Tag Archives: romance

Strange Fruit – Lillian Smith

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Banned to the hilt and consequently a bestseller, a book set in 1920s smalltown Georgia. It is often billed as a tale of interracial love, between Tracy Deen, a young white man from a wealthy family, and Nonnie Anderson, a young black woman who is a college graduate and is now working as a maid. But it is certainly no “forbidden romance” in the genre of “Romeo and Juliet” – this is a story of white supremacy, the misogyny at the heart of heterosexual coupledom, the objectification and trafficking of black women by white men, and the damage done by “well-meaning” progressives. Thankfully, there is no construction of a pre-existing force of romantic love that clashes with cruel social forces and ends in tragedy. Smith therefore gets at something far more insightful than many “feel-good” narratives that simply aim to tell us that, after all, love is love, and offer very little understanding of the violence done by inscriptions of normativity. The novel skips between characters almost dizzily, taking us into the heads of many townspeople who reflect on the Tracy and Nonnie, a murder that takes place, and a lynching. We see how white supremacy is reproduced and how it shores up the identity of white citizens, including those liberals who espouse social justice. Towards the end of the novel, the psychic fragmentation experienced by some characters is depicted in exhilarating modernist prose. There are many reflections of the 1940s white supremacist culture Smith herself wrote out of, representations of black characters that are jarring to a twenty-first century reader. But her striving for representation of this white supremacy, her vivid and daring representation of queerness, sexuality, and desire, as well as the racist and sexist violence that pervades the novel, is a reminder of what we still need from radical writers today.

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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

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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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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.”

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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.