Courting controversy: the second wave on love and romance

Last week, the French newspaper Le Monde published a letter signed by a hundred women (including the actress Catherine Deneuve), which said that men’s freedom to pester (‘importuner’) women was ‘indispensable for sexual freedom’.  ‘How French!’ said the English-speaking pundits—but in fact plenty of English-speakers have expressed the same fear about #metoo. If men can’t try their luck in all the time-honoured ways, how will anyone in future ever have sex?

Faced with this question, a lot of women have answered: ‘don’t be ridiculous! Harassment is unwanted sexual attention, not any sexual attention. Do you think we can’t tell flirting from stalking, or consensual sex from assault?’

As put by opponents of #metoo, the question is indeed ridiculous (or at the very least, disingenuous). But the answer, arguably, isn’t quite as straightforward as the précis above might imply. What passes for ‘normal’ heterosexual courtship does have some features in common with harassment—in particular, the assumption that the male role is active and the female one passive. Both sexes learn that it’s men’s job to take the initiative, while women should not appear too interested initially in case they seem either desperate or slutty. On the assumption that their resistance is token, however—there to be overcome—men are expected to keep trying until eventually the woman gives in. As Jameela Jamil wrote recently:

Our society, the internet, and even our most mainstream media, constantly perpetuate the idea that men do not need to worry about what our needs and boundaries are. They just need technical consent, however that consent is acquired.

And as she points out, all too often it is acquired by way of pestering and badgering—the male prerogative defended in Le Monde as ‘indispensable for sexual freedom’.

Jamil also points out that these sexual scripts have to be learned, and one source from which we learn them is the cultural products we consume. She is particularly scathing about the sexism of popular music, with videos featuring scantily-clad women gyrating for ‘men who are sitting there on their arses, sometimes in outdoor winter layers’, and lyrics

which went from, “Try a little tenderness,” to MURDER THAT PUSSY. BEAT THAT PUSSY UP. PUT THAT PUSSY IN A TOASTER. SHRED THE PUSSY AND PUT IT IN THE BIN.

In the past, Jamil suggests, popular culture idealised romantic love; today it glorifies naked sexual aggression. But reading this reminded me that feminists of the second wave were as critical of the ideology of romantic love as they were of sexual violence. Rather than seeing the two as opposites, feminists often made the argument that they were connected and mutually reinforcing.

In her 1974 book From Reverence to Rape: the Treatment of Women in the Movies, the film critic Molly Haskell wrote about the way women of her generation were induced (by, among other things, the movies they watched) to find pleasure in the idea of being overcome by the force of a man’s desire, and to see the manipulation of that desire as a source of power:

Those of us who were ambitious would use our femininity as Scarlett O’Hara [the heroine of Gone With The Wind] used hers; would flirt, tease, withhold sex, to get what we wanted. It would rarely occur to us to ask outright for a place on the starting line, to enter the ranks of competitive male activities and thereby lose our place on the pedestal and our ‘preferred’ passive position in the game of love. …We were guilty of conspiring in our own idealization—and our own oppression. For whatever else may have been our goals, we still assumed that the need men and women had for one another, and its satisfaction, was indissolubly linked to their roles as conqueror and conquered, and we accepted all the implications that followed from that first parsing of human nature into active and passive.

More than forty years on, the Le Monde letter–and other contributions to the anti-#metoo backlash–suggest that these attitudes have not withered away. Male ‘gallantry’ and feminine ‘wiles’ still have their defenders–though as feminists pointed out in the 1970s, these concepts presuppose that courtship is not a transaction between equals.

In 1984, Janice Radway published Reading the Romance, a now-classic feminist study of popular romance fiction. Rather than just analysing the books themselves, Radway sought out a community of regular romance readers in a midwestern American town she calls ‘Smithton’, and studied what they read, how they read, and what, by their own account, they got out of it. At the time, one of the most popular subgenres of romance fiction was what the industry called the ‘bodice ripper’, a new take on ‘gothic’ romance which was more sexually explicit—and more violent—than previous iterations. What flame-and-flower-2readers thought of this was among the questions Radway investigated.

She found that the Smithton women objected strongly to what they classified as rape scenes, but felt differently about scenes which involved, as one reader put it, ‘a little forceful persuasion’—even though the acts they put in that category would clearly, in the real world, have met the legal definition of rape. The distinction seemed to rest on their understanding of the man’s feelings for the heroine. If they were convinced that his use of force reflected, in Radway’s words, ‘his passion and her irresistibility’, they didn’t see it as abusive or unforgivable (though they also expected that as the story progressed his lust would give way to love, tenderness and the obligatory happy ending).

Radway discovered that the publishers of romance novels made a similar distinction in their advice for aspiring authors. One set of guidelines explained that a scene in which the hero raped the heroine could only be included on certain conditions, one being that ‘it must never be initiated with the violent motivation that exists in reality’. Women’s fantasy, the guidelines went on, was to ‘lose control’ with someone who really cared about them. If he didn’t care, it would be a ‘true rape’, and as such unacceptable to most readers.

Radway did not suggest—far from it, in fact—that the Smithton women were brainwashed dupes. What she did suggest, though, was that their way of making sense of romance fiction could be linked to their subordinate position. Like the heroines of gothic romance, they knew what it was to feel threatened, exploited or undervalued by men: what they got from their reading, Radway argued, was a way of reinterpreting hurtful or violent behaviour as an expression of men’s need and desire rather than their contempt.5293b8a343b464115800013e-1385412771-700x344

Many second-wave writings about the ideology of romantic love are reminiscent of what Marx said about religion (‘the opium of the people’). Though it gives comfort and pleasure to the oppressed, it is also an obstacle to the radical social change that would be needed to liberate them from oppression. As the #metoo debate continues, perhaps this is something we should think about. Do we just want men to become more sensitive seducers, or do we want to rewrite the traditional sexual script?

 

 

 

 

 

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Before Cat Person: bad sex in second wave fiction

‘It is not every day’, wrote Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett in the Guardian this week, ‘that a short story goes viral’.  She was talking about Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person, published last week in the New Yorker, and subsequently shared, discussed and dissected by thousands of readers.

What has made Cat Person a sensation is not its literary qualities. It is basically, as Cosslett says,

a tale, straightforwardly told through the eyes of a young woman, of an unpleasant sexual encounter that she has with a somewhat ambiguous stranger who turns out to be actively unpleasant.

But the response it got from women readers was extraordinary.  Their comments emphasised its ‘relatability’, the way it resonated with their experiences and their feelings: some said it was as if Roupenian had read their minds. Among men, on the other hand, reactions ranged from simple bemusement (‘I don’t get it’, tweeted one, ‘it all seems very mundane’) to outright hostility. Which is perhaps unsurprising, given how unflatteringly the central male character is depicted:

During sex, he moved her through a series of positions with brusque efficiency, flipping her over, pushing her around, and she felt like a doll again, as she had outside the 7-Eleven, though not a precious one now—a doll made of rubber, flexible and resilient, a prop for the movie that was playing in his head. When she was on top, he slapped her thigh and said, “Yeah, yeah, you like that,” with an intonation that made it impossible to tell whether he meant it as a question, an observation, or an order, and when he turned her over he growled in her ear, “I always wanted to fuck a girl with nice tits,” and she had to smother her face in the pillow to keep from laughing again. At the end, when he was on top of her in missionary, he kept losing his erection, and every time he did he would say, aggressively, “You make my dick so hard,” as though lying about it could make it true. At last, after a frantic rabbity burst, he shuddered, came, and collapsed on her like a tree falling, and, crushed beneath him, she thought, brightly, This is the worst life decision I have ever made!

Many commentators have put the extreme responses–both positive and negative–down to the novelty or shock value of seeing heterosex depicted from the woman’s point of view. ‘If so many [women] feel this way’, asks Cosslett, ‘then why has it gone unsaid until now?’

Actually, it hasn’t gone unsaid until now. Cat Person is utterly contemporary in its language and its setting (it belongs to a world of dating apps, flirting by text and learning your moves from internet porn), but its depiction of sex–more specifically, of bad sex–reminds me strongly of some fictions that struck a similar chord with women in the 1970s.

In a 2003 article called ‘Beyond trashiness: the sexual language of 1970s feminist fiction‘, Meryl Altman discusses three novels written by American second wave feminists–Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972), Marge Piercy’s Small Changes (1973) and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973)–which became popular successes, selling enough copies outside the political subculture that produced them to ‘[carry] feminist revolutionary thought into millions of homes’. And the secret of their popularity, Altman suggests, was the way they approached the subject of sex.

They included lots of explicit heterosexual lovemaking, described from the women’s point of view, and they were forthright and clear that sexual satisfaction was important to women as well as men, that this was a reasonable and normal expectation – albeit an expectation often frustrated.

Among the recurring themes Altman identifies in these popular/feminist fictions are ‘the routine harassment and abuse of girls by boys and women by men’, ‘the expectation that [women] would both arouse and police desire’ and ‘an emphasis on sexual disappointment and male inadequacies, described in graphic detail’. Cat Person ticks the same boxes, especially the last. And just as commentators on it have been reminded of  Margaret Atwood’s aphorism ‘men are afraid women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them’, so the 1970s novels very often depict men’s behaviour as simultaneously threatening and ridiculous.

Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, for instance, opens with the narrator Sasha telling her husband Frank that she has slept with another man. He responds by demanding sex (and reminding her that since they are married, she has no right to refuse):

I began to struggle in earnest. His breath on my neck made me very nervous. “Please, Frank, no fair.”
“Please, Frank, no fair,” he mimicked, adding, “bitch!”
…he pushed me onto one of the beds and deftly pinned my wrists over my head. With a wrench of his head he shook his glasses off; they dropped to the floor. I had a picture of myself as a comic-book victim, strangling on my own bra, which was flopping around my throat, and I felt an almost uncontrollable urge to laugh. But Frank looked so helpless without his glasses, dewy-eyed and unfocused, that bitch or no, I struggled not to laugh at him. …Instead I said, “I’ll scream!”
“Scream, then”, he mumbled. And, transferring both my wrists to one of his hands for an instant, he prepared with a minimum of undressing to rape me.

But then things take an unexpected turn:

There was no way out…to the accompaniment of my finally unsuppressible laughter, off we went on our last trip together.
This scene makes uncomfortable reading. Is what ultimately happens a rape, or isn’t it? It seems clear that Frank doesn’t care what Sasha wants, and is prepared to use force if he has to. She makes it so that he doesn’t have to, but her motives remain opaque: is she just resigned to the inevitable (‘there was no way out’), or does her anger give way to genuine affection, or pity?
51Stzakp-9L._SY346_What women want from sex, and how they negotiate between their own desires and others’ expectations or demands, are also questions explored in Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. The resulting narrative, like Shulman’s, can be uncomfortable to read. After spending much of the novel pursuing what she refers to as ‘the zipless fuck’–a brief, anonymous sexual encounter unencumbered by emotional baggage–the heroine Isadora Wing finally gets to enact one of her favourite imaginary scenarios, having sex with a stranger on a train. But in real life she is not in control of the action, and she experiences the encounter as an assault. ‘I’d been offered my very own fantasy’, she reflects, ‘and instead of turning me on, it had revolted me!’
Like Cat Person, these second wave novels present us with female protagonists who have, as we say nowadays, ‘agency’–they are certainly not helpless victims, or passive creatures that things just happen to. Nor are they exemplary feminist heroines: though Marge Piercy’s characters are Political-with-a-capital-P, Shulman’s Sasha and Jong’s Isidora are not. They are on a quest for personal fulfilment, not trying to start a revolution. Nevertheless, their stories make clear that this quest exposes a woman to risks which men do not have to contend with, and that, in turn, exposes the limits of women’s freedom.PromQueen-cover01-330
Not only does Cat Person itself have precedents in 1970s fiction, its polarised reception echoes the way the earlier texts were talked about (albeit on a smaller scale, since the internet did not yet exist). One reviewer of Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen wrote:
I daresay that not a woman reader will be really shocked and that the average man’s hair, regardless of length, will automatically stand on end from page to page.
Another suggested that
Men may curse, they may howl . . . yet men owe it to themselves to see themselves plain, as their wives and girlfriends perceive them.
Yet here we are in 2017 listening to another generation of men cursing and howling in response to another story portraying a man through a woman’s eyes. Has anything really changed since Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen?  Alix Kates Shulman asked that question herself in 1997, when the novel was reissued to mark its 25th anniversary:
Shall I rejoice that the novel, steadily in print since 1972, remains sufficiently alive to the times as to warrant a new, celebratory edition? Or should I bemoan the conditions that keep its social satire current?
Twenty years on, I think the answer is probably ‘both’. The reception of Cat Person suggests that there is still plenty to bemoan. But we should also acknowledge and celebrate the fact that women haven’t just been silent all this time. There’s a whole tradition of using fiction–comic, satirical and sexually explicit–to offer a critical female  perspective on heterosexual relations. And that evidently still packs a punch.

Re-reading feminist utopian fiction

Most of the texts we’ve been reading for the Second Wave course are either academic books and articles, or else they’re political manifestos, polemics and position papers. But the reading list also contains quite a long section devoted to fiction, and it’s not there just for light relief.  Feminist fiction in the 1970s and 80s had important political functions. Writers used it as a vehicle for exploring ideas, creating alternative worlds, documenting women’s life-experiences and reclaiming their forgotten histories. Looking back, I’d say my own feminist education owed as much to the (many) novels I read as to the weightier theoretical tomes.

A few weeks ago I asked a group of feminists if the same had been true for them, and if it had, which novels had made the biggest impression. Everyone’s list was different, but one thing immediately stood out: almost all the lists included at least one story set in an imaginary future or a parallel world.

A couple of women mentioned a ‘first wave’ example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s all-female utopia Herland, which was originally published in serial form in 1915, and reissued in 1979. Other favourites had been written during the second wave: they included Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), Suzy McKee Charnas’s A Walk to the End of the World (1974) and its sequel Motherlines (1981), Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) and Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979). But by far the most popular novels belonging to this genre (they didn’t just dominate the speculative fiction category, they were the two most frequently-mentioned titles overall) were Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).

The ‘woman on the edge of time’ is Connie Ramos, a working class Latina woman who has edgebeen committed to a psychiatric hospital after trying to defend her niece from a violent pimp. She finds she is able to make contact with the future, of which (in time-honoured fashion) there are two different possible versions. The one evoked in most detail is Mattapoisett, a utopian society where women and men live as equals. The other is a nightmare world where the most oppressive elements of Connie’s own society (such as the objectification and prostitution of women) have been taken to even greater extremes.

The book has been reissued this year to mark the fortieth anniversary of its original publication. The Guardian recently published an extract from the author’s introduction, in which Piercy both explains what she was trying to do when she created Mattapoisett—‘I wanted to take what I considered the most fruitful ideas of the various movements for social change and make them vivid and concrete’—and considers why fewer feminists today are inventing their own ideal fictional societies. Feminist utopias, she says,

were created out of a hunger for what we didn’t have, at a time when change felt not only possible but probable. Utopias came from the desire to imagine a better society when we dared to do so. When our political energy goes into defending rights, and projects we won and created are now under attack, there is far less energy for imagining fully drawn future societies we might wish to live in.

The optimism of the early second wave was already beginning to fade by the time Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, which is unequivocally a dystopia—not so much a call to imagine the ideal feminist future as a wake-up call focusing attention on some alarming developments in the present. Conservatism handmaidhad reasserted itself, with Ronald Reagan elected US president in 1980, and Atwood’s fictional Gilead dramatises the potential consequences of a related political phenomenon, the rise of a militant right-wing Christian fundamentalism. Some of the women who put The Handmaid’s Tale on their lists commented that its dystopian vision seemed even more relevant now than it had been in the 1980s. And indeed, you can’t help feeling that the newly-elected Vice-President of the US would be very much at home in Gilead.

A similar prescience can be discerned in the British writer Zoe Fairbairns’s dystopia Benefits, which imagines a patriarchal government using the machinery of the welfare state to keep women in their place. The book was published in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher came to power. It’s not as well-known as The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s equally revealing about the mood of the 1980s (and spookily on the money about a lot of what’s happened since).

Feminist utopian fiction was particularly popular during the years of the Anglo-American second wave, but women’s desire to imagine a better world has both a longer history and a wider reach. 51pb9nrvgtl-_sx320_bo1204203200_The tradition begins as early as 1666, with Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World, in which utopia is ruled by an empress who uses her power to promote peace, tolerance and equality. And not all examples come from Europe and North America: in 1905 (a full decade before Herland), the Bengali writer and social reformer Rokheya Sakhawat Hossein published ‘Sultana’s Dream’, a story set in ‘Ladyland’, which is ruled by women 512huudm8xl-_sx331_bo1204203200_while men are kept in purdah (as one woman explains to a visitor: ‘men, we find, are of rather low morals, and so we do not like dealing with them’).

I expected some women to include some of these books among their favourite second-wave novels, but I’ll admit to being surprised that the two most frequently-mentioned titles were both in the utopia/dystopia category. Evidently they did make a deep impression, and I think Marge Piercy is right about why: one woman who remembered devouring vast quantities of feminist sci-fi said she loved it for ‘that sense that things could be different’. Since visions of the future are always shaped by the author’s present, a lot of the books I’ve mentioned seem dated now; but the best of them still have the power to draw you into their worlds, and to make you think differently about your own.

Postscript: thanks to all the women who answered my question about what feminist fiction had been important to them. FYI here’s a full list of the ten most frequently mentioned titles.

  1. Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time
  2. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
  3. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
  4. Margaret Drabble, The Millstone (1965)
  5. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (1970)
  6. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)
  7. Kate Millett, Sita (1977)
  8. Nawal El Saadawi, Woman at Point Zero (published in Arabic in 1975, and in English in 1983)
  9. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (1962)
  10. Marilyn French, The Woman’s Room (1977)