Friday, March 21, 2014


Imagine you're a college professor, faced with a classroom of smart, empowered, independent, self-determining young women. Imagine, then, asking those postfeminist women about their expectations of love. Will you be surprised to find that most of your students still hold tight to the "old idea of a woman's value as defined through her ability to attain the love of the high-status man lives on to a surprising degree"? That the "lure of being chosen by the desirable man who pursues, and the fear or not being seen as a desirable object worthy of emotional attachment, are more powerful than the threat of what they might lose through submergence in a relationship" (xi)?

Be empowered...
The "double bind" facing modern young women—the expectation society holds out that girls should simultaneously embrace their own power and serve as a desirable objects worthy of a male's emotional attachment—both intrigued and disturbed Professor Susan Ostrov Weisser, so much so that she wrote an entire book, The Glass Slipper: Women and Love Stories, which attempts to explore why, in our postfeminist age, stories of love are still predominantly aimed at women, not at men, and whether women benefit personally and as a gender from them.

...but make sure you "make him want you more!"
Examining popular romances from diverse genres—literary novels, genre romances, romantic film comedies, magazines, Disney movies, and reality television shows—Ostrov argues that the "master narrative of current romantic literature" is symbolized by Cinderella's glass slipper: "the Glass Slipper is a trope for the 'perfect fit' of the romantic couple and particularly women's wish to be chosen as the One, whose value is at last recognized and rewarded at the moment she is discovered as perfect for him" (1). Though many modern love narratives "seem to take seriously feminism's advocacy of equal gender roles, leading to an egalitarian partnership or marriage," the prevalence of the Glass Slipper trope points to a "strong wave of nostalgia for traditional ideas of gender" (2). The "modern ideology of love's democratizing power" serves as an often ill-fitting mask covering the older agenda.

While the Cinderella tale has existed for centuries, the Glass Slipper trope is of more recent origin, Weisser argues. In Western society before the Victorian age, marriage and passionate romantic love were not typically linked. Earlier conceptions of marriage as a value exchange (women give attractiveness, domestic labor, and breeding rights to their husbands in exchange for economic provision and social status) had begun to shift during the eighteenth century, toward the companionate marriage, or "love match." But the "love" portion of the "love match" meant something far different to late eighteenth-century society than it does to our contemporary one. As Weisser notes, both conservative Jane Austen and radical Mary Wollstonecraft "devalued 'romantic' views of love as flighty, inimical to the importance of rationality and judgment, companionship, sensible affection, education and culture, and admiration of good character in marriage" (37). The Romantic movement revivified an earlier vision of love, one linked to "sexual desire, intense and all-consuming" passion (38), but it would take the Victorians to domesticate this heightened emotion, working to control it by placing it within the bounds of marriage. Much of the master narrative of our contemporary romance narratives relies on this historically specific linkage of passionate love to monogamous marital relations, with a late 20th century addition of female sexual empowerment.

Two powerful paradoxical visions of love coexist in the minds of Weisser's students, and in much American discourse about romance, both legacies of past views of love. First, "the mystery of passion" and second,

the knowledge and control that allow enduring affection to thrive in a permanent and primary relationship. We blithely live with these paradoxical convictions: on the one hand, the prevailing wisdom is that you "have to work at relationships," while on the other, love relationships are "meant to be" in some mysterious way. There are whole sackfuls of clichés that support each of these ideas. My sophisticated students will readily mouth both unquestioningly; oddly, they may sneer at "fate" as an overly romanticized causal explanation, yet say that a particular relationship was "not mean to be" to justify or console themselves after a breakup. (9)

Passion & companionship? One then the other?
Or are the two at odds?
We reconcile these two opposing view of love by seeing them as serially true, or what Weisser terms the "stages theory of romantic love": "first comes the passion, then a more 'mature' version of romance will develop out of the first stage, which will be permanent if the object is the One [the Glass Slipper trope]. In other words, the magic comes first, and that enables the rational relationship" (9). Passionate love, viewed in earlier times as destructive, rule-breaking, often adulterous (think Lancelot and Guinevere), and in many ways at odds with monogamous marriage, has now become incorporated into monogamous marriage, as a "feeling that enables relationships. But we moderns don't want to relinquish passion—it's a popular theme of our culture... so the much older rhetoric of transcendent emotion and intense sexuality has had to be incorporated into our larger social system of marriage and family" (9).

Why should we, in our postfeminist age, still hew to the Glass Slipper trope, a vision of romance that arose during the Victorian age, in response to social and historical pressures of that period, not our own? Weisser argues that "in a society in which there are suddenly greater sexual freedoms than ever, women counter their anxiety about continuing sexual exploitation by clinging to romantic love as a kind of emotional affirmation that they are worth more than the exchange value of their bodies" (xi). Her analysis in the chapters that form the body of her book undertake close readings of overwhelmingly popular romance narratives—Jane Eyre, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Glamour and Cosmopolitan magazines, The Bridges of Madison County, Disney's The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, the Sex and the City films, the Twilight trilogy, Harlequin romances, the television shows The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, Internet dating site profiles—trace the ways in which these texts gesture to feminist principles but also continue to espouse "a common fear of giving up traditional ideology, in which women will be respected only if loved by men" (208).

Weisser's decision to focus on breadth in regards to genre necessarily leads to a narrow scope within each of her chapters. Thus it can often feel as if she is shooting fish in a barrel, choosing the three or four obvious texts that best work to support her claims rather than seeing if a genre overall conforms to them. Much of her analysis of specific texts, too, repeats arguments or ideas that other critics have posed long before her, works that Weisser herself does not refer to (for example, I've read many other analyses of Disney's Beauty and the Beast that challenge the early praise of the film as feminist; I'm sure film, television, and other media scholars could say the same about chapters devoted to texts in their areas of specialty). Still, her close readings of diverse types of narrative are all insightful, nuanced, and persuasive, and, taken as a whole, provide clear evidence to support the major arguments she poses in her Introduction.

Though I admired its close readings, I found the book's Introduction and Conclusion to contain the most food for thought as a scholar and writer of romance. Weisser's overarching argument—our ideas about love are "not timeless or universal" or "the pure expression of primitive desires" but rather "historical representations of social issues" (206), representations that change in response to historical and social change—is incredible helpful both for scholars approaching the study of the genre, and for fiction writers wishing to interrogate or question the universality of contemporary romance's depiction of love. Its corollary—that older models of love persist, despite social and cultural changes that would seem to negate their purpose, often surviving in ambivalent tension with newer definitions—urges scholars and writers alike to think about the multiple discourses they might discover or draw upon in their texts.

I especially appreciated Weisser's call for further study of the genre as a whole:

Romance has become a formidable part of contemporary Western culture because it is an easy response to genuine confusion over love and gender, aided by media and profit. We ought to think more carefully about romance, embedded as it is in a multimedia society that is increasingly complex and shifting in its gender values. In particular, we need further analysis of love that neither indicts nor trivializes what is so important to so many women in modern times, one that both appreciates women's needs and is clear-eyed about the price we pay for fulfilling them. (211)

Here's to more works like Weisser's, scholarship that both appreciates and analyzes the books romance readers so love.

Photo credits:
Go Girl: High Heels and Hot Flashes blog
Cosmopolitan cover: Wikipedia
Passion and companionship: Slate

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