Tag Archives: abuse

Freedom: rip it up

freedom

TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault

A suburban comedy-drama, monumental in the way only a middle-aged, middle-class straight white American man would have the audacity to write. In this case, as in most, the monument does not yield the audacity it promises. Not even close. Here, the problem is not that the characters are simply unlikeable: they are dull, cliched, and not even believable. None of the truth, ugliness, attraction of most unlikeable characters in literature. The plot is a mess, but not a beautifully chaotic postmodern mess, simply a directionless, pointless collection of events nobody cares about. Franzen’s social realism is proudly middle-brow, what he seems to consider ambitious, without any sense that his execution of the mode is highly conventional. Yet even his realism isn’t believable: convenient events and plot holes abound. His language is trivial, ugly, too repetitive to justify six hundred-plus pages. The structure is fundamentally flawed, switching between the “autobiography” of one of the main characters, Patty, and the various viewpoints of three men, in a charade without function or finesse. If it was written by a woman, it would be read as a gossip column, dismissed as “chick lit,” hardly a Tolstoyan masterpiece of social realism. At the heart of this novel’s problem is its meanspiritedness; what Franzen sees as irony is slathered indiscriminately across the pages, the kind of sarcasm only a middle-aged white man can apply to everything that crosses his path, until the final pages when he seems to want us to care profoundly for his characters. Too late: the snow-love he wraps his ending up in is only sentimentality. In this vein, to read this book without being painfully aware of the almost unremitting misogyny is to inhabit the same world that Franzen does, the world that praises “Freedom” as a contender of the “Great American Novel.” A sexual assault early in the book is represented so gratuitously, so callously, with such a lack of understanding, that it undermines every attempt Franzen makes to cite this trauma as the “reason” for the myriad of Patty’s later issues. Women are described in terms of age, attractiveness, and pliability to men. Numerous references to men’s genitalia as cognisant conquerors and women’s as passive receptacles grow tiresome. Women and girls are the root of all of men’s problems. Later in the book, a rape fantasy is described lovingly. Every sarcastic pot-shot is a cheap shot: rather than being a sweeping, ambitious tome, it is an outdated triumph of the conventional, liberal, white, heterosexual American male in a world of (thankfully) splintering perspectives that offer far more interest and insight. But it is a high price to pay to realise, again, that the most worthwhile writing comes from women, people of colour, queers, all of us on the margins. If misogyny isn’t enough to turn a reader off this novel, let it be the presumptuousness of six hundred-plus pages of misplaced irony, directionless satire, complacent liberalism.

Feminism is for Everybody: A Choice to Love (Part 2)

feminismisforeverybodyYou are mistaken if you think feminism is about women. It is about rethinking gender in a way that unravels patriarchy, which instils ideologies of masculinity that are about domination and violence.

Necessarily, this means we must rethink relationships and family. This is what scares conservatives most, why they cry “political correctness” at any critique of gender stereotypes. Undermining gender necessarily undermines the family.

nuclearfamAs hooks shows, “A utopian vision of the patriarchal family remains intact despite all the evidence which proves that the well-being of children is no more secure in the dysfunctional male-headed household than in the dysfunctional female-headed household. Children need to be raised in loving environments. Whenever domination is present love is lacking.”nuclearfamily

Feminism has always been concerned with such relationships. As hooks traces the concerns of second wave feminism in relation to marriage and partnership, she mentions that many feminists “saw sexual monogamy with men as reinforcing the idea that the female body was property belonging to the individual male she was bonded with. We chose non-monogamous relationships and often refused to marry. We believed living with a male partner without state-sanctioned marriage within patriarchal society helped men maintain a healthy respect for female autonomy. Feminists advocated demanding an end to sexual slavery and called attention to the prevalence of marital rape while at the same time championing the rights of women to express sexual desire, initiate sexual interaction, and be sexually fulfilled.”

Ininstitution a society in which marriage, romance, partnership and intimacy have been structured and defined by patriarchal assumptions, how can we reenvision them as feminist? Is it impossible? Certainly we must always be critical of marriage, monogamy and family units. Then again we must also be critical of polyamory, the fight for marriage equality, and the so-called “non-traditional family.” The problems faced by second wave feminists in their own lives forces us to never let our guard down. For example, is it possible for marriage to be a viable feminist option given the huge, undeniable patriarchal legacy of the institution? It remains as such today.

The discussion sparked by second wave feminism about sexuality remains with us today, though it is still fraught. As hooks advises, “While men must let go of the sexist assumption that female sexuality exists to serve and satisfy their needs, many women must also let go a monogamyfixation on penetration.” This is why feminism is intertwined with ideas of sexuality as much as with race, class, religion, and age. Feminism cannot be heteronormative, it must be queer. Because patriarchy has rested on heteronormativty. But today we still assume that heterosexuality is natural, and that sexual “orientations” are genetic, inborn, fixed, and markers of our identity. Until we let go of this, we can’t reach a feminist sexual politic.

While hooks doesn’t yet articulate this, she does recognise the centrality of heteronormativity to patriarchy: “Masses of heterosexual women remain unable to let go the sexist assumption that their sexuality must always be sought after by men to have meaning and value. To do so they must believe that same-sex sexual encounters, self-pleasuring, and celibacy are as vital and life-enhancing as sexual intercourse with men within patriarchal culture.”cosmomagWe see the truth of the second wave’s realisation that “women would only be truly sexually liberated when we arrived at a place where we could see ourselves as having sexual value and agency irrespective of whether or not we were the objects of male desire.”malegazeWe still live in the world hooks describes here: “We will never know how many millions of women stay in relationships with dominating sexist males simply because they cannot imagine a life where they can be happy without men, whether they are satisfied sexually and emotionally with the men in their life or not. If any female feels she needs anything beyond herself to legitimate and validate her existence, she is already giving away her power to be self-defining, her agency. Lesbian women inspired me from childhood on to claim the space of my own self-definition.”

This is why queer women are vital in “representing” feminism to the mainstream. After all, “this is the special wisdom radical lesbian thinkers brought to the feminist movement. Even if there were exceptional straight women who theoretically understood that one could be utterly fulfilled without the approval of men, without male erotic affirmation, they did not bring to the movement the lived experience of this belief.”

Unfortunately, with the white-washed, straight-washed feminism in the mainstream eye, such truths are swept under the carpet. Today, given the length of time since the radicalism of the second wave that broman feeding womanught feminism to the mainstream, we have forgotten how these women dealt with sexuality and relationality in a patriarchal world. Hooks recalls that, “In the early stages of feminist movement we used the phrase ‘woman-identified woman’ or ‘man-identified woman’ to distinguish between those activists who did not choose lesbianism but who did choose to be woman-identified, meaning their ontological existence did not depend on male affirmation. Male-identified females were those who dropped feminist principles in a flash if they interfered with romantic heterosexual concerns. They were the females who also supported men more than woman, who could always see things from the male perspective.”

Internalised misogyny and girl hate abound today, to the extent that many think that jealousy is an inborn trait of women and friendships between women. How are we supposed to enact feminism in such a context? Unfortunately, hooks’ observation remains true: “The vast majority of straight women, whether they were actively feminist or not, were more concerned about their relationships with men.

Hooks showholding-handss us what a queer feminism looks like, and why it is for all: “In a world where positive expressions of sexual longing connect us we will all be free to choose those sexual practices which affirm and nurture our growth. Those practices may range from choosing promiscuity or celibacy, from embracing one specific sexual identity and preference or choosing a roaming unchartered desire that is kindled only by interaction and engagement with specific individuals with whom we feel the spark of erotic recognition no matter their sex, race, class, or even their sexual preference.”

Most people’s aversion to this shows how ingrained a patriarchal heteronormativty is within us. Because of this overwhelming power, we struggle to envision intersectionality. Feminism becomes one thing: equality with men. But such a notion is incomprehensible unless we first examine the terms of that “equality.” So, “Women who claim to be feminist while perpetuating homophobia are as misguided and hypocritical as those who want sisterhood while holding on to white supremacist thought.”

Embracing a watered down, palatable version of feminism is easy. Heteronormativity is embedded in everything we hold dear, especially romance, that foundation of so many films, songs, books, and life dreams. But, as the second wave articulated, “female freedom could only happen if women let go their attachment to romantic love.”

nuclearfamilyHard to swallow? Maybe, but ultimately liberating. After all:

Romantic love as most people understand it in patriarchal culture makes one unaware, renders one powerless and out of control. Feminist thinkers called attention to the way this notion of love served the interests of patriarchal men and women. It supported the notion that one could do anything in the name of love: beat people, restrict their movements, even kill them and call it a ‘crime of passion,’ plead, ‘I loved her so much I had to kill her.’ Love in patriarchal culture was linked to notions of possession, to paradigms of domination and submission wherein it was assumed one person would give love and another person receive it. Within the patriarchy heterosexist bonds were formed on the basis that women being the gender in touch with caring emotions would give men love, and in return men, being in touch with power and aggression, would provide and protect.”jealousy-love-vanessa-zac-Favim.com-572124This is so uncomfortable because patriarchal romantic love is what we think of as love, how we define love, it is something natural. It is difficult to think of it as socially constructed. And yet the work of feminism has shown us that it is constructed, and for a specific purpose, and that it is damaging.

jealousyloveHooks offers as alternative vision: “When we accept that true love is rooted in recognition and acceptance, that love combines acknowledgement, care, responsibility, commitment, and possessionknowledge, we understand there can be no love without justice. With that awareness comes the understanding that love has the power to transform us, giving us the strength to oppose domination. To choose feminist politics, then, is a choice to love.”

Why then would most people prefer the anti-feminist heterosexist dominating versions of romantic love we are fed every day?

It stems from a misunderstanding of the visionary nature of feminism, how it has beamed a light on our most taken-for-granted ideas. As hooks argues, this is partly because “one of the difficulties we faced spreading the word about feminism is that anything having to do with the female gender is seen as covering feminist ground even if it does not contain a feminist perspective. We do have radio shows and a few television shows that highlight gender issues, but that is not the same as highlighting feminism.”bitchmedia

On a sidenote, I would recommend the bitch media podcast, which certainly does contain a feminist perspective.

Feminism isn’t just about women, just as everything about women isn’t feminist. Hooks recommends “a collective door-to-door effort to spread the message of feminism,…to start again with the basic premise that feminist politics is necessarily radical.” That includes all these self-declared feminists in the public eye. “Confusion about this inherent radicalism emerged as feminist activists moved away from challenging sexism in all its manifestations and focused solely on reforms.”

Until we end the neverending defences of “feminism doesn’t mean hating men!” we won’t understand the true meaning of the movement. For everybody who has ever been caught in a debate going nowhere with someone who has never educated themselves about feminism but has expected to gain all they need to know from a mainstream mass media which is necessarily patriarchal, here is the book you can hand over.

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A Fanatic Heart: Edna O’Brien’s screaming women

afanaticheart

This is my first experience with Edna O’Brien, whom I have been longing to read for years, and she did not disappoint. Her work itself and the reaction to it pose a giant problem for the patriarchal literary world and male-dominated society in general. Bolder than Alice Munro, and in the more restrictive context of Ireland, she is just as insistent on recording women’s voices in all their honesty, beauty, woundedness, sexuality, and strength. But why is her unapologetic insistence seldom celebrated by feminists?

O’Brien is well-known for writing about women’s experiences and is certainly a feminist writer. She has been called the “doyenne of Irish literature” and Philip Roth’s admiration has stuck equally fast: he referred to her as “the most gifted woman now writing in English.”

edna1Putting aside the accusations of misogyny levelled at Roth’s own writing, why these qualifications? Why is she “the most gifted woman?” Why the “doyenne,” which means “senior lady” or “grande dame” or something? Ah, the eternal problem of male writers as the default, or the “great writer” signifying a man unless otherwise specified. Why is it that the topics of great literature are simply “human experiences” when written about by a man but if a woman writes about what she knows she is writing about “women’s experiences”?

authorsWho are the great Irish writers?

Joyce, Beckett, Heaney, Yeats, Wilde.

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Could it be more obvious that our society is patriarchal when men’s experiences are universal but women’s are specific to us, somehow niche? It is the way textbooks show the human body as male, and the female body may be shown to illustrate reproduction, or for the way it differs from the “standard” of the male body. It is a body marked by difference. O’Brien’s work is marked by its difference from the universal norm of male experience.

This at once shows us our patriarchal heritage (and current condition) and makes her work feminist. She knows she is writing in a patriarchal world. The world she depicts is patriarchal. And she is making a space for the voices regarded as different, marginal, and so often unheard – women’s voices.

Given her generous concern with women’s experiences, it is perhaps surprising that she has been largely ignored or dismissed by feminist critics. Apparently her characters are too defeated, wounded, victimised, dependent on men. This catches her work in an odd in-between place. On the one hand, her first book The Country Girls was banned and othecountrygirlsften burned in Ireland for its depiction of women’s sexuality and she chose self-imposed exile, echoing Joyce and Beckett, to write more freely in London. On the other hand, she hasn’t had much interest from those most critical of patriarchy’s forced silences: feminists.

This may have something to do with the fact that O’Brien doesn’t seem to write from a consciously “feminist” perspective – that is, applying academic feminist theory to real life – and as far as I can tell has never really embraced a feminist label. As a fiction writer also entranced by feminist theory I wonder: how can we creatively represent feminist ideas, undermine patriarchal “real life” society and at the same time patriarchal language and systems of representation that are our legacy as writers in English?

For one thing, we need to honestly give voice to women’s experiences as we know them. Making a decision to write about “strong female characters” may be politically appropriate, but it’s not always ethical. Much of the trouble comes from the fact that women characters are expected to stand in for women as a whole – every single woman everywhere right now. Fiction writers simply aren’t concerned with that. The short story, the novel, are intensely personal and subjective forms. They are not political tracts. They examine the individual: her life, her thoughts, her heart. Of course, this opens out onto the world. But in the same way that men in fiction aren’t expected to represent an entire gender, we need to write weak women, wounded women, women who find comfort in patriarchal certainty, women who try and fail, women who are unsure, women who have no other choice but to live in exile. Fiction writers have a very special relationship to the old feminist adage: “The personal is political.”

For many Western liberal feminists, religion isn’t a popular subject. Writing about Ireland, despite her exile, O’Brien cannot help but be tied up with Catholicism, and she is never apologetic about it. Many feminists have forgotten about the reality of women’s experiences to such an extent that they wish to deny the power and truth of religion in many women’s lives. This cultural imperialism seems to me, if anything, anti-feminist. Feminism is an opening out, a construction of space, in which women’s voices are loud and truthful and multiplicitous.

Failure to recognise the subtlety with which O’Brien writes about the Catholic Church is unfortunate, because it is a failure to deconstruct the kind of patriarchal power the Church circulated, and still circulates today, which can teach us a lot about the patriarchal power that circulates in society as a whole. When asked why she has been forgiving of her father’s “small oppressions” but not so the Church’s, O’Brien remarked:catholicchurch

“The mantle of the Church, the power of the Church, the jurisdiction, the authority, was so overwhelming and not about Christianity. It was very secular. It was about power… What was done to people in the name of God was wrong in every way. It was a murder: psychic, social, and heart murder. And that was because the Church, the bishops and priests, they were omnipotent.”

This is murder done to individual women, and relationships between women. In “A Scandalous Woman” young Eily Hogan is sacrificed following her passionate relationship with a bank clerk and her pregnancy. She is punished – beaten and forced into solitary confinement and finally into marriage. Her future, her sanity and her very Self are sacrificed to a morality that denies women choice and a full sexuality. So the narrator concludes, having visited Eily after some time when they are both married and mothers, “what with that and the holy water and the red rowan tree bright and instinct with life, I thought that ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of strange, throttled, sacrificial women.”

ITV ARCHIVEEdna O’Brien

It is not about religion, it is about power. A centuries-long power that has othered women, objectified them, made them into nothing but reproductive objects. O’Brien does not diminish the crime of this. It’s not simply “the way things are,” that women marry men and raise children, it is murder.

To recognise the wounds this causes is not to represent women as merely victims, but to give them a voice and the words with which to represent this recognition. Her narrators are intelligent. They experience desire and sexuality fully, in a way they are told is only natural for men. O’Brien also knows that to recognise the full force of patriarchal denial is to muddle your way through a mess of alternatives to compulsory heterosexuality, marriage and the nuclear family.

She writes the complexity of women’s relationships with women without resorting to the reductive patriarchal categories of “lesbian” and “heterosexual.” But she retains that sense of transgression that must be present in all relationships between women in a patriarchal hierarchy of intimacy, in which women’s first priority is supposed to be husband and children. Unfortunately this aspect of her work has been largely ignored, which merely echoes the tendency of a patriarchal society to ignore women’s friendships, desires and sexualities.

holdinghandsIn the story “Sister Imelda,” the narrator, a young girl in a Catholic convent, develops an intimacy with a nun that is often blocked given the strictures of their context. She says, “I could cry, or I could tremble to try to convey the emotion, but I could not tell her” and “I dared to touch her wrist to communicate my sadness.” O’Brien narrates the small resistances women find to express intimacy, which in a patriarchal context is not supposed to be bodily. We all know the Madonna/Whore dichotomy that has been a staple of patriarchy for centuries. A woman may only be “pure” (and respectable to patriarchal society) when she denies her sexuality, or in fact when she has none. O’Brien blurs these lines, just a year after Adrienne Rich’s seminal 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Intimacy and desire between women, which for O’Brien cannot be easily categorised as and reduced to sexual or non-sexual, is a way of resisting the overwhelming force of institutional heterosexuality that proscribes women’s futures. And it happens within a so-called patriarchal institution – a convent – which, let’s not forget, is made up of women.

Adrienne RichAdrienne Rich

Writers who are not interested in perpetuating patriarchal systems of thought and relationality must recognise such relationships between women. Just recognising them is difficult enough, because as Rich tells us “We begin to observe behaviour, both in history and in individual biography, that has hitherto been invisible or misnamed, behaviour which often constitutes, given the limits of the counterforce exerted in a given time and place, radical rebellion. And we can connect these rebellions and the necessity for them with the physical passion of woman for woman which is central to lesbian existence: the erotic sensuality which has been, precisely, the most violently erased fact of female experience.”

So in “The Mouth of the Cave” we read the deceptively simple narrative of a woman coming across a woman standing in the grass, dressing. She asks herself “Why am I running, why am I trembling, why am I afraid? Because she is a woman and so am I. Because, because? I did not know.”

That these intimacies and desires are written as transgressive, never fully enacted, confusing for the reader and narrators at once, is explained by Rich too. As she forces us to acknowledge: “What deserves further exploration is the doublethink many women engage in and from which no woman is permanently and utterly free: However woman-to-woman relationships, female support networks, a female and feminist value system are relied on and cherished, indoctrination in male credibility and status can still create synapses in thought, denials in feeling, wishful thinking, a profound sexual and intellectual confusion.”

Her stories focus very little on marriage and children. They confront the expectations of domesticity without depicting its day-to-day details. The beautiful and shocking story “Paradise” tells of a young woman on holiday with a wealthy older man who has been married three times and his friends. The impossibility of being herself in such an environment is painful: she cannot delude herself into the idea of a perfect love affair that only comes from the absence of outsiders. “She knew she ought to speak. She wanted to. Both for his sake and for her own. Her mind would give a little leap and be still and would leap again; words were struggling to be set free, to say something, a little amusing something to establish her among them. But her tongue was tied. They would know her predecessors. They would compare her minutely, her appearance, her accent, the way he behaved with her. They would know better than she how important she was to him, if it were serious or just a passing notion.”

The small unkindnesses in unequal relationships that usually remain buried become the unforgiveable murder that O’Brien documents elsewhere. In taking swimming lessons the narrator finds both an incapacity for something supposed to be easy and a fascination with something she doesn’t quite understand. Finally, alone, she submits to the water: “As she went down to the cold and thrilling region she thought, They will never know, they will never, ever know, for sure.” The moment is most meaningful for her because she is alone, finally allowed to confront what Simone de Beauvoir would call her “transcendence” or her subjectivity: not how others see her but how she sees herself. “At some point she began to fight and thresh about, and she cried, though she could not know the extent of those cries.”

drowningOf course, the impropriety of her suicide attempt leads to the guests leaving early and the man she is with expresses no empathy and she understands the relationship is over. The strength wrapped up in a moment of apparent defeat is clear in the reaction to her near-drowning: “the guests were polite and offhand and still specious, but along with that they were cautious now and deeply disapproving. Their manner told her that it had been a stupid and ghastly thing to do, and had she succeeded she would have involved all of them in her stupid and ghastly mess.

The desperate measures to which women must go to speak, to imprint themselves on a world that consigns them to being looked at, to immanence as Beauvoir would say – or to being objects – is nothing short of sacrificial. O’Brien’s women aren’t women at ease. How could they be? But they are “strong women.” Along with being wounded, defeated, victimised. I think this has something to do with how O’Brien correlates writing with mental distress.

Name me a writer who isn’t in psychological distress. They wouldn’t be writers unless they were in distress and complex and turbid and disturbed. Harmonious, happy, or for that matter businesspeople, are not creative people, they’re not.

This is because writers must be outsiders. We have no other choice. So too for the women of O’Brien’s fiction, and that is why their voices are painful. They force us, if we are willing to read, to hear them. We feel their disturbance because O’Brien has made a space in the restrictive patriarchal symbolic. As Julia Kristeva says, “Women have the luck and responsibility of being boundary-subjects.” Sometimes it’s only in murmurs or cries or fights that O’Brien’s women can speak. But in the inscription of their voices we are also forced to recognise the shame, murder and sacrifice enacted by the patriarchal silencing that is never without gaps.

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I Don’t Hate Men, I Just Want to be Equal: Feminism, Apologies and Salvaging Radicalism

“When those who have power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you, whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked in to a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game with mirrors. It takes some strength of soul – and not just individual strength, but collective understanding – to resist this void, this nonbeing, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard.” – Adrienne Rich

adrienne-rich-gi

Apparently, feminism is all about equality. All we want is for men and women to be equal, that’s all! Look, that’s the definition of feminism, you’re a feminist too then! We’re all feminists! I’m a feminist, but I’m not a lesbian, I shave my legs, and I’m not ugly! Oh, and I don’t hate men. That’s the extremists you’re thinking of. I’m not like that.

thisisfeminismWhy do we need to placate the patriarchy? Why have some of us watered down feminism so much that it becomes about “equality between men and women,” a lovely phrase signifying nothing? This defeats the entire purpose. Feminism should be radical. It should be extreme.

anti feminist robertsonFeminism is ultimately about smashing the patriarchy. That goal encompasses a whole of lot of complicated, radical aims.drunkinlove

Of course, we need those sell-outs who pander to the system. So we have Beyoncé, constructing herself as a feminist icon while putting out music that glorifies domestic violence and sexual assault (“Drunk in Love”) and objectifies herself as a piece of marriageable property (“Single Ladies”). Then Katy Perry who claimed she was a feminist because “it just means that I love myself as a female and I also love men.” Um, what? Sometimes I need to hear statements like that, if only to remember what it was like before I ever stepped foot into a Gender Studies class. Even then though, I knew that performing desire purely for the male gaze (“I Kissed a Girl”) was pretty high up there on the list of anti-women activities.

katyperryFine, we need celebrities like that, if only to publicise the word “feminism” and perhaps encourage people to actually look into the word with a bit more care. And I am optimistic that a fourth wave of feminism is underway that is not spearheaded by celebrities but harnessing the radical potential of social media. It also appears that the masses are far more adept at using consumer culture to subvert patriarchy rather than prop it up, as Beyoncé enjoys. Perhaps we also need figures such as Sheryl Sandberg who empower women within the existing power regime, asking them to “lean in” to the white capitalist heterosexist patriarchy rather than question it. What is called “corporate feminism” has no ounce of radicalism to it, no recognition of the fact that their category of “woman” excludes women of colour, queer women, women with disabilities, poor women, and so on.

leaninThis is similar to the way first wave feminists fighting for the vote reassured the patriarchy that they were nurturing, gentle, and a civilising influence on the future citizens of the nation and should therefore be allowed a voice in reform. They used patriarchal constructions of women and femininity to gain rights and yes, most of them probably believed the arguments.

antisuffrage      antisuffragepropagandaBut why haven’t we moved on from the backlash against first wave feminists, who were apparently mannish man-hating monsters? That is still the popular conception of feminism.

antifeministAnd the popular way to dispel that conception is by saying “No, we love men, that’s only the extremists, that’s radical feminists, the rest of us just want equality.”

No.

It is the anti-feminists who have conjured up the image of man-hating feminists. This came from no truth except people who were invested in patriarchy feeling threatened by feminism. And so they should. Feminism should be petrifying if you are invested in patriarchy. This goes for men and women.

waronmenIt is easy to be considered a misandrist when men are socialised to feel entitled to women and our time. So, if you ignore them, you’re a misandrist. If you insist they leave you alone, you’re a misandrist. If you focus on building healthy female-centred relationships over relationships with men, you’re a misandrist. Misandry is basically prioritising your agency, autonomy and fellow women over men in a society that teaches you that being feminine relies on giving into men’s feelings of entitlement” – highly intelligent anonymous person.

Patriarchy should be scared of feminists because we want women to stop being dependent on men. Politically, economically, socially, culturally, and sexually. For a woman to feel that her self-worth and survival have nothing to do with her attachment to a man is the ultimate threat to the patriarchy. Apparently the most insulting image is a woman made monstrous because of her independence from men. And the best way anti-feminists can think of to threaten feminists is to tell us we are not attractive to men. Because that is supposed to be the ultimate blow to any woman.

cureafeministIn Catharine MacKinnon’s words: “Socially, femaleness means femininity, which means attractiveness to men, which means sexual attractiveness, which means sexual availability on male terms.”

That is why feminism must be anti-patriarchy. That is why feminism must question every lovingly held idea of gender, what is “feminine” and “masculine,” and break the delusion that such things are biologically determined. It cannot simply be about equality between two pre-determined sexes. Because there is no such thing. It is patriarchy that has constructed a binary view of gender – that male and female are opposites, and necessary to one another. For this reason feminism must be queer. It must also be intersectional – that is, alive to the ways that race, class, ability, age and many more “identity markers” intertwine with gender. Mainstream feminism – that is, feminism that attempts to make itself appealing to the patriarchal status quo – is utterly heterosexist and cissexist. Women who are traditionally appealing to men are less of a threat. Where are the queer and trans* feminists in popular culture? Why is there still a monopoly of heterosexual-identified, cisgender women promoting feminism? That seems to defeat the radical purpose feminism has of smashing heteronormativity and the patriarchal idea that women’s energy is directed towards relationships with men.

greerlifemagFor feminists to go on the defensive, to always have to start from a point of saying “No we don’t hate men” only gives the winning point to the anti-feminists. It is the same as always having to start from the point of “Is global warming caused by humans?” in the climate crisis debate. It is a distraction. It wastes time.

Hearing debates in mainstream media about whether we still need feminism is truly cringeworthy. We always go right back to definitional issues. While people who haven’t read Simone de Beauvoir or bell hooks are trying to grapple with the question of whether feminism excludes men, domestic violence is going on unhampered, thousands of objectifying ads are lining the streets and infecting the television, and male politicians are flooding parliament.

But when you have read these women, when you become alive to the fact that violence against women and the oppression of women isn’t some problem located in “third world countries,” it can be tough. It’s tough to see the overwhelming discursive and structural power that infiltrates your every move. It’s more comforting to ignore, to say, “That’s the way of the world.” I don’t want to go into “Women against feminism” because the trend is simply a whole lot of misguided foolishness and nothing else. But I mean those women who are not angry, who believe it’s easier to live with the patriarchy than go against the grain.

Many women, I think, resist feminism because it is an agony to be fully conscious of the brutal misogyny which permeates culture, society, and all personal relationships. It is as if our oppression were cast in lava eons ago and now it is granite, and each individual woman is buried inside the stone. Women try to survive inside the stone, buried in it. Women say, I like this stone, its weight is not too heavy for me. Women defend the stone by saying that it protects them from rain and wind and fire. Women say, all I have ever known is this stone, what is there without it?” – Andrea Dworkin

Here are some common attempts the average citizen employs to shut down feminist spaces:

Get a life. Stop being paranoid. You’re making too much of this.

Ah, the tried and true way of shutting a woman up. Belittle her. Tell her she has nothing to back up her claims. Talk over her. Interrupt her. Laugh at her. She is over-emotional, irrational, perhaps explained by her menstrual cycle, which is a thing too disgusting to even mention but something we can fall back on when a woman gets out of hand. It takes a damn strong person to refuse to believe this. To see that this response actually justifies her fury, because of the very reason that is dismissed.

Women hear it all the time from men. ‘You’re overreacting,’ we tell them. ‘Don’t worry about it so much, you’re over-thinking it.’ ‘Don’t be so sensitive.’ ‘Don’t be crazy.’ It’s a form of gaslighting – telling women that their feelings are just wrong, that they don’t have the right to feel the way that they do. Minimising somebody else’s feelings is a way of controlling them. If they no longer trust their own feelings and instincts, they come to rely on someone else to tell them how they’re supposed to feel” – Harris O’Malley.

FeminismMyths_FeatureI’m not really interested in it. There are more important things than feminism.

This implies a fundamental misunderstanding of the extent and all-pervasiveness of patriarchy. One of the most effective strategies of power structures is to make themselves invisible. If you can’t see them, if you internalise them as simply “normal” or “natural,” you can’t conceive of them as constructed, let alone figure out ways to challenge them. That’s why people laugh when you say the word “heteronormativity” or even “patriarchy” – to hear the names of these techniques of power is so out of the ordinary it becomes funny to people who have never got past their invisibility.

It’s also a misunderstanding of the way power works. People think that when you say “patriarchy” you are referring to some sort of group of white silk-suited men who write out power-foucaulttheir methods for the oppression of women. But as we should have learned from Foucault, power is not possessed by individuals, it is diffuse. Power is normalised, internalised and everywhere. It is not top-down, meted out by superiors, but exercised and re-created again and again, every day, by everyone we come across. It isn’t one thing with one definition, it’s always changing. Nor is it merely repressive, it is productive. Our every conception of gender is part of a discourse that is everywhere. Feminism attempts to make the construction of gender clear, thus to make the sources of discipline clear, so we may find new ways. It will always be a process, because techniques of power are so complex.

To say that there are more important issues is to ignore the interconnections of all of these techniques of power and knowledge. So the way we think about gender is intertwined with the military industrial complex and capitalism. This was the problem with Marxism and other left-wing movements. They failed to see that the relationship to the means of production that they took as the be-all-and-end-all intersects with patriarchy, and often such movements were as misogynistic as the regimes they struggled against.

Women have it worse in other countries.

What a terrible argument. “Hey, those women over there have it worse off than you, so shut up and stop complaining.” It is yet another way of attempting to delegitimise women’s experiences and voices. The true justice, the smashing of patriarchal gender ideology, that feminism aims for is not to be achieved “by comparison.” In other words, because Western women can drive, vote, and get educated doesn’t mean that patriarchy is not alive and well.

Men are victims of domestic violence too.

maleprivilegeAnd? Yes? Go on? I don’t recall denying that. Firstly, when feminism addresses violence against women it does so with an understanding that this violence is structural, not just individual. There is not a systemic problem of violence against men by women. The power imbalance simply does not allow that. Now hold on. That does not mean there are not individual instances of violence perpetrated by women against men. But it does not come from rape culture, objectification, and entrenched cultural standards about men’s and women’s behaviour and romantic relationships.

Secondly, just look at the stats. In Australia, less than 5% of men who experienced violence in a 12-month period were assaulted by a female partner or ex-partner. [Check out http://www.ausstats.abs.gov.au/Ausstats/subscriber.nsf/0/056A404DAA576AE6CA2571D00080E985/$File/49060_2005%20%28reissue%29.pdf] Also, “men’s violence is six times more likely to inflict severe injury and is more humiliating, coercive and controlling. Women’s violence is more likely to be expressive in response to frustration and stress rather than purposeful with the intention to control and dominate.” [Check out   McKenzie, Sarah. Domestic violence reality check for the ‘manosphere’ [online]. Eureka Street, Vol. 23, No. 18, Sep 2013: 30-32: http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=672075196326892;res=IELLCC]. That’s what I mean by entrenched cultural standards.if-women-were-equal-does-that-mean-i-can-hit-them-without-feelin

Similarly, if you say men who experience violence from a partner are discouraged by cultural norms to admit it, thank you for providing more evidence of the need for feminism. Which wants to smash such gendered norms as men being unemotional, stoic and needing to “man up.” We also want to smash the idea that violence is inherently masculine.

 

Male privilege? But dead soldiers, workplace accidents, homelessness, custody.

This always amuses me. Thanks for giving me more evidence of the damage done by patriarchy. Why are men sent to war and not women? Because apparently they are biologically stronger, more violent, and less important for nurturing children. Why more workplace accidents? They are more likely to work dangerous jobs that need a yellow “Men working” sign out the front. Why? Because they are seen as physically stronger and more suited to technical, practical activities such as factory work, construction and electrical work. Why homelessness? Men are not encouraged to rely on others. Women are more likely to rely on male romantic partners even when they are worse off in such relationships. Women are told they need to be protected, men are told they should be able to cope on their own and not ask for support. The ways men are taught to express their problems – through violence, alcohol and drug abuse – are also more likely to get them into trouble, destroy their support networks and make people more fearful of helping them. Again, patriarchy has created this situation. Why are men less likely to get custody of children? Simple. Patriarchy wants us to believe women are inherently more nurturing and therefore better at raising children.

Male privilege does not mean that in each and every situation men get their way. I won’t go in to hegemonic masculinity theory here – the fact that in each context, certain types of masculinity are privileged over other types, meaning some men are subordinated in favour of other men – but in a patriarchal society, men as a group are privileged over women as a group. Gendered ideas – such as men being physically strong and independent, and women being nurturing – work to uphold patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean those ideas won’t backfire on you in certain situations. The entrenched belief that women are more nurturing and should be the primary caregiver for children has benefited men in countless situations. To pick out one situation, such as custody battles, where it does not benefit them is to miss the point entirely.

Imagine sexism is a gun. Sure, it’s going to recoil on you sometimes, but that’s nothing like getting hit with the bullet.

Not all men.

notallmenWhat you are doing here is putting your personal feelings above structural, entrenched misogyny. In the face of women expressing the myriad occasions they have experienced misogyny, you feel the need to point out that you are not personally at fault. Men who do this are derailing the conversation. In fact, they are reinstating the huge force of misogyny by flipping the conversation back to men.

This comeback also misunderstands the entire point of feminism. It is not anti-men, it is anti-patriarchy. When we discuss misogyny, we are not discussing men abusing women, we are talking about a power structure that enables and normalises instances of abuse by men against women.

Not all men sexually assault women, punish them for moving through a public space, or neglect to listen to women musicians, read women writers and watch women-led TV and movies. But all men profit from patriarchy. So all men need to actively assess how this privilege helps them at the expense of women. How about instead of putting in your two cents about “Not all men,” you listen to the voices of the women telling you about their experiences of misogyny? And then you make an effort to disrupt that system.

On a related note, yes, “patriarchy hurts men too.” But that is not the fact that legitimises feminism.

“My mistrust [of men] is not, as one might expect, primarily a result of the violent acts done on my body, nor the vicious humiliations done to my dignity. It is, instead, born of the multitude of mundane betrayals that mark by every relationship with a man – the casual rape joke, the use of a female slur, the carless demonization of the feminine in everyday conversation, the accusations of overreactions, the eye rolling and exasperated sighs in response to polite requests to please not use misogynist epithets in my presence or to please use non-gendered language (“humankind).” – Melissa McEwan

“We live in a society that’s sexist in ways it doesn’t understand. One of the consequences is that men are extremely sensitive to being criticised by women. I think it threatens them in a very primal way, and male privilege makes them feel free to lash out. This is why women are socialised to carefully dance around these issues, disagreeing with men in an extremely gentle manner. Not because women are nicer creatures than men. But because our very survival can depend on it.” – Brianna Wu

Don’t you just have to chill out sometimes? I mean, I agree with you and all, but you’ve got to live in the world, and this is just how it is!

“Knowledge makes me more aware, it makes me more conscious. ‘Knowing’ is painful because after ‘it’ happens I can’t stay in the same place and be comfortable. I am no longer the same person I was before.” – Gloria Anzaldua

Guess what? Patriarchy wants us to keep silent, it wants us to let everyday misogyny go by unscathed. That is power’s greatest weapon: keeping itself invisible. That’s why it’s so awkward to call people out on their apparently “harmless” sexist or heterosexist remarks. I hate awkwardness. I want to avoid it as much as the next person. But also, knowing is painful. It means that those remarks that would have slipped by you before, or at most elicited an eyeroll, really sting. Because you recognise that it is just one more technique of disciplining, controlling, enacting violence. One thing I like to say is, “Hold on, I’m sorry?” Just put a halt to the conversation. They will have to explain. All of a sudden, a remark that would just be part of everyday flow is under the spotlight. They will see that perhaps it was not harmless. To make someone stop and think twice is a very powerful thing, even if they are a lost cause.

feminist-disneyAs Desmond Tutu reminds us: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

I hate when people comfort the privileged. I want you to be uncomfortable. I want you to take notice of the people being killed, raped, beaten, alienated because of their identity. I want you to think about how the system favours you and what that means for others. I want you to reevaluate your actions to make sure you’re actively working against the systemic oppression of others. If you’re comfortable, then you’re in the wrong” – highly intelligent anonymous person.

validateyourexistenceAs for the pseudo-sympathetic plea, “You’ve got to live in this world, don’t ysisteroutsiderou?” which has been put to me by pro-feminist people, no, I don’t want to live in “this world” as you call it if it means accepting your patriarchy and heteronormativity. There are some people who would prefer to go against the grain and we don’t live on other planets. So I think I can survive pretty well with my dangerous consciousness, as well as my shelves of feminist literature. Yes it’s exhausting. But falling into step with patriarchy is out of the question. If you want to take up the mantle, Audre Lorde gives us a rallying cry: “Sister outsider.”

iwouldmuchratherbeLet’s not give up all the ground we’ve won. Feminism should not be palatable to the patriarchy, that’s the whole point. You think feminists are man haters? Okay, fine. I’m not going to stroke your ego by telling you about all the men I love. You think feminists are ugly? You think feminists don’t shave? I’m not going to point to all the women whom the male gaze has deemed appealing and who are also feminists. You think feminists are lesbians? I’m not going to make you feel that feminists really need men after all, with something about “companionate” marriages from the 1950s. You think feminists can’t “get” a man? I’m not going to spout something about how a man should want a “strong” woman after all, because then he’ll know she’s with him because she cares, not because she’s forced into it! In truth all feminists are man-hating lesbians who do not shave, are hideously ugly and actually long for a heterosexual relationship because we actually know that’s the only fulfilling path in life and lesbianism is simply bitterness. Because those are your standards. Feminism wants new ones.

All of us feminists know the truth of Lewis’ Law: “the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.” Backlash against feminism shouldn’t determine its priorities. After all, the goal of anti-feminism is to discredit it. The patriarchy has made it perfectly clear what scares it the most: a woman whose entire life, daydreams and self-worth don’t depend on a man, but on herself. And, God forbid, on her vast web of human relationships.             killjoy

A Prison Cell Built for Two: Romance, Monogamy and Violence

perfectheteronormativityI know I could write pretty much what I want about patriarchy and heteronormativity. I’d have to get pretty radical before progressive people got upset. And yet to criticise monogamy? People who love attacking heteronormativity with me stop when I start on mononormativity. “Well, that’s okay isn’t it?” Aren’t romance and monogamy synonymous? Isn’t it how our society works best? Then – hold on, are you criticising my relationship? This tells me I’m getting something right.

Laura Kipnis points out that monogamy is “secured through routine interrogations (“Who was that on the phone, dear?”), surveillance, (“Do you think I didn’t notice how much time you spent talking to X at the reception?”), or impromptu search and seizure. We are taught that this is necessary, romantic, even natural. That each partner should be naturally jealous and overbearing of the other’s movements, words and thoughts. Why can’t we see this for what it is, controlling and often downright abusive?

rule206By falling for the trap that jealousy and efforts at control are “natural” (does that mean biologically determined?) we fail to see what’s really at stake. No, it’s not your relationship. It’s the social order. Again, thank you, Kipnis: “adultery puts things at risk: from the organisation of daily life to the very moral fabric of the nation.” This is why “cheaters” get called “immature,” “selfish,” “irresponsible.” It’s the language of what Kipnis calls “bad citizenship.”

When you start to see how institutionalised heterosexuality is built into the social order, you see the point of monogamy. These little units, neat little heterosexual couples, neat little nuclear families in their neat little houses, are the building blocks of capitalist society.

nuclearBut wait! How can something so beautiful as romance and love and commitment be subject to social forces? It’s destiny, it’s a force of nature.

Just look at the workplace vocabulary we use to describe monogamous relationships. There’s the oldest line in the book: “Marriage takes work.” We are asked to “show commitment,” or we may get criticised for “being scared of commitment.” We are advised to “compromise,” “negotiate,” “put in more time,” “be more accommodating.” If necessary, we should question whether the relationship is “worth saving” and if we shouldn’t just “cut our losses.”

workplacevocab

Isn’t this just a little scary? The language of business moves into intimacy. And yet, it’s not at all surprising if we see how heterosexual monogamy is always institutionalised, not the result of a “natural drive” but fundamental to the social order.

And yet apparently resistance is futile. Everywhere you turn there are heterosexual monogamous couples! Turn on the TV, there they are. Attend a family gathering, there they are. Walk into a café – still there! There would be no problem if there weren’t so many. It’s the overwhelming discursive power of heterosexual monogamy that is so damaging. You see a forty year old unmarried woman – first question: “Why isn’t she married?” You overhear the word “polyamory” and blush, or shake your head at the immaturity or downright immorality. A handsome young man always shows up to parties without a woman in his shadow – what’s going on? Must be gay.

couplesThe discourse of romance as meaning heterosexual monogamy is suffocating. Even more so, it includes the notion that all people should aim for it. My one life’s goal is apparently to meet a man, date, marry, buy house, reproduce, raise offspring, die.

Not a bad life script, but why the only acceptable one? Why the only one that is “built into my DNA”?

Okay, this is all well and good, but what’s truly wrong with this discourse? Why can’t we find a “partner” of the “opposite sex,” “settle down” and never “stray”? Apologies for the scare quotes, but seriously. Maybe you don’t mind supporting the status quo, maybe you don’t even mind the capitalist system, enjoy your relationship being legitimated by the state? Well, there are a whole lot more problems with our ideas of romance than we ever hear at the cinema.

disneyheteroThe ultimate problem with heterosexual monogamy is the way it enshrines a hierarchy of relationships. One’s most important bond is with one’s romantic partner. Yeah, you might have friends, but it’s cool to ignore them if you find yourself in a relationship. Obviously you’ll take your partner to that social function, I mean who else is there? Couples refer to themselves as “we.” Other people refer to couples as “John and Jane” or whatever. They merge.

Becky Rosa’s work on anti-monogamy is some of the best I’ve ever read. She criticises monogamy for promoting an “ideology that as adults we should primarily bond with one person, meeting most of our needs from them.” We not only see this in the proliferation of songs, movies, books obsessed with finding a “life partner” but in the social and economic status and incentives given to married or de facto couples. This is why conservative politicians (and unfortunately most of the population) want to promote the couple, the nuclear family. It’s the most orderly way of sorting people.

Mononormativity is the pervasive normalisation of monogamous romantic relationships as the most desirable, “natural” form of relating. Once you realise its presence you feel suffocated. Double beds. Armrests at the cinema that lift up between two seats and are locked down on either side. Two’s company, three’s a crowd. The third wheel. The odd person out. A lover being our “other half.” Which is based on Plato’s myth of humans originally being connected balls, then split in two, so we search always for our “wholeness.” Why is two such a magic number?

platomythThis hierarchy is ultimately patriarchal. Women in a heterosexual monogamous relationship have greater status and opportunities than women who aren’t. They are seen as normal. They are successful. In this stasis – the status quo of heterosexual monogamy – compulsory heterosexuality is affirmed and women’s highest priority is their husband and children. Dangerous, potentially radical ways of relating, such as women’s friendships, are diminished.

Isn’t it time to deprioritise this privileging of sexual relations as comprising our most meaningful relationships? Why do we equate our most important emotional relationships with monogamy? Why have we closed off all our other options? Why are friends less important than lovers? Why is the sexual cordoned off, welcomed only in monogamous relationships? Rosa puts it best: “For monogamy to exist, there needs to be a division between sexual/romantic love and nonsexual love…We believe that there is a distinction between the romantic/sexual love people feel for their partners, the love people feel for their friends and the love we feel for our biological families, yet this is not quantified nor qualified.” How come it’s unacceptable to love two people romantically, yet we would never dream that a mother or a father couldn’t love all of their children. The fact is, monogamy suits patriarchy.

friendshipThis belief sets up a hierarchy of relationships with monogamous partner at the top. The relative neglect of other relationships results in a poverty of intimacy. As Rosa puts it, this “is maintained by ensuring that certain needs can only be met within a certain kind of relationship, the couple” and “it is also very difficult for people not in couple relationships to get the love and caring they want if other people are absorbed in their pair-bond.” Friendship is always less important than romantic relationships. We are obsessed with the “story” of how a couple met each other, but do you ever ask where your friend met her friend? In meeting with a friend we ask, “How is John?” (her partner), but not “How is Marie?” (her friend). We gossip if someone is going out on a date, but not if he is going out with a friend. We gossip that a relationship is on the rocks. Couldn’t care less about the intimacy between siblings. Someone bails on a night out with friends to go on a date? All good. And of course, as Jackson and Scott point out, there’s the eternal problem of “the assumption that we have a pre-ordained right to impose a lover on our friends and that they are automatically included in any social invitation.” Our lives are impoverished by investment in a single “love” relationship.

impoverishedThis poverty is central to patriarchy. With women and men dependent on each other, heteronormativity is maintained and women are separated from each other. Monogamy is also deeply conservative: it keeps couples focused inside – on domesticity, on the house, the car, the kids – rather than seeking radical social change. This is the idea of “settling down,” which apparently everyone learns to yearn for as they “mature.”

Let’s turn to Kipnis again for a dispassionate summing-up: “the authorised forms of desire are those pollinated in the hothouse of the nuclear family, forever in lockstep with its oedipal technologies.”

Just as problematic is the treatment of people as objects. The language of capitalism is inherent to romance. We talk of people as an “item,” call partners “mine” or “my man,” we say “I’m all yours,” “I want you,” “I gotta have you,” “I’ll kill any man who takes you from me,” “You belong to me,” “The girl gets the boy,” “I’m not available.” Why do we speak like this about the person we apparently care for most in the world? We do we feel the need to have exclusive ownership of somebody? While many are leaving behind the abusive capitalistic features of marriage or de facto relationships, such as joint bank accounts, joint ownership of property and women taking men’s surnames (though seriously in 2014 the number of women still doing this is startling), mononormativity thrives on ownership.

jealousySince reading some theorists on intimacy, I am constantly shocked by what I hear in songs and see on TV. Things that are so clearly violent and abusive are represented as “romantic.”

Women and men alike want to know where their partners are at all times. Men can’t talk to women their girlfriends don’t like. Women can’t go out with a man they find attractive. Why didn’t she answer the call? Why doesn’t he say the right thing in this circumstance? Kipnis lists a huge range of interdictions that most people would consider perfectly reasonable when taken one by one: “You can’t spend more than X amount of time talking to such persons, with X measured in nanoseconds. You can’t provoke the mate’s jealousy. You can’t talk to people who make the mate feel insecure or threatened. You can’t socialise with your exes, even if you swear it’s really over. You can’t transgress the standards or degree of honesty or bluntness that the other person feels is appropriate in social situations.” After a few pages of this, the panopticon of coupledom seems hideous, nothing appealing about it.

panopticonIt’s apparently romantic to lust after someone, even badger or chase them, though they don’t offer any encouragement. A marriage or relationship is a failure if it ends in divorce. Inevitable human change is not permitted. To be locked inside the same rules and the same priorities with the same person – to the exclusion of all others – is apparently our hearts’ desire. Why don’t we recognise that this benefits social order, and not necessarily us? We have been sucked in to the vortex of the romance myth.

How about the lovely song “I Will Possess Your Heart” by Death Cab for Cutie?

Or the Beatles, “Run for Your Life”?

“You’d better run for your life, little girl

Hide your head in the sand, little girl

Catch you with another man

That’s the end, little girl.”

beatles

Misogynistic, obviously, but the panopticon of monogamy is practiced on both sides, being a keystone of heterosexuality.

Aretha Franklin sings in “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)”:

“I guess I’ll rap on your door

Tap on your window pane

I wanna tell you, baby

Changes I’ve been going through

Missing you, listening you

Til you come back to me that’s what I’m gonna do.”

And how can we leave out the woman who proclaimed she finds feminism “boring,” Lana Del Rey? “He hit me and it felt like a kiss.” Of course, she is referencing The Crystals’ 1960s hit, and forty years on our ideas of romance are just as entwined with abuse and control, so maybe a few more of us should try to figure out what this feminism thing is all about.

ultraviolenceThen we have the supposed latest feminist icon, Beyoncé, singing that the only way some man can have a say in her activities is if he claims exclusive ownership: “If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it.

And lastly (though the examples go on forever), Selena Gomez declaring in a song I can only gather is directed towards pre-teens: “When you’re ready come and get it…I’ll be sittin’ right here, real patient” and to top it off “Even if you knock it, ain’t no way to stop it.

selenagomezIn these last two songs, we have the well-worn delusion that women are after “secure” monogamy, the gatekeepers of romance, always passive, and men have to give up their “natural” desire to be wayward. These women objectify themselves. Call it the oldest trick in the book of the patriarchy.

These lovely pop songs normalise abuse for the sake of monogamy. In our definition of romance, violence is never far away. It’s pop culture like this that is the reason we still have horrendous rates of violence against women. In Australia, a woman a week is killed by an intimate partner. This in a society in which women apparently participate at a level equal to men. But it’s the more insidious ideas we still have about women, men and heterosexual relationships that cause this violence. Which is why we need to look at what makes us uncomfortable: the fact that control and interdictions which are thought of as “just part of monogamy” would be better classified as abuse.

domesticviolenceThe idea that monogamy provides security is hugely troubling. Apparently women need to be in a monogamous relationship, and desire marriage, because they need to feel “secure.” Why? Are men constantly thinking about relationships with other women? Is the only thing making you feel safe the fact that you are in a relationship with rules? The fact that your partner is forbidden to leave you? The fact that the state has recognised your relationship as legitimate? Jealousy is considered a natural emotion, because we don’t want to consider the possibility that it’s actually the control at the heart of monogamy that is the problem.

In fact, romantic monogamous relationships capitalise on insecurity. They can only thrive on jealousy, anxiety and self-absorption. Simone de Beauvoir tells us that women utterly abdicate their sense of identity in romantic relationships, because “A woman is non-existent without a master.” A man is the essential, and her only chance at true life is through him. Patriarchal heteronormativity has told women that this is their only means of achievement. And who makes up the biggest market for romance novels, romantic comedies, magazines to improve marriage? Yeah.

weddingAnd yet society tells us that the only way to be a mature, fully-realised person is to be engaged in a romantic monogamous relationship! Preferably heterosexual and state-sanctioned through marriage, but as a last resort same-sex monogamy will do.

This tells us romance is not the prime expression of human compassion. It is ultimately about the self. While men are less defined by their relationships and their children, they are also sucked in to this grand, totalising myth. We are told that the best way to discover ourselves is in falling in love. Oh, so it’s about us, not them? Or we are supposed to “lose ourselves in them.” In which case it is still about us. And to maintain romance, we must set up rules, interdictions, lines you cannot cross. This is because in the end it is about social order. Beauvoir tells it like it is: “Love has a smaller place in woman’s life than has often been supposed. Husband, children, home, amusements, social duties, vanity, sexuality, career, are much more important. Most women dream of a grand amour, a soul-searing love.” This is the fiction. The fact is institutionalised monogamy. Isn’t the search for our “other half” or true “wholeness” essentially selfish? It stops us from seeing the other person as they are, as we are able to see friends and relatives, without reference to ourselves, but as a whole person in themselves. As Beauvoir says, the “dream…to attain supreme existence through losing oneself in the other” is not selfless, but self-obsessed. In refusing to allow the other person freedom, in establishing so many rules about their movements, speech, glances and smiles, we are not showing care. We are creating our own insecurity. Monogamy doesn’t solve the problem of jealousy, it creates it. If you didn’t need to control your partner, you wouldn’t mind how intimate they were with another person.

So the hook is romance, but the end goal is domesticity. The end goal is institutionalised couples who lock themselves out of all the other complex network of relationships that are a whole lot more radical. Because we are told that this is the only way to stop the everlasting insecurity inside of us.