I have a friend whose litmus test for relationships consists of one question: “Does he know how special you are?” It’s a simple question, one that encompasses the way your partner treats you and the basis of that treatment, but it also forces you to reflect on your own self-worth and what that entitles you.
I’m lucky to have this friend. And in the absence of her or someone like her, any woman would be lucky to have Samhita Mukhopadhyay’s book, Outdated. The book works double duty, acting as both a guide to dating as a feminist and a critique of the social and political conditions that make it hard for women to negotiate their intimate relationships. To echo one of the book’s chapter titles and recurring themes, feminism didn’t ruin dating; dating ruined dating.
To these ends, Mukhopadhyay wields heavy-duty language -- heteronormativity, patriarchy, crisis of masculinity -- to get her readers to the realm of romantic relationships. The first few chapters could come from straight from a women’s studies reader, as Mukhopadhyay fiercely critiques what she terms the romantic industrial complex -- that machine comprised of media and sellers of things like chocolates, jewelry, and vacations -- for reinforcing and capitalizing off of traditional views of romance. Her arguments against marriage as the objective of all relationships are well rehearsed, but necessary in Mukhopadhyay’s larger goal of outlining “a radical imperative for love.” The book’s tone and learnedness (there are end notes!) can be off-putting in these moments; when you’re searching for some solace or specific direction, or when you just want to wallow in your dating failures, a critique of patriarchy is perhaps the last thing you’d want to read.
And yet this turn away from self-loathing might be exactly what women need. Where a mainstream dating guide might begin with a laundry list of what’s wrong with women today, Outdated instead offers a refreshing affirmation of both feminism and women in general.
It becomes clear early on that the book’s ideal reader is probably someone who’s taken a women’s studies class; in fact, the reader might have an investment in social justice. For instance, Mukhopadhyay offers a nuanced discussion of how norms of heterosexuality are foundational to national politics, examining the differential treatment of Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama. Yet despite Outdated’s commendable goal of convincing readers that heterosexual norms are sources of injustice, the language used to make this argument is just too dense to appeal to a reader who isn’t already leaning toward radical politics. The more pressing and appropriate matter the book takes up is that age-old dilemma: how does a social justice-minded woman put her politics into practice when it comes to dating?
Photo of the author by Danny Avila
The book’s most valuable contribution is precisely the underlying implication that politics enter our personal lives in messy ways that resist any neat application of theories we apply at the level of communities. Even the most feminist of women might have the desire to get married or otherwise live a normative domestic life. We all know that sister who calls herself a queer activist of color, yet is curiously married to a white guy. But there is something about the form of radical critique that does not leave room for us to acknowledge that such contradictions are necessary. That is, the kinds of changes that social justice lobbies for can often require tough, yes militant, language and acknowledgement of difficult truths. Outdated bravely toes a line between strongly worded political critique and a more tender empathy for women whose lives aren’t so black and white.
With that said, Outdated picks up steam in its smart, compassionate, and empowering second half by taking up questions that a mainstream guide would ask, but turning them on their head, all with a humor and tone that make it seem like you’re in conversation with a sharp, politically conscious girlfriend. A chapter that exposes sexist ideas propagated by dating books also examines the “kernels of truth” they contain. Another chapter offers guidance not on the kinds of men to avoid, but rather on a broader history of masculinity that shapes how we understand men in the first place -- a move that shows Outdated’s care not just for women but also for the men who live with patriarchical norms. Mukhopadhyay handles the potentially tricky topic of casual sex by outlining the racist and sexist stereotypes that can make casual sex a minefield for women of color, especially, but she does so without vilifying the act itself, writing, “A woman’s power does not arise from her denial of pleasure to herself and her potential partner, but her educated, happy, successful exploration and expression of it. That is what self-empowered sexuality looks like.” In these moments of the book that acknowledge women’s varying paths to intimacy, it becomes clear that Mukopadhyay respects and indeed loves her reader.
Outdated is apt in what we can perhaps not lightly enough call a precarious time for women. The state and liberal politics have effectively recentered womens’ bodies in ugly ways, while the mainstream media continues to foist tired debates about motherhood onto the US public. Mukhopadhyay reminds us that our intimate relationships exist in the same fabric out of which these news pieces, laws, and hate speech against women also emerge, and that the shared terrain requires that women be informed, reflective, and strong -- feminist. Outdated, then, is not just for women looking to date, but for women in any stage of a relationship -- for that thinking woman who needs validation and intellectual grounding for her desires and self-worth.
Marites L. Mendoza is a PhD student in the English Department at the University of Washington. She lives, reads, and writes in Seattle.