— Rant Warning — Proceed with caution —
I generally stay away from talking about sexism. Every time I do, I tend to piss off half the planet, so I leave it to people who are far more articulate than I am. However, sometimes something happens that triggers my inner whatever, and I realize that the only way I can stop dwelling on it is by writing it out.
What is it that burned my craw today?
I was innocently reading a book earlier, when I ran across this line: “I must have you.” Of course this was said in a romantic context, a guy saying this to a girl. The girl simpers because oh-the-romance, and I felt my blood boil. This might seem fairly innocent to most people, but I read that line far too often for my comfort.
Every time someone says, “I must have you” I feel like checking the character (inevitably female) for her price tag.
The problem with lines like this is that they are so incredibly subtly degrading; they almost make me physically ill. People aren’t “things” to be had. You cannot “have” me, just like I cannot “have” you. It’s lines like that, peppered throughout the books I read, that make me wonder how badly we are kicking ourselves regarding this whole sexism issue, and most often without even realizing it.
I don’t think people maliciously say these things. I don’t think authors out there are cracking their knuckles and laughing evilly about how they can put phrases that piss of Sarah into their books. I think it just happens. It’s a natural flow of text. Isn’t that a rather sad commentary on our society today? When “I must have you” is a natural flow of dialogue, it says nothing good for any of us.
Yes, this is a short rant that is going roughly nowhere pretty fast, but I wanted to point out that phrase, and I wanted my darling readers to realize why it upsets me so much. We cannot “have” each other. I don’t belong to anyone, and neither do you. The fact that this phrase is almost always said to a woman (who then simpers because it is oh-so-flattering) is icing on the cake. Phrases like this say a lot about society, without saying much at all. The sad truth is most of the time I read this line it is women writing it. Why, my fellow females, please tell me why we shove ourselves, and our characters, in the role of possessions so willingly and so often without noticing it.
Please don’t misinterpret this to mean that I think this is a conscious effort on the part of authors, because it isn’t. I just find this turn of phrase absolutely baffling, and when I start thinking about “I must have you” my mind runs to all the other turns of phrase that amount to the same thing. I don’t think it is romantic, and I don’t think context matters. The truth is, we say these things, not only in books, but also in our daily lives. What does that say about our cultural identity and equality? We have come so far, and have ignored the simple phrases that undermine how far we’ve come. Perhaps the fact that we don’t even usually notice it just makes it more tragic.
So what is the point of this diatribe? I’m not sure. I set out to air my dirty laundry, and I’ve done it. Take whatever away from this that you will. If I’ve offended anyone, I apologize. That wasn’t my goal.
It’s a line that makes me shudder, I have to say. Wouldn’t catch me using it in one of my books. It speaks of obsession, of course, but there are far less cliched and less offensive ways in which to do it. Of course, you’re opening the Fifty Shades can of worms here, Sarah…. At least fifty cans of worms
I read a post similar to this on another blog, involving the phrase, “If you don’t tell me to stop now, I won’t be able to later,” or similar phrases that pop up in romance novels from time to time. The blogger argued that as much as it may seem like consent has to be given, it’s actually pretty creepy and bad because it implies that even if the female character changes her mind five minutes from now, the guy’s not going to give a damn and is just going to keep going after what he wants with no regard for her. And it’s one of those things that I hadn’t considered before, but looking at it like that, yeah, it’s pretty creepy.
As is “I must have you” comments.
I think there’s this notion that if a man is driven by all-consuming passion that he’s out of his right mind and viewing the woman so possessively, that’s a good thing because it means the woman is just that damn desirable. And someone being desirable has equated to female strength in many minds. A woman can’t just be kick-ass as snarky and able to take care of herself. No no, she has to be kick-ass and snarky and able to take care of herself AND drop-dead gorgeous, or else she’s not really anybody worth telling a story about. So the way she makes men want her that badly has become a measure of her strength and worth, and if he wants her so badly he’s looking at her like a thing he needs in order to be satisfied or complete, well, then all the better.
Except that in reality that’s a lousy thought process and stereotype and is actually pretty damaging. :/
What about “I’m yours”?
From a writer’s perspective, this is a really tough default to change. That’s why I’m hoping more writers become aware of it. This is the language of slavery and bodies-as-commodities. Of which women, non-white people and even many poor white people were in this country up until just a couple hundred years ago (and, let’s be real – folks are still out to exploit bodies-as-commodities; plenty of companies still treat their workers like animals). Our language retains those assumptions about power and purchase.
People say to me all the time that our turn-on with domination/submission is natural or innate and that’s why we write these sorts of covetous relationships. But I’d argue that thousands of years of slavery have encouraged us to eroticize these types of unequal relationships because otherwise nobody would have sex. Humans are adaptable creatures, and many people were forced to adapt to inequalities in sexual relationships to the point of even getting off on them. And we continue to perpetuate that in our culture, in our stories, in our language, to such an extent that I think some people aren’t really sure what respectful mutual desire really is, or what it would look like. Every time a man grabs a woman’s arm on TV to stop her from going somewhere, it annoys the crap out of me. What jerk does this? This is the stuff that leads to that rapey scene in Bladerunner where he bullies the replicant into telling him she desires him, so he can feel not-rapey in jumping on her. I remember watching this scene when I was 9 or 10 and feeling deeply uncomfortable about it. Was this the way I was supposed to show my desire? Only by being bullied into it? How was a guy supposed to know if I really desired him, if me not desiring somebody and actually desiring somebody was supposed to look the same?
I’m cool with people doing and saying whatever gets them off, but I’ve gotten to the point where I ask people to at least question why it is that they are writing or reading about alpha males turning them into commodities, and what need or desire that’s really filling. It’s worth thinking about and interrogating, like any inclination we think is purely “natural.” We’re molded a lot more by our societies than we think we are.
And you know, if somebody’s writing SF/F there’s no excuse to not interrogate these kinds of relationships or – more importantly – try to create societies with really different ways of viewing desire and human relationships that are more equal. Because I can tell you, after trying to write one in the project I just finished, I found all sorts of knee-jerk assumptions about consent and touching that I had no idea I possessed. If nothing else, it’s a good exercise for a writer (and hopefully their eventual readers) in how things can be different.
It’s difficult to follow up Kameron’s excellent comment, but the internalization is definitely a problem. We are taught to value ourselves as commodities, and measure our worth by the desire of the opposite sex. This is much more prevalent in women, but in men as well, perpetuated by other men (“how many women have you *had*? VIRGIN!, etc) .
I do my best to express this kind of need and desire without possessive cues, but I rarely write about healthy relationships, so even without dialogue, it is there. Many people base their esteem level on their partner. Is he a hottie? Is she a trophy? And so on. There is love, but the valuation is still there, because it is reinforced every day by our materialist culture: You are what you drive, where you work, where you live, what you own, and who you marry.
Does this mean we have to mirror it and reinforce it in fiction? Of course not. I think that sometimes it’s just a shortcut, and obviously it’s one that should be avoided. There are a myriad of ways to express love and desire without ownership or objectification. We do it every day.