Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Feminism and Social Class in Kristan Higgins' MY ONE AND ONLY

Because many of its early and most vocal proponents were white and middle-class, feminism has often been accused of being tone-deaf when it comes to the concerns of working-class women. Is the same true of romance novels?

I can think of many romances that feature working-class heroes (or at least, heroes with working-class jobs, such as construction workers, mechanics, and the like, even if they don't speak or think in a different social register than their middle-class heroines). But when was the last time I read a romance with a maidservant, a factory worker, or a shopkeeper as the female lead? Unless, that is, the romance is version of the Cinderella story, with said working-class heroine swept away from her life of drudgery by means of her love for a far more economically-privileged hero.

She's got both dresses; now she just needs the prince...
Perhaps, since romance is often viewed as an escape from everyday drudgery, it is unrealistic to expect blue-collar heroines and working-class concerns to take up much shelf space in the romance section at the library or bookstore. Yet even in romances with clearly middle- or upper-class heroines, denigration of working class women can seep into the background. Sometimes done deliberately (the crass woman providing comic relief), other times simply part of the assumptions of the narrator of heroine, such belittling portrayals can undermine the more positive messages in an otherwise feminist romance.

One of the reasons I admire Kristan Higgins' My One and Only is the way it forces its readers to recognize the prevalence of negative depictions of working class women, by forcing its protagonist, divorce lawyer Harper James, to confront her own anti-feminist classism. Harper comes from working-class stock (her grandfather a fisherman, her dad working construction), and lives in the one working-class neighborhood on pricey Martha's Vineyard. But Harper attended Amherst College, "receiving a stellar education at an extremely feminist-slanted college," which instilled the confidence "that the world held no boundaries," she and her classmates "planning to Do Important Things" (63). The novel thus suggests that Harper's desire to become an environmental lawyer stems not only from her commitment to preserving nature, but from her education at that high-falutin' bastion of feminism, Amherst.

But another potential reason lies in the story's depiction of Harper's stepmother. Only a year after her real mother left her thirteen-year-old daughter, never to return, Harper's taciturn father came home from a Las Vegas conference (one, ironically, focused on green building materials) with thrice-married BeverLee, a walking, talking "Trailer Park Barbie" whose most "intellectually simulating literature" consisted of Us Weekly (33, 35). From Harper's first mention of "BeverLee of the Big Blond Hair," readers know that this is a woman the educated lawyer has little desire to emulate. Though Harper never comes out and condemns BeverLee for her class position, the class-based markers Harper uses to describe her tell us that BeverLee is different from Harper, different in a way that invites Harper's (and readers') laughter, perhaps even scorn. From the spelling of her name to her Texas twang, from her love for weddings "whether in the family, the tabloids, or on one of the three soap operas she watched religiously" to her constant refrain of cheery platitudes, from the cigarette she holds in one hand to the can of Jhirmack extra hold hairspray in the other, BeverLee serves as the anti-Harper, the embodiment of educated feminists' fears of being labelled as lacking "class," in the multiple senses of the word.

Yet the roots of Harper's classism lie deeper than the obvious villain of college-instilled feminism. The narrative holds off on telling us about these roots until fairly close to the end of the book, at the point in the story when Harper begins to understand the reasons why her first marriage failed so spectacularly. Not only because Harper feared to commit herself wholeheartedly to said marriage, as her ex-husband believes, and not just because he refused to acknowledge her needs, as she believes. But because Harper has spent so much time being afraid of being abandoned again that she's too scared to tell her ex what she needs and desires, especially when said needs and desires might hurt him.

But BeverLee knows what Harper needs, and has been there for her throughout her growing up, despite Harper's constant rejection. Only after Harper acknowledges this, acknowledges how much she's been blinded by her class-based judgments of "Trailer Park Barbie" BeverLee, can Harper move on and repair the other relationships in her life that she's damaged by her refusal to see them in all their multifaceted sides—especially the one with her "one and only" love, ex-husband Nick.

Interestingly, while the novel insists that mother-daughter relationships can transcend class boundaries, it simultaneously suggests that romantic relationships cannot. At least not when class is constructed in terms of education and level of intellectual engagement. Harper's current boyfriend, "young Dennis," is all that a girl could want—easygoing, good-looking, a hard worker, a heroic firefighter. Yet it is not his rattail, his junky car, or his continually calling her "Dude," that signals to readers that Dennis is far from Harper's perfect match. Instead, it is the lack of intellectual exchange in which the two are able to engage. Dennis's interests do not include much beyond the Red Sox and playing on his X-box, interests that can hardly keep the attention of keenly intelligent Harper for more than a few minutes at a time. Condescendingly directing Dennis's life as if she were his mother rather than his lover, Harper demonstrates to readers far earlier than she recognizes herself that she is no match for the kind but decidedly dim Dennis.

A contradiction in class-based messages? Or an accurate assessment of the differences between parental and romantic love? Would love to hear your thoughts...

And would love to hear of any other romances with working class heroes AND heroines, or cross-class romances in which class-based assumptions cause difficulties in the relationship, rather than being simply glossed over in a Cinderella-imposed romantic haze.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Cinderella costume: Wild Nights Fancy Dress Company
Trailer Park Barbie: Trish-the-stalker, Deviant Art

HQN, 2011

Next time on RNFF:
Children in romance


  1. The Lady's Companion, by Carla Kelly, deals with class differences. The heroine is an upper-class woman who has to take a job as a lady's companion and eventually marries a bailiff.

  2. Thanks, Wendy, for the recommendation. Carla Kelly seems to be one of the few historical authors who portrays working men and women. Not sure a bailiff or a lady's companion would be considered members of the laboring classes, though -- guess it would depend on if you held a tripartite view of class (lower, middle, and upper), as we do today, or if you embraced a genteel/plebeian view of class, which was more common during the Regency period. Is THE LADY'S COMPANION Victorian, or earlier?

  3. Lady's Companion is Regency. David, the bailiff, has actually come up in the world class-wise to become bailiff. He comes across to me as very much from the working class, not the middle class.

    I'm still trying to think of other examples. :)

  4. A LADY'S LESSON IN SCANDAL by Meredith Duran. It's a bit of a Cinderella story; she does marry a titled man; but we get a lot of detail about her hardscrabble life. And the hero admires her working-class biceps :)

    1. Oh, yes, I had forgotten those working-class biceps...

  5. Great post. Very thought-provoking.

    For contemporaries, I loved how the class differences play out in Victoria Dahl's Start Me Up. The heroine is a mechanic and runs her own business from her home. She took over the business when her dad suffered a debilitating brain injury. The hero is an architect, and their different assumptions about what life has to offer and the ways they've faced challenges initially pushes them apart before they learn how to deal with those differences and respect each other for them.

    I also loved her book Lean On Me, about a working-class heroine who's trying so hard to be the classy secretary to the above-mentioned architect - and who really resents the fact that she's hot for a tatted guy who blows shit up for a living.

    Plus, her books are hot.

    1. Kat:

      The very first book I reviewed here on RNFF was Dahl's START ME UP. And I really do love the class ideas in LEAN ON ME -- class is as much about how we dress and behave as it is about how much education we have, or how much money we earn. And what it takes to cross class lines without giving your roots away (both in the positive and negative senses of "giving away").

      And yes, her books are hot :-)

  6. Great post *runs to double check WIP--yep, I've got some issues there, need to think about how I present my maintenance man and the professor. Except, he didn't start out as a maintenance man, he's hiding from his life...CRAP!*

    This is such a tough thing to deal with appropriately. I write humorous romantic suspense, and it's too easy to put Goober the Gas Station attendant in the roll of redneck hillbilly dumbbutt.

    I really do long to read historicals where the protagonists aren't members of the "ton". What's the story with that butler who's got nothing to do but jump up at all hours of the night to take care of the rain-drenched heroine banging on the door looking for the hero? How does his (the butler's)wife deal with that crap? And that poor ladies' maid, does she always have to marry the coachman, so she can take her guy with her when the heroine needs to escape her evil uncle?

    1. Thanks, Teri Anne, for your comments. This is definitely a difficult issue for writers to grapple with; makes us confront our own class biases and assumptions when we portray characters who are from a different class. And humor adds an additional complication -- a lot of humor is based on laughing at people who are "other," one of those others being social class. I didn't enjoy Kristan Higgins' latest book as much as MY ONE AND ONLY, because it had a thread about a golddigging potential stepmother, used for comedic purposes, but which edged uncomfortably into the "let's laugh at the crassness of this obviously classless woman" territory for me.

  7. Great post Jackie! When I read "My one and only" what bothered me the most was Nick´s assumption that Harper will follow him to New York and drop everything that was going on in her life to live with him. Although Kristan fixed that in the end, it appeared as part of Nick´s commitment to Harper and their relationship, not because he acknowledged she had the right to keep her job and her life in Martha´s. Since this particular problem is something we -real women with careers- deal with all the time I hoped Kristan would say something about it. I live in Latin America, where women have jobs but not careers. It is not socially acceptable to put your career in the first place (over family) and is common sense that is the woman the one who has to sacrifice her personal expectations if his man needs to move someplace else, or if they want to have children. I would like to read something about this particular issue, not just because I need a little bit of hope, but because these are real problems women like me have to cope with all the time. Sometimes our "Nicks" are not willing to make personal sacrifices, not just because they don´t want to but because society agrees they don´t need to. What do you think?

  8. Parchita:

    Yes, I could have written an entire second post about Nick and Harper's relationship, especially about how the romance founders the first time, and almost the second time, because Nick doesn't acknowledge Harper's professional identity and needs. When Harper left NYC the second time, I took it as due in large part to Nick's assumption that she'd immediately drop everything and move to where he was. The epilogue shows that Nick ended up being the one to move (although Harper, too, had to move to Boston part-time) to make their relationship ultimately viable, but I do wish we as readers had the chance to overhear the conversation during which these agreements between the two were hammered out.

    Your last comment really strikes a chord with me. So often when women talk about their career and family choices, they explain their decisions as individual, person choices. But so often those "personal" decisions have been heavily influenced by social expectations, particularly the social expectations that their own partners come into the relationship with. We need to keep talking about why our different societies still agrees that men sacrificing career for family means something different than women sacrificing the same.

    I will be on the look-out for romances in which career goals clash, and the man, rather than the woman, is the one who sacrifices...

  9. "would love to hear of any other romances with working class heroes AND heroines"

    I have a great story to recommend!!!I am an avid reader of historical romance and historical fiction.My most recent find is, "Shanghai Love" by author Layne Wong ((http://laynewong.com/). The main character, Peilin, is a woman of honor and tradition. She is betrothed to marry a man but he is killed before her wedding. Bound by duty she takes his name and adopts his family as her own. A young, vibrant character, married to a ghost and stuck in what seems to be a hopeless situation. The story takes place in World War 2 and brings Peilin to Shanghai to look after her deceased husband's family herbal medicine shop. She is introduced to a new world and new people. Shanghai is also Henri's destination as he has graduated from medical school as Hitler is rising to power. The young Jewish refugee soon meets Peilin and you can guess what happens from there! It's beautifully written and allows some time for their relationship to grow and develop. You really want these two to end up together and be happy :) I hope you check it out! Thanks for sharing your favorites with us!