ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

November 13, 2010

Besieging the Fortress – ‘The Virgin’s Choice’ by Jennie Lucas

It is no secret that I am not a fan of violent language in romance fiction (and, indeed, any fiction). I’m referring specifically to violent language in the context of romance – you know, the old romance trope of the ‘punishing’ kiss, the ‘painful’ grip as he whisks her away, ‘rough’ grabs’, ‘savage’ growls… and that is all just from me flicking through the first thirty pages of the romance novel I have sitting next to me.

This novel is ‘The Virgin’s Choice’ by Jennie Lucas, and, as the name suggests, it is yet another virgin heroine novel. This particularly virgin is called Rose, who has made it to the age of 29 without ever being kissed. She seems to have managed this by having a spectacularly inactive libido – as far as I can tell, she has never once experienced desire before she meets the hero, Xerxes Novros. This is despite the fact that he kidnaps her from her wedding to another man, Lars, who is trying to pull a bit of a Mr Rochester on her – marry her even though he has an invalid wife somewhere else – purely so he can sleep with her. Hello, fetishisation of virginity.

Before I continue, two fun facts about this book:

1) The hero is called Xerxes. Despite being Greek. As someone who knows their classical history pretty well, I find this humorous.

2) This book contains an actual bodice ripping. And I quote:

‘Xerxes’s hands slowly moved down her arms, against the see-through lace of her sleeves. His lips turned down grimly.

“I told you to take that dress off.”

He felt her shiver, even as she stuck out her chin and glared at him with her beautiful turquoise eyes.

“No.”

“Then I will take it off for you.”

Her eyes widened. “You wouldn’t dare to -“

With a rough motion, he ripped apart the shoulders of her wedding dress, tearing through the layers of white lace and opping the line of tiny white buttons off the back. He yanked the sleeves down her arms with such force that she stagged forward, nearly falling to her knees.’

Lucas, J., 2010, The Virgin’s Choice [Harlequin: Mills & Boon] p.36

I’m pretty sure this bodice ripping is meant to be a tongue in cheek reference to ye olde worlde bodice rippers, but I don’t need to spell out all the reason’s why this is troubling. There is a sort of love triangle in this book – as much as you can fit into a category novel, anyway – and there is a lot of fighting over Rose between the two dudes, hero Xerxes and villain Lars. She figures essentially as the shiny new toy that the two dudes are fighting over. In fact, she figures exactly as the shiny new toy – Xerxes steals her from Lars to trade for Lars’s invalid wife, who (spoilers) is Xerxes’s sister. And then it’s a sort of game of first-one-to-bone-her-wins. Which is… troubling.

As for Rose’s agency in this matter… yeah, there’s not so much of that. For example – this is from that bodice ripping scene:

‘He should have known she’d be wearing tarty white lingerie for her wedding night to the baron. Pretending to be a virgin – just pretending, because he’d obviously been bedding her for some time. No man would resist Rose’s charms, her soft blond beauty, her lush body.”

ibid., p.37

Note how, in Xerxes’s reckoning of the world, Rose seems to have no choice as to whether she’s ‘bedded’ by Lars or not. There is a current running through this book of the fairy tale – the first line of the book is ‘It was a fairy tale come true’ – and Rose figures very much as the sleeping princess in the tower. She has an extraordinarily little amount of control over her own actions. She is whisked off her feet by Lars – he seems to sort of decide he’s going to marry her and she goes along with it – and then whisked away by Xerxes, who then promptly sexually assaults her. See below:

‘”Don’t think that you can bully me into being afraid of you, because I will never -“

Her words ended in a gasp as Xerxes seized her in his arms. Lowering his mouth to hers, he brutally kissed her.’

ibid. p.39

Xerxes’s awesome rationale for kissing her is that if she were a gold digger, she would try to seduce him and change sides. He is obviously a real prince.

But this isn’t actually what I wanted to write about – yes, it’s only taken me about 750 words to get to the point. What I actually really noticed when reading this book was the way that Rose’s virginity functions like a fortress – it is something that is besieged and then something that is won. It’s a race between Xerxes and Lars as to who sleeps with Rose first and the one who wins, possesses her. In fact, choosing which one to sleep with, which one to let into her castle, is the only real power Rose has in this book. And yet, even though she has remained a virgin for 29 years, the thought of sleeping with neither ever really occurs to her.

There is no notion that Rose belongs to herself (before or after her defloration). Seduction is a siege to which she must succumb. It is directly figured as such:

“Overpowered by her captor’s strength and the intensity of his commanding embrace, she surrendered.”

ibid., p.40

The dialogue of possession and surrender is something that flows through a lot of romance fiction, and, indeed, modern parlance. Sex is often talked about as the man ‘taking’ the woman or ‘having’ her – this book is (unsurprisingly) no exception. Since I’m in an example-y mood, here’s one:

‘He moved closer to her, so close that she felt consumed by the black fire of his gaze. “He wanted to make sure no other man could have you.”‘

ibid. p.65

This, of course, is not just true of virgin heroine novels. But I think that often in these books – particularly when you know that once the heroine sleeps with the hero, that’s it as far as other sexual partners are concerned – the dialogue of siege and possession is heightened. Once the heroine has let the hero into her castle, she is his for always. And yes, I do realise how dirty that sounds, and I would like it noted that there were a number of other dirty wordplay options open to me that I nobly did not take.

Quite apart from the gender dynamics inherent in the concept of hero possessing the heroine – and much as she does remake his sexuality in the model of her own, I would contend that he possesses her more than she possesses him, because her identity only exists in respect to his after he defines her sexuality (yes, that was long and convoluted, but I promise it makes sense) – one of the major problems inherent in this dialogue of siege and surrender is that it is violent language. (Look how I came back to the point there!) There is a fine line between seduction and destruction, and this line is often blurred. It certainly is in this novel – the way that both Xerxes and Lars attempt to seduce Rose is very violent. Their desire to possess her leads them to enact violence on her. They would rather destroy her than let the other win. (And by sleeping with her, they are destroying her for the other one. Because we are all about those ideals of the ruined woman. Oh yes we are.)

So… that was a long and quote-filled ramble. But here is my point in a nutshell: in many books, and in this book in particular, virginity is figured as a fortress which must be besieged. And once the heroine surrenders, and lets the hero into the castle, his possession of her is total and complete. This model not only has very fraught gender dynamics and figures the heroine as a thing rather than a person, it is also violent, which promotes a dialogue of abuse and assault.

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?

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