Modernity and the Crisis of Modern Romantic Love

授課教師  何春蕤

Deconstructing Sex and Romantic Love: Reading Egalia's Daughters




The paradox of human nature is that it is always a manifestation of cultural meanings, social relationships, and power politics; 'not biology, but culture, becomes destiny.'    

-- Judith L orber 

      To understand the paradox of “human nature”, Egalia’s Daughters is a good novel to prove the arbitrariness of identification and human nature.  To expand Lorber’s saying, the positions of today’s women and inferior groups are where they are not just caused by biology but something more intriguing such as culture, history and economy.  Below with close textual analysis along with complementary linguistic, semiologist, feminist and Marxist viewpoints, I will examine the constructivism of sexual identities and how the essence of romance is linked and influenced by modernity.  Romance is the most wide-spread phenomenon and belief nowadays.  However, romance usually follows a certain heterosexual and tyrannical pattern.  Relationships which don’t follow the same pattern are more than often condemned as abnormal.

      Egalia’s Daughters(1977; Eng. trans. 1985) can be seen as feminist science fiction or fantasy, in which the author Gerd Brantenberg1 tries to reverse sex-roles in order for the readers to deconstruct the conventional prejudices towards the two sexes and rethink about the long taken-for-granted romantic notions.  Petronius2, the male protagonist, in the beginning of the book asks his mother Ruth Bram whether he could be a seaman when he grows up.  His mother rebukes his idea and tells him his destiny is to stay at home and mind his future children. It’s then we find out that in this society called Egalsund, it’s men who beget children and take care of them in the family while women wield the power, control the government and the economy. In a ball, Petronius meets a girl named Gro Maydaughter3 and falls in love with her deeply. After giving his maidmanhood, he was hoping that Gro could give him fatherfood-protection.  Unfortunately, before he finds out the answer, he is raped by three women in the woods near his house.  After that, Petronius has changed greatly. He thinks of the injustice of the two sexes and even forms a masculist club to discuss about rebelling against this matriarchal society.  The conflicts arise when Petronius has to decide whether he wants Gro Maydaughter as his lifelong companion or Baldrian, another active member in the masculist club.  

      The chaos of identification in Egalia’s Daughters is not simply a reversal of the two sexes.  Brantenberg wittily deconstructs the linguistic usage and makes it evident that language is not neutral at all. It’s often gender inclusive and representative of a certain ideology and power politics.  The same observation has been made by psychology and sociology; languages are known to have power  in shaping people’s mind and ideas4.  For instance, jobs written with male labels are more likely to be open only to male applicants while gender-neutral job titles are equally open to either male or female applicants. In Egalia’s Daughters, Gerd Brantenberg makes full use of this linguistic finding to prove that a certain ideology is inscribed on people even before they know it.  For example, when we refer to anything associated with men, usually the term is the infix while a certain prefix has to be added on the infix when the term is associated with women.  Linguists argue that this convention of adding feminine prefixes proves a male egoistic identification and places women as subalterns. Below is a simple comparison5:

manwom, menwim= man, men

wom,wim= woman, women 





Lady God=God/Father

Mother God in heaven=Our Father in heaven


Language can exclude and distort reality.  That’s what Brantenberg wants to emphasize in her novel.  Language as we experience it is always class based, race based, gender based but that doesn't mean people don't have an obligation (all of us who speak and write the language) to fight that.  In fact, the battle is being fought by women all over.  We can see how terms like chairwoman, policewoman and clergywoman are invented and used now.  However, in the meantime “mailwoman”, “firewoman” and “womankind” are still not used.  From this observation, I conclude that no language can be one hundred percent “neutral” because the lexicon we write and say reveals an ontology steeped in patriarchy.  Maybe the sexist lexicon is related with the historical, cultural and economic factors, for instance, the cult of domesticity, Christian doctrines and divisions of labor.  However, at least men should get to know this fact of gender-inclusive languages and respect the repressed and oppressed Other.

Besides finding linguistic use of irony in the novel, semiology is another approach to understand how meanings are generated and communicated.  It derives ultimately from the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdin and de Saussure.  I will only state the theory briefly here, enough hopefully to make clear how Egalia's Daughters challenges our fixed thoughts about gender and romantic notions through semiology.  Semiology argues that while language is clearly the most important system of meanings, it is not unique.  There are many other equivalent systems, for example, clothing, food, furniture, gestures and facial expressions. We don't wear clothes only to keep warm, or eat food only to satisfy hunger; we choose clothes to convey a self-image, a social status, our choice of food expresses all kinds of social ideas.  They are rich in meanings, are “languages” in their own right.  When we read the novel through semiology, the first interesting reversing symbol is “peho”.  Peho, or penis holder in its actual meaning, is the most explicit example of how clothing can contribute in constructing identities socially if not historically.  In the novel, women wear trousers and men wear skirts.  Besides, women didn’t have to wear bras but men have to wear pehoes.  Evidently Brantenberg wants to challenge the social formation of requiring women to wear bras by making wearing pehoes hilarious and unnecessary. 

The boys said it was awkward and uncomfortable, cramming your penis into that stupid box. And it was so impractical when you had to pee.  (12)

      In our society, bra is a must-wear clothes for women.  One of the reasons I assume is women’s breasts are seen as sexual organs while men’s are not.  We can further trace back to religious origin to know how women’s breasts are sexualized not inherently but learned.  In Genesis in the Bible, Eve and Adam found themselves shameful because they didn’t wear clothes after they have eaten the fruits of Wisdom.  However, the Bible didn’t say exposing breasts for women is an evil thing.  After eating the fruits, Eve and Adam only made themselves aprons to cover their sexual organs.

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.  And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.  (Genesis 3:6-7)

       Sex and sexual organs are both separated from our lives in public later because of the surveillance of the society to keep humans “in control”.  The premise is humans are sexual-oriented creatures and they have strong sex drives.  This premise is built from men’s point of view.  If the society wants to function well and don’t want to be bothered by complex sexual relationships.  Monogamy seems to be the best excuse to smear possibilities of other “romantic” and alternative relationships.  Yet, women are double examined by both the society and men as individuals and as the vulnerable sex.  Eventually women’s bodies are mystified and objectified, or I can baldly say women become the scapegoats to fulfill men’s ambitions and society’s stability.  Therefore men and boys can strip off their shirts playing basketball without being blamed but hardly can we find women or girls to do so.  When women take off their shirts, they are labeled as sexual or wanton. Brantenberg in her era begins to look at this practice (the invisible constraint imposed on women) with a critical attitude.  Many feminists even think women’s bodies and clothes are all trapped in the male gaze.  Even until now, a lot of advertisements, fitness programs and weight-losing programs are often criticized by feminists for they think women are subjected to male gaze if they cater to men’s tastes about their bodies, clothes, or even bras.

       From another point of view, bras and pehoes are not only fetishized for erotic purposes, but also unconsciously they are served as maintenance for ideological and ontological beliefs that the inferior sex reasonably should please the superior sex with their appearances and physical attributes.  This is emphasized a great deal in the novel and worth discussing.  Men dress up not because they like it but because they thought women want them to look beautiful.  Besides, the physical characteristics, according to Brantenberg, becomes the last unbreakable bondage for women to embrace their own autonomy.  For example, in Egalsund, boys pay extra attention to the lengths of their penises and of course the mode of pehoes.

If Dad came with him, he and the shop assistant would stand there discussing the length, colour, and quality interminably.  Ought he to have a size five with a B-tube or a size six with an A-tube, they would debate…pretending that having a penis was the most natural thing [my emphasis] in the world.  (13)

      Likewise, woman with small busts feel shameful of themselves and feel unconfident as a woman for the sizes of breasts matter a great deal for men’s visual pleasure.  We can easily guess wearing pehoes symbolizes the same obligation and restraints women suffer from wearing bras in our society.  In fact, in a later discussion among the masculists, they point out how unreasonable it would be if women also have to wear bras.

‘What would wim say if we told them they had to hoist up their breasts in some stupid sling, the way we have to wear a peho?  If we said that without something to support their breasts, they looked droopy and ugly and unattractive?’  (185)

      Although I seldom heard from women complaining how inconvenient to wear bras, I do see movie stars and some independent women who don’t wear bras at all, especially in western countries.  I think by not wearing bras, women can break the myth of their sexuality and justify their own desires.  It’s like the strategy of many artists to go naked to desexualize our conceptions of women’s bodies.  Male gaze is no longer a spell to limit women’s individuality and identification.  That’s how modernity influences the dialectics of feminism.  Now women believe they can be beautiful and at the same time be themselves without worrying how men look at them.

       Personally I think the strategy of reversing the roles of sexes is a clever move. Brantenberg writes in this way that the male would deny the reality depicted in the novel because they are not the vulnerable sex.  And yet they would be forced to recognize the reality that lies in daily lives for women and become reflexive about their own formation of identities and how they are positioned in the society as men. For women, they will be shocked to know how they are deprived of their bodies and identities.  Through Petronius and other male characters, they can relate to their own circumstances in the society today.  Besides, we have to notice that not every circumstance or situations are reversed in Egalsund, which bears several possibilities. First, the plot only wants to point out the exploitation and deprivation of women so it doesn’t matter to reverse everything between male and female characters as long as the goal is achieved. Second, we as readers are left to ponder about the ontology of nature between men and women.  Third, Brantenberg intentionally brings up the issue of fatalism.  Even though men under her pen wear skirts and act obedient, men still have this power of physical strength which women are hard to fight with.  One notable instance is Lisello Owlmoss’s teaching.  Lisello is the teacher in a high school in Egalsund.  In one class, he declares that biologically speaking the wom is weaker than the menwom.  If the book is a total reversal, women are supposed to be stronger than men.  However, Brantenberg keeps this “fact”.  Even though the book is said to be a satire, here I find a pessimistic argument from Brantenberg herself. She makes the injustice biologically determined.  She herself seemly believes in biological essentialism that explains why in the real world women are indeed oppressed.  Whether men are really biologically stronger is not my concern here. I just want to point out in some matriarchal societies, men think they are weaker than women despite questioning the scientific statistics and research, such as Mosuo People of southwest China6.  So the social institution might change our conceptions of what we are upside down.  I think Brantenberg is either encouraging women to fight on the injustice despite the fatalism or she is proposing another perspective to ask women if the fatalism is imagined and man-made as well.

However, semiologists would view this half reversal of men and women as deconstructing differences between men and women.  The meanings of "woman" can't be understood except through its difference from or relation to “man”.  They define each other by their differences.  Thus languages, behaviors and material forces together is a system of differences.  No matter men are stronger or women are stronger in the novel, we do not accept the reversed roles between men and women because they (languages, behaviors and material forces) make sense of our world in an unbearable way.  They make sense of our world because we have been influenced by them. We do not accept them because they appear to us rational and intelligible; they appear rational and intelligible because we have been moulded in that system's image.  That’s why women have to wear bras and wear lipsticks while men have to act macho and build their bodies.  The theory of ideology implied by semiology is a grossly anti-rational one.  What we know as rational turns out not to be the most rational and most egalitarian of all.

        Besides showing how language and semiology are used in Ealsund to reinforce and create these gender roles, i.e. wim and menwim. Brantenberg also points out romance is a fluid state of desire that opens up new possibilities besides heterosexual monogamy.  These gender relations becomes even more complicated if we go on reading the second part of the novel.  First, I’d like to point out Petronius in the beginning is longing to become a seaman because of the romance novels.  Ruth Bram’s friend, Liz Bareskerry, has commented on this when Petronius goes along with her on a fishing trip. Bareskerry says:

She knew that the best thing for Spinnerman Bram was for him to realize how dull and lacking in glamour the life of a seawom was.  All the romance associated with the life of a seawom was the invention of menwim.  (74)

        This is very interesting how seawom themselves dismiss the romance taking place in their daily work.  However, I agree with Janice Radway that the popularity of romance novels indicates certain power imbalance for women in the real life or here men in the novel.  Reading romance is not just a pessimistic way to cure women’s or men’s insecurity and depression of the real life.  The social behavior of reading romance novels can help them to recognize or identify with the figures and accomplish things that in the real world they can never do or allowed to do.  Radway further explains:

The analytic focus must shift from the text itself, taken in isolation, to the complex social event of reading where a woman actively attributes sense to lexical signs in a silent process carried on in the context of her ordinary life.  (8)

       Following this thinking thread, Petronius becomes aware of the power imbalance and decides to become a masculist not just out of the blue.  The romance novels offer him a way to reason and a hope to look for.  In this sense, Brantenberg is not against the romance novels at all.  Instead, she recognizes the values of this genre.

       As what I have mentioned earlier, Petronius meets his ideal wom in the maidman’s ball.  But he doesn’t end up living happily ever after with Maydaughter. One of the reasons I think is the developing individuality which is accompanied by modernity.  Romantic love never exists separately from the social state, a notion Beck mentioned in Risk Society and also Normal Chaos of Love.  We can tell how capitalism thrives and influences the traditional fishing industry in the novel and how the birth rate drops because women don’t want to suffer from giving births.  These are all the typical problems we can see in a society where modernity is happening. People are becoming more rational and individualized.  That’s why Petronius and his friends form a masculist club and regularly discuss the masculist movements. Eventually his masculist thinking stops him from stepping into the conventional romantic path with Gro Maydaughter.  He gives up forming a family with Maydaughter. Meanwhile Ruth Bram and Christopher Lizdaughter argue whether they should have a third child.  Even though Christopher loses the debate and gives in. For the first time, he dares to tell Bram what he thinks of begetting a child for him.

He had secretly hoped she would be satisfied with the two they had.  There was no social pressure on Ruth to have another child. And now what would happen?  Ruth would get leave from her job for the duration of her pregnancy, if she wanted it, so he would be have her under his feet at home all day.  And when she finally went back to work, there would be the exhausting period of nursing.  Christopher sighed…Christopher turned impetuously towards her. ‘Can’t you stop it?’  (88)

        Inequalities still exist but they’re seen as personal problems, such as in the case between Christopher’s reluctance of having another baby and Ruth’s censure.  On the contrary, we find individualization and democratic thinking when socialization develops to a certain state.  Petronius represents this new horizon for individuals to choose the life they want to lead despite his gender.  And here comes the very different notion of what romantic love is for him.  In one scene when Petronius and Baldrian are harassed by a wom in a pub, they make her embarrassed by saying they are going to a gay bar.  And they do go to a gay bar afterwards.  There they meet Spn Owlmoss and Fandango.  It turns out that these masculists are liberating their sexualities in the club in order to feel free from the omnipresent matriarchy.  Spn Owlmoss suggests:

Without pallurian menwim, there would never have been any menwim’s movement, ever.  (197)

      Petronius then for the first time discovers he could be homosexual too.  And he loves Baldrian. In the end of the novel he writes a letter to Gro to break up with her and he wants to build a new world with Baldrian.

     The twist in the plot seems a bit exaggerative and unconvincing.  However this is meant to be a touchstone for Brantenberg to deconstruct romantic love.  Homosexual love could be the ultimate representation of how modernity is reshaping gender formations and people’s life biographies.

     Although classes are diminishing gradually in today’s society, we need to figure out a new politics for current social inequalities.  This novel is a touchstone to examine how gender and sexuality are deep-rooted and socially constructed in people. Even though the context to situate Egalia’s Daughters is in Second Feminist Wave in 1970s and early 1780s.  It nevertheless declares and predicts a new era to come-a time when plastic sexualities and other non-mainstream sexualities could be possible.

     Last, I’d like to make a summary of Brantenberg’s approaches of deconstruction of the two sexes and romantic love.  First, she uses language to show how languages make us understand reality and ourselves.  The use of language provides the basis of power and authority, control and influence.  Language use not only reflects social power relations, it also plays a crucial role when we construct who we are and which groups we identify with on specific occasions.  When a society has developed a particular pattern for meaning, those who do not abide by it are being unreasonable.  That is perfectly understandable.  However, Brantenberg asks us what if the whole pattern is unreasonable within itself?  Semiologist approach is the same thing.  What we wear, use and eat all contribute to the norm the society expects from us individuals.  But if that norm is stereotypical already, would radical movements arouse people’s questioning? 

      To conclude, Egalia’s Daughters offers us a clear mirror to see the construction of gender and of the self; the impact of sexual orientation and class on women’s lives; and the strategies of resistance and liberation that are available to women.  Throughout history, feminist women (and men) have sought to redress gender inequalities and create a just world.  By deconstructing languages, signs and romantic notions, we can recognize and appreciate the great diversity among women and to understand the social, political and cultural consequences of that diversity. 


1 Gerd Brantenberg was born in 1941 in Oslo, Norway. Her work reflects the feminist movement she engaged in since early 1970s. She is one of Norway’s cultural treasures and a lesbian author with a huge international following.

2 See appendix for a simple genealogical chart.

3 Maydaughter is a surname to mock the patriarchal surnames such as Johnson, Richardson, and etc.

4 That’s part of the reason why a lot of linguists advocate changing the conventional usage of certain words. For instance, one scholar wrote about how “Chinese” and  “China” carry a despising tone. The scholar argues that the suffix “-ese” means tiny and unimportant and China means clay. Languages not only preserve the traces of patriarchy but also imperialism and racism. The scholar also points out the suffix  “-an” as a superior identification, such as American, Canadian and German etc.   However, I’d say calling ourselves Taiwanan is not as good as making ourselves  aware of the positions relative to the central.

5 Here is the complete list of the male-marked language used in Egalia’s Daughters: manwom= man; menwim=men; wom=woman; wim=women; mafele=male;  fele=female; gentlewim=ladies; lordies=gentlemen; testerical=hysterical; peho=  penisholder; Lady God=God/Father; Mother God in heaven= Our Father in Heaven;  Lucy=God/Boy; Msass=Mr.; Ms=Miss/Mrs.; foremothers=forefathers;  sheroes=heroes; fisherwim=fishermen; maidmenhood=maidenhood; Sigma  Floyd=Freud Sigmund; inhuwom=inhuman; housebound=housekeeper

6 Chou Hwa-Shan has made a very detailed documentary on Mosuo people of the Southwest China. In the documentary, one man said women are physically stronger than men so it’s natural for women to do all the strength-consuming chores like  cutting firewood or hunting.

Works Cited

Brantenberg, Gerd. Egalia's Daughters. London: Journeymen Press, 1985.

Lorber,Judith. Paradoxes of Gender. Yale University Press, 1994.