The narrative surrounding queerness in society today includes overcoming challenges, facing daily adversities, and experiencing more hardships than heterosexual peers. The Tragedy of Heterosexuality breaks this illusion of heterosexuality being easier than homosexuality and provides sympathy for those oppressed in heterosexual relationships. Jane Ward suggests that straightness is a means for people to access cultural and institutional rewards. However, while heterosexuality offers this privilege, it continues to be a site of oppression, violence, disappointment, and discrimination for women. Heterosexuality, from a queer lens, is just a ‘fetish for normalcy.’ Through this book, Ward reveals how heterosexuality is rooted in concepts of patriarchy, male domination, and toxic masculinity, to name a few. Ward realized she was ‘crying queer tears for straight people.’ Hence, through her research and personal experiences of being a lesbian feminist, Ward examines how queer relationships are healthier and more empowering than straight ones. According to her, ‘It’s not that it gets better for queer people; it’s that heterosexuality is often worse.’
While Jane Ward is best known for her 2021 PROSE Award Winning book, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality (New York University Press, 2020), she has written several outstanding books, including the 2016 Lambda Literary Award Finalist- Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men (NYU Press, 2015), and Respectability Queer: Diversity Culture in LGBT Activist Organisations. In addition, her research has been featured in The Guardian, Huffington Post, BBC, and The New York Times, to name a few. Apart from being an author, Ward is a professor, urban gardener, baker, and parent to what she likes to call ‘one human child, one potbelly pig, nine chickens, and one cat.’ Ward has also cofounded the Altadena/Pasadena chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. She received her Ph.D. in sociology in 2003 from the University of California Santa Barbara and is now a Gender and Sexuality Studies professor at the University of California Riverside. Her teaching and writing focus on feminism, queer, and heterosexuality studies.
The tragedy of heterosexuality is caused by what Ward has termed the misogyny paradox. The misogyny paradox is where ‘boys’ and men’s desire for girls and women is expressed within a broader culture that encourages them to hate girls and women.’ (pp. 25-26) Hence, the misogyny paradox promotes stereotypical roles in heterosexual relationships, such as the dominance of men and the submission of women. Ward exposes how this oppresses straight women as ‘their sexual relationships with men have been maintained by force, both through cultural propaganda targeting girls and women and more directly through sexual assault, incest, compulsory marriage, economic dependence, control of children, and domestic violence (p. 3). The situation is worse because straight men and women romanticize this unequal gender binary.
Their romantic and erotic attachments to the misogyny paradox give rise to an entire industry of self-help books, marriage and relationship counselors, pick-up artists, and seduction coaches. These industries encourage toxic masculinity and promote the idea that women want men to take the lead and be the decision-makers in the relationship. Women are objectified, and the ideal woman is created and viewed through the male gaze- waxed, shaved, toned, etc. Hence, Ward suggests that the ‘key difference between straight culture and queer culture in this regard is that the latter does not attribute these destructive behaviors to a romantic story about a natural and inescapable gender binary.’ (p. 27). Ward proposes the concept of ‘deep heterosexuality’ as the solution for this ‘tragedy.’ Deep heterosexuality is a ‘framework for honoring and preserving what straight people experience as fulfilling about hetero sex and straight culture and for pushing further and deeper in these pleasurable hetero directions’ (p. 159). Ward pushes for the expansion of heterosexual attraction to include the sexual vulnerability of men and the humanity of women. Hence, “straight men do not need to be queered; they need to learn to like women” (158)
What I admire most about Jane Ward’s writing is her unapologetic honesty, blunt criticism, and matter-of-fact approach to controversial topics. She rips off the band-aid of ignorance and forces us to see the pain caused by the oppression and inequalities associated with heterosexuality. Her strength lies in her ability to voice deeply personal opinions while supporting them with concrete empirical evidence. Her in-depth analysis of the historical context of the self-help industry and marriage counseling in the 1900s, the deep-dive into the pick-up artist and seduction industry, the critique of books such as Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992) make it impossible to turn a bind eye to her argument. In addition, ward does a great job highlighting and examining the intersectionality of race and sexuality, a topic often overlooked. For example, she talks about how heterosexuality is often the only privilege black women have, which they cannot afford to lose, regardless of the oppression and injustice they might face within it. She also cites the work of the South Asian American feminist scholar Shamita Das Gupta, who highlights how immigant women conceal their husbands’ violence to project an ‘unblemished’ image of their communities to prevent discrimination. Hence, her writing displays the layers of oppression associated with heterosexuality.
However, there are some topics that I wish Ward had touched upon in the book. In my opinion, the book focuses on comparing and contrasting the ways straight men and lesbian women treat and think about women. While this is a valid and current issue to be discussed, it would have been interesting to include a few other perspectives. For example, I would have loved to know how bisexual, pansexual, asexual, and transgender relationships would have played into this debate. Would there be a difference in the relationship dynamic between two straight people and two bisexual people? How would an asexual-identifying male’s opinion differ from a straight man’s opinion on women? I think including these perspectives would have made the book more inclusive and reflective of our society’s diversity of opinions and experiences.
Moreover, homosexuality in the book is depicted as a safe haven and escape from the oppression and violence associated with heterosexuality. This can lead to a dangerous trajectory of justifying violence or toxicity in queer relationships. Physical, mental, and emotional abuse can occur in all sorts of relationships, regardless of whether they’re queer or straight.
As a South Asian woman, I felt the book was centered around white American opinions on heterosexuality, where men are the bad guys and women are the damsels in distress. While I truly respect how Ward centered the book around calling out toxic male behavior and directly addressed men, I think she failed to address an equally important demographic- women! Ward suggests that a part of the problem would be solved if ‘men liked women more, but I believe that women need to like women more too. In South Asian cultures, women are often the strongest upholders of patriarchy. In my life, I’ve experienced more women shaming, discriminating, and slamming other women than men. Teachers slut-shame girls in school, grandmothers, and aunts constantly comment on bodies and clothing, and mothers train girls to believe their only role in life is to be good wives and mothers. While my dad refuses to celebrate any patriarchal Indian festivals and rituals, my mom consciously continues to partake in them for the sake of ‘tradition.’ It’s ironic how the matriarchs in South Asian culture actively promote patriarchy in the name of culture and tradition. Hence, men and women must reflect on their indoctrination of patriarchal values. It’s impossible to fight discrimination if women stand against each other rather than together and in support of each other.
Overall, I think this book provides us with a much-needed wake-up call. After reading this book, I became aware of the saturation of heteronormativity in my upbringing. I realized how the media I consumed (books, movies, social media) contributed to the romanticization of the gender binary. I think this book is a fascinating read and has much to offer to everyone. It shows us that oppression is multifaceted and emphasizes the intersectionality of feminism, queerness, race, and culture. It is one of few books that call out heteronormativity and shows us what we can learn from queer communities. The illuminating discussion and debate initiated in this book will ensure that everyone reflects on how they can better their relationships.