Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Feminism, Sex and Romance

This is going to be an extremely short post to cover such complex issues, and I'd like to come back to them later and look at them in a bit more detail, but I just came across Jane Jakeman's 1999 review of jay Dixon's The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s and couldn't let it pass without comment. Jakeman says that:
"No sex without love" has always been the cry of the Mills & Boon heroine, in the teeth of all the evidence that human beings will screw around for almost any reason which seems good at the time, this presumably being the fundamental drive that keeps the species going.
and she goes on to add that Dixon's
central argument that M&B stories enhance women's status rather than lessening it doesn't convince, because ultimately the fundamentals of the relationship between men and women have never changed in the novels: sex for women is still only acceptable in the context of "love", by which is meant sanctified romantic passion
jay Dixon herself mentions a related view, and one with which she does not agree:
At the Romance and Roses Conference held at Liverpool University in November 1995, most commentators asserted that because Mills & Boon books end with marriage they reflect a "conservative patriarchal status quo". (1999: 183)
There seem to be two questions being raised here. The first relates to whether the portrayal of sexuality in romance is unrealistic and sexist (in that female sexuality is depicted as being inherently different to male sexuality) and the second is about the relationship between sex and marriage. Both implicity raise a further question, about whether romance can be feminist.

Leaving aside the issue of whether monogamy is possible (I think it is), it seems to me that marriage is not necessarily incompatible with feminism (see, for example, Gornick). Certain forms of marriage, particularly ones where rigid gender roles are enforced, or where women lose property rights, are clearly not feminist in nature, but not all marriages are like this.

The other argument against romance being feminist is that it seeks to link sex with love, 'sex for women is still only acceptable in the context of "love" '. Clearly romances do link sex, love and marriage, although, as Dixon points out, there are plenty of exceptions:
From the beginning, Mills & Boon novels make explicit the link between love, marriage and sex. This does not mean, as some commentators have assumed, that the books condemn sex outside marriage. On the contrary, there exist many instances, from most decades, of the heroine having premarital or adulterous sex, which is not condemned in the novels. (1999: 134)
What seems to me a crucial point, and one which is perhaps overlooked when arguments are made that romance is unfeminist, is that romance almost always advocates monogamy for both sexes (I know there are a few polyamorous romances, but they're a rare exception, but they too, from the reviews I've read, make a link between love and sex), and suggests that while people (of either sex) may enjoy sex without love/outwith a committed relationship, both women and men find greater fulfilment sexually when love is also present:
The Mills & Boon view of sex is very specific. Sexual intercourse is always better, for both hero and heroine, when there is a mutual feeling of love and desire and both protagonists surrender to that feeling, with body and mind in harmony. (Dixon 1999: 143, my emphasis)
I wouldn't for a minute deny that there's a sexual double-standard operating in many romances, because the number of virgin heroines paired up with rakes/sexually-experienced heroes makes that fact undeniable, but the genre also goes a certain way to undermine that double standard, because however promiscuous the rake may have been, his promiscuity has not usually brought him the happiness that he finds with the heroine. Thus romance seems to argue that sex will only be at its most fulfilling for both sexes when there is love involved. For all that people like Jakeman may feel this is unrealistic, I don't think it's unfeminist.
---
Dixon, jay, 1999. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s (London: UCL Press)

[Edited to add that the link to Jakeman's article is now broken and I cannot find it in the New Statesman's archive. However, I did find it in an academic database. The full details are as follows: Jakeman, Jane. “Hearts and Flowers.” Rev. of The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990 by jay Dixon and Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days by Jared Cade. New Statesman 128.4426 (5 Mar. 1999): 51-52.]

7 comments:

  1. j as in jennifer01 August, 2006 15:49

    Dixon's central argument that M&B stories enhance women's status rather than lessening it doesn't convince

    It certainly doesn't. I picked up a Mills & Boon (Harlequin) off the free shelf at the library the other day, thinking I'd give it a try since there had been so much discussion here about them. The plot seemed interesting: girl loses her memory after plane crash and everyone thinks she was the wife of the rich guy who died next to her -- except his brother.

    Could be intriguing, right? Little did I know I had picked up The Worst Romance Ever Written(otherwise known as "The Silver Flame" by Margaret Pargeter, 1983). As you'd expect, hero is super-rich (naturally), in his late 30s and has been with more women than you can shake a stick at. Heroine is a poor, orphaned model/secretary, virgin, aged 21. She'd barely even kissed a boy, she's so innocent.

    Because the hero doesn't believe she has amnesia, and, after she recovers doesn't believe she is who she says she is, he stalks her, terrorizes her, practically date-rapes her on several occasions, sexually harasses her at work, and generally behaves like a complete bastard until he realizes his mistake, and falls to his knees declaring his love and remorse.

    Here is how our plucky heroine responds:

    "She was trembling before he lifted his head and humiliatingly aware that no matter how he treated her it made no difference to the way she loved him. [...] 'I always forgave you,' she said softly... 'Always, deep down inside me, I understood. And don't you see...by coming here and asking me to marry you when you believed I'd given myself to another man you seem to have cancelled everything else out.'"

    Yes, because if she'd had sex with another man, THAT would have been unforgiveable.

    most commentators asserted that because Mills & Boon books end with marriage they reflect a "conservative patriarchal status quo".

    No, it's when they end like THIS, they reflect the conservative patriarchal status quo:

    "'Oh, my darling!...I've been despicable,' his eyes were dark with remorse, 'but I'll make it up to you, I promise. When we're married, I'll even let you go on working, if you like.'

    ...'I'd rather just be your wife,' she whispered...

    'Oh, my darling!' Paul said again, his mouth seeking hers in a kiss which was an act of possession more compelling than anything they had shared before. 'You'll never regret it.'"

    Well, I certainly regretted it. It was vomitous.

    Perhaps girls raised in the 1950s might find this romantic, but I just can't see it. If Pargeter is not a man, then she has severe Stockholm syndrome from being forced to read too many Barbara Cartland novels.

    I don't think marriage is incompatible with feminism, but I think feminism is incompatible with novels like these, with heroines who are always whispering, pleading, turning away with a tear shimmering in their blue eyes.

    As I commented on Friday's post, I don't think anyone, particularly men, will take the romance genre seriously because it reinforces the stereotype that women just want to be rescued; they want to be married to rich men who are paragons of physical perfection; and that they fall for jerks who treat them badly.

    Admittedly, not all romances are as bad as TWREW, or we wouldn't be reading them, but as long as Joe Cynical can pull it off the shelf and wave it around as an example, it's difficult to defend Romance=Feminism.

    Inarguably, the women whose status is being enhanced by romance are the writers of romance novels. They sell us a fairy tale of love and romance the same way retailers try to sell us roses on Valentines Day. Some do it very well.

    there's a sexual double-standard operating in many romances, because the number of virgin heroines paired up with rakes/sexually-experienced heroes makes that fact undeniable

    A recent movie I found really sweet and romantic, despite its raunchy male humor, is "The 40-Year-Old-Virgin," which completely reverses this romantic stereotype. In this film, the man is the virgin, while his love interest is a 40-ish mother of three and grandmother. If you can stand a lot of sexist language and profanity, it really is sweet and funny.

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  2. Oh dear. I'm sorry you had such a bad reading experience. That novel does sound un-feminist in the extreme, and as you say, the existence of some novels like this may make some people dismiss all romances, but the only reason that I can think of for that is that they're buying into the 'all romances are the same - there's a formula' school of thought. It seems very unfair, because people wouldn't argue that all mysteries are formulaic, or all science-fiction stories are formulaic, so if they found one (or more) they didn't like, it wouldn't make them write off the whole genre.

    I don't think we can make generalisations about the whole genre, because there are feminist romances, un-feminist romances, and romances which take an undecided position on whether they're feminist or not (I've read some which, if they were a human, would be saying 'I'm not a feminist but...'). I've been meaning to post about one of them, but I haven't got round to it yet.

    On the issue of the 'hero who tries to sexually dominate the heroine' (1999: 193), Dixon says that:

    this plot type was only prevalent in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and other plots have now superseded it. As Daphne Clair said in her questionnaire, pointing out the historical specificity of this type of Mills & Boon: "Since abusive men in real life have become exposed, writers have been more careful - what we and most readers thought of as fantasy in a more innocent era we now know is all too common in real life and we don't wish to encourage any notion that it is normal". (1999: 193)

    I'm not entirely convinced by Dixon's argument here, because I think there are still quite a lot of heroes around who try to 'sexually dominate' the heroine, but as I haven't read any romances from the 1970s it may be that they do it in a slightly different way from the heroes of the novels I've read, and perhaps there are fewer of them nowadays. From what I can recall (but this is just an impression, so I might be wrong), the dominant heroes who attempt to 'sexually dominate' the heroine are more likely to be found in the Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Modern Romance than they are in, say, M&B medical romances or their Tender Romance line.

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  3. j as in jennifer01 August, 2006 18:58

    But to say M&B writers have become more careful doesn't address the issue that some writers (not to mention editors/publishers) apparently think it's sexy or romantic to be mauled by an alpha male in a neanderthalic wrestling match. Or that it implies that women like to be dominated and made to feel powerless. Do M&B writers like this sort of stuff or do they think we, the readers, like it? What if I had picked up TWREW back in 1983 when I was 16 years old? What impressions about sex and romance was I supposed to get from that? (Assuming I was dumb enough to believe it.)

    It reminds me of when my boyfriend (who probably wouldn't read The Best Romance Ever Written) was reading Charlayne Harris' "Dead Until Dark" (it has vampires in it and so was deemed okay). He whined about the excessive description of what the heroine wore every day and her shopping trips to Wal-Mart, and then asked about one particular sex scene: "Do women really fantasize about this stuff? Is this the kind of rape fantasy women have?" I then had to explain that in this case it was not rape, it was actually rough sex. The difference was obvious to me because of my years of romantic fiction, but he didn't seem to get it. It's a bit difficult to explain that while, yes, women want to feel empowered and have control over their own bodies and sexuality, in certain circumstances they wouldn't mind being thrown down for some rough and ready.

    As for the rakish hero reforming and settling down to a life of monotony, well, that is the fantasy, isn't it? That's what women want, so of course that's the way the story ends. In a way, writing romance is a woman's way of finally controlling a man, make him rich and handsome, get him to propose marriage and be true to her forever.

    But it's also a way of controlling the heroine. In my romance, the heroine will not fall for the sweet-talking jerk who will cheat on her, make her support him and dump her while she's in the hospital so he can run off with a younger woman. Or, if this has happened to the heroine, I can make her say, "never again!" and get her revenge by finally getting the prince she deserves.

    I think romance novels are a way of helping us cope with the fact that reality is often like the above scenario. We are helpless to stop friends and family members from marrying people we don't like, or to stop ourselves from ending up with the wrong people. We want to believe in the fairy tale. We want to believe in fairies.

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  4. j as in jennifer01 August, 2006 19:10

    P.S.: I do think the mystery genre is rather formulaic. You know that someone will be killed (or perhaps something will be stolen) and you know that the detective will use his/her special abilities to discover whodunnit by the end of the book, even if it doesn't always result in justice (the killer escapes). Like romances, the best part of the mystery is the journey, the how and why the killer did it. I guess that's why romances have adapted so well to mystery/suspense.

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  5. some writers (not to mention editors/publishers) apparently think it's sexy or romantic to be mauled by an alpha male in a neanderthalic wrestling match. Or that it implies that women like to be dominated and made to feel powerless. Do M&B writers like this sort of stuff or do they think we, the readers, like it?

    I think some authors and some readers must find it sexy, or they wouldn't be written and wouldn't sell. AAR had an At the Back Fence column about this issue a couple of years ago, and they said that

    as we often say here at AAR, fiction is not reality, and women are smart enough to know the difference. It is only in fiction, after all, that we can even use the term "forced seduction." In reality there is no forced seduction; when a woman says no and a man forces sex upon her, it's rape. Yet the forced seduction fantasy is rooted not in a wish to actually be raped, but in being forced to accept pleasure. In Nancy Friday's pivotal My Secret Garden, she writes about this particular fantasy:

    "Rape does for a woman's sexual fantasy what the first martini does for her in reality: both relieve her of responsibility and guilt. By putting herself in the hands of her fantasy assailant -- by making him an assailant -- she gets him to do what she wants him to do, while seeming to be forced to do what he wants. Both ways she wins, and all the while she's blameless, at the mercy of a force stronger than herself.... It's worth repeating my conviction that fantasy need have nothing to do with reality, in terms of suppressed wish-fulfillment."


    It's a very interesting column, and it also discusses the other issue you raise when you ask

    What if I had picked up TWREW back in 1983 when I was 16 years old? What impressions about sex and romance was I supposed to get from that?

    I think that, as they mentioned in the ATBF column, there is a difference between fantasy and reality, and while not everyone can tell the difference, most people can (it possibly helps if the romance is historical, because then the setting is automatically distanced from the reader's daily life/circumstances). I'm also not sure whether the messages sent by romance are worse than those sent by novels such as Tess of the d'Urbervilles, which are set as compulsory reading in schools. But to get back to romance, I'm not sure what obligations authors of romance feel they're under towards the reader. Some might say that the reader should be an adult and take responsibility for any negative effects, while some authors might take more care not to write something which could give 'bad' messages to impressionable readers.

    The effects on reader are also likely to vary widely, depending on a wide range of factors, including whether the particular book with the abusive hero was an aberration or the norm in her choice of romance reading, as well as her own background/experience. Julia Wood's 2001 study of some women in abusive relationships found that:

    The women [...] referenced romantic stories in "efforts to defend their partners from others' knowledge and criticism in order to shore up their own view of the relationship as a fairy tale romance," as well as their belief that they deserved or provoked the violence or it was to be expected. Seventeen of the 20 said things like "All of them (men) have bad spells -- that's what mama called them -- and sometimes you just have to overlook those." (press release. The full reference to the article is in the Romance Wiki bibliography)

    These women were in abusive relationships, so they used patterns from romance to try to make sense of their relationships. But the study doesn't show that it was romance reading that led these women to choose abusive men as partners (or if it does, that wasn't mentioned in the press release). Yet there are clearly plenty of romance readers who don't have abusive partners. In fact, there are many romance readers who feel that reading romance has taught them lots of useful things about relationships, as we discussed on the listserv a few months ago.

    Re 'formula', I think it depends on the interpretation of that word. Some people wrongly think of romance as 'formulaic' in the sense that the books are churned out and completely interchangeable, to the extent that one is almost identical to another. They might be a lot less likely to think that about mysteries, even though mysteries (and romance) could be described as formulaic in the sense that in the sense that there are certain set elements which must be included.

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  6. I firmly believe that part of the appeal of romances and the reason for their success is that they depict (for women, sure, but still) that the hero is *as in need of the heroine* for his personal growth and ability to deserve a happy ending as the heroine is in need of him. Austen started it with her heroes who develop (as opposed to what heroes did before Austen's heroes, which was pretty much nothing), and I don't think it's stopped. What is Heathcliff, after all, but a hero unable to be without his heroine (well, besides a complete asshole?)? So, FWIW, *I* think you're on to something here, and I think the steady increase in investment in the male POV in romances and the current focus on male-centered story-lines (Brockmann, Ward) demonstrate that, too. But then there's chick-lit, which I personally am unable to read because of the lack of the round, learning, increasingly-moral hero. ::shrug::

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  7. I firmly believe that part of the appeal of romances and the reason for their success is that they depict (for women, sure, but still) that the hero is *as in need of the heroine* for his personal growth and ability to deserve a happy ending as the heroine is in need of him.

    That's definitely there in Pride and Prejudice, isn't it. More than in any of her other novels, I think. Because the title describes both the hero and the heroine. And they both have to learn the lesson that they're proud and prejudiced, and each teaches the other.

    Elizabeth, after reading Darcy's letter

    grew absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.

    "How despicably have I acted!" she cried; "I, who have prided myself on my discernment!
    (Chapter 36, my emphasis)

    And later Darcy says

    I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. [...] What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you I was properly humbled. (Chapter 58, my emphasis)

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