In an essay published as part of Post45’s recent cluster on Sally Rooney, Claire Jarvis claims that the plot of Rooney’s novels is that “straight sex is not a disaster.” She writes: “Both Marianne and Connell find pleasure in their pretty straight, pretty conventional sex: they’ve tried other things, and they haven’t liked them as much. The sex is good! Which is only a problem if you think their sex should be bad.” The “you” at the end of this quotation is a little accusatory, scolding the queer or heterofatalist reader for their rigidity of thought in preemptively deeming all heterosexual sex “bad.”
A minor internet scuffle broke out among those who felt addressed by this “you.” Some accused Jarvis of positing Rooney’s straight sex as queer, which led her to rightly respond that this is in fact the opposite of what she argued. Of course, the crime Jarvis was really being charged with was daring to suggest that heterosexual sex could be redeemed (even if only in the pages of someone else’s book). By redeemed I mean made ethical, maybe radical—at least “good.” This redemptive function has become the primary meaning of “queer” in much of literary studies and the broader world—hence the slippage in the critique of Jarvis’s essay.
As Sarah Brouillette incisively observes in her own contribution to the cluster, in Rooney’s brand of heterofatalism* “heterosexual love is faulted […] but in a way that often serves to justify it further, since it is now entered into with wisdom and irony, and without naivety about its limitations.” There are many reasons why a straight person might come to have a hetero-negative orientation, but the particular ironic and cynical stance Brouillette describes is, I think, often produced by climates wherein straight people are compelled to occupy a relation to queerness, such as the North American academy. As Jarvis writes:
A new teleology has crept in to replace the old one, and it is as insidious as the one it replaced. It goes like this: sex is a structure that must be mastered, and that mastery looks like a progression from vanilla straight sex into something queer. Queerness is capacious and always an improvement on the straightness that came before. Gay, lesbian, bondaged, be-butt-plugged, poly-, it’s all better for you politically and aesthetically than the leaden heterosex that you grew up thinking was synonymous with plot.
I sympathize with this frustration. The fact that straight academics are practically mandated to enshrine queerness and perform a relation to it that they do not actually have is silly, counterproductive, sometimes amusing, and often annoying. On the other hand, it’s wrong to suggest that the over-reification of “gay, lesbian, bondaged, be-butt-plugged, poly-” sex within academia is “as insidious” as homophobia. (I’d say there are even traces of homophobic disdain within this list of sexual adjectives, particularly “be-butt-plugged,” which reinscribes non-normative sex as grossly/comically excessive, but whatever.)
That Rooney synthesizes a redemptive treatment of heterosexuality with a fatalistic one is part of why her books are so popular. Everyone wants it both ways: the cynical satisfaction of knowing that heterosexuality is a disaster and the possibility that they personally might prove the exception to the rule. For straight women, this reflects the paradoxical promise of heterosexuality itself. The aim is to fulfil the generic category of heterofemininity to an unusual or extraordinary degree—itself a contradiction between convention and specificity—in order to earn a prize that is both ultra-conventional and extremely rare: the heterosexual good life. Becca Rothfeld writes about this contradiction in her review of Normal People; Nan Z. Da summarized it brilliantly in a talk she gave on genre, surveillance, and literary criticism in LA this February: “Women make themselves interesting in order to achieve the privilege of becoming uninteresting.” (I hope I got that right—I wrote it out in my notebook while she was speaking.)
As demonstrated by other essays in the cluster—particularly those by Brouillette and Jane Hu—seeking to lift the curse on heterosexuality via Rooney’s novels will not work. Can the bourgeois world of Normal People (or that of the academy) redeem heterosexuality? No—only the abolition of the carceral state and racial capitalism could do that. (Straight culture as it currently exists would not survive such a transformation, but who knows if some version of heterosexuality might?) If queerness has any redemptive power, it is because of the abolitionist impulse it once harbored, which we hope is in the process of being restored after such protracted efforts from gays and straights alike to extinguish it.
*I started using heterofatalism instead of heteropessimism to make totally clear that there is no parallel between heteropessimism and Afropessimism. This is not to chide anyone else; if people use heteropessimism it’s my fault because I originally wrote it that way. Hetero-negative as in sex negative also works, Jane Ward used heteromiserablism which I like too… there are a lot of options.