I’ve finished reading Sally Rooney’s most recent novel, Beautiful World, Where are you? It turned out to be much better than I expected – as an early adopter of Conversations with Friends (‘read it – and loved it – before it was cool’), but have subsequently found Normal People quite flat – by which I mean I spent most of the first half struggling, but found the very last bits actually quite good. In an intervening visit to The Bound, I also picked up one of Rooney’s short stories, Mr Salary, and read it on the metro back from Whitley Bay.
I became intrigued by the ‘good boy’ characters of both – Simon in Beautiful World, Nathan in Mr Salary. For context (and hopefully without too many spoilers), Simon is the childhood friend-cum-paramour of Eileen, who is the best friend of Alice (BW’s narrator, and Rooney’s likely alter-ego); Nathan, the titular character of Mr Salary, is clearly a character study for Simon, and in a similar – avuncular – relationship to the story’s narrator. Both Simon and Nathan are older than their (potential) girlfriends in sufficient amounts to make the relationship illegal or at least slightly predatory when they first meet, but also to hold it as a realistic and thus increasingly tantalizing promise once they have grown up a bit. But neither men are predatory creeps; in fact, exactly the opposite. They are kind, understanding, unfailingly supportive, and forever willing to come back to their volatile, indecisive, self-doubting, and often plainly unreliable women.
Who are these fantastic men? Here is an almost perfect reversal of the traditional romance portrayal of gender roles – instead of unreliable, egotistic, unsure-about-their-own-feelings-and-how-to-demonstrate-them guys, we are getting more-or-less the same, but with girls, with the men providing a reliable safe haven from which they can weather their emotional, professional, and sexual storms. This, of course, is not to deny that women can be as indecisive and as fickle as the stereotypical ‘Bad Boys’ of toxic romance; it’s to wonder what this kind of role reversal – even in fantasy, or the para-fantasy para-ethnography that is contemporary literature – does.
On the one hand, men like Simon and Nathan may seem like godsend to anyone who has ever gone through the cycle of emotional exhaustion connected to relationships with people who are, purely, assholes. (I’ve been exceptionally lucky in this regard, insofar as my encounters with the latter kind were blissfully few; but sufficient to be able to confirm that this kind does, indeed, exist in the wild). I mean, who would not want a man who is reliable, supportive of your professional ambitions, patient, organized, good in bed, and does laundry (yours included)? Someone who could withstand your emotional rollercoasters *and* buy you a ticket home when you needed it – and be there waiting for you? Almost like a personal assistant, just with the emotions involved.
And here, precisely, is the rub. For what these men provide is not a model of a partnership; it’s a model of a parent. The way they relate to the women characters – and, obviously, the narrative device of age difference amplifies this – is less that of a partner and more of a benevolent older brother or, in a (n only slight) paraphrase of Winnicott, a good-enough father.
In Daddy Issues, Katherine Angel argues that feminism never engaged fully with the figure of the father – other than as the absent, distant or mildly (or not so mildly) violent and abusive figure. But somewhere outside the axis between Sylvia Plath’s Daddy and Valerie Solanas’ SCUM manifesto is the need to define exactly what the role of the father is once it is removed from its dual shell of object of hate/object of love. Is there, in fact, a role at all?
I have been thinking about this a lot, not only in relation to the intellectual (and political) problem of relationality in theory/knowledge production practices – what Sara Ahmed so poignantly summarized as ‘can one not be in relation to white men?’ – but also personally. Having grown up effectively without a father (who was also unknown to me in my early childhood), what, exactly, was the Freudian triangle going to be in my case? (no this does not mean I believe the Electra complex applies literally; if you’re looking to mansplain psychoanalytic theory, I’d strongly urge you to reconsider, given I’ve read Freud at the age of 13 and have read post-Freudians since; I’d also urge you to read the following paragraph and consider how it relates to the legacies of Anna Freud/Melanie Klein divide, something Adam Philips writes about).
In the domain of theory, claims of originality (or originarity, as in coining or discovering something) is nearly always attributed to men, women’s contributions almost unfailingly framed in terms of ‘application or elaboration of *his* ideas’ or ‘[minor] contribution to the study’ (I’ve written about this in the cases of Sartre/de Beauvoir and Robert Merton/Harriet Zuckerman’s the ‘Matthew Effect’, but other examples abound). As Marilyn Frye points out in “Politics of reality”, the force of genealogy does not necessarily diminish even for those whose criticism of patriarchy extends to refusing anything to do with men altogether; Frye remarks having observed many a lesbian separatist still asking to be recognized – intellectually and academically – by the white men ‘forefathers’ who sit on academic panels. The shadow of the father is a long one. For those of us who have chosen to be romantically involved with men, and have chosen to work in patriarchal mysoginistic institutions that the universities surely are, not relating to men at all is not exactly an option.
It is from this perspective that I think we’d benefit from a discussion on how men can be reliable partners without turning into good-enough daddies, because – as welcome and as necessary as this role sometimes is, especially for women whose own fathers were not – it is ultimately not a relationship between two adults. I remember reading an early feminist critique of the Bridget Jones industry that really hit the nail on the head: it was not so much Jones’ dedication to all things ‘60s and ‘70s feminism abhorred – obsession with weight loss and pursuit of ill-advised men (i.e. Daniel Cleaver); it was even more that when ‘Mr Right’ (Mark Darcy, the barely disguised equivalent of Austen’s Mr Darcy) arrives, he still falls for Bridget – despite the utter absence of anything from elementary competence at her job to the capacity to feed herself in any form that departs from binge eating to recommend her to a seemingly top-notch human rights attorney. Which really begs the question: what is Mr Darcy seeing in Bridget?
Don’t get me wrong: I am sure that there are men who are attracted to the chaotic, manic-pixie-who-keeps-losing-her-credit-card kind of girl. Regardless of what manifestation or point on the irresponsibility spectrum they occupy, these women certainly play a role for such men – allowing them to feel useful, powerful, respected, even perhaps feeding a bit their saviour complex. But ultimately, playing this role leaves these men entirely outside of the relationship; if the only way they relate to their partners is by reacting (to their moods, their needs, their lives), this ultimately absolves them of equal responsibility for the relationship. Sadly, there is a way to avoid equal division of the ‘mental load’ even while doing the dishes.
And I am sure this does something for the women in question too; after all, there is nothing wrong in knowing that there *is* going to be someone to pick you up if you go out and there are no taxis to get you back home, who will always provide a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, seemingly completely irrespectively of their own needs (Simon is supposed to have a relatively high-profile political job, yet, interestingly, never feels tired when Ellaine calls or offers to come over). But what at first seems like a fantasy come true – a reliable man who is not afraid to show his love and admiration – can quickly turn into a somewhat toxic set of interdependencies: why, for instance, learn to drive if someone is always there to pick you up and drop you off? (honestly: even among the supposedly-super-egalitarian straight partnerships I know, the number of men drivers vastly outstrips that of women). The point is not to always insist on being a jack-of-all-trades (nor on being the designated driver), as much as to realize that most kinds of freedom (for instance, the freedom to drink when out) embed a whole set of dependencies (for instance, dependence on urban networks of taxis/Ubers or kind self-effacing mensaviours there to pick you up – in Cars’ slightly creepy formulation, drive you home).
Of course, as Simone de Beauvoir recognized, there is no freedom without dependency. We cannot, simply, will ourselves free without willing the same for others; but, at the same time, we cannot will them to be free, as this turns them into objects. In Ethics of Ambiguity – one of the finest books of existentialist philosophy – de Beauvoir turns this into the main conundrum (thus: source of ambiguity) for how to act ethically. Acknowledging our fundamental reliance on others does not mean we need to remain locked into the same set of interdependencies (e.g., we could build safe and reliable public transport and then we would not have to rely on people to drive us home?), but it also does not mean we need to kick out of them by denying or reversing their force – not least because it, ultimately, does not work.
The idea that gender equality, especially in heterosexual partnerships, benefits from the reversal of the trope of the uncommitted, eternally unreliable bachelor in the way that tips the balance in an entirely opposite direction (other than for very short periods of time, of course) strikes me as one of the manifestations of the long tail of post- or anti-feminist backlash – admittedly, a mild and certainly less harmful one than, for instance, the idea that feminism means ‘women are better than men’ or that feminists seek to eliminate men from politics, work, or anything else (both, worryingly, have filtered into public discourse). It also strikes me that the long-suffering Sacrificial Men who have politely taken shit from their objects of affection can all-too-easily be converted into Men’s Rights Activists or incels if and when their long suffering fails to yield results – for instance, when their Manic Pixie leaves with someone with a spine (not a Bad Boy, just a man with boundaries) – or when they realize that the person they have been playing Good Daddy to has finally grown up and left home.