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Rereading Jenny: Crazy for You II: Damn the Ex

February 1, 2014

[Spotlights contain spoilers.]

Oh, nice. And by “nice,” I mean “What the hell?” They “updated” (downdated?) the WordPress app, and while there’s a nice streamlined prettiness to it, the gray letters that say “Type your text here” or whatever STAY when you type. So I can’t read exactly what it says anymore, but over it in black is “[Spotlights contain spoilers.]”

Also, there’s an icon at the bottom that looks like a road. What IS that icon? And I just got an error message pop up. For what? I am not sure.

Still, don’t want to get distracted. I have something to say.

When I was writing up Crazy for You, I typed the words “Damn the Ex,” and then deleted them. Not because I didn’t want to address it, but because I’d typed it somewhere stupid, saw that it didn’t fit, assumed I’d remember to get to it later, deleted it, and went back to writing my post in a way that made sense. Then I promptly forgot about it.

This was a good thing, because honestly, I didn’t know what to write at that time. A person might say, “Wow, this book is just one long Damn the Ex,” which is what I thought I was going to say that first day. But when I had problems sleeping that night, I realized what is wrong with that statement. (I didn’t have sleeping problems BECAUSE of Damn the Ex. I’m just saying, one’s mind wanders, trying to find something that’s involved enough to distract the brain so sleepytime can take over.)

Even though I think I made it up myself–who knows, after all this time–Damn the Ex is something very specific to me. It’s a horribly unnecessary moment or series of moments that bring down a character who starts as seemingly good and ends, at its nicest, at “the wrong guy for our lead.” At its worst, Mr. Wrong’s villainous deeds are revealed to the audience (reader, viewer).

What’s the problem with Damn the Ex? Well, there’s more than one. It’s easiest to look at the two extreme examples: Mr. Wrong for Her, and Mr. Villainous Wrong.

1) Mr. Villainous Wrong is the easier of the two. You start a heroine in a relationship and she meets Mr. Right. Mr. Villainous Wrong, with all his eeeevil, is eventually revealed, and she is free to date Mr. Right.

Except she was always free to date Mr. Right. So what Damn the Ex does is take her agency away from her.

Sometimes evil’s just part of the plot. Evil is seductive. Doing good things can be tough. So when you have a character who is lured in by a character who is unknowingly evil, okay. There’s charisma there, likely. There’s power. That’s not Damn the Ex. With Damn the Ex, Mr. Villainous Wrong will do something to reveal what an awful person he is. He’s been sleeping with someone else the whole time. His temper explodes at the heroine’s child, or pet. He chooses money or power over her. This action or series of actions “frees” her from the relationship, by society’s moral standards.

Ugh.

Or she could just pick the guy she likes best. Which is why Mr. Wrong for Her is tougher.

2) Sometimes in romance, you have a character in a relationship and that person she’s dating is a really nice guy, and she still leaves him at the end for another guy. If she chooses on what’s best for her, awesome, but how often does that happen? So Mr. Wrong gets Damned. He’s not as good in bed. He doesn’t UNDERSTAND her. He’s secretly in love with her best friend ANYWAY.

I think this is awful, and it perpetuates awful things.

The first thing it suggests is that there has to be a REASON for good people to break up. This buys into that serial dating thing that I think is so bad for us as a society–we need to run our relationships into the ground. We can’t just say, “Hey, I’m not feeling this, even though you’re really nice.” It’s hard to leave the nice people. You DO look for reasons. But when those reasons are all in someone else, you haven’t DONE anything. It was handed to you. That’s not growth. That’s a side-step. It’s something Crusie heroines call themselves out on, which is one of the many reasons I love her. (Fast Women does this.)

The second thing it suggests is that, no matter how great some people are, there’s only one person for you ever, and I find that an appalling myth to pass on. You aren’t sexually compatible with one person in the world. Lots of people are good at sex, and lots of people are good at sex with people who aren’t you. That person that you dated who was too gentle or too rough for you is someone else’s perfect lover, but that doesn’t make them the only lover that’s right for them.

All that being said, let’s get back to the book at hand and why it isn’t, or is more than, Damn the Ex.

Damn the Ex begins with the idea that the person the lead is in the relationship is a perfectly valid voice for the lead. That is, they’re all the right things on the surface. In Crazy for You, we know within the first chapter that Bill is All Sort of Wrong for Quinn, so we could stop there if we wanted and be done with it. CASE CLOSED. But I could also argue that Bill’s descent into madness is an uber-Damn the Ex, a dark parody of the trope. Bill proves over and over again that he is wrong for Quinn, in larger and scarier ways, until everything explodes.

And because I’ve always hated Damn the Ex, I can find pity for Bill in this. Just a little bit, and certainly more than my last reading of the book several years ago. Like many Damned Exes of the second type, he can’t wrap his head around why one person would want something different from what satisfies him, not only because he creates his own reality, but because he’s in a system that says, “Of course what you have is enough.” Look at the number of characters that tell Quinn how crazy she is for breaking up with him. By the end, they all see the wrongness of Bill (which is often as aspect of Damn the Ex: the wrongness is revealed not just to the lead, but the people around here, so it’s like her choice can be VERIFIED, ugh), but on the surface, Bill was right for her because he was right for everyone.

It’s funny, because above I was all “Stop acting like there’s only one true love for everyone!” and here I want to say, “Stop acting like there’s only one kind of relationship in the world!” I can see why someone might suggest I’m contradicting myself, but I’m not. Bill is supposed to be a good catch, and that’s the problem. Society, the media, whatever, tells us that there’s One Best Person but at the same time that all we really need is a “Good Man.” Except that “Good Man” is not the same thing as “good partner.” I have lots of great friends that I will never, ever want to see naked. They are smart, funny, attractive people I am not sexually attracted to. They fit my criteria for life partners, but not Life Partner. Note that I didn’t marry any of them, but I did marry my husband.

But every two people create a slightly different kind of relationship. Like in Crazy for You, this relationship might be based on friendship and attraction, or attraction and a shared life, or whatever’s going on with Quinn’s parents (still don’t want to spoil that). While people might skew toward one type of relationship, it doesn’t mean the relationships individually aren’t their own thing, but even if they were all exactly the same relationship (somehow), it’s still a type that wouldn’t work for others.

Would Bill have spiraled down into such darkness had he been in a relationship that always went his way? Had he been with someone who was compatible with him, and not just “a good catch”?

Aw man, having access to the author through her blog just makes me want to stockpile questions. That’s not fair though. I’ve bugged her enough.

Anyway, to sum this all up: Crazy for You is not Damn the Ex, but it feels like a reaction to it, and Damn the Ex is bad and writers should stop using it.

[Note: stories about domestic abuse don’t count for this because part of a realistic portrayal of domestic abuse can be that everything looks fine from the outside. But if a male character smacks his girlfriend when before he never showed any sign of violence, that could be a sign of Damn the Ex and is extra obnoxious to be me because it’s the ultimate “out” for the writer to use. “Well, she can’t stay with him now, he hit her!” There shouldn’t be this kind of “can’t” in relationship writing.]

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