This essay was originally published by Under the Gum Tree.
When I was eleven years old and about to enter seventh grade, I moved in with my dad. He traveled frequently and when he was in town he was working or out playing music. I didn’t have an older sibling to provide guidance, my mom and I barely spoke and the girls at school were, well, bitchy. I spent a lot of time alone. But my dad had cable, and my room had a TV and VCR. I filled tape after beta tape with movies.
I grew up swooning over the boys in Newsies, and learning how to navigate mean girls and psychotic boyfriends from Heathers. I began to understand I wasn’t the only one desperate for a voice when I heard “Happy Harry Hard-on” broadcast over pirate airwaves in Pump Up the Volume. I ached with compassion for Trey and cried for days after Ricky got shot in Boyz n the Hood, and I still find film a medium for exploring human nature and my own personal life experiences. I seek out stories with characters I can relate to, especially women. Characters with depth and humanity, living the everyday struggle to find some sense of understanding in their world.
Characters like those often played by Drew Barrymore, who I adore. It stems from narcissism—I see myself in her and not just in the “you look just like the girl from ET” kind of way. Youthful fascination (in middle school an entire bedroom wall of mine covered in her Guess ad campaign) developed into adult admiration as I’ve watched her choices on screen. A distant peer, Drew feels like the big sister I could’ve had.
Drew is an anomaly in Hollywood. She uses roles to explore herself rather than fit someone else’s image of her. Watching her in Poison Ivy introduced me to a deeper understanding of my own sexuality and the type of power it affords. And the roles she continued to inhabit were a little edgy and off the grid: the free spirited, but suicidal Casey in Mad Love, and the pregnant Holly fleeing an abusive relationship in Boys on the Side.
More recently Drew has gracefully navigated Hollywood, attaining power behind the camera as a producer and setting a bold example for girls in the media, even thirty-three-year-old girls. I identify with her quest to be herself, to find love and stability in a fragile industry. If I could, I would call her up to talk about boys and raid her closet.
I’ve related to Drew in more ways than one over the years, but never more so than as Erin Langford in 2009’s Going the Distance. Playing opposite her boyfriend at the time, Justin Long, Drew produced this ultra modern romance between a bi-coastal couple. The film itself is hilarious and at times painfully realistic. Within the first five minutes of the film, Erin’s personal struggle is presented to the audience: She leaves a meeting with her editor and quips to her co-worker, “I’m thirty-one and an intern. I’m getting wasted.”
Drew’s protagonist is the most refreshing aspect of the film is because she is an honest reflection of so many modern women trying to figure out where they fit into the world—something I have been trying to do for most of my adult life.
I came out of grad school at the age of twenty-nine with an MA in Women’s & Gender Studies. It was also 2008 and the worst economic climate since the Depression. I spent my days applying for jobs all over the country and my nights serving pizza and beer to college kids and my former professors.
One night after the dinner rush had died down I was out back with Kirsten, a single mother of two with a douche of an ex-husband trying to finish her undergrad, and Jamie, whose DUI kept her financially chained to our small yet affordable town. We copped a squat against a pile of firewood and passed around a joint taking a brief respite from whining children and obnoxious locals.
Back inside I had a new table. Seated at it was not just a former professor, but the woman who had been director of the WGS program my first year. In my role as Grad Assistant she was, for all intents and purposes, my boss. Although my role was supposed to be program support and development, I spent most of my hours on her clock scanning documents for her classes and organizing mountains of research in her office. She spent the past year on research leave in China. So she wasn’t around to observe the program initiatives I created; she hadn’t read my research or seen me graduate with honors. But there she was at my table, ready to witness my exceptional beer-pouring and pizza-serving skills.
“Alicia! I didn’t know you were still in town! And you work here? We love it here! What have you been doing since graduation?” she said, half-rising from her chair to give me an awkward side hug.
You’re looking at it, lady, I wanted to say. And follow it up with a big, Thanks for nothing, since I had recently started blaming my professors and the university for not being more helpful in getting me a job. Instead I launched into a monologue desperate to prove that I was doing “something” with my life. That I wasn’t just a waitress.
“Oh I’ve applied for a ton of jobs just had an interview with Girls Inc. and another coming up with the YWCA and this is just to pay the bills so I have my days free to look for work and I’m still considering a Ph.D. oh and have you read my blog? Trying to get a paper published and still plugging away with my girls programs and workshops.”
Let me tell you, there is nothing like serving pizza to your Feminist Theory professor to make you seriously doubt the merit of your education. When I wasn’t applying for jobs or researching Ph.D. programs, I was trying to write and blog in order to fuel myself creatively but instead I fell deeper into a depression. Every promising interview led to a rejection. Tons of cover letters went unanswered and every day my self-esteem deteriorated a little more. I wasn’t smart enough. I wasn’t talented enough. I was beginning to believe what the employment world was telling me: I wasn’t valuable and neither was my degree.
Meanwhile, my boyfriend and I were living together. Instead of getting comfortable with the one aspect of my life that provided some stability and leaning on him for support and unconditional love (both of which I desperately needed), I started to resent him. He was teaching class, taking class, doing research, all in pursuit of a Ph.D. in Economics that was sure to land him a high paying job (offers were coming in before he’d even begun his dissertation). And he was happy. Genuinely. We were in love, had a great house, lots of friends. But I was miserable. I had lost my student status and, without a career that I felt invested in, I was just a girl in relationship. A girl who needs a guy. A girl who couldn’t make it on her own.
In late September he and I spent a weekend away for a friend’s wedding. It was the most fun we’d had in months and the first time I had glimpses of happiness since graduating. It felt like maybe I could do it. I could settle into being someone’s girlfriend, and maybe even someone’s wife. But as soon as I set foot in our house I felt like I was being suffocated. When he tried to put his arms around me, my skin crawled. I felt like I was going to burst into flames. I got in the shower, sat down in the tub and sobbed. It hurt so much. All of it. The fear. The confusion. The loss. The realization that I couldn’t stay with him any longer and the sadness of that truth.
“I can’t do it anymore,” I said. “I can’t be your girlfriend anymore.”
I didn’t even know why.
In Going the Distance, Erin struggles with her relationship, one that is also motivated by work and her sense of contribution to the world. She meets Garrett while interning in New York, but shortly after returns to finish her studies in California. Her hope of returning to NYC for a full time job is crushed when her editor reveals that the paper recently laid off 100 employees. When offered a job at a paper in San Francisco, Erin is faced with choosing to pursue the career she has worked so hard for, or maintaining the relationship that barely survived across the country.
I chose to give up my relationship out of the fear that it would prevent me from having a career or freedom to pursue it. Erin’s choice is to give up her career opportunity out of fear it will cost her the relationship. Attempting to find the balance between career and relationship is a common plight for modern women. It’s easy to forget that women have been active members of the workforce for a mere forty years, which is certainly not long enough to counter an eternity of gender role development.
Women are still plagued by a societal expectation that equates our worth to our love life, and that creates an enormous pressure to be in a relationship. It was that pressure that made me end my relationship in the ultimate act of resistance. That same pressure that makes Erin decide to not take the job for the sake of her relationship.
In the end, with the support of her partner, Erin stays in California and takes the job. But, because life isn’t a movie, I can’t say how my story will turn out. Even though it cost me a relationship, I chose to move on in search of more opportunity. And every time I watch Drew in this film, I feel a little bit better about who I am and the choices I’ve made. When I see a character like Erin, I see a woman who, like me, is doing the best she can in the best way she knows how. Even if that sometimes means getting wasted.
Read my review of Going the Distance here.