2015: The Year an “Orgy of Specificity” Revitalized Romance

A few pages into my favorite love story of 2015, Maggie Nelson’s theory-propelled memoir The Argonauts, the author “lies lovesick on the floor” while her friend searches Google for clues as to the “preferred pronoun” of Harry, Nelson’s new lover. Maggie and Harry are already deep into a sexual relationship at this point, “spending every free minute in bed together.” Later that day (though earlier in the book, in its very first paragraph), Nelson recounts, “[T]he words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass.” The author has now both slept with and fallen in love with a person without knowing their gender.

I don’t think The Argonauts was supposed to be the love story that resonated most with me this year, the one that made me want to immediately go out and buy my own copy as soon as I had finished reading the copy I’d borrowed. I am a 31-year-old, cisgender, middle-class white woman in a long-term, live-in relationship with a man; there’s a bit of a gloss on this self-portrait, but even so, in 2015 the entertainment industry pumped out plenty of Generic Romance Product aimed squarely at people who fit my general description. And none of it spoke to me the way Maggie Nelson’s book did.

All of those mass-produced stories went something like this (and have, more or less, for the past few centuries): A man and a woman, usually from different worlds, meet, usually by chance. The man embodies a raft of traditionally masculine traits; he is wealthy and/or ambitious and/or brave and/or professionally accomplished and/or confident, sometimes to the extent of arrogance. The woman embodies a raft of traditionally feminine traits; she is beautiful and/or virginal and/or submissive and/or sweet and/or self-abnegating, sometimes to the extent of masochism. There’s an instant spark of attraction – one that’s packaged, in the more sentimental of these tales, as love at first sight. Early dates and sexual encounters take place in a sort of ideal state, with each work’s version of this alternate reality occupying a different point on the continuum from fairy tale to pornography. Then, certain obstacles present themselves, often arising from either excesses or deficits of the aforementioned mannish or womanish traits. If the story is a comedy or a fantasy, the couple will overcome those obstacles and there will be a wedding or an engagement or at least some resolution that suggests these two will be together – and monogamous – forever. If not, the failure of the relationship (or the sad fate of one lover) will constitute its culminating tragedy.

trainwreck

This storyline tends to find its most popular – and, more to the point, popularly commented-upon – expressions in film. Perhaps this is because it fits cozily into 90 minutes of movie, rather than the dozens of hours a multi-season TV series demands. And in the realm of literature, this arc is both ubiquitous enough in a certain genre of mass-market books to be ignored and rare enough in 21st-century works of the “literary” genre to make room for an entire novel titled The Marriage Plot. Two of 2015’s ten highest-grossing films worldwide – the only two that didn’t feature explosions or cartoons – followed this plot: Fifty Shades of Grey and Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. So did the year’s most talked-about comedy, the Amy Schumer vehicle Trainwreck (#35 at the international box office, earning about $140 million on a $35 million budget). Even the art house’s most calculated shock stunt, Gaspar Noé’s Love, fits the description.

There’s been endless discussion and endless handwringing about each of these films; rehashing each conversation here would probably be as exhausting for you as it would for me. It’s worth noting, though, that these movies are more alike than different. From good-girl fairy tale to bad girl-gone-good narrative, bondage softcore to psychedelic hardcore, they all want us to believe that love can only manifest itself as the ideal union of the opposing archetypes of male and female. (Yes, even Trainwreck. Schumer’s vivid character is so faded after she completes her transformation to Bill Hader-worthy sobriety, she might as well be the heroine of a Shakespeare comedy – plucky in the first four acts, then all but silenced by the time the Act V wedding rolls around.)

This is an uncomfortable way to think about love in a year when marriage equality became the law of the land. But this was also a year when the sexual and gender vanguard pushed so far into the mainstream that “keeping up with the Kardashians” meant learning to call a person formerly known as one of the world’s greatest male athletes “Caitlyn.” In 2015, college students are so sophisticated about who they are and who they sleep with that “gay or straight?” seems less relevant than the question of whether to embrace identities so specific their parents will have to google them or give up on labels entirely. We even have a Disney-alum pop star who proudly discusses her gender fluidity and dates people all over the spectrum. For Miley Cyrus and everyone else whose identity falls outside the gender binary, that means an element of queerness is inherent in their every possible relationship and their every possible sexual encounter.

That’s the obvious reason why works like The Argonauts felt so much more vital this year than the products of Hollywood’s Heterosexuality-Industrial Complex, which strained so much under the weight of obsolescence that their basic structures started to crack. (Branagh’s Cinderella was so tightly corseted her waistline read to some as CGI. There’s a scene in Trainwreck where Schumer’s journalist character attends a funeral on the arm of the man she’s supposed to be profiling but is actually dating – and her editor, also in attendance, doesn’t seem to notice.) But what might make love stories like that of The Argonauts more appealing, more familiar even to those of us for whom queer romance and genderqueer identity aren’t part of our daily lives, is that they’re descriptive rather than prescriptive. They’re not telling us how love should be, for us and for everyone; they’re showing us what love looks like for two individuals who aren’t saddled with representing opposing archetypes. Nelson has a term for this, actually. She explains that she avoided using a pronoun for Harry by simply repeating Harry’s name instead. “You must learn to take cover in grammatical cul-de-sacs,” she writes, “relax into an orgy of specificity” (emphasis added).

You don’t have to be a couple like Nelson and Harry — the former eventually describes herself as “female (more or less)” and the latter as a person “blessedly neither male nor female” — to participate in that orgy of specificity. The term also encompasses plenty of the year’s other most enthralling romance narratives.

tangerine

In film, breakthrough director Sean Baker and unknown actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor gave us Tangerine, a story powered by the daylong hunt of a transgender sex worker (Rodriguez) for the man she loves. He’s both her fiancé and her pimp, and she has just found out that he’s been unfaithful. So many of the trans women pop culture shows us are prostitutes, but along with Rodriguez’s charismatic performance, it’s her fairly traditional views about love and fidelity – and the fact that her confrontation with the cheating bastard echoes so many similar moments we’ve seen before – that elevate this character past the realm of caricature.

Todd Haynes’ Carol, though its surface is smooth where Tangerine’s is rough, is similar in that its romance blurs the familiar and the unique. It presents a love story between two women – in the 1950s, no less – without constantly calling attention to the fact that they are lesbians, making a statement about lesbianism in general, or grandstanding about the oppression lesbians at the time faced. Instead, we watch a reticent, artistic young person (Rooney Mara) fall in love with a glamorous, self-possessed but sad middle-aged person (Cate Blanchett), and we do so appreciating not their shared gender but the specific traits that attract each one, specifically, to the other. Their meeting is just as cute (and about ten times as intoxicating) as any straight couple’s on film, but it comes without the added burden of one character representing all men and the other, all women.

Transparent Season 2

TV has offered too many highly specific and deeply resonant visions of romance this year to count. On shows as different as Fox’s era-defining Empire and Hulu’s teeny-tiny (but quite good) Casual, entire storylines were driven by the unexpected flexibility of both male and female, gay- and straight-identifying, characters’ sexual behavior. The latter series also followed a man (Tommy Dewey) who found his dream woman… and had to share her with the serious boyfriend with whom she was already in an open relationship. And on Amazon’s Transparent, a patriarch’s gender transition becomes, in part, a lens through which we view the sex lives and identities of her family. When Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) becomes intimate with her ex-wife (Judith Light) for the first time since she began living as a woman, it’s fascinating to watch them simultaneously retread old ground and embark on something entirely new — for both partners.

In many cases, even shows centered around straight, monogamous romances veered away from “men are like this, women are like that” storylines. What comes between Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash) on FXX’s You’re the Worst is a problem that doesn’t divide neatly along gendered lines: mental illness. Gretchen doesn’t snap at Jimmy and sneak out of bed at night to cry because “chicks, man”; she does it because her chronic depression has returned. In Amazon’s Catastrophe, Sharon (Sharon Horgan) and Rob (Rob Delaney) are very – sexually and socially – compatible people whose conflicts arise out of the fact that they barely know each other but have decided to have a baby together. And Aziz Ansari’s deservedly celebrated Netflix show, Master of None, largely follows a heterosexual, interracial relationship (between Ansari’s Dev and Noël Wells’ Rachel) plagued not by gender or even cultural differences, but by the endless and paralyzing, if also mostly meaningless, choices that define contemporary life.

Still, it was a pair of books that seemed to speak most powerfully about romance this year. Months before reading The Argonauts, I picked up Anne Garréta’s Sphinx. Originally published nearly 30 years ago in France but unavailable in English until Deep Vellum released Emma Ramadan’s translation this spring, Garréta’s novel tells a love story entirely free of gendered names or pronouns. Sphinx is an Oulipean experiment with language, yet its impact goes far beyond the intellectual. The unnamed narrator and their beloved, known as “A***,” come together in the Parisian demimonde. They are separated by race, class, and nationality, and there are ample clues about each party’s gender, but the lack of certainty makes the reader keep questioning why each particular image and thought and power dynamic is shadowed by a suggestion of maleness or femaleness.

Sphinx reveals, jarringly, like a beautiful song in an unusual key, how rarely we notice the extent to which our daily lives in general and our romantic relationships – straight, queer, “equal,” and otherwise – in particular are shaped by gender. But it also frees those gendered signifiers from being merely typical or atypical of a male or female person. It frees the romance between the narrator and A*** from being merely typical or atypical of a heterosexual or homosexual relationship.

argonatus

That’s where Garréta’s genderless love story begins to resemble Maggie and Harry’s marriage in The Argonauts. (The fact that both books have titles that reference ancient history suggests how deeply rooted in our culture their subjects are.) Nelson writes that “one of the gifts of genderqueer family making… is the revelation of caretaking as detachable from – and attachable to – any gender, any sentient being.” Both authors recognize identity as a prison, and both use love to escape – Garréta by ignoring the lovers’ gender and Nelson by using critical theory to interrogate how it works in her own binary-confounding romance. Amid a cultural conversation saturated with worn-out debates about identity, these approaches offered something not just novel, but constructive.

As Wesley Morris at the New York Times noted in October, we “obsessed over” identity this year, to the point where we’ve come to a sort of impasse. Most of us – especially those of us who don’t check all the default straight, white, cisgender, male boxes – know what Garréta and Nelson know: that identity is a trap, a way to define us by things outside our control rather than our conceptions of who we are and how we want to live. “I’m someone who believes himself to have complete individual autonomy, someone who feels free,” Morris wrote. “But I also know some of that autonomy is limited, illusory, conditional. I live knowing that whatever my blackness means to me can be at odds with what it means to certain white observers, at any moment. So I live with two identities: mine and others’ perceptions of it.” Most of us, I think, would rather use our limited autonomy to forge meaningful connections than allow ourselves to be herded into superficial groups dictated by how others see us.

There are as many dangers inherent in defining yourself through who you love and how as there are in seeing yourself as just a list of different labels and oppressions. Some of the art that resonated most with me this year, though, used romance to illuminate why specific stories, specific dynamics between human beings, can feel so much more universal than empty archetypes. These works found more in heterosexual love than just an interaction between opposites, and emphasized that difference still plays a role in the chemistry between people of the same gender. Characters that didn’t fit either of those paradigms inserted themselves in love stories anyway, and their experiences became more legible.

At one point in The Argonauts, Nelson quotes the queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (a woman who, Nelson reminds us, claimed to identify most with gay men): “Even identical genital acts mean very different things to different people.” Then Nelson underlines the statement. “This is a crucial point to remember, and also a difficult one,” she writes. “It reminds us that there is difference right where we may be looking for, and expecting, communion.” If I may add one more layer of commentary, the converse seems just as true – often enough, there is communion right where we may be looking for difference. That’s why it seems so important to keep seeking out both.

This piece is part of Flavorwire’s series of essays on 2015 in culture. Click here to follow our end-of-year coverage.