college AUs and the good life
August 18, 2016
I just started listening to a book that has the classic, ‘I think you should pursue this great career opportunity at the expense of our romantic relationship’ trope. As person who used to be way into the Glee fandom, I’m very familiar with this trope via the College AU, where often the driving plot point is: will the couple be forced to split up for college and can their relationship survive long distance? To me, the fact that this is a trope at all says something significant about the sway that capitalism has over our lives.
It feels like from the moment we are born, we begin our indoctrination to a ‘work culture’ that will dominate our lives whenever we finish school. One of the central questions of childhood these days is, “what do I want to be when I grow up?”. We are often encouraged to think big, being told that we can ‘be’ anything we want (if we work hard enough).
Except as I write this I’m sure almost everyone reading this is understanding, ‘what do i want to be when i grow up?’ as a question about a job. Even as I write this I realize that never once, as a kid, did I ever think to answer with this question with anything other than a job. I wanted to ‘be’ a bacteriologist in junior high. Never did I even think to myself: “I want to be happy when I grow up” or “I want to be a good person when I grow up”. At least, not in this particular context.
Note how I’m putting the verb ‘be’ into disquotations because, again, this indoctrination begins early. I ‘am’ a librarian. A librarian is what I ‘am’. But… in reality, I am not my job/profession. I’m a person who works as a librarian. ‘Librarian’ is something I do, not something that I am.
All of which ties into grander notions that jobs are supposed to bring meaning and fulfillment to our lives. Something which has only got progressively worse in late capitalism, wherein we are now encouraged to inextricably tie any desire to benefit the world into some form of capital. At least before, there was an understanding that sometimes a job was just a job and it was okay to be that way since we all need to pay bills.
Not anymore! At least not once middle class sensibilities got a hold of all of this. Instead, we are to be defined by our labour and our labour in capitalism should be a primary way for our lives to attain meaning and fulfillment. Jobs, careers, professions are all supposed to be aspirational.
And, sure, to some extent I get it. We are forced to labour a great deal of time if we want to live. So making that labour as pleasant as possible can ease the burden of this expectation. Having done jobs I didn’t like, it is incredibly difficult to be stuck in an under-stimulating job or a job you just don’t like. Not when you have to spend hours and hours every week doing that thing you don’t like.
However. When we get to things like these college AUs or whenever this issue in fiction comes up between romance vs career… It only serves as a way to demonstrate how labouring in capitalism has become so central to our lives.
Each and everytime I read these stories I simply do not understand why the characters choose their career over their relationship (and look, this is the choice made in pretty much every single story). Given that these stories tend to have happy endings, they are all about how love and the relationship triumph in the end. So clearly the relationship is as important (if not more so) than the career.
This book I’m listening to… This guy breaks up with his boyfriend as a way to get him to move to another city because ‘it would be a great opportunity’. For what? Heartbreak? Loneliness? Misery? Or right. A great opportunity for his career.
And look. I’m not trying to shame or point fingers at anyone who prioritizes their career or who gets a great deal of fulfillment from it. If you love your job/career, that’s fucking awesome. Good for you.
What I am talking about is how unbelievably skewed our priorities have become under capitalism. In many cases, I know that prioritizing a relationship over a job/career looks fucking ridiculous and irresponsible to a lot of people. Its frequently advised against. And these stories make it clear that, in general, people think that picking a career over romance is the Adult thing to do. Only foolish children prioritize a relationshpi that might not last…
On that last note, its deeply ironic that this is often the reasoning. Why? Because a lot of studies will show that many people (particularly those of my generation) will have more than one career in a lifetime. That means that having an expectation that a career will be more stable than a romantic relationship is pretty fucking silly. The days of people getting a job in one company and working their until retirement are essentially over.
Also… I’m not saying that ‘romance’ should always be valued above careers. I’m only speaking about ‘romance’ in this post because those are the kinds of stories I’m talking about. The real issue at hand is that people are shocked and appalled whenever you value something more than your labour under capitalism.
So much of our lives revolve around our jobs that people are surprised when it isn’t, in fact, the centre of your universe.
We exist in a culture context wherein very few creative writers I know, in imaginary worlds, actually can conceive of characters who choose love over work. This is fiction. Anything is possible. But almost never have I seen a romance story where the couple picks each other over some fantastic career opportunity.
And the few times I can think of when any character has ‘sacrificed’ their career/job for the sake of a relationship? Rarely are these people 100% happy and satisfied with that decision. There is lingering loss and regret. And this decision always ends up being a main plot point, rather than it being a ‘no contest’ situation.
Frequently the reasoning is expressed that, should we choose romance, you’ll come to resent your partner because of the lost opportunities. I just don’t get it. Why doesn’t the opposite logic apply? That you could come to resent your job/career because it cost you someone you love?
For my part, I’ll pick my partner over my job/career every time without a second thought. As tough as getting a job can be, they are still easier to replace than the person I love.