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Gunning Down Romance

[Reposted from Official Shrub.com Blog.]

There have been quite a few discussions lately (On Hugo Schwyzer's blog, at Punk Ass Blog, and at Pandagon (also this post), and Neurath's Boat, about young men who think that feminism and heterosexual male sexuality are incompatible. (Which is even more interesting given the discussions here and Putting the "Fist" in "Pacifist" about how most men aren't feminist *enough* to be worth getting involved with.)

I originally started this post as a "how-to guide" for these (presumably) sincere but frustrated nice guy types (I'm probably giving their professed sincerity more credence than it deserves, but the ones who are just the larval form of MRAs don't really deserve much mention - I'm talking more about the ones Protagoras calls "Shy Feminist Men"), but was quickly overwhelmed by how much "how to" would be needed, and it was increasingly obvious what was fueling these misconceptions.

I. Patriarchy and the Single "Nice Guy"

I think the main problem this sort of "nice guy" has is that, while he tries to meet a few feminist standards (no means no, don't harass, etc.), he still buys into a lot of patriarchal bullshit, namely:
  • Sex and desire are inherently dirty, shameful, and degrading;
  • Being attracted to someone entitles you to their time, attention, affection, body, whatever;
  • Women are less interested in sex than men (and consequently use it as a means to achieve other ends);
  • Women are less attracted to "visual" characteristics than men - so if she's not attracted to you, it's because (a) you did or said the wrong thing; (b) there's something wrong with her standards (she only likes "jerks, "she's a "gold-digger," etc.); or (c) she's a lesbian.
  • To not have your attraction reciprocated is a serious insult, or a statement about your worth as a person;
  • Heterosexual "courtship" consists of an active man approaching a passive woman, and her acceptance or rejection of his "offer";
  • Any interaction that doesn't ultimately lead to sex is a failure;
  • A conventionally attractive partner is a symbol of status and a panacea for depression;
And so on. But because the feminist imperatives are explicitly expressed while the patriarchal ones are harder to dig out, feminism gets all the blame for the conflict, and the "nice guys" conclude that feminism is something for when they're older, but not now when it would involve work or sacrifice.

II. And Everything You Thought Was Just So Important Doesn't Matter

About this point, I realized that there were going to be far too many of these patriarchal assumptions to go into detail about all of them, other people had already begun to do this, and besides, they could be summed up in a single sentence:

"Everything you've heard about relationships is wrong."

III. Shoehorning Life Into Glass Slippers

The reason why our model is so erroneous, I think, is because of the essentially private nature of most relationships, which means none of us have much in the way of direct observation to rely on - and observations of any relationships other than our own are likely to be incomplete (i.e., we see them as they are in public, but not as they are by themselves). What fills the gaps in our knowledge are "cultural narratives" - ideas about how the world works that we're generally familiar with and sound plausible enough. When it comes to (heterosexual) relationships, the cultural narrative is one of "storybook romance," and it's one that's fundamentally flawed.

The problem with "storybook romance" is that life isn't a storybook, and attempts to force experience into a narrative structure are not only prone to getting it wrong, they're prone to getting it wrong in systematic ways, and those ways promote harmful misunderstandings.

IV. And There's Gonna Be A Happy Ending, But That's Only the Beginning

The first way that the cultural romance narrative gets human relationships wrong is by assigning a beginning, middle and end to them - and by encouraging us to look at relationships this way while they're in progress. This gives us expectations that our relationships will take these forms - most notably:
  • That a nonreciprocated attraction is merely a relationship in the "beginning" stage;
  • There's a "middle stage" with easily identifiable and understandable conflicts; and
  • If those conflicts are successfully resolved, there's a "happily ever after" stage in which the relationship has no more major problems.
Though I've been using the phrase "storybook romance" to describe this cultural narrative, even something as conventionally "unromantic" as a one-night casual fling can get mapped onto this structure (meet, flirt, go off together; beginning, middle, end), with the same harmful assumptions (if she's not into you, flirt more; once you've left together it's smooth sailing, etc.)

V. What's Montage? It Is Nor Hand, Nor Foot, Nor Arm, Nor Face...

The second way that "storybook romance" as a cultural narrative lies in the necessity to compress the relationship (and the character introduction) into 90 minutes of film, or 400 pages, or a three-minute song, or whatever the medium dictates. So we usually get, instead of a real incipient relationship, a quick montage of "fun dates" (usually culminating in a scene on a playground) without problems, "downtime," or any concerns whatsoever, either within or without the relationship.

VI. Attack Of the B-Plots

"Storybook romance" is also problematic because of our insistence in including it at every opportunity. I can't remember the last CRPG I played that didn't have a romantic subplot (probably one of the NES Final Fantasies); hell, I've even seen sports games that had a rudimentary dating sim tacked on. And pretty much any random movie is going to pair off the leading man and leading woman by the end of the film. In a patriarchal movie culture where "lead actor" and "leading man" are virtual synonyms (with the exception of movies where the romance is the main plot), this has the effect of making leading women into love interests first and characters second.

VII. But I Like Those Stories!

I'm not advocating that we do away with romantic plots and subplots, any more than I'd advocate that we chuck high fantasy because the magic described therein isn't real. I've enjoyed plenty of stories in each genre - and that's pretty much what this romance narrative is, even when it's not published by Harlequin: a genre with its own conventions and expectations, that's there to make it easier for the audience. It's just that when it comes to fantasy, we don't expect the conventions of the genre to accurately reflect our own experience, and we don't demand that every story include elements of the genre.

Conclusion: What Now?

"Everything you've heard about relationships is wrong."

So what do we do? At this point, where all we know is our own ignorance, we're all pretty much without a net, which can be both liberating (I don't have to play this role that isn't me!) and terrifying (so what do I do instead?).

What's needed, I think, is a way to get these patriarchal assumptions, and real-life counterexamples, out into the open, so that we can develop a more authentic understanding of what a truly feminist form of initiating heterosexual relationships would belike. (You'd think with all the time abstinence-only sex ed frees up, there'd be plenty of time to talk about relationship stereotypes…) Heterosexual feminist/pro-feminist men, in particular, need to combat the assumption that this patriarchal model of "romance" is the only reliable one for relationships.

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