Beneath my writers’ uniform of flannel pajamas, I harbor two raging alter-egos in spandex, the dynamic duo of TheoryGirl and SuperEgoGirl. The first thinks the big fancy thoughts, the second (and more beleaguered) gets it onto paper (or into the ether), but only after I’ve promised to do so.
Which is why, in my last post, I announced (i.e. promised) that I’d be pulling together some of the thoughts I’ve been having about these issues, in response to Laura Vivanco’s brief provocative post at Teach Me Tonight, called Babies in Books, and the lively discussion it… uh, spawned? …engendered? about the pro-natalism of popular romance fiction, and what it’s meant for the genre’s implicit (or even explicit) political assumptions.
In my comment, I said that in my own romance fiction, I try to “square the genre’s prejudice not so much for babies, I think, as with an unquestioned view that a certain kind of ‘innocence’ must always be protected.”
To which Laura replied (quite understandably) with a kinder, gentler version of “huh?”
OK. Here goes. My own belief is that the romance genre’s preference for a heroine with “a nurturing streak larger and warmer than the South China Sea” (thanks, Smart Bitches) is one of the ways that the genre responds to the problem of representing female desire.
Which didn’t used to be such a problem — at least when writing a certain kind of romance novel. Think, for example, of Georgette Heyer’s eponymous Frederica, just before she receives her first kiss, on the last page of the novel that bears her name:
“You see, [she tells the hero] I never was in love, so I don’t know…. It has always seemed to me that if one falls in love with any gentleman one becomes instantly blind to his faults. But I am not blind to your faults, and I do not think that everything you do or say is right! Only — is it being — not very comfortable — and cross — and not quite happy, when you aren’t there?”
“That, my darling”, said his lordship, taking her ruthlessly into his arms, “is exactly what it is!”
“Oh–!” Frederica gasped, as she emerged from an embrace which threatened to suffocate her. “Now I know! I am in love!”
The discussion might be about love, but the clincher is… well, the clinch. Frederica has loved and desired his lordship, but was so innocent she didn’t recognize it as such. Not one of my favorite Heyer moments, or heroines (give me the ladylike but lusty Venetia, or the farouche boy-girl Léonie), but not atypical either (there’s a similar moment for Prudence at the end of The Masqueraders, a book I like a whole lot anyway). Frederica tells us that it’s the hero’s role to educate female desire (as quickly as possible here), after he’s been educated about his caring, care-giving side.
It’s an easy, productive, and formally satisfying exchange. Or was. Because (at least in the precincts of the vast romance landscape where I hang out) we don’t believe it any more. Even if it does tip the scales of narrative exchange, selfish, hungry desire is now the property (and the right) of heroines as well as heroes.
And a desiring heroine — one who knows and understands the nature and object of her desires — is no longer an innocent.
Unless, of course, she’s also cast as the defender of innocence — and who, or what, is more innocent, inexperienced, and entirely devoid of desire than an unborn child? A pregnant romance heroine can be as passionate, as single-minded, as dangerous as we want. Even if we’re not totally sure we approve of her (even if she’s not the good, nurturing, self-sacrificing girl we were told — and still almost believe — that we should be) we’ll always be on her side if she’s on the side of total innocence.
(And if you find yourself surprised by how much need there is for innocence in romance — check out this discussion of whether bad-girl romance heroines deserve a HEA ending.)
Of course, there’s a lot more to be said about this. I’m always a little bit suspicious of myself when I type out a bloodless phrase like the genre’s preference. How about the reader’s preference? The writer’s preference? My preference?
After all, as one of discussants of Laura’s post pointed out, “sometimes a baby is just a baby.” In a genre that delights in rewarding the deserving with all good things, isn’t a baby something I want to give my heroine? Of course it is (as no one who’s read The Bookseller’s Daughter or Almost a Gentleman could doubt).
And yet there are subtleties, shades, differences — to be examined in a follow-up post., where I’ll try to talk about ways that it might be possible to mix it up a little. About what I think of the politics implicit of claiming total innocence for your side (hold the presses — I’m not for it).
But today, I want to end with two RIPs. First, of course, for Senator Ted Kennedy, who lived one of the great, imperfect lives in recent political history (I’ll always go for the younger son, who misses the alpha spot in life, faces his losses and his flaws, and goes on to do something beautiful, lasting, and memorable instead).
And second, for Ellie Greenwich, who died the day after Senator Kennedy, and who wrote some of the most glorious, romantic, passionate girl group songs, imo… well, ever:
The one I found myself singing all through my pregnancy…
The one that might stand as an ode to orgasm…
The one for all you alpha male fans…
And many, many more.