Thoughts on Theses: Lisa Zheutlin

Lisa Zheutlin ’22 is a sexuality, women’s & gender studies major. She is writing a thesis on the anti-monogamy framework, which questions society’s prioritization of romantic love over other forms of love such as familial love. Her thesis advisor is Professor of History and SWAGS Jen Manion.

Photo courtesy of Emma Spencer '23E.

Q: What is your thesis about?

A: It’s a SWAGS [Sexuality, Women’s & Gender Studies] thesis that, broadly, is about the anti-monogamy framework, [which] is a framework that questions why we prioritize romantic love over other forms of love — like familial love, platonic love for our friends — and why it’s the center of our society.

The first chapter is about the ‘romance myth’ which entails a mixture of critique of popular culture with feminist theory about the difference between platonic and romantic love and the devaluation of platonic love. The second chapter is a history of the weaponization of monogamy, and how that has bled into contemporary discourse in science about what monogamy is. Is it natural or is it not? The third chapter is about queer alternatives [and] reimagining a world where romance isn’t the center of our lives.

Q: What motivated you to choose this topic?

A: I was taking a class called “Reading [the] Romance” in the fall of 2019. It was a class that aims to give romance novels the same critique that would give more canonical literature. We read a book called “Undoing Monogamy” by Angie Wiley, a professor at UMass, which introduced me to the anti-monogamy framework. And then I had been thinking about it a lot, about … if platonic love is different from romantic love, … [and] I was like, ‘There are no classes on this.’ So then I was like, ‘Oh, this is why I would do a thesis.’ I decided to use what we talked about [in class] as a jumping-off point.

Q: How has the process of writing your thesis changed over time?

A: I knew I wanted to do the thesis about anti-monogamy from the beginning, but I didn’t really know what the chapters would be. I did some research over the summer with a research grant from Amherst. [During] that time, I was working with Professor [of SWAGS Krupa] Shandilya. … I think the hardest part about this topic is that there’s so much you can cover; there’s so much written already about marriage, non-monogamy, polyamory, open relationships, and stuff like that. Then there are also a lot of books about how monogamy has been imposed [historically], but there’s nothing that really brought all those [ideas] together into one thing. The biggest challenge of my thesis has been narrowing down my topic without pigeonholing myself by studying a really specific time period with a particular demographic or group of people; I wanted to have a more expansive view on it.

Q: What kinds of different conclusions did you come to that you hadn’t read in the original readings?

A: I went into the thesis already having a bit of a critique of the privileging of romance in our society. But then when taking “Sexualities in International Relations” this past semester with [Karl Loewenstein Fellow and Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science] Manuela Picq, we actually read about how monogamy has been used as a tool of settler colonialism in the 19th century. We were focusing on the 19th century U.S., but in my thesis I’m focusing on the U.S. and Canada, and particularly how monogamy has been weaponized against Indigenous people. So I think that was something new that I didn’t expect to include; now that’s become part of the second chapter of my thesis.

Q: What have been some of the main challenges to this project?

A: I would say one of the biggest challenges is [that] you can go at this topic from so many different angles because it’s very expansive, so finding my voice within that. Another challenge is that my advisor [Professor of History and SWAGS Jen Manion] wanted me to get more personal with my thesis. My first chapter is about romance, myth, and how pop culture indoctrinates us in this idea of romance with all the rom-coms and romance novels we read. It builds this narrative that there’s this one person out there for you. It’s about finding them and then your life will be complete and you’ll live happily ever after. Getting personal within that has been challenging because [it means] being vulnerable to how [cultural norms] have affected my perception of relationships and how that has affected the way I go about the world. Including that in an academic paper, it’s a bit of a balance between ‘here’s this vulnerable thing,’ and then ‘here’s the theory.’

Q: What has been your favorite part of the process?

A: I would say my favorite part has been, [though] it doesn’t have an interview component, just talking to my friends and people around me about their opinions on the topic and their relationships. Applying this anti-monogamy lens to their relationships has been really interesting and generative. … I like that it’s a topic that is so applicable to everyone’s lives. It doesn’t feel like ‘Oh, this is just sectioned off in this area of my academic life’ — it’s all around me.

Q: How do you feel the applicability of this thesis affected or changed your relationship to it as an intellectual endeavor?

A: A big part of the first chapter is about how once people get into romantic relationships, they start to really deprioritize their friends. I’ve experienced that with my friends who get into relationships, like ‘Wait, you’re spending all this time with this new person, like, what about me?’ There’s a little hurt in that. So I think it’s really cool to be able to have an academic outlet for that. To have these feelings and to be able to read feminist theory or queer theorists who have dealt with these topics, and then use that as a way to kind of work through my own feelings and work through my own experiences, in relationships and in friendships.

Q: What are some of the things you have learned through the writing process?

A: I would say that when I was just doing a bunch of reading and not actually writing anything myself, that was really hard because I was just struggling to balance my other classes and also having this project that has no structure. My advisor, Professor Manion, told me to incorporate more of my own voice and my own personal experiences. ... Bringing [in the] personal experience portion really motivated me. … It just became a lot more fun.

Q: If you could give advice to students thinking about writing a thesis, what would it be?
A: My advice would definitely be to make sure that the topic is something that genuinely interests you and something that you will not get bored of. … There’s a culture at Amherst that makes thesis writing super stressful and [there is] this mentality that the more stressed you are about your thesis, the better it’ll be. … I was scared to write a thesis because of that mentality that we have here, because I really wanted to enjoy my senior year and not be so worried about this big academic project. So I think having a topic that you’re genuinely interested in, and that brings you joy to read about will be helpful in being able to take full advantage of your senior year, … but also have a fulfilling academic experience that you’re not just doing to have the honors.