Are we that into it?

With "He's Just Not That Into You" hitting theaters Friday, Salon writers discuss the catchphrase that will not die.

Published February 5, 2009 7:11PM (EST)

It's been more than five years since "Sex and the City" debuted the catchphrase "He's just not that into you." A year later, Greg Behrendt, the writer who came up with it, transformed those six words into a full-blown phenomenon: He and co-author Liz Tuccillo published a best-selling book, appeared on Oprah and convinced millions of women to rethink their relationships.

On Friday, a film adaptation of "He's Just Not That Into You" hits theaters. Though the movie is fictional -- it's an ensemble romantic comedy of sorts -- its release has spurred a full-scale revival of HJNTIY culture. News outlets are publishing interviews with Behrendt, dating sites are considering the phenomenon from a male perspective and Queerty is fuming over the gay stereotypes that pervade the film. The L.A. Times even published a piece that, among other things, dissects the catchphrase, one word at a time, to divine the true meaning behind its colloquial wisdom.

"He's Just Not That Into You" has long been a subject of feminist debate -- Rebecca Traister wrote about it when the book first hit -- and the movie has inspired a whole new round of discussion. We asked Salon Broadsheet contributers: Is it empowering to realize that we shouldn't force relationships with men who don't appreciate us, or is the entire philosophy just condescending? Here's the conversation that ensued.

Rebecca Traister: I continue to be fascinated by the self-flagellating appeal of this phrase and the purported female liberation that comes along with it. I wrote a loooooong piece about it, and I don't want to repeat it. However, I will say this: In the years since I wrote that piece, I met the man I now live with. Had I listened to the advice of the book, we would not be together. Beware the reductive catchphrase.

Vincent Rossmeier: Rebecca is right. I can't see how basing one's entire life on a simple-minded phrase could be construed as empowering. And from the ads, the movie appears to be about as conventional a romantic comedy as they come, so it's going to attract the same people who flocked to "27 Dresses" and "Love, Actually" and all those movies that package love as a cutesy product everyone needs to have in their lives or else it means they're failures.

Sarah Hepola: I have to admit a secret fondness for the phrase. I suspect that's because, now in my 30s, I feel a particular hand-to-the-forehead daftness for all the years spent sifting through e-mail exchanges like tea leaves and thinking if I just did this thing or that thing it would make someone want me. That's the self-flagellation I find so horrifying, and it's like, well, shit -- if a book stops someone from doing that, I can't really get that cooked up about it. (Also, Vincent: "Love, Actually"? Not that bad.)

Judy Berman: I won't deny that there's something liberating about making the decision not to waste time trying to please men who don't appreciate us as we are. But my female friends and I have had conversations like this since high school, and I imagine we're not the only women to have reached a similar realization. Did we really need to hear from a heterosexual man that when a guy breaks up with us, it's because "he's just not that into" us?

Meanwhile, I find it interesting that the movie is being released a mere week before Valentine's Day. To me, it's just another way of driving home the idea that for single women, Valentine's Day is a holiday of repentance, in which girlfriends gather around a chick flick and some Cosmos to atone for the year's perceived failure at finding lasting romance. I find that idea depressing and unfair.

Mary Elizabeth Williams: God knows I'm a lifetime away from figuring out men, but it's helpful to remember that I don't need to persuade anybody to like me, and yes, I am simple enough to appreciate an ideology that fits on a Post-it. 

It's a strange world when a stand-up comic becomes a relationship expert, but the gist of the message does have a certain brilliance to it. It's more than a little ironic, though, that the  point was that you don't have to overthink it. You don't have to overcomplicate it. You don't have to look for secret meanings and clues. You don't have to make excuses for anybody's baggage or crazy work schedule or whatever. And now it's turned into -- wait for it -- a whole freaking philosophy. Also, the trailer for the movie itself makes me want to jam a fork in my eyes  repeatedly.

Katie Rolnick: I can't help wishing there were a version for dudes that I could mail to some of my previous boyfriends. How had they missed my signals, my endless attempts to passively drain our sputtering relationship of any lingering energy? Then I remember that my approach was unkind and that I was sort of being a bitch and should have just fessed up and told them I was ready to move on. Now that I'm nearing the end of my 20s, it's easy to see how something like HJNTIY is appealing. It's tiring to navigate the murky waters of young adulthood relationships, but learning to communicate openly and honestly is part of growing up. And if a handbook frames that in a way that's helpful and comforting, who am I to say that it's simplistic?

Lynn Harris: Me, I think it's common sense ... really catchy, commercial common sense. And generally good advice, with huge exceptions. I -- like Katie -- also think it swings both ways, gender-wise; I have long maintained that no one, not even the president, is "too busy" for a relationship that he/she really wants. (Though, yes, it'd be nice if this one weren't set up to make the women look like needy doofuses.) Thing is, a book called "It's Possible, Though You Never Know For Sure, That He or She Is Not That Into You" will not sell.

And fair enough: Many people want "Rules," so to speak, to help them navigate such (increasingly?) gray areas. Can't blame 'em. What gets my goat is not the book, nor the easily swallowed prescriptive, nor the HJNTIY industrial complex; to me, there are far more alarming signs of the apocalypse (peanut butter and jelly sold in the same jar?! PEOPLE!). It's mainly the meanness I've seen about "the kind of woman" "who would need such a book." Ah yes, because the rest of us all have navigated relationships flawlessly and without regret. I'm just not that into casting the first stone.

Kate Harding: I'm just not that into hearing about it anymore. I might see the movie, because there's a sick part of me that digs rom coms, I like much of the cast, and I'm morbidly curious. Still, I'd rather pirate it, because I don't want to support yet another faux-empowerment message that exhorts women to "show respect for themselves" by scrambling to understand and accommodate the vagaries of some imaginary, monolithic Male Mind. If you need self-help books and tea leaves and tossed entrails to guess at what a guy is thinking, why the hell are you that into him? Unfortunately, going along with what Lynn said, a book/movie called, "Stop Trying to Figure Out an Entire Gender and Just Wait Around for an Individual You Click With" probably wouldn't sell.


Tracy Clark-Flory: People don't turn to self-help books to be reminded of the complexity of life or human relationships, they want an Oprah-esque "a-ha!" moment that allows them to take charge and move on with their lives. (See: "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.") So, I get it. The only thing I don't get about HJNTIY is why, after a guy promises he'll call and then doesn't, plans a date and then ditches, the response should be "he's just not that into me" instead of "he's an inconsiderate asshole, and I shouldn't be that into him"?


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So there you have it. There's just no agreeing on "He's Just Not That Into You." But there's also no denying that this (foulmouthed, NSFW) video mash-up of the film's trailer and Christian Bale's recent freak-out made my morning. 

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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