How “Reality Bites” Completely Screwed Up My Perception of Dating and Relationships

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I saw Reality Bites at a seminal point in my life. I had recently graduated from college and simultaneously just realized that nothing in the world was the way I thought it was. The world was not, in fact, eagerly anticipating my arrival and waiting to hand me an array of opportunities. It was instead somewhat willing to offer me a chance to be an editorial assistant at a magazine I didn’t read for a rate just above the poverty level. Dashing men weren’t lining up to wine and dine me and teach me the ways of the ever-glamorous world I was joining. Instead, overgrown frat guys, who seemed roughly 2000% less fascinating now that I was no longer attending fraternity parties, were mildly interested in hanging out.

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Reality Bites is about, ostensibly, four college graduates who are slowly realizing that the world — well, it bites. We see this world primarily through the eyes of Lelaina (Winona Ryder) — a pixie class valedictorian who has somewhat over-indulgent divorced parents and is best friends with the sardonic Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) and the embittered but sexy Troy (Ethan Hawke), who’s not-so-secretly in love with her while she’s slightly-more-secretly in love with him. Aside from the pixie, valedictorian and friendships part, Lelaina and I were totally alike — which is to say that we both had somewhat overindulgent divorced parents. But I wanted to have a best friend like Vickie, who worked at the Gap and giggled with me as we blasted Squeeze songs while tossing cigarette butts out our car windows! Still, what I really wanted was to have relationship like the one Lelaina had with Troy; I wanted a confused but clearly brilliant man-child who would devastate me one minute and kiss me tenderly the next. Even more, I wanted to be simultaneously wooed by someone like Troy and someone like Michael (Ben Stiller), a rising entertainment executive who could tell me what a genius I was in his elegant apartment and then pull the right strings to make the rest of the world see that.

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I thought Reality Bites was, bar none, the best movie I’d ever seen and was genuinely flummoxed when I took people — like my older brother — to it and they seemed mildly indifferent to its wonders. But my love for the movie continued. When, years later, Sony TV optioned my first novel, Party Girl, to make it into a TV movie, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I was informed that the screenwriter they’d hired for the job was none other than Helen Childress, the woman who’d penned Reality Bites. (Alas, I never even saw the draft she did and Sony ended up abandoning the project. Reality, she really does bite!)

We ladies don’t have to wait it out until the jerk stops being a jerk — we can instead simply avoid dating jerks. This is something I didn’t know back when I first saw Reality Bites.

Over the years, I’d always assumed that Reality Bites was as brilliant and truthful and honest and accurate as I’d thought it was when I first saw it — that, in other words, my reaction to it had nothing to do with the fact that it was pure wish fulfillment for what my early twenty-something brain thought it wanted.

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Well, I recently saw Reality Bites again and I almost want to sue it for what it made me believe was true about romance, dating and relationships. Troy, I now see with perfect clarity, is an annoying, self-indulgent, vindictive, unemployed terrible musician. Those affectations of his that I saw as unspeakably sexy — his speeches about how he sits back with his Camel straits, his disdain for authority of any kind, his ability to provide a dictionary definition of the word irony and his tendency to sleep with random groupies among them — are, I now understand, qualities that render him not just un-date-able but possibly un-friend-able as well. The fake love speech he gives Lelaina — when he takes her face in his hands and tells her he’s hopelessly in love with her only to callously pull away and accuse her of assuming that’s how he feels — is just about the cruelest use of words I’ve ever seen (and I’m including random Internet commenters in that). But in the angst that was my early twenties, I saw a guy who could say all the things I longed to hear one moment only to take it all away the next as the most powerful, seductive man alive. Now I see it as a guy who needs therapy, probably wouldn’t get it, and who are we kidding, surely wouldn’t benefit from it anyway.

I’m not saying that — spoiler alert, people — I think Winona should have picked Ben Stiller. For all his sweetness, their connection seemed, at best, awkward. I just wonder how many self-indulgent, self-hating rebels I dated as a result of this movie, waiting for them to turn sweet right at the 90-minute mark.

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But this is good news, people! Because the truth is that the world offers up many dashing men who are far more interesting, consistent and employed than the Troy Dyers out there, and we ladies don’t have to wait it out until the jerk stops being a jerk — we can instead simply avoid dating jerks. This is something I didn’t know back when I first saw Reality Bites.

Of course, the fact that I subconsciously hung my romantic hopes and dreams on a movie that’s so much about the suckiness of life that it actually says as much in the title is ironic. Too bad Troy Dyer wasn’t around to define the word for me.

Anna David is the author of the new Kindle Single Animal Attraction, which is about how her relationship with her cats impacts her relationships with men. She’s also the author of the novels Party Girl (HarperCollins, 2007) and Bought (HarperCollins, 2009) and the memoir Falling for Me (HarperCollins, 2011). She conceived of and edited the anthology Reality Matters (HarperCollins, 2010), is the Executive Editor of addiction and recovery website The Fix, and has written for The New York Times, The LA Times, Vanity Fair, Cosmo, People, Premiere, Us Weekly, Details, Playboy, Redbook, Self, and Women’s Health, among many other publications. She appears on NBC, Fox News, CNN, and other networks discussing either relationships or addiction. Her next book, which she’s writing on the actor Tom Sizemore, will be released in 2013 by Simon & Schuster.