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Love and its Contradictions: Feminist Women’s Resistance Strategies in their Love Narratives
by Nagore García Fernández

Introduction

I was first attracted to love as a topic of research because I saw other feminist female friends as well as myself struggling with it. There was something jarring about love and feminists, because we seemed to be spending more time criticizing the stereotyped romantic narratives seen in Hollywood films rather than sharing the positive and transformative elements of our everyday relationships. Even if we had read many books and zines, discussed with our comrades, learned from our previous experiences and from those shared among feminist friends, there was still a huge sense of discontent and failure present. From first and second wave feminists we learned about the dangers and the traps of love (Beauvoir 1999; Millett 1971; Firestone 1972; Comer 1974). From other feminists and non-feminists alike we learned that love was a complex emotion (Lagarde 1990; Jónasdóttir 1993; Jackson 1993, 1999; Illouz 1997; Langford 1999; Esteban 2011) and also that other kind of relationships were possible (Easton & Hardy 2009; Barker 2012). But feminists still struggle with articulating our experience among so many contradictory narratives. Love is an issue for feminists and I am interested in exploring how feminist women construct their narratives of love in relation to dominant narratives of romantic love and feminist critical narratives of love.

I apply the concept of “nested narratives” proposed by Mary and Kenneth Gergen (1983) to the analysis of love. The Gergens refer to how different narratives available in the social framework are articulated within personal experiences in subjectivity production. Also, for Jackson “[w]e create for ourselves a sense of what our emotions are, of what being in love is, through positioning ourselves within discourses, constructing narratives of self, drawing on whatever cultural resources are available to us” (1999, 120). Like them, I would contend that we are not passive subjects in these processes, but an active part that assimilates, rejects and subverts those sociocultural contexts in which the narratives are produced (Montenegro & Pujol 2013).

My understanding of love owes much to the work of Stevi Jackson (1993, 1999) and Mari Luz Esteban (2011). They have highlighted that love is a complex emotion that requires serious and critical social research (Jackson 1993; Esteban, Medina & Tavora 2005). Jackson (1993) developed a sociological approach to love as a culturally constructed emotion. In her words, “Far from being just a personal, private phenomenon, love is very much a part of our public culture” (1993, 202). Thus, it cannot be treated as “independent of the social and cultural context within in which it is experienced” (1993, 202). Mari Luz Esteban’s (2011) “amorous thought” refers to emotional, embodied, symbolic, cultural, social and institutional dimensions of love, and also considers that power relations take place in different directions. These theoretical contributions enable us to account for love as both a site of women’s complicity with and resistance against patriarchal relations. In this paper, I aim to explore the resistance strategies of feminist women in order to understand how complicity and resistance work in their narratives about love. On one hand, this could tell us about the experience of women and love in Western societies, while on the other it could shed some light on how feminism works in producing subjectivity.

Resistance Strategies

A Foucauldian perspective on power indicates that power itself permeates every aspect of social life. Power, for Foucault, is not located within but invades all social relations. It is not subordinated to economic structures. Instead of acting by repression, it acts by normalization. In this way, it produces subjects, discourses, knowledges, truths and realities in a positive way. Power is found precisely in that multiplicity of networks in constant transformation. These ideas of power characterise resistance as part of the game: there is no power without resistance (Foucault 1980). Considering these ideas, Lila Abu-Lughod (1990) develops her conceptualization of resistance and reflects over the effects resistance studies have had over the theories of power. Since the 1990s, previously devalued forms of resistance have been re-evaluated: that is, “subversions rather than large-scale collective insurrections, small or local resistances not tied to the overthrow of systems or even to ideologies of emancipation.” (Abu-Lughod 1990, 41). In pursuing a non-romanticized reading of resistance, she asks: what does resistance tell us about power? For Abu-Lughod (1990), theorizing resistance involves theorizing power. She proposes resistance as a diagnostic of power, a project for which we ought to attend to the complex workings of power rather than ask about those who resist. In other words, which are the implications of the resistance we, as social researchers, locate? The study of different forms of resistance will allow us to trace the different – often contradictory – workings of power intertwined in a specific context. In the narrative productions of this study, contradictions between cultures is key. Abu-Lughod relates this contradiction to glocal cultures, to the tensions arising between the global and the local. She also points out how, within this dynamic, women assume, subvert and/or reappropriate different cultural norms, either global or local. In my research addressing the experiences of feminist women in love, this helps in clarifying the relationship between a dominant culture in which participants are involved (permeated with romantic love discourses) and the feminist counterculture where they take part (where other counter-narratives emerge and gain a notorious significance).

Narrative Productions: articulating feminist narratives on love

The methodology used in this study is inspired by Donna Haraway’s (1991) ideas of situated knowledges, which moves away both from non-critical positivist thinking and extreme relativism. Like Haraway, I assume knowledge is produced from a located, precarious, and partial perspective. It is the result of partial connections. In reference to the empirical research, situated knowledges can be seen as semiotic-material places resulting from the relationship between researcher and participants (Pujol, Montenegro & Balasch 2003). From this view, rather than generalizing or representing, my aim is to collect different positions on the issue.

Narrative Production methodology (Balasch & Montenegro 2003; Pujol, Montenegro & Balasch 2003; Martínez-Guzmán & Montenegro 2014; Gandarias & García 2014; Schongut & Pujol 2015) is based in the collaborative production, between researcher and participants, of a series of narrative texts addressing the topic of study. Once the participants agreed to take part in the study, we carried out one or more sessions addressing love representations, meanings and experiences. Subsequently, I textualized the most meaningful aspects emerging from the participants’ narration in a clear and understandable style. In order to maximize  their  agency, I sent the participants the manuscript so they could edit it. The writing process finished with their confirmation of the final version of the text. Once I completed the process with each participant, I got a set of narratives that offer different sets of partial knowledge of love on feminist women (Montenegro & Pujol 2013, 35). These texts are called narrative productions or narratives and I will refer to them as narrative productions in this paper.

The challenge with this methodology is to reflect on this set of narrative productions, considering them theoretical starting points (Gandarias & García 2014). As Montenegro & Pujol (2013) propose, narrative productions are not treated as “pure” empirical material, which means they are not analyzed in the usual sense. The narrative productions are analyzed while being constructed, working from them rather than on them (Martínez-Guzmán & Montenegro 2010). To this end, I have focused on searching for the tensions and the common grounds emerging from the narrative productions (Fraser 2004).

Resisting Love Narratives

In this section I would like to present seven feminist activist women in order to contextualize the coordinates in which these narrative productions have been realized. Their narrative texts are part of a larger study in which ten feminist activist women participated. I selected these women according to different criteria. While they are all feminist activists living in Barcelona, their sexual identities and situations in reference to love differ considerably. I recruited participants from my own personal and political contacts and also through a variation of the snowball sampling technique, which involves asking participants to recruit new participants. I asked feminist friends to recruit possible participants too.

Libertad is thirty-three years old and comes from a city near Madrid. She moved to Barcelona five years ago. She is a sociologist and works as a researcher in gender-related issues. She has been involved in social movements since she was a teenager. She self-identifies as straight and, after a few years of being single, she is starting a new relationship.

Aram is from Barcelona and thirty-two years old. She also has a job in the field of gender equality. She started joining feminist groups in her early twenties. Her romantic trajectory has been straight until recently. Since the end of her most recent relationship, she has been thinking a lot about love.

Lidia was born in Northern Europe and raised in a Latin American country. She arrived in Barcelona in 2005 to do a Masters degree in documentary filmmaking. Since then she has been working on post-pornography as a visual artist, activist and researcher. Her activist trajectory revolves around non-normative sexual practices and gender representations, while love remains unexplored as a field for her activist work.

Rebeca is twenty-four and from a city near Barcelona. She has identified with punk and anarchism since she was a teenager. Overcoming an abusive relationship with a man led her to seek more liberating ways of establishing relationships with both men and women.

Mariona is also from Barcelona and in her early thirties. She is part of the anarchist and feminist movements. Her sexual and affective relationships have always been with feminist women.

Miriam A. and Miriam D. have been long discussing love. They are friends and met each other years ago during a workshop on romantic love. One is from Barcelona and the other comes from a different city but has lived in different places, including the UK. The first identifies as a lesbian and the other thinks of sexuality as a flexible concept. They have worked together in the prevention of abusive relationships and collaborate in several activist projects.

After the narrative productions that I have co-written with these women, I have identified various resistance strategies. First, I will address those resistance strategies that respond to mainstream narratives of love, mostly in its romantic form. Next, I will introduce those that respond to specific feminist narratives of love, which mostly are based in the feminist critique of romantic love.

Dismantling the romantic model. In what follows, I will address three resistance strategies that respond to specific imperatives of romantic love: 1) intentional singleness, which questions compulsory coupledom; 2) lover networks, responding to sexual exclusivity and temporary fixed romantic scripts; and 3) falling for the collective, which redefines the object and the “nature” of love.

Intentional singleness. It is not only heterosexuality that is seen as compulsory, as Adrienne Rich (1980) warned, but also long term relationships. Compulsory heterosexuality as a normative prescription operates through the construction and policing of various forms of “otherness” (Reynolds & Wetherell 2003), such as singleness. Furthermore, this regulation operates within a patriarchal set of relationships, meaning that women have historically been more excluded or questioned by their singleness. Thus they have been defined negatively and in terms of what is lacking (Reynolds & Wetherell 2003; Reynolds, Wetherell & Taylor 2007). Feminist research on the topic has highlighted how in the construction of women’s “single” identity, negative and positive discourses are implicated. A discourse of singleness as a lack is present, while also another which redefines it as independence and self-actualization (Reynolds & Wetherell 2003). Perspectives of this kind are echoed in the narrative texts of this study. Some participants explain how they came to wilfully choose singleness after turbulent breakups.

Cuando Héctor me dejó tuve una crisis de autoestima muy fuerte. Estuve revolcándome en el fango durante meses, sintiéndome una mierda. [Más tarde], [e]mpecé a hacer cosas que nunca antes había hecho sola, como ir a conciertos o hacer una estancia en Viena. Mi proceso fue progresivo, poco a poco he ido sintiéndome mejor y sin recaídas.[1] (Libertad, p. 4)

In a similar vein, Aram explains how she happened to find out she could be fine being single:

[D]escubrí que podía estar sin novio y empecé a tener relaciones en otro formato. Amantes y encuentros puntuales. De golpe experimenté el “no-compromiso”. Pasé de pensarme en relación a otro a pensarme por mí misma. No solo descubrí que podía estar sin novio, sino que además así estaba bien.[2] (Aram, p. 3)

Although both came to view singleness as a desired state, we can see some differences in their extracts. Libertad evokes elements of independency and a more extended social life as the capacity to do activities on her own and with other people. This makes her feel good because she is no longer identifying singleness as a lack but as gain. For Aram, on the other hand, wellbeing as a single woman is located in her ability to manage her sexual life and an identity of her own, non-mediated by a partner. However, both extracts share a common base: regardless of their focus (social or sexual life, identity), their achievements relate to overcoming a partner-oriented model. This movement, as Libertad acknowledges, is a long progressive way, with challenges to face. She points to social pressure as the one of most concern:

Hay mucha presión, vas a una boda y vas sola, o a otras actividades, siempre sola. A veces he tenido la sensación de que la gente me miraba sintiendo pena. Y lo más sorprendente es que yo estaba bien, estaba sola por elección. Hasta los colegas del barrio (con quienes tengo afinidad política) me cuestionaban por estar soltera. [3] (Libertad, p. 8)

In the experience of Libertad, social pressure appears as challenging, although not very constraining. Her awareness of wellbeing is not especially affected, but she finds herself constantly questioned and having to justify herself as being single, a very common experience single women share (Reynolds & Wetherell 2003). Also, it is interesting to note how the pressure comes from different audiences. It is not by chance that Libertad illustrates this questioning through mentioning a wedding. Although in Spain women are less likely to be married than their European counterparts, with those who do marry doing so later in life (INE Spain 2015), heterosexual marriage is still more accepted than other forms of relationships. For women, their early thirties is a stage in life in which friends, relatives and acquaintances may start to get married or to establish other types of long-term relationships with or without cohabitation. The wedding appears here as the ultimate representation, and indeed the ritual form, of our tendency to “couple” or to “partner” one another in an official and public way. But this questioning is not only coming from the most normative audiences, but also from politically radical circles. This is where the contradiction arises: how is it that people with whom she shares a politically radical position, are using heteronormative narratives to read her personal life? I would argue that her relationships are seen as a private issue, thus remaining non-politicized and therefore easier to evoke a dominant view.

In conclusion, I have addressed intentional singleness as a resistance strategy which responds to compulsory coupledom. This strategy consists of the redefinition and re-evaluation of singleness as a possible and acceptable way of being in the world which opens possibilities for a wider social life, an enriching sexual life and a fully completed sense of self. In the quotes from Libertad and Aram, this is not seen as an idealized model; rather, it confirms their everyday experience, a progressive path where they must face the social pressure coming from different audiences.

Lovers networks. Existing in the world necessarily entails relationships with others. Authors such as Judith Butler (2009) and Silvia Gil (2011) have noted our inherently interdependent relationships with others. We are immersed in multifarious networks of relationships with whom we share different forms of intimacy. Lidia frames the issue as such:

[H]aber mantenido relaciones con amantes que se han ido alargando en el tiempo, ha ido modificando mi manera de entender el amor. Estas relaciones, donde a lo mejor follo una vez al año con una persona que conozco desde hace mucho tiempo, me ha permitido ver el amor como un proceso más lento. Quiero a estas personas, y aunque no compartimos una cotidianidad, lo que siento por ellas es amor. Se dan distintos grados de intimidad y confianza, pero tengo amantes con los que creo que podría estar de amante toda la vida o al menos muchísimos años. Al haber pasado tanto tiempo te vas conociendo más, y se genera una relación de compañerismo que es un amor interesante, que no podría ocurrir si tienes una relación estrictamente monógama. Estas relaciones son como amistades con intimidad y sexo. También son relaciones con las que a veces trabajo en algún proyecto. [4] (Lidia, pp. 6-7)

Based on similar experiences, Rebeca reflects on temporality as the backbone of the dominant understandings of intimate relationships.

[E]n mis relaciones de amistad sexoafectivas sí he podido encontrar más esa espontaneidad y libertad, sin las exigencias propias que devienen en una pareja más “clásica”, y lo que es más importante para mí: esa confianza y complicidad no en todos los casos se ha marchitado, sino que se ha transformado y ha perdurado en el tiempo, volviéndonos así compañeras intermitentes, permanentes, atemporales, eternas. [5] (Rebecca, pp. 2-3)

For both extracts, I would like to focus on how temporality and intimacy are presented in opposition to traditional couple relationships. Dominant love narratives position couples in a linear temporality. This usually begins with a process of “courtship” or flirting when the conditions of the relationship remain to be negotiated until the couple is defined as such. This type of narrative usually ends with either the beginning of a long-term relationship or the end of it. Lidia and Rebeca suggest a different temporality in which the boundaries of beginning and end are unclear. Lidia describes further this kind of temporality in the following fragment:

Son relaciones que entienden que yo puedo estar en un pico amoroso y entonces desaparecen temporalmente y luego reaparecen y eso se produce muy orgánicamente. El grado de exigencia con la otra persona es menor y eso facilita que se adapte a disponibilidades personales y afectivas. Por ejemplo, si un amante me llama para quedar, pero yo estoy en el mundo del corazón […] y no me apetece… no pasa nada. Son relaciones infrecuentes o de frecuencia variable, una vez al mes o una vez cada tres meses… A veces también he tenido un subidón de amor con alguno de mis amantes… quizás dura una semana, luego decae, pero vuelve la otra persona… sería como un gráfico de ondas.[6] (Lidia, pp. 7-8)

Here intermittence emerges, varying in intensities and availabilities, ranging from very intense moments to periods of absence which are not understood as lack of attachment. In this sense, intimacy is reconfigured at different levels. Not sharing an everyday life is not seen as a lack of intimacy, but the contrary. The connection is not based here in a common everyday life, but in sharing an intensity and sexual intimacy. Although precarious and inconsistent, this kind of love is highly valued by both participants. This may not sound like something new nowadays, where sexual life and intimacy have adopted different forms in Western societies. However, there is a kind of convenience, as opposed to engagement and commitment, which makes me suspicious. Lovers seem to appear “naturally” when they are needed and in a way that fits individualistic interests. So, from a critical perspective, it is important to ask to what extent this kind of intimacy is mediated by individualized contemporary discourses.

What is interesting about Lidia and Rebeca’s reflections is that, unlike in mainstream society, they recognize these relationships as love, even if it is a love of a different kind. In this sense, these experiences have resulted in a change of their conceptualization of love.

In conclusion, the forming of lover networks appears to be an ambivalent strategy which challenges sexual exclusivity and its temporality by recognizing the intimacy shared with lovers as a valuable kind of love. However, while being liberating for the participants, these practices of intimacy may intertwine with individualistic dominant discourses, an issue in which further research is needed.

Falling for the collective. Miriam A. and Miriam D. describe how they felt about the feminist group in which they were both taking part a few years back:

Miriam D.: Yo estaba todo el dia de asamblea en asamblea. Trabajaba en un librería de mujeres, acababa de terminar el Máster de Estudios de las Mujeres […] … Okupabamos entre mujeres, hacía autodefensa, […]… Tenía la vida más feminista que podía tener y luego tenía un novio, que estaba en casa… Estaba enamoradísima de la red, de todas las cosas que sucedían. Todo era como una montaña rusa, me dejaba llevar y me encantaba.

[…]

Miriam A.: Había un discurso muy bonito de lo colectivo y de repente empiezas a ver las fisuras que has estado ignorando.

Miriam D.: Porque nos enamoramos…

Miriam A.:¡Es muy romántico! Se sustituye la pareja por el colectivo. Te enamoras románticamente del colectivo, ignoras sus fisuras y cuando todo estalla, la ruptura se hace muy difícil.

Miriam D.: Acaban saliendo resentimientos hacia el colectivo…

Miriam A.: Algo no hemos hecho bien que cuando todo se acaba y no nos podemos ni ver… Eso pasa mucho en la pareja.

Miriam D.: Te prometes todo y de repente como no es verdad, la decepción es máxima.

Miriam A.: Creo que deberíamos aceptar que no todo es tan intenso y absoluto, aprender a acabar y acabar mejor. […] Por otro lado, sin esa energía muchas cosas no saldrían. Por eso en el fondo creo que no puede ser malo. La energía que desprendemos cuando nos enamoramos de alguien o de algo, que puedes no dormir y empiezas a hacer de todo… A mí me cuesta encontrar esa energía sin el enamoramiento. No creo que sea solo político… ¿esa energía de donde sale? ¿Eso es puramente construido? Esa cosa que no te da nada más… Pienso en algunos grupos que conocí hacía 2009 y desprendían una energía muy potente… Yo me enamoré de todas y de la energía que desprendían, me encantaba… y luego acabó como el rosario de la Aurora. Parece que cuanto más subidón, luego más bajón…[7] (Miriam A & Miriam D, p. 11)

In their story, the expansion of the loving object reaches the collective. So much affection is put into their political projects that they “fall for the collective.” Love here becomes characterized as a force, an energy that is the basis of mobilization and collective action, rather than as the passionate sexual bond associated with romantic love. This move echoes Hardt and Negri’s politics of love (2009). These authors develop a reconfiguration of the notion of love in which they place the common in the center. From this perspective, romantic couple love is seen as narrow, yet the focus goes beyond individualistic practices of intimacy. Rather, it seeks to reclaim the collective. In the narrative productions, however, some romantic features still remain. Romanticizing the collective emerges as a double-edged sword. It has the potential to challenge the legitimate object of love, which moves from being a person or a network of multiple lovers to a specific group of people with whom they share political activism. Some features of the dominant romantic narrative also emerge. The latter part of the quote suggests that in the process of falling for the collective, there are a number of romantic love scripts in play. The naive happy beginning and difficult ending resonate with the romantic temporality revised before. All the passion attached to it also sounds really romantic. In addition, for Alberoni (1996), love is a collective movement of two, which recuperates the idea that there is something about love that is not totally individual. Still, for Miriam A., despite the problematic of the romantic script, the collective fusion has a great destabilizing potential.

In general, this strategy should be consider in its double character: it politicizes the romantic and romanticizes the political. On one hand, the politicization of the romantic appears as a move towards a transformative notion of love, while on the other hand, the romanticization of the political appears as the process by which some elements of the romantic narrative of couple love is assimilated into a narrative about a wider love experienced within a political collective.

Living the contradiction. Contradictions seem to be a part of our subjectivities and have inspired much feminist writing on love and romance (Jackson 1999). These contradictions seen to be more evident in love where very different narratives are in constant play. As Jackson (1999) points out, there is a contradiction between two of the strongest narratives of love in the Western world. Passionate romantic love – as featured in many forms of artistic expression – favours intensity, whereas the lived narrative of heterosexual pair-bonding emphasis long-term commitment. We are both imbued with the mystery of falling in love as with the routinization of a long-term relationship. The narrative of love as an altruistic emotion is as present as the narrative which identifies romantic love as self-centred and individualistic. Eva Illouz focuses on the contradictions of love in contemporary Western societies (1997). With a focus on love, its practices and their relation to the economic sphere, she traces how the contradictions of capitalism have reached the sphere of love. When the narratives of the productive sphere crosscut the private, it is inevitable that contradictions emerge. For Illouz (2012), contradictions are an unavoidable part of culture and, in general, most people manage to move among them without struggling, but this scenario changes when the contradictions affect the articulation of experience. In such cases, incorporating the contradictions into everyday life becomes a difficult task. This difficulty becomes evident in many of the narratives productions I have collected. It is clear in this piece by Libertad:

El amor para mí es un gran contradicción. […] Por una parte pienso en el amor como un sentimiento positivo, pero no puedo evitar que lo primero que se me venga a la cabeza al pensar en el amor sea la negación de la persona. Es cierto que cuando te enamoras estás más contenta, de mejor humor y todo te parece más bonito. Sin embargo, no puedo dejar de relacionar amor con negación individual, sobre todo a partir de la idea generalizada de amor romántico que nos venden y que se reproduce por todas partes. Tengo esa contradicción. Por un lado pienso que el amor es negación de la individualidad, de la autonomía y por otro lado pienso que somos seres sociales y que el amor nos hace creer en los otros y en las otras. [8] (Libertad, p. 1)

Different narratives are interconnected in this fragment. First, love as a positive emotion and its transformative power (it makes us believe in others). Within that positive aspect of love, falling in love is also mentioned. It is interesting how, as Jackson has suggested, “even feminists resort to mystical language to describe it [love]” (1999, 116). Although there is not a mystical language here, there is a positive and magical understanding of falling, as it is seen as a state in which everything seems to be better. On the other hand, there is a strong presence of a negative reading of romantic love more specifically, which evoking the feminist critique which centres on lack of autonomy and individuality as key elements that are denied in the name of love.

The participants in this study incorporate and make their own narratives after the narratives available in their cultural arena (Jackson 1999). As Illouz (2012) explains, culture provides people with different discourses which are often contradictory and which are used, at different moments and circumstances, to account for different aspects of the experiences of love.

In the stories of the participants, many narratives are in play. Besides the mainstream narratives of love, they also incorporate feminist narratives, meaning the contradiction becomes more evident and more difficult to deal with. In the following strategies I will focus on two different ways of dealing with some of the contradictions they struggle with specifically as feminists.

Claiming “romance”. When Lidia and I were constructing her narrative production I was absolutely captivated by this story of her childhood:

[C]on ocho años descubrí las telenovelas. Todas mis compañeras del colegio las veían y a mí me enganchaban mucho. Pero eran tan nefastas ideológicamente que mi mamá me las prohibía y aun así yo me las ingeniaba para verlas a escondidas. Ella guardaba la tele en la parte alta de un armario y resolví el asunto poniendo un alargo que alcanzara hasta el enchufe. De esa forma podía ver las telenovelas a gusto y antes de que llegara mi mamá ya había quitado el alargo y cerrado el armario como si nada hubiera pasado. En estas telenovelas se reproducían los imaginarios clásicos del amor romántico: enamorarse para siempre, encontrar la pareja indicada, que alguien que te salve… Es como una metáfora divertida que ese imaginario en mi casa fuera el que se tenía que quedar dentro del armario.[9] (Lidia, p. 1)

Lidia’s mother was an artist who had lesbian and feminist friends, so as a child Lidia had different reference points beyond the nuclear family. It is interesting to note that from an early age she was resisting her mother’s power by watching telenovelas secretly. A hugely popular cultural product in Latin America, telenovelas were nevertheless forbidden by her mother on account of their reinforcement of patriarchal relations. The consumption of romantic fiction has been largely researched by feminist scholars. Some of these contributions have highlighted how romantic fiction consumers are not merely assimilating a dominant narrative, taking more seriously the pleasures of romance (Jackson 1999; Roach 2010; Frantz & Selinger 2012). In this sense, I see Lidia’s secret consumption of telenovelas as a site of resistance in which she could fantasize with the narratives that were forbidden in her home. It is interesting here to note how, in this case, what is dominant in mainstream society becomes a site of resistance as the order of Lidia’s childhood home works with its own set of norms and values. Later in her story, she refers to a similar strategy in the present time:

Hay perspectivas feministas -que parten de la crítica al amor romántico- que consideran que enamorarse está mal. Aunque comparto la base de esta crítica, no creo que enamorarse esté del todo mal. A veces me da la sensación de que esta crítica se traduce en una negación y/o desintensificación emocional del amor. Yo me resisto a esto, no quiero renunciar a la intensidad del amor, me gusta, soy una yonki. Pero el amor viene en un pack que está muy satanizado: el amor romántico, el sufrimiento… Hay gente que te manda a la mierda por hablar del amor o por enamorarte y creo que este tipo de discursos generan más que ninguna otra cosa, culpa.[10] (Lídia, p. 5)

This illustrates how within our contradictory subjectivities it is possible to maintain a critical view of romantic love and its connection to patriarchal relations while still desiring a romantic fantasy and the passion of falling in love. Moreover, in Lidia’s experience, claiming romance has a specific meaning due to the specificity of her context. Two different narratives are in tension here: the romantic narrative of passion and intensity associated with falling in love, and the feminist narrative of the critique of romantic love as an ideological delusion (Beauvoir 1999; Firestone 1972; Rich 1980; Wittig 2006). Lidia seems to be articulating both narratives in her own experience, while in her feminist circles they appear totally differentiated.

Siento que lo que hay es más un discurso de la negación y esto me molesta y me ha llevado a reivindicar públicamente que yo me enamoro mucho, muy intensamente y todo el tiempo. Reivindicar esta posibilidad en ciertos contextos genera una cierta transgresión de este tabú que es el amor.[11] (Lídia, p. 10)

In this extract, she explicitly reclaims the right to fall in love, a lot and intensely, which calls into question the feminist critique of romantic love as an hegemonic narrative within feminism. Thus, claiming romance here it is not only a resistance that recognizes the many pleasures romance can have for women but is also responding to what has becoming hegemonic in her feminist networks. Moreover, Lidia is not only critical of the hegemony of the critique of romantic love in her circles, but also includes two understandings of love. The first refers to the way feminism has traditionally understood love – as a patriarchal ideology subordinating women. The second refers to her own understanding – as a biochemical engagement capable of producing a boundless energy. Although her proposal is based in the feminist critique, she remarks that it fails to explain her actual experience. The power she is resisting is the “punishment” of her affinity group and she does it precisely by strengthening its position and pointing to a rupture in the same counter-power.

I argue that, in this specific context, incorporating elements of the dominant romantic narrative results in a form of resistance because 1) it challenges specific power relations within feminist networks, and 2) because the participants do not base their assumptions on an uncritical assimilation of the dominant, but redefine and appropriate it from their own experience and feminist position.

Accepting the contradiction. Lidia is not the only participant with a self-critical view on the rigidity of love’s rejection within feminist environments. Other participants like Mariona and Aram also raise the acceptance of contradictions as a starting point for personal and collective feminist work.

Lo difícil es ser sincera contigo misma, ya no sólo con las demás. Ser capaz de aceptar cosas que salen de una misma, de reconocer que reproducimos. Es muy difícil aceptar mucha mierda dentro y que es fácil decirlo, pero cuando sale es muy doloroso. […] Es difícil aceptar cosas que son mal vistas en nuestro entorno.[12] (Mariona, p. 4)

Mariona highlights the difficulty in accepting these contradictions as a feminist, both at a subjective and interpersonal levels. First, she refers to her own feelings and emotions dealing with assimilation, then she points to how the rest understand that assimilation. Assimilating here is understood as failure. However, she chooses to accept it. By recognizing herself an active participant in a feminist counter-narrative, which is also part of a dominant narrative (the romantic), she rejects an external position from mainstream society, while still questioning it.

Aram proposes a possible way to address this contradiction:

Nos sabemos la teoría y me parece un buen punto de partida, pero ¿por dónde continuamos? Asumo la distancia entre teoría y práctica y puede dejar de resultarme incómoda. Sin embargo, siento que fuera de los círculos más íntimos de amistad, no se comparten estas contradicciones. Hay muchos tabús y entre feministas también. Pero el feminismo no tiene que servir para encorsetarnos, sino para lo contrario, para liberarnos, aunque esto implique contar nuestras miserias. Tendríamos que sacar las basuras, rescatarlas y continuar desde ahí.[13] (Aram, p. 5).

Both Mariona and Aram refer to internal processes dealing with pain and contradiction and how these may become invisible among feminist activist circles, but are shared among closer friends. This suggest a division between irrationality and a political rationality and a specific regime of emotions. Contradictory emotions seem not to be accepted at a public level and are thus privately experienced and shared only with the closest friends with whom we feel free to relax. They propose a different dynamic, in which contradictory emotions have a place in political activism. Thus the division of irrationality and rationality is slightly blurred.

In conclusion, this strategy is based on the inclusion of explicit work on the contradictions as part of the emancipatory feminist project. Rather than making contradiction invisible, this could be a starting point from where to accept our cultural and social constraints.

Towards Narrating The Contradictions

In this paper I have identified various resistance strategies in the narrative production of seven feminist activist women in Barcelona. First, I have addressed the resistance strategies that respond to romantic love narratives. Among these, I have included intentional singleness, which questions compulsory coupledom; lover networks, which respond to sexual exclusivity and temporary fixed romantic scripts; and falling for the collective, which redefines the object and the “nature” of love.

Next, I have explored those challenging feminist narratives with a focus on the contradictions of love. Claiming romance incorporated elements of the romantic narrative while challenging specific power relations within feminist networks. Finally, accepting the contradiction suggested that feminist work should start from these contradictions.

Exploring these resistance strategies enables us to think how feminist women construct their love narratives while opening new possibilities of thinking about love. The danger of establishing new hegemonies still remains, but women resist and negotiate their personal love narratives in the context of the meaning of dominant narratives of love and feminist counter-narratives. The Narrative Production methodology provides the opportunity to explore these resistances through the process of co-producing the texts with the participants. This methodology is reminiscent of narrative inquiry and its focus on the importance of people’s lives and how they give meaning to them (Bruner 1991, 2004), but with a special interest on drawing new horizons to understand love experiences within feminist practice, owing to its commitment to challenge taken-for-granted beliefs and assumptions (Jackson 1998). From this perspective, it posits the generation of different positions – in both researcher and participants – in relation to the topic of study (Balasch & Montenegro 2003, Montenegro & Pujol 2012). The process of co-producing narratives can be seen as a “circle of dialogue” in which the text is negotiated between both parties. Within this “circle of dialogue”, it is possible to unearth hidden or subordinated ideas whose importance rests in putting established theories in doubt, thus producing new theories that are more closely connected to people’s lives (Fraser 2004). Specifically, it has accounted for the contradictions between critical feminist perspectives and personal experiences. This is an opportunity to generate understandings of love which differ not only from those grand love narratives that dominate our everyday lives, but also from the feminist critiques of romantic love to which we have become accustomed. It opens a way to perform critical understandings of love.


[1] For this paper I am using the original extracts in Spanish of the narrative productions. The translations to English, by Michael Stewart and I, are included as footnotes to each fragment. “When Héctor left me I suffered a real self-esteem crisis. I got totally bogged down in it for months, feeling like shit. [Later] I started to do things that I had never done before on my own, like going out to shows or spending time [on a doctoral trip] in Vienna. It’s been gradual for me: little by little I’ve been feeling better without falling back.”

[2]I discovered that I was able to be boyfriend-less, and I started having relationships in a different way. Lovers, hooking up here and there. All of a sudden I had a taste of ‘no strings attached’. I moved from thinking about myself in relation to another, to thinking about myself as myself. I didn’t just discover that I was capable of not having a boyfriend, but that even more so I was OK that way.”

[3] “There’s a lot of pressure: you go to a wedding and you go alone, or to other social occasions, always on your own. Sometimes I’ve had the feeling that people are looking at me in pity. And the most surprising thing is that I was fine, I was on my own by choice. Even friends from my neighbourhood (with whom I have a political affinity) have challenged me about being unattached.”

[4] Having maintained relationships with lovers that have grown over time has gradually changed my way of understanding love. Those relationships, where maybe I have sex once a year with someone I’ve known for a long time, have allowed me to see love as a slower process. I love these people, and even though we don’t share a day-to-day life, what I feel for them is love. There are various degrees of intimacy and trust, but I have lovers who I could see being life-long lovers, or at least for many, many years. With so much time having passed you get to know yourself better, and a kinship forms that is an interesting kind of love, one that couldn’t happen if you had a strictly monogamous relationship. These relationships are like friendships with intimacy and sex. They’re also partnerships which I work within at times on certain projects.”

[5] “In my emotional-sexual friendships I have definitely been able to find more of a certain spontaneity and freedom, without the demands that inherently emerge in a more ‘classic’ couple. And more importantly for me: that confidence and mutual support hasn’t withered away, but instead has been transformed and has held out over time, making us in turn periodic companions, permanent companions, timeless companions, eternal companions.”

[6] “They’re understanding of the fact that I can be head over heels [for someone else] so they take a step back and then come back on the scene and the whole thing plays out very organically. There’s less demand on the other person and that helps them to adapt to changing emotional and personal availability. For example, if a lover called me to meet up, but my heart’s elsewhere…and I don’t want to…that’s cool. They’re infrequent relationships, or of varying frequency, once a month or once every three…Sometimes as well I’ve been totally smitten with one of my lovers…maybe for a week, then it fades, but someone else comes back…it’s like a wave graph.”

[7] “Miriam D : I was spending the whole day going from meeting to meeting. I was working in a women’s bookshop, I was just about to finish my Masters in Women’s Studies…We were squatting as women, we were practicing self-defense… I had the most feminist life I could have and by the way I had a boyfriend, he was at home…I was completely in love with the network, with everything that was happening. The whole thing was a rollercoaster, I was letting myself get carried away and I loved it.

Miriam A : The collective had this really beautiful discourse, then all of a sudden you start to see cracks that you’ve been ignoring.

Miriam D : Because we were in love…

Miriam A : It’s very romantic! The couple is replaced by the collective. You fall in love romantically with the group, you ignore the cracks and when it all explodes the break-up becomes really difficult.

Miriam D : Some resentments towards the collective end up coming out…

Miriam A : There’s something we haven’t done right when everything is over and we can’t even face each other…that happens a lot between couples.

Miriam D : You promise everything and then all of sudden, since it’s not true, there’s this huge disappointment.

Miriam A : I think that we ought to accept that it’s not so heavy and final, and to learn to finish and to finish better…Besides, without that energy a lot of things wouldn’t come to pass. For that reason I don’t think it’s inherently bad. The energy we give off when we fall in love with someone or something, where you can stay awake and do everything…for me it takes a lot to find that energy without being in love. I don’t think it’s just political…where does that energy come from? Is it just a social construct? That thing that nothing else can give you…I’m thinking about some groups that I was familiar with towards 2009, and they gave off this powerful energy…I fell in love with all of them and the energy they were giving off, I loved it…and then it all went to blazes. It’s like the bigger the high, the bigger the fall…”

[8] “Love for me is a huge contradiction…on one hand I think of love as something positive, but I can’t hide from the fact that the first thing that comes to my head when thinking about love is the denial of the person. It’s true that when you fall in love you’re happier, you’re in a better mood, and everything seems nicer to you. Nevertheless, I can’t stop relating love with self-denial, especially the general idea of romantic love that they sell us and that is played out everywhere. I’ve got that contradiction. On one hand I think that love is a denial of individuality, of autonomy, and on the other hand I think we’re social beings and that love makes us believe in others.”

[9][I] discovered telenovelas when I was eight. All my classmates from school watched them and I was so hooked. But they were so dire ideologically that my mum banned me from watching them and I still managed to do it secretly. She kept the TV on top of a closet and I resolved the matter by using an extension plug. That way I could watch the telenovelas at ease and before my mum was back, I had already removed the extension and closed the closet as if nothing had happened. Those telenovelas reproduced the classic romantic love imaginary: falling in love for ever, finding the right partner, that someone saves you… It is a funny metaphor, that it was this imaginary that had to stay in the closet in my house.”

[10] “There are feminist perspectives – that start from a critique of romantic love – that hold that to fall in love is bad. Although I agree in principle with this critique, I don’t think that falling in love is completely bad. Sometimes I have the feeling that this critique translates into a denial and/or an emotional pairing-down of love. I resist this, I don’t want to give up on the intensity of love, I like it, I’m hooked on it. But love comes in a pack that’s very sanitized: romantic love, suffering…there are people that would kick you to the gutter for talking about love or falling in love and I think that this kind of discourse creates guilt more than anything.”

[11] “I feel that what we’ve got is more of a discourse of denial. That bothers me, and has brought me to assert publicly that I fall in love a lot, passionately, and all the time. Standing up for this possibility in certain contexts sparks a certain transgression of the taboo that is love.”

[12] “The hard thing is to be honest with yourself, never mind with everyone else. Being capable of accepting things that come from within oneself, of recognising that we reproduce things. It’s very hard to accept a lot of the shit we keep inside, albeit that it’s easy to say, but when it comes out it’s very painful…It’s hard to accept things that are frowned upon in our circles.”

[13]We know our theory and that seems like a good starting point to me, but where are we headed? I’m coming to terms with the distance between theory and practice and it might stop becoming uncomfortable for me. Yet I feel that outside of those particularly close circles of friendship, these contradictions aren’t talked about. There are a lot of taboos, among feminists too. But feminism shouldn’t be a straitjacket for us, rather the opposite, something to liberate us, even when that involves talking about our hardships. We ought to take out the garbage, salvage what we need, and continue from there.”

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Feminist Researcher Wishes to Meet Romantic Subject: The “Case” of Mrs. F.
by Susan Ostrov Weisser

[End Page 1] The field of Critical Love Studies is a vigorous and burgeoning one, drawing from multiple disciplines, with or without a feminist point of view. While its diversity of perspectives and methods is certainly a strength of the field, Lynne Pearce has pointed out “the extent to which the social sciences, literary studies and philosophy talk past one another when it comes to research on love and romance” (2015, 1). “Talking past one another” seems applicable not only to varied disciplinary methodologies in love studies but also to feminist critics’ view of romantic love itself as either serving the interests of feminism or in ideological opposition to it.

It is well known that romantic love has been a contentious site for feminist politics since Mary Wollstoncraft warned women about building a marriage on its foundation. There is, for example, a long history of feminist theorists and scholars bent on demystifying love and its cultural representations: for example, Simone de Beauvoir, Shulamith Firestone, Germaine Greer, Stevi Jackson, Wendy Langford, Chrys Ingraham, Eva Illouz, Laura Kipnis, and many others. An entire tradition of feminist writing critical of popular romance in particular had a sturdy foothold for several decades from the 1970s onward.[1] But there have also been influential attempts to reclaim the positive, even transformational, aspects of romantic love, coming from psychoanalysts such as Ethel Person to social theorists such as Anthony Giddens and beyond. In recent decades, literary critics of popular fictional romances have also tended to celebrate love and its potential for equalizing gender relations (Ang 1987; Goade 2007; Regis 2003, 2011; Selinger 2007; Goris 2012).

I would argue, along with Margaret Toye, a philosopher, that “Love…needs to be taken as a serious, valid and crucial subject for study, especially by those invested in discourses of the other – most importantly, by feminist, critical and postcolonial theorists” (2010, 41). But these disagreements, not infrequently fraught with overtones of attack and defense, most often occur on the abstract level of scholarly discourse and analysis of published texts. Meanwhile, representations of popular romance in fiction and film sell better than ever, and romantic love as the sine qua non of intimate, embodied personal experience continues as a modern phenomenon of widespread and increasing importance (Illouz 1997; Ingraham 2005; Jackson 2013). The sociologist Stevi Jackson has put this disjunction well in the title of her 1993 article “Even Sociologists Fall in Love.”

Addressing this disconnection between feminist perspectives and women’s desires and behavior in romance has all too frequently caused division rather than enlightenment in scholarship. My own research interests have been in fictional love stories, classic and popular, a resource for understanding that in my view brings to the table exactly the nuance and emotional immediacy that theoretical abstractions about love may lack. Yet I too have been troubled by the desire to make coherent a disparity between my own view of romantic love and what I see in actual (as opposed to fictional) women’s lives, as well as between what I believe and have experienced in my own.

Contradictory definitions of romantic love as either a subset of caring love marked by an ideal of care and equality in heterosexual relations, or an obstacle to, even regression from, that equality, seem challenging to reconcile. Often theorists, researchers, and critics appear to be too invested in one side or the other of these assumptions and their political [End Page 2] implications to be able to let them go. Yet I would suggest that in order to be truly “critical,” scholarly research in Critical Love Studies must do exactly that. Following Stevi Jackson’s observation that “Feminist critique should focus on what is knowable – the cultural meanings of love, how it is deployed or practiced in the making and maintaining of intimate relationships in specific contexts, and the social consequences of these meanings and deployments” (2013, 35),[2] I hope to follow my own path to a feminist understanding of romantic love as at once an individual transformative emotion and a social phenomenon situated in a particular time and location. Rather than argue an ideological position, I would like to look at the “problem of romance” for feminists from the inside out or bottom up, so to speak, through the lens of “thick description” in personal narrative, rather than top downward from the heady atmospheric heights of abstract ideology.

In the 1980s, a group of critics sought out a new direction for feminist scholarship in women’s personal narratives as qualitative research, notably in the collection by the Personal Narratives Group in 1989 and continuing thereafter (Coslett, Lury, and Summerfield 2002; Jackson 1998; Stanley, “The Knowing Subject”; Stanley 1993, 1995; Smith and Watson 1998). In 1990, Liz Stanley argued for the writing and study of “feminist auto/biography” that would pose fundamental questions for feminism, namely “what ‘feminism’ should look like in life as well as in textual terms, what should be the proper relationship between feminist researchers and the ‘subjects’ of their research, what should be the relationship between experience and feminist theory [my emphasis]” (1990, 64). In keeping with what Stanley called a more fluid understanding of selfhood “as fragile and continually renewed by acts of memory and writing” (63), a body of work appeared on the discourse of romance in ordinary women’s life stories (Burns 2000; Griffin 1982; Harvey and Shalom 1997; Hollway 1995; Langford 1995; S. Thompson 1996; Wetherell 1995).

Though my scholarly work has long been in fictional narratives of romance, I also began to study personal narrative early in my career when I assisted in a research study led by the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner in the mid-1980s. My method here is to re-examine a long-ago subject of this study I call Mrs. F., a woman whose narrative of enduring love shaped her life as she told it to me. Mrs. F. was a “case history” to me when I interviewed her in the mid-1980s. Here, however, I have dissolved the conventional boundary between researcher and subject, between abstract understanding and personal investment, between theory and real-life experience, by inserting my own intellectual and personal responses into the romantic story that Mrs. F told.

As the reader will see, there is a marked contrast between my own view of romance, rooted in both my feminist politics and my personal experience, and the romantic views of my research subject, Mrs. F., who had strong faith in a predestined “happy ending.” My goal here is to show through example how the specificities of the Love Plot, widely available to women as the chief consumers of romance, can construct not only the experience of desiring love in the moment, but more profoundly structure the shape and meaning of a life in memory, in ways that are not either simply or categorically “good” or “bad” for women.

I have also taken the further step of offering my own story of courtship as counter-narrative. Writing a scholarly author’s private experience would seem to break a fourth wall of traditional scholarship, but in fact there is well-known precedent: among others, Nancy K. Miller has written about women and sexuality in “My Father’s Penis” (1991), while Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Dialogue on Love” (1998) deployed a first-person narration of her own experience in therapy in order to explore a different sort of love (see also Sedgwick 1987). [End Page 3] As Liz Stanley noted, feminist autobiography is “characterized by a self-conscious and increasingly self-confident traversing of the conventional boundaries between different genres of writing” (1990, 65).

When Mrs. F. related what she remembered of her life and the place of love in it, her story, told from memory, triggered strong memories of my own later in life. In a way, it might be said that the Love Plot (or the Marriage Plot) as a concept in fiction seems to have “worked” as a guiding principle for Mrs. F., my research subject, in a way it did not for me. By adding my own story to hers, I hope to go beyond categories of “happy” and “failed,” or love-as-caring versus love-as-desire. Instead, I attempt to see myself and Mrs. F. as women whose romantic hopes were subject to personal histories, social goals, and gendered expectations, while also respecting the force of love’s pleasures and its possibilities for self-realization. The challenge here in telling these doubled stories, my own and Mrs. F.’s, is both personal and political: first, to understand what we mean by “love,” and also what feminists – including myself as a feminist scholar – may do with that understanding.

“Life as Narrative”: The Project

It is common to reread books or see beloved old films again and again and bring new perspectives to them at different stages of our lives. But it is not often that academic researchers revisit a study to which they contributed decades ago, and view the results through the differently colored lenses of personal experience. Recently, after completing a book about women and love stories, I found myself thinking in a new way about a particular woman, the subject of an exhilarating project on life stories conducted by the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner in the mid to late 1980s. When I was assigned to interview Mrs. F., she was about the same age I am now, in late middle age.

The point of this project, for which Dr. Bruner had a Spencer Foundation grant, was to study the ways in which selfhood is constructed through narrative.[3] My own role was to interview the subjects and then help the four other members of our research team, all psychologists, to analyze the structures of the subjects’ self-narratives from a literary point of view. It was an unusual opportunity for me to learn outside my own field of literature, and, not least, tremendously interesting to see how people told their own life stories on the spot when asked to do so.

It might have seemed unlikely that I would be much influenced by Bruner’s work, since it was far out of my field of expertise. When I joined Dr. Bruner’s project in the 1980s, I was completing a doctoral dissertation on women and sexual love in British novels. The Bruner study I worked on for five years was not concerned with concepts of romantic love in narrative or the particular social circumstances of women, my primary interests. But I learned a great deal about the intersection of humanist understandings and social science from the pioneering work of Dr. Bruner, especially the uses to which we put language, and the way we construct the world through perception, memory, and story (Bruner 1986, 1987, 1991).

When the project was completed, the story of Mrs. F.’s life and the romance that forms her story’s core continued to haunt me, and I began to wonder why. Perhaps it was because she shared some elements of my own identity: like Mrs. F., I was born and grew up in [End Page 4] Brooklyn, NY, in a white working-class neighborhood, and both of us married and had children while young. The similarity, however, ended there. Mrs. F. was not educated past high school, whereas I have an Ivy League PhD; she had not attempted a professional career, and I eventually achieved my early goal of becoming a professor; and, not least, she was, by her own self-description, long and happily married, and I am long and (more or less) happily divorced.

But it was not so much the similarity of background that drew me to Mrs. F.’s story as it was her strong and unquestioning belief in the value of love and marriage. I had a certain pride in having risen above my origins from working class to professional middle class, both in my feminist politics, and it must be confessed, in being introspective and self-aware. Yet Mrs. F. appeared to be happier in love and more successful at romance than I felt myself to be. Her narrative stands on her deep conviction that marriage is a woman’s Happy Ending, the source of her security and fulfillment, through which a woman becomes truly herself. Though I felt and still feel that I began to be my genuine self only when I was alone again, I paid an enormous price for this discovery, sacrificing exactly what Mrs. F. says she gained, and never recovering it in quite the same way as when I thought I had it. This disturbed and challenged my feminist rejection of the romantic mythos: what is a happy ending, after all?

Initially, I had a surprisingly strong sense of dismay toward and distance from Mrs. F. In some way she was both unknown yet disturbingly familiar to me, almost akin to Freud’s idea of the Uncanny. In Freud’s theory of the disorienting mix of familiar and unfamiliar, it is the familiar that is the root of the trouble: the return of the repressed. Revisiting the case of Mrs. F. seemed a unique opportunity to confront that decades-old but lingering apprehension. What exactly did Mrs. F. remind me of, and why did I wish to avoid it?

The “Case” of Mrs. F.

Mrs. F, an Italian-American mother of four grown children and part-time worker in her husband’s small business, was a member of a family who had volunteered for the research study on which I was assisting. This family was specifically chosen for no other reason than their “ordinariness” and their willingness to tell the story of their lives. The F.’s were a long-married couple in their early sixties with working class roots. Mr. F. operated a small business, and they were living in Brooklyn, NY, in a house they had owned most of their adult lives. Mrs. F. had spent most of her life as a “housewife,” raising her four children full-time.

Though our research team was very little occupied with questions of gender, I could not avoid thinking about the social conditions of everyday living for women, especially those women who identify themselves with family and home. Mr. F., interestingly, spoke of his wife as not there in the real world in the same way he is:

“Uh my home life is pretty good. Uh with my wife and I – I don’t think my wife was as educated as I would like her to be, although she graduated from high school. But she seems to be very bent on different things. She’s too compliant; she doesn’t know the real world, the way things are.” [End Page 5]

At the time of this project, I was a new scholar, having spent most of my adult life until then raising three children while studying for a hard-earned PhD in literature. I was also both a new feminist and a new leftist, views that had evolved alongside my doctoral studies. My initial response to Mrs. F. was that she was a sort of woman I already knew, and not necessarily in a warm and pleasant way. But then I do not have warm and pleasant feelings about my less-than-happy lower-class Brooklyn girlhood, which I thought of (only when I had to) as peopled by many Mrs. F.’s – legions of women, in fact, all defining themselves through others, unthinkingly accepting their given role. I confess I had some discomfort with Mrs. F. based on my own predispositions: that is, her narrative seemed to press on the story I told myself about my own life.

Mrs. F. – And Me

Though Mrs F and I both came from working-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn, she had Italian roots while my family was Jewish. We were more or less secular, an anomaly in the deeply religious Irish-Italian neighborhood of my youth, where many children in my neighborhood went to Catholic school. Mrs. F. reminded me of any number of women I knew when I was growing up: hard-working rulers of the domestic space, never expected or expecting to leave the world of women and children, utterly devoted to their families and sustained by close networks of relatives and friends in their daily tribulations. For them, womanhood seemed fixed, both in the geographical space of home and as a metaphor of stability and cohesive values, while masculinity was conceived as a progression toward the open-ended world of earning money, public acknowledgement, decisive choices, “action.”

My own mother did not seem to be one of these women, however: she was not at all like Mrs. F. – which is to say, the Mrs. F. in my mind. My mother was neither one of Betty Friedan’s desperate housewives nor a conscious rebel. She was, however, alienated from her time and place. I knew that my mother wanted to be very different from the others on our “block,” at least. As a young woman, she had emigrated alone to New York from England, as did my father, who met her at his brother and sister-in-law’s home in Brooklyn. Because, like my father, she had been forced to leave school after the primary grades, she was never able to earn a decent wage when I was growing up, nor could she afford to stay home as a traditional housewife, as did Mrs. F. It seemed to me as a child that she did little else but work at one low-paying job after another, coming home to cook and clean after a long day.

But though uneducated, and painfully self-conscious about that, she read a good deal of fiction when she had the time, and had fierce, consuming hopes for her three children. My older brothers and I were going to go to college and become “somebody,” meaning professionals who were respected for their work, who liked their work, and (not least) who earned more than my father did doing maintenance in the dank tunnels of the New York City subway system, a filthy, dangerous, and low-paid job he bitterly despised. I breathed the atmosphere of my mother’s thwarted ambition as naturally as I did her love of fiction and her contempt for the neighborhood around us. Her body was that of a lifelong menial worker, but her head was in the middle class.

My mother did not live better than her neighbors did, but her children were going to, if she had any say in it. That emphatically included her only daughter, who was going to be, [End Page 6] just as much as her sons, the educated professional she had missed becoming. I was not going to marry the neighborhood, meaning I was meant for larger stuff than living on a street like this one in Brooklyn, bearing children and waiting at home for my husband to dole an allowance out of his working-class pocket.

Certainly one area of difficulty for me in understanding Mrs. F. was that she seemed an envoy from this neighborhood, which symbolized my childhood feeling of not-quite-belonging either to the working class or the middle-class, of being out of place. I did not know why my parents, particularly my mother, detested our home, since it was all I knew, but I sensed that something was deeply wrong with it. Though I did not yet understand the concept of class growing up, I see now that this has been enormously important to me, informing my experience of having made it into a professional caste. Even today I avoid returning to that part of Brooklyn, located literally as well as metaphorically at the very edge of the borough. Brooklyn itself is quite diverse, with a number of neighborhoods now hotly sought after by young people and families moving from Manhattan. But fashionability has not yet reached the particular area where I grew up, nor would that sweeten it for me. I still feel oddly but utterly alienated on the few occasions I have passed by the tiny attached houses with religious icons on the drab lawns, and low, bare, unattractive stores with small apartments above them on the (to me) dreary shopping streets. I cannot wait to get “home”, meaning where I now want to live, not where I came from.

For me, growing up meant getting myself out of that neighborhood and into a Big City, which I did as soon as I finished my (then) free public education at a city university, the only possible choice for a girl like me who had to live at home for financial reasons. No one supported that move away from my origins more than my mother. Much later, as an academic, I learned the vocabulary and concepts that allowed me to see her as a sort of feminist: she believed, unlike many of her peers in that neighborhood, that girls had abilities equal to boys, and that women were entitled to careers that would bring status and self-respect. My mother warmly sustained her daughter’s efforts to live out those ambitions: “If I’d only been a man, I could’ve made something of myself,” she used to say, with weary frustration. At the time I only knew that she and I were a team, with the united purpose of getting me to the goal line of success, as she defined that term.

Mrs. F seemed to me, therefore, uncannily, and therefore disturbingly, a woman like my mother (situated in the same kind of neighborhood and class), but also very unlike my mother (who was not a “housewife,” and did not want to be where she was). You might say that Mrs. F. was the icon of the woman I felt I could have become, had I remained in that geographic and social place: the return of the repressed.

Mrs. F Tells Her Life

Mrs. F. had anxiously indicated on the phone to me that she was afraid she would not do the right thing in the interview, the only one of her family to express that fear. Unlike other family members whose responses ran about forty pages when asked to “tell your life story,” Mrs. F. produced brief associative clusters, consisting of comments, opinions, and tidbits of information, often about others: her husband’s and children’s characters, their “problems” and deficiencies, the possibility of “coping” with something called Trouble: [End Page 7]

“I’ll start at the beginning, but roughly, childhood was half and half. I would have preferred a better childhood, a happier one…but with God’s influence, I prayed hard enough for a good husband and He answered me.

I got a very good husband, a little stubborn at times, but I’ll take the stubbornness for the goodness that he’s got there. I had four nice children, a little, shall I say, spoiled [laughs], all spoiled because of my husband, he’s very easy. If it was up to me I think I would have been a little bit more stricter, but I think on the whole they turned out with less problems than a lot of other people.

The major part of that is not being on dope…I am blessed that my kids didn’t start it.

Other problems with them, you can’t let that go and have them perfect.

Healthwise, up until the time I was 53, I had terrible health. After that I had a woman’s operation, which I think helped me a lot, and I feel much better. I think I can cope better with things.

God bless my husband. He had a lot of patience with me, and my family. We had everything thrown at us because of my family. His family, he was only boy and he had everything from the time he was seven years old. I think the life we both had as children, I think we both wanted something different when we got married….

But I think what he went through, and what I went through, we built a better marriage on it. To a point I think we try to make our children not have too much of [the troubles] we had. I think we spoil them sometimes for the outside world. And I think that’s what spoiled our two oldest children, their marriages. My daughter is with a very nice man. I would have preferred someone else, but it’s up to her. My son, I’m still upset over him. It’s six years that he is divorced and he just doesn’t seem to pull out of it. He seems to compare other women to her, which isn’t fair for him to do that, but I don’t know. I really don’t know, and I don’t understand him now anymore. That’s in general.

The only thing I can keep saying is I have a very good marriage, and hope and pray my kids will get the same type of a marriage that I had. Outside of that, I don’t know. I’m happy. I’d like to be in better health now, as my husband and I are getting older, especially him, but I’ll take whatever God has given me.

And that’s about it. Forty years of it [marriage] and it’s all in there… That’s it.”

And that was it. The research team could hardly believe she had nothing more to say when asked for a life story, at least until questioned in the next part of the interview. My mother, a [End Page 8] voluble talker, could have gone on about her life (and did) until the cows came home, and if I had been assigned this task of telling my own story, I probably would have self-consciously affected themes, plot, and subplots. But I did thoroughly understand Mrs. F.’s orientation around Trouble, especially her troublesome children (who both have Troubles and are a Trouble to her). My own three children’s troubles still often seem like the moles in a Whack-a-Mole game of life; as soon as you smack one down, more pop up in unexpected places until you run out of time. I pictured Mrs. F. paroling her grounds daily with mallets, on the ready to attack when Trouble inevitably visited her once again. My mother was the same way, so that made three of us.

The Feminist Researcher Interprets Mrs. F.’s “Story”: Gender and Romance

Mrs. F.’s husband and four children, two daughters and two sons, had each narrated their life stories more or less according to the traditional linear plot tracing maturational development. Yet strikingly, Mrs. F.’s spontaneous “life story” seemed more concerned with her family’s lives than her own. If there is a unifying theme in Mrs. F.’s life-as-a-text, it is that marriage has been her lifelong work of construction, its “happiness” her safety net, its aim the carving out of a private haven in a problematic world (to paraphrase the historian Christopher Lasch).

Reading Mrs. F.’s story, short and lacking in literary detail as it was, I believed I recognized in her the women in my own Brooklyn neighborhood. That is, the home, the “inside”world, though busy and hard-working, was a separate realm from the “outside,” largely male “real” world, defined as an arena of public activity that includes privilege, economic control, and authority. Mrs. F. referred to her father’s word as if it were law: “It was his way or no way at all,” “You didn’t have a say about what you wanted or liked to do.”

In her text, Mrs. F. seems to mediate between the two worlds through a connection with males and their privileged power. Pleasing a male – obeying a father, caring for her husband, praying “hard enough” to God the Father – appears often in her interview. As distant as I felt from Mrs. F.’s generation and way of life, I recognized with some distaste that inner universe populated by important men. In my own non-religious childhood, God was not one of those male figures who conferred protection and blessings, as he was in Mrs. F.’s. But as an only daughter, I was keenly aware of the deep hopes my mother, as a young woman, had once invested in finding a man to provide for her, emotionally and financially. I heard almost every day the many ways that marriage had radically failed her expectations on both counts.

My own father was not dominating in the way Mrs. F.’s father appears in her account; unlike Mrs. F, I had little sense that my father was directing what I was going to do. He was adventurous, pleasure-loving, and an admirer of beauty, both artistic and human (the female variety), while my mother was responsible and worried. She felt he had left her holding down the fort with little firepower; her early belief that his untutored brilliance would somehow later pay off in a middle-class life had not materialized, leaving her suspicious of men and their promises. This cynicism about romance contradicted the dominant narrative about femininity before the post-war women’s movement. Yet her bitter disappointment came [End Page 9] from her deeply-held faith that men were supposed to provide, the unquestioned dream that happiness lay in catching the right one. She had not landed the right fish, due to her naively foolish faith in romantic love, she believed, but it went without saying that I could – and would, if I would learn from her what was good for me. It was her mission to help me so I would not suffer as she had. To my mother, a woman could not achieve the social status or personal integrity that signaled she had “arrived” unless she had both a man’s job – and also a man.

The Love Plot

Most interestingly to me, in the question-and-answer part of the interview that followed the request for a “life story,” an actual story finally appeared in Mrs. F.’s text, and it was preeminently a love story. Mrs. F. spoke of courtship, and, in particular, of one moment of courtship, as the high point of her life’s drama: the Glass Slipper Moment when the Prince recognizes Cinderella as his one true love. This was an episode that, by its very atypicality in the life she describes, served her as an emblem of what she could be, her imaginative possible self. In Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, Jerome Bruner remarks that “the realm of meaning, curiously, is not one in which we ever live with total comfort” (64). It is this discomfort, he speculates, that drives us to utilize “the capacity of language to create and stipulate realities of its own” (1986, 64), fashioning “possible roles and possible worlds in which action, thought, and self-definition are permissible, or at least desirable” (1986, 66).

In this love story, Mrs. F. relates her parents’, friends’, and culture’s expectations for her: “I was pressured into doing the first engagement, because all the other girls were doing that.” Yet as an engaged young woman, she said, she was out with a girlfriend when Mr. F., her future husband, came in the door, and “the first time I put my eyes on him, I said to myself, ‘That’s the one I’m going to marry’.” Later in the interview, Mrs. F. says she turned to her friend and declared, “‘I’m going home with that man tonight and I’m going to marry him,’” while resolutely taking her engagement ring from her finger. In the same way, she asserts that they decided to marry when they did “‘cause I wanted to be with him”; at another point, she adds, “it was just – I wanted to be with him and that was it” [my emphases].

Mr. F., by contrast, tells a different and distinctly less “romantic” story in his own interview. He says:

“And then I met my wife and we got married. And I think I should have waited a little longer to get married… I wasn’t secure enough in a job… I think I got married because there was pressure from her family, ‘cause she was engaged to someone else when she met me.”

Mr. F. concentrates on practical circumstances, ironically naming “pressure” from family as his motive to marry, while Mrs. F. portrays herself as a romantic rebel against the social and familial “pressure” to marry another man. Mrs. F. focuses on her own agency in the question of marriage: she says that though her husband never assented “in so many words,” she assumed that if he did not want to marry when she did, [End Page 10]

“…when I set the date I think he would have said, ‘Let’s wait awhile.’ I think he would have said that.”

He did not ask her not to set the date, and so she took an active role in formalizing the engagement. She relates that when he vaguely mentioned getting engaged in a year’s time, she pronounced, “By next New Year’s Eve we will be married.” “He never argued with me,” she adds sweetly.

Clearly, within the realm of love and courtship, Mrs. F. experienced herself as being entitled to and having enjoyed a good deal of legitimate power (Kitzinger 1995; Miller and Cummins 1992; Rudman and Heppen 2003) extending forward from that early moment. To Mrs. F., being in charge of love and marriage is an empowerment that is wholly expectable in a woman’s life, and the romantic story serves as the legitimating force of her entire history. There is, Mrs. F. says near the end of her interview, “no greater triumph” than “finding someone” to share your life with.

In the genre of romance, “finding” the right man is often a specific point in a heroine’s life that entitles her to a seemingly unbounded freedom to choose for herself. For Mrs. F., this agency is the very opposite of the rules in her own childhood and youth, where women served men’s purposes and desires: “The women were taught the man is everything and that’s it.” Romantic mystification blurs the question of choice: she describes herself as “very surprised” when falling in love with Mr. F. (“I couldn’t understand why I picked him”). Again, when she broke off her engagement to her previous fiancé, she was convinced she was doing the right thing and felt no guilt: “I haven’t got the slightest idea why.” Mrs. F. provides no explanation as to what she did not like about her former fiancé, what she preferred about her new suitor, or the consequences of ending the engagement. This contextual gap in the story seems not to trouble her in the least: the romantic moment is all.

In Mrs. F.’s short life narrative, her story, she says, is “all in there,” referring to marriage and family. As a feminist, I wanted to identify and sympathize with her view of what made her happy. But this seemed to me less a story of “free choice” than a myth that served regressive social purposes. For me, her view of love and marriage was simply the adult version of her childhood’s dictum, “the man is everything.” Hers was the romance that women of my mother’s era tried to have in that time and place, where finding the right man for life was everything, the key to stability, happiness, and success as a woman. I could so easily have lived out that idea, and then I would be another who recited that story.

A Different Story: My Courtship

Mrs. F.’s romantic story of courtship and marriage could not have differed more from my own. Hers is imbued with transcendent feeling that signals the emotional high point of a life, a silent certainty that determines its direction. You love a man because you “just know” that he is The One, even if you are engaged to someone else. This knowledge is magically mutual: you both “just know” that you will marry and begin a new life, whether or not the timing is practical, and what’s more, it all works out for the best, the Happily Ever After of the Love Plot. Difficult matters of money, living arrangements, and family approval fall before this greater force like so many trees before the determined lumberjack’s axe. [End Page 11]

In my own teenage world, romance was a powerful secret fantasy of my own (as it is for many teenage girls), in a way as private and embarrassing as sex. My mother’s ideal of marriage, on the other hand, imparted over many years through conversation and gossip, was a matter of choosing a husband of reliable character and the ability to provide the best lifestyle possible. She frequently denounced romance as having led to her own ruinous mistake of marrying the wrong (i.e. “unsuccessful”) man for blind love instead of security.

Getting married was not at all on my mind when I was attending public college while living at home, starting at age seventeen. My brothers had gone to school there too (also living at home, it goes without saying), so this order of things was ordained for me. Thanks to my mother’s guidance and approval, I was busy trying to do well in my studies, with an eye to finding a profession that would fulfill and support me. The possibilities of graduate school and leaving New York were still open and exciting, if unnerving. At age nineteen, I had never lived or traveled alone in my life, never had a bank account, driven a car, or made a life decision on my own.

Besides doing well academically, I was finally realizing, after a long and lonely spell in high school, that I was no less attractive to males than most other girls, and that gave me a new sense of power and confidence. Just after my second year of college, I was enjoying the company and attentions of an attractive young man I met while working at a summer job. He seemed to like me a great deal; in fact, we had exchanged shy vows of (not necessarily eternal) love. This was very agreeable.

Then, one ordinary day, unexpectedly, my mother proposed marriage to me. Four or five months into my pleasant relationship with this young man, also a college student but from an upper middle-class family, she sat me down over the usual cup of tea and asked if I loved him. A quick and definitive answer was obviously required. “I guess so, yes, sure,” I said, defensively – after all, he was spending a lot of time at our house, including sleepovers many weekends (in separate rooms, to be sure). In reality, I was far from sure this was the right person for me, and in fact had not given it much thought.

“So would you like to marry him?” she went on, looking alarmingly serious. “Maybe I will, but we’re in college,” I replied – there was a safe out! “Well, I have a way for you to get married,” she announced, and swiftly outlined a plan by which two young college students could set up a household while costing their parents no more than they were already spending to support them at home. Her lively dark eyes were animated as she counted up the part-time jobs, the summer work, the efforts at frugality. Like a modern Mrs. Bennet, nothing seemed to give her more satisfaction than planning how to “settle” her daughter for life.

I could have said no. But I wanted to see how my boyfriend felt about it, to test out how much he valued me. And when I presented the idea to him, half-laughingly, he looked thoughtful, said he would ask his parents, and then they loved the idea because they had married early themselves. Suddenly it seemed less like a joke and more like an opportunity. It was the beginning of something, the first big thing ever to happen to me, a drama. I found myself spinning fantasies of setting up my – I mean our – own little place, imagining a lifetime of emotional insurance against the isolation I had felt as a high school wallflower. The greatest pleasure of all came from the idea that a man had recognized me for who I really was, had picked me… sort of. The shoe fit, and I was therefore a kind of princess, or even (what was to me far better) Elizabeth Bennet or Jane Eyre, underneath my anxiety and ordinariness. The stew of psychological insecurities and pragmatic considerations that [End Page 12] motivated all this suddenly shaped themselves into a wonderfully familiar form: I was the heroine of a new story, a romance, part of a traditional feminine narrative that would uplift me for a lifetime.

I wanted so much to be part of this story that I told myself I was in love, since it seemed required to take the next step. Before you could say Glass Slipper, there was a cheap ring on my finger (selected by my mother and me, paid for by my mother), a shabby wedding hall was booked (approved by our parents, disliked by my fiancé and me), and the next thing I knew, I woke up like Sleeping Beauty and was married for decades. As you might have guessed, this did not turn out to be the love story I imagined.

My mother’s wedding proposal was in the mid-Sixties, twenty years after Mrs. F.’s courtship. It was a time when everything was about to change for girls like me, when the feminist point of view was beginning to critique the traditional narrative of love, but this was not yet available to me. I did once ask my mother why she had set her cap for me at such an early age. “I could see you needed somebody,” she replied. Did I? Then too, I think she suspected that cohabitation (as sociologists call it) was in the air, and from there, abandonment and ruin.

My mother no doubt would have interpreted this situation quite differently: it was not repression or control, it was a mother’s love and care. From her point of view, she was trying to protect me from the emotional and financial privation she had endured in her own marriage by reverse engineering, doing it right this time. To her, marriage itself was not the problem – it was finding the right man, fixing someone in place who was devoted to you and also made enough money to keep you secure.

I differ from both my mother and Mrs. F. in important ways that reflect living most of my adult life in the decades after 1970. But at that moment when my mother proposed marriage to me, we all inhabited the same romantic universe. My mother could envision a professional career for a woman in a way that her own parents could not, but not life without the romance of marriage. She simply could not conceive of it: for her, the world was too dangerous for a woman to navigate on her own. If you were not born a man, the next best thing was to marry one. Though my mother was a feminist heroine to me in some significant ways, her view of men and love took me down a road that felt irreversible for a long time, one I wish I had not gone along (with). For this reason, when I met Mrs. F. and heard her story decades ago, it was as important for me to distance the romantic in Mrs. F. as it had been for my mother to recuperate the losses of romance in her own life through me.

Cynical Researcher, Romantic Subject

I see consciousness as the key to my own endeavors, both personal and professional, as well as the foundational principle of my feminism. Though I was married myself when I interviewed Mrs. F., I no longer believed in the ideal of womanhood as desired object of the courting man – or afterwards, as the key-holder of the heart in the domestic space of marriage. Mrs. F.’s storied moment of romantic transcendence seemed to me an idealized and sentimental retelling of events as a drama of epic proportions simply to justify a decision made long ago. On the other hand, as a feminist and professional (the professional my mother had wanted me to become), it was very important to me to avoid positioning myself as Mrs. [End Page 13] F.’s superior in my role as audience to this woman telling the story of her life, so I consciously resisted this alienation.

But there was something unacknowledged and conflicted in my approach to Mrs. F.’s story that went beyond my political critique of the traditional woman’s role, or my professional struggle to be objective, or my desire as a feminist to connect with Mrs. F. That is, Mrs. F.’s description of herself as the romantic heroine of her own story had touched a nerve in me. In coming to terms with Mrs. F.’s story, I had to come face to face with a cast-off “Mrs. F.” in myself: in effect, with a troublesome version of my own life.

Seeing from the inside out what Mrs. F.’s story meant to her, her own interpretation of her life, I had to conjure up and meet halfway these “uncanny,” disowned aspects of myself. First, there was the part that did not like to see myself as belonging to my own working-class background. The work of climbing out of the lower class through marrying a better-off man has always been a staple of women’s stories in our culture, beginning with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. Thinking of myself as of that place meant the certainty of living under the gloomy shadow of my mother’s frustration as a woman, in the milieu that shaped her eagerness to rush me into an early marriage.

Second, there was a buried piece of me that envied the way Mrs. F. had lived out the fantasy of romance and marriage that colored her life and made it cohesive. Where romance had played a secret role in my own psychic life as a second to the real-world imperative to marry, in Mrs. F.’s telling it was marvelously public, proclaimed out loud with complete confidence in its future success – even when all plot elements seemed to weigh against it (as in a Hollywood romantic comedy, where falling in love with Mr. Right while engaged to the wrong person is very common). For Mrs. F., romance had meant escaping the domination of her father and the “everybody’s-doing-it” nature of early marriage in her peer group. That her romance had led to the right marriage was its final justification. This was, to her, a wonderful outcome that echoed the larger purposes of unseen forces in the universe that choose our appropriate destinies beforehand. In my view, those enabling or crushing forces are economic, cultural, and social, with individual psychology thrown in for good measure. I am sure I would have appeared coldly cynical to her, while to me, she was subjugated and self-deceived… but also, as far as I could see, happy in and with her self-deception.

Now, I certainly did not want to be Mrs. F, and never had, any more than I wanted to be a duplicate of my mother (and my mother did not want this for me either). Yet my envy of her romantic solution lived on in shadow form, within some guarded place in me, even though I had no faith in the concept of a “romantic solution” itself. Despite my feminism, I still longed, at a subterranean level, to trust in the Love Plot. Forced to think about Mrs. F.’s love story, I was confronted (and astonished) by a hidden self I had needed to leave behind so as to shape the newer and better story of my autonomous life post-divorce: a ghost of self that whispered urgently, I wish romance had worked this way for me. Yet in fact I had no way of knowing if what Mrs. F. described had been, in reality, as she had said it had. Could Mrs. F. afford to tell, or view, the narrative of love any differently, given how much she had invested the rest of her life in its ethos?

I was a much more ambitious young woman than the character Mrs. F. appears to be in her narrative, where she talks very little about the questions of class, money or education that preoccupied me. In her romantic story, all these issues are resolved with the choice of the right man. And while Mrs. F. said she was “shy” and always had difficulty speaking up in public, I make my living by speaking in front of classrooms. But in a way, Mrs. F. was more [End Page 14] determined, more of a rebel than I was, at least in her telling. I married the man my mother wanted me to, when my mother told me to, though at the time the choice felt like mine; Mrs. F., on the other hand, emphasizes her rebellion in fighting for her heart’s desire. The irony is that for me, marriage (rather than romance) was both a way of formally escaping from my parents’ household and grip, while also, paradoxically, submitting to my mother’s final bid to be the force that controlled my destiny (for my own good, needless to say).

Though I first heard Mrs. F.’s narrative from an assumed position of my own authority, I have acquired, over the span of years, a certain humility, admiration, and eventually, sympathy for her and her story. This sympathetic understanding has also extended to my mother, who led me down a garden path that resulted in too-early marriage and eventual divorce and emotional pain. Was my mother, a generation ahead of Mrs. F, then a feminist, though she did not know the term? I would say yes, compared to other women she knew, just as Mrs. F., younger than my mother, was able to use certain key terms and concepts of feminism (though still not the word), such as “fighting for what you want,” in ways she said the women of her family had not. But these insights only went so far for my mother and Mrs. F., given the burdens of their lives and times.

Looking at myself in relation to Mrs. F. and my mother, I can see that I made the leap from working-class to middle-class due to living in a different space of history from either of them, and also thanks to my mother’s forward thrust of determined ambitions for me. But perhaps because my youthful desire for passionate love was repressed in the interest of marrying young and (supposedly) safely, the hope of meaning through romance, so important to both my mother and Mrs. F., clung to me as a haunting dream all the while I inched toward professional success. The story of my marriage and divorce is too complex to render here. But I can say that the Love Plot both sustained me imaginatively with its double promise of intense excitement and lifelong security, yet also constrained me with the anxieties lurking beneath the polished surfaces of its story. Today the Love Plot has continued to shadow women through the generations after mine, weaving in and out of our expectations for what love should be, now more than ever spurring envy of the glittery celebrated or fictional lives that we encounter everywhere in the public arena (Illouz 1997; Ingraham 1999, 2005).

Conclusion

I cannot renounce the working-class girl I was (and am still at heart), because it means disowning my origins, but neither can I take up Mrs. F.’s romantic view that romantic love is every woman’s destiny uncritically. Unlike Mrs. F., I resist the idea that romance is mysterious; for me, romance is an expression of desire we are taught how to tell in story form, woven with threads of hope and driven by needs we only dimly sense. There is no way I can know for certain if the mythos of love “worked” for Mrs. F. as she said it did, but as Stevi Jackson advised, I can investigate how it works, the influence and persistence of its cultural forms. Having devoted much of my life as a scholar to trying to understand the Love Plot, I want to own up to the dream without being owned by it. If, as Dr. Bruner argued, we construct our world through narrative, for which culture gives us the instructions and tool- [End Page 15] kits, it follows that we can also re-construct its meaning, revising that narrative when we acquire new tools (Kehily 1995; P. Thompson 1998).

I agree with Shulamith Firestone that love itself is not the “problem” with romance, and I acknowledge that feminism can benefit from recognizing love’s transformative potential for personal growth and egalitarian relations. Yet insofar as the Love Plot has been normative and gendered, I believe (like Firestone) that we should simultaneously be conscious and wary of its potential for other effects, which include the erasure of a history of oppression, and the narrowing of other possibilities, especially for women.[4] The very concept that shapes pleasure and meaning in romantic relations can also limit a life by hiding a power imbalance and renaming it as love. Additionally, I believe more study is necessary to shed light on the often-ignored question of why romance is still consumed mainly by women, in spite of its “equalizing” effects.

Is there a way for feminists to claim love that goes beyond the sentiment of virtue rewarded, that recognizes both love’s capacity to limit and harm as well as to give joy, that questions the definition of a happy ending, and makes space for more transgressive sorts of romance than those rigid forms that dominated popular culture in the past? Can we transcend both denunciation and idealization to embrace love as passionate, often selfish pleasure, rather than attend only to the pretty side of love as the starter yeast for unselfish caring and commitment?

It has been a personal and political challenge to simultaneously tell Mrs. F.’s and my own (real-life) stories with sympathy, while also critiquing the love story with a political eye. As a feminist, I wish to embrace the paradoxes of love as experienced, rather than line up squarely on one ideological side or other as to whether love is “good” for women. Instead of either looking up at romance admiringly, like Mrs. F, or down at it, as my mother had, I have attempted to look at romance with awe and appreciation for its power, just as I listened while Mrs. F. narrated her life to me, and marveled at the workmanship that went into constructing that seemingly simple but quite intricate system of signs and wonders that is the love story.

There is now a large body of theory, analysis, and criticism of those forms of popular romance whose audience is mainly women, but the feminist work on romantic discourse in real women’s lives begun in the mid-1990s seems circumscribed and underdeveloped by comparison. The critic Ien Ang has written that

“By taking seriously the love for romantic feeling as a starting point for engagement with ‘non-feminist’ women, a feminist researcher might begin to accomplish a comprehension of self by the detour of comprehension of the other, in a confrontation with other women who might have more expertise and experience in the meanings, pleasures and dangers of romanticism than herself. What could change as a result… is not what… ‘we’, as self-proclaiming feminists, are struggling for, but more importantly, the sense of identity that is constructed by feminism itself.” (1988, 189)

Though narration of and reflection on lived experience cannot resolve every problem for feminists in addressing heterosexual romance, my hope is that a more immersive understanding through biography and autobiography may disrupt the uniformity of abstract discourses of romance, and in doing so, contribute to a more complex, nuanced, and yes, more critical (in the most generous sense) view of romantic love. [End Page 16]


[1] For short histories of these views, see Goade 2007; Hollows 2000; Pearce and Stacey 1995; Radford 1986; Regis 2003, 2011.

[2] See also Ferguson and Jonasdottir, “Introduction” to Love: A Question (2013), and Jonasdottir, “Love Studies” (2013).

[3] Several publications resulted from this research project: Bruner 1987, 1990; Bruner and Weisser 1991; Weisser 1996.

[4] Berlant’s “Intimacy” (1998) is a provocative discussion of the problematics of contradictory desires and “polar energies,” played out in the zone of intimate life. Berlant also illuminates the limitations of the public fantasy of domestic intimacy and the “life narrative it generates,” excluding alternative plots (285). See also Illouz (2012). [End Page 17]

Works Cited

Ang, Ien. “Feminist Desire and Female Pleasure: On Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance.” Camera Obscura 6.1 16 (1988): 179-190.

—. “Popular Fiction and Feminist Cultural Politics.” Theory, Culture & Society 4.3 (1987): 651-658.

Berlant, Lauren. “Intimacy: A Special Issue.” Critical Inquiry 24.2 (1998): 281-288.

Bruner, Jerome. Acts of Meaning. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990.

—. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.

—. “Life as Narrative.” Social Research 54 (1987): 11-32.

—. “The Narrative Construction of Reality.” Critical Inquiry 18.1 (1991): 1-21.

— and Susan Weisser. “The Invention of Self: Autobiography and Its Forms.” Literacy and Orality, ed. David R. Olsen and Nancy Torrance (NY: Cambridge UP, 1991): 129-148.

Burns, Angie. “Looking for Love in Intimate Heterosexual Relationships.” Feminism & Psychology 10.4 (2000): 481-485.

Coslett, Tess, Celia Lury, and P. Summerfield, eds. Feminism & Autobiography: Texts, Theories, Methods. London: Routledge, 2000.

Frantz, Sarah, and Eric M. Selinger, eds. New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012.

Goade, Sally, ed. Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Pub, 2007.

Goris, An. “Mind, Body, Love: Nora Roberts and the Evolution of Popular Romance Studies.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 3.1 (2012). Web.

Griffin, Christine. Cultures of Femininity: Romance Revisited. No. 69. Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, 1982.

Harvey, Keith, and Celia Shalom, eds. Language and Desire: Encoding Sex, Romance, and Intimacy. London: Routledge, 1997.

Hollows, Joanne. Feminism, Femininity and Popular Culture. Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 2000.

Hollway, Wendy, “Feminist Discourses and Women’s Heterosexual Desire.” Feminism and Discourse: Psychological Perspectives. Eds. Celia Wilkinson and Sue Kitzinger. London: Sage, 1995. 86-105.

Illouz, Eva. Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

—. Why Love Hurts. Cambridge: Polity, 2012.

Ingraham, Chrys. Thinking Straight: The Power, the Promise, and the Paradox of Heterosexuality. New York and London: Psychology Press, 2005.

—. White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture. NY: Routledge. 1999.

Jackson, Stevi. “Even Sociologists Fall in Love: An Exploration in the Sociology of Emotions,” Sociology 27.2 (1993): 201-220.

—. “Love, Social Change, and Everyday Heterosexuality.” Love: A Question for Feminism in the Twenty-First Century 14 (2013): 33-47.

—. “Telling Stories: Memory, Narrative and Experience in Feminist Research and Theory.” Standpoints and Differences: Essays in the Practice of Feminist Psychology. Ed. Karen Henwood, Christine Griffin and Ann Phoenix. London: Sage, 1998. 45-64.

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Jónasdóttir, Anna G., and Ann Ferguson. Love: A Question for Feminism in the Twenty-first Century. New York and London: Routledge, 2014.

Jonasdottir, Anna. “Love Studies: A (Re)New(ed) Field of Knowledge Interests.” Love: A Question for Feminism in the Twenty-first Century. 11-30.

Kehily, Mary Jane. “Self-Narration, Autobiography and Identity Construction.” Gender and Education 7.1 (1995): 23-32.

Kitzinger, Celia. “Feminism, Psychology and the Paradox of Power.” Feminism & Psychology (1991). Web.

Langford, Wendy. “‘Snuglet Puglet loves to snuggle with Snuglet Piglet’: Alter Personalities in Heterosexual Love Relationships’.” Romance Revisited. Ed. Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey. NY: NYU Press, 1995. 238-51.

Lawler, Steph. “‘Getting out and getting away’: Women’s Narratives of Class Mobility.” Feminist Review 63.1 (1999): 3-24.

Light, Alison. “‘Returning to Manderley’: Romance Fiction, Female Sexuality and Class.” Feminist Review (1984): 7-25.

Miller, Cynthia, and A. G. Cummins. “An Examination of Women’s Perspectives on Power.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 16.4 (1992): 415-428.

Miller, Nancy K. Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and Other Autobiographical Acts. New York and London: Psychology Press, 1991.

Olsen, Karen and Linda Shopes. “Crossing Boundaries, Building Bridges: Doing Oral History among Working-Class Women and Men.” Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History. Ed. Sherna Cluck and Daphne Patai. NY: Routledge, 1991. 189-204.

Pearce, Lynne and Jackie Stacey, eds. Romance Revisited. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1995.

Pearce, Lynne. “Gunnarsson, Lena. The Contradictions of Love: Towards a Feminist-Realist Sociosexuality (book review).” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 5.1 (2015). Web.

Personal Narratives Group. Interpreting Women’s lives: Feminist Theory and Personal Narratives. Bloomington IN: Indiana UP, 1989.

Radford, Jean. “The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction.” London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.

Regis, Pamela. “What Do Critics Owe the Romance? Keynote Address at the Second Annual Conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance.” Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2 (2011). Web.

—. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

Rudman, Laurie and Jessica Heppen. “Implicit Romantic Fantasies and Women’s Interest in Personal Power: A Glass Slipper Effect?” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 29.11 (2003): 1357-1370.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “A Dialogue on Love.” Critical Inquiry, 24.2 (1998): 611-631.

—. “A Poem is Being Written.” Representations 17 (1987): 110-143. Web.

Selinger, Eric Murphy. “Rereading the Romance.” Contemporary Literature 48.2 (2007): 307-324.

Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson, eds. Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.

Stanley, Liz. The Auto/Biographical I: The Theory and Practice of Feminist Auto/Biography. Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 1995.

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—. “The Knowing because Experiencing Subject: Narratives, Lives, and Autobiography.” Women’s Studies International Forum 16.3 (1993): 205-215.

—. “Moments of Writing: Is There a Feminist Auto/Biography?” Gender & History 2.1 (1990): 58-67.

Steedman, Carolyn. “Enforced Narratives.” Feminism and Autobiography. Texts, Theories, Methods. Ed. Tess Cosslett, Celia Lury and Penny Summerfield. London: Routledge, 2002. 25-39.

—. Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1987.

Thompson, Paul. “Sharing and Reshaping Life Stories.” Narrative and Genre. Ed. Mary Chamberlain and Paul Thompson. London and New York: Routledge, 1998. 167-81.

Thompson, Sharon. Going All the Way: Teenage Girls’ Tales of Sex, Romance, and Pregnancy. NY: Hill & Wang, 1996.

Toye, Margaret E. “Towards a Poethics of Love: Poststructuralist Feminist Ethics and Literary Creation.” Feminist Theory 11.1 (2010): 39-55.

Weisser, Susan Ostrov. “What Kind of Life Do I Have?: The Gendering of a Self-Narrative.” Getting a Life: Autobiography in Everyday Life. Ed. Julia Watson and Sidonie Smith. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. 249-270.

Wetherell, Margaret. “Romantic Discourse and Feminist Analysis: Interrogating Investment, Power and Desire.” Feminism and Discourse: Psychological Perspectives. Eds. Sue Wilkinson and Celia Kitzinger. London: Sage, 1995: 128-144.

[End Page 20]

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‘Falling in Love Intelligently’: Eugenic Love in the Progressive Era
by Susan Rensing

On February 21, 1915, the Chicago Tribune ran an appeal to readers for letters describing their experiences falling in love. With the promise of $1 for every letter published, the newspaper asked its audience to describe what attracted them most to their beloved. “Was it a wayward curl, a roguish eye, a dimple or an alluring smile? …Was it the pies she made or the flowers he brought? …Was it the possibility of a eugenic ideal?” From a modern perspective, the last question seems at odds with the first two. While the former focus on the attractiveness of an individual, either by physical features or by deeds, the latter focuses on the appropriateness of the match. The former are whimsical in tone and allude to the mystery of romance; the latter is clinical in its presentation of love as a decision-making process guided by specific goals, principles, and values. Viewing eugenics as a sort of OkCupid of the Progressive Era might be a bit surprising, especially given the predominant focus of eugenics historiography on involuntary sterilization, race suicide, and immigration restriction.[1] But a closer look at the popular reception of eugenics in the [End Page 1] US reveals an early fascination with how eugenics would make love, romance, and marriage scientific.[2]

As Alexandra Stern notes in her history of the eugenics movement in California, “placing gender and sexuality at the center of the analysis reconfigures the history of eugenics, demanding substantial temporal and thematic revisions” (7). Eugenics entered the American popular discourse in the first decade of the twentieth century—a critical juncture of changing sexual attitudes and gender relations. As Kathy Peiss documents, white middle-class Protestants were concerned about the influence of working-class sexual mores, like petting, treating, and dating, that were becoming fashionable in urban centers. Many middle-class reformers recoiled in horror as young people danced the Bunny Hug and the Grizzly Bear. Mary Odem charts how reform efforts aimed at eliminating prostitution and venereal disease resulted in the policing and regulation of working-class women’s sexuality in the early twentieth century (96-98). As Wendy Kline argues, the eugenics movement was preoccupied with the reproductive decisions of “fit” and “unfit” women and sought to instill a “‘reproductive morality’ into the public consciousness” (2). Sterilization and segregation of women who were labeled feeble-minded were central features of the eugenics movement in the Progressive Era.

But, as Colin Johnson notes, much of the historiography disproportionately presents eugenics as a “one-sided attempt to exercise power over and against particular segments of society—the poor, the ‘feeble-minded, immigrants, people of color, and so on” (28). Instead, Johnson recasts the eugenics movement within the broader history of American sexuality as a robust public discussion about sex and reproduction that “enfranchised ‘normal’ Americans with the power and responsibility to ‘cultivate the race’ in the same way that they might cultivate a tomato plant” (28). Laura Lovett furthers this claim by examining how the rhetoric of ‘race suicide’ was used to push pronatalism for middle-class white women in the United States. This article adds to the historiographic exploration of eugenics and American sexuality by examining the discourse around love and romance in the eugenic vernacular of the early twentieth century.[3] As one proponent explained, “love can, among normal people at least, be ordered” (Eugenics, 178). In a cultural moment where many worried that love and courtship had become wanton, depraved, and libidinous, eugenics promised order, efficiency, and control.[4]

Steeped in the scientism of the age, Americans in the Progressive Era were expected to assert self-control and apply the dictates of scientific experts to all aspects of their lives. In the same way that Americans were encouraged to eat rationally based on the new insights of nutrition science, they were also encouraged to love rationally based on eugenic considerations.[5] Examining the eugenic vernacular reveals how eugenics was popularly understood as a sexual science, i.e. a program for changing the relations of the sexes in order to improve future generations of humanity.[6] Proponents of this view of eugenics were determined to instill a eugenic conscience in young people, particularly college-educated women. The focus on women’s role in mate selection connected eugenics in the public consciousness with the rise of the New Woman and the emerging feminist movement. This article breaks new ground by revealing the gendered anxieties underlying popular anti-eugenics sentiment.

In 1904, Francis Galton unveiled his vision of a new science of good breeding that he called eugenics at the newly founded English Sociological Society (Life, Letters 259). Americans were then introduced to eugenics through newspaper coverage of Galton’s talk [End Page 2] that originated with the London Express but was subsequently reprinted and paraphrased. These articles laid the groundwork for how the American public would come to perceive eugenics as a sexual science. One quote from Galton’s address became emblematic of the goals of eugenics. As the Anaconda Standard described it, “Dr. Galton, in explaining this science, which he may have said to have invented, said ‘The passion of love seems to be so overpowering that it may be thought folly to try to direct its course. But plain facts do not confirm this view. Social influences have immense power. If suitable marriages, from the eugenic point of view, were banned socially, few would be made” (“Society to Study Heredity” 2). The Montgomery Advertiser included discussion of the new “love-regulating science” of eugenics alongside other “Scientific Miscellany” such as improvements in microscope technology and experiments in nutritionally enhanced vegetables. Similar to the other news coverage, the Montgomery Advertiser explained, “It [eugenics] will strive to regulate the passion of love, absurd as this may seem, and much toward this is expected from placing a social ban on unsuitable marriages” (“Scientific Miscellany” 18). From the beginning, then, eugenics was presented as a scientific program for modernizing love and marriage. Romantic love needed to be shaped, controlled, and rationalized so that Americans would only marry and reproduce with suitable matches.

Further complicating the newspaper coverage of the new science of eugenics was the inclusion of George Bernard Shaw’s comments on Galton’s address to the Sociological Society. Both Shaw and H.G. Wells attended Galton’s lecture and offered support for his ideas as well as some measured critiques. Wells actually pointed out to Galton that eugenics was just a new word for stirpiculture and had been popular in America for decades, especially among sex radicals (Life, Letters 259). Shaw offered more unqualified support, enthusing that “there was now no reasonable excuse for refusing to face the fact that nothing but a eugenic religion can save our civilization.” However, Shaw quickly moved beyond Galton’s rather modest reforms for encouraging ‘suitable’ marriages, boldly declaring “what we must fight for is freedom to build the race without being hampered by the mass of irrelevant conditions implied by marriage” (Life, Letters 260). But the quote from Shaw that was picked up for American newspaper coverage of eugenics was his quip about the haphazard nature of selecting spouses: “In spite of all the romances, men and women are amazingly indiscriminate in their attachments; they select their wives and husbands far less carefully than they select their cashiers and cooks. I am afraid we must either face a considerable shock to vulgar opinion in this matter or let eugenics alone” (“Society to Study Heredity” 2). Shaw was already well known in the US as a critic of the sexual double standard, institutionalized marriage, and American “Comstockery” (Shaw 5). Therefore, the inclusion of his comments alongside Galton’s served not only to reinforce that eugenics was a science concerned with reforming love and marriage, but also hinted that eugenics merged well with the ideology of sex radicals, who had for decades discussed how voluntary motherhood and free love would improve the race.[7] In fact, as William Leach documents in True Love and Perfect Union, late nineteenth century American feminists had been arguing for decades for a more rational approach to love as an alternative to what they saw as the pitfalls of Victorian sentimental culture (112). Because of this late nineteenth century context, eugenics was fused with the connotation of women’s empowerment, especially sexual selection of mates, from the beginning.[8] This explains why, when the word “eugenics” first appeared as an entry in the Century [End Page 3] Dictionary in 1904, the definition stated, “the doctrine of progress or evolution, especially in the human race, through improved conditions in the relations of the sexes.”

As it was described in American newspapers, eugenics was consistently presented as a scientific approach to love and relationships. The Duluth News-Tribune predicted that eugenics would eradicate the “reckless thoughtlessness of youth” and the “impulsiveness of love-at-first-sight” and replace it with “the wholesome influence of sober and thoughtful conscience in courtship” (“Science of Eugenics 6). Noting approvingly that the “new science of eugenics has therefore been evolved to direct and regulate the force of romantic love,” the article went on to envision a future where young men and women would carry around eugenic certificates that attested to their hereditary and physical fitness (6). Taking this to absurdist lengths, the article teased that the imagined couple might then seal their engagement “not by a microbic kiss, but by swapping documents” (6). Playing on this theme of sanitizing love and making sexual acts hygienic, a cartoon that was featured with an article on Wisconsin’s eugenic marriage law showed various methods for disinfecting kisses.

Illustration of germless kissing techniques.

The Macon Daily Telegraph also had similarly harsh words about love at first sight, calling it “always in error” (“Love at First Sight” 8). Eugenics, as the editorial explained it, [End Page 4] was not opposed to love, but would instead help set the “boundaries of love” by “forming new channels through which love may flow” (8). As examples of the eugenic boundaries of love, the article approvingly noted that “[p]eople do not tend to fall in love with those who are in racial respects different in contrast to themselves; they do not tend to fall in love with foreigners; they do not tend to be attracted to the ugly, the diseased, and the deformed; nor do they, as a rule, fall in love out of their own class” (“Love at First Sight” 8). The author insisted that it was important to get these eugenic ideals instilled so that people would “love in the right direction, if not at first sight” (8). For this author, eugenics functioned to reinforce existing social mores and to strengthen them with the imprimatur of science.

But for others, eugenic love was a brand new innovation for the modern age. Dr. David Allen Gorton was an 82 year-old doctor who was so enthralled with eugenics that he selected a woman to marry purely on her presumed fitness. Newspaper coverage of Gorton relied on a common Progressive Era trope of the scientist so invested in his research that he would sacrifice himself for the greater good.[9] Gorton became the father of “eugenic twins” and used his public platform to declare that Valentine’s Day would no longer be celebrated in the future. He pronounced the end of “love as we know it—the silly, unscientific love celebrated by penny romances and concoctions of lace paper and gauze ribbons.” In its place would be a “higher love, which will be born of the logical mind and not of the fluttering heart” (“No Valentine’s Day” 20). He minced no words by going even further, declaring that “romantic love leads to ill-considered unions and so is responsible for all the pauperism, for all the disease, and for all the crime that burdens the world” (20).

Illustration of Mr. and Mrs. Gorton each holding an infant.[End Page 5]

He then confidently predicted that “the breeding of children under a regime of scientific love, rather than a regime of redheart, paper lace love, will solve all our great social problems” (“No Valentine’s Day” 20). For Gorton then, eugenic love did not just reinscribe pre-existing romantic customs, but completely replaced an antiquated system that was irrational and dysgenic.

As Francis Galton had hoped, eugenics in America became like a new religion, with its own set of moral precepts and codes of conduct. Central to this movement was the development of a eugenic conscience among young people that would compel them to take into account hereditary fitness when choosing a mate. Eugenic experts who lectured at college campuses reinforced this vision of eugenics. In a collection of twelve university lectures given on eugenics from the 1910s, a consistent theme was the rationalization and control of love and romance. Harvey Ernest Jordan, in a lecture to the University of Virginia, dismissed criticisms of eugenics as “this perennial ‘human stock farm’ idea” and instead explained “[e]ugenics recognizes love of the highest and noblest quality…But it would have love intelligent” (Eugenics 111, emphasis in original). Arthur Holmes, speaking at Pennsylvania State College, stated that “[e]ugenics does not teach marriage without love, but it does suggest the Herculean task of commanding love” (Eugenics 178). Charles Davenport stressed the same point: “The general programme of the eugenist is to improve the race by inducing young people to make a more reasonable selection of marriage mates, to fall in love intelligently” (Eugenics 235).

Calls for an ordered love found strong support among women’s rights reformers, who saw in eugenics an opportunity to empower women with the power of scientific mate choice. Popular news coverage reinforced the notion that prominent women were leading the way to enact eugenic social reform. The Lexington Herald covered the founding of a new eugenics society endorsed by Washington society women, including “Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, Mrs. William Jennings Bryans, and Mrs. John Hays Hammond.” The new organization, called the National Society for the Promotion of Practical Eugenics, established several goals, including sex education for children and the segregation or sterilization of the unfit. Primarily, though, the founders of this organization emphasized that women should “have a voice in the selection of a mate” and that men should have not just “worldly capital alone, but biological capital” in order to be marriageable (“Eugenics Now Society Work” 2). Dr. Elizabeth Hamilton-Muncie, a sex hygiene lecturer for the New York State Department of Health, instructed young people to “love with their eyes open and their brains active” (“Won’t Banish Cupid” 4).

While presumably both men and women were expected to develop a eugenic conscience and to learn to fall in love wisely, popular eugenic literature emphasized that women, particularly college-educated women, must take the lead in this endeavor. Then, as Scott Nearing explained in Woman and Social Progress, “[a]s the demand grows, —and it is growing,—men will be compelled to meet the requirements of the college-woman standard” (113). Building on this vision of eugenics was La Reine Helen Baker, who wrote a popular treatment that had wide circulation. As she explained it, eugenics was primarily based on “the union of equality [between the sexes], two citizens joining together in love and wisdom” (97). Each of these popularizers, and several others, connected eugenics with the goals of feminism: namely, the equalizing of the marriage relation, the elimination of the sexual double standard, and, in many cases, voluntary motherhood. But none of these [End Page 6] popular writers had as much impact on shaping the eugenic vernacular as Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

In 1910, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was considered one of the foremost American feminists.[10] In her magazine The Forerunner, she published Moving the Mountain, which she called a “short-distance utopia”, i.e. a novel that took place only thirty years in the future when the New Woman had taken over American society. As Gilman explained it, the world of the future where the New Woman ruled was thoroughly utopian, in large part because New Women were now empowered to institute a comprehensive system of eugenic reforms. The New Woman would revolutionize reproduction by making mating, pregnancy, birth, and child rearing scientific. The New Woman would no longer settle for a man of dubious genetic worth, but would instead claim the power of sexual selection to drive the species forward. Gilman’s work helped to solidify the belief that eugenics entailed the New Woman creating a new breed of man. The double standard of morals would be vanquished and men would be subject to a uniform eugenic standard.[11]

Thus, as it was discussed colloquially, eugenics was increasingly presented as part of a battle of the sexes discourse in the Progressive Era. Anxieties about the changing status of women became fused with fears of the presumed eugenic reforms that they would implement. Many traditionalist men and women spoke out against the sanitized trend in courtship and pleaded for a return to a more natural, or divine, order. They connected the demands of feminism with the calls for a more scientific approach to love, and accused feminists of treating men like livestock. The eugenic standard that the New Woman was expected to uphold was pilloried widely in fiction, film, and newspaper editorials.

Much of the anti-eugenic sentiment simply took the form of rejecting modern science by defending common sense and tradition from the intrusions of self-appointed Progressive Era experts. One man complained in an anonymous editorial that “[t]he professors of the new science of eugenics would have us believe that the custom of marrying for love is a mistake” (“Scientific Marriage” 3). He insisted that based on his observations, “the choice of a wife on philosophical principles is most certain to end in failure” (3). Rather than listening to so-called experts, he passionately argued that a man should trust his instincts. The poet Franklin Pierce Adams also mocked the idea that love should be ruled by scientists. In his poem “Eugenic Love Lyrics,” he satirized the decidedly unromantic vision of eugenic love with the refrain “Eugenevieve, Eugenevieve, The days may come, the days may go/But to each other we shall cleave, As long as Science tells us so” (120). The unhappy couple in the poem has a relationship built on clinical details, but no real emotions. The poem then concludes with the children of the couple rejecting the parents when they find out that they were merely the results of a breeding experiment. [End Page 7]

Illustration of a man and woman being introduced, a panel of them speaking to each other, then a panel of them coupled with other people.

An example of the resistance and mockery of eugenic experts is seen in the image above. The professors of eugenics try in vain to make a perfect match, but are thwarted by good old-fashioned love, which is haphazard and unpredictable. The man and the woman both wind up with people who are physically dissimilar to them, to humorous effect. Another frequently used trope was to pit eugenics against Cupid, or as the Morning Oregonian mused, “Is the magical touch of Dan Cupid…to run second fiddle to the betterment of the race?” (“Ascendancy of Eugenics” 8). In the popular discourse, Dan Cupid was depicted as the archenemy of eugenics, doing battle for the hearts of men and women in a cold-blooded scientific age. Still other critiques invoked the Divine in opposition to making love and marriage scientific. An anonymous editorial in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader declared that “[e]ugenics is a new name for an old folly…that men can be bred as animals are bred, by rules adopted by men.” What this vision left out, according to the author, was the divine spark that guided two people together. The author continued, “When two people love each other, God has said to them that their children are demanded…Romance may not be important to the professional mind, but the great peoples of the world are those to whom children are born as the culmination of romances” (“Eugenic Marriage” 18). And for others, ignorance was preferable to cutting edge scientific knowledge, especially when that knowledge was construed as sexual knowledge. A folk wisdom column from the Cincinnati Enquirer fumed, “They can teach eugenics in the public schools and get away with it. But the old-fashioned boy who believed in the stork until he was 16 years old always managed to make a pretty good citizen” (“Luke M’Luke Says” 6). [End Page 8]

While much of the anti-eugenic sentiment took these forms, eugenics was more commonly connected with women’s empowerment and both were critiqued together as two sides of the same coin. Much of this kind of anti-eugenics sentiment took on a sexist bent that connected eugenics to overbearing and masculinized women. An illustrated poem in the Salt Lake Evening Telegram entitled “A Eugenic Love Song” made this point with a young man enamored initially by the lovely Inez, his “fair eugenic dove” with whom he was excited to experience “cultivated, sanitated [sic], vaccinated love.” But soon the suitor realizes that Inez is too domineering and has even imprisoned a previous man who courted her. Implying that eugenic love entailed a subversion of gender roles, the suitor abandons Inez for fear that if he married her she “would be the boss” (11).

Lyrics to "A Eugenic Love Song" with cartoon images of a man and woman playing golf and a man walking away from the woman interspersed with the text.[End Page 9]

But perhaps the clearest example of the gendered nature of opposition to eugenic love and marriage is seen in The Gay Rebellion (1913), a novel written by Robert Chambers. Chambers, while most well-known for his 1895 collected volume of Gothic short stories, The King in Yellow, was one of the most popular writers of romantic fiction in the early twentieth century (Cooper 68). With a series of best-selling society novels that began with The Fighting Chance in 1906, Chambers earned a reputation for spinning stories that appealed to the modern woman, leading H. L. Mencken to dub him “The Boudoir Balzac” (Mencken 129). The Gay Rebellion is a satirical novel about a hostile feminist revolution in the United States. The feminists in the novel begin their revolution with the founding of the “New Race University and Male Beauty Preserve” (59). Hidden within the Adirondacks of New York State, the headquarters of the revolution is discovered by two male reporters, Langdon and Sayre, charged with investigating the disappearance of “four young and wealthy men who have…suddenly and completely disappeared” (12). Upon entering the forest, the two men discover messages carved on boulders saying “Votes for Women” (22).

Line drawing of two men in hiking clothes looking at a boulder with Votes for Women carved on it.[End Page 10]

After a few days without any further clues, Sayre spots a “young girl in full war paint and a perfectly fitting gown” named Amourette, who informs him that the men were captured by force, trained at the New Race University, and are now happily married to women as part of the eugenic revolution (27). Sayre scoffs with incredulity, claiming, “women don’t run men off like cattle rustlers. Man is the active agent in elopements, women the passive agent” (50). Rushing back to tell his friend Langdon, Sayre describes the New Race University as “a reservation for the—the p-p-propagation of a new and s-s-symmetrically p-p-proportioned race of g-g-god-like human beings! It’s a deliberate attempt at cold blooded scientific selection” (60). The objectives of this revolution, as explained by Sayre, illustrate the conflation of women’s empowerment with eugenic mating and improvement: “Their object is to hasten not only political enfranchisement, but the era of a physical and intellectual equality which will permit them to mate as they choose and people this republic with perfect progeny” (61-62). Sayre and Langdon forge a plan to capture one of these militant suffragettes by force, but the plan backfires and Langdon is netted and taken prisoner. His captor, Ethra, explains to him, “We women have now decided to repeople the earth scientifically. We shall pick out, from your degenerate sex, such physically perfect individuals as chance to remain; we shall regard our marriages with them as purely scientific and cold-blooded affairs” (87-88).

06-votes-women-2[End Page 11]

Langdon’s discomfort with this plan of eugenic breeding clearly stems from its subversion of men’s and women’s roles: “My position is undignified! Anybody’d think I was a prize animal. I don’t like this poultry talk! I’m a man! …And if ever I marry and p-p-produce p-p-progeny, it will be somebody I select, not somebody who selects me!” (89, emphasis in original). Langdon is assessed by the Regents and given a conditional yellow ribbon for his hereditary worth. When he protests, he is told by one of the Regents that “it is a scientific matter to be scientifically recorded—purely a matter of eugenics” (112). The Gay Rebellion revels in the subversion of gender roles to comedic effect, but the underlying fear of impending loss of masculine privilege is palpable. The novel is illustrated throughout with scenes of men being chased and attacked by women.

Drawing of women armed with parasols chasing one man across a blank page.

Close up drawing of a woman grabbing a man's coattails as he tries to get away.
[End Page 12]
A woman in a cocked hat waving a cat in an upraised hand chases a man in a uniform. The caption reads "Only one fleet-footed young girl remained at his heels."Line drawing of a man clinging to the trunk of a tall tree with a group of women gathered around the base below him reaching up.

As Chambers described it, “No young man who conformed to the standard of masculine beauty set by the eugenist suffragettes was safe any longer. Scientific marriage between perfectly healthy people was now a firmly established principle of the suffragette propaganda” (174). Tapping into broader anti-eugenic sentiments, the novel’s title page shows a devastated Cupid, with a frightened and enfeebled young man cowering behind him. [End Page 13]

Title page of The Gay Rebellion with drawing of Cupid with a hand over his face and nervous-looking man in glasses behind him.

But ultimately, Chambers ends his novel with the traditional gender order being restored when hordes of men and women who were declared unfit rebel against the new eugenic order and bring down the feminist revolution.

Chambers was not alone in expressing eugenic anxieties about the consequences of women’s newfound freedom and self-actualization. In a piercing essay entitled “The Blushful Mystery,” H. L. Mencken asked whether romance could “survive the deadly matter-of-factness which sex hygiene and the new science of eugenics impose?” (200). The Gay Rebellion illustrated a key facet of the eugenic vernacular in the 1910s: the concern that the New Woman would demand a better, more eugenic, man. In addition to the loss of masculine privilege in the realm of sexual selection, men would be subject to objectification and scrutinized for their health, vigor, and hereditary worth. Within this eugenic vernacular, it seemed that the balance of power in Progressive Era America was decidedly shifting to women.

Martin Pernick has noted similar themes running through early American films that discussed eugenics. In the 1914 comedy Eugenics and the Bar ‘U’ Ranch (Selig 1914), the character named Martha is the eugenics enthusiast who heads out west to find a suitable male specimen. Similarly, in the same year, in Wood B. Wedd and the Microbes (Edison [End Page 14] 1914), the protagonist Wedd is told by the woman he wants to marry that he must first pass a rigorous series of eugenic tests. The tests included various poking and prodding, culminating in a three-hour steam bath, at which point he quits wooing her. The same theme runs through Eugenics versus Love (Beauty 1914), A Case of Eugenics (Vitagraph 1915), The Eugenic Boy (Thanhouser 1914), and A Foe to Race Suicide (Kleine 1912). Based on his survey of eugenic comedies, Pernick concluded that “eugenics is depicted as something imposed by emotionless professionals and rich fanatics, often women, in conflict with the feelings and choices of working-class men” (131).

The gendered anxieties about eugenics were not entirely unwarranted. Women’s reformers advocated vehemently for eugenic marriage laws during this period, requiring a medical certification of health before issuing a marriage license. Professional eugenicists derided these laws, believing them to be not eugenic at all because the medical examinations necessary for certification only tested for venereal disease. Charles Davenport tried in vain to insist that “eugenics is to be distinguished from sex hygiene” and even went as far as to suggest that these laws could cause “many young women of good stock to fear the consequences of marriage, to refrain from it, and so to fail to perpetuate their excellent traits” (Eugenics 1). Nevertheless, women’s reformers across the country eagerly lobbied for eugenic marriage legislation and saw these laws as a central component to women’s advancement. In 1913, Jane Addams was interviewed by a Chicago newspaperman who asked her what the most important women’s issues of the day were. She replied, “I favor strict eugenic marriage laws and woman suffrage.” (“Fashions Not Degrading” 9). Charlotte Perkins Gilman even volunteered to act as a judge in a eugenic marriage contest sponsored by the Medical Review of Reviews in 1915.

Significantly, a survey of the major anti-feminism screeds of the 1910s reveals a strong anti-eugenic sentiment. Benjamin Hubbard’s 1915 tract, Socialism, Feminism, and Suffragism: The Terrible Triplets, Connected by the Same Umbilical Cord and Fed by the Same Nursing Bottle devotes special ire to the eugenic endeavors of feminism: “They [feminists] have changed the word marriage to ‘eugenic mating’ and the bearing of children to ‘breeding’” (215). Similarly, Frederick Merckx’s Bolshevism of Sex warned of “the appointment of women inspectors of eugenics, who would have power to prohibit a man from procreating children, and would have him sent to prison, and his wife on the operating table, if he transgressed their orders…One may ask what has become of the manhood of the country if the nonsensical principles of WOMEN are written into laws” (185, emphasis in original). An editorial in the Waterloo Evening Courier explained, “A feminist state may be altogether just and perfectly eugenical. But it will be a hard scientific system from which love and loyalty will be lost.” This editorial went on to threaten that men would violently resist such an imposition: “Urge feminism too far, smash the home, bring your children up like brooded stock, banish love, and such a terrible masculinism may arise as we have not seen since cave days. The brutal fact is that man is the master of the sexes” (“Feminism Again,” 4). Felix Grendon described a character in his novel as a “young woman [who] seemed a walking embodiment of Votes for Women, Eugenic Marriages, Birth Control, Equal Incomes, Free Divorce, and other monstrous fruits of the unchecked growth of female madness in a feminist epoch” (107). Making love and marriage scientific for these opponents seemed a grave threat to not only the institution of marriage, but to the entire social fabric. That anti-eugenic sentiment was so closely tied to anti-[End Page 15] feminism adds a provocative new dimension to the emerging history of the First Red Scare.[12]

Whether viewed positively or negatively, modernizing and rationalizing love was understood to be one of the central goals of eugenics in the early twentieth century United States. The close examination of so many disparate cultural ephemera provides a finer-grained picture of how eugenics was woven into the public consciousness. Seeing eugenics as a sexual science highlights the ways that everyday Americans in the Progressive Era felt pressured to adapt their own romantic and sexual choices according to eugenic dictates. For some, eugenic love was embraced because it held the promise of a scientific match, guaranteeing life-long happiness and healthy children. For others, eugenic love was yet another intrusion of Progressive Era experts and reformers into their personal lives. And for many, eugenic love was part of a broader feminist social reform agenda that threatened to undermine masculine privilege in matters of love and marriage. Examining the eugenic vernacular not only confirms the existing historiography on the ubiquity of eugenic ideas in the early twentieth century, but also uncovers fresh insights into the complex interplay between eugenics, sexuality, and gender in America.


[1] For recent examples of this, see Mark Largent (2008) and Paul Lombardo (2010).

[2] In this article, I focus mostly on the concept of eugenic love, but I expand my analysis further to include eugenic marriage and reproduction in other research that is in progress.

[3] Katherine Pandora has developed the concept of vernacular science, which exists outside the bounds of professional scientific discourse and serves as an “intellectual commons” for everyday people (2001: 492).

[4] For an analysis of these themes in British fiction, see Angelique Richardson (2003).

[5] For a fascinating history of the rational eating movement in America, see Helen Zoe Veit (2013).

[6] For more on sexual science and women’s rights in the 19th century, see Cynthia Russett (1991).

[7] Jesse Battan (2003 and 2004) details the history of American sex radicals. For more on eugenic discourse among sex radicals, see Susan Rensing (2006) and Wendy Hayden (2013).

[8] Erika Milam (2010) traces the history of scientific debates about sexual selection.

[9] Rebecca Herzig (2005) explores the connection between science and sacrifice in the United States.

[10] There is a voluminous literature on Charlotte Perkins Gilman and feminism. A good starting place is Judith A. Allen (2009).

[11] For an analysis of Gilman’s feminist eugenics, see Susan Rensing (2013).

[12] For more on anti-feminism and the First Red Scare, see Erica Ryan (2015) and Kim Nielsen (2001). [End Page 16]

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“No Valentine’s Day in Future.” Wilkes-Barre Times Leader 14 February 1913: 20. Newspaper Archive. Web. 7 June 2014.

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“The Eugenic Marriage.” Wilkes-Barre Time Leader 14 March 1910: 18. Newspaper Archive. Web. 7 June 2014.

“The Science of Eugenics.” Duluth News-Tribune 15 July 1906: 6. Newspaper Archive. Web. 7 June 2014.

“To Study Heredity.” News (Frederick, MD) 17 June 1905: 8. Newspaper Archive. Web. 7 June 2014.

“Won’t Banish Cupid: Dr. Elizabeth Muncie Defends the Purpose of Eugenics.” Washington Post 7 July 1914: 4. Newspaper Archive. Web. 7 June 2014.

Adams, Franklin Pierce. By and Large. New York: Doubleday, Page, & Co., 1914. Google Book Search. Web. 7 June 2014.

Aldrich, M. Arnold, et al. Eugenics: Twelve University Lectures. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1914. Print.

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Bailey, Beth L. From the Front Porch to the Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988. Print.

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Baker, La Reine Helen. Race Improvement or Eugenics: a Little Book on a Great Subject. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1912. Print.

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Battan, Jesse F. “‘You Cannot Fix the Scarlet Letter on My Breast!’: Women Reading, Writing, and Reshaping the Sexual Culture of Victorian America.” Journal of Social History 37.3 (Spring 2004): 601-624. Print.

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Chicago Daily Tribune 21 February 1915: D6. Newspaper Archive. Web. 7 June 2014.

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Grendon, Felix. The Nixola of Wall Street. New York: The Century Co., 1919. Google Book Search. Web. 7 June 2014

Hayden, Wendy. Evolutionary Rhetoric: Sex, Science, and Free Love in Nineteenth Century Feminism. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2013. Print.

Herzig, Rebecca M. Suffering for Science: Reason and Sacrifice in Modern America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005. Print.

Hubbard, Benjamin Vestal. Socialism, Feminism, and Suffragism: The Terrible Triplets, Connected by the Same Umbilical Cord and Fed by the Same Nursing Bottle. Chicago: American Publishing Company, 1915. Print.

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After Happy Ever: Tender Extremities and Tangled Selves in Three Australasian Bluebeard Tales
by Lucy Butler

Introduction: Tending the Bluebeard Tale

“We must tend the myths […] only in that way shall we survive.” Janet Frame (2007, 109)

The Bluebeard tales of Margaret Mahy, Sarah Quigley and Marion Campbell suggest that we use narratives of romance actively, if not often critically or consciously enough, to negotiate our relationships and give shape and meaning to our lives. This is what makes reprising the familiar romantic scripts, particularly the foundational stories of myth and [End Page 1] fairy tale, a vital undertaking. Narrative is not the bearer of ideology in any uncomplicated sense in these works, and the meanings of even so seemingly transparent a text as the fairy tale prove to be highly unstable and adaptable. In these relatively recent works by female writers in Australasia, Bluebeard’s key tropes of fragmentation, repetition and revelation are remobilised to challenge the fiction of romantic sufficiency and to complicate the popular representation of romantic love as a site of self-realisation. These writers are not working in a purely critical or revisionist mode, however: their stories partake of the pleasures and seductions of narrative and visual representations even as they challenge popular romantic mythology. If these postmodern Bluebeard tales are riddled with unresolved tensions, then this reflects the conflicted, often contradictory, and yet still central position of romantic love in an apparently post-romantic age.

The Bluebeard fairy tale, written by Charles Perrault in 1697,[1] has many affinities with Gothic romance novels, yet it also lends itself to a critique of popular romance. As several commentators have pointed out (Warner; Tatar), Bluebeard is an anomaly in the fairy tale canon in that it begins where most tales end: with marriage. Bluebeard’s secret chamber can be seen as a repository of “the detritus of his failed romances” (Haslem 2003), and reprising the tale, in the texts considered here, amounts to prising open the paradoxes in popular representations of romantic love. Beginning where romance narratives tend to finish, unlocking the door of “happily ever after” to reveal a bloody chamber, Bluebeard is apt for examining the complications concealed behind the rather glib final phrase of the classic fairy tale romance.

Bluebeard is a story that female characters in contemporary film and fiction tend to stumble into unawares, as though the narrative were submerged in contemporary culture. The mute adolescent heroine of New Zealand author Margaret Mahy’s The Other Side of Silence (1995), for instance, suddenly realises that she has been caught in the cage of a certain story: “It was the tale of a bride who was allowed to go anywhere in a house except for one forbidden room[…]” (110). Similarly, in Francesca Lia Block’s Bluebeard story, “Bones” (2000), the diminutive narrator is in danger of falling prey to the infamous photographer Derrick Blue: “He took a key from his pocket. I wasn’t afraid. I couldn’t quite remember the story” (162). With this forgetting in mind, I will briefly summarise the plot of Perrault’s Bluebeard tale.

Bluebeard is a very wealthy, mysterious nobleman who wants a wife but his suspect past and repellent blue beard make it difficult for him to find a bride despite his great fortune. He finally convinces a peasant girl to marry him. Shortly after the wedding, Bluebeard announces that he has business to attend to elsewhere. He gives his new bride the keys to every room in his castle and tells her that she can roam freely as long as she doesn’t enter one particular small room. Once alone, however, the young wife cannot contain her curiosity and soon finds herself opening the door to the forbidden chamber, where she makes the grisly discovery of the mutilated corpses of Bluebeard’s seven previous wives. She drops the key to the chamber in shock, and it becomes stained by the blood and gore on the chamber floor. Bluebeard returns and demands to see the key that betrays his wife’s disobedience. As punishment, she must join the other brides in the bloody chamber. Bluebeard prepares to decapitate his wife but her brothers appear with swords drawn, just in the nick of time, and kill the tyrant. The heroine inherits her husband’s riches and marries a more worthy man. [End Page 2]

Bluebeard is a fundamentally ambivalent tale; it cannot be summed up by Perrault with a single moral like his other tales, but requires two: the first warns wives not to pry, while the second tells husbands that times have changed and they can no longer assume quite the same authority. Fairy tale scholar Marina Warner, in From the Beast to the Blonde, notes “the porousness of stories to their tellers’ temper and beliefs” (1995, 255). Bluebeard proves to be highly malleable in the hands of contemporary writers, open to different and even contradictory moral slants.

In her recent study of the Bluebeard tale in the English tradition, Casie Hermansson (2009) points out that references to the Grimms’ Bluebeard variants “Fitcher’s Bird” and “The Robber Bridegroom” have become much more prevalent in feminist revisions of the tale (170).  In “Fitcher’s Bird” the wily heroine rescues herself through her own cunning, reassembling the corpses of her sisters in the process. Poetically, she leaves a grinning skull bedecked in bridal finery in her place as she flees the castle disguised as a bird. It is not surprising that this version of the tale has held particular appeal for feminist-oriented writers and artists challenging the classic fairy tale tropes of feminine passivity and victimhood. Though it is Perrault’s better-known tale that is explicitly referenced in the works in this article, their female protagonists clearly have a defiant spirit and, like the Grimms’ heroine, enact various rescues and “re-memberings”.

With its vivid images of domestic violence and relative lack of magical elements, Bluebeard is hardly a bedtime story by modern standards, and it is not surprising that Disney has yet to animate it. But while it may be less immediately visible than more comfortable or comforting tales, Bluebeard remains a powerful narrative in contemporary culture: the secretive man with the dark past and the compulsively curious woman determined to get to the bottom of it is an enduringly popular theme. While the early tale had little to do with love and romance in its current conception, concerned instead with material gain and physical survival, Bluebeard has been used to signify the redemptive power of love, as well as its potential blindness, and contemporary authors are putting yet another spin on the tale’s tropes of fragmentation, repetition, and revelation. The qualities of secrecy and curiosity, while they continue to be symbolically gendered, are no longer attributed to male or female per se, but are instead used to investigate broader problems of romantic love in relation to language, knowledge and self-definition.

Postmodern Bluebeard tales foreground the act of storytelling and its role in shaping romantic relations: they are self-conscious in their storydom and acutely aware of the power at stake in assuming any kind of authorship. Their (anti)heroines are unable to slip seamlessly into the romance narratives they don’t quite believe in yet long to inhabit nonetheless. Instead, they must negotiate a constant tension between competing selves and stories in the realm of romantic love. Genuine empathy and embodied compassion grow in the cracks of the official love story, while true illumination is most often found in moments of collision with sister selves, the other women in Bluebeard’s chamber, with whom the protagonists inevitably share aspects of their stories and identities. The revelation and recognition of this unbidden kinship is key to breaking with romantic delusion in the works considered here. In the current context, where love is very often experienced as a succession of monogamous relationships, the Bluebeard trope of repetition is especially potent, as Alison Lurie suggests (129). The substitutions of love unsettle a romantic mythology predicated on subjective uniqueness. Confronting the other girls and women who have occupied the same place in the romantic narrative helps to break the spell of [End Page 3] perfect romantic sufficiency, fracturing the self-enclosed world in which the heroine’s love fantasy thrives.

Several commentators have pointed to the prevalence of a doubled, ironic first person narrative voice in recent Bluebeard tales. Warner, for instance, notes the tendency for narrators of contemporary feminist fairy tales to adopt a tone of feigned naiveté, employing “the voice of a child who is not a child, whose voice is always doubled, always deceitful, always masked” (1995,193). Voice is at the fore in the works of Mahy, Quigley and Campbell. Like the influential tales of Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom return to Bluebeard and its variants repeatedly in their work, these Australasian tales are highly artful accounts disguised as first-person confessionals, employing an often disingenuous intimacy with the reader that questions the power inherent in any act of apparent disclosure. Maria Tatar suggests that the Bluebeard tale turns on “the quest for intimacy through knowledge” (2004, 6). The disingenuous confessional mode enables these authors to play the fine line between knowledge and disavowal in romantic relations, and to interrogate the submerged tension between the supposedly private, unmediated emotional experience of love, and the highly constructed, cultural nature of the love story.

Much has been written on Australasian Filmmaker Jane Campion’s acclaimed Bluebeard tale, The Piano (1993).[2] The following section will focus on another mute protagonist of New Zealand fiction. Like Campion’s Ada, the imaginative and silent heroine of New Zealand writer Margaret Mahy’s young adult novel The Other Side of Silence (1995), reclaims her voice in the course of her passage through the Bluebeard tale. As in The Piano, Hero’s voice is literally submerged beneath a sea of competing stories and truth claims; its surfacing requires learning to balance embodied, imaginative and abstract truths in the pursuit of love and self-definition. Like Campion, the late Mahy is one of New Zealand’s most awarded and successful creative practitioners but her work, written for children and young adults, has received far less critical attention. Her portrayal of the power of story to shape human relations is rich and nuanced, as the following section aims to demonstrate.

Refusing to sing in the cage of story: Margaret Mahy’s The Other Side of Silence

As in many postmodern Bluebeard tales, voice (and voicelessness) is at the heart of Mahy’s The Other Side of Silence. Mahy, who died in 2012, produced some of New Zealand’s most popular and influential Young Adult fiction. The Other Side of Silence is a Bluebeard story dealing with the problematic nexus of love, story and self-definition in the deceptively simple first-person narrative voice characteristic of contemporary fairy tales. It is a coming-of-age story about finding one’s way in the thicket of love and family life, amidst a disorienting swirl of competing stories about who and how to love.

Hero, the third child in a large family of loud talkers and powerful thinkers, stopped speaking three years before the action of the novel begins. Electively mute, Hero wields the power of withholding speech in a family dominated by oppressive eloquence and endless argument. Hermansson points out that now, “[e]ven in juvenile literature, postmodern self-reflexivity is the norm” (159); Hero’s very name suggests the novel’s self-consciousness [End Page 4] about the power of story to shape identity. The novel celebrates the power of stories, from the academic text to the fairy tale, to transport and transform even as it warns that this power can equally circumscribe and maim. Recognising this power, Hero chooses to withhold her words; yet she remains, in the heart of her silence, “a word child” (4), living out private stories on her own terms. These terms change abruptly, however, when she falls from her fantastical flights in the tree tops into a tale so twisted that only her schooling in Old Fairy Tales could have prepared her for its unfolding.

Eva Illouz asserts that the postmodern romantic condition is characterised by “the blurring of the boundary between the real and its representation” (1997, 15, emphasis in original). This blurring, key to the three Bluebeard tales examined in this article, is treated most explicitly in Mahy’s novel. Hero imagines being turned into a book, and while she would prefer The Jungle Book, “I would probably have been turned into Old Fairy Tales, which was the book everyone read me when I was small” (8). She uses this book for “divination” and her familiarity with it lends a sense of inevitability to the novel’s unfolding. She remarks of the Credence house and garden into which she tumbles: “it seemed as if I had been working my way towards it from the very first time anyone ever told me a story” (14).

All of the female characters in this tale are intoxicated by the power of story. “Real life is what you are supposed to watch out for, but an invented life, lived truly, can be just as dangerous” (3), Hero observes at the beginning of the novel. Hero’s mother Annie is a successful academic and best-selling author of books on how to raise brilliant children. Hero’s older sister Ginerva, for many years a poster-girl for her mother’s theories, ran away from home, returning during the course of the novel battered almost beyond recognition by her new career as a stunt car driver. The main Bluebeard figure in this tale is Miss Credence, the “deeply strange” neighbour into whose story Hero falls. Miss Credence lives as her father’s ghost, haunting his huge, decrepit estate. Like all Bluebeard figures, Miss Credence is deeply private, and she is so enthralled by Hero’s silence that she offers her a job clearing her neglected house and garden. Miss Credence is the daughter of a former Vice Chancellor of the University, “a world figure in the field of symbolic logic” (85), whose influence she cannot escape but whose power she can never inhabit, though she wears his academic gown, smokes his cigarettes and stalks cats with his old hunting rifle.

Under the spell of her dead father’s disdain for anything but the highest order of abstract thought, and desperate to protect his reputation, Miss Credence has secretly locked her “substandard” illegitimate daughter in a chamber in the tower. Chained to her bed, the unspeakable secret at the heart of her mother’s tale of romantic abandonment, Jorinda Credence is Hero’s abject symbolic sister. Incarcerated for all of her eighteen years, Rinda claws and gnaws at her own flesh, screaming “dreadful, silent screams” (159). It is only by passing through Bluebeard’s chamber and bringing this “terrible twin” (141) to light that Hero can rescue herself (assisted by Sam, her love interest) and reclaim her voice.

Hero immediately recognises the inevitability of what she finds in the forbidden chamber (protected, in this contemporary tale, by a security system rather than a key): “As soon as I actually saw Rinda I wondered why I had not known all along that it was she who was up there, waiting for me like a terrible kind of twin” (141). In contemporary female-penned Bluebeard tales, as noted, recognising the suffering of one’s sisters is critical to breaking with abuse and finding one’s own power. It enables the heroine to view her predicament in broader, cultural terms, the first step in empowering her to change these [End Page 5] terms. Rinda Credence has been rendered silent and invisible because she doesn’t fit her mother’s story of intellectual brilliance. Underlining this sisterly doubling, Miss Credence has painted a picture of her damaged daughter as Ginerva, Hero’s sister, from a photograph in a newspaper article lauding Ginerva’s childhood genius, before Ginerva broke free from her mother’s story of intellectual brilliance. It is this painting that reveals Miss Credence as a Bluebeard figure to Hero, well-versed as she is in the old tales, and sends her on the search for the forbidden chamber.

Acutely and ambivalently aware of the shaping power of story, the sisters in this novel go to extreme lengths to avoid being circumscribed by the stories of those around them. Hero opts for self-imposed silence, while Ginerva embraces dangerous physical extremes that keep her in the body and the moment, free from her mother’s “prodigy” mythology. Story is powerful, but it is not monolithic, Hero discovers. Crucial to her survival of the Bluebeard tale is Hero’s belated realisation that the bars on the windows where she and Rinda are held are not steel but flimsy painted wood: “I had been looking at the idea of a cage, rather than a real one” (156). It is a symbolic cage, a cage of story and expectation, though the consequences of such conceptual prisons can be real enough.

Hermansson observes of contemporary Bluebeard: “[t]he story is not only about Bluebeard; the story is Bluebeard” (160), and in Mahy’s novel, the trap is the tale itself. When Hero falls into Miss Credence’s garden, Credence immediately gives Hero a new fairy tale name, which is also her daughter’s: Jorinda, from the Grimms’ ‘Jorinda and Joringel’. “The name was a leash that could be used to twitch me into place,” Hero realizes (23). Hero senses that her fairy tale tendencies have been turned against her: “I don’t belong in this story, I kept thinking over and over again. I don’t have to give in to it” (85). And later: “my secret story had somehow broken free, and was twisting back on me with its jaws open” (127). But if Hero can’t control her story, then nor can her captor: “Miss Credence was still a storyteller of a sort, but I knew she wasn’t in charge of the story any more. The story was in charge of her” (85). Stories are never entirely in the service of the teller, the novel suggests, and they can turn from comfortingly familiar to oppressive in the blink of an eye. You have to know the tricks, Mahy suggests, “tend the myths” (as Frame puts it), pay attention to the old stories that have serious consequences, even, or especially, if they are operating just beneath the surface of our consciousness. Hero both loves and fears the battered books that have been handed down from her parents through her siblings to her. The stories call to her: “Make me true, they would say to me over and over again. Make me true” (30). But if narrative is so volatile, so open to different turns, therein lies opportunity, Hero discovers. Once she gets her fictional bearings and regains some agency, her curiosity, initially a compulsion in classic Bluebeard fashion, becomes an assertive call to action. She is then able to repeat actively, rather than passively[3]: “it wasn’t enough just to be something magical. I must do something magical. I must push the story on” (138).

Houses in Bluebeard tales are often symbolic extensions of their occupants’ psyches. The stagnancy and secrecy of the forest-shrouded Credence mansion is in stark contrast to the transparency of Hero’s family home, which is perpetually under renovation and wide open to the world. The Credence mansion is a shrine to the late Professor’s brilliance. Hero intuits the way his intellectual arrogance undermined his relationships. She perceives the gown worn by the Professor, and now by his daughter, as a kind of defence against the uncertainty of intimacy: “He must have felt comfortable behind a fence of long, black [End Page 6] folds” (89). In typical Bluebeard fashion, the Professor is as wealthy as he is isolated. Once his wife–despised as an intellectual inferior–dies, the house becomes lifeless.

On first entering Credence mansion, Hero encounters a photograph of “Professor Credence, smiling across a dead stag which was stretched out at his feet” (82). His daughter copies his posturing with the cats she shoots, but Hero observes that Miss Credence’s expression more closely resembles the stag’s. Mahy critiques an academic authority that reduces the wild, messy aliveness of the world to something dead certain, something pinned and final. In postmodern renditions Bluebeard very often seeks a kind of fixing rationality that oppresses the other. American novelist Lydia Millet’s Bluebeard (1998), for instance, kills because the unruly bodies of his wives debase the romantic ideal. Bluebeard often appears as an erudite puritan, an aesthete, a collector, or an obsessive in popular culture, as Warner notes (1995, 269); there are many examples of this in the serial killer genre, most famously perhaps The Silence of the Lambs (Harris, 1988). The ultimate meaning of the other can be fixed only in death in these contemporary takes on the Bluebeard tale, and the quest for definitive knowledge in the name of love is figured in images of physical suffering and psychic fragmentation.

In The Other Side of Silence, Miss Credence is so deeply entrenched in her father’s mythology of academic brilliance above all else that she can escape only by shooting herself in the head. And the head is where the problems happen in this novel, as Mahy depicts the attachment to rigid categorical knowledge or excessively abstract thought as an obstruction to loving relationships. If, as Tatar suggests, the Bluebeard tale turns on “the quest for intimacy through knowledge” (2004:6), then in Mahy’s fictional world some ways of knowing are more apt for intimacy than others.

In true fairy tale fashion, Hero falls in love with the teenager who helps to rescue her from Bluebeard’s chamber, though she remains the hero of the story rather than Sam. There is more power in being the author of a tale than in being its hero, though, as Hero recognises. The majority of the novel is told in the first person, and the reader is privy to all the things that Hero doesn’t say to the people around her. But the novel’s brief fifth part takes place in the third person, three years after the main action of the novel. The now fifteen year old Hero has just completed the novel that details her passage through Bluebeard’s chamber. In the continuing tussle between concealment and disclosure characteristic of the Bluebeard tale, Hero’s hidden novel draft is discovered and read by her parents against her wishes. Her mother delightedly declares Hero “a writer” and prepares to send the book to a publisher. Hero is not so sure. She decides to take the advice of Old Fairy Tales once more: “Tell your sorrows to the old stove in the corner” (181). She burns the manuscript, deletes the electronic copies, and goes running with Sam, who reminds her gently that there’s more to life than thinking. Sam shows her that she can transform herself not only through flights of fantasy and intellectual brilliance, but through flights of physical being. Like the wily third sister of “Fitcher’s Bird,” Hero finds freedom in a winning combination of cunning, imagination and daring physical action.

Hero is suitably ambivalent about the power she assumes in authoring Rinda’s story (her symbolic sister is slowly being rehabilitated to speak, under the fascinated academic eye of Hero’s mother Annie). Closing the book, we realise that, in keeping with the disingenuous narrative style Warner cites, the tale we have just read is Hero’s story, the one she has supposedly destroyed. And so the irresistible lure of story wins out, but only [End Page 7] when integrated with embodied empathy, compassionate engagement and critical awareness.

The Other Side of Silence explores the need to balance privacy with transparency, solitude with connectedness, and to reconcile inner and outer worlds. The power of stories to shape relationships is not inherently positive or negative in this novel, but it is profound. Opening these relationships to transformation is not a matter of exchanging fiction for reality, imaginative knowledge for empirical or vice versa. The Bluebeard trope of revelation and the tale’s characteristic play of repression and disclosure bring to light the hidden stories at the hearts of the characters’ various identities, breaking them up that they may be better “re-membered” in respect of the physical world and the freedoms and desires of other people.

Love’s double-trouble: substitution and successive selves in Sarah Quigley’s ‘North of the Lights’

In New Zealand author Sarah Quigley’s Bluebeard story “North of the Lights” (1998), the themes of seriality and repetition, the doubling of husband and wife in pursuit of knowledge, and a playful, self-reflexive narrative voice work to question the wisdom of staking one’s sense of self in fairy tale romance plots.

‘He kept his ex-wife in a teapot above the stove’ (8). The opening line of Quigley’s short story, the first in her collection having words with you, signals its play on the Bluebeard tale. It is a photograph of his ex-wife, but this is enough to unmoor the female narrator Greta from the imagined certainties of her marital relations. In this story, Bluebeard’s wife is an illustrator of children’s books who spends her days in the world of fairy tale, while her journalist husband Alec prides himself on his hard-nosed rationality. Alec is arrogant and indifferent, but there is little evidence that he is still infatuated with his first wife Isobel, nor has a horrific fate befallen her. In fact, the photograph confronts Greta with the fraudulent nature of her own identity, the aspects of herself that she has repressed in order to marry her husband:

The past that I had buried ten fathoms deep, hastily, furtively, wiping my hands clean: or so I thought. But Isobel saw the remains of clay beneath my fingernails: she, with her sharp and shining eyes. (11)

In this Bluebeard tale, both husband and wife have a “secret” past, and each constructs the other in terms of deceptive surface and secretive interior. Cristina Bacchilega emphasises the doubled structure of the Bluebeard tale in her study Postmodern Fairy Tales (111). Bluebeard seeks to test his wife’s loyalty and obedience by giving her the key that she is forbidden to use, and reveals her to be the treacherous creature he suspects her of being. She betrays him to penetrate the secret chamber because she likewise suspects him of concealing his true identity, and finds him to be the monster she feared. Both are rewarded, in a sense, by having their worst suspicions confirmed. Postmodern Bluebeard tales such as Quigley’s depict a romantic mythology that diminishes the other to a prop in a personal [End Page 8] drama, an idea to assuage an imagined lack, or an aspect of the anticipated fulfilment of the self.

Hermansson notes that in contemporary renditions, “Bluebeard’s wife insists on her rights to access patriarchal institutions, now to include her husband’s own mind” (158). In Quigley’s story, the probing in which Bluebeard’s wife engages is on one level a valid and vital curiosity, a pragmatic approach to love and marriage. But this can easily tip over into a violation of the other’s inner world, as the compulsion to investigate and scrutinise the other helps to create the hidden horrors that it reveals (in the Bluebeard story, first wife notwithstanding, this is quite literally the case). Moreover, the urge to know the other completely is driven by the need to shore up one’s own identity, reliant, as it is in Quigley’s tale, on a fiction of perfect romantic sufficiency. In “North of the Lights”, Greta has attempted to entirely remake herself in her marriage to Alec, but after the revelation of Isobel, Greta can no longer pretend that either she or her husband is a clean slate.

I was a fraud. My partnership with Alec was one in which my weaknesses were rigorously ignored in the hope that they would vanish. And for a time it worked. Even I believed I was one of life’s predators, one of those red-lipped girls with reckless eyes. I pruned my past without compassion, severed my bleeding toes to cram them into my chosen slipper. (12).

Ann Snitow (1979/1996) observed in her seminal study of popular romance fiction that it is characteristic of classic romance narrative, and indeed of the fairy tale, that the privileged couple be removed from the flow of life and time, as well as from other social bonds, existing in pristine isolation (195-7). There are only two characters in this story: Greta and Alec. And Isobel, but she exists primarily as a symbol in their relationship. Greta’s “happy ever after” can be sustained only in the total absence of history and social context. When Isobel finally appears in person late in the piece, dropping in to pick up some papers, the game is finally up for Greta, who is forced to confront the fact that Isobel, in herself, isn’t the problem. The problem is Greta, and all the relationships she has “negated” in order to marry her husband: “sister, daughter, friend. And self” (12). Isobel, bearer of history, context and materiality, ruins the romantic plot and inadvertently sends Greta back to herself.

In another aspect of the doubling of Bluebeard and his wife, the revelation of Alec’s secret is equivalent to the revelation of Greta’s own. “Isobel” unleashes all the messiness and complication that each has in their own way denied. Greta has sustained the fiction of romantic sufficiency through the very fairy tale images (Bluebeard, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood) that are now turning on her, undermining her romantic assumptions. Like Hero in Mahy’s tale, Greta discovers that the fairy tale images that are her bread-and-butter are volatile, open to different and even contradictory messages. These tales are never entirely contained by the intentions of their creator, but may speak much more than she would like to hear. Alec, for his part, seeks control, or “absolute mastery,” as Greta puts it, of all that is unknown and uncertain, through a framework of rigid rationality that is untouched by his wife’s increasingly bizarre behaviour.

The destabilizing effect that the discovery of Isobel has on Greta’s identity is greatly exacerbated by the fact that she has staked her identity entirely in her marriage, severing anything that doesn’t fit. Alec’s relentless rationality renders him opaque and [End Page 9] impenetrable, much like Ed in Atwood’s “Bluebeard’s Egg” (1986), to both the reader and his wife. This is especially problematic because, having stripped herself of history, family, friends, Greta’s sense of self is completely contingent on her husband:

Through the mating of our possessions, my new identity had been born. I had created a brave new nature for myself, with fragments chipped from my lover’s side.

Biblical overtones? Perhaps. My trade, as I have said, is with legends, myths, fairytales. Alec’s lay in facts: a warning in itself, had I stopped for one moment in my brave new directionless stride. A journalist and a children’s illustrator, a gingerbread villa in Thorndon: highly suitable, happy ever after. But stories today demand more sophisticated endings. (9)

Along with a self-reflexive nod to the reader, whose complicity is foregrounded in contemporary Bluebeard, as Hermansson notes (160), in the marriage of Greta and Alec we again see staged the contest of knowledge that marks the Bluebeard tale. Greta’s husband, like most postmodern Bluebeards, deals in precision, bending the material world and indeed his own marriage to his will, wilfully blind to anything that doesn’t fit his rationalist paradigm. Lying awake at night, worrying about Isobel and what she means, Greta observes of Alec:

In sleep he lost the absolute mastery he had over the physical world. His fingers, so deft in the daylight hours and in the long slow evenings when they wielded a pen with the ruthlessness of a surgeon – these fingers would now twitch loosely on my skin. (8)

The image of a surgeon ruthlessly cutting resonates with images used by Mahy and others to evoke the perceived aggression of definitive truth claims and the violence of categorical language. Hero observes of her brother working on his MA thesis: “I came to imagine the poor fact lying there, panting and helpless, and Athol ruthlessly fixing it in his notebook, not so much with the point of his pen as with a skewer of words” (27). Quigley’s “ruthlessness of a surgeon” again calls to mind the opaque heart surgeon husband of “Bluebeard’s Egg”, and the famously severed finger in Campion’s The Piano. Roland Barthes[4] and Angela Carter[5] both also depict a lover performing a figurative dissection of the other in the name of love and knowledge.

As noted, in contemporary Bluebeard tales, the lover’s quest for knowledge is undermined by their anxious solipsism: they seek not to discover the other but to confirm pre-existing romantic expectations in which they are already heavily invested. An inquisitional approach to romantic relations is both necessitated and thwarted by the fact that the other is so central to one’s own identity, as is clearly the case for Quigley’s narrator. The attempt to catalogue and fix the other in the service of one’s own desire or identity is Bluebeard’s death-dealing quest and a trap the heroine must evade, even while she is prone to doubling her husband by demanding the assurances on which her self-identity rests. Again, Greta and Alec are doubled in their attempts to lay definitive claim to [End Page 10] one another. If Alec has a scalpel-like precision, Greta wonders: “how could I plant my stake in his heart without seeming insecure, possessive, a grasping imperialist?” (12).

Contemporary Bluebeard tales such as Quigley’s playfully expose the epistemological unease that frequently underlies and undermines romantic aspirations of unity and transparency. They may use different tools, but both Greta and Alec cut, reduce, contain the potential complexities of their relationship, and so their union is very fragile. It takes no more than a photo of an ex-wife to render it untenable. The story ends with Greta on an evening bus heading North, leaving her husband, returning to the muddy roots of her own history. Greta “confesses” to the reader that she is not Greta at all, but “Margaret McArdle from Palmerston North. […] There, I’ve said it. My secret is out” (12). These little asides to the reader create a disingenuous intimacy that mocks our expectations of transparency and disclosure, while Alec himself remains “in the dark”. In keeping with the theme of confounding certainty, Quigley complicates our identification with, and our access to, her protagonist, just as Greta herself is denied access to her husband’s inner world.

Bluebeard’s wife doubles not only her husband’s secret past and his aggressive approach to love-through-knowledge, she also impersonates his impenetrability. “I was equally pleased at the conviction of my own disguise. Spiky, glittering, I caught and reflected back his self-sufficiency” (10). This “hardness” is a performance Greta finds impossible to sustain, but it doesn’t matter much to Alec, as long as she remains installed in his “gingerbread villa”. He taunts her, knowingly or not, with her structural secondness:

 “Isobel used to say that too. Old Isobel. Christ, we had some fights.” His gaze raked the dim room like the beam of a lighthouse, picked out the golden teapot. I wonder now why I had no premonition of my fate as his lean fingers extracted the curling photo. Curiosity was all I felt as I stood at Bluebeard’s door. (10)

At this moment of revelation, Greta’s marriage, her very sense of self, is compromised: “Alec released Isobel from her circular prison and my own incarceration began” (1998:10). Like “the Second Mrs de Winter” in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), whose earnest efforts to create a loving marriage are mocked by the ghost of the first wife whose irreverence and unruliness represents all that has been repressed to create such as union, Greta is haunted by Isobel. “[N]ow that Isobel had seen the outside world, she was no longer content to stay in the darkness” (11).

In his seminal treatise on romantic love, A Lover’s Discourse (1978/2002), Barthes notes: “The lover painfully identifies himself with some person (or character) who occupies the same position as himself in the amorous structure” (129). The power of a mere photograph of the first wife to undermine Greta’s own identity speaks to a problem at the intersection of the dominant humanist model of integral selfhood and current romantic mythology that the Bluebeard tale is apt to address. Cultural theorist Dominic Pettman calls this problem “the trauma of the second love” (29). Through its repeated destruction and reformulation of the romantic couple, Bluebeard renders the loved object infinitely substitutable, challenging the romantic ideal of the singular merging of souls. The sheer number of bodies in Bluebeard’s chamber, as much as their dismembered state, threatens the sense of a unique and integral self. As Warner notes: “the seriality of the dead wives also marks their anonymity, their interchangeability, the failure of stable subjectivity” [End Page 11] (1995, 271). The serial aspect of the Bluebeard tale, in more recent renditions, highlights the threat posed to the identities of both lover and beloved when confronted with love’s tendency to repeat. No matter how many assurances one demands from a romantic partner, this suggests that it is ultimately impossible to avoid the fact of one’s somewhat contingent position in the romantic narrative. Pettman continues:

It is this inherent interchangability which lies at the brutal heart of the lover’s discourse. The fact that almost every text produced in its name insists otherwise only serves to highlight the power of denial needed to keep such knowledge at bay. (27)

We are confronted with this fact more frequently than ever in contemporary culture, where we are very rarely the first love, even if we are lucky enough to be the last, and a culture of successive monogamous relationships may be one reason for the renewed interest in the Bluebeard tale in recent decades (Lurie 129).[6]

In Quigley’s story, Greta lacks the necessary “power of denial” to sustain the fiction of her marital identity: “Once Isobel had exposed me there didn’t seem much point in going on with my life” (12). Confronted with the fraudulence of her romantic persona and the losses she has sustained to maintain the fiction, Greta is cut off from her creative life, unable to create the characters for her illustrations: “How could they live when their identities depended on mine, and I no longer had one?” (12). She is also divorced from her embodied self: “Barefoot, I could not feel the grass beneath my feet” (13). She takes to bed: “Invalid in both senses of the word” (13). In true Bluebeard fashion, Alec grows strong in inverse proportion to his wife’s languishing. She feels his “casual kisses” (13) robbing her last vestige of strength.

As observed, in Bluebeard tales both old and contemporary, a traumatic and illuminating encounter with Bluebeard’s former wives is key to breaking the spell of a suspect marriage or ending a period of romantic delusion. In Quigley’s tale it is indeed Isobel herself who breaks the stasis and sets Greta free, sends her back in search of Margaret. The abrupt fall of romantic idealisation into material reality that Isobel’s visit represents turns out to be exactly what Greta needs. If Isobel’s symbolic presence was incapacitating, her physical presence has precisely the opposite effect, bringing Greta back to her “senses”, in both senses of the word. Isobel’s “thick ankles” humorously suggest both the end of idealisation and Isobel’s groundedness, a refreshing contrast to the narrator’s capacity for fantasy. Isobel’s ankles anchor Greta to the earth again and to her own body; as she watches Isobel leave she feels “the hot boards scorch [her] feet” (15).

The substitutions of love, particularly unsettling in the context of a contemporary romantic mythology predicated on subjective uniqueness, helps to explain how the Bluebeard tale retains its currency, and why it cuts so deep. In contemporary versions of the tale the trope of repetition undermines the ability of romantic union both to complete the self and to guarantee the self’s uniqueness. Confronting Isobel, Greta has to relinquish the fantasy of her marital identity, her perfect romantic sufficiency, and recognise that she is, quite literally, an “other woman”. [End Page 12]

Tender Extremities: unravelling romantic love as self-identity in Marion Campbell’s Not Being Miriam

Slipping between first and third person narration, between genuine disclosure and disingenuous confessional, and indeed between different versions of the self, Mahy and Quigley challenge romantic aspirations of transparency and unity. They problematize the search for definitive knowledge in the name of love by presenting identity as an unstable construct created by many overlapping and competing stories. Australian writer Marion Campbell pushes this notion even further. Campbell takes the Bluebeard themes of fragmentation, repetition and revelation played out with witty fairy tale simplicity in Quigley’s short story and adds further layers of complexity, crafting a compelling exploration of the damage done in the struggle for subjective affirmation in and through romantic union.

As in “North of the Lights,” a photograph of an idealised first wife is pivotal in Not Being Miriam (1988). In another instance of the doubling of Bluebeard and his wife, Elsie dismembers a huge photograph of Miriam, the beloved first wife, which her abusive and sentimental husband keeps in the closet. She wraps the strips of photograph around herself like bandages, making literal the way she has been brutalised by the image of an idealised former love. Campbell’s novel deals with the overlapping lives and identities of Bess, Lydia and Elsie, three Australian women of different ages, ethnicities and socio-economic situations. It charts their struggles for distinction, recognition and self-identity within the limited frameworks and entrenched mythologies of their romantic relationships, relationships that, while seemingly subsidiary to these women’s considerable talents and desires, continue to be their main point of reference.

Campbell’s quite radical and political novel suggests, even more strongly than the preceding works, that roles in romantic plots, while they are always gendered, have a complex and unstable relation to the biological sexes of the participants. Bess, whom we first encounter as a young girl in Campbell’s novel, initially struggles for self-definition in an intense and passionate relationship with her younger sister Cassandra. Bess wants to be an actress. So does Cass, and she refuses to stay in the supporting roles her older sister assigns her. While Cass grows up to make her living as an actress, Bess settles for teaching drama. But she is always acting, and her identity is self-consciously tenuous and provisional.

Throughout the novel, Bess’s, Lydia’s and Elsie’s identities shift and merge, overlapping with each other and underpinned by the fictional, mythological and historical women with whom they identify. Ariadne is the “A” to the sisters’ “B” and “C”. Bess discovers the Classical Adriadne at a young age, in a rage at her romantic abandonment by her childhood crush Peter, who prefers the blonde, pretty Cass. “This is who Bess can be. Ariadne who learnt the plan, drugged the guards and gave the thread. Who knew” (15). But if Ariadne knows, then Cassandra does too. And it is Cass that Bess guards jealously, not Peter, who is peripheral, an object traded between sisters. Cass is self-contained and Bess experiences Cass’s opacity as a threat to her own identity. Expressing the constant tension between disclosure and secrecy that marks the Bluebeard tale, Bess wants to dissect Cass, to “ransack her sister for her secret” (23). [End Page 13]

It is Cass, and later Lydia and Elsie, who have the crucial relation to Bess’s own identity, just as relationships with former wives and sister selves are key in Quigley’s and Mahy’s stories. Yet it is the romance narrative that frames these relationships and a ubiquitous romantic mythology that turns the wheels of story. While these inter-female relationships seem to run deeper in Not Being Miriam, it is the love relation that is the lynch pin of identity. Bess absorbs this lesson as a young girl, in her identification with Ariadne, who is in the Dictionary of Classical Mythology under A for Abandonment. Ariadne is her abandonment by Theseus, and so she barely exists.

Bess’s identity is informed by the feminist politics of her era and education, but perhaps more profoundly shaped by the obsessive iteration of one particular classic love story. This is the story of their Aunt Mamie, which Bess and Cass act out every day after school for years. This story turns out to be a fabrication, a consolation for Mamie, a working-class beauty flattered into a Bluebeard marriage with a very wealthy, controlling and secretive man. Mamie’s attachment to her love story is enduring, and the end of the novel finds her re-enacting it in her nursing home, confused old people stammering through the lines she used to assign to her nieces. But, unlike Bess, Mamie knows it is a fiction.

Highlighting the fact of one’s contingent place in the love story, the characters in Not being Miriam play a kind of musical chairs within the romantic narrative. And, as Bess, Elsie and Lydia in their different ways discover, there is always someone left standing when the music stops. Bess’s identification with her role as the handsome stranger who sweeps her beautiful young Aunt Mamie off her feet in Florence is intensely passionate; “sick,” her sister says. Years later, Bess’s Italian husband abandons her and takes their son, and so Bess switches places within the romantic narrative, identifying even more deeply with Ariadne. Bess is also the Other Woman: for Lydia, with whose husband Harry she has an affair, and for Elsie, whose husband’s beloved first wife she uncannily resembles. Structurally speaking, Bess is Miriam, even as she identifies with Elsie, the next door neighbour whose pain she inhabits through a radically destabilising form of empathy, a transformational self-becoming-other that she has never achieved in her romantic relationships. Passionate identification with other experience, which we encounter first as child’s play in Not Being Miriam, becomes a dangerous undertaking with very real consequences.

In Bess’s connection to Elsie, empathy is a kind of contagion. Bess comes to inhabit, not Elsie per se, to whose history and specificity she is a genuine stranger, but Elsie’s conflicted place in the romantic narrative: “Sliding back toward sleep, Bess finds Elsie anyhow, embodies her. Her veins become knotted, tumescent” (88). Bess both fears and desires this loss of self.[7] Lying on her couch next door, she feels her loss of boundaries mirrored in her surroundings: “‘Like a bad cosmetics job on a burns victim, she feels the house as if it’s her own tissue stretched almost beyond endurance’” (85). Domestic space is charged with significance in Bluebeard tales. Like Quigley’s Greta and Mahy’s Miss Credence, Bess shuts herself away in a house that was once a place of pride and union but falls into sickly stasis, out of the flow of love and life.

Bess becomes Elsie becomes Miriam. Bess becomes Miriam through Elsie’s painfully ambivalent gaze: [End Page 14]

The poster-sized photo of his Poor Late Beautiful Wife is still there all right. Bess rocks with Elsie’s shame. She winces with recognition. She hasn’t refused from Elsie the mixture of awe and worship she offers. Miriam in that foggy enlargement could be Bess. Spitting or bloody splitting image do they say? Elsie asked. […] Bess loses herself tracing out these features. Hers. The Other Woman’s. Bess loses herself finding Elsie’s pleasure, Elsie’s pain. She contracts back to something like a reclining hologram of Miriam, the Late. (89)

If Ariadne is Bess’s mythological forebear, it is the second Mrs de Winter with whom Elsie identifies. Semi-literate, Elsie hasn’t read the novel, but she watched the film again and again as a girl. Raised in poverty, Elsie knows that economic and romantic dependence are intertwined: in Hitchcock’s film, as in Aunt Mamie’s story, the great wealth of the Bluebeard figure and the material security he offers propels the romantic plot and drives his wife’s compulsion to make the marriage work despite so many misgivings.[8] But even as a girl, Elsie intuits that material dependence is only part of the picture. Married to a man who abuses her children, Elsie’s mother pleads:

 Else, for all our sakes, I’ve got ter make a go of it this time. Otherwise where would we… what would we…

Else could have said it for her. She can answer it too. What you do is you get a job. Else will get a job. They needn’t be trapped. She’s not going to be forced to stick with a man if he turns nasty like Stan. What is it that’s made him go nasty? He was young and happy in the marriage photo. (95)

You get a job. And Elsie does. But Elsie’s mother is dependent on Stan for her sense of self, and it is this subjective dependence that her mother cannot relinquish and that compels her to make such shocking sacrifices to “make a go of it”. Elsie, despite her youthful insight and defiance, ends up playing out her mother’s familiar script. Love songs go around and around in Elsie’s head – “Love was just a glance away. A warm embracing dance away” (132) – alternating with self-loathing: “Slut, she says to the dressing-table mirror. Bleedin fat cow” (132).

Elsie’s husband Roger, like Stan, cruelly disregards both Elsie and her children. But this, it seems, she can tolerate. What is intolerable is his continued romantic devotion to his first wife, so jarringly at odds with his treatment of Elsie. She endures daily reminders that she is not the “real” wife of Roger Miller, and in a world where identity is vested in the marriage plot, this means she is nothing at all. Elsie lives in the shadow of the idealised former love, Miriam’s poster-sized image ill-concealed in the closet behind Roger’s trousers. Like all of Bluebeard’s wives, Elsie’s curiosity is compulsive: she can’t stop looking at Miriam.

Miriam had the finest skin, not a flaw, not a single flaw. Always says everything about Miriam twice. He still puts the notice in the In Memoriam column every year […] [End Page 15]

And I’ve made a home with another,
Deep at heart, I’m still your lover.

[…]
How suddenly, that’s what she was: another. And I’ve made my home with another. Fancy Roger talking about himself like that too. Well. Now the scissor traces out loops on the skin of the photo, on the skin of how she looked. […] As an old woman she probably would’ve got a profile like Punch, nose jutting down to the chin (105- 106).

But Roger’s romantic idealisation is perfectly maintained by Miriam’s absence, fed by the tragedy of her premature death. Miriam robs Elsie of her rightful place in the romantic narrative, and thus of her own identity. In desperation, Elsie even tries the famous line from Rebecca on her husband – “I’m Mrs Miller now” (133) – but it predictably fails to have the desired effect. “My bloody arsehole you are!” Roger rages (133).

Elsie’s lack of identity, a fact published by Roger in the newspaper every year, is the fact through which Bess enters Elsie and inhabits her pain, which is also of course Bess’s own. To stop Roger beating Elsie, Bess strikes him with a snow dome of the Eiffel tower, a relic from his first marriage that he keeps on the dresser, killing him poetically with an emblem of his hypocritical romanticism. Despite the myriad material problems in their relationship, it is the symbolic gesture of cutting up Miriam, and Roger’s consequent rage, that destroys their marriage and ends Roger’s life.

In this penultimate scene the three women finally come together. Lydia sits in a taxi on the street, hearing the screams at Elsie’s house and seeing Bess run next door to intervene. Imaginatively, Lydia inhabits Bess inhabits Elsie, as these strange unbidden sisters haunt each other in and through their unhappy marriages. Their complex interconnectedness grows like an invasive vine through the romantic framework, disturbing the love story, the official narrative which gives explicit shape and meaning to their lives. In a final slippage of identity, after Bess goes to prison for manslaughter her sister Cass moves into her house and resumes the (condescending but quite successful) project of Elsie’s “liberation”.

If Mahy and Quigley critique a grasping, fixing knowledge of the other, implying the oppressiveness of this search for certainty, then Campbell questions “the quest for intimacy” through knowledge of another kind. Critic Toril Moi notes, and Bess discovers, that the empathetic, merging knowledge sought as perfect union “is not knowledge at all but confusion” (432).[9] The failure of perfect knowledge or communion is not the failure of love, however; it may be, as philosopher Emmanuel Levinas asserts, “precisely what nurtures love” (103). A gifted physicist, Lydia knows “the danger of certainty” (115), and that there is “no matter only tendencies” (113). The increasingly punning, poetic and fragmented language as the novel progresses evokes more open, multivalent and fluid ways of approaching love relations: “I’ll underpun their purpose, sound the lisp as a way of saying, whisper monstrosities[…]” (137).

The punning on “tender”, in particular, playfully critiques demands for singular certainties in the realm of romantic relations. “Tender” insists on meaning more than one thing at once, in a way that is poetically appropriate for the novel’s complex deconstruction of romantic mythology. Love is legal tender in Not Being Miriam. If for Lydia, sitting in her [End Page 16] taxi, things are “only tending to happen” (113), Elsie knows that flesh is real enough. She knows that the wisdom of the body is worth something: “Somewhere the things she knows will count. […] She can pick what’s fake. And she can trust her hands. Her fingers practically think” (96). A certain kind of love is associated with death, in this multivalent tenderness. Elsie asks the butcher if his meat is tender. “Tender love? he says. Tender, you’re asking if it’s tender. Why it’s tender as a woman’s heart. On pay day” (131).

Bess like/as Ariadne is stranded at the novel’s end, “beached in the sway between am/am not”. But this place of deep uncertainty and several selves is preferable to being “mythaken, fixed in constellation” (137) the novel implies. Limited categorical knowledge is associated with sight, while tentative and truly tender connection is a touching of extremities, a connection that respects difference and distance and leaves space for the shifting seasons of the self. These tender extremities are the feet of Quigley’s Greta, anchoring her to the earth and to an embodied self built from sedimentary layers of muddy history and connectedness. They are the “blind fingers” (181) of Mahy’s Hero, working beyond the privileged sense of sight and its association with unequivocal truth.  Not Being Miriam leaves Bess/Ariadne, feeling her way back, to her body and her roots: “I found the fissures with my fingers, I was sightless in reply” (139). And while it may not rely on the conventional romantic coupling, self-realisation in these tales is never a solo journey, but one undertaken with a chorus of sisters and shadow selves.

Conclusion

There is an opera written by Maurice Maeterlinck (Ariane et Barbe-bleue, 1901, opera composed by Paul Dukas in 1907) in which Ariadne attempts to rescue Bluebeard’s wives. The rescue fails because the brides prefer to remain captive in the castle of mythology, but the story suggests the malleability of myth and the porosity of its boundaries. The Bluebeard tales of Mahy, Quigley and Campbell propose not a rejection of fictionalised romantic relations in favour of an (equally mythic) unmediated embodied experience of love, but rather recognise the limiting nature of many stories that currently shape (although never entirely condition or contain) our expectations and experiences of love. They challenge us to open these stories up to both critical scrutiny and creative reconfiguration.

New Zealand writer Janet Frame observes: “we must tend the myths, […] only in that way shall we survive” (109). Perhaps in these renewed Bluebeard tales, however, the less-than-tender myths of romantic love are not so much tended as tenderised. The relentless repetition that marks both romance and violence in the Bluebeard tale, and the phenomenon of this tale’s perpetual retelling, implies the importance of re-entering and manipulating the stories that mould romantic experience. These Australasian writers treat romantic myth and fairy tale as a bundle of loose ends, threads that suggest the many possible re-entry points into the labyrinth of human intimacy. [End Page 17]


[1] Marina Warner (1995) discusses the way in which literary fairy tales evolved from folk tales with heterogeneous oral origins and primarily female tellers.

[2] Both Maria Tatar (2004) and Cristinia Bacchilega (1997) write on The Piano as an exemplary postmodern Bluebeard tale.

[3] In Stephen Benson’s terms: ‘narrative itself is always a remembering or a retelling, yet when generic norms become static the repetition is passive. It is only by drawing out other submerged, partially silent narrative voices that we can seek to hear the conflict and tension that lie beneath the surface, to repeat actively rather than passively, and thus generate change’ (1996:109).

[4] ‘To scrutinize means to search: I am searching the other’s body, as if I wanted to see what was inside it, as if the mechanical cause of my desire were in the adverse body (I am like those children who take a clock apart in order to find out what time is). This operation is conducted in a cold and astonished fashion; I am calm, attentive, as if I were confronted by a strange insect of which I am suddenly no longer afraid’ (2002:71).

[5] ‘When I’d first loved him, I wanted to take him apart, as a child dismembers a clockwork toy, to comprehend the inscrutable mechanics of its interior. I wanted to see him far more naked than he was with his clothes off. It was easy enough to strip him bare and then I picked up my scalpel and set to work. But, since I was so absolutely in charge of the dissection, I only discovered what I was able to recognise already, from past experience, inside him. If I ever found anything new to me, I steadfastly ignored it. I was so absorbed in this work that it never occurred to me to wonder if I hurt him’ (1996:72).

[6] Like other fairy tales, Bluebeard’s fortunes wax and wane depending on its ability to speak to current social circumstances. Tatar identifies a spate of Bluebeard-themed films in the 1940s, for example. The tale was being used in this era, she suggests, to play out the anxieties provoked by husbands returning from World War Two, having acquired bloody and unspeakable pasts in the course of their war service which made them strangers to their wives (2004:90).

[7] The Bluebeard tale, Tatar notes, is particularly apt for showing us how our fears and desires are deeply intertwined (2004:10).

[8] Even Hero, in Mahy’s novel, reflects: ‘I was trapped by my own silence and the lure of an extra twenty dollars’ (1995:90).

[9] ‘In the very moment the knower merges with that which is known, both entities are abolished as such. In this way imaginary knowledge undercuts all other forms of knowledge, blurring all boundaries and dissolving all definitions in its way’ (Moi, 1999:432). [End Page 18]

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Films

Rebecca. (1940). Dir. Alfred Hitchcock.

Notorious. (1946). Dir. Alfred Hitchcock.

The Company of Wolves. (1984). Dir. Neil Jordan.

The Silence of the Lambs. (1991). Dir. Jonathan Demme.

The Piano. (1993). Dir. Jane Campion. [End Page 22]

In the Cut. (2003). Dir. Jane Campion. [End Page 23]

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“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.

Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Wolf, Naomi. Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood. New York: Random, 1997.

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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“Jennifer Crusie’s Literary Lingerie” by Laura Vivanco

Jennifer Crusie has stated that “the details of the way people present themselves are heavy with meaning” (“Romancing” 86) and this is certainly true of the lingerie she depicts in her own novels. Lingerie plays a significant role in many of her romances from Sizzle, “the first book I wrote even though it was published as my third” (Crusie “Sizzle”), through to Bet Me, which she has described as her “last classic romance” (Jorgenson). Its functions and symbolism vary: in Bet Me sexy underwear is advocated as a way to catch a husband but in Anyone But You a padded bra forms a barrier to intimacy; lingerie deceives and is discarded in Tell Me Lies but speaks eloquently about its wearers’ sexual desires in Crazy for You.

If, as Alison Lurie has argued, “clothing is a language” (3) then the words uttered by underwear are surely among the most intimate for although “such garments have had a utilitarian function the fact that they may have also served an erotic purpose is frankly recognized as a social phenomenon” (Willett & Cunnington 11).[1] In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

[m]arried women began to assume the role of sexual partner; reproduction and sexuality were no longer so closely connected because of altered moral attitudes and the availability of contraception. A number of women underlined their more liberal morality by, among other things, wearing decorative and seductive underwear. (Thesander 105)

Lurie has observed that “Often […] it is not until we see this private costume that we have a real clue as to its wearer’s erotic identity” (246). By describing the lingerie choices of her heroines Crusie can therefore convey important information about their sexuality which might not be apparent from their outerwear.

The cut, fabric and colour of a particular item of lingerie all play a part in shaping its meaning. Tell Me Lies opens as “Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren’t hers” (1). The design of this particular set of underpants, intended as “a plant, something so shocking Maddie would have to confront Brent” (332), emphasises the purpose it serves: “black lace crotchless” (23) underpants are supremely functional only in the context of a sexual relationship. The statement they make about Brent’s adultery is given additional force by their fabric and colour.

C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington, commenting on the introduction and widespread adoption of coloured underwear, observe that “For centuries ‘white’ had been recognized as a symbol of the chaste ‘pure mind’; it has no emotional tone. It represents the antithesis of erotic colours” (236). In Crusie’s Crazy for You Bill, the anti-hero, associates “Plain white cotton” with a muted sex life and he would prefer to think of Quinn, the heroine of the novel, as “clean, white, plain, good” (218) with underwear to match. He rakes through her lingerie drawer, hating all the items which are neither “plain” nor “white,” until at last he finds a pair of underpants which although not “plain white cotton, they were lacy and brief, bikini pants—not the kind that really covered her up, […] were white” (218). White cotton underwear has similarly chaste connotations for Maddie, the heroine of Tell Me Lies: she “stripped off her white cotton underpants and dropped them on the floor. Nobody committed adultery in white cotton underpants” (99). Lace is clearly more daring than cotton, which is why, when asked if she has “anything sexy or fun in your whole wardrobe” (23), Emily, the heroine of Sizzle, claims to own “some white lace. Sort of” (23). Her friend Jane’s response, “You may already be too old to wear pink lace. Mentally you’re already in gray flannel long johns” (23), suggests that the wearing of “gray flannel long johns” would symbolise a total renunciation of sexual activity. It also indicates that white lace is not as “sexy or fun” as pink lace.[2] The sexiness of pink lace does, however, depend on its shade: Lurie observes that “As more and more white (purity, innocence) is added, the sensual content diminishes and finally disappears” (196).

Later in the novella Emily buys some pink underwear and its “sensual content” is evident from its lack of pallor: it is not a light, innocent, girlish pink, but a “hot-pink” (18), a “wicked pink lace” (73) which she wears when she wants to try something a little “kinky” (73). It seems to assert a strong, sexual femininity with a symbolism more akin to that of red. Red brings to mind danger, heat and red light districts: “bright scarlet and crimson garments have traditionally been associated both with aggression and with desire” (Lurie 195). In Sizzle ruby-red, in combination with black, is used in the packaging of a perfume which indicates that the wearer has “a little bit of devil” (89) in her. Black is less aggressive than red, but neither childlike nor pure: “white suggests innocence, black suggests sophistication” (Lurie 188). In Sizzle when “Emily thought about Richard. Sex with Richard” (33) she almost immediately decides “I need some black lace underwear” (33). On top of the black lingerie she wears “her best short black dress” (34) and then “congratulat[es] herself on how sophisticated and adult she looked” (34-35).

Here Emily’s outwear transmits roughly the same message as her underwear but this is not always the case, for as Martin Scott has observed,

[i]f our clothes, our outer image, mediate between us and the world, then our underwear mediates between us and our clothes; we define our relationship to our outer image by what we wear under it, the interior fashion only we and a chosen few know about. This would be the case with the corporate lawyer who wears red satin bra and panties under the painfully gray dress suit […]. Underwear reminds us that there is a level the outer world does not fathom, and does not even dare admit exists.

In certain circumstances a woman’s lingerie can therefore serve as an undercover protest or a reminder of aspects of her personality which cannot be expressed openly. In Crazy for You Quinn’s underwear contrasts with the image presented by her work clothes. Bill, her ex-boyfriend who has broken into her house, knows that it expresses a sexuality that he “does not even dare admit exists”:

Quinn’s underwear. My secret life, she’d called it. Absurd colors, screaming pinks and metallic golds and acid greens and—

He plunged his hands into the drawer, into the lace and the satin and the silk—“I have to dress like a dockworker to teach art,” she’d said once, “but I can be all dressed up underneath”—all the stuff he didn’t really like, not really, all those weird, bright colors, that wasn’t how he wanted Quinn, bright and hot; his Quinn was clean, white, plain, good—he clenched his fists around the vile stuff […].

He threw the underwear back in the drawer as if it were unclean, contaminated, it contaminated her, he wanted to rip it up, shred it, burn it so it never touched her again. (218)

Bill is evidently threatened and disgusted by Quinn’s lingerie: it asserts her longing for an exuberant, varied sex life.

In Manhunting the heroine’s outerwear also presents a contrast to her lingerie: “She put on some of the new lacy underwear Jessie had picked out for her, and then covered it sensibly with beige shorts and a white sleeveless blouse” (47). Looking at her “dressed in those blah colors” (54) Jake concludes that “There was no heat in her” (54). He changes his mind, however, when a somewhat tipsy Kate shows him what lies beneath the “white sleeveless blouse”:

It was really hot in the sun, but could she go topless? Noooo. And why? Because she was female. Life was sexist. And really, really unfair. She looked over at Jake, cool and comfortable and shirtless, and decided to strike a blow for women everywhere. This is for all the hot women, she thought, and took off her blouse. She was wearing a peach satin and white lace bra […]. It covered, she reasoned, a lot more of her than a bikini top. She felt much better. […]

So much for sexless. Jake shook his head as he watched her […] there must have been something about Kate he’d missed, because he hadn’t pegged her as a satin-and-lace type. Plain white cotton would have been his guess. (56-57)

Kate’s inadvertent verbal double entendre, “hot women,” parallels the unintended message her lingerie sends to Jake. He is correct in his reading of Kate’s bra; by the end of the novel he will have received abundant proof that she is not sexless. Nonetheless, her intentions here were feminist rather than flirtatious and the scene therefore demonstrates that, as Lurie warns, “If a complete grammar of clothing is ever written it will have to deal not only with […] dishonesty, but with […] ambiguity, error, self-deception, misinterpretation, irony and framing” (25).

The feminist bra-burning of the 1960s provides a particularly noteworthy example of the reframing or deliberate misinterpretation of underwear. The feminists whose actions led to the coining of the term “bra-burners” did not, in fact, set fire to any bras, but they did include them in a group of objects which were chosen for disposal during the protests against the Miss America beauty contest:

Bras were only one of many items that were tossed into a “freedom trash can” on the boardwalk in Atlantic City on September 7, 1968: also included were girdles, high heels, cosmetics, eyelash curlers, wigs, issues of Cosmopolitan, Playboy, and Ladies Home Journal. (Dow 130-31)

It was the bras, however, which caught the imagination of the media and this was no doubt due in large measure to the sexual connotations of underwear.[3] As with Kate’s display of her lingerie, the feminists’ disposal of their bras was not interpreted by viewers in the way the women had intended: “Bra-burning, it was implied, was the desperate bid for attention by neurotic, unattractive women who could not garner it through more acceptable routes” (Dow 129).

Emily, the heroine of Sizzle, is never considered attention-seeking or unattractive but her underwear also becomes a site of conflict between feminism and patriarchy. The novella opens as she is being informed by her boss, George, that henceforth her budget will be controlled by Richard Parker; she observes that “I’m working for narrow-minded patriarchal creeps” (7). George, who is “short, fat and balding” (5) and leans “back in the chair while I stand at attention” (5), is literally and metaphorically the unattractive face of patriarchy whereas Richard is its most seductive one:

The door at the other end of the conference room opened, and Richard Parker came in, tall, dark and serious. And indisputably the best-looking man Emily had ever seen. Distinguished. Beautifully dressed. Powerful. And sexy. […] For everyone there, Richard Parker radiated power and authority. (12-13)

Richard is, in appearance, a stock romance hero, one of the “‘dark, tall and gravely handsome’ men, all mysterious strangers or powerful bosses” (Snitow 248).[4] He escapes being a cliché, however, due to his awareness of the image he presents:

Without realizing it, she’d let her eyes narrow as she looked at him, so that when he gazed idly around […] he saw her look of undiluted antagonism. His eyes widened slightly, and then he grinned at her as if he was seeing her for the first time, a real smile that accepted her challenge and recognized her as an equal, sharing the absurdity of the moment and of his own new-kid-on-the-block power play. (15)

It takes some time, and considerable effort on Emily’s part, to ensure that he fully recognises her as an equal and listens to her in both their personal and professional lives; the developments in their relationship are accompanied by descriptions of Emily’s underwear.

After one meeting Emily feels only slightly more antagonistic towards her panty hose than she does towards Richard:

“How did it go?” Jane asked, following her into the office.

“Not well, but not badly, either.” Emily kicked off her shoes. “I really hate panty hose. They itch.” (22)

Emily actively resists oppression but the struggle wearies her and she finds relief in throwing away her hated panty hose:

Emily kicked off her shoes and sat in the gloom of her office. I’m so tired, she thought. And my panty hose are driving me nuts. I hate panty hose. They’re an invention of the devil. I’m never wearing them again. She took them off as a gesture of independence and threw them away. There was a run in one leg, anyway.

Instantly she felt better, cooler. She leaned back in her chair and spread her legs apart to cool them, reveling in the relief from the scratchy heat of the hose. (56)

This throwing off of an oppressive garment soon gives rise to sexual thoughts: “It reminded her of other ways of feeling good. It reminded her that she was still so [sexually] frustrated from the night before she wanted to kill” (56). Emily’s freedom from panty hose also pleases Richard sexually, though this was not her intention, and in a scene which may be the most memorable in the novella,[5] Emily is dominated professionally by George (via the telephone) and sexually by Richard, who is under her desk:

“Stop it.” Emily tried to shove him back with her free hand.

“Now, Emily,” George said. “Relax. I’m not interfering with your project.”

“Relax.” Richard put his mouth against the softness of her inner thigh.

Emily moved her hand to his head and tried to push him away. Great day I picked to stop wearing panty hose and start wearing stockings, she thought wildly. Oh, God, what is he doing? We’re in my office, for heaven’s sake.

“Emily?” George said. “Emily, don’t be difficult about this.”

She twined her fingers in Richard’s hair and jerked his head up. He winced and pulled her hand away. “The garters are a good idea,” he said. “Don’t ever wear anything else.” And then he lowered his head again, clamping her hand at her side. (62-63)

Emily’s “gesture of independence” is thus subverted: having chosen to wear stockings, she is now commanded not to “wear anything else.” The desk scene also serves to remind the reader of the similarities between George and Richard, the two figures of authority and patriarchal oppression. The two men echo each other, each telling Emily to “Relax,” and over-riding her objections. Although they both appreciate her talents, neither is willing to treat her with the respect they would accord an equal: Richard is clearly delighted with Emily’s body and underwear and, in the first scene of the novella, George admits that Emily is “smart, and you have a sixth sense about marketing that I’d kill to have” (6), but both ignore her objections. Although Emily enjoys sex with Richard she is aware that she is being metaphorically as well as literally manipulated and, as she makes clear to Jane, she is disturbed by the implications of this:

“Richard is always the one in control. If I make a decision, he approves of it or says no. If he makes a decision, he just informs me of it. If I say something he disagrees with or feels isn’t important, he ignores me. Today is a perfect example. I was on the phone, and he just came around the desk and put his hand up my skirt.” She closed her eyes for a moment at the memory.

“And you loved it.”

“That’s not the point. The point is that he always decides everything, and he never listens to me. I want a little power here, too.” (67)

Emily and Jane at last devise a plan to make Richard listen to Emily by showing him how it feels to be dominated and to have one’s opinions remain unheard. Emily’s underwear is essential to the plan’s success.

Having agreed to “do exactly what I say” (77) in the bedroom, Richard “looked bored and a little chilly” (78). Then Emily’s underwear piques his interest:

She drew her fingertips up her leg, pulling her skirt back over her thigh to reveal her garters, never taking her eyes off Richard. The garters were pink.

Richard began to look more interested. (79)

A little later she is

wondering if any of this was exciting Richard in the slightest. […] When she opened her eyes, Richard was still looking at her.

She unsnapped her garters with one hand.

Richard was definitely interested. (79)

If all Emily had planned was a striptease, it would merely prove that her body and her underwear could attract male sexual attention, which is something she, and the reader, already knows it would. What follows is the use of a stocking in a way which transforms it into part of another “gesture of independence” (56):

[S]he wrapped the stocking around his wrists and pulled them back.

“What are you doing?” He tried to jerk his hands away, but she’d already tied the ends of the stocking to the brass bed frame. […]

“This isn’t funny, Emily.” He yanked at his bonds. “Let me go.”

“What?” Emily asked, smiling at him gently. “I didn’t hear.” (81)

Richard does indeed learn his lesson and on the last page of the novella, with his hand “cupping her lace-covered breast” (92), he states that he’s listening. In an earlier scene Richard had ignored Emily’s advice about how to undo the bra:

[H]e slid his hands beneath her back to find her bra clasp.

“It’s in front,” she whispered, but he still ran his fingers along her back. “Richard, the hook is in front.”

“What?” he murmured into her ear, not listening.

She closed her eyes in irritation […]. She unhooked her bra herself. (52)

This time “‘The hook is in the front,’ Emily said, and he unfastened it” (92); with this unfastening, new prospects open up for their personal relationship.

Clearly a little light bondage is not going to topple patriarchy. It is, however, indicative of a change in Emily. As she observes early on in the novella:

Change him, Emily thought. No, better yet, change me. I’m in this position because I’m modest, cooperative and polite. Because I’m modest, cooperative and polite, I’m working for a vain, obstructive rude man like George. And as if George wasn’t enough, now I have Richard Parker, the Budget Hun. (24)

In using her lingerie to tie Richard up, Emily demonstrates that she is no longer “cooperative and polite.” The final exchange between Richard and Henry Evadne, the owner of the company Emily, George and Richard work for, vindicates Emily’s new assertiveness:

“[…] if Emily feels strongly about the product placement, we will, of course, go with it.” He smiled tightly at Richard. “We don’t know how she does it, but we’ve learned that when it comes to marketing, the best thing we can do is listen to Emily and do exactly what she wants.”

“Yes.” Richard smiled. “I’ve learned that, too.”

“Good.” Henry leaned back, satisfied. “You make a good team. […]”. (91)

In the scenes described above, lingerie is a site of conflict and Emily eventually uses it to assert her power and gain equality. In the professional sphere, however, she is still subordinate to Henry, whom she pleases by devising strategies to sell other women products which may promise more than they can deliver.

Emily admits that “We’re selling emotions here, the sizzle not the steak” (21). The advertising for many products creates “sizzle” by implying that they have semi-magical properties:

In civilized society today belief in the supernatural powers of clothing […] remains widespread, though we denigrate it with the name “superstition.” Advertisements announce that improbable and romantic events will follow the application of a particular sort of grease to our faces, hair or bodies; they claim that members of the opposite (or our own) sex will be drawn to us by the smell of a particular soap. Nobody believes those ads, you may say. Maybe not, but we behave as though we did: look in your bathroom cabinet. (Lurie 29-30)

Emily claims that the perfume, Sizzle, has special powers: “It makes strong men putty in my hands” (Sizzle 92). This is not a literal assertion that it is a magic potion but Emily’s earlier use of Sizzle in the bondage scene (in conjunction with carefully chosen “wicked pink lace” (73) lingerie, candles and food) does take on the appearance of a magical ritual when read in the context of her words about how Sizzle will be marketed:

“You’ll note that the bottle [for Sizzle] is the same as Paradise [another perfume], but it’s black, instead of white, with a ruby-glass stopper, instead of a diamond-glass stopper.” […]

“We’re confident that the consumer will make not only the connection with Paradise, but will also subconsciously pick up the dualism here. She’ll wear Paradise when she wants to feel sexy, but sophisticated and in control, Sizzle when she wants to feel sexy and wanton. […]

“And since there’s a little bit of angel and a little bit of devil in every woman, every woman will need both these perfumes,” Emily said. (88-89)

The white bottles of Paradise match the name with a colour associated with spirituality and purity: “In the Christian church, white is the color of heavenly joy and purity […]. In secular life white has always stood for purity and innocence” (Lurie 185). In contrast, black has long been associated with the more malevolent supernatural powers: “The Furies, the three avenging goddesses of Greek drama, always dress in black, and so do witches, warlocks and other practitioners of the Black Arts” (Lurie 188).

Emily incorporates the perfume which expresses the “bit of devil in every woman” into the ritual which Jane has promised “will work. I guarantee you, this time, he’ll listen” (73). Although the references to hell, “What the hell are you going to do?” (77) and evil, “wicked pink lace” (73), as well as Richard’s cry of “Oh, God” (81) and his unease with Emily’s actions, “Don’t ever do that again […] You damn near killed me” (84), can all be read (and, it appears, are uttered by the characters) as mere figures of speech, the allusions to the spiritual realm reinforce the magical subtext of the scene. Threatened with “the spiked heel” (78) of Emily’s black shoe, naked and tied up, Richard takes on the aspect of a sacrificial victim in a satanic rite. Emily’s choice of “black spike heels with open toes” (78) and a “little black slip” (80) reinforce the impression that something occult is taking place. The transition back towards goodness is marked by Emily untying Richard and letting him inside her body, “he felt so good inside her. The feel of his body hot and strong and hard against her, inside her, pushed her out of the limbo of lust she’d been drifting through” (84, my emphasis) and the next morning she prepares food which makes the kitchen smell “like heaven” (85) and perhaps both literally and metaphorically removes any bad taste left by the black magic.

On this occasion Sizzle and the “wicked pink lace” (73) lingerie fulfill the promises made by their colouring but in general the magic of lingerie, if it has one, is dependent on the power the wearer and the viewer give it and for this reason scenes of seduction do not always succeed. Prior to her first dinner-date with Richard, Emily asked Jane to go out and buy her some underwear:

The evening started well. Emily brushed her hair in a cloud around her shoulders and wore her new black lace underwear, one of two sets Jane had splurged on with her money.

“Always have a backup set,” Jane had told her. “You never know, he may rip this stuff off you with his teeth in the throes of passion.”

Emily visualized it. “Sounds good.” (34)[6]

Unfortunately for Emily it is her hair, not her lingerie, which seems most likely to be ripped off that evening: “She pulled away from him, holding on to his arm so he wouldn’t jerk her hair out. A lock of her hair was wound around his sleeve button” (39). As a result Emily develops a bad headache and declines to participate in any further sexual activity. In Crazy for You, Darla has made even more of an effort in preparation for sex:

Darla stared in her bathroom mirror, appalled. Forget that the thing she had on was called a merry widow, not the best omen under the circumstances. Forget that it was black lace and scratchy, forget that it was so tight her breasts stood out like they were propped on a shelf […]. Concentrate on the fact that she looked like a rogue dominatrix. […]

She let her hands drop and tried to look less angry. It was the anger that was doing it, she decided. The anger that she was having to try this hard to seduce her husband, to wear this stupid lace thing that Quinn assured her was sexy. (128-29)

Max initially responds by holding and kissing Darla but he then breaks off to discuss her actions and they have a row. After this Darla “peeled the merry widow off […] yanked on her long flannel nightgown” (130) and concludes that she is “[j]ust not a sexy woman” (130).[7]

Although lingerie lacks any intrinsic magical powers, it can have a significant physical effect on the women who wear it. When wearing the black lace “merry widow,” for example, Darla’s waist is “cinched tighter than usual, smaller, so that his hands on her waist made her feel sexy” (130). Most modern lingerie cannot create sensual effects as intense as those produced by a corset:

Tight-lacing […] heightens sexuality by quickening the action of the lungs. […] Many women experience inhibition of breathing, on a swing or by other means, as erotic, ‘breathtaking’. […] Elimination of abdominal in favour of pectoral breathing creates, moreover, movement about the breasts, which may be imagined constantly palpitating with desire. […]

The spasms to which the body is subject during orgasm involve, of course, an often violent quickening of breathing, sensations of breathlessness, heaving of the chest, and contraction of the belly, all of which may be erotically enhanced by manual pressure at the waist, and artificially induced by means of a corset. (Kunzle 18)

Nor can lingerie produce the physical effect of the fictional perfume in Sizzle:

“[…] Suppose we put something in this stuff to make it really sizzle? […] Tingle. Only with heat. A woman wears perfume on the warmest parts of her body—the pulse points. Suppose when she touched the perfume to those places she felt a subtle heat and tingle. It would make her feel excited. Exciting. It would feel like. . .”

“Foreplay.” (29)

Lingerie can, however, be used in foreplay and have a sensual effect on the wearer: as Emily seduces and dominates Richard she “stroked the inside of her thigh with her fingertips, feeling them glide across the smoothness of the nylon, closing her eyes, trying to concentrate on the sensation […]. Surprisingly enough, it was beginning to excite her” (79). Later she leans forwards, “her breasts almost spilling out of the lace. She stopped for a moment, savoring the feel of their weight against the brief bra” (82). Lingerie, then, can in itself give a woman physical pleasure.

This positive aspect of lingerie may, however, be offset by the negative effect of lingerie advertising which encourages the viewer to feel that her body is imperfect. As Rosalind Coward observes

The ideal promoted by our culture is pretty scarce in nature […]. Only the mass of advertising images, glamour photographs and so on makes us believe that just about all women have this figure. […]

Somewhere along the line, most women know that the image is impossible, and corresponds to the wishes of our culture rather than being actually attainable. We remain trapped by the image, though. (45)

Thus, although the images of women’s bodies used in lingerie adverts can create anxiety and feelings of inadequacy, female viewers may nonetheless perceive the lingerie itself as a means to attain a look more closely approaching the ideal. In Manhunting Kate meets a woman who does have one of those few perfect bodies:

Miss Craft, young, blond, and built like a Barbie doll, had eyes of cornflower blue, a tilted-up nose, and a genuinely sweet smile on her lovely full lips. She looked about nineteen.

Great, Kate thought. My competition. I bet nothing on her droops. I bet she doesn’t even wear underwear. (30)

Kate would seem to believe that only a woman “built like a Barbie doll” is free from the need to wear underwear. Nina, the heroine of Crusie’s Anyone But You, demonstrates how concerns about having an imperfect body may convince a woman that she will be undesirable, and therefore unlovable, without the concealment and support provided by lingerie. Nina hides behind her “Red lace Incredibra” (100), a bra so padded it is “round and shapely without her. It practically had cleavage without her. […] It sort of pushes everything together and then shoves it up” (100).[8] Although Nina eventually plucks up the courage to have sex with Alex, she steadfastly refuses to let him see her breasts; her friend Charity is astonished to discover that Nina “slept with this guy for two months, and […] never took your bra off with the lights on” (212). Charity had previously told Nina that “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. […] You don’t believe in unconditional love” (144).

According to Coward

Self-image in this society is enmeshed with judgments about desirability. And because desirability has been elevated to being the crucial reason for sexual relations, it sometimes appears to women that the whole possibility of being loved and comforted hangs on how their appearance will be received. (78)

Max, a gynaecologist and Alex’s brother, blames the media and the fashion industry for making women feel this way:

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. […] And if you tell them their bodies are normal and attractive, they think you’re being nice […] Sometimes, I swear to God, I’d like to set fire to the fashion industry. (158)

Germaine Greer, writing in 1970, said much the same thing:

Women are so brainwashed about the physical image that they should have that, despite popular fiction on the point, they rarely undress with éclat. They are often apologetic about their bodies, considered in relation to that plastic object of desire whose image is radiated throughout the media. […] The woman who complains that her behind is droopy does not want to be told, ‘I don’t care, because I love you,’ but ‘Silly girl, it’s a perfect shape, you can’t see it like I can.’ (261)

Crusie’s Anyone But You, despite being a romance and therefore “popular fiction,” gives us a heroine who does not “undress with éclat” and who, when she expresses concern about her droopy body, is told by her male partner that he doesn’t care “if it’s on the floor. I want you naked now” (185). It takes Nina time to realise that Alex does indeed love her and find her sexually attractive despite the fact that her body is not perfect according to the standards set by the media. Once she has accepted that this is the case, however, she discards the Incredibra, stating 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). Only then can she stand “naked in front of him, with all the living-room lights on” (219).

Nina’s rejection of the Incredibra marks her acceptance of both her body and Alex’s love. Lingerie is also discarded at an emotional turning-point in Tell Me Lies. When Maddie decides to get “rid of the old Maddie completely” (322-23) she throws caution and her clothes to the wind:

[S]he took off her scarf and held it above her head and let the wind blow it away […] she stripped her T-shirt over her head and let that go in the wind, too […] and […] pulled her bra off over her head and threw it in his lap where it immediately blew back over to her side and out of the car. (324)

The final paragraphs of this novel, which opened with Maddie’s discovery of the shocking black lace crotchless underpants, show us Maddie once again holding a pair of woman’s underpants. This time, however, they are her own underpants and instead of concealing them she puts them on display as an indication that there will be no more lies. They announce, to both her neighbours and her lover, C. L., that she is unashamed of being a sexually active unmarried woman:

She stripped off her baby blue bikini underpants and left them on the hall floor for him to find, and then reconsidered and went out on the front porch and hung them on the doorknob instead, waving to Mrs. Crosby, who was squinting at her from her own porch. Then she went back inside. She was sure finding the pants would have an electrifying effect on an already electrified C. L. (347)[9]

Here nakedness is not just about “electrifying” a lover; it also indicates Maddie’s desire for truth and can be read as a rejection of the culture of shame which has surrounded her.

Nakedness is also associated with truthfulness and a lack of shame in Faking It where, in an echo of the words in Genesis describing Adam and Eve who, prior to the Fall, were “both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2: 25), Tilda tells Davy her secrets and “I love you, she thought and kissed him back, naked and unashamed” (317). Tilda is revealing not just her body but also the truth about her family’s history of art forgery. The knowledge Nina tries to hide may seem more trivial: it is merely the truth that ageing has changed her body. To Nina, however, this is a shameful secret which she is desperate to conceal because age, as indicated by Jane’s comment about “gray flannel long johns” (Sizzle 23), is often assumed to bring with it a lack of both desire and desirability.[10]

Although Nina’s Incredibra is worn in an attempt to conceal the truth from masculine eyes, she acquired it as a result of emotional openness with another woman. Having asked her friend Charity to help “rev up my image” (99), Charity obliged by selecting a variety of garments for Nina, including “Red lace panties. Red lace Incredibra” (100). When Crusie’s female characters are friendly with each other they not infrequently discuss underwear. In Manhunting Kate arrives at her holiday destination thinking about “the fancy underwear that Jessie had talked her into buying as inspiration” (27) in Kate’s search to find a husband. Later we see the formation of a new female friendship: Kate “and Nancy talked on through the evening […] comparing life stories and falling into the kind of friendship that women with the same outlook on life can form easily and permanently” (113). When Jake becomes aware of how much information they’ve shared, including details of his financial involvement with Nancy’s business “Jake winced. ‘Did she show you her underwear, too?’” (122). Jake does not mean this literally but there is clearly an association in his mind between female intimacy and lingerie. In Crazy for You, Quinn advises Darla to wear black lace to revitalise her marriage:

“[…] maybe you should go for something really in-your-face.”

“How about I grab him by the throat and say, ‘Fuck me or die’?” Darla said.

“I was thinking more about black lace,” Quinn said. “You know, something incredibly tacky. The kind of thing guys like and we laugh at.” (122)

In Sizzle Jane describes the activities she’s going to engage in while wearing the pink lingerie:

Emily sighed. “Sounds like fun.”

Jane pounced. “You buy some, too.” (19)

Nanette, the mother of Bet Me’s heroine, discusses lingerie’s role in catching and keeping a husband and informs her daughter that

“[…] [y]our prime years are past you, and you’re wearing white cotton. […] If you’re wearing white cotton lingerie, you’ll feel like white cotton, and you’ll act like white cotton, and white cotton cannot get a man, nor can it keep one. Always wear lace.”

“You’d make a nice pimp,” Min said […]. “But honestly, Mother, this conversation is getting old. I’m not even sure I want to get married, and you’re critiquing my underwear because it’s not good enough bait. […]” (63)

There is a difference, however, between Nanette’s approach to lingerie and that of Kate, Jessie, Nina, Charity, Darla and Quinn. It may seem a trivial one given that Kate is husband-hunting, Nina is dating, and Darla is trying to improve her marriage, but it is a difference which is important to Crusie who

graduated from high school in the sixties. […] The madness that defined women’s lives back then was based on four Big Lies:

  1. A woman wasn’t a real woman until she was married.
  2. A woman had to distort herself and deny her own identity in order to catch a man to marry. (Remember girdles, spike heels, inane laughter, playing dumb, and flunking math?)
  3. Any husband was better than no husband.
  4. Staying in a bad marriage was better than divorce because God forbid a woman should be unmarried again once she’d finally achieved the goal.

[…] Writing and living are about us, about who we are and what we want, about satisfying our needs as individuals, about listening to our hearts. Please note, I am not saying give up publication (or marriage) entirely; I’m saying give it up as a goal. (“A Writer”)

For Nanette, a woman of Crusie’s generation, lingerie is not a way for woman to express her personality or obtain pleasure; she only considers its function in terms of the “goal” of marriage.

Nanette is correct in assuming that coloured, lacy lingerie will attract a man’s attention: when Cal “looked down the v-neck of her [Min’s] loose red sweater and saw a lot of lush round flesh in tight red lace” (95) he felt “a little light-headed” (95). Min notices:

“You’re looking down my sweater.”

“You’re leaning over. There’s all that red lace right there.”

“Lace is good, huh?” Min said.

“Oh, yeah.”

“My mother wins again,” Min said. (96)

Nanette has not, however, really won: Cal finds Min attractive regardless of what she wears and Cynthie, his ex-girlfriend, was the very thin and beautiful possessor of highly sensual lingerie.[11] In one of the final scenes of the book Min wears “a strapless black lace nightgown” (359) and Cal states that “I like this thing you’re not wearing. But I still want a chance to rip your sweats off you, too” (362). To Cal, Min looks “wonderful” (187) even in her “godawful sweats” (187). As in Crazy for You, it is made clear that sexy lingerie cannot hold together a troubled relationship and, as in Anyone But You, neither a lack of sexy underwear nor a less-than-perfect body will damage a sexual relationship based on true love.

Regardless of its reception, in Crusie’s fiction even the flimsiest piece of lingerie can be “heavy with meaning” (“Romancing” 86). This meaning is only partially encoded in the fabrics, styles and colours chosen: it is also dependent on the context in which a particular item is worn or discarded. In one situation, therefore, lingerie can function as an instrument of patriarchal oppression while in another it may serve as a weapon in the feminist struggle; it can be used to signal sexual interest and boost a woman’s confidence but may also reinforce her feelings of inadequacy about her body; it can cause her physical discomfort or give sensual pleasure; although it can indicate a lack of openness and truth, female intimacy is promoted as women discuss their lingerie and via such discussions give each other emotional support that complements the physical uplift of underwiring and padding. Crusie’s literary lingerie reflects the complexity of women’s relationships with their bodies, their desires, their sexual partners and their friends.

Works Cited

Primary Texts

Crusie, Jennifer. Anyone But You. 1996. Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2006.

—. Bet Me. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004.

—. Crazy for You. 1999. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.

—. Faking It. 2002. New York: St. Martin’s, 2003.

—. Manhunting. 1993. Don Mills, Ontario: MIRA, 2000.

—. Sizzle. Don Mills, Ontario: Worldwide, 1994.

—. Tell Me Lies. 1998. New York: St Martin’s, 1999.

—. Trust Me on This. New York: Bantam, 1997.

Secondary Sources

Coward, Rosalind. Female Desire: Women’s Sexuality Today. London: Paladin Grafton, 1984.

Crusie, Jennifer. “A Writer Without a Publisher is like a Fish Without a Bicycle: Writer’s Liberation and You.” Romance Writer’s Report (2002). <http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/a-writer-without-a-publisher-is-like-a-fish-without-a-bicycle-writers-liberation-and-you/>.

—. “Sizzle.” JennyCrusie.com <http://www.jennycrusie.com/books/sizzle.php>. Internet Archive. 25 Oct. 2006. <http://replay.web.archive.org/20061025035035/http://www.jennycrusie.com/books/sizzle.php>.

—. “Topic: Crusie, Jennifer: Anyone But You (Romance).” CherryForums.com 15 May 2006. <http://www.cherryforums.com/index.php?topic=578.0>.

Crusie Smith, Jennifer. “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real.” Paradoxa 3.1-2 (1997): 81-93.

Dow, Bonnie J. “Feminism, Miss America, and Media Mythology.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 6.1 (2003): 127-49.

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. 1970. London: Paladin, 1972.

Jorgenson, Jane. “Writer’s Corner for October, 2004: Jennifer Crusie.” All About Romance. <http://www.likesbooks.com/crusie.html>.

Juffer, Jane. “A Pornographic Femininity? Telling and Selling Victoria’s (Dirty) Secrets.” Social Text 48 (1996): 27-48.

Kunzle, David. Fashion & Fetishism: Corsets, Tight-lacing & Other Forms of Body-Sculpture. Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2004.

Lurie, Alison. The Language of Clothes. 1981. London: Bloomsbury, 1992.

Scott, Martin. “Underwear.” Agora 30.3 (2005). <http://castle.eiu.edu/~agora/Feb05/MartallB.htm#uw>.

Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different.” Radical History Review 20 (1979): 141-61. Rpt. in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell & Sharon Thompson. New York: Monthly Review P, 1983. 245-63.

Thesander, Marianne. The Feminine Ideal. Trans. Nicholas Hills. London: Reaktion, 1997.

Willett, C. and Phillis Cunnington. 1951. The History of Underclothes. Mineola, New York: Dover, 1992.

 


[1] The Victoria’s Secret lingerie “catalog functions, […] for many of its consumers, as a kind of sexually explicit representation of the female body not too far afield from Playboy’s images” (Juffer 27-28) and “Lingerie fetishism […] is, like the voyeurism upon which it thrives, relatively uncontroversial, customarily acceptable and commercially profitable” (Kunzle 5).

[2] Lurie notes that “grayed, dull colors” “seem to deny sensuality” (231).

[3] Girdles are also items of underwear, but bras, and the rejection of the bra, seem to have had a particular cultural resonance in the 1960s:

At this time many women, whether in the [women’s] movement or not, got rid of their bras — some for a short period, others for ever; some because they sympathized with the struggle for the liberation of women, others simply because it became fashionable. As early as 1968 Yves Saint-Laurent had shown transparent blouses worn without a bra at his fashion show in Paris. (Thesander 185-7)

[4] This is probably due to the fact that Sizzle was, as Crusie has revealed, “my attempt to write to formula, an attempt that failed because there is no formula” (“Sizzle”).

[5] In the short description of the book that Crusie wrote for her website she noted that “occasionally people come up to me and say, ‘Sizzle. The desk scene. Ohmigod.’” (“Sizzle”).

[6] The suggestion that Richard “may rip this stuff off you with his teeth in the throes of passion” perhaps contains an allusion to the term “bodice-rippers,” considered derogatory by authors and readers of romance novels. In this context the fact that Emily’s underwear remains unripped is perhaps a subtle rejection of the term.

[7] Again, the wearing of flannel would appear to be associated with an existence devoid of sexual activity.

[8] Crusie has stated that at the time she was writing this novel “I went in and tried on a Wonderbra (they were just out then, articles in all the newspapers) and it was so ridiculous” (“Topic”).

[9] The “baby blue” colour of these underpants contrasts with the darkness of the “black lace crotchless underwear” (23) and perhaps symbolises openness and lack of deceit: Maddie is not ashamed of her relationship with C. L.

[10] Crusie vigorously challenges this stereotype in some of her later works through her older characters who have extremely active sex-lives. In Anyone But You not only is the heroine older than the hero (forty to his thirty), but her seventy-five-year-old upstairs neighbour, Norma Lynn, quite clearly has an active sex-life. Gwen, the heroine’s mother in Faking It is “only fifty-four” (270) and in the course of the novel has sex with two suitors. Trust Me on This includes a secondary romance between the hero’s aunt, sixty-two-year-old Victoria Prentice, and his boss, fifty-eight-year-old Harry Chase. At one point Victoria is described as standing in front of Harry, her body “curving and warm in black lace, and Harry told himself not to have a heart attack” (86). Victoria may be over sixty, but she’s not over sex or an appreciation of sexy lingerie.

[11] Cynthie’s lingerie includes a “red silk bra [which] matched the lining of the suit” (153) she was wearing and “a shiny pink bra that was so sheer it was probably illegal in several states” (263).

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Review: Chick Lit and Postfeminism, by Stephanie Harzewski

From almost the moment the terms chick lit entered the English vocabulary in the mid-1990s, the popular novels grouped into the category have faced derision, if not outright hostility in the popular press, as well as from so-called “literary authors” and “serious” academics. The authors branded—often unwillingly—with the label have been dismissed as chickerati, accused of selling themselves and their books as part of a commercial plot designed by publishers to peddle formula fiction to gullible female audiences.

Sound familiar? Naturally. Romance writers have been dogged by the same charges. But, as Stephanie Harzewski points out in the introduction to Chick Lit and Postfeminism, such vituperative criticism resembles that launched against another group of successful women writers: the novelists of the eighteenth century, such as Eliza Haywood, who took advantage of advances in publishing and an expanding middle-class readership to achieve recognition and success. Their successors in the nineteenth century, including Jane Austen, solidified women writers’ achievements while perfecting the novel itself, yet they still had to fend off criticism of the form as inferior literature. As Harzewski argues, “The critical reception of chick lit can be seen as another cycle of gendered antinovel discourse directed at the composer of romance and amatory fiction, a discourse that has punctuated the novel’s three-hundred-year history” (40-41).

But while few would now question a scholar’s decision to study the novel, critics of chick lit have encountered resistance, even though serious studies of popular culture are now accepted as routine—if not essential—contributions to critical discourse. Harzewski’s book, and a handful of others, are finally addressing the gap. In Chick Lit and Postfeminism, Harzewski makes the case for considering chick lit an “underanalyzed body of postmodern fiction” which provides “an accessible portal into contemporary gender politics and questions of cultural value” (5). Her book devotes sustained literary and feminist analysis to its origins, development and significance.

The astounding numbers alone, attesting to the cultural influence of chick-lit novels (and associated forms of what Mallory Young and I have termed “chick culture”), suggest that sustained critical attention to the form is necessary. Consider that Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, routinely identified as the novel launching the chick-lit genre, had, within 10 years of publication, been translated into 30 languages, sold more than 2 million copies worldwide, and, in 2001, became a popular film grossing over $245 million. As writer Jenny Colgan quipped, not all copies of Fielding’s novel have been “bought by lovelorn single women in London” (qtd. in Gibbons).

Harzewski notes that chick lit’s commercial success (along with its invocations of consumer culture) has been perhaps the greatest barrier to serious analysis of the genre. She argues that “Chick lit’s accessibility, humor, playfulness, and barrage of brand names at times overshadow innovative generic fusions and reflexivity” (53).

Her book excels in its analysis of chick lit in relation to established, traditional literary genres, from the Bildungsroman to the novel of manners. Scholars of romance fiction will be most interested in Chapter One, “Postmodernism’s Last Romance,” which considers chick lit in relation to the original romances of the medieval era and outlines its parallels and divergences from contemporary romance fiction. The chapter originated in an essay published in Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction (Routledge, 2006), but has been revised and expanded here to include a history of Harlequin publishers and a more thorough overview of the distinctions between the classic contemporary romances commonly identified by that name and chick lit.

For instance, Harzewski notes that while popular romance fiction adheres to a “one woman-one man” ratio, chick lit presents one woman involved with many men. If in romance fiction, the quest for romance is central, in chick lit, the heroine’s quest for self-definition and the need to balance work with personal relationships is given equal, if not greater, attention. The idealized protagonist of romance fiction, typically an active, intelligent beauty, is nowhere to be seen in chick lit, which features protagonists who are highly conscious and critical of their physical appearance and who are more often pictured as flawed than feisty.

More significant differences center on the characterization of men and depictions of love and sex. Harzewski argues that romance fiction presents men as objects of erotic desire who are valued for their sexual prowess. By contrast, in chick lit, she argues, men are “not really valued as individuals as much as a means to a lifestyle, wedding, or in some cases beauty boost” (33). The moments of genuine eroticism that punctuate and, for some readers, characterize romance fiction are missing in chick lit.

Above all, the two genres differ in their endings. There are no HEA (“Happily Ever After”) endings in chick lit, which offers “a more realistic portrait of single life and dating, exploring in varying degrees, the dissolution of romantic ideals, or showing those ideals as unmet, sometimes unrealistic, expectations” (40).

Subsequent chapters consider chick lit in relation to its most prominent, and oft-cited, precursors: the novels of Jane Austen and Edith Wharton. Chick lit is commonly seen as having a dual Anglo-American origin in 1996, the year that saw the publication of Bridget Jones’s Diary in the UK and Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City in the USA. As Harzewski observes, each now “has the status of a master plot” (91). Chick lit’s British roots extend to Austen and other nineteenth-century authors such as the Brontës and George Eliot (see Wells and Hale). With their Manhattan settings, the works of American writers, such as Bushnell, Plum Sykes and Lauren Weisberger, have invited comparison to Wharton’s novels set in Old New York (see Wells).

Chapter Two of Chick Lit and Postfeminism considers Bridget Jones’s Diary in relation to Austen’s novels, particularly Pride and Prejudice. There is little new in Harzewski’s analysis, which emphasizes general generic connections over detailed textual links. She notes, for instance, that chick-lit novels “lack the subtlety and ironic precision of observation that goes into the creation of Austen’s heroines” or “Austen’s dexterous use of silence” (67). Nonetheless, the chapter does provide a thorough comparison that will be useful to those new to the study of chick lit. In addition, Harzewski considers chick lit’s role in the current wave of Austenmania, the repackaging of both the author and her works for a popular audience, a phenomenon that has drawn much attention from Austen scholars in books such as Jane’s Fame and Janeites.

A companion chapter, on Sex and the City and other chick-lit novels set in New York, will be of greater interest to chick-lit scholars. It provides a thorough history of Bushnell’s career, supplemented by information from personal interviews Harzewski conducted with the author. She also argues persuasively that Bushnell cannot be dubbed “a quintessential ‘chick lit’ author” (94). Instead, she “can be credited more with inspiring commercial chick lit than directly authoring it” (108). Harzewski convincingly demonstrates that the close female friends featured in the television series and film versions of Sex and the City bear little resemblance to the characters in Bushnell’s novel, who are often antagonistic, if not openly hostile, to each other as they compete in a tight singles market. Instead, it is the novel’s “urban setting, its scenes of nightlife, its characters’ preoccupations with money and status” that have become part of the chick-lit formula (94). Bushnell’s novels do, in Harzewski’s view, share a thematic with Wharton’s fiction: they similarly feature women on the market navigating New York’s cut-throat social milieu and highlight the expenditures necessary to circulate in the set (110). However, she notes that Bushnell does not share “Wharton’s elegant, mannered narration” (113), an understatement indeed.

Certainly, chick-lit authors can claim more than two literary influences and Harzewski considers some possible twentieth-century precursors. She acknowledges that Imelda Whelehan has covered similar territory in her excellent study of popular women’s novels from the late 1960s and ’70s. In The Feminist Bestseller, Whelehan contended that chick lit shared common themes and literary devices with bestselling novels of the second-wave feminist era, including confessional narrative techniques that invite reader identification and a realistic treatment of women’s concerns with family, work, friendship and sex. Harzewski’s selections, some dating earlier (1920s-60s), extend the range of popular novels bearing kinship to chick lit. Her process of selection, however, is rather narrow and often seems more haphazard than meaningful. For example, she isolates two pre-WWII “career-girl novels”: Dawn Powell’s Wither (1925) and Faith Baldwin’s Skyscraper (1931). Certainly, these novels do share contemporary chick lit’s focus on urban, career life, but other popular novels of the same era could easily have been included, as well. For instance, Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the bestseller of 1925, which prompted a fan letter from Edith Wharton, may bear greater resemblance to contemporary chick lit in its use of first-person narration, its flawed, materialistic protagonist and allusions to sexual license. Harzewski’s selections of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963) and Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman (1970) are more problematic. Her contention that these “mental illness” stories anticipate the appearance of a “neurotic” protagonist in chick lit strains credulity on two levels: can characters who struggle with confidence and self-esteem issues accurately be called neurotic? And more importantly, can the serious portraits of mental illness in Plath’s and Atwood’s novels be compared to the lighthearted, humorous travails of chick lit heroines obsessed with their appearance and/or weight? Only Gail Parent’s Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York (1972) fits comfortably here, for, as Harzewski notes, not only does it exhibit the self-deprecating humor we associate with chick lit and share the genre’s critique of modern dating pressures on women, it has been cited by “Jennifer Weiner and Melissa Senate as a founding text of the chick lit genre” (133).

While Harzewski has extended the range of texts that might form part of the genre’s modern history, then, the unevenness of her analysis suggests that more work needs to be done by chick-lit scholars to develop meaningful connections among “feminist bestsellers” of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As the author herself notes, “we need to exercise discernment in claiming titles as chick lit because they are female-oriented, employ first-person narration, or are set in a city. Chick lit should be viewed primarily as a comedic genre deliberately written for women, whose light-heartedness and optimism upstage social criticisms” (147).

This observation makes me question Harzewski’s choice of title, which may lead readers to expect a sustained analysis of chick lit in relation to postfeminist politics, in place of the thorough study of the genre that the book actually provides. In the book’s final chapter, Harzewski does provide a brief overview of the contested definitions of the term postfeminism, concluding that they range from negative (e.g., Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra) to positive (e.g., the various champions of the third-wave feminist movement) to neutral. To be fair, attention to postfeminism has been a recurrent trend of chick-lit criticism, for the two terms were fused in one of chick lit’s first appearances: in a title originally used by Cris Mazza and Jeffrey DeShell for a collection of alternative feminist fiction (and Mazza herself has recounted the story of what she contends is its misappropriation). Whelehan has also claimed in The Feminist Bestseller that “both feminist bestsellers of the 1970s and the bestselling genre loosely known as chick lit are in dialogue with feminism” (5). Perhaps given that the overwhelming majority of chick lit novels are written by women about women and for women, attention to feminist politics is both inevitable and necessary. Certainly, one can argue, as Harzewski, Whelehan and others have, that chick lit novels dramatize, with great verisimilitude, the social realities facing contemporary young women as they negotiate a shifting set of expectations for career and relationships—at least those women who are educated, urban and white.[1] However, to the chagrin of some critics, such as Tasker and Negra, they do not engage directly with feminist politics. So it may be misleading to define chick lit, as Harzewski does, as “the most culturally visible form of postfeminist fiction” (8) without a clear definition of postfeminist. At various times in her book, the term is used to describe “a confusion of girlhood and womanhood” (9), “a manifestation of the spirit of capitalism being displaced onto the intimate life” (100), a negotiation of “the tensions between feminism and femininity” (150), and an “insistence on the right to female sexual pleasure” (152).

Harzewski appears to come closest to agreeing with Rosalind Gill that a postfeminist “sensibility” characterizes chick lit. She claims that “chick lit as a temper of postfeminism seems to express the fact that feminism’s gains in the professional arena have not abated the desire for romance” (180). As such it is not “antifeminist” (181), but does not offer an identifiable political position at all. And it might be worth asking whether it is right to expect works of literature—even or especially those written by women—to do so. As Harzewski claims, “it is not fully fair to judge chick lit as a template for some twenty-first-century transnational feminist how-to guide” (192).

The strength of this book lies, not in considering chick lit as a manifestation of postfeminism, however it’s defined, but as a group of contemporary literary texts with ties to classic and popular literature of the past. Its great benefit to chick-lit scholarship is in taking the texts seriously as works of literature, as texts which are often cleverly and creatively engaged in reappropriating and rewriting generic conventions while providing enormous pleasure to readers—and not just women. Just as not all romance fiction should be dismissed as formulaic, nor should all chick lit be written off as disposable, commercial trash. Instead, selected works deserve scholarly attention and reward serious literary study. Harzewski has outlined some possible directions such an analysis might take, by considering chick lit’s generic conventions and situating the texts in the history of popular romantic fiction. Her work paves the way for scholars of both romance and chick lit to take up the threads of her investigation or to pursue other directions of literary analysis.

Works Cited

Butler, Pamela and Jigna Desai. “Manolos, Marriage, and Mantras: Chick-lit Criticism and Transnational Feminism.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 8 (2008): 1-31. Print.

Donadio, Rachel. “The Chick-Lit Pandemic.” New York Times. March 19, 2006. Web.

Ferriss, Suzanne and Mallory Young. Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Gibbons, Fiachra. “Stop Rubbishing Chick Lit, Demands Novelist.” The Guardian 21 Aug. 2003. Web.

Gill, Rosalind. “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 10 (2007): 147-166. Print.

— and Elena Herdieckerhoff. “Rewriting the Romance: New Femininities in Chick Lit?” Feminist Media Studies 6 (2006): 487-504. Print.

Guerrero, Lisa A. “Sistahs Are Doin’ It for Themselves.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 87-101. Print.

Hale, Elizabeth. “Long Suffering Females: The Case of Nanny Lit.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 103-118. Print.

Harman, Claire. Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009. Print.

Lynch, Deidre. Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000. Print.

Mazza, Cris. “Who’s Laughing Now?: A Short History of Chick Lit and the Perversion of a Genre.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 17-28. Print.

Séllei, Nóra. “Bridget Jones and Hungarian Chick Lit.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 173-189. Print.

Tasker, Yvonne and Diane Negra. Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

Wells, Juliette. “Mothers of Chick Lit? Women Writers, Readers, and Literary History.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction, ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young. New York: Routledge, 2006. 47-70. Print.

Whelehan, Imelda. The Feminist Bestseller: From Sex and the Single Girl to Sex and the City. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.


[1] Harzewski questions “the social accuracy of postfeminism as a descriptive term” and asks “whether this term can still be used responsibly outside the context of white Anglo-American metropolitan feminism” (23). This may explain her book’s paucity of allusions to varieties of chick lit that feature protagonists who are not exclusively white Britons or Americans. While limited, there are examples of chick lit that feature African-American, Eastern European, Indonesian, Indian, and Hispanic protagonists (see, for example, Butler and Desai, Donadio, Guerrero, and Séllei).

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Review: A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-first Century, by Cristina Nehring

It’s unlikely to surprise readers of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies that a book that promises to reclaim romance for our century makes no mention of the popular romance novel. Or that author Cristina Nehring evinces no curiosity whatever, either about the consistent reading habits of vast numbers of women or the robust sales of romance fiction during this time of economic hardship at the new century’s beginning. At the very least, however, this disjuncture is worth this journal’s attention. If, as Nehring has it, passionate attraction has been “defused and discredited” and “streamlined, safety-checked, and emptied of spiritual consequence,” how do we account for the fact that popular romance novels—promising risk, danger, adventure, and much, much more—continue to fly off the bookstore shelves?

“We have submitted Eros so relentlessly to our enlightened agendas of self-protection and indulgence…” Nehring announces, “that it has grown anemic.” Challenge and exhilaration have been forsworn or forgotten, the clash of big, passionate egos forbidden or at very least frowned upon: lovers exist in a state of permanent truce, an ongoing regime of power-sharing. The negotiated daily task lists and the hard-won niceness and fairness attending so many contemporary domestic arrangements have all helped shrink and shrivel the power of erotic attraction. The easy accessibility of erotic toys and ready acceptance of kink is merely the funhouse-mirror image of this timid new civility.

Erotic life, in sum, is duller, less exhilarating, and less authentic than it could be—perhaps, Nehring says, than it has been at other times and in other situations, when real romantic love, conceived in the besotted wisdom of the lover’s perception of the beloved, took shape amid conditions of inequality, absence and separation. Transgressive in practice, it was heroic in the face of failure. Whereas now, by striving for fairness and equality, by making try after try at open communication and clear, demystifying vision—in all our feeble attempts to make our relationships work in the short run of viable domestic life—contemporary couples only make matters worse.

Boldly anti-PC as it might be in content, in its form this argument is hardly new. At least since the French Revolution, polemicists in this mode have been relocating authenticity to earlier, pre-liberal, pre-modernizing thought and action, typically with very little real-world proof.[1] Most notably and successfully, perhaps, this form of argument was achieved with manic genius when Nietzsche situated the fall from grace in the thought of Socrates and Euripides and along the way redirected the academic canon toward the tough, tragic pre-Socratics.

Proudly polemical, serenely unconstrained by her weaknesses of social analysis, Nehring makes her points with impressive chutzpah. Her aim is to sound a note of dissatisfaction with the status quo and construct a countervailing body of inspiration. Or at least a reconstituted reading list: aspiring to a braver, brainier, sexier female amatory tradition, she situates the romantic lives of literary, intellectual women (and some men: Socrates is one of the tough, heroic lovers here) within a lineage of quest stories, fairy tales, and heroic renaissance epics. Fidelity is continually and often violently tested in this or that Patient Griselda variant; Tristan and Iseult unite and part and unite again; the virtue of the quest lies in its repeated attempts at the grail rather than the grail’s capture.

A vivacious storyteller, Nehring makes charming entertainment from antique narrative forms—at least until all the redundancies begin to blur together, finally to resemble a feminist community mural of a generation ago, with Mary Wollstonecraft, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Simone de Beauvoir, and a host of other favorite writing women and their consorts joined hand-in-hand with Achilles, the Amazon princess Penthesilia, and the Wife of Bath. “Herstory,” we used to call this clunky circle dance of inspiration. In Nehring’s svelter twenty-first century makeover, it reads like a set of smart, flirtatious post-feminist seminar papers, the most useful and memorable of which emerge from the examples that bracket the book: the lives and loves, writings and reputations of Mary Wollstonecraft and Katha Pollitt.

Wollstonecraft, of course, is the inventor of modern feminism and wrote two Vindications of her own: of the Rights of Men and, later, more famously, of the Rights of Woman. Attempting, at the end of the eighteenth century, to live her erotic and affective life outside of the bounds of conventional marriage, she met with some painful rejections, underwent deep depression, and twice attempted suicide.

Rejection, depression, and all, Nehring is right to admire Wollstonecraft’s amatory experiments as part of her feminist achievement. As she’s also right to decry Wollstonecraft’s critics, from disapproving female contemporaries to the 1970s feminist academics who remained embarrassed that so remarkable a woman could have been driven to suicide by men far less worthy of history’s attention.

And if you’re tempted to object that the 1970s were over a long time ago, take a look (as Nehring does) at the recent case of Katha Pollitt, whose witty political essays in The Nation have been beating back the tides of reactionary, sexist fatuity for decades (and whose first essay collection, Reasonable Creatures, also took its title from Wollstonecraft).

In 2007 Pollitt published a memoir. Learning to Drive: And Other Life Lessons began (though it didn’t end) with a story of failed love less tragic but more embarrassing than Wollstonecraft’s. Shabbily treated by a cheating longtime live-in lover, Pollitt didn’t attempt suicide. Instead (after tossing him out), she Googled him compulsively, perhaps for months. It must be stressed that she never did anything but point, click, agonize, and eventually recover to create a funny, honest and breathtakingly skillful rendering of the particularly awful public/private nature of rejection in our time—and sadly, to cause more than one latter-generation feminist reviewer considerable chagrin and disillusionment, that a movement icon could be driven to such lengths by a man[2].

Nehring is absolutely right to insist that when feminists don’t accord themselves and each other the right to be as feckless, as daring, and as disappointed at love as anybody else, feminism hasn’t come as far as it ought. But feminists and post-feminists ought to be able to read a text in its specificity, rather than merely look to it for ideology or inspiration. Unfailingly celebratory of strength found amid the excesses of violent passion, Nehring’s readings are otherwise slight, her range of reference surprisingly narrow.

Forget about popular romance fiction—I found it remarkable how few novels beyond The Sorrows of Young Werther she attends to. And when she does turn to the classic nineteenth century British novels, she does so with distressing shallowness—managing, for example, to draw an upbeat self-help message from a glancing treatment of Wuthering Heights, wherein “through his love of Cathy, Heathcliff acquires the courage to leave Wuthering Heights, conquer the world, and return to conquer his detractors.” Talk about “trivialization” and “domestication”: one of the great literary productions of failed love (and failed adulthood) comes off here as an inspirational self-esteem pep-talk.

Of course, as the entire discussion of Wuthering Heights (along with Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre) is shoehorned into a mere page and a half, there could be hardly room for much about the post-epistolary novel’s wide-angle view of place and routine, let alone about the restless ironies and complexities of free indirect third-person discourse. Perhaps Nehring’s editor insisted that her Vindication couldn’t go to print without at least mentioning Jane Austen; but whatever the reason, the mention she does make is coy and cursory.[3] Or perhaps this section is so weak precisely because (as I extrapolate the logic of A Vindication of Love) it’s the parallel and contemporaneous developments of the companionate marriage ethic and the realistic English novel that have dealt some major body blows to Nehring’s version of Eros.

Nehring seems to prefer literary forms that tend toward speech, exhaust themselves in a blaze of self-revelation, and are more about their speaker than their object. Love letters, lyric poetry, her own style of polemic: none of these build toward an overarching conclusion but rise and fall in series, bringing to mind an observation made by the man Nehring tells us she “learned the most about love” from. In Love in the Western World, Denis de Rougement said that:

Passion and expression are not really separable. Passion comes to birth in that powerful impetus of the mind which also brings language into existence. So soon as passion goes beyond instinct and becomes truly itself, it tends to self-description, either in order to justify or intensify its being, or else simply in order to keep going.[4]

Nehring does indeed keep going, most certainly toward dramatic yet highly generalized self-description. You’ll find her book convincing, I suspect, to the extent that you’re engaged by an authorial persona given to confiding that she bears “the bodily scars of a loss or two in love,” having been “derailed by love, hospitalized by love, flung around five continents, shaken, overjoyed, inspired, and unsettled by love.” For my part, I began to feel trapped in a room with the Marianne Dashwood of the first half of Sense and Sensibility, with no Elinor in sight.

Struggling to understand why the bulk of Nehring’s reconstituted erotic literary tradition finally left me cold, I discovered that contrariwise, while reading her book I hadrather renewed my admiration for the nineteenth century realist novel and become all the more appreciative of the Marianne/Elinor dialogue that weighs good against good amid the conundrums of passion versus propriety, spontaneity versus social memory, and self versus community.

The conventional wisdom would have it, I guess, that we turn to those Austen remakes (and perhaps romance novels as well?) for their Laura Ashley prettiness, their promises of flights of reactionary escapism. But could it instead be that we look to them for visions of love within communities that we no longer know how to achieve or even describe? Perhaps the endless hunger for Austen remakes comes now because we’re drowning in memoir and other celebrations of the individual ego, from performance art to reality TV. My own prejudice (and probably why I write historical romance) is that romantic love has always been threatened and besieged, in ways that can be writ large within sets of manners that aren’t quite our own. But if love is in any greater danger these days than ever before, might not the threat lie within some contemporary surfeit of ego, and not (as Nehring has it) in the self’s domestication?

Nehring is surely right that feminism has created a new set of challenges for passion. Equal personhood is a tough slog; the burdens of shared day-to-day responsibility are daunting. We find our sources of passion and expression where we may. The question of how we love now is wider and deeper, more generally and continually engaging, than Nehring’s Vindication ever thought to ask.


[1] I borrow this point from Doody, Margaret Anne. The True Story of the Novel. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996, 18. Print.

[2] Salter Reynolds, Susan. “And Another Thing; Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories.” Los Angeles Times Book Review 9 September, 2007, 7. Print. And (for a richer, more complicated take), see Traister, Rebecca. “The Feminist Who Made Me Blush.” Salon.com. Salon Media Group, 26 Sept. 2007. Web.

[3] Nehring, p. 68: “Austen’s silver-tongued heroine hones her wit, multiplies her pride, and learns to say some eloquent ‘no’s.’ If she says yes to Mr. Darcy in the end, it is only because she has reconstructed him from the ground up.”

[4] de Rougement, Denis. Love in the Western World.Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983, 173. Print.

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