Feminists don't have a sense of humor
Feminists just want to be alone (boo-hoo)
Feminists spread vicious lies and rumor
They have a tumor on their funny bone
|Nellie McKay and her feminist "whine"|
Something that this feminist has not been finding very funny is the way many romance novels use feminists or feminism as the butt of a joke. Often this is done in the name of humor; extremes of behavior are often funny, and those who devote themselves to a cause, even some feminists, can sometimes go to extremes. Yet humor can also function to cover over anxieties that feminism and feminists evoke, or to implicitly undermine feminist ideology, even when a book's explicit message is a feminist one.
I've noticed some common patterns in the dissing of feminism in romance novels. See if any of these sound familiar:
Feminist Mothers as Objects of Humor
The heroines of novels being published today often feature mothers who came of age during the 60s and 70s. Several recent romances give openly feminist mothers to their heroines, mothers who serve not only as a positive role model but also as painfully glaring source of embarrassment. In Julie James' Practice Makes Perfect, high-powered corporate lawyer Payton Kendall finds her mother's goal of raising a child to "live and think freely" simply a cover for feminist brainwashing. Payton agrees with some of her mother's positions (as the novel makes obvious--see Tuesday's post), but "just not to the same degree" (66). Payton's feminism is personal (I don't think people should wear fur, so I won't wear it), in contrast to her mother's overtly political stance (protesting by throwing paint on fur-wearing patrons as they leave the Gucci store).
The mother in Pamela Clare's Extreme Exposure is also cast as a feminist, but one whose new age leanings make her daughter wish for "a normal mother like everyone else, someone who would bake cookies, wear an apron, and let her grandson call her Grandma instead of insisting he use her first name" (37). Lily McMillan, like Lex Kendall, is also a public protester, most recently going topless during a protest in favor of public breastfeeding. Lily's activism irritates daughter Kara as much as it gives her pride.
The extremity of both Lex Kendall's and Lily McMillan's public protests make them into objects of humor for the reader, and embarrassment for the novel's heroines. But such humor simultaneously makes a depoliticized feminism seem normal, in contrast to the "extremes" of Lex and Lily's behavior.
Heroes who Insult Feminism
Extreme Exposure also features several passages in which the hero, Reece Sheridan, jokingly references feminism to undermine his lover's strength. After Kara receives a death threat phone call, Reece offers to stop by on his way home from work:
"Oh! Well... I don't think that's necessary. It's kind of you to offer, Reece, truly, but I don't need you to rescue me." She sounded... surprised, flustered, uncertain.
Hadn't anyone tried to "rescue" her before? Even as the question occurred to him, he knew the answer. She'd never had a father or a husband. She was used to taking care of herself.
"I don't mean to steal your feminist mojo, sweet heart, but what if I want to rescue you?" (84)
And late at night, when Kara and Reece are sleeping in her bedroom, Kara hears someone outside her house:
The fear on her face sent tentacles of anger twining through his gut. Reece got out of bed and, still naked, strode toward the bedroom door. "Stay here. If anything happens, push the panic button."
"But I should be the one to check! It's my house, and you shouldn't have to do it just because you're the man."
He cast her a withering glance that was probably lost in the darkness. "Burn a bra if you want, but don't be ridiculous." (186)
Though both these scenes are written from Reece's point of view, leaving open the possibility that neither the novel nor Kara endorses Reece's insults to feminism, Kara does in each instance allow Reece to get his way. A romance that teaches a heroine to share her burdens with her partner is fine, but one that uses insults to feminism to undermine a heroine's independence and self-sufficiency? Not so much.
Feminism as the repressive mother
The most common feminist-dissing trope I've noticed is a scene in which feminism is set up as the voice of shame in the bedroom, in opposition to the pleasure-seeking desires of the female body. Such oppositions can occur even in the midst of a book that embraces feminism. Take for example, Victoria Dahl's Start Me Up (which I wrote about last month):
"Put your hands on the headboard." His voice had lost any amusement. The words seem to rumble through the room and trace over her skin.
Lori put her hands on the headboard.
The electric slide of his hand down the small of her back made her shiver. "Good girl."
A jolt of lust swept through her belly, to her absolute mortification. You do not have daddy issues, she told her body in her best feminist voice. Her body responded by arching back in a blatant effort to please him. Hussy the stern voice hissed, but hussy was no insult to her greedy body. (150)
Feminism here has somehow come to stand in for the stereotypical bad mother, chastising young girls for their sexual feelings, specifically, for any sexual feelings that result when a woman obeys an aggressive, dominant man. The "stern" "hissing" voice of feminism chastises the female body that gets turned on by being submissive, labeling it "hussy." Such an elision of feminism and mothering seems particularly problematic given feminism's long history of championing of women's rights to freely express their sexuality.
Laughing at the anti-feminists
Despite often featuring far more jokes at the expense of feminism than one would hope for in a genre written primarily for women, by women, romance novels also contain more than their share of jokes at the expense of those who embrace more conservative constructions of femininity. Sometimes the two types of jokes appear in the very same book, suggesting that even those writers who openly embrace feminism can find it difficult to completely free themselves from the influences of our culture's disdain of it. To end this post with a laugh, I leave you once again with Julie James' Payton Kendall, and her thoughts on the ridiculous limitations that her conservative friend, Laney, places on herself and on other women by trying to meet the contradictory dictates of conventional femininity. Payton is about to go on a blind date set up by Laney:
Thankfully, Laney had approved of her choice in locale, SushiSamba Rio, which was upscale ("no feminist BS, Payton—let him pay") although not overtly flashy ("but don't order anything over twenty-five dollars; you don't want to look like a materialist hussy"). (85)
Have you seen these feminist-dissing patterns, or others, in your own romance novel reading?
Nellie McKay: Ted Talks
"When I Grow Up": Literary Legs
Protesting Mother: Tennessee Guerilla Women
"I need feminism because": Who Needs Feminism?
"Feminism is Funny": Effervescent Ennui
Next time on RNFF: E. Lockhart's Ruby Oliver series