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Jessica Barden in The New Romantic
Jessica Barden in The New Romantic

A real sugar baby reviews sugar daddy rom-com The New Romantic

Sugar baby Ruby tells Dazed which parts of the Canadian coming-of-age movie felt true to her experiences

Sign up to SeekingArrangement with a student email address, and they’ll upgrade you to a Premium account for free. This is just one tactic that the “world’s largest sugar daddy dating site” is using to entice more students to the lifestyle – an arrangement whereby sugar daddies (or, more rarely, sugar mammas) trade gifts or cash for a (sometimes sexual, sometimes non-sexual) relationship with a sugar baby, who is usually younger, and usually a woman. And it’s working: 100,000 UK students signed up to the site last year alone, 72% more than the year before.

These numbers are easy to believe when you consider that, of the 920 British students the Independent recently surveyed, a fifth said they were very interested in sugar dating. In Save the Student’s national student money survey, 3% of UK students said they were already supplementing their student loan with sex work (rising to 4% when cash-strapped).

With student sugaring rapidly on the rise, it was only a matter of time before it got the Hollywood treatment. Enter The New Romantic. The Canadian rom-com, which won Best First Feature at SXSW in March 2018 and went on general release in November, downplays the unsexy financial necessity that convinces many to sugar. College student Blake (played by The End of the Fucking World star Jessica Barden) becomes a sugar baby not to pay off her debts (though her sugar daddy does offer), but to spice up her sexless dating column. “It’s time,” announces our own Carrie Bradshaw, “to say goodbye to grand gestures. The most romantic it gets these days is swiping right instead of left”. As she sees it, why not capitalise on the transactionality of modern romance?

Blake meets Ian (Timm Sharp) – a nondescript, middle-aged professor – through a fellow baby, and embarks on a relationship with all the hopeless naivety of someone mainly trying to win a $50,000 gonzo journalism prize. Director Carly Stone paints a pretty grim picture of sugaring as a hassle-free relationship for emotionally stunted older men, and a one-way ticket to coercive control for emotionally vulnerable younger women. In this light, it’s unsurprising that Blake has little more than a flirtation with sugar dating; it’s nothing more to her than a wild adventure in her conventional romantic and professional journeys, or a funny story to tell the grandkids.

Given how sugar babies have proliferated in recent years, Dazed decided to ask one what she made of the film’s fun but fairly pessimistic portrayal of the lifestyle. Ruby is the star of The Sugar Baby Confessionals podcast, and an experienced sugar baby.

Did you even remotely see yourself in the film’s protagonist, Blake?

Ruby: Not at all! She’s an early-20-something struggling college student who’s lost and looking for love; I’m in my late 30s, happily married for over 15 years, with three beautiful children. I’m a full-time homemaker – a term I use advisedly, I love its archaic feeling. It completely fits what I try to do in my day-to-day life: create a home for my family. I am that PTA member who started a book club and walks my kids to school.

Which is funny, because I’m also a wild and crazy and adventurous and sexual person, and my husband and I have had an open relationship for many years. I love thinking about what the mums I hang out with would think if they knew. They would be scandalised! And there’s something delicious about that.

Blake enters her arrangement with Ian assuming their relationship is just a regular one with more gifts. What did you make of that?

Ruby: I think it showed her naivety. Blake acts as if she and Ian have a kind of organic dating relationship, but they don’t – hence why Ian is short with her when she doorsteps him. A sugar baby would have known you don’t do that; you don’t assume the liberty of intimacy. That said, Ian shutting Blake down for asking him if he has siblings felt heavy-handed.

It’s not that sugar dating can’t be romantic: it can. But at the heart of it, there’s a transaction. What people don’t realise is that transaction goes both ways. When Ian showed up at Blake’s house to whisk her off to a wedding, it made me uncomfortable. I tell you, if a sugar daddy showed up at my house like that, that would be the end of him.

What Blake and Ian were missing is the key to any successful sugaring relationship: boundaries. That process of putting everything up front makes sugaring simpler and more honest than most casual dating, I think. The ridiculous unspoken rules, like not messaging back too quickly – it’s bullshit.

“Ultimately, this was not a film about sugar dating, but coming of age” – Ruby

Ian buys Blake a Vespa after one date, offers to wipe her college debt after two. Has that kind of lavish treatment been your experience?

Ruby: I’ve certainly never had anyone buy me a Vespa! I have, though, had prospective sugar daddies say similar things to me as Ian does to Blake: “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you.” But I’m in a privileged position, because for me, sugar dating is just a sexual fetish. I’ve never needed a sugar daddy financially. I tell them, “I don’t need your money, I just get a kick out of it. I don’t want you to buy me handbags or do things for me, I just want an allowance.” I think not needing the money makes me more desirable. What’s hotter: taking advantage of a woman in financial straits, or having a woman who could have so many other daddies choose you?

Ian calls his ex a bitch, which I saw as tapping into the stereotype that sugar daddies can’t maintain “regular” relationships. Did you get that from him?

Ruby: Not really. When Blake asks Ian, “Why don’t you just have a girlfriend?” he replies: “I don’t want to have to argue with anyone.” The movie’s climax interprets his answer as a disregard for women’s feelings. But I’ve a more sympathetic interpretation: keep things simple. Taking responsibility for the feelings of the person you’re dating is too heavy a burden for some people, and I get that. Ian’s friend Johnny, however – what a sleazeball. Hitting on Blake on his wedding day? Being in an open relationship doesn’t mean you can act like an asshole.

So did you feel like the film reduced sugar dating to a plot device, a way of her finding herself and a “real” boyfriend? Isn’t the point that Blake should’ve been able to have Jacob and Ian?

Ruby: Well, I have a husband and a sugar daddy! Listen, in my world, having a deep emotional attachment to somebody does not preclude you from having a sexual adventure with somebody else. But for Blake, sugaring wasn’t so much a sexual adventure as a professional one. It provided the material she needed to write an interesting article and win a gonzo journalism prize – and that’s fine.

Ultimately, this was not a film about sugar dating, but coming of age. At the beginning, after Blake’s editor threatens to cancel her dating column and she’s walking down the street with her friend, her friend half-jokes to her: “You need to go to Bali, find yourself, have an adventure.” Sugaring was that adventure. Do I think this film says something deep and lasting about sugar dating? No. Do I feel like it captured everything sugaring has to offer? Absolutely not. But you know why I liked it? Because it wasn’t a treatise. It was a rom-com.

The New Romantic was released in the US on 9 November