a sociological explanation…
After repeated commendations from critic and author Jessa Crispin, I recently read Eva Illouz’s Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation. Despite the mortifying title and cover art, it’s a compellingly argued treatise on the many ways in which capitalism, feminism and technology, by addressing pre-modern power imbalances between men and women, have unwittingly created new ones that may be no more conducive to happiness than the systems they’ve replaced. It’s not a condemnation of the progress that has been made so much as a sober examination of that which remains. The book surveys heterosexual, middle-class Western courtship codes, critiques contemporary economic, psychological, biological explanations for human behavior and draws heavily upon literary sources, from Roman de la Rose to Austen’s Regency novels, from Madame Bovary to Bridget Jones. While some find fault with casting a net of research so wide, doing so illustrates the ephemerality and malleability of behaviors we often attribute to innate gender differences. Withholding moral judgment, analyzing romantic decisions through the contexts in which they are taken aka “the architecture of choice” and presenting the frequently unsatisfactory results with Chekhovian pathos, Illouz offers a smart alternative to the narcissism or oversimplification of pop-psychology. The result is a cool, informative discussion of a topic typically relegated, at least on bookstore shelves, to mediocrity and predation.
Illouz’s argument resists distillation, but here goes. Capitalism, feminism and technology have given women and men more economic, sexual and experiential freedom than ever. And freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose… Many of her observations are enlightening in their perspective. For example, when smitten men pursued women in olden days it was interpreted as nobility of character, morally transcendent and even the socially responsible thing to do, yet when women do it now men fear it is evidence of a toxic, peculiarly feminine neediness. Illouz’s explanation for this new form of sexism is impressively non-judgmental. She also deconstructs how and why we have come to interpret reciprocated love as a measure of self-worth, an apparently modern idea that would have baffled the lovelorn of yore. Gender roles have always been oppressive, and love has always involved suffering. But as a friend lamented about living in contemporary Moscow, “At least in the bad old days you knew what to expect.”
I take issue with Illouz’s assertion that modern women disproportionately value commitment because they are starting families later and have a smaller window of fertility and hotness than men. Why is commitment to another person as an illustration of respect and maturity not considered outside the realm of parenting? Expectations of commitment are alive and well in other spheres of life. We maintain roles of mutual support in dealings with family and friends. We don’t show up to work on an as-fits-our-schedule basis. And the Dickensian ruthlessness with which student loan repayments are required suggests the Devil himself expects an 18 year old boy to be a man of his word. To bail on even casual acquaintances is considered poor form. Codes of dependability appear, in Illouz’s observations, singularly inconsequential to those with whom we are most intimate and vulnerable. This is bizarre to me. And I don’t even go in for marriage.
Women: Where is their there there?
Illouz’s book reminds us that it remains surprisingly radical for women to forego the roles of mother and wife and to be taken at their word when they do so. The unmarried mother has become almost ubiquitously socially acceptable in the U.S. Married women who remain childless, if equally “tragic,” are increasingly common. A woman who desires neither husband nor child is looked upon with suspicion and confusion, like there’s no there there. I want to understand why. The presumption that women are, zombie-like, compelled bear children is as reductive as the presumption that men are, zombie-like, compelled to spread their seed. Like those of most men, most women’s bodies are designed to procreate. They are also designed to begin deteriorating at a certain age, but it would be absurd to suggest that ergo we must secretly want our teeth to fall out and hips to shatter. There is nothing defective in not desiring parenthood any more than free will is a defect. Marriage? It is a legal contract, a strange thing to be biologically predisposed to.
A common refrain about childless singles is that they seek to evade adult responsibility and perpetuate a state of selfish infantilism. Yet adulthood comes with endless responsibilities, most of which are not optional. The accusation of selfish infantilism is either creepily Freudian or inaccurately conflates the experience of childhood with that of being spoiled. Perhaps it is not adulthood one attempts to evade by clinging to autonomy, but its antithesis. Perhaps perpetual infancy isn’t sought so much as interrupted. A male acquaintance commiserated with my confession that as a kid I couldn’t wait to become an adult: “I wanted to grow up so people would stop talking to me like I am a child and show me some respect,” he said. I shook my head in frustration and replied, “But I am a woman. People still talk to me like I am a child.”
The revival of Twin Peaks got me thinking about the social anxiety womanhood produces. When it originally aired, I watched it religiously. It was the epitome of cool. The music. The clothes. The camp. I had friends over for viewing parties, drank coffee, ate pie, the whole thing. I dressed like Audrey Horne, taught myself to tie a cherry stem in my mouth and fell asleep listening to Julee Cruise tapes. In hindsight, I suspect I must have appreciated the way young women were portrayed as adults, not just through their sexuality, but their composure, sophistication, secrets, pasts, autonomy and power. The teens in Twin Peaks sat at the adult table. But as the series confirmed, young women doing adult things is problematic, even dangerous. You should have seen the look on my mother’s face when I finally got the cherry stem in a knot. Precocious girls induce anxiety because they mature too quickly. Precocious women induce anxiety because they mature too slowly. By mature, we mean become a mother.