Reviews in Retrospect: All About Love by bell hooks

“Without justice there can be no love.” There’s something incredibly special about a book that is both politically powerful yet therapeutic, both critical and healing. bell hooks’ 1999 book All About Love: New Visions is one of these. Exploring the psychological and social complexities of love in the modern world, bell hooks offers “a hopeful, joyous vision of love’s transformative power.” She shares incredible critical insight about a wide range of topics: the patriarchal values that shape relationships, the harmful connotations of the ideal family, and how male-written self-help books often feed into women’s insecurities, rather than boosting their confidence. All About Love is a genuinely helpful read — one that can revolutionise your thinking about the wider world and give realistic advice about caring for yourself and others in everyday life.

When I read hooks’ 1994 essay collection Outlaw Culture, I was instantly drawn to her perspective on love. In the essay “Love as the Practice of Freedom”, hooks states that “a culture of domination is anti-love.” In hooks’ eyes, modern society has exchanged the love ethic celebrated in Martin Luther King’s time for an anti-love ethic. Due to the increase in cynical thinking in the face of oppressive political systems and unhealthy personal relationships, we dismiss love as “sentimental” far too quickly. All About Love takes this idea even further, suggesting ways we could all improve, as individuals and communities, if we shifted our perception of love. “The word ‘love’ is most often defined as a noun,” hooks writes, “yet… we would all love better if we used it as a verb.” hooks pinpoints the value we place — sometimes unnecessarily — on being “in love”, or attaining love, when we could achieve far greater happiness if we focused instead on being “loving”.

Early on in All About Love, hooks discusses the normalisation of parents abusing their children. Acknowledging that we learn the basics of what it means to love and be loved in childhood, hooks asserts how extremely harmful this normalisation is. She writes “One of the most important social myths we must debunk if we are to become a more loving culture is the one that teaches parents that abuse and neglect can coexist with love. […] Children are told that they are loved even though they are being abused.” She then recalls attending a party wherein everyone in the room was against violence towards women, and yet many admitted to physically abusing their children as a form of discipline. While shocking in the harmful viewpoints it reveals, this chapter’s message is crucial: “Love and abuse cannot coexist. […] Too many of us need to cling to a notion of love that either makes abuse acceptable or at least makes it seem that whatever happened was not that bad.” If parents are to learn to love genuinely, and survivors of abuse are to find ways to heal, we must address the toxicity of this mindset, and leave the normalisation of abuse in the past.

A later chapter examines misogynistic ideals that have historically shaped heterosexual relationships. hooks tells the stories of various women who felt they had to tolerate abuse from their partner, worried that their career-based success would threaten their partner’s masculinity, or felt obliged to wear a mask of constructed femininity to deserve love. It should go without saying that patriarchal values are harmful for people of all gender identities. Modern relationships will be more likely to undergo positive growth if partners re-evaluate the unhealthy effects of traditional gender roles (hooks points out that this is equally relevant to non-heterosexual relationships). She writes that “the feminist movement really helped women understand the personal power that is gained through positive self-awareness.” Once communities more widely celebrate the “personal power” gained through feminist reflection, then the empowered woman can discover love while living as her honest, non-performative self.

All About Love may seem idealistic to some. However, I believe that bell hooks’ vision of healthy relationships is only idealistic if we look at it under the pretence that love itself is idealistic — and that to be uncaring is a justifiable norm. In reality, hooks’ words are fuelled by the possibility for practical social change. hooks writes “Those of us who have already chosen to embrace a love ethic, allowing it to govern and inform how we think and act, know that when we let our light shine, we draw to us and are drawn to other bearers of light. We are not alone.”

If this reads as idealistic, then it may be because we are not used to hearing such positive language about love. But why shouldn’t we be used to positivity? Perhaps because many of us have been conditioned to believe that we do not deserve a positive outlook on love. I highly recommend All About Love to all readers — cynical, romantic, or anywhere in between — in the hopes that this conditioned ethos of self-doubt might shift as you turn each page.

Sylvie Lewis

Featured Image Source: Sylvie Lewis

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