I haven’t gotten around to writing the promised second part of my thoughts on objectification (Part I here) because a) thinking required! lazy! and, more seriously, b) while I talk about individual books I really like (I’ve gotten better at picking my winners), when I write about the romance genre as a whole, my posts often seem cranky to me, or critical in the negative sense. I’m not sure why this is, but I’m sure tired of being cranky.
Recently I noticed taglines of two novels, one in my TBR and one not:
- She thinks she knows what she wants . . . until he shows her what she needs.
- He’s everything she never knew she always wanted. . . .
Can you guess which of these books I’m planning to read?
Since I haven’t yet read either, this isn’t a comment on the stories, just on how they are framed on the books’ covers. I find the first one off-putting because the heroine doesn’t know herself until the hero shows her the truth. The second heroine doesn’t know herself either, but the implication is that encountering the hero teaches her about herself, not that the hero teaches her. Possibly these stories are more alike than the taglines imply, but the difference in framing, though subtle, is important to me.
I think the first one treats the heroine as an object. She’s a blank slate for the hero to write on, clay for him to mold, marble for him to sculpt, whatever. She’s being done to; he’s doing. (I’ve read plenty of romance sex scenes where this is literally the case). In the second version, the heroine is a subject. She may not know herself, but this tagline suggests the possibility she’s on an active journey of discovery, that she’s learning things about herself because of the hero, with the hero, but not passively receiving self-knowledge from the hero.
The objectification in the first version of the story is pretty common in romance, though often in much subtler forms. It’s the hero’s sexual experience (Duke of Slut, Magic Dom, whatever the variant) that apparently empowers him to show the heroine what she doesn’t know she desires. This is akin to the projection Erin Satie described in her earlier comment:
So if it’s normal, or even necessary, to reduce people to their parts – let’s say the relevant parts – I think it’s pretty universally harmful to turn people into a blank canvas, to erase the messages they’re sending in order to substitute different ones, that you find more appealing.
The All-Knowing Sex God Hero (AKSGH) disregards the heroine’s self-perception and replaces it with his perception of her. Or perhaps she has no knowledge of her own desires, so he draws whatever he likes in the blank spaces on her map. And the story tells us that’s fine, because he’s right.
There’s also an implication in the AKSGH that all women are alike, that they are interchangeable machines with matching buttons to be pushed. How else would he know exactly what she likes? Often what the story tells us is that she is different from all past women, that sex has never been like this before. But what we’re shown is that if he can please one woman, he can please them all. Because basically they all work the same way and desire the same things.
Not everyone will see objectification here. Many readers interpret or experience this kind of story differently than I do. To some extent, objectification is in the eye of the beholder, as Jill Sorenson’s comment on the “headless male” covers shows. This post on Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance, and whether people read it as sexy or sexually objectifying, is another good example–the long debate in the comment thread shows how different perspectives can be.
I think that “he knows what she really wants/needs” reads as objectification to me because it doesn’t ring true. A lot of experience with many different partners may make someone a skilled and attentive lover, or it may not because s/he is a selfish jerk. Even if you’re introduced to sex by someone experienced, that person doesn’t know what you like. You have to discover that together. And over the course of a long HEA, preferences and desires may change, new discoveries take place.
I can tolerate the AKSGH in erotica, where I’m not really looking for realism. But my preference, especially in romance, is for stories where the heroine and hero, whatever their respective past experiences, are partners on a journey of discovery. Where what they desire is, in part, shaped by being with a particular other person they desire. Where each is an opaque mystery the other sets out to unravel, not an open book. Where each is subject, not object–or each is, at times, an object for the other.
What’s coming up for hopefully-less-cranky posts? I’m enjoying Sarah Morgan’s Sold to the Enemy and thinking about romance beginnings vs. endings, and playing with tropes. I have Alison Atlee’s Typewriter Girl from the library, and this inspired me to pick up Olive Pratt Rayner/Grant Allen’s 1897 novel of the same name. I’ve been meaning to read him for years, and there’s nothing like the prospect of a comparison-contrast essay to inspire me. Plus there’s that box of Gaffney novels burning a hole in my closet.
So far, despite the severe test of the 50% rebate from AllRomance E-books on Valentine’s Day, I haven’t felt tempted to break my Lenten book-buying fast, or even to add anything to my wishlist. Of course, it’s only been two days! Look out, TBR, here I come.