Mari Ruti, who in wide-ranging writings on gender and sexuality found food for thought not only in psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan but also in online pornography, self-help books and a Julia Roberts movie, died on June 8 at a hospital near her home in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia. She was 59.
Heather Jessup, a friend, said the cause was complications of cancer.
Dr. Ruti, a longtime professor at the University of Toronto, was known for tackling, both in the classroom and in more than a dozen books, subjects like how to lead a meaningful life and the effects of rigid gender roles.
“Bringing together psychoanalysis, feminism and queer theory, Mari focused on the fissures in society and considered how we might most authentically respond to them,” Hilary Neroni, a professor at the University of Vermont and Dr. Ruti’s literary executor, said by email. “For her, this meant not trying to cover them over but rather working to engage them.”
She did that in books like “Feminist Film Theory and ‘Pretty Woman’” (2016), in which she took a fresh look at the 1990 movie starring Ms. Roberts as a beautiful prostitute and Richard Gere as the businessman who falls for her, and at other romantic comedies — a genre that is often derided by critics as fluff yet has proved popular among women. “Pretty Women,” she concluded, was more complex than it seemed.
“It dexterously navigates the desire for a combination of female independence and girly femininity that characterizes the post-feminist world,” she wrote. “In giving us a sexually assertive, outspoken and autonomous heroine who also happens to look stunning in an opera gown, it covers a lot of bases.”
In “Penis Envy & Other Bad Feelings: The Emotional Costs of Everyday Life” (2018) and other books, Dr. Ruti took a lively look at the illusive promises of the self-help genre, and at a culture built on unfulfilled desire, whether sexual or consumerist.
“Consumer culture guarantees its vitality by creating an endless loop of dissatisfaction: It keeps us in thrall by offering us the prospect of satisfaction — essentially, the fantasy of a better future — without ever entirely satisfying us, with the result that we keep going back to its offerings in the hope that we’ll eventually find what we’re looking for,” she wrote in “Penis Envy.” “Existentially, the consequence of this is that we’re constantly oriented toward the future, living in a state of anticipation (in a state of cruel optimism) that keeps us from being fully present in the moment.”
A chapter of that book explored the effects of online pornography, including, as she put it in a 2018 interview with The Los Angeles Review of Books, “the ways in which straight women are pressured to put up with their partners’ online porn consumption.”
“Not only does it make many women feel terrible about themselves when their partner prefers online porn to sex with them; women are also deprived of sex,” she said. “The idea that women don’t need sex as much as men is a heteropatriarchal myth. And now that so many men are getting their sexual needs met online, women are left in the painful position of not knowing what to do with their sexuality.”
Whatever subject she was writing about, Dr. Ruti was known for making advanced ideas accessible.
“She has that rare gift of being able to communicate great complexities with compelling clarity — all in a way that is at times mesmerizing to read,” Alice A. Jardin, a Harvard professor who once served as a mentor to Dr. Ruti, wrote in a 2019 letter to the University of Toronto supporting Dr. Ruti’s designation as “university professor,” a title recognizing particular distinction in her field.
Dr. Neroni has seen that in her classrooms.
“I have taught her books many times, and students often come up to me to say that Mari’s book completely changed their life,” she said. “This rarely happens with other books, even ones the students find fascinating.”
Dr. Ruti was born on March 31, 1964, in Nuijamaa, Finland, a rural area near the Soviet border, to Jukka and Ritva Ruti. Her parents were laborers and money was scarce, but she made her way to the United States as a high school exchange student. She then earned a scholarship to Brown University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1988.
“I grew up poor, in a house without running water, with parents who worked in low-paying and soul-slaying jobs, yet somehow I made my way to my current blessed life,” she said in 2018. “There’s a lot of guilt I carry about this, because I know that I was given the kinds of opportunities — such as a scholarship to Brown University — that my parents never had.”
At Harvard, she earned two master’s degrees and then, in 2000, a Ph.D. in comparative literature, staying on for a time as a lecturer. Dr. Jessup, now an assistant professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, was among her students.
“She never taught from a place of mastery,” Dr. Jessup said in a phone interview. “She was always including her students in the figuring out of the text. We were just all a part of a conversation.”
A few years later Dr. Ruti moved to the University of Toronto, where her courses were popular. Her first book, “Reinventing the Soul: Posthumanist Theory and Psychic Life,” was published in 2006.
Dr. Ruti is survived by her mother and a brother, Marko.
In 2018 Dr. Ruti received a breast cancer diagnosis. One doctor gave her a year to live, but she aggressively pursued treatments.
Dr. Neroni shared a manuscript of a book by Dr. Ruti expected to be published posthumously, “The Brokenness of Being: Lacanian Theory and Benchmark Traumas.” In it, she juxtaposed society’s expectations against experiences with trauma, including her own battle against cancer.
“Our society does not possess the resources for dealing with irreparable damage,” she wrote. “It expects a high degree of performance and efficiency even from those who have experienced an irredeemable loss. The notion that an individual may never be able to return to their earlier level of productivity is, from the perspective of positive thinking, unfathomable. The idea that all barriers are surmountable is so deeply ingrained that there is little space for the finality of defeat.”
Yet against that bleak assessment, she floated the idea that creative activity could be a buoy.
“For me,” she wrote, “the satisfaction that I still obtain from writing — my version of creative activity — gives me enough reason to keep living.”
Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the Obituaries desk. Previously he was a television, film and theater critic. More about Neil Genzlinger
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