Editor’s Note: This is our second interview with author, illustrator, and comedian Shelby Lorman. In our first interview, we discussed influencer culture and what we lose when we rely so heavily on digital communication.
Discussing dating in the digital age is nothing new. Between endless dating apps and words like ghosting, orbiting, and breadcrumbing popping up left and right, dating just doesn’t make sense right now, and we’re constantly talking about it online in an attempt to collaboratively parse out its secrets. We’re at a point where confusion around dating, bolstered by increasingly digitized communication, is clashing with an increasing number of women who demand relationships that actually make them feel good. Writers like Shelby Lorman are a big part of this. As marriage becomes less of an immediate priority for women in their mid-20s, we’re crafting our own rules and guidelines for what an ideal hookup, date, or partnership looks like, and honesty is a big part of those new boundaries, according to the conversations swirling in the comments underneath Lorman’s Instagram (@awardforgoodboys) photos and the stories she details in her book.
Lorman’s work often explores the warped concept of “good boys,” or the men in our lives who aren’t necessarily horrible but aren’t exactly great either. These men’s behaviors sometimes overlap with the faux male feminists who often dot our timelines: They say the right things, but they aren’t actually doing the work of feminism. We want to be able to ask for what we need without the men in our lives making assumptions about our asks based on their sexist ideals of what women really mean. In this interview, I spoke with Lorman about boundaries, the loss of nuance in the time of the internet, and building a community of women who expect more from their relationships.
The idea of “performativity” or men knowing they benefit from being “good” is one of the cruxes of your work. Do you ever worry about your work being used by these men to show that they’re “better” than the “bad boys?”
I’ve watched all of the ways that people use my work in the last two years. I don’t really have control over that, but I still feel responsible for my work [and its message]. So there will be people who I don’t agree with [who] will retweet or reshare my work as if it speaks for them. It’s just really uncomfortable [and] it feels terrible, but there’s really nothing that I can do about that. I think that’s true for a lot of creators, makers, and artists of all kinds. I’m sure you’ve felt it too. You write something and someone you don’t agree with retweets your article. It’s like, wait a minute, are you using this thing that I made to make yourself look like you understand this thing that I made but without actually adding anything?
What do you do with that feeling? Do you ever want to push back?
It’s just part of [the] process of accepting that I’ve put a lot of myself into the world. That’s been one of the weird costs of becoming visible—realizing that I’m sharing a lot of my brain and my work and people are going to use that. People who I don’t agree with are going to use that. I don’t [have] a solution right now other than just learning to cope with it and learning what sort of medium feels better. [That’s] why the book feels so important to me; you have to have a conversation around it.
I would hope [the book is] too complex to be petty with. The form of it forces you to engage with [the work] a bit more meaningfully than retweeting an award I make. I love the retweets. Great. Give them to me. But also, I know that a lot of people—and I can tell based on what they’re sharing—share the stuff that I don’t find super meaningful but [that] has internet traction. That’s all well and good, and to be honest, I need people to share the stuff that’s going to do well or no one’s going to pay me to keep writing the book! It’s part of the natural cycle.
Sometimes I’m like, I wish that people weren’t as drawn to this snarky little thing that kind of fits under this umbrella of “men are trash” and would instead read my nuanced chapters about how gender is a construct and we’re all “good boys.” That’s not as shareable or retweetable, and that’s something that I, as an artist, am uncomfortable with. But that’s just part of the gig.
There was this huge conversation around male feminists about four or five years ago. What do we do with them? Are they real, are they fake, are they possible? How do we know when they’re faking it?
A few years ago, there was this [idea that] we need male feminists. And then it evolved into this [idea that] maybe male feminists are [being] performative at the same time that women are asking for more from their partners. That tracks [for] me. That’s something that’s really hard about making the work that I do in the culture right now. I’m thinking of how many articles I’ve read with the “in the era of #MeToo” [tagline]. It’s really hard trying to make nuanced work about gender and relationships when everything is swept into this narrative that has been adopted by mainstream media as if it’s brand new when obviously it’s not.
I think that the shift has definitely moved into [the idea that] we don’t need men in our feminism at all. Why are we even worrying about them? But then also, ladies, dump him if he’s not doing X, Y, and Z. Both of those [thoughts] are wrong. The internet really flattens a lot of conversations that require a lot of nuance. There’s no doubt that men being performatively or actually good online is going to be better received than non-men. That’s a fact. It’s also true that men who fuck up and then [offer] a half-hearted apology are still going to be welcomed back into society for the most part.
It seems like we’re transitioning into this phase where there are actually good boys. What do we do with these people online and in our own relationships?
I think [it’s important to] grapple with how much we all are performing online, what that’s doing to us, and the effectiveness of it. [That’s] a better question [to ask ourselves] than how do we tell which men are performing and which ones aren’t. In regards to women asking for more in relationships, that’s really tricky because obviously, everyone deserves to feel seen and heard in relationships, [but] there are some strains of thinking that I’ve stumbled across in online feminist spaces that seem to have a troubling contradiction [between] this idea [that] we need to hold men accountable [and] we don’t need men, dump him, but don’t accept anything less than this perfect person. The root of those ideas is really fair and solid, but when they’re presented online, it’s so flat and totally erases the reality that every relationship, regardless of gender, is really complicated.
Every relationship requires [us to] compromise, meet each other’s needs, figure out how to be flexible with each other, and learn from each other. Historically, men haven’t had to think about that as much, so that’s a question I’m more interested in: How do you have relationships with men that feel more equitable in terms of growth and dudes putting in the same effort that you are? And also knowing what feels worth it? Sometimes that means knowing when to walk away.
I agree with your two statements that men are performing more online, and women are demanding more of their relationships and questioning that performativity but I also think that a lot of that comes from just how flat online feminist spaces can make human relationships feel. It’s always more messy than that. Treating relationships between men and women as if there’s some sort of key or code is just not how humans work.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.