I can think of many romances that feature working-class heroes (or at least, heroes with working-class jobs, such as construction workers, mechanics, and the like, even if they don't speak or think in a different social register than their middle-class heroines). But when was the last time I read a romance with a maidservant, a factory worker, or a shopkeeper as the female lead? Unless, that is, the romance is version of the Cinderella story, with said working-class heroine swept away from her life of drudgery by means of her love for a far more economically-privileged hero.
|She's got both dresses; now she just needs the prince...|
Perhaps, since romance is often viewed as an escape from everyday drudgery, it is unrealistic to expect blue-collar heroines and working-class concerns to take up much shelf space in the romance section at the library or bookstore. Yet even in romances with clearly middle- or upper-class heroines, denigration of working class women can seep into the background. Sometimes done deliberately (the crass woman providing comic relief), other times simply part of the assumptions of the narrator of heroine, such belittling portrayals can undermine the more positive messages in an otherwise feminist romance.
One of the reasons I admire Kristan Higgins' My One and Only is the way it forces its readers to recognize the prevalence of negative depictions of working class women, by forcing its protagonist, divorce lawyer Harper James, to confront her own anti-feminist classism. Harper comes from working-class stock (her grandfather a fisherman, her dad working construction), and lives in the one working-class neighborhood on pricey Martha's Vineyard. But Harper attended Amherst College, "receiving a stellar education at an extremely feminist-slanted college," which instilled the confidence "that the world held no boundaries," she and her classmates "planning to Do Important Things" (63). The novel thus suggests that Harper's desire to become an environmental lawyer stems not only from her commitment to preserving nature, but from her education at that high-falutin' bastion of feminism, Amherst.
But another potential reason lies in the story's depiction of Harper's stepmother. Only a year after her real mother left her thirteen-year-old daughter, never to return, Harper's taciturn father came home from a Las Vegas conference (one, ironically, focused on green building materials) with thrice-married BeverLee, a walking, talking "Trailer Park Barbie" whose most "intellectually simulating literature" consisted of Us Weekly (33, 35). From Harper's first mention of "BeverLee of the Big Blond Hair," readers know that this is a woman the educated lawyer has little desire to emulate. Though Harper never comes out and condemns BeverLee for her class position, the class-based markers Harper uses to describe her tell us that BeverLee is different from Harper, different in a way that invites Harper's (and readers') laughter, perhaps even scorn. From the spelling of her name to her Texas twang, from her love for weddings "whether in the family, the tabloids, or on one of the three soap operas she watched religiously" to her constant refrain of cheery platitudes, from the cigarette she holds in one hand to the can of Jhirmack extra hold hairspray in the other, BeverLee serves as the anti-Harper, the embodiment of educated feminists' fears of being labelled as lacking "class," in the multiple senses of the word.
Yet the roots of Harper's classism lie deeper than the obvious villain of college-instilled feminism. The narrative holds off on telling us about these roots until fairly close to the end of the book, at the point in the story when Harper begins to understand the reasons why her first marriage failed so spectacularly. Not only because Harper feared to commit herself wholeheartedly to said marriage, as her ex-husband believes, and not just because he refused to acknowledge her needs, as she believes. But because Harper has spent so much time being afraid of being abandoned again that she's too scared to tell her ex what she needs and desires, especially when said needs and desires might hurt him.
But BeverLee knows what Harper needs, and has been there for her throughout her growing up, despite Harper's constant rejection. Only after Harper acknowledges this, acknowledges how much she's been blinded by her class-based judgments of "Trailer Park Barbie" BeverLee, can Harper move on and repair the other relationships in her life that she's damaged by her refusal to see them in all their multifaceted sides—especially the one with her "one and only" love, ex-husband Nick.
Interestingly, while the novel insists that mother-daughter relationships can transcend class boundaries, it simultaneously suggests that romantic relationships cannot. At least not when class is constructed in terms of education and level of intellectual engagement. Harper's current boyfriend, "young Dennis," is all that a girl could want—easygoing, good-looking, a hard worker, a heroic firefighter. Yet it is not his rattail, his junky car, or his continually calling her "Dude," that signals to readers that Dennis is far from Harper's perfect match. Instead, it is the lack of intellectual exchange in which the two are able to engage. Dennis's interests do not include much beyond the Red Sox and playing on his X-box, interests that can hardly keep the attention of keenly intelligent Harper for more than a few minutes at a time. Condescendingly directing Dennis's life as if she were his mother rather than his lover, Harper demonstrates to readers far earlier than she recognizes herself that she is no match for the kind but decidedly dim Dennis.
A contradiction in class-based messages? Or an accurate assessment of the differences between parental and romantic love? Would love to hear your thoughts...
And would love to hear of any other romances with working class heroes AND heroines, or cross-class romances in which class-based assumptions cause difficulties in the relationship, rather than being simply glossed over in a Cinderella-imposed romantic haze.
Cinderella costume: Wild Nights Fancy Dress Company
Trailer Park Barbie: Trish-the-stalker, Deviant Art
Next time on RNFF:
Children in romance