The Declaration of Independence enshrines the “pursuit of happiness” as an “inalienable Right,” right next to life and liberty as essential endowments for all people. Or, at least, for all men.
The inclusion of happiness as a right guaranteed to all men was a radical proposition in 1776, though it is now a defining aspect of American exceptionalism. The concept remains radical for women, however, because our social, political, and cultural systems are not actually built for us; these systems were constructed knowing our labor is what allows many men to be able to pursue happiness in the first place. In The H Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness, journalist Jill Filipovic dives into the history of American social norms and expectations, rooting out and revealing the many ways American culture, in the name of morality and rugged individualism (coupled with healthy doses of late-capitalist consumerism) undermines women at nearly every turn. Throughout this study, she asks the vital question: “what would we make if we all had the tools?” The current system is rigged; what could we build that would actually promote equality—and by extension, happiness—on a systemic, bottom-up level?
The H Spot is not a narrative of personal discovery or a self-help guide on how to make the “right” choices. Rather, it combines history, recent sociological research, interviews with women from a range of backgrounds, and some of Filipovic’s own personal experience to focus on the root causes that render the American system of politics and culture inadequate to the task of promoting equality and, to an even greater degree, happiness. Through an intersectional lens, Filipovic looks at female friendship, sex, parenting, marriage, work-life balance, food and body image, and personal identity, revealing the antipathy and even outright hostility American society has for women’s pleasure and fulfillment, an opposition that often rises to outright hatred when race and class become involved. What she uncovers time and time again is that “[o]f course women can’t flourish in a system that needs us as support for someone else’s building. We’re here to prop it up, not live in it.” Which brings us back to the question: so how do we build a system that doesn’t require one group of people to sacrifice for the support of the other?
There is no easy answer to this or to the many other questions she raises, but Filipovic dives deep into the machinery of American culture and politics to uncover the underlying causes of continuing inequality, demonstrating the necessity of reframing our deeply held cultural beliefs. Some of the most challenging work will involve completely rejecting and reworking the narratives that have become foundational to our culture — the myth of “traditional” single-breadwinner, heterosexual marriage as universal; the idea that there is a limited definition of success; the distorted view of female sexuality that is commodified and punished in equal measure; institutions that rely on free or undervalued female labor to thrive. “What could topple the most stubborn roadblocks,” Filipovic writes, “is a feminism and a politics that reorients itself away from simple equality and toward happiness and pleasure.” Policy that supports equality cannot simply focus on pay or removing glass ceilings, but on understanding and supporting what makes people genuinely happy and opening up the opportunities for embracing those things, even (or especially) when they don’t fit the narrow confines of “success” and “family values” in American culture.
Filipovic’s research is focused exclusively on American policy and tradition, but the issues are not limited to the US. Many places around the world have made attempts to support the pursuit of happiness by helping to level the playing field, providing options such as paid family leave, universal healthcare, and higher minimum wages, but no nation has truly dismantled the systems that have perpetuated the inequality in the first place. America, with its peculiarly individualistic outlook and longstanding issues of sexual, racial, and economic inequality, is an ideal case study for the ways the system is built for the advantage of some at the cost of others. Ultimately, Filipovic’s intent in The H Spot is not to provide a roadmap for policy (though there are certainly many solid recommendations throughout), but to propose a thorough revision of how we look at the causes of inequality and take action from a new vantage point—an undertaking that feels both more crucial and less hopeful under the current US administration. “That so many of us are so unhappy demonstrates not an individual failure to seek pleasure,” Filipovic insists, “but a political failure to insist that the ability to pursue happiness…is a fundamental right and bedrock feminist cause.” Perhaps happiness, so long (mis)characterized as frivolous or tangential to basic survival, may actually be the key to a healthier, more successful—and more equal—society. Maybe it’s time to pursue it.
The H Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness by Jill Filipovic (Nation Books) is out May 2, 2017
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Amber Troska is a copy editor, freelance writer, and voracious reader from Virginia. Her writing and reviewing work focuses on the intersection of politics and feminism in literature and pop culture. She is also the founding editor of the Medium.com publication Postcards from the Resistance. Follow her blog atroskity.booklikes.com.