Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Battle of the Sexes, Courtroom Style: Julie James' PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedict. Howard Hawks's Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns. George Cukor's Adam and Amanda Bonner. Tennis's Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King. The battle of the sexes comedy has been a staple of stage, screen, and popular culture since Aristophanes' Lysistrada. But in the genre of the contemporary romance, true battle of the sexes storylines seem remarkably few and far between. Perhaps this is because the heterosexual romance novel is, at its heart, always about a struggle between a woman and a man, so writers feel little need to write explicitly about gender politics. Or perhaps it is a sign of our purportedly post-feminist times, when many believe that feminism has achieved its goals and therefore is no longer useful or even necessary. Plots that take issue with such a belief may find it more difficult to find a ready readership.

Benedict and Beatrice battle it out in Much Ado about Nothing
But with Practice Makes Perfect, author Julie James proves herself more than up to the challenge of crafting a compelling battle of the sexes romance, one as funny as it is politically savvy. The story's heroine, Payton Kendall, daughter of a openly feminist single mother, has worked her butt off for the past eight years, striving to prove herself at the high-powered Chicago law firm she joined just after law school. Because of her mother's feminist teachings, Payton recognizes that she has to work harder than most men to achieve her goal of making partner; though her firm may openly declare its commitment to women ("In order to honor its commitment to the policies created by the Committee for the Retention of Women, the firm is proud to announce that it has set a goal of increasing the number of female partners by 10 percent by next year" [19]), the unwritten cultural assumptions of the firm still favor men.

For example, Payton's boss, Ben, isn't quite comfortable with women:

She had begun to suspect that Ben—while never blatantly unprofessional—had a more difficult time getting along with women. It certainly wasn't an unlikely conclusion to draw. Law firms could be old-fashioned at times and unfortunately, female attorneys still had a bit of an 'old boy network' to contend with. (4)

If collegiality plays into decisions about who makes partner and who doesn't, then Ben's discomfort with Payton and other female associates places a barrier between them and advancement, particularly if Ben and others like him aren't aware of (or aren't willing to acknowledge) their own biases.

Sometimes Payton can be pragmatic about the everyday sexism she faces at the office, and in the courtroom:

A jury consultant she had worked with during a particularly tricky gender discrimination trial had told her that jurors—both men and women—responded more favorably to female lawyers who were attractive. While Payton found this to be sadly sexist, she accepted it as a fact nonetheless and thus made it a general rule to always put her best face forward, literally, at work. (2)

But when the sexism presents her with a challenge she can't over come (such as a colleague taking their mutual client to a golf club that doesn't allow women), her frustration, and her sarcasm, go into overdrive. As she complains to fellow associate Laney:

"The problem is, getting business is part of the business. It's like a ritual with these guys: 'Hey, how 'bout those Cubs'"—the bad male impersonation was back—'"let's play some golf, smoke some cigars. Here's my penis, there's yours—yep, they appear to be about the same size—okay, let's do some deals.'" (33).

Complaining about socializing may strike some as petty. But Payton knows that the way male lawyers can choose activities that exclude women and use them as an opportunity to forge relationships with other male lawyers, and with clients, gives them an advantage in a culture where the social and the business worlds are far from separate.

A true battle of the sexes comedy requires not only a heroine pointing out the failings of men, but a man who will take equal relish in doing the same of women. Payton's opponent at the law firm is one J. D. Jameson, cocky, privileged scion of a wealthy Chicago family. Ever since J.D. and Payton started in the same "class" at the firm, they've engaged in an undeclared competition, striving to prove to the firm, and to themselves, that each is better than the other. And the battle is edging into outright war now that the firm has announced only one of them will be allowed to make partner this year.

As in the classic battle of the sexes comedies, Payton and J. D. spend much of their time flinging sharp verbal zingers at one another. Many of those zingers take the form of gender-based insults:

     " 'Forty Women to Watch Under 40,'" J. D. emphasized. "Tell me, Payton—is there a reason your gender finds it necessary to be so separatist? Afraid of a little competition from the opposite sex, perhaps?"
    "If my gender hesitates to compete with yours, J. D., it's only because we're afraid to lower ourselves to your level," she replied sweetly. (11).

J.D. believes that white men are getting the short end of the stick in a "socially liberal, politically correct" society. "There is no glass ceiling anymore—these women choose to leave the workforce of their own volition" he gripes to a fellow (male) associate after hearing about the firm's plan to increase the number of female partners (20).  "The playing field isn't level," he goes on to assert, stating as a fact that "if a man and a woman are equally qualified for a position, the woman gets the job" (21). A proponent of the "reverse discrimination" theory, J.D. takes pride in his own "fairness": "I'm just saying that everyone should be judged solely on merit. No 'plus' factors for gender, race, national origin.... so that each person is given a a fair chance" (22). J.D. refuses see that his own background has already give him an edge in the purported meritocracy of the law firm.

J.D. also refuses to acknowledge the simmering attraction that underlies his gender-based attacks on Payton, a failing he shares with Payton herself. James' story thus allows the reader to know more, or to know better, than its main characters do. Payton continually reminds herself that she's "above such petty nonsense" as competing with J. D., while J.D. reassures himself, "Not that it was a competition between them" whenever he finds himself gloating over his latest Payton-related triumph (28). It's funny to see J.D. and Payton both act in ways that give the blatant lie to such self-justifications. But their blindness also serves a second purpose: to suggest to readers that if our protagonists are mistaken about their own feelings, they might also be mistaken about their gender-based assertions.

This certainly proves true of J.D., who must gradually come to see the validity of Payton's gender critique over the course of the novel in order to become a worthy romance hero. Payton's change comes not in the form of political consciousness-raising, but in a personal recognition that ideological soul mates do not necessarily make the best life-mates.

Practice Makes Perfect's feminist credentials would be impeccable, but for one disturbing factor: Payton is an expert in race and gender discrimination cases. But she is typically not on the side of women: she earns her hefty paychecks by defending large corporations against gender discrimination charges. She wins the one case James depicts in the novel, a case in which the woman suing the company that Payton represents is obviously misguided. But are all, or even most, such cases so obviously spurious? Or is this simply wish-fulfillment on the part of those whose, like Payton and her fellow corporate lawyers, build their fortunes defending big business?

Equal opportunity for women in the old boys' world of the law office is a goal feminism surely should embrace. But when that opportunity comes at the expense of other women, we might want to pause in our praise. Has James pulled a sly bait and switch, offering up gender equality in romance in exchange for readers' turning their own blind eye to larger, institutionally-based gender discrimination? The personal is political, but is the political no longer necessary in a world of personal gender equality?

What other romance novels can you think of that feature a politically-inflected battle of the sexes storyline? And how do the endings of those novels reinforce, or undermine, feminist goals?

Photo/illustration credits:
Much Ado About Nothing: Fandango 
• Old Boys' Network: Cafe Press
• Battle of the Sexes Tug of War: Brittany Jones blog
• Wal-Mart cartoon: Walt Hangelsman, Newsday via Ottinger Firm

Next time on RNFF
RNFF Pet Peeve #2: Romance novels that diss feminism


  1. I read this a while ago, but if I remember correctly, Payton makes the argument that nonsense sexual harassment claims make it harder for real claims to be treated with the seriousness they deserve, because they taint the entire concept of sexual harassment and make it look like it's all about silly women being ridiculous. Or did I read that in an interview with the author? Can't be sure anymore, but I definitely remember this! Anyway, that argument is fine, but is it believable that all Payton's cases happen to be ones where her clients are innocent?

    I did really like the book though, even with that blip (and with my other issue with it, which was that I thought what JD confesses to have done near the end was extremely serious, but was not given as much importance as it merited).

    Have you read Do-Over, by Dorien Kelly? It's got a similar plotline, and it's also very well done. I reviewed it here:
    Just disregard the cover, it's nowhere near as fluffy at that makes it look!

  2. Rosario:

    Thanks for your comments. I don't remember Payton making that argument in the book at all, and I just reread it this past month. I'll bet it was in an interview. And yes, it would be hard to imagine that a corporate lawyer ALWAYS featured nonsensical sexual harassment claims.

    I haven't read DO-OVER -- thanks for the recommendation!

  3. The lawyer in Just The Sexiest Man Alive is also on the "other" side of a sexual harrassment suit, perhaps that's what Rosario is remembering.

    Have you seen RRR Jessica's piece on this? It's very interesting. http://www.readreactreview.com/tag/practice-makes-perfect/

    I made a comment there, which I'll repeat: "I was particularly struck by Payton’s lack of response to the no-women allowed golf club. In a way it seemed that the feminism she was portrayed as espousing only came out when responding to theoretical issues."

  4. Thanks, Willaful, for the pointer to Jessica's RRR piece. I was definitely thinking along similar lines.

    When you write that Payton's feminism only came out in response to theoretical issues, do you mean that you would have expected a feminist lawyer shut out of a club to protest in some more overt way?

    1. Yes, exactly. IIRC, she just got all hangdog about it, which seemed very odd.