Friday, February 21, 2014

Police-Line Feminism?

I'm always intrigued when I come across a passage in a romance novel that refers, overtly or indirectly, to feminism. Take this one, from Anne Calhoun's latest contemporary, Jaded:

But no one possessed her. No one reached out and claimed her. Of course in the twenty-first century, women didn't want to be claimed. They built careers, made their own money, raised children on their own, planned for their own retirement.
     Given a little time, she could probably come up with a less politically correct ambition, but she really, really wanted to belong somewhere, to someone.

In this passage, told from the point of view of Jaded's heroine, librarian Alana Wentworth, feminism (the "politically correct") is positioned as an "of course," something "women" as an entire group should and do take for granted. Feminism sets certain wants, certain needs, off limits, cordoning off desires that make women less in charge of their own lives. The examples that come to Alana's mind of what feminism does allow women to want—building careers, taking care of their own financial well-being, raising children solo (i.e., without men)—position women as separate, individual, unconnected to a partner or spouse. In contrast, being "possessed," being "claimed," "belong[ing] somewhere, to someone" are positioned as the forbidden other, desires that feminism cannot and will not allow.

Just like Pride and Prejudice's opening line, "It is a truth universally acknowledged," Alana's "of course" sends a clear signal to the reader, asking him/her to question the universality of the truth being proclaimed. Just as not all early 19th century men in "possession of a good fortune" were "in want of a wife," not every twenty-first century woman wishes to be disconnected, to be separate, to not belong. In Jaded, Alana's character arc traces Alana's slow acceptance of the validity of her own desires, her recognition that she, unlike the rest of her high-powered family, does not wish to be in the spotlight, does not want to run for (or be married to a man who holds) political office, does not want work for a high-powered, high-impact charity. Alana works better on a smaller scale, in a small town, in one-to-one interactions with individuals, rather than on global problems dealt with by large organizations and government bureaucracies. To choose such a course is not a cop-out, Calhoun's novel argues, but a recognition of one's own desires and needs, a taking charge of one's own destiny, a feminist message if ever I heard one.

Alana's "of course," then, can also lead us to question the validity of Alana's own construction of feminism. Is Alana right when she claims that belonging, feeling claimed, wanting to be possessed, are inimical to feminism?

Of course, there is no one "feminism," which makes the question impossible to definitively answer. Some feminists might argue that Alana's got it right, that no women should depend on anyone else, especially a man, to make her feel wanted, to make her feel connected, to belong. I'd wager, though, that more feminists would take the opposite side, arguing that the very desire for connection, for belonging, is a desire that has long been coded as "feminine," and hence looked down upon by society. In a world where competition and individual success, typically coded as masculine, often reign supreme, championing connection is clearly a feminist act.

Why, then, do romance novel heroines like Alana so often see their desires to connect, to belong, as in opposition to the "politically correct"? Why is feminism made out to be the neon yellow police tape, screaming "DO NOT CROSS" whenever a female character desires connection, even possession?

I'd like to collect more examples of such passages from romance novels, passages that set feminism up as in opposition to female desires, and look more closely at them, to come up with some possible answers. Might I ask your help in such an endeavor?

If you remember such passages from past romance novel reading, would you be willing to add a comment to this post, quoting the passage in question, and letting us know from what book it came, and what author wrote it? And if you think that the book overall embraces or rejects feminism as a positive force in women's lives? This post will be here for a good long while, so I hope that if you come across such passages in your future reading, you'll think to come back here and give us a heads-up. I promise to do the same.

Thanks in advance for your help!


  1. Have you already written about Ruthie Knox's Big Boy? I remember someone writing about it with ire, but not where. I don't think the book overall rejects feminism.

    The passage in question (there may be others)

    A long exhale. He turns his head. “Did I hurt you?”
    “I’m sorry I did that.”
    All the answers that come to mind are so grotesque, I keep them to myself. You can do that whenever you want. I didn’t mind. I want to make you feel better.
    I’m supposed to be a feminist.

  2. It was me--I wrote a post on throwaway lines in that and AGAIN. Neither book seems un/anti-feminist to me in general, which is part of why these offhand lines bothered me. They are kind of similar to this example in some ways. Here's the link:

  3. In one of Victoria Dahl's books-- I think it's Start Me Up-- Lori thinks of herself as a "bad feminist" because of what she wants in bed. It bothered me immensely, because I got distracted, thinking, "I don't think this character has a very in-depth understanding of feminism--" and then wondering just what the book was trying to say.

  4. What's interesting about both of those examples is that Ruthie Knox and Victoria Dahl are some of the more feminist romance writers to me - and no, don't have a great definition, other than they seem to try to write against type and have individualistic, strong heroines and heroes. I may be giving them more credit than they're due, but I interpreted these lines when I read these stories and books in a different way. For me, they the heroine's attempt to reconcile what society thinks it means to be feminist with pursuing what they truly desire with confidence. I think feminists sometimes doubt our instincts, since we all have been brought up in a sexist culture. Trying to figure otu what it means to be a feminist is part of feminism. Especially since there are different feminisms, but don't even get me started...

    Contrast that with writers and sub-genres (lookin' at you, romantic suspense), where the heroine uses the "well it's not feminist but screw it" to excuse a lazy choice or make some doormat behavior "okay." So irritating.

    That said, wish we could move beyond this type of conflict for modern women. I spend less time worrying about whether I'm enough of a feminist and more time figuring out how I can get paid the same as men in my field. To me, that's more interesting feminist conflict than the navel-gazing.

    By the way, Liberating Lacey by Anne Calhoun is an interesting contrast - the heroine is unapologetically professionally successful. Haven't read it in a while but remembered enjoying her character.

  5. Your quote reminds me of a passage in Judith McNaught's Remember When:

    'I thought women were more interested these days in discovering how high they can climb on the corporate ladder.'
    'We are, but unlike men, we're learning early that we can't define ourselves by our success or lack of it at work. We want more from life than that, and we have more to give than that.'

    In this case, though the opposition is also present, the heroine embraces her duality. But then, I consider McNaught as usually more conservative than feminist (though I do love several of her books... and the quote above).

    I wonder if we could read the examples mentioned above (all of which from books I haven't read) not as an inevitable opposition between feminism and a desire for connection, but only a potential one. The heroine doesn't necessarily believe she can't have both, but she knows it's hard and a tightrope to walk, so she needs to remember never to sacrifice one to the other.

    I don't know. But, out of context, it does sound like the kind of thing you'd spontaneously think in a given situation. Doesn't mean it sums up your whole philosophy about feminism, love, and life.

  6. I do think that these are the kinds of questions real women ask themselves ("am I a bad feminist for liking/wanting X?"). I did when I was younger, and then I worked out an answer for myself.

    In the examples I wrote about, what bothered me was not that the question was raised but that the heroine just walked away from it rather than resolving it for herself. So I was left wondering--is the book trying to tell me that you can't be feminist and want this, that "feminists" are bad because they'd condemn this woman's desire, or what? Like, why even mention feminism at all in this context, if you're going to leave the possible impression that there's some conflict between feminism and, say, sexual submission or the desire for marriage and children? It nagged at me (obviously, since I wrote a cranky post).

    Laura Vivanco wrote a post at Teach Me Tonight on a reference to feminism in a Harlequin Presents/Mills & Book Riva novel that got a long, fascinating comment thread.

  7. I read Liz's post and I agree with the observation that there seems to be a thread of anti-intellectualism in romance. Throwaway references to feminism don't do the authors or feminism any justice. Aren't we (and our heroines) better than that? It seems okay to casually dismiss feminism in romance that bothers me, although I still allow for the possibility that figuring out what feminism is for a character could be an interesting inner conflict, it's not one that seems to be taken very seriously if reduced to casual references.

    At the RWA14 in Atlanta, I was bothered by a few presenters saying things like, "Well it's just not PC to say this but guess what women are different than men." (Okay, wait while I write that down....). Feminism does not equal political correctness, nor does it not acknowledge gender differences. I interpret thoughts that start with "it's not PC but...." to mean "I'm about to say something controversial but rather than defend it on it merits, I'm going to use this short cut and if you disagree with me, you're the 'PC Police.' "

    So while a lot of feminists read romance, and a few write it, there seems to be a gap in how it's dealt with in the text. It seems to reflect society's ambivalence with feminism. I'd love for more romance writers be courageous and inspiring on the topic.

  8. I agree with Liz: I ask myself these questions frequently. It usually takes me down a rabbit hole of thought or has me sending a frantic text message to a friend. All it would take is one more line in the course of the inner monologue or a piece of advice from a friend, to resolve this. "No, it doesn't. It makes me a woman who knows what she wants."

    I wonder if the feminist romance authors realize how much it leaves us hanging. I want to see not just my desires but also my values reflected in romance, feminism included.

  9. Another feminism quote, from Sarah Mayberry's HER KIND OF TROUBLE (2014). The heroine is talking to the hero about her former long-term boyfriend, who wanted her to give up her career after they married and had kids. She broke up with him over it, an action with which the hero sympathizes:

    "You love what you do. What in their right mind would try to take that away from you?.... I suppose he gave you a vacuum cleaner for your birthday, too," Seth said, shaking his head. "Don't quote me on this, but sometimes I can fully sympathize with the feminist movement" (Kindle Loc 2229)

  10. Another feminism quote, from Cara McKenna's HARD TIME:

    The hero's sister is talking with the heroine:

    "I know I hold on too tight to him, I do. It's hard not to, when he's the one reliable handhold I got, you know? Or maybe you don't know."
    I shook my head. "I don't know. But I can hear what you're saying."
    "I'm GLAD you don't know," she said, meeting my eyes for just a second. "I want my brother to be with someone who wants him, but doesn't NEED him. You know? Listen to me, sounding like a goddamn feminist. But yeah... someone who's not so dependent on him that they can't step back and see all the good in him, I guess." (Kindle Loc 4009)

  11. Another feminism quote, from Molly O'Keefe's HIS WIFE FOR ONE NIGHT (Harlequin Superromance 2011). A conversation between the heroine, Mia, and her sister, Lucy. Mia has been in a marriage of convenience for the past five years, with a man whom she loves but who doesn't love her.

    "You deserve better."
    "Like what Mom and Dad had?"
    Lucy stopped and turned to face her. "What's wrong with being on your own?" Lucy asked. "There's strength in that."
    "And loneliness."
    "You think Mom wasn't lonely?" Lucy asked. "Dad worked long hours and Mom had nothing to do but wait for him. Raise his children and keep his meals warm."
    "This isn't going to turn into some feminist diatribe, is it?"
    "No. Well, maybe. I'm just saying, marriage can be lonely, too."
    "You don't have to tell me," Mia snapped.

  12. Another feminism quote, from Alice Clayton's RUSTY NAILED (Gallery Books 2014):

    Although "we" bought it, use of the word we (ital) here is stretching it considerably. There was no way I could have afforded a house like this, run down or not. It was in a prime area with killer views and a huge footprint in an established neighborhood. I wasn't comfortable with Simon paying for everything, no matter how much money he had stashed away. So I'd insisted that thae house would be in his name only, and I'd contribute to monthly household expenses. He gave me an enormous budget to work with for the design, and while I still felt a bit guilty when I saw the invoices, I had to admit I liked having a rich boyfriend.
    There. I said it. Revoke my feminist card. Take away my--well, whatever you take away when a woman admits she likes nice things. I was getting the house of my dreams, with the man of my dreams.

  13. Another feminism quote, from Delphine Dryden's BDSM novella THE SEDUCTION HYPOTHESIS (Carina 2013):

    Not that she wanted an alpha all the time. But she couldn't deny she'd enjoyed Ben's attempt to play that part, even for a few seconds. Dangerously tempting, especially when she knew what he'd do if he found out just how far she'd once wanted him to take that role in the bedroom. Still wanted, frankly.
    But no, she'd shown the guy a simple amusing scene [in a graphic novel] about an over-the-knee paddling and he'd lectured about feminism for ten minutes solid. Lindsey had no desire to repeat that experience, either the lecture itself or the burning humiliation at Ben's response to her questionable choice in reading material. She hadn't even gotten to the part where she wanted him to do that stuff [ital] to her. [ital] Overwhelmed by his political correctness, she'd put the comic aside and never raised the subject again. (Loc 388)

    1. And the same memory, this time from Ben's POV:

      "Yeah. She showed me that [the spanking scene in the graphic novel]. And I kind of blew it off. And told her I'd never do that, because of feminism and exploiting women, and blah blah blah. Stuff I thought she'd want to hear." (Loc 551)

  14. And another from Dryden, this one from THE PRINCIPLE OF DESIRE (Carina 2014), a scene in which the male protagonist is describing his mother:

    "So my mom is a Southern Baptist. Deep-down, dyed-in-the-wool, revival-tent church lady. Doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, thinks [ital] feminism [ital] is a dirty word. Watches Billy Graham and votes ultraconservative. All the stereotypes, right? Except she's my mom, and I love her, and in a lot of ways she's an awesome parent.... I realized a log tim ago that my mother's beliefs weren't my beliefs weren't my beliefs, and that used to be a huge problem for me, especially when I was a kid. That's part of my baggage now, she's part of my baggage, in a way I don't think everybody's parents are. Way more than my dad's ever been. Because I had to get past the idea that only one of us could be right, and that I had to hate her if she was wrong or hate myself if she was right." (Loc 1176)

  15. Jill Shalvis, THEN CAME YOU:

    "She heard some rustling and knew he was getting out of be. Normally she'd wonder if he was naked, and maybe even indulge in picturing it, but right now she just wanted him to hold her, as much as that set feminism back fifty years" (257).

  16. "And what exactly was his deal with ordering her around when they were fucking? And what was her deal with not minding? And she didn't mind. Dammit, she was a feminist! Marched on Washington to protect a woman's right to choose, etc., etc. But damn if she didn't love to hear him growl out orders. Although it was never orders for orders' sake. He always made sure she got off. Always made sure he left her satisfied and smiling. The man was a fucking demon in bed." — Shelly Laurenston, GO FETCH (Loc 2298)

  17. "Wanting you makes it hard to ignore that I've been lonely. That maybe I need more than fourteen hours a day of hard labor and a bed in the bunkhouse. I need YOU in my bed. In my kitchen..."
    I snorted. My mother would stage a feminist intervention if she could hear that.

    --- Sarina Bowen, BITTERSWEET (2016)