The gendered politics of romance

Dealing with political inequalities is an inescapable part of the daily life of a woman. It is perhaps equally unsurprising to consider that romantic love, particularly heterosexual romantic love is, as Laurie Penny so aptly calls it, a battlefield. Romance can be beautiful and uplifting. However, its beautiful aspects and the butterflies it induces do not exclude it from the political sphere.

Often, heterosexual romantic relationships are spaces where societal conditioning and gendered expectations of behaviour play themselves out. They are the sites of abuse and assault, of sexual and domestic violence. They are sites where women are expected to accept norms that place them at a disadvantage. These norms include and are not limited to: an unequal distribution of physical and emotional labour, constructed notions of monogamy and ownership as well as an absence of the prioritisation of the needs of women and female sexual pleasure.

Women are taught to work hard in order to be loved. We are expected and taught to give without restraint, whether it is in the form of emotional or physical labour. Women are taught from an early age that romance comes contingent on the amount of labour expended on our bodies, our homes and mostly on the men that we love.

The politics of romance are not limited to the power imbalances inherent within romantic relationships. For women, the politics of romance extend to the very construction of romance as an ideal.

Since acquiring financial and social independence, marriage and romance are no longer necessities for women. However, this does not mean that society does not have a cultural fixation with the idea of romance. It seems that, specifically for women, there is a level of social capital to be acquired from the status of heterosexual coupledom.

Society culturally reinforces the single lifestyle as being something to be avoided at all costs. Tropes of the desperate single woman are touted in popular culture, warnings that single women everywhere are supposed to cower at. Popular culture demonises and stigmatises the lives of single people, women in particular, as being empty and devoid of meaning.

I spent many years chasing the ideal of romantic love. Partially because I was lonely and partially because I was insecure but mostly because, in my mind, my self-worth was inextricably linked to being in a relationship. The whole time I fumbled around desperately seeking a relationship, I was also attempting to carve out a space in a society that would respect me more if I had a man that I could call my own.

At that point I didn’t think I had any other choice. After all, male dominated spaces, be it the music scene or university clubs and social groups, did not treat me with respect. Sometimes it seemed like the best way to obtain power and respect in a society that treated me as an object was to obtain the love of a man that would provide my very existence with legitimacy.

In her book The Bitch Doctrine, Laurie Penny is vehement in her advocacy of the need and importance for women to be single. It has been years now since I went chasing the love of any man. Since then, I have seen my self-worth improve. I have seen myself truly focus on my work and other aspects of my life that will bring me lasting fulfilment. It has also made me reflect on my behaviour and realize that there are things that women need to demand in every relationship that involves a man.

These include but are not limited to respect, a genuine understanding of feminism, an appreciation of the struggles that women face on a day to day basis and a commitment to dismantling behaviour and systems such as toxic masculinity that negatively impact women. These qualities may be difficult to find but until and unless women ask for them, they will remain the exception and never become the norm.

It is essential to teach women to demand more, from society, from workplaces and from their political systems. Romantic partnerships are no exception to this.

It is also essential to deconstruct the idealised notions of marriage and romantic love that exist in our society. This is a process that is already taking place. Millennials in particular, are choosing to prioritize education and career over love and marriage. Many millennials also continue to reject traditional conceptions of partnership. This is a blessing and a luxury that other generations have not had.

As a teenager, my mother idealized the notion of romantic love. In her late twenties, she entered into an arranged marriage once due to societal pressure. When her first marriage did not work out, she married again for love, years later. Both relationships fell through. She walked on the shifting ground of disappointments that trembled like jelly under her feet to the concrete of her solitude.

Since I left home, my mother has spent some time living in shares houses. She now lives with her friends who are also single women who have chosen their lifestyles. They spend their time working, socialising and travelling. My mother now meditates daily. She is finally discovering herself and living life on her own terms. She glows with happiness now.

This was not something she was allowed to do while she grew up in India. The expectation was for her to get married, a pressure which she succumbed to at the time. However, watching her blossom now makes it clearer to me that there is no prescribed life path for women. In fact, if women spent more time discovering themselves, it’s possible that they would come to a deeper understanding of the politics of romance.

This is not a diatribe against romance. Romantic love can be a beautiful thing when it is respectful and consensual. However, young women out there need to hear that it is simply one of the fulfilling aspects of life. It is not the only option or the end goal. It is certainly not something to compromise your integrity for.

‘Freedom’s the opposite of love,’ sings Conor Oberst in his song ‘Lonely at the Top’.

While I needed to be loved, I did not know freedom. But once I began the journey towards self-actualization, freedom came. Society, family and friends continue to tell me, in subtle and insidious ways, that romance and marriage will be the pinnacle of my life.

However, I now have a room of my very own in New York. I don’t have a rampant social life nor am I actively dating or engaging in multiple flings. But I have found peace and independence on my own terms.

As I am writing this, it occurs to me that this very moment, that involves me typing away furiously in a room of my own, is the most wonderful culmination of a solitary kind of peace and joy that I have ever known.

Romantic love is not only a battlefield, it’s also a bit of a gamble. I urge women to find something of their own, their work or their passion or anything else that will provide long term contentment.

Most of all, I urge women to abandon the rule books and to find their own definitions of happiness.

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Neha Mulay is an English major, a radical deconstructionist and an ardent Feminist. Her writing has appeared in Overland and Demos Journal. She has a self indulgent blog.

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