Monday, February 14, 2011

Post: Are feminism and romance mutually exclusive in literature?

Post by Connie

Warning: This is not your average Valentine's Day post.

It may not have passed your notice that all of the writers here at the Blue Bookcase happen to be women, and if you are truly perceptive, you've probably picked up on the fact that many of us tend to be more than a little opinionated and not at all shy about being equal rights feminists (i.e. we're not bra-burning man-haters; we just wanted to be treated fairly). There, it's said. WHEW.

The elephant of the blog now having been acknowledged, what more perfect topic to address today, the day of sweethearts and candy boxes and roses and love, than the issue of romance plot lines in literature and what that means for women?

Relationship Addiction

Relationship addiction is an affliction addressed by Anne Wilson Schaef in her book, Escape from Intimacy: Untangling the "Love" Addictions: Sex, Romance, Relationships. What a title, eh? As it suggests, Schaef includes chapters on various "love addictions." The one I will be focusing on today is relationship addiction. She says:
Men who are relationship addicts believe they cannot survive without a wife, and women relationship addicts believe they have no identity without a husband...It is absolutely essential to be part of a couple. Persons suffering from this addiction look to the relationship to tell them who they are. They have no concept of establishing an identity of their own, on their own.
Unfortunately, so many female protagonists in literature are relationship addicts of varying levels, and reading about them feeds into women's own relationship addictions.
Level One, Anorexia, includes persons obsessed with relationships; they are obsessed with avoiding them.
A little counter-intuitive, huh? I don't want to spend much time on this one, as it's less common in literature, but books about women who are anti-love, anti-relationship, feed into that same stereotype that love is the controlling motivator for women.
At Level Two, the addict spends much of his or her time in fantasied relationships...The fantasy is in being coupled with another person. There is little content to the fantasy other than the coupledness, the need for the belief that theirs is a relationship.
Your standard plot-line of woman spending all her time thinking about a man, wondering if he could possibly feel the same way. As much as I love Gone With the Wind, the Scarlett/Ashley relationship is a perfect example of this -- an obsessive relationship that's not really based on anything real (good thing that's not the driving plot of the book). I recently began reading The Hangman's Daughter. The opening chapter about the hangman was fascinating, but once it skipped to the part that was actually about the daughter, it was all about her fantasizing about an imagined relationship with a forbidden man she hardly ever even talks to. Gag.
Level Three... These are the people who are acting out their relationship addiction in relationships... There is a frantic quality to their quest for relationships and a terror that is palpable if they think they may be alone.
 Pretty much any "romance novel" here (which genre, by the way, is booming, according to this interesting article). Getting closer to the level I really want to talk about...

The Vampire Phenomenon
Level Four includes violence and death...Because of the mood-altering, insane, illusionary aspect of relationship addiction...At this level of the disease, judgment is so impaired and self-esteem is so low that they simply cannot mobilize themselves. They may even hope to be killed. In fact, they are frequently suicidal.
Aha! We have arrived at last. This is the level I find to be the most dangerous in literature right now, and a large portion of it can be attributed to the Twilight saga. Even more disturbing than the terrible prose of the books is how popular they have become despite the series' anti-feminism in terms of Bella's advanced stages of relationship addiction. Observe:

Note the severe depression that results from her "man" leaving her, the self-destructive habits, and that the ONLY THING THAT MAKES HER FEEL BETTER AGAIN IS ANOTHER "MAN" (Jacob, the shirtless wonder). Does no one else notice anything wrong with this picture? Plus, when Edward and Bella finally have sex in the upcoming book/movie, she wakes up with bruises all over her, and she LIKES it. Can't wait for it to happen to her again.(.....)

It is alarming that this is the kind of romance young adult (and even adult) readers (mostly female) are aspiring to, looking to find their "Edward." It has sparked a resurgence of popularity in "vampire romance," which has always been popular among romance novel readers but is now being extensively read by fiction and young adult fiction readers.

It didn't take us here at the Blue Bookcase long to figure out that in the book blogosphere, for every literary or general fiction book blog, there are 30 "paranormal romance" and "vampire romance" blogs.

So the big question: Can romance exist in novels without being anti-feminist?

The question that remains is obvious: is it possible to write about romance without stereotyping and degrading women?

Surprisingly enough, I would answer that question, "yes." If we return to Schaef's original definition of "relationship addiction," it says, "Persons suffering from this addiction look to the relationship to tell them who they are. They have no concept of establishing an identity of their own, on their own."

Therein lies the key. In my opinion, romance is a perfectly legitimate dimension to include in a novel of literary merit, as long as it is not presented as the defining aspect of the female protagonist's sense of self.

And yes, there are plenty of novels out there that do so successfully! But I have spent enough of your time rambling on about this. If you want to find out what love stories get my stamp of approval, come back tomorrow for Top Ten Tuesday (favorite love stories).

Your thoughts?


Happy Valentine's Day