Category Archives: Feminism

death is my independence

The dissolute rake falling for the pure virgin is a classic romance trope. In Romancelandia it means watching a man beyond redemption become redeemed through love. In the original rake/virgin novel…not so much.

Clarissa, written in 1748, is the story of a virtuous woman pursued by an irredeemable man, Robert Lovelace (aka Best Rake Name Ever). Modern romance readers are allergic to “bad” heroes, which means that all rakes must be Tragically Misunderstood for Tragic Reasons (see sympathy coupons). Not so Lovelace. He is a genuinely Bad Man. Also a Very Beautiful Man. (Here’s where I admit I haven’t read the book, only watched the BBC adaptation. Sean Bean in makeup and lace is a Very Beautiful Man, at any rate.)

He works outside of the morals of society, so he’s a powerful agent for change. He alone can help Clarissa escape her restrictive family. But the same qualities that make him powerful also make him unable to love her in the right way. For the first time he feels love, and it unsettles him as it should unsettle any rake. He reacts the only way he knows how, and tries to force Clarissa into marriage. Instead, he drives her to starve herself to death in obscurity.

The priest who’s caring for her tells her that the bible absolves her of any shame, and that she must choose to live. She says to him, “Death is my independence.”

This is apparently the longest novel in the English language, but I reckon that single line makes every other word in it worthwhile.

Historical settings are romantic to us romance writers because the social restrictions a woman has to overcome to choose a selfish, personal kind of love are much more obvious. Her journey to personal autonomy and sexual expression is clearer, because she exists in a context that doesn’t allow her these things.

But aside from the occasional fluke, I’d say Clarissa’s a much more realistic picture of what a woman’s emotional journey would have been if a more experienced man became infatuated with her.

It’s a kind of independence that’s mirrored almost a hundred years later in Jane Eyre when she withholds from Rochester the only thing that’s still hers to withhold. Her body is wholly in Rochester’s power – there’s no one to interfere on her behalf. But Rochester, despairing, says, “But whatever I do with this cage, I cannot get at you, and it is your soul that I want.”

Even if a woman found love with her husband, it would take a pretty extraordinary woman not to have been somewhat subsumed inside her husband’s desires and society’s expectations of her as a married woman.

Let me say here that I don’t want romance heroines to die for the sake of their purity. Er, no. Having a woman overcome the obstacles imposed by her gender is a wonderful allegory for modern women, whose obstacles are far more ambiguous. But I wonder whether the historical context could also be used for a story about personal independence.

There’s a romance trope that goes something like this: The wallflower, who’s fast approaching her late twenties *gasp!* with no sign of marriage on the horizon, decides to remake herself. She starts to follow her own desires. She becomes unreasonable, and powerful. And then she gets the man.

I get it. It’s a statement about the autonomy that’s necessary, even in marriage. It’s a clear declaration of the fact that you’re always at your most charismatic when you’re being purely yourself. But there’s also something in there that goes: Independence is one more trait you need to acquire in order to get a man.

The next romance series I plan to write will be five books long. It’s the story of an enigmatic man and his adopted children who drive Britain’s industry in the mid-1800s. The series begins when a genteel woman, Hadrienne, is engaged to the eldest son, Primus. Primus ends up marrying her companion instead, and Hadi gets engaged to the next son in order to stay with the family who have become her family.

My initial idea was that Hadi’s romance with the father would be the series-arc romance. The father has turned his back on his aristocratic beginnings, and Hadi is everything he thinks he’s disowned. She subscribes to very classic “female” behaviour, and as she comes into her own the father can no longer discount her.

Then the other day something happened. I realised that one of the kids’ biological mother is, contrary to popular belief, still alive. And that she’s the love of the father’s life. This felt absolutely right…but it left Hadi hanging.

Her engagement starts the whole series. Her story gives the series its arc. I couldn’t leave her romantically unresolved, could I, in a romance series?

My first reaction was a categorical No. And then I thought, Yes.

The more I think about it, the more right it feels. Her journey was always one to personal independence. It’s not easy for her, but she has to face the women’s movement and decide for herself what she thinks. She takes up photography and documents the lives of women. She becomes someone who would once have seemed disgusting to her.

And it’s right that her actions aren’t rewarded with a man, but with herself.

I recently came across photographer Clayton Cubitt’s portraiture project Hysterical Literature. He films women reading aloud and being brought to orgasm. They’re fully clothed, and they appear to be sitting alone at a table. Cubitt’s interested in catching genuine glimpses of people in an age that’s obsessed with self-documentation. He’s referencing the idea that female hysteria was once treated with medical orgasm, and the sensual relationship women have to the written word. He’s also interested in exploring concepts of high art and low art. The project obviously edges onto the space occupied by pornography – but is also wildly different.

He never explicitly draws the parallel, but to me the idea of high literature and low literature was so present in the videos – especially the uneasiness around what women read and the arousal that’s often part of what they read.

The videos are…not explicit in the pornographic sense. You see nothing. But you do watch a woman come to arousal and come. So don’t watch them if that kind of thing disturbs you.

I found them extraordinary. They depict a female sexuality that has nothing to do with a partner. It’s intensely personal. It’s something I’ve never seen so explicitly depicted before. It’s the kind of romance that I want Hadi to embody, so that her story is not to do with a man but is deeply, powerfully romantic anyway.

the mother-daughter sex talk

When my older brother was fourteen and about to go on his first ever date, my parents sat him down and told him some things about respecting girls and always using condoms. The reason I know this is that my sister and I, in the next room, scrambled to the ends of our beds and listened in, trying not to giggle too loud.

Maybe a year or two later we were having a garage sale and my older sister lifted one of the books and hid it in her jumper. When Mum found it, the punishment was this: My sister had to sit and read the whole thing aloud. It was a “how babies are made” book, complete with illustrations.

The illustration of the woman giving birth showed her on her back, and I remember Mum saying, “Well that’s not completely accurate – you can give birth in all kinds of positions such as squatting or on all fours.” Like my sister wasn’t dying of embarrassment.

Mum used to give pre-natal classes and was wonderfully straightforward about those crazy, foreign, dizzying sex-related things.

I understood the mechanics, but until I read the incest-sex in Sleeping Dogs I hadn’t realised sex wasn’t a single act of penetration but something that happened over time. Until the first of my friends saw a real life penis at fifteen and drew the rest of us a diagram, I didn’t realise an erection didn’t stick straight out from the body. (I guess that kind of erection is easier to illustrate for the purposes of where babies come from.)

There were things I didn’t know, but I was happy to discover them slowly over time for myself. I felt prepared enough.

Yesterday I wrote a mother-daughter sex talk into my teen romance, and it ended up turning into a feminist manifesto. This is what I’d want to say to a daughter if I had the guts. It probably doesn’t quite fit into a scene in a light-hearted novel, though.

Did you suffer the sex talk? Did it make a difference? Have you had to give one?

Here’s Lexie suffering though:

Mum sat on the end of the bed, and wouldn’t look Lexie in the eye.

Oh no. Oh no!

Lexie buried her face in the pillow. “Please, please tell me this isn’t a sex talk.”

Mum cleared her throat. “You and Jerome seem serious, love. I don’t think I’d realised just how serious until I saw you together today.”

Well, at least there was irrefutable proof she was a hell of an actress.

“I am eighteen years old,” she groaned. “I know what goes where. Seriously, you don’t have to do this.”

“Trust me, I’m not enjoying it any more than—”

“Then don’t do it. I beg, I implore you.”

“Love, Jerome isn’t like the boys you go to parties with back home.”

No kidding.

“I just need to know you’re prepared.”

Lexie stuffed her face deeper into the pillow, and really wouldn’t have been surprised if her blush turned it red. “This is, like, child torture.”

Mum made an annoyed noise. “I can get Mum up here to give you the lecture instead, if you like.”

Lexie gasped and her head shot up. “You wouldn’t dare.”

Mum just raised an eyebrow and Lexie was forced to give in to her superior tactics. “Okay. Give me the talk. Wait – can you tweet it at me? 140 characters or less?”

Mum rolled her eyes and blushed a bit and looked really awkward again.

The irony was not lost on Lexie. All this trouble, when Jerome was the last man on earth she was actually going to be having sex with.

“Um, condoms,” Mum said. “No matter what a boy – er, a man – ever says to you, no matter how convincing he sounds, you never, ever have sex with him without a condom.”

“Well, duh,” Lexie said, which just proved how embarrassed she was. She was normally much more eloquent.

“I know you think you know about condoms, but, well, sex does actually feel better without one. You’ll probably even want to try it. Don’t. Just – please, don’t. It won’t ever be worth it.”

“Okay,” Lexie mumbled. Maybe if she just went with it, it would be over quicker.

“When you’re in a long-term, committed relationship then you can start thinking about maybe not using condoms.”

Dear God, argh! She was going to kill Jerome for putting her through this for nothing.

“But the most important thing I want to tell you is far less easy.”

Something in Mum’s voice – something serious and finally unembarrassed – made Lexie look at her.

“Lexie, as a woman you’re going to feel like you need to please your partner. Like all the pleasure in sex is about being something that he desires. You’re going to think you have to make certain faces and pull certain poses and that it’s good sex if he wants you. That’s all crap. That’s the kind of sex society has told you to have in a million little ways you can’t even see. The only kind of sex you should be having is the kind that gives you pleasure.”

So, on the up side Mum had remembered about feminism. On the down side Lexie wanted. To. Die.

“And I won’t ever do anything I don’t want to,” she said in a rush. “And I should only have sex if I think he respects me. Yep. Got it. We had Sex Ed in, like, year eight. I think that just about covers it, don’t you?” She gave a giant, panicked yawn. “So, um, I’m really tired. I’ll probably just go to sleep now. I’ve got to be up at 4:30. Goodnight!”

Mum shook her head, but looked relieved, too. “One day you’ll have to do this with your kids,” she said, standing up. “Then you’ll feel sorry for your old mum.”

Lexie had never heard a more convincing reason not to have kids in her life. Good thing her prospects for having sex with anyone were nonexistent.

woman hero

My favourite piece of dialogue from Avatar: the Last Airbender goes like this:

Sokka: I’m sorry. I treated you like a girl, when I should have treated you like a warrior.

Suki: I am a warrior. But I’m a girl, too.

The only female Avenger in the Avengers movie is the Black Widow – a tough assassin who can more than take care of herself. She’s deadly and clever. Her emotions are the sharpest weapon in her arsenal. In the movie we see her, twice, use her “feminine” weakness as a weapon against men who underrate and discount her for it. It allows her past barriers the more physically powerful superheroes couldn’t have crossed.

There’s the suggestion in the movie (and, I think, overt confirmation in the comics) that she lets her enemies rape her, because it brings them close enough to be killed. She lets people trespass on her – lets them all the way past her defences – and they die for it. Her martial arts skills are extraordinary, but her greatest threat lies in being a weak, defenceless woman.

In the movie, Loki, the master of getting inside other people’s heads, attacks her with the truth about her blood-drenched past. She allows him to think he’s gotten to her, and as he pushes the point venomously home, he inadvertently gives part of his plan away. All emotion drops away from the Widow and she calls through to the team to let them know what she’s found out.

The scene is excellent, because we’re viewing her as Loki does, so the moment when she drops the pretence comes as a shock and makes her seem entirely kick-ass. What I love more, though, is that later we see how her emotions were disturbed by everything Loki said. Her emotions aren’t just an act. She lets her enemies in close enough to actually hurt her, to get what she wants from them.

I like it because it’s great characterisation – but also because it means her “feminine” emotions aren’t just a weapon in her arsenal, they’re still an integral part of who she is. She is a kick-ass heroine – and she’s a woman.

Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises is another mix of “feminine” and kick-ass. The first time we see her she’s playing a downtrodden waitress to get access to Wayne Manor – a guise she throws off when Bruce catches her. Like the Widow, something falls from her and her whole physicality shifts into that of a confident, competent woman. She plays the victim, the seductress, the confidante. Any female face that will get her what she wants.

In this version of the character, Catwoman’s “feminine” qualities felt less cultivated than the Widow’s. Who she is as a woman and who she is as a fighter feed organically into each other. Her emotional relationship to the world hasn’t quite been warped into a weapon yet.

The only problem is: it puts her at risk of becoming Batman’s girlfriend.

Part of the problem, actually, is that she wasn’t Catwoman. The movie played her as a clever, tough woman making her way in the world and taking what she wants. Who occasionally dons slinky clothes while she’s working. In her article applauding Anne Hathaway’s performance Kessock writes: “Where in most of the previous iterations of their relationship there was a definitive difference between how Selina and Bruce interacted versus how Catwoman and Batman interacted, in The Dark Knight Rises the two meet and remain on an almost constant level of transparency throughout the film.”

There is no level between them, though, because Batman gets the armor of an alter-ego and a costume – but Catwoman doesn’t. She remains Selena, the woman, and vulnerable to him. She wears her hair out, not hidden inside the black caul that makes her impenetrable.

Cat put it like this: “Masculine” is a clearly defined space. Everything outside of it is “feminine”, and undefined. Catwoman inhabits that space. Her strength comes from being undefined. Batman will never be able to grasp her.

I find these two instances so interesting, because romance is concerned with strong women. Women we can look up to. Women who fight for their right to love and be powerful at the same time.

I mostly find myself writing the woman I would be if I had the guts. The kind of woman who shows affection by being bossy and high-handed. Who becomes vicious when the people she loves are threatened and whose strength other people know they can rely on.

I tend to write women who have in some way already triumphed over the things that stop women from acting out power. Women like the Black Widow and Catwoman who create their own path. Women who represent a goal, not a daily experience.

Feminist readings of the movie Brave have made me rethink the kinds of women I want to write.

The main article these thought are in reference to is ‘Just another princess movie’ – which is pretty long, and makes an obtuse point or two, but is mostly interesting reading. Loofbourow writes of the central mother-daughter relationship:

I wonder…whether any of the foregoing critics who’ve tolerantly yawned at Pixar’s latest effort could name a Disney princess besides Mulan whose mother is alive, let alone named.

And yet, in Brave, there is a live mother, named and all. And then a remarkably boring thing happens: this interloping mother who has no place in this ordinary, predictable princess story suddenly becomes central to it. She gets turned into something that keeps on getting misread as a monster, something her loving and well-meaning husband has dedicated his life to tracking down and killing for the sake of his own story, which is built around victory and revenge.

…If fairytale princesses are motherless, warrior princesses are even more so. They’re motherless because it’s difficult—still, in 2012—to imagine a woman warrior who enjoys a relationship of mutual love and respect with her family generally and her mother specifically.

This idea struck me so hard because it pointed out a lack in my own expectations that I hadn’t even noticed. It is new and difficult to imagine a warrior woman within a loving family. The Widow’s family were slaughtered, and she had to be brainwashed and genetically altered, to become what she is. Catwoman, whatever version of her back story you take, has left a life so awful behind her that she wants to wipe her slate clean and start again, alone.

Women who can come through that much adversity are heroic, tough, strong. It makes sense. But is that kind of adversity necessary to a woman being kick-ass?

Loofbourow goes on to describe the moment in the film when the three hopeless suitors stand up to compete for Merida’s hand – and all our expectations tell us a fourth man will arrive, who is unsuitable yet perfect. She writes:

Then came the twist: Merida, bound (literally) by the accoutrements of official princesshood, broke out of her constraining dress and represented herself in the contest for her hand! On the grounds that she is a first-born, and therefore eligible to compete, she shames her suitors by beating them handily! The crowd goes wild.

That last part’s a lie — there is a crowd in that scene, all gasping ecstatically as each silly prince takes his shot, but that crowd does not go wild when Merida wins. This proves not to be the triumphant moment of female empowerment Hollywood likes to deliver when it remembers that women are watching.

The crowd instead does something much more likely: it goes weird.

Things get awkward.

love this reading. It’s a revelation. In the real world, which allows a certain space for women to inhabit, stepping outside that space is an uncomfortable act. It’s brave, it’s gutsy, it’s necessary. It’s rarely purely triumphant. As Marcotte writes:

In this grim world of male dominance, the fantasy of a single individual changing everything with a grand gesture of empowerment starts to look silly indeed. A lesser film would have made Merida’s plot to out-man the men at archery the end of the story, but this more realistic portrayal shows how individual action can make the situation worse. Only when the female characters start to work together—to take the collective action so beloved by progressive organizers—does actual change occur.

I’ve been thinking recently about those bluestocking heroines we love so much in historical romance – inquisitive, probably socially awkward, less consumed with what’s in fashion than what’s in the latest Edinburgh Review.

Our heroes come to love them for their minds, their independence and their courage of conviction. To the modern mind they stand out from the crowd as the girl to root for. But I’ve been thinking more about how difficult it would be to love someone who refuses to fit nicely into The Way Things Are. Even the most broadminded, smitten hero would be confronted when his beloved’s behaviour proved not to be an eccentricity but the truth of who she is, in all situations.

The series I have in mind to write next is going to take place some time in the second half of the nineteenth century. I’m still narrowing it down as I do my research – but one element I’m sure of is that I want my women to each have a relationship to the suffragette movement. And I want their greatest difficulty in coming to terms with their personal beliefs to be each other. As well as their greatest strength, eventually.

Describing just how subversive the central mother-daughter relationship in Brave is, Marcotte writes:

Even more interesting, the filmmakers take a critical look at the way women function under male dominance. Many patriarchal societies leave the stressful job of forcing girls to comply with degrading social norms to women, especially mothers. Unlike other movies such as Real Women Have Curves, where sexism-enforcing mothers are painted as villains, Merida’s mother, Elinor, pushes her daughter to perform femininity out of love. As with mothers throughout history who have done everything from put young girls on diets to hold them down to have their clitorises removed at puberty, they are acting not out of hatred but out of a love that leads them to protect their daughters from the price of rebellion.