Tansy Hoskins applies the work of Alexandra Kollontai to the bestselling rom com movie Love Actually.
Alexandra Kollontai was a Russian revolutionary who wrote extensively on women's rights. In her 1921 essay ‘Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle’ Kollontai identifies three obstacles to sexual freedom. The first obstacle is the extreme individualism that exists in capitalist society which leads to people to try and find “themselves through another person.” The second obstacle is the belief that people in relationships have the right to possess each other and the third obstacle is the acceptance of inequality of the sexes in terms of physical and emotional experience.
This article examines the third obstacle because for Kollontai it was the hardest to fight against due to it being inherent in both patrimonial and bourgeois society so more ingrained than the first two obstacles which have only been implanted in our psyches since the domination of bourgeois ideology. To illustrate the third obstacle I have applied her essay to a film that neatly packages several 'love' stories into one: ‘Love Actually.’
Whilst it would be churlish to state that nothing has changed since Kollontai's time, we still live in a society where women are judged differently to men. Whether the issue is one of sex on a first date or number of sexual partners, different standards apply according to the sex of the subject.
Films chronically stick to a tried and tested romance formula of set roles for men and for women, with often harsh punishments being meted out to those who stray from acceptable roles. A variety of commentators put the popularity of these films down to the decline of institutions like the Church and marriage - people now look for new influences to help them ground their lives. For commentators like Giddens this is a good thing - an explosion of choice and freedom for consumers, for others the media and film industries are as rigidly policed as the church ever was.
The romance genre remains a conservative genre and one that often encourages women to embrace submissive roles. The alternative narratives are few and far between and we end up bombarded by films like 'Love Actually'.
In ‘Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle,’ Kollontai asks readers to imagine a public figure from middle class intelligentsia, someone involved in politics and social affairs who starts an affair with his cook and then marries her. Does bourgeois society change its attitude to this man? ‘Does this event throw even the tiniest shadow of a doubt as to his moral worth?’ The answer clearly is no.
In ‘Love Actually’ this scenario is depicted by Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister who falls for a member of his catering staff. Rather than being judged badly for the act of loving below his status he gets a round of applause when caught kissing the tea lady on stage at a school nativity play.
Imagine, as Kollontai asks us to that the situation is reversed. This time a respected woman, a social figure or a doctor, falls for and marries her footman. The man who married his cook gets away with it, the woman who marries her footman will be covered with scorn. ‘And remember its so much the worse for her if her husband the footman is good looking or possesses other ‘physical qualities’. Its obvious what she’s fallen for will be the sneer of the hypocritical bourgeoisie.’
It is inconceivable that Love Actually would have been made with a female Prime Minister falling in love with a working class tea boy. Can you imagine her being applauded for dashing across London at night and conducting house to house searches to tell her lowly employee that she loved him?
Colin Firth is on hand to illustrate Kollontai's next point: ‘We are continually meeting men of considerable spiritual and intellectual qualities who have chosen as their friend-for-life a worthless and empty woman who in no way matches the spiritual worth of the husband. We accept this as something normal and don’t think about it.’
Firth plays a cuckolded writer who falls for and proposes to his cleaning lady with whom he has never actually had a conversation. A woman who did this she would be met with derision and concern for her mental well-being. If a woman takes a partner not thought to be her equal: ‘we flap our hands and exclaim with concern.’
The most memorable scene in the film is also the most fun to play 'gender swap' with. Its the part when the love sick friend of Kiera Knightley’s new husband turns up at her door in the middle of the night pretending to be a carol singer to professes his undying love for her.
In a man this is considered romantic, in a woman it would be considered lunacy. A woman who did this would be declared mentally unstable, sad and desperate. She would be Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction and that is not even taking into account the fact that Kiera’s admirer has an entire wedding video comprised of close up shots of her face and body.
The film just could not withstand gender role reversal - women jauntily flying off for a spot of sex tourism, lecherous female bosses having affairs with their male secretaries. One hundred years after Kollontai put pen to paper, society is still not ready for women to be with unequal partners or to have the same powerful feelings as men.
We still have a situation where men and women are valued differently and expected to fulfil different roles in society. When women fall in love or want to get married they are still expected by bourgeois society to ‘take rank and status and the instructions and interests of her family into account.’ The idea still permeates society that women may only marry or love men who are worthy - who can take care of them.
As Kollontai wrote: ‘We are used to evaluating women not as a personality with individual qualities…but only as an appendage of a man. This man…throws the light of his personality over the woman and it is this reflection and not the woman herself that we consider to be the true definition of her emotional and moral makeup.’
Thus a woman is forced to choose her partner carefully because it is by him that she will be judged. A woman Prime Minister who fell for the man that brought her tea would be judged to only be as good as him and her abilities and judgement would be called into question: ‘In the eyes of society the personality of a man can be more easily separated from his actions in the sexual sphere. The personality of a woman is judged almost exclusively in terms of her sexual life.’
This crippling sexism still exists and is enshrined in our popular culture. It must be torn down before there can ever be true equality in both relationships and society.
For more critical analysis of love and romance and for a night of music, poetry, debate, theatre and art on 10th February, Love on Trial tickets are available from www.jointhemutiny.org.
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