Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Subplotting Feminism: Pamela Morsi's THE LOVESICK CURE

When considering a romance novel's feminist credentials, the first place I typically look is at the novel's hero and heroine, and the relationship that develops between them. Does their love relationship work to support, or to undermine, feminism's central tenet, that women and men should have equal political, social, and economic rights? Do the novel or its characters pay overt lip service to such beliefs, all while the twists of the plot, or the decisions the heroine and hero make in order to be together at novel's end, undercut such glib pronouncements? Or are the heroine and hero truly engaged in the complex, difficult work of forging a love relationship in which each struggles to move beyond the limits of patriarchal sex, gender, and (if a wedding is included) marital roles?

Yet sometimes you have to look beyond a book's protagonists to discover its feminist principles, a discovery I made while reading long-time romance author Pamela Morsi's latest contemporary, The Lovesick Cure. Oh, the relationship that develops between city girl science teacher Jesse Winsloe and country boy physician's assistant Piney Baxley when Jesse escapes to the Ozarks to nurse a broken heart contains nothing to make a feminist cringe. The fairly new romance trope of "friends with benefits" (or in this case, "acquaintances with benefits") who turn into long-term partners even nods towards feminism by acknowledging that women have sexual needs and desires separate from any particular man. And, as is the case in Morsi's novel, when it is the heroine who proposes the initial sexual relationship, the friends with benefits trope acknowledges a woman's sexual agency as well as her sexual need. But the message that Jesse shouldn't have given up her own needs for her former boyfriend seems obvious, and not very deeply explored from a feminist point of view.

Intriguingly, the most striking feminist aspects of the novel unfold not in the relationship between Jesse and Piney, but in the subplots of other relationships: between Piney and his son, Tree; between Tree and his girlfriend, Camryn; and between Camryn and her female relatives, cousin Jesse and Aunt Will.

As a name, Piney hardly conjures up the traditional alpha male hero. Yet it fits Morsi's male lead as comfortably as a well-worn shirt. Married right out of high school to his pregnant girlfriend, Piney never had the chance to fulfill his dreams of going to medical school. After his wife left him (not once, but twice) to raise their son alone, Piney settled for studying to become a Physician's Assistant. Working under the supervision of a doctor, Piney hardly qualifies as a stereotypical dominant hero in charge of his own destiny; in fact, his role as provider of the everyday healthcare needs of the people of his small mountain town casts him closer to the stereotypically feminine role of nurse/caretaker than to any traditionally masculine role.

Piney's unconventional masculinity also informs his relationship with his seventeen-year-old son, Tree. After his wife's desertion, Piney's initial beliefs about childrearing ("he'd expected his wife to do most of the parenting. Women, he'd thought, were, by nature, more attuned to their offspring"), quickly gave way as he was forced to act in ways that belied them: "Maybe some women were. But Shauna knew even less about kids than he did. And she'd been a lot less motivated to care for one. Evidence of that fact being that Piney was all alone waiting up for his teenager. And he'd been all alone for most of his son's life" (34). Morsi introduces Piney to her readers not when he first meets Jesse, but instead while he's sitting on his home porch, waiting up in the dark for his son to get home. And despite the embarrassment Piney feels at speaking to Tree about his sex life, he doesn't shy away from discussing the potential ramifications of teen sex, or from encouraging Tree to not make the same mistakes he did when he was the same age. In her depiction of Piney, Morsi demonstrates that fathers can and do parent well, whether or not they embrace the construction of mother as by "nature" primary parent.

That Tree is trying, trying hard, to wait demonstrates the power of the open, honest, and respectful relationship he has with his father. But he's getting tired of people telling him what to do. Not just his dad, but also his girlfriend, Camryn, who keeps pressuring him to take their relationship to the "next level" for reasons completely unrelated to her love for him. That Tree insists upon making his own decisions about his sexuality, even to the point of temporarily breaking up with the girl he still loves because he doesn't want to compromise his own beliefs, gives a voice to those rarely-heard-from young men who break from the stereotypical masculine sexual imperative by choosing to abstain from sex during their teen years.*

Even while sympathizing with Tree, Moris refuses to make Camryn into the ├╝ber-villainess a reader familiar with romance tropes might be forgiven for expecting when h/she discovers the girl's motives for enticing Tree into sex. Knowing that neither her unreliable father nor her cash-strapped single mother can afford to pay for her to go to college, and desperately fearful that as soon as Tree leaves for college he'll forget her, Camryn decides the only way to avoid being left behind is to get pregnant. Such a decision would likely cast her in the role of evil other woman in an Old Skool romance, but in Morsi's book, Camryn is portrayed not a villain, but a young woman with far too few choices in her life. Rather than demonize her,  Jesse and elderly Aunt Will encourage Camryn to rely on herself, instead of manipulating others. As Aunt Will counsels:

"To my thinking, the best plans are ones that don't require someone else's cooperation. I mean, folks are good to help when they are a mind to. But sometimes there is simply no help coming.... You've got to make up your own mind, form your own plan and get on with what you want in life. When you do that, you'll have your pick of men. Tree or some city fellow or a lug-head from the next mountain, it'll be your choice. But as long as you need a man more than he feels he needs you, then you'll always be stuck." (267, 271)

By watching Jesse and Aunt Will encourage, rather than denigrate or shun, the scheming Camryn, readers are invited to empathize with other young women who may be considering similarly poor plans when facing limited choices in their own lives. Neither turning Camryn into a villainous scapegoat, nor offering her an easy fairy-tale out (no long-lost relatives or benevolent billionaires drop a college scholarship in her lap), Morsi gives Camryn the same respect she demands the teen and other young women like her give themselves. That Camryn comes up with her own plan for what to do after the end of high school, as well as the courage to talk honestly to Tree about what their futures might look like, suggests that a feminist subplot might just be the best way to speak to a reader who may not be able to imagine herself playing the active lead role in her own life.

* In 1988, 60% of never-married males aged 15-19 reported engaging at least once in sexual intercourse, a number that has declined over the subsequent 20 years: 55% in 1995; 46% in 2002; 43% in 2006-2008. See Abma, J.C., Martinex, G.M., Copen, C. E. Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing. National Survey of Family Growth 2006-2008. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Statistics 23(30). 2010.

Photo/Illustration credits:
• Friends with Benefits Necklace: Outblush.com
• Sex books for kids: Wired/GeekMom 

Pamela Morsi, The Lovesick Cure. Harlequin/MIRA, 2012.

Next time on RNFF: 
Date rape in early 80's Harlequin romances


  1. "feminism's central tenet, that women and men should have equal political, social, and economic rights"

    I prefer to think of feminism in the context of bell hooks' definition: "Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression." So I see feminism's central concern being to challenge gender stereotypes and binaries and the discrimination and oppression which stem from those stereotypes.

  2. Are the two that different? Doesn't the end of sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression depend not only on challenging gender stereotypes and binaries, but on securing rights so that oppression cannot occur? Or has the language of "rights" become too suspect in the wake of the failure of the ERA movement?

  3. Well, for a start, I'm from the UK, so I'm not sure exactly what the US "ERA movement" was about. In the UK the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975.

    When I think of campaigns for "equal political, social, and economic rights," though, I'm more likely to think about class-based inequality, so I see this as the core area of concern for socialism, rather than for feminism.

    Obviously, intersectionality means that there is/should be a lot of common ground between feminism, socialism, anti-racist activism etc.

  4. Jackie - Thank you for a nice discussion of an aspect of my book I hadn't really thought about. I'm not sure I really know much about feminism. But it seems to me that the fate of the world should not hang on either gender. It takes both of us, all of us, to try to get this thing right.
    I do tend to portray my male lead characters as non-alpha heroes. Maybe they are more metro-sexual. Is that term still in use? Small town metro-sexuals. I take my understanding about relationships from life. And granted, I've had a lucky life, but I do sometimes get annoyed with those who say that romance is fantasy and that real relationships are never like that. Alongside that declaration is usually a discussion about giving young women "false hopes" about love and marriage. What I see is that if more young women realized that they have a right to expect an equal partner in a committed relationship, then more men would work hard to be that.
    Unfortunately some of us, like Jesse, want the relationship so badly that we are willing to settle for a lot less than we deserve. I pictured her making excuse after excuse for why it wasn't working better. Been. Done. T-shirt. Hope somebody learns something.
    And if learning is not necessary, then may someone enjoy reading it anyway.
    Thanks for picking my story up and giving it such a thoughtful, insightful discussion.

    1. Pam:

      You may not think you know much about feminism, but your insight that "if more young women realized that they have a right to expect an equal partner in a committed relationship, then more men would work hard to be that" seems to me to speak to the heart of what feminism is all about. Don't settle, and keep talking -- that Camryn and Tree are able to talk to each other and explain what they're both going through was perhaps my favorite part of your book.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Thanks, Laura, for clarifying. Yes, much to our shame, we haven't passed an equal pay law here in the U.S. on the federal level. The ERA refers to the Equal Rights Amendment, an attempt to amend the U.S. Constitution to guarantee equal rights regardless of sex. It passed both houses of Congress in 1972, but was not ratified by enough states to pass into law. Various lawmakers keep reintroducing it in the House and Senate, but it never gets to a full vote. Many states have their own versions of the amendment in their state constitutions, though.

    The text:

    Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

    Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

    Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

  6. Another reason why I might be seeing things a bit differently is that in the UK the National Health Service (set up under a Labour government in 1948) provides free contraception, maternity care, and abortions. Since they're part of health-care provision within a welfare state, they're not burning issues for UK feminists in the way that they seem to be for US feminists (though that's not to say that UK feminists don't keep a wary eye open for challenges to the status quo).

    1. Yes, I see. And none of your politicians are making painfully sexist comments about a rape victim not being able to get pregnant and the like, either. You lucky Brit, you!

    2. True, none of them have yet made any remarks which show a stunning lack of knowledge of human biology, but George Galloway recently showed a lack of understanding about what constitutes rape. Which may be why an even more recent campaign against rape by the Scottish Police includes the statement "I know when she's asleep it's a no. Do you?"

  7. Actually, I should qualify that: the situation is a little different re abortion in Northern Ireland.