As a young woman, author Mary Harrington went by “Sebastian” online. Now she argues that the ability of young adults to be whoever they want in the non-physical confines of the internet is affecting how they view reality.
“If you look at the prevalence of cross-sex identification in young people and the arrival of the mass adoption of smartphones … it’s not a coincidence that they both happened at the same time,” says Harrington, author of the new book “Feminism Against Progress.”
“I mean, if you’re under 20 now, or certainly or even under 25, chances are you spent a fair amount of your youth interacting with others in this disembodied world and creating selves for yourself that were radically detached from your physiological self and your embodied self and all the relationships and the constraints that come with that.”
That perhaps is fueling Gen Z’s interest in transgenderism.
The birth control pill also affected how we looked at medical treatments and our bodies.
The contraceptive pill “doesn’t fix something that’s broken, like a medication to treat a kidney which isn’t working properly,” says Harrington, adding: “It breaks something that’s working, in line with the desires of the individual who wants to turn off their ability to conceive.”
“Once you’ve accepted in principle that we can upgrade normal, when it comes to women’s reproductive physiology, why should we not extend that, for example, into people remodeling their bodies in line with their inner identity?” she asks.
In her interview with “The Daily Signal Podcast,” Harrington also discusses “Big Romance,” coming to peace with your body, and “Meat Lego Gnosticism.” Listen to the interview, or read the lightly edited transcript:
Katrina Trinko: Joining me today is Mary Harrington, the author of the new book “Feminism Against Progress.” Mary, thanks for joining “The Daily Signal Podcast.”
Mary Harrington: Thank you so much for having me.
Trinko: All right. So. I just want to say that I really enjoyed your book. It’s very thought-provoking, had me underlining a lot of things. When it came to this podcast, I really wasn’t sure where to begin, but you have to begin somewhere. So I wanted to ask you, you write a bit about your online life as a young woman, including, I don’t know if posing is the right word, but acting as a man named Sebastian. Tell me about that and how it affects your views on sex and transgenderism.
Harrington: Well, for the avoidance of doubt, I don’t know that I ever exactly identified as a man.
Trinko: My apologies.
Harrington: No, no, no. It’s fine. I mean, it was kind of ambiguous in the book, but I did change my name to Sebastian for a while. I went by Sebastian, and then, mostly to see what it felt like.
Harrington: I think it’s, in a way that’s kind of hard to convey now, it was part of a whole vibe that I felt very strongly in the ’90s where social media was just happening, Web 2.0 was just happening. I was right there. I founded a web startup, and I was very involved in the London end of that tech explosion and was just really excited by it, because it felt like something very new and very thrilling was happening.
It really felt, for a little while, that we could just create our own realities. That was something that just really spoke to me, and it felt really appealing to me, and as so much of my 20-something life was about just experimenting with how far you can take that.
Actually, the quote that springs to mind—I don’t know if you remember that famous quote from the White House aide after 9/11, where he said, “We’re an empire now and we create our own reality.” Do you remember that?
Trinko: I do not remember that.
Harrington: Somebody was saying, “Well, you know this is—” Yeah, we create our own reality and you just respond as you will, and then we’ll act again, and you’ll create your own reality again.
There was this real sense that what was actually there and what was real had come adrift and could just be remade at will, through sheer willpower or sheer energy somehow, at least that was what I kind of wanted to be true. And I just wanted to see how far I could take it—not all the way into changing my sex, as it turned out.
As it also turned out, and this is something I’ve reflected on a lot since, I didn’t actually enjoy changing my name because it felt strange to ask people who had known me with my actual, with my name-name for so long to perceive me otherwise than the way they already did. That felt like I was asking something of them which wasn’t really—it wasn’t really mine to ask because their perceptions of them belong to them and not to me.
But again, I mean, this is all kind of—we’re some way off the usual kind of cultural territory, I guess, for transgenderism. But … I mean, this was the heart of it for me. Just how far can you take creating your own reality? How much can you ask of other people to change of their own perceptions and their own experiences of you? How far can you ask people to perceive you differently to the way they already perceive you? And how much of that is actually under my control? These were all questions I was really preoccupied with.
Gender, I suppose, or sex and gender, was only one of the fields that I found that I was exploring that in. Most of my interests were in digital art and experimental community building and political protests, and all manner of fields where people were hellbent on pushing reality in one direction or another. That was just a terrain that felt very interesting to me.
Trinko: Right. And I do think it’s interesting because it seems like technology has allowed us to play with this for, perhaps, the first time in human history.
Trinko: I think I was online a lot as a teenager. I mean, I’m still online a lot, but there was this sense of like these people don’t know my family. They don’t know me. Generally, I don’t think I ever had photos online as a teenager, and there was a sense of like I can maybe not quite be anyone I want to, but I can sort of define myself in a way that—
Harrington: Yes. Exactly, exactly. It felt incredibly liberating, just genuinely very freeing. You know, there’s the joke about, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog or actually, actually a young, moon-faced woman, as I was then, rather than this sort of glamorous, Oscar Wilde figure that I fancied myself as and kind of playacted at being.
Yeah, there was something so liberating about just being able to create a self or a persona that was detached from all of the baggage that you bring with you, just inevitably, as you accumulate real-life connections and real-world friends and a reputation and a track record in life in everyday offline life.
Trinko: It’s just interesting to think about whether some of this transgender stuff is just, as I think you put it, or I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but if it’s sort of the logical conclusion of that, in some ways.
Harrington: Well, I feel it’s very connected. I mean, there have been people who sought to present as the opposite sex prior to the existence of the internet, so it’s obviously not the only factor, but I do think it’s acted as an accelerant.
If you look at the prevalence of cross-sex identification in young people and the arrival of the mass adoption of smartphones, it’s pretty much, pretty much—it’s not a coincidence that they both happened at the same time. I think the internet has acted as an accelerant. It’s a point I’ve made in one or two places.
I mean, if you’re under 20 now, or certainly or even under 25, chances are you spent a fair amount of your youth interacting with others in this disembodied world and creating selves for yourself that were radically detached from your physiological self and your embodied self and all the relationships and the constraints that come with that.
I can see why there’s this intergenerational tension in how people perceive the question of gender ideology, and older men and women say, “Well, no, of course you can’t change your sex,” because we remember the before times, where it was just taken for granted that this was just a given and embodiment and selfhood were broadly the same thing. Even if you didn’t like that, it was just, “Suck it up.”
But I think if you’ve grown up with an experience of selfhood, and perhaps your primary experience of sociality is this disembodied one if you spend a lot of time in Minecraft or whatever rather than in playgrounds or around at other people’s houses, this again tracks the statistics.
Kids and young people interact a great deal more in digital domains now rather than in real life and outdoor play and outdoor roughhousing. … Free ranginess for children has deteriorated over the last 20 years, concurrently as internet sociality has accelerated.
Perhaps it’s no wonder that they see it as a question of natural justice that you should be able to apply the same rubric of disembodied self at first in what the kids would call meat space, or some of them anyway.
Trinko: Along those lines, you write about detransitioners. Detransitioners, of course, are people who have had some sort of gender transition and then ended up deciding that they didn’t want to transition. You write that detransitioners highlight the great lie of, I think you call it Meat Lego Gnosticism. Is that the term?
Harrington: That’s right. That’s right.
Trinko: Very fun. Mainly, the great lie is that we can be freed from dependence on our bodies and, implicitly, one another. Can you unpack this a little bit?
Harrington: OK. I’ll start with Meat Lego. I mean, it’s kind of self-explanatory, this idea that our bodies are not integrated wholes and exist as a gestalt, that they’re somehow an assemblage of parts that can be disassembled and reassembled and remodeled at will, like bits of Lego.
It’s kind of a gross idea when you put it like that, but that idea that we can be disassembled and reassembled at will is implicitly present in a great deal of the positive cases for transgenderism, where people are saying, “I should—”
Indeed, the language used by the surgeons who do this. I remember there’s Johanna Olson-Kennedy, I believe her name is. She’s a well-known/notorious, depending on who you ask, pediatric gender clinician, who gave a talk some time ago, where she said, she’s talking about radical double mastectomies for adolescent girls who identify as male, and she’s saying, “Well, and if you decide later on you want breasts, well, you can just go get some.”
Those of us who’ve had children and who’ve breastfed are like, “Hang on a minute. That’s not really how it works.” Breasts, like plastic implant, silicon implants, and the kind of breasts that I used to feed my daughter are not the same. And this woman who’s saying, “Oh, you can just go get some,” as if you can just place—I’m gesturing at my body in this ridiculous way—as though you can just click bits in and click bits out.
Harrington: It’s just not true. It’s just not true. Because of this falsehood, which has now been so widely embraced, there are a great many young people with irreversible scars. I mean, Abigail Shrier has written very powerful a book about this, “Irreversible Damage.”
Trinko: Mm-hmm. So you think it carries into when we start viewing our bodies this way and not depending on them, we also have trouble with dependence in our personal relationships? Or did I—maybe I’m putting words in your mouth again.
Harrington: I guess that I probably come at this from a slightly different direction.
Harrington: I mean, I’ve characterized the aggregate effect of setting out to master and also, along with it, commodify the human body and human emotional and social spaces as a kind of war on relationships, which is to say, to the extent that we can remodel or control or master aspects of our human nature or our human physiology, we’re also not existing interdependently with others in those realities.
If I say I can be a man—let’s say, I say I can be Sebastian. Actually, that’s probably a good illustration of what I experience as the limits to that and where, really, the interdependence that I advocate for comes into radical tension with this Meat Lego vision of who we are and what we can do.
Let’s say I want to go by Sebastian and let’s say I want people to perceive me or respond to me as if I were the opposite sex. I have to ask everybody who has known me since I was a baby to completely remodel their internal aggregate understanding of who I am and then, too, to address me and engage with me in the terms that I choose and not the terms that they choose. Bluntly, I just think that’s too big of an ask. …
There’s something deeply disturbed about imagining about this fantasy that you can reach into somebody else’s perceptions and reorder them in line with how you want to be perceived. There’s something just profoundly—it’s a basic mistake. You can’t do that. It’s not possible because you can’t control what other people think.
What it recalls to me, actually, is my experience with very young children, where they haven’t quite figured out yet that the world isn’t an extension of their own ego and so they’ll expect other people to know what they want before they want it, or they’ll get really angry because you’re not doing the thing, whatever the thing is, and they won’t tell you what the thing is.
That sense that the world is just an extension of my selfhood is developmentally inappropriate for an adult, I think we should say. And there’s something very strange going on when that seems to have become normalized as not just an appropriate way to expect other people to interact with me, but also a matter of social justice that you should perceive me in the way that I wish to be perceived.
In order to ask that of you, in asking you to do that, I’m refusing to grant you any space to form your own relationship to me. So in a sense … it wages war on any possibility of us having a relationship. As such, it wages war on the possibility of existing in interdependence and in relationship because I refuse to accept the possibility that you might see me differently to the way I want to be seen myself.
I mean, this all seems very metaphysical, but what I see in the rage, the rage and the distress that’s expressed by people, for example, when they’re misgendered—there’s the famous video clip of the very tall male yelling, “It’s ma’am!” I’m sure you know the one I’m talking about.
There’s something going on there, where this individual is just furious. He’s furious because he’s not being perceived in a way that he wishes to be perceived and it’s just not possible. Despite that, it’s not possible for me to look at that individual and think, “This is a woman.” It’s just not possible. And yeah, and there’s this sort of narcissistic rage that erupts.
I don’t know. … I don’t think it’s right just to say, “You’re being a narcissist and you should do better.” I think that something’s fundamentally broken in how people are growing up. I’m not sure I fully understand what it is. I have some speculations about what might be contributing to it, but I think there’s something fundamentally broken about the way we’re teaching people to expect the world to respond to them, if this is now becoming widespread.
Trinko: … Yes. I’m not the biggest fan of metaphysics, but I don’t think you can avoid them in some of these conversations.
Putting aside transgenderism, you talk a lot about embodiment in the book. Of course, I think for women in feminism, embodiment is such a huge, I don’t know, source of conflict, I would say.
Women’s magazines are endlessly about dieting or fat positivity, which seem to be opposite extremes that are both problematic. You see Instagram where even people like the Kardashians are using filters galore.
Also, speaking of the Kardashians, you have this whole culture of cosmetic surgery and procedures, and even I feel like I’m hearing more and more, like, “Well, you can’t be a professional woman, even in your 20s and 30s, and not use a little bit of Botox.”
I mean, that’s a lot of things to throw at you, but feminism, embodiment, all these different things going on, how do women deal with it?
Harrington: If I’m completely honest, I think if we’re going to be consistent and we’re going to say transgenderism, that that’s a misuse of medical technology, then I would say, to be coherent, we have to extend that to cosmetic procedures. …
I mean, I don’t think you can reasonably stop people wearing makeup, but once it comes to invasive medical procedures, I mean, … it makes no sense to me that we should be cool with mums giving their daughters breast augmentation for their 16th birthday and not be cool with mums giving their daughters breast removal for their 16th birthday. I mean, at the end of the day, what really is the difference?
I suppose you could make the case that at least breast augmentation bears some kind of a relationship to a sort of normative understanding of what a young woman looks like and, as such, it’s not quite so aggressively antinormativity. The conservative case for breast implants is not one I particularly want to make. To me, they all fall under the order of Meat Lego.
Trinko: How do women respond to this culture? How do they deal with these pressures?
Harrington: It’s incredibly hard. I mean, I didn’t want to be embodied and I didn’t want to be a woman for so long. I mean, I don’t think I’d have changed my name to Sebastian if I wasn’t deeply ambivalent about being female. It really wasn’t until I became a mother that I saw any of the upsides of being female at all. Up until that point, it had just seemed to be all downside.
People are more likely to perceive you as being dumb or frivolous. You’re less physically strong. You’re potentially at greater risk of sexual harassment or of other forms of violence, yada-yada-yada-yada. There’s a thousand and one ways that there are obvious downsides to being female.
Particularly by the time I was a young woman in the late 1990s, there wasn’t a whole lot of chivalry left, and such chivalry as there was, I was fairly kind of, again, uncomfortable and defensive about because it felt as condescending as it did welcoming.
Given all of this, the idea that actually I might go the other way and lean into being female and lean into being embodied as a woman would’ve felt incredibly counterintuitive to me as an early 20-something. I’d have recurring nightmares about accidental pregnancy. There seemed to be nothing really great about it at all.
I can’t really say what changed, except that it became gradually, very, very slowly apparent to me, over the course of my 20s and beyond, that I was just less nuts the harder I worked at being at peace in my body. … I didn’t really start with my reproductive physiology. That just started with going to yoga classes and doing Couch to 5K and going running a lot, trying to live a healthy, normal life.
It just became slowly apparent to me that being at peace with the body, which I, at the end of the day, couldn’t really escape—no matter how much time I spent in the internet, eventually I’d still get hungry, I would need to sleep, and there you are again. Wherever you are, there you are, still inextricable from your body, no matter how hard you have tried to escape it.
Harrington: Eventually, I was, “OK, fine. OK, we’ve just got to—we’re going to do this.” Well, what’s the movie where the two convicts are shackled together?
Trinko: I don’t know. I’m terrible with pop culture.
Harrington: It’s an old movie. It’s a comedy. These are two unlikely characters, who escape from prison, but they’re handcuffed together, and hijinks ensue. Anyway, that was a bit how it felt at the time. It was not a very happy relationship, but I was like, “OK, fine. We’re going to do this. We’re going to do this.”
Trinko: It’s interesting to me that yoga and running and being with your body and noticing the hunger is what led to, again, just sort of to your theme of being out of the digital world and into the physical.
Trinko: That’s where the healing, it sounds like, occurred.
Harrington: Yeah, absolutely. I found it very striking that in Abigail’s book “Irreversible Damage” she describes one detransitioner, a young woman who identified as the opposite sex, and who recovered.
She desisted, and she desisted because her parents, they basically unplugged her from the internet, and they took her to live on a horse farm for six months. Instead of spending all of this time doomscrolling with young trans influencers showing off their chest scars and whatever, instead she was out in the fields, and she was cleaning the horses, and she was embodied and active and doing something offline in the real world. By the end of that, she was like—she was fine. She was fine being as she was again.
… The pull the digital world exerts on all of us, inciting us and inviting us away from presence in the place where we are, is so phenomenally strong. I mean, if you think you can be sat at dinner and your phone will go ping and there’s always the temptation to reach for it.
We have a blanket ban on phones at mealtimes in the house. We have various—the constraints pretty much escalate on a six-month basis because as more time goes on, we realize that it’s directly inimical to family life. It’s directly inimical to just being present and being together. Really, I mean, the most wonderful times I have with my family at home are when we’re all digging the garden together. I seek that out very intentionally.
Trinko: That sounds very idyllic. …
Harrington: Yeah, just that. And to round the thought off in the other direction, those people I know who are extremely online, and I can’t lie, I’m one of them—I mean, I say all of this about the internet with a kind of ambivalent love because I love the internet and I’ve been extremely online for 20 years.
Everybody I know who’s anywhere as online as me also has an extreme physical practice of some kind. A lot of the men lift. Some of the women lift, too. I run a lot and I have a very strict rule for myself that, if I’m out running, I’m not allowed to stop and photograph the landscape and then tweet about it, absolutely verboten.
Trinko: So, you really have to live in the moment when you’re running.
Harrington: Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And it’s not possible to scroll and run. It’s just not physically possible. Everybody I know who’s extremely online and not barking mad does something like that. What it is varies from person to person.
I think, inasmuch as we’re going to be able to resist that siren song of disembodiment, which leads to the … to come to a very long way around to having unpacked Meat Lego to unpack the Gnosticism bit—I mean, I’ve borrowed that from, it’s not strictly narcissism, but at the risk of going down a theology rabbit hole, the Gnostics were a bunch of early Christian sects who thought that the material world was bad and evil.
I don’t view the contemporary revulsion with the physical world and the longing to escape into digital realms as strictly Gnosticism in the ancient sense, but it shares, it has in common with the ancient Gnosticism a distaste for the real world.
And so I’ve borrowed the term Gnosticism along with this idea of Meat Lego to characterize this sort of coming apart of the human person into radically reassemblable bits of meat and a disembodied selfhood, which I see is just now being largely normalized through the culture. The most visible and controversial aspect of that is transgenderism, but it’s by no means confined to that. Once you start seeing it, you see it everywhere.
Trinko: You write a lot about the pill and how it affected history and feminism and women and men’s relationships. I’m curious as to what are your overall thoughts about it? If you could wave a wand and either have the pill created or not created, what would you do?
Harrington: I mean, that’s sort of counterfactual, as I don’t know. We are where we are at the end of the day, as they say in the foreign office.
The pill, I’ve argued a few times, is the first transhumanist moment. When you say transhumanism, most people will imagine humans with cyborg eyes or the Terminator or people grafting robot arms onto themselves or giving themselves tentacles or whatever, like very sci-fi stuff, but actually, the reality of transhumanism is very much more banal. It’s any medical technology that we use to upgrade ourselves rather than fix something that’s gone wrong with normal.
I mean, everybody has a pretty good gestalt sense of what normal looks like for a human being. I mean, kids have that by the time they’re 2 or 3. Most parents will know the embarrassing moment where your kid points out somebody who’s deviated from that normal on the street. You know what I’m talking about?
Trinko: Oh, yes.
Harrington: “Mummy, look at that man!”
Harrington: Exactly. That’s a gestalt that normal people put together very early on. … The transhumanist vision is that that’s not the end. That’s just a starting point. That’s the floor. The ceiling isn’t really there, and we can and should use any technologies at our disposal, as we see fit, to improve on the gestalt that a toddler would be able to recognize on the street.
The contraceptive pill does that. It doesn’t fix something that’s broken, like a medication to treat a kidney which isn’t working properly. It breaks something that’s working, in line with the desires of the individual who wants to turn off their ability to conceive.
I’ve argued in “Feminism Against Progress” that this is a radical paradigm shift in what we understand medicine to be. Really, a great many of the biological technologies, which are so controversial, particularly among conservatives, are downstream of that moment because once you’ve accepted in principle that we can upgrade normal, when it comes to women’s reproductive physiology, why should we not extend that, for example, into people remodeling their bodies in line with their inner identity?
I mean, it’s hard, really, to see, why should we stop there? Why should we not continue? Why should we not treat normal sex dimorphism as a medical problem in need of solutions and create in vitro gametogenesis so that two people of the same sex can have a child that they’re both genetically related to? Why not?
At the end of the day, if the human normal is a problem to be solved, then, in theory, there’s nowhere you can’t go with it.
I think it’s very easy to get stuck on the trans issue, but to my eye, the biotech innovators who fund a lot of gender ideology and the people who are propagating the legal changes which support gender ideology and gender identity over sex dimorphism don’t massively care about the people who suffer immense distress because they feel that their gender identity is not aligned with their physiology.
They don’t actually care about those people. If they cared about those people, they’d be throwing as much money at helping detransitioners as well as transitioners.
Your expressive, your desire to medicalize your expressive options only works in one direction. If actually what you want is medical help returning to normal, then you’re on your own. Good luck with that.
I think what I see going on there, the bigger picture, again, it’s very much more banal than the kind of sci-fi vision of transhumanism. It’s more about deregulating or delegitimizing the idea of human normal as a precursor to deregulating the human body and opening it up to commerce.
Trinko: A lot of food for thought there. To pivot a little bit, I did want to ask you about the concept that you call Big Romance in your book. I found it very interesting, as someone in my 30s who’s dated online for many years, had a lot of friends who have issues. I have a great boyfriend right now, but this is the calm amidst the storm. What are your thoughts on how we’re pursuing romantic relationships these days?
Harrington: Well, I should qualify everything I say by saying I’ve been on the shelf for well over a decade. I’ve been happily married for a decade.
Harrington: Yeah. It’s the most life-changing, wonderful thing that ever happened to me. I very deliberately don’t talk about the nuts and bolts of my, the inner workings of my family life because it doesn’t just belong to me. It’s not really mine to share with the public. But I will say that it was the most life-changing, wonderful, transformative thing for me, and I highly recommend marriage to anybody.
Trinko: OK, great. So happy endings can happen.
Harrington: Happy endings do exist. Really, I was dating, really only at the beginning of online dating. … Back when I was still single, it was kind of embarrassing to have met your partner online. That was very much an outlier situation.
Trinko: Now it’s like meeting someone in real life is the weird thing.
Harrington: Yeah. What? Really?
Trinko: Why would someone approach you at a bar? That’s so creepy.
Harrington: So much so, in fact, that I gather from friends with teenage kids that it’s considered a radical no-no to date among your friendship pool. It’s completely socially unacceptable. It’s not allowed.
Trinko: It’s complicated.
Harrington: Right. I was like, “What? What? This is the—but, but, but, but, but, but, what?” Yeah, I don’t even know where to start with that.
But yeah, I mean, Big Romance, as I’ve characterized it—well, I think we probably need to dive a little bit into the history. The first part of the book, I spent quite a while looking at the broad social and cultural impacts of the Industrial Revolution on family life and on family formation.
I wrote a whole chapter about, well, about how we ended up with this idea that sex could be a marketplace. I took that all the way back to the 18th century, which was the first time—this actually started, just to give some context, I became very, very preoccupied with this question: Is sex a marketplace? … Because it seemed to me, intuitively, that this is a category error. Sex is not a marketplace.
And so I looked at—you know Google Ngram? It’s a Google tool that you can use to scan Google’s entire digitized archive and look at the prevalence of a term over time.
I was like, when did people start talking about sexual marketplaces? I looked it up and … it turns out that the term wasn’t a thing before the 1960s. I thought, “Huh, interesting. OK, so we can date that to approximately the arrival of the birth control pill, the idea that sex is a marketplace, which tracks. I’ll come back to that.”
Then I was like, are there other terms, other cognate terms sort of in the same sort of contextual ballpark that I should look up, as well? Then I looked up marriage marketplace and it turned out that that goes a whole way further back. I thought, “Huh, this is interesting.”
Of course, then you start thinking about Jane Austen and you think about the immense discourse in the 18th and 19th centuries about finding a suitable husband. It struck me that something changed, something changed around the arrival of the industrial era in terms of how men and women formed relationships.
Christopher Lasch writes superbly about this in his book “Women and the Common Life.” He has a chapter on how marriage formation changed from the premodern to the Industrial Era.
Probably the most salient point is that women became functionally much less useful. You know, they didn’t become less people, but they lost economic agency in the household with the arrival of the industrial era, whereas previously, a wife would probably have been a farmer’s wife or some kind of a peasant’s wife and she would’ve worked. She’d have been processing raw materials, making clothes. She’d have been doing what was—
Trinko: Necessary stuff.
Harrington: Necessary stuff for the survival of the household. Then, all of a sudden, you arrive in the industrial era, a lot of that work bleeds out of the home and you’re left with the private home, which is reframed as a space of respite from the world of work, which is presided over by the bourgeois housewife and is no longer a sphere of productivity. It’s a sphere of safety and it’s a sphere for the moral education of children.
This is all very well, but under those circumstances, women actually have a whole lot less leverage, and they’re still living under the, broadly speaking, the political order that governed the premodern era, including the rules governing who has formal political power, which was almost always men because the basic unit of economic life was the household in the premodern era, and so you could only really have one head of a household.
Because men have typically wielded formal political power, in practice, what that meant was that, with the arrival of the industrial era, women lost the forms of agency that they’d used to counterbalance that formal political power and they haven’t really gained anything to counterbalance that. Does that make sense?
Trinko: It does.
Harrington: Under those circumstances, provided you have a husband who loves and respects you, you’re OK, probably, but should you have a husband who tyrannizes you or beats you or drinks all the money away or something like that, you have very little redress, you have very little recourse. It’s a problem.
Under those circumstances, you see the emergence of the companionate marriage. This is really—I mean, “Pride and Prejudice.” I’m sure you’re familiar with the story.
Trinko: Of course.
Harrington: Mr. Darcy is the quintessential ideal husband for a companionate marriage. He’s rich. He’s intelligent. He respects Elizabeth’s intelligence. He’s morally upstanding. He values her moral fabric. He loves her as a person.
Really, what Austen is depicting there, I mean, as well as being brilliantly written and a superb drama, she’s setting out the ideal template for a relationship under the new political order, under this, where women, in practice, have very little political leverage, the optimum setup for not having a terrible time as a wife and mother.
This is the companionate marriage, but after the 1960s, when women began entering the workplace en masse, I mean, something akin to that companionate marriage held, pretty much, up to the sexual revolution, because it was still broadly presumed that women would focus their energies on the private domestic sphere, broadly speaking, and men would broadly—this is what conservatives call traditional gender roles, which I characterize as actually being distinctively modern, because they only really emerge with the industrial era, but I’ll call them industrial gender roles.
Companionate marriage is a critical part, is a crucial part, for women, of hedging against the ways that your situation can go wrong under industrial gender roles/traditional, whatever you want to call them.
The point when women begin to enter the market on the same terms as men, which really begins with women’s suffrage, but then proceeds through with this sort of gradual and then mass entry into the workplace with the arrival of contraception, just for very practical reasons, because women, at that point, can plan, and those women who are ambitious and intellectually curious and so on are, not unreasonably, going to seize these new opportunities.
I mean, I’m obviously a net beneficiary of that, so these are not things that I would want to roll back, but companionate marriage, at that point, goes out the window because it doesn’t really hold anymore when women can, in theory, earn their own money, and we have the vote, and we have all the forms of political agency whose absence companionate marriage was meant to hedge against. …
Companionate marriage is really what I’m calling the origin of Big Romance, and under those circumstances where it doesn’t really have a practical purpose anymore, this sort of Big Romance, it evolves again into something very much more, I think, I want to say consumerist.
Sociologists I’ve quoted in the book characterize this as the self-expressive marriage, which is to say a relationship whose principal purpose is not economic solidarity, as in the Middle Ages. It’s not even really forming a family and raising children. It’s self-actualization. And should it fail on that front, you can end it at any time for any reason. This is really what I’ve been characterizing as Big Romance. …
When I call for us to abolish Big Romance, I’m not saying we should get rid of the companionate marriage, where this is still appropriate, and I’m not saying that you should marry somebody that you don’t really care for. But what I am saying is that the self-expressive marriage is catastrophic. It’s a catastrophically poor model for any kind of family formation and fundamentally, it’s a very poor one for surviving in the world that I think we find ourselves in now, in the 21st century, because it’s predicated on the assumption that all of us will be able to get by just fine on our own, economically and physically and materially.
When I look at this sort of rolling polycrisis that we’ve been in since 2008, and I listen particularly to early zoomers … who are pretty much universally in a state of despair about their economic prospects, I think you’ve inherited a model for relationship formation, which treats it purely as a form of self-expression and self-actualization.
What you guys need is solidarity because otherwise you’re stuffed. There’s absolutely no way any of you are going to be able to form families, unless you’re treating it as something radically much more foundational than self-actualizing.
If you’re coming into an obviously pretty economically scarce and potentially radically unstable life with a model of relationship formation that actually makes that worse rather than better, then you’re stuffed.
So when I say, “Abolish Big Romance,” really I’m speaking to the early 20-somethings and saying I strongly recommend marriage because it’s life-changing, and I strongly recommend doing it sooner rather than later and treating it as the start of life and not the capstone of a life as an autonomous individual within the market.
Trinko: Well, definitely a radical message today. Well, Mary Harrington, thank you so much for being on. Her book, which is incredible, if you want more of these insights, it’s called “Feminism Against Progress.”
Harrington: Thank you so much for having me.
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