ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

November 13, 2010

Besieging the Fortress – ‘The Virgin’s Choice’ by Jennie Lucas

It is no secret that I am not a fan of violent language in romance fiction (and, indeed, any fiction). I’m referring specifically to violent language in the context of romance – you know, the old romance trope of the ‘punishing’ kiss, the ‘painful’ grip as he whisks her away, ‘rough’ grabs’, ‘savage’ growls… and that is all just from me flicking through the first thirty pages of the romance novel I have sitting next to me.

This novel is ‘The Virgin’s Choice’ by Jennie Lucas, and, as the name suggests, it is yet another virgin heroine novel. This particularly virgin is called Rose, who has made it to the age of 29 without ever being kissed. She seems to have managed this by having a spectacularly inactive libido – as far as I can tell, she has never once experienced desire before she meets the hero, Xerxes Novros. This is despite the fact that he kidnaps her from her wedding to another man, Lars, who is trying to pull a bit of a Mr Rochester on her – marry her even though he has an invalid wife somewhere else – purely so he can sleep with her. Hello, fetishisation of virginity.

Before I continue, two fun facts about this book:

1) The hero is called Xerxes. Despite being Greek. As someone who knows their classical history pretty well, I find this humorous.

2) This book contains an actual bodice ripping. And I quote:

‘Xerxes’s hands slowly moved down her arms, against the see-through lace of her sleeves. His lips turned down grimly.

“I told you to take that dress off.”

He felt her shiver, even as she stuck out her chin and glared at him with her beautiful turquoise eyes.

“No.”

“Then I will take it off for you.”

Her eyes widened. “You wouldn’t dare to -“

With a rough motion, he ripped apart the shoulders of her wedding dress, tearing through the layers of white lace and opping the line of tiny white buttons off the back. He yanked the sleeves down her arms with such force that she stagged forward, nearly falling to her knees.’

Lucas, J., 2010, The Virgin’s Choice [Harlequin: Mills & Boon] p.36

I’m pretty sure this bodice ripping is meant to be a tongue in cheek reference to ye olde worlde bodice rippers, but I don’t need to spell out all the reason’s why this is troubling. There is a sort of love triangle in this book – as much as you can fit into a category novel, anyway – and there is a lot of fighting over Rose between the two dudes, hero Xerxes and villain Lars. She figures essentially as the shiny new toy that the two dudes are fighting over. In fact, she figures exactly as the shiny new toy – Xerxes steals her from Lars to trade for Lars’s invalid wife, who (spoilers) is Xerxes’s sister. And then it’s a sort of game of first-one-to-bone-her-wins. Which is… troubling.

As for Rose’s agency in this matter… yeah, there’s not so much of that. For example – this is from that bodice ripping scene:

‘He should have known she’d be wearing tarty white lingerie for her wedding night to the baron. Pretending to be a virgin – just pretending, because he’d obviously been bedding her for some time. No man would resist Rose’s charms, her soft blond beauty, her lush body.”

ibid., p.37

Note how, in Xerxes’s reckoning of the world, Rose seems to have no choice as to whether she’s ‘bedded’ by Lars or not. There is a current running through this book of the fairy tale – the first line of the book is ‘It was a fairy tale come true’ – and Rose figures very much as the sleeping princess in the tower. She has an extraordinarily little amount of control over her own actions. She is whisked off her feet by Lars – he seems to sort of decide he’s going to marry her and she goes along with it – and then whisked away by Xerxes, who then promptly sexually assaults her. See below:

‘”Don’t think that you can bully me into being afraid of you, because I will never -“

Her words ended in a gasp as Xerxes seized her in his arms. Lowering his mouth to hers, he brutally kissed her.’

ibid. p.39

Xerxes’s awesome rationale for kissing her is that if she were a gold digger, she would try to seduce him and change sides. He is obviously a real prince.

But this isn’t actually what I wanted to write about – yes, it’s only taken me about 750 words to get to the point. What I actually really noticed when reading this book was the way that Rose’s virginity functions like a fortress – it is something that is besieged and then something that is won. It’s a race between Xerxes and Lars as to who sleeps with Rose first and the one who wins, possesses her. In fact, choosing which one to sleep with, which one to let into her castle, is the only real power Rose has in this book. And yet, even though she has remained a virgin for 29 years, the thought of sleeping with neither ever really occurs to her.

There is no notion that Rose belongs to herself (before or after her defloration). Seduction is a siege to which she must succumb. It is directly figured as such:

“Overpowered by her captor’s strength and the intensity of his commanding embrace, she surrendered.”

ibid., p.40

The dialogue of possession and surrender is something that flows through a lot of romance fiction, and, indeed, modern parlance. Sex is often talked about as the man ‘taking’ the woman or ‘having’ her – this book is (unsurprisingly) no exception. Since I’m in an example-y mood, here’s one:

‘He moved closer to her, so close that she felt consumed by the black fire of his gaze. “He wanted to make sure no other man could have you.”‘

ibid. p.65

This, of course, is not just true of virgin heroine novels. But I think that often in these books – particularly when you know that once the heroine sleeps with the hero, that’s it as far as other sexual partners are concerned – the dialogue of siege and possession is heightened. Once the heroine has let the hero into her castle, she is his for always. And yes, I do realise how dirty that sounds, and I would like it noted that there were a number of other dirty wordplay options open to me that I nobly did not take.

Quite apart from the gender dynamics inherent in the concept of hero possessing the heroine – and much as she does remake his sexuality in the model of her own, I would contend that he possesses her more than she possesses him, because her identity only exists in respect to his after he defines her sexuality (yes, that was long and convoluted, but I promise it makes sense) – one of the major problems inherent in this dialogue of siege and surrender is that it is violent language. (Look how I came back to the point there!) There is a fine line between seduction and destruction, and this line is often blurred. It certainly is in this novel – the way that both Xerxes and Lars attempt to seduce Rose is very violent. Their desire to possess her leads them to enact violence on her. They would rather destroy her than let the other win. (And by sleeping with her, they are destroying her for the other one. Because we are all about those ideals of the ruined woman. Oh yes we are.)

So… that was a long and quote-filled ramble. But here is my point in a nutshell: in many books, and in this book in particular, virginity is figured as a fortress which must be besieged. And once the heroine surrenders, and lets the hero into the castle, his possession of her is total and complete. This model not only has very fraught gender dynamics and figures the heroine as a thing rather than a person, it is also violent, which promotes a dialogue of abuse and assault.

September 25, 2010

New Voices, Fresh Beginnings?

Mills and Boon is currently running a web competition called New Voices, searching for – surprise, surprise – new voices, new romance writers. Entries have closed and they received a huge amount – I’m not sure of the exact number, but it was over 800. When one considers the very small percentage of readers that actually write (I have absolutely no stats to back this up, only the evidence of my own experiences, but there it is) this is a huge amount of entries.

Category romance gets a bad name for being formulaic, and I have to say that it’s justified a lot of the time – there’s only so many Greek shipping magnates and Mediterranean billionaires and sheikhs you can read about before they all blur into one – and so I was really very pleasantly surprised to see this coming from M&B blogger Flo Nicoll:

“Don’t be afraid to give us a story we’ve never seen before. E.g. bosses and secretaries are an old favourite for a reason, but what else can you think of to get readers hooked?”

I’ve been putting together the proposal for my doctorate during the six weeks I haven’t been writing here, and the idea of the future of the genre is one I’m currently quite intrigued with. My proposed doctorate is on the dynamics between virgin heroines and playboy heroes – the eternal sexual (in)experience interaction. In the early days of romance fiction, this dynamic was pretty much an essential requirement of the genre. Now, although the virgin/playboy thing remains popular, there are many more diverse experiences out there.

However, if the virgin/playboy thing wasn’t so overwhelmingly out there, I would have no PhD proposal. And this whole New Voices thing made me think – is this constant flood of billionaires and CEOs and their timid little secretaries making the category genre stagnant? Genres evolve by nature – they grow and change. But with category, we essentially get the same thing, over and over – rich alpha male meets socially inferior young woman. Usually, she’s ‘feisty’ (oh! how I hate that word!) but he steamrolls her into sex/marriage/a relationship/some romantic outcome. And then they declare their love and live happily ever after.

It’s more complicated than that – I could go into Pamela Regis’s eight essential elements, I suppose, but I don’t know how much merit there would be in doing that – but I think that’s the bones of it. And it is, I think, the steamrolling thing that bothers me most. Cristina Nehring had a chapter in her recent book A Vindication of Love on the romance of inequality (particularly, as I read it, teacher/student relationships, which I found interesting in the context of the sexual dynamics of the playboy and virgin, which I have discussed many a time before), but I just don’t buy it.

There’s a whole other issue at play here which I need to write about in more depth – the idea that ‘alpha’ does not mean the same thing as ‘arsehole’. ‘Alpha’ is so often used as a catchall term to excuse any terrible (sometimes basically emotionally abusive) actions of the hero – ‘oh, he’s just being alpha’. Tied into this alphaness seems to be the need to dominate everyone, including (and sometimes especially) the heroine. And this gets played out with those Mediterranean CEOs and whatnot again and again and again and again. And even more agains.

Which is why I think this New Voices thing is such a good idea. In one sense, I think it’s pushing the genre forward. I’ve scanned through a lot of the entries, and while there are a whole lot of the steamroller heroes, there are some that more mellow. More chilled. More… you know, not arseholes. Throwing the genre open to change and evolution can only be a good thing, I think. I mean, people obviously love the steamroller stuff, because they buy it and buy it again and again… but why should it be the only thing available to buy?

So what I mean to say is, in a very long winded way, I think the rationale behind this competition is great. If it can breathe fresh air into the genre and push it forward… I think it can be nothing but great.

(And yes, I did enter. I’m willing to try my hand at writing anything – and it’s only fair that I walk my own talk. You can read my entry here, if you are at all interested.)

August 5, 2010

‘A Nothing Person’ – Quick Shots

Filed under: quick shots — Jodi @ 11:00 am
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“The power of her love for Nicolas had terrified the life out of her. She wasn’t herself when she was with him. She became his slave, a nothing person with no will of her own. He only had to take her in his arms and she was reduced to a robot, incapable of saying no to him.”

- Lee, M., 2010, A Night, A Secret… A Child [Harlequin Mills & Boon] p. 17

There is something remarkably self aware about this statement. This is exactly what I find so troubling about a lot of romance novels – the heroine’s self is subsumed and she only exists relative to the hero. (This is particularly true in the virgin/playboy novels I’m so fond of writing about.)  She becomes a nothing person. Nothing else matters except his love. She needs his validation. She cannot live without him, and with him, she is a nothing person. This obviously has a lot to do with the quality of writing as well, but no matter what the quality, this kind of attitude is fundamentally quite unhealthy.

Of course, this happens to the hero too, and ultimately, you could argue that she reforms him. But it doesn’t make the initial act any less. And I actually think it is quite good that Miranda Lee has articulated this in her book. Once things like this are identified, it is so much easier to reshape and move forward.

…thanks for invading my psyche, Julia Gillard.

July 29, 2010

“No” = “No” – Quick Shots

So I’m currently reading a novella by Yvonne Lindsay, and before I get to some of the most hilarious physical descriptions I have ever read, there was a line I thought definitely merited some discussion.

‘Clearly the word “no” simply meant “try harder” for men like Richard Wells.’

- Lindsay, Y., 2010, The Magnate’s Mistress-for-a-Month [Harlequin: Mills & Boon] p. 106

If there were no stories in the world about men chasing women, then there would be… a LOT fewer stories. Like, a LOT. However, what often happens in romance novels, and is definitely happening here, as far as I can see, is that this pursuit turns into something that is actually quite frightening. In this novella, Richard, the hero, sees Catherine, the heroine, riding a horse, decides he must have her, and sets off to make it happen, including encroaching on her personal space very significantly within about four seconds of having met her. If this happened in real life, he would be up on sexual harassment charges very, VERY quickly.

This is a line that often gets blurred in romance fiction – especially in category romance fiction, where space is so limited – that I wish was a little more clear. ‘No’ definitely does mean ‘no’, and not ‘try harder’. Pursuit is one thing (though the double standard around it is a whole other thing – the woman who pursues is usually portrayed as desperate) but what is basically tantamount to stalking is quite another indeed. One is a literary device – not my favourite one, but a device nonetheless. The other is bad. I really don’t like the trope of the man who just can’t control himself – it’s demeaning to men and dangerous to women.

In short? Sexual harassment should not be used as shorthand.

And now, for the funnies. Some of the best physical descriptions I have EVER read. I killed myself laughing.

‘[He was] always an early riser – in more ways than one, he smiled ruefully.’

- ibid., p.96

What’s the story, morning glory?

‘His nose was a straight blade of male perfection.’

- ibid., p.100

…are you sure you’re talking about his nose?

July 25, 2010

WTFemininity: Reading ‘The CEO’s Expectant Secretary’

Filed under: funnies — Jodi @ 12:40 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Like any genre, there are good romance novels and then there are really, really bad ones. We’re not even talking about the themes and gender roles and all the other stuff I crap on about all the time. In any genre, you get bits that just make you say… ‘WTF? Did someone actually think about they were writing here?’

Early on in Leanne Banks’s ‘The CEO’s Expectant Secretary’ I had one of those WTF moments – a moment so WTF-y I had to share it.

‘The contrast of the cream ceramic tile against her cherry coloured toenails emphasised her femininity.’

- Banks, L., 2010, The CEO’s Expectant Secretary [Harlequin Mills & Boon] p.14

I just cannot make head or tail of this sentence. I do not get it at all. Does femininity have a colour code? WTF? Can anyone decode this?

-

ETA: A little further in now, and here’s another bit I just don’t get:

‘Elle felt an amazing connection with Brock ripple through her. How amazing that their child would be born in the same month as Brock’s father.’

- ibid., p.49

Um… not that amazing, honey. Not necessarily bad romance (though there is this whole forced marriage plot going on that I would have a lot to say about if I wasn’t so busy WTFing) but definitely bad writing – or at least writing that has gone whoosh as it travelled over my head.

-

ETA again: I might as well be liveblogging this book. There is just so much I do not get, so much to WTF about.

‘She felt both strong and delicate against him.’

-ibid., p.58

…how? huh?

-

ETA again: ‘”But I like shopping in outlets. It’s like hunting is for men. Bagging the one with the biggest rack in one shot.”‘

- ibid., p. 73

I do not get this book.

-

ETA again: ‘”Trust me, I have no oedipal urges.”‘

ibid., p.129

Thanks for clarifying, hero-boy.

-

ETA again: Okay, this I just thought was awesome.

‘”By the price I paid, I knew Mummy wasn’t slumming,” Brock murmured.’

- ibid., p.161

I love it. Brock the multisquillionaire business tycoon who is cold and ruthless in the office and a dynamo rocket in the bedroom (and who also has ‘laser blue eyes’) calls his mother ‘Mummy’. I LOVE IT SO MUCH.

July 11, 2010

You are allowed to look: Reading romance as a subversive act

When I read romance – particularly when I read contemporary categories about virgin heroines and playboy heroes, which is what I plan to write my doctoral thesis on – I am frequently (and vocally) horrified about the gender roles and the power dynamics. This is not exactly a secret. I’ve written post after post on this blog about various books, outlining all the reasons why they’re playing into harmful gender stereotypes that are completely incongruent with any kind of feminist agenda and in most case countermand it totally (see books like Sara Craven’s The Innocent’s Surrender or Trish Morey’s The Italian Boss’s Mistress of Revenge).

There are many similar problems with Kim Lawrence’s Under the Spaniard’s Lock and Key. I mean, come on, you can basically tell that there are problems with it from the title, can’t you? The hero, Rafael, essentially kidnaps the heroine, Maggie, on not one but a number of occasions to serve his own agenda (protecting his cousin’s wife Angelina, who also happens to be the adopted Maggie’s birth mother – he has some idea that she is going to publicly embarrass Angelina, who is a member of the Spanish aristocracy). There are moments like these, which make me cringe (though there is, unlike some romance novels, a clear level of meta-awareness going on here):

“On one level she recognised that her reliance on him was foolish. Hadn’t she always solved her own problems? She was no wilting flower. Yet here she was, leaning, and not just physically, on Rafael… It was actually just good to be able to let go and know that someone else would pick up the pieces… was that wrong?”

- Lawrence, K., 2010, Under the Spaniard’s Lock and Key [Mills & Boon] p. 139

“The need that rose up inside him, the need to remove the weight from her shoulders, to care for her, was totally outside his experience.”

- ibid., p.164

It’s odd, isn’t it, how it’s always the heroine and not the hero who lets go of responsibilities. I know this is very heavily linked to the fact that romance fiction is escapist for women and sure, it is nice to have someone to do stuff. But the gendering of this in romance fiction smacks heavily of the ‘little woman’ idea to me. The number of times heroines morph from Peggy Olson (or even Joan Holloway) into Betty Draper is a little disturbing. I cannot speak for women as a monolithic unit, but I find this – it’s not so pronounced in this book, but certainly is in others – basically infantilisation, and that is obviously extremely problematic.

It is also almost hilarious how closely Under the Spaniard’s Lock and Key comes to actually articulating my sweeping generalisation that, within category romance, women = love and men = sex. For example:

“‘I love you,’ he breathed against her mouth. ‘And I have been lost without you… It turns out that after a life of driven achievement, all I actually need is you.”

- ibid., pp.178-9

(I LOVE the awkward phrasing of ‘life of driven achievement’. I laughed for, like, five minutes. Couldn’t tell you why, but I thought it was hysterical.)

“Rafael represented rampant sexuality, dangerous excitement and misery because he couldn’t love her.”

- ibid., p.139

I don’t really want to expound on this too much here, because I’ve already written about 500 words and still not got to my actual point, but I am totally smug about how clearly this plays out what I hypothesised in this post. Don’t I feel clever and smug!

But now – drumroll please – my point.

The reason that I actually quite liked Under the Spaniard’s Lock and Key on some level – something I can rarely say about category romance, fascinating as I find them – is a moment. Just one moment. It takes place in the traditional playboy-hero-deflowers-the-virgin-heroine scene. Rafael has undressed Maggie and himself and it’s all about to happen when Maggie is suddenly essentially crippled by self consciousness. Rafael calms her down and says this to her:

“‘This is me, and you are allowed to look, and want, and touch. There is no shame, just sex. This is natural and good.'”

- ibid., p.90

That, right there, is exactly the reason why romance fiction cannot be written off as a backwards throwback to repressive patriarchal gender roles. That articulates perfectly why reading romance is subversive, and, I think, why people often try to conceal that they read it. Romance fiction is the literary embodiment of this idea – it is all right for women to express desire. There is nothing shameful about female sexuality. It is, instead, something to be celebrated.

Not that there aren’t problematic things about even this statement itself, given its context. The fact that Rafael delivers this line to Maggie in his role as her sexual teacher and initiator is a bit disturbing given the power dynamic going on there. But this idea is, at its core, transgressive. When you consider the stereotypical function (both literary and societal) of women as sexual gatekeepers, where men always desire sex and it is the woman’s role (and only real power) to dole it out like a reward, then this is extremely transgressive. At the heart of the idea of the woman as the sexual gatekeeper is the idea that women do not experience sexual desire, but that they tolerate and facilitate the sexual desire of men.

Romance fiction, no matter what crazy gender roles it might perpetuate, subverts this. Sure, it usually does so within a strict moral perimeter – in virgin/playboy books especially, there is a very problematic emphasis on her waiting to have sex with the right man in a sort of moral framework that is absent for the hero (which I have previously discussed here) – but in romance fiction, the heroine’s sexual desire is not framed as something shameful, something unnatural, something that makes her unwomanly or anything like that, but as something which is an essential part of her psyche.

The virgin heroine/playboy hero thing, if you revision it in a certain way, can be very interesting. I don’t really like using ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as monolithic entities, but if you consider that male sexual desire has always been permissible and legitimate, then the idea of The Man as the playboy hero makes sense. When you consider that female sexual desire (at least in relatively recent times – there have been times in history where women have been cast as voracious sexual temptresses out to lead good men astray from the path of righteousness or whatever) has been seen as something shameful, something unnatural and something unwomanly… then the virgin heroine makes sense. When you look at the virgin heroine’s journey, her progress is charted from asexual being to sexual creature as she realises that yes, she is allowed to look. Her nascent sexuality grows until it is an integral part of her being – a part, in fact, that she cannot live without.

Of course, romance fiction isn’t quite there yet. When there are more books that feature the heroine actually experiencing sexual desire for men other than the hero, then I think the playing field will be a little more level. (Maggie notes on p. 40 that she is not ‘the sort of girl who could separate sex from emotion’ – while there is nothing wrong with this, it would be nice to see a few heroines that could.) But there is no understating how subversive it is that heroines not only experience but embrace sexual pleasure in romance fiction, and it is not condemned, but celebrated. As Jennifer Crusie notes:

“They [romance novels] do this first by making it clear that, far from being helpless, asexual beings who must be seduced to respond, many women like sex. A lot. Romance novels spend pages describing women’s sexual pleasure including details that mama never told and patriarchy would be appalled at.”

- Crusie, J., 1997, ‘Romancing Reality: The power of romance fiction to reinforce and re-envision the real’ [originally published in Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres. Number 1-2, 1997: 81-93, accessed via http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/romancing-reality-the-power-of-romance-fiction-to-reinforce-and-re-vision-the-real/, 21/12/2009]

Romance fiction is not there yet. But the figuring of female sexuality in these books totally subverts the patriarchal norm. The act of reading romance is often seen as something shameful. While at least part of this is because category romances are largely, let’s face it, of questionable literary merit at best, most of it is because female sexual desire is still seen as something essentially unnatural. Patriarchally speaking, women aren’t supposed to want sex. Sex is something that is done to women, not something they participate in.

But not in romance fiction.

Despite the fact that, in virgin/playboy novels, women are introduced to sex and initiated into it by a more experienced man, and that he completes her in a way which is totally problematic, as I have noted ad nauseam a hundred times and a hundred times again, women are allowed to enjoy sex in romance novels. Reading romance novels is, on one level, participating in a revision of female sexual desire, an intensely subversive act. Reading romance, despite all the problems with it, is a celebration of female sexuality and the female gaze – an admission that yes, women really are allowed to look, and want, and touch. There is no shame – just sex.

May 20, 2010

Independence is not a dirty word: Quick Shots

So I’ve picked up a romance novel for the first time in a few weeks – The Doctor’s Pregnant Bride?, a category by Susan Crosby, which I bought simply by virtue of the punctuation in the title. (Love a good question mark. Love it sick.)

Anyway, as per usual, I’m only a little way in and already I have something to deconstruct. Let me set the scene. We have our hero, Dr Ted Bonner, the socially inept and vaguely creepy (I think) doctor who works in a fertility clinic where he and his colleague (also male) try and develop a cure for male infertility. We have our heroine, Sara Beth O’Connell, head nurse at the same clinic. Don’t even get me started on the stereotypical men are doctors/women are nurses thing going on here. We go on.

Anyway, Sara Beth is assigned to work with Ted, and they’re all, ‘hi, I’ve vaguely seen you in the distance BUT OMG WE CAN’T DATE COWORKERS THAT WOULD BE BAD’ in their minds. Sara Beth leaves and Ted chases after her, and we get this gem of an exchange. (FYI, it’s Valentine’s Day the first day they meet. Foreshadowing? I WONDER.)

‘He just nodded. “I’m supposed to be at my parents’ house in forty-five minutes for dinner. I need to take a gift.”

“I’m sure you’ll be able to find roses at almost any market.”

“And my mother would say ‘how lovely’ and that would be that. I want to do better than that. I want you to be my parents’ gift.”‘

Crosby, S., 2010, The Doctor’s Pregnant Bride? [Harlequin] p.24

I had a few glasses of wine when I read this sentence, and for one nanosecond, I actually thought he wanted to physically give her to his parents like a slave or something. But no, it’s the whole bemyfakegirlfriendplz! scenario. Which no one in their right mind would go along with because hey, it’s totally weird! But no, it is OMG romantic.

But this isn’t what’s bothering me, though why Sara Beth feels the need to say yes to the fake girlfriend proposal is beyond me. No, the moment when I rolled my eyes and picked up my laptop to document it was this.

To set the scene: the night before, Ted had been talking to Sara Beth on the phone while she was walking home. He made sure to keep her on the phone until she was safely inside. Sara Beth mulls on this:

‘Her last boyfriend, a six month relationship that had ended a couple of months ago, would never have kept her on the phone until she was safely inside her house. He’d always “respected her independence”, as he’d put it – perhaps because she’d made sure he knew her independence was something she prided herself on.

But after last night she’d altered her thinking a little. Being independent didn’t mean she couldn’t let a man be considerate.’

Crosby, S., 2010, The Doctor’s Pregnant Bride? [Harlequin] p.57

Oh for f^&*s sake.

Sara Beth, go back to your old boyfriend. Newsflash, sister – it sounds like he didn’t treat you like a total dishrag incapable of doing anything for herself.

Sure, maybe it was nice of Ted to make sure Sara Beth got home safely. But why should she not do the same thing for him? This seems to me to be tied into the concept of chivalry, which is one I find deeply problematic. The term chivalry has come to signify a code of behaviours wherein men do things for women which are considered ‘courteous’ – effectively implying women are too weak and frail to do them themselves. Because women are too weak to open doors and put on their own jackets, for example.

It was also, I understand, originally a code of honour for men. You could prove your own honour by defending the honour of women. ‘Honour’ is basically analogous to ‘virginity’ here, when it all comes down to it. And you know how I feel about this.

Anyway, I digress. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t have a problem with Ted’s action as it stands – it’s a considerate thing, to make sure someone gets home safe. What I dislike is that the action is clearly gendered and also Sara Beth’s reaction to it. Why is this act of human decency somehow encroaching on her independence? And why does she suddenly like it?

It sounds like her old boyfriend treated her pretty well, if he ‘respected her independence’. It sounds to me like he treated her like an actual human person instead of a frail wisp who could be blown over by the slightest breath of wind. During the actual phone call, Sara Beth muses that Ted is ‘watching over her’. Why, Sara Beth, do you feel you need to be watched? Because you know what that says to me?

Crazy stalker man.

April 21, 2010

Anxious Alphole Masculinity – Quick Shots

Apologies for the length of time between posts here – I have this whole real life which often interferes with my academic writing. (And, indeed, other interests in academic writing – Thomas Middleton, for one; Georgian theatre, for another).

But enough of that – I have some more Simone de Beauvoir that I want to ponder. Specifically, this quote:

“No one is more arrogant toward women, more aggressive or scornful, than the man who is anxious about his virility.”

This is a really interesting point, and one that I hadn’t thought of, to tell the truth. There is a real trend among the “alphole” hero – the Dante from The Italian Boss’s Mistress of Revenge, for example – to assert his sexuality in a very active way that really makes me recoil, because it is practically rape. He then treats the woman terribly and she, for some reason, gets off on it.

I’m usually – and still am – very concerned about the woman in this situation, because hello, sexual assault, and this is not cool. You can wave the ‘it’s pretend’ flag all day long, when you encode someone with such behaviours as ‘heroic’ in fiction with such an intense moral hierarchy (the good get what they want, the bad suffer) as romance fiction, then there’s a problem. But problematic as this is, this is not today’s point.

To what extent is this (repellent) alphole hero emasculated by the heroine in romance fiction? His sexual desire for her is very different to the desire he has felt for any other woman – she ends up converting him to solid monogamy, case in point, when he has generally been sleeping with anything that moves beforehand. To what extent does he treat her terribly because of his anxious masculinity, because he is afraid he is no longer virile because he no longer to desire to do anyone, any time?

I would contend that an alphole is just an arsehole, end of story. But I am not a romance author, and so I don’t know if any romance authors really think about endowing their heroes with this kind of anxious masculinity. It is an interesting way of humanising the alphole… but I also find it a problematic way of excusing him.

March 17, 2010

Quick Shots – It’s A Love Story, Baby Just Say Yes

So I read this article about Nicholas Sparks, who has penned a novel which has been made into a Miley Cyrus vehicle. Sounds like the captain of the literary fiction brigade, n’cest pas? This article reveals his hilarious douchebaggery, including a classic moment where he paints himself as the heir to Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Genius.

But he also gets hating on romance. He bristles whenever anyone tells him he writes romance novels – no, he writes love stories. To quote from the article:

‘Sparks cringes at the word: romance. But since it comes up again, isn’t he kind of splitting hairs with this whole “love story” vs. “romance” thing?

‘”No, it’s the difference between Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet,” he says. “(Romances) are all essentially the same story: You’ve got a woman, she’s down on her luck, she meets the handsome stranger who falls desperately in love with her, but he’s got these quirks, she must change him, and they have their conflicts, and then they end up happily ever after.”‘

 This, I think, is indicative of one of the biggest challenges romance fiction faces – the perception that all romance novels are the same. And Nicholas Sparks (douchebag extraordinaire) isn’t helping. But what really comes out of this article is that Sparks is super-anxious that his books aren’t classified as romances because he thinks it is reductionist… and sort of girly.

And because he is obviously the heir to Sophocles as well.

And I think he’s obviously playing into the ‘I am a man! I would never write a book in which Fabio might appear on the cover!’ There’s the notion that romance is women’s fiction. Which is obviously not Sparks-exclusive, but a widespread idea.

Sparks says:

‘”A romance novel is supposed to make you escape into a fantasy of romance. What is the purpose of what I do? These are love stories. They went from (Greek tragedies), to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, then Jane Austen did it, put a new human twist on it. Hemingway did it with A Farewell to Arms.”‘

Quite apart from the monstrous size of Sparks’ ego, he does raise an interesting question. What is the purpose of romance? Is it simply escapism? To what end do we write and read romance?

Sparks’s love stories are different, he contests, because you don’t know that the ending is going to be happy. But the meat is still the same – it’s a story of human interaction and human relationships. What I usually focus on when I write this blog is the gendered nature of these interactions and relationships, which I suppose might be considered the means to the end – in romance, the happy ending.

Just because Sparks’s books don’t necessarily end happily doesn’t mean that these means are any different. I’ve never read any Sparks, I confess, but the desire for the two characters to end up together is still there, yesno? You’re still rooting for them. In romance, you get a guaranteed pay off. You know that what you want will happen in the end. It takes place largely in a moral sphere where the good are rewarded and the bad are punished and we all live happily ever after. (Exactly what constitutes good and bad is contentious for me, but that’s another issue).

Does this set Sparks apart, because this payoff is not guaranteed? His means do not necessarily end up at the same ends, but he’s essentially cooking with the same ingredients. I guess what I’m trying to say is this: is romance that happy ending? or is it the path that leads the characters there?

When does a story that features human interactions and human relationships change from being a Sparksian ‘love story’ to a ‘romance’?

March 10, 2010

Some Simone – Quick Shots

Just came across this quote in Simone de Beauvoir which I found very, very interesting.

‘The body of man makes sense in itself quite apart from that of woman, whereas the latter seems wanting in significance by itself … Man can think of himself without woman. She cannot think of herself without man.’ And she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called ‘the sex’, by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex – absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’

- de Beauvoir, S., 1949, The Second Sex

This not only fits with that notion of sex-completing-the-woman while the man is complete already, but also highlights something I have only (to my shame) noticed about category titles. When do you ever see ‘The Mistress of Revenge’s Italian Boss’? ‘The Virgin Secretary’s Sheikh’? ‘The Pregnant Housekeeper’s Greek Millionaire’? No, it is always the men doing the possessing.

More on this when it is not late o’clock at night!

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