Tragedy of Heterosexuality
New York University Press, 2020
Reviewed by Jakapat Koohapremkit
Jane Ward’s Tragedy of Heterosexuality does not end in tragedy. On the contrary, it cautiously promises a pathway to avert such an ending, provided that straight readers are willing to put in the work to reconceptualize heterosexuality through queer lenses. Rooted in empathy, Ward’s rhetorical move is to combine a rigorous examination of heterosexuality with a call for more inclusive politics: by demonstrating the ways in which heterosexuality is a recent invention, queer observers can serve as allies for straight people. Ward’s blending of academic writings and casual anecdotes make the book accessible to not only scholars of gender and sexuality but any reader empathetic to the struggles straight women face in relationships. Through bridging academic work with public engagement, Ward seeks to reorient queer subjects as queer allies to heterosexual people who are caught in the patriarchal framework that perpetuates misogyny.
In Chapter One, Ward immediately makes her stance clear: while not all straight relationships are unequal, straight culture makes it inclined to be the case. Despite her provoking book title, Ward stresses repeatedly that her critique should not be taken personally; it is precisely because she empathizes with the struggles of straight women that, as a lesbian feminist, she seeks to criticize the framework which produces such unequal relationships. In doing so, she reorients queer subculture in relation to heterosexuality; now foreign and alienating, it is straight culture’s turn to become a puzzling subculture for the book’s audience to pick apart.
Ward begins her task of denaturalizing straight culture by tracing its history. Men and women, as cross-cultural records can easily prove, were not seen as equal. And therein lies the gap which cultural institutions must attempt to fill. How can the idea that men and women should naturally feel love toward each other be justified when women were considered as less than men? Throughout Chapter Two, Ward examines the attempts by various hegemonic forces to bridge such a chasm. Using self-help books as her archive, she traces the manner in which an industry is founded entirely to make straight culture sustainable, despite the deep-rooted misogyny embedded within it. The sexologists were keenly aware of the conundrum: men were expected to dismiss wives as lesser, yet women must accept the behaviors of their husbands despite their trauma. Indeed, Ward demonstrates that although the industry has become more culturally aware of the misogyny women face in society, men and women are nevertheless recast as fundamentally different from each other and unable to speak the same “language.” The repair industry, then, offers a method to decode these supposedly mystifying behaviors for women, justifying a certain amount of misogyny on the men’s part as being intrinsic to their gender. Ward takes her critique even further when she examines self-help books that do attempt to empower women. Though these books encourage women to stand up for themselves, it is framed as entirely based on the women’s individual choice, neglecting to acknowledge the culture which produces the abuse they face. For Ward, it is not enough to argue that the matter can easily be resolved by individual actions, not when straight culture as a whole is at fault. Nevertheless, the heterosexual repair industry, as she calls it, still runs on the fantasy that, so long as an individual changes their personal behaviors, then heterosexuality in its current form can still be saved. In this way, the onus is on the individuals, not the larger framework that encourages such a culture. Additionally, the origin of self-help books, Ward argues, also had ties to the eugenics movement and was invested in seeing straight culture flourish to advance its racial agenda. Both patriarchy and misogyny rely on each other in order to propagate.
Chapter Three focuses on the examination of pickup artists. Utilizing sociological methods and interviews, Ward chronicles her experience attending the dating coaching sessions as she details the history of the pickup artist industry. Arguably the straight male counterpart to self-help books for straight women, the industry capitalizes on these men’s sense of inadequacy and sexual entitlement. Here, Ward examines the racial aspect of the pickup artist model. Initially based in white male entitlement, the industry was criticized for creating a framework which leads to violence against women. Thus, it attempted to rebrand itself as becoming more racially inclusive and empathetic toward women in response. But this inclusivity goes mostly one way, fostering a camaraderie among straight men, as white femininity remains the ideal for both white and BIPOC men participating in this subculture. At the same time, Ward paints a complex picture of the industry. Now moving away from “negging” or other forms of misogynistic tactics, the industry attempts to foster empathy toward women among the male participants. Nevertheless, it is clear the empathy is fostered not for its own sake, but for the purpose of sex with these women. Ward demonstrates the homosocial aspect of the industry, as it focuses on the intimacy between the male participants, even as the industry is built on the premise of recuperating heterosexuality.
In the second half of the text, Ward maintains that the project to recuperate heterosexuality will never be successful so long as it is rooted in heteronormativity. Now that straight culture has been transformed into a subculture, it is time for it to be pathologized via queer lenses. Positioning queer voices as the authority to diagnose straight culture’s symptoms, Ward’s persona shifts from an academic to a personal one. Writing in a more casual tone, yet still basing her method in academic practices, Ward blends personal anecdotes with an informal survey of queer voices to function as an enlightened ally to straight people trapped in heteronormativity and patriarchy. This bold reorientation is a prelude to the solution Ward offers in Chapter Five: to reorient heterosexuality via queer lenses. In other words, Ward makes a call to straight people, but especially men, to reconceptualize heterosexuality. Instead of basing it on the seemingly insurmountable intrinsic differences between the two genders, straight men should learn to embrace deep heterosexuality—a form of attraction that is based primarily on deep identification with women. As with how lesbian love is based on deep identification between two women, Ward argues, straight men should reorient their desire and attraction in the same manner, embracing it to the point of identification. While this does not guarantee an escape from the tragedy of heterosexuality, Ward argues that it is one way to avert the seemingly inevitable outcome and change the misogynistic structure that threatens heterosexual relationships from within.
Tragedy of Heterosexuality’s strength lies chiefly in its framing of heterosexuality as being constructed. Ward’s move to recast heterosexuality as a subculture allows her to defamiliarize heteronormative rituals that are masqueraded as par for the course. Her choice of archive also enables the readers to track the attempts to keep heterosexuality sustainable in spite of the misogyny and alienation in such relationships. Indeed, Ward’s examination of the self-help books in terms of their ties to white supremacy brings to light the manner in which racism operates in tandem with patriarchy; reproduction and sexuality are always tied to racial ideology. By looking at these institutional attempts to profit off of the gender gulf in heterosexuality, Ward exposes the way in which straight culture is a product of capitalism as much as any other subculture. This framework is a pathway to further Marxist critique, especially in terms of the labor women must perform to make their oppressive condition palatable.
As she recasts straight culture into an alienating subculture, queer subjects are invited to extend their solidarity with straight women in their struggle against straight culture, resulting in a form of coalitional politics through queer lenses, aided by Ward’s mix of academic study and personal anecdotes. But the book’s strength is also its weakness: though the anecdotes and queer critique are sharp and incisive, their personal and casual tone means that they remain vague and inaccessible at times, unclear about how straight culture is alienating to both queer and straight people. Nevertheless, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality is a bold step in the studies of gender and sexuality, broadening the examination of the construction of heterosexuality by exposing the way it is constantly in need of repair.