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American Representations of Sex, Intimacy, and Romance

Stories in books, films, and television programs often narrate the past using ‘a tale as old as time’ frame of reference, suggesting that all throughout human history most men and women somehow met, fell in love, got married, and then lived happily ever after. However, are current ideas about the romantic couple indeed “timeless,” “intuitive,” or “natural?” Was life outside white, heterosexual, and monogamous coupledom always narrated and treated the same? And how have ideas about the couple shaped popular thought about life outside the couple, for instance for singles or for people living in a non-monogamous relationship? In this course, we will investigate the changing understandings of single, couple, and non-monogamous life in American cultural discourses, from the 19th century to the early 21st century. The course aims to question popular assumptions about life in and outside the couple relationship and advance an analytical discussion of the political, economic and cultural structures that inform these norms. Using feminist, queer, and critical race perspectives, we will see how these choices and practices are not only individual, but also political and socially constructed. 

Texts used throughout the quarter will combine relevant scholarship from history, American studies, communication, and sociology with short stories, films, and newspaper articles which will be used as case studies. In each case study, we will consider the contemporaneous political-economic and cultural contexts, and the ways in which gender, sexuality, and race informed the changes in America’s popular discourses about life in and outside of the couple. We will focus on these central themes: changing couple norms, the couple and gender, the couple and race, the couple and the state, Monogamy and non-monogamy, singlehood, and queer relationalities and gay marriage. As we address these topics over the course of the quarter, we will reflect on the stakes of these critical conversations for the contemporary moment and the variety of ideas about life in and outside the couple currently circulating in US popular culture.

By the end of class, we will gain knowledge about the history of discourses around singlehood, the couple, and non-monogamy in America over the last two centuries. We will understand how the relevant norms interact within varying forms of difference and inequality and how they are influenced by contemporary events and processes. Far from ‘natural,’ we will come to see life in and outside of the couple as fluid, changing, and malleable based on society’s norms and expectations.