Thursday, November 25, 2010

Growth Matters

Jessica at Read, React, Review has been
asking why romance heroes are so well endowed. If some aspect of romance is sexual fantasy, it may seem obvious. But real women don’t seem to care too much about this sort of thing.
so then Jessica asked
But what about the heroine’s reaction to The Big Reveal? It’s often fear, nervousness, shock, or awe. Perhaps a lot of that reaction can be attributed to the fact that so many romance heroines are virgins. But think about it: why does it make sense that a penis — even a big one — should be terrifying to anyone, ever? And, besides, even experienced often heroines have the same reaction.
While I was still pondering those questions, I happened to read a post about:
the relentless pursuit of growth, measured in monetary terms, which takes no account of finite natural capital or people’s well-being. To illustrate the fundamental points: we would need three planets to allow all nations to grow equally, and despite massive GDP growth we appear to be no happier than we were thirty years ago.
I spot a some common themes here: worries about growth in the context of finite natural resources, and a threat to the happily-ever-after of the protagonists.

Before you all decide that this is a case of a poor, innocent metaphor being stretched to breaking point, I'd like to observe that a very high proportion of romance heroes are well endowed both physically and financially. Indeed, Jan Cohn has observed that
It is a commonplace of romance that the heroine will marry well, a given that the hero will be rich. [...] Romance fiction offers a fantasy of female success, specifically economic success, the aggressive nature of which it thoroughly masks under the heroine's extreme economic innocence. [...] This strategy, basic to the romance formula, attempts to disguise both the heroine's real goal and the profound association between sexual and economic power that lies at the heart of romance, as realized in the figure of the romance hero. Economic success becomes a condition of the hero of romance. It is not simply a matter of the hero's wealth as an added-on value; his wealth, his property and economic power, are basic attributes of his masculinity, a principal source of his virile attractiveness. (127)
It is, after all "a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife" (Austen 51). And if a man's "good fortune" is a "basic attribute of his masculinity," isn't it equally possible that the most obvious "basic attribute of his masculinity" might symbolise his "good fortune"? And, given the ruthless nature of both rakes and unregulated capitalism, is it really surprising that the heroine should have some concerns when she realises just how very large his "good fortune" is?

It seems something worth pondering, although (a) I'm sure there is a strong element of purely sexual fantasy in such scenes and (b) I would be extremely surprised if any of the authors of this type of scene had intended there to be any economic symbolism.

Having now lived up (or down) to the expectations of those who "believe all college professors are radical Marxists," I'll leave you with a video about the value of a PhD in English:

  • Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Tony Tanner. London: Penguin, 1985.
  • Cohn, Jan. Romance and the Erotics of Property: Mass-Market Fiction for Women. Durham: Duke UP, 1988.


  1. It makes me think of Monty Python, the scene is The Holy Grail where Arthur is encouraged to marry because the bride has huge ... tracts of land. I think that the cultural equation of wealth with intrinsic worth and power, coupled with the cultural equation of power and potency, that the Mighty Wang is indeed a facet of the economic worth of the hero, whether the author is conscious of it or not. The hero is wealthy and powerful and "worthy", q.e.d. he must be very well endowed. Just like most of the time he is tall.

  2. "the bride has huge ... tracts of land"

    I wonder if the tracts were flowing with milk.

    There are plenty of metaphors which compare women to the land and vice versa. For example, Annette Kolodny in her The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters observes that

    the first explorers [of America] declared themselves virtually "ravisht with the ... pleasant land" and described the new continent as a "Paradise with all her Virgin Beauties." The human, and decidedly feminine, impact of the landscape became a staple of the early promotional tracts, inviting prospective settlers to inhabit "valleyes and plaines streaming with sweete Springs, like veynes in a naturall bodie," and to explore "hills and mountaines making a sensible proffer of hidden treasure, neuer yet searched." (4)

    I'm sure people nowadays don't always think about the gendered implications of phrases such as "virgin territory" and "Mother Nature" but as you say, a "cultural equation" can still be present even if the person using a common metaphor or symbol isn't conscious of it.

  3. "Her eyes widened as his cock jutted from a nest of dark hair. He looked alarmingly large, but with an inherent knowledge as old as Eve, she knew that she was woman enough for him."

    Word to the wise and naive alike, let us not forget the old argument "the 'chicken' or the 'egg'?".

    I'm reminded of an old saying that I've lived long enough to gain new perspective " the 'hole' is mightier than the 'pole'. "

    The reality is just this. The poetic license of any author is filler ( the substance used to jolt our imaginings ) to venture to that place according to our scruples ( cultural or inherited )where we might be able to visit in print a place of private matters and find some common emotional stirrings.

  4. In this case, though, I suspect that there's a lack of common "emotional stirrings." Or rather, those stirrings may be common to a lot of readers, but are possibly rather less common among those of us who are trying to puzzle out why such scenes "stir" readers.

  5. Ah, the appeal of supping on food brought in from all over the slave abusing, genocide committing, glorious empire in a house run by working class people who one's equine-like spouse is exploiting (doubtlessly in a charmingly condescending way)!

    ((curmudgeonly harrumph))

    I think you're on to something, truly. Its implications just bother me.

    Especially after reading a lovely little anti-feminist rant by a young woman who seemed to assume that only rich, white people existed in the idyllic past, where men were men and women were elegant and fragile!


  6. Here's the link, if you're in a mood to despair at humanity: Confessions of a Young Anti-Feminist by Josephine Asher.

    I doubt her sad condition can be attributed solely to excessive novel reading, but her grasp of history and feminism reminded me eerily of the worst "wallpaper" historical Romances I've read. ((shudder))

    She's too elegant and fragile to say it, but I'm sure that in the recesses of her mind she imagines that, in the glory days before fundamental human rights for women, men on the whole had larger penises. Not being able to marry secure in the knowledge that one might rape and beat one's wife and prevent her seeing her children and such has doubtlessly had deleteriousness effects on the size of manhoods throughout the world! Why, they've shrunk in fright.

  7. supping on food brought in from all over the slave abusing, genocide committing, glorious empire in a house run by working class people who one's equine-like spouse is exploiting (doubtlessly in a charmingly condescending way)!

    Thankfully bodices are rarely ripped any more, or we'd also have to worry about the waste of textiles sourced from various parts of the "glorious empire" but even so, although there are frequent descriptions of the elegant outfits worn by Regency heroines, there's rarely any mention made of the seamstresses who were not paid a living wage and probably had their eyesights damaged by working long hours, particularly at night by candlelight, in order to get the clothes finished in time.

    The genre's relationship to inequality is ambiguous. You do find quite a few "Cinderella" type stories in which, particularly in contemporaries, the billionaire marries a woman who is much poorer. Snobs are not seen as admirable. Romances may also show heroines rescuing waifs and hobnobbing with the servants. All that, though, is a rather limited, individualistic way of responding to systemic inequality.

    In the post you linked to, by Josephine Asher, there's a quote from David Deida who states that "If you want real passion, you need a ravisher and a ravishee" and Asher herself concludes that "if we allow men to reclaim some power, we women could do more to embrace our femininity." It seems fairly clear that she thinks men are sexier when they have more economic/financial power, rather than adopting "roles that don’t exactly exude manliness."

    It seems to be the case that quite a lot of romance readers also find inequality inherently sexy. In response to a post Tumperkin wrote about the high proportion of Dukes as heroes in the romance genre, one romance reader commented that:

    When reading a romance novel, for entertainment, most women--at least those who want to feel a part of the story--probably prefer to read about a heroic and/or alpha male in the leading role, or at least someone who they would be drawn to in real life...someone who makes them feel safe. Reading about a hero who is automatically the lower man on the pecking order just isn't quite the same. When the lead male stands up to someone--as he invariably must as part of being heroic--the drama of it loses something in the translation, if the other fellow thinks of him as a lower ranking person unworthy of even recognizing socially. (Teresa Thomas Bohannon)

    and Robin responded that "IMO all Romance is about power."

  8. “More women are joining the battle for the CEO’s chair and pursuing dominance in their homes and communities. But in the process they’re becoming more like men. And men are becoming… well, less like men.
    …Feminism has achieved victories for women, but could it be at the expense of femininity, chivalry and attributes of the opposite sex that instinctively attract us to each other?”

    I had to smile (though painfully) when reading Asher's article, as I was reminded of this discussion in Georgette Heyer’s "contemporary" novel Helen. Published 1928, the excerpted conversation takes place in 1919. Two middle-aged English fathers are discussing the youth of post WWI London society:

    Father 1: …“In my youth women strove after modesty; to-day the very word is considered absurd, even rather shameful.”

    Father 2: “Women! Women! You leave the men out of account.”

    Father 1: “Ah, because it is woman who sets the tone. If the young man of today is effect or lax I lay it at woman’s door. There’s a youth I’ve met at Celia’s [his daughter’s] flat. I can only describe him as lady-like. And I put that down to the modern Amazon, that other extreme type that apes the man, scorns a feminine weakness, struggles to usurp man’s place. I don’t know whether I don’t dislike her more than her fast sister.

    Father 2: “She’s earnest enough even for you.”

    Father 1: She’s abominably pugnacious and quite unbalanced. She has flown to another extreme, and she’s foolish enough to think she wants to outvie man. She pushes her way into every profession, affects a scorn for man, can outlast him on the golf course, or the tennis court, and imagines that by assuming masculine qualities she is doing a fine thing. What happens? Boys like that frail flower of Celia’s spring up, aping women.

    - excerpt from Helen by Georgette Heyer (copyright 1928 by Longmans, Green and Co.)

  9. I'm very impressed that you've read Helen. Do you have your own copy? I'm interested in Heyer, but I haven't yet felt able to justify spending so much money on her contemporary novels.

    Thanks for that excerpt. I have the suspicion that in many periods of history there have been people complaining that the youth of today are somehow deficient (e.g. the women less modest/more manly, and the men less brave/more effeminate) compared to those in some long-gone golden age.

    Here's a quote from Orderic Vitalis, writing in the 12th century:

    After the death of Pope Gregory and William the Bastard and other pious leaders, the healthy customs of our fathers almost wholly disappeared in the regions of the west. Our ancestors used to wear decent clothes, well-adapted to the shape of their bodies; they were skilled horsemen and swift runners, ready for all seemly undertakings. But in these days the old customs have almost wholly given way to new fads. Our wanton youth is sunk in effeminacy, and courtiers, fawning, seek the favours of women with every kind of lewdness [...] almost all our fellow countrymen are crazy and wear little beards, openly proclaiming by such a token that they revel in filthy lusts like stinking goats. They curl their hair with hot irons and cover their heads with a fillet or a cap. Scarcely any knight appears in public with his head uncovered and decently shorn according to the apostle's precept.

    This, presumably, describes the 12th-century equivalents of the modern "meterosexual."

    (quote from page 61 of an article by G Klaniczay, "Fashionable Beards and Heretic Rags," in The Uses of Supernatural Power (1990). )

  10. @Laura: No, I don't have my own copy (I wish!) I'm fortunate in having access to an excellent public library that has almost all of Heyer's lesser-known contemporary works available. I just finished reading Helen - having read that much in it is somewhat autobiographical - and have not yet returned the copy to the library. The heroine - Helen - is a writer who has an extremely close relationship with her father, similar to Heyer and her father.

    Note typo in my previous post: in the bolded sentence of Father 1, it should read "If the young man of today is effete..."