Friday, January 18, 2013

RNFF Pet Peeve: "Baby, You're All That I Need"

In the early years of our relationship, my significant other traveled for business two or three times a year. I'd drop him off at the airport, and a few days or a week later, would drive back to Logan, leave the car in short-term parking, and wait by the arrival gate for his plane to land. Images from films and television commercials would flicker through my mind, visions of couples joyfully embracing, the man swinging his girl in his arms, the woman grabbing her man and kissing him, oblivious to the line of passengers their torrid embrace was holding up. But in those movies and advertisements, none of those passengers minded, not really; witnessing the pleasure of romantic love reunited more than made up for any delay it might cause.

Somehow, though, my own airport reunions never lived up to such visions. More often than not, a flood of annoyance, even dislike, overcame me as my man came striding toward me down the concourse. I'd often find myself turning away from his kiss, grabbing at his baggage and gruffly urging him to move out of the way of the other passengers rushing to push past us. That fug of airplane smell hung always hung over him, an odor not at all conducive to evoking tender emotions, and as soon as we'd get home, I'd urge him not into my bed, but into the shower.

For the longest time, I thought my unromantic airport reunions meant there was something wrong with me, or with my relationship. If I loved my guy, why didn't the mere sight of his familiar face emerging from the crush of a crowd of strangers send me into a cloud of delirious joy? It took me a good while to realize that part of me wanted to push him away when he returned from a trip not because I didn't care for him, but because I cared too much. How dare he have commitments more important than me. How dare he care about something else besides me. How dare he abandon me! My conscious brain knew, of course, that such a response was irrational, ridiculous, but even so, a small corner of my unconscious was angry, and wanted to punish him for enjoying, for needing, something else besides me.

Despite being a rational, educated, feminist woman, this patently false belief—the "Baby, you're all that I need" fallacy—had wormed its way into my brain. Indeed, it's difficult for any woman to rid herself of the annoying pest, at least a woman brought up under the influence of Western culture. From pop song lyrics* to iconic film lines, the message that all woman needs is her one true love reigns ubiquitous in the media. And romance novels often partake in its dissemination, even ones with seemingly empowered women as their heroines.

Case in point is a book that I started off loving: newcomer Kate Cross's steampunk fantasy Heart of Brass (2012). As the book's blurb asserts, Cross's heroine, Arden Grey, "enjoys a life most women in 1898 Victorian London can't even dream of": social status, wealth, and independence. She's an inventor, creating not only devices to help "hysterical" women relieve their tensions (what we would call vibrators and the like ;-) ) but also special glasses that allow her to see the final moments of a murder victim's life. Such inventions allow her both to help the police and to work as an agent for the Wardens of the Realm, protecting the nation against unclear but obviously dangerous menaces.

Best of all for romance junkies, Arden's beloved husband, Lucas, who has been missing for seven years, makes a sudden reappearance at the start of the novel (ironically for one who hates real-life airport reunions, lovers separated then reunited is a favorite romance trope of mine). Lucas, having had his memory altered by the mysterious "Company," has no recollection of Arden and instead has been programmed to assassinate her.

Plots twist and unravel, but the book isn't all about action. Both Arden and Luke reveal more nuanced layers of character as they gradually come not just to remember their past feelings, but to develop new ones in response to the quite different people the past seven years have wrought of them. In their early marriage, Lucas often left Arden for his work as a Warden; at the time, Arden played no role in the organization. The old Luke might not have appreciated this more intrepid, independent Arden, but this more disillusioned version appreciates her strengths.

Yet their present relationship is haunted by the ghosts of Arden's past fears, fears that Luke cared more for his work than for her. Before Luke's disappearance, their marriage was plagued by tension, tension stemming from Arden's frustrations at Luke's constant abandonment of her whenever the thrills (or "duties," as Luke justified them) of his spying work called.

Rather than showing Arden maturing, growing out of such fears as she comes to recognize the value of her own work and skills, the novel instead concludes by simply appeasing them. After Arden is almost killed when the murderers they've been pursuing are revealed and captured, Luke highhandedly submits not only his own resignation to the Wardens, but also hers. The narrative positions his decision as a positive one, a rejection of an agency that is only using him, and is negatively impacting his relationship with his wife: "He was done with being a spy, with putting his life in jeopardy for a country and an agency that would just turn around and demand that he do it again. He refused to be separated from her again. Refused to keep secrets from her, or endanger her because of his actions." But as becomes clear in the book's denouement, Luke's decision resonates because of what it tells Arden about his feelings for her.

Arden agrees to Luke's highhanded decision to resign on behalf of them both with surprisingly little protest. Readers can understand why when they see her old fears returning: "She didn't know how long it would last—how much time would pass before Luke began to crave excitement and chafe at the bonds of matrimony. It frightened her thinking he might leave her again." Only after weeks pass, and Arden brings herself to question Luke about his decision, is she finally assured by his declaration: "Arden, you are my life. I don't want anything else."

Critics of romance novels frequently complain that they too-often require their heroines give up everything in order to be with the man they love. The "baby, you're all that I need" trope is the flipside of that demand, a demand that a man give up everything he values in order to appease the insecurities of his woman. While such declarations and actions may be deeply satisfying to our infantile ids, which can only be satisfied by a lover/mother who will meet our every need, a feminist might wish to think twice before being pacified by the impossible-to-live-up-to siren song of "baby, you're all that I need."

 * Male singers or groups who have recorded a song titled "You're All That I Need" range from Michael Bolton to Marvin Gaye, Radiohead to Twisted Sister, Method Man to White Lion. No matter her musical taste, a woman can find a man ready to tell her he needs nothing but her.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Airport Kiss: Tumblr
Jerry Maguire: Mentoring Career Advice
Id/Ego/Superego: Fishegg Cartoons

Next time on RNFF
The Wonky Feminism of Ruthie Knox


  1. I've actually been toying with flipping this around so that it's him that feels the "you complete me" thing, and then because I'm mean I make that not go well for him.

  2. Thinking about this reminds me of the 17th century notion of a family being a mini commonwealth replicating the external world i.e. a whole world in and of itself. So maybe it isn't just that'you complete me' but also that as a whole world nothing else is needed or has control over the couple.

    Another thing with this book is that the heroine being clearly a functional alcoholic who is magically cured by the reappearance of her true love. First it is unusual to see an addict heroine. But more sadly as a narrative thread this just dwindles away to nothing primarily it seems because of the 'you complete me' thing.

  3. Merrian:

    Interesting ideas. Didn't the 17th century notion of family also figure the father as King, with the rest of the family as his subjects? Not so sure I'd want to live within that paradigm ;-)

    Wow, can't believe I forgot about Arden's drinking! You're so right, that thread does disappear; Luke frowns upon Arden's tippling, and she stops. As someone with relatives who have struggled with alcoholism, I'm not convinced that "you complete me" is the best way to deal with someone's drinking...

  4. Yes, father is supreme ruler of the 17th century commonwealth. I agree that I don't want to live in that world but it is the world of the Alpha's and their packs in PNR/UF so it is a prevalent idea still.

    The solution to Arden's drinking problem makes her relationship another addiction/crutch. That stuff is only ever a short term fix and usually fails if a crisis arises. I recently read an m/m where the hero realises he has a drinking problem and seeks out AA. When a crisis happens his partner gets the whiskey bottle out and gets him drinking. I was really shocked. Why not follow through on what has been set up about his drinking struggle? Why undermine him and why show his partner enabling/undermining him if that is not an actual element of the story? I hate how this hard psychological stuff is thrown at characters and thrown away by authors undermining the work of creating believable characters with coherent motivations.

  5. Yes, the alpha of the pack in paranormal romance and urban fantasy does bear quite a resemblance to the absolute ruler of the commonwealth/family from earlier eras. His rise in that genre seems to be a function of his decline in more realistic romance, don't you think?

    Are there romances in which you think alcoholism or other "hard psychological stuff" is dealt with in a better way?

  6. Hmm, not really many recommendations to make at all (sadly) in answer to addiction or PTSD or other hard psychological stuff being well handled in the genre. If you read m/m, 'The Island' by Lisa Henry has a very realistic portrayal of PTSD and recovery from severe trauma as part of the story, not just a notional throw away as part of the HEA. Also an m/m - in Abigail Roux's 'Cut and Run' series, Zane is a recovering alcoholic/addict and managing his sobriety is discussed and included in the ongoing storyline.

    I want to applaud that Arden was given a realistic problem with her drinking as part of her response to the many loses she has endured. I think (in the genre) it is quite a risky endeavour for an author to make her heroine an addict. It's just that the author failed the storyline, she pulled back from the risk and undermined herself and the story in doing so.

  7. Thanks for the recs, Merrian. I look forward to checking them out.

    1. I remembered an m/f book! 'Branded As Trouble' by Lorelie James in her Rough riders series. India and Colt are both recovering addicts and their love story addresses and deals with this. India struggles at one point and has to turn to her AA mentor. Colt is still dealing with his families reactions to his past.

    2. Glad your memory kicked in. Will look forward to checking this out.

  8. Hi Jackie. Great post! This is so interesting, especially considering the chat we had about my WIP. The man giving up everything for the woman is no better than the other way around. I think that if the hero truly respected the heroine and her autonomy, he would have let her resign, or at least gotten her consent before doing it for her!


  9. Yes, I agree. Somehow acting highhandedly on your woman's behalf becomes a sign of how powerful your love for her really is in books like this, which I'm sure appeals to some readers, but not to me, or to you :-)