Loving the oppressors anyway

Writer emerges from militant "shaven-headed sisterhood" to find she can love men and still be a feminist.

Published May 22, 2006 6:47PM (EDT)

J. Courtney Sullivan sounds like a fun date. In Sunday's "Modern Love" column in the New York Times, the author describes her futile search to find a man capable of an egalitarian relationship. Disappointed by what she found, she went on a lecturing binge to see if she could force one into her preconceived mold. "A comparison of our favorite movies turned into me complaining about Quentin Tarantino's senseless misogyny. Perusal of the dessert menu somehow ignited a screaming match about women's socially imposed body-image issues," she writes. "One minute we would be talking baseball, and the next we'd be embroiled in a standoff about pornography." As you might expect, she was left with a lot of free time to think about what she calls her struggle to reconcile her images of men as "dream date" and "oppressor."

Last we checked, men were imperfect human beings like us trying to navigate their way through rapidly changing gender roles. But Sullivan claims the stark realities of sexual inequality -- amid strip clubs and odious Snoop Dogg lyrics -- made her want to run back to the "shaven-headed sisterhood" refuge of Smith, her alma mater. But she's just so boy crazy that she keeps on looking. Finally, she meets a nice guy, who chats about sexism with her, but occasionally disagrees and once told her to "lighten up." He encourages her to acknowledge the progress men have made over the years. And she's enlightened him on a few things, too. In the end, she finally learns to accept the contradictions of life and love: "And now I have fallen for a man who understands and respects my feminist beliefs, and who also takes me to dinner, holds the door, calls me Babydoll in a slow Southern drawl." (How adorable!)

Congrats to Sullivan for finding such an evolved dude, and for eventually abandoning her absolutist thinking and engaging in thoughtful dialogue about gender relationships. (However, her statement that women are for the most part "still solely responsible for the child-rearing and cooking and cleaning" is a major dis to the increasing numbers of men who do their part.)

But what's really troubling is her initial stance that feminism and the conventions of dating are somehow at odds. (See Rebecca Traister's feature on the F word.) As Broadsheeter Lynn Harris ranted this weekend via e-mail: "When, when, when will we get over the utterly unimportant matter of who pays? When will women stop thinking that to let a guy pay, a guy who invited her out, is a direct slap in the face to Elizabeth Cady Stanton? In my book, the rule is this: Whoever invited pays. It's not about feminism  It's about that one date and whether it feels like a date or a lunch between friends."

Agreed, sister! So here's to dating and men in all their cuddly, erotic, befuddling totality. Here's to continuing to ardently question all those stark realities out there, remembering that feminism -- just like feminists -- can be cuddly, erotic and befuddling, too.

By Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at sarah@saraherichards.com.

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