Harry Potter and the Unrealistic Expectations

Because for all his great work in the antifa space, he’s also doing his best to fan the flames of male entitlement.

One of the hardest things a man has to face, in the dating world, is rejection. It’s also one of the most common things. Dating is 99.8% rejection. I spent time on OKCupid, where sending out feelers was relatively easy, but at a rough estimate I emailed about one thousand women over the course of 10 years, of which about 200 women — one in five — replied to any extent whatsoever. (According to a now-deleted OKTrends blog post, that made me twice as charming as the average male suitor on the site.) I spent time on those messages: each one was hand-crafted, referring to specific things on the woman’s profile in an attempt to show that I was paying attention. There were no spelling errors; they used proper grammar and punctuation. I would spend up to half an hour on each e-mail and could confidently expect that 80% of that effort would simply go to waste, would disappear into an inbox and be disregarded. And, to repeat, I was twice as effective as the average suitor, who could expect that silence 10% more frequently.

It should also be pointed out that the numbers would continue to dwindle. How many women would progress to the point of actually going on a date with me? Since I used the site for a decade, it’s difficult for me to pin it down, but I’d guess at 50. How many of them would go on a second date? My guess would be 20. How many of them actually got to the point where they would agree to be my girlfriend? Two. (How many of them married me? Zero. I met Mara via a completely different app — after she saw me on OKC and pre-emptively downvoted me for reasons of her own.)

So when I say that dating is 99.8% rejection, I’m being quite literal. 1,000 attempts; two girlfriends. The vast majority of dating ends in failure.

And so it’s curious to me that modern society does not even talk about rejection.

If we want to talk about romance in mass media, what is the story? Obviously, there are a lot of different media to do it in: books, music, movies, theatre, television, even video games. There are a lot of different tones you can take, from the ecstatic optimism of (say) Boy Meets World to the fumbling embarrassment of Lena Dunham’s Girls, from the drama-filled chaos of Grey’s Anatomy to the pointed, almost snide deconstruction of Romeo and Juliet, from the typical happy endings (Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice) to the tragic denouement of Titanic, Brokeback Mountain, Final Fantasy X. You can do it a hundred different ways… but almost all of them (Girls is the exception) have one thing in common:

The characters who are going to end up together? They meet right at the beginning.

First Girl Wins” is a very common trope in storytelling (so common, in fact, that I suggest you don’t click that link unless you have an entire afternoon to spare: it’s a long and engrossing document). It has fun metaphorical elements: she has a chance to “call dibs” on the male lead. It has important metatextual elements: it gives her relationship with the male lead the most room to grow and develop. And finally, if the love story is about how Alexis and Bryce fell in love, then obviously you start at the moment they met — the moment they began to fall in love. (The one exception, like Girls, is where the lead character doesn’t end up with anyone at the end of the story — which is considered a hideously brave and counter-cultural way to do things.)

But it also has one really simple, really worrisome flipside: it means that the protagonist never has to experience rejection.

Let’s take Harry Potter as an example. If you’ve been living under a rock, the titular character is a normal 11-year-old boy living with his aunt and uncle in Britain who discovers that he’s central to the IP’s mythology; there’s a Big Bad out there, an evil wizard named You-Know-Who — okay, he’s actually named Voldemort, but he’s so evil that people actually fear to speak his name — and Harry is going to be intimately involved in the fight against him. The books chronicle the next seven years, as he 1. learns he is, in fact, a wizard himself, 2. learns about magic at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and 3. prepares for the fight. And, because he’s — despite everything — still a teenage boy, he spends some time on romance. Who does he end up with? His best friend’s little sister, Ginevra “Ginny” Weasley… the first wizarding girl his age who ever appears on page. It’s downplayed magnificently: on the day Harry meets Ginny, he’s old enough to go to Hogwarts but she won’t be until next year, so she’s written out after (in my Scholastic paperback copy) a mere five pages; and before the chapter is over, Hermione Granger sails in and makes herself at home in the narrative. The story doesn’t dwell on it, is my point. But Ginny Weasley is the First Girl, and the First Girl Wins.

Now, Harry and Ginny’s relationship isn’t precisely smooth sailing. First off, Harry is central to the IP’s mythology; I shan’t bother with many details, but, on October 31st, 1981, on the day he turned 15 months old, he deflected a bullet with his forehead — an act as miraculous amongst wizards as it would be for us “Muggles.” True, Harry’s forehead was magical… but the bullet was magic too: in fact, it was a spell called “the Killing Curse.” If you read its name, you get a very accurate idea of what it does: it kills you. There is no counter-curse, there is no deflection, there is no extra life. If someone casts a Killing Curse at you, you have precisely two options: 1. dodge (a thing 15-month-olds typically do not excel at), or 2. die. Harry somehow found a third option; he is the only known survivor of the Killing Curse. Even better, that curse was cast by Voldemort — and after it bounced off Harry’s forehead, it hit him. Harry defeated the most evil wizard of all time. (I mean, not forever; spoilers: he’s only mostly dead. But it’s still much more than anyone was expecting of a 15-month-old forehead.)

And Ginny, who was 2 months old at the time, was raised on stories of this triumph, of the hero of the Wizarding World, of The Boy Who Lived. When she meets the real thing, she’s flabbergasted; Harry, despite having the emotional range of a teaspoon, can still tell she has a massive crush on him. (He never takes advantage of it.) It’s actually kind of a big deal when the fifth book rolls around and she’s gotten over him to the point where she can — for the first time in the series — speak more than one sentence to him per book. At that point she starts getting popular with the other boys at Hogwarts, and by the sixth book there’s been a reversal: now it’s Harry pining over her in awkward ambivalence, having no idea how to express his feelings. By the end of the book, they’ve officially gotten together, and they remain that way for the rest of the series — and, indeed, to this day, according to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. (He’s now head of Wizarding Britain’s law-enforcement division; she’s a newspaper journalist covering the sports beat. They have three children, the oldest of whom is to graduate from Hogwarts in June of 2021.)

There’s also an interloper. For the first four books, Harry doesn’t return Ginny’s affections. (Why not? Because romance is rooted in personality, and Ginny’s too tongue-tied in his presence to have a personality. What would Harry be attracted to? The answer is, Nothing; and because Rowling is, despite her other faults, a good writer, he therefore isn’t attracted.) Instead, his eye is caught by a girl a grade older than him, Cho Chang. As it happens, she’s seeing someone else… but she’s very kind about it. Harry is left disappointed, but not stung. Also, her boyfriend dies (long story — basically, the entire fourth book, as a matter of fact), and in the fifth they date a little bit. It doesn’t go well: she is, quite reasonably, not yet over her dead boyfriend, and Harry doesn’t have the faintest clue how to navigate her emotional distress, much less have some sort of romance with that emotional distress. By the time they meet again in the seventh book, Cho has gotten her issues sorted out, but Ginny has already staked her claim; and that’s how it ends.

So, to recap, Harry’s lifetime dating experience looks like this: He asks out a girl three times in his life, ever. The first time he’s given a polite No; the second time he’s given a Yes; the third time, he ends up marrying her. All three times he asks someone out, he gets a reaction. And all I’m saying is, his 0% failure rate looks waaaay different than the average guy’s experience of failing 90% of the time. Not being given a polite No; not even being given an impolite No: being straight-up ignored.

And this wouldn’t be a problem if Harry’s 100% success rate was an exception to the rule. But it’s not: it’s the rule itself. With very few exceptions, male characters do not get romantically rejected. And if they do, it’s to generate drama and build tension. With very few exceptions, if a guy asks out a girl in a story, he dates that girl.

How many exceptions? Don’t know, but not many. I did a poll on Facebook. So far, we’ve only come up with two examples: Don Pedro asking out Beatrice in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and Kirk asking out Lorelai in Gilmore Girls. Is this every example ever committed to fiction? Obviously not. But the fact that we couldn’t think of any others — and, more importantly, generated a bunch of counter-examples in the process — is pretty damning.

How many counter-examples? Well, you have Tristan asking out Rory and being declined, but the two later kissing, which is my point: he gets a shot. Rory turns him down and then is told that she was wrong to do so. (Frankly, basically every relationship Rory has gets to come at it from that angle, except maybe Dean. For those keeping score, Gilmore Girls has already done three times as much to prove my theory as it has to disprove it.) The love triangle in Twilight works that way; the love triangle in The Hunger Games works this way. And then there are the counter-counter-examples that prove the rule. Here’s one: in the fifth book of The Wheel of Time, a bit character named Valan Luca is continually hitting on the prickly, aggressive Nynaeve. (It’s pronounced “Nigh-neev.” Robert Jordan was a bit weird on his fictional names.) She has no trouble telling him off… and the audience has no trouble believing he’s going to stay told off, because the seeds of Nynaeve’s romance with Lan Mandragoran were planted before the first book ended. The First Boy Wins, and Luca isn’t the First Boy, and the reader knows it. Luca is a “Romantic False Lead” — which TVTropes used to call “The Paolo” after the Friends episode “The One With Mrs. Bing,” in which the eponymous Mrs. Bing — a romance novelist of some renown — compares (and hangs a lampshade on) the transitory nature of Ross’s competition:

[Paolo]’s a secondary character. He’s just a, y’know, complication you eventually kill off.

The implication is clear: Ross is not only the hero of his own story, he’s the hero of everyone’s story. And he will get the girl.

And that leads to an expectation amongst the young men who consume these media: “I, too, will date the girl. I may be rejected, but it’s only to generate drama and build tension. I, too, am the hero of everyone’s story. I, too, will have a 0% failure rate as opposed to a 99.8% failure rate.”

And that’s where we start seeing the problems.

Normally, this is where I would say, “Let’s talk about the Friend Zone,” but the thing is, I’ve already done that, and written a whole article about it. Much of that article fits in here. (Frankly, this article ought to invalidate that one. My intention is always to get to the root cause of a problem, and I believe the topic I’m discussing here is “lower” on the ladder of cause-and-effect than what I wrote about earlier.) Whatever the case, I’m going to grab the salient point to save everyone time:

As far as Western dating culture is concerned, women aren’t allowed to turn men down. If a guy asks a girl out, then that girl must be attracted to him.

And when you put that hand-in-hand with all the boys in fiction who don’t get turned down, who date every single woman they ever attempt to, you start having real issues.

Where, you might ask? Well, it turns we saw it happen just this month. Let’s just check out Good Morning Britain on 8 March 2021. The evening before, the American network CBS had aired a two-hour special: “CBS Presents Oprah with Meghan and Harry,” in which the television personality interviewed Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and his mixed-race American bride, the half-black Meghan Markle. Though they remained part of the British peerage, the two renounced their ties to the Royal Family in 2020 (an event immediately dubbed “Megxit”) on grounds of perceived racism against the Duchess. During the interview, Meghan spoke with some candidness on her feelings during her years within the Royal Family: she felt that she’d been tossed in the deep end without a life jacket, with her concerns largely ignored by her new in-laws, and admitted to entertaining thoughts of suicide.

The next morning, Good Morning Britain co-host Piers Morgan expressed disbelief in the entire thing: “I don’t believe a word she says. […] I wouldn’t believe her if she read me a weather report.” The day after, he walked back — or, at least, attempted to clarify — his comments: supposedly, his doubt centered around the alleged unwillingness of the Royal Family to address Markle’s concerns. But the damage had been done: His co-host Alex Bereford pointed out that he had been continually hostile towards the Dutchess throughout most of his time on the programme… apparently stemming from an incident where she turned him down for a date. “She’s entitled to cut you off if she wants to,” Bereford pointed out. Morgan’s response was to get so overwhelmed with emotion that he stood up and walked out of the live broadcast… and, later that day, out of the programme entirely by tendering his resignation. (In total fairness, his condemnation of Meghan Markle set a new record as the most-complained-about moment in the history of British television.)

Let’s repeat: Piers Morgan, one of the (at the time) most respected media personalities in the world, was able to be goaded into throwing away his career by the simple mention of the fact that someone didn’t want to date him.

Or, as another analyst put it, “Hell Hath No Fury like a Man Rejected.”

Now, I do have some small sympathy for Morgan in this situation. It’s not that he asked Ms. Markle out and she politely said no; it’s not that she impolitely said no; she ignored him entirely. To use the current parlance, she “ghosted” him: she simply ceased all contact with no explanation. This happened to me a number of times in my dating career, and it’s incredibly disrespectful: “I mean, yeah, sure, we went on a date, we had a fun time — it couldn’t have been that awful, because I didn’t run away screaming — but that doesn’t matter. Your effort and conduct and conversation have not even earned the common courtesy of a ‘No.’ You are, literally, beneath notice.” It’s more than just rejection: it’s dehumanization. And maybe this is a weird hill to die on, but I will die on it: getting upset about dehumanization is not an overreaction.

So why is this kind of dehumanization not only an accepted but normal part of dating?

Well, you could spill ink about the increasing disconnection of modern life: everyone on their phones all the time, everyone wired together but never touching. You could talk about “godless liberalism” encouraging the needs of the many over the needs of me. You could be an incel and go on about how women are fundamentally heartless: “These hoes ain’t loyal” and all that. And some of those things might even be true. But we also need to include our case in point:

Women ghost men because they know that men can’t handle rejection. They know that they will react — and, quite possibly, overreact — if they are forced to confront it. They know that, if she rejects him, he could get so angry that he’ll go on to pursue a vendetta against her, live on national television, for years. Rejecting a man means being on the receiving end of the Killing Curse of dating. The woman has precisely two options: 1. dodge — IE, ghost — or 2. die. And I don’t mean that figuratively, I mean that men literally kill women who reject them. With that in mind, ghosting suddenly seems a lot more reasonable.

And yes, there is a third option: the man himself could control his reactions and not get violent, just accept the rejection and move on. But the woman can’t control him, and can’t count on him being this civilized. She can’t even count on a fucking public figure to be this civilized. As, once again, our case in point proves.

We are raising generations of men who are not prepared for the realities of dating. We are raising generations of men who are not prepared to go out into the world and get rejected.

And that’s directly responsible for a lot of the problems we’re seeing in America these days. The entire concept of the Friend Zone: predicated on the idea that women are not allowed to reject men. The entire cult of incel: predicated on the idea that women are not allowed to reject men. The pickup artist community is a bit better: it acknowledges that women are able to reject men, it simply attempts to circumvent it via subterfuge. (I mean, it’s a bit better.) And then of course there’s rape culture, which reinforces the idea that a woman is not allowed to reject a man by tacitly consenting if he refuses to accept that rejection.

And then we start contemplating the knock-on effects, the places where this refusal to accept rejection isn’t responsible but does nonetheless contribute. How about the alt-right, and their refusal to accept that the world has moved on? How about Trumpists and their sociopathic need to defeat others? — not just to be the winner, but to see others lose? How about Brexiteers and their similar need? — the need to defeat somebody, anybody, even themselves, because succeeding at beating yourself up is something that counts as winning, if you’re desperate. How about murder culture? — the belief that violence is an acceptable way to solve our problems? All of these things are influenced and reinforced by the fact that men are unable to accept defeat with grace.

Obviously, we all want to be winners. But we’ve taken that aspiration and turned it into an environment where people aren’t taught how to lose. We’ve refused to teach people how to lose despite the fact that the average human does way more losing than winning. And the result is violence, pain and death.

How do we change this?

Well, we could start by telling stories about people who don’t let defeat stop them. We could start by normalizing defeat. We could start by redefining “masculinity” to not be dependent on whether he wins or not. We could start by not lying to ourselves that life is going to be, or should be, easy. And who wants to do that — not when we could read about an escapist character who is has everything: The Boy Who Lived, The Chosen One, a brilliant sports star and a success with girls.

If only we could all be that…