The idea behind the theory of social construction is that human beings make the world they live in through language. At birth, my brain may be like a blank slate, but it immediately becomes full of meanings that I learn merely by entering into social relationships with other people. The significance of things like family, nation, and love are learned, that is, they are not innate but produced in and throughout our encounters with other humans, and the things that other humans make (books, architecture, movies, newspapers, governments, etc.). The way we learn is subtle and mostly insignificant. For example, the structure of the nuclear family suggests that certain kinds of sexual relationships are normal, typical, and others are not. Heterosexual monogymous relationships are normalized, homosexuality is abnormal, polygamy is perverse. To say something (like heterosexuality or marriage) is socially constructed is not to say that it is not real, but rather, to call attention to the fact that there are alternative ways of imagining the world.
At this point in the calendar year, love is all around. For me, the result of all the Valentine’s Day propaganda is usually severe depression masked by cynicism. But what if all this talk of love really is as suffucating as it feels? What if there is a better way to imagine companionship, and we just can’t see beyond what we’ve been socialized to recognize as love?
Last week I re-watched Wall-E with my intro media studies students. We watched the movie as part of our discussion of technology, but what really struck me is what this particular film has to say about romance. For years, people have been making the argument that movies influence our ideas about love. Think of that classic scene in Sleepless in Seattle where Rita Wilson tears up just thinking about An Affair To Remember while Tom Hanks and Victor Garber stare at her in amazement.
Throughout that movie we are told over and over again that love in real life is nothing like love in the movies, and yet, in the end, Meg Ryan is rewarded for her faith in the magical power of love by a real-life movie ending. She shows up at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentines day and meets the man of her dreams. Obviously, we all know that life doesn’t work out the way it does in the movies, but don’t we still hope that it will? That someone will be so enamored with you that he shows up at your doorstep with a boombox over a shoulder, or cue cards, or a caroling security guard. But have you ever known anyone that this has actually happened to? Who does something so ridiculous? Who makes herself that vulnerable? Why do we continue to exalt the big romantic gesture?
This all leads me back to Wall-E. Wall-E learns the classic love story script from Hello, Dolly!, the movie he watches every night. From Helly, Dolly! he learns about hand holding, dancing, and courtship. The lyrics from the song “It only takes a moment” that we hear over and over again, “it only takes a moment
“But it only takes a moment, to be loved, a whole life long”