Rebecca Bulnes has never had a boyfriend, and like countless creatives before her, she’s converted rejection into a channel for radical honesty, humor and self-reflection.
After dropping out of Columbia College in Chicago, Bulnes, 24, started “Classroom Crush,” a podcast where guests discuss formative childhood and adolescent crushes. Since the podcast’s start in 2017, guests have ranged from past hookups to Bulnes’ mother, and while names are often changed, stories are told with a refreshing vulnerability. Pipe Dream sat down with Bulnes to talk romance, rejection and the unique struggles of Generation Z crushing.
Pipe Dream (PD): What motivated you to start “Classroom Crush?”
Rebecca Bulnes (RB): I was always very “boy-crazy” and I didn’t like the connotation of that. Even in my high school film class — and I was good in that class, I wrote decent papers — I got my teacher to write in my senior yearbook, and he wrote something like, “I think it’s funny how no matter what film it is, you’ll find a way to love the leading man.” I was like, “Haha, that’s funny,” but also like, “Fuck you, I was a person beyond vocalizing that I was horny for Jimmy Stewart!” Like, everyone’s horny for Jimmy Stewart, get over it! But I always had a lot of crushes, and I wanted to start a podcast because I started writing about podcasts for AV Club when I moved to Chicago. One day I was thinking about my main nemesis crush from K-8 school, and I remember thinking, “I wonder what’s going on with him,” you know, “that guy fucked me up!” So I first came up with the idea of, “What if I talk to my old crushes,” and then that turned into, “What if you talk about them? What if you talk about them with people? And talk about how they formed you?” It is a thing that I feel passionately about, and I feel like I’ve defined myself so much by romance or the lack thereof, but I didn’t like the idea that that was a bad thing; just because it happens when you’re young doesn’t mean it’s not important. And I noticed that whenever I brought up the idea, people would want to talk to me about it because it’s such a universal thing.
PD: The focus of the show is childhood crushes, but you also mention recent crushes and hookups. Is there any intent to show that the heartbreak we associate with adolescence can hurt just as much as an adult?
RB: I think for the podcast I really value radical honesty above all else, and sometimes I’ll be talking about something in the past, and it parallels what’s happening in my life now … It’s all valid, that’s why people go to therapy! People give validity to really traumatic things, and not that it’s the same, but we give validity to everything else that happened in our childhood — why not “puppy love?” Because it guides you; if you’re a person like me, who has a lot to give, it’s also a sort of trauma.
PD: I heard you say in an episode that you think your crush fixation stems from a feeling of wanting to be chosen, and that feeling extends to other facets of your life. Do you think a person’s early 20’s are an especially vulnerable time for that?
RB: In this area of your life, so much hinges on external validation. The same way I want to skip the flirting and go straight to the boyfriend, I also want to skip to the career, but all that hinges on someone choosing me. Leaving anything up to anyone else is hard to do, and that’s because when you leave things up to other people, you have to make sure they know what you want. And that’s something I’m trying with my new job, where I’m very shamelessly saying “I want this thing,” but it’s hard because then if you don’t get it, everyone knows how much you wanted it and that it didn’t line up for you. I’m sure it’s tied to age because there’s a lot of stuff floating around in the atmosphere as far as what direction you go in, and a lot of it has to do with other people. What’s so funny is that when you see someone asking for what they want, it’s never embarrassing; usually when you see that in the world you’re like, “Wow, that’s so badass,” so then why can’t we do it? It’s because of classic self-loathing, and not wanting to settle.
PD: You were only in college for two semesters, but do you remember any formative romantic experiences from that time? Any college dating advice?
RB: Typically people talk about college as the time to have sex and experiment, and I did hook up in those times and didn’t have a relationship, obviously. I think it’s important to know what’s it like to have an empty hookup — which is fun — but then at the same time you learn what it feels like to want something more … I’m probably the worst candidate for college dating advice, but what I will say is I wasn’t living in dorms, and I’d always fantasize about college dorm life and running into people because my favorite thing in the world is when people are stuck together. It’s why I love the show “Lost,” because it’s a bunch of people stuck together in a place, and shit’s gonna happen … so I feel like you’ve got to take advantage of people being stuck there with you!
PD: If you could’ve given yourself any advice in that period of 18 to 21 years old, what would it be?
RB: I think up until 18 to 21, you’ve only had so many options, and a lot of that has to do with what the world has told you [that] you want. This was sort of my college reawakening, and I recognized a lot of my internalized racism that I had never thought about until I was surrounded by white people. I realized how much of my own taste is because the world sold to me this person that I’m supposed to like, and that shook me. I think college is a really good time to sit with yourself outside the context of everything and think, “What really makes me happy?” If college is meant to explore, explore sexually but also explore yourself emotionally, and be open to different kinds of people.
PD: Do you think Generation Z is faced with any unique problems when it comes to dating?
RB: I think I’m pretty good at translating my real voice to my online voice, but not everyone is good at that, and online, of course, people want to present the version of themselves. You can also just put off meeting someone in real life for as long as is comfortable and then you can grow expectations and then have them more severely crushed. But at the same time, I love the internet because when someone feels like they haven’t found their people, you can find your people elsewhere … I have a sister who’s 16, and it’s funny because when she’s started talking to me about boys and stuff, it is 90 percent about the social media interaction. What things mean keep changing, and I think that keeps on presenting new opportunities for miscommunication. My sister said this one guy fire-reacted to her selfie, and I want to tell her that’s because he likes you, but I don’t know that. Especially with young people, they’re craving attention, and they know that they’re going to get attention with something like that, and there are so many ways to grab attention but also to be irresponsible about what that attention means.
PD: Has the fact that you’ve never been in a relationship changed the way you approach new prospects?
RB: Especially when it ends up being really hookupy, I remember that I have so much to give, and the longer I go without having a place to put it the harder it gets for someone to slowly unravel it. I was talking to my friend about this and she said, “It’s okay to be nice to men, men don’t know how to be tender with each other and they need it.” And it’s true; I shouldn’t have to not be nice when I’m a nice person and want to say nice things to you, I shouldn’t have to hide that to make you more comfortable in the little game we’re supposed to be playing. And I love that quality about myself, that I really know how to love with my whole heart and I don’t want to change that … I’ve interviewed so many guys on the show and they’ll say they like it when a girl’s a little mean to them, but I feel like so much of that is because of the culture, and I think men especially want to have won the person over and want to regain the power. And I think for some reason we don’t value niceness and sweetness as powerful, even though in the end it is the most powerful thing — not to sound like fucking J.K. Rowling — but it’s true. And that’s why when a relationship ends, it can be so damaging and world-turning, because then that love is taken away. I don’t get why we don’t see it as powerful — why, because it’s a feminine thing? But then again, I’ve done the same thing where someone’s been very nice to me and I’m like, “boring!” We all do it, but I think it has a lot more to do with what we’re supposed to find attractive than what we actually find attractive.
PD: You always end your show talking about music. What are some favorite crush songs?
RB: I’ve been wanting to talk about this one — I love oldies because there’s something so great about knowing that this shit is down the line — this one by Chet Baker: “I fall in love too easily / I fall in love too fast / I fall in love too terribly hard / For love to ever last / My heart should be well schooled / Cause I’ve been fooled in the past.” It’s like I wrote it when I was 16 years old, I love that song so much. There’s something very reassuring about knowing Chet Baker was singing about it and I still feel that way. I’ve talked about this one on the show before, it’s one I always return to because it’s so perfect, Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “If I Were Your Woman.” This part is like the “Classroom Crush” motto: “Life is so crazy and love is unkind / Because she came first, darling / Will she hang on your mind? / You’re a part of me / And you don’t even know it / I’m what you need / But I’m too afraid to show it.” That’s a good Rebecca encapsulation song.