Review of "The Birth of Pleasure"

By Carol Gilligan
Knopf, 2002
Review by Talia Welsh on Jun 23rd 2002
The Birth of Pleasure

            The Birth of Pleasure contains no chapters, no section headings, and no footnotes.  Despite the fact that psychological studies, novels, poems, lyrics, and myths are abundantly cited, Gilligan does not provide much in the way of a typical scholarly apparatus even when she is directly quoting from a text.  Moreover, the book is written in a seemingly random fashion.  It moves from a psychological study of 13-year olds to a myth, and then to a song by the Indigo Girls—without transition.  One is given little indication of where the text is going, or where it has been, or why it is going where it seems to be going. The prose itself is sometimes well-written, sometimes a horrible combination of psychobabble and incoherent metaphors, and often veers into a repetitive mantra of “harmony, love, togetherness” versus “rupture and loss due to the bad patriarchy/hierarchy.”  For instance— “But we also see the power of love to unglue hierarchy, as association opens the way to undoing dissociation” (pg. 161).

            This stylistic decision, one assumes, is supposed to harmonize with the topic matter of the book: love, pleasure, suffering, family dynamics, relationships, developmental psychology, and the patriarchy.  It might also be an attempt at “a different voice” (the work that made Gilligan famous is her 20-year-old book In a Different Voice). A different voice is needed to express the complexity of these highly emotional themes.

            In a Different Voice came at a time in feminist theory when the traditional struggle for equality was being questioned.  Were feminists implicitly considering “equality” in exclusively masculine terms?  In a Different Voice charts the manner in which young girls and boys reason.  Gilligan notes that girls focus more on relationships and consequences, whereas boys act based on rules.  Contra traditional psychological categories, where adherence to moral rules is a higher stage of development, Gilligan praises the girls manner of moral reasoning and suggests that girls’ “voices” have long been suppressed.    This helped to spur a growing divide in feminist theory over whether or not certain styles of reasoning are inherently masculine and others inherently feminine.  More radical claims, to which Gilligan does not subscribe, on the side of a “feminine reason” argue that language and logic themselves are male enterprises, namely, “tools” of the patriarchy.

            Gilligan does not directly pick up this argument in The Birth of Pleasure, but the theme of the patriarchy/hierarchy is omnipresent.  Although the style of the book renders it resistant to succinct summarization, I will provide an overview one of what I take to be the main thrust of the text.

Gilligan argues that, due to the patriarchal/hierarchical structure of society, certain relationships between parents and children develop into pathologies (i.e., the Oedipus conflict).  For boys, the conflict occurs most deeply in early childhood and, thereafter, boys concern themselves with being part of the patriarchy.  For instance, young boys understand themselves as either “good guys” or “bad guys” and form their social identities accordingly.  They lose the ability to find their own voices and form relationships on terms outside of their social roles.  For girls, the pathological conflict with parents and society occurs later in puberty.  Girls are encouraged not to take up the role of protector, as boys are, but of the self-sacrificing lover, or the tyrannical mother who forces her daughters to behave accordingly to the norms of  a patriarchal society.  Thus, love is inherently problematic because it asks for a bond that disrupts the social roles one is demanded to play.  Love is too democratic for the hierarchical nature of society and the fixed stereotypes men and women embody.  Gilligan treats everything from myths to group therapy as revealing that individuals find love to end in suffering, rather than pleasure, because of the conflicts it always entails. She suggests that if one exposes how society creates these conflicts, one can find a love that can give birth to pleasure if the couple overcomes their restrictive roles.

            Much of the book smacks of a kind of teenage romanticism.  Is love really about two individuals fighting against the evilness of society’s hierarchical and patriarchal norms?  The myth of Psyche and Cupid is interwoven, in a very beautiful manner, throughout the book.  At the end of a story fraught with lies, battles, and family drama, Psyche and Cupid finally come together as equal lovers and “give birth to Pleasure.”  It is a lovely myth and certainly meddling family members have destroyed many a great love, but what does it tell us about the patriarchy or love itself?  It privileges the concept that romantic love is the non plus ultra of love relationships, a concept that strikes the reviewer as narrow, teenage, and Western. Is pleasure uniquely the child of romantic love?  Is the high divorce rate in the U.S.A. a sign of an inability to love in a patriarchy, or is it a sign that human romantic love is simply a more fleeting, passing affection than we would like to admit? 

More disturbing in Gilligan’s book is the idea that these myths reveal something essential about human love.  One could easily read love myths as indoctrinating young people into the concept that what life is about is to have a romantic love (and that, without it, you will be doomed to unhappiness).  Sure, many love myths have this tragic end Gilligan describes, but the tragedy is itself a beautiful, admirable thing.  The characters are half-gods or impossibly beautiful princesses and princes who live rather useless, selfish lives.  This kind of story, whether the ending is a happy one, such as in Psyche and Cupid or unhappy, seems to be precisely the kind of silly, unrealistic story any skeptical individual would take issue with.  These are not real people with real loves; they are entertaining stories that, like most contemporary films, repeat ad infinitum the idea that the point of life is a perfect romantic love with a perfect individual who solves every need and desire you have.  Certainly, these stories tell us volumes about human nature, but it appears that Gilligan herself is arguing that if one does away with the “powers that be,” we can live in this perfect, Hollywood world where we will engage in fully satisfying, perfect relationships, and—by the way—also raise our children in a perfect, conflict-free manner.  To the reviewer, it would appear that precisely these idealistic stories of love do far more to suppress young women than a lack of self-confidence.

            Nonetheless, despite this overwhelming romanticism, Gilligan points to two interesting theses.  One is to note the difference in kind between how boys and girls create their social roles. Gilligan writes that boys do indeed, in a more or less Freudian fashion, go through the Oedipal stage in early childhood.  Girls, on the contrary, do not split themselves into the “real me” and the “society me” until puberty, at which point they also display greater illness, more social discomfort, etc.  Since girls are older, they are also much more sensitive to the larger social context in which their relationships are forming.  In order to satisfy the demands of parents and the social group, girls learn to lie about their feelings.  Gilligan writes about how her own conflicts with her mother were often about her mother encouraging her to do and say the “right”—i.e., socially acceptable—things, not to be honest about how she felt.  Naturally, her mother wanted her to be successful in a patriarchal society; lying is required for success.  Second, and related to this theme, Gilligan does a fine job of pointing out the complexities of familial relationships and the investments that parents have in their children.  Parents too have social norms they must live up to, and this affects their parenting skills, often to the detriment of the children.

There are some non-contentious parts of Gilligan’s text. Bad families and repressive societies do limit the ability for individuals to love who they want.  Although the therapy discussed is exclusively for the middle/upper class individual (how many families can afford to send their daughter to confidence building groups, or how many women can attend drama workshops?), it would probably be beneficial to promote confidence building groups and workshops for young persons.

            However, beyond these kind of vague calls for more love, less repression, and familial harmony, the larger point of the text seems to ultimately repeat/reiterate a tried-and-true romanticism.  I was unconvinced that true romantic love would somehow undermine the patriarchy.  Not to mention, I could never figure out what the patriarchy is to Gilligan.  Is it just the status quo? Is it the same in all countries? All classes? All times?  Does it just indicate that men are in power, have the money, etc.? Or is the patriarchy some kind of subtle use of “male” reason that goes far beyond who controls the purse-strings?  Does patriarchy mean the same thing as hierarchy (since Gilligan used the words interchangeably)? I was surprised to find that it appears that Gilligan thinks it was a universal description of “love in a patriarchy” since her conception of love seem so Western and bourgeois. 

            Despite my ultimate dissatisfaction with the book’s themes, the book is an engaging read.  Although the prose is heavy and awkward, I enjoyed reading a book with a different style in comparison to dry academic texts.  One can hope that the next text of Gilligan’s will continue to look for a different voice and to move beyond hackneyed conceptions of love.


© 2002 Talia Welsh

Talia Welsh is a Ph.D. student in Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She is writing a dissertation on Merleau Ponty's psychology.


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