Romance is dead - and it seems that female empowerment may be killing it. At least, that was the thesis in a trend piece in the International Herald Tribune this week - writer Katrin Bennhold interviewed a handful of high-achieving women, and claimed to discover "an assortment of behavioural contortions aimed at keeping the appearance of traditional gender roles intact". She cites examples ranging women allowing their lower-earning partners to use their money to pay when they're going out, to"ritually feigning helplessness", which sounds quite kinky and exciting in theory, but which I suppose in practice can be achieved through pretending not to be very good at opening jam jars.
There's a reason, however, why I can't simply dismiss Bennhold's article out of hand. And it's because there are still times when I - an avowed feminist - have passing thoughts along a similar line. Yes, it's a shocking confession, but when work's not going well, when my bank balance is lower than I'd like it to be, when all I really want is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and the lid just won't give: in these dark moments, I sometimes consider whether my life would be easier if I was the kind of woman who focused on finding a man with whom I could embark on a life defined by 'traditional gender roles'.
Where do I get these crazy ideas that it's even an option? From the old-fashioned boy-saves-girl narratives that imbue so much of our culture and with which I was inundated when I was growing up, but not from actual experience. While I'll never say never, I can't say that I have witnessed any relationships driven by a male-dominant dynamic in which it was apparent that both partners were especially happy. And that makes me certain that aiming for this kind of relationship as the answer to challenging situations in one's life is equivalent to hoping for a talking dog: not just impossible, but also likely to be really annoying if it actually ever happened (presumably the dog would never shut up).
Bennhold writes that "Sexual attraction in the 21st century...still feeds on 20th-century stereotypes". That's a lazy analysis: while sexual attraction undoubtedly feeds to some extent on the same biological impulses that existed in the 20th century, there's no reason to accept that as other aspects of our culture has shifted in keeping with the increased professional and economic "empowerment" of women, the cultural aspects of the structure and function of romance haven't shifted as well. It's evident in the negative reaction of many of Kate Middleton's contemporaries to the announcement of her engagement. Perhaps she is marrying for love, but it's a love that is bound by an archaic institution that means she is compelled to surrender most of her self-determination to keep it. There's little romance in that: most women don't want to be princesses anymore, and the idea that we should pretend that we do want to be treated like princesses in order to boost the self-esteem of the men that we love is preposterous.
Like it or not - because it's undoubtedly more complicated now - love and relationships have progressed along with the rest of our culture, and though it certainly means that fewer of us are achieving fairy-tale endings, that's because fairy tales end in wish fulfilment, not compromise and sacrifice. And anyone who has ever had a real-life relationship knows that the most sustainable ones are about the latter, not the former. More boring than playing contorted games of pretend? Perhaps. But ultimately, I think, a lot more romantic - and a reasonable thing for women to aim for.
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