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Posts Tagged ‘bodies’

“Getting Laid, Getting Old, and Getting Fed: The Cultural Resistance of Jennifer Crusie’s Romance Heroines” by Kyra Kramer

Jennifer Crusie identifies herself as a feminist author who attempts to communicate the ideals of gender equality via her narratives. As she has explained, she chose to write feminist romances because too few authors were writing the “edgy, angry feminist love stories I wanted to read” and the “combination of what you love in your romance reading and what you can’t find in your romance reading defines the romance you want to write” (“Emotionally”). Her aim has been for her romantic writings to communicate

what the best romance fiction does: it tells the story that reflects a woman’s reality as it could be and as it often is. It tells her she is not stupid because she’s female, [ . . . ] that she has a right to control over her own life, to children, to vocational fulfillment, to great sex, to a faithful loving partner. It doesn’t promise her she’ll get these things, but it shows her a woman like herself who struggles to attain any and all of these and wins, not because she’s beautiful or young or lucky, but because she works for them. It says that a lot of the “truths” that the different societal ideologies have foisted on her are lies and that she has the right to point and laugh when those ideologies try to limit her. (“Romancing”)

One of the ways in which Crusie contests “a lot of the ‘truths’ that the different societal ideologies have foisted on” her heroines is through her depiction of their bodies. In several of her novels, her heroines find a satisfying romance in spite of the fact they transgress in some way the modern cultural conceptualisation of what is a “desirable” or “beautiful” woman, thereby contesting the cultural ideal of “feminine beauty.” Although there are several other areas in which the bodies of her heroines are consistent with culturally ascribed definition of what is normal or what is beautiful—in that they are white, middle-class heroines who are not transgendered, homosexual, disabled, or disfigured, among other variables—there is at least an attempt by Crusie to stretch the narrow definition of what kind of woman is ‘allowed’ to live happily ever after within the cultural narrative.

The importance of any transgressive depictions of the body should not be underestimated. Feminist anthropologists have long argued that women’s bodies are often subject to unspoken yet forceful cultural restraints that are an attempt to diminish women’s rights and their power in the social network. Although cultural “constructs and bodies are not the same; neither are they separable” (Marks 182). Therefore, the body is often symbolic of larger cultural beliefs and norms, and as such it can be used as a medium for social expression or dissent. Female bodies that do not adhere to the hegemonic social ideals are seen as rebellious, or even as battlegrounds for opposing viewpoints of femininity. While it is true that Crusie’s heroines do not challenge all aspects of the socio-cultural normative body, to write about heroines who are fat, or whose sexuality is active rather than the passive receptacle for male desire, or who are middle aged, does oppose and call into question the hegemonic and patriarchal suppositions of femininity and ‘correct’ gender roles.

Women’s bodies have been historically fictionalized as the abnormal counterparts of normative white, male, heterosexual bodies, and have accordingly been typified as biologically inferior to those of men (Urla and Terry; Tavris; Braidotti; Horn). Women as a whole have been traditionally viewed by Western philosophy, religion, and science as inherently symbolizing the animalistic body, whereas men as a whole have been viewed as representative of the human ability to surmount the needs of the body via elevated mental functions (Goldenberg; Shildrick and Price; Bordo; Grosz; Martin). Just as the body has been constructed as the negative half of the mind/body dualism, the fleshy hindrance for the mind/soul to overcome, women have likewise been socially and historically equated with the body. Since women are synonymous with the body, and the body has been historically considered as fundamentally negative, from the socio-cultural point of view “women are that negativity” (Bordo 5). Feminist theorists have fought vigorously to asseverate women’s physical normalcy and to protest the idea that women are helplessly ruled by biological imperatives. The female body is therefore frequently the locus of attempts to assert women’s inherent equality in feminist writing.

The human body is both naturally and culturally produced, and each body has three distinct points of analysis and perspective (Scheper-Hughes and Lock). These “three bodies” exist synchronously, superimposed on the physical reality of the individual’s body. Each of these three bodies can be used as a means to either dispute or support socio-cultural ideologies.[1] While the most obvious body is the individual body, or the embodied self, the human body is also a social body and a political body. The social body is a symbolic representation of culture. The cultural conceptualization of the individual body becomes a cultural text, because socio-cultural “constructions of and about the body are useful in sustaining particular views of society and social relations” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 19). For example, a statement about the attractiveness or unattractiveness of a person’s physical appearance can also be understood as a comment on how well that person embodies cultural beliefs, norms, and ideas. Accordingly, the admiration of an individual’s lean, “fit” body represents the cultural admiration of “discipline” and the relative value ascribed to self-control. The political body is a conceptualization of the way in which governments can regulate, punish, and control the individual body. The political body is created by culture in much the same way as the social body is produced. Culture provides the “codes and social scripts” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 26) that coerce the individual body to conform to “the needs of the social and political order” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 26). One of the most explicit forms of socio-political power over an individual’s body is the power to regulate “sexuality, gender, and reproduction” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 27). Thus, culture defines appropriate “masculine” and “feminine” behaviors, and those definitions are enforced with social policing and/or criminalization.

Since the body exists concurrently as both a natural and a cultural object, it is nearly impossible to examine the individual body independently of the social and political bodies. A person has a certain amount of autonomy, or agency, in regards to their individual body. However, the individual body is so closely intermeshed with the social/political body that it cannot help but represent cultural assumptions. From a cultural perspective, the body is the “terrain where social truths and social contradictions are played out, as well as a locus of personal and social resistance, creativity, and struggle” (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 31). Consequently, if the heroine’s individual body differs from the ideal, this can form a subtle but salient part of the feminist architecture of any romantic novel. Any depiction of the heroine’s physical appearance not only describes how the heroine looks, but also contains encoded messages about the cultural value and socio-political freedoms of women.

Within Western cultural paradigms “no female can achieve the status of romantic or sexual ideal without the appropriate body” (Bordo 154). Women who have inappropriate bodies, bodies that do not fit within the ascribed definitions of normal and/or attractive, frequently suffer social penalties as a consequence. Some of the many ways women’s bodies are rendered transgressive, and thus undeserving of romantic fulfillment under traditional cultural narratives, are when a woman controls her own sexuality (and reproduction), when she gains weight beyond what is ideally allowed, or even when she has grown older. It is these particular socio-cultural contraventions that Crusie has chosen to address in some of her romantic fiction.

As defined by the limitations of hegemony-approved ‘correct femininity,’ women must balance on a cultural tightrope of socially condoned sexual behavior. Those who have “too much” sexual freedom or “too little” interest in sex face being labeled as either slutty or frigid, appellations that are seldom used to describe men’s sexuality. Women who are more sexually active than is sanctioned by the socio-cultural definition of normal female sexual behavior are rarely depicted as the central or long-term love interest of the hero in mainstream entertainment. The hero may have short amorous relationships with “bad girls” but he predominantly falls in love with (and thus commits to) the “good girls.” Likewise, women who are overweight are also undervalued and are therefore only rarely depicted as potential long-term sexual partners for the hero. Instead, corpulent women are often the target of physical humor in popular visual media, especially comedies that are aimed at a young, male audience. In this type of comedy the idea of a heavyset woman as a sexual or romantic partner is portrayed as ludicrous, and being forced to interact with an overweight woman is a source of humiliation for the male protagonist. Even if a woman manages to persevere in both socially approved sexual behavior and requisite slenderness, she is nevertheless eventually going to lose the cultural approbation of her body because she will inevitably age. The older female body functions as a text illustrating how sexuality and aging are “social constructs that we interact with simultaneously through our language (which is also our culture) and our bodies” (Marks 182). Women become socially transparent as they age; they are rendered almost invisible in mainstream popular culture and lose much of their ascribed social value as potential romantic/sexual companions (Woodward).

In contrast to the patriarchal narrative, several of Crusie’s female protagonists discover they can live and find love unfettered by some of the cultural expectations of how woman’s bodies should look and act. They are thus free to be middle-aged, initiate sexual encounters, eschew underwear when it pleases them and eat Krispy Kreme doughnuts. These depictions of the individual bodies of her heroines are an incarnate rebellion against several of the cultural norms that impose an almost unattainable model of ideal womanhood. Simultaneously, the social bodies of the heroines are acting as metaphors for the larger feminist rebellion against the prevailing misogynistic cultural constructs. By freeing the bodies of her heroines from some of the socio-cultural injunctions concerning age, weight, and sexuality, Jennifer Crusie communicates a compelling feminist message of women’s empowerment and emancipation from some elements of the hegemonic gender ideology.

This essay will focus on three novels in which the feminist message of patriarchal resistance is conveyed by Crusie’s rendering of the female body in a particularly clear way: Welcome to Temptation (2000), Anyone But You (1996), and Bet Me (2004). In these novels the hero’s desire for the heroine is, respectively, a repudiation of the accepted cultural beliefs about how a woman may express her erotic appetite, how old a woman can be and still be a sexual being, and how much a woman can weigh and still be desirable.

Getting Laid

Feminists have long contested the way in which women’s sexuality is socio-culturally constructed. Welcome to Temptation explores one woman’s escape from the limitations placed on female sexuality by cultural expectations. The central female protagonist, Sophie, begins her relationship with the hero, Phin, solely to liberate herself from her sexual angst and recoils from any possibility of love or emotional commitment. It is only as she comes to know Phin better, and begins to trust him not to hurt her emotionally, that she stops seeing him exclusively in terms of the sexual pleasure he can bring her and starts thinking of him as someone with whom she is involved romantically, thus connecting with him emotionally as well as sexually.

When she was still a teenager Sophie learned that, simply because she was female, her sexual behavior could cause her to become the subject of social policing via the use of shame and ridicule. She had tried to earn the approval of a popular boy in her high-school by permitting him to have sex with her. It was her first sexual encounter and she had allowed it because she

wanted to be “in” just once [ . . . ]. Except it was awful, and when I got to school on Monday, everybody knew. And when I went to the cafeteria at lunchtime, his best friend came up and stuck his finger in the pie on my tray and scooped out this big, gloppy cherry and said “Heard you lost this, Sophie.” And then everybody laughed. (34)

This form of social policing devastated Sophie emotionally and left her with a lasting fear of falling victim again to a culturally imposed

sexual double standard that endorses different sexual behavior for women and men, whereby women are expected to confine sexual behavior to the context of a committed relationship and men are expected to engage in sexual behavior in all kinds of relationships. (Greene and Faulkner 240)

Her fear fosters an enduring distrust of “town boys.” As a result Sophie has restricted her sexual needs to “safe” relationships with boring but acceptable men, represented by her boyfriend/therapist. Therefore, when Sophie first meets Phin she immediately distrusts him because he looked “like every popular town boy who’d ever looked right through her in high school, like every rotten rich kid who’d ever belonged where she hadn’t” (22). This fear is compounded by the fact she finds Phin extremely attractive and there is a great deal of sexual tension between them.

When Sophie finds herself in a potentially erotic situation with Phin, she tries to talk herself out of participating in a sex act she really wants. She tells herself that her lust for him is “dumb” and that she is “not this kind of woman” (84). Phin offers to perform oral sex on her, in order to give her pleasure without guilt or responsibility, “an orgasm you don’t have to work for” (84) but she insists she would “have to be depraved to say yes to something like that” (85). Instead of placating her with assurances that she would still be a “good girl,” Phin tells her that she would be “Wild” (85) and “Reckless” (85) and “Satisfied” (85). The thought of herself as daringly erotic and sexually fulfilled is so exciting that Sophie “arched into him, depraved and abandoned after all” (85). Phin encourages Sophie to release her sexuality without making demands for reciprocity, and gives tacit approval of her potentially “bad girl” behavior. The idea that she could enjoy her sexuality and not suffer social reprisals or condemnation for it is so freeing for her that she is able to have “glorious” (87) multiple orgasms. This is a major turning point in her feelings toward Phin. Instead of reviling him as a town boy who is trying to seduce her in order to humiliate her, she tells him that “I like you after all” (88).

Later, while her body is still in a blissfully post-orgasmic state, she tries to chastise herself for indulging her libido with a man she was unsure of, a man with whom she had no intention of having a relationship, a man who represented many of her insecurities even as he inspired her fantasies. She feels guilty because her sexual exploration “was so wrong of her” (93) but “it had felt so good” (93) that she mentally “relived the whole thing all over again, dwelling lavishly on the moments that were particularly perverse and unlike her” (93).

In spite of her intense enjoyment, at this point Sophie still has not entirely shaken off the social norms that insist “good girls” simply do not have sex with gorgeous strangers in order to obtain an orgasm. “Good girls” make love with men they adore, preferably within the bonds of holy matrimony; only “bad girls” fuck men they aren’t committed to. Sophie still has difficulty even imagining herself saying “fuck me” to Phin; it “sounded so unlike her [ . . . ]. Then she thought of the dock. And Phin. And the heat rose again. Fuck me. ‘Fuck me,’ she tried out loud. [ . . . ] ‘Fuck me,’ Sophie said again, and went upstairs to practice” (108).

Despite her resolution to have wild, uncommitted sex just for the physical thrill, Sophie fears that it makes her “slutty” (115) and “depraved” (115). From a hegemonic cultural standpoint, Sophie is being a “slut” when she seeks sexual fulfillment and tells Phin to fuck her she is initiating sex and aggressively communicating her sexual needs. She is not passively waiting for Phin to seduce her nor is she being the object of sexual aggression. This transgresses the normative sexual script in which women must be “sexually available but not sexually in charge of themselves” (Wolf, Promiscuities 136).

Sophie’s view of her own sexuality has been shaped by patriarchal acculturation, the learned acceptance that masculinity comes with certain privileges and authority which a “feminine” woman must not imitate or usurp. The influential French philosopher Michel Foucault postulated that this socio-cultural “power has not operated primarily by denying sexual expression but by creating the forms that modern sexuality takes” (Sawicki 38). In other words, socially perceived experts on normal or moral sexual behavior, such as biomedical practitioners, scientists, and clergy, establish the “authoritative knowledge” of normal sexuality.[2] They create arbitrary definitions of sexual normalcy, and those definitions are then used as a way to control the sexual expression of the individual. Thus, Sophie fears being a “slut” because she has been enculturated to believe sexual freedom is a masculine prerogative and therefore deviant in a woman.

Feminism attempts to reconceptualise what is considered normal female sexuality by challenging the patriarchal authoritative knowledge. Romantic fiction, by expressing sexuality via women’s discourse, can allow women to regain control over their own embodied sexuality. The romance genre provides a setting in which the predominantly female authors may, if they so choose, explore female sexuality and seek to redefine what is “normal” for women to feel or desire. Crusie asserts in her essay “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real” that many romance novels reposition women

at the center of their own sexuality. Many modern romance writers zero in on the sexual lies women have been told, reversing patriarchal constraints and confirming what women already knew about their sexual identities but that many distrusted because it conflicted with the conventional wisdom that detailed what being a good woman was all about. If romance novels do nothing else, they should earn the respect of feminists for the way they re-vision women’s sexuality, making her a partner in her own satisfaction instead of an object.

Although most feminists maintain that women are the real experts in their own sexual satisfaction, it is also an area of divisiveness in feminist theory. Radical feminists (radical feminism is one of many differing feminist theoretical perspectives, along with libertarian feminism, Marxist feminism, etc. . . .) maintain that all sexuality has been conceptualized through masculine discourse for so long that true female sexuality cannot emerge until all patriarchal customs and sexual practices which objectify women have been dismantled (Sawicki).[3] Radical feminist theorists would therefore be likely to reject Crusie’s argument that romantic fiction liberates women’s sexuality on the grounds that it isn’t “real” female sexuality; it is merely a reiteration and rearrangement of masculine sexuality. In contrast, most libertarian feminists, while acknowledging that there is a chauvinistic bias in most socio-cultural sexual expression, tend to view “the release of female sexual energy as more important than the restraint of male sexuality” (Sawicki 35). For libertarian feminists the romantic novel’s depictions of women’s sexual pleasure does not necessarily stem from patriarchal repression, but can instead help women “by generating [women’s] own sexual imagery, by becoming [women’s] own sexual authority, and by thereby repossessing [women’s] own sexual world” (West 129).

Crusie obviously falls into the libertarian feminist camp, maintaining that the sexual depictions in a significant portion of romance novels bolster women’s sexuality by

making it clear that, far from being helpless, asexual beings who must be seduced to respond, many women like sex. A lot. Romance novels spend pages describing women’s sexual pleasure including details that mama never told and patriarchy would be appalled at. (“Romancing”)

Novels about women reclaiming their sexual autonomy “are transgressive inasmuch as they are aggressive, asserting female desire in a culture where female sexuality is viewed as [ . . . ] conjoined with passivity” (Hite 121-22). Writing about women from a feminist perspective or in a woman’s voice is subversive because it “suggests that patriarchal language cannot fully contain and control the female body” (Hite 134). Crusie rejects traditional male-orientated writing and instead writes defiant, feminist romantic “fiction about women who had sex and then didn’t eat arsenic or throw themselves under trains or swim out to the embrace of the sea” (“Romancing”).

In Welcome to Temptation, as Sophie’s sexual relationship with Phin progresses, she becomes more secure and comfortable in her transgressive behavior. She explains to him that she wants “something exciting and different and depraved” (138), communicating her needs and expecting him to meet them. Sophie tells Phin that their sexual relationship is “like college” (139), and demands that he teach her “something new” (139). Although the role of teacher could be construed as a position of control and authority, Sophie’s demand that Phin teach her reverses normative female sexuality because she, not Phin, is negotiating the desired sexual behavior. The act of negotiation makes Sophie sexually assertive, and therefore deviates from the culturally approved female sexual script. Thus, Phin becomes her ally in her investigation of her sexual needs, not her master. Their early sexual relationship also flips the sexual script because Phin is the object (although not a passive object, so it is more egalitarian than the traditional sexual script allows for women) of Sophie’s enterprising sexual exploration.

Novels in which a female protagonist does not follow the sexual script, refuses to be the receptacle of male desires, and is instead the active agent of her own sexual satisfaction, are disruptive and potentially feminist because they rebel against cultural norms regarding feminine sexual behavior. Accordingly, one may consider Welcome to Temptation to be a feminist novel because the heroine commits feminist acts: she contests passivity and actively seeks sexual fulfillment.[4]

Crusie is well aware that the liberation of her heroine’s body, i.e. the freedom of her protagonist to be sexual and still be a woman who is beloved and respected, is a crucial component of feminist writing in the romance genre. All of her romances have heroines who are either sexually emancipated or learning how to be so. Even if a Crusie heroine requires assistance from the hero to fulfill her sexual potential, he does not “rescue” her from her sexual inhibitions nor does he use the heroine to fortify his ego: she is never a conquest. As Crusie explained in her essay “Glee and Sympathy”:

My sex scenes—and my romance novels—are about determined women who go after what they need and get it, which is why I think they’re a feminist act. Naomi Wolf once said that men called women who liked sex “sluts,” but that was okay because “we need sluts for the revolution.” That’s what I’m doing, that’s my mission in life, I’m writing sluts for the revolution. I’m very proud.

Sophie is therefore representing an aspect of the feminist revolution when she begins to actively reject the cultural stereotypes that insist men will use women’s bodies and then socially punish them for their sexual openness. Tired of being a prisoner of the potential shame that could be inflicted on her by a sexist social ethos, she decides that her fear of being used as a sex object was

the same thought she’d been having for fifteen years without any insight or growth, it was the thought that had led her into two years of mind-numbing security with Brandon, it was the thought that had kept her from having the kind of wickedly abandoned sex she’d been having since she’d met Phin. It was, in short, nonproductive. (147)

Eventually their relationship evolves past the purely physical and Sophie begins to care about Phin emotionally and trust him. She then starts to reciprocate sexually by offering to try to fulfill some of his fantasies. Their relationship thus becomes one of mutuality and equality, within which both feel free to express their sexuality without shame or pain, demonstrating the untruth of the socio-cultural belief that “bad girls” can never be respected or loved.

By the end of the book, Crusie has integrated all three aspects of the body in support of women’s sexual freedom. As an individual Sophie has achieved fulfilling sex and obtained Phin’s love, while her social body is rewarded with cultural validation when Phin asks her to marry him and even his previously hostile mother supports his choice. Finally, her political body literally becomes part of the body politic: Sophie decides to run for mayor. Not only has she avoided being punished by the establishment for her sexual liberation, she will likely gain access to the governmental power structure. She therefore secures love, social status, and a career as a result of her sexual renaissance.

On the surface, the novel appears to be about an individual woman learning to enjoy her own sexuality; however, Sophie’s body is also a social body and thus embodies the larger cultural milieu. Although the misogynistic social bias insists that women who enjoy their sexuality “too much” are sluts, Sophie is validated and rewarded for being a slut, not punished. Her individual body may remain within the hegemonic ideal (she is white, able-bodied, heterosexual, not overweight, etc.), but Crusie does this to isolate a variable in terms of her social and political bodies, so that her refusal to obey the sexual script exemplifies women’s resistance to the double standard more generally. Therefore, when Sophie successfully embraces unsanctioned sexual behavior, it symbolizes the possibility of all women’s successful cultural nonconformity, even though it addresses only one aspect of that nonconformity.

Getting Old

The way in which a woman’s body is socially policed changes as she ages. Young women are called sluts if they have autonomy over their own sexuality, whereas older women are culturally denied control over their sexuality inasmuch as they are stripped of their eroticism. An older woman is culturally constructed as asexual: the older the woman, the less she is thought of as a sexual or romantic figure. The older female is supposed to willingly relegate herself to the background, emerging only in the context of a motherly role. The way the aging female body is socio-culturally conceptualised is therefore a feminist issue (Woodward; Gibson). Simply to write a novel, especially a romance novel, with a female protagonist who is in midlife is transgressive, considering that mainstream culture appears to want “to erase the older female body from view” (Woodward 163).

Although several of Crusie’s novels touch on the issue of age, it is only in one of Crusie’s earlier novels, Anyone But You (1996), that the heroine’s age is central to the plot and forms the barrier between the protagonists which must be removed before emotional satisfaction can be achieved.[5] This can be considered a feminist text because the forty-year-old heroine, Nina, in asserting her own worth and attractiveness as an individual, rebels against the social norms that devalue women as they age.

Alex, the hero of Anyone But You, is described as a “tall, blond, broad-shouldered and boyishly good-looking” (41) doctor. Nina initially rejects even the idea of a romantic or erotic attachment to him, in spite of her desire for his body and her enjoyment of his company, for entirely socio-cultural reasons. She thinks that if she

started dating him or, dear God, sleeping with him—she swallowed at the thought— people would say she was in her second childhood. People would look at them on the street and wonder what he saw in her. Guy [her ex-husband] would sneer. Her mother would roll her eyes. His friends would make jokes about Oedipus Alex [ . . . ] her body was forty years old. The whole idea was impossible. (55)

Alex, in addition to being ten years younger than Nina, has typically dated young women who are considered highly desirable. Why would he chose the forty-year-old Nina when he has beautiful women in their twenties competing for his affection? Nina confides her worries to her best friend, saying

“[ . . . ] I’m visibly older than he is, and it’s only going to get worse. And there’s my body.” She stopped and swallowed. “Everything’s lower and chunkier than it used to be. You should see the women he dates. They’re young and beautiful and—”she made a face“—taut and perky, the whole Playboy bit. And you want me to flash him a body that has twenty more years on it than the ones he’s used to? There’s a limit to how long I can hold in my stomach.” (120)

During the course of the story it is Nina, not Alex, who has to come to terms with the fact her body is alluring even though it is no longer firm and her breasts are beginning to droop. Alex always finds her desirable, but Nina cannot believe that he is not negatively influenced by the social norms that insist only youth is beautiful. Nina, not Alex, is the one who struggles to overcome the socio-cultural message that women must be young in order to be loved. Nina can perform feminist acts such as leaving a loveless marriage and restarting her career, but she has not overcome the social conditioning that leads her to believe that she is not “young enough” to be worthy of a handsome younger man. Alex’s approval isn’t sufficient to change her mind: Nina needs to find her own sense of romantic worth.

Although Nina is not yet an “old” woman, at forty years old she is approaching the menopausal stage. For women the transition from middle age to old age “has long been underwritten by the biological dividing line between the reproductive and post-reproductive years, with the symbolic date of older age for women understood as coinciding with menopause” (Woodward 168). Crusie illustrates the effects of these enculturated beliefs by addressing Nina’s anxieties about menopause. Nina fears menopause and all its attendant social implications for her sexuality. Like many women, she has been culturally indoctrinated to assume that her sexuality and attractiveness will cease at the same time as her menses. She has a conversation with her best friend about her coming change of life after she

read an article on menopause [ . . . ]. It said that perimenopause starts in the forties. [ . . . ] There was a list of symptoms [ . . . ]. Warning signs. They were awful. [ . . . ] One of them is that your pubic hair starts to thin [ . . . ] I was in the shower last night and I looked, but the thing is, I never paid that much attention before, so I don’t have any idea if mine’s thinner. (51-52)

In effect, Nina was unconcerned about menopause until she read that she should be worried. Now she is looking for physical proof that her sexual self is diminishing, and that old age is rushing toward her, heralded by perimenopausal-related bodily changes.

Nina is surrounded by socio-cultural messages implying that any romance, or even the attempt at a romance, especially with a younger man, is unfeasible for a woman her age. The socio-cultural climate continually reinforces the belief that she is undesirable because she is middle-aged: “a humiliating process of gradual sexual disqualification” (Sontag 102). Nina’s mother bluntly tells her that she was foolish to get a divorce because she has “put on weight” (37), developed “crow’s-feet” (37) around her eyes, and worst of all, is “sagging in more places than just your jawline” (37). The cultural construction that only youth can be beautiful or sexual “absents old(er) women from the erotic arena and kills people’s ability to imagine [ . . . ] old(er) women as erotic” (Frueh 66). Women are rarely presented with any cultural images that suggest age is compatible with attractiveness, instead they

are advised to avoid unnecessary exposure to the elements, such as wind, water and ‘damaging UV rays’ of the sun in order to keep skin ‘fresh and young looking’. Only youthful bodies or bodies with the appearance of youth are considered beautiful and valued in our society [ . . . ]. The cosmetic industries capitalise on the fear of ageing by offering products endorsed by scientific language that claim to prevent or reduce the signs of ageing, which is discussed as though it were some kind of disease that it is every woman’s responsibility to try to prevent. (King 35)

Studies have shown that women are judged to have lost not only their attractiveness, but also their essential femininity when they age (Saltzberg and Chrisler). Older women are socially dispossessed of their embodied gender because they are desexualized, and sexuality is culturally synonymous with femininity. The fact that women are culturally indoctrinated to believe they cannot be older and sexual at the same time is explicitly addressed in Anyone But You. Alex’s brother observes that as women approach midlife they

look at magazines and see all those damn seventeen-year-old anorexics in push-up bras, or they go to the movies and see actresses with tummy tucks and enough silicone to start a new valley, and then they look at their own perfectly good bodies and decide their sex lives are over. (158)

Nina’s ex-husband verbalizes the dominant patriarchal assumptions when he tells Nina that she is “a lovely woman” (165) but unfortunately she looks her age, and therefore it would be “humiliating” (165) for her to take Alex as a lover. Nina is angered by her ex-husband’s sexist and patronizing remarks, yet she has absorbed the same cultural biases and therefore she privately agrees with him. When she thinks of how her body has “softened with age, everything lower than it used to be” (166), she internally concedes that her ex-husband “was right” (166) to mock the possibility of a relationship with Alex. Nina feels great personal trepidation when she considers having sex with Alex because she thinks her body’s age-related “flaws” make her unappealing to a man his age. She looks at her naked reflection in the mirror and thinks that “[g]ravity had betrayed her when she wasn’t paying attention. Looking closely, she could see the damage. Cellulite. Fat. Bulge. Droop” (181). Nevertheless, her indignation about her ex-husband’s complacent chauvinism regarding her age and desirability impels her to begin an affair with Alex.

Nina tries to convince him that they should always make love in the dark because her body is “lower than it used to be” (185), and even though Alex tells her that he doesn’t “care if it’s on the floor” (185), she fears what he might think if he sees her mature body without the mitigating concealment of clothes. Alex is infinitely less critical of her body than she is. He views her body as desirable because it is a part of who she is, and he is in love with a woman, not with the ideal female body. However, her sexual and romantic relationship with Alex does not relieve her culturally constructed fears about her supposed undesirability.

Nina’s sexual angst stems from the fact that she cannot really “see” the desirability of her individual body: it is too inscribed with the social text of what her body should look like in order to be “really” attractive or desirable. In consequence, her social body eclipses her individual body. Since the socio-cultural atmosphere is prejudiced against aging women, she is afraid her body inspires only negative thoughts and feelings, and she has difficulty believing that Alex feels otherwise. However, in order to enjoy her relationship with Alex, Nina must accept her body’s romantic value despite its differences from the cultural construction of female beauty. She must find a mental framework that allows her to reconceptualise herself as sexual and erotic. To find personal happiness and romantic fulfillment she empowers herself by adopting a new, feminist mindset through which to view her sexuality and physical appeal.

Nina’s insecurities about her romantic worth are intensified by her interactions with her mother and ex-husband, but she is encouraged by other characters in the novel to accept the feminist realization of her desirability. Her best friend, Charity, invariably and firmly admonishes Nina for not trusting in her own eroticism. Charity tells her bluntly that the biggest problem facing her isn’t the chronological age gap: “The real problem is that you don’t believe Alex could love you because your body is forty years old and your face has some wrinkles” (144). Additionally, Nina’s upstairs neighbor, Norma, is a healthy and vigorous woman in her seventies who still sees herself as desirable. Norma has a younger lover (a man in his early sixties) and she points out that having a younger lover means he will not “run out of steam in bed while you’re hitting your stride” (81). Norma chastises Nina for declining a chance to date Alex, pointing out that “There are too few good men around to ignore one just because he’s the perfect age for you” (81). Norma makes it clear that it is foolish to let Alex’s age stand in Nina’s way. Eventually, these positive messages began to sink in. Nina then embraces her age and asserts her personal desirability. As the book reaches its romantic resolution Nina strips off her clothes in front of her mirror and tells herself that “There was nothing wrong with her body. All right, it was softer than it had been, and her waist was thicker than it had been, and nothing about it could be called perky, but it was a good healthy body, and Alex loved it” (218).

Nina only resolves the novel’s romantic conflict after she asseverates her self-worth and rebels against the way in which female beauty, sexuality, and desirability are culturally defined. When she refuses to become romantically invisible, even though she is middle aged and possibly perimenopausal, she rebels against a cultural ethos which implies that an older woman in an erotic relationship is a paradox. Her decision to transgress against patriarchal constructions of worth and attractiveness is a decidedly feminist act.

Getting Fed

Women are culturally desexualized not only by their age, but also by their body fat. Fat is a feminist issue: cultural norms insisting on hyperslenderness for women are used to control women and keep them “in their place” (Orbach; Bordo). The overweight body, especially the overweight female body, is very rarely portrayed as a sexual or desirable body in any form of mainstream culture; rather, the more corpulent a female body is, the more likely it is to be a source of social and sexual ridicule.[6] The constant and pervasive cultural messages about the undesirability of heavyset females has created a climate wherein women learn to view themselves negatively if they do not have the idealized super-thin body (Bordo; Urla and Swedlund). As a result, obsession and misery about weight are now the cultural norm (Saltzberg and Chrisler).

Min, the central female protagonist of Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me (2004), struggles to reconcile the fact she is overweight with her likelihood of having romantic fulfillment. She doubts her desirability and her romantic worth because she is heavyset. Her weight is a significant barrier between herself and Cal, the novel’s hero. Even when the other barriers are surmounted for Min, she cannot help but worry “about how fat she must feel under his hands” (307). In order to comprehend why Min’s weight is such an issue for her, it is necessary to understand the socio-cultural implications of the overweight female body. Why is Min’s social body so problematic, just because her individual body has more fat on it than judged ideal by her society?

Historically, female fat was seen as a sign of health and beauty, and was considered an intrinsic quality of femininity. However, when women began to gain social equality, there was a complete reversal of the social ideal of female beauty (Wolf, Beauty). Now a Western woman must have the ultra-thin and ultra-fashionable “look of sickness, the look of poverty, and the look of nervous exhaustion” (Hollander qtd. in Wolf, Beauty 184) in order to approach the socio-cultural ideal of beauty. As a result, many modern women are restricting their caloric intake to appear more feminine. Whereas the denial of food was once historically and traditionally imposed on female children and adult women by the patriarchy as a way of reinforcing their low status and worth in a community, now women impose these food restrictions on themselves (Wolf, Beauty). Since hyperslenderness has become synonymous with feminine qualities of beauty and self-denial, even a normal amount of female fat has accordingly become a sign that a woman is neither beautiful nor feminine. Women who only have the medically recommended 20-25% body fat frequently consider themselves “too fat” to be beautiful; their healthy amount of body fat shows that they have failed to deny themselves food like “good” women should.

Unlike women, men have heretofore been encouraged to eat heartily and take the “lion’s share” of food, therefore obvious signs of eating have become socially linked with masculine qualities. The ideology of food consumption equaling masculinity is still so pervasive in modern culture that plump or obese women are now not only unattractive, they are subconsciously considered unfeminine. From a cultural standpoint a fat woman, a woman who has obviously eaten “too much” food, has usurped the male prerogative of calorie consumption. When women eat a “man-size” potion of food, it implies that they are claiming to have the same social worth as men. The “fat chick” is mocked in popular culture because she is frightening: she embodies female rejection of the patriarchal establishment. An obese woman is not only a symbol of female appropriation of male privileges, she is also “the embodiment of woman’s insidious tendency to occupy more than her allotted space” and “the outward and visible sign of a world out of control” (Hite 136). Cultural constructions promoting thinness for women are not really concerned with beauty, rather they are advocating thinness as a way of ensuring “female obedience” (Wolf, Beauty 187). A slender female body unconsciously assuages fears that women are encroaching on men’s traditional entitlements.

The interpretation of a fat woman’s political body as a symbolic threat to established social norms is mainly part of the national subconscious, rarely addressed outside of feminist theory. By contrast, people are more aware of the negative cultural meanings imposed on an overweight woman’s social and individual body. Since the body is a “direct locus of social control” (Bordo 165), women’s bodies are constantly policed, particularly through cultural constructions of the “proper” weight, in order to ensure that they are conforming to the socio-culturally correct form of womanhood. If an individual female body is fat, her social body is consequently interpreted “as reflecting moral or personal inadequacy, or lack of will” (Bordo 192). Therefore, heavier women are not given the dignity of being conceptualized as feminist rebels, they are thought of as too lazy and weak-willed to deny themselves food like “good” women. The issue of weight has become dissociated from the larger social context and culturally repositioned as an individual woman’s personal problem.

Min is highly self-critical because she is overweight vis-a-vis modern Western cultural standards: a problem shared by many women. From the earliest pages of Bet Me we see that she thinks of herself as inferior because of her weight. She believes that the maid-of-honor’s dress that she will be wearing in her sister’s wedding makes her “look like a fat, demented shepherdess” (2). Furthermore, she tells herself she would “look like Barney’s slut cousin” (4) if she dared to wear a sexy purple leather outfit and views herself as one of “the terminally chubby” (9).[7]

To further intensify Min’s belief that she is not attractive because she is not thin enough, her mother, Nanette, constantly reinforces the cultural message that only slender women are romantically desirable. Nanette is convinced that only women who conform to the socio-cultural ideal of beauty will achieve a woman’s ultimate life goal—marriage. She therefore believes that by constantly haranguing her daughter about her weight she is acting in a loving, supportive way and she tells Min that she only wants her to be “married to a good man who will appreciate you for how wonderful you are and not leave you because you’re overweight” (116). Nanette’s relentless policing of Min’s food intake and social body for Min’s own good is representative of the cultural surveillance woman must endure. This lamentable mixture of love and body policing is clearly seen when Nanette tells Min that “I know you think I’m awful. But I know how the world works. And it’s not kind to fat people, Min. It’s especially not kind to fat women. I want to see you happy and safe, married to a good man, and it’s not going to happen if you don’t lose that weight” (304). Sadly, it never occurs to Nanette that instead of helping to socially police her daughter’s body, she could teach Min to resist the cultural constructions that devalue fat women.

Confronted with constant social messages that only slender women are erotic, it is certainly understandable why Min should consider herself too heavy, simply because she is not thin. Min is described as the “chubby friend” (11) by another character in the novel, and the term “chubby” hardly connotes morbid obesity. In another era Min would have been, at most, pleasingly plump. These cultural stereotypes of female beauty are visually transmitted by models, dancers and actresses who are almost universally thinner than 95% of the female populace, so it is unsurprising that a survey conducted in 1985 found that 90% of the women respondents believed they weighed too much (Wolf, Beauty 185). Therefore, Min’s angst is almost certainly shared by most of Crusie’s readers. Even the thinnest women reading Bet Me can sympathize with Min, because they have also been repeatedly exposed to socio-cultural messages that they are never quite thin enough (Bordo).

Min’s belief that she is “too fat” to be attractive and lovable is further reinforced when the central antagonist of the novel, David, ends his dating relationship with her. Although David insists that he is ending their relationship because Min is “not making any effort to make our relationship work” (2), Min knows the real reason for the breakup is that she will not have sex with him. She never began a sexual relationship with David because she knew that if he saw her naked he would be critical of her body’s surplus fat. Min explains to her friends:

We were on our third date, and the waiter brought the dessert menu, and David said, ‘No, thank you, we’re on a diet,’ and of course, he isn’t because there’s not an ounce of fat on him, and I thought, ‘I’m not taking off my clothes with you’ and I paid my half of the check and went home early. And after that, whenever he made his move, I thought of the waiter and crossed my legs. (5)

Although she knew that David’s attitude towards her weight demonstrated that he did not really value her as a person, Min nevertheless continued to date him, ostensibly because she needed a date to take to her sister’s wedding. However, had she believed any other man might feel differently about her physical appearance she would have actively sought another companion. Obviously Min has no faith whatsoever in her desirability because her body does not conform to the socio-cultural ideal of beauty. Consequently, when she first sees the exceedingly handsome Cal her instinctive response is not only desire: it is also fear. She immediately concludes that “The amount of damage somebody that beautiful could do to a woman like her was too much to contemplate” (7). Since she admires his good looks, she assumes he would reject her because, “looking that beautiful, he probably never dated the terminally chubby. At least, not without sneering. And she’d been sneered at enough for one night” (9).

Min’s anxiety over how unattractive someone like Cal would find her is mainly a product of her own poor self-image. In spite of her fears, Cal is not sneering at her because she is overweight; he finds her body attractive. His appreciation for Min’s figure is made apparent throughout the novel. He admires her legs because they had “strong full calves” and were “sturdy, like Min in general” (84). Cal assures Min that she is “Opulent” (147) and “Soft and round and hot” (147) and that she should never diet because “Some things are supposed to be made with butter. You’re one of them” (147). Unfortunately, although Min tries to think of Cal’s compliments when she views her body in the mirror, “her mother’s voice [criticizing her weight] was louder” (305).

Min begins to overcome the barrier preventing her romantic resolution when she starts to resist the cultural messages about her body’s supposed ugliness. Although she has been trying to cast off feelings of self-doubt about her appearance, she has been having little success. Min tells herself that her body is “not that bad” but she is “not convinced” (64). While Cal’s admiration of her looks is comforting, she realizes that she is the only person who can change the way she feels about herself. She needs to internalize the feminist message that extra weight does not make her, or any woman, morally inadequate, weak-willed, or repulsive. She decides to buy new clothes that showcase her body instead of concealing her “fat” and tells herself that she is like “one of those heavy cream wedding invitations, the kind you have to touch because it’s so beautiful” (175). Once again, only when the heroine seeks a new, feminist outlook on her society and culture does she find empowerment and fulfillment. Cal is supportive of her reconceptualization, but she does not passively rely on him to “save” her from believing in socio-cultural biases against her.

Min’s growing empowerment does not stop her, or the reader, from appreciating and delighting in the way Cal assists her in combating negative ideologies about her body. He becomes a valuable ally in Min’s fight to resist the cultural messages imposed on her by her mother. When Min is being hassled by Nanette to restrict her food consumption yet further so that she will fit into the maid-of-honor’s dress, Cal insists “she is not too big for the dress. The dress is too small for her. She’s perfect” (227). Then he puts butter on a carb-filled roll and defiantly encourages Min to eat. At long last Min is being given positive socio-cultural feedback about her normalcy, worthiness, and attractiveness. Cal is abetting her quest for feminist liberation from the tyranny of the calorie police. Min falls in love with him at least in part because his affirming messages about her body make her “feel wonderful” (277) and she is “never fat” (277) when she is with him.

Cal’s approval of Min’s weight is also his approval of Min’s sexuality, because fat is socio-culturally associated with female sexual autonomy. Women’s appetite for food is “a metaphor for their sexual appetite” (Bordo 110). In part this is because “female fat is [ . . . ] understood by the subconscious as fertile sexuality” (Wolf, Beauty 184). Thus, fat is not only symbolic of female encroachment into masculine spheres, fat is also a culturally implied analogue for sexual extravagance. Ironically, fat is no longer considered “sexy” because it is a symbol of uncontrolled female sexuality: it is potentially insatiable and may consume men as well as food (Bordo). Fat women are construed as unattractive because they are cultural representations of “women’s desires, hungers, and appetites [which] are seen as [ . . . ] threatening and in need of control in a patriarchal society” (Urla and Swedlund 300). Much of the ideology connecting “excessive” sexuality with “excessive” eating can be seen clearly in advertisements for food, especially sweet foods. Advertisements usually depict women’s consumption of food as something “private, secretive, illicit” (Bordo 129) which, if it must be ingested at all, should be eaten in suitably small, genteel amounts, such as bite-size candies. Women are culturally conditioned not to give in “too much” to the “temptation” of luscious, rich, satisfying food. If they do, their fat will expose them as gluttons, the culinary equivalent of sluts.

Crusie definitely equates food with sex in Bet Me. Almost every erotic encounter between Min and Cal is centered around food in some manner. It is Min’s culinary sensuality which awakens Cal to her potential sexuality. At the beginning of their first dinner together, when Cal offers Min bread she rejects it, just as she plans to reject him sexually. Her excuse for refusing his offering of food is that she cannot eat any bread or pasta because she has to lose weight in order to fit into a maid-of-honor’s dress in just three weeks’ time. Nevertheless, Cal encourages her to eat, and soon the socio-cultural connection between food and sex becomes vividly clear. When Min finally bites into the bread she “chewed it with her eyes shut, pleasure flooding her face” (40) and Cal thinks “Look at me like that” (40). When Min tells him that she is “not interested in sex” (41), Cal watches her enjoyment of food and knows she is lying. Min’s lusty appetite inspires Cal to have lusty thoughts.

Their courtship continues to revolve around Cal’s presentation of food for Min’s culinary gratification. He invites her to a picnic lunch and brings hot dogs, the large bratwurst sausages that remind her of her childhood. When Min protests that she is absolutely not supposed to eat brats on her diet, Cal encourages her to “Live a little” (94) and “Sin again” (94) by eating this rich, calorific, forbidden food. This echoes the way in which Phin urged Sophie to indulge herself sexually in Welcome to Temptation. Cal is “distracted by the look of bliss on her face” (94-95) while she consumes the brats and when she “licked a smear of ketchup off her thumb [ . . . ] Cal lost his train of thought” (99). Finally, as though he were a devil, he tempts her by offering her Krispy Kreme doughnuts. He waves a pastry at her and cajoles her to “sin a little” (101), which inspires Min to call him “a beast and a vile seducer” (101). As Min opens her mouth to argue with him, he abruptly pops in a piece of doughnut. Her enjoyment of the pastry is so great that

[h]er face was beautifully blissful, her mouth soft and pouted, her full lower lip glazed with icing, and as she teased the last of the chocolate from her lip, Cal heard a rushing in his ears [ . . . ] and before she could open her eyes, he leaned in and kissed her, tasting the chocolate and the heat of her mouth, and she froze for a moment and then kissed him back, sweet and insistent, blanking out all coherent thought. He let the taste and the scent and the warmth of her wash over him, drowning in her, and when she finally pulled back, he almost fell into her lap. (103)

Cal is obviously unthreatened by a larger woman’s culturally implied encroachment on masculine turf. He consistently encourages her to eat “bad” or “forbidden” foods. From the very beginning he resists socio-cultural messages about fat by refusing to accept the social implication that Min’s body fat makes her transgressive and unattractive. He finds Min, in all her curvy plumpness, attractive and erotic. Min is still learning that her body does not preclude her from desirability and romance; Cal already knows this to be true.

When Min begins to indulge by eating doughnuts with Cal, she also begins to have a new, feminist reconceptualization of herself. She starts to see herself as erotic and sensual, and has a new, sexual, body image as a result. She no longer sees her body as “too fat”; she sees it as libidinal and as desirable to Cal. Min’s newfound appreciation of her individual body, coupled with her resistance to negative cultural messages about her social body, empower her to accept Cal’s love and to understand that she is worthy and deserving of romance despite socio-cultural constructions to the contrary. Likewise, the fact that Min is an overweight or heavier romantic heroine communicates a feminist message of nonconformity and rebellion against the patriarchal ethos that would deny the intrinsic sexuality and social value of a woman based on her excess adipose tissue. As Min comes to value herself, in spite of the fact she is not slender, the reader is encouraged to do so too. Ergo, Crusie uses her heroine’s body to encourage resistance to cultural messages that try to use a woman’s weight to determine her worth as a romantic or erotic partner.

Resistance is Fruitful

Crusie’s heroines boldly go forth, with their wrinkles and sexual appetite and cellulite, and meet the men of their dreams who aid them in their rebellion and fall in love with them without requiring the heroine to lose one shred of her personal autonomy.[8] The bodies of Crusie’s heroines do not characterize “conformity to dominant cultural imperatives for [ . . . ] contained feminine desires” (Urla and Swedlund 301). Her heroines are anything but contained. Her heroines are the proverbial loose women: they are loose because they have fought free of some of the many bonds of patriarchal expectations for women and no longer function completely within the strictures of hegemonic feministy.

Jennifer Crusie maintains that romantic fiction is an important way to communicate feminist ideology because the genre,

while sometimes committing the patriarchy-reinforcing crimes the critics accuse it of, much more often reinforces a sense of self worth in readers while reflecting a psychologically accurate portrayal of their lives. It does this by demonstrating the idea of women as strong, active human beings; by reinforcing the validity of their preoccupations; and by putting them at the center of their own stories, empowering them by showing heroines who realistically take control of their own lives. (“Romancing”)

Crusie herself certainly does write feminist romantic fiction about female protagonists who are strong women actively seeking to attain their personal goals. Crusie does not overtly rail against the misogynistic socio-cultural ideology that denies women the right to their own sexuality, the right to age with dignity, and the right to gain weight without being devalued. Rather, she weaves her resistance into the narrative of her fiction, embodying feminism in her heroines as they contradict some the cultural norms that constrict women by getting laid, getting old, and getting fed.

Crusie’s novels demonstrate that feminism and romance are not only compatible, but that feminist principles can free heroines to find both romantic and self fulfillment. Her novels provide not only an emotionally satisfying romance, they also provide a feminist parable as her heroines assume control over their lives and reaffirm the inherent normalcy of the ‘abnormal’ aspects of their bodies. The heroines’ imperfect bodies demonstrate to the reader that, in contrast to socio-cultural constructions to the contrary, the “perfect” body is not a prerequisite for love. Moreover, as a very popular romance author, her success may help pave the way for a wider acceptance of other categories of physically imperfect and/or feminist romantic protagonists by other authors and publishers.

Works Cited

Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993. Print.

Braidotti, Rosi. “Mothers, Monsters, and Machines.” Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory. Ed. Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina and Sarah Stanbury. New York: Columbia UP, 1997. 59-79. Print.

Crusie, Jennifer. Anyone But You. 1996. Don Mills, Ontario: HQN, 2006. Print.

Crusie, Jennifer. Bet Me. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004. Print.

Crusie, Jennifer. “Emotionally Speaking: Romance Fiction in the Twenty-First Century.” Web. <http://www.jennycrusie.com/forwriters/essays/emotionallyspeakingromancefictioninthetwentyfirstcentury/>.

Crusie, Jennifer. “Glee and Sympathy.” Web. <http://www.jennycrusie.com/forwriters/essays/gleeandsympathy/>.

Crusie, Jennifer. Welcome To Temptation. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000. Print.

Crusie Smith, Jennifer. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real.” Paradoxa 3.1-2 (1997): 81-93. Web. Rpt. at <http://www.jennycrusie.com/forwriters/essays/romancingrealitythepowerofromancefictiontoreinforceandrevisionthereal/>.

Delmar, Rosalind. “What is Feminism?” Theorizing Feminism: Parallel Trends in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Ed. Anne C. Herrmann and Abigail J. Stewart. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001. 5-28. Print.

Frueh, Joanna. “The Erotic as Social Security.” Art Journal 53.1 (1994): 66-72. Print.

Gibson, Diane. “Broken Down by Age and Gender: ‘The Problem of Old Women’ Redefined.” Gender and Society 10.4 (1996): 433-48. Print.

Goldenberg, Naomi R. Returning Words to Flesh: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Resurrection of the Body. Boston, MA: Beacon, 1990. Print.

Greene, Kathryn and Sandra L. Faulkner. “Gender, Belief in the Sexual Double Standard, and Sexual Talk in Heterosexual Dating Relationships.” Sex Roles 53.3-4 (2005): 239-51. Print.

Grosz, Elizabeth. Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1994. Print.

Hite, Molly. “Writing—and Reading—the Body: Female Sexuality and Recent Feminist Fiction.” Feminist Studies 14.1 (1988): 121-42. Print.

Horn, David G. “This Norm Which Is Not One: Reading the Female Body in Lombroso’s Anthropology.” Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular Culture. Ed. Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla. Bloomington IN: Indiana UP, 1995. 109-28. Print.

King, Angela. “The Prisoner of Gender: Foucault and the Disciplining of the Female Body.” Journal of International Women’s Studies 5.2 (2004): 29-39. Web. <http://www.bridgew.edu/SoAS/jiws/Mar04/King.pdf>.

Marks, Elaine. “Transgressing the (In)cont(in)ent Boundaries: The Body in Decline.” Yale French Studies 72 (1986): 181-200. Print.

Marshall, Susan E. “Keep Us on the Pedestal: Women Against Feminism in Twentieth-Century America.” Women: A Feminist Perspective. Ed. Jo Freeman. 5th ed. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1995. 547-60. Print.

Martin, Emily. The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction. Boston: Beacon, 1987. Print.

Mussell, Kay. “Are Feminism & Romance Novels Mutually Exclusive?: A Quickie with Kay Mussell.” All About Romance. Nov. 1997. Web. <http://www.likesbooks.com/mussell.html>.

Orbach, S. Fat is a Feminist Issue: The Anti-Diet Guide to Permanent Weight Loss. New York: Paddington, 1978. Print.

Rabine, Leslie W. “Romance in the Age of Electronics: Harlequin Enterprises.” Feminist Studies 11.1 (1985): 39-60. Print.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003. Print.

Saltzberg, Elayne A. and Joan C. Chrisler. “Beauty is the Beast: Psychological Effects of the Pursuit of the Perfect Female Body.” Women: A Feminist Perspective. Ed. Jo Freeman. 5th ed. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1995. 306-15. Print.

Sawicki, Jana. Disciplining Foucault: Feminism, Power, and the Body. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy and Margaret M. Lock. “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 1.1 (1987): 6-41.

Shildrick, Margrit and Janet Price. “Openings on the Body: A Critical Introduction.” Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader. Ed. Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick. New York: Routledge, 1999. 1-14.

Sontag, Susan. “The Double Standard of Aging.” Saturday Review. 23 Sept. 1972: 29-38. Rpt. in On the Contrary: Essays by Men and Women. Ed. Martha Rainbolt and Janet Fleetwood. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 1983. 99-112.

Tavris, Carol. The Mismeasure of Woman: Why Women Are Not the Better Sex, the Inferior Sex, or the Opposite Sex. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Urla, Jacqueline and Jennifer Terry. “Introduction: Mapping Embodied Deviance.” Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular Culture. Ed. Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1995. 1-18.

Urla, Jacqueline and Alan C. Swedlund. “The Anthropometry of Barbie: Unsettling Ideals of the Feminine Body in Popular Culture.” Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular Culture. Ed. Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1995. 277-313.

West, Robin. “Pornography as a Legal Text: Comments from a Legal Perspective.” For Adult Users Only: The Dilemma of Violent Pornography. Ed. Susan Gubar and Joan Hoff. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1989: 108-30.

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Woodward, Kathleen “Performing Age, Performing Gender.” NWSA Journal 18.1 (2006): 162-89.



[1] For further analysis of the romance protagonist and cultural embodiment, please see Vivanco and Kramer’s article, “There Are Six Bodies in This Relationship: An Anthropological Approach to the Romance Genre”.

[2]     Information that is considered correct, regardless of its factual content, because it comes from culturally acknowledged experts.

[3]     The main flaw in the argument that radical feminists make is that “they appeal to a form of essentialism in which ‘male sexuality’ is associated with violence, lust, objectification and a preoccupation with orgasm” and “a natural and inherently good female sexuality” is associated “with nurturance, reciprocity, intimacy and an emphasis on non-genital pleasure” (Sawicki 35). This theory relies strongly on biological determinism, which is the belief that woman are born more tender and nurturing than innately aggressive and hostile men. However, feminist theory in general strives to repudiate belief in hereditary gendered behaviors, inasmuch as it has been central to the justification of women’s socio-cultural and political oppression.

[4] It should be noted that Welcome To Temptation does not address the sexual emancipation of women on the other end of the spectrum; those who are ‘frigid’ or asexual. None of Crusie’s heroines, nor many heroines within the romance genre, celebrate a woman’s right to be free from the expectation she should enjoy sex, or maintain a woman’s right to find love even if she does not find orgasm.

[5]     Pamela Regis identifies “eight essential narrative elements of the romance novel” (27). One of these is “The Barrier”:

A series of scenes often scattered throughout the novel establishes for the reader the reasons that this heroine and hero cannot marry. The romance novel’s conflict often consists entirely of this barrier between the heroine and hero. The elements of the barrier can be external, a circumstance that exists outside of a heroine or a hero’s mind, or internal, a circumstance that comes from within either or both. (32)

[6] There is a small but growing sub-genre in romance that centers around a heavier (but not too heavy) female protagonist. Sonya C. Brown does an excellent job of evaluating the resistance to, and support of, socio-cultural constructions of female fat and fat females in her article “Does this book make me look fat?

[7]     Barney is a large purple dinosaur in a popular children’s television program.

[8] It is important for the hero to support and abet the heroine in her resistance to hegemonic norms of femininity, because such collusion establishes the hero as a fellow feminist and as a man who rejects patriarchal domination and assumptions.

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“A Parody of Love: the Narrative Uses of Rape in Popular Romance” by Angela R. Toscano

The arguments surrounding the use of rape as a device in popular romance, within both reader and scholarly communities, have most often pivoted on the cultural or psychological significance of such scenes. Defenders and condemners alike are more interested in how and to what extent these scenes affect or reflect the lives of real women, readers of the genre in particular. But it is not the purpose of this paper to dredge up these old debates, primarily because these arguments focus on the effective or affective aspects of the trope, rather than the narrative function of the rape scene.[1] Questions regarding the cultural, psychological, and sociological resonance of rape scenes, while interesting and important, do not allot to the trope a literary significance beyond the purely mimetic. In fact, these questions have often regarded all instances of the romance genre, and rape within that genre, as a kind of field study of women’s sexuality. Problematically, there is an assumption that the representation of rape within romance mirrors directly the social and cultural problems of a patriarchal system. That is to say, rape and romance come to be viewed purely as windows into women’s sexual fantasies or as a representation of their complicity within a patriarchal system. Indeed, the inference that the recurrence of the rape trope within popular romance constitutes an instantiation of some fictive collective female consciousness (in which all women operate as a single affective entity, like the Borg) is one of the critical and popular prejudices regarding the genre which this paper seeks to undermine. In persistently talking about the rape trope particularly, and genre romance generally, as a single, unified object, the critical apparatus has systematically derailed the conversation about popular romance in such a way that it never approaches the text as literature. The insistence of early scholarly work in looking at the genre as an unvaried totality without regard to the particular deployment of narrative conventions or the singularity of text puts genre romance into a pink ghetto.[2] This paper asserts an entirely different analysis; it explores the function of rape and rape scenes as aspects of the narrative structure of romance.

The question explored in this paper is therefore strictly a narratological rather than a sociological one: what is the narrative function of rape in genre romance? When rape is referenced throughout this paper it means the rape of the heroine by the hero as a textual manifestation of a metaphysical and philosophical problem within the narrative.[3] It is not a reference to rape in general or in real life situations.[4] This limited usage is necessary to create a theoretical model in which to analyze the significance of the persistent recurrence of rape in popular romance: to show that it does not appear there to promote female submission, fantasy or sexual awakening, nor as a convention of the past—some black mark in romance’s history that has been overcome in the years since the publication of Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower in 1972. Rather, its continued use has a narrative and structural purpose that can illuminate an understanding of the genre as a whole.

The narrative purpose of rape in popular romance is to serve, simultaneously, as bond and as obstacle, as the barrier and the attraction between hero and heroine. Like the violent piercing of Cupid’s arrows, rape serves as the external and fated event that brings the lovers together. Its violent and invasive nature mirrors the violent and invasive nature of love through which the Other is encountered, recognized, named, and known. In Entre Nous, Levinas characterizes understanding as a form of violence done to the Other; as a “partial negation” that “denies the independence of beings” (9). That is, the attempt to understand the Other requires the taking on of the signs and symbols of the Other in order to know her. [5] This attempt is a violation because understanding appropriates aspects of the Other into the Self. Yet, this very attempt is what characterizes the desire that lies at the heart of falling in love. Rape in popular romance serves to dramatize the encounter, the recognition, the naming, and understanding of the Other into a pivotal scene within the narrative.

Because it is never fully possible to know the Other, there is always a barrier to understanding, one that frustrates the desire of the lover to know the beloved. The rape enacts the attempt to discover, both ontologically and epistemologically, who and what the Other is and the frustration that follows. Rape in popular romance represents both the violence of love and the violence of understanding that attend the quest to know the Other. In many rape scenes, however, this quest is obstructed by the mistaken assumption that the Other is already known. This occurs because on some level the hero has already appropriated the heroine as an extension of his own desires, rather than having acknowledged her as a separate person. The rape is committed precisely because the hero wrongly believes that his knowledge of the heroine is sufficient and total. His certainty of the absolute authority of his knowledge—of his perception—allows the hero to behave as if the heroine had always already consented to the sex act. The rape reveals the inadequacy of this perception and exposes through its violence and its violation the false underlying assumption that one can know the Other by outward signs, by social role or public name, by the body and its presence, or (most elusive of all) by an access to the interior and singular self through discourse.

Of course all rapes do not operate precisely this way within individual texts. Different books depict different kinds of rape. But, broadly speaking, romance rapes can be divided into three types: the Rape of Mistaken Identity, the Rape of Possession, and the Rape of Coercion or “Forced Seduction.” These rapes are distinguished from one another primarily by how the hero perceives the heroine. Each of the three types of rape demonstrates that all of these signs fail to fully reveal the heroine to the hero.

The Rape of Mistaken Identity

In Rapes of Mistaken Identity, the hero is under the false perception that the heroine is actually someone else. This impression is usually rendered believable through the context in which the hero meets the heroine. In The Flame and the Flower (1972), Brandon mistakes Heather for a prostitute because his men find her wandering alone in a bad area of London, dressed like a high class courtesan. Signs that could be read as evidence of her true identity are betrayed by other indicators: her upper-class accent is belied by the signs of physical labor on her hands, and even her virginity is misread as her being a novice whore. Brandon rapes her despite her repeated resistance because he adduces her consent not from her words, but from her social role. Who she is, is entirely determined by her social context. Thus, because Heather is seen as a prostitute, Brandon presumes her a priori consent to the sex act.

A similar presumption occurs in Carolyn Jewel’s Lord Ruin (2002), where the heroine Anne stumbles on a staircase during a house party, turns her ankle badly, and for the duration of her recovery is forced to take the room usually occupied by Lord Cynssyr. Dosed with laudanum for the pain, Anne is unable either to give or refuse consent when Cynssyr appears late that night and assumes the woman in his bed to be a whore. Cynssyr’s misperception is based on the fact that he does not recognize Anne, that this is not the first time a whore has been provided to him by his host, and that there are no signs that a lady of quality is a guest in the room (the wardrobe has his clothes in it, not hers, there is no lady’s maid present, no chaperone, nor any of the objects a lady would have had in the room had it been assigned to another guest). Cynssyr assumes by these signs that the woman in his bed can be there for one purpose only. Anne, though not entirely unconscious, is so heavily dosed with laudanum that she is unable to give any true consent to the sex act. Her ready acquiescence and drugged actions further support Cynssyr’s assumptions that she is a whore.

Since Rapes of Mistaken Identity occur out of ignorance or misunderstanding, they are usually resolved fairly quickly in the plot. The heroine’s true identity and true role within the social order is often revealed during the sex act itself when the hero discovers that the person he thought she was—a prostitute—was in fact a virgin. However, in both The Flame and the Flower and Lord Ruin, the revelation of the heroine’s true identity comes with the presence or appearance of her family, who confirm her real social standing. In The Flame and the Flower, Heather becomes pregnant by Brandon and her family tracks him down and forces him to marry her. In Lord Ruin, Anne’s sister checks in on her only to discover Anne and Lord Cynssyr in flagrante delicto. It is the sudden intrusion of the family that re-contextualizes the heroine’s identity and re-establishes her social standing.

The Rape of Mistaken Identity nearly always occurs at the outset of the narrative to reveal that the social role taken alone is a false measure of the Other’s identity. Though it seems these scenarios justify rape when it happens to a prostitute, but not to a lady or a virgin, this is not true. Rather, they function to expose the mistake the hero makes in thinking that social role may serve as consent and point to the more profound notion that any prostitute may be a lady worthy of love and that any lady worthy of love may also be a prostitute. Thus, these rape scenes argue that one’s social role cannot serve as a sign of the interior self by which one may know and understand the Other. For this reason the Rape of Mistaken Identity must occur between strangers, rendering them unable to recognize one another in bed. It is a lack of recognition that makes this type of rape a “bed-trick”—an ancient and curiously enduring literary motif that illustrates the deceptive nature of appearance and what one scholar observes is “an argument against the visual: it demonstrates that we are wrong to judge by appearances. When two people look alike, we are forced to distinguish between them by searching for more subtle, more profound, signs of identity” (Doniger 337). Neither the bed-trick nor the Rape of Mistaken Identity is based on an intentional deception by either the hero or the heroine but rather on the hero’s assumptions about the heroine’s identity. Like the love potion in the story of Tristan and Isolde or the exchange of brides in folktales, the Rape of Mistaken Identity is a device intended to create an immediate intimacy and bond between the two protagonists while simultaneously placing an obstacle in the path of any future relationship between them. The heroine cannot but distrust and even hate the hero for his actions, while the hero cannot but distrust his own reliance on appearances. The moment of recognition or anagnorisis reveals not only the true social identity of the heroine, but also the inadequacy of the hero’s reliance on the signs by which he thought he could know another.

Unlike The Flame and the Flower, Lord Ruin asserts more emphatically the inability of the hero to see the heroine beyond her social role. Its hero, Cynssyr, has met Anne prior to the rape. Yet, he cannot remember her, despite his attempt to do so in an earlier scene when discussing her with her brother-in-law and their friend, Devon: “A faint memory tickled at the back of his mind. He tapped his temple. ‘You mean the spinster, don’t you, Devon? The eldest. The one with the spectacles.’ ‘Blond hair, gray-blue eyes. Yay tall,’ Benjamin repeated. ‘What was her name?’ . . . ‘Gad. I still don’t remember her. Except for the spectacles’” (7-8). Cynssyr only remembers the spectacles; he does not recognize her without them when he encounters Anne, laid up in his bed with her badly twisted ankle. Though Cynssyr and Anne have met before, the meeting functions only to show that Cynssyr is utterly disinterested in Anne as a person or even as an object of his lust. He simply cannot remember her. Love at first sight is not possible in this context for Cynssyr sees, but does not recognize. He observes only outward signs: spectacles, plain face, the spinsterhood of an elder sister. Cynssyr is blind to Anne as a person and sees only the confines of her established position within the social order. He cannot suspect that he is destined to love her.

In popular romance, the moment of anagnorisis in these rape scenes, as in Greek New Comedy or in Shakespeare’s Romances, comes with the recognition of the heroine as worthy. However, in popular romance narrative, the anagnorisis is not part of the denouement, but rather serves as the catalyst that sets the plot in motion. Thus, the rape is the event with which the hero and the heroine will spend the rest of the plot coming to terms. It is only at the end of Lord Ruin, that Anne and Cynssyr are able to see one another:

“After all I’ve done to you? God, don’t answer that.” He touched her cheek. “You have my heart, Anne,” he said softly. “You know you are my heart.”

“And you are mine.” Her finger traced along his lower lip. “I do love you” (342)

Thus, the true moment of recognition comes when the hero and the heroine acknowledge their love for one another, usually by uttering the phrase I-love-you, for it is only by that act that they are able to see beyond the deceptive nature of appearances.[6]

The Rape of Possession

The Rape of Possession occurs when the hero, overwhelmed by desire and, oftentimes, an unacknowledged love for the heroine, attempts to possess her by force. Here, the hero’s fundamental mistake is not confusion of identities or conflation of personhood with social role, but confounding possession of the flesh with love; he assumes that the heroine’s body will satisfy his need for her reciprocal desire. Rapes of Possession are often fueled by jealousy and the hero’s conviction that the heroine is unfaithful or about to leave him. He rapes her physically because he cannot discern between the body and the will. He mistakenly assumes that the body is the essential person.

The Rape of Possession usually occurs between a hero and heroine who are already acquainted. They are not involved in a bed-trick or an act of mistaken identity. The misperception that accompanies this type of rape is based upon a material absolutism: the body, and by extension the physical world, is all that exists. Transcendence, even a transcendence as mundane as romantic affection,[7] is considered by the hero to be an illusion, an idealistic fantasy. These heroes cannot or dare not imagine a world beyond the flesh, because that would be tantamount to admitting that they are in some way lacking—that they, too, desire love and happiness. For example, in Anna Campbell’s Claiming the Courtesan (2007), the hero, Justin, sees his mistress as a toy, an object that offers succor and happiness, but never as a person. When Verity leaves him, he plots to get her back. Finally, after kidnapping her to a remote part of Scotland, he rapes her. But in the aftermath, he begins to understand what he has done: “Tumbling his mistress had always left him with an inner peace nothing else in life offered. When she’d gone, she had snatched away his only source of happiness. He’d been desperate to get it back, like a child who had lost his favorite toy and cried until it was restored. Well, he had his favorite toy back and he still felt like crying” (132). In this moment Justin begins to recognize that his desire is not only childish, but that his objectification of Verity is ultimately unsatisfying and can never bring him comfort.

Bloggers Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan outline in their book Beyond Heaving Bosoms several of the most common explanations readers of romance give for the occurrence of romance rape scenes, among which is: “The fact that the hero Loses His Shit every time he’s around the heroine is an indicator of True Lurve instead of a True Need for a Restraining Order” (144). Although the Rape of Possession can signal the hero’s love for heroine, these rapes function primarily to demonstrate to the hero that physical and sexual power cannot make the heroine love him, even if they can make her body respond orgasmically. The Rape of Possession is about an exchange that requires the hero to acknowledge the heroine as her own person, to meet her on her own terms, to confess his wrongdoing—often in scenes of groveling apology—in order to allow the heroine to choose or to deny him as her lover.

In Claiming the Courtesan, Justin is not confused about Verity’s identity when he rapes her, even though he has until recently known her only by her courtesan’s name, Soraya. Rather, he perpetrates the rape assuming that by possessing and pleasuring her body, he can also possess her will. Knowledge of the Other here is based upon a false notion of ownership. Justin understands his relationship with Verity as a contractual one—literally, for they drew up a legal contract before he engaged her services as his mistress. Under that contract, he has ownership of Verity’s person for a set amount of time. When she leaves him at the end of that period, he becomes infuriated, believing that she has violated the spirit of the agreement by taking back possession of herself. The hero’s epistemological problem, then, stems not from a confusion of social role with personhood, but rather from a confusion of bodily possession with mutual desire.

Justin recognizes that despite a year together he knows nothing at all about Verity as a person: “Now, futilely, he wished he’d taken the time to find out more. But he had been so lost to his physical passion that he’d never paused to explore more than her body” (22). Yet, this recognition does not negate his assumption that he owns Verity. Justin does not recognize or acknowledge Verity’s personhood. He refuses to accept that Verity sees Soraya not as an aspect of herself, or even as a different person, but primarily as a defense mechanism to protect her true self from the indignities of her profession as a prostitute. By kidnapping and raping her, by refusing to distinguish between Verity and Soraya because they occupy the same body, Justin attempts to reinforce his false assumption that bodily knowledge of Soraya constitutes psychological or emotional knowledge of Verity and that his contractual possession of Soraya authorizes his contractual possession of Verity.

The confusion between Verity’s body and person mirrors Justin’s confusion regarding his own desires. He has conflated love with sex, desire for the body with desire for reciprocal love. Just as he fails to recognize and name Verity, so does Justin fail to recognize and name his own motivation: that what he desires is to be loved in return. It is his belief that love can be reduced to a contract (either as a written document or as a marriage) as well as his belief that possession can satisfy the desire to be loved, that renders him unprepared for Soraya’s departure and Verity’s resistance. Justin cannot see that in denying her former name and reclaiming her true one, Verity is claiming an identity that exists beyond the contractual bonds of their prior relationship. “Once more, the troubling idea snagged in his mind that she wasn’t the same woman she’d been then. And for the first time, he thought of her as Verity before he thought of her as Soraya” (87). Only when Justin acknowledges Verity, not Soraya, as the woman he loves, can he make amends for his violation.

Catherine Coulter’s 1994 version of Rebel Bride is a slight variation of this type of rape. Unlike Justin, the hero of this novel, Julien St. Clair, is fully able to acknowledge that he loves the heroine. In fact, he confesses this to himself quite early on by the standards of the romance genre. “It struck him forcibly that he wanted Katharine Brandon not simply as a summer idyll, to end with the coming of fall. No, he wanted her, all of her . . . He wanted her by his side until he cocked up his toes” (59). The misperception, then, comes not because Julien cannot acknowledge his own feelings, but because he is not able to acknowledge Katharine’s feelings. His refusal to see Katharine’s feelings as distinct from his own is manifested in the exposition by a persistent and problematic use of the conditional mood. When Julien thinks about Katharine, he uses the conditional to graft onto Katharine thoughts and feelings she has never expressed verbally. He uses the conditional mood to read her body like a text. The conditional enables him to interpret her actions as confirmation of his knowledge of her. It allows him to make the assumption that he can know what she feels for him through the signs of her body. “He was quite certain that when he entered the drawing room that morning that her eyes lit up at the sight of him, but he could not be sure that her obvious joy denoted a more serious sign of affection” (93).

At this point in the narrative, Julien is still capable of doubting his own reading of Katharine. However, when she responds to his kiss only paragraphs later, her physical response solidifies his interpretation of her body; it allows Julien to conflate Katharine’s body with her will. This in turn enables him to affirm what he has long wished to believe about her: that Katharine loves him back. However, this reading of the kiss ignores as many signs as it testifies to. Julien dismisses Katharine’s strange behavior just prior to the kiss as well as her sudden withdrawal from their embrace as unimportant and unconnected. As these actions do not fit into the interpretation of Katharine that best benefits Julien’s own desires and longings, he chooses to ignore them:

But his buoyant spirits wouldn’t let him long dwell upon the unusual incident. In all truth the experience paled beside her response to him when he’d kissed her. As her husband, he would, of course, have her trust and her confidence. She would willingly tell him whatever he wished to know. She would be his wife. She would be his, all of her (97)

It is the “of course” in conjunction with the “she would” that eventually results in the rape. Julien assumes that he knows Katharine’s feelings better than she knows them herself. What he has yet to discover about her, Julien assumes will be “of course” revealed through marriage to her; he assumes that marriage will give him final and complete access to Katharine’s interior self. This assumption is predicated upon the same underlying misperception as Justin’s rape of Verity: it presumes that to possess the woman is to know the woman. The “of course” also explains the dramatic change in Julien’s behavior once Katharine rejects his suit. He cannot admit that he read her wrong, that he privileged her body as the total sign of her personhood. He sees only what he wants to see, and this sight blinds him to other aspects of Katharine’s self. He characterizes her as a shrew, taking for his model Shakespeare’s Kate in The Taming of the Shrew and consequently behaves as if he were Petruchio. As such, Julien rapes Katharine because he is determined to prove to her that his original reading of her was correct despite the fact that she has told him it was not. Yet the rape fails to prove his original reading. Rather, it reveals to him the sheer inadequacy of his knowledge. He not only has utterly misperceived Katharine, but he inadvertently discovers that Katharine herself was not fully privy to her own history and person. This revelation is made when Katharine flashes back to a childhood memory of being gang raped, a memory which she has totally repressed. The sudden knowledge this event brings rewrites all of Julien and Katharine’s prior interactions. It forces Julien to take responsibility not only for his rape of Katharine, but for how he has erased her personhood in his insistence on the body as the absolute measure of her identity.

Yet even prior to the discovery of Katharine’s past, Julien’s horror at what he has done underlines the core misperception under which he has been operating. “He’d raped her, Jesus, he hadn’t intended that, no never that, but he had. He’d planned so carefully to teach her pleasure, to force her to realize that she was a woman with a woman’s passions” (252). His assumption has been that because he is her husband and thereby has access to Katharine’s body, he can then “force her to realize” something about herself that she does not know. Ironically, he does indeed force her to realize something about herself that she does not know. But more importantly, the rape forces Julien to realize something he does not know: Katharine. It compels him to acknowledge his misperception, to admit that he read her body as if the thoughts and feelings he grafted onto her were hers and not his own suppositions.

Julien, then, must spend the remainder of the book making amends to Katharine for his appropriation of her body. However, these revelations—of Julien’s rape of Katharine and her past sexual assault—are not enough to atone for the harm Julien has caused through his assumption that he knew Katharine better than she knew herself. Julien is only able to win Katharine’s love when he fully acknowledges Katharine as a separate person, one whose reactions he can neither predict nor manipulate. It is only when Julien accepts that he might never have Katharine and then leaves her alone that is she able to forgive him and finally return his love.

Thus, the anagnorisis in the Rape of Possession comes not in the recognition of a noble or gentle birth, but in the recognition that the body alone can never fulfill the hero’s desire for the heroine; that mere possession of the heroine whether it is through marriage, contract, or rape fails to create reciprocity. Justin must realize “that after all these years of studying Soraya, of hunting her as his grandfather had hunted the glen’s deer, he didn’t understand her at all. And until he knew what made her the way she was, he’d never completely possess her” (143), whereas Julien must finally acknowledge and act on Katharine’s wishes even when they are contrary to his own desires. It is in seeing, finally, the heroine as a separate and distinct person, as more than a body that can be read and possessed, that the hero is redeemed. Both Rapes of Mistaken Identity and Rapes of Possession require the resolution of the core misperceptions that cause them to occur before the hero and heroine can reach their happily ever after.

The Rape of Coercion, or “Forced Seduction”

However, the third type—the Rape of Coercion or forced seduction—is not predicated upon an epistemological misunderstanding, but is committed in order for the hero to gain knowledge about the identity of the heroine. The violation occurs not from ignorance of the Other or a misconstruction of the Other, but more distressingly from the hero’s desire to know the heroine, ontologically as she is beyond her body, appearance, or social role. In this type of rape, the hero wants a reaction from the heroine, a response from her not just physically but verbally. This desire is encapsulated in the term “forced seduction” which has long been used in genre parlance to euphemistically indicate any rape of the heroine by the hero. However, my restriction of the term to this third and final type of rape rests on the concept of seduction as primarily being a discursive act. The idea that one can force a seduction suggests that there are seductions in which no force is necessary. It implies that seduction is akin to temptation and, therefore, a kind of persuasion. The connotation of this is that both seduction and temptation are actions made through discourse and require the complicity of the person being seduced. Forced seduction, then, is not simply to rape, but to compel an interaction between two speaking persons; to lead the Other aside or astray using persuasive language; to make the Other complicit with her own violation. Seduction is a dialogue between seducer and seducee. In the Rape of Coercion, the hero wants a response from the heroine because it is in her dialogue with him that her identity is revealed. But instead of waiting for her freely to speak to him the hero forces the heroine to respond to his sexual and verbal assault.

Thus the term “forced seduction” refers to the dialogic aspect of this type of rape scene not just as it functions in the plot, but as it functions on a mythic level[8] as an answer to the epistemological and ontological questions that romance narratives perpetually ask: Who is the Other? And how can I know her? If these questions cannot be addressed in terms of social contexts and their associated performative acts (attire, accessories, or social roles) or in terms of the purely material and physical realm of flesh with its objective proofs (the sexual responsiveness of the body, the likeness of the body to other bodies, etc.), then how are they to be answered? I contend that the questions of identity and being that romance asks can be answered only through the exchange of language, as language is the only means by which the hero can engage the heroine’s identity. Without her articulated response, the hero is trapped in a world of appearances where the only signs of the heroine’s identity are those very misperceptions on whose basis the former two types of rape are committed. She must speak to him so he can know who she is.

In Anne Stuart’s contemporary romance Black Ice, this exchange of language is manifest both in the physical act of rape and the exploitation of that rape to force a confession of identity from the heroine. In this story the hero, Bastien Toussaint, is a spy. When he encounters the heroine, Chloe, he cannot believe that she truly is as she appears—a totally innocent woman, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rather, he believes that she, too, must be a spy and sets out to extract from her a confession of her true self. Bastien does this through sex because “Hurting her would get him nowhere—she’d be trained to withstand pain and she’d give up nothing she didn’t want to give up. But there were other, much more pleasurable ways of finding out what he wanted to know” (111). For Bastien, truth is located in the body, but it is not the body. It is a confession of identity gained through the bodily act of sex. Not torture,[9] but sex serves to break down the barriers between himself and Chloe, rendering her unable to do anything but reveal the truth to him. Bastien rapes Chloe in order to push her past her limits, to force her to tell him the truth. The moment of her sexual climax annihilates her ability to deceive him so he can discover who she really is. The repeated question “Who are you?” (116-118) is central to the rape scene in Black Ice, a repetition evidencing that this type of rape is neither about power nor lust, but rather about the desire to know the Other.

The rape in Patricia Gaffney’s historical romance To Have and To Hold is likewise entwined with language and identity. The heroine, Rachel Wade, released after ten years in prison for murdering her husband, finds herself with nowhere to go and is consequently charged with vagrancy. At her arraignment before the magistrates of Wyckerly County, she meets the hero, Sebastian Verlaine, Viscount D’Aubrey, who makes Rachel his housekeeper to prevent her re-incarceration. This seeming act of charity, however, covers his true intentions, which “might be murky, but one thing was certain: they had nothing to do with kindness or generosity” (26). Rachel is perfectly aware that the price of this charity is sex with Sebastian, a condition to which she neither consents nor objects. Indeed, it is a condition never articulated by either of them. From the moment he brings her home, Sebastian wants to know Rachel, but she is frustratingly silent. Rachel is repeatedly characterized as a “non-entity” (22) as a “blank” (20, 42): “Mrs. Wade has simply erased herself” (24). It is this blankness, this erasure of self that Sebastian finds compelling. From the moment he sees her, he must know her. Once they have returned to his manor, Sebastian begins to question Rachel, to interrogate her about herself and her past. “‘What?” he demanded softly. “Tell me what you’re thinking’” (37).

The physical rape functions as an extension of this questioning. When Sebastian finally comes to Rachel’s room, the sex itself is a “cool controlled act” (125). What makes it brutal are Sebastian’s many attempts to invade Rachel’s memories and identity: “What did he do to you?” “Did he hurt you, always?” “Was there never any pleasure for you?” (125). Both in Black Ice and To Have and To Hold, the rape is inquisitional. In the latter narrative, Rachel does not respond either physically or verbally, leading Sebastian to realize that she will never answer him. It is the initial failure to garner a response from her through physical rape that leads to a verbal rape. The discursive nature of the Rape of Coercion is what differentiates it from the Rape of Mistaken Identity and the Rape of Possession, in which the rapes reveal to the hero his lack of knowledge about the heroine’s identity and, more importantly, his desire to know her. For this reason the first two types leave the heroine’s core selfhood inviolable, even while her body is violated. This seeming contradiction occurs because the bodily rape is not of her, but of who she seems to be, thus allowing the heroine to function as a virgin in the text where virginity is not defined by the heroine’s lack of sexual knowledge but by the impenetrability of her identity. The Rape of Coercion, rather, occurs precisely because the hero is aware that appearances are deceptive. Instead, he uses the rape to probe the heroine’s identity both physically and verbally.

Thus, Sebastian’s physical rape of Rachel does not function in the text as the true rape scene. That scene occurs not through sexual intercourse but through verbal discourse involving the silent Rachel and Sebastian’s cruel friends, whom he invites to his manor to interrogate her—an interrogation that leaves him feeling violated. By having to speak to her, by questioning her, he makes himself vulnerable. Her silence exposes his own emptiness. By exposing her to the ruthless questioning of his reprobate acquaintances, he not only pushes Rachel to the limits of her identity, he pushes himself to the limits of his. His friends are able to achieve what Sebastian cannot: “horror after horror, she enumerated for his jaded friends, forced admissions of constant hunger, petrifying monotony and despair” (156). It is only when Sully, the Grand Inquisitor of this little game, asks about her husband that Rachel leaves the room, unable to utter that final horror. Yet, despite the rapacious nature of the conversation, Rachel later confesses to Sebastian that “I hated it but deep down something in me was glad to answer. Glad because I was being made to speak finally” (179).

Sebastian, too, is altered by the inquisition of his friends. He recognizes “his own soft, mocking tone in Sully’s despicable cadence” (157). When Rachel flees the room and Sully pursues her, Sebastian “felt the tear down the middle of himself widening and that was wrong; it should have been narrowing. He’d just done a thing to make himself whole again” (198). Sebastian commits the verbal rape by agreeing to have his friends visit, knowing full well that this would be the result. Yet, what it accomplishes is not to shift him back to his old self as he had hoped. Rather, it only acts to shatter Sebastian’s former sense of personhood. When Sebastian follows Sully out of the room, they fight. Sebastian is shot, Sully gets his nose broken. He retreats to his bedroom for days, and what follows is Sebastian’s descent into an internal hell, like the dark night of the soul in a hagiography. The fight is the culmination of this verbal rape, which has functioned as the point of ritual death in the text. For Sebastian, it is the blood and the shot that serve as a death, just as the inquisitional rape is what acts as a death for Rachel. Death is a necessary prelude to resurrection and when Sebastian tells Rachel, “They sent you to an early grave . . . but I’m going to dig you out of it and resurrect you” (192), he is acknowledging that what he has desired all this time was Rachel, but Rachel transformed from the silence that has characterized her.

The rape, then, forces Rachel to speak, but it also breaks Sebastian’s own sense of selfhood. In the romance text, the Rape of Coercion reveals that love is a version of death. In “The Solar Anus,” Bataille discusses love and violence as connected, possibly inseparable concepts. As such, the violating hero cannot remain untouched by his violence and, like the heroine, suffers a kind of death by his assault upon her. When Bataille says: “I want to have my throat slashed while violating the girl who I will have been able to say: you are the night” (9), he is expressing that falling in love with the Other is an imitation or mimicry of violence. For Bataille, the world is parodic: language is a parody of desire, and desire is a parody of crime. Love is not structured as an elevated experience outside of the material world; but rather love descends into the body, where it becomes part of the material world, neither separate from the body nor accessed through the body, but entwined with the corporal world and subject to its degradations. In the moment of violating Rachel via language, Sebastian himself suffers a ritual death along with her. The crime and debasement Bataille associates with love serves to transform identity. Sebastian’s crime against and debasement of Rachel also enacts his own violation—“slashing his own throat”—thus transforming both his former self and Rachel’s blankness.

The rapist of coercion, the forcing seducer, wants his victim to tell him, “I am here with you, I want you, I love you.” The Rape of Coercion then serves in the text as the “point of ritual death,” but I use this term in a slightly different way than either Northrop Frye (who coins the phrase in Anatomy of Criticism) or Pamela Regis (who uses it in A Natural History of the Romance Novel). Here, the point of ritual death is physically manifested in a corporeal rape of the heroine that is concomitant with the death of identity through the corporal body of both heroine and hero. The forced seduction, then, is not simply the moment at which the story seems to be veering towards tragedy or the separation of the lovers, but rather the rape, both physical and verbal, becomes the ritual through which the identities of both heroine and hero die in order to be reborn. The rape or “forced” seduction functions not as partial negation, but as total negation, not just of the Other, but of the Self. The rape’s interrogative aspect reveals the desire both for the annihilation of the Other and the annihilation of the former Self.

Sebastian’s desire to push Rachel to her limits is not a desire to possess her but to break her down, to bring her to a threshold beyond which there is something other than a blank and silent woman. He wants to make her fully present through language. As Terry Eagleton elucidates, the self that is born through language signifies a simultaneous death of the physical and a refiguring of identity: “If the sign is the death of the thing, that death is nevertheless redemptive: through its troubling blankness the body is resurrected into a presence more radiantly authentic than the unrisen flesh” (45). Without language, Rachel’s body has neither identity nor subjectivity. Rachel’s words are what hold Sebastian’s interest. Thus language, confession, and revelation become the locus of the rape, whether physical or discursive; it is a forced intercourse in the other sense of that word. The Rape of Coercion is a ritual death of the heroine’s identity and the hero’s own subject position, one that invokes ritual sacrifice. However, ritual cannot rely solely on language. It must also be enacted and manifested physically through a performance. Ritual does something through and to its participants. It has a purpose that goes beyond mere event; it has a communal meaning that can be used to assuage guilt, to seek divine favor, to allow the community to cohere or rally against a common enemy. In the case of the Rape of Coercion, ritual is performed to solidify individual identity as well as to bind the couple together. It serves as a sometimes violent fortunate fall—a fall out of isolation (as represented by Rachel’s imprisonment) and alienation (as represented in Sebastian’s libertinism).

In the Rape of Coercion, the underlying question of romance narrative transforms from “How do I know the Other?” to “Who are you?” The only answer to this question is “I am.” In other words, it is only possible to gain an answer to the question of identity through the verbal response of the Other confirming her presence. If rape functions within romance narrative as the means by which the hero interrogates the heroine’s identity, then the response to this physical and verbal assault is not found in the heroine’s sexual climax but in the progress of their dialogue, culminating in the declaration of love. This is manifested in the I-love-you uttered at the end of these novels.[10] I-love-you declares not just an emotional state held by the “I” but an existential one. When the hero tells the heroine he loves her, he is making himself fully present to her while concurrently querying for her presence. The earlier violence that defined his interrogation of the heroine is no more. Rather, in uttering I-love-you the hero calls to the heroine, awaiting her response as both a declaration of her personhood and as an expression of her emotion. The phrase thus serves as an answer to both the question of identity posed in the encounter with the Other and as an answer to the violence of intercourse, enacted in the verbal and physical rape of the heroine. It does this because I-love-you recognizes in its structure the need for the Other’s presence, ontologically (being) but not epistemologically (knowing). Barthes observes that, “the subject and the object come to the word [to love] even as it is uttered, and I-love-you must be understood” as a single word-phrase (147); that is, the Self and the Other are united by the narrative arc into a single, uttered phrase where both “I” and “you” are present. Subject and object are joined by the verb, to love, yet maintain their distinct positions within the sentence. This parallels the structure of the plot in which the hero and heroine are joined by love over the course of the story, yet remain distinct persons united by mutual choice. More significantly, the hero and the heroine exchange places as they exchange the phrase I-love-you, each occupying both the subject (“I”) and object (“you”) position. The hero becomes the object in the heroine’s utterance, as she becomes the subject of her own speech, and vice versa. “I-love-you . . . is the metaphor for nothing else” (Barthes, 148) or nothing outside of the phrase because in it both the Other and the Self are fully present as simultaneously speaking persons. There is no outside referent. I-love-you marries not only the Self and the Other, but also the body and the soul, the tongue and the speech, the concrete and the abstract.

Regardless of type, rape scenes in popular romance serve to unify language and sexuality. They insist upon the acknowledgment of an identity or personhood that is more than flesh, more than body and yet one that is materialized through flesh and body. In these scenes, copulation is not just sex, but also the copulation of linguistic terms where the ineffable is made manifest through physical and verbal intercourse. That is, the rape forces the revelation of the Other to the Self. In the words of Bataille, the result is that “the copula of terms is no less irritating than the copulation of bodies. And when I scream I AM THE SUN an integral erection results, because the verb to be is the vehicle of amorous frenzy” (5). Identity—to be—is at the root of desire. It is in the copulation of linguistic terms, as it is in the copulation of physical bodies, that the violence required for the transformation of the hero and heroine’s identities is found. Language is violent; it yokes together contradictions; it splits action and existence. And in romance it serves as the vehicle of metamorphosis from the isolation of asceticism and hedonism—two opposite, complementary representations of very different fallen selves, each trapped in an identity at odds with itself, one that has been shattered into disparate and scattered pieces. Language, but specifically interrogative language, deals the final, breaking blow to the Self and the Other. And it is, again, through language—“the vehicle of amorous frenzy”—that these identities are re-integrated. It is in the semiotic and somatic copulation of terms, the violent joining together hero and heroine in the rape, that these identities become whole. The climax literally comes when, in the amorous frenzy, the full self is revealed in response to the question of “who are you?” But language—spoken or written—is not the goal. The goal is the revelation of the Other as the beloved; what is desired is the “unconditionally singular covenant, the mad love between” the One and the Other (Derrida 156) which is finally fulfilled in the declaratory phrase, I-love-you.

The appearance in popular romance texts of any of the three types of rape reveals that the true violation is not the rape at all, but the act of falling in love. In these rape scenes, it is not that “[c]oitus is the parody of crime” (Bataille 5), but rather that crime—rape—is the parody of love. It is the revelation that there is violation in every act of falling in love. For love itself requires that one’s personhood be invaded by the presence of another. Rape in romance is the physical manifestation of what all love is about: the intrusion of the Other into the Self and the death that must precede their harmonious unification.

Bibliography

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Campbell, Anna. Claiming the Courtesan. New York: Avon, 2007. Print.

Coulter, Catherine. Rebel Bride. New York: Topaz, 1994. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret. Trans. David Willis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. Print.

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[1] With every publication of a new romance novel in which such scenes of a “forced seduction” appear, debates about the trope are renewed. For an earlier perspective on these issues, Helen Hazen’s Endless Rapture (1983) explores several different aspects of the debate. Current discussions of the issue are primarily held at online communities such as Dear Author < http://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/sexual-force-and-reader-consent-in-romance>and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books < http://www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com/index.php/weblog/comments/talking_about_the_r_word/>.

[2] See most famously Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: women, patriarchy and popular literature (1984); Tania Modeleski’s Loving with a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women (1982); and Krentz’s Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women (1992). However, the discourse on the genre has begun to shift to different theoretical approaches since the late 1990s as exemplified by Pamela Regis’ 2003 A Natural History of the Romance, and Lisa Fletcher’s 2008 Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity.

[3] Although the opposite rape, by the heroine of the hero, does occur as well. See Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ This Heart of Mine, for example.

[4] The necessity of this clarification is due to the fact that unlike other genres of literature, popular romance scholarship has, in the past, often made the mistake of implying a cause and effect relationship between the plots of the novels and the lives lived by readers themselves. This is the case in Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance.

[5] Despite romance being a genre written by women for women, I presume that the Other is still female. This is because romance operates within the larger Western tradition where the Self or I is by default male. The narrative struggles with the question of how to create and maintain female subjectivity within the patriarchal order. And it is in this order that the hero has placed and identified himself when he encounters the heroine. In short, he sees her as the Other. It is in this context that the rape can occur.

[6] In her book Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity, Lisa Fletcher discusses the phrase I-love-you as a performative speech act whose repetition is a sign of historical romance’s failure to stabilize its terms. I take an opposite position to Fletcher, seeing the repetition of I-love-you not as a failure to stabilize its terms but rather as a kind of ritual language whose utterance is transformative because of its repetition. However, the differences between these interpretations are beyond the scope of this present paper.

[7] It is my assumption that all romance, whether of the Greek, medieval, or paperback variety, is inherently a genre of transcendence. I am influenced in this view by the work of Northrop Frye and Mikhail Bahktin.

[8] In this reading of the mythic structure of romance, I am primarily influenced by Northrop Frye’s work in The Secular Scripture.

[9] See the discussion about Black Ice on Read, React, Review <http://www.readreactreview.com/2009/10/25/book-discussion-anne-stuarts-black-ice> for further commentary on the body as the locus of truth.

[10] See note 6, above.

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