Friday, October 21, 2016

Women and Anger in Romance

I have a lot of reasons to be angry lately, both personal and political. But many romance novels, with their strict codes for appropriate female behavior, often don't acknowledge women's right to be or to feel anger. Unless, of course, said anger takes the form of cutting banter with a potential loved one, clever anger serving as a mask for a quite different feeling: sublimated sexual desire. While anger by men is often seen as a positive, a show of strength, a show of masculinity, an angry woman is often viewed as a shrew, a bitch, a woman to be shunned.

So when I came across an exchange of dialogue in Ruby Lang's contemporary romance, Hard Knocks (the second book in her female doctors series, Practice Perfect) that is all about anger, I found myself reaching for a highlighter, wanting to come back and think more about it.

The exchange happens mid-book, and takes place between the romance's two main characters: Helen Chang Frobisher, a neurologist, and Adam Magnus, a professional hockey player. The two met cute when Adam and his teammate land in the hospital after a car accident; soon after, Adam and Helen end up hooking up for a hot one night stand. But soon after their tryst, Helen decides to pen an op ed piece for the local (Portland Oregon) newspaper, calling for the banning of professional hockey because the sport's culture of fighting. And Adam, as a defenseman or "enforcer" for the Oregon Wolves hockey team, feels majorly blindsided and betrayed by the woman he once admired.

The two end up as the informal spokespeople for the two opposing sides of the issue (which is in the local news due to the Wolves' desire for the city to build them a new arena), and thus are thrust continually into one another's paths. Earnest, angry Helen has seen first-hand how how traumatic brain injury can damage a person's life; to engage in a sport that encourages men to beat each other up when the fighting has nothing to do with the game seems pointless, and she's not afraid to argue for banning it. Affable Minnesota farm boy Adam teases Helen for her earnestness, and points to the unwritten rules about fighting that keep hockey from becoming too violent to justify his side.

While on the air and screen, the two appear to be enemies, their sexual chemistry leads them to engage in some clandestine trysts. Gradually, a not-quite-friendship develops, a relationship which includes a lot of talking on the phone while Adam is on long road trips with the team.

During one such phone call, forthright Helen asks Adam an unexpected question:

     "How does it feel to beat people up?" Helen asked.
     The line went quiet for a while.
     "I'm not trying to antagonize," Helen said. "It's just... I watched the game tonight. And I can't help but think about it every time you start circling someone with your skates. He circles back, and I look at the screen and my stomach drops. I can't read your expression. Are you tense? Are you scared? What do you think is going to happen? It's hard for me to watch, sometimes. She laughed. "Every time. But then I can't look away."
     "What are you doing now?" Helen asked softly.
     "I'm sitting on the hotel bed. I'm icing my knee, again. And I'm trying to think of what I'm thinking when that happens."
     "When that happens," Helen said, lightly. "You sound as if you're not in control of it, like it just is this whirlpool that draws you in."
     "It's like that, in a way. I mean, I'm very aware of the things going on around me, the sound of my skates on the ice. I'm looking at where his stick is, and where the other players on his team are. I'm staring at him to see how much this means to him, too. Like, are you going to pull that move again? Am I really going to have to go in there? Does everyone expect it right now? And sometimes, I feel how tired I am. And if I've been playing awhile, I'm wondering how much of what I'm doing is a warning. I'm gauging if what I'm doing is enough. If by simply stopping to look at him, it's enough."
     "It sounds like a complicated calculation."
     "It is. A calculation and a ritual, in a way. But it only takes a few seconds. And the whole time it's happening, my adrenaline is pumping in anticipation of a blow." (Kindle Loc 2142)

Helen's best friend Sarah enthuses about the violence on display when men play hockey—"The world would be so much more orderly if we were all more conscious and responsible and ate our kale. But at the same time, hockey. Something about all that male aggression and sweating and well-defined goals. On ice! I'm a convert" (998)—but Adam's explanation of how it feels to engage in physical conflict during play presents a far more nuanced view. A calculation; a ritual; an uncontrolled force: three very different states of mind, with three very different levels of agency for the person experiencing them.

If Helen were engaging in her talking head role, her response might have taken an aggressive turn. But instead, it leads her to reflect upon her own aggressive impulses:

     Helen swallowed. "Sometimes I feel like I'd really like to beat someone up," she said. "What's worse, it's usually... well, I was in the hospital elevator after biking to work last week and I saw a man in a bowtie, and I wondered, what would it be like to kick his head in? I felt like I could really do some damage. And then I could assess the damage, speaking as a neurologist, of course."
     Adam laughed a little. "I didn't know women had these feelings that often."
     "What's that supposed to mean?"
     "Like, random physical aggression. The desire to test out your impact, maybe."
     "Well, I don't like speaking for all women, so I'll just say all people do, and it depends on their personality."
     "Well, I like speaking for all men," said Adam. "I like to think I'm in charge or that I could run things better."
     He sounded relaxed now. (2158)

Adam's violence on the ice is, as Sarah pointed out, goal-oriented. But what Helen describes is quite different: "random physical aggression," Adam terms it. Rather than being appalled or censorious of Helen's admission of aggressive feelings, though, Adam accepts them as normal, reading them as a "desire to test out your impact." Part of what he admires about Helen is her strength, her power, her ability to impact the world; to see that aggressive impulse in her, then, even if it is cloaked in the guise of anger towards a completely benign stranger, is something he not only understands, but values.

Helen goes on to take this extraordinary conversation in yet another unexpected direction when she links Adam's experience playing hockey to her own experience as serious ballet dancer when she was a teenager:

     "No, violence doesn't have to be a series of sudden blows, I think. I mean, when I danced, I hurt all the time. I developed a condition called female athlete triad, which was amenorrhea, disordered eating, and osteoporosis. Um... I was never anorexic. I definitely ate." She winced, knowing she sounded defensive. "But yeah, my bones became thin, and I tore my ACL, and I had to quit because I was—"
     She couldn't finish.
     "Anyway," she said.
     "Dancing looked beautiful. But for me, anyway—not for everyone, but for me—it was also painful, and it was good for me to get out of it. I know it's not anything compared to the abuse that other people, other women, suffer the world over. But it was a slow violence for me, and it came from expectations that other people had and that I had of myself."
     They were both quiet for a minute.
     "Thank you," he said, and his voice was so gentle she felt calm again. (2158)

Both Helen and Adam have been on the receiving end of physical violence, Helen argues. "Slow violence" may be less apparent than the "sudden blows" which Adam receives, but it is violence nonetheless.

Feeling aggression is not a gendered thing, but instead something "all people do," depending on their personalities. And while being the victim of violence may be appear to be gendered (do women experience more "slow violence," while men experience more "sudden blows"?), the impact is the same: pain.

I don't think I've ever come across such an acceptance of a woman's aggression and anger in another romance novel. Or a woman acknowledging it as a part of her own sense of self, her own feelings, in quite this way. Have you?


  1. I saw the title of this post and thought "whatever she's reviewing, I'm going to read it." I love reading about angry women, and although I have read romance novels where the women are very VERY angry, I think I agree with you that I haven't encountered any books where the women talk about it in such frank terms.

    My library doesn't have any of Ruby Lang's books, so I'm making a recommendation for them to purchase it! They have been great about buying the romance novels I recommend in the past, so I have high hopes.

  2. Jenny:

    Thanks for stopping by, and for adding your comments. What is it about angry women that you partiularly enjoy?

  3. SOLD! I'm always looking for books that show protagonists as whole human beings instead of traditionally genderized tropes. And I'm so sick of women in pink ghetto jobs around big masculine athletes! Now, find me some heroines 45+ and we're home free!