Knox's latest heroine, May Fredericks, is your quintessential Midwestern good girl. May "hated drama and anger, disapproval, any kind of tension" (Kindle Loc 1664), and constantly finds herself apologizing, even for things that are clearly not her fault. She often does her best to be invisible, but disappearing can be a bit difficult "when you were five foot, eleven-and-three-quarters inches and had some meat on your bones" (Loc 75). We're introduced to her shortly after her penchant for keeping her true feelings bottled up has come embarrassingly, publicly uncorked—the rejection of a most suitable suitor, a rejection involving lots of cameras, lots of witnesses, and the less-than-conventional use of an uncommon table utensil. And after a series of mishaps had left her alone, without money or ID, loitering in a New York bar devoted to Green Bay Packers fans, hoping to find a friendly Midwesterner to offer her a helping hand.
Instead, May finds herself "rescued" by belligerent Ben Hausman. Ben, like May, is in the midst of major life upheavals—recently divorced, the restaurant in which he'd been chef and co-owner taken away in the settlement, unable to take on another cooking job due to a non-compete clause, and squatting in the apartment of a friend who is due to return home in a week. Surly and angry, he's about as far from an affable Midwesterner as anyone could find:
He'd wanted to be the best chef in New York. And that was great, except he'd also been a miserable bastard with stress-induced hypertension, insomnia, and a tendency to fly into unprovoked rages. He'd screamed at his kitchen staff and fought with his wife so much, they'd practically made an Olympic sport of it. (Loc 255)
Part of May's journey involves a make-over scene, a standard trope of romance fiction. Yet in Knox's hands, the make-over is less about a transformation from ash girl to princess than about allowing May's true self to be seen—not by others, but by May herself:
It wasn't Dan's May, plain and steady. This was a tall stranger whose honey-blond hair had dried wavy and windblown. An unknown woman in snakeskin pants who looked like she might eat you up and spit out your bones if you crossed her. This was the woman who'd exacted vengeance against Dan for wrecking what was supposed to be one of the most beautiful moments of her life. A powerful, impolite, passionate woman. And the weird thing was, May recognized her. She was the person May had always known she was, deep down. The person no one had ever encouraged her to be. But in New York, she could be whoever she liked. (Loc 1447)
Rejecting social messages that large women are not sexy, that nice girls never get angry, that other people's worries are not always your responsibility to fix, is not a one-time event for May; rooting out internalized sexism is not easy, and takes a lot of practice. May does a lot of backtracking, two steps forward, one step back. But recognizing that "there was no black line drawn through her life, no way of making herself over into a new person at a moment's notice. There were only the choices she made, each of them separate and individual" is a vital, life-changing shift (Loc 2655). As is understanding that each choice is a political one, either a passive acceptance of internalized sexism or a shout of protest against it. A woman who damns her Spanks, who learns to express her needs during sex, and who refuses to let a man who gives up on her steal away her hope seems well on her way to yanking out the invidious tendrils that internalized sexism implants in every woman living in a culture grounded in patriarchal ideals.
Are there other romances that confront internalized sexism that I'm not remembering? Not books just about self-esteem issues, but ones with a protagonist learning to recognize and reject the stereotypically negative messages about femininity culture conveys?
Women's brains: Femina invicta
Nice Girls Don't: Audrey Nelson
Ruthie Knox, Truly
(originally published via Wattpad, 2013)