“There’s no positive feminist alternative to the Disney model of romance,” an old friend told me late one night.
As is not unusual in conversations with me, the topic of feminism had come up, and I’d asked him whether he thought gender roles were a good thing. He responded by sharing a story of his own heartbreak: a relationship that ended after moving in together and falling into a pattern of contentious discussions about who should be responsible for which chore.
My friend seemed to be implying that gender roles make things easier, that the feminist model of each couple negotiating for themselves was more work. “We spent all our time in negotiations about living together, instead of just enjoying living together.”
I pointed out that it was more work for him to talk about it, but probably less work for her because the continuing inequality in household chore breakdowns means that, statistically speaking, women who don’t specifically negotiate otherwise tend to end up with an unfairly large chore burden. And of course, relying on gender roles for divvying up household chores only works for couples with one man and one woman.
Nevertheless, I think there was value in my friend’s observation about a feminist alternative to the typical romance narrative. It was a revelation to me, perhaps because I live in a bit of a feminist bubble: I think there is a feminist story of love, and perhaps we just have to do a better job of spreading it.
What do I mean when I talk about a feminist love story? I don’t mean a specific fairy tale, although those are nice too.
As a fancy grad student, I’ve recently been studying “narrative theory”- the idea that all of life is understood through stories: stories we tell about ourselves and stories hear about the world and try to fit our lives into. In this sense, a “love story” is a cultural narrative about what love is and how it happens. Our mainstream love story includes elements like being about a man and a woman, the man making the first move, a diamond ring engagement, marriage, children. Our mainstream story says the woman does the laundry and the man mows the lawn. It says you own a home in the suburbs, and stay together until you’re adorable old people. It says that when you find “The One” or “True Love” everything can be perfect, and you live happily ever after. It’s reinforced in commercials, books, politicians’ speeches, TV shows, religious congregations, classrooms, and our conversations with each other, just like so many other stories we have about life.
If love is a big part of life, and if romantic gender relations are a big part of feminism, then we have a big stake in changing the mainstream story.
Before I talk to you about the feminist love story, I have a confession to make: I think the mainstream story is crap. It makes our relationships worse and our lives more difficult. It’s not romantic; it’s stupid.
Do you remember back in 2003 when the Postal Service released “Such Great Heights” and it was everywhere? The first few times I heard it, I misheard the chorus. The song actually says:
They will see us waving from such great heights
Come down now, they’ll say
But everything looks perfect from far away
Come down now, but we’ll stay
The portion of this I managed to catch in the background of friends’ radios was “Everything looks perfect from far away / Come down now.” I found the message difficult to understand at first, because without those last three words, it contradicted everything I was told was romantic. If you’re on such great heights with someone, why would you ask them to come down to earth?
As I thought about the meaning of the line, however, I grew attached to the beauty of what it suggested: “Sure, our idealized images of each other seem perfect,” it seemed to say, “but I don’t want to love an idealized image of you. I want to love the real you, here in the real world.” Perfect things aren’t real; if you love an imagined perfect version of someone, you’re losing the opportunity to love the actual human standing next to you. The fairy tale “happily ever after” isn’t real because life doesn’t stop happening. Listening to what I thought the lyric was made me understand I don’t want my love for someone to exist outside of my life; I want that love to happen in it, even with all the ordinary and non-magical moments that entails.
…Then I realized that the end of the chorus existed, and I was sad that my beautiful contradiction to the mainstream love story was actually just another reinforcement of it. I still can’t hear the song without being reminded of that disappointment.
“Perfect” is a problem, because it’s not about action. If you expect something to be perfect, to magically fit together all on its own, then when it’s not perfect, it’s a failure. This “perfect” problem is one of the ways the major ways the mainstream love story hurts relationships. It’s no coincidence that the same culture that created the “happily ever after” trope also created every trope perpetuated by The Lockhorns.
The “perfect” problem shows up when studying math- Several studies found that students either thought of intelligence as an “entity” trait (just part of who they were) or an “incremental” trait (something they could work to improve). Guess which group learned more? Yup, the latter.
If we expect something to be magically perfect, then when it falls short we think it’s failed and stop trying. But when we understand that the good things we have are (at least partially) thanks to the effort we put into them, then we’ll keep putting effort in when things get bad.
It may seem like I’ve just spent this whole post badmouthing romance, but I’m really just badmouthing the mainstream story of romance. I enthusiastically and sappily believe in the beauty and romance of the alternative story.
As I see it, those talks about chores that my friend found so frustrating aren’t really work. I know a conversation about dishes doesn’t seem romantic, but when the reason you’re talking about them is that you’ve chosen to share a home together, to share meals together, that’s beautiful. Maybe it takes effort, but it’s effort I’m happy to put in.
But it’s not just the gendered breakdown of chores that feminism refuses to assume; it’s things like how wedding engagements work, how childcare will happen, or whether you’ll have children–not to mention the acknowledgement that monogamy isn’t the only relationship model. We get to negotiate each of those for ourselves as well. All those negotiations require conversation.
There’s a lot to love about love, but some of the closest, most romantic moments are those conversations. They can be quiet, cuddly, sweet, difficult, funny. They’re intimate because they’re vulnerable. They’re bonding moments because they’re when we reveal ourselves to each other and talk not about what we’re expected to want but what we, as individuals and in relation to each other, actually want from this thing we’re creating together.
And that’s really the crux of it: we’re creating something new and totally ours, together. That’s the feminist love story. Feminist relationships don’t expect you to fall into two neat cookie cutters or gender roles. They don’t even expect you to mostly fit (though it’s fine if you could).
It’s like the mainstream story is the most boring baking project: man contributes items A, B, and C. Woman puts in items X, Y, and Z. They only ever combine in that way and they only ever make that one recipe. Forever. No matter who you are. No wonder the Lockhorns were so unhappy.
The feminist love story, though, is about baking something entirely improvisational, from scratch–a new recipe that creates the delicious result of the ingredients specific to the two of you at this particular time in your lives. Sure, it involves a little more communication, but in the end you’ll never have that same boring mandated recipe of the mainstream model; you have this beautiful, colorful, complicated, bright, soft, amazingly unique, love-filled life that’s just yours, and just right. Because when it’s not right, you can fix it. Together.