The business of relationships
Has there ever been a society as obsessed as modern English-speaking Western societies are by “relationships,” “love,” and “families” as conventionally defined? Cultural production is dominated by the subject, not just in the popular genres of frothy “romcoms,” “chick lit,” and “date movies,” but through the element of romantic interest seemingly felt to be essential to all popular forms of artistic production. With dating manuals, lifestyle and relationship advice columns, lifestyle and so-called “reality” television shows, online dating and lonely-hearts columns, it is tempting to suggest that the relationship industry is big business. But this is a limited observation; arguably relationships, their promotion and maintenance, and anxieties surrounding them, comprise the main business of modern capitalism. The extent to which people pursue wealth in order to get into a relationship, stay in a relationship, make a relationship more fruitful, or pursue a better relationship is hard to estimate; but advice, whether from friendly or other sources, given to individuals about pursuing relationships is often reducible to the expenditure, and thus the earning, of more money.
Similar tendencies have been evident in Western capitalist societies for some time: when George Orwell prepared to investigate the experience of being homeless in early twentieth-century London, he observed the effect of his donning attire that marked him out as a tramp: “Everyone’s demeanour seemed to have changed abruptly.” The observed limits of Orwell’s masculinist vision of the world contribute to what many women, conscious of the expense which societal expectation imposes on them in the demand to be “presentable,” would identify as a one-eyed perspective. Reactions to signifiers of wealth (or its absence) in sexual others are not solely the result of socially conditioned degrees of superficial sexual attraction. Women in particular may regard men of impoverished appearance as more of a physical threat, although such reactions themselves may also show the misleading nature of capitalism-influenced social conditioning; the sociopathic, wealth-flaunting charmer, or the male partner familiar with a dark side, can certainly do as much damage as the unkempt stranger.
Benjamin Franklin depicted an incident in his arrival in Philadelphia in humble circumstances in 1723:
Thus I went up Market-street as far as Fourth-street, passing by the door of Mr. Read, my future wife’s father; when she, standing at the door, saw me, and thought I made, as I certainly did, a most awkward, ridiculous appearance.
Franklin’s story, and the transformation in his fortunes (and marriage) is linked according to the prevalent understanding with his embodiment and extolling of the gospel of hard work, in which Max Weber detected a paradigmatic example of the spirit of capitalism, especially in the U.S.: “Sloth makes all things difficult, but Industry all easy, as Poor Richard says; and He that riseth late, must toil all Day, and shall scarce overtake his Business at Night. While Laziness travels so slowly, that Poverty soon overtakes him, as we read in Poor Richard, who adds … Early to Bed, and early to rise, makes a Man healthy, wealthy and wise.” You can’t fight the system, so “industry” supposedly is the only way to contentment in life and, by symbiosis, in relationships.
“The most fundamental of human instincts”
In challenging inheritance taxes and defending tax avoidance, a British conservative tabloid newspaper recently presented a typically laudatory perspective on Western family life:
The truth is that there are no parents in this country, of any income bracket, who do not want their children to do better than themselves and to give them a leg-up in life. This is one of the most fundamental of human instincts. It is also among the most selfless and morally admirable … the urge to look after our own families is a hugely powerful incentive to working hard. This means that those who attack it as immoral or unfair undermine a key driving force of wealth creation … As a general rule, don’t families and private businesses spend and invest their own earnings far more wisely and productively than the state, whose bureaucracy is more the brake than the accelerator of prosperity?
Opinions may certainly differ as to whether the effect of family commitments is simply to encourage “working hard.” It is less debatable however that the pressure to be in a relationship, or to maintain an existing relationship, encourages people to cultivate what employers and other authorities euphemistically describe as “steady habits of employment,” but what in practice involves staying in positions of employment and circumstances in which they are otherwise unfulfilled or misused. Historically, states of society where individuals are not likely to feel the pressures associated with family life have evoked disproportionate fears. The significant excess of men over women in areas of European settlement in nineteenth-century Australia for instance led authorities, fearing instability and political radicalism, to promote “educational” travel to the United Kingdom wherein it was hoped that male colonists would find wives; in fact the role played by women themselves in radical mobilization in Australia was far from insignificant. Authorities in societies such as nineteenth-century Britain aimed to impose disciplined habits of work and leisure, fearing an association between lack of family obligations, turbulence, and radicalism. At the same time a bitter argument was joined between propagandists against spinsterhood on the one hand and female activists rejecting marriage on the other. Frances Power Cobbe around this time confronted fears inspired by the presence of unattached women in Britain, pointing out that the existence of such individuals in large numbers demonstrated their unacknowledged normality.
Widespread assumptions that being in, or pursuing, a relationship is normal continue to privilege ideology over reality, and drive economic activity accordingly; and it is not difficult to find related private businesses and activities which represent expenditure and investment of dubious wisdom and productivity. For in addition to buoying the profits of organizations in such untrustworthy industries as cosmetics, fashion, designer clothing, fitness, automobiles, petroleum, entertainment, catering and hospitality, the pressure to be in a relationship indirectly stimulates organizations, large and small, in a vast range of other walks of life. Rites of passage and “dates” considered indispensable to the modern rituals of relationships involve expenditure, sometimes on a huge scale (especially in the case of weddings). Going on a date almost inevitably involves consuming products and services one otherwise would not. The commerce attached to Valentine’s Day, weddings and wedding wish lists, and other aspects of the romantic gift industry insinuate that love can be measured in financial terms: “show her how much you care” is the typical implication (or even slogan) of advertisers. The profits and wages thus earned in such industries are in turn spent, in ways as frequently directed to the pursuit and maintenance of relationships. Although Keynesian ideas are out of fashion among the political and economic elite, the Keynesian multiplier effect, fueled by aspirations in regard to relationships, is alive and well and playing a significant role in the vaunted “prosperity” of capitalism; anyone hoping for the richest capitalist interests to acknowledge this is likely however to have a long wait.
Whether this patchily distributed prosperity makes many of us very happy however may be seriously questioned. The stakes in the pursuit of relationships can be high. Those, in a telling simile, “left on the shelf”—rejected by “consumers” like some poorly packaged and presented product in a capitalist marketplace—are made to feel lonely, unhappy failures, and possibly also to have let other people down. In a world that “sees bachelor- or spinsterhood as tragic,” that even sophisticated analyses of the state of being unattached are forced on the defensive may be derivative of greater, widely held suspicions regarding the unattached. There is a widespread sense that there is something odd about someone not in a relationship, especially if they are not in active pursuit of one. Generations of single women, from the Salem witch trials and before, through the modern prejudices noted by Marilyn French, have encountered the consequence of the powerful stigma that comes with spinsterhood. A further telling demonstration arose in an episode in the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in 2007, which caused a furor of media interest in Britain. For a brief period suspicion in the disappearance of the three-year-old fell on Robert Murat. Significantly, the insistent innuendo in the British media was fueled by Murat’s domestic circumstances at the time: the fact that Murat was living alone (being estranged from his wife) appeared to the popular media to justify the assumption that there was something strange about him. The conviction so legitimated, the suspicion of pedophilia about an individual thus circumstanced became so out of control in the case of several titles in the British popular media that they ended up having to pay Murat damages for libel. This pattern of innuendo hardly represented a glowing example of the wisdom, productivity, or even self-interest with which resources are expended and invested by that lauder of families and supposed paragon of private business, the modern multinational media corporation.
But the very anxiety with which we seem programmed to pursue greater happiness in relationships suggests that all this effort has not yet succeeded in making even many of those more successful in the pursuit very happy. Our aspirations about contentment in relationships—nurtured by the propaganda of arch-capitalist institutions such as cinema, the print media, and advertising—are high, and the potential for disappointment consonantly great, and widely distributed. The costs are far from being just borne by those left alone. Not only is it transparently untrue that all parents in modern Western societies altruistically want “their children to do better than themselves,” but no-one is seriously and consistently putting through the claim that they do. The frequency of family breakdown shows that it is not difficult to find families riddled with bitterness and disappointment regarding perceived differences in advantages between or within generations or with other divisions. The costs of thwarted aspirations, broken relationships, on-off relationships, or even just relationships which fail to live up to the ideal, can include divorce, crime, harassment and violence (particularly against women), addiction, depression and other mental health issues, abuse, broken homes, troubled children, unemployment, and poverty. This is neither a new observation, nor an observation regarding a new situation: twenty-five years ago, a pair of American scholars observed that a “desire to idealize family life” may lead to willful ignorance about abuse within families and relationships, or a tendency falsely to assume that such problems only arise in an unusual minority of families affected by problems of deviance, addiction, or poverty. In truth: “People are more likely to be killed, physically assaulted, hit, beaten up, slapped, or spanked in their own homes by other family members than anywhere else, or by anyone else, in our society…. Not only are these facts true today, they are true throughout the history of the United States. Not only do these statements apply to American families, they are accurate assessments of family life in England, western Europe, and many other countries and societies around the globe.” Indeed, the intense interest in revelations of two-timing and abuse in the same media which extol family virtues at least demonstrates that even ostensibly respectable families and paragons of family values harbor secrets of maltreatment, bullying, deceit, and unhappiness.
Advertisement of for Littleton Butter, 1903
Costs incurred on the advice of the relationships industry are borne by those who pursue them, whether successfully or not. Citing the findings of Moira Weigel, reviewer Alexandra Schwartz notes: “though dating is passed off as a leisure activity, it really is a lot of work, particularly for women. It requires physical effort—all that primping, exercising, shopping, and grooming—as well as sizable investments of time, money, and emotion.” Many modern Western trends in women’s attire and appearance—which are often ideologically imposed through acts of the imagination, not for reasons of convenience or even profit—often quickly appear as bizarre and potentially harmful as panniers, crinolines, and tightlacing in the early modern and nineteenth-century West, or foot-binding in pre-communist China. Yet commercially marketed high-heels and wedges, wonder bras, cosmetics, hair care and beauty products, fitness regimes and diets, waxing, anti-wrinkle treatments, implants, plastic surgery, and laser eye treatments, seem to become ever more elaborate, expensive, and exacting. Much of this marketing is obviously demeaning to women, imposing unrealistic models and exacting emotional, physical, and financial demands, and patronizing and false in suggesting that it is women who benefit from such expense. As in the case of other demands imposed on citizens by capitalist expectations, it appears only an elite possesses the means to pass the costs on to others. A recent petty controversy regarding the award of royal honours to personal advisors to the outgoing Prime Minister’s wife and outgoing Chancellor of the Exchequer, which awards have been both attacked and defended with sexist gender stereotypes, has distracted attention not just from the inevitable flaws of a royal honours system, which always acts as a means of coopting individuals to the establishment, but from the far more significant revealed injustices associated with the unequal distribution of power and wealth. Meanwhile male cosmetics, beauty and fitness products, and fashions are also lavishly and successfully marketed for profit.
Advertisement of for W.B. Corsets, 1896
That costs are borne by society even as a result of genuinely happy relationships is admitted even by those who avow the ideal. In a book entitled Why Children Matter, American-based pastor Johann Christoph Arnold bemoans the “tragic” position that “raising a child” according to “the true meaning of Christian marriage … has never been more difficult.” Yet even according to this perspective, the problem has not arisen because “families” (still less “relationships”) are seen as less important in modern society, but because the affirming vocabulary has become still more inclusive and prevalent: “because of divorce and remarriage, cohabitation, and same-sex unions, the word ‘family’ is used for almost everything.” Indeed the very frequency with which politicians, anxious for a vocabulary which will associate them with positive images and alienate as few people possible—as well as tabloid newspapers in search of a market and the means of exerting influence—invoke the word “families,” demonstrates how widely it is assumed that society must support even an institution with such a deeply checkered history and present.
The pressures created by this perceived imperative to support “families” are often borne by other institutions involved in the nurturing of children. Chris Woodhead, controversial Chief Inspector of Schools in the U.K., claimed in 1994 that 15,000 teachers were incompetent and should be sacked. No figure of consonant political influence would dare advance an equivalent estimate regarding the number of incompetent parents in society, although nearly all parents (and all conservative media outlets) would agree that bad parents exist. In excusing parents for not sending their children to “public schools,” a New York Times Magazine columnist recently similarly passed responsibility elsewhere: “There is no recognizably human world where parents treat their own children the same as everyone else’s.” Yet there is no “recognizably human world” which should be allowed so completely to exclude consideration of humans who are not parents, not least in the interests of the parents themselves. Workplaces and work colleagues must bear disruption so children may be produced, and society (including its non-parent citizens) is expected to provide expertise and support so that children may be nurtured and educated into successful citizens, and bear the cost if so nurturing these products of relationships proves too difficult, whether because of difficulties in relationships, problems of heredity or environment, or errors in nurture.
Relationships and responsibilities: pasts and futures
That there are obvious pleasures involved in having children—and not least in the interpersonal attachments which are their conventional concomitant—not just onerous obligations, is also abundantly obvious to most of those who have not chosen or been permitted to enjoy the pleasures. There are also certainly cases where people’s decisions on becoming parents, and on what parenting approaches to adopt, are self-serving rather than selfless. Yet the attempt—at least self-deceivingly, and whatever the sought outcome—to represent those who become parents as “selfless and morally admirable” has become strongly salient, pressuring society, including non-parent citizens, to share the burdens. Pressure to provide more support to parents is not just urged in circles bearing an obvious political affinity with the Daily Mail. An electoral poster produced by the British Conservative party in 1966, bearing the slogan “People with responsibilities vote Conservative,” clearly associated responsibilities with caring for children and thus parental responsibilities.
Fifty years on, the insidiousness of this message has if anything increased. A powerfully influential British journalist recently suggested that the only middle-class people who could support radical left political alternatives were “mad Maoists” “leeching off their parents,” not the “normal, civilized people with families and mortgages who found Labour attractive in the days of Tony Blair.” The social bias in such propaganda is more revealing than the obvious political bias. More interesting than either, however, is the implication, which is strongly impregnated in our culture, that only parents among adults are normal and civilized, and that parenthood is the only appreciable (and appreciated) responsibility. Besides non-parents, what other group of millions of law-abiding adults would a powerful media agency get away with stereotyping, so ignorantly and with such little justification, as weird and uncivilized? Even people who claim to revile prejudices in other forms have no conscience about thus indulging their prejudices against unattached and/or non-parent adults. And in respect of what other institution besides parenthood does society bear so many burdens for people doing what they would anyway want to do, while powerful elites claim that they are acting selflessly?
A ready response to such criticisms is the assertion that the institution in question represents among the “most fundamental of human instincts”; that parenthood and reproduction, in other words, are both natural and essential to the survival of the species. Yet this is to miss the point that conventional rituals attached to relationships and modes for structuring reproduction represent one possibility among many, and that in many states of society—contemporary and historical—alternative modes not only exist, but also have been widely adopted. When all the irrationality and waste associated with our modern dating rituals and our frequently and painfully broken relationships and families are considered, are they really so obviously superior, at least in the context of the then-prevailing social and ecological conditions, to alternative practices in other contemporary or historical civilizations? Polygamy, arranged marriage, the nurturing of infants in a community rather than a nuclear family in hunter-gathering societies, and the extended kin networks associated with communities in modern Africa, have all had logical and economic bases within their contexts. That people outside of a relationship are seen as a problem, and a disruptive threat, may at least in some cases be a result of dysfunction in society, not in individuals. Other societies provided more fruitful alternatives for adults outside of families, such as monasteries, convents, and in some cases forms of service to society for unmarried women.
In any case it is noticeable that relationships and dating rituals in modern western societies are in flux. We are reaching a faith in technology’s ability to provide us with certainty in a sense comparable in its relationship to the structures of our experience and worldview to that provided by magic in the Middle Ages. Many of us are frequently as dependent on information technology and social media not just in our working lives, but to hold together our friendships and families, as people in the Dark Ages were dependent on mysterious climatic and meteorological forces to provide them with the means to exist. It is hardly surprising therefore that many should place increasing faith in computer-based algorithms to guide them into relationships. The variety of relationships recognized as “families” might be regarded as denoting a desirable liberalization. But the most widely acknowledged model for relationships continues to be monogamous marriage, in a mode that often privileges conventionally stereotyped gender roles. Schwartz observes that Nancy Jo Sales, while charting changing attitudes among a new generation, alludes to instances of young people still dating in a very conventional way, young teenage women still worrying about how they look and waiting for men to pick them up in cars. The resilience of such customs certainly seems reassuring to an older generation of commentators accustomed to highly conventional justifications of dating; apparently “dating” is still the way to filter out all the ones that are not right in order to find “the one.” Changes such as Schwartz and Sales note in any case mean that no one can predict with any safety where evolving norms regarding “relationships” will take society. With alternatives to being in, or in pursuit of, a relationship deemed increasingly unacceptable, and the decline of other objects of faith (gods, nations, community, or humanity), the increasingly exclusive and intense nature of the pursuit of relationships would appear to make the consequences of this journey into the unknown more dangerous.
Conventional mores of relationships have certainly passed through phases of arranged marriage without human civilization collapsing; the effect of the current phase of flux is less certain. Since “love interest” is seen as such an essential element of cinematic convention, the implications of modern dating rituals, and their contrast with alternatives, have much engaged the genre. The inevitability of aspirations about love relationships is thus presented in such popular cultural formations as a fundamental flaw in aspirations to socialist utopia; a man and a woman’s “fundamental” desire to privilege each other with an all-consuming affection is allegedly incompatible with equality and duty to the community. Popular artistic production also handles with some unease the possibility that future structures of relationships may be different, and specifically the possibility that ecological and social conditions may make existing structures of reproduction wasteful, or even a threat to the survival of the species. A genre of science fiction and alternative reality commonly represents futures where, often in the context of ecological pressure or other crises, efforts are made to impose alternative structures to the nuclear family—including structures which oblige parents to “treat their own children the same as everyone else’s”—as dictatorial and unnatural dystopias. The most noted example is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In a similar alternative reality, in the 1972 film Z.P.G., because women are portrayed as “naturally” having maternal feelings which needed the outlet of rearing children, a repressive regime dealing with ecological pressures caused by overpopulation resorts to equipping women with life-size robotic children with crying functions so that they could tend to them. The film tracks a couple’s surreptitious nurturing of a natural child and escape.
In this respect Arnold’s concern that fear about global overpopulation has undermined “the true meaning of Christian marriage” is shared in perspectives indifferent or hostile to Christianity, such as those associated with the Huxley family. Even a film so ostensibly exaggerated in its sensitivity to environmentalists’ concerns regarding the possibility of ecological apocalypse as The Day After Tomorrow (2004) slips into the cliché of celebrating a “triumph of the human spirit,” which is also a triumph for the power of a very conventional model of relationships to endure. Western society’s increasingly narrow focus on cognate concerns can be traced in successive adaptations of H.G. Wells’ famous science fiction work The War of the Worlds (1898), a text in part inspired by a critique of contemporary European imperialism. The format of Orson Welles’ famous radio adaptation of 1938 meanwhile was inspired (as was some public reaction) by the context of fear surrounding the rise of Nazism and fascism in the continent of Europe. By the time of the 1953 cinematic adaptation, any implied criticism of Western imperialism is expunged; the Martian invasion instead proceeds in military terms as territorial advance in the Cold War by the Soviet Union would have progressed, continental Europe falling firstly, Britain resisting gallantly but forlornly, the U.S. finally placed in peril: the fact that the world’s deliverance is depicted as an intervention by the Christian deity is also an implied rebuttal of Soviet atheism. Religious ideology is however completely lacking from Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation, the focus almost entirely shifting to the main character’s defense of his family. Indeed, the main character (Ray Ferrier, played by Tom Cruise) takes a break from fleeing and fighting extraterrestrials to kill a single adult human male, who, it is implied, being a single adult male, must be a pedophile.
The message propagated through several media thus suggests that there is something “so right” about love relationships and the family as conventionally understood that it has taken space formerly allotted to religious belief in people’s lives; alternatives should not or cannot be allowed to prevail. Yet as commonly presented, conservative perspectives about the importance of conventional family life and environmental concern about the pressure on resources are not as incompatible as they may appear. Cultural productions such as Z.P.G. assert the naturalness of desire for conventional families specifically among identifiably respectable people conforming to expected gender roles: only to this elite is retreat to a conventionally happy family domesticity accessible. By way of comparison, Hardin’s famous article “The Tragedy of the Commons” voiced the concern that reproduction specifically among those who failed to contribute productively to a system could exert an unsustainable drain on resources. 
Determining influences over political change exercised by assertions that supposedly “generous” welfare systems encourage excessive breeding among “the wrong sort” of people are at least two centuries old, as is demonstrated by the debates which eventually germinated an earlier measure for dealing with an alleged dependency culture, Britain’s Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, as well as influencing British government reactions to the Irish famine of the 1840s. Yet such assertions were based on ideological prejudice, not hard evidence. Thus the neoliberal rhetoric which lauds idealized “families” as well as private businesses such as the corporations which run conservative newspapers in contrast to a supposedly wasteful state in fact often harms actual families. Policies based on neoliberal ideology particularly adversely affect women in families, by increasing the burdens conventional gender roles within families place on women. In justifying such measures, conservative commentators are thus in fact among those least willing consistently to suggest that there are no parents “of any income bracket” who are not dominated by “selfless and morally admirable” motives, as is demonstrated by stories in tabloid newspapers with delightful headlines such as “I Let Kids Go Hungry to pay for my Boob Job.” While poorer welfare-dependent women who have children are thus seen as shirking responsibility, women able to retire into motherhood to rear children in a position of dependence on high-earning spouses are vaunted in a still praised cult of domesticity. Further, effects of the stress of work and “related” drinking and smoking on women (and the families of working women) are a concern in the same media that most loudly vaunt the virtues of the conventional family. “Working hard” and “wealth creation” in the sense most enthusiastically avowed in such media are clearly only seen as virtues in men, which is strongly suggestive of the gendered balance of power favored within families (and by extension in society) in such panegyrics.
The contrasting representation of cases of dependent mothers relates to the presence or absence of male heads of household acting successfully in what is seen to be the distinctively male sphere of “wealth creation.” The imagery of the Conservative campaign poster of 1966 represented successfully carried-out responsibilities as typified by the provision of materially privileged upbringings for children. This positive flaunting of images of prosperity is typical of political propaganda of all parties (and propaganda seeming to be something other than political, such as advertisements for commercial products). We are socially conditioned from an early age to think that certain modes of behavior and dress make oneself attractive to the opposite sex which in fact, at least additionally, commonly involve flaunting wealth, or the potential to acquire or associate oneself with wealth.
Framers of the Poor Law Amendment Act justified its famously harsh provisions on the supposed necessity of making pauperdom “less eligible” (i.e., more irksome) than the worst possible conditions of paid employment, thus forcing the “undeserving poor” to find gainful employment. Significantly, wealthy single men are still referred to as “eligible bachelors.” Money has in a sense become an even more salient criteria in a romantic partner with the decline of other values. That the status of “gold digger” is virtually a badge of pride to the superficial, demonstrated by the fact that it has been a fashionable label for women’s clothing, is almost as great an indication of societal decadence as the prevalence of the Playboy logo in the marketing of women’s fashion accessories.
The reserve army of the unattached
Conventional rhetoric advances the need for “family-friendly” policies, but, there being disagreement as to what such policies comprise, the agenda usually advanced more obviously serves the interests of the establishment than actually offering tangible assistance to real families, and still less offering a coherent argument that prevalent ideas and structures of family represent the ideal they are so often assumed to be. Given that the outcomes of actual families, operating under these often unfriendly pressures, are so random, it is no new observation to suggest that reinforcing the institutions and communities that have to deal with these outcomes might actually prove more helpful to many families. The most powerful voices thus do not idealize family life and parenthood so much as prosperous, eligible, “deserved” parenthood. This distinction is deeply impregnated in capitalist society, because it is a useful tool to get people (and especially men) to tow the line and make money. The aspiration to prosperous family life is widespread and encouraged; the romantically unhopeful are assured that “there’s someone for everyone” almost as strongly as the American Dream and the land of opportunity is affirmed. But the message is simultaneously implied that a lot of parents actually do not live up to the image. This is seen as a failure of men to support families, as well as due to the influence of feminism and a dependency culture. The rigid gender roles still widely accepted not only impose stifling domesticity on women, but expectations on men to achieve a high-earning status or be guilty of some failure of manhood; men and women ill-suited to these roles, but who may possess skills in other areas, are not only both more likely to end up alone, but also with a socially conditioned sense of individual inadequacy. Exacerbated by the suggestion that they are within everyone’s reach, frustration and jealousy at difficulties in attaining the social and economic conditions of responsible and comfortable parenthood also give rise to many difficulties within families, relationship breakdown, and individual suffering.
The possession of wealth generally makes one more likely to be recognized by society (and individuals) as a better romantic partner. There may be, however, still more fundamental links between the process of acquiring (or not acquiring) wealth and relationships. Actions to make oneself a more plausible romantic partner, particularly if the conventional advice is followed, involve financial investment, much as an entrepreneur must be willing to invest in confidence of producing a desired rate of return, or an employment candidate would invest in making themselves more presentable in a position.
Conversely, if one lacks confidence in any field of a return on the investment, one will not invest. The successful capitalist, candidate or romantic partner with the confidence to make an investment will certainly be admired; wealth, well-manicured families/partners and good employments are often closely connected in the popular consciousness. The individual without the confidence to invest consonantly remains poor, alone, and/or stuck in a dead-end job (or perhaps a succession of dead-end jobs), and for each will be reviled. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair asserts: “We should be discussing … how young people are not just in well-paid, decent jobs but also have the chance to start businesses that benefit their communities.” Such typically affirmative rhetoric about the availability of prosperity (and love) to all under capitalism given the right amount of effort encourages aspirations, including parents’ aspirations about their children. Yet just as capitalist societies need their poor underemployed citizens both as a flexible reserve army of labor and as a reminder to the larger workforce of what will occur if they do not submit to the disciplines and demands of work, society has long needed its unloved reserve army of unattached men and women. These not only similarly serve as a reminder of the patronizing contempt, suspicion and innuendo that greets individuals unless they conform to the mores of the capitalism-conditioned relationship market, but intersect with the economic functions of the reserve army of labor. Denuded of the justification (or in some cases pretext) of family responsibilities, unattached employees or potential employees can meet employers’ and administrators’ demands for flexibility more easily. Famously, at the Conservative party conference in October 1981, at a time of mass unemployment conditioned by Margaret Thatcher’s administration’s own neoliberal policies, Thatcher’s close ally Employment Secretary Norman Tebbit insultingly suggested that the unemployed get on their bikes to look for work, advice underwritten with a hypermasculine, misogynistic, physical challenge to unemployed men. Symbiotically, defenses of the need for mobile working populations resort to dogmatic endorsements of capitalism. Yet rhetoric about family responsibilities and families “working hard” notwithstanding, the implication of Tebbit’s recommendation for greater flexibility and mobility on the part of the unemployed would certainly have been easier to follow without the ties to specific locations that come with a family and/or partner.
In contrast, individuals who travel many miles across international borders in search of work are often criticized (among many other reasons) for deserting their families. Even though such actions are very commonly taken to benefit migrants’ families and provide them with better opportunities, criticisms of such separations only highlight ways in which processes generated by capitalism are at least as much a source of families’ difficulties as the fulfillment of families’ aspirations. Actual, perceived, or asserted intersections between non-parents and bad parenting on the one hand and the poor and non-Western migrant groups on the other are very useful to Western establishment voices, since these intersections facilitate indulgence of the racist and social prejudices of the Western establishment under the guise of gush about “families.” Non-parents, the poor, and migrants are easy scapegoats for the failures of capitalism: and the rise of Trump, the United Kingdom Independence Party and the far right in France demonstrates the political power of such scapegoating. The double standard is evident in the plaudits received by high-flying, white, English-speaking individuals who achieve well-paid positions of seniority overseas, as well as the historic importance of migration from Britain; indeed, perhaps no people has benefited politically and economically more from chain migration than the white British.
Presenting and “Protecting” the Family
No one seriously suggested a prominent member of a ruling dynasty leaving his family to go on a royal tour on the other side of the world involved a dereliction of family responsibility. Established monarchies and their supporters indeed have long realized that maximizing the publicity attached to family events involving royal dynasties can be used to heighten popular identification with these authority figures. Similar public festivities and celebration surrounding the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York’s weddings in 1981 and 1986 seem particularly hollow now given how unhappy those marriages were, even at their inception; predictably popular media interest in the ensuing relationship meltdowns reached obsessive levels of intensity. So powerful nonetheless is the propaganda effect of such contrived celebrations that even the left-leaning Daily Mirror was recently outraged by the suggestion that there could be anything untoward about a royal birth. Heads of state and government, including ostensibly liberal political leaders, similarly exploit such events; identification with family members, and rituals linked to U.S. presidents and their families has been used for political purposes. In A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, a documentary broadcast significantly on Valentine’s Day 1962, “Mrs. John F. Kennedy” acted out a role as home-maker consistent with John Ruskin’s archetypal nineteenth-century statement that women’s place is in the home since women’s qualities lay not in “invention or creation”—of wealth or anything else—“but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision.” The program was a domestic and international propaganda success, both in demonstrating Kennedy’s conventionally feminine skills and distracting attention from any questions regarding the expense of the renovation of her family home that she had overseen, which, like all such renovations, served to naturalize the privileges enjoyed by an elite. At a time when his “presidential style” was frequently compared to Kennedy’s, the attraction of “normal” and “civilised” people to Tony Blair was presumably augmented by the particularly shameless exploitation for political purposes of the birth of his son in 2000 (the first time a UK Prime Minister had sired or given birth to a child in office).
Yet no enactment or celebration of such family events or rituals for a public audience can be non-political, non-normative, or anything other than conservative. Inevitably, insofar as the aim is to heighten popular attachment to particular rulers, the festivities involve and entrench gender stereotyping; it is assumed (rightly or wrongly) that most people will identify with conventional gender roles since it is assumed that these are more prevalent in how people actually live. As in the actions and words of other opinion formers in advertising, the media and popular culture, the affirmation and reaffirmation of conventional mores regarding gender is stuck in a feedback loop: the behavior of authority figures as projected or depicted by expensive propaganda inevitably becomes a model. Further, because family events involving authority figures will inevitably occur, and because events attached to authorities are always better publicized, these will always act as a conservative force, binding people by affinity to the powers that be. This additional form of promotion of conventional relationships may further warp social and economic activity and decrease individual contentment by failing accurately to reflect or legitimate the true range of ways in which people live and love; the range of options available to them; and the potential contribution to economic growth of linked “singles economy” activities.
Affirmative language about families exercises a conservative influence and is as often used to sell exhausted political ideologies as otherwise unmarketable commercial products. As the Daily Mail’s efforts to ensure that those most able to pay actually pay the minimum to support the society which has facilitated their acquisition of wealth demonstrate, such phraseology can also advance the inequitable agendas or self-indulgence of the rich and powerful, at the price of actually disturbing the stability or contentment of many families. In a famous incident in 1988, Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was put on the spot regarding his opposition to the death penalty by an interviewer querying how he would feel about the issue if his wife were raped and murdered. According to the prevailing interpretation, Dukakis’ campaign suffered from the “dispassionate” nature of his insistence that in these circumstances he would still oppose the death penalty. The true significance of the incident however lies in the fact that no powerful Presidential candidate in the thirty years since has dared to take a stance against capital punishment anything like as firm as Dukakis’; the mere posing of the question has effectively secured a final victory for the argument in favor of the death penalty.
Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of capital punishment, and aside from the obvious unfairness of the question, the question was sexist in framing misogynistic assumptions as to what a “man” should do to protect or avenge “his” woman; posing a threat to Kitty Dukakis in this way was also a form of violation. It is perhaps most revealing however that such a tellingly typical invocation of conventional ideas about families should be so ambiguous in its implications; a man such as Dukakis pursuing the execution of an individual convicted (through an imperfect justice system) of the rape and murder of his wife would do nothing to provide his children with the mother they need according to conventional mores about families, nor in any other direct way ensure his family’s happiness on a conventional model. The media furor surrounding Dukakis’ reaction did not put families before ideology at all, but privileged some unsavory emotions, including vengeance, anger and sanctimoniousness, rather euphemistically described as “passion,” and in fact only rather tenuously linked to the objective of forming even conventionally happy families. That the death penalty is disproportionately likely to be applied against African American suspects indicates that once again it is only what on dubious grounds are determined to be the “right sort” of families which the state is expected to act to defend.
The food of “love”
Although its practitioners have often endorsed modishly populist left-leaning sentiments, and ventriloquized the perspectives of the oppressed, it should not be surprising that modern dating rituals in their absurdity and affinity to established structures of authority are glamorized, and the linked rigid gender roles affirmed, in popular culture, especially popular music. Popular music in particular is not only capitalistic and competitive in the extreme, but also particularly embroiled with the relationship industry at a number of levels. A tiny elite of promoters as well as artists in the popular music industry can acquire massive wealth through the sale of a product marketed through all the wiles of the advertising industry and a set of transactions that transfer wealth regressively. At events such as Live Aid, campaigning musicians may request largesse of others, but remain personally rich during times of famine and recession. Artists (particularly men) have become multi-millionaires just through singing “I’m just a poor boy, nobody loves me,” “Money’s too tight to mention,” “it’s not about the money,” “Money don’t matter”: “I don’t care too much for money / Money can’t buy me love.” Popular music nonetheless is in fact bound up with the set of assumptions that money can buy one “love.”
Popular music forms the soundtrack to the efforts of people of all ages to find contentment in relationships. Its many clichés reveal obsessions with an all-or-nothing view of relationships: “I would do anything for love;” “I’d die for you;” “I can’t live without you;” “Love makes the world go round;” “When a man loves a woman / Can’t keep his mind on nothing else.” The “boy-meets-girl” storylines predominating in the genre in the main privilege very conventional gender roles, and even avowedly radical statements risk being distorted by narrowly focused conventional understandings of family and relationships. Supposedly feminist statements in popular music feel obliged to affirm: “a man still loves a woman / And a woman still loves a man.” Even sympathetic analysis appears to concede that the position of modern popular artists such as Beyoncé involves significant ambiguity on fundamental issues raised by feminism.
Poster for Girls! Girls! Girls! starring Elvis Presely, 1962
Musical genres beyond the mainstream such as rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll, heavy metal, and hip-hop have been relatively easy targets (although not without reason) for the charge of misogyny; but in fact no musical genre is innocent. Even in the musical mainstream, she may look like an angel looks, she may cook like an angel cooks, she may make love just like a woman, but she still breaks like a little girl. It is doubtless down to the convenience of meter and rhyme that popular music resorts to the term “girl” so frequently to denote “adult woman.” Nonetheless, Carol Pateman’s and other researchers’ scholarship suggests links between the use of the term “girl” to refer to an adult woman and the demeaning use of the term “boy” to refer to adult African American males in the Jim Crow era, both being derivatives of legal frameworks in which slaves/wives were treated as owners’/husbands’ property. Such use of the term “girl” by women to refer to (other) women, even of seniority, also appears to vindicate Avtar Brah’s argument that one need not be actively sexist, or even male, to articulate masculinist discourses and practices. Martin Luther King, Sr.’s response when called “boy” (which apparently left a strong influence on his son), defiantly to point to his young son and affirm “that’s a boy, I’m a man,” might be usefully considered in this context.
It is also significant that the most celebrated—and now increasingly lavishly decorated—of popular musicians are defended from the charge of misogyny on the grounds that it may be impossible to seriously consider relationships without incurring the charge of sexism. Cognate messages are forcefully asserted before an academic audience that perceived social breakdown is threatened by women’s demands being raised through the influence of feminism, not by any problem with conventional models of relationships, and before a popular audience that as long as men and women are stereotyped in very conventional, established ways, ultimately no one need really worry about being sexist.The proximity of this logic to popular and academic conservative strategies for nullifying charges of selected other forms of prejudice (including racism) is suggestive. But the implication that the supposedly inevitable conventional form relationships take invariably polarizes the sexes actually appears close to conceding the position that sexual or romantic relationships as conventionally conceived are inevitably sexist, a position associated by critics with radical feminism. However the position in respect of recognition of married women’s independent legal personality has changed, mainstream logic still largely accepts the position put forward in misogynistic nineteenth-century texts: “if marriage is to be permanent, the government of the family must be put by law and by morals in the hands of the husband, for no one proposes to give it to the wife”; “the wife ought … to obey her husband, and carry out the view at which he deliberately arrives, just as, when the captain gives the word to cut away the masts, the lieutenant carries out his orders at once, though he may be a better seaman and may disapprove them.”
Coming over here and stealing our relationships
The suggestion that loyalty to family (conventionally defined) has taken on some of the role of religion as a focus in people’s lives may be compatible with the claim that nationalism has become the “god of modernity,” given the links traced by feminist scholars between patriarchal family structures and patriotism. Contrasts with the alternative patterns of relationships in other civilizations are handled unconvincingly in the West. Legitimations of the current so-called “war on terrorism” are often presented in the form of protecting and rescuing women from barbaric practices and prohibitions supposedly typical of fundamentalist Islam, such as polygamy, the use of the veil, female circumcision, restrictions on female education, and cruel punishments. For over a century Western observers have seemed obsessed with the position of women in conflicts, the position of women supposedly being linked to civilization, freedom, and Western superiority. The propagandistic assertion that white Western supremacy is a necessary condition of safety and “freedom” for women has foundational links to many of the West’s most influential cultural formations. It is noticeable that the argument is circular in its logic since it presupposes the desirability of a historically specific model of Western relationships (often confused with a concept of “freedom”), a model that social conditions in any case only facilitate within certain locations within modern Western societies.
In any case the vaunted western imperial expansion took place at the same time both that domestic violence occurred on a large scale in Western societies,and as the wider systemic abuses involved in confining women to a stifling domestic sphere. Debate, for instance, about the historical significance of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole in the Crimean war overlooks the fact that both are remembered by exponents and critics alike as women who excelled in a supposedly heroic war which advanced Western imperialist objectives in the feminized support profession of nursing, overlooking Nightingale’s still valid and compelling critique of conventional family life, or informed criticism of reactionary tendencies in British imperialism in India. Conflict as pursued by the armed forces of Western states themselves is also historically bound up with the doctrine of women as part of the spoils of war. The most prevalent assumption in Western practice is thus not that women are worthy of protection, but that women—Western and non-Western alike—not only are weak and vulnerable, but also must be kept so; resistance to women serving in roles near to combat in the military, and to the idea that women might be able, or enabled, to defend themselves, has often come from Western men. Aspects of Western critics’ response to evidence of female agency in other cultures (whether in the form of female political or community leaders or the actions of female activists or militants) indeed recalls the way in which many men feel threatened by powerful, independent women within the West, lending validity to the observation of feminist critics that women do not need rescuing as much as men need to fantasize about rescuing them. Racialized sexist fantasies of rescue have long been a potent engine for Western wars of expansion and conquest: as one scholar observes:
[T]he nation … is an abstraction, and one is not necessarily compelled to fight for, to place beliefs within, or to give up one’s life for an abstraction. Rather, we are compelled by desires. Thus any concept of the nation must incite particular desires in its public to remain a legitimate institutionalized system of beliefs and practices … idealized figures of femininity have long been understood as a lucrative avenue for desire.
The message most insisted upon in the West’s pursuit of war, as in its pursuit of most other activities (such as industry, relationships, and families), has been not that women are individuals with rights, but that women—and especially women conforming to socially constructed ideas of beauty—need men, or should (be made to) need men.
Military recruitment poster by E. Kealey, ca. 1915-18
Hearts of darkness: the failures of Western relationships
Women are not the only victims of reductive norms regarding gender: to reassert that some spheres are as conventionally defined “women’s” is to imply (surely falsely) that no men can have anything useful to contribute to such spheres. But that enthusiasts for the media that propagate such norms are presumably also sufficiently detached from reality to believe that women have no considerable objection to being on the receiving end of cat-calls and other forms of sexual harassment is a serious problem. It typifies how warped are expectations in modern Western societies regarding gender roles and relationships, and in consequence, violence against and mistreatment of women exists in Western societies in epidemic proportions. The resonance with large numbers of women of the sordid revelations occasioned by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, plus the alarming statistics of the widespread nature of sexual harassment and abuse in American schools and campuses, show that even intelligent or university-educated men, or men privileged by wealth and circumstances, seem unable when socialized by these expectations to restrain themselves from harassment, violence, duplicity, and acts of attempted domination towards women, in circumstances in which institutions and corporations fail to protect women. Overconfident, condescending Western assumptions that cases of inhuman treatment of women in non-Western cultures demonstrate Western superiority neglect and trivialize the pain and suffering of women caused by abuse and harassment within the vaunted heart of the Western intellectual and capitalist establishments themselves, such as within university campuses and multinational corporations; cultural differences in attitudes to gender and treatment of women are only differences of degree. There might possibly be a justification for waging war on Islamic militants, and for invading Afghanistan, or Iraq, but societies which are so dysfunctional in their programming of young men and women into straitjackets of gender roles as to regard violence and harassment of women on epidemic proportions with ambivalence have no justification for insinuating that they have any potential to “liberate” women in other societies. Western nineteenth-century imperialism advanced exactly the same pretext for its military ambitions with exactly the same outcome; that if any improvement in the position of women resulted from the chaos produced by Western interventions, it is and was largely down to the strength of the women themselves.
Non-Western critics certainly have a point that the treatment of women as sex objects in Western society, and more particularly the relationships industry and all that is involved in it, is a symptom of Western decadence. Any defense of “our way of life” in this context, by force of arms or argument, cannot thus in any meaningful sense be a defense of women, but a defense of an ideal of relationships which is patronizing and degrading to women, which is burdensome to many men, which contains many absurdities, which is unfinished in the sense that society’s notion of what is ideal is in flux, and which is sustainable only for an elite minority. The pursuit of this ideal involves significant suffering, which is mostly visited upon women, while providing fuel to branches of capitalism the beneficence of which (like that of most branches of capitalism), while loudly avowed, is only ever assumed rather than vindicated.
Perhaps this is nonetheless a set of conclusions that, however right or logical, cannot with any impact be advanced. Perhaps whatever pleasures are derived from relationships, even when fleeting, as well as inhuman practices associated with other civilizations, will leap more readily to many readers’ minds. Yet some states of society had potentially more useful niches for single people, such as religious orders which used to play a larger and acknowledged role. With the decline of these and of wider belief systems (whether faiths in humanity or god), and the increasing salience of “family” and “relationships” in Western discourses and practices, the stigma towards single people is arguably increasing at the same time that the costs, burdens, and unhappiness faced by many in even conventional relationships do not decrease.
31 December 2012; Antoinette M. Burton, At the Heart of the Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 8-9, 195 n.27.