Polyamory, Monogamy, and American Dreams (Video)


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  • My name is Mimi Schippers. I am Professor of  Sociology and Gender and Sexuality Studies  
  • and the Chair of the Department  of Sociology at Tulane University.  
  • Today I'm here to talk about my book, Polyamory,  Monogamy, and American Dreams: The Stories We Tell  
  • About Poly Lives and the Cultural Production of  Inequality, published by Routledge. My research  
  • focuses on gender, sexuality, race, and culture.  Throughout my career I've always been interested  
  • in the ways in which people do things in their  interactions or subcultural practices that offer  
  • alternatives to the status quo. I'm particularly  interested in how social inequality is challenged,  
  • not just through collective social action or  social movements, but also through our everyday  
  • practices, the way we form relationships, and  the way we build culture together. Most recently  
  • I've researched and theorized polyamory as a  relationship form that could potentially challenge  
  • gender and race hierarchies, class inequality,  and how we experience sexual orientation.  
  • Polyamory, for those of you who aren't familiar,  refers to emotionally and sometimes sexually  
  • intimate relationships that include more than two  people and all involved are aware of the situation,  
  • the relationships, relationship, and all consent  to the arrangements. In the book, that I'll call  
  • American Dreams because the title is so unwieldy,  in the book American Dreams I offer an invitation  
  • to readers to adopt a sociological lens to read  media texts with something I call "the poly gaze".  
  • The poly gaze is a way of looking closely at  what media representations are implicitly or  
  • explicitly saying about intimate  relationships and family life.
  • Why do representations of intimate relationships  and families matter? Sociologists are concerned  
  • with identifying how societies operate and  how social processes shape our lives. From a  
  • sociological perspective, the stories we tell in  news media, academic research, and popular culture  
  • reflect and often maintain collective beliefs  about gender, race, class, sexuality, and citizenship.  
  • Queer and feminist theorists and researchers,  for instance, are particularly interested in  
  • how stories we tell about families in  intimate relationships are often moral  
  • narratives about what it means to be a good  citizen and how to live a good and happy life.  
  • This research consistently shows that the  majority of media narratives about families  
  • situate heterosexual monogamous coupling as  the key to happy, moral, and fulfilling lives.  
  • Embedded in these narratives about the  heteronormative monogamous couple are  
  • implicit or explicit messages about gender, race,  class, sexuality, and citizenship. In American Dreams  
  • I suggest that adopting a poly gaze can help  us better understand how the stories we tell  
  • about monogamy and monogamous coupling,  in particular, are deeply embedded within  
  • American narratives about happiness, living  a good life, and the rights of citizenship.  
  • So what is the poly gaze? As I outline in the book,  adopting the poly gaze means first, looking closely  
  • at how intimate and familial relationships are  represented in media and paying specific attention  
  • to what the text or imagery is saying about  monogamy, non-monogamy, and their role in living  
  • a happy and moral life. Secondly, the second step  is to parse what the narrative or imagery about  
  • monogamy or non-monogamy is saying about who  deserves to be happy, who deserves to be respected  
  • and admired, and who deserves the rights of  citizenship. What I found in my research on  
  • media representations of monogamy and non-monogamy  is that many of the different kinds of texts, many  
  • different kinds of texts including film and  television, journalistic accounts of polygamy,  
  • historical biographies, and even social  science research on campus hookup culture  
  • implicitly or explicitly assume and therefore  perpetuate the idea that monogamous coupling  
  • is the very definition of happy endings and it's  the only path for living a good and moral life. And  
  • importantly, often these narratives are also  very much about appropriate gender relations,  
  • which races ethnicities and religious groups  are deserving of American citizenship, and what  
  • constitutes a legitimate family. In other  words, stories about monogamy and polyamory  
  • are often stories about social inequalities  with some narratives fully reinforcing already  
  • existing inequalities and others challenging  them. Let me give you a quick example from my book.  
  • In one chapter I analyze historical biographies.  And in that chapter I take a good look with the  
  • poly gaze at Jill Lepore's quite brilliant and  impeccably researched book, The Secret History  
  • of Wonder Woman, which is a biography of   of William Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman.  
  • As described by Lepore, William Marston's family  included himself, Olive Byrne, Elizabeth Holloway,  
  • and their children; the children they had together  as three. Elizabeth Holloway was the main economic  
  • provider, Byrne cared for the children, and   Marston worked on his own research. In other words...  
  • with a poly gaze this is a historical biography  of not just William Marston, but also a poly family.  
  • So in reading that biography I adopted the poly  gaze. Lepore goes into great detail about the  
  • relationship between Byrne, Holloway, and Marston.  It's a really fascinating and engaging read.  
  • However, reading this historical biography  through the lens of the poly gaze,  
  • it becomes quite clear that Lepore characterizes  the poly arrangement as a spectacle of sorts.  
  • As something so beyond the world of normalcy  that it is in need of some kind of explanation.
  • And just as a side note when you read historical  biographies of figures or subjects who are in  
  • long-term monogamous marital relationships,  the biographers usually don't try to explain  
  • why. What could explain this person staying in a  long-term monogamous marital relationship? Which  
  • reflects the need for the poly gaze  with Marston, Byrne, and Holloway.  
  • Lepore's explanation for this quite unusual family  situation turns out to be- my interpretation with  
  • the poly gaze is that Marston charmed and coerced  Byrne and Holloway into accepting the situation.  
  • And he did so because of his own psychological  deficiencies and perversions. Moreover, as Lepore  
  • paints a portrait of Marston's pathologies and  perversions she also tells an implicit tale  
  • about gender. Marston must have dominated Byrne  and Holloway because no woman would willingly  
  • accept another woman in the household is the tone  of Lepore's characterization. Interestingly though,  
  • however, reading this through a poly gaze, it's  important to note that Byrne and Holloway, as  
  • reported by Lepore, continued to live together as  partners for decades after Marston's death. From my  
  • perspective, this is an indication that Byrne and  Holloway were not coerced, they weren't dominated.  
  • That they were willingly participating in a family  dynamic that worked for everybody. There  
  • are also ways in which Lepore tells a narrative  about appropriate gender relations while  
  • pathologizing the poly household when talking  about the division of labor. For instance, Lepore  
  • suggests that the division of labor where Holloway  supported the family economically, was a  
  • result of Marston's own selfishness. And that he  coerced Holloway to be the economic  
  • provider and Byrne to care for the children so  that he could pursue his own selfish interests.
  • Holloway, as reported by Lepore, always wanted to  pursue a career in law and was far more interested  
  • in her career than she was in the household and  the children. And importantly, Byrne's willingness  
  • to care for the children in the household allowed  Holloway to do that. The poly arrangement, in other  
  • words, allowed an alternative gender arrangement in  the family. In other words, the historical biography  
  • as told by Lepore makes the poly kinship between  Marston, Holloway, and Byrne seem unseemly, perverse, and  
  • exploitive despite all evidence provided by Lepore  herself that the arrangements worked well for all  
  • involved, including the children. Most important  perhaps is that all three: Byrne, Holloway,  
  • and Marston were committed to what they called  equality of the sexes. They were feminists. And  
  • their family arrangement, from where I'm sitting,  makes sense given their political commitments.  
  • Instead of seeing the poly arrangement  as consistent with and perhaps part of  
  • their political commitments, Lepore instead argues  that it went against their political commitments  
  • and is evidence of duplicity and hypocrisy on the  part of Marston. In other words, their household was  
  • anti-feminist according to Lepore, while their  public politics were feminist. With the poly  
  • gaze, however, one could interpret their family as  fully consistent with their political commitments.  
  • It's the same for Candace Falk's biography of  Emma Goldman and Susan Cheever's biography  
  • of E.E. Cummings. Both Goldman and Cummings were  politically committed to what they called "free  
  • love" or non-monogamy throughout their entire lives.  In both biographies, however, the authors reduced  
  • their subject's efforts to live a non-monogamous  life with quite gendered psychological  
  • difficulties or pathologies. Thereby erasing  the ways in which non-monogamy or living a poly  
  • life can be and has been throughout U.S. history,  an important political decision made by some.  
  • As I outlined in the chapter, it's not inevitable  that biographers adopt a monogamous gaze  
  • to understand their non-monogamous subjects. For  instance, Alex De Veaux's biography of Audre Lorde  
  • and Nancy Milford's biography of Edna St. Vincent  Millay. Both biographies interpret a commitment to  
  • non-monogamy as fully embedded within and part  of their subjects larger political commitments.  
  • And I argue in the book that this is important  because as long as we keep considering  
  • non-monogamy in historical figures lives as an  aberration rather than embedded within their lives  
  • more fully, we perpetuate the idea that  polyamory is something new and different.  
  • And moreover, that there's nothing political about  the ways in which we form our households and our  
  • familial relationships. So this is just one  example of how I adopt a poly gaze to analyze  
  • texts. In the other chapters which focus on  social science research on campus hookup cultures,  
  • film and television narratives, and journalistic  accounts of religious forms of polygamy, I ask the  
  • same two questions: What is the text saying about  monogamous, non-monogamous, and poly relationships?  
  • And what is the text saying about gender,  race, ethnicity, citizenship, and living a  
  • good and moral life, by telling a narrative  about monogamy, non-monogamy, and poly lives?  
  • The stories we tell matter sociologically and  my hope is that after having read my analysis  
  • of these different texts, my readers will  be willing and able to adopt a poly gaze  
  • to better understand the stories we  tell about living happily ever after. Thank you.
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