ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

August 5, 2010

‘A Nothing Person’ – Quick Shots

Filed under: quick shots — Jodi @ 11:00 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

“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.

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11 Comments »

  1. Sounds like obsession, or infatuation, or something other than what I’d call “love.” Talking of which, have you seen Pam Rosenthal’s review of Cristina Nehring’s A Vindication of Love? It seems that Nehring would probably approve of this all-consuming kind of love, although she might not be so keen on the happy endings:

    You’ll find her book convincing, I suspect, to the extent that you’re engaged by an authorial persona given to confiding that she bears “the bodily scars of a loss or two in love,” having been “derailed by love, hospitalized by love, flung around five continents, shaken, overjoyed, inspired, and unsettled by love.” For my part, I began to feel trapped in a room with the Marianne Dashwood of the first half of Sense and Sensibility, with no Elinor in sight.

    Struggling to understand why the bulk of Nehring’s reconstituted erotic literary tradition finally left me cold, I discovered that contrariwise, while reading her book I had rather renewed my admiration for the nineteenth century realist novel and become all the more appreciative of the Marianne/Elinor dialogue that weighs good against good amid the conundrums of passion versus propriety, spontaneity versus social memory, and self versus community.

    Also, can I be brazen and self-advertise? I’ve co-written an essay, which like Rosenthal’s review, is in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies and it’s got quite a bit on the virgin/rake dynamic.

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — August 5, 2010 @ 11:33 am | Reply

    • I am always open to self-advertising! Your essay looks like it will be very useful for the direction in which I’m going, which is primarily focusing on the virgin/rake dynamic – I will definitely check it out.

      I had a brief look at Pam Rosenthal’s review – I think you’re absolutely right about the happy endings. (There is, I thought, something a little concering about finding a self-help message in Wuthering Heights!) There was one line in the review – just a little after the quote you posted above – I thought was particularly striking:

      “But could it instead be that we look to them [romance novels, Austen remakes etc] for visions of love within communities that we no longer know how to achieve or even describe?”

      She then goes on to describe the book market as drowning in memoir and other celebrations of the individual ego. This seems to imply that due to the egotistical nature of society, the romantic love of a Pride and Prejudice society is no longer possible.

      It follows, then, that the individual ego and romantic love cannot coexist. And that ties back to what I have continued to find so troubling – that for the happy ending that comes in a romance novel, the heroine (and sometimes the hero) actually surrenders her status as an individual to redefine herself in respect to the hero. Rosenthal’s use of the word ‘love’ here becomes troubling, because is something that fundamentally compromises the individual ever really love? Is it, as you put it, obsession or infatuation? Or is it something more sinister?

      Rosenthal remarks that “equal personhood is a tough slog.” I’d argue that in a philosophical sense, a true love can’t exist without it.

      Comment by Jodi — August 5, 2010 @ 12:34 pm | Reply

      • Another quote from Pam’s review which I thought was quite relevant here is her statement that Nehring’s book is “Boldly anti-PC” and that its argument seems to be that,

        by striving for fairness and equality, by making try after try at open communication and clear, demystifying vision—in all our feeble attempts to make our relationships work in the short run of viable domestic life—contemporary couples only make matters worse.

        I think that’s interesting, because the implication seems to be that the amount of fairness, equality and open communication in a relationship is in inverse proportion to the amount of “love.”

        I wonder if, deep down, authors like Miranda Lee agree. The heroine you quoted certainly isn’t in an equal relationship in which she and her hero communicate their needs and feelings. Instead, the force of the “love” seems to be demonstrated by the absence of communication.

        Sometimes it seems to me that quite a lot of romances have an underlying dominance/submission/masochism feel to the relationships (in the sense of the power dynamics of the couple’s daily interactions, not in the sense of what kind(s) of sex they have). Which, I suppose, is what Ann Douglas was arguing in her ‘Soft-Porn Culture: Punishing the Liberated Woman.’ The New Republic Vol.183, No.9 (August 30, 1980): 25-29.

        I suppose one has to take into account the fact that something has to happen in popular fiction, and there wouldn’t be much of a story if two nice people met, encountered no obstacles they couldn’t solve by discussing them sensibly, and moved in together. I think I might quite enjoy a romance like that, but I suspect a lot of people would find it boring. But again, perhaps that’s because conflict and emotional tension are felt to be more sexy, more exciting.

        I’ve found Robert Sternberg’s ideas about the various components and types of love really useful in thinking about the depiction of relationships in romance. In his terms, I think, conflict would probably be related to “passion” whereas equality and discussion would be aspects of “intimacy.”

        It follows, then, that the individual ego and romantic love cannot coexist.

        Or maybe it follows that romantic relationships will either be very stormy and/or not last, if both people involved have very big egos? Interestingly, just yesterday The Rev. Dr Giles Fraser made some comments about egotism, romantic relationships, and community, which seem to have caused quite a bit of comment. He criticised modern weddings:

        Too many modern weddings have just lost their way. I’d even say that they’ve become a threat to marriage itself. For the whole point of a wedding is that the married couple are agreeing to place the interests of another before their own. In marriage, you agree that somebody other than you will be the centre of gravity in your life. To this extent marriage is a sacrament because it points to the relationship of faith where someone places one’s own life into the hands of God. But I can’t see how any of this – secular or sacred – is marked when the ceremony itself is specifically designed to be all about ‘me’, about being a ‘princess for a day’.

        Of course, when it’s done right, a wedding is simply wonderful. When two people overcome their fear and instinct for self-protection and place their heart into the hands of another for safekeeping, then a mini-miracle occurs. And indeed, it’s this miracle of trust and love that’s at the heart of a flourishing human community. Take away all the expensive and distracting chaff, and this is a lot easier to see.

        Comment by Laura Vivanco — August 5, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

  2. Sorry, I forgot to turn off the bold.

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — August 5, 2010 @ 2:20 pm | Reply

  3. The subsumed heroine makes me deeply uncomfortable; I need to see her change out of that role into an independent adult before I can accept the romance.

    Comment by victoriajanssen — August 5, 2010 @ 5:29 pm | Reply

  4. Oh, and regarding what I said earlier about

    Sometimes it seems to me that quite a lot of romances have an underlying dominance/submission/masochism feel to the relationships (in the sense of the power dynamics of the couple’s daily interactions, not in the sense of what kind(s) of sex they have).

    I’m obviously not the only one to have thought something along these lines, because I just came across the following comment elsewhere:

    I have a theory (actually, it’s my wife’s theory because she’s reading over my shoulder).

    I think that it’s because there’s a lot more kinky people out there and the power plays in romance novels mimic the kind of D/s relationship they’re really craving.

    since they’re not connected to the community, they don’t understand the difference between a sexy dominant and a total jerkface. Sadly, it’s a mistake I’ve seen a lot of newbie submissives make.

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — August 6, 2010 @ 10:59 am | Reply

    • I think that is a really interesting point. At the end of the day, it can’t be denied that there really is a huge trend toward the submissive heroine. I think this is especially true in virgin/rake novels, where there’s a real teacher/student dynamic going on in terms of sex (sometimes literally – like in this book).

      The major problem I see with this theory, however, is that if it is true, where are all the dominant heroines? We’ve got submissive heroines flying round left, right and centre – there are certain category lines that seem to be devoted to them – but dominant heroines? Well, they turn up in urban fantasy on occasion, I suppose, but it’s not an equal ratio by any means. I really don’t know a lot about dominance and submission as practices and am completely unqualified in all respects to comment on it, but it seems that if all these submissive heroines were a product of a hidden desire in a huge amount of people, there’d be the corresponding dominants. Or at least more.

      This whole submissive heroine even turns up in that most popular of pop culture phenomena, Twilight, and the sheer numbers of people crazy in love with that book is overwhelming. It leads me to think that it might be something more along the lines of nurture (as opposed to nature) – a cultural indoctrination of submissiveness. Even backlash to Backlash, I suppose.

      And, at the end of the day, there is no reason why both these theories can’t coexist. I daresay they are both true, in some measure.

      Comment by Jodi — August 6, 2010 @ 1:17 pm | Reply

      • The major problem I see with this theory, however, is that if it is true, where are all the dominant heroines?

        Laura Kinsale’s theory (in her essay in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women) is that when female readers want to imagine being dominant, powerful etc, they imagine they’re the hero. That may be one of the reasons why m/m romance and m/m slash fiction attract women readers and writers (as brought up here.

        I wonder if powerful, sexually attractive female characters are more common in fiction written by/for men, but in the guise of femme fatales/the belle dame sans merci?

        Comment by Laura Vivanco — August 6, 2010 @ 2:15 pm

  5. […] Great discussion over at ClitLit by Jodi — a critical romance reader, and we need those — and Laura Vivanco and Victoria Janssen on the subsumed heroine. […]

    Pingback by Monday Morning Stepback: Contest winner, Garwood for a buck, and romance and social media « Read React Review — August 9, 2010 @ 11:19 am | Reply

  6. Laura Kinsale’s theory (in her essay in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women) is that when female readers want to imagine being dominant, powerful etc, they imagine they’re the hero. That may be one of the reasons why m/m romance and m/m slash fiction attract women readers and writers (as brought up here.

    I’ve seen many iterations of that theory about why women like to read m/m – I think it is actually one of many reasons why. Another is “I get to look at TWO guys. What’s not to like?” and the idea that it’s more a way of exploring what a more equal gender relationship would be like, without necessarily “identifying” with one character.

    I’m a bit iffy on the “identifying with X character” idea, because I’m never really sure what it means.

    Comment by victoriajanssen — August 9, 2010 @ 1:32 pm | Reply

  7. On the subject of romance fiction and BDSM, I’ve just come across this review of Glinda F. Hall’s The Creators of Women’s Popular Romance Fiction: The Authors Who Gave Women a Genre of Their Own:

    “. . . this book’s strongest addition to the field of scholarship on romance, popular culture, and feminism is Hall’s analysis of sexuality’s meaning within the genre. [The author] views romance as a popular use of ideas embedded within the alternative though widespread lifestyle of D/s, dominance and submission. Hall analyzes the power dynamics of classics such as Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower and Rosemary Rogers’ Sweet Savage Love and recent erotic romances such as Emma Holly’s Velvet Glove for their use of D/s as a vocabulary to deal with larger culture issues concerning power, identity, and desire. Utilizing sophisticated feminist theorists such as Judith Butler and Jessica Benjamin, Hall examines the broader cultural implications of the ways in which women’s romances represent gender and sexuality.” – Prof. Deborah Chappel-Traylor, Arkansas State University

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — August 21, 2010 @ 6:36 pm | Reply


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