Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Individualist Feminism in Julie James

Julie James has made a name for herself writing contemporary romances featuring strong, successful, career-oriented professional heroines. Whether they are corporate lawyers, Assistant U. S. Attorneys, or owners of their own businesses, James' heroines get ahead through a heady combination of ambition and intelligence, and are drawn to men who share their competitive drive. Rarely do they have to worry about hiding their light under a bushel in order to find romance, as she crafts heroes who find smart, self-confident, successful women enticing, not emasculating.

Highly educated career women looking for reflections of themselves in romance will not be disappointed by James' latest offering. Love, Irresistibly details the budding romance between Brooke Parker, general counsel for Sterling Restaurants, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Cade Morgan, a former college football star who channeled his athletic drive into the law after suffering a career-ending injury. The two meet during a sting operation requiring the U.S. Attorney's office to bug a restaurant to capture a corrupt state senator; internet harassment of Sterling's CEO and a thieving general manager at one of the corporation's restaurants throw the warily attracted lawyers together often enough to convince them that a friendly hookup now and then might be worth making time for in their busy schedules. These lawyerly problems serve as realistic but not too intrusive background to the real story, the internal problems keeping Cade and Brooke from turning their casual relationship into something with a bit more of a commitment to it.

On Brooke's part, the sheer number of hours she works have made dating, never mind seeing a man on a regular basis, nearly impossible. Having lived in an upscale suburb of Chicago, but without the money to participate in the things most of her fellow schoolmates took for granted, Brooke has always worked especially hard—in college, at law school, and in all of the jobs she's taken on since. But at the start of the book, the third boyfriend she's had since starting work at Sterling has dumped her, and for the same reason the other two had: she works incessantly, and he's starting to think about "getting married, having kids, the big picture [and] I don't see a woman like you in that big picture" (10).

Cade is a hard worker, too, but his past relationship problems stem more from his inability to open up emotionally to anyone than to casework overload. He attempts to hide his failings by chalking them up to traditional masculinity when his latest girlfriend dumps him:

"Fine. You want me to elaborate, I will. Here's the deal. I'm a guy. Genrerally speaking, we're pretty simple folk. I know women always want to think we have these deep, romantic, and emotionally angsty thoughts going on in our heads, but in reality? Not so much. You women have layers and you're complicated and mysterious and you say one thing, but you really mean another, and it's this whole tricky package that intrigues us and scares us and challenges us all at the same time. But men aren't like that. You talk about me not letting you in, but maybe what you don't realize is this: there is no in... What you see is what you get." (33).

But even Cade can't buy his own bullshit, not after he catches glimpses of Brooke's "in," the vulnerability lurking under her "dry-humored, nothing-gets-to-me exterior" (128). Part of him wants more, but part of him thinks the post-sex afterglow is too damned dangerous: "Because to get in with a woman like Brooke, he would need to let her in, too. And that was something he... just didn't do, wasn't sure he knew how to do, even if he wanted to" (129). After being abandoned not just once, but twice, as a child by his father, Cade's not just the opening up type.

Well-written romances that not only address the problems of work/life balance and the need for both women and men to acknowledge and share their emotions, but also include smoking hot sex scenes, are rare enough to warrant a mention on RNFF. And the resolution of Cade's problems works wonderfully within the context of feminist values: not an easy, fairy-tale family reunion, but a slow recognition of his own self-defeating emotional patterns, and an acceptance of the same in the people who have let him down.

Yet the resolution of Brooke's inner conflict leaves me with an uncomfortable, distinctly unfeminist feeling. Or at least a feeling I'm encountering a feminism distinctly at odds with my own. [SPOILERS AHEAD—stop reading here if you'd prefer to find out the ending yourself...]

And it's not because Brooke gives up the opportunity to take on an even more high-powered corporate job, an opportunity with a much larger rival company that would require her not only to work even longer hours, but move halfway across the country. Despite the hefty increase in paycheck, stock options, and bonuses the rival company offers, it's clear that turning down a job that will make Brooke's work-life balance even more out of whack than it already is ("There was busy, and then there was crap-when's-the-last-time-I-called-my-parents busy" Brooke realizes [235]) is the right decision, whether Brooke's relationship with Cade prospers or fizzles. Giving in to the ever-increasing demands of anti-family corporate culture is not a feminist move, no matter how lucrative the rewards.

Yet the ease with which Brooke is able to come up with a solution to her problem—negotiating with her current boss to create better work-life balance for herself, by proving that such a move will actually be in the company's financial interests—gives me pause. On the surface, it clearly looks like a feminist win. Brooke doesn't rely on anyone else, especially a man, to rescue her, to come up with a solution to her dilemma. She keeps her job with a company whose values she believes in. And she acts for her own benefit, not so she can keep her job in Chicago and thus be with boyfriend Cade. What's not to like about that?

Ironically, by making Brooke the author of the solution to her own problem, James' romance suggests that only women who first give in to the anti-family demands of the corporate world, as Brooke has for much of her career, will have the leverage to demand work-life balance later in their careers. And by making her solution a solution that speaks only to one individual's problem, rather than to the work-life balance that the majority of working women face, the novel perpetuates the common myth that our work-life decisions are shaped solely by our own individual choices, rather than by a combination of choice, corporate culture, and government policy. As Laura Liswood, the co-founder of The Council of Women World Leaders, recently argued on the Huffington Post blog, "Having it all isn't just determined by a person's or family's choices. Those choices are informed and even forced by policy, customs, structures that are way beyond the control of the individual. The outside forces shape a woman's choices (and more and more men's choices) whether she realizes it or not." The more we continue to view such decisions solely in terms of individual feminist choices, the more difficult it will be to muster the political will to advocate for corporate and government change.

I'd like to think that the limitations of the novel form itself—its focus on individual triumphs and achievements over group activism and change—are what determined James' choice of ending for her otherwise feminist novel, not any conservative political bent hiding beneath a feminist veneer. But Brooke's offhand comment about the high cost of responding to "ridiculously onerous IDHR charges" during her negotiations with her boss gives me pause. I'm not a legal eagle, but I'm guessing that IDHR refers to the Illinois Department of Human Rights, the government office that administers the Illinois Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in that state. Now that she's negotiated not only work-life balance for herself, but an equity stake in the Sterling Restaurants, will Brooke be promoting more family-friendly policies throughout the corporation? Or will she consider such policies as "ridiculously onerous" as responding to charges of discrimination seem to be?

Wouldn't it be interesting if James were to write a romance about a sex-discrimination lawsuit in which the opposing counsel fall for one another? And if the lawyer prosecuting the case were a man, and the woman defending the company against the charges were a woman?

Illustration credits:
World's Greatest Workaholic: zazzle.com
Emotionally Unavailable shirt: Look Human.com
Work Life Balance: Mariashriver.com

Berkley, 2013

Next time on RNFF
A review of Laura Vivanco's For Love and Money


  1. Jackie, it would be awesome! I would read it the minute it hits the bookstores. And about the issue of the "outside forces", well, of course you´re right. Many women don´t realize just how much their choices are made by our society and our sexist education. Sadly, like Brooke, I had to hear myself that I wasn't the kind of woman to raise a family. People have some ideas of what a woman should be, and career-focused women fail to match the standards. Besides, society tends to "masculinize" that category of women, something I find very unfair. I don´t feel any less of a woman for not wanting to have kids or for putting my career on top of my desire of being a mother. Moreover, I believe women can have both a family and a career if they want, but this decision is difficult to make nowadays, because it is society who says is not possible. I would definitely want to find a discussion about this in a novel, to bring into question some stereotypes. I would say that what this novel depicts is our reality today. Some of us have to make work-life choices individually, and we feel very alone during the process. Even with the spoiler, I will buy this book. Brooke and I have a lot in common.

    1. Parchita:

      I think you'd enjoy all of Julie James' books -- they feature strong professional women who do not give up their careers in order to engage in romantic relationships.

      Yes, it would be great to read a romance in which career/family balance is addressed, and which actually shows not just the sacrifices a woman has to make in order to achieve balance, but also the contributions her partner (whether male or female) has to add in order for a dual-career family to function and thrive.

  2. This is such a great post -- particularly your point that the novel form itself is almost exclusively interested in individual subjectivity and thus doesn't do the "social" well. Another problem with work-life balance narratives, I think, is that it's difficult to critique the choices of any individual and relate them to the collective. In Love Irresistibly, Brooke makes the right choices for her, she negotiates successfully, etc. But when the individual choices of all of Julie James' heroines, are taken together and the pattern is so obvious, the politics are pretty clear. All of the women decide to deprioritize work and all the men remain breadwinners, focused on their careers, etc. What I'm saying, very incoherently, is that whatever one thinks of Brooke's choice it seems different when it not just her, but all three of James' heroines, who make the same choice albeit for different reasons. It starts to seem less like a choice and more like socialization.

    1. Yes, Emma, I completely understand what you are getting at. Any individual choice can look right, can even be justified as feminist. But when you gather them together, a pattern emerges, not just in Julie James' books, but also in real life. So many women argue that their de-prioritizing work is a personal, individual choices, what works best for their particular family. But such arguments rarely take into consideration the larger pressures that MAKE such choices "right" for women but not for men. Socialization that makes us feel better by presenting itself as personal choice...

  3. You said: "I think you'd enjoy all of Julie James' books -- they feature strong professional women who do not give up their careers in order to engage in romantic relationships."

    Yes! Julie James is new to me (I'm fairly new to romance). I love strong, professional female characters in romance. I need to add this book to my list.

    1. Welcome, Laurie. Hope you enjoy this one, and James' others -- stop by again and tell us what you think after you've had a chance to read her.

  4. I like Julie James' writing and she has strong female characters but I am pretty sure she would not consider herself a feminist. In fact her stories seem to say that strong women can make it if they really try and only the weak rely on things like courts to enforce equality law. Ironic coming from a lawyer.

    In her first novel, Practice Makes Perfect, a female lawyer takes on a case defending a mega corporation against charges of massive sex discrimination. Of course she plays to win. The lawyer even makes a point of saying that having a female on your defense team is a good move, presumably to show that mega corp isn't sexist if it can hire a female lawyer.

    James never mentions any qualms the lawyer might have about the screwing hundreds if not thousands of working-class women who are part of the suit. Are we supposed to assume the corporation is innocent? It seems more like we aren't supposed to care. In a later book James' seems to defend her position about sex discrimination suits by saying something like women have to work to get ahead and not expect handouts but she never convincingly shows that the women weren't be discriminated against. Maybe I'm biased but how likely is it that thousands of women all across the country (in her story and in real-life) conspired to screw a large company? Is it possible that - gasp! - that some companies' hiring and promotion practices are discriminatory? Wouldn't that be a first.

    So while her characters are strong, smart women I would not consider Julie James to be a feminist romance author. It's not enough for your characters to look like they walk the walk - they also have to talk the talk.

  5. Just discovered your blog BTW and LOVE it!

  6. Thanks, Joy, and welcome! We look forward to hearing from you in the future.

    I think there are feminist elements to James' books--portraying high-powered working women who love their work and eagerly go toe-to-toe with equally powered men is all too rare in contemporary romance fiction, which is why I appreciate James' novels. But I agree that her books' feminism is often problematic in his class politics: a feminism that benefits the highly educated, but not working-class women.