When someone asks, “Isn’t that romantic?”, they are not really asking your opinion. They are commenting on the obvious, seemingly inherent romantic nature of whatever it is they are discussing. But where do our notions of romantic things come from? Are romantic things self-evidently romantic, as if it is part of their very nature? Or are our notions of what’s romantic shaped by our culture?
In an essay at Aeon, Carrie Jenkins argues that culture has a big hand in molding our beliefs about what seems romantic. What counts as romantic is, as the academics like to say, “socially constructed.” What’s good about ideas that are socially constructed is that they can be changed.
Jenkins thinks our ideas about what counts as romantic need to change because they are far too restrictive. That means that people whose interests don’t fit the standard romantic script are stigmatized and excluded from various benefits, protections, and privileges.
At the heart of the conventional romantic script are monogamous couples. They have romantic love, “widely considered to be the best thing life has to offer: ‘failing’ at romance is often construed as failing at life.”
Among the people who do not fit the usual notions of romance are those who are not monogamous. That group is at the center of Jenkins’ concern. By conventional standards, people who participate in romantic triads, for example, have failed at romance and failed at life. That notion, she argues, needs to change:
“Romantic love maintains a wholly ‘natural’ image, evading challenge or critical scrutiny by seeming inevitable, incomprehensible and wonderful.
“We must get beyond this. We need to question the limits we have placed on what counts as a ‘romantic’ relationship…Instead of forcing our relationships to conform to what society thinks love is, we could force the image of love to conform to the realities of our relationships.”
Jenkins believes that something more than just attitudes and beliefs and images need to change. So do our social policies: “If the love of a polyamorous triad is seen as ‘romantic’, and hence as valuable as the love of a monogamous couple, then the triad should have the same social and legal privileges as the couple.”
Regular readers of this blog will notice something familiar in that argument. Advocates for singles’ rights have been arguing for a long time that single people should have the same benefits and protections as people who are married. Does Jenkins believe that, too?
Does her notion of what counts as romantic extend beyond relationships? Kay Trimberger, in The New Single Woman, and Barbara Lazear Ascher, in Isn’t It Romantic? Finding the Magic in Everyday Life, argue that it should. A structured yearning for connection with something outside ourselves, Ascher believes, is romantic. Feeling a sense of wonder, exaltation, and awe, and giving expression to those feelings, can be romantic. You don’t need a partner for that.
Carrie Jenkins has a new book out, What Love Is: And What It Could Be. I think I’ll read it to see just how far her notions of romance will take us.
[Note: Thanks to Robert Maines for the heads-up about the article in Aeon.]