This summer I’ve had time to read a few books. And though feminist fiction is not something I usually seek out, I felt compelled to read the recently published Danish translation of Swedish journalist Maria Sveland‘s novel Bitterfittan, which translates as “The Bittercunt.”
A weirdly fascinating title which refers to the book’s main character, 30-year Sara, and her life of balancing being married to Johan, being the mother of 2-year old Sigge, as well as managing her blossoming career. The book describes how she escapes from her tightly-packed everyday life to a week of sleep and quiet reflection on Tenerife, where she can think about her life and how she ended up feeling so bitter despite of all the things she has achieved:
Yes, I am bitter. I’m bitter that my first year with Sigge was so full of worry and unhappiness. I’m bitter that we couldn’t meet and help one another when we needed it the most. That Johan let me down when I needed him the most. That I let Johan down when he needed me the most.
I’m bitter that I almost don’t dare allow myself to use the word ‘betrayal’ when talking about all of this. I am bitter that we have become like all other couples who have children. All those couples I’ve read about, all those who have told and testified to the equality that disappeared when the children came. I am bitter that we aren’t equal anymore. Perhaps we’ve never even been equal?
I’m bitter that I’m bitter. I don’t want to be bitter.
This is the sickly tied knot that she brings with her on that plane to Tenerife. A knot which she spends the week, and the book, trying to untie, to allow her to move on with her life. To realign her political and social belief that gender equality is possible with her own experiences, which show how easy it is to lose that equality when the children come. Her basic question is:
How can we ever achieve equality in our society when we can’t even figure out to live as equals with the one we love?
She describes the scenes in her life which shaped her as a woman. She reflects on all the expectations and dreams that bloomed around her, and which she brought with consciously and unconsciously in her marriage with Johan. She describes how all of these expectations, all of that passion, all of that tension, burst when Sigge was born. How their lives and their relationship changed so as to leave her bitter in this way. And she begins to consider the alternatives to the ideal of romantic twosomeness:
Perhaps it was simpler when marriage was built on reason, a friendly business relationship?
If that was the case, people would at least be rid of all those romanticized expectations. As romance and the myth of love entered the frame and patented twosomeness, so did the disappointment appear. Perhaps it was when free love was kidnapped and reduced to something only meant for two, woman and man? Twosomeness, writes Suzanne Brøgger, is an organized form of un-lived life. A series of non-meetings. And that is almost the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read.
If only I was a religious, silly-happy wife and mother. It is downright detrimental to have a self-image that looks more like the life I lead in the early 1990s before I met Johan. All the parties, all the men, all that time, all that sleep, all that freedom.
Actually, it is just as detrimental to daydream about the 1970s. It is when the distance between the daydreams and reality becomes too great that you become a bittercunt. I try to fight it. But the problem is that there are a number of good reasons to become one that you shouldn’t ignore. Reasons which all lead to bittercunt-analyses. All those conspiratorial facts I read and hear, which confirm what I’ve suspected all along.
She cites a wide range of facts, stories and analyses, which show how women, even in Sweden – one of the most gender equal countries in the world – are subject to sexism and gender repression in various forms, and how it has become difficult for them to raise these issues publicly, as male opinionists balk at the notion that Swedish women should have anything to complain about compared to e.g. Afghan women.
One of these analyses is Swedish sociologist Carin Holmberg‘s dissertation on male and female gender roles, and how they are reinforced through apparently voluntary and unreflected actions:
One of Carin Holmberg’s theories is that women’s voluntary submission makes the male dominance invisible to both genders. Women are constantly ready to cover for or “voluntarily” assume roles and housework in the same way that the spouse of an alcoholic would. […] Carin Holmberg asks, how can it be that men aren’t bothered by their voluntary dominance?
Men do this so effortlessly: They aren’t bothered by petty household details. They aren’t ridden with guilt when they go on business trips and leave their spouse alone with the children. They don’t see the position of dominance that they often acquire merely by refusing to worry. As Sara considers this, she finds it even more incredible:
If I was white and lived in South Africa during the Apartheid regime, and had a relationship with a black man, the fact that we were living in a culture that didn’t see us as equals would pain me to no end. And if I, in spite of these external obstacles kept loving him, I would dedicate my life to the fight against apartheid.
Love – the greatest and most beautiful force of all, the one that really has the potential to heal wounds and change people for the better.
How can it be that men don’t make every effort possible to fight these injustices, this apartheid of the patriarchy, in the name of love? And if they think that it is too difficult for them to change the power structures of thousands of years of patriarchal dominance, how can it be that they don’t even, at the very least, fight these injustices within their own private love relationship?
Good questions, indeed. And Sara finds them to be one of the core reasons behind her bitterness: Why is it that men can maintain their ambitions, their hopes and dreams so effortlessly while raising a family? Why is it that she feels so torn between all her of professional ambitions, her love of her child, and all the other things that she wants to do in her life? Why does she feel like she doesn’t have enough time to herself? Why is it that she feels like she has to apologize for wanting to own her own soul?
It oughtn’t be necessary to apologize for wanting to own your own soul. But why is it so difficult to be loyal to oneself?
Once in a while, Johan asks me whether I’m living the life that I want to live. It is fairly rare that I can answer affirmatively. My vision of a happy life contains so many opposing elements that it is impossible to bring them all together in one image.
I’d like to dance more, love more, spend more time with Sigge and Johan, work more, meet my friends more often, maybe take a painting class? Spend more time in the summer cottage that we don’t have, read more books, change the world, write, take time to listen to music, take time to work out more, take time to take it easy, take time to be happy…
It’s not that I’m not happy. My life is full of small moments where I feel undivided joy, where I experience tiny euphorias through the small, simple and fantastic. To see Sigge run across the grass in the park. To see his concentration when he fills his bucket with sand. To feel his warm body against mine and kiss his neck. Pure bliss!
But even so. If I look at the big picture, there’s so much more that I want to do. So much I’d like to change.
To me, this is the essence of a very worthwhile book, which highlights some of those difficult questions that modern couples face (or will come to face eventually): How do you find the time? How do you take the time? Which compromises do you want to make, and which do you have to make? And how do you find happiness in those compromises and decisions?
These are challenging and worthwhile questions. And they made me consider the differences between the defining moments of a young woman’s life, and my own, as a young man. And I recognize, from my side of the gender gap, how some of the cultural and social norms that she mentions pull us in different directions and shape us in different ways. There are differences. And much of them stem from a sort of voluntary dominance through interests and priorities, which we learn and internalize as we grow up.
This made me think a lot about what it would mean to me and my life if and when I become a father. How it would be just as necessary for me to put other projects, dreams and ideas on hold for a while and dedicate myself to that new role. Not only to be able to spend time with my child, but also to avoid infusing my child with the same unreflected social structures and gender roles, which continue to cause so much frustration.
Apparently, this new wave of self-help happiness courses all advocate being in the present and enjoying the moment that you’re in now. That realization seems doubly true when it comes to spending time with children.
In short, this book is a very thoughtful and personal reflection on the choices we make in our life, and how the affect the conditions for gender equality in our society. About growing up, realizing that you can’t fulfill all the dreams you have. Coming to this realisation doesn’t mean you have to settle for nothing. Rather, that you have to choose, and seek to be happy with the choices you make if you don’t want to end up bitter.
This is grown-up stuff, and I must admit to feeling rather mature in reading and appreciating this book. But even so, I recommend it to the male audience in particular: If you only read one piece of radical feminist fiction this year – make it this one! Though it’s a book, which quite possibly wasn’t intended for you, you can still learn a lot from it – about women, about relationships, and about frustration, anger and bitterness – and how to escape it. All very worthwhile topics if you intend to avoid choking on your own bitter genitalia one day…
Unfortunately, the book hasn’t been translated into English yet. I have translated all of the above quotes from the Danish translation myself. I hope it’ll be translated soon enough, as it deserves a bigger audience.