Like many my age, I was introduced in grade school to the myth of the left and right brain—the idea that emotional impulses were anatomically opposed to rational thinking. Although debunked in 2013, the idea was persuasive enough to convince a generation of people that the mind was inherently segregated. I remember in third grade producing a representation of my brain, the right half composed of a colorful collage of magazine photographs, the left half a maze of equations and statements of logic. Even then, I thought that, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, the left side was just as beautiful as the right. When I shared this observation with my teacher, he informed me that I was obviously just a right-brained person.
As emotionally heated as my thinking may have been then, even the cool hand of reason must admit that the romantic comedy—perhaps the second most-emotional type of movie, behind only melodrama—is a genre obsessed with numbers. From time (500 Days of Summer) to opinions (10 Things I Hate About You) to odds (50/50) to events (Four Weddings and a Funeral) to event-specific clothing (27 Dresses), the rom-com loves to count. And although it may seem that these numbers are only there as window dressing, that they are counted only in the objective sense, it is clear from the content of the films that they really count in the subjective sense as well. They represent some of the most fundamental questions that compose the underlying conflict of the genre: how old is too old for love (The 40-Year-Old Virgin)? How is a relationship supposed to develop (The Five-Year Engagement)? What does a mature attitude to love look like (13 Going on 30)? What is sexy to me (50 Shades of Grey)?
Additionally, this fascination with numericity is unique to the more recent genre of the romantic comedy; counting is glaringly absent from its ancestor, the screwball comedy. There, only one number matters: the number one. In films such as One Sunday Afternoon and It Happened One Night, the numeral indicates the singularity of the event. The one here matters because it is unique. The one Sunday afternoon in question is the one where a forlorn dentist decides not to kill his rival and learns to love his wife. The one night is the one where a woebegone reporter and a discontented heiress meet and fall in love. These afternoons and nights are noteworthy because they cannot be compared to others. They count because they cannot be counted. Their titles express a kind of disbelief that something so repeatable could give birth to such unique events: can you believe it just up and happened one night?
A rom-com, on the other hand, depends upon the likeness between the repeatable sequence of events and the supposed exception. Any one afternoon, night, or romantic partner is enjoyed for its congruence rather than its exceptionality. For example, in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Ben (Matthew McConaughey) is presented as one among many potential partners for Andie (Kate Hudson), just as Andie is one among many women for Ben—even if they are the best example, they remain just that: an example. As Andie falls for Ben, she tells her editor that she can’t go through with her article (the eponymous “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”) because she has “gotten to know this guy.” Ben, upon discovering the premise for their relationship, confirms her reading by declaring, “You wanted to lose a guy in ten days…You just lost him.” Even as Ben argues that he should not be the guy she loses, he affirms that he is in fact a guy (this is made even clearer in a scene when Andie attempts to drive Ben away by interrupting guys’ night, where he is just one of the guys). Andie responds in kind, accusing him of thinking of her as “just a girl somebody picked out in a bar.” The message here, roughly translated: I am a girl, but not just a girl to be picked out at random!1 This mode of logical thinking bleeds into the romantic language of their courtship—Ben sends Andie roses with a note that reads, “100 times more beautiful than 100 roses.” Love as algebra.
If it seems my point is to dunk on How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days for its incorporation of numerical reasoning into its emotional plot, then I am doing a poor job. Frankly, I love the film, and the sentimental quantification of its human subjects is part of what I love. Like my third grade self, I still look at formulae and see beauty. While there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about this, it can feel radical in a society where the affective potency of numbers is severely underappreciated. Certain numbers are recognized for their great emotional significance (birthdays and anniversaries are the most obvious examples), but other numbers have their psychological weight generally repressed. Consider the student or employee identification number: from the bird’s-eye view, a sign of soulless bureaucracy ruthlessly mastering unique individuality. But from the personal perspective, they can be elegant synecdoches of growth, development, struggle, or triumph; entering six digits to register for classes for eight consecutive terms may seem robotic, but entering those same six digits to register for commencement produces a whole new affect. Consider as well the three-digit area code, now for many in the age of smartphones a persistent sign of their first home. The PIN on your debit card could mean anxiety—waiting to see if you can pay for your groceries—or excitement—waiting for the crisp bills and the dream of what they will purchase. The amount of money you make in a year could be a great pride or a bitter shame. The totality of your debt could be the thing you think the most about. In a time where numbers mean so much to us, and we have so few places to articulate and communicate those meanings, the number in the rom-com provides a rare moment of recognition and identification. The viewer is free to say: I, too, love and hate, laugh and cry, with numbers.
It is only in the context of a social world where the emotional role played by counting is overdetermined, while representation of that role is underexplored, that I can explain my love of the only rom-com I know that directly references numbers in its title: Mark Mylod’s 2011 film What’s Your Number? There, an extremely psychologically fraught number becomes the focus of the entire plot, essentially serving as the single motivating factor for all of the main character’s actions. This number is what is now commonly referred to as body count: the number of sexual partners you have had. Ally (Anna Faris) discovers through a Marie Claire article that, according to Harvard scientists, women who have had over 20 sex partners are statistically prohibited from getting married.2 Having herself recently acquired the 20th notch in her bedpost, Ally determines that her only choice is to reverse course through her previous paramours in order to find a suitable husband. One by one, she bellies up to her past conquests only to discover that they (or occasionally she) cannot cut the mustard as life-partner material.
Calling reviews of the film mixed is generous; even the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes—famously more forgiving to “fun” genres like the rom-com—sits at 44%. The film certainly does enough to deserve this reputation on its own; Ally’s eventual love interest, Colin, is played by a strangely aloof Chris Evans, whose costume of baggy cargo shorts and screen-printed t-shirts reads more like an overgrown middle-schooler than a lovable slob. Additionally, several sequences involve Jacob’s Ladder-esque editing where characters’ heads and limbs fly around frantically as if they have lost motor control. The first time I watched the sequence of Ally vibrating wildly as she drinks a glass of wine and Googles her exes before collapsing on her keyboard, I thought she had died—an unexpected shock in a formulaic genre!
However, some of the criticism of the movie fails to grasp the potency of its intervention at the level of its central plot device. One reviewer suggested that the film “takes place in a strange time warp where attitudes about sex and promiscuity change dramatically from scene to scene. In one sequence, members of a bridal party trade bawdy sex talk; in another, a future mogul expresses something approaching horror at the prospect that a woman…might have had sex with more than two people.” In a pre-#MeToo environment, perhaps the opposition between sexual openness among women in private and sexual repression aimed at women from powerful men could seem irreconcilable, but now it is recognizable as The Way Things Are.3 The fundamental question posed by the number in What’s Your Number? is an intimate one to any woman living in a patriarchy: how much sex are you allowed to want and still be considered desirable? In this context, it’s important to note that the authors of both the screenplay and its source novel (20 Times a Lady by Karyn Bosnak) are women. Both found the idea of the most prestigious university in the world putting a hard cap on the number of sexual partners a woman is allowed if she wants to get married believable enough to act as the backbone of a romance firmly staged in a recognizable reality.4
If the film fails, it is therefore because it is not fun enough—that its premise is too grim and recognizable to give birth to the pleasures of a carefree love affair. In point of fact, the normal narrative flow of the rom-com is reversed, yielding something like a satanic message warbling out of a heavy metal record played backward. Ally, like most rom-com ingénues, begins the film by breaking up with her current partner. In the expected course of events, this would lead her to meet cute with the new, Actual Partner of Her Dreams—as in another numerically-inclined rom-com, Table 19, in which Eloise (Anna Kendrick) stumbles across a new love at the wedding of her recent ex-boyfriend’s sister. However, because of the intervention of one Harvard-approved number, Ally cannot move on but must fall back, attempting to reignite a flame with bygone lovers. The premise, in this light, supports the film’s use of horror-genre editing techniques (the above mentioned speeding up and slowing down of recording speed, cacophonous extradiegetic sound, Faris’s occasional outbursts of diabolical laughter). Everyone knows that just because you first watched Sixteen Candles with an old boyfriend doesn’t mean you can’t watch it with a new boyfriend and enjoy it again. What’s Your Number? proposes the nightmare of having to watch a new rom-com with your first boyfriend. Early in the film, Ally asks an ur-question of the genre: “How many relationships do I have to have before I meet the right guy?” That there could be an actual answer—you only get 20 sexual partners to find him—is terrifying.
This terror is unmistakably gendered (it would be hard to imagine, at least in the US, a man feeling the same sense of shame and panic over his body count); moreover, to many viewers, it will be inextricably entangled with the film’s lead actress and her career. Anna Faris is widely considered to be the most talented woman to never find the right film for her talent. One can easily imagine her, in the spirit of Ally, asking, “How many caricatures do I have to play before I’m given a fully-realized character?” In a New Yorker profile written on her during the filming of What’s Your Number?, a group of A-list comedic actors, including Seth Rogen, Ryan Reynolds, and (Faris’s ex-husband) Chris Pratt, all praise her as one of the funniest people they know. Even though her roles leave much to be desired—Playboy Bunny (The House Bunny), unhinged ex (Just Friends), perpetually incompetent victim of a haunting (the Scary Movie series)—she always commits to them with energy and a sense of charismatic self-possession. When, in the midst of an argument with Monty (played by Reynolds) over their failed relationship in Waiting…, Faris’s character Serena says “The only real pleasure I ever got from having sex with you came from making fun of it later with my friends,” she manages to make it sound less like a vindictive attack and more like a parent gently rebuking a child. It is the delivery and not the line that provides the humor, such that, when Reynolds responds “God, I love her,” it is the audience and not the other characters who agree most. Yet the movie industry of the late ‘90s and early 2000s remained hesitant to produce a film that highlighted her humor. Stacey Snider, CEO of DreamWorks Studios at the time, is reported in the profile as saying, “In my experience, girls’ revealing themselves as candid and raunchy doesn’t appeal to guys at all…And girls aren’t that into it, either.” Author Tad Friend concludes that Faris “increasingly has to choose between being original and being a star.”
This choice, stamped and delivered by a misogynistic culture industry, parallels the choice confronting Ally: hope for new love or get married. In the example of Faris, the hard cap of 20 seems generous; browsing her IMDb page, it becomes obvious that the film industry offered her only a few leading roles before she had to confront the possibility of retiring from acting. “How many chances do I get to be a funny woman in Hollywood?”—a question with a real limit. Watching Faris play Ally as she attempts to count backwards through 20 ex-partners, all of them played by men whose careers have eclipsed hers (Pratt, Andy Samberg, Martin Freeman, Joel McHale, Anthony Mackie, Aziz Ansari), is its own uncanny experience.
In spite of its exploration of the oppressively gendered sexual expectations of our society, both in its content and surrounding context, What’s Your Number? offers its heroine a happy ending. Ally ends up with Colin—who, to the film’s credit, seems not just to tolerate but also embrace her sexual history. “I’m a jobless whore who’s slept with 20 guys, and I want to be with somebody who appreciates that about me,” Ally explains, and the movie doesn’t begrudge her that desire.
But—and this is very important—the film doesn’t retreat from its premise that 20 serves as the mythical boundary between sexual exploration and commitment. In perhaps the finest deus ex machina ever conceived, one of her 20 former sex partners leaves her a voicemail informing her that he never actually had sex with her. The day is saved! Colin, as her actual 20th notch in the bedpost, is free to propose—although, and this is also very important, we never see him getting down on one knee to do it.
In keeping its ridiculous totem of 20 intact at the end, What’s Your Number? doesn’t abandon its observation that real numerical limits do exist. The genre knows this as well, for however eternally hope springs anew, everyone will have only so many love affairs in their life. Even though it’s not only ridiculous but also hateful to suggest that surpassing a certain limit of sex partners will prevent a woman from being married, it’s a fact that everyone will have a countable number of sex partners (and a countable number of marriages) when everything is summed up. Death—a figure lurking in the wings of the rom-com, a genre often concerned with the passage from youth into maturity—serves as the end of the number line, a perspective beyond the equal sign from which a final account is possible. Knowing as we do that we will give and receive a discrete number of kisses, go on a calculable number of dinner dates, watch a fixed number of movies, how can we fail to see the emotional centrality of the number to the rom-com?
Desire is a funny thing. It demands most its continuation, meaning that it needs things to want infinitely more than it needs things to have. This explains many phenomena, from the disappointment one feels after the arrival of frivolous online purchases to the fact that rom-coms tend to end at the point a relationship begins. The moment I have the thing I want, I become desperate for something else to want. Failing to find this new thing is a real crisis: the DSM notes that the major difference between experiencing sadness and clinical depression is that the latter is marked by not wanting to do anything.
What’s Your Number? wonders what would happen if you were forced to only want the things you’ve already wanted and moved on from. It mirrors Friedrich Nietzche’s famous challenge of the eternal return: the idea that an honorable life would be one you wouldn’t cringe to live over and over again. Nietzsche asks: if a demon told you that you’d have to do everything all over again, including the time you fell down in front of your crush in middle school, “Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?” Or would you, like Ally, put on your heels and makeup and head out on all those miserable dates again?
However accurate my grade school teacher was in diagnosing me as an emotionally-focused, right-brained thinker, I blossomed into quite the mathematician: I skipped several grades, and, in my senior year of high school, scored in the top one percent of students on the standardized state math exam. For this achievement, I was invited to a lunch at the prestigious Multnomah Athletic Club, hosted by a society of actuaries. For those who, like me at the time, do not know what an actuary does, I will summarize in the words of the affable man who explained it to me at that lunch: “I use math to figure out when someone will die.” He went on to explain, as I sat horror-stricken in my uncomfortable and poorly-fitting formal wear, that insurance companies need to have a good idea of when someone’s life will end in order to know what to charge them for life insurance. With a conspiratorial grin, he added that romance was as key a factor as avoiding cigarettes, for without a good love life “you’re toast.”
In the moment, learning that my future sex life could be plugged into an equation in between my red meat intake and my exercise regimen to determine the date I would die was crushing. For many years after, I would look back on that lunch and shudder—surely there could be no hope if everything in the end is just to be counted! But I would have done well to remember the lesson of my grade school self, to continue to see the beauty even in the formulae that sum up our habits, experiences, and life choices. Crossing the equal sign and pining for one more chance to avoid it is a false destiny—just one reading among many. Hope is not the promise of escaping the count by always searching for the someone or something new that has not been counted; hope persists in the possibility that, when the final count is tallied and nothing novel can be admitted, there will still be plenty to desire.
- Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer suggest that this trend of film characters becoming modes of broad categories begins in post-WWII Hollywood. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, they write: “By imposing an essential sameness on their characters…to the point of excluding any faces which do not conform—for example, those which, like Garbo’s, do not look as if they would welcome the greeting “Hello, sister”—the ideology does, it is true, make life initially easier for the spectators. They are assured that they do not need to be in any way other than they are.” For Adorno and Horkheimer, the categories within the film that produce countable characters extend to the audience—watching a film means the possibility of being one among other ones, of thinking I am a guy just like Ben! or I am a girl just like Andie! However, while Adorno and Horkheimer suggest that such identifications create complacency among film audiences who would otherwise benefit from advocating for equity and social justice, it is also the case that learning to articulate those identifications leads to stronger communal bonds among oppressed classes. If every viewer can be like the people they see onscreen, then they can also identify with each other—a form of political solidarity.
- I have no idea why I feel compelled to put this in a footnote, but the article and Harvard study do not exist.
- As Sarah Marshall put it in a recent episode of her podcast You’re Wrong About, “In American history…there has never been a correct amount of sex for women to be having.”
- An executive at Fox, the studio that produced What’s Your Number?, did not want the number in question to be 20, but instead one.