Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Politics of Baby-Marriage: Molly O'Keefe's INDECENT PROPOSAL

Apologies for skipping last Friday's post. Child throwing up in the middle of the night with food poisoning ("well, that apple did taste a little fizzy, but the caramel and chocolate were fine") = no brain space left for blogging. Luckily, the bout was short-lived, and everyone's stomachs and brains are back to normal. So, on with the book musings...

Genre romance is rife with familiar and oft-beloved tropes. The marriage of convenience. The secret baby. Lovers torn apart to later reunite, or potential lovers stranded together all by themselves. One of my least-favorite, from a feminist standpoint, is the "one-night-stand leads to pregnancy leads to 'we must marry'." Given the latest statistics on unmarried mothers (in the United States in 2012, 40.7% of all births were to unwed mothers, according to the Centers for Disease Control), few Americans still believe marriage should and must follow any pregnancy, whether planned or not. But its not the lack of historical accuracy that gets in the way of my taking pleasure in this trope, but rather the patriarchal assumptions that often accompany it when it makes its appearance in a romance novel.

No baby mamas here: an example of
the "we will get married" trope
My memories of the trope come from the category romance reading I did as a teen, as well as some more recent stand-alone romances, stories in which the male half of the relationship insists that, despite barely knowing the woman with whom he had sex, she and he must marry. His reputation/his family's reputation/the future of the child/his budding business deal/his run for political office demand that they avoid scandal, he insists, not willing to listen to any objection she may raise. But what it really all boiled down to was they must marry because the child is his. His rights as the father take precedence over hers, and since she is now the receptacle for his unborn child, he has the right to assert control not only over the body of the child, but also over the body of its mother. Typically, he is the one who has more power—financial, social, sometimes even political—and thus even if the heroine opposes the idea of marrying a relative stranger, even actively resists it, because of this power imbalance, she usually ends up throwing up her hands fairly early and succumbing to the hero's often less-than-romantic wooing. By romance's end, of course, the two relative strangers have bonded over pregnancy and childbirth, have fallen in love, and thus persuade both themselves and readers that their unplanned marriage was, of course, all for the best.

It's a true delight, then, when an author can take a trope with such sexist underpinnings and recast it in feminist garb. That's just what Molly O'Keefe does in her latest contemporary, Indecent Proposal, the fourth title in her Boys of Bishop series. Our heroine, white working-class Ryan Kaminski, might be the evil villainess in a less thoughtful writer's book; a girl who for years allowed her striking good looks to be her identity, who, selfishly, believed her looks entitled her to more than other people, even her own sister. A girl who not only stole her sister's boyfriend, but married him. A girl who's been estranged from her family for years. But Ryan's done a lot of growing up in the years since her modeling career stalled, since her husband turned out to be far less a prize worth winning than she'd originally thought, since she realized how much her selfishness and entitlement had not only hurt others, but also made her a person she doesn't even like. At thirty-two, working as a part-time bartender and modeling when she gets a rare job, Ryan may not be on top of the world, but she finally knows who she is: someone secure enough to offer an ear and a kind word to the people who come to her bar.

And the man she and her fellow bartender christen "Sad Ken Doll," the man who has haunted her New York City bar for the past three nights, surely could use a kind word. His sister's in trouble (see book #2, Never Been Kissed), and he doesn't think he's going to be able to help her. Ryan knows that a bartender should never cross the invisible barrier down the middle of the bar, knows that the employee handbook says "no fraternizing with the drinkers." But still, Ken Doll, aka Harry, is so sad, so floundering, that Ryan consciously chooses to "shove her first right through that barrier and put her hand over his" (10). And she gifts him with of a night of human connection, of truth-telling and of sexual passion, taking him just as he is, and giving of herself the same. Though she finds herself, as she is all too wont to do, falling a little bit in love with Harry, and with the "rare illusion of care" their night together creates, she's not surprised to find him gone when she wakes up the next morning. She's not expecting to see him again; she doesn't even know his last name.

Even after Ryan discovers that the condom a friend gave her did not do its job, she has no plans to track down the mysterious Harry. But it turns out that it doesn't take much effort to find Sad Ken Doll/Harry; as the privileged son of a scandal-ridden white southern governor, the brother of a recently kidnapped sister, and a candidate himself for the U.S. House of Representatives, Harrison Montgomery is on the news almost as much as is Taylor Swift. Unluckily for Ryan, her volatile brother Wes happens to be in the room when Ryan catches the latest news report on Harry's run for Congress. And Wes takes it into his own hands to confront Harrison Montgomery, even though Ryan insists that she needs time to think about how to deal with the shocking revelation of the true identity of her baby's father.

Not surprisingly, given his own father's philandering past and the hard-ball politics he's grown up around, Harrison had real doubts about the truth of Wes's claims. And when he confronts Ryan, he's ruder than an arrogant Mr. Darcy proposing to Elizabeth Bennet. But "Ryan had been pushed into plenty of corners, so she knew when to come out swinging" (77). And swing she does, even after Harrison proposes to rescue his sure-to-be-floundering-in-the-wake-of-a-sex-scandal campaign by asking Ryan to marry him: "Listen, Harrison, you broke into my apartment. Called me stupid. All but accused me of being a gold-digging whore. I wouldn't marry you if you were the last man on earth" (84).

Harrison acts far differently than other "you're carrying my baby" heroes I've read. He takes little to no interest in the idea of the baby, or in the responsibility of impending fatherhood. All he wants is to not be like his scandal-ridden father, and to have the chance to do some political good in Washington. Thus his proposal is just that—a business proposal, not a claim on Ryan's body or on the baby. They'll marry, and, if he wins the election, they'll stay married, for at least two years. If she wants a divorce after those two years, he'll grant it, buy her a house, send alimony and child support, and step out of her life. In public, they'll pretend they're in love, but in private, they can be who they really are.

Harrison tells Wallace, his campaign manager, "she doesn't have a choice.... Neither of us do." And after her neighbors and her estranged family are besieged by the press, Ryan comes to the same conclusion: "There wasn't any other option but to agree to Harrison's proposal" (91, 98). This is the one point where the trope seems to fall back into its old patriarchal norms, taking away the woman's sense of being able to choose. To prevent the reader from thinking Ryan a gold-digger? Or simply to make the trope/plot possible?

Accepting may be presented as the the only option, but Ryan doesn't accept meekly; she hires her own lawyer and negotiates her "own terms for this indecent proposal," one which will benefit not only her child, but her family, as well (98). In a genre-referential moment, Ryan thinks to herself, "she was not going to show up at the Governor's Mansion like some impoverished historical romance heroine who'd been knocked up by the Duke" (110); instead, she does her homework, and is ready to hit back whenever anybody tries to demean or insult her. In particular, she refuses to accept the slut-shaming label of gold-digger. "Do you think your mother would have taken this deal?" she asks Wallace, Harrison's campaign manager, an African-American who grew up with a single mother in the housing projects of Chicago.  "When she found out she was pregnant with you. Do you think is some man had come out of the blue and promised to make sure your life was set up in a way she could never dream of making happen on her own, would she have done that?.... I think she would have. I think we both know your mother would have done anything for you. Including agreeing to this proposal" (114-15). After going a few more verbal rounds together, Wallace acknowledges her point.

Ryan may feel as small and alone as one of those historical romance heroines, but she refuses to act as if she is. And as long as she insists on her own value, insists that she's worthy of respect not because she's the mother of a future Montgomery child, but because she's intelligent, funny, a natural on the campaign trail, and a kind, caring human being, Ryan will be nobody's pawn. Not her mother-in-law's, not any reporter's, not any of the campaign's staffers'. And especially not Harrison's. For, as the balance of O'Keefe's novel delightfully and sexily demonstrates, Ryan has far more to offer Harrison than anything his contract could ever grant her.

Have you read other "one-night-stand leads to pregnancy leads to 'we must marry'" romances out there that move beyond the patriarchal trappings of the original trope?

Photo credits:
Condom failure: HIV-info.net
Gold Digger: Anti-Jokes

Indecent Proposal
Bantam, 2014


  1. This semester I've used Indecent Proposal as an example in my classes when I talk about general versus specific. We discuss tropes, and how tropes by themselves are generic. If someone says to you, "hey want to read this happy ever after with a pregnant-must-marry plot" many people would say no. It's not interesting in itself (unless that trope combo is your bag) because it is too generic. Then I tell the cliff notes version of Indecent Proposal and ask, who wants to read that book? Then we apply this to their writing. What they often have is the shell, the trope, and the goal of revision is for them to fill that shell with the ideas and experiences which make it specific and real.

    1. Very cool, Cherri. Is this in a first year college writing course?

  2. No, I haven't read any other "one-night-stand leads to pregnancy leads to 'we must marry'" romances that move beyond the patriarchal trappings of the original trope.
    And yes this is a trope that I just hate. It is such a recurring trope that I have asked myself many times if in USA babies whose parents are not married suffer any kind of law discrimination.
    Shotgun weddings are so old fashioned!
    In Western Europe the number of children born out of wedlock are the same or more than children born of a married couple. In Spain, between 34,5-42% (it depends on the source you use) of children are bon out of wedlock, and nobody cares about it. In places like the Canary Islands, it goes up to 56,75%.
    In Estonia it's 59,1% of children are non-matrimonial. Sweden? 54,4%. France = 53,7%; = 53,4%; Iceland = 64,4%.
    Yes, in Greece it's 6,5%. But you can see that the majority of Western countries have no problem about people being married or not. While family and parenthood keep on being things that we appreciate, marriage is not very valued as an institution.
    So I think that romance industry is being far more conservative than the society of their readers.
    Marriage must not be in the end of each romance. And an unexpected baby can be in the centre of interesting plots, and not only forced marriage.

    1. Yes, the romance industry is definitely far more conservative than European society, and much of American society, which is witnessing a similar downward trend in marriage rates of those who have children together.

      What other kind of story besides one that ends in marriage can you see resulting from an unexpected baby plot twist?

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  4. I don't see "pregnancy leads to marriage" as any more patriarchal than the underpinning of the entire genre: that a woman achieving happiness with a man is the pinnacle of her life and renders reading romance popular and comforting to women the world over. Sure, it's a leftover from the days when an honorable man offered his protection, economic and social, to a woman he impregnated, but how is it more patriarchal than the ethos of male protectiveness and care that permeates the genre, especially considering that he has parental rights as well as responsibilities toward the baby resulting from the pregnancy?

    What bothers me more is the unplanned pregnancy. This is a big bugaboo with me with female characters who are otherwise shown as intelligent and self-possessed in TV shows such as Bones (where at least it was due to having to work around the star's pregnancy) and books like Teresa Weir's Last Summer, which I otherwise enjoyed. Don't the characters know to use condoms or some other means of birth control?

    I know a condom breaks in the book you review, but while that's not impossible, it's stretching plausibility pretty hard for the condom both to break -- I know of male sex workers (porn stars and escorts both) who claim to have used condoms their entire career without a single case of breakage -- and for pregnancy to result from it.

    My skepticism is based on personal experience. Irrespective of my sexual enjoyment, avoiding an unplanned pregnancy was always a priority for me; why not for the characters? There are plenty of things that can be done to achieve sexual satisfaction that don't risk pregnancy, so doing so makes it look like the plot is driving the developments rather than the characters..

    1. I think the message for me is that using a condom isn't ever enough (a conversation I just had to have with my daughter). 18% failure rate according to the CDC (http://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/unintendedpregnancy/contraception.htm). 18 out of 100 women who use only a condom over the course of a year will get pregnant. Not hugely high odds, but still well within the realm of possibility...

    2. That's a much higher failure rate than I've seen listed elsewhere or than I've experienced (I switched from the Pill to condoms for birth control after my daughter was born), but I think "use failure rate" is a clue that this encompasses more than breakage and includes spillage, use of expired and heat-damaged condoms, application and removal problems, etc. It seems to me that a combination of condoms or diaphragm plus spermicides should work if someone doesn't want to use the Pill as well as condoms.

      I do know that if my daughter had chosen to go on Accutane, she would have had to commit to using two methods of birth control.

    3. Yes, the figure is more than breakage; it includes actual uses, which include all of the issues you mention, things that happen to real people, whether from carelessness or accident.