Radicalizing Love

Women's and gender studies classes have a familiar canon. Women, Race and Class by Angela Davis. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks. Books about love as a form of capitalist enslavement and adultery as a radical political act -- with pictures of lingerie-clad women on the cover, to boot -- don't often make the cut. But of all the feminist literature I've read, from Judith Butler-style high theory to photocopied 'zines, it is Laura Kipnis' Against Love: A Polemic that most profoundly changed the way I think about politics.

Against Love is exactly that: an unabashed critique of romantic love. When I first picked up the book, about a year after completing my graduate degree in women's and gender studies, I was skeptical. I had read polemics before, but an unwavering stance against love? It unnerved me. As a serial monogamist who tended to put as much time and attention into my relationships as I did my career, education, and personal well-being, love was something in which I was deeply invested.

But once I got over the initial shock of thinking of couplehood as something potentially limiting, I couldn't get enough of the idea. I passed the book around to friends (especially those who liked to ask when I'd be getting married), showing them the section where Kipnis lists pages of answers to the question, what can't you do because you're in a couple?: "You can't just walk out on your job or quit in a huff. You can't make unilateral career decisions, or change jobs without extensive discussion and negotiation. You can't have your own bank account." She continues, "You can't leave the dishes for later, wash the dishes badly, not use soap, drink straight from the container." All of a sudden, it didn't seem like such a bad idea to spend my energy on more selfish pursuits. I don't think it was a coincidence that after I dropped my beau, I ended up cranking out my first book.

Kipnis' book inspired more than a "personal is political" moment -- Against Love radicalized the way I thought about feminism. Kipnis does more than take on the day-to-day minutiae of relationships. She offers a full-blown critique of a society structured so completely on the idea that people should be coupled. And not just coupled but partnered off in stable, efficient, and, well, passionless relationships that don't threaten the capitalist status quo. After all, who spends more time at the office than one half of a couple looking to avoid home? And who shirks responsibility more than someone head over heels in lust?

Kipnis' framing of adultery as a radical act -- "the sit-down strike of the love-takes-work ethic" -- really stuck with me. Not because I was down on monogamy (though the book certainly makes you rethink how much you want a pick-up-the-kids, take-out-the-trash kind of relationship) but because it made me think of feminism as the adultery of social norms. What do you mean you want to keep your own last name when you get married? Or refuse to buy that wrinkle cream? Or play baseball instead of softball? I liken feminism to cheating on the deeply ingrained gender standards that our society clings to as tightly as it holds on to the idea of love.

I also realized that if Kipnis could unequivocally declare that love -- of all things, love! -- was crap, then there was nothing I couldn't say without hesitation. I stopped being the kind of pro-choicer who calls abortion a sad reality, a tragic choice, or some other such nonsense. There's nothing wrong with abortion. I also swore off the protestations and disclaimers that often come with feminism: "I swear, feminists like men! We shave! No Birkenstocks for me!" No more of that. I'm a feminist. No explanation necessary. It was freeing to leave the equivocations behind.

In fact, Kipnis' book was so good at getting me into a decided state of mind that I've recently been able to say "screw it" to her book's very premise: I'm getting married this year. And frankly, I'm betting that Kipnis has better prepared me for wedded bliss than anything else I've been subject to regarding relationships, from bridal magazines to parental advice. Because now I know what I'm getting into, laundry woes, capitalist constructions, and all. And that's why Against Love sits on my bookshelf, right next to the bell hooks and Judith Butler, where it belongs.

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