Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sex Roles in and out of Bed: Victoria Dahl's START ME UP


"Baby, that is one fine ass..."

So opens Victoria Dahl's provocative contemporary romance, Start Me Up. Hardly an auspicious beginning for a reader in search of feminism in her romance reading, a reader might be forgiven for assuming. But Dahl, sneaky writer that she is, has baited her readers only to switch the linguistic rug out from underneath them. For if you read past that offensive opening line, you discover that the  sexist language comes not from the mouth of an overbearing male, but from the raunchy lips of Molly, the best friend of the novel's protagonist, Lori. As the opeing scene progresses, and Molly's comments grow increasingly lewd, car mechanic Lori joins in, adding her own sexual double entendres to the mix. Molly and Lori thus use a technique common to traditionally oppressed groups: re-appropriating the language of the oppressor to undermine its power. Molly and Lori subvert the restrictions of sexist languge by making it an object of humor.

With her novel's opening scene, then, Dahl signals her book's feminist concerns: not just to laugh at, but to explore the limits and powers of conventional gender roles. In the novel that follows, Dahl proceeds to give readers not only a laugh-out-loud funny story, but also a thoughtful model of ways to undermine the power differentials that mark out "feminine" and "masculine" roles.

Estrogen, major contributor to female sex drive
One model Dahl provides is an acknowledgement that women have sexual desires separate from, and prior to, any particular male object. Conventional wisdom takes it for granted that heterosexual men desire sex, regardless of whether or not there is a particular woman to whom they are attracted. But it simultaneously implies that a woman's sexual desire appears only after a man steps onto the stage: not "I want," but "I want you." Romance novels all too often buy into this false belief about the differences between male and female desire. Women do not want sex, we're supposed to believe; they want a man. The man turns them on, makes them feel sexy, makes them want to engage in sexual activity, rather than some drive or desire inside them that exists separate from any particular partner.

Dahl openly questions such assumptions about female sexuality by having her protagonist, Lori, openly discuss her wish to "do someone" (42). When friend Molly eagerly asks which man Lori has in mind, Lori answers, "I don't know who I want to do. Just someone. Someone tall and strong and cute" (43). Lori's elaboration—"The point is I'm not looking for a relationship. I just want to use someone for sex" (52)—humorously turns traditional gender stereotypes on their ear. But it also makes it crystal clear that her sexual desire exists prior to, and separate form, any specific male object.

Dahl acknowledges, though, that the sexual double standard often makes it difficult for a woman to be so straightforward in discussing, never mind acting upon, her own sexual desires. After she mistakenly believes that Molly has told her brother, Quinn, about Lori's desire for a sexual fling, Lori backs off, claiming it was only a joke. Even after Quinn, a former nerd who has always been too absorbed in his work to be a good boyfriend, tells her he'd like to have meaningless sex with her, Lori, embarrassed, initially refuses. Finally, realizing that she's tired of being so passive, Lori takes the plunge and asks Quinn to be her friend with benefits.

During their subsequent affair, Lori often has difficulty telling Quinn just what she wants sexually, too shy or self-conscious to speak of her own desires:

     If this were one of her books, she'd put a stop to this dinner business. She'd unzip the back of her dress and strip down to her brand-new underwear and matching bra. Tell him all she wanted to eat was him. Tell him she wanted it hard and fast and now.
     But she was just Lori Love, girl mechanic, and she didn't have the guts to put what she wanted into words even if it was the whole point of this date. Pitiful. (95)

I, for one, somehow bought into the idea that because my desire had been created by a man, he should also be able to satisfy that desire without any direction from me. Such assumptions set me, and all women, up for disappointment, Dahl's novel argues. Dahl uses Lori's character development to move Lori, and through Lori, her readers, beyond the fear of speaking about what turns us on. Lori learns it is more than worth it to take an active role in expressing one's sexual desires, rather than passively waiting for a partner to magically intuit them. Like Lori, women need to grab the courage to tell their partners what they like in bed:

     Lori clenched her eyes shut. She couldn't possibly ask him [to speak Spanish during sex].
     "Please," he murmured.
     This was supposed to be her fantasy. If she couldn't ask for what she wanted from Quinn, right here, right now, she'd miss her chance to live a dream. Lori held her breath and gathered up her courage and whispered into his shirt. (182)

The most surprising lesson Dahl's book taught me is that the role one prefers in bed may be radically different than the role one prefers to take on in day-to-day life. Quinn reads Lori's book of short story erotica, taking special note of the ones she's marked as her favorites: "There'd been a clear common thread in the two stories she'd liked. Both heroes had been aggressive. Not rough, per se, but not the least bit tentative in getting what they wanted" (133). In fact, Quinn discovers, Lori fantasizes about being tied up during sex. Though Quinn, who's been a polite, considerate sexual partner in the past, is a bit nervous about taking on a more dominant role, he gamely gives it a try, and the resultant sex is explosive for them both.

But whenever Quinn tries to take on the "saving the damsel in distress" role in real life—acting overly protective of Lori, wanting to pay for her to travel as she's always dreamed of, asking her to give up her life to move in with him—Lori immediately takes offense. She may like a decisive, take-charge sexual partner, but that doesn't mean she's eager, or even the least bit willing, to cede her control over everyday decisions to him. Lori and Quinn's relationship can only move beyond being friends with benefits when Quinn can see that "there weren't any wussy heroes" in the erotic stories Lori likes, but "there weren't any damsels in distress," either. "Lori didn't need saving any more," Quinn realizes, "but maybe it wouldn't hurt to ride up on a stallion and ask if she wanted a ride" (251-52).

Many women believe that being a feminist means never being weak, always being in control, even in their fantasy lives. This is a message I for one internalized, even if it wasn't ever directly stated in any feminist theory I'd read. But Dahl's novel shook up my belief, arguing that while feminism may insist that women be given the opportunity to take on a role of power in their sexual and romantic relationships, it doesn't demand that every opportunity be taken. Particularly when it comes to the roles we choose to play in bed.

Victoria Dahl, Start Me Up. HQN 2009.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Estrogen t-shirt: chemicalshirts
• Sexual Double Standard cartoon: Cartoons by Sheila © Sheila Hollingworth
• Heart book: Miss Erika

Next time: What can a feminist get from reading romance?


  1. I have to say... that opening line when I read it a few months ago was jotted down as one of my least favorite lines in romance fiction. I don't know that it helped that it was uttered by another women. I do know that no amount of knowing that Dahl's reversal of expectations served a feminist purpose made the line work for me. I enjoyed much of the rest of the book. And I approve of much of what she attempts--not the least of which is her making Molly an erotica writer. On the other hand, I don't know that she achieves as much as she attempts. My blog recently reviewed a number of her books. What we liked about this book was that Dahl is at her best when she irreverently pokes fun at herself. When Molly tries to advise Lori that Quinn’s angry bickering is a sign of love, she says: ”Use your brain. You read romance novels all the time. What are the most obvious signs of true love? Drama! Arguments! Tension!” Lori answers back, “Those are also the most obvious signs of domestic abuse.” Still, though it's Molly (and the patriarchy, perhaps) that are ultimately right. Bickering does mean love. That idea doesn't start me up... Should it?

    1. Still, though it's Molly (and the patriarchy, perhaps) that are ultimately right. Bickering does mean love. That idea doesn't start me up... Should it?

      That idea reminds me of primary school, when a boy kicking you under the table probably meant he was really, really interested in you.

    2. Hi, J.W.

      Thanks for checking out the blog, and for your comments. I'm looking forward to adding your blog to the list of ones I follow.

      What in particular do you think Dahl attempts but doesn't achieve?

      I'm not sure I agree that the book sends the message that bickering means love. Bickering in the book seems more a sign of frustration over differing expectations, frustrations that increase when you begin to care more deeply for the one with whom you bicker.

      What's the line for you between bickering and having a productive argument?

      Do you think bickering will be nonexistent in a misogyny-free culture?

    3. Hi, Laura:

      Did you kick back? ;-)

      I think the comparison is intriguing. Boys (and some girls) act aggressively toward their "love object" because they don't understand/can't deal with the emotions having such a love object evokes (vulnerability to someone else; sexual desire that may not be fulfilled). Grownups aren't allowed to hit each other, but verbal sparring is usually allowed. It signals the same fear/worry -- discomfort about potentially being vulnerable.

    4. I probably did kick back, yes.

      Where adults are concerned, I think a bit of verbal fencing as a way of exploring the power dynamics between a couple or because the couple enjoy the intellectual challenge involved in debating or making witty comments is quite different from "bickering." To me, "bickering" just comes off as childish: I take your point about people feeling uncomfortable with vulnerability but I don't think it's very mature to attack preemptively by calling someone names, for example, or denigrating their appearance.

    5. I like the distinction: bickering is being argumentative because you're insecure and/or immature; debating (or perhaps verbally sparring?) is being argumentative from strength, or self-confidence, in yourself and/or in the relationship.

      Makes me want to sit down and watch Nick and Nora Charles in THE THIN MAN...

  2. I don't find that line offensive at all. Some people need to lighten up.

  3. I don't know that I do draw a line between bickering and productive arguments. I find that the bickering and arguing I do with friends, lovers, and family is almost always productive in some way: clearing the air, clarifying feelings and actions, etc. On the other hand, I do not bicker at work or with people I am not close to, thinking that it would prove pointless and, ultimately, not worth. So perhaps you are right that there is a sign of increased frustration, related to increased concern. Still, it makes me consider the role of aggression, violence, and yes, even, bickering in our concepts of romantic love and even our sense that romance, heat, passion, and--again, even bickering, are apart of love. No answers or anything. Just wondering out loud.

  4. More wondering out loud...

    JW, I like your observation that we don't argue or bicker with people to whom we are not close (unless we're total jerks, of course...) . I've thought for a long time that arguing with someone is a sign of how close one is to that person -- I argue with you because I trust you enough to know that you won't see my anger or aggression as the whole truth of me; I can let down my guard with you. I'm thinking about the idea of teasing, too, that teasing is pleasurable as long as it is intended not to hurt or degrade the other, but to poke fun at our inevitable human frailties.

    On the other hand, though, much of the fighting between romance characters (those who haven't yet accepted one another, grown to know each other well) seems to be about defense -- fighting to push someone away, arguing to protect one's own vulnerabilities. As you start to know someone better, you get to know what their vulnerabilities are, and you can poke at them to push someone away. Perhaps "bickering" is just throwing insults at someone when they have no basis in fact, no relation to that person's actual personality or character?

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