Friday, 25 March 2011
I came across this essay I wrote when I was 19, while sorting through things during my admissions abroad. It was a draft of an essay I'd written for a Gender Studies course I took in Australia. I'm now trying to remember a time when I was *not* this cynical.
Sex, Gender and Identity: An Introduction to Gender Studies
The idea that romantic love might threaten women’s interests, and that it works in favour of patriarchal society, has been around since the 19th century (Wendy Langford, Romantic Love and Power. Women, Power and Resistance: An Introduction to Women’s Studies. (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1996), p. 23.) The belief that power manifests itself mainly in public realms has been disputed by feminists. These feminists have analysed and deconstructed personal relationships between men and women to show how they are constructed by societal influences which work towards benefiting men at the expense of women. This essay briefly examines how romance is socially constructed and how it works against women’s interests. It also explores some of the double standards which work within romance and how some mediums such as romance fiction work towards further constructing romance in the minds of girls and women in socially acceptable terms. “Romance not only refers to the emotional and caring aspects of a special human relationship but also involves patterns of power between people, especially male and female.” (Linda K. Christian-Smith, Young Women and Their Dream Lovers: Sexuality in Adolescent Fiction. Sexual Cultures and the Construction of Adolescent Identities. (United States of America, Temple University Press, 1994), p.207.)
One of the theories put forth by feminists concerning romantic relationships between men and women, is the theory of false consciousness (Langford, p. 24). Here, it has been argued that romantic love is a form of ‘false consciousness’ which prevents women from recognising the reality of their exploitation by men, and prevents them from bonding with their own sex. Romantic love is therefore seen as a condition, which ought to be substituted by more equal relationships based on the more balanced model of friendship. Some feminists advocate resistance and assert that the best solution would be if women desisted from engaging in relationships with men altogether. This is referred to as ‘sexual separatism’ (Langford, p.25.).
There are disadvantages to this theory, though, one of which is that all relationships become only about men oppressing women, which may not always be the case. This theory also assumes heterosexuality; it does not address the concerns of homosexuals, especially lesbians. For other feminists this theory doesn’t solve many issues since their feminism involves struggling against capitalist, imperialist or racist regimes, not gender domination. The theory also needs to delve deeper and address the issue of domination in romantic love itself.
Another radical feminist theory develops Simone de Beauvoir’s emphasis on the psychological dynamics between lovers. Men’s power over women is seen to rest on the culturally developed ability of the male ego to have power over the female ego. The theory develops from a certain ego-boosting which isn’t reciprocated; the need for men to derive their own strength and self-esteem by over-riding women’s independent sense of self. This culture thus produces men who are ‘emotionally invalid’. “The resulting one-way emotional relationships underpin the system of sexual inequality.” (Langford, p. 25). This theory allows us to view romantic love as one of many sets of cultural beliefs which determine how certain interactions benefit particular social groups over others.
Thus in romantic relationships between men and women, men are at an advantage while women are disadvantaged. It can also be argued that striving for an equal romantic relationship is an investment of emotional energy which women are already too keen to make. It could be that the fantasy of attaining such an ideal love blinds women most to their own investments in an unequal system of love.
People see their own relationships as equal and are eager to present their relationships in that light. Power in love relationships is hard to detect. It is “largely latent, working insidiously through shaping the subjectivity of the less powerful so that they see their disadvantaged position as normal and natural.” (Langford, p. 28). The strategy of maintaining dominance involves many factors, such as, men’s refusal to talk about their emotions, their expectations of receiving more emotional support than they give, unwillingness to ‘see’ their partners, an assumption that they will take first place psychologically in the relationship etc.
In ‘real life’, women are usually disenchanted and unsatisfied with the lack of emotional intimacy in their romantic relationships with men (Langford, p. 28). For instance, the experiences of Helen, as interviewed by Emily Hancock (Anthony Giddens, Men, Women and Romantic Love. The Polity Reader in Gender Studies (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994), p. 244) resulted in her being “overwhelmed at first by desperation and beset by loneliness.” Aged 49, she abandoned her education to marry a professor who was “rapidly making a reputation for himself in his chosen field”. Since she chose not to complete her education, her sense of self-worth became largely dependent upon her involvement with the aspirations of her husband. Later, he wanted a divorce and Helen had to leave along with their child. In hindsight, she saw herself as occupying his life as a “tenant” or “janitor”. (Giddens, p. 244). “Romantic love is a gamble against the future.” (Giddens, p. 245)
In previous periods, for all but a small proportion of women, leaving home meant getting married. (Giddens, p. 243). Their acts of autonomy thus also presumed material dependence upon their spouses. Most women marry as an assertion of independence and as a means of forging a definite self-identity. This is a paradox.
Women have a propensity to stake precious time and lose heart at the gaming table of romance. Even high career women are seduced by the culture of romance among peers and often opt out of high career jobs to low-paid jobs after marrying. It can be said that women seeking romantic relationships are thus compelled to seek primary bonds with men. It is likely, in heterosexual relationships, to reinforce and reproduce male social dominance, which is hidden as being seen as freely chosen. For instance, the idea that women’s domestic work is ‘labour of love’ hides the fact that men benefit from the appropriation of women’s unpaid labour (Langford, p. 31).
Although feminists were critical of romance fiction, the 80s and 90s saw a tremendous increase in the demand for such books. It seemed to appeal to every type of woman, women of different classes, sexualities, races, beliefs and educational levels, hence it became an important feature in feminist and women’s studies. Romance fiction became a topic for much discussion and analysis. Some feminists continued to argue that romance is an ideology which dictates to girls and women a particular type of subservient femininity. Some others contended by saying that such an approach wrongly assumed readers of such fiction to be passive readers who reproduced what they had read in real love relationships. Instead, reading romance fiction was also seen as compelling because it offered to women in fantasy what they could not achieve in real life (Langford, p. 27).
But romance fiction is seen mainly as a force which influences and shapes women, securing their consent to the organisation of society. It channels women’s dreams towards a certain structured and fixed heterosexual relationship in which they would be at a disadvantage. In an analysis of teen romance fiction, done by Linda K. Christian-Smith in the 90s, after interviewing 29 teenage readers of such fiction, several things were uncovered. Christian-Smith studied teen romance novels which had been published between 1942 and 1982. She indicates that such fiction was published during the presidential regimes of Bush and Reagan especially to win popular consent to traditional gender practices (Christian-Smith, p. 208). She points out that there is a code of sexuality in this type of fiction which girls acquire from reading these novels.
Some of these recurring elements are that romance is the only proper context for sexuality (sexuality is always referred to in the context of heterosexuality), girls respond to overtures but never initiate them, genital sexuality is reserved for adults, girls should resist genital practices even though it is expected that boys will put pressure on teenage girls to indulge in these practices etc. (Christian-Smith, p. 210). Hence, we can clearly see a double standard in the expectations for boys and girls.
These teen romance novels also portray a certain sense of homophobia. Of the 34 novels under analysis, only two explored lesbian teen love. Even in these two, society helps establish heterosexuality as the prevailing discourse (Christian-Smith, p. 212). In heterosexual teen relationships, several patterns are seen such as docility in the girls and their tendency to wait for boys to make the first move and the definition of a girl’s sexuality as distinctly non-genital. Less attention is thus paid to the physical aspect of girls in these novels, and more to the psychological aspect. Here, females exist mainly for men’s pleasure. Thus their consent to traditional views on sexuality is negotiated and young women are reconciled to doctrinal and acceptable places in the world.
Further studies and analyses show how romance is socially constructed to make men dominant in relationships and how the double standard works. In research projects done in the 80s, young women seemed to be under greater pressure to safeguard their reputations, while men seemed under pressure to demonstrate theirs (Janet Holland, Caroline Ramazanoglu, Sue Sharpe and Rachel Thomson, Reputations: Journeying into Gendered Power Relations. Sexual Cultures: Communities, Values and Intimacy. (London: Macmillan, 1996) p. 293). Sexual reputation is seen as inscribing conformity to normative femininity. Unfettered female desire is impossible in terms of normative femininity and the double standard rules out any of the promiscuity or sexual liberty which is allowed in the case of males. The author also speaks of ‘the male in the head’, or a surveillance power of male dominated heterosexuality. “To be feminine is to construct oneself in relation to the heterosexual male.” (Holland et al, p. 240).
Girls are thus often under pressure to lose their virginity but are also under pressure to keep their reputations in tact, as seen in teen romance fiction. Conformity to this double standard is understandable because of the assumption that men want sex and women want love. Women can’t afford to want sex, being ‘rampant’ is not on a woman’s agenda. “...to lose control is to lose your reputation”. (Holland et al, p 243). Negotiated relationships, where roles can be reversed, are hard to move from the private to the public sphere. Even if women can dominate in the bedroom, they will not become socially powerful through femininity.
But what about men? Men, like women, also fall in love and have also been influenced by the developments of the ideals, theories and analyses surrounding love. But they have been affected differently than women. Again, social constructs and stereotypes work in the case of men. While women who are unromantic and less prone to emotionally attach themselves are seen as wild, men who are more influenced by the notions of love are seen as romantics or even as wimps and losers. Men are thus provided with sexual liberty but at the expense of gentleness, intimacy, passivity and dependence.
For most men though, romantic love stands in opposition with seduction and men have excluded themselves from any intimacy, and any connections between romantic love and intimacy have been suppressed. What men want is different from what women want – men want status among other males (Giddens, p 248). Under the harsh gaze of ‘the male in the head’, this can often be hard. The male sex has been misread as being mostly independent and stoic, for it is they who want to be “conferred by material rewards and conjoined to rituals of male solidarity.”, and it is they who conceal their emotional dependence on women.
The idea that our emotional experiences are in a sense determined by culture and society is hard to grasp at first. It implies that our emotions are also socially constructed and pre-determined, and that scripts and discourses influence them. There is no real conclusion to this idea and these theories, analyses, studies and concepts put forward by researchers. Feminism certainly has challenged the dichotomy between power and love, confirming love as a patriarchal narrative, and has opened many eyes indeed. Although some feminists encourage us to reject this romantic script totally, this doesn’t address the deeper issue at hand – can these patriarchal narratives be changed? Some feminists are hopeful and say that this is possible to a certain extent, but even if these romantic discourses are re-written, it is probable that they will not be carried out properly.
This may sound silly but I didn’t post anything on the blog after an anonymous person left a rather unnecessary remark on a post, about how I may be the worst writer in the world. Ironically, I was in the midst of applying for my masters [finally] in creative writing. Ahem. At first I was upset because I thought it was someone I knew. After about half an hour though, I found it quite amusing. What is with “anonymous” and why doesn’t he ever want to take credit for what he says, throughout the ages? Oh, well. His loss.