“Men want women and also hate women” (Ward 28). In American culture, misogyny, strict gender roles, and the normalization of heterosexuality are elements that have become so ingrained in our society that people rarely question them. We teach young girls that their purpose in life is to find a husband and live happily ever after and young boys that their identity must be found in rigid masculinity, all while creating a society where the patriarchy is rampant and controlling. While the violence, hatred, and shame of heterosexual culture have been normalized in our society for hundreds of years, feminists and scholars of gender and sexuality studies are beginning to unpack the framework of heterosexual culture and take a critical view of the issues that historically, few have addressed.
One such author is Jane Ward, who addresses misogyny and the patriarchy, as well as race, gender, and queerness in her 2020 book, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality. Ward, a professor of Feminist studies at the University of California Santa Barbara, is an author and scholar. Originally receiving her PhD in sociology from the University of California Santa Barbara, Ward now focuses her studies on queer and feminist cultures, including heterosexuality, race, and trans cultures. Prior to writing The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, Ward wrote and published two other books, Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men (2015) and Respectably Queer: Diversity Culture in LGBT Activist Organization (2008) (Ward). As a queer woman, Ward takes a critical approach to both heterosexual culture, patriarchy, and white queer culture in her works.
In The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, Ward examines the history of heterosexuality within the United States through a queer feminist lens. She analyzes primary elements of straight culture, such as what she refers to as the “heterosexual repair industry”, and looks towards queer lesbian culture to claim that as a society, men should improve their treatment of and their actual desire for women and women should heighten their standards for the men in their lives. Ward also argues that while people often treat heterosexuality as the “default” and the “easiest” option in society, it is actually not the case. She writes, “This book argues that the basic premise of this question–that heterosexuality is easier than queerness–requires renewed investigation” (Ward 2). Though heterosexuality may be seen as the “default” in society, Ward claims that heterosexual culture requires significant improvements, and envisions a better, more authentic, and more desirable future for heterosexuals.
In the opening chapter of The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, Ward clarifies her intentions for the book. First, she is not fighting against heterosexuality itself, but simply envisioning a better future for heterosexuality. She even uses language that straight people often use towards queer people, writing “To the straight people reading this book, let me say with all my love and solidarity, I am your ally” (Ward 7). Second, Ward aims to take an intersectional approach to the topics of straight and queer cultures. She acknowledges that queer culture is often represented from a privileged white point of view, and wants to recognize and honor the intersections of race, as well as class and ability, in her critique of straight culture. To do so, she writes, “I have leaned heavily on the writings of queer feminists of color and placed their insights at the forefront of my analysis” (Ward 7). Lastly, Ward uses multiple forms of evidence throughout the book, such as citing interviews and writings with other scholars in her field, looking towards cultural and media evidence, and even conducting her own small forms of research among the queer people in her community. It is through this methodology and philosophy that Ward forms her critiques of heterosexual culture.
One of Ward’s greatest strengths in her writing of The Tragedy of Heterosexuality is her unique approach to issues of heterosexual men and patriarchy. Instead of simply using the rampant evidence of the oppression of women to criticize men and their heterosexuality, she claims that much of heterosexual culture would be improved if men actually like women more. While we often view heterosexuality and patriarchy as men’s control of women through their lust and desire for women, Ward writes that “heteromasculinity is characterized by a much weaker and far more conditional desire for women’s bodies than is often claimed” (Ward 19). At the forefront of her arguments is the idea that men do not actually like women very much, but instead, they like the power, control, and ownership that heterosexuality gives them. In her analysis of the history of heterosexuality in America, Ward writes, “Across time and place, most forms of heterosexual coupling have been organized around men’s ownership of women (their bodies, their work, their children), rather than their attraction to, or interest in, women” (Ward 34). Instead, Ward writes that straight men should look within themselves for a greater desire for women, not just sexually, but as people, which would result in greater respect for women. As Ward points out, in our intensely heterosexual culture, it is often in social differences between men and women that we are taught to see as desirable; it is from these differences that sexual and romantic compatibility emerges. However, more often than not, this is a falsehood. The strict gender binary culture of heterosexuality results in harsh, and often forced, differences between the genders that do not result in a desire for one another, but instead in annoyance and misunderstanding of one another. As Ward claims, a greater understanding between men and women, as well as greater acceptance of gender expression would result in men and women desiring one another more. This line of thinking, which is foundational to the arguments of the text, is a compelling and unique one that offers tangible ways in which cishet men can treat women better.
Another strength of The Tragedy of Heterosexuality is Ward’s open critiques of white queer culture. Ward, even as a white queer woman, does not hold back in her criticism. She writes, “Many queer subcultures, like straight culture, are built on intersecting forms of violence: anti-Blackness, misogyny, transphobia, ableism, and economic injustice. . . In other words, taking queerness seriously as a cultural formation distinct from straight culture does not obscure hierarchies among queer people” (Ward 119). While uplifting queer, and particularly lesbian, culture, Ward still takes a critical view and acknowledges the racism and other injustices that are often far too present within white queer culture. In particular, she is critical of white gay male culture, writing that “Gay men, especially white gay men, are often the greatest defenders of the narrative about queer suffering, probably because they have more power and privilege to lose as a result of inhabiting and nonnormative sexual orientation (and sometimes a nonnormative gender)” (Ward 3). So, while being critical of heterosexual culture, Ward is still able to express her critiques of queer culture, as well as the extreme differences between lesbian culture and gay male culture (and particularly white gay male culture) which are rarely discussed. Ward’s ability to present a nuanced view of white queer culture speaks to the quality of her writing and the arguments in The Tragedy of Heterosexuality.
While The Tragedy of Heterosexuality has many strengths in its arguments and methodology of writing, it could include more quantitative studies and research. Ward cites evidence throughout the book, such as quotes from other feminist scholars, as well as evidence such as ads and media sources that display gender roles. In the fourth chapter of the book, she even conducts her sample study in which she surveyed and quoted people within her own queer community about their views of heterosexual culture. While the quotes from queer people in her life provided relatively sufficient evidence of her claims, I believe that she could have strengthened the chapter by expanding her research and giving a survey to a much larger group of people outside of her own queer community. Conducting research about queer views on heterosexual culture could have provided Ward with more compelling evidence to back her claims. However, Ward does acknowledge the challenges of conducting this type of large-scale research, writing, “Suffice it to say that the kind of quantitative data that would be most useful to the queer feminist investigation at hand are, by their very nature, limited. The field of critical heterosexuality studies is still in its infancy, and ‘straight culture,’ so hegemonic as to be unnameble outside of queer space, is a relatively new object of inquiry” (Ward 27). As Ward points out, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality is a unique work in a relatively new field, so finding and conducting sufficient research can be difficult.
In The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, scholar Jane Ward addresses large-scale issues of American heterosexual culture that few have before. With intersectionality in mind, she encourages men to look to lesbian queer culture as an image of how women should be treated, desired, and loved, all while encouraging women to hold high standards for the men in their lives. The text is sufficiently nuanced, especially in its allyship and encouragement towards straight people, as well as its accurate critiques of queer culture. I believe that this relatively-accessible text is one that everyone should read and could benefit from, regardless of gender or sexuality. This thought-provoking and unique text could help anyone and everyone reimagine the oppressive heterosexual culture that has been ingrained in our society.
Ward, Jane. “Jane Ward: Scholarship for the Feminist Future.” Jane Ward, https://www.janewardphd.com/.
Ward, Jane. The Tragedy of Heterosexuality. New York University Press, 2020.