Heteropessimism is often understood as a female complaint. The idea that heterosexuality's inequities and disappointments are borne disproportionately by women is so axiomatic that Jane Ward could reasonably dedicate The Tragedy of Heterosexuality to "straight women," with a hope that they might stop "suffering so much."1 Insofar as men are thought to share this complaint, it's as a "funhouse distortion" of women's, as Asa Seresin puts it, and basically reactionary.2 In the past few decades, men have loudly protested various gains for women their increased earning power and marital rights, their increasingly voiced realization that "men are trash" for treating women like trash, the #MeToo movement and have blamed feminism for ruining what men saw as an original arrangement of patriarchal privilege that had served them well since time immemorial.

Some men, however, view women's empowerment not as an unwelcome new development but as a fundamental condition of postlapsarian life. These men agree with the feminist-heteropessimist view that the structure of heterosexuality is inherently and unjustly unequal except they think it's men who get shortchanged, quite literally. Men go out to earn an honest living only for their greedy wives to waste it on frivolities, or worse still, divorce them and live in style off the alimony. Barbara Ehrenreich argued that, for this reason, second-wave feminists and men's rights advocates had more in common than either would have liked to admit: women's financial independence was perfectly compatible with what Ehrenreich calls the "male revolt" against the societal expectation that men work for a family wage. In her account of modern American men's "flight from commitment," Ehrenreich documents the grievances of midcentury, middle-class, middle-management white men who revolted against conscription into marriage and the "bondage of breadwinning" by barricading themselves in bachelor pads, joining the counterculture, embracing "men's liberation," or most heteropessimistically silently stewing in suburban homes, blaming their bad heart health on their wives' lavish spending and decadent cooking, dreaming of man caves where no wives were allowed.

"A tip to my fellow men who might be on the brink of disaster," Ehrenreich quotes one contributor to a 1957 issue of Playboy: "when the little doll says she'll live on your income, she means it all right. But just be sure to get another one for yourself."3 Another Playboy writer sought to pull back the curtain of female charms and cue up a vision of a utopian future: "Neither double eyelashes nor the blindness of night or day can obscure the glaring fact that American marriage can no longer be accepted as an estate in which the sexes shall live half-slave and half-free."4 Bachelorhood could provide an escape from this lifetime of indentured servitude, and Playboy was the unofficial organ of hetero-optimism, selling monthly parades of brand-new women as part of a fantastical, fast-living alternative to what Hugh Hefner called the "slow death" of marriage.5 But as long as men are cursed with wives, they will be cursed with excessive work. Heterosexuality is a prison more specifically, and even more hyperbolically, a prison labor camp, with men as the solitary inmates.

Ehrenreich's study diagnoses a particularly twentieth-century malaise that had professional-managerial men blaming their wives for working conditions that were, in fact, prescribed by their bosses. But this confusion of business and domestic displeasure predates late capitalism, going back, in fact, as far as Eden, where man first fell into heteropessimism. "A woman was made to be a helper unto man, & so they are indeed," a seventeenth-century pamphleteer sneered, "for she helpeth to spend and consume that which man painefully getteth."6 Eve ate the apple and condemned Adam to till the soil, and women have been sitting pretty on their husbands' dimes ever since. Or, in the ancient Greek poet Hesiod's telling, the first woman, Pandora, brought an end to the Golden Age, and now her daughters dawdle like drones in a beehive while men toil out in the fields.7

In early modern Europe, some of the men muttering the loudest about the extractive and exploitative practices of women were love poets. Without women, these poets surmised, men wouldn't have to exhaust themselves not only with producing reams of love poetry but also with enduring the feelings that provide the fuel for that poetry: the pangs of unrequited love, the arrows launched by Cupid's bow or the beloved's cruel eyes into their hearts, the icy chills and burning fevers transmissible by a lady's single airborne word or glance. Starting in fourteenth-century Italy with Petrarch and petering out in seventeenth-century England (though with precocious precedents and lingering afterlives), love lyricists across Western Europe wrote poem after poem about their desire for women who were unavailable, inattentive, or just uninterested, and yet were understood to exert a demanding force on the poor poet-lovers, who tortured themselves writing poems about how women were torturing them. If complaint, as Ellie Anderson argues in this cluster with reference to Sara Ahmed, has historically been associated with women, the genre of the lover's complaint provided a safe space for male poets to whine to their heart's discontent.

Different as these poets were, they were all invested in a kind of generic subjectivity not unlike that which Lauren Berlant identified in twentieth-century American "women's culture." The Petrarchan lover and his ilk tell "a collective story about the personal," about an affective orientation that could be described as "disappointment, but not disenchantment," a symptom of attachment to a feeling that left them stuck in futile labor.8 Their attachments make these poets legible as structurally feminine, more in touch than most with what Andrea Long Chu has described as an ontological "femaleness": "a universal sex defined by self-negation," against which masculinity, among other things, is a reaction formation.9 Women, in accounts like Berlant's, are professionals at losing to win, or at least at taking the aestheticization of loss as consolation. This is also the art by which Apollo, who lost Daphne when she escaped rape by metamorphosing into a laurel in Ovid's Metamorphoses, gained the poetic crown he made from her leaves, and how in turn Petrarch self-laureated as succor for the indignities inflicted on him by Laura. "The biggest loser the one most open to abuse, suffering, humiliation thus turns out to be the biggest winner," is Chu's gloss of the teachings of today's so-called seduction experts, who instruct men that the only way to wear down a hot girl is to let her wear you down first, to temporarily become a woman in order to prove you aren't one.10 But some men don't give up their erotic subjection so easily. "Now like slave-born Muscovite, / I call it praise to suffer tyranny," the speaker of Philip Sidney's sonnet sequence announces, rebranding his submission to Stella's hazing as praiseworthy service to an appointed love czar.11

The catalog of sixteenth-century poets' complaints is epic, even if, for some of them, the repetitive work of writing sonnet after sonnet about the same woman (and, as they often bitterly concluded, all women are the same) was precisely what sapped them of the energy they'd need to write great epics of national importance. Coming centuries after Petrarch, these poets might also have felt fatigued by a sense of generic exhaustion, a version of what Sean Lambert identifies in this cluster as a link between romantic failure in The Worst Person in the World and the decline of the rom-com as a genre. Pierre de Ronsard, in one poem, accuses his mistress of keeping his language "servile," in thrall to feminine frivolity and too bogged down to reach epic heights; in another he strings together a list of annoying stuff women make him do ("travaux qui sont insupportables, / Des services cruels, des tâches miserables"), the redundant near synonymy of "unbearable labors," "cruel service," and "miserable tasks" making the lines themselves feel like a pile-on.12 Abraham Cowley lamented that convincing Cupid to help him fall in love and then having to seduce the woman after that was an unfair "double task."13 But what these poets understand as work might simply be the experience of getting worked. Michael Drayton, in one sonnet in his 1593 collection Idea, gives us a tour of a factory of love where the labor conditions leave something to be desired:

My heart the anvil where my thoughts do beat,
My words the hammers fashioning my desire,
My breast the forge including all the heat,
Love is the fuel which maintains the fire;
                        My sighs the bellows which the flame increaseth,
Filling mine ears with noise and nightly groaning;
Toiling with pain, my labour never ceaseth,
In grievous passions my woes still bemoaning;
                        My eyes with tears against the fire striving,
Whose scorching gleed my heart to cinders turneth;
But with those drops the flame again reviving,
Still more and more it to my torment burneth,
                        With Sisyphus thus do I roll my stone,
                        And turn the wheel with damnèd Ixion.14

Though it seems like we're being introduced to a site of production thoughts beating on a heart-anvil, word-hammers "fashioning [ . . . ] desire," a lovestruck heart providing the fire's heat it soon becomes clear that all this activity is self-consuming. Rather than channeling desire to manufacture a poem (though that's of course literally what's happening), the poet insists on the inverse: that the building blocks of poetry, "words," are simply tools for creating more desire, which is in turn the source of the love-fuel and sigh-bellows that keep the anvil hot enough for the words to hammer on and that keep the poet up at night with his own annoying noises. The poet is condemned not only to roll a stone eternally like Sisyphus, but to advance beyond that labor only to get stuck with what would seem a mathematically impossible additional eternal labor. Rather than resolving the sonnet's problem, the final couplet's turn has the speaker turning a wheel forever.

Affairs are no more refined in the financial milieu of another sonnet, where Drayton as if desperate to prove that writers of words and runners of numbers are real men doing real work, no matter how seemingly insubstantial hammers home the inevitable sunk cost of loving a woman:

Taking my pen, with words to cast my woe,
Duly to count the sum of all my cares,
I find my griefs innumerable grow,
The reck'nings rise to millions of despairs.
                        And thus dividing of my fatal hours,
The payments of my love I read and cross;
Subtracting, set my sweets unto my sours,
My joys' arrearage leads me to my loss.
                        And thus mine eyes a debtor to thine eye,
Which by extortion gaineth all their looks,
My heart hath paid such grievous usury,
That all their wealth lies in thy beauty's books.
                        And all is thine which hath been due to me,
                        And I a bankrupt, quite undone by thee.15

What this accounting adds up to is a radical de-eroticization of heterosexual love. The overwhelming accrual of quantitative coinages "count," "sum," "innumerable," "reck'nings," "millions," "dividing," "payments," "subtracting," "arrearage," "debtor," "extortion," "gaineth," "usury," "wealth," "books," "bankrupt" makes even words that would seem free of explicit debts to economics sound like mere counterfeits of genuine feeling. "Loss" has lost its charm, the ecstatic annihilation of erotic love becomes "undone" by a bank account going bust, and the speaker sounds like one of Ehrenreich's overleveraged husbands whose wife has shopped till he dropped dead of a stress-induced heart attack, or like George Michael, knowing nothing makes a man pass for straight like hating women, singing, "Somebody tell me, / Won't you tell me? / Why I work so hard for you," in Wham!'s "Everything She Wants," the B-side to "Last Christmas," another repetitive lament of a lover who won't learn. "My situation never changes, walking in and out that door / Like a stranger for the wages / I give you all, you say you want more."

But the man credited with inventing modern love poetry was already exhausted. Petrarch wrote hundreds of poems to his beloved Laura, a married woman he saw once. "Little by little she consumes and saps my afflicted, tired spirits," he complains, 256 iterations into the 366-poem sequence, sounding less like a frustrated lover than like a sitcom husband annoyed by his nagging wife.16 In poem 70, realizing how tired he is from so many years spent trying to penetrate Laura's "heart of such hard stone," he decides he doesn't have it in him to come up with original content and needs to outsource: "I am already weary; therefore, as in my heart I become hard and bitter ['naspro]: 'So in my speech I wish to be harsh [aspro],'" he quotes from Dante's rocky rime petrose, with that "therefore" explaining both the change in his speech and the fact that he was too tired to speak it himself too tired, too, to come up with an original rhyme word, his verb "'naspro" merely harshening Dante's already harsh ("aspro") vibe.17 Each of the five stanzas of this canzone ends with a quotation from another poet, except for the last, which ends with a self-quotation: "In the sweet time of my first age," from poem 23 of Petrarch's own collection. Each time, Petrarch seems to run out of steam, relying on someone else the Provençal poet Arnaut Daniel, Dante, an anonymous troubadour, his own younger, more energetic self to pick up the slack: this is how little his lady has left him to work with.

Petrarch's look backwards to earlier poets and his earlier self, and the way their ventriloquized lines slip easily into his own, suggests that heteropessimism the belief that heterosexuality will always be the same sad story is itself a sad story that stays remarkably the same over time. Heteropessimism, which Seresin has called an "anesthetic" mode, is also a basic aesthetic mode, leading to Ryan Lackey's coinage, in his piece on Ted Lasso in this cluster, of "heteroformalism," where the certainty of heterosexual failure is what upholds narrative structure. It's the basis of Western love lyric in particular, where poetic conventions have remained surprisingly stagnant, as stuck as men feel with women, where male poets have been caught up for centuries in what Berlant called, in a different context, "a love affair with conventionality," or what R. Howard Bloch called the "citational mode" of misogyny, or even, as Annabel Barry argues in this cluster of Sally Rooney's most recent novel, a "formal heteropessimism [that] exposes conventional and compulsory heterosexuality itself as a gimmick," easily predictable and a pain to slog through.18 "I despair of women," sighs the twelfth-century troubadour Bernart de Ventadorn. "I fear and distrust all of them, for I know very well that they are all alike."19 "All girls are the same," sings the Chicago rapper Juice WRLD in his 2018 single "All Girls Are the Same." "All girls are the same," sings the Australian musician RØNIN in his 2020 single "All Girls Are the Same." "It seems they all speak from one and the same mouth," sighed the medieval protofeminist Christine de Pizan, marveling at the monotony of misogynist discourse.20

Bernart's love-hate relationship with women condenses the long, unhappy marriage between misogyny and romantic love in Western Europe. But, Bloch points out, there's yet another love story here: the torturous yet somehow tedious affair between poets and the labor of writing love poetry, an unforced labor they just can't quit, though they claim to wish they could.21 "I forsake and renounce singing," Bernart sings, but we know he won't stay silent for long.22 "You look like the silent type," the woman who haunts Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue" tells the narrator when they meet in the "topless place" where she works:

Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burning coal
Pouring off of every page
Like it was written in my soul
From me to you

We're back in the workshop of desire, the same words hammering on the lover's internal anvil, their heartfelt familiarity making the speaker sure that he wrote them himself, so much has he poured himself into the "citational mode" that heteropessimism, misogyny, and romantic love all share. Dante was the preeminent thirteenth-century Italian poet and Petrarch wasn't active till the fourteenth, but Timothy Hampton argues that Petrarch's words were the ones glowing like burning coal and pouring off the page (asked about the reference in an interview, Dylan replied, confusing the late medieval Tuscan with an antique Greek, "Plutarch. Is that his name?").23 Dante, Petrarch, Plutarch what's the difference? I am already weary, for I know very well they are all alike.

Katie Kadue (@kukukadoo) is the author of Domestic Georgic: Labors of Preservation from Rabelais to Milton (University of Chicago Press, 2021). She has published academic articles on Andrew Marvell, Michel de Montaigne, and misogyny and cliché in Renaissance lyric poetry. Her writing has also appeared in venues such as n+1, Gawker, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Chronicle of Higher Education. She received her PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley.


  1. Jane Ward, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality (New York: New York University Press, 2020), dedication.[]
  2. Asa Seresin, "On Heteropessimism," The New Inquiry, October 9, 2019.[]
  3. Phil Silvers, "Resolution: Never Get Married," Playboy, January 1957, 77, quoted in Barbara Ehrenreich, The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment (New York: Doubleday, 1983), 47.[]
  4. William Iverson, "Love, Death, and the Hubby Image," Playboy, September 1963, 92,quoted in Ehrenreich, Hearts of Men, 49.[]
  5. Hugh Hefner, "The Playboy Philosophy," Playboy, January 1963, 41, quoted in Ehrenreich, Hearts of Men, 44.[]
  6. Joseph Swetnam, The araignment of leuud, idle, froward, and vnconstant women or the vanitie of them, choose you whether : with a commendation of wise, vertuous and honest women : pleasant for married men, profitable for young men, and hurtfull to none (London, 1615), 1, Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership, 2011.[]
  7. Hesiod, Theogony, in The Homeric Hymns and Homerica, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1914), 598-99.[]
  8. Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008),ix-x, 2.[]
  9. Andrea Long Chu, Females (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2019), 11, 25.[]
  10. Chu, Females, 58.[]
  11. Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella, sonnet 2, in The Oxford Authors: Sir Philip Sidney, edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 153.[]
  12. Pierre de Ronsard, sonnet LX and "Elegie à son livre," Second Livre des Amours, in Œuvres complètes, vol. I, edited by Jean Céard, Daniel Ménager, and Michel Simonin (Paris: Gallimard, 1993), 227, 169.[]
  13. Abraham Cowley, "The Request," The Mistress: or, several copies of love-verses, in Abraham Cowley: Poems, edited by A. R. Waller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1905).[]
  14. Michael Drayton, Idea, sonnet XL, in Elizabethan Sonnet Cycles, vol. 3 (IdeaFidessaChloris), edited by Martha Foote Crow (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co., 1897), 49.[]
  15. Drayton, Idea, sonnet III, in Elizabethan Sonnet Cycles, vol. 3, 12.[]
  16. "li affetti et stanchi spirti mei / a poco a poco consumando sugge." Francesco Petrarca, Rime sparse 256, in Petrarch's Lyric Poems: The "Rime sparse" and Other Lyrics, translated and edited by Robert M. Durling (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), 418-19.[]
  17. "i' son già lasso; / onde come nel cor m'induro e 'naspro, / 'Così nel mio parlar voglio esser aspro.'" Petrarca, Rime sparse 70, Petrarch's Lyric Poems,150-54. []
  18. Berlant, Female Complaint, 2; R. Howard Bloch, Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 47.[]
  19. "De las domnas me dezesper. / ... totas las dopt'e las mescre, / car be sai c'atretals se son." Bernart de Ventadorn, "Can vei la lauzeta mover" in The Songs of Bernart de Ventadorn, edited and translated by Stephen G. Nichols (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962), 166, quoted in Bloch, Medieval Misogyny, 144.[]
  20. Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, translated by Earl Jeffrey Richards (New York: Persea Books, 1982), 4, quoted in Bloch, Medieval Misogyny, 3.[]
  21. Bloch, Medieval Misogyny, 146.[]
  22. "De chantar me gic e-m recre." Bernart, "Can vei la lauzeta mover," quoted in Bloch, Medieval Misogyny, 145.[]
  23. Timothy Hampton, Bob Dylan's Poetics: How the Songs Work (Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 2019), 132.[]