ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

August 5, 2010

‘A Nothing Person’ – Quick Shots

Filed under: quick shots — Jodi @ 11:00 am
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“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.


July 29, 2010

“No” = “No” – Quick Shots

So I’m currently reading a novella by Yvonne Lindsay, and before I get to some of the most hilarious physical descriptions I have ever read, there was a line I thought definitely merited some discussion.

‘Clearly the word “no” simply meant “try harder” for men like Richard Wells.’

– Lindsay, Y., 2010, The Magnate’s Mistress-for-a-Month [Harlequin: Mills & Boon] p. 106

If there were no stories in the world about men chasing women, then there would be… a LOT fewer stories. Like, a LOT. However, what often happens in romance novels, and is definitely happening here, as far as I can see, is that this pursuit turns into something that is actually quite frightening. In this novella, Richard, the hero, sees Catherine, the heroine, riding a horse, decides he must have her, and sets off to make it happen, including encroaching on her personal space very significantly within about four seconds of having met her. If this happened in real life, he would be up on sexual harassment charges very, VERY quickly.

This is a line that often gets blurred in romance fiction – especially in category romance fiction, where space is so limited – that I wish was a little more clear. ‘No’ definitely does mean ‘no’, and not ‘try harder’. Pursuit is one thing (though the double standard around it is a whole other thing – the woman who pursues is usually portrayed as desperate) but what is basically tantamount to stalking is quite another indeed. One is a literary device – not my favourite one, but a device nonetheless. The other is bad. I really don’t like the trope of the man who just can’t control himself – it’s demeaning to men and dangerous to women.

In short? Sexual harassment should not be used as shorthand.

And now, for the funnies. Some of the best physical descriptions I have EVER read. I killed myself laughing.

‘[He was] always an early riser – in more ways than one, he smiled ruefully.’

– ibid., p.96

What’s the story, morning glory?

‘His nose was a straight blade of male perfection.’

– ibid., p.100

…are you sure you’re talking about his nose?

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.

May 20, 2010

Independence is not a dirty word: Quick Shots

So I’ve picked up a romance novel for the first time in a few weeks – The Doctor’s Pregnant Bride?, a category by Susan Crosby, which I bought simply by virtue of the punctuation in the title. (Love a good question mark. Love it sick.)

Anyway, as per usual, I’m only a little way in and already I have something to deconstruct. Let me set the scene. We have our hero, Dr Ted Bonner, the socially inept and vaguely creepy (I think) doctor who works in a fertility clinic where he and his colleague (also male) try and develop a cure for male infertility. We have our heroine, Sara Beth O’Connell, head nurse at the same clinic. Don’t even get me started on the stereotypical men are doctors/women are nurses thing going on here. We go on.

Anyway, Sara Beth is assigned to work with Ted, and they’re all, ‘hi, I’ve vaguely seen you in the distance BUT OMG WE CAN’T DATE COWORKERS THAT WOULD BE BAD’ in their minds. Sara Beth leaves and Ted chases after her, and we get this gem of an exchange. (FYI, it’s Valentine’s Day the first day they meet. Foreshadowing? I WONDER.)

‘He just nodded. “I’m supposed to be at my parents’ house in forty-five minutes for dinner. I need to take a gift.”

“I’m sure you’ll be able to find roses at almost any market.”

“And my mother would say ‘how lovely’ and that would be that. I want to do better than that. I want you to be my parents’ gift.”‘

Crosby, S., 2010, The Doctor’s Pregnant Bride? [Harlequin] p.24

I had a few glasses of wine when I read this sentence, and for one nanosecond, I actually thought he wanted to physically give her to his parents like a slave or something. But no, it’s the whole bemyfakegirlfriendplz! scenario. Which no one in their right mind would go along with because hey, it’s totally weird! But no, it is OMG romantic.

But this isn’t what’s bothering me, though why Sara Beth feels the need to say yes to the fake girlfriend proposal is beyond me. No, the moment when I rolled my eyes and picked up my laptop to document it was this.

To set the scene: the night before, Ted had been talking to Sara Beth on the phone while she was walking home. He made sure to keep her on the phone until she was safely inside. Sara Beth mulls on this:

‘Her last boyfriend, a six month relationship that had ended a couple of months ago, would never have kept her on the phone until she was safely inside her house. He’d always “respected her independence”, as he’d put it – perhaps because she’d made sure he knew her independence was something she prided herself on.

But after last night she’d altered her thinking a little. Being independent didn’t mean she couldn’t let a man be considerate.’

Crosby, S., 2010, The Doctor’s Pregnant Bride? [Harlequin] p.57

Oh for f^&*s sake.

Sara Beth, go back to your old boyfriend. Newsflash, sister – it sounds like he didn’t treat you like a total dishrag incapable of doing anything for herself.

Sure, maybe it was nice of Ted to make sure Sara Beth got home safely. But why should she not do the same thing for him? This seems to me to be tied into the concept of chivalry, which is one I find deeply problematic. The term chivalry has come to signify a code of behaviours wherein men do things for women which are considered ‘courteous’ – effectively implying women are too weak and frail to do them themselves. Because women are too weak to open doors and put on their own jackets, for example.

It was also, I understand, originally a code of honour for men. You could prove your own honour by defending the honour of women. ‘Honour’ is basically analogous to ‘virginity’ here, when it all comes down to it. And you know how I feel about this.

Anyway, I digress. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t have a problem with Ted’s action as it stands – it’s a considerate thing, to make sure someone gets home safe. What I dislike is that the action is clearly gendered and also Sara Beth’s reaction to it. Why is this act of human decency somehow encroaching on her independence? And why does she suddenly like it?

It sounds like her old boyfriend treated her pretty well, if he ‘respected her independence’. It sounds to me like he treated her like an actual human person instead of a frail wisp who could be blown over by the slightest breath of wind. During the actual phone call, Sara Beth muses that Ted is ‘watching over her’. Why, Sara Beth, do you feel you need to be watched? Because you know what that says to me?

Crazy stalker man.

March 10, 2010

Some Simone – Quick Shots

Just came across this quote in Simone de Beauvoir which I found very, very interesting.

‘The body of man makes sense in itself quite apart from that of woman, whereas the latter seems wanting in significance by itself … Man can think of himself without woman. She cannot think of herself without man.’ And she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called ‘the sex’, by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex – absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’

– de Beauvoir, S., 1949, The Second Sex

This not only fits with that notion of sex-completing-the-woman while the man is complete already, but also highlights something I have only (to my shame) noticed about category titles. When do you ever see ‘The Mistress of Revenge’s Italian Boss’? ‘The Virgin Secretary’s Sheikh’? ‘The Pregnant Housekeeper’s Greek Millionaire’? No, it is always the men doing the possessing.

More on this when it is not late o’clock at night!

February 27, 2010

Yin/Yang Love/Sex Woman/Man – Quick Shots

So I’m reading this really bad sheikh category at the moment – Exposed: The Sheikh’s Mistress by Sharon Kendrick – and while it has lots of elements which I am sure I’ll write about ad nauseam lately, I had something vaguely resembling an insight.

This is wildly simplistic, but in a lot of romance fiction, particularly the playboy/virgin type (my particular field of interest at the mo) the hero represents sex and the heroine represents love. He teaches her how to behave sexually and she teaches him how to behave emotionally.

This is done particularly clumsily in this book of Kendrick’s that I’m reading at the moment, which is probably why I noticed it (and why I feel comfortable reducing it to something so simplistic). I’m only a little way in, but we have our virginal, vulnerable heroine and our harsh, alphole sheikh hero. (Sidenote – that thing from Talbot about eroticisation coming from the polarisation of gender? Kendrick totally tries to play that out. The first time they meet, the hero is totally all ‘I want to crush her soft lips with my hard ones’. Not great writing, but it illustrates that point pretty clearly). There is a total double standard at play – he is obviously one of those virile do-anything playboy sheikhs, but he totally ditched her the first time they met because he thought she was a virgin (which she was and still is) but he found out she posed for topless pictures one time.

As noted, I haven’t finished the book yet, but I can tell you exactly how it will play out (and if I am wrong, apologies to Ms Kendrick). Our sheikh hero will initiate our virgin heroine into the ways of sex, and multilple orgasms will be had by all. He will then realise that he can’t live without her, because all this time, she has been awakening his empty barren heart, etc etc. When, at the end, they get their happily ever after, it will be the union of sex and love in one domestic paradise.

There are obviously gendered implications to the man representing ‘sex’ and the woman representing ‘love’, but I’ll get into them later… when I’ve thought about them some more.

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 31, 2010

How Not to Introduce a Hero – Quick Shots

Hi all! I’m back and hopefully posting on a more regular basis now that the Australian Open is drawing to a close and I can indulge my love of writing about romance fiction rather than my love of writing about tennis.

A quick shot to get back on the horse – I wrote a few weeks ago about how not to introduce a heroine, using examples from Karen Templeton’s Pride and Pregnancy. Today, the coin is flipped. Here we have a classic alpha-arsehole (alphole) category hero. What a prince this guy sounds like.

“…he remembered the open, trusting, dark eyes of the voluptuously proportioned swamp brat he’d seduced and then jilted nine years ago to save his twin brother, Jake.”

– Major, A., 2009, To Tame Her Tycoon Lover [Harlequin], pp.1-2

Because… I routinely save my siblings by seducing swamp brats. That, um, makes sense. And makes me SUCH A NICE PERSON.

I’m only a few chapters into this book, so I’m suspecting this particular hero (his name is Logan, for those of you wondering) will improve and be redeemed by the POWAH OF TWOO WUV sometime soon. But at the moment… he’s pretty much an alphole. He’s some big business tycoon who’s come home to his palatial Lousiana home to visit his sick grandpa, to find out that said seduced swamp brat, now a successful war journalist, is looking after said grandpa. Does he say, ‘thank you, how nice?’ No, he tries to invalidate her lease and make her leave, even though she is doing him a huge favour, because it means his grandpa doesn’t have to go into a home (grandpa not keen on leaving palatial plantation home).

In short, he’s a total prick. The whole seducing incident aside, which verges on sexual assault.

Redemption is something that we see a lot of in romance fiction, particularly in heroes – it’s a very popular trope, redeeming your hero through the power of love. It even ties into that Foucault stuff I’m always yapping on about, about how the heroine replaces the playboy hero’s ‘wild’ sexuality with her own model (domestic bliss, feat. solid monogamy). But it’s books like these that pose the question – there has to be something worth redeeming in the first place, surely? If you start the book loathing the hero, how can you possibly want him to end up with the heroine?

…unless you loathe the heroine as well and wish them joy in their miserable little world together. But with this book, that’s not the case – the heroine, Cici, is really quite likeable. I want her to tell his punk arse off, instead of ending up with him – I want to win, not to surrender. And I think that means that this novel is flawed, right from the very beginning, because the hero and the heroine do not deserve each other.

Wow. Didn’t intend to end up there when I started this ramble. But it’s food for thought…

January 5, 2010

Oh Karen Templeton No! #4 … … …whaddidyousay, sugar?

Oh no you DIDN’T, Karen Templeton. You did not emphasise how much Karleen loves her autonomy and is not miserable and likes being single and doesn’t want to be codependent to have her BFF come out with this absolute bullshit:

”” All Karleen’s ever wanted is to be won over, by a man more stubborn than she is.”‘

– Templeton, K., 2007, Pride and Pregnancy [Harlequin Mills & Boon] p. 196

Nothing else. Just a pigheaded man.


…and it gets worse. Troy pays rent on an apartment for Karleen’s drunken aunt – without telling her, obviously, because she’s one of them stoopid wimminz who can’t take care of themselves. And Karleen thinks:

“And where Troy got off playing God. The creep. And why his doing so was making her heart go pitty-pat in a way it had never done before.” (pp.225-6)

Because all she needed was a man to fix her problems for her. Them stoopid wimminz!

No, Karen Templeton. NO.

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