ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

December 21, 2009

Romance Fiction as Magic Eye

 I’ve just finished reading Jenny Crusie’s essay ‘Romancing Reality: The power of romance fiction to reinforce and re-envision the real’. It’s a very, very interesting essay and I think I’m going to get a lot of mileage out of it in terms of writing. It’s unusual in that it’s written by a romance author and is one of the few real pro-romance essays I’ve been able to find. This is an area where so little is written – and when you consider how significant romance is in the book market, this is so not cool.

But the lack of romance crit is not what I’m writing about today. For my first (of what will likely be an extensive series) rambling on Crusie’s essay, I’d like to draw attention to this passage:

“This brings us to the second invalid assumption which is that in reality women do not and should not hold relationships as their chief goals.   But women, God bless us every one, have a multitude of life goals, and one of the ones at the top for many of us is relationships, and the top relationship–the one most of us dream about and groan about and laugh about and cry about–is romantic, the life partner relationship…

“This is underscored by a Stone Center study at Wellesley college which determined that, unlike men who must separate from others to determine selfhood, women come to their sense of self through relationships. This study concluded that “for women, it is not the quality of ‘productive initiative,’ nor the quality of a separate ‘I’ apart from others that is central to the sense of self, [but] a sense of an ‘I’ that includes an inner perception of the self as part of an emotional process with attention to . . . a mutuality of relationship exchange.” The Stone Center’s description of women’s need for relationships exactly mirrors the reaction that women readers have reported after reading romance: “Women come to experience a sense of aliveness, of empowerment, and of zest in a context of ongoing mutual relationships.”   The study makes clear what romance readers have already recognized, politically incorrect though it is: “Indeed, what women live for, what keeps them alive, are the opportunities to experience themselves in [mutual relationships]” (Kaplan 259). Or as critic Suzanne Juhasz put it in her own study of romance fiction, “The marriage ending is less co-optation, as some would have it, with success contingent upon submission of self to that patriarchal institution marriage than it is reward for self-realization, for a maturation that derives from relationships rather than separation” (239).” [emphasis mine]

– 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, 21/12/2009]

This is an idea I find very, very troubling – and I don’t care what studies have been done to prove that it is so. I don’t know if I really believe in gendered studies anyway, but this is a huge sweeping generalisation to make. However, it is something that is borne out in a lot of romance fiction (insert standard disclaimer about romance being wide and multifarious, don’t want to generalise, blah blah here). It ties into all the Foucaulvian stuff I’ve been discussing, and we saw it plainly represented in Jade Lee’s Getting Physical.

Actually, let’s expound and talk about it in terms of Getting Physical. (Heh. That sentence is funny if you say it aloud). Stephen is complete unto himself – separate from others, which determines his selfhood. He is not necessarily happy, but he is whole, especially if we considered the notion that sexuality is an intrinsic component of the whole person. He has a very active sex life, a successful career and wants for nothing. He does not view love as necessary and never even dwells on it – until he meets Zoe.

Zoe, in contrast, is working towards establishing a sense of self. Previously, her selfhood was founded on her relationships with her parents and her husband Marty – when these relationships collapse, she is forced to strike out on her own. She is struggling – working crappy jobs to make ends meet while studying for her MBA – but with the added support network of her housemates (Lee makes a point of saying that Zoe has chosen to live with these eleventy million people instead of alone – clearly she hasn’t read He Died With A Felafel In His Hand) she is doing okay. It is her housemate Janet that puts her on the path that eventually leads her to Stephen by giving her the gift of twelve tantra classes.

Zoe probably isn’t the best example ever of a heroine who defines her selfhood by her relationships, but it’s certainly there. She relies on her housemates to function, to give her a sense of family. Before Zoe, Stephen is functional on his own – and although the lack of family (his family are all nasty meanies) makes him sad, he doesn’t really realise that he is sad until Zoe heals him through some mystical tantric sex magick omg. So, in summary – Stephen is an individual because of his separateness, Zoe through her relationships. Stephen defines himself in relation to himself; Zoe via her relationships with other people.  

It is interesting that it is Stephen is the one that comes around to Zoe’s point of view, not the other way round. The fact that Stephen gets to be an individual while Zoe is defined through her relationship to others is very hierarchical and – yes, I’m going to go there – patriarchal. But Stephen then comes to encompass Zoe in part of his definition of himself, the man coming round to the female experience – a fact which I think Crusie has missed in her essay, which is a shame for her, because I think it would support her case that romance novels are not TEH ANTI-WIMMINZ EVUL. This happens through sex. Sex with Stephen completes Zoe – her relationship with him supplants her other relationships and she has no problems merrily ditching her actual family and her functional family of housemates and nancing off to China to be with him. Whether or not this is healthy is a whole other issue, but it is certainly true that her sexual relationship with Stephen becomes a defining factor of her selfhood.

Stephen’s sexual relationship with Zoe also completes him, but it happens by replacing a pre-existing aspect of his life. Stephen is a Tantric dragon master (excuse me while I laugh about that all over again) and has an active sexuality, even if it is more focused on attaining ‘heaven’ than anything else. It is a highly individualistic sexuality in that sense; however, it is replaced by his sexual union and relationship with Zoe. To summarise, he is independent and becomes codependent; she is not really capable of true independence and ends up as codependent on his as a sort of compromise.

In terms of gender, this is interesting. We begin with a very pronounced hierarchy, which clearly places Stephen above Zoe – he is sexual teacher to her student, rich to her poor, independent to her struggling. However, we end up at a place where they are two halves of the same whole – he completes her, she mends him and leads him to a more fulfilling completion. It is, essentially, the man that comes round to the woman’s way of thinking. She fixes him through love (literally, in the case of this book).

This sets up a dynamic wherein a woman needs a man for completion and a man needs a woman for fulfilment. In terms of power, I think this still places the man well above the woman. He is permitted to be functional and self-reliant in a way that the woman is not – he is defined in terms of himself and his achievements, whereas she is defined in terms of her relationships with others. Zoe is a stronger heroine than many in romance fiction, but I think this is still true of her. However, while the man is technically complete unto himself, he is not fulfilled until he is sexually satisfied by the woman. He is already complete, but she completes him better, if that makes sense. This leads to the problematic idea that men need to be fixed before they can be loved. Women need to be schooled, men need to be fixed…

I think what irritates me sometimes about romance novels is that there is no idea of individual self-realisation. The hero almost invariably has more self-realisation than the woman – he is complete while she is not – but even then, by the end of the novel, they are codependent. This is probably more a criticism of relationships in literature as a whole than just romance novels and whinging about this is totally fruitless, so I’ll stop. But it’s intriguing.

Where Crusie goes horribly wrong, I think, is asserting that for women (which suggests all women) relationships are the ultimate goal. And this is where romance can become very troubling. Codependence is placed higher than independence. This would be fine if it were non-gendered, but Crusie is asserting this from a purely female space. She quotes from Alexandra Kaplan and Rona B. Klein, saying that:

“Indeed, what women live for, what keeps them alive, are the opportunities to experience themselves in [mutual relationships].”

Kaplan, A.G. and Klein, R.B., ‘Women and Suicide’ in Jacobs, D. and Brown H.N. (eds.), Suicide: Understanding and Responding: Harvard Med. School Perspectives, [Madison, CT: International Universities Press, Inc, 1989] 259

What about men? What Crusie is suggesting here, and what is borne out in a lot of romance fiction, including, I would argue, Getting Physical, is that women need relationships to survive, whereas men do not. And from a gender politics perspective, I don’t think this is a very helpful idea.

I’d go so far as to say it has roots in patriarchal discourse, the idea of a woman who needs a man, whereas a man can be either a bachelor or a husband quite happily. However – and this is where romance fiction is so, so interesting – it also subverts this idea by saying that the man also needs the woman, he just doesn’t know it. Stephen doesn’t know he needs Zoe until she ‘fixes’ him. And this is borne out in hundreds of other books as well.

Romance fiction occupies this incredibly fluid and contradictory space between patriarchal gender roles and extreme subversion. I think that, as time goes on, this move towards the subversive will become more pronounced – one only has to look at the difference between what Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan dub ‘old skool’ and ‘new skool’ romance to see this. It’s an exciting area to study – and this Crusie essay is raising so many points that I can see thousands more of these rambles (which have only the vaguest resemblance to coherence) coming from it. It’s pretty rare that a genre can be both patriarchal and subvert patriarchal norms, simultaneously insult and celebrate women… it’s like looking at one of those magic eye pictures. You think you know what it is, and suddenly, something new comes into focus…


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