The narrative regarding black women and dating is often shrouded by negative rhetoric and name-calling that reduces them to superficial material seekers. Terms such as “blessee” and “slay queens” are used mostly about black women who declare their desire for the finer things in life.
This categorisation has been used as a patriarchal tool that instructs society of which category of women is deemed respectable. In her book, The Soft Life: Love, Choice and Modern Dating, feminist scholar and anthropologist Lebohang Masango analyses the dating lives of women that is cognisant of the socio-economic climate in South Africa and the ongoing quest for a luxurious life that is peddled on social media. Designer bags, luxury cars and exotic destinations are central toa soft life, life free from the pressures of the mundane operations of the capitalist labour system.
This book is a breath of fresh air; for once, the discourse about black women and dating does not pivot on HIV infections and black women being opportunists. The prevailing narrative describes women as superficial and at risk of sexually transmitted infections, but there is little regard for the women who enter into these relationships because they have agency.
Masango provides the perspectives of five women from different walks of life. Jolie born from Senegalese parents and grew up in a middle-class household where she lacked for nothing. The dynamics in her family home leaned towards the patriarchal operation of men being the sole providers of material things. In her words, a soft life denotes, “an expensive lifestyle sometimes at your own expense or someone else’s but overall, it means being pampered, taken care of and having luxuries. It’s about looking good, eating well, and going to the spa midweek.” Jolie’s perception about love and finances challenges the perception that it is only women who come from poverty that desire relationships where their male counterparts are the providers of material items and powerful status.
While many bemoan the corruption that ravages the public purse, there appears to be selective amnesia when participants on social media platforms express their desires to be the recipient of luxurious material items. As the author points out, the irony of wanting a soft life is the incongruence without collective frustration of taxes being looted to fund extravagant lifestyles. Individualism takes over when the possibility of amassing wealth becomes inspirational to black youth who are facing unemployment. Therein lies the dilemma of consumerism being named as “black excellence.”
An important factor identified by Masango is that for women, marriage and relationships are seen as an opportunity for women to gain upward social mobility. The participants in the book express the financial precarity of existing in South Africa where a degree does not guarantee financial safety or translate to a job. The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated desperate circumstances as job losses were on the rise, coupled with a failing healthcare system, load-shedding that has been detrimental to entrepreneurs and other dire circumstances created by the multiple failures of the government.
Masango writes, “In accepting the current circumstances for what they are, some women have seen the opportunity that exists in becoming the wives, girlfriends and mistresses of those men who are either within or close enough to state power to benefit from the destruction of our country. For the women who may never go to those extents there is still widespread determination to rise above whatever hand they’ve been dealt, enhance their beauty and sexuality, and use whatever else is at their disposal to live happily and comfortably.”
The advent of the “influencer” has provided access to celebrity status without having to endure the tedious and often difficult journey of a person with a specific talent having to break into an industry to attain fame and money. The use of YouTube and Instagram have created platforms for women to perform a hyper femininity that is escalated by the beauty industry. There are multitudes of “it” girls armed with ring lights, make-up and expensive wigs that can use this visibility to not only platform themselves for brand collaborations and pursue entrepreneurial endeavours but also to showcase a lifestyle that rich men promise to elevate. Masango states, “The emphasis is on the connection between beauty and neoliberalism because the rise of the digital media has elevated beauty into a powerful currency for the ordinary and unfamous person, beyond its uses for celebrities and traditional media. The hypervisibility of the digital era encourages young people, especially, it invests more heavily in beauty and its creation.”
I have been quite critical of the re-emergence of the traditional wife and the “provider love” logic. While socio-economic circumstances cannot be ignored and women should have the opportunity to choose creative strategies to provide for themselves, there is a certain discomfort when encountering the heteronormative glorification of stay-at-home girlfriends and wives that are repackaged as “high value men” and “provider love”.
While feminism does not have to be incongruent to being taken care of in a relationship, the videos that provide coaching on how a woman can secure a rich partner seem to echo the values that were opposed by second wave feminists in the 1970s and 1980s. While this mechanism of dating can be seen as a logical resolution to economic precarity, it also ensures that patriarchy remains the status quo.
Using the show Indian Matchmaker as an example, Masango demonstrates that the pursuit of a soft life is commonplace in multiple cultures around the world. But there is a global effort that aspires to police black women and their sexuality through covert means such as health campaigns. White and Indian women are not subjected to the same name-calling and scrutiny that black women face when they are clear about their desires in a relationship. Black women should not be pathologised in an attempt to maintain the stereotype of them being “gold diggers” and “slay queens”.
Masango points out that dating and marriage have been used as a vehicle to attain a better living standard across races and cultures.
The Soft Life: Love, Choice and Modern Dating by Lebohang Masango is published by Tafelberg, R280.00