ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

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 http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/romancing-reality-the-power-of-romance-fiction-to-reinforce-and-re-vision-the-real/, 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.

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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?

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 http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/romancing-reality-the-power-of-romance-fiction-to-reinforce-and-re-vision-the-real/, 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. 🙂

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