graphic by Claire Tumey
I Want to Fight Jesse Eisenberg
When I sit back Nicole Kidman-style in a movie theater and see the giant likenesses of the Jesse Eisenbergs of the world, I see reflections of my own past mistakes.
By Claire Tumey
On the third floor of 520 8th Avenue lies the spaces occupied by the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, or A.R.T. for short. I’ve been here many times on all sorts of occasions: rehearsals, auditions, read-throughs, and recently, a job interview. I’ve spent four years trying to find fulfilling, steady work in the New York Metropolitan Area Arts Industry, frequenting this particular array of rooms and studios, and yet on this day I noticed for the first time the presence of one Jesse Eisenberg.
Jesse Eisenberg, I’m sure you’re aware, is an American actor currently treading the boards wherever one seeks a fast-talking, skinny, approachably attractive, neurotic white guy. He is one of the many answers to one of many a white male millennial filmmaker’s questions: “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Woody Allen?” A show image of Eisenberg from his play Asuncion, produced by Rattlestick Theatre Company at Cherry Lane Theatre in 2011, is part of a promotional placard in the A.R.T. space. It depicts a young Eisenberg in a hallmark striped shirt, looking up with a palpable sense of wistful, boyish wonder so expertly tinged with an air of skepticism. His character in Asuncion was described by the World-Renowned, TERF-Apologist News Source The New York Times as “confused and aimless,” which is so funny to me because that is also how I could describe any white man I’ve ever had any kind of sexual encounter with. Eisenberg doesn’t know this, but I’m an actor too. I never saw Asuncion; in 2011, I was thirteen and living in Western Kentucky. I am much more familiar with Eisenberg’s film career. And it’s true, when I sit back Nicole Kidman-style in the last row of a movie theater and see projected before me the giant likenesses of the Jesse Eisenbergs and Timothee Chalamets and Michael Ceras and Nicholas Brauns of the world, I see reflections of my own past mistakes. “Yes, yes,” you cinema buffs muse in retort, swirling your wine and puffing your spliffs, “This is sort of the point, n’est ce pas?”
So I’m at this interview, wearing an outfit I chose poorly yet earnestly with a nebulous idea of “business casual” in mind, looking at this image of a twiggy, seemingly non-threatening male actor, and I’m filled with this inexplicable urge to fight him. Not in a way that would cause any real injury—I always shied away from the MMA culture that permeated my Midwestern upbringing in secret favor of the more theatrical offerings of John Cena’s WrestleMania. Perhaps I want to meet Eisenberg in the ring for a meticulously choreographed takedown, or I want to scramble and slide around a mudpit with him, struggling to wrap my limbs around him and pin him to the ground, like a dirty little hog at my hometown’s 4-H Fair.
Now is the time I’d like to give the caveat that I’m not, nor have I ever been known to be, a violent person. I’ve never been in a fight that wasn’t entirely verbal and pitted against my own mother. My desire to become physical with this total stranger comes from a completely unfamiliar place—hence my obsession with understanding this animalistic impulse.
No doubt, the concurrence of this encounter with my desperate search for a job can account for some of that aggression. It’s disheartening at best to be one of thousands of twenty-somethings in constant competition for jobs with pay rates in the teens-per-hour.
Or perhaps it’s that bit about sexual desire and confused, aimless men. I’ve had one long-term quasi-relationship, but he doesn’t fit into the category of aimless (though, we can be sure, this man was confused). So I’ll leave him off the record—one day maybe I’ll be able to be brave enough to write something about him. No, I’m here to talk about the OTHER little ratf*cks in my life—men I chose out of what I tell myself is a deep-seated desire to feel in control, but what might actually be a deep-seated, learned fear of freeing myself from heteronormativity. (I’ve dated women too, but THAT’S a whole other story for a whole other self-indulgent think piece.)
These men came and went throughout my early twenties (during the off periods with He Who Shall Not Be Written About Until I’m Ready). They were coarse, swift, and ultimately incredibly easy to blame when things went south, because despite an outward appearance of mildness and emotional availability, they still somehow managed to perpetuate and recreate—dare I say even put a sick little remix on—toxic behavioral norms society ascribes to people who identify as male, despite any attempts they might genuinely have made at liberating themselves.
Like their counterparts in films and theatre, these men enter the scene with a blithe confidence; if you’re anything like me, you have to question immediately whether or not such confidence has been earned. A wry self-awareness and egotistical quirkiness is revealed in conversation—charming in his overt assertion of his place in the gamut of modern masculinity, edgy in the mystery that lurks beneath his self-deprecatory humor and intellect, incorrigible in the overarching simplicity of his life that he SWEARS is a Kafkaesque nightmare of never-ending, universally relatable despair.
But something about all the aimlessness and confusion must’ve offered a certain kind of safety. If I succeeded in ignoring the root of the issues I was dealing with—issues surrounding why I keep getting involved with these Jesse Eisenberg Pastiches—I could tell myself that I was never the problem.
I was always a two-date girl. A step beyond the one-night stand, two-date girls hold their own special place in the world of modern dating. I was good enough at dating that they can’t HELP but come back for More Dating. But dating a THIRD time? Never that. Three is a scary number. Three MEANS something. Three indicates there’s a goal, and in order to have a goal, one must inevitably have aim.
Let’s take a look at one of these men as a “case study.” He was a line cook/sous chef. Let’s call him John. John was SUCH a Jesse Eisenberg—I still don’t know if he ever graduated high school, but he had an innate intelligence and impressive resume of life experiences that made him a conversationalist on par with, if not superior to, the guys I took any esoteric liberal arts course with. We worked together for a few months, I quit because the job was kind of a nightmare, we saw each other again six months later at a party, and the “two-date rule” once again rang true. I really thought I had connected with him—we both grew up in similar places, and we both had New York-Bred Chips On Our Shoulders of different makes but similar models. In my early-twenties fantasy world, I thought we had enough in common—and, let’s be real here, enough raw sexual chemistry—to potentially develop a meaningful relationship. But after the second “date,” sure enough, he became a ghost, gone forever, as if those omelets had never been flipped and those oysters had never been shucked.
According to an article by The San Francisco Standard, 79% of Americans feel like finding the right partner is harder than finding the right job. You can imagine the two-fold frustration I felt, then, being confronted with a reminder of my romantic failures before an interview for a job I ended up not getting. The competition for stable relationships and jobs paying $18 an hour is staggering these days. It’s no secret that the latest wave of inflation has caused ripples of anxiety and growing financial instability for millions of Americans. My rent is going up this year, while my rate of pay at my restaurant jobs and one-off gigs has teeter-tottered around the “livable” benchmark. As I learned recently, this is kind of the point; the Federal Reserve marks “tempering wage growth” as a means of staving off inflation, which is, as per usual, good for Big Business Capitalism but terrible news for me. As I inch closer to my thirties, I’d like the chance to elbow my way into a new lifestyle bracket—one that could colloquially be described as “comfortable.” But as my aspirations rise above just having fun and getting by, so does the competition. The job market—for all industries I’m sure, not just for the arts—is slow, slow, slow right now, and my confidence going into all of these interviews has been at an all-time low. “There’s so many wonderful, qualified, (frankly) better people out there than me,” I can’t help but tell myself. There’s the Ivy People and the 10,000 Hours of Practice People (shout out to Malcolm) and the Cousins of Sisters of Family Friends and all their bountiful rolodexes of hungry career hunters—what’s my hook?
I looked up Jesse Eisenberg on Wikipedia to see if there was some way I could point to privilege/lack of access to resources as a reason for my inability to find a job. Turns out, Jesse Eisenberg is relatively normal—I mean, his mom was a professional clown and both his parents worked in academia in New York City, but other than that, it really does seem like he achieved widespread critical acclaim on account of his own artistic merit and the ages-old “right place, right time” adage.
So I didn’t have access to certain resources, but who’s to say on top of that, I’m not just another mediocre person assuming that she’ll get things just because she wants them really badly? I work hard, but I could work harder. There are so many people more disadvantaged than me—though, if we’re looking at things dialectically, I’d argue that the phrase “disadvantaged” in the context of the job market serves to perpetuate socially constructed beliefs on what the “advantages” are. And in airing out all this dirty laundry on a public platform and examining the very measure and degree of the dirt—its weight, texture, volume—for the sake of art or self-awareness or whatever you may call it, am I actually only hurting my chances at achieving yet another quality of One Who Is Capable of Securing Well-Paying Work: a blithe confidence?
Maybe John wasn’t a Kafkasshole (trademark pending). I mean, looking back at all the times I’ve been hurt by men, I recognize an unwillingness to accept people as they really are, not as I would like them to be. I hurt my own feelings in choosing to sit back and feel my eyes glaze over with the beauty of my own projections, as if life itself were a movie theater. Like my rogue Jesse Eisenberg Mudpit fantasy, I am actively choosing to become physical with these strangers. With John, never once did I voice my feelings, and never once did I do anything to ensure that this was not going to be Just Another Typical Hook-Up Scenario. Maybe it was a red flag for him that I lived with four other people and that when we were making out in my backyard, we were interrupted by a possum climbing up over the fence. He’s probably holding out for someone with Stable, Meaningful Employment, who can afford to live in a possum-free environment, who can say how she feels and what she wants directly, not just in the context of an essay dealing exclusively in the hypothetical. I’m far too much of a coward to reach back out and get feedback on why I couldn’t fill the position. And life is not a movie theater—heartbreak most certainly does not feel good in a place like this.
But we learn and we grow, don’t we? I’m happy to report that I did, eventually, find meaningful employment, and that my most recent situationship with a confused and aimless man was not two but three “dates” long. I’m feeling more resilient in the face of rejections. I might even be nearing that glorious day when I will know myself enough to dole out some righteous rejections of my own. I’m making it a goal of mine to practice this noble art. Rejecting former ideas and emotions I’ve held onto seems like a good place to start. So here’s what I’ll leave you with: Jesse, if you see this, I’m sorry. I don’t actually want to fight you. I’m sure you’re a really nice person and you’d never want to hurt me… But it’s best we never meet, as you might prove me wrong.