Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Rape Culture: Taming the Male

In our 2010 essay for the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, Kyra Kramer and I wrote that in romance we often find that
The heroine, who is generally unaware of the extent of her GHH’s [Glittery HooHa's] power over the MW [hero's Mighty Wang], may initially fear the “magic spell” cast by the MW. Such fears are not unfounded. In Barbara Samuel’s The Love Talker, in which the hero is quite literally a magical being, we are given a description of the full extent of the damage a MW can cause to women whose GHHs are not glittery enough to tame it:
The Love Talker is a fixture of Irish faery lore, a seductive and dangerous being indeed, a conscienceless faery who ravishes the senses of unsuspecting women and leaves them to pine away to their deaths. In all the poems and stories, he is the King of Rakes, a libertine of unholy power. (195)
This reflects the way in which male sexuality is culturally constructed as an active, unemotional, possibly dangerous part of masculine behaviour.
Today I came across an essay by Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress which reminded me of this model of male sexuality:
In a (not surprisingly) depressing post railing against equal marriage rights over at National Review, Maggie Gallagher, the founder of the misleadingly-named Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, quotes an anti-equality speaker who argues that “Only one creature has been known to calm men down into faithful and stable relationships since the dawn of time — a woman.” What makes that attitude so sad is the low estimation in which it holds men, an attitude reflected in the hysterically angry reaction to the idea that men can play a role in stopping sexual assault. To different degrees on the same spectrum, these views both agree that men are not particularly in control of themselves, and that if they are to be tamed into monogamy and consensual sex, women will have to do a sometimes enormous amount of work, at great expense to their own expectations and personal liberties, to bring about those outcomes.

These views are very sad, but part of what’s depressing about them is that they aren’t necessarily exceptionally marginal. The idea that it takes a woman to tame a man is at the core of an enormous amount of popular culture—particularly culture aimed at women.

One of the most prevalent arenas for the idea that men need to be tamed by good women, and one of the places where that trope has evolved most, is in romance novels. As I wrote at Slate last week, that genre’s evolved from its earlier reliance on character arcs in which the heroine would be seduced, ravished, or outright raped [...] to one in which the rakish hero [...] meets the woman who makes him realize that monogamy isn’t just socially acceptable—it will make him happier than he’s previously been tomcatting around. These men in contemporary romance novels are rarely as repulsive as their earlier counterparts [...]. But there’s still an air of condescension operating there: it seems to have never occurred to any of these otherwise smart, handsome, and professionally adept men that their own behavior might be causing their unhappiness. And often, rather than being truly responsible for their romantic and sexual choices, romance novel heroes are broken in a certain way that can only be fixed by the ministration of heroines whose value was previously overlooked: often they had cruel or absent parents, particularly fathers, who damaged their ability to connect, and rather than seeking out therapy or staring their own deficiencies straight in the face, its up to women to give them the love they were previously denied.
She goes on to suggest that the emotional work required of heroines in romantic comedies is even greater.
Rosenberg, Alyssa. 'Maggie Gallagher, Rape Culture, And The Persistent Idea That Women Can Tame Men And Need To Fix Them', Think Progress, March 26, 2013.

Vivanco, Laura and Kyra Kramer. 'There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre', Journal of Popular Romance Studies 1.1 (2010).

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