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Moving into the third year of a global pandemic, the word ‘pessimism’ has gained a higher profile in the communications of the tired, the lonely, the sad, the sick and the cooped-up. Just prior to the onset of COVID-19 around the world in our little world (a university in regional New South Wales) a small study group, a group within a group, started to discuss what this word ‘pessimism’ could mean in the context of ‘heterosexuality’. Also in 2020 a gender studies academic, Jane Ward, writes a seminal book The Tragedy of Heterosexuality.
I read this book quickly, as the news reported wave after wave of the onset of COVID-19, and related restrictions began. I read this book also while I breast-fed my baby girl, stuck in a chair for hours in my own restriction within restrictions, and I eagerly sought out the insights that Jane Ward offered from within her lived standpoint of a proudly lesbian woman in a happy long-term relationship, into what was to her an increasingly bizarre phenomenon of women-who-dislike-men choosing men-who-dislike-women-even-more to produce romantic and family structures which defied all logic, and in failing to ‘make sense’ engendered an increasingly pessimistic attitude from within straight culture as well as from without.
Leading up to my interview with Jane, our region was plunged into lockdown, which required homeschooling to be conducted concurrently with paid work: yet another stress being revisited upon the family structure, as I and my husband tried to meet our work commitments, our homeschooling commitments to our older child, and the gender lines of household duties got stressed even in a conscientiously ‘egalitarian’ relationship. Thus the themes of ‘straight culture’ and the family announced themselves and brought with them urgent questions: If the heteronormative family was already under stress, what would happen to it now? Surely it had to ‘adapt or die’, except its enduring quality appears to be its ability to not adapt and yet survive, to the increased frustration and pessimism of all involved, as Ward points out in Tragedy:
Often propelled by the essentialist and heteronormative logic that male and female “energies” are incomplete without each other or that “opposites attract” or that heterosexual desire is hardwired and nonnegotiable, straight culture seems to rely on a blind acceptance that women and men do not need to hold the other gender in high esteem as much as they need to need each other and to learn how to compromise and suppress their disappointment in the service of this need. [Ward 2020]
Globally, to take an overview of the state of the heteronormative family at this moment, we have the facts that women initiate most divorces (Rosenfeld 2018), we have the rise of the ‘manosphere’ with its Incels and Men-Going-Their-Own-Way (Laura Bates has provided an insightful analysis of this phenomenon – see Bates 2020), the intractability of family violence overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against women and children, the rise of a denial movement regarding the aforesaid violence, and, from the unrelenting critiques of the ‘cesspool’ of online dating, an historic ‘mismatch’ between single women and single men.
Women initiate the majority (about two thirds) of divorces (Rosenfeld 2018), a fact that is construed negatively by men’s rights activists (MRAs). Social media accounts such as feminist writer Clementine Ford’s and Alison Barratt’s Tinder Translator serve as online politicised meeting places where women can vent their frustration and anger at the ongoing sexism displayed by males in romantic and/or sexual straight relationships. For example, Ford collects into a highlight ‘story’ the testimonies of those who left their husbands / partners, with highly detailed accounts of their partners’ abusive behaviours and general lack of care towards them (in fact, she promotes a line of merchandise with the slogan ‘Leave Your Husband’). Ford’s point by collecting such accounts is to collectivise these individual actions as part of a movement and as indicative of a structural failure in heteronormative society. Alison Barratt’s Tinder Translators embodies a trope of ‘translating’ the extremely sexist profiles posted by some men so as to lay bare their almost total lack of empathy or respect for the women they are supposedly trying to attract, for example.
A literal snapshot of the state of straight culture can also be revealed through the most popular memes that proliferate on social media, in which both straight women and straight men complain about the other in decidedly fatalistic terms. This is not to suggest that there is a total symmetry between the ‘opposite’ genders in this regard: an interesting difference is that contemporary marriage / relationship memes from straight women tend to highlight the modern dilemma of ‘having it all’, i.e. combining paid work outside the home and unpaid care work, with a common theme of the husband or boyfriend (‘man-baby’) failing to do his share. By contrast, straight men’s memes in this genre tend to express a much older ‘trouble and strife’ sensibility, often failing to acknowledge the reality of women working outside the home at all e.g. complaints about how she spends ‘his’ money. These tend to reference a provider / dependent dynamic similar to a parent-child, wherein the wife is chided as being ungrateful for the fact that the husband ‘works hard’ to provide for her, with no corresponding acknowledgement that his ability to work outside the home is dependent on her willingness to do care work for free.
The above snapshots of popular online culture constitute a spectrum of criticality – arguably the stories Clementine Ford collects are proffered by women who are, if not already embodying a critical feminist sensibility, at least well on their way to it, while the meme examples tend to be of a sort that is compatible with a mainstream, less explicitly feminist, interpretation of gender roles. What they all have in common is an unrelenting, even fatalistic, pessimism about the relationship between male and female genders. The complaints offered up – whether true stories from individual women or encapsulated in a short generalised adage – do not envisage any ‘end’ to the complaining, neither in the sense of one day coming to a conclusion, nor in the formal sense of a ‘goal’ or endpoint to be achieved. They are descriptive rather than prescriptive; they are a sigh of despair at the state of gender relations. They are critical without being constructive: there is no way out, which points to another aspect of heteropessimism – the idea of (for some / most people) the necessity of heterosexuality, in spite of the inescapable nature of gendered domestic conflict and injustice. The ontological and communicative gap between the genders is believed to be a canyon, across which no bridge is possible. Shouting at or about one’s spouse, whether online or in real life, is merely shouting into an abyss. In this schema there is no sense in which one could ask for anything: ask to be treated better, ask for more respect, more help, more intimacy; there is no hope that any personal growth or learning could be achieved; there is no problem that could have a solution, no work that could be done to overcome the misunderstandings and ill-treatment. If Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus or Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps or Men are Waffles and Women are Spaghetti (all actual book titles, unfortunately), then the only hope in a relationship is to practise acceptance, with the option to ‘vent’ one’s complaints into social media rather than ever talk directly to one’s spouse.
Although beyond the scope of this short essay, I want to acknowledge that there are religious as well as secular versions of heteropessimism, where the religious versions tend to advocate for a more ‘stoic’ pessimism, in which one keeps one’s pessimistic impulses to oneself, abstaining from public complaints on social media, and nobly endures the depressing relationship as an act of piety and virtue, characterised, for example, in Christian tradition as the particularly feminine virtue of ‘submission’.
While there are grounds for believing that both men and women share a popular pessimism about their relations, there is no escaping the gendered asymmetries of this situation. While both genders’ pessimisms could be said to regard heterosexuality as a ‘necessary evil’, women on the whole do not believe in the potential for changes that could render it better – i.e. they do not hold hope for better treatment or more equable outcomes. This is not necessarily because they cannot envisage a better situation, but because they do not believe the cultural and personal changes that would have to occur could happen in their lifetime. That is, they may be able to envisage a better relationship, but not the mechanism by which it could be achieved.
Some men, by contrast, believe that the evils of heterosexuality, stemming from women’s purported moral inferiority, may potentially be mitigated by a return or upholding of male supremacy – that is, a belief and practice of male authority and power at the expense of female authority and power (exhibited, at its most extreme, in the Incel and Men Going their Own Way movements). Men can both hold that women are morally (and in other ways) inferior and praise women for fulfilling a subordinated function of helping and never opposing men, i.e. performing their inferiority in the right way, which is to say in men’s interests, not against them.
Straight culture is, it seems, a pessimistic culture and to envisage an optimism is to reject such a culture or at least radically revise it. Jane Ward, as a queer woman looking in from the ‘outside’ accordingly proclaims in our interview a ‘mostly pessimistic’ view, while pointing to the way straight women seem to be complicit in their own suffering:
I can see a way forward for straight people absolutely. I know that it’s there, but whether straight people will be able to embrace it / eroticise it, I just don’t know…Mostly the obstacle is men, but it’s also straight women too, who have romanticised their own suffering too, so I’d say I’m mostly pessimistic.
The dilemma of straight women within straight culture then is this: to choose a heterosexual relationship while believing that the misogyny and mutual alienation between the genders is fundamentally unavoidable. To choose such a thing seems masochistic, as Ward has pointed out: it is to agree to a culture of mutual, eternal complaint or disappointment that can necessarily never be resolved. The standard defence of such choice is to point out that ‘straightness’ does not appear nor feel to be a choice; that straight women are attracted to men in a powerful way that forms the justification for the ‘choice’ of a disappointing or even abusive relationship over the possibility of no relationship or the positive choice of a queer one. Such powerful attraction does not, as Ward explains, lead to a positive eroticism, with a common complaint of straight women being the quality of their sex life. Indeed, women even express the wish (while denying the possibility) that they ‘could be’ lesbians and thus avoid this bind, but Ward takes issue with sexual fatalism of such claims:
I hear this from straight women all the time, oh I wish I could be a lesbian, oh my life would be much easier… and I think, well, just do it, it’s not that hard!
Jane Ward also highlights an important aspect of straight culture: its privilege of invisibility. Straight culture is arguably structurally analogous to White culture, in that it sets itself up as the norm against all other identities are measured and found wanting, thus assuring itself an ‘invisibility’. Just as a White person is not asked to state nor ‘explain’ their ethnic identity, so within straight culture a heterosexual person is not asked to identify as straight and is able to live a life comfortably safe from critical examination. Perhaps one of the causes for pessimism about heterosexuality is the fact that it has never had to interrogate itself, nor justify itself to a wider world. Progressive, well-meaning straight people ‘feel sorry for’ queer people: it’s so hard to be a minority! To have an unusual family structure! To not be understood! They have been so caught up in their place of condescension that they have failed to notice a quiet revolution… the tables have turned and it is queer culture that has managed to thrive, despite discrimination, to a point where straight condescension has arguably been appropriated, in the popular question (with equal measure seriousness and snark) ‘Are the Straights OK?’.
At some point women will have to stop romanticising the pain of bad relationships and seeking a perverse (but understandable) solace in all-women pity parties, and simply refuse to settle for the soul-destroying status quo. There are signs that this is starting to happen, but the more substantial change must happen for straight men: at some point such men need to do the (personal) self-reflective work and the (collective) organisational work to develop themselves in such a way that they can form positive relationships with women as equals. Although there are some straight men who choose to do this (for example, some intentionally feminist men), I see no signs of this occurring at a mass level any time soon - hence the depth of my abiding pessimism, while retaining a small space for optimism and change that must be part of a sincere feminism!
Bates, L. (2020) Men Who Hate Women, Simon & Schuster UK.
Gray, J. (1992) Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, Harper Collins
Farrell, B. & P. (2017) Men Are Like Waffles--Women Are Like Spaghetti: Understanding and Delighting in Your Differences, Harvest House
Pease, B. & A. (2001) Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps, Harmony
Rosenfeld, M. (2018) ‘Who wants the Breakup? Gender and Breakup in Heterosexual Couples’ in Alwin, Felmlee & Kreager (ed.), Social Networks and the Life Course: Integrating the Development of Human Lives and Social Relational Networks, Springer.
Thompson, Laura. (2018). “I can be your Tinder nightmare”: Harassment and misogyny in the online sexual marketplace. Feminism & Psychology. 28. 69-89.
Ward, J. (2020) The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, NYU Press