The Rumpus Interview with Samhita Mukhopadhyay

By

Samhita Mukhopadhyay’s new book Outdated: How Dating is Ruining Your Love Life takes a deep look at how the hell do you balance your feminist ideals with the archaic power dynamics that dating forces us to engage in and how skewed gender politics and damaging messaging are getting in the way of men and women finding real love. Political writer Melissa Harris-Perry said it is “the pick-yourself-up, get-back-out-there, break-up book for third wave feminists.”

Along with critiquing mainstream dating books, which are giving men and women often-contradictory advice, Outdated tackles some of the big media-inflated gender stories of the 21st century, including the masculinity “crisis” and the “tragedy” of single womanhood. But, perhaps most significantly, she starts a public conversation about the pitfalls of Dating While Feminist (DWF).

Samhita talked to me during one of our regular bi-weekly Skype sessions from Brooklyn to Kolkata, India—where I’m living right now—about finding her voice through blogging, writing like an orphan, and love as social change.

***

The Rumpus: You started blogging for Feministing over five years ago and now are the Executive Editor. It really seemed like you discovered your voice and style as a writer in this totally public medium. How do you think that affected the way you write?

Samhita Mukhopadhyay: I talk about that a lot when I talk to college students who want to become writers: the value of public versus private writing, and the different purposes that they serve for you. One of the difficulties of having been so public from the get-go was that when I fell, it wasn’t a private mistake. It was a very public mistake. And I was chastised for it. There is this expectation that when you are public, you’re perfect—especially as a young woman, being in the male-dominated world of political writing. There were certain expectations that you [should bring] a specific type of analysis and if you didn’t bring that, then you’re just not that good of a blogger. You don’t really get opportunities to have space to experiment.

But the good thing about it is that it forces you to be a little bit more competitive about your writing, and to push yourself and really think about how to convey these messages in a way that a broader audience can understand. That part has been invaluable. I don’t think I would have been prepared to write a book, just five years after starting writing for a public forum, if I hadn’t had that external pressure to satisfy a broader audience. So, it came with baggage and trauma, but I can almost point to the blog posts where I had this transition in my writing, from being uncertain and confused and not necessarily knowing how to make the points that I want to make to knowing how to do that in this clearer way.

Rumpus: I think the biggest challenge for most writers is the self-discipline to sit down and write. In a way, Feministing has also forced you to have this crazy self-discipline when it comes to writing. I’ve seen you go to some pretty crazy lengths to cover the site and make those deadlines—even though it has never been your main “job”.

Mukhopadhyay: Yeah, I don’t feel disciplined. It’s not always pretty. I mean, you’re a writer, you know that you can’t wait until you’re inspired to sit down and write. You just have to start writing and you hope that one percent of the 100 percent you put in is something you can salvage for the following day. In that way, it’s almost like mental masturbation. You have to get it out there, and you hope that once you do that there’s something in it that you can come back and edit.

Blogging forces you to self-edit—it’s like competitive speedwriting. You are specifically creating an intervention to the media. It is a type of activism, really. It’s not so much that ‘This is my writing process,’ as it is ‘This needs to get said before the New York Times comes in and says it like this.’ One of the side effects of that urgency, yeah, is building discipline. It is the ability to articulate arguments in a very complicated way very quickly. That then translates to any kind of writing you do.

I wrote this book so it would be an intervention to other dating books. Not because I necessarily felt I needed to write a book about dating for young women, but because I felt this urgency [to respond] to the messaging that was out there.

Rumpus: You have a background in high school debate that you often equate to why you’ve been successful as a blogger, but I think it also comes from your experience and training as an activist. Why do you think that writing is the form of activism that works best for you?

Mukhopadhyay: I’ve always been interested in the way that believing in a specific worldview, and wanting to work towards that, impacts your intellectual and cultural and artistic thought production. That relationship was always … almost seamless to me. That was the type of art that I was most drawn to, revolutionary stuff or anti-establishment.

I do think, you know, finding my voice through blogging, was my way of being the most effective activist I could be for myself. I also got lucky, that was paired with really good timing. I started writing for Feministing [in 2005] when blogs were first really taking off, and we were one of the first feminist blogs, so we got a lot of attention. That was both a privilege and a responsibility. Prior to that, when I was an activist or working in non-profits or even in schools, I didn’t feel as effective. I didn’t feel like I was instrumental enough in producing these worlds that I wanted to live in. I felt like I was working within the means of a system that was so broken.

Rumpus: One of the things I loved about Outdated was that it straddles all these different spheres and styles. It’s part feminist theory, pop culture criticism, self-help and self-love. What genre do you classify it as?

Mukhopadhyay: Well, lucky for me, it has been classified as a “Dating and Relationships” book, which I’m really happy about. Though, I think it does fall into the lineage of feminist work or Women’s Studies work that is more personal narrative as opposed to a kind of deeper structural analysis. It really comes from “the personal is political” type of writing—the stuff that really influenced us, like bell hooks. [I was] taking things I learned in an academic context but applying them to my real world experiences. It is Women’s Studies as a genre, but thinking about the limitations of that field, there is a new generation of writers—like Julia Serano, Michael Kimmel and Jaclyn Friedman to name a few—and I would like to think that I am part of them, that are really rethinking differences in gender and sexuality and really looking at masculinity and the role that masculinity plays in constructing our romantic ideals. I think it is part of this post-Women’s Studies space that is slowly emerging.

Banerjee: Who is your ideal reader for Outdated? Who do you hope is picking up this book?

Mukhopadhyay: My ideal reader, I would say is anyone who is currently engaging with these pressures in contemporary society. A young woman who is dealing with the fact that all of her friends are getting married and she doesn’t want to, or she does want to and she feels bad about it. A lot of these books that have come out in the last few years are geared towards women in their 30s and 40s, like He’s Just Not That Into You, or the other week, the Atlantic Monthly had a cover story, “All the Single Ladies,” about how, basically, single women are the outcasts of regular normative society.

I think the book is for these women who are being told they have “missed the boat” and now have to deal with it the rest of their life. My hope is for women like that, who feel like they’ve really lost hope, and that they are never going to find “the one”, that they’ll read the book and feel like it’s okay, and that they’ll come to some kind of common sense understanding of the shifts that are happening in our generation and how a lot of them, though they may not embrace this language, but they are the warriors of this generation in terms of really shifting the way we really think about gender.

Rumpus: You’ve faced some really heinous backlash in your years as a blogger—I’m especially thinking of the blogging you were doing around the alleged Duke Lacrosse Team rape case back in 2006, and how you were getting responses that said that you should be publicly raped for what you were writing. And now, with Outdated, you’re taking on bestselling male authors like Steve Harvey, not to mention you have written with incredible honesty about your own romantic and sexual history, and your insecurities. It’s really, really brave. How do you keep the fear at bay when you’re writing; and how do you deal with the backlash?

Mukhopadhyay: Well, first of all, the public backlash was so secondary to the fear of my mother reading this book. At least those are people I don’t know; it’s not your mother, okay? When I was writing this book, one of our friends gave me this great quote from Margaret Atwood about how orphans tell the best stories because they don’t worry about what their parents think. So, I kept remembering that when I was writing the book, because that was my biggest fear, more than anything.

One of the things that I think writing publicly did train me for was that level of crossfire on a political and intellectual level. As a prominent feminist writer there are certain experiences that women have because they are speaking truths that go against the grain of what makes people comfortable, and that is just a reality, that is the condition that we’re writing in. That’s not a personal failing on my part, or something that I could do differently, that’s just a function of writing in a patriarchical society about the things I am choosing to write about. So, I reconciled a lot of that before I wrote the book. I definitely knew going into the process of writing the book, and preparing for it to come out, that I would get a lot of backlash, because I have been dealing with that for a long time. The number one way that I have supported myself in the process is keeping people close to me in my life—having a good personal support network. I think that is often where the difficulty comes in when women write stuff like this. If they are writing it in isolation, it is very easy to become victim to these larger forces and believe these things about yourself, like “I am not smart enough to write this. Maybe I am imagining sexism.” And you start to believe that, and I think it is so important that we create the communities to reflect the world that we want. You know, and to really build close relationships and mentorships. Without those people, there is no way I would have been able to do this.

Rumpus: The book balances humor and snark with this really deep analysis, which speaks to your style. Your personality really comes across. Why do think humor is important in talking about these issues?

Mukhopadhyay: One of the things that is difficult about a lot of feminist work, is that it is so serious. It turns young people off because it is too heavy to engage in. And the reality is, that a lot of these issues that we’re struggling with are funny. You have to laugh about them, because they are so ridiculous. Some of these dating situations that I’ve been in, you have no choice but to laugh at them. I’m like: This person can’t actually take themselves seriously, can they? So, I am happy to hear that people are responding to the humor in the book. I was really afraid that the book would turn out to be serious because I was not in a good emotional space—I mean, I was in the difficult space of writing a book, which is not a good emotional space, and I was also navigating several rather unfortunate romantic situations that had me in a very negative headspace. I was afraid that the book would be a reflection of that, that it would be this really sad take about this 30-somethng girl living with her roommate in Flatbush. But it nice to hear that the humor is sticking out to people, because that is what helped me get through these situations in real life—laughing about them with you.

Rumpus: The conclusion of the book was really powerful to me, especially as someone who isn’t single right now. It raised the book above something targeted just to single women, to something larger. I mean, in general, I think the book has a lot of important points for anyone interested in changing heteronormativity, but when you talk about the power of love as a force of social change—it was epic, it really brought it all together for me and made me feel like I could be an important part of this movement. Did you always know that was what the book was really about?

Mukhopadhyay: My initial motivation to write the book was this frustration I was feeling in our generation of our inability to truly embrace love between ourselves and to overcome all of these constructed obstacles we have between ourselves. Which was either playing games, or playing into these very specific gendered ideas about how men should act and how women should act. I realized that my frustration, personally, with that was that I was looking for love and that I wanted it in my life, but I just didn’t feel like it was obtainable given the tools that we had. So it did emerge for me when I was writing the book that that was the larger struggle.

I didn’t write the book so much to justify my own experience or say that I wanted to stay single, or any of that. I wanted to reconcile a certain level of spiritual damage that has happened in our generation, because of so many other forces, with our relationship to loving authentically. Also, for the last chapter, I talked to all these feminists and heard all the things they have navigated to find love for themselves. I realized that the book wasn’t just about how He’s Just Not That Into You is a sexist book, but that the messaging in the book is actually stopping us from having authentic loving connections with people.


Neelanjana Banerjee's writing has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines, Fiction Writers Review, FirstPost, HTML Giant and more. She is a co-editor of Indivisible: An Anthology of South Asian American Poetry (University of Arkansas Press, 2010) and currently lives in India. More from this author →