires a leg-up to unlock the front door to escape. So his compassion here is undercut by narcissism. He feels Gary’s pain because he confuses it with his own.
Not that these ingrown passions are necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, they might even be the elements that allow the film to emerge from the shadow of its illustrious predecessors. There is a theory that the dreamy epilogue of Taxi Driver – Travis Bickle hailed as a hero, back behind the wheel of his cab – is precisely that: Bickle’s dream (although when I asked Robert De Niro about this theory he promptly shot it down).
Similarly, if there is a flaw to the otherwise perfect King of Comedy, it’s the way it expects us to accept that Diahnne Abbott’s gorgeous barmaid is Rupert Pupkin’s love interest as opposed to, say, his demented lustful fantasy. And it’s here (and here alone) that Joker arguably manages to improve on Scorsese’s pictures. It’s confident enough in its comic-book landscape (a place where concepts of reality are more elastic) to indulge Arthur’s disorder and let his delusions run riot. The man’s birthright is a lie and his girlfriend is just a figment. He’s lonely, unstable and pretty much without hope. Fantasies of public adoration and female attention are all he’s got.
All of which ensures that Arthur Fleck’s a hard sell: the bug-eyed angry loner you’d cross the street to avoid. But this shouldn’t automatically make him a lost cause as well. That’s partly the issue I have with the more intemperate responses to Phillips’s film – the ones that decry it as a populist manifesto, a kind of comic-book Mein Kampf for the incel crowd. It’s an argument that’s as crude and tribal as it accuses the movie of being. Also, it credits Joker with too focused an agenda. The truth, surely, is that it’s as befuddled as the rest of us, a film borne out of the moment – a cluster of symptoms as opposed to the virus itself.
If Joker has any message for the masses, then it is simply that hurt people hurt people and that society (meaning all of us) bears some of the responsibility. And maybe that’s fine. Maybe there are worse things to say and to show than a comic-book misfit who might stand as a proxy for the misfit on your street, in your family, or sitting at the next table.
Film, after all, is an empathy machine. All said and done, that’s what’s most beautiful about it. Film invites us to walk in other people’s shoes. It encourages us to cross the street in the company of someone we’d ordinarily cross the street to avoid. Implicitly, unavoidably, Joker asks us to pay attention to the Arthur Flecks of this world, hopped up on bitterness, injustice and their own brand of fake news. It wants us to understand where they come from and worry about where they’re going.
Love thy enemy or he’s coming to kill you. That’s hardly the most romantic of Valentine’s Day messages. But it’s best chance we have for a Hollywood-style happy ending. Xan Brooks