Arthur Marks’s film The Roommates premiered in 1973 exclusively to drive-in audiences. It is one of several films Marks released—whether as director, writer, or producer—in order to tap the lucrative market otherwise neglected by major studios. Other films included Class of ’74, The Centerfold Girls, Bonnie’s Kids, A Woman for All Men, and Linda Lovelace for President. As indicative of that last title, Marks was riding a wave born from Deep Throat, released a year earlier. But unlike Deep Throat, Marks’s films were not X-rated. They contained the bare minimum of passably titillating nudity (read: breasts), next to no profanity, but plenty of innuendo with all the grace and poise of thunder. It was not porn, but porn-esque, better known as porn chic.
The Roommates, seemingly by default of having been uploaded to YouTube several times, has been made a banner example of this form. It follows five roughly college-aged California women, each beautiful and with an assigned archetype—the cut-up, the prude, the ice queen, the naïf, the black one—who travel to Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino Mountains for a summer of mostly carefree, little-to-no-strings-attached sex and possible romance. To be sure, the film is largely a mess, the jokes are flat, the acting flatter, and the writing is careless. One character appears to switch personalities halfway into the film, and a murder spree subplot, carried out by a woman just running around the woods in a dark dress, just barely escapes the realm of non sequitur. This is to say nothing of an affair with a teenage camper that would be predatory and manipulative in any other context. The film’s miraculous survival is rooted more in its camp, the aesthetics of its cast, and its bizarre ambition.
“All those women libbers where are they from? It must be the Victorian age. They’re so anti-fun. I mean I believe women should have basic rights. Like 60 percent for women, 30 percent for men, and 10 percent for the other kind.” So says star Marki Bey at the film’s opening scene. In many ways, The Roommates carries itself in a mode of manifesto, depicting the utopia that the Sexual Revolution was supposed to usher in after Griswold v. Connecticut, Deep Throat, and the Republican Party’s implosion. The film was not simply by and for men, but for women, for swinging couples, and conceivably for anyone else freed from the shackles of repressive hang-ups, eager to get into far more fun kinds of shackles. “Well I am [a liberal], politically. But I’m against everything,” star Laurie Rose declares in a shower scene. It was the defining statement of the New: The New Casual, the New Maturity, the New Freedom, suffocating the old hierarchy, its old mores, and its old shame. Certainly most of us still hear the signal it transmitted.
The MTV reality show Are You the One? can seem rather confusing if one, like me, stumbles on it in the middle of a season. The show is ostensibly about single people—10 men and 10 women—looking for love. It claims to rely on experts and the latest “science” to determine the “perfect match” among the competitors, who are left to figure out how the pairs break down. Drama ensues, hearts are broken and mended in the span of an evening; also there is a cash prize. Frankly, even starting from the beginning of a season makes one long for the days of pencil grips and training wheels.
The fault lies predominantly with the show itself, which is conceived as a patchwork of other shows: the voyeurism of The Real World, the exotic locales and competitive edge of Road Rules, and the basic premise of A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila. The show is currently in its fifth season, set in a palatial home in the Dominican Republic, which no one is permitted to leave unless they and their partner at the moment win the opportunity to go on a “date” at an exotic location of the producers’ choosing, like a waterfall or something. Much of the time, however, is spent mingling, which ascends every possible level of physical intimacy in a short period. In fact in the most recent season, two people are filmed in the process of sleeping with each other before the end of the first episode. To watch it, then, is to watch spring break stretched out over the course of two months. But it works.
In the era of Bachelor/ette shame-watching, a show so much more mercenary and debased would seem like pure intellectual self-mutilation. But while it does not have the ratings share that the Bachelor shows have, it is not without its committed and gleeful following. The blog Are You the One? Math, for instance, provides episode recaps but also “grids, burndown charts, strategy, and an explanation of the blackout rule” (which really does need explanation). This includes mathematized probabilities of perfect matches; one episode proffers 84 possible combinations.
But the show is as much aspirational as it is logical. The contestants cover most if not all of the conventions of contemporary beauty. Even if they are there because of difficulties with relationships in the past, which tend to repeat themselves here, they are largely unimpeded by them thanks to their basic but firm grasp of social skills. Though one contestant might be notably naïve and another might by notably manipulative, they are on equal footing in their ability maneuver the elasticity of modern social mores and their sensory pick up of social cues. They are comfortable in their own skin and want (or want to want) to be vulnerable. I cannot think of a show more suited to the Tinder-ized landscape in which we find ourselves, and one that embodies the app’s mix-and-match-driven aims while providing catharsis for its myriad drawbacks—such as when a couple is not confirmed as a match but are so convinced otherwise that they stunt the game through refusal to separate or emotional paralysis.
In his critique of Thomasine Christine Gyllembourg-Ehrensvärd’s novel Two Ages, Søren Kierkegaard spoke of society in two modes. One is revolution, one that is “essentially passionate,” it is a “revelation by a manifestation of energy … and does not deceptively change under the influence of conjectural criticism concerning what the age really wants.” It is an age “obliged to make a decision, but this … is the saving factor, for decision is the little magic word that existence respects.” The other mode is reflection, one “stealing down the furtive corridors of ambiguity and equivocation.” Reflection is ever linked to a society of listless conformity and “mathematical equality” which causes every individual to congeal into a single amorphous unthinking mob.
However familiar one is with the context of Kierkegaard’s argument*, we are never unfamiliar with these modes. Some of us are even lucky—depending on how you look at it—to have experienced both, albeit in a more Hegelian framework. Revolution gives way to reflection. The excellent adventure begets the bogus journey. The declaration of The Roommates cauterizes into the begged question of Are You the One?. And while some revolutions have no problem cauterizing, the Sexual Revolution was ever one to be self-conscious of the limits of its own vitality. Culture-warring helps some, but sanctimony, even in earnest, is a diversion from the fun it is defending. Something more proactive, but somehow more affirmative, needed to be done.
“Once upon a time things seemed pretty real. Then, gradually, things started seeming totally phony,” Sarah Perry writes. “Some people were more sensitive to the phoniness than others. It was a lonely time for a special snowflake. The good news is that now, you, you yourself, the only one who sees through the facade, must go and find the real.” What Perry means here is authenticity, a term some of us may hear more often than others. It can either consist, as Perry puts it, of “rejecting existing categories and attempting to break down orders of abstraction” or “creating new orders of abstraction and signal.” If the Sexual Revolution’s original liberation was something of the former, its reorientation would have to lean toward the latter.
In the summer of 2016, MTV premiered a show called Suspect. The show is hosted by Nev Schulman and iO Tillet Wright, a self-described “artist and activist.” In each episode, Nev and iO travel across the country helping people with friends or family members whom they suspect are hiding a serious problem. People who were once vivacious have become sullen; once outgoing, now withdrawn. And so on. Wright’s work is often geared towards gender identity and its fluidity and reflects the identitarian social progressivism MTV has lately embraced. Many of the episodes feature suspects who simply haven’t come out of the closet yet, or who are transitioning between genders. Whatever the case, iO’s overall design is clear: “All my work is about making people excited about becoming their true selves. Which is exactly what Nev and I hope to accomplish with this show.”
From sexual revolution—of liberation, play, and upending norms—to sexual reawakening—of empathy, earnestness, and creation of new norms. If the former was less welcomed in its time it was also more successfully asserted and entrenched. For the latter, however, the opposite seems to be the case; at least with this particular tack. Suspect did not get renewed for another season. The reason given was Nev’s well-publicized parental leave. But there is also the possibility that the show was not well-liked. Some thought the show was too formulaic; some didn’t like the chemistry between the hosts. Though its biggest problem seemed to be same one that haunted its predecessor Intervention, as one IMDb reviewer put it: “[T]here’s no shaking the feeling like maybe I shouldn’t be watching this. … Even if these people give consent, it’s really about delving into the private lives of … people in very sad circumstances.” “Very sad” might be debatable, but even good intentions can’t quell the overriding voyeurism that compels reality TV viewership.
Fortunately for Nev and MTV, Catfish has premiered in its sixth season. In fact its Wednesday 8:00 PM time slot precedes Are You the One?’s 9:00 spot. This arrangement, however brief or convenient, is instructive.
Like Are You the One?, Catfish is about young people pursuing love, but where the former is aspirational, the latter is cautionary. The participants, whether those being catfished or those catfishing, are steeped in loneliness and low self-worth; and that’s when any of them aren’t being underhanded, malicious, or simply creepy. Where Are You the One? is aesthetically homogenous, Catfish is heterogenous. It might even be the most diverse show MTV has ever broadcast. It crosses lines of race, sexual orientation, class, and body type. But for once such diversity counts against it, particularly in one respect. “Most episodes of Catfish could be called So, I Am Secretly Fat,” Margaret Lyons writes in Vulture. “That’s by far the most common lie, and it’s one that some of the catfishees themselves lie about, too. … And while the show reminds us over and over that it’s bad to lie, it also subtly confirms that most of these people were right to: Nearly all of the catfishees, when confronted with the information that their catfishers were overweight, changed their tune about how in love they were.” Poverty is similarly skewed on the show: “The unspoken answer to ‘why haven’t you guys ever met?’ is often ‘because neither of us could afford a plane ticket.’”
Normalization is never an explicit policy objective in any liberal scheme. To say what is normal is to go against liberal guiding principles of maturity and self-definition. But normalization asserts itself anyway as the schemes become more pervasive and accepted and liberalizers are left to delineate what is abnormal for the sake of custodial maintenance. Abnormality is distinct from authenticity, or even basic weirdness, in its lack of cohesion. We are all individuals under the liberal dome, but it helps to have the right attitude. The abnormal, in other words, are not so much the willful enemies of liberalizers, but the naïve signers of the social contract who did not read the fine print, or who merely skimmed the user’s manual.
Normalization is not enforced in any systematic way, but hangs as a kind of thick dust cloud from a knee-jerk reaction to any form of abnormality. Even if Nev’s and Max’s intentions on Catfish are humane, few of the show’s viewers would have an easy time saying they watch it for reasons other than self-distinction. A harsher example would be the application of autism. Terms like “autist,” “aspie neckbeard” or “sperg,” a verb meaning “a tantrum about a perceived injustice, a la someone with Asperger’s,” are recurrent insults used against people with inelegant beliefs and/or appearances. They have been used against libertarians from the right and the left. The left went into overdrive applying it to gamergate supporters, however. So much so that Laurie Penny had to call bullshit as she saw it. But this tack has little to do with actual autistics and everything to do with semantic clumsiness and aesthetic biases.
“Are you fed up with looking like a regular, law-abiding citizen? Need to add a little bad boy to your style? A little bit of dangerous,” asks comedian Jon Lajoie. “Try rapist glasses.” Lajoie’s parody commercial takes the cheap, clunky thick-framed eyewear of recent antiquity and rejiggers it as edgy. “Ladies love the bad boy look, and you can’t get much worse than a rapist.” The commercial, uploaded in 2007, was likely poking fun at American Apparel’s mid-‘00s temporal appropriation of ‘70s and ‘80s kitsch. But he’s also tapped into a sensibility of aesthetic regulation wherein the low rent and awkward is recast as sinister. Hipster culture did tap into that unseemliness, some with more dedication than others. And Lajoie made a sequel to the video expanding the line to include the “pedophile beard,” “the public masturbator trench coat,” and the “there’s-got-to-be-something-wrong-with-that-guy hat.” But Lajoie slyly adds that “you don’t have to be a convicted murder/public masturbating rapist pedophile to want to look like one.” Indeed.
Saying that the Sexual Revolution, and liberalism more broadly, has run aground is purely pretentious if its detractors do not concede the circumstances of its birth. Norms of all stripes overstay their welcome, or become corrupted by arbitrary application. Panic begets reaction begets revolution, and so on and so forth. And it’s not like they don’t have a framework with which to comprehend it. The great social wave being surfed by Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and Steve Bannon has authoritarian echoes of the one once ridden by Roy Jenkins, Pierre Trudeau, and William O. Douglas. And those who concede this as an emergent counterculture only serve to tailor liberalism. Much in the same way that liberalism tailored reaction.
Over the course of watching The Roommates, one is struck by its unambiguous, even chivalrous, heteronormativity. Though it makes gestures toward a widening of personal agency and recognition of mutual respect and dignity toward all people, its social strata is a familiar one. At Lake Arrowhead, and beyond, the male is masculine and the female is feminine. They are attracted to each other and no one else. And the otherwise bewildering murder spree subplot proves crucial to the point of being prophetic. The hero turns out to be a tall, rugged black cop while the killer he stops is not a woman but an emasculated and repressed man in disguise.
The Roommates is just a dumb drive-in movie that likely never broke through the audience wall of bored young men. But the film’s vision, however unintentional it was, is perhaps the most uncannily precise depiction of the liberal ideal as it is executed. It is political aims descended into aesthetic correction, created and perfected only by those with the time available to do it. More bluntly, liberalism is an inside joke. To answer it by simply trying to frame a better, more inclusive inside joke would be to miss the broader point.
The liberal revolutions were bold and brazen claims on human conduct. A true revolution against their stagnation must be equal in their boldness, going back to the root of what is most meaningful in being a social person. “As regards sexual morality,” Br. Urban Hannon (née Michael) writes, “we have reached a point at which it is no longer sufficient for us to criticize modernity’s poor answers. Like our Lord in the gospel narratives, we must also correct its terribly impoverished questions.” Hannon’s proposal, though in agreement with the Foucaultian idea of sexual orientation as a “social construct,” makes a sharp turn away from the “postmodern nihilistic libertinism” so far engendered. “[W]e proponents of Christian chastity should see the impending doom of the gay–straight divide not as a tragedy, but as an opportunity.”
Whether or not the Virtuous Revolution can be carried out along those lines depends on a lot of factors. A resurgence of radical Catholic orthodoxy over America’s predominant Protestantism and secularism, its non-Christian faiths, let alone regular Catholic orthodoxy, for instance, seems unlikely. But if nothing else the framework has been laid down for other proposals, similarly bold and substantial. Indeed, let us raze the drive-ins—what few are left standing anyway—and usher in new cross-country forums, where people do nothing but talk over the most pressing stakes and lay forth their most ironclad principles. What a far better option to while away a weekend.
*I credit Matthew Schmitz for inspiring the formulation for my own purposes.