The Overly Attached Girlfriend’s desire isn’t oriented towards sex or even a boyfriend; both are just means to maximal intensity of feeling
This is the age of intensity and not of duration. The implicit premise of the Overly Attached Girlfriend, a popular YouTube series that originated as a meme in 2012, is this: A pretty young white woman has absorbed the lessons of pop music without irony, in the atmosphere of total surveillance exemplified by Facebook and the NSA, and now believes that love should be conducted in conditions of panoptic intensity. Each of the videos by YouTube star Laina, in her guise as the Overly Attached Girlfriend, have at least six-figure viewing numbers. Not a single one is all that funny. She remains very popular.
Jameson says of Warhol that if the work isn’t critique then he wants to know why. Laina isn’t making an explicit critique, and here is the reason. One side of the joke — that a woman would have to be crazy to long for entry into a couple — is negated by the other — that a woman who can’t negotiate her way into a couple is crazy. The coin turns on the woman’s possible worth and worthlessness, both of which are unstable even though the Overly Attached Girlfriend is a young, attractive white woman. Even (or perhaps most of all) in the gated community of middle-class white womanhood, women not only can’t have what they want, they are barred from frank expressions of wanting.
The Overly Attached Girlfriend began as a single image, multiply inflected with different captions. The logic of the meme: It must be instantly understood. Her huge eyes are fixed wide open in her otherwise unremarkable face, a face that avoids censure by being white, untroublingly pretty, young, etc.; all that could be condemned is held in the eyes, which won’t give up their object. She is a contemporary spin on the ancient European slur against women that they desire too much. Now, at least in most mainstream discourse, feels-shaming is more common than slut-shaming: the shame of being too much or too little, too warm or too cold, too ambivalent or too certain. Successful attachments, we are told, are pragmatic fusions of compatible values, something to work on, replete with quasi-contractual obligations to tell the truth, empathize, etc. Unsuccessful attachments, on the other hand, are failures of competence, embarrassingly lacking in the reality principle.
But don’t they, the purveyors of healthy attachments, know that duration is over, and this is the age of intensity? (For some, especially many of those not included in the institution of the White Family, duration never even really began.) The OAG embodies communications technology of all kinds, from social media to the recording device — she is the NSA in the form of a pretty white girl. She often threatens to attach recording devices to her mysterious lover, whom she is utterly bored by except when he is absent or threatening to leave her. This joke is how Laina signals that the Overly Attached Girlfriend is truly insane, as in so many other ways she seems quite ordinary. The world is increasingly communicative and demanding of attention and participation through technology, but it’s still mostly women who are construed as the agents of this excess. “Call him! Email him!” urges the Overly Attached Girlfriend of her fellow overly attached girls. Meanwhile, governments, like tight-lipped silent dads, collect all complaints and love letters as evidence of the population’s inconvenient surfeit of life.
What is the OAG’s origin? She is a new form of the cinematic Tragic Heroine, sharing some of her predecessor’s characteristics, inventing some new ones. She transmits herself faster, compresses more (this is the age of intensity). She cares less. She is what a girl in some kind of love with a boy looks like now that full institutional heterosexuality is over, or over, at least, in the minority world. The Tragic Heroine was one of the key figures of the invention of an erotics of heterosexual desire, which emerged alongside the invention of homosexuality as identity. (Imagine her as one card in a Tarot deck that also includes the Ice Queen, the Self-Hating Slut, the Teenager in Love, etc.) Her fatal flaw was her attraction to catastrophe; her other fatal flaw was her fidelity in love. The OAG — in her more baldly expressed ambivalence, her blank affect, her death-grip on perceived promises — represents the struggling decline, hopefully terminal, of the straight couple as normative destiny. Monogamy is over, long-term job contracts are over, retirement is over, mortgages are over, cinema is over (kind of), novels are over (pretty much), content is compressed into a single fleeting moment: the meme. Everything you need to understand you need to understand immediately. One date, one kiss, one glimpse is enough.
This is the age of intensity and not of duration. We begin again and again, we are all beginning and no middle or ending, or all three are collapsed into each other. Unlike the Tragic Heroine, the Overly Attached Girlfriend does not originate in cinema. Cinematic narrative still exists as spectacle, but the spectacle no longer unfolds over time, over any particular historical time. She is a meme and no more than a meme.
She is not unattractive, in a clean way, an ascetic and antiseptic cleanliness. In one video, a voice from off-camera instructs Laina, “Your ear is showing.” The performer hurriedly covers the visible ear with her hair. Nothing specific is left of her, she is a smooth, wipe-clean surface, uncontaminated by sex, which might inconveniently interrupt her desire. She is pure desire and desire’s negation.
She’s at her most endearing when spoofing pop lyrics. In her breakthrough video, she sings a parody of Justin Bieber’s “If I Was Your Boyfriend.” “If I was your girlfriend/I’d follow you everywhere.” The lyrics, only slightly contorted from the original, and, significantly, re-gendered, take the surreal intensity of Bieber’s offer and turn it into violence, the kind of muted, self-hating violence that Girlfriends are capable of. Laina’s video doesn’t really respond to Bieber’s song, because the two intensities could never meet in the middle. The convergence between the central text of Laina’s video and the subtext of Bieber’s career is that the hysterical love he inspires in his fans over-literalizes his sexual promise and so renders it asexual, perfect for a teen dream. Although some of Laina’s videos reference sex, her desire isn’t oriented towards sex, or even particularly towards a boyfriend; both are just means to maximal intensity of feeling. Bieber too stands for sex without sex. The sex he has is transactional, and lives in the conditional tense of business deals: If you hire me I will do this, I will perform that. If I were your boss oops boyfriend I would spend every day with you.
Bieber could have been an Overly Attached Girlfriend, but he chose to be the bored seducer instead, pressing buttons on bodies he could never love because they respond too easily to his insincerity. Perhaps their ease secretly wounds him; bored seducers are dying of love inside as much as all of us, though in their case they are dying of the knowledge that if someone takes your insincerity as sincerity, it means the person could never really love you. Bieber could have been an Overly Attached Girlfriend if he took his own professions of love more seriously, but because he is also a young white man, he doesn’t have to suffer his own attachments. He allows himself to be filmed sleeping because he knows how to dream of himself.
Everyone hears the lesson of their own lives in pop songs, but pop music still has nothing to tell us. It’s what emotion might become when divested (cleansed?) of its learned hopelessness. Love is the catastrophe of openness to another, but what made openness so catastrophic? Laina may be right to mock over-attachment. We might not live long enough to see any improvement in the conditions for feeling. She is certainly right that unreciprocated love will probably, for all our lifetimes, remain ridiculous. But over-attachment knows no shame other than the shame of not being loved.
Love at present is always about gender, just as beauty at present is always about white supremacy. The Overly Attached Girlfriend pretends not to know this. She is so white she hurts the eyes. She is a vacuum in which only whiteness appears. Looking at her I am looking at my own invisibility. A black woman who over-attached to a white boy would know how to be ironic about herself. She would begin in irony: Imagine how strange and difficult it would be if you would love me! Her over-attachment would be more playful and much sadder. But I’m only talking about myself. Laina is not: Laina makes no confessions.
The couple is airless, the girlfriend is a shut wardrobe, boyfriends are cellars. In one typically unfunny sketch, the boyfriend tries to break up with the OAG, then gives up when she threatens him with a knife. But she stays in her halfway condition, both with him and not, because otherwise she will die. In this way they are in the same boat. Death is the sign ruling everything, but it is the most banal and stupid kind of death, a realistic death, a suburban death with no special character. She attaches and then she can’t detach.
In the great cinema melodramas, the cameras tip and swirl. The OAG, as necessitated by YouTube convention, usually appears in one fixed shot, head and shoulders and huge eyes, at her computer. This is a melodrama without movement, inert. Sometimes we see her elsewhere in the house, but never outside. This is something she has in common with the Tragic Heroine of melodrama, who also belongs to the interior. The Tragic Heroine lives in lush technicolour parlours, full of ornament, rugs, marble, silverware, candles, flowers. She only goes outside to procure interesting injuries to help her concentrate on her love-racked body. In the first scene of Fassbinder’s great melodrama In A Year of Thirteen Moons (1978), Elvira is beaten up while cruising in a park and comes home, where her lover forces her face towards a mirror so she can witness her own shame. She is victorious in his disgust and in her endless stupid love. The OAG’s eyes, by contrast, have no articulation, are forever fixed at their widest aperture. They are impenetrable orifices, they are virginal, they have never seen anything, that’s why she is always looking so hard into the camera.
Fassbinder was interested in the Tragic Heroine, although I don’t think he was one himself — his attachments were too various. His work in the 1970s describes the continuities between fascism and the German post-war ‘economic miracle,’ simultaneous with the US Fordism which has now become the shorthand for the highpoint of the brief détente between labour and capital. His career straddles the transition phase, in the west, between the post-war ‘family wage’ era towards today’s more fragmentary, faster-moving modes of capitalist valorization, which are not as dependent on state management of the family to mediate between the individual and capital.
In A Year of 13 Moons describes the slow death of Elvira, who made herself a woman for the love of one man, only to find out he didn’t want her either way. She surfs the contempt of men/the sympathy of women until the wave breaks. The eponymous heroine of The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) builds a world around her love for her husband even though they only ever spend one night together. In Fox and His Friends (1974), the ugly proletarian hero gives everything, all his unexpected luck, to his handsome bourgeois boyfriend, wrongly assuming that he will know when to stop taking. Fassbinder’s Tragic Heroines are a way of talking about capitalism and the state. When Maria or Elvira or Fox die for their lovers, however they die, their lovers embody the savagery of a society mediated by money. In that sense there are no hard feelings. All the love objects are undeserving of the love lavished on them: They are silly, or cruel, or absent, or boring, or they have terrible taste. That is their job. The Tragic Heroine does everything else.
The Tragic Heroine can get a lot out of a little. What she can’t do is find a balance between her inability to take a disgusting world seriously and her longing for connection. At first glance she seems anachronistic, a love traditionalist, but on reflection it is impossible to assign her to any particular era. Perhaps she is an anachronism from a time that has yet to come. In any case, the Tragic Heroine is usually a woman, not in the biological sense but in the sense that she perceives the world as happening inside her rather than extrinsically.
The Tragic Heroine’s beauty is immoderate, her capacity to suffer is immoderate, she is immoderately “female” no matter what gender her body is assigned. Elvira has to stay in a body she invented for a failed love. Everyone who falls in love is this bodiless woman, or drags the body of a woman around; that’s why so many men (who have something to lose) fall safely in love with images, or not at all.
Unlike the OAG, the Tragic Heroine is not interested in surveillance. She is not interested in anything apart from her own feelings, which is not to say she is only interested in herself, because her feelings are collectivized, always for someone else. Beyond that she is languid and uninterested in the outside world except as a stage on which to play out moments in the intensity of her feeling. Her love has no real narrative structure, although it’s very dramatic: She loves immediately, deeply, and forever, and if you want anything else in the way of plot you have to look elsewhere. Nothing develops or unfolds, she reaches maximal intensity and then stays there until she dies. Possibly the worst thing anyone could do to her is fully return her love. Then she would be stuck at home forever (like the tormented heroine of another Fassbinder film, Martha); then she could no longer be too much, violently rendered just enough.
The Tragic Heroine understands the immanent meaning in sex. For her sex is full, swollen with significance, mimetic of itself, as Adorno says of artwork. Under one of Laina’s videos, someone has commented, “I would fuck her all day long.” This person hasn’t understood anything: One Overly Attached Girlfriend or Tragic Heroine can never be with another. In such love stories both lovers have to die as soon as possible, nothing can be done with them. Juliet’s tragedy in Romeo and Juliet is quite different from that of the true Tragic Heroine: Romeo denies her the pleasure of her longing, catches her out, by answering back from the shadows beneath the balcony. Go back into language, she tries to tell him, but he refuses. So they both have to die. A structural hetero-ness persists everywhere in this rule of the asymmetry of desire. Two equally desiring subjects meet nowhere except perhaps momentarily in sex. In every other way, heterosexuality is over, but they forgot to tell us. It is at once dismantled and generalized. The couple form is no longer a mediation between capitalism and the individual: Now it stands for the full capitalization of private life. What used to be a mediating layer now fucks you directly.
Attachment theory was popularized in the post-war period, influencing western states’ approach to the management of families (home-based care rather than institutions, extended maternity leave, etc). Its focus on the primary carer/child relationship effectively delineates the precarity of object relations, of the parent who is always leaving or inadequate or suspicious exactly because she is so beloved, so frighteningly singular. “Good” attachment patterns supposedly allow people to bear the flux of leaving and arriving, allow us to love where we are loved. But “good” attachments are a fiction while the world remains ruined; the gape of the OAG’s eyes is more accurate than the smiling stock-image couple balancing love with love.
Over-attachment is maximal, expansive: it uses words like always and never and every day and so much and so true. It is fiercely metonymic: my heart, my hand, inside me; one night is a relationship, one phone call might as well turn into ten, one person is the world. But it’s also a minimal form of life, because it requires so little to spin itself upon. Nothing you can say about love is too much or too ridiculous because at its heart there is a secret indifference. You pass through intensity into numbness and then you know everything and you can go on again, do your laundry, go to the supermarket, whatever. It’s because of this indifference that a fast-food restaurant bathroom is just as good as a bed, in fact only from the purest and most heart-rending love would you fuck there on a first date (as one video reveals about the OAG). In the secular world only the image of love can convert abasement into joy; that’s what makes sluts so sympatisch.
The power of elective suffering is that it usefully conceals whether or not you would have been made to suffer anyway. Suffering for love makes an unrequited love feel reciprocal; if it hurts it’s like they’re bothering to touch you. A friend told me that desiring without reciprocation is a form of violence. I didn’t want to think I was violent. But maybe I am, using emotional terrorism against what I experience, perhaps wrongly, as patriarchal alienation. Desiring without being desired in return is a kind of temporary fix — not a good one, only one with advantages — for the problem of being desired as a woman, or as a racialized person. When I think about the difficulty of accepting oneself as an object of desire in those mutually desiring relationships we’re all supposed to have, I think about how blackness or queerness or even being gendered female in a white male supremacist world can make it hard to accept love because you are encouraged from childhood to hate yourself. Meanwhile, despite all efforts to construct the political institution of heterosexuality as a form of mutual tenderness between people, men (as a group) have yet to learn to love women (as a group), and despite the irrepressible persistence of desire between women, women (as a group) still struggle to love themselves.
Now there are no layers of mediation between us and them (as Federici says, “Women are more autonomous from men, but less autonomous from capitalism”), and I don’t know what will happen, now there is neither form nor immediacy, there is only the moment of transmission without end, the invisible and fleeting transactions that subtend the visible world, the mismatched and unrequitable love of money for itself, no longer successfully able to self-valorize: Capitalism as Tragic Heroine, forever committed to a lost moment of promise. The forms must be overcome but the only way to do that is through an engagement with forms, if only as de-creation. Lyotard said that the job of the contemporary artist is to accelerate formal obsolescence. Who is a more paradigmatic accelerator than the creator of a meme? You saw it once and you understood everything. Subsequent iterations were only for the pleasure of repetition, or to show that you understood, and therefore that you yourself could be understood.
The OAG would do anything for her man, including die, which is how you know when she threatens her boyfriend with a knife she is not serious. The Tragic Heroine would die to fulfil an aesthetic decision, she’s such a modernist. The OAG would only die for an audience. But the question for women-identified people is how not to want to die. We might have to learn how to wish others dead instead. If love and sex have kept the OAG from her anger then she must learn to grow tired of them. Men could have loved women more, back when we still had full institutional heterosexuality, but they didn’t, because women are providers of services, not agents. They are luxury goods or bargains. In return women can do one of the following: attempt to be loved as such (provide incomparably excellent services); demand to be loved anyway (“see beyond my servitude!”), or forget about the whole thing. None of these choices is without some kind of pain. There must be another position, but we won’t find it on YouTube. Violent immovable attachment to one’s impossible position — the Tragic Heroine and the OAG have this in common.
The world where sociality is calculated in death or lifelessness (the office and the grave) also conditions our relationships with each other. Both too-much-ness and inadequacy, under- and over-attachment, can be construed as challenges to commensuration, attempts to evade the bounds of rational measure by falling radically below or wildly exceeding what is called for. Even intimate relationships without differences in gender, race, or class often falter against the obstacle of impossible differences in quantity or quality of desire. Yet sociality and the drive for shared pleasure must also form the basis for the possibility of communism. Some kind of transformative force is generated in the tension between the image of happiness and the experience of its impossibility.
Correct attachments are for the White Family; for the rest of us — people of color, queers, queers of color, single women, and so on, that whole mixed and conflicted bag of lives — there is whatever we can make do with, there are brief moments and long memories, there is daydream and pop music. For the White Family love is health, but for us love is at once a symbol of a possible future, a vanishing present, and the sign of the patriarchal white permafrost that threatens to destroy us. If we are ambivalent about love in its present form, it is only because, against the odds, we choose to feel something other than hatred.
Girl, you have always done too much or too little, and you are always too much or too little already. You are a mess of emotions, you live hand-to-mouth and from one day to the next, the slightest touch sends you into raptures or turns you cold as ice. It’s an achieved miracle, a form of heroism, that you still consent to be touched at all.