Feminist critiques are often critiques of relationship structures: marriage, the joint and nuclear family, monogamy, and heteronormativity. Patriarchy, fundamentally a system of inheritance, finds a natural home in these structures.
This is why I’ve often wondered: how do feminists imagine and navigate romantic relationships? Do they have to constantly be thinking about and watching out for the many ways in which power, privilege, autonomy and entitlement manifest in their relationships and dating culture? It seems rather unromantic to do so.
But the way romance is constructed in popular culture is itself oppressive. In On Being Fat, Brown, Femme, Ugly, and Unloveable, Caleb Luna discusses how he decided to be anti-romance because the romantic ideal actively damaged his mental health. Romance feeds and keeps alive norms of desirability, which construct people privileged by caste, class, gender, and racial oppressions as the most attractive. Popular cultural narratives of romance also allow only certain people to have access to the romantic ideal. Arjun*, 22, comments on heteronormative relationships, “There are certain expectations placed upon individuals in the name of romance which I find difficult to reconcile with feminism. The man must be the one pursuing, the woman must be the passive one. Similarly, men are expected to make certain big financial gestures, which stem from the times when they were the only earners in the relationship. As a feminist, I find it hard to understand why I should be obligated to make such gestures when in my view, both individuals are equally invested in the relationship.”
Indian social frameworks subtly compel us to choose people of the same caste and class as partners. Even if we find a partner who is different from us in some way, there is a subtle way in which we also try to find some similarity of social location. Dipsikha, 24, describes this dynamic in her relationship with Andy, who’s British, “It is not conscious, but I would not call it an accident either…we are both from shakily middle-class families, and are currently struggling financially.” While relationships that cross the boundaries of caste, class, ethnicity, nationality, etc. are often celebrated as a sign of progress, it is also true that these relationships are punished by frameworks of oppression. Samarth*, 23, says, “Non-endogamous relationships are challenging because you experience substantial difference, even divergence, in perspective.” Sevanty*, in her late twenties, talked about the time her upper-class ex-girlfriend asked her yoga teacher to give Sevanty a lesson. The yoga teacher came to Sevanty’s small flat in an urban village, and after one class, announced that Sevanty’s problem was fixed. “I immediately knew it was because he didn’t feel comfortable in my house. My ex, of course, having been rich and privileged enough to not face that kind of discrimination ever in her life, didn’t understand it, and classified it as merely ‘unprofessional’.”
Of course, power dynamics also emerge within relationships where partners are of the same caste and class; we also need to navigate gender roles. Arjun*, 22, says that it’s all about choice: “I don’t look at it in terms of pre-ordained [gender] roles but rather as comfort and capability…based on communication. Men and women could both end up [performing] traditional gender roles, but the reasons for it should be that at that moment, in their relationship, they both came to the conclusion that the arrangement works for them.” Sevanty narrates a personal experience: not having been with a cis man in several years, her new partner, who is one, surprised her with “casual callousness and everyday sexism…he repeatedly (on several consecutive occasions) made remarks about a part of my body, which shocked me…and because I wasn’t expecting it, I didn’t have any ready defences against it and felt a flush of shame rising up my face.” Sevanty says that in her experience, women and trans* (an inclusive term to denote the diversity of identities within the gender identity spectrum) partners are much kinder about bodies – and even if they aren’t, “the same thing said by someone who has a similarly conflicted relationship with their body is softened by it.”
Expressions of sexuality are also influenced by these power dynamics. Samarth says that he equated power with sexual confidence for a long time; he assumed the more powerful person would feel more sexy, and the less powerful person would be more inhibited. Arjun adds, “When it comes to sexuality, there is still an expectation placed that it is once again a man who has to start, and lead and have control.” There really is no script for what to do, however, when a person belongs to a sexual minority. Kavya, 23, says, “I think if I were to date and marry an Indian, the biggest problem would be the fact that I want to adopt children. I’m asexual and I don’t want to have sex or get pregnant and give birth. I adore kids and I want to adopt in the future, but the need for biological children is so ingrained in our society.”
Gender roles and sexuality also influence how we present ourselves. “So many women, including me, still go through the painful processes of beautifying ourselves. Maybe we do it for men, or maybe we don’t, but regardless we follow a routine that makes us ‘desirable’. I hardly spend time on makeup but I’m still conscious of how I look – with unthreaded eyebrows, or too much leg hair, or no kajal in my eyes,” says Kavya. Arjun’s response, in comparison, says a lot: “As a man, I guess I have less expectations to look a certain way…looks are not a big aspect of how I present myself. I present myself in the way I am as a person, through my personality. Again, society does not push me as much as it does a woman to pay more attention to looks over intellect, so I have never actively tried to present myself as attractive over smart or funny.” Sevanty speaks about the freedom in rejecting cultural prescriptions: “Confidence in my body and space makes me feel attractive. I usually like to mix up masculine and feminine clothing, and though there are times when I feel a little unsure of my attractiveness to a man when I present as more masculine than feminine…(but) as long as I feel like me to myself, I usually get what I want.”
Feminists – actually, women who are feminists in particular – are often thought of as permanently angry and bitter creatures who are anti-love and anti-relationships. Can romance and feminism be reconciled? Most people I interviewed said there was no inherent contradiction; Kavya elaborated, saying that she is critical not of romance but of patriarchal romance, “On one hand, I’m extremely wary of the type of romance that film industries portray, where men pursue women relentlessly until women submit to their demands and then ‘happily ever after’ happens. On the other hand, I think it’s challenging to navigate romantic relationships as a feminist, because you’re constantly setting standards that potential partners can’t meet. I don’t think there are perfect relationships or people.”
Perhaps there is something salvageable after romance is extracted from patriarchy. There is also the fact that love and caring for others and ourselves is crucial in the protracted struggles against oppression – perhaps feminism creates an alternative romantic ideal (or ideals) that makes room for unexpected pleasures. Samarth says that “get[ting] to know people that come from backgrounds different from mine…helps throw me out of my comfort zone, [and question] my own assumptions [and] expectations.” Sevanty says that recently, she saw someone walking by from the balcony of a friend’s house – “…something compelled me to call out and ask if she wanted to come over for coffee. She gave me a ‘What the hell?!’ expression and simply walked on. The next thing we know, the doorbell was ringing!” She adds, “Feminism is romantic! Don’t you think so? All ideals are romantic. The idea that…we deserve a better lot, [and] the struggle within ourselves and with each other for it is all pretty romantic.” It’s just that feminists tend to love and desire differently, outside of the cultural prescriptions of what love should look like.
*Names changed to protect privacy.
Photo Credit: Feminist Apparel