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.
Until the age of 18, she’s a child who needs to be vigilantly and legally protected. In college, while wise enough to make decisions about federal loans, political representation, and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, she remains the object of rules and regulations intended to protect her from predatory professors and co-eds. In her 20s she is preoccupied with professional development, rent and self-reliance but is implored not waste her youth because she’ll never be this pretty again. Have fun! It’s what girls just wanna do! By her 30s, she should be actively planning her family. Upon having children, her life will ideally revolve primarily around that of her offspring, particularly as contemporary Western culture conceptualizes child rearing as personal responsibility rather than communal or professional enterprise. Because she likely must work outside the home, her precious free time is dedicated to her children’s care and cultivation. Once her children are independent and no longer cohabitating, her biological indicator of womanhood has begun to wane. As it does, she is once again implored to act her age; this time not as a girl, but as an ungendered, asexual and slightly ridiculous person. For this minor insult, she should be awarded the holy grail of grandmotherhood. No one’s life goes according to script, but this is the script. It’s not only actresses who complain about the lack of roles.
In 2017, the lives of men increasingly parallel those of their female counterparts in heterosexual partnerships. Yet it is not considered deviant for a man to “play the field” or be less than enamored with cooing infants. James Bond, who murders people, isn’t as pathologized as an unwed woman of the same age who makes demanding martini requests. No one looked at the single George Clooney as mentally ill, duplicitous or tragic. Not only is there no script, there is no cultural point of reference for adult women who politely decline the roles of mother, wife and spinster. Women who remain intellectually and physically vibrant and move through the world with composure, sophistication, experience, authority and agency remarkably complain of feeling “invisible,” as if without a child or husband to reflect upon her, there is no there there. What even is an adult woman without children or marriage, which at least provides an expectation of children, like a dolls’ house that has been furnished in preparation for its inhabitants? No one knows. No one’s ever seen one! Humans tend to see only what they’re trained to look for and frequently fail to recognize objects taken out of context. Perhaps our suspicion and confusion aroused by these women (their motives and their very existence) is, to employ the lenience of Illouz, a reflection of our natural distrust in the authenticity of anything so rare. Or if not rare, not made visible through cultural channels and social mores.
Life in the Den
I wasn’t terribly adept at being a child. I listened to Barbra Streisand and read Milan Kundera. While my peers were camped out in the den watching Disney movies or playing Candy Land, I lurked in the dining room where my parents played poker with the neighbors while sipping cocktails, smoking cigarettes and arguing about Ronald Reagan or women’s lib. Like I said, I couldn’t wait to be an adult. But what “adulthood” meant when I was failing childhood has changed radically, and I now fail adulthood for the same reason: Disney movies bore me. Childless singles may well be avoidant of maturity, but in this they are hardly an aberration. Society itself has soured on it.
When I first began to observe this phenomenon, I explained it by the fact that people who have kids become interested and involved in kids’ things because they are interested and involved in their kids. As I mentioned, child rearing has increasingly become hyper-individualized, intimate and the personal responsibility of parents. This was not so several decades ago. My brother and I spent a very sizeable amount of our childhood at our grandmother’s house, were subject to a neighborhood carpool and, so long as we were home by dinner and finished our homework, were unsupervised afterschool. My mother didn’t work, so it wasn’t even a matter of logistics. It was simply a given that kids and grown-ups had their own lives, interests, needs and worlds. My mother was actively engaged in our lives. I never felt neglected. We respected each other’s space. There is far more anxiety about what a child is exposed to now. In the 1980s, cultural critic Neil Postman wrote a popular book, The Disappearance of Childhood, expressing concern about the increasing subjection of children to the adult world. I suspect every generation does a bit of hand-wringing about the corruption of innocence, but apparently the Boomers had taken things too far when they let their kids watch MTV. We use haughty phrases like “free-range children” and “helicopter parents” to describe this change in parenting, but the current norms do put the child and the parent in the same place more frequently and intensely. And that place is more family friendly. If it isn’t, an online petition will demand it become so.
Perhaps it is time for an equally hysterical tome entitled, The Disappearance of Adulthood. The blurring of the line between childhood and adulthood persists and will forever because no one wakes up like Gregor Samsa to find themselves transformed over night. But the coveted side has flipped. The trend has spread to non-parents and parents of adult children. My peers read the Harry Potter series, litter casual conversation with Simpsons references and watch comic book superhero franchise movies. Then there are those who go in for another kind of adolescence: Middle aged people attending Lollapalooza, smoking weed, playing video games, wearing flip flops… I had a very different idea of what being an adult would be like. My parents got dressed up to go out or to have guests. Even for backyard barbeques, women did their hair and lipstick and shooed the children away along with the gnats. We were free range not because the world was safer but because why the fuck would a grown up want to play Barbies or Mario Brothers? There was something creepy about a grown up who showed much interest in kids’ things. Like, maybe they were a predator. My little brother was into the superheroes when he was little, and I had Wonder Woman underoos. I also had Cabbage Patch Kids. I think it would be disturbing if I took a date to a Cabbage Patch Kids movie. But my peers are definitely going to see Wonder Woman.
There is nothing objectionable to children’s entertainment, young adult novels or fantasy films, aside from the obscene amounts of money funneled into their marketing. What is notable is the lack of alternatives, or even the lack of demand for alternatives. The thrill of getting glammed up for a night out has been replaced with opioid effect of relaxing on the couch in comfy clothes. We still drink, but often after a prolonged detailed description of our host’s niche bourbons, as if the liquor cabinet were his new toy collection. I accidentally quit smoking, which, despite its health dangers, remained one of the last reliable ways for adult strangers to strike up impromptu conversations without any children around. Our most popular card game has all the class of a 14 year old boy. We still bitch about the President, but it quickly turns into an argument about who started this nightmare. Though inequality persists, going on about women’s issues at a social event earns a “why do you have to ruin everything” look. Bring up an LA Review of Books article or Hannah Arendt at a dinner party, and can we please talk about something less serious? Oh, did you see the thing with the baby bear? A baby animal video is passed around.
I love animals. But it does not change the fact that now that it’s acceptable for me to sit at the adult table, the adults are in the den watching kids’ movies or playing board games.
If this is an indictment, I could just as easily be accused of wanting to live in the past too. I have no to desire to dictate how others should live their lives and claim no expertise in that field. Nor am I in a position to judge; I have a Pillow Pet. I understand the need to balance the weight of reality with escapism and get the terror of aging. But it isn’t the vivacity, curiosity, fearlessness and optimism of youth that my generation has begun to cling to for dear life. It is the comfort, fantasy, mimicry and distractions that epitomize a much earlier stage of life. Correlation is not causation, but given our contemporary ambivalence about adulthood, is it so strange that we have a man baby in the Oval Office, a grotesque caricature of selfish infantilism (who ahem has kids)? If sophistication, savoir-faire and intellectual acumen aren’t compelling enough reasons to make adulthood sexy again, perhaps our civic responsibility is. Postman described adulthood as beginning “when written language is mastered.” Show me a childless woman whose writing skills are surpassed by those of Donald Trump.
Audrey Horne gets what she wants.
Merriam-Webster defines an adult as “fully developed and mature.” By the age and pace at which we award rights and endow expectations, maturity can be said be the illustrated ability to comprehend and accept responsibility for the way our decisions and actions shape not only our own welfare, but also the welfare of others. Raising children makes this responsibility harrowingly poignant, but it isn’t essential for maturity and moreover does not relieve us of our responsibility for the welfare of those who are not our children. It is precisely this note on which Illouz ends her book, suggesting that if we are to be more than mere commodities under capitalism and achieve anything near equality, “the project of self-expression through sexuality should not be divorced from the question of our duties to others and their emotions.” Forget grandparenting, a Marxist-Feminist argument for commitment outside the realm of parenting is my holy grail. Fantasy? Perhaps.
But I certainly won’t be wearing Wonder Woman underoos in it.