ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

December 22, 2009

Sex as Moral Currency: The virgin heroine meets the playboy hero

This whole idea of completion that I’ve been discussing (if I haven’t said it enough times, this notion is based on the Foucaulvian idea that sexuality is a necessary aspect of the complete identity) and the way this plays out in gender in romance fiction, with the heroine effectively completed by the hero and the already-complete hero improved by the heroine, got me onto another track: sex as currency and/or reward for morality and general awesomeness.

Let me explain what I mean. There’s a trope within romance fiction – again, not all romance fiction, because you really can’t say something is true of all romance fiction, but of a pronounced subset – of the virginal heroine. (If heroines have had sex, they are usually subject to Wendell and Tan’s ‘Bad Wang’ – Zoe in Getting Physical is a good example of this). This was especially true in old skool romance in which – though I can’t confirm this – there was often a publishing requirement that the heroine was a virgin.

It’s pretty funny, actually, this virginity thing – authors will sometimes go to the most extraordinary lengths to ensure that their heroines are pure and untouched. There’s a whole subset of ‘virgin widows’ – i.e. heroines that have been married, but have never consummated their marriage. But usually, particularly in contemporary fiction, when (not if) you come across a virgin!heroine, she just… hasn’t had sex. Not for any particular reason. She just hasn’t found a man that she’s wanted to sleep with. Even though she may have committed ex-boyfriends up the wazoo, she’s never lain down with them. One example of this I will always remember is Kristy from Diana Haviland’s A Love Beyond Forever, the first romance novel I ever read. She’s 25, gorgeous and has just broken up with her steady boyfriend… with whom she never slept. This is a perfectly valid life choice, don’t get me wrong – but the frequency with which these Kristy heroines turn up in romance is mind-boggling.

Heroes, on the other hand, are virile paragons of animalistic masculinity. Playboy heroes are among some of the favourites in romance fiction – bad boys who are ladies’ men. Dante Carazzo in the vile piece of dreck that is The Italian Boss’s Mistress of Revenge is one of these. Even Stephen from Getting Physical sort of fits into this archetype, though the whole tantra-ritual-sex thing gives it another level. These heroes will do anything that moves and have done so, frequently, in the past. If any of these ex-lovers turn up in the course of the book, they’re usually portrayed as enormous ho-bag scarlet women. This is usually because virgin!heroines and playboy!heroes are a favourite pair – and the Kristy looks all pure and good next to the Evil Ex.

So… why? This is the obvious question. It plays out so, so very often that the man is a total sex god and the woman completely untouched. And this makes for a totally hawt relationship. Why do these particular models of gender turn up so often.

I quoted from Mary Talbot’s essay ‘An Explosion Deep Inside Her’ the other day – she writes there that “eroticisation in Mills & Boon depends on the maximisation of gender difference.” These models of gender definitely polarise gender. To boil it down to its most basic, simplistic level, in a man, an active sexuality is good, in a woman, it is not. The man is a sexual being, the woman is sexual only for the man.

Of course, in romance, this turns into willing monogamy on both sides, which is where the intense contradiction at the heart of romance fiction comes into play. This binary model of women as either the virgin or whore, where the virgin is good and the whore is evil, and the complete absence of sexual interrogation (in the context of morality) of the man… well, it’s one of the patriarchy’s oldest tricks. However, in romance, it is the woman that tames the man and not the man that breaks the woman (though this is a vast simplification, and when it comes to rape in romance, I would definitely contest it – however, no matter the way it is read, to go all Schleiermacher on it, I think that this taming-not-breaking thing is the way it is intended). The hero, who has been perfectly content to do anyone any time without emotional attachment, finds himself willingly becoming monogamous with the virginal heroine. To go back to the Foucaulvian thesis of sexuality as completion, she replaces his model of sexuality with her own. She takes away from him this do-anything attitude and replaces it with loving monogamy and domestic bliss. And he is totally down with that.

This is where the idea of sex as currency comes in. We have established (totally ad nauseam) that the hero is constructed as whole without the heroine, whereas the heroine defines herself in terms of her relationship. Where sexuality is an element of the whole, the virginal heroine – the Kristy – is clearly lacking it.

What Kristy does have, however, is morality. In spades. This is not necessarily tied to any kind of religion – she has not had sex pretty much…because. This is, obviously, a totally valid life choice, but it seems odd that heroines really have no reason for not having sex a lot of the time. The playboy hero – the Dante – has no real reason to have sex either, and he’s doing anything that moves. Kristy, on the other hand, has opted to remain untouched, often going to ridiculous lengths to avoid having sex – it’s pretty rare you come across a Kristy who just couldn’t get any. It’s almost always a conscious decision.

And yet Kristy, despite all this conscious decision-making, is pretty much flat on her back for Dante as soon as is reasonably possible. There might be some initial sparring and sparks flying, but she’s perfectly willing to sleep with him. Even though she’s never been willing to sleep with anyone else. And this is… fine.

Therein lies one of the biggest contradictions in romance fiction. There’s this intensely patriarchal ideal of the interrogation of female sexuality – women who have had sex are bad (the Evil Ex), women who haven’t are good (Kristy). And yet, when the virgin heroine does give it up to the hero, there are no repercussions. It isn’t like teenage soapies, where sex is a cautionary tale. The sexual union of the couple and the defloration of the heroine is a celebration, not a condemnation.

Romance fiction is unusual in that sex – within this very controlled context – is coded for women not as losing something but as gaining something. Of course, it has to be sex with the right man, but this is the only restriction. It doesn’t have to take place within any certain parameters, and it certainly isn’t the case that the heroine has to marry the hero first (though there are romance novels like this – lines like the Sweet line cater to more conservative models of morality). As long as the heroine sleeps with the hero, then sex is a good thing. To quote Crusie:

“If romance novels do nothing else, they should earn the respect of feminists for the way they re-vision women’s sexuality, making her a partner in her own satisfaction instead of an object…

“They 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]

The celebration of female sexual pleasure is certainly not patriarchal discourse, and this is something that is at the heart of romance. In terms of patriarchy, this is totally, utterly subversive. However, the heroine’s sexual pleasure takes place in a framework of patriarchal discourse and an interrogation of her sexual morality.

Sex with the hero completes the heroine. We have been over this ground, like, nine thousand times now. The hero is the right man for the heroine. This is an emotional judgment the book leads the reader to make. The heroine is physically pure and morally sound, but because she does not have an active sexuality, she is not complete.

She waits until she meets the hero to have sex. Sex with him completes her. In the sense, her sexual pleasure becomes a reward for her previous sexual morality.

(Finally, I got to the point).

It exists outside the conventional ‘wait for marriage’ guideline, but there is still a sense of waiting – waiting for the right man, the right one. By being a good girl and waiting till she finds the hero, she is rewarded with completion of her selfhood and… oh yeah, amazing orgasms. By complying with a very patriarchal set of values, she gets to experience sexual pleasure that exists outside its realm. Sex is the currency in which she is paid for her morality.

However, this isn’t true of the hero. Sure, the sex he has with the heroine is amazing, the best sex he’s had in his life – however, even though he’s been screwing everyone he comes across, no moral judgment is passed. He initiates the heroine into the realm of sexual pleasure and becomes the agent of her reward.

Crusie quotes from Mary Nyquist, who writes:

“Like Prince Charming, the [hero] of mass-produced romance ends up awakening–and thereby regulating–the heroine’s dormant sense of self.”

- Nyquist, M., 1993, ‘Romance in the Forbidden Zone’ in Neumand, S. and Stephenson, G. (eds.) Reimagining Women: Representations of Women in Culture [Toronto: U of Toronto P] p. 160.

Crusie notes – correctly – that because Nyquist only studied seven novels this claim is contestable, but I think there’s something in it. It touches on something that is very troubling in the power dynamic between hero and heroine. The virginal heroine complies with patriarchal dictates and is rewarded by completion of her selfhood and sexual pleasure. The hero is the agent by which this is delivered. Sleeping with him is acceptable and equals good sex rather than evil sex because they are in love. However, because he completes her, she is complete only in respect to him, her identity defined in terms of their relationship.

This is something Crusie explicitly buys into, as noted by yesterday’s rambling, and I find it worrying in this particular brand of virgin/playboy romance fiction, because of the uneven power balance it sets up. The heroine is rewarded for being good through sexual pleasure, the hero is one who rewards her – but his morality is never interrogated, and, in fact, many heroes define themselves by their wickedness. Crusie notes that “the commitment that takes place at the end of the book is not a surrender but a pact”, and I think this is true – as noted before, the woman reforms the man by replacing his ‘wild’ sexuality with the monogamous brand of her own.

However, he allows himself to be reformed, and this is important. The virginal heroine must comply with patriarchal dictates and regulate her morality before she meets the hero – the hero needs to do no such thing, and sometimes the wickeder he is, the better. She redeems him and reforms him through sex, replacing one component of his whole self (his individual sexuality) with one coded as superior (monogamy with her). He, on the other hand, is the agent of her social reward for being a good girl and waiting till she met the right guy – completion as an individual (she is now permitted to define herself via their relationship) and intense sexual pleasure. She must behave herself, lest she turn from Madonna to whore, Kristy to evil ex – whereas his redemption, although also tied to sex, is more personal and less patriarchal and societal. The playboy hero and the virginal heroine change each other, but the fact remains that she must be codependent – she needs him to initiate her sexually to be a complete person – whereas codependence for the hero is a choice.

2 Comments »

  1. [...] 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 [...]

    Pingback by You are allowed to look: Reading romance as a subversive act « ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse — July 11, 2010 @ 12:52 am | Reply

  2. Ah, this is why I don’t like this type of pairing. :(

    But then again, how often does it really happen? My experience of romance reading tells me we usually find out that the rake hero has in fact not been half as active sexually as he was given credit for… While even the Regency virgin heroine is way less of a virgin than you’d think, meaning she already knew sexual pleasure from masturbation!

    Otherwise… yes. This idea of women not being complete without men, as opposed to men being complete unto themselves is something I’ve reflected on time and time again, way before I started reading romance. Actually, romance kind of contributed to take me out of this frame of mind. So many strong-willed, independent and irresistible heroines… who certainly DON’T need a man, except maybe for pleasure.

    Comment by Asia Morela — March 24, 2011 @ 5:12 am | Reply


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