American Literary History 17.2 (2005) 335-348
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Or, Liberating Love
Virginia L. Blum
Reality television couples aren't lasting. So far, only one such couple has made it to the altar and most of the others have called it quits even before their respective programs air. One immediately obvious point is that reality television programs such as ABC's The Bachelor dine to repletion on conventional romance by way of an elaborate menu of pretend choices. Not surprisingly, The Bachelor immediately spawned variations in the form of For Love or Money, Average Joe, and Joe Millionaire, all of which point to the consumer stakes of intimacy. In other words, the current spate of reality love programming brings into relief the fact that romance continues to be a best-selling story because it promises utter saturation with no strings attached, umbilical or otherwise. More, the emancipatory urgency of post-liberation intimacy remains in an ongoing collision with our abiding investment in the most conventional of love forms, the heterosexual married couple.
Contra Foucault, it's not about sex, it's about love. More, the hyperinvestment in sexual practices is in many ways a cover story (for all of us from academics to cultural analysts to screenwriters to talk show confessionals) for confusion about where to place love in all the tempest of sex. While sex may indeed "sell," love seems to trump sex every time when it comes to talking about the nature of individual autonomy and happiness. We package it all as "intimacy," but when couples console each other with assurances of "don't worry, honey, it was only cyberlove," one senses we need a bit more precision.
In reconsidering what defines enduring love in the age of divorce, many of us are asking not only how to reconcile personal self-interest with long-term commitment but why. What do we continue to find so compelling about the idea of true love even as many of us smugly ridicule its more conventional manifestations?
Six recent books from an array of perspectives are preoccupied with this central question of what to do about love. Will we find love—and how? What should love feel and look like? How can we [End Page 335] become full-fledged and fulfilled members of love culture? These studies struggle over the dual conviction of the emancipatory power of love and its deep limitations, if not intolerable chains.1 Such chains are not akin to the "fatal love" of yore, from courtly love stories to the doomed passions of the novel. Rather, the bond is the commitment itself, which threatens presumed autonomous subjects with ties that bind rather than sustain.
Sexual liberation covers a range of practices and attitudes—including but by no means limited to women's social emancipation in an array of dating and sexual activities as well as their legal and medical reproductive rights, along with state protection of all sexual orientations, including a guarantee of the full range of economic, legal, and social privileges accorded heterosexuals. But what constitutes love's freedom? Certainly the right to share your life with the one you love—such has been the abiding romantic notion of linking love to marriage since the nineteenth century; such a culturally emergent demand for emotional freedom countered the history of socially and economically motivated marriages. Yet this freedom to marry according to one's heart, a romantic story we continue to treasure, can come into direct conflict with our putative "sexual liberation." Upon the commencement of the marriage, love becomes necessarily less...