Sometimes, I get the impression the author is trying to embed what she thinks is a nugget of worldly wisdom into a novel. Unfortunately, I'm not always grateful for those nuggets. How do you feel about this description of one heroine's mother, for example?
Laura Stanford was not much like her daughter. Although they were of a similar height and build, Laura's hair was brown and undistinguished, and now she wore it dragged into a rather severe knot which added years to her age. She wore horn rimmed spectacles, too, and looked every inch the university lecturer she was. Tamsyn had sometimes wondered whether it was her mother's lack of femininity which had driven her father into the arms of a woman who hadn't an original thought in her head. She couldn't really understand how they had ever got married at all. They were not alike. Her mother was so much that breed of American woman who needed to feel intellectually superior to her mate. (Mather 11)Have you ever wondered what "breed of [...] woman" (or "breed of man") you are? If not, this is the kind of passage that might make you start wondering. And if you're female and happen to wear horn-rimmed spectacles and/or your hair in a "rather severe knot" you've now been warned! People you meet may think you lack "femininity." Or perhaps they'll offer you the kind of career advice John Sawyer dispenses in Barbara Delinsky's The Dream Comes True:
"You make time for what you want," he stated in a voice that was deafeningly clear. "You give a little here, give a little there. It may mean that one thing or another takes longer to achieve, but it all comes out in the wash."John's "eloquence" left me "momentarily speechless" too. But not for long. I wonder if he would direct this kind of helpful advice at men? At women who don't want to have children? Or who don't want to marry (and the assumption is that the marriage would be to a man)? Is he assuming (a) that a woman needs a husband and children to make her happy and (b) that a post-menopausal woman couldn't find a husband? Oh, and Nina the career-woman almost dies from a ruptured appendix, since she didn't stop working to get it checked out, and John's career-woman first wife "was driving home very late one night after a three-day symposium, fell asleep at the wheel and hit a tree. Death was instantaneous" (163). Strangely enough, I can't help but see this as a not so subtle hint that career women are risking death by not slowing down to marry and care for children. Personally, though, I'd argue that it makes a better case for implementing a working time directive.
"One thing or another," Nina echoed. "You mean work. If a woman is willing to sacrifice her career, she can have the husband and kids."
"She doesn't have to sacrifice the career," he insisted, "just defer the ultimate gratification. And that doesn't mean there isn't gratification along the way, simply that the achievements may not be as high until the kids are grown and out of the house."
"She's an old lady by then."
"No way." He sat back and linked his fingers, seemingly more relaxed, as though confident he had the argument won. "Take that woman. She had kids in her mid-twenties. They're out on their own by the time she's fifty. Fifty is not old."
"It's too old to start building a career."
"She's not starting. She started years ago. She may have taken a leave when the kids were babies, but after that she worked part-time, maybe full-time as the kids got older. Okay, so she didn't go running off on business trips, or push past a forty-hour week, and maybe that held her back a little. But look what she has. She has a solid career. She has a solid marriage. She has kids who probably give her more satisfaction than anything she does at work. And she's only fifty."
With barely a breath, he raised a hand and went on. "Then again, take the woman who put her career before everything else. She got out of school, entered the marketplace and worked her tail off. She started climbing the ladder of success, and the drive became self-perpetuating. The higher she climbed, the higher she wanted to be. The more money she earned, the more she needed. There was always something more, always something more."
"Her being a woman didn't help," Nina put in. "A woman has to work twice as hard."
To her surprise, John agreed. "You're right. And that made her all the more determined to make it. So she put off thoughts of getting married, since she didn't have time for that. And she put off having kids, because she didn't have time for that. Then she reaches her mid-forties, when theoretically she should be up there on the threshold of the president's office, only there are suddenly four other candidates vying for the job and one of them is the new son-in-law of the chairman of the board. So she misses out. And then what does she have?" He raised a finger. "She doesn't have the corner office." Then another. "She doesn't have a husband." Then a third. "And her childbearing years are gone." He dropped his hand to his lap. "Do you think she's happy?"
His eloquence left Nina momentarily speechless.
"She's alone, Nina," he said more quietly. "She's alone, and she's getting older, and she's beginning to wonder what she'll do with herself if she ever has to retire. Happy? My guess is she's scared to death." (165-66)
So, after all this instruction on how women should change their appearance and behaviour, I was intrigued when I picked up Sharon Kendrick's One Husband Required! and saw this comment from the heroine:
there was no way he would look twice at her. Men like Ross Sheridan were never attracted to women with unfashionably curved bodies of softly cushioned hips, and breasts which looked like overripe melons. They liked their women slim. No. Skinny. With plenty of bones showing, like sleek race-horses. Classy women. (8-9)I hadn't thought about the possible class connotation of slimness, so that was interesting. However, would Ursula be proved right about the preferences of "Men like Ross Sheridan"? No, because apparently he thinks she's "a beautiful woman [...] like a rich, ripe, beautiful peach" (172). But immediately after having had sex for the first time, which provides her with irrefutable proof that men like him can indeed like women who resemble ripe (or over-ripe) fruit, Ursula realises why she had remained a virgin into her late twenties and why she had acquired this body shape:
'When I was growing up, men frightened me. I knew so little about them. I'd grown up in an all-female household - my father died too young to be any kind of role model. [...] And all the other men on the estate where I grew up seemed to think of women as being good for just one thing.' That had been the beginning of her plumpness, she realised now. A cushioned body had protected her and meant that the ferret-eyed boys had left her alone. (175)It reminded me of Susie Orbach's Fat is a Feminist Issue, in which Orbach suggests that "There is also something positive to be gained from being fat that we must explore. I am not suggesting that the desire to be fat is a conscious one. Indeed, I would argue that people are largely unaware of it" (42). She reports that "the most common benefits that women saw in being large had to do with a sexual protection. In seeing herself as fat, a woman is often able to desexualize herself; the fat prevents her from considering herself as sexual" (43). Orbach herself found that once she had thought about her underlying attitudes towards food and fat, she gradually began to lose weight. Something similar happens to Ursula: following her insight into why she ate
'[...] I just kind of lost interest in food. I never really found the time to snack once I started living with Ross.'Again, I think there's a lot one could say about this. But my conclusion from this week's reading is that if, as is often said, romance is written by women, for women (although RWA's latest statistics suggest that "men make up 9.5 percent" of the readership, and there are male authors), then perhaps in some ways the genre's the textual equivalent of a feminist consciousness raising group crossed with a storytelling session at which women reveal their internalised sexism.
'You mean that sex replaced food?' queried Amber bluntly.
Ursula blushed. 'There's no need to put it like that!'
'Well, it's true, isn't it?'
Yes, it was true. Ursula's world had changed immeasurably - Ross had seen to that. It had become brighter, sharper, clearer - more real than real. Mealtimes had lost their allure as the focus of her day. Not that she had become an unsightly skinny-ribs - a woman obsessed with the amount of calories she put in her mouth - or anything like that. No, it was just that the rounded hips had melted away to firm curves, and she definitely had an hourglass shape now! (182-83)
Internalized sexism refers to women‟s incorporation of sexist practices, and to the circulation of those practices among women, even in the absence of men. [...] Everyday conversation is woven from the conventions, motivations, and negotiations that make up life in cultural communities. When sexism is part of a culture, sexism, and the internalized sexism that accompanies it, becomes one of the threads out of which conversations are woven. (Bearman, Korobov and Thorne 11)
- Delinsky, Barbara. The Dream Comes True. Don Mills, Ontario: Harlequin, 1990.
- Bearman, Steve, Neill Korobov, and Avril Thorne. "The Fabric of Internalized Sexism." Journal of Integrated Social Sciences 1.1 (2009): 10-47.
- Kendrick, Sharon. One Husband Required! Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 1999.
- Mather, Anne. Chase a Green Shadow. 1973. London: Mills & Boon, 1980.
- Orbach, Susie. Fat is a Feminist Issue ... How to lose weight permanently - without dieting. 1978. Feltham, Middlesex: Hamlyn, 1982.
My thanks to Tumperkin, who gave me the Delinsky and the Kendrick.