Discover more from Culture Study
You Only Like the Beginning of Things
The allure of the celebrity romance narrative
There’s a scene in Season Four of Mad Men that’s never left me. Briefly: the show’s protagonist, serial cheater / womanizer Don Draper, has developed a relationship with the first woman who’s his true match (Dr. Faye Miller, known in the show as Dr. Faye). But then Draper gets scared, sees his secretary being kind and motherly to his children, and decides to follow that road instead. When he calls Dr. Faye to break it off, she gets in a real laser of a last line.
“I hope you’re very happy,” she says. “And I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things.”
I love this scene because I love Dr. Faye, like I love every woman on this show who isn’t Megan (yes, even Betty). But I also appreciate the wisdom of the line, which — back when I first heard it — was something I was only beginning to come to terms with myself, in my own romantic life. It’s easy to get addicted to beginnings. The first look. The meet-cute. The burgeoning tension, the will they or won’t they, the will-I-or-won’t-I. Everything up to that first kiss, which is exactly what those watching the Taylor Swift - Travis Kelce narrative got late Saturday night:
Enable 3rd party cookies or use another browser
If you want a primer on what’s going on with Swift and Kelce, you can find my earlier piece here. Since then, they have been slowly and meticulously (but somehow not annoyingly) going public with their relationship. There was an appearance at SNL, and a much-dissected walk from the car to a restaurant, and a bunch of speculation about how and whether he’d be able to come down to Argentina for this show. (If you want to get on board and aren’t already, may I recommend pursuing this story highlight on my Instagram). We’re talking a truly masterful drip of relationship content.
If you’re a big Swift fan, the interest in this romance makes sense. But I think a lot of people who consider themselves casual fans at best have been taken aback by their own investment. Tiktok is filled with this genre:
Enable 3rd party cookies or use another browser
And my DMs, after posting footage of the kiss, are too:
Lots of other celebrities have had cute and public relationships that have caught my interest. I was very into Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, for example, but they gave so little content to sustain that interest. They had the very beginning of a story (they supposedly started dating after re-enacting their kiss from The Notebook at the MTV Movie Awards, gotta admit it’s hot) and then it petered out.
But this narrative, it’s doing something different. Something far more deft, far more powerful. To be clear: I don’t think the relationship is fake. I just think Swift knows how to tell a really good love story. Bear with me and watch another TikTok:
Enable 3rd party cookies or use another browser
This TikTok evokes another narrative that sparked similarly flabbergasting investment — from millions of teenagers, but also from me and so many of my grown-ass friends. That narrative was Twilight, and whatever you think about its truly bonkers denouement and regressive politics, you can recognize that the desire at its core did something wild to so many readers of so many ages.
Back in the late 2000s, I did a very third-year-in-grad-school thing and decided to write about that negotiated feminist pleasure in the text. I surveyed a few dozen of my peers and their friends and people who read my old Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style Wordpress blog. Then I sorted through what they were telling me, trying to find frameworks that might explain what was going on.
Part of what we all liked was the opportunity the books provided to read like a teen — something I’ve since written about at length. But the best explanation I found for the story’s magnetism came from the theorist Elizabeth Cowie. As I wrote back then:
Cowie posits fantasy as a “mise-en-scene of desire”: a setting forth of an elaborate scene of drawn-out pleasure, of almosts and near-misses, of denial and the controlling of masculine and feminine subject positions. In Cowe’s words, “fantasy depends not on particular objects, but on their setting out; and the pleasure of fantasy lies in the setting out, not in the having of the objects.” Within this scenario, pleasure is not linked to consummation but rather to “the happening and the continuing to happen; in how it will come about, and not in the moment of having happened, when it will fall back into loss, the past.”
The slow burn of the last few months has provided deep anticipatory pleasure — for Swift and Kelce, sure (and there’s ample speculation about what good sex she’s having). But it’s also offering a secondary form of pleasure for the fans, who assemble the disparate threads of the narrative (by, for example, consuming the surprisingly entertaining podcast Kelce makes with his brother) or dissecting a handhold (and comparing it handholds in previous relationship + how Swift has previously written and spoken about handholds, etc. etc.).
Finding yourself enthralled by this sort of narrative…..it’s about Travis and Taylor, or Edward and Bella, or whoever, but it’s very much about you. Cowie argues that fantasies are “contingent” — meaning you can take the basic architecture of a narrative fantasy and decorate it with the specifics of your own experience. That doesn’t (necessarily) involve taking up the role of Taylor or Travis within the existing narrative. It means you think about a Taylor-and-Travis-like scenario unfurling in your own life. A hot, thoughtful, BIG guy who also appreciates and respects your power and talent? Hello!!! It fosters or returns you to a feeling of frisson, the near-nausea that is the falling in love, not the longer (and differently fulfilling) labor of love itself.
What does this mean for the weeks and months and years of Swift and Kelce to (potentially) come? Their relationship will always attract attention. But it’ll never be like this again. We might want nothing but happiness for Swift. That doesn’t mean we don’t like the beginning of that happiness most.
You could stop reading the essay there. It’s a decent ending point and certainly where pretty much any editor would tell me to stop. But you can also come with me as we dig a little deeper.
The great media studies scholar Richard Dyer famously argued that musicals offered audiences an experience of utopia: not what utopia would look like, but what it would feel like. It is not an escape from personal and societal problems, but a resolution. Not explicitly (the musical does not solve climate change or poverty, per se) but implicitly.
Here’s Dyer’s schematic, lovingly screenshotted from a scanned version of the article. There’s the “Social Tension/Inadequacy/Absence” on the left, and the Utopian Solution (as played out in the film) on the right:
If we think of Swift’s overall star text, her narrative, as a musical — which, I would argue, we definitely can — we can also see all the ways in which it has proffered utopian solutions amidst the expansive and abiding shit of the last decade plus.
Abundance: of music, first and foremost, but also of care (for her team, for her fans), in performance (3.5 hours of performing), and the sheer amount of “bonus” content (secret songs, easter eggs, outfit changes, Taylor’s Version deep cuts).
Intensity: A reminder that Taylor Swift Likes To Work. Likes it, loves it. Affectivity of living! All there!
Transparency: In her songwriting, first and foremost, replete with riddles designed to be deciphered, which is its own crafty form of transparency. It’s also notable how Swift creates feelings of intimacy (in her documentary, but also in small things like the “handwriting” font she uses to announce that a concert has been canceled due to extreme weather) within an incredibly curatednpublic persona.
Community: Swiftdom as movement, with concerts and cinema experiences as communal religious experiences that foster inter-generational and cross-national bonding.
When we think of the Kelce narrative within this larger schema of the Swift musical, I think the attraction to it becomes even more clear — particularly in this moment, when we are confronted daily with suffering so intense it eludes precise description.
When I go on Instagram, my Stories alternate between the reality on the ground in Gaza or continued calls for a ceasefire….and news of this kiss. Sometimes that whiplash happens in one person’s stories. You might think that’s crass, or, depending on your proximity to the violence, utterly imaginable. You might think it’s evidence that someone doesn’t really care, and in some cases, that might be the case.
But in many cases, and certainly in mine, it means quite the opposite. It means they care so much that they must occasionally seek utopia, no matter the form, no matter how seemingly dissonant. We return to fantasy not to forget, but to remember: other futures are possible. ●
For today’s discussion, I’d be interested in hearing your own analysis of your investment in this particularly narrative….or a *differently* romance (not your own!) that’s enthralled you in a different way. We can also talk about the role of entertainment amidst public and personal trauma, how “escapism” got a bad rap, and how social media complicates all of this. This is a conversation with a high level of difficulty….but I also think we’ve shown that we can handle other difficult conversations. Nevertheless, I'll be monitoring the comments closely.