Here’s a terrible advertisement for Diet Coke:
There are so many things I hate about this ad. That it contains the term “ath-leisure.” The background music. That it’s painfully obviously a line-for-line recreation of an American ad, because no English person would use the phrase “yurt it up” (the American version, for the record, was directed by my old nemesis, Paul Feig, for some reason).
But the thing I hate the most about it is “If you want a Diet Coke, have a Diet Coke.” Life is short, is the ad’s premise, so do more things you want to do: live in a yurt (whatever that is), run a marathon (though it backhandedly suggests you probably shouldn’t bother), drink a Diet Coke. But drinking a Diet Coke isn’t like living in a yurt or running a marathon, because Diet Coke is bad for you. The actress in the ad says that it makes her feel good, which it might for a moment. And according to the ad, that doesn’t just mean it’s okay and you shouldn’t feel bad about it, but that you actively should drink Diet Coke, whenever the thought occurs to you.
The thing I hate the most is that the ad treats all wants as basically the same. That pursuing all those wants amounts to making the most of life, or being true to yourself.
But, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, that thought has a brother: that if you do not pursue all your undifferentiated wants, you aren’t making the most of life, and you are not your authentic self.
And it’s not just in terrible Diet Coke ads. It’s an idea I see everywhere, and mostly without critique.
The commercial uses are obvious and widespread, but it isn’t just an advertising trick. Sure, there’s the whole genre of ads about how you should buy X because you deserve it, where X is a car (as a reward for going to a film your girlfriend wanted to see) or WWE merchandise or, most famously, L’Oréal beauty products. But it’s worth noting that L’Oréal’s “history” of the “Because you’re worth it” slogan frames it almost exclusively as an agent of women’s liberation. The ethos of “just do whatever you want” holds sway in liberal and progressive circles, a reaction against puritanical conservativism.
The fight against social forces which attempt to control people’s desires, particularly women and LGBT people and particularly what they do with their bodies, is vitally important. We’ve had hundreds of years of being told to be deeply ashamed of our desires, from masturbation to cross-dressing to attraction to the same gender, and it’s important to refute that, loudly. The metric of “people should be allowed do whatever they want as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else” seems like a fair one when it comes to peering into other people’s lives, as long as we take the “as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else” part deeply seriously.
The problem is when “people should be allowed do whatever they want” transforms into “people should do whatever they want” – a transformation that has been well underway, in all corners of liberal discourse.
In politics, advocates for the legalisation of cannabis (which I support) routinely justify extensive use by claiming it is non-addictive – but humans can become addicted to all kinds of things that aren’t chemically “addictive” the way that, for example, nicotine is, gambling being the obvious one. In cultural criticism, there was the handwringing response to the film Trainwreck, written by and starring Amy Schumer, claiming that Schumer’s character giving up drinking and entering a stable relationship at the end was shaming thirty-somethings who love to party. (This is despite the film makes it very clear that Schumer’s character is a destructive alcoholic: when she starts having a panic attack, she immediately wants a drink.) In goddamn memes, there’s the “treat yo’ self” from Parks and Recreation, which the show presented as an annual tradition but has become some kind of life mantra. The Cut used to have a weekly column called Treat Yourself Friday just straight-up telling you to buy, like, 350 dollar sunglasses or whatever.
The difference between “people should be allowed do what they want” and “people should do whatever they want” is that the first is about how you should treat others (e.g. recognising it does not affect you if someone else masturbates or not) and the second is about how you, personally, should behave. “Do whatever you want” is prescriptive. It is saying that denying yourself anything is self-neglect, and drinking a Diet Coke because you want to and it might make you feel good for a moment is self-care.
The main issue with this is that people have different kinds of wants. You can want to buy a new dress and want, simultaneously and just as authentically, to save up your money for something important. You can want to get drunk and want give up drinking. You can want to hit the snooze button and want to get up straight away. Those aren’t just contradictory wants, they’re of a fundamentally different character. They fall largely into two piles: short-term wants for immediate pleasures, and longer-term wants for some kind of greater fulfilment. Drinking a Diet Coke is pile A, running a marathon is pile B.
The Diet Coke ad says these wants are all the same, and you should just do whatever you feel like. But when desires conflict, you have to choose between them – and the “do whatever you want!” ethos prioritises the short-term pleasure, because it argues always, always against self-denial. And when you pursue the short-term pleasure, you won’t feel what you have denied yourself until you finish off the chocolate bar or wake up hungover or are late to a meeting because you slept through your alarm.
This very recent style of discourse didn’t invent that state of affairs, obviously. People have always wrestled with their impulses and compulsions that weren’t in line with their long-term desires. But the “do whatever you want!” prescription is an intellectual argument in favour of your impulses and compulsions, rooting for them in the wrestling match. There’s an excellent chapter in David Alderson’s book Sex, Needs and Queer Culture where it outlines how the advent of capitalism helped create the gay community even as it commodified their culture – arguing that capitalism challenges conservative norms, but only by subordinating all other values to exchange value. But at the end, when he gets to the part about what we should do now, he just sort of goes, “so, uh, new hedonism? I guess?”
But that’s not an alternative to capitalism. Capitalism loves our pursuit of pleasure, especially at the expense of our pursuit of fulfilment. In a speech trying to convince young libertarians of the virtues of socialism, Elizabeth Bruenig put it nicely:
You walk through a veritable gauntlet of products at several retailers just to pay precisely because capitalists bank on your impulsiveness. Addiction works, too, and serves as a simple permanent-income scheme for companies, who spend millions paying scientists to explain to them exactly how to make their products maximally addictive. Even if you wanted to understand what it is you ought to want, how you ought to desire, the ethos of capitalism suggests that desire is purest and most authentic when unmediated, and thus that more consumptive choices allow you to be more truly yourself. Paralyzing choices populate your interior life, your will is alternately arrested and exploited.
Women have, throughout history and across cultures, been denied their desires, and their wills. They have been expected to be subservient. But much like how neoliberalism co-opted many of the arguments of second-wave feminism, important arguments for women’s right to their desires have been co-opted by consumerism. Buying things becomes the site of self-articulation – and resisting your impulse to purchase is not just denying the purchase from yourself but denying any kind of identity from yourself.
Advertising, John Berger writes in Ways of Seeing, “turns consumption into a substitute for democracy. The choice of what one eats (or wears or drives) takes the place of significant political choice.”
It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that two recent TV shows that examine – often painfully – what it means to just do whatever you want, what it means not to deny your impulses, are written by young women who were teenagers when Sex and the City was on air and equating female empowerment with buying shoes: Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope, RTÉ’s half-hour drama by Stefanie Preissner, and Fleabag, a comedy written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, adapted from her one-woman Edinburgh Fringe show.
Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope is a strange beast. It’s classed as a comedy, but there aren’t really jokes in it, even by sadcom standards. It focuses on two late-twenty-somethings from Cork living in Dublin: Aisling, who works in finance, and her best friend Danielle, who has gone back to college to study art. The scenes at Aisling’s workplace can be a bit weak, and, as far as I understand, the taxi driver character is literally named Taxi Good, but Seána Kerslake gives a great central performance, and the show is, at times, sincerely moving.
It’s a show intensely interested in how young Irish people drink alcohol. Aisling and Danielle drink a lot. And I mean a lot. They go out clubbing on weeknights, and Aisling goes into work still drunk, before her hangover kicks in, sweating. In the very first episode, they drive a stranger’s car into a river.
“Have you that sour pre-vomit stuff?” Aisling asks a woman who says she’s had too much and can’t drink any more, “Don’t spit it out. Swallow it. It settles the stomach. That stuff is a life saver!”
What’s interesting about this is that it is, at its root, the normative vision of young adult life in Ireland. Aisling is, quite probably, an alcoholic, and some of her behaviour is so inappropriate that it’s hard to watch. But nobody really notices that she might have a problem, even when her drinking costs her her job and almost gets her arrested. Even critics seem to hardly notice: a review in the Irish Independent called Aisling “a permanently infantilised, terminally needy overgrown child,” describing her problem drinking mostly in terms of her being immature. At twenty-seven, she’s too old to be acting this way, is the point, even though Aisling’s behaviour would be remarkably destructive at any age.
At one point, Aisling meets a woman who doesn’t drink at a work event, and not only immediately asks if she’s an alcoholic, but spreads that information around. The idea of not drinking is intimately tied to alcoholism in Aisling’s mind – there’s no other excuse for it – and the ideas of alcoholism and teetotalism are equally incomprehensible to her. She could stop drinking anytime she wants; she just doesn’t want to. And so she knocks back shot after shot, swallowing down her pre-vomit to settle her stomach for another shot.
In the second season, Aisling occasionally attempts to avoid drinking, but her meagre force of will always, inevitably, collapses. I’ll go home early to prepare for my job interview becomes a taxi home at four in the morning; I’ll stick to the soft drinks so I don’t embarrass myself at this event falls apart when your request for a lemonade is met with a “I meant a real drink!”
She will always want to drink, no matter how much she wants not to want to. One of the things that initially confused me about Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope but that I ultimately love about it is that it films the clubbing scenes like they’re fun. It’s really easy to make that kind of atmosphere horrifying, as French horror film Raw did so expertly last year. But in Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope, the club scenes are shot like most club scenes, like it’s just some people hanging out with a pulsing dance beat in the background. This confused me, because it made me unsure whether the show was about young adult Ireland’s relationship with alcohol or uncritically mirroring it. The show’s narrative eventually makes it clear it’s the former, but the set-up of the club scenes establishes that Aisling and Danielle love going out drinking, and they have fun doing it.
The cultural image of alcoholism is a late-stage, destitute, pathetic figure, who drinks because they have to, to drown their sorrows or to self-medicate their pain. This cross-applies to all addictions: the anti-addiction slogan at the end of gambling ads is “When the fun stops, stop,” which – aside from being a slogan for gambling addiction awareness that literally says “gambling is fun” – defines addiction as when you have a compulsion to do something you don’t enjoy, as if something cannot be both fun and destructive. But Aisling loves drinking, connects with her friends primarily when they’re drinking (Danielle in Copper Face Jack’s, Joe in The George), and is still a problem drinker. It’s not a need, it’s a want, but it’s a want she can’t resist. Indulging it will hurt her in the medium- and long-term, but momentarily, it’ll feel really good, and life is short.
Fleabag plays a game of slow-then-fast reveal in its one season, as our title character’s relationship with sex lurches between liberated woman and sex addict. Fleabag makes asides to the camera, Ferris Bueller-style, all bravado and dirty jokes. The premiere opens with a monologue about anal sex. Her boyfriend catches her masturbating to Barack Obama speeches. “We’re going to die here. We’re going to be raped and die,” Fleabag’s sister says in one episode. “Every cloud –” is her immediate reply.
I immediately twigged that there was something messed up about her attitude towards sex, but I thought I was watching the show wrong, imposing puritanical judgment on a show about Modern Woman in all her self-confident, sex-positive glory, a woman who does what she wants, takes what she wants, and beds who she wants. But it doesn’t take long for the cracks to appear. There’s her grief for her late best friend, Boo; her failing guinea pig-themed café; her conniving step-mother. But Fleabag’s most pressing issues are located in her own psyche: she compulsively makes situations sexual, fondling phallic-shaped fruit or flirting with a dog. She treats sex like an escape valve. Sex is, for Fleabag, “about the drama and the validation and the sense of worth, and the sense of being taken somewhere else,” Waller-Bridge says.
“I have a horrible feeling that I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist,” Fleabag says to her father, voice cracking.
“Well,” he says in reply, “You get all that from your mother.”
In the finale, we find out that shortly before Boo killed herself, Fleabag slept with her boyfriend. “He slept with someone else,” Boo says in flashback, her face stained with tears, before hatching a plan to injure herself. It’s a horrible moment, and after the reveal Fleabag jerks away from the gaze of the camera that she had previously always greeted with a wink and a smile – but she can’t escape it, and the camera chases her when she tries to run.
Rewatching the episode, an earlier scene sticks out: Fleabag attends her step-mother’s sex-positive art exhibition, where she was unwittingly invited to waitress, and while her step-mother gives a speech about how sex brings life, we cut to Boo’s tear-stained face. I didn’t notice it first time around, because the show cuts to flashbacks of Boo with the regularity Fleabag thinks of her, but rewatching it reveals the cut as intensely purposeful. Sex brings life. But also, sometimes, death.
While I think accusations of slut-shaming in Trainwreck are pretty silly, I get that telling a story of a woman having a destructive relationship with sex is a high-wire balancing act. A woman having a lot of sexual partners is still transgressive and stigmatised, so presenting it in a negative way is, regardless of intention, easily co-opted by conservatives. But what I love about Fleabag is how the problem isn’t that she sleeps with a lot of men, but why she does it, and how it makes her feel. For Fleabag, it’s an easy way to get a quick jolt of self-worth without having to do any self-examination: “Somehow there isn’t anything worse,” she says through tears, “than someone who doesn’t want to fuck me.” It’s not an expression of her authentic self; it’s an attempted escape from herself.
“You’re not born sad,” her father tells her.
“Some people are,” she says.
“You weren’t,” he replies.
Fleabag does what she wants, takes what she wants, and beds who she wants. But she’s sad, deep down in the bones of her, because she isn’t who she wants to be.
Fleabag isn’t a monster, or even a bad person. She’s flippantly cruel sometimes, and selfish and self-destructive. But she has the capacity to make better choices, to be a better person, to be happy. Her dad says she wasn’t born sad, and she agrees.
Because the problem with valorising instant gratification and immediate indulgence isn’t that it puts feeling good above more important things, not really. The problem is that it tells people not to make choices that will make them happier, just because they might seem hard right away. There’s nothing wrong with indulging in instant pleasures, to make life enjoyable, or even just bearable, and I ate two Mars bars today. But to treat that indulgence as the sum of human happiness is absurd.
A person is not the sum of their impulses. A lot of the most beautiful things humans do are really, really hard, from science and art and music to building loving and fulfilling relationships to working towards a more just society to protecting the environment to maintaining good health. If everyone just followed their short-term desires for immediate pleasure, they wouldn’t bother doing any of that stuff, and everyone would be worse off in a myriad of ways. And sacrificing those things to just fuck and do drugs and burn money isn’t what most people ultimately want, even if it might be fun for a little while.
Humans are really good at finding and creating meaning, and that seems like the business of being alive, to me, like making the most out of this short life. And a single-minded, hedonistic pursuit of pleasure is intrinsically incompatible with that.