How do feminists fall in love? Louise O'Neill questions upholding your fem-values while doing die-hard romance.
My social media accounts all share the same bio. “Louise O’Neill. Author. Feminist. I Love MenTM”. The last line is a tongue in cheek attempt to challenge the misconception that I hate every member of the opposite sex, but it’s true – I am a feminist and I love men. I am attracted to men, I have sex with men. And I have found, despite my best efforts, one of the hardest areas to maintain my sense of feminism is within the confines of a heterosexual relationship. I am fierce but as soon as I fall in love, I have too often fallen prey to unhelpful ideas about what my relationship ‘should’ look like. These gender roles have been so clearly defined for us, modelled by our parents and their parents before them, and by the hundreds of heterosexual couples we read about in books, saw on our televisions, paid money at the cinema to watch fall in love on screen. The men were dashing, crushing beautiful women to their chests and kissing them passionately. The women were sharp of cheekbone and pure of virtue, half-heartedly resisted the kisses before succumbing. The men went to work in grey suits; the women stayed at home in aprons and lipstick. The men earned the money, the women took care of the children. The men washed the cars and mowed the lawns, the women, well, the women did everything else. And even when those stereotypes became tired, and we had begun in earnest to challenge all those outdated clichés, some of those ideas had dug deep within us, rooting inside our hearts. Making a home there.
Who Am I (in Love)?
I often boast about the fact that I can’t cook or clean, spinning a narrative out my laziness as some sort of revolutionary act. I’m proud of being the kind of useless that means I will surely be the first to die when the apocalypse comes. Yet even though I have always known that I would fail to live up to my side of any bargain that expected me to behave like a1950s housewife from an American sitcom, (side note – I would really like to marry a 1950s housewife from an American sitcom), I have, in the past, struggled to completely reject the social conditioning I’ve internalised around romance. I waited for the man to text me first. I expected boyfriends to pay for dinner. I wanted them to take charge and be forceful, to be ambitious and driven, to change tyres and put down mouse traps. In effect, I wanted them to behave like Real Men, whatever that meant.
It was when I started to critically examine my complicity in upholding patriarchal standards in my own relationships, and talking to my equally strong-willed female friends about how they did the same in their younger years, that I decided to write my third novel, Almost Love. I wanted to write about the complexity of dating, how men and women interact with one another, and the power dynamics involved there within. Upon finishing the book, I knew that I had to break away from those dynamics in any future relationships.
The Strong Man Fallacy
Feminism is always evolving, but it is consistently concerned with liberating everyone from the burden of conforming to ideals of masculinity and femininity, allowing us the freedom to be our true selves.This will benefit men and women, for in its enforcement of a toxic masculinity that says men who express fear or sadness are ‘weak’, the patriarchy hurts us all. The time has come for us to work together to dismantle it. We need to find new ways of being in love, perhaps looking to our gay brothers and sisters for examples of relationships in which our roles are determined by individual strengths and talents rather than by mere virtue of our gender. We will have to be brave because it still takes courage to be a house husband or a stay at home father in 2018. It takes strength to be a woman who chooses to be child-free or a mother who returns to work after seven days maternity leave, as my friend did, because she owns her own business and its success is important to her; strength to ignore the raised eyebrows and the questions about childcare that her husband never received. These people are moving the conversation forward, forcing us to look at our own preconceived notions. It is not always comfortable but it is always utterly essential.
And as for me? I’m still single but I am ready now to do the work. I’m ready to keep challenging myself and interrogating deeply held beliefs that I have been ignoring for years, the shadows in my periphery vision. I want to keep coming back to my heart and my truth, allowing myself to be vulnerable and honest and hoping that by doing so, I give others in my life the permission to do the same. I understand now, at long last, that I don’t need someone to rescue me or to protect me. The princess saves herself in this one.
Almost Love by Louise O’Neill, published by Hachette, out now