I’ll be honest with you: I don’t think I’m the target demographic for this book. At nearly thirty-one years old, I might be in the age cohort of women whose romantic lives are the target of cultural anxieties. But I have literally never participated in dating culture, straight or queer, and while I was happily single for twenty-seven years of my life (and am still technically “single” — thanks DOMA!) I’m now in a long-term relationship with my partner, doing my part to destroy marriage by having lots of gay sex.
Still, I’ve been following Samhita Mukhopadhyay’s work (you likely know her as the executive editor of Feministing, and more recently co-host with Amanda Marcotte of the Opinionated podcast) for the past five years, and figured whether or not I was in the market for feminist dating advice, Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life (Seal Press, 2011) would be worth checking out. And I wasn’t wrong. Mukhopadhyay has written a chatty-yet-incisive analysis of heteronormative dating culture — one which doesn’t avoid words like “heteronormative,” yet also doesn’t come across as a dense theoretical text that one needs to read pencil in hand.
In nine chapters, Outdated offers us a tour of modern-day hetero dating scripts as gleaned from best-selling dating advice books (e.g. He’s Just Not That Into You, The Man Whisperer), television shows, professional concern-trolling “experts,” and the personal experiences of Mukhopadhyay’s age-mates. Mukhopadhyay’s basic argument, which will be familiar to most regular readers here, is that modern dating culture and dating advice hinges on the notion that successful romantic relationships require a world of binary, oppositional masculinity and femininity, and gender essentialism, and inequality (power dynamics are sexy?). Framing romance in this way automatically pits feminist notions equality and non-binary gender and sexual expression against creating sustainable relationships — giving rise to a whole genre of concern-trolling books that blame feminism for having ruined our love lives. In that context, what’s a modern-day feminist looking for relationships to do?
Mukhopadhyay doesn’t offer prescriptive answers to this question, which I think is wise (to be prescriptive would simply be to replicate the condescension of so many dating advice manuals which presume to know what we want or need better than we do ourselves). Instead, she pushes her readers to recognize that there are myriad ways to connect and express love in the human family, and that we would do best to pay attention to what works best for us — irrespective of what the culture tells us we should or must do to achieve happiness. Through opening up a conversation about sexual diversity, socioeconomic stressors, and alternative pathways to rich interpersonal lives, Outdated offers an opening for us to explore new ways of forming communities and expressing our love for one another. If anything, I wish she’d pushed this portion of the text a bit further — since the radical potential of love is an under-explored aspect of feminist theory and practice (in my humble opinion).
In chapter nine, “The Art of Feminist Romantic Maintenance,” Mukhopadhyay asked a number of self-identified feminist authors and activists How does feminism make your love life better? Their answers are varied as the individuals themselves, and as such conversations are really only enriched by participation I thought I’d throw the same question out to all of you — how does feminism make your love life better?
My own response to the question would include the following:
- Feminism, as a philosophical framework and as a community of practice, has been a space for me to break open ‘common sense’ definitions of love, relationships, human sexuality, and community. Feminist spaces encouraged me to ask “does it have to be this way?” over and over and over again
- It was through feminist spaces that I found queer thinkers and activists who offered me alternatives to heteronormative scripts for creating and sustaining relationships, some of which are sexual, some of which are not.
- Feminism encouraged me to take ownership of my sexuality and learn how to take pleasure in my body in a culture that is hostile to embodiment. Knowing, and being at least somewhat confident about, my body and the pleasure I can experience as an embodied person, has been hard-won in a lot of ways … and wouldn’t have been as possible without feminism in my life.
- Feminism has connected me to a community of people who work against judging relationship diversity. We’re all imperfect at this, it’s true, but at least within feminist spaces I feel there is a common ground to talk about how monogamy and non-monogramy, parenting and not-parenting, queer and straight relationships, long-term and more casual sexual relationships, can all be ethical, meaningful, and healthy.