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& Your Untouchable Face
Third Wave Feminism &
the Problem of Romance
MERRI LISA JOHNSON
Sitting in the tub with my boyfriend in our Marriott Hotel room, I rub my steamy face with wet hands and try to decompress from the presentation. A mere twenty minutes ago I shared a panel at a women's studies conference with two other women writing for Jane Sexes It Up. The positive response from our audience thrilled me, but soon adrenaline drops away and exhilaration turns to exhaustion, mildly manic euphoria winds down to vague uncertainty. We—he and I—are talking about feminism. Specifically, he is reflecting on his presence as one of only two men we saw at the conference. Feminism, as a movement for social equality, he concedes, has noble goals, but how viable can a movement be when its audience is so limited? Aren't you sort of preaching to the choir? We sit facing each other in the hot water, exchanging perplexed half smiles. My lower back aches as I arch away from the cold faucet behind me.
The Troubled Heart of Heterosexuality
I cringe as I write that word, boyfriend, in this context—"[t]he qualifier 'heterosexual' is, at best, an embarrassing adjunct to 'feminist'; at worst, it seems a contradiction in terms." Feminists are strong, independent women. Boyfriends are people whose class rings you wear around your neck—er, on a chain around your neck. Feminists don't have boyfriends—do they?
Well.Feminists certainly don't talk about our boyfriends, except in bars late at night over drinks. Only in these dark, liminal, off-the-record spaces do the sordid details of our personal lives emerge—the obsessions and, less frequently, the orgasms. We don't mention any of this the next day as we pass each other in the hallways of our professional lives.
Growing up with feminism like an eccentric aunt always reminding us how smart we are, how we can do anything, be anyone, the women of my generation hesitate to own up to the romantic binds we find ourselves in, the emotional entanglements that compromise our principles as we shuttle back and forth between feminist and girlfriend, scholar and sex partner. For if feminism is right, and we can do anything, be anyone, it follows logically that the obstacles we face must reflect personal failures, individual shortcomings in the face of unlimited feminist possibility.
For this reason, one of the hardest things for me to do as a feminist is admit that in relationships I willingly, or at least automatically, live within the man's emotional weather—quiet when he's withdrawn, ready to talk, fuck, go dancing, anything, anything he wants. I am infinitely flexible.
Except when I'm not.
You know what I'm talking about—those late-night screaming matches in the kitchen, throwing your favorite crystal goblet into the sink with a splintering crash, all the myriad ways suppressed anger, resentment, and human indignance eventually and inevitably march forth.
This portrait suggests that the twenty- and thirty-something women of today inhabit a transitional period in U.S. history, with deferential femininity from the not-so-distant past layered beneath (not simply replaced by) hard won career-related advances toward equality. Women's rights have been part of pop culture lingo all our lives. All this apparent progress makes it hard to turn to my eccentric Aunt Feminism and say, "I'm still having some pretty big problems." Or, "I know I don't have to be the second most important person in a romantic relationship, but somehow I keep finding myself there anyway." (Why do I always choose the faucet end of the tub when my boyfriend and I go for a soak?)
The intellectual tools of feminism train women to see through blockbuster movies like Jerry Maguire and to critique the enormous film industry perpetuating a myth of romantic love as the purpose of life. For savvy readers of media culture, an ironic distance from such scripts comes second nature. My dad taught me this lesson when I was three.
But—and here's the important part—when Jerry (played by Tom Cruise) finally comes to his senses and beseeches his precious, pouty, young wife to take him back, surrounded by a living room full of bitter divorced women, he utters three words that floor us: "You complete me."
Ohgodjesus—I could live on that for the rest of my life.
The longing for a man to make each of us feel necessary surrounds young women, is sedimented stubbornly in our most fundamental emotional fibers. (Now that I think about it, Tom Cruise may be personally responsible for a significant portion of Gen-X feminist angst; his brand of sexy—all ego and tenderness—has been thwarting the reconciliation of fantasy with feminism since I was, what, thirteen?) The contradictions of romance and feminism form the very curl and thread of our cultural DNA. Perhaps this explains the appeal of punk folk rocker Ani Difranco, whose lyrics are like the broken glass I sliced my palms with in eighth grade—sharp, dirty, and just a little dangerous. We like her bravado in the face of certain pain, her willingness to let the contagion of emotion spill "out of me, on to you." She pinpoints over and over again the precise place where fairy tale meets dark forest, the anguish of love never more intense than when just out of reach:
You look like a photograph of yourself taken from far far away, and I don't know what to do and I don't know what to say, but Fuck you and your untouchable face. Fuck you for existing in the first place.
I wish you could hear how concert halls go wild at these lines, wish you could see young women crying alone in their cars after a bad date or, worse, a good one. What is it that Ani captures so well here, what source engenders the exhilaration of this particular "Fuck You"? This gnashing of teeth, this rending of garments, this long bottled anger at, at—what?
The college-educated class may be hip to the exploitation of women's bodies—as sex objects, cheap labor, incubators—and most of us girls know something about becoming the man we wanted to marry, how women can and should complete ourselves. Yet somewhere between knowing and living, the ground gapes open and we all fall down.
Wanting Him Anyhow
I spent the last four years trying to convince a particular man to marry me. ("Think what you will! Shock, shock!") You could say we broke up in August of 2000, you could even say we broke up over the marriage issue, but the truer thing to say is that our relationship modulated from marriage track to something less well defined but infinitely more pleasant.
I met this man at a time when he was turning decidedly away from marriage, during the emotionally intense period between unofficial separation and legal divorce—not, most experts would say, the best time for forging new relationships, and he would have agreed. I, on the other hand, having been divorced for several years, and having recently extracted myself from a terribly mismatched couplehood formed in the desperate wake of my own divorce, was ready for my second husband, and he was going to be it.
Long story short, we fell madly in love despite all the odds and reveled in our passion for a long time and from very long distances. We rendezvoused in Vegas and Buenos Aires. I hung an old poster on my bedroom wall from a play called Love Rides the Rails to commemorate our unconventional affair and dedicated myself to becoming the new New Woman—independent, unpossessive, self-sufficient, supportive. I would learn to love lightly, in May Sarton's phrase, to be passionate without being desperate.
And indeed I did develop a more mature sense of self and of relationships through the interlocking processes of wooing him and getting over my need to be wooed, but the bottom line is, I also wanted him to marry me. To prove I was good enough. To win the prize, be the bride. Ever since my disastrous first run for beauty queen in sixth grade, I had longed deeply and stoically for the trophy and the glory. He wouldn't give me either.
And in my quiet reflective moments, I didn't want him to.
But something about the machinery of the relationship, with all the weight of heterosexual history bearing down on me, usurped my best feminist intentions, pressing my desires for companionship into cookie-cutter shapes—hard edged, straight, inflexible—and I ended up channeling some chick from the fifties, complete with hope chest and china pattern. Worse, I became a Whitney Houston song: "Hold me. Marry me. Love me forever and make me feel safe." Pitching idea after idea—"Marriage doesn't have to be that way. It can be whatever we (read: you) want"—I debated and finagled, strung long threads of philosophy, drew his attention to relevant movie plots.
Me: Don't you love me enough to make me your wife?
Him: I love you too much to make you something that small.
Me: You're right, you're right, I know you're right.
I stalked around my house like a cat making a fat tail, thinking this is crazy! Women have way more to lose than men by getting married. If anyone should be holding back, I huffed, it should be me. I knew about (and believed) feminist critiques of marriage, and truth be told, I wasn't sure I could revise it to please us both. All that notwithstanding, I wanted to marry him anyway. Part of me still does.
There is no clear moral to this story.
In the time since we "broke up," I have liked myself better, liked him better, and liked us better (on the occasional phone call or email message). I don't know how long something like this, without a name or any rules, can be sustained before it collapses into the available paths of exes or getting back together, but it feels like there's a clue or seed of relationship revolution in the dynamics passing between us now. Outside the prison house of our capital R Relationship, we are free to go about the business of enjoying each other once more. Now that I've given up the project of convincing him to marry me, I have less to lose by admitting in public that I don't know how to be a girlfriend or wife and maintain that space between us, that connection without clutching.
I can own up to the noteworthy fact that I've never felt as relaxed in a room with a man as I feel right now—alone after midnight, drinking coffee, and working at my computer. Solitude gets sexier and sexier the more I relax into it—like an herbal tea bath—let myself steep.
Feminism and the New Courtship
When a man says, "I'm no good at relationships. I have been alone for so long, perhaps I was meant to always be alone!" or "You'll probably come to hate me, deep down I'm a real asshole," take him at his word and run like the wind!
—Cassandra O'Keefe, "Girlfriend, Listen Up,"
The BUST Guide to the New Girl Order
I am thumbing through my copy of Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women, by Gen-X author Elizabeth Wurtzel, and a star in the margin of the following passage catches my eye:
I think feminism has really taken us to the point where we cannot possibly discuss who does the dishes or who folds the laundry one more time. I don't give a shit. It's all the emotional figuring, the tallying of who is more in pursuit of whom this week, and how do we keep the romance alive, and am I being a nag, and are you tired of me darling—it's all this obsessive, circular, insomnia-driven dread that is still mostly women's work, and it's fatiguing as hell.
Wurtzel basically says Fuck That. My stomach turns over when I read the lightly penciled question I wrote in awe and admiration a mere three years ago: "Will this be me at thirty?" At the time, I couldn't imagine saying Fuck That to the women's work of maintaining a love relationship. I would have done anything in exchange for traditional couplehood. This was, maybe still is, the weak spot in my practice of feminism, and I'm not the only one. "Helping a man get his 'head' together seems to have become the respectable post-feminist replacement for making him a cup of tea." (This therapy culture terminology, let's be clear, probably means something less altruistic than supporting a man's growth as a human being and more like wrangling a marriage proposal out of him—a dubious cause for both parties.) Now nearing twenty-nine, I join Wurtzel in admitting I'm tired of that way of being in love, and I'd like to find some other way.
Whereas women now constitute a significant presence in the American workplace (though there's still more to be done on that front), we've come nowhere close to such an advance within the heterosexual couple (or without it, since single womanhood remains maligned as unorthodox). Feminist critic John Stoltenberg, author of Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice, points over our often clouded heads at the structure of gender inequality curving across the sky like a benign arrangement of stars. Against the "common sense" notion that relationships are about "give and take" (one of those handy pocket-size credos people rarely examine before repeating), Stoltenberg writes, "The actual reality beneath 'give and take' may be quite different: for her, swallowed pride and self-effacing forgiveness; from him, punishing emotional withdrawal and egomaniacal defensiveness." Stoltenberg's purpose is not to deride men, but to say that conventional masculinity poses a conflict between men's gender identity and their moral sense of right and wrong, and that upon making this realization, men can begin contributing to the antisexist work of reformulating the terms of romance. In such a world, perhaps communicating with one's lover would no longer be, as Wurtzel phrases it, quite so "fatiguing as hell."
The problem of women not being able to talk to men about or from the perspective of feminism spoils our best relationships. I've read tons of material on the work feminists have done to sustain dialogues between white women and women of color, between lesbians and straight women, between sex workers and antiporn legislators. But there's no body of work on sustaining feminist dialogue between women and men. And we're out here floundering—longing for feminism, making do with the Dixie Chicks. Men and women who have grown up with feminism want to be different from previous generations; we want to treat each other equally and with respect. But we don't know how.
This confusion is met all too often with the socially irresponsible Prozac feminism one finds in publications like Cosmopolitan, what cultural critic bell hooks calls "lifestyle feminism"—feminism women can claim "without fundamentally challenging and changing themselves or the culture." Worn on the arm like a faux Fendi bag, this feminism goes with everything. An article written by Karen Lehrman in 1995, "Feminism and the New Courtship," illustrates this feel-good feminism and its pitfalls. As with many feminists' work, I find myself agreeing in places with Lehman, vehemently disagreeing in others, and unable to follow her logic at all in still others. She begins:
I was brought up to like sex. Not by my parents, surely; the subject never made it past clinical descriptions. Somehow, though, enough feminist zeitgeist penetrated suburban Philadelphia during the seventies to convince me that not only was I allowed to like sex as much as a man, but I was also supposed to act as though I did.
Excerpted from Jane Sexes It Up by Merri Lisa Johnson. Copyright © 2002 by Merri Lisa Johnson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Dedication & Acknowledgements|
|Foreword: Jane (Gallop) Sexes It Up: A Love Letter|
|Jane Hocus, Jane Focus: An Introduction||1|
|1||Fuck You & Your Untouchable Face||13|
|I||Real Live Nude Girls|
|2||The Sexual Girl Within||53|
|4||I Learned from the Best||91|
|5||Cutting, Craving, & the Self I Was Saving||107|
|6||Of the Flesh Fancy||127|
|7||The Feminist Wife?||139|
|II||Super Feminist Porno Stars|
|8||Stripping, Starving, & the Politics of Ambiguous Pleasure||171|
|9||Co-Ed Call Girls||207|
|10||The Plain-Clothes Whore||231|
|11||Autobiography of a Flea||241|
|III||Our Inner Men|
|13||The Importance of Being Lester||281|
|14||A Cock of One's Own||293|
|17||The Absolutely True & Queer Confessions of Boy Jane, Dick Lover||347|