Nothing captures the stress of modern dating quite so brilliantly as Shelby Lorman’s illustrations. As her debut book, Awards For Good Boys, hits the shelves, she shares her thoughts (and some brilliant images) on dating.
In college, I was in a long-distance ‘open’ relationship with a boy a few years older than me who lived in New York, while I was finishing up school in Ohio. I received an unyielding stream of content about his own life that he released into the void of our primarily digital exchanges, demanding validation – being seen, being asked follow-up questions.
Though he gave little in return, I told myself if I poured enough love and emotional labour into him, he would turn around and show me the same.
In many ways, I was dating him because I wanted his life. His cool job. His ability to make money as an artist, doing what he loved. I knew, but decided not to notice, that he conveniently ignored the fact that I was an artist, too, because I was young and not “a professional” like him and my art and words came from a place of my own vulnerability and – gasp – emotionality. He was very much a LOGIC OR BUST sort of man. And I was drawn to that, too, because #internalisedmisogyny told me my version of seeing the world was less than, and his was the North Star I should seek to follow.
The short version is: he didn’t want me as a partner. He wanted me as a cheerleader. Someone to inspire him, to make him feel needed and loved and worthy, to keep him company while he waited for someone more suitable – not in college, not so emotional – to come along.
During this time, I found comfort in ye olde versions of my current boyfriend: other old, white men and their art, who shined a light on the fucked-up-ness of my then-percolating ideas about men and their desires.
I got most stuck on Ovid’s “Pygmalion.” It’s a story you recognise, though likely not by that name. (My Fair Lady is a more modern example, as is the film Let’s Get Away With a Lot Of Suspect Sex-Robot Politics by Filming This Edgily, also called Ex Machina).
Pygmalion is from a collection of myths called Metamorphoses, each about transformation of a sinister, specific kind: men/gods changing living women into voiceless, bodiless, inhuman beings. In one myth, Apollo turns Daphne into a laurel tree, and as soon as she’s finally not such a pesky human being with agency, he breaks a limb off her tree-body AND MAKES IT INTO A FUCKING CROWN for himself. I was obsessed with how literal it all was: so many levels of male author and male hero using women for their stories, crowning themselves with women and their bodies. Story after story of men (ab)using their muses to validate and uphold their own worth.
But Pygmalion is the exception. His story works a bit differently.
The myth begins with our main man Pygmalion, a sculptor, wandering through town expressing his disgust with women. It’s like an angsty coming-of-age movie for toxic masculinity: head leaning against a cart (I don’t know, bear with me) as a pastoral rush of images whips past, some indie soundtrack setting the mood for his pivotal realisation: “Real women are shit.” (I’m paraphrasing here.)
Have no fear! He’s an artist! Old white dude artists are notoriously chill! Which is why he promptly goes back to his studio and sculpts himself a better woman. A stoic woman with no demands because, wow! She’s made of marble! He prays to Venus for his statue, Galatea, to come to life, which she grants. This seems momentarily cool because FUCK YEAH VENUS YOU’VE GOT THE POWER but alas, nope, Ovid’s still writing this. Pygmalion and his now-alive statue then fuck and have a child.
Pygmalion, and the persistence of this myth, reflects something too true about the world, about men and their desires, real or imagined, taught or inherited or enforced. He doesn’t sculpt a better father or mother or gender-neutral lover or friend. He doesn’t sculpt a dog, which would have been awesome. He sculpts a woman – a hot one – born of perceived necessity due to the failures of real women.
He crafts for himself a muse, model, sex object, magnum opus with a mouth. He sculpts the figment of woman: unfeeling, distant, pure potential. The perfect woman is not about her shape, not about her contents, but, in this realm and in so many others, about her readiness to be moulded into the version that best suits the man shaping her.
I knew I was being flattened in the relationship I was in when I read these myths. I knew he was taking from me, in the way he talked at me, made my own achievements smaller, forced me to drive all the Big Conversations if I wanted any clarity about what we were doing, manipulated me into essentially breaking up with myself so he could pursue his new, more serious, girlfriend. I knew my own complexities were being erased in favour of a role oriented around his tool – the literal, as in his dick, and the figurative, as in his metaphorical chisel – and that to contradict this was to threaten the comfort of whatever the fuck it was I thought we had.
I stayed with him anyway. It is an odd feeling, knowing you are walking in someone else’s imagining of you, which you fit closely. But it’s not right. “Intellectual knowledge” – the clarity of what you should do – is cleaved from what your heart tells you to do. So there you are, inhabiting a self that’s adjacent to you, that more closely parallels the needs of someone else. I sat back and watched as I became a me that wasn’t me, a me that was compromised, a me that was smaller.
You can see more of Shelby Lorman’s brilliant illustrations below:
All images: Shelby Lorman
Awards For Good Boys: Tales of Dating, Double Standard and Doom by Shelby Lorman is out today, published by Hutchinson in hardback, £9.99