So the online romance world got a little upset this past week about the "debate" in the Guardian. Laura posted about it here and Smart Bitch Sarah posted about it here, generating incredible debates in the comments of both posts. I think Laura did a fabulous job (as always) of talking about the fact that the books in question in the original article were Mills&Boon and how that affected the debate, and commenters at SBTB pretty much hashed over all possible issues of feminism and romance.
What I'd like to discuss in this post is the juxtaposition of a number of comments from the SBTB post that caught my attention. I don't remember if any of them were in direct response to each other or just to the general debate, but the combination interested me immensely.
First is this comment by Trumystique:
I was initially disgusted with the fact that the heroines consistently had one happy future.This is the common charge leveled against popular romance fiction, of course: it's a tool of the patriarchy and that the heroine is subjugated by the fact that the only viable option established by the romance narrative is that she "dwindles into marriage."1 For those trying to change societal expectations enough to establish more possible life choices for women, I imagine this does feel pretty limiting. And it's a charge that's been leveled against domestic fiction and the marriage plot since feminist literary criticism began doing its thing. To quote myself from my dissertation:
Feminist criticism has long argued that the marriage plot, in which the heroine's story necessarily ends either with marriage or with death, is inherently conservative. Rachel Blau DuPlessis explains that the marriage plot "muffles the main female character, represses quest," and "is based on extremes of sexual difference," finally arguing that the marriage plot "is a trope for the sex-gender system as a whole" (5). The marriage plot, then, replicates for women the repression of the patriarchal system to which they are subject. While admitting the validity of DuPlessis's critique, Laura Mooneyham White attempts "a partial defense of the marriage plot" (72) by maintaining that it "persists in the fictive imagination for some compelling reasons, and while the attack on the marriage plot as indicative of repressive social conditions and ideologies is well justified, feminist critics might benefit from seeing beyond the historical and cultural dimension of marriage" (76) to examine its narratological purpose. (150)White argues that marriage plots, specifically those of Jane Austen,
emphasize that through marriage one becomes part of a social and economic entity. Marriage allows the heroine to join the wholeness of society even as she joins the unity of male and female. (83)As I argue in my dissertation, however:
by examining Austen’s marriage plots from the perspective of Austen’s construction of the subjectivity of her heroes, it is possible to expand understanding of the marriage plot beyond its efficacy for the heroine. While White demonstrates convincingly that there is more involved in the appeal of the marriage plot for female readers than brainwashing about the benefits of subjugation to the whims of a husband, [I argue] that Austen is fundamentally refocusing the marriage plot to establish the benefits for the hero of concluding his narrative with marriage. The progress of Austen's heroes through her novels constitutes a narrative strategy that is just as empowering and much more practical for the female reader--and potentially revolutionary for the male reader--as questioning the effectiveness of the marriage plot for female characters in a world where marriage was almost an economic imperative for women. Austen's novels argue that civilized and civilizing associations with women in a permanent, romantic, heterosexual, companionate relationship are necessary for men to achieve their full potential. (151)That is, then, that the MALE characters are also "subjugated" by the marriage plot.
This point was not lost on the SBTB commenters. kis wrote:
Problem with feminism as a science is that they consider men a control group, when they’re as much a variable as anything else.And Xandra commented:
I’m having a hard time coming up with titles that didn’t end with heroes also coming to prioritize their relationships with the heroines.While feminist ideology has focused on the heroines in domestic fiction with marriage plots, they've forgotten about the heroes and the fact that they end up exactly like the heroines: married and happy. And while they don't necessarily give up their high-powered careers as Greek tycoons (although some definitely do), they do generally slow down a bit to smell the flowers and be with their heroines and their families. Every example I can think of in modern popular romance fiction has the hero not only admit that his love for his heroine and its return is necessary to his happiness and contentment--is necessary, in fact, for him to be a complete person--but also has the hero in some way indicate through his actions in an Epilogue or similar ending that time with his family has become the most important part of his life, at the expense of whatever high-powered career he might have pursued at the beginning of the book. Although "at the expense of" is misleading as the romance presents it, because the hero is almost always depicted as more successful when making time for his family than he is at the beginning of the book. Shane in Crusie and Mayer's Agnes and the Hitman gives up his career as a hitman to be with Agnes. All of Susan Elizabeth Phillips' football heroes are seen after their football careers, happy and content doing something else that gives them more time with their heroines. Suzanne Brockmann's heroes might seem to be the exception, but they prove the rule in another way: they end up working WITH their heroines, spending time with them that way. And historical romances do the same--the heroes go back to their estates and learn how to enjoy being gentlemen farmers, taking care of their larger "families" of tenants, farmers, servants, and of course their own wives and children.
Romance novels argue, then, that *men* are better off when they spend more time at home, giving up their soul-destroying, high-powered careers, and focusing instead on the domestic bliss their heroines give them, along with the babies they make together with such abandon. And while this view of the narrative of popular romance fiction necessarily endorses the domestic and the marriage plot as the Ideal To Which We Should All Strive, which might in and of itself be problematic from an ideological standpoint, it is not only the heroine who succumbs to the lure of domestic bliss by any means. In fact, I would argue that it's much more important--at least for the Alpha Male hero of modern popular romance--that the hero admits the value of and strives for the domestic lifestyle that that the heroine does. So while we're still definitely prioritizing the domestic, it's not the heroine who "dwindles into marriage," the the hero who embraces it as his lifeline to all things good.
On SBTB, Lone Chatelaine speculates about the implications of this view of romance novels:
Maybe instead of us females berating each other for what we all think each other should want, we should instead start requiring more males to step it up and be real men, the kind of men that a strong woman could lean on if she wanted to. . . . But perhaps we should put a little pressure on the men to try and attain a female driven genre’s idea of the fantasy. I’m not saying that men should start trying to be highland warriors or dark broody vampires, but there are obviously some common and attainable qualities in romance novels that women like in men. Strong, dependable, nice, loving, honest, considerate, protective, etc.2If critics are convinced that romance readers are unable to separate the fantasy of the romance from reality, why does that mean that readers are more likely to submit to the patriarchy's view of subjugated femininity and not, instead, insist that their male partners become sensitive, caring, dependable, honest men who are in touch with their feelings?3
1. Apparently a quote from William Congreve about a male character, interestingly enough.
2. My strong, dependable, nice, loving, honest, considerate, protective husband disagrees. He thinks that he'd look great in a kilt, with long canines. :)
3. If we want to take the unscientific "results" of myself and my reading experience and relationship expectations, everything I learned about how my husband should treat me come from the end of romances when the hero has admitted the necessity of love and his need for the heroine in his life. So rather than learn from romances that I need to subjugate myself to his masculine authority, I learned precisely the opposite.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.
Frantz, Sarah S. G. "How Were His Sentiments To Be Read?": British Women Writing Masculinity, 1790-1820. Diss. U. of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2003.
White, Laura Mooneyham. "Jane Austen and the Marriage Plot: Questions of Persistence." Jane Austen and the Discourses of Feminism. Ed. Devony Looser. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 71-86.
The picture is (obviously) Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn from the film version of The Lord of the Rings. Because who is a more perfect example of all things good about the Alpha Male than Aragorn? And he's awfully easy on the eyes.