Responding to Critics on The Conversation
by Matt Allen
We launched our project with an article we published on the Conversation introducing Seresin’s concept and explaining why we found it useful. The piece garnered a range of responses, some more thoughtful than others, but I wanted to respond at greater length to three of the more interesting criticisms which some commenters have made:
1. that our piece relies on anecdote and is not real research since we have no data;
2. that we are really talking about marriage-pessimism, not hetero-pessimism;
3. that the pessimism we observe is not confined to straight relationships and is really a kind of relationship-pessimism, common to all kinds of relationships.
The first of these criticisms is arguably a wilful misreading of our explainer piece which never claims to offer original research but rather observes some common and familiar cultural tropes and uses a new concept to help understand them.
It is true that we only offer examples of pessimistic jokes, and pessimistic popular culture, and do not analyse them in detail (in an article of less than a thousand words), and I can see why this strikes ungenerous readers as anecdotal. At the same time, what we are interested in is the way heterosexual people conceive of their relationships – their implicit underlying social imaginary (as much as their explicit) statements about them – and this is not an easy phenomenon to analyse, let alone quantify. There are surveys of Australian relationships (for example the Australian Study of Health and Relationships – see: Visser et al 2014); studies of “relationship quality” (which, interestingly, have found no significant difference between cisgendered and same-sex couples – see: Perales and Baxter 2018); of marriage or co-habitation and “happiness” (which have found that co-habitation, not just marriage, leads to higher levels of subjective happiness – eg: Perelli-Harris et al. 2019); and of gender and “marital satisfaction” (which find men are slightly more satisfied with marriage than women – see: Jackson et al. 2014) but I am unconvinced that this kind of research would strengthen our project. In my view, neither self-reported happiness or satisfaction with relationships, nor determining relationship quality through regression analysis of household data are good measures of heteropessimism. Since we define heteropessimism, following Seresin, as an “attitude”, and we understand it as an attitude that is perfectly compatible with a stable relationship (in which at least one partner is nonetheless pessimistic), subjective happiness and measures of quality cannot capture whether individuals within a relationship are heteropessimist.
However, this critique has made me think about more empirical forms of research we might conduct as our project develops, to find out more about heteropessimism. A somewhat facetious suggestion I made in response to one critic, may form the basis of such a project: looking at reddit forums on dating and relationships. Notwithstanding the many robust critiques of reddit, it is a user-driven resource which records ordinary people reflecting on their lives, rather than responding to researchers’ questions (and there is a growing field of research based on analysing social media posts in general and reddit in particular). I can imagine a research project which sought to identify underlying pessimistic attitudes to dating and relationships based on social media posting, and this might satisfy the criticism that our project is anecdotal.
The second criticism is more generous but can also be dealt with more briefly. It is true that we focus on marriage-pessimism in (most of) our examples. But since our hetero-normative – and increasingly homo-normative – society presents marriage as an ideal, it is the focus of a great deal of relationship popular culture, and a site in which the clash between unachievable ideals and practical realities of relationships is especially acute. Furthermore, since marriages remain the dominant form of cohabitation, they are the most common site in which individuals form and express their attitudes to relationships. But there is plenty of evidence for pessimism about heterosexual relationships more broadly and dating (especially online dating) in particular – including, as I suggested, on reddit and other social media.
The final criticism is the most interesting and gets to the core of our project. It is certainly true that individuals are unhappy in same-sex, non-monogamous and other non-traditional relationships and we could probably identify forms of pessimism which are common to relationships of all kinds. But I would argue that there is something distinctive about heteropessimism. As a historian, I think the venerability of heteropessimism is significant: there are long, visible traditions of heteropessimism, including, as I argue in my chapter and forthcoming podcast episode, among Australian men, and these traditions matter because they inform and shape how we understand relationships today. But, as one of my collaborators, Felicity Joseph, said when I asked what makes heteropessimism distinctive, ‘the short answer is misogyny’. Heteropessimism is a reflection on gendered relations between cis-men and cis-women, and not simply on the difficulties of relationships under late capitalism. Men and women have distinct but symbiotic forms of pessimism about straight relationships and these reinforce each other in what is often a vicious cycle. In any case, thinking clearly about how gender informs heteropessimism is a core part of our ongoing project.