Part Four: I Really (Really Really) Like You
Before The Water Gets Cold, to be staged by Smoking Gum Theatre this August, is an experiment in sound, movement, and poetics, an unjudging exploration of love, romance, and loneliness in the digital age, and the modern struggle of monogamy.
In this series I will be grappling with some of the show’s themes, as well as its unique process, and do both with as much pretentious waffle as I can manage.
Towards the end of the second act of Before the Water Gets Cold, a person asks their partner “What does ‘I love you’ even mean? You say it all the time, but what does it mean?”
And to be fair, like a sizeable portion of this play, that sentiment is lifted straight from the mouth of the Romcom Heroine (specifically, the manic pixie dream queen herself, Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer). “What does ‘I love you’ mean?” means about as much as “I love you”, if we’re talking things that are said easily with little accountability.
But, as this show is less about the answers to questions such as these, and more about why we ask them, it bears examining what “I love you” means to us as digitally enmeshed, instantly gratified, self-aware and narrative-conscious millennials.
The ‘love heart’ symbol is different in most every way from its inspiration, the anatomical heart, instead acting as a symbolic representation of the heart as the centre of emotion, affection, and love.
Social media has made use of the love heart in many ways and places all throughout our living memory. Notable uses include the heart symbol to ‘like’ posts on Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram, as well as sites like weheartit who take their premise from the symbology of the love heart.
Initially appearing in art as the shape of a fig or ivy leaf, the ideograph has become our primary association with the heart, and through that with love as a concept, surpassing the true shape of the heart completely. Hearts beat, they bleed, they thump and they quaver and they decay-but our image of love is sanitary, clean, neatly drawn out and always the same. Who wants to see something ugly and bodily and visceral when they’re thinking about love. We have quite literally removed the Body from Love, preferring abstraction to the messiness of humanity.
A friend of mine has on many occasions extolled the virtues of Facebook’s ‘Sticker’ function. Instead of using words, you can send a tiny cartoon figure to express precisely what you mean. Their true advantage, she says, is their ability to moderate sentiment, and to put picture to what cannot be textually conveyed. For example, if a friend sends you a message about missing their bus, you can tell them “that’s sad”, or even send a sad emoticon–but both of those pieces of information are things we save for circumstances with more gravity or intimacy.
We save our words for our most intimate moments, or discussions, the most serious of our interactions. But in the everyday, we grow tired of the same words over and over, so we replace them with pictures, or symbols, with memetic repetitions.
We can, among many things, say ‘I love you’ without seeming like we mean it. Instead, we can send Business Fish to say it for us. We can say it with Pusheen the cat, or a heart-eyed cactus, a bald eagle, an animated smiling Olaf from Frozen. The recipient will know exactly what we mean by it, too: that we don’t mean it, exactly, not in the serious way. We mean ‘I love you’ playfully, ironically, with a cover-all blanket of plausible deniability, just in case someone asks if we meant it, just in case we did really mean it.
Another friend who recently went through a breakup explains to me the difference in how their ex-partner interfaces with them online now. Where once the ex used words to say “I love you”, they now use stickers that say “te amo” or “you’re rad”. Where once cute or flirty stickers might have been used, the ex uses monkeys shaking hands or friendly cacti.
Carly Ray Jepsen’s 2015 album E.MO.TION features a song called ‘I Really Really Like You’. A hit single, to the annoyance of many, the song centres around its chorus: “I really really really, really really really like you / and I want you, do you want me? Do you want me too?” The song grapples with the inability to express feelings for someone without resorting to cliches. “It’s way too soon,” Jepsen sings, just before the aforementioned refrain, “I know this isn’t love–but I need to tell you something…”.
There is a tendency to classify ‘like’ and ‘love’ as different concentrations of the same emotion. Being as my only cultural touchpoints at the moment are all the romcoms I’ve watched whilst writing this show, here’s an example. In the 1999 film 10 Things I Hate About You, the following conversation occurs between Bianca and Chastity:
BIANCA: There’s a difference between like and love. Because, I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack.
CHASTITY: But I love my Skechers.
BIANCA: That’s because you don’t have a Prada backpack.
In this, as in much of the romcom’s discursive framework, there is a clearly defined difference in intensity between like and love. The in-too-deep heroine tells her friends she likes the boy, but she doesn’t love him yet. The commitmentphobic hero can have sex with the girl, he can hang out with the girl, he can like the girl–but he cannot love her, that is too much. You can like one thing, but only because you don’t have something better to love. As far as romantic scripts go, to like is deemed far less significant than to love.
What if like and love are not comparatives, though? What if ‘like’ is simply a different feeling, or expression of feeling, to ‘love’, a feeling with its own degrees of intensity, degrees that don’t need to add up to ‘love’? Maybe to like doesn’t have to be less significant than to love, maybe it can be more, or maybe it can just be different. To say “I like you” means something different to “I really really like you”, and maybe that intensification now speaks more to our experience of deep affection or connection to another than ‘love’, a tired and thin-stretched concept, can. Maybe in a paradigm where so many of us find the term ‘love’ and the prescriptive expectations it brings with it outdated or inaccessible, to ‘like’, to ‘really really like’, is a breath of fresh air.
Maybe despite its repetitious, guileless construction, maybe because of it, I Really Really Like You manages to convey more intensity of emotion than a simple “I love you” would. To say “I love you” is easy, to say “I really (really really really really really) like you” requires just that little bit more effort.
To be able to ‘like’ things said or done by friends on Facebook has always been par for the course. Recently, Facebook released several new ‘reaction’ options: now you can ‘like’ something, but you can also ‘love’, ‘wow’, ‘haha’, ‘angry’, or ‘sad’ it (and, for far too short a time on Mother’s Day, you could ‘thankful’ it). Questionable grammar notwithstanding, the ‘love’ reaction is by far the most interesting of these, most significantly for its relationship to the established ‘like’.
As Carly Rae Jepsen has already taught us, like and love are not necessarily different intensities of the same emotion–the ‘love’ reaction is the not the same as a ‘really really like’ reaction would be. But it brings up new concerns in the complexities of social media politics. When do you like something, and when do you love it? Is ‘love’ too strong a reaction for some posts? Is ‘like’ not enough for others? If I ‘love’ a selfie a boy I’m into posts, am I coming on too strong? If I ‘like’ a friend’s selfie will they see my friendship as subpar to a friend who ‘loves’ the same photo? These are our new anxieties, our new social scripts, the new code of chivalry which is, again, not more or less significant than any prior paradigm of romantic discourse, it’s just different. Growing up digital natives we’ve learned to communicate as best we can–communicate ideals of an old world–through the medium we were given, and we’re stumbling through and working out the rules together.
The recently single friend tells me their ex no longer engages with them the same way online. The ‘loves’ have turned into ‘likes’, the ‘likes’ into nothing at all. They have noticed gap shaped like them in their ex’s Instagram presence, finding their relationship was barely documented photographically. They tell me about entire comment threads where their ex has liked every comment but the ones my friend made, and ask me if I think that’s a petty thing to notice. I tell them I think it’s just the opposite. It seems to say more about the awkward note that relationship ended on than anything the two have said in person.
Buy tickets to Smoking Gum Theatre’s Before The Water Gets Cold here: smokinggumtheatre.com
Before The Water Gets Cold runs from 23-27 august at Sydney Theatre School in Chippendale.