When I first started reading Romance, I tended to avoid contemporaries, because the sexual politics were so blindingly overt. Even in books that did not purport to be about power, it was just so there. Over time, however, I realized that all Romance was essentially about power, because, well, the way human beings relate in our gendered bodies to the world is, in part, a power negotiation. Whether we experience that within the relationship, or between the couple and society, or in a combination thereof, our most intimate relationships also serve as battlefields on which we struggle to delineate roles, shares of responsibility/labor, and the evenness of giving and taking. And within a post-Enlightenment Western social context, we do this within a patriarchal social structure that has, traditionally and historically, assigned men to the so-called public sphere, and women to the so-called private sphere. In other words, men go to work and have careers and earn money, while women stay home and have children and serve as “domestic engineers.” While boundaries are more easily crossed now, there is still a perception that men and women have “natural” roles in separate spheres. A “separate but equal” logic has been promoted, as have various theories about “feminine power” and the “essential nature” of feminine and masculine energies. Even some strains of feminism have stood on the belief that men and women are essentially different.
Not surprisingly, with the rise of these gendered spaces, women’s writing became particularly preoccupied with the ways in which women function within social strictures. Much fiction of the 19th century produced by Western women – of both the sentimental and sensational variety – contemplates the proper role of women in love, marriage, and society. Women read many of these books together, discussing what would be one of the most important choices a woman could make in her life: what kind of man would be suitable to marry and how to choose him. Pride and Prejudice, the book that so many identify as the preeminent romance novel, contemplates the importance of making a good marriage from its first to its last sentence. What power women had could be minimized or enlarged through marriage, depending on many interdependent, circumstantial factors.
While we routinely associate this delineation of spheres with an obvious privileging of the public sphere over the private, the reality is a bit more complex. For one thing, men were expected to work outside the home, a tradition that to this day leaves stay at home dads often feeling emasculated, not only in the presence of other men, but also by women who are uncomfortable with or unaccustomed to the reversal of traditional roles. One of the most influential minds behind the delineation of “spheres,” Catherine Beecher (sister to Harriet), believed emphatically in broad-based education for women, because of the influence women had over the development of their children and the social welfare of the family unit.
In other words, it’s never been purely about keeping women barefoot and pregnant while men freely roam the world outside the home. It’s more about types and dimensions of power and how those are exercised within the family and between the family and society. Inter-class or inter-racial relationships compound these dynamics, as do same sex relationships or those of drastic age difference (especially when the woman is older). So is it any surprise that so much of women’s writing belongs to the tradition of “domestic fiction” – that is, so much women’s fiction substantively contemplates gendered and sexualized power dynamics?
Last week I attended a reading by Pam Rosenthal of the re-release of her BDSM classic, Carrie’s Story (published initially under the name Molly Weatherfield in 1995). Rosenthal opened the reading with an anecdote about seeing a copy of The Story of O under “Women’s Fiction” at a very liberal bookstore in San Francisco (Modern Times). When she asked why in the world a book that features the utter submission of its heroine would be shelved among so many more obviously feminist books, the answer was both simple and provocative: The Story of O is a book about power (as is Carrie’s Story), and feminists need to think about power, too. I would say the same about Romance writers and readers.
Or, more to the point, power is what we’re always thinking about, even when we’re not consciously doing so. I would argue that sexual politics – aka how power flows and is negotiated between romantic partners – fuels the popularity of series like Fifty Shades of Gray and books like Kristen Ashley’s Motorcycle Man (at least in the ten or so of her books I have read thus far). These are books that take the power issue and push it right to the edge, often by appearing to place the heroine in a position of sexual, physical, or emotional powerlessness relative to the hero. Whether that’s what’s really going on will be the subject of my next post (or two), but for now I want to focus on the more general issue of perceived power imbalances in Romance and on the ways in which I think these negotiations underlie the genre’s compelling popularity.
Think about it: women are generally physically weaker than men. We are more routinely attacked, abused, and raped. Our economic welfare is still often both enhanced and threatened by marriage, especially if a relationship fails and the responsibility for raising children remains with a mother receiving inadequate child support or alimony. Wages are not equitable between genders, nor is representation at the highest corporate, academic, or professional levels. Women often have more community responsibility than social power, which can make us feel over-burdened and under-compensated. Our lives, even if we don’t marry and/or have children, are still socially contextualized by the economic, political, and social influence of the nuclear family. Almost every aspect of our lives is measured relative to our gender and our expected duties, responsibilities, and roles. Women who break traditional gender barriers are still seen as mavericks, demonstrating the power of the traditional norms. How could fiction that takes as its central subject romantic love not be about who has power and how it’s distributed, enjoyed, and delegated?
Let’s start with the obvious example, Fifty Shades. Within that series is a pretty unsubtle example of sexual control of the hero over the heroine. And yet its popularity encompasses women who identify as feminists, women who prefer more traditional gender roles, and even heterosexual men who might not have thought nearly as much about these issues as women have likely done. Women are discussing the allure of the fantasy of sexual powerlessness, echoing the work of Nancy Friday, whose thirty-plus years of research have focused on a central thesis that women often fantasize about being denied sexual control as a way to find temporary relief from a life of over-committed responsibility. But whatever the issues that people have with the writing, the editing, the faux BDSM, and the rest, perhaps the fact that the series is overtly about a couple negotiating power in the relationship – and doing it largely in the bedroom, explicitly so – has amplified its success.
In how many heterosexual Romance novels do you see the heroine begin in a somewhat disempowered place, and, through the course of her relationship with the hero, gain a measure of power, generally through love, but also often through financial security (this is often the subtext of historicals), motherhood, and/or defeat of a villainous presence (ex-husband, evil parents, jealous ex-girlfriend/wife, etc.)? Jo Goodman’s novels immediately come to mind, as do authors like Patricia Gaffney and Julia Quinn. Paranormals often contemplate heroines with otherworldly talents or strengths, which shifts the playing field between hero and heroine to accommodate those powers. What happens, for example, when you have a heroine who has super human physical strength? Maybe she is cursed, or perhaps she has other limitations that inhibit her romantic happiness. Power differentials have to be accounted for in different ways, obstacles adapted, and equality defined in a different context.
I cannot even count the number of contemporaries I have read that begin with a heroine coming out of a bad relationship or a bad family situation, either seeking sanctuary in or returning to a small town, where she puts her life back together and finds her perfect partner. These two tasks are often inextricably linked, and depending on the book and the reader, the resulting romantic happiness can feel empowering or disempowering. I’d argue that it is less important which of these responses prevails for the reader, because the response is itself testament to the way love, happiness, and power are intrinsically enmeshed. As Liz McCausland pointed out in her recent post on sex + power, Erotic Romance “seems to be full of a formula whose sexual power dynamics map onto sexist power dynamics,” because how could it be otherwise within a social structure that still conceptualizes gender relative to a patriarchal norm?
It’s easy to get caught up in the questions about whether there is a “good” or “bad” resolution for the heroine – whether she is being circumscribed by traditional gender roles, and what that means, or whether she is breaking past the social norms and what that means. I get caught up in this all the time myself (and believe me, I will continue to do so, often in op-ed form). However, I also think we sometimes need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, specifically the one that illustrates the sexual politics at the center of Romance fiction. I think this may be especially important when we circle around those questions about why certain books are popular. How often are those the books that most dramatically think about power, even if those thoughts offend and repulse? I think the more interesting questions than why is such and such a book popular are what kinds of power is this book contemplating and how is it negotiating those fields (e.g. gender roles, sexual identity, domination, submission, fertility, marriage, etc.)? How are heroines negotiating their social limitations? To what extent is their happiness wound up in the power of the hero (or, by contrast, how does same-sex romance change or not change the rules and the issues)? How does a series like Nora Roberts’s In Death, where Eve Dallas has many of the male social privileges within her marriage to billionaire Roarke, compare to E.L. James’s Fifty Shades, where Ana struggles to find and assert herself against a man who seeks to control virtually every aspect of her life and body? To what degree are these books asking some of the same questions and coming up with dramatically different answers (or vice versa)?
These answers will inevitably shift, adapt, and change, not only from reader to reader, but also from book to book for each reader. How we respond to a book is a reflection not only of our own conditioning, but also of our ideals, our conflicts, our fantasies, and even those things within ourselves we have not yet identified and worked through at any given moment. Sometimes it may feel good to relinquish control as a reader and allow a story to take you over, even if it’s something with which you consciously would not want to be part of in your own life. Sometimes there is a vicarious sense of empowerment in witnessing a heroine respond in a very different way than you would. Sometimes there is a sense of anger at situations you may feel unfairly constricted or conflicted by. There is so much complexity in the subject of power, especially sexual politics, that we cannot begin to identify all of our responses simplistically.
Which is not to say that we should not be debating these issues. I think we should, for the same reason feminists need to think about The Story of O as a book about feminine power: because our experience of living in this social reality is one circumscribed by expectations related to our gender and our sexuality (which are themselves socially intertwined within a patriarchal norm). Sure, Romance is about love. But it’s also about power, and about how power shapes our ideas about and experiences of love. And we need to keep thinking and talking about that, because until and unless our social paradigm changes, we’re always going to be living and loving on that battlefield.