How Disney fucked up my love life and how it literally pays to get married. Plus, surprisingly readable musings on the nature of happiness.
Hi guys! Me again. Yup this one is pretty long – I was going to post it as two pieces but I think it makes more sense in one go. I have inserted cunning subtitles and pretty pictures to keep you entertained. Plus, wittiness! Knock yourselves out. I would especially enjoy responses to my questions about how cis, trans and gay guys feel about romance. Do you, too, feel conditioned to love in a particular way?
“Hollywood is the devil and if you’re not careful it can ruin even the best of relationships.” – Feminism for Anarchist Men zine
In my post on careers last month, I suggested that, in a world which only allows women as value as girlfriends, wives, attached to another, maybe we don’t feel there is any point in nurturing women’s abilities. You may have a brilliant daughter who is hugely talented, but the most important thing to you is that she finds a partner, settles down (whatever that means) and has babies. And, of course, this isn’t only an external pressure. We have all internalised this pressure to mate. The idea that a monogamous long-term relationship is our only possible happy ending. I mean, I used to lie about my past relationships because I thought I was a failure if I hadn’t had one. Never mind my own talents, I only have value if I am, and have, a lover. It seems that being single is even worse than being gay.
Happiness. That old bind. I remember my friend reporting to me how, at a dinner party, one of the guests said that women would have been happier without feminism. Apart from some possible responses to this – what, we would be happier without the vote, the criminalisation of rape within marriage, the right to own property? – it is actually quite a hard statement to argue against. Happiness is hard to quantify, and who feels happy when they haven’t got a man?
As a woman, it is virtually impossible to be happily single. With everything in our lives pushing us towards the ‘happy ending’ of a relationship, we can never feel completely happy in the moment of now. Now, I am single. Now, I am writing. Now, I am doing something I have always wanted to do, the thing that I am best at, but am I happy? Fantasies about meeting the ‘right person’ who I can ‘settle down’ with take up a lot of my headspace. Where is my home, if not with this imaginary other who is going to make everything all right?
“Will you marry me?” – pretty much ever movie, romantic novel, ever.
I have spent a lot of my life waiting for someone to rescue me. A prince to ride up on a white horse and take me away from my tower. I won’t try to free myself, because that’s not how the story is meant to go.
Most little girls don’t know they have the power to make themselves happy. Because they have been told they don’t. As Betty tells her daughter in Mad Men, the first kiss is of huge importance in a girl’s life. The kiss is the moment that wakes Snow White / Sleeping Beauty, and the prince will then whisk her off into a world of affluence, orgasmic sex and, happiness. Of course, in a world in which men still earn a lot more than women, this myth does have some truth to it. Marrying is, for heterosexual women, still a choice of economics. If you earn less than men for the same work, then to have kids, be rich, to have everything you want, you need to marry a guy who will financially support you.
Despite the fact that both my parents are equally qualified, as a physician my mother earns far less than my surgeon father. It’s true that she could have chosen another specialty and thereby earned a higher wage, but she decided to give up her dreams of being an anaesthetist to be a mother. Even as a GP, she still was hardly at home and both my brother and I had nannies. As a woman who wanted to marry and live a respectable middle-class life, how much choice did she ever have to become an anaesthetist? Especially when the dream includes a nice house, money for holidays and to give your children everything you want for them. Even today, my female doctor friends are not choosing surgery because the male culture and long hours are inimical to family life. The main reason for my best friend getting married is to get better mortgage options, although of course the public commitment to her husband is meaningful. Plus, everyone know that when you get married you get a tonne of presents! (The financial rewards of marriage are obvious.)
“being single is even worse than being gay”
Of course, my argument here is very middle-class and I realise that marriage does not give most people these luxuries. But we would be kidding ourselves if we pretended that the Disney dream were only about love. How do we quantify happiness in this capitalist world if not in terms of money and possessions? Even if you are a girl born into a working-class family, you are still taught to dream of being rescued by a rich prince. Ariel and Belle married above their class and Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty both masqueraded as members of a different class into order to catch their man. (Prince Charming falls in love with Sleeping Beauty when he sees her, apparently a peasant, dancing in the woods with animals. Luckily, it turns out she is the daughter of the King and Queen so he is allowed to love her after all.) Romantic comedies of the past two decades like Pretty Woman and Cinderella remake Maid in Manhattan still sell this dream. It’s OK if you are a prostitute or a maid working in a hotel because a rich business man/politician will ‘discover’ and rescue you from your shitty job. We are all taught to wait for that special someone who will always find and save us. (Btw, check out this feminist run down of Disney princesses. It’s awesome.)
For heterosexual women, marriage is a compelling sell. It makes economic sense. It also (weirdly) offers the promise of autonomy. When are your parents ever going to recognise you as an independent woman if not when you marry? Marriage is the moment fretful mothers breathe a sigh of relief; their daughter has finally flown the nest and responsibility for her wellbeing has been passed onto someone else. Girls marry to be seen as a woman, a grown-up, even if the transaction of marriage still means that they have just been passed onto another owner.
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn…” – Moulin Rouge
Heterosexual or not, we only take people seriously when they are partnered up. There is nothing weirder to us than a single person. It doesn’t matter if you are queer, straight or whatever, the most important thing is that you are in a relationship. As women, we are taught that it is our job and our destiny to seek out a guy and even in the case of a lesbian, a committed female partner is still better than none. When I was a teenager, all the talk with my friends was about when we going to get a boyfriend, kisses and who we were dating. Now, living mostly among queers, I still feel the same pressure to hook up. People expect me to be an actively sexual person and to have a (probably non-monogamous) partner. This pressure to be sexual feels similar to the pressure I experience from my family’s side to be in a long-term monogamous relationship. It seems that, no matter which community you live in, you are valued more when you are in a relationship. If you are a single woman, then you must be ‘unhappy’.
It is undoubtedly better, in our eyes, to be in a bad relationship than no relationship at all. I may recognise that other people’s relationships have some pretty major problems, but I will still be jealous of them for being together. It doesn’t matter if the majority of marriages end in divorce, getting married is still the best thing that can ever happen to you. I know women who will endure years of bad relationships just because they are terrified of being single. I recognise this clinging tendency in myself when I am desperate to keep dating a person even if I am not particularly into them; I generally find it extremely difficult to end the relationship for myself. Upon being dumped, I often feel relieved that that (right) decision has been made for me and simultaneously ashamed that I couldn’t make it for myself.
“who feels happy when they haven’t got a man?”
I remember being particularly upset when, a year ago, an old friend said she was ‘disappointed’ that I hadn’t been in a relationship since I had last seen her 2 years before. What could this disappointment possibly mean? It had nothing to do with concern about my happiness. She knew I had been depressed, at times suicidal and I told her I needed and wanted to be single so I could look after myself. So, we expect people to be in relationships even to their own detriment? Apparently, being in a couple is more important than my health, or even my life. If this is true, then what, for women, does happiness mean?
The social desire for women to be in a relationship is cloaked in false concern about our happiness. The conservative social dream, that keeps us neurotic, spending all our energies trying to make ourselves attractive in order to catch a man (whether he actually be a man or not) is sold to us as a dream of happiness. We are promised that our prince will rescue us from our insecurities by providing us with the financial security of (heterosexual) partnership. Of course, this isn’t so explicit and financial security is worked into a fairy tale of orgasmic kisses where I ‘just knew he was the one for me’ and ‘I had finally found my one true love’. Even some of my straight feminist friends still describe their boyfriends in terms of ‘the one.’ Just see Sex and the City’s Mr Big for an example of true love being sold to highly intelligent and otherwise sane, successful women.
I imagine that men don’t experience this urge to merge in quite the same way. Growing up with a different set of stimuli, they are allowed to be happily single. The rich older bachelor is for many men a figure of envy. He hasn’t been presented with a ticking biological clock and a deadline by which he must settle down and reproduce. He can play the field for pretty much as long as he likes.
Of course, if you’re a guy you are also (financially) better off being gay. You have double the top salaries and it’s less likely you’ll have children to support. Visit mainstream gay villages in the Western world’s big cities and the orgasm of commerce there will tell you just how much more money these guys have to burn than us lesbians. I also wonder where men who were raised as women generally fall on this scale of pressure. Do trans men dream of settling down and feel the pressure to desperately seek a partner, or does their gender allow them to ignore the conditioning directed at women? What do you guys think?
This dream of love seems to be blind to sexuality. I, still, wonder if my date will be ‘the one to rescue me’ at the same time I consciously recognise this idea is bollocks. No matter if the person I am with is male, female or neither, I have a constant internal dialogue about our relationship. Where is this going, are we going to settle down together, is this the person ‘I am going to spend the rest of my life with’? This internal dialogue has nothing to do with the person in front of me. Even if, on a date, I am thinking how much this person is irritating me, I will stil desperately cling to them because I want them to save me. Even though I know, beyond a doubt, that this is a false dream I have learnt by some very successful (and ongoing) social conditioning, I can’t seem to get rid of it.
Not My Happy Ending
The dream of ‘the one’ has had some pretty disastrous effects on my love life. It causes me to cling onto my lover as if I were drowning, neurotic behaviour that is not very sexy. It also, as Germaine Greer argued in The Female Eunuch way back in the 70s, provides a very convenient distraction from myself. Linked to the self-abuse of fat hate, the desire to catch, keep (beauty myth) and be rescued by (Disney) a lover keeps me away from the realisation that only I can rescue myself.
I am unhappy. Am I unhappy because I am single? No. I am unhappy because I want to have more adventures (including love affairs), to be more creative. But I am too busy obsessing after someone I barely know to work on being happy for myself. I am never happier than when shut off from media, travelling, spending my days writing and exploring. But every time I fancy someone I obsess in a way that takes me away from the real world and more into myself. The dream of love leads me away from adventure into self-defeating masochism. This behaviour is also circular: the more miserable I get, the more desperately I look to the other person to save me.
“If you are a single woman, you must be unhappy”
Having had depression over the past two years has forced me to do some hard evaluation of the way I engage with life and relationships. In her autobiography Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal Jeanette Winterson says that “creativity is on the side of health” (I will be reviewing this book on feminist mag The F Word so keep a look out for the link). I too have learnt that writing and other types of art provide me with an outlet for that nervous energy that I used to invest so destructively into my affairs. I believe this misuse of our energy is exactly what Disney and the myth of romantic love works to achieve. Keep our attention away from ourselves, and we, the oppressed majority will never rebel against our oppression. We will never rebel against our potential.
All this isn’t to say that I don’t believe in love. I do, wholeheartedly, believe in love. Love which is sane and healthy and forms a deep connection between individuals. I also believe that the myths surrounding romantic love are deliberately harmful to women and the heterosexual men who love them. The imbalance of power in such obsessive relationships can only lead to destruction of some kind, whether of the relationship itself, or the independence and creativity of the lovers. I would love to learn to form relationships that aren’t needy and obsessive but strong and calm. The kind of feeling I get when I am by the sea; the feeling I am home. When each wave is a new moment and it is constantly and calmly changing.
Disney princesses dubbed with clips from Mean Girls: