ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

December 23, 2009

Female Agency: Choice, change and the patriarchy

“Romance novels demonstrate women’s abilities and strengths by showing their heroines taking active, intelligent control of their lives.”

– 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 one of the key points Jennifer Crusie makes in the essay I’ve been discussing for a couple of days now, and I think it’s really interesting, particularly in terms of the ideas I was discussing yesterday.

To revisit yesterday’s idea: I was discussing the idea of sex as moral currency in terms of virgin!heroines. The heroine is rewarded for her sexual morality (i.e. waiting till she met the right man) through sexual pleasure and an ideological completion of herself as a whole being (where sex is an intrinsic part of the whole – the heroine is now able to define herself through her sexual union with the hero). Basically, by conforming to a patriarchal notion of sexual morality, the heroine is rewarded with very non-patriarchal sexual pleasure. However, this still plays into patriarchal power relations, because the hero is the agent of the heroine’s reward – the male representative of the patriarchy bestowing her completion and fulfillment upon her. However, pretty much unbeknownst to him, she changes him as much as he changes her, by replacing his previously wild sexuality with blissful monogamy.

(I feel like I should take a breath now).

So. We have a good dose of subverting patriarchal archetypes, but within a patriarchal framework. N’est pas?

However, this is where this idea of Crusie’s becomes interesting, because it introduces the concept of female agency. I think my previous thesis still holds, but this adds another layer to it – or at least another perspective. I’d say that this is applicable in varying degrees, depending on the particular novel and the type of heroine.

Let me explain. I think what I am trying to say here is kind of tied to the idea of the woman as sexual aggressor – and this is something which definitely turns up in romance fiction. This is a pretty sweeping generalisation, but I’d say that the heroine is rarely the sole sexual aggressor – but she’s often as hot for him as he is for her. (This does not apply, however, in books like Devil’s Embrace by Catherine Coulter – cue shitful dreck reflex – wherein the hero, Anthony, rapes the heroine, Cassie, so she’ll stop having ideas about escaping and marrying someone else. That has whole disturbing notions about the idea of the man as possessor of the woman which I’m sure I’ll write about sometime in the future).

So. Even though the heroine is virginal (or, at least, significantly less sexually experienced than the hero), even though she’s been a good girl in patriarchal terms, she is permitted to feel this extreme sexual desire. And she is an active participant in her own sexual initiation – and, thus, the Foucaulvian completion of her selfhood. Take Diana Haviland’s A Love Beyond Forever, for example. Kristy is the archetypal example of the virgin heroine who has not had sex for some arbitrary reason (pretty much a quarter century worth of ‘I’ve got a headache’, as far as I can tell). But as soon as she meets Jared, the hero, she’s warm for his form, and in approximately four seconds, they’re shagging like rabbits. Jared doesn’t push her into anything – Kristy (whatever other flaws she might have, like being totally annoying) has agency in her sexual-decision making.

I don’t think this changes the essential power dynamic at all. The sexually experienced Jared is able to define himself as himself through his actions. Kristy, on the other hand, is not ‘whole’ until she sleeps with him, and then she must define herself through their relationship – particularly in this book, which is time-travel: she literally has no other relationships in this world by which to define herself.

And yet, despite this, she still has agency. She chooses to sleep with Jared. To achieve Foucaulvian completion, she must sleep with someone, but the fact that she has the power to choose who this someone is… well, that’s key. And it complicates that power dynamic somewhat – especially when you consider that while Jared completes Kristy, Kristy also changes Jared. She has picked her man and reformed him – and in the end, it is actually him who conforms to her way of life and not the other way round. Although the majority of the book is spent in his world (royalist England) their happily ever after is in Kristy’s (modern America). This is an actualisation of what ideologically happens: he has completed her through new experience (time travel/sex/whatever), but she has essentially changed him, and he loves it.

It’s interesting to phrase it in terms of choice: the heroine chooses the hero, the man who will give her ideological fulfillment and completion. However, this act of completing the heroine is so wondrous for the hero that he chooses reform and her way of life. It’s also interesting that women are, in this sense, automatically equated with monogamy, whereas men with a do-anything attitude. (It’s your standard stud/slut double standard there, I guess – cue recitation of Jessica Valenti’s awesome book on this topic). But this troubling notion aside, the woman really does have more influence over the man than the patriarchal framework would normally allow her, even though the power play does take place within it. The heroine often does, as Crusie notes, take control of her life. She chooses her sexual partner and in the end, it is the hero whose way of life is fundamentally altered. He gives her something she never had before – sexual fulfillment and ideological completion – but she changes a pre-existing part of him. And that is something the patriarchy would not be too keen on at all.



  1. The genre’s so huge that one’s always able to think of counter-examples, but I think you’re right that it’s possible to read even the more traditional heroines’ actions in different ways. I’ve been reading George Paizis’s Love and the Novel: The Poetics and Politics of Romantic Fiction and while he wasn’t specifically looking at the heroines’ sexuality, he mentions it in passing and had this to say about them which seems to me to express a similar tension to what you’re saying:

    She deploys qualities that confirmed stereotypical images of the subservient woman (ever ready to sacrifice herself to the man, displaying weakness, intellectual inferiority, expertise in housekeeping, sexual passivity and more). However, a closer look at the overcoming of the obstacles shows it is not the acts themselves that are positive and attractive but the reasons for which they are undertaken. Although cast within the teleology of the solution, the teleology does not justify the acts in the world of the narrative. Rather it is the circumstances within which the acts were made that give the value of the value. Pursuit of esteem is the overriding factor governing her actions, and the overcoming of each obstacle is motivated not by the pursuit of marriage but by a quest for esteem. Each obstacle and its overcoming must be read within both the teleology of the novel as a whole, i.e. ‘how she got her man’, its surface meaning, and also as separate moments, with their own rationale. Therefore, the surface plot – the quest for the male – recedes, and another plot begins to emerge which stands out like a skeleton in an X-ray; this is the novel’s connoted meaning, what it is about it that is positive and implicitly instructive or appealing to the reader. (134)

    The other thing is that some heroines really don’t demonstrate much, if any, willingness “to sacrifice herself to the man, displaying weakness, intellectual inferiority, expertise in housekeeping, sexual passivity and more.”

    If you turn to historical romances it can perhaps become even more complicated. It’s not always clear whether some of the attitudes/behaviours in them are meant to reflect contemporary historical attitudes (which may, or may not, be well understood by the author). But heroines in historicals can sometimes be very anachronistic. This can mean that some of them seem ultra-feminist by medieval standards, but are fairly conventional by 21st-century standards.

    On the other hand, as with paranormal romances, it may be that in some cases the settings (in a distant past/fantasy world) allow the authors to present attitudes and behaviours which do appeal to them but which they don’t think would be considered acceptable in contemporary settings.

    I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on all of this, because I can get myself tied up in knots thinking about the genre’s relationship to patriarchy.

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — December 23, 2009 @ 9:30 am | Reply

  2. Hi Jodi! Just waving a big hello from Romanceland. Laura pointed me in your direction and I subscribed right away. Glad to have you here.

    Comment by RRRJessica — December 24, 2009 @ 3:21 pm | Reply

    • Thank you very much for the welcome!

      Comment by Jodi — December 25, 2009 @ 10:41 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: