Q&A with The Heteropessimists
Everything you ever wanted to know about The Heteropessimists but were too afraid to ask...
Your questions answered here.
PHOTO CAPTION Image 1: Courtesy of @hets_explain_yourselves, this image found on @facebookshirts presents a cisgendered, heterosexual couple wearing matching grey T-shirts with the call and response slogans, "I wanted the D" and "I gave her the D". Stylistically the 'D' resembles the same letter used in the Walt Disney Company logo although the inference here is not to the fairy-tale Disney castle, Snow White or Micky Mouse. Here, the 'D' stands for 'di*k'. Image 2: A popular meme taken from the @dykeblanchett Twitter account depicting Cate Blanchett and 'Carol' co-star, Rooney Mara, with arms raised in an affirmative gesture responding to a question posed by a heterosexual person querying the dispensable nature of heterosexual relationships. Image 3: Setting an example... Heterosexual husband and wife, Melania and Donald Trump.
Your project investigates the concept of ‘Heteropessimism’, a term made popular by a 2019 article by gender and literature theorist Asa Seresin. Could you briefly describe this project for our readers?
In late 2019, Asa Seresin coined the term “heteropessimism”. The term names an expectation that normative heterosexual experience will be disappointing, negative or regretful, all the while remaining tied to heterosexuality, possibly getting married, having children and committing to a life of ‘heteronormativity’. This attitude is readily recognisable in common memes, for example, in which married women complain that their husbands are ‘man-babies’ who fail to take sufficient responsibility in family life or men who refer to their wives as the ‘ball and chain’. Although Seresin’s piece was not a traditional scholarly publication, he is an academic and the article “went viral” in a whole range of ways, indicating it identified a recognisable phenomenon that needed more scholarly investigation.
The four core members of the project team all felt it was something worthy of further investigation, recognising that we are in an era of renewed heterosexism and exclusion based on sexuality. We formulated a plan to critically investigate heteropessimism and explore in particular how it limits the capacity of anti-homophobic and inclusive research and activism, which we are all trying to support. We are interested in both connecting this to a global debate and conversation, while also considering the Australian context, in our own lives and in our work. We have had some wonderful conversations about the implications of this particular insight into cultural norms, and how it might connect up with other work we were doing individually on gender, sexuality and environment. We thought that a podcast was an ideal way of exploring the concept, and harnessing our shared interests but different skills.
The podcast covers a range of topics related to heteropessimism including straight culture, masculinity, home economics and desire. And we’re lucky enough to have conducted excellent interviews with Seresin and some others working closely on this topic, along with the support of an incredible producer, Daz Chandler from Origami Flight productions. The podcast and the related website are now live, with new episodes being released every fortnight during the start of 2022.
What new understandings do you hope to gain from this project?
In addition to the heteropessimism Seresin names, we also identified a related form of pessimism as a pervasive negative attitude in sexuality studies and LGBTQAI+ communities to the everyday practices of heterosexuality and the “heteronormative” family. Such attitudes could be seen as a kind of sexual bigotry, although the story is far more complicated. To us heteropessimism as a pervasive attitude seems to name some kind of critical impasse within non-academic straight culture and anti-normative sexuality studies, that needs interrogation. We are seeing the rise of reactionary forms of ‘straight pride’, with skyrocketing levels of domestic violence, while increasingly polarised debates around sexuality and gender don’t seem to be able to get a proper handle on what’s going on.
So, as well as seeking to understand the complex role heteropessimism plays in ongoing sexual bigotry, we hope to understand the different forms that heteropessimism may take: for instance, we propose there may be a difference between a ‘critical’ pessimism and mainstream relatively uncritical pessimism when it comes to thinking about heterosexual relationships. And that these pessimistic attitudes, with different points of origin, travel in different ways. And it may be useful to acknowledge a difference between ‘global’ and ‘local’ or ‘long-term’ and ‘short-term’ pessimism – that is, believing things are very bad and unlikely to improve in particular aspects or in our particular time, as opposed to believing that there really is no hope for the future and/or that there are no ‘exceptions’ to the unequal nature of hetero relationships.
In addition to developing the definitional work begun by Seresin, we are all connecting the term with insights from our own work. But we talk more about that below.
You are an interdisciplinary research group: how do your different approaches inform your contribution to this project?
Yes, our disciplines include History, Philosophy, Sociology, Gender and Literary Studies!
Felicity’s academic background is in European Philosophy, which has furnished her with ways to think about the enduring structures of gender relations, particularly gendered violence and attitudes towards it. Philosophy, and the work of philosopher Simone de Beauvoir in particular, gives us terms like ‘Otherness’, which help us to understand the ways in which subordinated groups such as women have been made to feel as if they did not have a real ‘self’, as well as understanding why unequal gendered relationships persist.
Jennifer is a teacher of literary studies at UNE, trained in literary and gender studies, with research interests that cross into interdisciplinary environmental humanities. She’s becoming increasingly interested in theorising domestic household as a site of transformative eco-cultural possibility within the ‘asset economy’. But in order to be able to be able to think about the household as this kind of creative site, that doesn’t just reproduce oppressive norms and violences, one needs to interrogate the logics of the normative family. If heteropessimism is a cultural condition, then it definitely infuses family life in confusing ways for people who are brought up to love and celebrate their family, yet live in a culture that suggests (if not repeatedly validates the idea) that the relationship at the helm of normative family life is disappointing, if not actually violent. Her contribution to this series is to connect up this thinking on heteropessimism with emerging debates in eco-cultural studies around new formations of domestic relationship and collectivity in a time of environmental crisis.
Matt is an historian and historical criminologist whose research is focused on understanding the unique and extraordinary transition of New South Wales from penal colony to responsible democracy, and the way that this process was shaped by the conflict between liberal ideals and authoritarian controls within the British world. Drawing on the tradition of conceptual history to historicise heteropessimism, demonstrates both that there has always been pessimism about heterosexual relationships in Australia and helps to connect such pessimism to histories of colonisation, and gendered citizenship.
Christina's research is interdisciplinary, drawing on methods developed by anthropologists, critical legal scholars and historians. Christina works with heterosexual, and lesbian, bisexual and queer women across different geographic locations, Kenya, Samoa and Australia to understand how different cultural contexts affect the ways we understand ourselves and our desires, and how these desiring acts and identities interact with, and are regulated by the legal, social and cultural legacies of colonialism, and the international human rights project. Focusing on the histories and experiences of queer bodies and desires encourage us to interrogate dominate cultures of heterosexuality, and hopefully to build discourses which can usefully speak back to heteropessimism.
How did the members of your group meet?
Dr Christina Kenny was the driving force behind initially drawing together academics at UNE who were interested in gender and feminism, to form a very lively and critical reading group. Christina, Matt, Jen and Felicity began some important conversations there about gender and sexuality – conversations which have never really stopped!
Has the project changed in scope or intent from when it first began?
Since our first reading of the 2019 article on heteropessimism, the literature and conversations on this topic have really exploded. It’s both exciting and somewhat overwhelming, but we are really keen to make contact with some of the contributors to this discussion, to collect and collate their insights (with our own, of course) to delve into the issues. And of course COVID-19 happened, which opened up new discourse about gendered roles and work within the family.
Structurally, the format of our research has evolved from an initial plan to focus on an audio (podcast) format, to a multimedia approach which incorporates the podcast into a narrative of ‘chapters’ on our website.
What insights have you gained from your investigations so far?
Initial insights include the fact that there is more complexity to heteropessimism than meets the eye!That while many people are pessimistic about heterosexuality, they are pessimistic for very different (and often incompatible) reasons.The misogynistic pessimism of some ‘men’s rights’ groups such as Men Going Their Own Way is powered by the belief that women are as a gender fatally morally flawed, to the extent that relationships with them become impossible.Some women’s pessimism can be equally fatalistic and morally judgemental, but some will still hold room for the possibility of ‘better men’, believing that there is a ‘moral minority’ out there somewhere – so it’s a ‘local’ rather than a ‘global’ pessimism, which still holds hope for individual positive relationships between women and men, however unlikely they might appear to be!
What material form(s) do you think this project will take?
We are in the process of recording several interviews with some very interesting and insightful theorists of gender, which we will be incorporating into a six-part podcast series.In this series we will contextualise these interviews in the results so far of our own interdisciplinary research, and present this research in a multimedia format on our website, incorporating relevant images, links, and cultural items.This is the initial material form our research will take, in terms of directly disseminating it to a wider audience. With the help of our wonderful producer Daz Chandler, we hope it will be a fun, engaging and accessible vehicle to really get the wider public thinking about this important topic. Also with a view to wider accessibility, we plan to write a couple of Op-Ed pieces for popular media, as well as publish our findings in a formal academic context.
What’s next for your group – any more collaborative projects?...
The analogy between heterosexual identity and ‘Whiteness’, whereby such an identity is usually ‘invisible’, is a promising one and one that is highlighted by several of the theorists we have interviewed.We would love to further investigate the problematic nature of Straight Culture by eliciting the influence of colonialism upon the norms of straightness, both in Australia and globally, and to understand the variations in identification experienced by persons from culturally diverse backgrounds. Such an investigation takes the culture of heterosexuality from a ‘given’, who nature need never be described or defended, to a particularly located set of practices and beliefs with its own history, which has intersected in sometimes devastating ways with indigenous and non-Western cultures.Accordingly, we plan to diversify our range of interviewees and really dig deep into the intersection of race and heteronormativity. This is an area where Christina’s interdisciplinary and inter-cultural approach to researching queer identities and Matt’s interest in colonial histories and identities will really help power our continued investigations!