Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Julie Cohen - Being a Bad Girl (2)

Okay, so carrying on from yesterday's post, I'll take a closer look at the themes of fantasy and role-playing.

The novel explores why people choose to take on particular roles, either by putting on a costume or by emphasising a particular part of their personality, and the extent to which this can be liberating or restrictive. Again, as with Oz's comments about the subconscious, one can apply this to the novel itself, but this time to the act of reading, rather than the act of writing, since many readers of romance say that the novels allow them to explore their fantasies without trying to physically act them out.

Readers, like the audience for the bachelor auction at which Oz meets Marianne, know the difference between fantasy and reality. Jack, Oz’s friend, observes that they ‘know that you’re Dr. Oscar Strummer, clinical psychologist, university lecturer, and eligible bachelor. But you’re giving them an extra fantasy to buy' (2006: 13). The reader/viewer has the safety of knowing that what they’re reading/seeing is ‘safe’, but at the same time they can experience the thrill of the fantasy. And when Jack adds that Oz should ‘Forget the Ph.D. [...] Tonight, you’re a sex object to dozens of women. Maybe hundreds’ (2006: 14), we know that Oz’s audience includes the thousands of readers of the novel. Marianne, too, wants that fantasy: ‘Let me live the fantasy, for once. Let me let go’ (2006: 32). Dr Oz remembers that ‘He kept telling his patients that fantasies were a normal, healthy way of expressing their desires and if they didn’t hurt anybody, there wasn’t any harm in trying to act them out’ (2006: 33). Romance novels with strong sexual or erotic elements aren’t necessarily encouraging their readers to act out the fantasies, but they would seem to legitimise the reader’s fantasies, telling them that it’s acceptable to think about such things since they are ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ and don’t ‘hurt anybody’.

Marianne, we discover, is trying to escape her 'good girl' image. She’s spent years trying to be, and succeeding at being, the town good-girl, the beautiful, successful pageant queen. She’s ‘practically the town princess. Webb High veledictorian. Webb County Cotton Queen just like your mama [...] MBA from Duke just like your daddy’ (2006: 9) and, though no-one else knows it, ‘she’d pressured herself into an eating disorder, trying to make herself even more perfect’ (2006: 9). The pressure to be a 'good girl' almost destroys her, but although she now wants to be a 'bad girl', she can’t escape her own personality, and she puts almost as much pressure on herself when it comes to building a 'bad girl' persona. Having run to her cousin Warren (who owns a bar), she decides to become a bartender. Though Warren laughingly exclaims that she’s going to ‘take one load of training before you’re good enough to be a bartender’ (2006: 7) she quickly improves. Oz asks
“How did you become such a good bartender?”
“I practiced. A lot.”
“You said you were Portland’s newest bad girl. Have you been practicing that, too?” (2006: 124).
When it comes to deciding what to wear for the Hallowe’en costume party, Marianne realises that ‘She didn’t need to choose something to fit her new “bad girl” image. Oz had made it clear he didn’t believe in that image, anyway.’ (2006: 132). And yet, the costume she does choose has some ‘cool shoes’ (2006: 132), the bright red, shiny high heels worn by Dorothy, which may recall the ‘pretty red high heels’ (2006: 120) she wore in the previous scene when she was being a very provocative ‘bad girl’ in red high heels and matching lingerie. While Marianne may be mostly a good girl, and thus more suited to wearing a Dorothy costume than a 'bright red outfit she'd seen [...] The Bedazzled devil suit' (2006: 131), she retains something of the confident, red-heels-wearer about her. Like the 'bad girl' Marianne, she is a sexually aware and enjoys the speed and daring of riding a motorbike. Marianne's true nature is therefore somewhere between her 'bad girl' persona and that of the innocent Dorothy. So when she chooses to dress as Dorothy she adapts her costume so that it reflects her personality: ‘though her hair was plaited into innocent braids, her mouth was outlined in red lipstick. Okay, Dorothy was never going to be a bad girl. But she didn’t have to be a nun’ (2006: 132). What being with Oz has taught Marianne is that she can 'not try to be perfect. I can be myself' (2006: 206). Neither her 'good girl', nor her 'bad girl' persona were the true Marianne: neither allowed her to be herself, but both contained elements of the real Marianne.

Oz learns from his role-playing too. In the past Oz had put some effort into changing his image: he was the ‘geekiest kid at Portland High’ (2006: 15), ‘a ninety-eight pound weakling’ so he ‘joined the rowing team when I got to Harvard’ (2006: 123). While his 'bad boy' look, forced on him by Jack, is not one he chose, he recalls that as ‘juniors in high school’ he and his friends used to wear fake tattoos ‘to look older’, and Kitty, Jack’s wife observes that ‘Girls wear makeup to look older, boys wear fake tattoos’ (2006: 15). Experimenting with looking different is part of growing up, and it can also be used by adults who want their outward appearance to be ‘read’ by the viewer. Although Oz thinks ‘Borrowed bike. Borrowed clothes. She liked all the things about him that weren’t really him’ (2006: 29), as we’ve already noted, Oz ends up buying the bike and accepting his love of speed, and, on a less metaphorical and more earthy level, it’s not true that at first sight Marianne only likes the things that aren’t real about Oz – she most certainly appreciates the body within the clothes.

Dressing up is part of the Cinderella story – her fairy godmother gives her a makeover so that her outward appearance matches her inner beauty. Another common motif in romance is the heroine who dresses up as a boy, thus displaying to the reader (and the hero) her ‘masculine’ qualities such as courage and athletic skill. The disguises may not be real (the heroine is not really a boy) and yet they do reveal some truth about the character (she has ‘masculine’ qualities).

Disguises, then, can both conceal and expose, and are a mixture of truth and fiction:
“People think we put on costumes to disguise who we really are,” Oz said. “But I’m beginning to understand that it’s when we pretend to be other people that we reveal the most about ourselves.” [...] “For example, I felt silly in that motorcycle outfit when I first put it on. But as soon as I met you and saw how you saw me in it, I realized that I’d been denying my reckless side for far too long.” (2006: 139)
  • Cohen, Julie, 2006. Being a Bad Girl (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon Limited).


  1. I like VERY much your idea that romances allow their readers to try on fantasies, in a safe, reassuring environment, and that characters trying on roles within a novel are echoes of this act. I think that is very true (of all fiction, not just romance, though in romance it may be more explicit), and you've just explained to me why I'm so attracted to reading and writing plots and characters that involve disguises, switching roles, misidentification, and changing self-image.

    I know that some commentators have found this function of "safe" fantasizing to be an inherently conservative force in a woman's life, and accuse romance of preserving the status quo. I don't agree with that, myself, partly because I find romances to be optimistic and idealistic, and partly because I know so many romance readers who genuinely feel they have grown through their reading. What do you think?

    Thank you, Laura, for giving me so much food for thought. I've enjoyed it thoroughly.

  2. I don't see how 'safe' fantasizing can be an 'inherently conservative force' (well, unless we were living in a society like the one depicted in Huxley's Brave New World where people are rendered submissive in part through the viewing of 'feelies'). If we're talking about sexual fantasies, then even the admission that women have sexual fantasies, and that they can be visual fantasies is something which some of the 'conservative forces' might have denied not so long ago.

    If we're talking about fantasies about one's work, or finding a work-life balance, or the sort of relationships one would like to have, I also don't think romance is necessarily a 'conservative force'. I can see how some people might think that about romance, because it does usually show one man and one woman who get married. Marriage as an institution is indeed fairly traditional, but the types of relationships encompassed within the term 'marriage' can and have varied a lot. Some marriages are not at all 'conservative' or traditional.

    Radway speculated about changes to the lives of romance readers caused by their reading material. She couldn't prove a causal relationship between romance reading and these changes, but she speculated about whether it existed. She observed that romance reading did seem to have given some readers courage to try new things - there were the readers who decided to go out and get a job (instead of continuing to be housewives - this was what happened with Dot) or they decided to try writing romances themselves. Again, that may not seem particularly revolutionary to some people, but in that particular social context, and for those women, it was.

    So my feeling would be that while romance may seem traditional and conservative to someone who doesn't read and like them, and who wants widespread social change, romances can nonetheless support/encourage change in small, incremental ways on a personal level (though this may not be true of all romances).

  3. This is certainly true of the sexual side of romance. It's a well-anecdoted and vaguely-documented fact that romance readers have better and more satisfying sex lives than non-romance readers do. If it gets you hot when you read it, you might act on that. And if it teaches you something new, you might experiment with it. I know that's certainly true for myself (and let's stop there and not delve into TMI). But I don't think that's an inherently conservative force, by any means, because while romances focus on monogamous relationships, its readers don't have to practice their new-found knowledge monogamously. And even if they do, making married/committed relationship life happier and more fulfilling seems to be to be more social change than conservative status quo.

    Anecdotally again, I know some women who have refused to settle with an unhappy relationship because of reading romances. While a lot of non-readers argue that it's made women have unrealistic expectations for a relationship, I think it's made women strive for more. Again, it's certainly effected my relationship with my husband for the better as far as communication skills and inability to settle for unhappiness and discontent.

  4. Writing romance has certainly helped me with my relationships--because the focus is on understanding characters and their motivations, I find I spend more time trying to figure out people and why they behave the way they do, and how I can best react to that.

    I like your answer, Laura, thank you.