Friday, November 20, 2015

What Makes for a Good Battle of the Sexes Romance?

What makes for a good battle of the sexes romance? This question was much on my mind while I read reading Kate Meader's contemporary, Playing with Fire, which made both Publishers Weekly's and The Washington Post's lists of best romances of 2015. Though neither list's summary of the book includes the phrase, I think I can be forgiven for hoping that I'd found my catnip, a romance novel focused on two protagonists of the opposite sex who duke it out not only on their own behalves, but also on behalf of their sex, after reading the following:

...a smart, sexy book that stars Alexandra, a smart-mouthed, rough-and-tumble firefighter who has worked hard to succeed in a world where femininity is considered a weakness. Her hero? The handsome, eligible mayor of Chicago, how is about as masculine as it gets and has clear aspirations for higher office. These two are all wrong for each other, which, of course, makes their eventual match that much more rewarding. Their verbal sparring is tremendously fun, and when they finally succumb to their attraction, sparks fly (literally and figuratively). (Sarah MacLean, Washington Post)

Meader's flawless contemporary is a lust-hate match between a conservative mayor and a female firefighter. She thinks he's anti woman and anti-union; he thinks she's a dangerous hothead. Deft characterization, high stakes, and unabashed sexual hunger drive the gripping fast-paced story. (Publishers Weekly)

In many respects, Meader's book is an ideal romance novel. The writing is crisp, the dialogue is both funny and smart, and the characters each undergo clear development arcs before they can make their unlikely relationship a success. And the sexual tension between its protagonists, Alexandra and Eli, is smoking hot.

But somehow, despite its many positive qualities, I found myself getting really annoyed with Meader's book. And led me to the question, just what, and what doesn't, at least for me, makes for a true battle of the sexes book. Here are a few thoughts.

1. The female combatant has to appreciate other women, and women's concerns

Alexandra is a firefighter, the only woman in Chicago's Engine Company 6. Professionally, then, she is a feminist; she is carving out a job for herself in a traditionally male-only space. Yet Alex grew up surrounded by boys (4 foster brothers), and idolizes her now-dead firefighter adopted father. Because of this, and because of her physical size (larger than the average woman), I got the feeling that she had internalized many of the gender assumptions that typically go along with male, rather than female, socialization.

For example, Alex doesn't tend to have much respect for other women, as she reveals during this interchange with her potential love interest, Eli Cooper, the mayor of Chicago:

"You trade on your looks with the female voters, Mr. Mayor. All style, no substance."
     "So women vote for me because of how I look, and not because of the issues? You're very dismissive of your gender, Alexandra."
     Too right, she always had been. She was tougher and stronger than practically every woman she knew. It bothered her that the female sheep bought shares in the crap Eli Cooper shoveled by the bucketful. (73)

And wth the notable exception of two of her brothers' recently acquired girlfriends (a contrivance which allows characters from previous stories to pop up for guest appearances), Alex does not have, and has never had, she reports, any real female friends. Alex is not a girly girl; are we supposed to assume she ostracized by more typically feminine mean girls as a kid? Alex finds herself far more comfortable in the male world of the firehouse, even despite the male hazing she purportedly must endure (but which, significantly, we are rarely shown), than with other women who are not relatives.

Alex is deemed outspoken, a characteristic that many would find positive (in opposition to Eli, who can't stand Alex's "total lack of a filter"). But the expressions Alex used to express that outspokenness often set me on edge. Not because she swears, but because her language is often unthinkingly misogynistic:

     Across the table in the farmer-chic restaurant Smith & Jones, Alex Dempsey blinked at heir thirty-fourth date in ten months and pondered a suitable response. Perhaps the smartass retort, which she could manage in her sleep. Or the bitch-slap, which would be eminently more satisfying. (1, emphasis added)

"Less than two months to the election and you're hovering under forty percent."
     "All that matters are the numbers on the night."
     "Still, I'm sure you have babies to kiss, MILFs to ogle." Donor dicks to suck. "Don't let me stop you." (8, emphasis added)

"I"m not sure I was prepared for the womankind backlash I'd case if I didn't [rescue Eli from a fire]. Gnashing of teeth, gouging of hair, deflation of breasts. Just doing my part for the sisterhood." (66)

She should pull away, even though she had begged for it [his "brutal" kiss] with her smart mouth" (77)

She hadn't gone to her high school prom because no one had been interested (or brave) enough to ask her, and now she felt like she was getting another chance with the star quarterback. She'd be the envy of all the other bitches. Go Wildcats! (166, emphasis added)

Alex's language and sense of humor make sense from a character standpoint, given the predominantly male environment in which she was raised. Yet her unquestioning adoption of language that relies for much of its charge on denigration of other women makes me more than a little uncomfortable investing in her as a feminist icon.

Occasionally, Alex will say or think something that suggests she's aware of sexism ("Derek Phelan, who was lower than her on the rookie pole but didn't seem to feel the effects. The penis benefit" [86]). But such instances occur far less frequently than thoughts and comments that, intentionally or not, denigrate women. Which really bothered me.

2. No battle in which the sexism is primarily for show

Weirdly, despite Eli's sexist insistence that women shouldn't be firefighters, it is Eli, not Alex, who puts a feminist name to what Alex must be experiencing, both on the job and in her male-dominated family:

For the first time, Eli saw how hard she had it. He'd thought it was limited to institutional misogyny, but she was getting it from every angle. The press, her coworkers, and even the brother who was like a father figure to her. (283)

A man who knows the phrase "institutional misogyny," can use it correctly in a sentence, and actually believes it's real—and he believes men are superior to women? No, not so much, as it turns out. Alex pegged Eli as a "patriarchal woman hating asshole" after Eli "made it clear that firefighting and breasts were incompatible" in the previous book in Meader's series (9). I haven't read Flirting with Fire, but from what occurs in this book, it seems as if Eli's taunting is more a way to deflect attention away from his own attraction to Alex than a reflection of his deeply-held belief in the inferiority of the opposite sex. His campaign manager is a woman, and he appears to have no trouble working with other females. Is it really a battle of the sexes book if one of the battling parties is only expressing sexist beliefs in order to yank the other's chain?

3. No sexist behavior recast as attractive masculinity

While Eli's beliefs aren't really sexist, many of his actions felt misogynistic, at least to this reader. But the novel doesn't endorse such an interpretation of them. Instead, Eli's drive to protect, to control, and to dominate Alex are presented either as sexual turn-ons, or as positive qualities that reflect Eli's appropriately masculine love for Alex. For example

Guy making a decision on behalf of the girl, for her own benefit:

In the novel's opening scene, Eli threatens the police officer with whom Alex is dining with demotion if he doesn't leave Alex mid-date. Said police officer is a jerk, no doubt, talking about Alex behind her back ("Dyke or not, she's up for it tonight. Keeps leaning in to give me a good view, y'know. She's a bit chunky, but they're usually the most grateful ones" [17]), but is Eli any better for taking matters into his own hands, rather than allowing Alex to figure it out for herself? "She was a woman of incredibly poor judgment. And she needed saving from herself," Eli thinks to herself (19). By the end of the book, Eli is apologizing for this behavior, but Alex doesn't say "yeah, jerky behavior!" but smiles, and lets him off the hook.

Traditional romance novel male protectiveness:

Alex saves Eli from a fire (but of course he got caught in said fire because he ran back to save another woman first). And then Eli gets to save Alex in turn, when she passes out from smoke inhalation. In the hospital, after the rescue, the two verbally spar:

"It's a man's job to take care of—"
"Be careful, Mr. Mayor."
"A woman. So it's a good thing I made up for it by saving your ass" (47)

And again, after they first begin fake-dating: 

"After tomorrow with a few pictures online, it won't be necessary. It'll be clear that you're under my protection."
     My protection. Falling under a man's shield was the one thing she had been fighting her whole life, but when Eli said it, she enjoyed an erotically forbidden thrill at the prospect. (109)

And, of course, dominant-guy sexual hotness:

"You need to be taken in hand," he rasped, every word a provocative puff of air against her lips. "You are wayward and out of control, and a danger to yourself, and if I wasn't your boss, if I wasn't worried about all the lines I've no doubt crossed every additional sec on I spend with you, I would be the one to tame you."
     Do it, her lust-scrambled brain urged. Take me in hand. Use those big, forceful hands to take me and tame me. (76)

     "I just don't want to be with someone who doesn't respect me and what I do. Or who's using me to get ahead."
     Kinsey hummed. "Not even for the amazing orgasms, orgasm hog?"
     Alex opened her mouth. Closed it. Maybe she'd been looking at this all wrong. What did it matter what she thought of his worldview, his total lack of political correctness, or even his sketchy motives as long as he was delivering the goods in the bedroom, the hallway, or maybe a fire truck? Since when had she become so fussy? (168-69)

During the novel's climactic scene, in which Eli does some major groveling to atone for his characteristic manipulative ways, he tells Alex, "You said I never saw you as an equal and you were right, but not the way you think. You're a goddess and I'm not worthy to worship at your feet, but I'm happy to spend the rest of my life trying to be good enough for you" (350). Quite a major turnaround from the previous dynamics of their relationship.

But it's not a shift that appears to be permanent, or which excludes Eli acting in the dominating manner to which he has become accustomed. Weirdly, we never hear Eli recanting his belief that women firefighters are less able than male ones, only that "He might never fully come to terms with the dangers she faced in the job she loved, but he didn't nag. Just gave her the support and respect she needed" (359).

And perhaps this is what really makes Playing with Fire not feel like a true battle of the sexes book. As a reader, I'm not sure if Alex wants a romantic relationship in which the partners consider each other equals, or a relationship in which she is dominated by a strong male, or one in which she is worshipped as an all-powerful goddess. I'm guessing that she (and we, by proxy) are supposed to want all three. Simultaneously.

And all without admitting that that is nigh near impossible.

Photo credits:
Challenge Girl Hate: We Heart It
End Institutional Misogyny: crunchings and munchings


  1. I stop reading romances instantly if the female lead says or thinks something like "All my friends are guys, women are soooooo full of drama!" (unless I can see that this is part of the arc of the character). Brrrr.

    1. Anonymous:

      Yes, having a female lead, even unthinkingly, be anti-woman is definitely a turn-off. I guess I thought things would change in this book, given how much praise it has received, so I kept reading...

      -- Jackie

  2. Good post, Jackie. I can't manage a "battle of the sexes" if both heterosexual protagonists are vying for masculinity and erasing and devaluing femininity in the process. I like it when they both balance (see many of Suzanne Brockmann's books) and not only do we see kick-ass women (who support other women) but also men who realize sensitivity is a human trait everyone needs (and mentor other men to that as well).

    1. Thanks, Jen. I forgot to add a line to the end of this post, asking readers what their favorite battle of the sexes romances are. I agree that Suzanne Brockmann's books often fit the bill.

    2. Could you please suggest one of Suzanne Brockmann's books that is the clearest example of that balance between femininity and masculinity for someone who is new to her books? Thanks. -- Dan

  3. I don't think I could read a romance where either the hero or heroine call women 'bitches.' If romances are supposed to be fantasy, then that is one too-real element that definitely kills the fantasy.