Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Sex, Gender and Stereotypes

Nowadays women made love with the men they wanted without considering themselves fallen, or even slightly tilted. (Donald 2006: 126)
It's a line that jumped out at me from a romance I was reading and made me think. In tone it reminds me of one of the quotations attributed to Mae West: 'I used to be Snow White, but I drifted'. Many romances assert a woman's right to enjoy sex without thinking of herself as 'fallen', or even, as in the quotation from Donald, 'slightly tilted'.

As Jennifer Crusie has observed, in many of the great nineteenth-century works of literature, the heroine who is sexual is punished:
I had to read Madame Bovary , I had to read Anna Karenina [...]. I had to see Hester Prynne as the great American heroine who triumphs by remaining celibate for the rest of her endless life. In the midst of this misery [...] I bought a couple dozen examples of the varied lines of romance fiction [...] I read the stuff for a month. [...] For the first time, I was reading 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.
Toni Blake recently wrote something similar:
When it comes right down to it, women’s sexual history in the United States can be summed up like this: You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t ; ) When I was growing up, you were supposed to be a nice girl. Now you’re supposed to be a sex kitten. Or that’s what I gather when I watch the E! channel anyway. Thing is, I kinda don’t think most of us are either/or. I think we can all be nice girls and sex kittens and about a gazillion other things in between. Thus, in my books, I really strive to create heroines who personify this – women who are embracing their sexuality but also have a heck of a lot more going for them than just that.
Romance novels with sexually active heroines help to break down the Madonna/whore dichotomy. The extent to which they do so will vary, of course, depending on the level of explicitness and the backstory of the heroine, but as they all end with the heroine in a committed relationship, they are clearly advocating neither promiscuity nor celibacy. Nor are sex scenes in romances just about sex
Basically, good sex scenes are never about the sex, they're about something hugely emotionally important that is played out physically in an act that makes people hugely vulnerable no matter how frivolous and offhand the characters try to make it. That's why sex scenes are so crucial. (Crusie, 2006)
Or, to put it another way, 'Sex is an emotion in motion' (another quotation attributed to Mae West).

Human sexuality and mating behaviour is complex and although the romance genre has its trends, and at some times there may be a proponderance of one particular type of hero or heroine, at any given time there will also be some novels which portray a variety of other personality types and relationships. This is as true of heroes as it is of heroines. The occasional cries of dismay from readers when they think a particular hero doesn't behave or talk like a 'real man' may sometimes be justified, but at others the romances in question may simply be reflecting the huge variety of personalities and behaviours that exists among human beings. If romance were simply to present one type of 'real man', it might well run the risk of exacerbating the existing 'stereotype threat' posed by gender stereotypes.
Numerous psychological studies have examined effects of stereotype threat in areas such as standardized tests, and athletic performance. For example, the commonly held assumption that women are less skilled in mathematics than men has been shown to affect the performance of women on standardized math tests. When female participants were primed beforehand of this negative stereotype, scores were significantly lower than if the women were led to believe the tests did not reflect these stereotypes.
Just as there are plenty of preconceptions and stereotypes about women, our sexuality, emotional responses and intellectual abilities, so there are many stereotypes about what men do or don't think, feel or do. I find it encouraging that romance can portray a variety of heroes.

Emotionally vulnerable heroes, heroes who can talk about their emotions, heroes who are deeply romantic are not simply fantastical creatures who could never exist in real life (though they may well be somewhat exaggerated, just as romance heroines are often a little more beautiful, or adventurous than many of the readers). In a survey of Ohio teenagers carried out in 2001, for example, researchers found that:
On the love scale, boys scored equally with girls. They were at least as emotionally invested in their romantic relationships as their partners. About 100 of the boys and girls were randomly chosen for additional, in-depth, face-to-face interviews that were taped. The responses were revelatory in their passionate forthrightness. "You think of it as this way: [Would] you give up your whole life, you know ... to save Jenny's life?" one boy said, trying to explain his feelings about his girlfriend. "I'm like a little girl in a relationship," another boy confided. "[At first it] just seemed like every time I was around her I couldn't talk. I was getting butterflies in my stomach, I was just, like, discombobulated or something." Such sentiments were echoed across race and ethnic lines. [...]

And here's something that surprised even Giordano [the researcher who instigated the survey]: both boys and girls agreed that girls have the power in heterosexual relationships, including when it comes to sex. "She wanted to do it more than I did," said an 18-year-old male. [...]
A 2001 Gallup survey conducted for the National Marriage Project found that:
Young adults today are searching for a deep emotional and spiritual connection with one person for life. The overwhelming majority (94%) of never-married singles agree that "when you marry you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost." There is no significant gender gap in this response.
The numbers of male readers of romance probably also came as a surprise to many. The most recent RWA survey found that '22% of romance readers are male (a significant increase from the 2002 survey that showed only 7% of readers were male.)'

Laura Kinsale, in her essay in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women writes about the female reader as 'the androgynous reader':
as she identifies with a hero, a woman can become what she takes joy in, can realize the maleness in herself, can experience the sensation of living inside a body suffused with masculine power and grace [...] can explore anger and ruthlessness and passion and pride and honor and gentleness and vulnerability [...]. In short, she can be a man. (Kinsale 1992: 37).
She adds that 'A novel that works, in which reader identification takes place, is a methodological realization of elements of the reader's innermost life. If the taproot isn't there in the reader in the first place, the novel will not tap into anything. (1992: 37) Given that there are now so many male romance readers, it seems legitimate to wonder about the innermost life of male readers. Are they also 'androgynous readers'? I suspect that we all are. And if the romance genre asserts women's right to be sexual as well as emotional, it also suggests that, contrary to some of the stereotypes, men are emotional as well as sexual.

  • Donald, Robyn, 2006. 'The Prince's Pleasure' in Royal Proposals (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
  • Kinsale, Laura, 1992. 'The Androgynous Reader', in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 31-44.

1 comment:

  1. Over at Romancing the Blog there's a discussion about male readers of romance. Some authors mention the many letters they've received from men who read romance novels; there were a couple of male posters; some female posters report on male relatives/friends who read romance. This is only anecdotal evidence, but it does support the RWA's statistics and suggests that romance, particularly the types of romance which are less obviously marketed as romance (i.e. the ones with less obviously 'romance' covers), may well have a significant male readership.