the marriage that knows itself

I want to talk about marriage, but I’m going to start by talking about sex.

One of the difficulties in writing sex scenes as a feminist writer is that so much of female desire is learned. What women have learned to be aroused by has traditionally been shaped by male desire.

It’s tricky.

I don’t want to just write my heroines as objects of desire – but just because it’s learned doesn’t make it any less real. In fact, when our learned desires come into conflict with our educated feminist ideas, they can gain a level of taboo that only heightens them.

So how do you write what’s genuinely arousing, without playing into an idea of female sexuality that doesn’t allow for real female pleasure?

As far as I’m concerned, Cara McKenna has figured it out.

Her characters are self-aware when it comes to sexual desire. They understand the role fantasy and objectification play in arousal, and they allow it to heighten their arousal.

In Curio, Caroly visits a Parisian prostitute to lose her virginity before her thirtieth birthday. Caroly is intelligent and self-contained – she’s almost cold. She’s no blushing virgin. Perhaps it’s because the whole premise of the book is about exploring sexual desire that I could see how McKenna sets her characters apart from their desires.

The following extract is a good example of what I’m talking about:

His hand abandoned mine to its clumsy devices. I measured him with light caresses, loving how tense the rest of his body had grown.

“You feel harder than I expected.”

“This is how I felt when I thought of you the other night. Thinking of you made me hard then, just as your touch does so now.” He was quiet for several strokes, save his labored breaths. “Do you like it?”

“Yeah.” Bolder, I wrapped my hand around him as much as possible through his slacks, squeezing to discover how thick he was. He moaned and I felt different, as I never had before—powerful and beautiful and wild.

“I’m the first,” he murmured.

The idea that he was fetishizing this experience gave me permission to do the same. I’d already grown quite fond of Didier—surely fonder than was rational, given our perhaps six cumulative hours of acquaintance—but reducing him to a stiff, suffering cock was electrifying. I’d always loathed this idea, openly lavishing a beautiful man with my admiration. As if such a fortunate specimen deserves more validation. But of course it felt nothing like that with Didier. I adored this glimpse into another side of him, a darker, cockier version of the man I was just coming to know.

“Kiss me,” I said.

He did. He turned and kissed me as no one ever had before, urgent and demanding. I ached for his hand on top of mine again, dictating—perhaps even forcing—the friction. But I was in charge. I imagined teasing him this way until he begged to be taken out and given release. I imagined denying such a request, degrading him with my refusal until he lost control, quaking and pleading and erupting beneath my hand, inside his clothes, perspiration shining on his forehead.

But of course I wasn’t ready for that. Indulging the idea was breakthrough enough.

In most romances with a virgin heroine, the virginity fetish is naively expressed in the narrative itself. By which I mean – the reader has the virgin fantasy by reading the book. McKenna adds another layer by having her character consciously experience the virgin fantasy, about herself, and allowing it to heighten her arousal.

McKenna separates her characters from their fantasies. When a novel becomes the fantasy of the reader, the characters are essential players in the fantasy and can’t be separated from it. In the above excerpt Caroly plays with different fantasies – different ways of constructing herself sexually – but none of them defines who she is.

In her essay Expressing Herself: the Romance Novel and the Feminine Will to Power Sarah Frantz explores the rise of the hero’s point of view in romance. She argues that

[b]y having ever-increasing access to the inner confessions of the hero’s mind, the reader can trust in his romantic transformation as he abandons his belief in a masculine economy of use (hence all the rakes and libertines among romance heroes), and recognizes the superiority of and adopts a feminine economy of exchange (hence the requisite exchange of vows at the end of the romance).

I didn’t entirely understand what Frantz means by “economy of use” and “economy of exchange”. Google tells me they’re actual economic terms, but the only academic references I found came from Frantz.

As far as I can tell, the masculine economy of use is a one-way relationship that involves the heroine satisfying a need for the hero; it requires nothing of him in exchange. The feminine economy of exchange is a relationship that passes back and forth and requires each party to give, take and be transformed by each transaction.

By getting inside the man’s head, by watching him fall in love, women are fantasising that they can understand and control the patriarchy – and also that they are freeing men of the constraints of patriarchy “into the emancipation of feminine exchange”. But Frantz goes on to point out that

romances seem to be “violat[ing] the cardinal rule of patriarchy, famously articulated by Jacques Lacan: the Phallus must remain veiled.” In lifting the veil from the hero’s thoughts, romances are pretending to readers that all the secrets of patriarchy are revealed as secrets they already know and control. However, the romance hero’s confessions are of course not representative of what a “real” man thinks—the narrator is seducing herself when she looks into the mirror of the romance novel. The reader believes that she is lifting patriarchy’s veil to find … “mortal men standing behind it, somewhat sheepish, perhaps, at having been exposed, but maybe a little relieved as well.” However, female authors and readers are actually lifting the veil to reveal a nonthreatening phallus that they themselves have created, one that bears little relation to the reality of patriarchal power structures besides their own fantasies about it…*

Frantz goes on to showcase some rather hair-raising examples of the power exchange in romance novels. In one instance the heroine likens herself to God – the ultimate patriarch – and her male lover becomes a supplicant. It’s a gutsy and appealing reversal, and it throws a powerful light on gender dynamics.

But the problem is, as Frantz points out, that it’s a woman looking into a mirror. It doesn’t bear on the reality of living with a subconscious, internalised view of the world that privileges men.

From within this world view all the signifiers of power are still male: God the patriarch, the breast milk spilling from erect nipples that becomes phallic. It’s a world trying to describe itself from the inside, with the language of power structures that already exist and which say – Female is defined by being Male or Not-male.

I think it’s incredibly difficult for women to re-imagine gender and power from within a patriarchal world without still privileging the great devirginator.

Partly this is because, as I said earlier, we learn desire a certain way and realising it’s biased doesn’t make it any less arousing. But partly it’s because we live subjectively in the world, and don’t have the words to describe ourselves from outside it.

What we do have is the ability to acknowledge and describe the way we react in the world.

This is why McKenna’s approach appeals to me. Her characters aren’t women trying to become powerful by becoming masculine or not-masculine. They’re individuals who recognise their patriarchal desires as separate to who they are as people – but who consciously embrace their desires, for their own pleasure.

McKenna’s approach acknowledges that gender and desire are constructed. It also acknowledges that there’s no way to live separate from how you are constructed.

Which brings me, finally, to marriage.

The feminist critique of romance that the patriarchy is brought into the “feminine economy of exchange”, represented by the exchange of wedding vows, bothers me.

Why is marriage the sphere of women? (Why is there a sphere of women?) What makes us so invested in the idea of marriage? What makes us tie our sense of success and accomplishment and status with the idea of marriage?

I don’t actually have an answer, because I would need a couple of degrees in sociology and anthropology and psychology and maybe even politics and history.

But I think it’s important to ask the question – and to reflect on it. Which isn’t the same thing as dismissing the fact that marriage is, for the most part, a female domain, or that women are emotionally invested in and fulfilled by it.

I would like to see romance address the idea of marriage the way McKenna addresses the idea of sexual desire – by having characters self-aware enough to acknowledge that their desire for marriage is learned, then choose it consciously, because of what it will add to their life.

When special k and I got engaged at 24, there was definitely some fetish attached to it. I would look at him – this vibrant, slim, intelligent, funny boy – and it gave me a thrill to think that I was turning him into a Husband. The idea of belonging and possessing is a fetish – just as a wedding ring is a fetish object.

None of that makes the fact of marriage in my life any less significant. It’s one of the most powerful forces that works on me every single day. But I know it’s constructed, and when I embrace that fact it empowers me to act out the Wife in ways that contribute to my life, and to be an individual outside of being a wife.

I wanted to say something about this that didn’t really fit in the post. I don’t think all romance is disconnected from reality – not even the reality of “real” men. Frantz quotes Laura Kinsale’s theory that romance is an internal reality check that allows us to become adult, which requires us to turn away from “adventure, from autonomy, from what-might-have-been, and […] mourn the loss and deal with it”. But I think it goes further than coming to terms with our social reality.

I was really taken with this blog post about the reluctance of feminists to to deal with heterosexual relationships. For me, feminist romances dream up new ways for the world to be. They play with ideas about truly equal heterosexual relationships. They don’t look only at emancipated women, but at what their equal partners could be. They create a new set of expectations – a reality that we can live into, and create by living into it.

I would also like to thank Sarah Frantz for sending me her essay. Such nerd-joy to bring my literature degree and my love for romance together!

Comments 14 Responses

  1. thewanderingvagabond

    Excellent article which touches on many of my own beliefs and theories. However, once again, I find it hard to comment. As you say, ‘gender and desire are constructed…..there’s no way to live separate from how you are constructed.’ I used to believe that, actually, you can train yourself to de and re-construct your gender-based preconceptions, I still do, but I think to a lesser degree. Essentially, I grew up in a fantasy world, I cut myself off from most of my peers as a child and I grew up in a house where my father was often absent. I took little interest in the external world and was more concerned with my internal world, as a result I grew up without nearly as much patriarchal gender construction as other people.

    I think that most women want power and control, more than they are often willing to admit, again due to how they have often been socialised in a patriarchal environment. This is probably an effect of patriarchy whereby women are disenfranchised and yes, Marriage (often seen as symbolic control over women) is subverted to be seen as a manner in which they might finally achieve control over men. I have never met a woman who did not try and exert power over her partner to one degree or another. It is usually at its most poisonous when the man in question is typically ‘male,’ socially domineering, etc. Conflict breeds conflict, resistance is always proportional to force. However, also, I have observed what I suspect to be poison generated by women who are unable to accept their own power and desire for autonomy. This is what leads to classic ‘passive-aggressive’ behaviour and also the most bitchy, back-biting relationships. I could counter and also say that these conflicts are also greatest with men that cannot admit their desire to give up power. However, growing up in Patriarchy, I think most men don’t actually desire power for the same reasons that most women do desire it – it is presumed for men in most modern human society, it is therefore, a tiring & exhausting concept for us. Most men would, secretly or otherwise, wish to be relieved of the perceived ‘responsibility’ of power.

    In its most common form, Men end up being sexually dominant and women eventually become socially dominant within the relationship. This is the reason for the classic archetype of the scolding, haranguing wife and the brow-beaten husband. In folklore, Men are often presented as foolish and weak compared to their wives, it is often theorised that folk-tales are, traditionally, a woman’s art form and therefore such a portrayal of married men is common, and perhaps an expression of longing for power.

    In my own relationship I am actually learning to take more power and responsibility, almost paradoxically, given that I have *always* had no desire (or conscious desire) for sexual or social supremacy in a relationship. As a result, most of my relationships with women, who likewise haven’t consciously wished to force a power-dynamic, have been lack-lustre and detached or direction-less. As my current lover throws herself whole-heartedly into control and, feeling powerless in the world in general, is keen to exert her influence over me, I have been more motivated to express boundaries, to discover what *I* want and, most importantly, to say yes or no!

    1. anna cowan Post author

      So interesting! I found that last para about your relationship very female in a way. (Many women could relate, I think.) I hadn’t really thought as you put it about the woman becoming socially dominant in relationships, but in a general way I’d say that’s true. But then, she becomes all those “unlikeable” things – the scolding wife. I think you’re right that women’s desire not only for power I’d say, but also just the desire to be an equal, autonomous adult, becomes passive aggression. That’s where this idea of acknowledging desire rather than naming it within the existing paradigm appeals to me. Then it’s allowed to exist, neither good or bad.

  2. merriank

    Your post is leading me to think about the part reflexivity and self-awareness plays in our lives. I hear readers often talk about immersing themselves in the story and I have certainly said there are times I want to be taken out of myself when I read. In that immersion and abstraction from RL is there a place for reflexivity? When I am particularly unwell I read not-very-good books because I can’t be fully present to the story (and don’t want to waste a good book) and because they don’t ask me to think and reflect and don’t connect with my lived life.

    Maybe I am thinking about Vassiliki’s post on romances that don’t make you cry as well. That romances can be about the need for floating in the shallows not deep water swimming.

    Not sure what this adds to your post except to say that I think people do read in order not to know things.

    However, I really liked your point “…by having characters self-aware enough to acknowledge that their desire for marriage is learned, then choose it consciously, because of what it will add to their life…” because I think that we need to choose every day what we are and where we are in our lives in order to own it and value it.

    I would love to read Sarah’s essay too.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      This is an excellent point. I said in the post that readers have the fantasy by reading, and I think often that’s exactly what we want. To be immersed, outside of our own mind/desires/whatever, in a fantasy that carries us along. And to be uplifted, as Vassiliki points out in her excellent post.

      What I didn’t go into, because I didn’t want the post turning into a novella, is that of course reading McKenna’s books becomes a fantasy for the reader as well. It’s just being immersed in a fantasy about self-aware characters, instead of naive characters. (It gets meta pretty quickly!)

      Sarah’s essay is in a book called Scorned Literature, ed. LC Schurman and D Johnson.

  3. merriank

    I like the idea of the fantasy of being immersed in self-aware characters, and do think the point of the romance genre novel journey is to go from naivety to self awareness as the heroine and hero move from isolation/aloneness to connection.

  4. meganmulry

    Wow. I will need to read this at least ten times before I can comment with any cohesive thoughts. So much to process. Every line set off ten other thoughts–about myself, my stories, my characters and their motivations (especially the virgin and the bisexual heroines). For now, I am rolling around the fact that neither my husband nor I wear wedding rings and how I now see that as a need to de-fetishize marriage and our roles in it (though of course the not-wearing is a fetishization of “freedom”). Now that I think about it, consciously constructing or deconstructing “roles” within our marriage has turned out to be a defining characteristic of our relationship. Fantastic post. Thank you.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Thanks Megan! Writing breakthroughs/realisations are so subjective – and I love it when it pings a lightbulb for someone else too. (Or when someone else’s lightbulb moment pings me.) I can’t wait to hear what other thoughts this sparks!

  5. romancenovelsforfeminists

    Thanks for a provocative post!
    After reading it, I’m wondering if it is possible to imagine romance as a genre without marriage as its ultimate goal? The emergence of the “Happily for now” ending suggests this might be possible, but even in books with those endings, the feeling is that this couple is together for the long haul (and they often seem to get married in a later book in the series, if it is part of a series). Would we as romance readers be happy knowing that our hero and heroine are in love for now, but may go on to other partners in the future?

    I especially like your postscript, where you talk about the need for feminist romance to re-imagine not only femininity, but also masculinity, and how the two might interact in a relationship of equality.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Thanks so much for reading – and for your thought-provoking post that got me thinking about a lot of this stuff.

      It’s taken me a while to answer, because your question about marriage goes the heart of our difficulty trying to reimagine things like sex and marriage. So without having anything conclusive to say in response, here are some thoughts:

      I talked in the post about how any answers we come up with tend to re-inforce our internalised paradigm. Doing away with marriage altogether doesn’t feel to me like the most powerful re-imagining of marriage, because it’s reactive against what is constructed as a feminine concern – reinforcing the idea that power lies in the masculine. This is what I like so much about McKenna’s approach. If characters become self-aware about their desire for marriage, it begins to separate those desires out from them as people, which feels like the most powerful possible construction of a person we can imagine at this stage. Then a heroine isn’t defined by her desire for marriage, but she’s intelligent enough to understand the impact of her world on her.

      I got engaged quite young, so I never really had to question why I wanted to marry. But I’ve watched friends realise their long-term partner isn’t going to change their mind about getting married, then have to deal with their own desire. They’ve had to think about where their desire for marriage comes from, what they’ve always imagined it would look like – and most importantly, whether they still want it enough that they might leave the person they love and want to spend the rest of their life with in order to find someone who wants marriage.

      That last is really significant for me – even when faced with losing a lover, even knowing that the desire is constructed, marriage can be desired on such an instinctive level that your life would never actually feel fulfilled without it.

      For this reason, just doing away with marriage doesn’t feel like the answer to me. But becoming much more conscious of the reasons we want to marry and the kinds of compromises we make between fantasy and reality would help women articulate to themselves what their desires are and maybe begin to separate themselves as people from those desires.

      I think the rise of the HFN is more a reflection of current attitudes than anything else – it doesn’t really feel like a re-imaginging to me. But of course it’s positive for women to have the idea reinforced that marriage isn’t the be all end all.

      This has turned into the mega-reply!!! 🙂

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  7. shallowreader

    Your post has so many aspects I would like to comment on but I’m only going to touch on one aspect of your post

    You said “Why is marriage the sphere of women? (Why is there a sphere of women?) What makes us so invested in the idea of marriage? What makes us tie our sense of success and accomplishment and status with the idea of marriage?”

    I don’t think that marriage is solely the sphere of women. My biggest difficulty when I was going out with my husband was that he wanted to get married immediately whereas I wanted him to travel overseas (which I had done extensively – he had never left Australia), backpack with his friends, we could meet up for a short while and then when he returned we could live together and we could later get married if he still wanted to. He was horrified. He wanted to marry. He wanted to travel together, he wanted the rest of his life to start straight away. And it wasn’t a control thing either (he is the least controlling man I have ever met). This was at a time that all our friends were entering de facto relationships. I struggled with this because I felt what he wanted was too conservative. He called it “being alternative to the alternative” and won the argument.

    What I’m trying to say is that we sometimes forget that men want marriage too. They want the courtship and partnership as much as women do and sometimes they want even more. We are just socialised into thinking that marriage is all the woman’s desire.

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