Posted on Saturday, November 19th, 2011 at 5:24 am
Author: Emily Manuel
Samhita Mukhopadhyay: I felt a tremendous frustration with what I felt were the dominant narratives about romance in the mainstream media. I really saw the book as an intervention. Not really rewriting the fairytale, or this is how you live happily ever after, not necessarily a follow these guides into the relationship of your dreams, but to really critically analyse the dominant mess that we have internalised about romance and to really serve as an intervention into what I felt was making young people unhappy.EM: You use the phrase “romance-industrial complex” to describe some of this, could you explain what you were trying to get at with that term?
SM: The romantic-industrial complex is a borrowed term. Chyrs Ingraham originally wrote about it in her groundbreaking book maybe ten years ago called White Wedding, and it was about the role that all of these structures play in the decisions that we make. I extend this to talk not just about weddings (she talks about the wedding industrial complex), but to the entire romantic industry – everything from what we are expected to look like or how we’re expected to act. From lingerie, to expensive getaways, to candy to cars, flowers, all of these things work together to create a specific romantic experience that has almost replaced the actual authentic experience. Like when someone gets engaged, the first thing you ask them is to see their ring. Everyone says that, “can I see the ring.” It’s become this materialistic marker of progression in your relationship as opposed to this more special moment.
A lot of the way you describe the dominant heterosexual romance narratives are written as a grand consumerist gesture – the proposal, the flowers, the skywriter. I was wondering what you thought the link between that big gesture, which is always from a man to a woman, to the everyday functioning of patriarchy?
The whole aspect, man asking the woman, comes from historically it was assumed [that] he didn’t even have to ask a woman, he asked her father because she was to become his property. And obviously that’s not the language that we use to talk about marriage today – women are not male property – but that history is still there. It’s not just asking you to marry him. Men are supposed to make the first move or be aggressive and it relies on this idea that men are aggressors and they have to conquer and possess and then the reward is the woman they’re supposed to be getting. And that’s what a real man does. And so it hinges on this incredibly patriarchal idea of male dominance over women. A man asking a woman–that isn’t even possible without the support of patriarchal structures.
At the same time, you talk about how there’s the idea of a masculinity crisis.
The masculinity crisis is not so much a crisis in the loss of power of men [. . .] but the crisis is in our inability culturally to let go of these more traditional or archaic ideas about what it means to be a man. And that’s where the crisis comes in. Because the change has come in, so we can either accept it and recalibrate and figure out new ways of dating across gender, or we can cling to old and traditional ideas and feel nothing but frustration every step of the way.
The masculinity crisis also comes with the idea that there’s a scarcity of men, “good men are hard to find” and all that. Where does that idea come from and what does it do?
Since I’ve mentioned this shift, culturally, there is an entire culture that’s going to [need to] be revisited. You have article after article that is blaming the progress of women on the shortage of men. Mathematically it doesn’t really make sense but also a lot of these stories are scare tactics to put women back in their place. They say that if you get too independent, if you are too successful, if you earn too much money, you’re not going to find a man that’s comfortable with you. And not only are you not going to find a man that’s comfortable with you, but the men that you find are going to be turned off that you’re so powerful. All of the major well-known relationship advice people, they all tout the same stuff–that’s exactly what they’re saying. So I think those stories while they might seem a bit harmless, they are actually attempts at scaring women, to get us to retreat.
Why do women read those kinds of mainstream dating advice, then?
Because there isn’t an alternative story. And I think most people want to meet somebody and they want to get married and that’s scary. It’s really scary to be faced with an entire media message that’s saying because of who you are you could die alone. That’s a horrible message. And I think the strongest person has a hard time not internalising that on some level, unless you’re completely so confident and so comfortable with where you are and so sure you’re going to meet somebody. That’s one reason. I think it’s human nature to be afraid when everyone’s telling you one thing.
The other is, I do think that women in many ways are still judged by their relationships. I think that they’re not considered complete societally unless they’re in a successful heteronormative, heterosexual relationship with somebody. And so that puts a pressure on women to try to figure it out and then in your attempt to figure it out, what’s out there? Really bad advice.
So how does feminism help you date, and have better relationships?
Feminism personally has given me the confidence to decipher the difference between what is socially expected of me and what I genuinely want for myself. And I’m not saying those two things are always clean cut, there are things that my parents may want for me that are social expectations but that I also feel because they genuinely love me, they want me to be happy and all of that stuff. And so it helps you decipher what is expected of you versus what you do for yourself, or what you want to do for yourself. And also I think that it gives you the confidence to recognise that your value is not based on what attention you get from men or the success of your relationships with men but it’s based on who you are as a person and the things that you want. It’s a question of self determination. Honestly, I always say it’s like this taste of freedom and once you have it you can’t go back. Like now that I know, I’d never settle for someone who isn’t completely comfortable with who I am.
Towards the end of the book it seems like you’re advocating a feminist version of what you call small l love, which is not goal directed and is experimental. Are there any models you’ve seen that are attempting that kind of experiment?
It’s so interesting, I get asked this question all the time and you’d think that I’d come up with an answer for it. I do think that there are. I think it’s really interesting, all of the really strong powerful women in the mainstream media, their romantic lives are questioned and villainised. Like Oprah, who never married her long-term partner or Hilary Clinton, who’s less emotional, ballsy. It’s how these women are constructed – either you’re super hyped sex object or super mom like Sarah Palin, or you’re this butch who basically castrated her husband. I think it’s hard to say, in the mainstream, what are the really positive models of really anything. You don’t have super positive models of masculinity either. You don’t have a lot of positive models of relationships, especially with the rise of reality television.
But in my own life, I do know several couples that have worked very hard to really de-centre and rethink the role that gender plays in their relationship. And it’s just a natural recognition of where the two people are at. And I can think of many couples. Even at that it’s still not easy, relationships are not easy, it’s a constant negotiation. But a recognition of the different places the two people are at and how that works together, and sometimes that does fall along the lines of traditional gender roles and sometimes it doesn’t, but both parties are consenting and aware of that negotiation.
The word negotiation is quite telling because it means we have to be aware of both power and desire at the same time.
It can be a lot of work, practice. But it’s almost easier to recognise what you need and work out the situation where you’re comfortable and your needs are getting met than to support a system that doesn’t meet your needs and you’re constantly forced to compensate and in many cases overcompensate.
It seems like a recipe for depression…
Sexless marriages, high divorce rates, all kinds of things.
So really what you’re what you’re saying is that feminism can and should save love?
I believe that love is at the heart of feminism. The way that feminism is portrayed is as though it is hate, we’re all about hate. Because we’ve been dehumanised. But I do believe that at the heart of any social justice movement is love. And one of the things I didn’t realise until the book was done and it was out in circulation was that I was frustrated with my own journey to finding what I thought was love; and this frustration I felt with these different roles that we were playing that I thought were really holding us back from authentic and loving connections with people. And that frustration was really motivated me to write the book. So that’s really at the heart of feminism, social change and the book.
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