ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

September 25, 2010

New Voices, Fresh Beginnings?

Mills and Boon is currently running a web competition called New Voices, searching for – surprise, surprise – new voices, new romance writers. Entries have closed and they received a huge amount – I’m not sure of the exact number, but it was over 800. When one considers the very small percentage of readers that actually write (I have absolutely no stats to back this up, only the evidence of my own experiences, but there it is) this is a huge amount of entries.

Category romance gets a bad name for being formulaic, and I have to say that it’s justified a lot of the time – there’s only so many Greek shipping magnates and Mediterranean billionaires and sheikhs you can read about before they all blur into one – and so I was really very pleasantly surprised to see this coming from M&B blogger Flo Nicoll:

“Don’t be afraid to give us a story we’ve never seen before. E.g. bosses and secretaries are an old favourite for a reason, but what else can you think of to get readers hooked?”

I’ve been putting together the proposal for my doctorate during the six weeks I haven’t been writing here, and the idea of the future of the genre is one I’m currently quite intrigued with. My proposed doctorate is on the dynamics between virgin heroines and playboy heroes – the eternal sexual (in)experience interaction. In the early days of romance fiction, this dynamic was pretty much an essential requirement of the genre. Now, although the virgin/playboy thing remains popular, there are many more diverse experiences out there.

However, if the virgin/playboy thing wasn’t so overwhelmingly out there, I would have no PhD proposal. And this whole New Voices thing made me think – is this constant flood of billionaires and CEOs and their timid little secretaries making the category genre stagnant? Genres evolve by nature – they grow and change. But with category, we essentially get the same thing, over and over – rich alpha male meets socially inferior young woman. Usually, she’s ‘feisty’ (oh! how I hate that word!) but he steamrolls her into sex/marriage/a relationship/some romantic outcome. And then they declare their love and live happily ever after.

It’s more complicated than that – I could go into Pamela Regis’s eight essential elements, I suppose, but I don’t know how much merit there would be in doing that – but I think that’s the bones of it. And it is, I think, the steamrolling thing that bothers me most. Cristina Nehring had a chapter in her recent book A Vindication of Love on the romance of inequality (particularly, as I read it, teacher/student relationships, which I found interesting in the context of the sexual dynamics of the playboy and virgin, which I have discussed many a time before), but I just don’t buy it.

There’s a whole other issue at play here which I need to write about in more depth – the idea that ‘alpha’ does not mean the same thing as ‘arsehole’. ‘Alpha’ is so often used as a catchall term to excuse any terrible (sometimes basically emotionally abusive) actions of the hero – ‘oh, he’s just being alpha’. Tied into this alphaness seems to be the need to dominate everyone, including (and sometimes especially) the heroine. And this gets played out with those Mediterranean CEOs and whatnot again and again and again and again. And even more agains.

Which is why I think this New Voices thing is such a good idea. In one sense, I think it’s pushing the genre forward. I’ve scanned through a lot of the entries, and while there are a whole lot of the steamroller heroes, there are some that more mellow. More chilled. More… you know, not arseholes. Throwing the genre open to change and evolution can only be a good thing, I think. I mean, people obviously love the steamroller stuff, because they buy it and buy it again and again… but why should it be the only thing available to buy?

So what I mean to say is, in a very long winded way, I think the rationale behind this competition is great. If it can breathe fresh air into the genre and push it forward… I think it can be nothing but great.

(And yes, I did enter. I’m willing to try my hand at writing anything – and it’s only fair that I walk my own talk. You can read my entry here, if you are at all interested.)


July 11, 2010

You are allowed to look: Reading romance as a subversive act

When I read romance – particularly when I read contemporary categories about virgin heroines and playboy heroes, which is what I plan to write my doctoral thesis on – I am frequently (and vocally) horrified about the gender roles and the power dynamics. This is not exactly a secret. I’ve written post after post on this blog about various books, outlining all the reasons why they’re playing into harmful gender stereotypes that are completely incongruent with any kind of feminist agenda and in most case countermand it totally (see books like Sara Craven’s The Innocent’s Surrender or Trish Morey’s The Italian Boss’s Mistress of Revenge).

There are many similar problems with Kim Lawrence’s Under the Spaniard’s Lock and Key. I mean, come on, you can basically tell that there are problems with it from the title, can’t you? The hero, Rafael, essentially kidnaps the heroine, Maggie, on not one but a number of occasions to serve his own agenda (protecting his cousin’s wife Angelina, who also happens to be the adopted Maggie’s birth mother – he has some idea that she is going to publicly embarrass Angelina, who is a member of the Spanish aristocracy). There are moments like these, which make me cringe (though there is, unlike some romance novels, a clear level of meta-awareness going on here):

“On one level she recognised that her reliance on him was foolish. Hadn’t she always solved her own problems? She was no wilting flower. Yet here she was, leaning, and not just physically, on Rafael… It was actually just good to be able to let go and know that someone else would pick up the pieces… was that wrong?”

– Lawrence, K., 2010, Under the Spaniard’s Lock and Key [Mills & Boon] p. 139

“The need that rose up inside him, the need to remove the weight from her shoulders, to care for her, was totally outside his experience.”

– ibid., p.164

It’s odd, isn’t it, how it’s always the heroine and not the hero who lets go of responsibilities. I know this is very heavily linked to the fact that romance fiction is escapist for women and sure, it is nice to have someone to do stuff. But the gendering of this in romance fiction smacks heavily of the ‘little woman’ idea to me. The number of times heroines morph from Peggy Olson (or even Joan Holloway) into Betty Draper is a little disturbing. I cannot speak for women as a monolithic unit, but I find this – it’s not so pronounced in this book, but certainly is in others – basically infantilisation, and that is obviously extremely problematic.

It is also almost hilarious how closely Under the Spaniard’s Lock and Key comes to actually articulating my sweeping generalisation that, within category romance, women = love and men = sex. For example:

“‘I love you,’ he breathed against her mouth. ‘And I have been lost without you… It turns out that after a life of driven achievement, all I actually need is you.”

– ibid., pp.178-9

(I LOVE the awkward phrasing of ‘life of driven achievement’. I laughed for, like, five minutes. Couldn’t tell you why, but I thought it was hysterical.)

“Rafael represented rampant sexuality, dangerous excitement and misery because he couldn’t love her.”

– ibid., p.139

I don’t really want to expound on this too much here, because I’ve already written about 500 words and still not got to my actual point, but I am totally smug about how clearly this plays out what I hypothesised in this post. Don’t I feel clever and smug!

But now – drumroll please – my point.

The reason that I actually quite liked Under the Spaniard’s Lock and Key on some level – something I can rarely say about category romance, fascinating as I find them – is a moment. Just one moment. It takes place in the traditional playboy-hero-deflowers-the-virgin-heroine scene. Rafael has undressed Maggie and himself and it’s all about to happen when Maggie is suddenly essentially crippled by self consciousness. Rafael calms her down and says this to her:

“‘This is me, and you are allowed to look, and want, and touch. There is no shame, just sex. This is natural and good.'”

– ibid., p.90

That, right there, is exactly the reason why romance fiction cannot be written off as a backwards throwback to repressive patriarchal gender roles. That articulates perfectly why reading romance is subversive, and, I think, why people often try to conceal that they read it. Romance fiction is the literary embodiment of this idea – it is all right for women to express desire. There is nothing shameful about female sexuality. It is, instead, something to be celebrated.

Not that there aren’t problematic things about even this statement itself, given its context. The fact that Rafael delivers this line to Maggie in his role as her sexual teacher and initiator is a bit disturbing given the power dynamic going on there. But this idea is, at its core, transgressive. When you consider the stereotypical function (both literary and societal) of women as sexual gatekeepers, where men always desire sex and it is the woman’s role (and only real power) to dole it out like a reward, then this is extremely transgressive. At the heart of the idea of the woman as the sexual gatekeeper is the idea that women do not experience sexual desire, but that they tolerate and facilitate the sexual desire of men.

Romance fiction, no matter what crazy gender roles it might perpetuate, subverts this. Sure, it usually does so within a strict moral perimeter – in virgin/playboy books especially, there is a very problematic emphasis on her waiting to have sex with the right 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 shameful, something unnatural, something that makes her unwomanly or anything like that, but as something which is an essential part of her psyche.

The virgin heroine/playboy hero thing, if you revision it in a certain way, can be very interesting. I don’t really like using ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as monolithic entities, but if you consider that male sexual desire has always been permissible and legitimate, then the idea of The Man as the playboy hero makes sense. When you consider that female sexual desire (at least in relatively recent times – there have been times in history where women have been cast as voracious sexual temptresses out to lead good men astray from the path of righteousness or whatever) has been seen as something shameful, something unnatural and something unwomanly… then the virgin heroine makes sense. When you look at the virgin heroine’s journey, her progress is charted from asexual being to sexual creature as she realises that yes, she is allowed to look. Her nascent sexuality grows until it is an integral part of her being – a part, in fact, that she cannot live without.

Of course, romance fiction isn’t quite there yet. When there are more books that feature the heroine actually experiencing sexual desire for men other than the hero, then I think the playing field will be a little more level. (Maggie notes on p. 40 that she is not ‘the sort of girl who could separate sex from emotion’ – while there is nothing wrong with this, it would be nice to see a few heroines that could.) But there is no understating how subversive it is that heroines not only experience but embrace sexual pleasure in romance fiction, and it is not condemned, but celebrated. As Jennifer Crusie notes:

“They [romance novels] 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, 21/12/2009]

Romance fiction is not there yet. But the figuring of female sexuality in these books totally subverts the patriarchal norm. The act of reading romance is often seen as something shameful. While at least part of this is because category romances are largely, let’s face it, of questionable literary merit at best, most of it is because female sexual desire is still seen as something essentially unnatural. Patriarchally speaking, women aren’t supposed to want sex. Sex is something that is done to women, not something they participate in.

But not in romance fiction.

Despite the fact that, in virgin/playboy novels, women are introduced to sex and initiated into it by a more experienced man, and that he completes her in a way which is totally problematic, as I have noted ad nauseam a hundred times and a hundred times again, women are allowed to enjoy sex in romance novels. Reading romance novels is, on one level, participating in a revision of female sexual desire, an intensely subversive act. Reading romance, despite all the problems with it, is a celebration of female sexuality and the female gaze – an admission that yes, women really are allowed to look, and want, and touch. There is no shame – just sex.

February 19, 2010

Virginity as Shorthand: the virgin and the playboy strike again

I read this article yesterday – An Insider’s Guide to Writing for Mills & Boon. In it, three authors of category romance are interviewed – Penny Jordan, Sharon Kendrick and Maisie Yates.

Now, there were a ton of interesting issues raised in this article that I could write about for ages and ages and ages – one of which being that Sharon Kendrick apparently doesn’t like writing career women as heroines because she wants them to be able to spend time with the hero. Even though a lot of her heroes are sheikhs and mediterranean millionaires. With, you know, careers. Hello, Captain Double Standard.

But that wasn’t what I really wanted to talk about today. What I found most interesting in terms of what will hopefully one day be my PhD thesis – tentatively titled Defloration and Declaration: virgin heroines and the playboy heroes that love them in category romance fiction – was this comment from Penny Jordan on why she makes a lot of her heroines virgins:

“I think of it as a shorthand for me. It’s always by choice. When my heroine meets the hero, she wants to go to bed with him. For the reader, that’s the mark of the effect he has on her. Because you’ve only got so many pages, it would be very difficult for me to create a heroine who’s had lots of partners and immediately knew there was something different about this one.”

Now this is something that I found very, very interesting – and something that I hadn’t really considered, to tell the truth. Virginity as shorthand. The heroine chooses to sleep with the hero because he is different from all those other men – and by sleeping with him, this difference becomes tangible, because he is the only man to have slept with her. (That sounds a lot more convoluted when you write it down. Whoa.)

I think this is compatible with the theory I had about sex as moral currency, wherein the virgin heroine is rewarded for sexual morality by sexual pleasure when she meets the right man. By sleeping with him, she marks him as the right man, and she knows he is the right one for sure because she has a damn good time. However, there are troubling assertions underlying this theory – the first being that virginity and sexual morality are equated, which ties into the notion of the madonna vs the whore. Sure, the heroine gets to experience extreme sexual pleasure outside the traditional institution of marriage, which is a pretty subversive concept when talking in patriarchal terms, but the fact that this sexual pleasure is a reward for her sexual good behaviour is still intensely troubling. Through sex, the heroine and the hero are inextricably tied together. They might not have exchanged vows, but they might as well be married.

And the concept of virginity as shorthand exacerbates this even further. I don’t think Jordan is making any conscious assertions to equate virginity with sexual morality or anything, but I think the underlying assumptions are still very disconcerting when you consider the types of heroes that these heroines are paired with. The virgin heroine and the playboy hero. A study in double standards.

Let’s expound. I’ve pretty much covered this ground before but I’ll go over it again. The virgin heroine is untouched. As Jordan says, her virginity is a choice – it’s rarely because she just can’t get any. She’s nearly always made a conscious decision to remain a virgin because she hasn’t found that right guy yet. Which is totally fine.

However, the playboy hero is doing anything that moves. He’s had a thousand billion paramours and usually hasn’t cared a jot about any of them. Actually, I read a sheikh novel on the weekend where the hero was extolling the virtues of what he called ’empty sex’. This is a literalisation of what a lot of heroes go through. Even if the hero isn’t a playboy, it’s a pretty rare category novel where is less sexually experienced than the heroine. And I can’t say I’ve ever read a virgin hero, even paired with a virgin heroine.

So why does Penny Jordan get to use virginity as a shorthand to express the effect the hero has on the heroine – she wants to lose it to him – whereas there is no such shorthand for the hero?

I quoted way back at the beginning of this blog a line from Talbot, who said:

“Eroticisation in Mills & Boon depends on the maximisation of gender difference.”

I think what disturbs me most about the notion of the virgin heroine and the playboy hero is that this gender difference is often coded in terms of sexual morality. The woman is virginal, the man is virile. And this is a perfect match.

I think this is made pretty clear in Jordan’s shorthand – she says that the heroine knows the hero is different because she wants to go to bed with him. Does this mean she has never experienced any kind of sexual desire before in her life? The hero, on the other hand, clearly has experienced sexual desire – I mean, hello, he’s had sex. Usually a lot of it – even if it is this so-called ’empty sex’.

The hero knows the heroine is different because, as I have harped on and on and on about before, she inspires him to replace his free-wheeling do-anything ‘wild’ sexuality with her model of monogamy, usually leading to marriage and domestic bliss. However, the heroine knows the hero is different because he is the only man she has ever experienced sexual desire for, ever. This goes back to that crazy stereotype of men as sex-crazed beasts and women as the gatekeepers of sexual morality. A woman only has power and standing while she is untouched – once she has had sex she is effectively claimed, and her power is ceded to her seducer. And if her seducer is not in the picture, well…

This is the underlying basis of the stereotype and not what literally plays out in romance fiction. However, I find it very, very interesting in terms of power. The heroine desires – for the first time – to sleep with a man, the hero. When she does, he – cue Foucault – ideologically completes her and she cedes her selfhood to him. The man, of course, is already ideologically complete, but the heroine sort of modifies him, turning them into a unit. But what happens sexually seems to indicate something else, power-wise – the hero can function without the heroine. He’s had sex, and though he might not be emotionally fulfilled, he’s whole. The heroine, however, becomes dependent on the hero, because he is the agent of her completion.

This leads to an interesting debate on how sex and emotion are equated for the heroine but separate for the hero – but I’ll write about that another day. The crux of my point and the issue I take with the playboy/virgin dynamic is this – why can virginity function as a shorthand for true love for the heroine but not the hero?

February 6, 2010

Ugly Stepsisters: Desperate Women are Evil

I’ve been thinking about the portrayal of secondary female characters in romance novels. Why is it that so often that all women in romance novels, besides the heroine herself, are so evil?

This is definitely not a sweeping statement. I mean, look at Jenny Crusie’s books. She writes some brilliant female friendships – Maddie and Treva in Tell Me Lies, for example, or Min, Bonnie and Liza in Bet Me. In her books, the female friendships that her heroines have are almost as important as, if not just as important as, the relationships with the hero. I think I demonstrated this point with Tell Me Lies once. It is as much about Maddie and Treva as Maddie and C.L. I contend that Anyone But You is as much about Nina and Charity as Nina and Alex (though Nina and Fred is obviously the starring relationship of the book!) Welcome to Temptation features Sophie and her sister Amy and a whole host of issues there… and I could go on and on with examples from the Crusie canon about the way she portrays women other than the heroine – as, quite simply, People Too, and people that you care about.

But then I dived back into the world of category, given as that really is what I’m going to write my thesis on in the long run (it has a title now! which is more than it had before) and the contrast is very, very striking. You might get the odd wacky sidekick BFF character, but otherwise, the majority of the women are sad desperados or evil exes and basically Teh Ebil.

For example, I just read If the Slipper Fits, a category by Elizabeth Harbison. It’s sort of a Cinderella thing – the heroine, Lily, works as a concierge at a posh hotel and ends up posing as the girlfriend of one of the guests, Prince Conrad of FakekingdomohyesIamaprincelandia. I think it’s the second book of two as her sister Rose is married to someone very rich and there is whole subplot about how she and Lily have a longlost sister that they’re trying to find which doesn’t really sit too well with the rest of the book, to be honest – it seems to have nothing to do with anything.

But I digress.

Rose would probably fulfil the token role of nicegirl!BFF but we see so little of her it’s very easy to forget her existence. Her entire function in the novel (outside of the random subplot) is to tell Lily that it would TOTALLY be a good idea for her to pretend to be the Prince’s girlfriend, because seriously, what could go wrong with that? (I realise that came out sarcastic, but Rose is totally not sarcastic at all). The same goes for all the other staff at the hotel – I just put the book down and they’ve already blurred into one conglomerate hybrid in my mind, but I have the vague notion there was one called Karen who served pretty much the same function as Rose. Suffice to say that neither of these women were given enough screentime for their relationships with Lily to be truly meaningful. Liza and Bonnie they ain’t.

The women that are given screentime, however, are all OMGBADNEWS. There is Prince Conrad’s mother or stepmother or otherwise disapproving older female relative Princess Drucille, who seems to spend all her time trying to get Conrad to date someone she deems suitable – in particular, her friend Lady Penelope. The author goes to explicit lengths to suggest that Penelope is sooooo ugly – I believe the word ‘bovine’ is used a lot. Because if she’s single and has vague notions of marrying a prince she must be such an ugly desperado, right? Drucille also locks Lily in a closet one time to keep her away from Conrad. She is obviously a sparkling example of… sanity.

Then there is Baroness Kiki, who seems to be a professional prince-hunter (aka. professional desperado) who, at one point in the book, tries to pick the lock on Conrad’s room with a credit card because she is just so desperate/crazy. And then there is Brittany Oliver, fading starlet, who calls paparazzi to take photos of her and Conrad in what she hopes will be a compromising position in order to breathe some life into her career. Another desperado.

I get that the author is using this women as shorthand – and, in keeping with the Cinderella motif – ugly stepsisters, so that Lily looks that much better. I might be able to make an argument that by making these single women desperate that the author is demonising single women, but I don’t know if I want to be quite that bold yet… still, when you consider that the entire point of romance fiction and the plot of every single romance novel ever written is to make single women un-single, I think there is something in this portrayal of the single woman as sad and desperate. She is a laughable creature, the single woman – the conniving Brittany, the ugly Penelope, the flailing Kiki – and serves no purposes other than making the heroine look better. She is that rare thing, a single woman who is not sad and desperate, and thus worthy of graduating to the privileged role of coupled, which is eminently superior. Because even if she is completely self-sufficient, all she really wants is a man. (This makes me think of Karen Templeton’s Pride and Pregnancy, where Karleen tries to do everything for herself but then her sister ends up saying that all she’s ever wanted is a man to boss her around or something to that effect). And the thing is, the heroine might well be sad and desperate – at least people are kind of telling her she should be. Why else do the few good women, like Rose in this book, push her into situations where Holy Coupledom could result?

I think I need to think this through more, but I think that category romance – and a lot of single title romance – definitely does have a tendency to set up other single women as ugly stepsisters to the heroine’s Cinderella. In category, I can see how this functions as a sort of shorthand, but wouldn’t it be more meaningful if there were good alternatives to the heroine for the hero, and he picked her because he still liked her best? If the Slipper Fits read to me like Conrad fell in love with Lily because everyone else was crazy. Where’s the joy in coming out on top if everyone else is a loser?

This raises some interesting gender politics in itself, the idea of the man ‘choosing’ the woman… but I think it could work both ways, like if the heroine had good alternatives to the hero and still chose him. Now that would be a real relationship of desire and not just a sort of best of the rest mentality.

January 13, 2010

Karma and ‘Goodness’: Sex as a reward

I’ve spent a lot of the last week on a plane – crossing the Australian continent twice in three days, which is no mean feat, let me tell you! – and have passed the time very merrily by reading some more of Jenny Crusie’s books: Fast Women and Welcome to Temptation, to be specific. (And, being on a plane, I haven’t been writing here, as you can tell…) They were both excellent plane books – I loved Welcome to Temptation in particular. I’m definitely going to have to read more Crusie, perhaps even purely for pleasure rather than study. She’s so wonderfully… well, readable. And moreish.

Though the point I made about Tell Me Lies still stands – I’m still not entirely sure she’s ‘romance’ in the most traditional sense. I’m definitely going to have to track down some of her category stuff to see how she deals with that more restricted format – I’m yet to read a category that blows my mind, and I figure if anyone can do it, Crusie can. Welcome to Temptation was more about the town of Temptation than anything else, although Sophie and Phin’s relationship is obviously a major factor. Family is a huge thing – Sophie’s relationships with Amy and Davy, Phin’s troubled Tucker legacy and his struggle to escape from it… and then there’s the whole Rachel subplot, and who-killed-Zane – it’s so much more than your typical romance usually is, and I think why I like it so much. Without the cover, I’d probably call it chicklit, though it’s not exactly a perfect fit there either… it’s light reading, plain and simple. I don’t know if you can call it a genre, but that’s what it is.

But this genre talk wasn’t actually what I wanted to get into. I wrote about sex in romance novels figuring as some kind of moral currency a few weeks ago, particularly as regards the virgin heroine – she is allowed to experience excellent sex with the hero as a reward for her previous good behaviour, when talking within a frame of a patriarchal view of female sexual morality. This happens a lot in category romance – I think there’s probably at least one release in every line per month that features a playboy and a virgin. Revisiting what I talked about before, I basically said that this sexual reward, bestowed upon the heroine by the hero, allows her to become complete as an individual (though her completion is dependent upon him). In return, she supplants his existing sexuality (his playboyness) with her own model (domestically blissful monogamy), thus reforming him.

This emphatically does not happen in Crusie’s books – which is one reason I like them so much, I think. Crusie, in her essay, describes romance as:

“…fiction about women who had sex and then didn’t eat arsenic or throw themselves under trains or swim out to the embrace of the sea, women who won on their own terms (and those terms were pretty varied) and still got the guy in the end without having to apologize or explain that they were still emancipated even though they were forming permanent pair bonds…”

– 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] 

Crusie’s heroines – Sophie, Nell, Maddie – do get to win on their own terms, which I really enjoy. There’s not a sense of them as incomplete, fragile individuals – they have their own pre-existing individuality, which is complemented by that of their respective heroes. There’s no sense that they lose their selfhood or somehow become dependent on their respective menfolk when their sexual relationships begin, either. Crusie is very good at having her heroines doing things on their own terms.

But yet there is still this concept of sex as reward, which I find interesting. In Crusie, it’s not figured as a reward for sexual morality. Instead, it’s almost an idea of it being the heroine’s turn to have a good time. Bad stuff happens to some of the heroines – Nell gets left by her husband, for example, and Maddie’s husband turns out to be a) crap and b) dead. In other cases, like Sophie’s, they’ve been putting themselves second for so long that it’s really their turn to put themselves first. There’s a real sense that these women deserve something good to happen to them – and as this is romantic fiction, that good thing happens to be excellent sex. (I find it interesting that Phin and Sophie’s sexual relationship explicitly begins as a reward for past good – for Sophie especially. This is paraphrased, but Phin actually says to her ‘let me give you an orgasm you don’t have to worry about for once’.)

Where Crusie really succeeds is making you like and identify with her heroines – I think this is why I preferred Welcome to Temptation to Fast Women, because I liked Sophie more than I liked Nell. When this happens – when you are truly engaged with a heroine and want good stuff to happen to her – the romance becomes that more effective. I’m paging my way through a category at the moment where the heroine is a single mum with a disabled son, and even though I know all this bad stuff has happened to her and now she deserves something good, she’s so friggin’ irritating that I couldn’t care less if she and the hero got it on. Crusie is excellent at creating likeable, but still flawed, heroines, who get the good things they deserve.

And where she also succeeds is not making her hero a cardboard cutout ‘good thing’. She doesn’t trot out any of the old staples – Phin Tucker, the mayor of Temptation, for example, has a whole lot of issues and things of his own. He’s being slowly crushed by the weight of his own family’s legacy, when all he wants to do is play pool and hang out with his nine year old daughter Dillie. He deserves Sophie as much as Sophie deserves him, which is why this novel works so well. And their relationship is not one of co-dependency, either, which is something I really appreciated. They are strengthened by their union, inspired by one another, but they don’t become a unit. Phin and Sophie remain Phin and Sophie – they don’t become Phin-and-Sophie. They fight plenty after they get together and retain fierce senses of their own individuality. Their familial bonds are both very important to them. There’s no throwing off everything and riding off into a happily ever after with no fights ever in a land where it rains sugarplums and the roads are rainbows. They are each other’s reward, but they don’t become indistinguishable.

So… I think what we have is karma in romance. In my opinion, the reason romance fiction is so popular is not because of the sex (the ‘female porn’ concept) but because it’s a world where good things happen to good people, which is very comforting. What is really interesting, though, is the definition of ‘good’. In novels like Crusie’s, which are quality, ‘good’ is figured as ‘likeable’. In others, however, it is figured as sexual morality. The former (Crusie-style) is totally fine by me. It might not be the most highly realistic form of fiction, but hey, I doubt anyone comes to romance looking for gritty realism. The latter, however, is tied up and twisted with all kinds of patriarchal assumptions of female sexuality and double standards which can be totally sickening… even though the virgin heroine’s reform of the hero is a subversion of patriarchal ideals.

NB: Just as I was off in Perth and Brisbane last week, I’m going to be in Sydney and Melbourne next week (indulging one of other writing loves – writing about tennis) so it’s going to be a little light-on here for a while. But I’ll be back. 🙂

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.

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, 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.

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…

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.


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