Reader, I disparaged him
How cynicism poisoned the romantic dream.
What are women like?
One minute they are voting for the predictable romantic hero Mr Darcy as their dream date, in a publicity poll for the women-only award, the Orange Prize for Fiction. The next, they are producing books about practical marriage management, arguing that the secret of a professional woman’s successful marriage is to run her relationship like a small business – keeping tight reins on her cash, doling out sex as an incentive, and putting herself first.
Sex and the Married Girl, by former Cosmopolitan editor Mandi Norwood, has sent ripples of disquiet through the feminist and self-help communities (1). While admitting that some of Norwood’s advice is probably right, Naomi Wolf finds it ‘depressing…just how cynical it is about the nature of intimacy’ (2).
Val Sampson, writing in the The Times (London), contrasts Norwood’s interviews with ‘brittle, superficial’ Married Girls with the interviews that Sampson has conducted for her own books on ‘health and sex’. For these couples, she says, ‘real marriages are not about diamante G-strings and the top five sex positions advocated by Norwood, but about coping with changing needs, changing bodies and changing thinking’ (3).
Well, who knows? When it comes to working out what women really want from their marriages, I’m not sure that I would trust the author of something called Tantra: the art of mind-blowing sex any more than I would Mandi Norwood’s art of selfish instrumentalism. But what the publication of Norwood’s book, and the reaction to it, reflects is a definite shift in the direction of anti-romance. Mr Darcy might remain the modern woman’s dream date – but never would today’s society advise her to marry him.
The Austen-esque romantic ideal of marriage based on love was always more about fiction than fact. The stereotypical gobbler of romantic novels was the suburban housewife, who used fables on passionate love as an escape from the bored drudgery and emotional pragmatism of real life. When, as Naomi Wolf points out, 1970s feminists revealed how marriage was ‘an economic arrangement…and women were getting the wrong end of the deal’ (4), that put paid to any confusion between romance and reality, at least so far as wifedom was concerned.
But it wasn’t the end of the romantic dream. The goal of the women’s equality movement was not to strip away the veneer of romance to make women understand how miserable they were, or to explain to them why they should be miserable. It was to change their lives for the better, so that marriage did not mean subordination, so that women could have their own, public lives out in the world as well as their private lives in the home.
Implicit in the struggle for women’s equality was a desire to create the conditions in which genuine romance – intimate relationships based on love alone – could flourish.
So what happened? On almost every level, women’s equality has stormed ahead. Today’s young women are as well educated as men, have as many career choices as men, and many women – particularly if they are young and childless – expect and receive equal pay. Women can control their fertility, and do not expect to be controlled by men.
Marriage is no longer a trap, economic or otherwise – nobody has to marry, divorce is acceptable if it all goes wrong, and casual sex and cohabitation are widely accepted as ways to be sure of your life partner before you take the plunge. When it comes to intimate relationships, it could be argued that the reality of romance is closer than ever before.
Except that the advent of this romantic reality has been accompanied by a slow poisoning of the romantic dream. Just as it becomes possible for men and women to enjoy intimate relationships based on equal power, just as it becomes doable for women to play a role in the public world of politics and work while enjoying a private relationship based on emotion more than obligation, this private, romantic love is culturally perceived as problematic.
In today’s society, it is not that you cannot have romance in real life, but that you are not supposed to want it. And that’s where Mandi Norwood and her ‘me-first’ approach to married life comes in.
Norwood’s calculated, individualistic take on how to make a for-life relationship work has ruffled feathers, largely because of its extremes and frankness. As Wolf puts it: ‘It is one thing to advocate empowerment for women entering the sacred institution…. It is quite a yard or two further than I want to go, though, to explore the gradations of extramarital flirting.’ (5) But Norwood is hardly alone in advocating that women approach marriage with the kind of cold-hearted savvy they would employ in a business transaction.
From government-supported advice guides to the problem pages of women’s magazines, our culture persistently admonishes us to leave romance to the novels, and to ‘be realistic’ in our dealings with our chosen life partner. We are counselled to protect ourselves against the possibility of relationship breakdown, to seek third-party guidance at any sign of marital disharmony, to expect imperfection in our partners and to be pragmatic in our dealings with them.
The romantic dream is seen as a problem, not because it does not exist, but because in seeking to find it we lay ourselves open to the possibility of emotional exploitation and damage. The privacy and intimacy that romance requires means keeping our love-lives separate from all other influences – cultural, political, therapeutic, you name it. Today’s age of anti-romantic ‘realism’ views this separation as a dangerous thing. It is assumed that the only way to manage the tensions within our personal lives is to take them outside of our personal lives, by seeking constant affirmation and support from somewhere, or somebody, else.
Why should this be the case? Of course, tensions within intimate relationships do exist – a romantic reality would never be the same thing as a perfect harmony. And of course, women’s equality in the wider world has not meant the overnight disappearance of gender-related tensions and unfairnesses within the home.
We are continually reminded that women cook more, clean more, do more childcare, grocery-shopping and general familial organising than men, and I don’t doubt that this is largely true. But while these things can be seen as cultural hangovers from inequality, that is very different to the argument that actual inequality, at a structural level, continues to exist. The gender gap in mundane household tasks clearly makes for bitter rows within households – it should not necessitate elaborate techniques of marital management and manipulation, of the kind apparently advocated by Norwood.
The present-day talking-up of the various ways in which marriage puts women down has nothing to do with the household division of labour, the persistence of genuine sexual inequality, or even the tensions sometimes experienced between individuals in their everyday married life. It’s about a very contemporary cultural superstition that love is actually bad for you.
It is assumed that, while women might fantasise about a Mr Darcy, they would be better off with a Mr Nice Guy willing to learn about their erogenous zones and respect their personal space. Passion is fine in the Victorian classics, but in the modern world – the real world – we are supposed to know that losing our hearts means losing our heads, and that we would be unwise indeed to trust any other individual with so much of our precious sense of self.
‘Call me a romantic’ used to be a shame-faced expression of soppy naivety. In today’s sterile society, which fears nothing so much as passionate abandon or commitment, it’s starting to look like a revolutionary statement. Come back Jane Austen – although you would carry a health warning now.
Jennie Bristow is author of Maybe I Do?: marriage and commitment in singleton society, published as part of the Institute of Ideas’ Conversations in Print series. Respondents to her essay include Fay Weldon (novelist), Yvonne Roberts (author), Ed Straw (Relate), Barb Jungr (chansonnier), Eddie Gibb (Demos), Mary Kenny (author), Helen Wilkinson (Genderquake), Piers Benn (philosopher), Bel Mooney (author) and Dolan Cummings (Institute of Ideas).
To order a copy, email email@example.com, telephone 020 7269 9220 or see the Institute of Ideas website
(1) Sex and the Married Girl: From Clicking to Climaxing – the Complete Truth About Modern Marriage, Mandi Norwood, Hodder Mobius, 2003. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
(2) ‘The selfish wife: no model for the modern woman’, Naomi Wolf, Sunday Times (London), 1 June 2003
(3) ‘Wives who want it all’, Val Simpson, The Times (London), 4 June 2003
(4) ‘The selfish wife: no model for the modern woman’, Naomi Wolf, Sunday Times (London), 1 June 2003
(5) ‘The selfish wife: no model for the modern woman’, Naomi Wolf, Sunday Times (London), 1 June 2003
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