It’s Not Feminism That’s Ruining Romance: A Fresh Spin on Dating

Samhita Mukhopadhyay talks about her new book, the shift in women's traditional roles, and what straight people can learn from the queer community when it comes to dating expectations.

By Noelle de la Paz Nov 17, 2011

In her new book "Outdated: Why Dating Is Ruining Your Love Life," Executive Editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay takes everything you may have read in "Cosmo" or seen on "The Bachelor" and tosses it out the window, but not without first breaking it down with candor and a sense of humor. So much more than a dating book, this is a how-to manual for today’s smart, progressive, self-aware woman, as in: how to undo the damage done by traditional dating advice, challenge gender expectations and deepen our understanding of radical love.

Responding to the barrage of conflicting messages about what women should want from relationships and how they should go about getting it, "Outdated" points a finger at obsolete notions about men and women’s innate differences, debunks popular dating myths, and reveals how feminism is not killing romance; rather, with awareness and persistence, it can only help our relationships. talked with her about finding her voice, the shift in women’s traditional roles, and what straight people can learn from the queer community when it comes to dating expectations.

The genre of self-help dating books and magazine columns is very popular in mainstream media. Why did you, as a feminist of color, decide this was an important discussion to have?

I think that a lot of self-help books actually might be in the mainstream, but I do feel like a lot of people of color are drawn to self-help sections of bookstores as well. If anything there’s this assumption that self-help sections are a little bit more "lowbrow" so it really impacts not just necessarily mainstream audiences but more audiences that may not be considered super hip, or the most media savvy, or may not have a ton of access to other types of resources and support structures, that are drawn to the self-help section of the bookstore.

And also people that have experienced trauma, it’s a really personal thing, it’s a much more private experience than coming out and talking to a friend about something, or seeking help which is often expensive. So I just felt like there was this silent ticking bomb of bad information that was reaching really vulnerable populations.

Could you talk a little bit about your process in deciding to write this book, and actually writing it. What challenges did you come across?

Writing a book is really hard. But something that I guess I haven’t really spoken about is that as a woman of color first generation immigrant, a South Asian immigrant, I grew up in a predominantly middle class to working class white suburban town, and I wasn’t a particularly good student. That isn’t really what’s understood as the Asian American or South Asian American experience. So I had really internalized this belief that I was not intelligent, because my peers within my ethnic community were incredibly successful academically and I didn’t have that same kind of success.

I took a really derivative path to finding my voice. Many years of Women’s Studies education and having really amazing mentors over the years helped me cultivate my voice, but the rubber kind of hit the road in the book writing process. I had to face my demons that I had really internalized this belief that I wasn’t intelligent and that I didn’t have something smart to say. Overcoming that was probably the biggest obstacle in writing a book or even being a woman of color public intellectual, of saying, "What I have to say has legitimacy" despite the fact that I am internalizing the [idea] that I am not legitimate.

We’ve recently looked at how there’s a whole industry devoted to telling women, especially women of color, that they’re doing something wrong. This idea of women being blamed is also something that comes up in your book. How does your book flip that idea on its head?

Part of the [reason] that women are blamed for declining relationships is because up until this moment in history, or even in the last thirty years, it was just assumed that men could do whatever they wanted and women had to compensate for that and they were the people that held family together. There was this inordinate amount of pressure on women to remedy any marital problems, to make sure there’s food on the dinner table so that the family is communicating in the evening, to make sure of any kind of religious education or any kind of cultural education. All of that has directly tied into it the identity of being a woman in the family.

And so we have this huge demographic shift where that is not necessarily the role that women play. They may play that role but they’re also playing a variety of other roles and deserve the equality and freedom to express all of those roles to their heart’s desire. So I think that recognizing how it’s a social pressure really shifts how we look at the family unit and also shifts the focus to how are men involved in creating relationships, in supporting family structures, in maintaining tradition. What is their role in it and how do we shift the focus? Do we abandon a normative family structure? We are in a completely new place right now so how do we move forward? That’s the main question that I’m asking.

When we think about what other voices to consider, how important is it that our understanding of heterosexual dating be informed by the evolving discourse on LGBT issues?

So, I’m trained as an academic feminist, which I think is pretty clear throughout the book. I reference a lot of academic work that I define. I use a lot of academic terms which I feel really capture this experience of what I see as coming out of queer theory. And what I saw in queer theory was this tremendous potential of de-centering what we understand as normal when it comes to sexuality, and applying that to the way that we’re dating as straight people, because I felt like that was the missing link. That all of this advice was hindering on the belief that all men act one way and all women act another way. These kind of stereotypes become that much more more exaggerated when it’s like: all black women act this way and all black men act this way, and all Asian men act this way and Asian women act this way–stereotypes that reproduce themselves over and over.

I do think looking at the way that the gay rights movement has shifted the focus from what’s considered a normal relationship and what’s considered an acceptable and suitable partner has marginally shifted what’s acceptable. But the question really is, has it exaggerated the heteronormative structure because there’s such a deep resistance to this "threat to the American family"? Has it almost become exaggerated now, if you look at this overemphasis on white weddings–even through reality television, we are in this fantasy, exaggerated, obsessed, consumed culture–or is the next ten to twenty years as most of us in our 30s and 20s are going to see gay marriage become legal, is it actually going to shift the conversation to include a broader spectrum of sexual and relationship experiences?