At the Back Fence Issue #298

March 24, 2008

From the Desk of Anne Marble:

Sexuality as Shorthand

A recent thread on the Potpourri Forum got me thinking. As the posters noticed, romance novels often use sexuality as a kind of shorthand – a way to send us quick signals about characters. Why, for instance, are so many heroes a Duke of Slut?

Because it’s a way to make him more virile. While some readers are turned off by the Duke of Slut, many others prefer experienced heroes. Why? Maybe they like the signals this sort of hero gives off. In myths, gods often slept with numerous women, so there was no doubt that they were potent – and fertile. A romance novel hero who has slept with more women than he can remember isn’t that far removed from Zeus or Odin. In the past, statues of gods often boasted huge phalluses. Virile romance novel heroes are like those statues, or like the phallic symbols ancient Romans wore. Even if most people don’t wear phallic jewelry, those symbols are still potent. But lest you think romance novels are the only ones who put these studs on pedestals, rest assured that many genres venerate virile heroes. Think of James Bond and all his women. Or of Conan the Barbarian, finding gorgeous women in every city. Are secret baby books and epilogues filled with babies our equivalent of a phallus talisman?

What about virginal heroines? As Kelly B said, “Pure, wonderful, all that is good in the world. Bunnies frolic at her feet, bluebirds do her hair.” If you study myths and legends, you’ll know that women are often characterized as either virgins, whores, or wise old crones. Laurie, who loves Greek mythology, wrote a major college paper at SMU for Thomas Moore (Care of the Soul) on the three virgin goddesses: Athena, Artemis, and Hestia. Unlike Aphrodite, for instance, the power of these goddesses didn’t derive from their sexuality. Athena is the goddess of wisdom, justice, and war. Artemis is the goddess of the wilderness, the hunt, and, perhaps surprisingly, given her virginal status, fertility. The lesser-known Hestia is goddess of the hearth, domesticity, and nurturing qualities. In Roman mythology she is Vestia, attended by the Vestal Virgins.

Throughout history, though, powerful women were often portrayed by their sexuality. When England was torn by the war for the crown between Maude (Empress Matilda) and Stephen, some contemporaries created horrible rumors about Maude, even claiming that she and Stephen committed incest. Compare that to Queen Elizabeth I, who was known as the Virgin Queen. Guess which female ruler was more popular with her people? Right.

Yet as we know, even the most naive virginal heroines often have insatiable desires, and they can give off signals to those hidden lusts. Does the virginal heroine wear daring silk underwear under her clothing or take long, sensual baths? Does the virginal librarian become a vixen when she lets her hair down from her tight bun? Both are just waiting for the right man to come along and bring out those hidden lusts. And of course, the right man is usually the hero.

Sometimes, the heroine isn’t a virgin, but her previous sexual encounters are disappointing. Why? Because she had the gall to sleep with someone other than the hero, of course. Like us, she should have read those signals. That previous boyfriend or husband wasn’t the Right One. She is only meant to be with the hero. Her body was telling her what the signals tell us – that she and the hero are meant to be together.

What about the other guy who was a dud in bed? Well of course we know that means he was weak. Maybe even impotent. Years ago, I noticed that kings in fantasy stories were often portrayed the same way – either physically powerful (like Conan), or puny and useless, or (like the bespelled Theoden in The Fellowship of the Ring) so old and weak you expected them to crumble to dust. In romance, the impotent other man or husband is more than just a convenient way to create a virgin widow. This is also a signal that we may be responding to without realizing. Just as the ancients valued virility and fertility, they also feared impotency and infertility. When we read about the impotent other guy, we may be rolling our eyes, but in the back of our mind, we may also be thinking “What a dud. She’s better off without him.” The impotent other guy is often old, and often cruel, such as the husband in Catherine Coulter’s Night Fire or the short-lived husband in Johanna Lindsey’s Prisoner of My Desire.

Now and then, the impotent guy is simply very nice, such as a wealthy old husband who marries the heroine to protect her. For example, in the early Heather Graham novel A Season for Love, the heroine is married to a wealthy older artist – who is also impotent. He’s so kind that he tells her to go on a cruise and fall in love! This is how she meets the hero, and the wealthy old artist keeps trying to push them together, despite some misunderstandings and nasty accusations from the hero. It’s as if the impotent old guy came into the world to protect her until she could meet the hero. One of Valerie Vayle’s pirate romances also featured a nice old guy who married the heroine when she got pregnant during a long separation from the hero. So nice. So understanding. So doomed. I always end up feeling sorry for these guys, yet somehow, I rarely imagined the heroine staying married to them. It was as if these older men are like old Father Time, lingering until December 31 so that he can hand over the keys to the Baby New Year at midnight.

Not all other men are impotent. Some are just nice. This almost always means that they are doomed to lose the heroine, like Bill Pullman or similar actors. But of course we know it was meant to be because this guy was nice, and nice guys finish last. At least in romance novels. Gay guys don’t do much better. In today’s romance, gay guys are often the charming best friend of the heroine. This may be a new archetype, or an adaptation of an old one. But a stereotype is a stereotype, and it was a refreshing change to come across characters like Diana Gabaldon’s Lord John Grey, or Jules in Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooter series – gay characters who are more than just comic relief. Even if, like Jules, they can add lots of witty asides. They even have real desires. In fact, Jules and his lover Robin got my vote for best couple this year.

But for a while, as discussed in an earlier ATBF, gay villains were the new black in romance novels. One of the villains in an early Julie Garwood Medieval was gay, secretly, of course. Robin Schone’s The Lady’s Tutor is one of the famous examples of gay villainy. But I think one of the best examples of gay villainy is Andrew Coulter, the hero’s brother in Barbara Dawson Smith’s Once Upon a Scandal. This pearl of humanity raped her heroine shortly before her wedding (to the hero) to prove he wasn’t a “Sodomite” after all, then goes off and gets killed in war. Talk about ineffectual! And that’s what homosexuality portrays to some people – the ultimate ineffectual man. We know she won’t end up with him because he’s not just gay, he’s weak. Yet ancient cultures did not always see gays as weak or impotent.The ancient Norse feared seid (also known seidr), the type of magic practiced primarily by women. If you accused another man of practicing seid, you were not just saying that he was gay – you were saying that he was unmanly and effeminate and implying that he took the womanly position, and that he was practicing manipulative magic on top of that. In a culture of warriors, this sort of magic was often feared. Odin accused Loki himself of practicing Seid. (I’ll bet you didn’t learn about that side of Loki when you read Norse myths in elementary school!) Similarly, in many Native American tribes, male two-spirited people (gay men embodying both the male and the female) were often respected and powerful shamans. Maybe romances’ gay villains hark back to ancient fears about the power of gay shamans. Or for that matter, maybe they just make convenient villains, like the other women.

Other women tend to come in two flavors, frigid or slutty. Both types of other women tend to hold some kind of power over the hero. Even if they are not evil, they can be conniving and manipulative. (Maybe they practice seid?) The other woman is almost the equivalent of the nice guy who gets pushed aside for the hero. But she can’t be too nice, can she? Otherwise, we’d hate the hero and heroine for betraying her. So she has to be distant or overly concerned with money or advancing in society. As Suzanne points out, you can tell these women apart from the heroine because they don’t like children, and if they have any children, they neglect them. As Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing said, “The world must be peopled!” Laurie points out that many “other women” are also bad housekeepers. She recalls watching The Best Years of Our Lives on cable last year, and realized the moment she saw how messy Virginia Mayo’s character “kept house,” she was going to turn out to be a slut. Yet another symbol that they’re wrong wrong wrong for the hero. The hero must be paired with the sweet heroine, with bunnies frolicking at her feet, bluejays doing her hair, and cinders on her face from sweeping chimneys or surrounded by dwarfs who help her clean house because she is Mother Earth, and she is going to give him lots of babies.

Then you have the slutty other women, which is vastly annoying because they are portrayed as evil simply because they are not sweet and virginal. Like the powerful mythic /wp-content/uploads/oldsiteimages of gay men, the idea of woman as whore is a powerful one, and one that we can’t always get away from. In many cases, the hero can’t away from the “whore” at first, even if he wants to be free. Think of the number of romances that start with the Duke of Slut in bed with a greedy, manipulative mistress. In Fern Michael’s Captive Passions, the nasty other woman just about drags the hero Reagan around by his privates (not literally). Sometimes the hero sees through her while everyone else thinks she’s the hottest thing alive. In Lynda Trent’s The Tryst, the heroine’s evil slutty manipulative twin sister takes her place late in the book. She comes on to every man in the castle, and everyone but the hero and his loyal sidekick sleeps with her. Only the hero and the sidekick know something is “off.” The hero was like those rare heroes of Greek legends who heard the Sirens and yet were not lured to their doom by their deadly song. The hero who resists the lure of the other woman is rare. How often have we read scenes where the hero, who used to sleep with his mistress all the time, suddenly wants nothing to do with her and can’t stop thinking of that adorable virgin he saw at that ball?… Or rake heroes who become jaded with all that darn sex stuff and suddenly find everything, even kinky sex, dull. Either they’re ready for love, or they’re doing it wrong.

The evil other women would tell them they’re doing it wrong. That’s because the evil other women often have skanky villain sex, which means that they do kinky things while the hero and heroine have vanilla sex. The kinky sex is used as a shorthand to say “See, I told you, these are evil people.” This is common to genre fiction. In many a science fiction or fantasy novel, the villain is not only bad – he also likes to rape or flog. This can backfire, as it did in a book JennyM read, because it makes the villains look more interesting. JennyM remembers a romance “where we were clearly supposed to be put off by the kinky villain sex, but there was such a dearth of chemistry between the hero and heroine that I found myself thinking I’d rather hang out with the kinky villains because at least their sex was sexy (and not really that kinky, in this age of erotica). Anyway, it was clearly not the author’s intention, because the kinky villains really got it in the end.”

That’s not to say that the hero and heroine can’t be kinky. But as Kerstin says, when the hero and heroine have kinky and painful sex, this is often shorthand to show us “how much the otherwise rather prudish and inhibited, sexual inexperienced heroine who would have never dreamed of such kinky sex in her wildest dreams before now trusts the sexually far more daring hero.” For Kerstin, though, this makes the heroine look less daring than trusting…and occasionally TSTL. “It is never ever the heroine who has kinky fantasies before she meets the hero and he is finally the man to fulfill them (as in the movie Secretary).” With the increase of erotic romance, though, that’s changing. On the one hand, the heroine in Caine’s Reckoning, which won in this year’s reader poll as Best American/Frontier Historical, didn’t know she liked a little pain with her sex until the hero patiently waited for her to realize that fact. And yet, Laurie points out that in two Ellora’s Cave favorites – Hannah Murray’s Jane and the Sneaky Dom and Lion in Love by Elizabeth Lapthorne – both heroines decide they are missing something in their sex lives and actively seek a dominant partner.

Luckily, many readers are no longer accepting these old chestnuts about sexuality. Look at the death of the gay villain. Around the time of Robin Schone’s popularity, nary a gay character couldn’t be found who wasn’t evil in some way. Yet I can’t remember the last time I read a recent romance novel with a gay villain. And while evil other women are still out there, they aren’t as common as they were in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the cliches about sexuality have been turned on their heads. Say what you will about erotic romance, but at least many of these books are giving us heroines who dreamed of kinky sex before meeting the hero. In fact, erotic romances have turned over a lot of our old chestnuts about sexuality. However, many of those chestnuts, from virginal heroines to boring boyfriends, are still roasting even in the fires of the hottest erotic romance. That’s a pity, because erotic romance should be the last place we find these old stereotypes.

Questions To Consider:

What do you think of stories that use stereotypes about sexuality as a shorthand for characterization? Does it in some way orient you to the story or is it something you wish no longer existed? Why do you think this “shorthand” is still in use today?

What do you see as the changes in the way some of these stereotypes are used in romance today?

Do you agree that erotic romance has changed some of the stereotypes, or do you find that erotic romance simply uses the same shorthand?

Have you seen a difference in the way villains and their sexuality have been portrayed in romance in the past five years?

Have you seen similar stereotypes in other types of fiction?

Anne Marble

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