What’s love got to do with it?


A guest post by Samidha S., reflecting on love, gender normativity, patriarchy and violence.

On December 2012, I attended an event on violence against women, and the discussion eventually turned into a condemnation of popular culture, especially mainstream movies, and how they depict so much violence, especially violence against women. As one person pointed out, it’s almost as if every good story must have a rape scene in it. After all, how else can we have heroes? Imagining the alternative though, one thinks the movie would be so bland – what kind of a story is possible without ANY violence? If the princess is married to the prince and they’re living happily ever after – well, isn’t that where stories end?

In fact, this is at the heart of a very complex issue – it’s not that every good story should have a rape scene, but every good story should have some romance, a hero, a heroine, and of course, true love. Even if you make an LGBT movie, and the lovers are same gendered, this basic story doesn’t change.

Lauren Berlant’s critique of the love plot is worth revisiting if we want to think about why and how our ideas of love feed gender violence, and why it seems so impossible to tell a ‘good’ (read interesting) story without violence. The modern love plot requires certain things: it requires women to believe in the capacity of love to ‘rescue you from your life and give you a new one’. It is the romance narrative which constantly circulates this idea where a woman, who would never put all her savings into a risky business venture, would put her body, independence, social status, time and labour into a family of strangers. What enables her to commit herself, not only her present body, but her entire future, to a network of relationships that are unknown to her? The unknown is not only the people or the space (and sometimes this can be the geographical space of continents), but also the unknown of her time, of who she might be in the future and what she might want.

When we sweep aside the utopian dreams that love invokes – an almost sacred thing which shouldn’t be questioned (and love is precisely this violent – true love is utterly trusting, asks no questions) – we are left with some baffling scenarios. How can we understand the raising of a girl child in a completely ‘sheltered’ environment, where no man should have access to her body, only for her to be given over – literally – to a stranger, for the rest of her life? Married women are encouraged to make their new family their home, to automatically inherit relationships that had no prior context. When one looks at it unromantically, it is obvious that it can only be accidental that a husband would be nice to his wife, or that a mother-in- law would be kind to the bride. Not only is there no guarantee of real caring and respect, there is also no real socially enforced expectation. For the woman, it is the hope of ‘love’ that even makes possible such a leap of faith, this placing of herself in a vulnerable situation.

What about love marriages and relationships based on love? Berlant has a wonderful critique of what love is actually doing: first of all, the idea of a loving relationship separates the couple from the rest of the world. The loving couple is safe with each other, they support each other, and they can take on the outside world no matter how hostile. Add in the middle-class home and we suddenly have an insular space. The ‘safe’ space thus created can now exist in opposition, in isolation from the rest of the world. Poverty or discrimination in the outside world doesn’t matter except as affirming ‘news’, because the loving couple reassure and love each other. Intimacy here is taken to be a natural thing – not a set of ideas that we have been conditioned to think in terms of. Every movie about alien invaders, or world domination, or every ‘crisis’ can be read back to this space of loving-couple-home-space vs a world full of unknown possible threats. 

It comes down to this – what do we love when we love? If we love people, why is it necessary to make a future commitment in terms of fidelity, cohabitation, a certain kind of dress, conduct, sex, obligations in a contract that cannot be amended? Why is it that this contract cannot be questioned, even though it is continually violated by men? Is it not actually safety and security that we’re loving when we say love? And how ironic is it that the security we barter away all our future selves for (in this loving relationship) can become utterly violent – and yet, will not be given up because the ‘outside’ is so much more threatening. Women will not walk out of violent marriages, because of the stigma of being ‘outside’ – regardless of where the violence actually lies. The hysteria with which television news can show rape happening ‘outside’ in fact reinforces the idea that the inside space is safe. The same hysteria cannot be extended to the violence inside the house – it cannot be shown repeatedly on television, while the middle class sit ‘safely’ inside the house in front of that television.

Berlant points out that an important component of love is amnesia. Love requires that we forgive and forget a thousand disappointments, to set aside the practical context essentially. Because love is supposed to transcend these things, and in fact, is invoked precisely in these moments when we want to erase everything that doesn’t fit in. Love requires a smoothing over, to constantly try to ‘fix’ problems instead of trying to understand what that problem says about who we really are and what we really want.

And love requires the lovers – the woman who will believe in the future, in her man, who will sacrifice for him, who has this bag full of feelings and emotions. To the extent the woman doesn’t do this, she remains the storybook character who is ‘yet’ to arrive at the ‘right’ place in the story. While LGBT politics has the potential to critique this love narrative, it often ends up becoming a fight for inclusion into the same kind of spaces, the same kind of relations. Yet challenging heteronormativity is really about breaking this inside/outside where the outside doesn’t matter and the inside has to be constantly hidden. Instead of being disconnected amnesiacs, to really look at how we care, at the expectations that arise from that caring, and how violent that love can become.

Reference: Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Duke UP, 2008)