Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Love in the time of patriarchy

I've been following and sporadically contributing to another great series of discussion over on the academic Romance blog Teach Me Tonight (link on the right there). The blog, as well as other romance blogs I am lead to believe (I only read the one), have been afire lately due to an article in the UK's The Guardian in which the author declared romance novels to be mysogonistic hate speech. This author likes to speak with nuance, as you can see.

This article has instigated a broad range of discussions about romance novels, fantasy versus reality, feminism, and more. One theme that has come up is whether or not romance or love is possible in a patriarchal society. When Jane Austen has a novel end happily in marriage, but in a society in which marriage made the woman almost a form of property of the husband, is this really a happy ending? Was Austen furthering and promoting this flawed society by celebrating marriage within it?

I wrote a relatively long comment on these ideas, which I wanted to save.


Anyway, getting back to the main comments here and in an earlier post about Austen's era, while I follow the reasoning, I keep being afraid that it means we have to declare pretty much every relationship before The Second Wave of feminism as inherently flawed. Surely this is overkill.

Men and women in patriarchal cultures and matriarchical cultures surely fell in love and often became better people because of that love. We could declare that it's because all women in particarchal societies and all men in matriarchal ones had internalized their messed up cultures such that they felt "love" despite the fact that they were furthering their own oppression. But, honestly, I have a hard time believing that. Here's an example of why.

Let's say that a man and a woman today are both genuine believers in a society of total gender equality. They strive their entire lives to accomplish this and along the way they fall completely in love and spend an amazing life together. I'm trying to paint a picture of the ideal love affair based on every social or political moral we have.

And yet in 50 years, 100 years, people are going to realize that some of our perfect ideas were wrong. We just aren't that smart, no matter how hard we try, and we make moral judgment mistakes. This means however that our ideal love of today informed by the best of feminist thought is also perpetuating a flawed and mistaken society. The only way out of this is if you think that suddenly now for the first time in history, we've got everything right. And of course the belief that one's own culture has the universal moral truths for all time is the great and recurring sin of ethnocentrism.

But I still want to say that this ideal love affair of today, as we are dreaming of it, was still a great and inspiring love affair, with a story worth telling and one worth reading by our future descendants, despite the fact that many of them realize the heroine and hero were believing absurd things and probably hurting others due to these absurdities.

Does this make any sense? The argument I am trying to build is that flawed societies are not the end of love and romance, because all societies are flawed.


Sammy Jankis said...

I think you are right on, and this is something that we as a world society do not have to time travel to explore. These cultural differences abound in the here and now, and it is ethnocentric viewpoints that cause countries to invade others in order to bestow their own ideology on a soon to be enlightened, appreciative, and liberated people.

bunnygirl said...

So you're essentially saying that if real love can only exist in a perfect world, then real love has never existed and never will?

I buy that.

What's that quote about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, or something like that?

Church Lady said...

Well, here's my opinion. I think a man and a woman can meet and share whispers and ache to feel each other's breath on their skin. And it doesn't matter what society/culture/time period.
I think love and romance are timeless.

I think men are men by virtue of hormones and body parts and yes they are different from women and should not apologize for that.

I think women are women by virtue of hormones and body parts and yes they are different from men and should not apologize for that.

This is how I think. This is how I write.

Great discussion!

Robin S. said...

Couldn't agree more, both with CL and paca.

Sometimes (hell, most of the time) finding someone to love is an amazing feat, with all the baggage each one of us brings in to any relationship - I'd imagine that applies to any 'romantic' relationship, regardless of the gender idientities of the two human beings involved in it, or the era in which they live, or the societal constraints/traits/etc. of the times.

Precie said...


1) Thanks for visiting my blog.
2) Thanks for pointing out Teach Me Tonight. I'll have to take a look.
3) Such a great topic! Very much intertwined with what I'm writing now.

Can fiction depict love/romance within a patriarchal society? Absolutely.

Did Jane Austen's work reinforce her patriarchal society because they focused on courtship and marriage? No. NO NO NO NO. One could claim that Austen's sharp observations undercut her society's emphasis on marriage and social status as the epitome of a woman's vocation. Was love possible in her time? I expect yes. Did love and marriage {and, gasp, procreation) necessarily reinforce patriarchy? Bite me. {sorry...I'm getting worked up.}

Moreover, even if she did advocate the patriarchal "marriage as happy ending" and did accept women's prescribed domestic roles, she was writing fiction. And I firmly believe that all fiction is least in that (as you saw on my blog) I think all writers are influenced by their "time," by their cultural/gendered/socio-economic/religious contexts.

But relationships are far more than the sum of what we see in fiction. Fiction has myriad functions and uses...and interpretations. Heck, a feminist could write the Great Feminist Novel, and yet it could end up being considered a vehicle for the patriarchy.

moonrat said...

yes, thank you. very nicely put.

pacatrue said...

Wow, I didn't think anyone would like this post. Admit it. It's because of my really cool post title, isn't it?

Sammy, umm, yeah.

Intelligent comment, huh? One qualification I want to make is I am actually not arguing that there is no right or wrong and that "it's all relative". Personally, I think most feminist ideas are more on the right side of morality than many ideas before them. Regardless, we aren't perfection and if there is no happiness without perfection we are lost.

bunnygirl, that would be a good quote. Unfortunately, I don't think I can use it in this debate. After all it's from C.S. Lewis and, despite all the smart things he said, he also is famous for arguing that it just was the case that the Bible says wives should obey their husbands. Not going to go over well in a debate about feminism and love. :)

CL, taking off from what you said, I think a lot of this discussion hinges on whether or not there are personal values that are worth something at least on the same level as social ones. One can be honorable in a position that causes harm from a political point of view. One can fall in love with an individual man even in a society in which men dominate women politically. At least I think so. But are honor and love values as important as equality and social power? I think yes, but this is what sets me aside from some on the "left" who view all personal traits as with or without value based on their social and political consequences.

robin s, I had a similar thought. Finding love inside a broken system can be seen as a failure because it perpetuates the system. It could also be seen as an amazing triumph of humanity -- that we can find value and love in the tiniest of places.

Precie, you may see me more on your blog as I plan to add you to my bloglines feeds. That's what you get for saying thanks. :) As for your comments, Sarah, one of the English profs who posts on Teach me Tonight, made some points similar to what you are saying. Essentially, it's very hard to say what values are in a work of fiction. Maybe it's more about what use romance novels are put to by its readers. And this of course changes from reader to reader.

Thanks, moonrat.

Precie said...

OMG! I just scanned the "Bindel, Piece by Piece" post on the TMT blog! I would dearly love to meet Sarah...sounds like we'd have such fun! Makes me miss teaching.

At several points, I almost snorted aloud...(the "comic" Eric posted and the BDSM perspective...LOVE it!) ...I'm adding it to my blogroll immediately!

Robin S. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robin S. said...

Precie- so happy to see you here - loved what you said and the way you said it.

Paca- great title, you're right - and the content also strikes a nerve, in many ways.

Sorry- I deleted my last comment, it was the same post- but absolutely RIDDLED with typos - which rendered the comment a riddle, of course, but a pointless riddle.