The last time I spoke to an indie man, he thought my break-up spiel was a compliment. It wasn’t even a break-up because he was never my boyfriend, but what am I to indie men but their Summer Ruby Ramona Natalie Portman in Garden State Flowers Sparks, the 100% perfect girl they see one beautiful April morning? Of course there’s a part of me that tingles at the thought of being someone’s dream girl, but if it’s to a man who responds to “You always see me as just an idea” with “You’re welcome”—reader, I would rather mop the Atlantic Ocean.
You might say it’s my fault for entangling myself with such an archetype in the first place (and you’re right) but in my defense it’s very tempting to be with someone who sounds smart and has “good” taste. I’ve only ever been involved with indie men, and at one point I was sure my entire dating pool could be found in the Letterboxd user database. I sought the intelligent conversation and their willingness to compare me, a five-foot-six black-haired Brown girl, to Kate Winslet in you know what movie. They sought the patience I had for their bullshit and my willingness to call our conversations “intelligent.”
Perhaps I should offer a disclaimer: I don’t go around on dating apps laughing at indie men’s profiles (anymore). There’s always been a sliver of me that, upon an encounter with one, thinks maybe he really is intelligent and tasteful. Maybe he listens to Cigarettes After Sex for the sick beats and not the weird, misogynistic lyrics. I don’t engage with indie men with the intention to write pointed essays about them, but they do so much shit that the pieces practically write themselves. This isn’t commentary, it’s an ethnography.
Of all the indie men I’ve talked to, each one, without fail, sent me a playlist. It’s their way of peacocking; proof that they’re convinced their taste is what can get them the girl. I’d lie and tell them I listened to it, commenting on the songs I recognized (which was often all of them). I’m no stranger to making my interests a large part of my personality, but the indie man is purely culture consumption—a cuffed, hollow assemblage of idiosyncrasies that undeservedly pats itself on the back for it.
Their taste isn’t even as immaculate as they make it out to be; they gas it up like they do their sex performance. With so many people online satirizing their preferences, one would think indie men would sense everyone has actually seen American Beauty and they’re not very indie for calling it their favorite movie. But it seems they remain stuck in their own little bubble of self-reverence, too blinded by their own narcissism to have any sense of self-awareness. They expect applause because they copied their personality from the protagonist of a semi-good French film from the ‘70s instead of the protagonist of a mainstream studio film; they’re completely unaware that you can be an interesting person without pretending you’re in a movie. Why do they want to be lauded for a personality that isn’t even theirs?
What’s worse is when they don’t even do a good job of copying. “I complimented the movie posters on his walls—lots of Charlie Chaplin and Wes Anderson,” shares our editor Olivia about a date she had with a film major. “He thanked me and said he said he hadn’t seen any of them; he just liked their ‘aesthetic.’” Mind you, these are the same people who throw a fit when you wear a band shirt without knowing their entire discography and the blood types of the band members—whose first instinct when they find out you have common interests is to quiz you, keen on proving that you are the one pretending to like things to seem cool.
I wish I realized sooner that good taste is performative. Most people who revere their own interests do so not because they have a burning passion for them, but because they like the sense of superiority it gives them over other people with more mainstream taste. Indie is subversion, not cultural ascendancy. But the indie man thinks he’s better for belonging to a smaller market demographic.
Because these men embody the obscure bands and the sad-boy films they idolize, having similar preferences can be easily misconstrued as having romantic interest. Any conversation is a flirtation, the indie man sporting the rose-tinted glasses of misogyny. He is the protagonist of life and any unsuspecting woman is his unsolicited leading lady. She’s expected to cater to his loneliness, to be the chippy indie girl who wears not-slutty-but-still-hot clothes and has a rich interior life, but not too rich because she’s still only the romantic interest after all.
My indie not-ex-boyfriend was exhausting to talk to, partly because he unironically called me his “indie babe” for four weeks (although that’s a big part), but mostly because I felt like I was dating a podcast, or a Pinterest board, or the homepage of the A24 website—just a constant stream of information about things non-mainstream enough to be cool. I had the sense that he didn’t actually like talking to me; he just liked hearing himself speak. There was no effort to sustain my attention, but there was disdain if I didn’t give it anyway. Talking to the indie man is like watching him masturbate: extremely pleasurable for him and he’s sure you’re enjoying it too, but it’s actually just tedious and uncomfortable for you.
At the time I was keen to justify the bad communication between us—I had just taken a gender class and believed I was a Big Girl Who Would Not Be Victimized By Emotionally Unhealthy Relationships. I was thinking, men are less likely to be empathetic, they are more solution-oriented; he doesn’t acknowledge my emotions because he’s too busy figuring out how we can solve this. I was doing all these mental gymnastics until I realized he would never do the same for me. I wondered how he was so quick to offer flattery when he didn’t even know me at all—he saw the kind of person he thought I was and decided he would date that person. The person he claimed he loved after a few days of talking didn’t exist.
While actually listening to you and your problems isn’t within their capabilities, indie men have no trouble professing their love in grand gestures. It’s easy to be wooed by this, but we know better than to trust the intensity of their judgement. (He did think you were the only girl in the entire world who listens to Still Woozy.) Love, for them, means surrendering your entire being. While this isn’t a new form of sexism, this time it comes with a veil of romance—being codependent must mean we fit each other so well. They need someone on whom to project their fantasies, a soundboard to stroke their ego, a mother figure to nurse their emotional immaturity, a female body to fetishize. Indie men see you as everything but your own person.
They will tell you they love you like their life depends on it, and in a way, it does—they have such an overblown view of love that your departure might as well be the catalyst of their lifelong misery. You are cared for and fawned over, like a delicate flower unable to stand on your own, until you leave and suddenly he’s a victim of this fucked-up world and you, the culprit, are the unfortunate recipient of his misogynist rage. “Women are nothing unless they’re willing to be everything to a man,” writes John Shakespear in an essay about the benevolent sexism of the indie male gaze. According to him, compared to the relative promiscuity of mainstream pop, the indie man’s ideal is an obsession, “a vision of monogamy oriented around the man’s existential salvation from a fucked-up world that doesn’t get him (or his weird music).”
From this we can uncover that their Man Pain is too often self-made feelings of disenfranchisement in a world where they don’t get what they believe they’re entitled to. If I were an indie (usually straight, usually white, usually middle-class) man, I for sure would be miserable if pretty women didn’t come talk to me when they overheard me listening to The Smiths in the office elevator. It happened to Tom, why didn’t it happen to me? But then again, if I were a straight, white, middle-class man, I would simply stop rewatching Joker and 500 Days of Summer and go take advantage of the system in place that still disproportionately benefits people like me.
What is behind this obsession with masochism, with aestheticizing pain by reliving it in music and movies? “Being ‘fucked up’ becomes a prerequisite for authenticity, especially in a genre that foregrounds its difference from mainstream culture,” writes Dr. Matthew Bannister in his book White Boys, White Noise: Masculinities and 1980s Indie Guitar Rock. Consequently, indie men express no willingness to un-fuck-up themselves because they like being defined by their pain. This isn’t to say men are absolutely prohibited from being sad ever, but it isn’t normal human behavior to want to cultivate that sadness, to unironically wear it as a badge of honor or a cause of nihilist superiority, especially if it has no tangible source. Treating loneliness and self-pity as cultural capital or symptoms of enlightenment is proof that you are the very opposite of enlightened: myopic, self-centered. “The ‘genius is pain’ discourse tends to underplay the degree to which the pain is actually suffered by other people, usually the artist’s family and friends,” adds Dr. Bannister.
While doing research for this essay I saw a WikiHow article called “How to be Indie (For Guys).” At first I questioned its legitimacy because there were no instructions on how to be a pretentious, self-serving asshole, but I guess indie men don’t need to be taught how to do that. But satirical as it may seem, the article reminds us what “indie” actually is before it got co-opted: breaking free from conformity. (Of course, if I were to rewrite that article it would simply be a list of therapists’ offices.) Nonconformity doesn’t have to mean fashioning a podium for yourself and carrying it around everywhere. If sexism is the norm, it means not being sexist; not Sexism Lite. “Being indie does not mean being a member of an exclusive club,” reads Step 2. “Posers will often ridicule other people who don’t conform to their belief systems. This is not being indie.” Text the link to your local indie man and ask, “Well, are you a poser? Yes you are. Change that.” (Introduce them to a female filmmaker while you’re at it.)
By Andrea Panaligan
Photo from Mid90s