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10 June 2022

Why Everything I Know About Love leaves men baffled

The BBC TV drama based on Dolly Alderton’s memoir captures a female millennial reality that certain men struggle to understand.

By Pravina Rudra

I know women who have used Dolly Alderton’s 2018 memoir Everything I Know About Love as a manual for their twenties, revising their life goals in accordance with its core message: that we can learn most about love from our friendships, rather than from romantic relationships. Every time one of my friends is dumped, I sent them a screenshot of a paragraph from one of Alderton’s Sunday Times Style columns. And I went to therapy for the first time after reading the chapter in Everything I Know About Love titled “My Therapist Says”. So I expected that the BBC One drama based on the book – adapted by Alderton herself – couldn’t possibly match the original’s knack for capturing the experience of millennial women.

And yet the Everything I Know About Love screenplay gets those mid-twenties years right. The show provides a chance to look back fondly at a more feral stage of life, as I turn 28 and, one by one, my friends settle down. There’s so much that is familiar – the landlord who resists bringing in a dehumidifier for the damp, the situationships with men whose sexual desires seem to be founded entirely on pornography. The sheer, chaotic energy of the protagonist popping MDMA in Camden while wearing a sequinned dress is particularly nostalgia-inducing in an era of clean-eating, beige-wearing Gen Z.

The TV series is, though, quite different from the book. Alderton separates the two by calling the central character Maggie (Emma Appleton), rather than Dolly. The show also follows Maggie’s best friend Birdy (Bel Powney) – who, like Kristin Davis’s Charlotte in Sex and the City, has an adorable quality that offsets the protagonist’s narcissism – and their two other housemates, none of whom map neatly on to the book’s main characters. Nevertheless, Alderton’s signature touches – the parodies of hen-party invitations and the like that were interspersed with the chapters of her book – have been translated into sharp, real-feeling dialogue (men who are boring to date are compared to plug adaptors: “You know when you need to buy something practical but you don’t want to spend too much money on it?”). Alderton’s conclusions about love are peppered throughout, most notably in a monologue by Maggie’s mother that feels worthy of When Harry Met Sally. It seems very possible that Alderton will write – as she aspires to – the next great romcom

Of course, Alderton’s book invited criticism of privileged-girl problems; not everyone can relate to taking a £200 taxi to Leamington Spa when drunk. A clear attempt has been made to address this in the screenplay, informed by society’s growing self-awareness in the years since the book was published. One of Maggie’s best friends is black, and there is a pointed scene that makes clear that Maggie cannot possibly “get it” when it comes to race. But the show is measured and reflective rather than superficially “woke” – and, crucially, it never hides Maggie’s privilege. There is less sexual or racial trauma here than in hard-hitting dramas such as I May Destroy You – but that gives the show levity, and allows the lens to widen on broader themes of womanhood.

On which note, it seems to be only male friends or critics who “don’t get the Dolly Alderton thing”. This feels telling to me: men aren’t measured primarily on their attractiveness for their whole lives, so they can’t understand why your teenage crush dissing you as “a lanky minger with no tits”, as happens to Maggie, never leaves you. Men rarely get slut-shamed if they sleep around – as Maggie rather gruesomely does on a university chat board. Ultimately, the series succeeds in the same way the book did: Alderton’s narrative makes women feel it’s normal to have the guys who you like never like you back, to have a constant anxiety that you’re never “enough”. And as with Alderton, there is a glimmer of stardust about Maggie: she’s us – but cool. And if even she feels like a mess then, really, we might all be OK.

The emphasis on Maggie’s close friendship with Birdy – there are many flashbacks to their childhood together – requires viewers be as invested in their friendship as they would be a romantic relationship. But again, I find it’s generally the men I speak to who are bewildered by the “ride or die” nature of close female friendship; by the way moving in with a boyfriend, as Birdy does, can be seen as a betrayal by female flatmates. High house prices means women in London now often spend their twenties renting together, and the growing presence of feminism in mainstream culture has strengthened that sisterhood. For better or worse, the show accurately portrays the increasingly contract-like essence of female friendship groups.

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The TV adaptation of Everything I Know About Love is brilliant because, like the book, it doesn’t pretend to be about anything other than figuring out your twenties as a young woman. I can’t help but feel that men who profess not to “get it” are only revealing that they have never attempted to understand the female experience – and that they are part of the reason it can be such a struggle.

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