Melissa McCarthy in Spy

Romantic love is a patriarchal conspiracy, according to new Melissa McCarthy film

Like many women between the ages of three and two hundred, my hobbies include breathing, using magnifying mirrors to gain a more intimate perspective on my pores, and falling in desperate, horny love with people who do not want me. I do the latter with particular zeal. 

Really “appreciate my personality” but “just want to be friends”? Pshyeah, I’ll pick up your dry cleaning. Think I’m “totally beautiful” but “honestly just don’t feel that way”? How about you barely talk to me and I do all your math homework. Want to “learn more about me” but “just happen to prefer thin heterosexual women”? Uh, duh I’ll give you a foot massage and invite you to my parties. What else would I do?!

I do not mean that everyone I have feelings for should be ethically obligated to want me back (though that would be convenient) or that my gap teeth are somehow so irresistible that anyone who is not immediately fisting me is defying the laws of physics.

I mean that somewhere along the line — somewhere between Disney movies and adolescent lesbian “experiments,” somewhere before the first time a partner hit me but after street harassment got hip — I learned that love meant being constantly unhappy, that sex meant being constantly unhappy, that if I wanted someone, I was going to suffer, and that this was the natural state.

Think of all the shit you’re supposed to suffer through to make someone want to fuck you. Make yourself hungry on purpose. Stick a pencil in your eye. Tear the hair from your pussy by its roots. Don’t talk too loud. Don’t eat too much. Don’t slurp your spaghetti. Don’t be vulgar. Don’t be smart. Don’t pee with the door open. Like what your partner likes in bed, unless it involves your anus. Don’t kiss anyone else. Don’t look at anyone else in that specific way. You know the way — that way that makes your partner’s stomach soupy with jealousy. Forgive them when they snap at you. Forgive them when they push you just that one time. Follow them across the country to a place where you have no one to talk to if they push you again. Shrink, retract, don’t go too far, don’t make too much money, don’t laugh too loud, don’t be you. For god’s sake, be anything but you.

This is what Melissa McCarthy’s character does at the beginning of Spy, the new Paul Feig secret agent flick that literally everybody but me has written about already.

That was my segue. Here’s my thesis. Spy is about a lot of things: Melissa McCarthy being a bad bitch, our collective political anxieties about Bulgaria. But it is also about female talent, and all the tiny, insidious ways we as women are taught to minimize ourselves, the ways we are sabotaged by all the shit that passes as love.

Obligatory plot summary (spoiler alert, motherfuckers — it’s about the journey, not the destination): In Spy, Melissa McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA agent who serves as the loyal in-office sidekick to a dashing male superspy who is also — surprise surprise — a royal douchebag. She literally saves his life on the daily and he repays her by giving her a plastic cupcake on a string. Gosh, that’s enough to turn even me heterosexual!

Meanwhile, of course, Susan is actually a wildly talented ass-kicker who could run circles around her douchehat partner if she so chose. Since she is socialized as a woman, however — and thus shares several of my favorite hobbies — Susan is instead so in love with the douchehat she doesn’t realize that he is actually totally threatened by her talent and using her emotionally while sabotaging her career. The American imperialist project eventually taps our protagonist to go out into the field, where she proceeds to kick monumentally hot, super-devious, bitchtastic Eastern European lady ass (which is geopolitically interesting to say the least) and, with the help of her lady pal sidekick, saves the motherfucking day.

Here is another thing I love about the movie: It totally centers female relationships. The men are incompetent and/or sexually aggressive douchebags — even the evil male masterminds trading diamonds for support of global terrorism (#notallmen). The women, meanwhile, are gutsy, brainy, harebrained, and wickedly decked out. They scheme schemes, they deal deals, they’re bitches, they’re friends. Spy doesn’t pass the Bechdel test — it blows a raspberry at the Bechdel test and streaks the fuck out buck-naked while lesser films cower in snow pants.

There are a lot of cringey moments in the film, but nothing — not even an arms-dealer super-babe pulling a knife out of her own hand and attempting to stab Melissa McCarthy with it, which is not fluid safe — scared me more than the initial images of Susan Cooper deferring to the superdouche. Listening and smiling while he rubs her talent into the ground. Serving him as he disrespects her. Minimizing herself.

This scared me so much because I have been that woman.

We know — so many of us know — how physical and emotional violence can chip away at us, how we shrink from hands from fists from verbal fists until we are shrinking not only our muscles but ourselves, making ourselves smaller and smaller as someone grows fat off of us in a kind of growing that can never be sated.

It is harder to pin down the more subtle ways in which we are taught to minimize ourselves in relationships of all kinds — though particularly if we are women in romantic relationships with men. We do not try out for the debate team because our boyfriends are trying out for the debate team and we do not want to beat them. We do not tell our girlfriends about previous partners because they get nasty when we remind them we have fucked men. We put up with our partners’ biphobia, or racism, or sexism, because they love us and baby, that’s the best you’re gonna get. It’s so hard to pin a good man down these days — if he drinks too much occasionally and the sex doesn’t always feel consensual, remember the 401k.

There is a difference between violence and small sleights that accumulate. But the two are next door neighbors, the latter on a spectrum with the former — bus stops on the way to abuse. My experiences of violence in love have taught me not that I got unlucky and the way we’ve been taught to love is otherwise good, but that there is something deeply, fundamentally flawed in a rhetoric of romance that teaches us to make ourselves smaller so our partners can feel big.

Of course, the world is hard and our loves, like everything else, operate within constraints. There are a lot of reasons we stay in relationships that harm us. Anyone who has ever been asked, with care that feels more like an accusation, “Why don’t you just leave?” knows how hard it really is. We stay for material necessity, for threat of violence, for the children, because the person mistreating us needs our care, we stay because they have become so fundamental to our identities that if we leave we will not know who we are.

We do what we need to do, and this too is dignity.

But Internet, you listen to me right now: I am going to be a fucking Susan Cooper.

I am going to be Susan Cooper because there are people out there who think my g-spot jokes are sexy, and don’t want me to stop telling them; and lovers who would, when I have to work rather than go down on them, kiss my shoulder and make me tea. I am going to be Susan Cooper because the world is better off, and the people I love are better off, when I am at my best and fiercest. Because often, those lovers who would debilitate us in their search for wholeness are themselves debilitated, fragmented, by the same ideologies that motivate them to use us. Because it is a great act of love to work on the systems that make it hard for us to love each other in the first place.

Susan Cooper used her talent to stop a bombing, shore up the security state, and save lives from a mixture of ideology and greed.

We don’t need bombs as metaphors for the things that kill us. The emergency is now and here. It is the structural and ideological factors — unlivable minimum wage and unjust immigration laws, police brutality and unavailable abortion, and actual, physical bombs — that prevent us from being all the awesome things we could be. Each second with someone who tells us to step aside so they can get ahead, rather than stepping ahead with us, is a small tragedy.

Anyone to whom you give your time and love should make you feel like the hottest shit on planet Earth. Because you are a superhero. You are a miraculous collection of bones and joints and blood, of thoughts and hunches, absolutely unprecedented, utterly unique.

If we are going to change the shitshow that is this world, we need to start ass-kicking.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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