‘Outdated: Why Dating Is Ruining Your Love Life’ Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Seal Press, September 2011, 280 p, $17.00
Outdated feels like a new type of book–an anti-dating book, written by the executive editor of Feministing.com, a popular feminist blog for women in their 20s and 30s. And the author, Samhita Mukhopadhyay, is a young woman of Indian descent, who identifies as feminist, fat, and an “avid dater.”
I was predisposed in many ways to like this book, having never felt like I fit in to the dominant paradigm of heterosexual dating, nor did I really fit in to the queer dating crowd back in the 90s, when I was cluelessly doing the online dating thing and finding that despite my winning way with words, I was just horrible at meeting and connecting with people. And it was a very strange time for me, because I felt like I was intelligent and in some ways a good catch. Yet I never escaped the feeling that (a) I was not what anyone was looking for, and (b) I was a total fish out of water–I was out of my element and I would never do well here; I’d be rejected by both women and men. But why? I wondered, back then. Why don’t they see that I have a lot to offer?
The “why” question doesn’t come up for me anymore. Looking back on it, there was sort of a basic failure built in to what I was trying to do. There wasn’t a level playing field at all, and I was competing with a lot of other women who were slimmer, more confident, and simply more appealing than I was. I think it’s a blind spot of women in our 20s that we overestimate our appeal–or sometimes we underestimate it–but somehow we never end up with the people who like us a lot (they don’t appeal to us), while we foolishly pursue unavailable (and thus attractive) people.
Outdated has many good qualities and many interesting aspects, but it feels as though it’s written out of a bit of a blind spot. To begin with, Mukhopadhyay is setting out to overturn conventional wisdom–she feels mainstream dating books are anti-feminist and push the values that there is something deeply wrong with you if you’re single.
Here’s what she sees as the problem:
I realized that the question that no book addressed–which I now see as one of the biggest challenges of our generation–was how savvy, smart, successful, politically conscious women date and find love, on our own terms in a world that is still defined by traditional gender roles, impossible expectations, and archaic relationship models.
Mukhopadhyay sees our society as “heteronormative,” meaning there is no space for those who are not in a serious, monogamous (straight) relationship. As she says, with some understandable hyperbole, “As women, if we have not successfully found a serious, long-term, heterosexual relationship that is leading to marriage, we are left in a post-feminist disaster area where romantic dreams go to die, cat ladies are in abundance, and happiness is something we don’t deserve.”
I like Mukhopadhyay’s cheekiness, and I think her analysis of the judgement heaped on women who don’t conform to what society expects of them is right on. A large portion of this book is a very serious, sustained critique of the romance industry, which she calls the “romance industrial complex.” She is right that there is immense pressure on women to settle down, now more than ever, perhaps, and even more unfairly, now that the statistics are skewed against women–since for various complicated reasons more women are forced to stay single and have trouble finding mates once they hit their 30s.
Mukhopadyay comments on the societal pressure to find a man, and not to be alone:
“Keeping women focused on finding the right man is an underhanded way to keep us acquiescing to traditional values. Conflating our self-esteem with our relationship status is a very powerful and effective way to keep women feeling bad about themselves. I mean, if being alone means you are essentially a social pariah, an outcast, a feminist, and potentially ugly and unlovable, you are not going to be seeing young women lining up for the role.”
Here she faces the dilemma of what it means to be a successful woman in this society. Ultimately, someone who is too successful and too independent is not going to be seen as marriage material. The culture’s take on single women, according to Mukhopadhyay: “We are painted as sexy, sinful, successful, and pathetic–you name it, both good and bad–but ultimately we live outside the norm and are not ultimately considered a success.”
Throughout this book, I kept asking myself what a woman in her early 20s would think of it. Would it be mind-blowing? Eye-opening? I felt like the concepts Mukhopadhyay was presenting, her critique of all the sexist dating books out there, including a withering one of Lori Gottlieb’s Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, were interesting… but I also felt a niggling sense that she was trying to justify her own dating life, which has included, as she admits candidly, a lot of casual sex. And strangely, the casual sex chapter was the most interesting to me, because when Mukhopadhyay is talking directly about her own experiences, there’s a level of truth to the narrative that’s powerful. I don’t find the other parts of the book disingenuous, but I find them rather sad. There’s a sadness peeking through the polemic.
Mukhopadhyay keeps saying that feminism has made sex better, has made dating better. I haven’t read enough of the self-help books that decry feminism as an obstacle to dating, but it seems that her own romantic life has not been particularly easy. I liked it when she talked about the way women of color are sexualized today. “Within this rather toxic climate,” she says, “being a woman of color who’s in touch with her sexuality is an act of resistance. Pushing past the negative media depictions and still finding a healthy, healing, erotic, and functional sexuality is no small feat.”
I agree. And I find the phrase “within this toxic climate” suddenly very meaningful in the context of this book. Because there is a toxic climate out there. And what I missed in this book–even though Mukhopadyay stresses finding community, solidarity with other women, other couples, as an antidote to this forced notion of being with someone, anyone, rather than being alone–are other women’s voices! What saves the book, oddly enough, is the last chapter, because Mukhopadhyay pulls in her peers to talk about how feminism has worked for them in their dating lives. How has it made your love life better? she asks them. And suddenly the book is very affirming, the message is positive–and we see the feminism we’ve loved all along, feminism’s most positive face, which is women’s ability (bolstered by feminism) to define what we want in our romantic relationships and ask for it. It is wonderful to hear these other voices, in some cases more self-assured and happy-sounding than the author, and it made me miss the feminist anthologies of yesteryear, when there seemed to be such strength in numbers. If Mukhhopadhyay had included some of these positive messages throughout the book, I think it would have strengthened it.
I like Mukhopadhyay’s emphasis on alternative sexuality, on the fact that casual sex and exploration is a good thing for young women (rather than “ruining” them), and would have wished, too, that she’d dwelt slightly more on erotic alternatives for women. (It’s clear she’s done some same-sex experimentation, but she doesn’t deal with this explicitly; she does write boldly but not with great enthusiasm about her dabbling in open relationships.)
“What leads to happier relationships is being empowered, honest, intentional, and clear about what you want,” Mukhopadhyay writes. It’s a very helpful message for women of all ages. I can’t help wondering if one can come to this without feminism–could feminism be only one road that gets you there? I don’t know the answer to that. I like the fact that feminism opens doors to women–makes women feel stronger–and at a vulnerable time of one’s life, such as the college years, I think it’s very important.
This is a brave book because society is at this point so anti-feminist and nonegalitarian. It’s such a ruthless world out there; many women are deeply competitive with each other, too. To hold true to her feminist ideals in a world such as ours, as the author does, takes strength and courage indeed.