The relentless heteronormativity of self help
What problem are we trying to solve, exactly?
CW: some discussion of the presence of weight loss and exercise themes in self help.
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and in honour of that holiday we love to hate and hate to love, it’s time to talk about heteronormativity and self help.
Heteronormativity involves positioning heterosexual romantic relationships as the norm, the default, and often, as the right or superior kind of coupling. It also codes all of the typical timelines, occasions, milestones, traditions, and aspirations associated with heterosexual relationships as shared by (or desired by) everyone.
Because the culture of heterosexuality (or should that say cult of heterosexuality?) is the dominant one, it’s like a kind of water that we swim in. Just as the fish doesn’t know it’s wet, we don’t always recognize the pervasiveness of heteronormativity. Unless, of course, you’re not actually a fish but you’re still expected to breathe underwater.
It’s not really surprising that most self improvement guides are written with an implicitly heterosexual reader in mind. This is true whether the book is about relationship advice or any other common self help topic: money, kids, habits, boundaries, work, what have you.
I’ve noticed that in more recent books, the author will make a comment or two about how their advice can be used by anyone, regardless of gender or sexuality, and then go right ahead and state that all their examples will be of heterosexual couples. Progress??
While I do think it’s deeply problematic that anyone who isn’t straight and in a monogamous, mainstream kind of relationship will struggle to see themselves in self improvement writing, I want to argue another point in this issue of the newsletter.
Namely, that maybe heterosexuality itself is the problem?
Relax, my heteros, don’t close the tab or delete this email just yet! I don’t mean that YOU are the problem (or me, for that matter, as someone currently in one of those relationships).
I mean that maybe, just maybe, a lot of the problems self help advice is trying to solve stem from—or are at least related to—the inequalities, strictures, and indeed compulsory nature of heterosexuality in a heteronormative world.
I’m not talking about sex itself or even sexual attraction as the problem (although there’s a lot to unpack there, too). I’m talking about the wider culture of heterosexuality (and more specifically, cis heterosexuality) that controls and shapes so much of what is held up as a "good life."
Of course, heterosexual marriage and children are the most obvious markers of this normalized “good” life. But the culture of heterosexuality also influences how we think and feel about our bodies, money, friendships, extended family, homes, work, leisure, religion/spirituality, and the mundane routines of our everyday lives.
Help! Heteronormativity is ruining my …
You only have to glance at most self help books to know that “fitness,”exercise, diet, and weight loss are perennial themes, even in books that are ostensibly about something else. The ever-present imperative to lose weight, and the belief that one should lose weight, are not separable from the imperatives of heteronormativity.
So much of what is portrayed as the desirable body type is based on assumptions about what makes a body attractive to the opposite sex.Fat men are denigrated as unable to attract women. Fat women are often called lesbians in an attempt to insult them, again with the underlying belief that fat women are never attractive to men.
Self help spends so much time trying to assist people with the alleged problem of being (or perceiving oneself as) fat, and therefore unattractive. Perhaps the real problem is the toxic soup of heteronormativity in which our bodies are only believed to have value if they fit a mythical idea of what another gender wants.
What about other common self help themes? Work is a big one. People face enormous pressure to “succeed” in terms of status and income. I’m as happy as the next socialist to point the finger at capitalism, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
The search for success at work—for men in particular—is naturalized by evolutionary psychology theories that say such success is necessary to finding a “mate” who’s willing to reproduce with you. Despite the regular debunking of such theories, they’ve achieved a common sense status. People suffer in careers they hate and overwork everyday with the idea that this will make them more attractive in heterosexual pairings.
Of course the struggle doesn’t end with marriage and reproduction. The career-related problems only get worse, again in part because of the norms of the culture of heterosexuality. These norms insist that men be “providers,” a role that keeps them trapped at work and disconnected from family. For women, career satisfaction is often tainted or erased by the persistent idea that women should always feel guilty for working outside the home.
So maybe when advice writers are trying to help people with work problems, they’re not aiming at the right target (or the only target). Our beliefs about what constitutes success, satisfaction, and meaning at work are heavily influenced by heteronormativity.
Maybe most relationship advice is really “how to survive the tyranny of heteronormativity” advice
There’s obviously a huge market for relationship advice. Much of it’s focused on romantic partnerships, but people also seek guidance about kids, parents, extended family (in laws!), and friends.
Typical themes include communication, boundaries, intimacy, anger, betrayal, resentment… it’s a long list. What few advice givers acknowledge is that many of these problems are rooted in the disconnect between what we say we value in relationships—respect, love, sharing, equality—and what actually happens under the dark cloud of heteronormativity: exploitation, control, selfishness, neglect.
I realize that’s a harsh indictment. Let me explain what I’m getting at.
The norms and expectations of the culture of heterosexuality—which we’re all steeped in, regardless of our gender or sexual identity or relationship status—govern the patterns we fall into in our relationships, both with our romantic partners and with other people in our lives.
For instance, friendships get neglected when people are in romantic relationships, and especially after marriage because of the heteronormative idea that long-term, intimate partnerships are the most important relationships in life.
Women get whiplash when their “feminist” boyfriends turn into husbands who need daily reminders to unload the dishwasher or feed the kids breakfast. Are these men jerks? Maybe some, but most are unconsciously living the script heterosexual culture has written for them.
How much fighting is really about either people not performing that script as expected, or performing it a little too well? Do we need to learn to “fight better,” or do we need to unlearn heteronormativity first?
Where’s the warning label?
I was one of those “women with whiplash” when I was married and had a small child. My top reason for ending the marriage was the relentless inequality of expectations around who did what in the home. I didn’t marry a traditionalist. Yet heteronormativity had poisoned the well.
That relationship ended over fifteen years ago, and I still have occasional nightmares where I’m completely enraged and we’re fighting, fighting, fighting. At the time, I read a lot of advice books, about parenting, relationships, sex, marriage. But the advice I needed didn’t exist in that form.
What I needed was a warning that despite literally being a degree holder in women’s and gender studies, I would find my life taken over by the parts of the culture of heterosexuality I thought I had rejected.
Of course, I had been warned: my classroom readings had given me language and theory and history to describe exactly what was happening. It happened anyway.
Would anyone heed the warning, if that book about money or marriage or meal planning reminded us that the thing we think is the problem is just a symptom of a really shitty system? That the problem you’re trying to fix is only a problem within the norms of heterosexuality?
Probably not. One, because it’s really hard to reject a norm while living a version of it. Two, because it’s difficult to notice how these norms are shaping your life: we tend to believe that our problems are individual ones that we can fix ourselves. Three, because those who don’t live a heterosexual lifestyle assume they don’t need such a warning, even though those nasty normative tentacles will affect their lives, too.
The bad news is that I don’t have a solution to offer now that I’ve laid out these observations. I guess the good news for self help writers is that if the root problems, such as heteronormativity, are never tackled, there will always be a need for more books that keep people focused on the symptoms.
What I’ve been reading: Harvey Fierstein’s memoir, I Was Better Last Night. I learned a lot, but it was long. So very long. Also getting into Andrea Penrose’s Wrexford and Sloane series, starting with Murder on Black Swan Lane. Interesting, both of these books have something to say about about toxic heteronormativity!
What I’ve been watching: Occupied (Netflix) - this Norwegian show has been sitting on my watchlist for ages but I finally started it. The very first episode really made me think about what it will take for fossil fuel-producing nations to turn of the taps.
Something that made me angry: Landlords being jerks, what else is new?
Shameless plug for one of my books: Gentrification Is Inevitable and Other Lies is featured in this New Republic piece on the question of housing affordability (and why supply is not the simple answer we think it is).
We very might well be the problem, sometimes, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.
Cis heterosexuality just means heterosexual relationships between cis gender (i.e., not trans or genderqueer or non-binary) people.
Scare quotes here because this is a very subjective term that is usually just a code for “thin.”
I truly hate this phrase, which is obviously stuck in a binary idea of gender - but I use it here because it reflects the particular ideology that I’m describing.
This not an excuse to be a useless bag of shite! You can do better.