Why are we told that miserable relationships are the romantic ideal? Noah Brand breaks down the assumptions underlying the cultural messages.
This article was originally published at No Seriously, What About Teh Menz?
We’re all familiar with hegemonic masculinity, the constant societal drumbeat of nonsense about what a man is supposed to be. Tall, successful, competitive, into sports, violent, et cetera ad nauseam. What I’ve been thinking about lately is how this fits into another incessant social narrative, one I’m going to call hegemonic heterosexuality, because the alternate name would be the Cult Of Shitty Relationships. I started down this train of thought when I saw a billboard for some godawful by-the-numbers romantic comedy coming out on Valentine’s Day, which makes sense because Valentine’s Day is that holiday when guys do romantic gestures for their girlfriends like taking them out to romantic comedies because men hate romantic comedies and it’s romantic to do things you hate because wait what the fuck everything in this logic chain is both wrong and horrible.
Hegemonic heterosexuality is the model for straight relationships that carries as many damaging, ridiculous, impossible assumptions and requirements as does hegemonic masculinity. Shall we list a few?
There is a list of Things Women Like and a list of Things Men Like, and they have minimal overlap. To engage in correct heterosexuality one must do things on the opposite-gender list, to please one’s partner. You will not enjoy these things. Men make sacrifices like pretending to enjoy shopping or theater, because those are what women like. Women make sacrifices like pretending to enjoy sports and action movies, because those are what men like. If one’s partner likes anything on the “wrong” list, that is excitingly transgressive in that they might actually enjoy it, but ultimately it’s kind of weird and makes them not The One.
Men don’t have emotions and women don’t have a sex drive, so relationships consist of a transaction: the performance of sex acts for the performance of emotional intimacy. Men hate emotional intimacy and women hate sex, so this is a fair trade all around. There is a narrow range of “normal” sex acts that are permitted; anything outside those bounds is weird and gross, especially if there’s any hint that it might be driven by some form of female sexual desire, which is by definition perverse. Men sometimes want “extreme” or “kinky” sex acts, which a woman may perform in order to please her man, but if she is not appropriately compensated for this sacrifice, the relationship is unfair.
It goes without saying, of course, that men are primarily valuable for their worldly success and accomplishment, with some secondary value derived from conformation to a standardized concept of physical attractiveness. Women, conversely, are primarily valuable for their conformation to standardized physical attractiveness, with some secondary value derived from worldly success and accomplishment.
At all points and in all ways, the man must take the initiative. He must be the first to approach the woman and ask her out, he must be the first to propose sex, the first to propose each escalation of the relationship, and, obviously, the first to propose marriage. The woman’s role is to get the man to do each of these things in the appropriate order without ever directly asking for any of them. If she expresses a desire out loud, she loses points and may be demoted from The One status. Instead she must silently manipulate the man so that he follows these steps in the right order at the right time as though of his own initiative.
Proposal and marriage must be performed in accordance with a very strict and specific set of rituals and traditions. This constitutes a victory on the woman’s part, as men hate marriage, so his proposal means that she has won. Once married, most married couples hate each other. This is normal.
There’s a lot more weird requirements and assumptions built into this routine, but I’m sure you all recognize it by now. This is the model of straight relationships that informs every article in “men’s magazines” and “women’s magazines”, the model that informs every “battle of the sexes” joke, every half-assed romantic comedy, and for some reason every single episode of Friends I ever saw, no exceptions. Also Ally McBeal. Also… shit, throw a dart at the TV, it’ll hit an example.
One might say that this is just heteronormativity, but I think it’s different; it’s even more restrictive. It’s perfectly possible to say “There’s a million different ways for a man and a woman to love each other!” which is heteronormativity, but not hegemonic heterosexuality. The Cult Of Shitty Relationships defines “normal” down even further, into realms of pointless, purposeless unhappiness.
At its core, it’s based on two ugly stereotypes and one ugly model. The stereotypes can be distilled down to this: Men are stupid and women are crazy. Offensive as hell no matter how you slice it, ain’t it? As to the model, it’s kind of even worse: conflict. Men and women’s interests and goals are at odds with each other, so all we can do is try to come out on top.
In other words, hegemonic heterosexuality is the vast cultural conspiracy to describe all heterosexual relationships as the unending war between stupid people and crazy people. If that’s really the model of love you want to aspire to, then okay, you have that right. But don’t piss down my neck and tell me it’s raining, and don’t show me toxic relationships and tell me they’re normal.