I’m sure by now everyone has seen this cartoon. It’s been all over Facebook, and according to its host site it’s been shared a remarkable 635,000 times. People are obviously getting something out of it that I’m not. Perhaps they feel inspired or get a small sense of well being from it. This is lovely sentiment. But I cannot endorse this cartoon, at very least, not in the way it is probably understood by most people. Hear me out and I’ll tell you why.
In a spontaneous act of disagreement, I left the following comment in the cartoon’s comments section:
“Geez, that guy had to drag her damaged-ass heart out of a locked box, fix it for her, inflate it, and wait patiently while she struggled to float. Who’s got time for that? This cartoon disservices women by creating the expectation that a regular guy will have this kind of patience. There aren’t enough heroes in the world to drag every damaged girl’s heart out of a box. The man’s balloon is damaged too, but not only is he out there trying again, he has the confidence, patience and energy to fix other people! I guess the lesson here is to be like the man and overcome your insecurities. Don’t sit around guarding your damaged heart hoping that someone else will have the patience to pry you out of your hole and fix you. Unless you have A LOT to offer otherwise. I’m not being antagonistic, just honest. Hey, there can be compassion in just saying it like it is. :)”
Currently, my comment has over 1,700 likes and more than 150 responses. Obviously my remarks resonated with some people. The responses I received range from agreement to anger. Since this comment drew so much (heated) attention , I decided to write a more thorough account of here.
Here are the main points I would like to reiterate or clarify:
- There is rarely an objective “point” to a piece like this. You can argue convincingly for many interpretations. In my comment, I was not arguing that my interpretation is the only, best, or correct one. Likewise, my critics should not privilege their own interpretation of the cartoon as the “true point” that I am missing. I offer one interpretation among many possible that, to me, paints a dangerous depiction of love. Please argue for your interpretation as I have rather than appeal to the “obviousness” of the “real point.”
- I was not making a gender claim. This comic could contain any combination of races, genders, social classes, etc., and my point would stay the same: this cartoon portrays an unequal emotional relationship between two people and it conditions us to expect a one-sided version of love. It teaches us that a future suitor will recognize our petulance as suffering and put forth the effort to re-inflate our heart. I would argue that this cartoon creates a dubious expectation that love will seek you out and fix you. This is a message that injured people want to hear, which is why it is so specious.
- This cartoon downplays our own responsibility for breaking the cycle of abuse. In the cartoon, the woman is injured in a previous relationship. In return, she becomes jaded and cynical. She displaces her hurt onto her next suitor by rejecting him. As Marc-Andre Lacombe commented “women expect a guy to make up for the previous people who treated her poorly… usually treating that guy poorly in the process.” In more gender-neutral terms, people expect others to compensate them for previous bad experiences, often treating them unfairly in the process. The woman depicted in this cartoon is responsible for breaking the cycle of abuse, but the story portrays the man as the savior. This is a questionable message.
- Most people do not have the patience or motivation of the man in the cartoon. I did not say no one has the patience, nor did I say I don’t have the patience, nor did I say we shouldn’t have patience, nor did I say that you’ve never met a patient person. I cannot be more clear about this. To quote myself: “There aren’t enough heroes in the world to drag every damaged girl’s heart out of a box.” I used “girl,” but again my claim is gender neutral. It’s justifiable to assume there are more injured people in the world than patient heroes. Since it’s a statistical unlikelihood we will encounter a hero, we should temper our expectations by realizing that not everyone will get a hero. In fact, most won’t. Ouch. That’s an unpopular and uninspiring message. The reality of the situation pops the bubble of hope blown by this cartoon. Hence I say that the better lesson is to act like the man – to become patient and understanding with others, not to hope for others to do this for us.
- This cartoon suggests that people are fixable. The man patches and inflates the woman’s heart and now she is able to join him in love. This is not always possible. Often, people hold onto past injuries like treasure; they identify with them and use them to justify their behavior and beliefs about themselves and others. Chances are, if you’ve been harboring pain waiting for the perfect person to fix you, by the time he or she arrives you will have settled into mental, emotional, and physical habits that will prevent you from joining your suitor in love. People must choose to let go of pain; a hero can’t pry it out of you and fix it. If you expect a hero to do the emotional heavy lifting for you, then you have displaced your duty to fix yourself.
- The cartoon gives the man unclear motives. When I posed the question, why would the man fix the girl, several people responded “because he loves her.” But this begs the question. I’m asking WHY does he love her? He doesn’t even know her. Again, this cartoon creates an expectation that a hero will see through your petulance, recognize it as suffering, and love you instantly for all your other qualities. What percentage of the population has this degree of insight and patience? If it is less than the number of hurt people in the world, then we may want more realistic expectations. A true message of hope is that the injured can heal themselves through forgiveness and choose their character anew each day, not that another will come give you a reason to live again.
- This cartoon conflates romantic love with unconditional love. Is it a story of a young couple learning to love? Or is it a story of an unconditionally-loving Christ figure who saves the injured? Apparently either. Or both. The cartoon equates the two concepts and conditions people to expect suitors to be saviors. Should we draw people out of suffering, try to heal their hearts and love them unconditionally? Yes. Should we expect our romantic suitor and dates to do this for us? Probably not.
The bottom line, I would argue that this cartoon teaches us to hope to win the lottery instead of getting a job. Your job is to forgive, forget, to love others, and to re-connect with the perfection of your inner nature, not to wait for someone to do it for you.
Some will rebut me and say that the moral of the story is hope: we should be inspired by the hope of meeting the one who will heal us. But this hope should be reserved for our religious Saviors, not our romantic suitors. When conflated as in the cartoon, hope can become delusional and pervert the incentives that compel us to personal growth. This mere hope replaces our duty to choose to be our best, which is really what we should be inspired to do.
The author of this comic did not intend for it to become the subject of serious critical analysis. He or she did a great job inspiring people. I have never written anything that got half a million shares. I congratulate them. I enjoy reading literature critically, “pouring over the minutiae,” and arguing for various interpretations. I chide because I care, and I offer my critique as a sign of my engagement with the material. To the author I say thank you for the opportunity to think more deeply about a serious topic like love.
This is not about me. My heart is not “locked in a box” simply because I think the message of this cartoon corrodes personal responsibility. I have received many comments challenging my character and painting me as an injured person who is now projecting his hurt into an inspirational story. I assure you this is not the case. I am a loving boyfriend, father, son, and brother, and friend with plenty of references. But even if this were not true, it would not invalidate my critique. My arguments do not disappear or become invalid simply because you believe you’ve unmasked my motives for writing them. Please address my arguments with the same sense of seriousness and sobriety that I used to compose them and reserve your ad hominem, relativistic fallacies and attacks for Buzz Feed.