ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

December 20, 2009

Sexuality and the Individual

“The idea that the individual ‘has’ a sexuality and that this is a – perhaps the – defining feature of his or her being is, according to Foucault, a recent historical development. It is related to the idea that in order to find out what is essential about ourselves we need to bring to light the latent truth inscribed within sex: ‘We tell it [sex] its truth by deciphering what it tells us about that truth; it tells us our own by delivering up that part of it that escaped us’. [Foucault 1979 (1976): 69-70].”

– Harvey, K. and Shalom, C. [eds], 1997, Language and Desire: encoding sex, romance and intimacy [Routledge: London] p.13

I didn’t know this, and I find it very interesting. Romance fiction – particularly category romance fiction, in which I am especially interested – is also a relatively recent phenomenon (as far as I’m aware – I haven’t done huge amounts of research in this area, but Harlequin was founded in 1949, which is really not that long ago). And romance fiction definitely plays into this idea of sexuality being an individual’s defining feature. You can fix a lot of problems through sex in this genre. It doesn’t always play out, but in a lot of cases, the individual is redeemed through and by sex (with the right partner, obviously – if you sleep with the wrong person in romance fiction, especially if you are a woman, this will go nowhere fast). There is also a sense of sex (good sex again) completing a person – the hero and heroine are rarely ‘whole’ people in their own right until they’ve slept together.

This kind of leads to an idea that sexuality is an intrinsic component of an individual and without it, the individual cannot exist. This sort of undermines the whole idea of an individual, as sex within romance fiction always requires another person. Romance fiction is about achieving individual completion through union and thus surrendering a modicum of individuality.

There is more to say about this in a gendered capacity – I’d argue that the woman usually has to surrender more of her individuality than the man – but even looking at this Foucaulvian idea from a gender-neutral viewpoint, it seems pretty true to me of both hero and heroine in romance fiction. It ties into the idea of Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan’s idea of the Magic Hoo-Hoo, actually (sidenote: how often do you hear ‘Foucault’ and ‘Magic Hoo-Hoo’ in the same paragraph?). This idea is that once the hero and the heroine have slept together, he can no longer find sexual fulfilment with any other woman – her Magic Hoo-Hoo is the only hoo-hoo for him. She has completed him and yet also robbed him – in giving him this thing, she has taken away something else.

This isn’t really true of heroines – there aren’t very many who have been permitted to have good sex before they meet the hero (if they had had sex at all, they have encountered what Wendell and Tan call ‘Bad Wang’). So sex with the hero for her is merely an act of completion – she surrenders herself to him and becomes whole. Whereas he has to lose something to achieve completion… which kind of suggests that he was a complete individual before.

This isn’t a very coherent ramble, really – it’s me stream-of-consciousnessing my thoughts as they come to me – but it is highlighting one of the gender binaries I find most troublesome from a feminist perspective. If we consider that sexuality is an essential component of the individual, the woman is either virginal and thus unrealised/nonactualised as a person, or, if she has had sex, somehow broken. The man has usually had sex and a lot of it, and it is his job to ‘complete’ the woman by initiating her into it (or at least initiating her into good sex). Somewhere along the way, she steals part of his own complete individual self and replaces it with her own.

So it sort of ends up mutual, but it’s not that way to begin with. There is often – I don’t wish to generalise about romance fiction, because it is such a broad, diverse genre, but there are some very particular trends – an idea of the man as sexual teacher and the woman as sexual student. He is complete and she is not. She still becomes essential to him as an individual, but only by supplanting by a pre-existing part of him (his sex life) while he gives her something she has never had before.

Interesting.

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4 Comments »

  1. I don’t want to sound nit-picking, but I thought it might be worth mentioning a couple of relatively minor points.

    Romance fiction – particularly category romance fiction, in which I am especially interested – is also a relatively recent phenomenon (as far as I’m aware – I haven’t done huge amounts of research in this area, but Harlequin was founded in 1949, which is really not that long ago).

    Mills & Boon was founded in 1908, and just recently celebrated its centenary.

    It ties into the idea of Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan’s idea of the Magic Hoo-Hoo, actually

    It wasn’t their idea, as I think they acknowledge in Beyond Heaving Bosoms. I first came across it in 2007 when Jennifer Crusie quoted Lani Diane Rich’s explanation of what she was calling the “Glittery HooHa”, but Rich said she was summarising an idea which was developed some years before at Television Without Pity.

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — December 22, 2009 @ 5:16 pm | Reply

    • Ah, thank you! I did not know this. I’ll look into it some more.

      Comment by Jodi — December 22, 2009 @ 9:39 pm | Reply

      • Re the ages of Harlequin and M&B, neither of them started off publishing romances exclusively, as is demonstrated by those vintage crime novels recently reprinted by Harlequin. But from fairly early on M&B was printing romances among its other offerings and also from quite early on it started advertising itself as a reliable brand which readers should choose because they could depend on M&B to give them the kind of books they were looking for (or so the advert claimed!).

        Have you come across the bibliography of romance scholarship that a few of us have been compiling at the Romance Wiki? There are quite a few items there about the history/development of M&B/Harlequin and Juliet Flesch’s book is good on the development of the romance genre in Australia.

        Comment by Laura Vivanco — December 22, 2009 @ 9:52 pm

      • I haven’t – thank you so much! That is an incredible resource.

        Comment by Jodi — December 22, 2009 @ 11:20 pm


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