Sunday I read Hanna Rosin’s New York Times Magazine cover story, “Who Wears the Pants in This Economy?”. I’m still thinking about it. And I am going to get around to romance fiction, in case you’re wondering.
The general context of Rosin’s piece is familiar: the recession is hitting men harder than women (following years of manufacturing job-loss) and women are outpacing men in higher education. What struck me were the details of how these changes affect the Alabama Baptist couples profiled in Rosin’s article, and how really alien some of their assumptions about gender and marriage are to me, though I too am a white, middle-class, middle-aged American Christian. Rosin describes a Bible study for teen girls in which “the mother who was teaching had the girls hold hands, march in a circle and say: ‘My husband will treat me like the princess that I am. He will be the head of my household.'” I felt like I was back in first-year Anthropology reading Jane Goodale’s account of life among the Tiwi. People do that?
Reading about these couples, who believe that men should be leaders and providers, and women should submit (not in the sexy way), I realized just how isolated I am in a world of people like me. No one I know well conceives of their marriage this way, no matter what their domestic arrangements. I’m not sure what “being treated like a princess” means, but for me it wouldn’t compensate for giving up full partnership in my marriage. Sure, this has something to do with feminism, but it also seems unfair to dump the whole burden of “leadership” and decision-making on my husband while I can avoid being a fully responsible adult. I don’t really understand them, but I admire the couples Rosin profiles for sticking together in tough times and struggling to rewrite the implicit marriage contract with which they’d begun their lives together. That’s not easy. And it’s especially not easy when their thinking about gender is pretty rigid and reinforced by much of their culture, including their church.
The men in Rosin’s story struggle to feel like worthwhile men–worthwhile people–when they are not able to support their families. The women forge ahead, returning to school, retraining, and moving up in traditionally female jobs in health care, education, and social services which are still going relatively strong, jobs that men won’t retrain for because they aren’t “manly.” Moreover, as Rosin writes, “I asked several businesswomen in Alexander City if they would hire a man to be a secretary or a receptionist or a nurse, and many of them just laughed. It’s not hard to imagine a time when the prevailing dynamic in town might be female bosses shutting men out of the only open jobs.” Reading this, I couldn’t help thinking that if our society can’t reimagine masculinity more broadly and flexibly–as we have already begun doing for femininity–we are in trouble. I was troubled, too, by what seemed to be an underlying assumption (I’m not sure whether it was Rosin’s or the couples’) that power in marriage or between the sexes is a zero-sum game, that when women gain power, men must lose it, rather than having a different kind of power in a new marital and economic landscape. Men might be gaining as well as losing in this new contract.
Reading the article, I kept thinking about reading genre romance, and about my experiences in Romancelandia. Of course this is an over-generalization, but romance as a whole embraces fairly traditional versions of femininity and masculinity–and this goes at least triple for the latter. Heroines can be “kick-ass,” they can be sexually experienced, they can have a variety of body types. Heroes are still mostly hard-bodied alphas and great lovers. The range allowed to them is narrow.
Moreover, there’s been a resurgence, it seems to me, of the possessive, controlling, jealous, misogynist alpha hero. Or perhaps I should say, there’s been a resurgence of these heroes in contemporary romance, after they’d mostly gone underground in places like paranormals. I regularly get blog hits from searches like “possessive dominant alpha romance” (I know they’re looking for recommendations, but I only have rants). Just as when I read about the marriages in Rosin’s article, when I read about people’s love for this kind of hero, I’m confronted with how many of the things I take for granted as “fact” are really just my deeply-held beliefs. You really enjoy that?
The other parallel, of course, is that I find romance’s gender roles, and perhaps especially this type of hero, troubling, but it’s hard to talk about, especially these days when everyone in Romancelandia seems more sensitive about criticism of all kinds. There are two things people say when discussion of this kind of hero comes up:
- I guess I’m just too feminist, but it bothers me.
- Of course in real life I’d run screaming from this guy/get a restraining order, but swoooon, he’s so hot. (otherwise expressed as “women can tell the difference between fantasy and reality”).
These are both pretty much conversation-stoppers, in part because they are personal. They make this an issue simply of reader beliefs and fantasies (which of course it is, in part) rather than of broader cultural ideals, messages, or scripts, which maybe can be discussed more neutrally.
I do think women can tell the difference between reality and fantasy. I understand fantasizing about things you don’t actually want in reality. But I also think that stories have power, and that they influence us most when we are not conscious they are doing so, when we’re not paying attention. If we want to claim that reading romance empowers women–and many people do–we have to acknowledge that it can disempower us too. No one has to think about the appeal of the stalker-alpha, of course. But I do wonder what we’re afraid to look at when we evade the questions he raises.
I don’t think I’m the best person to talk about this. They don’t appeal to me, so I can’t discuss it from a personal angle. I’m not a social scientist, so I can’t speak about it with any kind of academic authority. What I am is a literary critic, and here’s the best I have right now:
The possessive, jealous, controlling alpha hero is overdetermined (in the Freudian sense, though in others, too): he is a literary “symptom” with multiple causes. There are a lot of ways to interpret, experience and think about this kind of hero. Some are positive, some negative. I don’t think any of these are right or wrong, provable or disprovable. The best, deepest understanding of the role of this hero in romance fiction will come when we hold them all open as possibilities in a discussion, even though they are in tension with each other, rather than letting any one reading dominate. Here are some of the things we could say about the stalker-alpha:
- The hero’s possessive, jealous controlling nature is symbolic of his passion for the heroine; it shows how much he cares.
- The fact that such a strong man surrenders to his love for her (particularly if he’s a misogynist who disdains other women) gives the heroine power over him.
- The fact that a stalkery, controlling hero is ultimately tamed and domesticated by the heroine is a safe way of exploring and containing the threat real life men can pose for women.
- The dominant, protective male is an archetype, and romance as a genre trades in archetypes.
- The alpha (and the passive, submissive heroine he’s sometimes paired with) is a reflection of cultural views and ideals of masculinity, some of which can be sexist and/or harmful to both men and women.
- The stalker-misogynist asshole who is tamed by love perpetuates the misguided view that the love of a good woman can “fix” a man, a view which leads to a lot of unhappy and sometimes abusive relationships.
The power of literature is that the hero can be and mean all these things at the same time. But that’s also the danger of it, and why, in my view, we should ask questions about our reading.