When she was growing up, Samantha Ellis dreamed of the yearning, swooning, all-consuming romance of fiction. It clashed horribly with her feminist beliefs…
Growing up on Wuthering Heights and Gone with the Wind, I expected to swoon when I fell in love. I expected to be swept off my feet. I expected to melt. I wanted to be yearning and burning for a man who was brooding, smouldering and just a little bit dangerous.
I carried these ideas, first formulated when I was about 12, into adult life. I cherished them, I took them to parties, where I flirted (batting my eyelashes, doing the full Scarlett O’Hara); and I lugged them into my relationships, where they often obscured the fact that these men were not particularly nice to me. Let alone faithful.
Yet I was a feminist. What on earth was I doing? Why did my politics dissolve as soon as I met someone who looked even slightly like Rhett Butler? I’d have jumped down your throat if you said women shouldn’t get equal pay, yet when it came to my love life, I gaily abandoned my principles.
What’s worse, I got vague. I was like Sally in When Harry Met Sally, whose sex fantasy is simply that a man who is “just kind of… faceless” rips off her clothes. Harry is stunned by how unspecific she is, and by how little she seems to want.
What did I want? To swoon? Well, no. I wouldn’t want to be unconscious. As for melting, it’s adorable when Amélie turns into a puddle on the floor, but I’m not adorable or French or equipped with a special effects team to reconstitute me into solid flesh. Yearning? Well, I spent years of my life having unrequited crushes on various unsuitables, and it was both boring and thankless.
Then I re-read Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff is a nightmare. Violent, abusive, and (my past self hates me for writing this) just incredibly needy and melodramatic. And just like that, I was over him.
“I stopped thinking about my life as waiting for Mr Right, and started enjoying it. And when I did fall in love, it wasn’t like falling. I didn’t go head over heels. I did not liquefy.”
Before I dived into a pit of guilt about how I’d got everything wrong for ever, I came across Germaine Greer, writing in The Female Eunuch: “I cannot claim to be fully emancipated from the dream that some enormous man, say six foot six, heavily shouldered and so forth to match, will crush me to his tweeds, look down into my eyes and leave the taste of heaven or the scorch of passion on my waiting lips. For three weeks I was married to him.”
I felt instantly better! At least I didn’t marry any of my cads and bounders. I must have had some tiny instinct of self-preservation after all.
So what would a feminist relationship look like? Well, it would start, I decided, with having a bit of self-respect. I stopped listening to the nonsense flung at single women. I wasn’t picky; in fact I hadn’t been nearly picky enough. I didn’t need to settle; what a bleak, depressing idea. I’d rather be single than be with the wrong man. For his sake as much as for my own.
I didn’t need to change myself or fix myself. Because we’re all flawed, right? And I didn’t need to downplay feminism when I met men. Because nice men, men who are confident for the right reasons, want their relationships to be equal too.
I stopped thinking about my life as waiting for Mr Right, and started enjoying it. And when I did fall in love, it wasn’t like falling. I didn’t go head over heels. I did not liquefy.
And I realised you can have all the romance – the headiness, the thrills, the catching at your heart, the weekends in Paris – along with other things. Like respect. Like communication (who knew you could tell a boyfriend the truth and he’d still like you? Not me).
You can even have a walk on the moors – without the worry that his mood will change with the weather.
Samantha Ellis is the author of How to be a Heroine. Her play How to Date a Feminist previews at the Arcola Theatre from tomorrow. Click here for more details.
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Samantha Ellis writes plays (How to Date a Feminist is coming soon) and books (How to be a Heroine, and, coming soon, Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life). She lives in London.