Roberson, "Three Thousand Words and All of them are 'Lack of Female Agency'"

The great romantic fantasy of our age is that a hot man will take complete control over our lives, and also that we will never have the desire to eat.  We will meet an assertive gentleman who is perfect, and he will make us perfect, and we will love him for that, even though we were already kind of perfect before we met him.  Sometimes we will make out with him, and sometimes we will fuck him, but mostly we will swoon over our boyfriend’s perfectly tousled hair.  And then we will faint because we forgot to breathe.

Back in the Golden Age of the 1800s, romances had flawed heroines who fell in love with men who were equally flawed and equally powerful in the relationship.  Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth is prejudiced, and its dreamboat for the ages, Mr. Darcy, is proud (as anyone has a 50% chance of correctly telling you).  They are both “of an unsocial, taciturn disposition,” and though she is one of the most beloved heroines in all literature, it is still a truth universally acknowledged that Elizabeth is no exceptional beauty (she is at least somewhat hot, as all women in romances must be, IT HAS BEEN DECREED).  Wuthering Heights’s Cathy and Heathcliff are exponentially more flawed – Cathy is a violent, selfish liar, and Heathcliff a vicious, weird looking would-be murderer (though he is filthy rich, as all men in romances must be, IT HAS BEEN DECREED).  Their love for each other, embodied in lines like “whatever souls are made of, his and mine are the same,” makes them kind of likeable, but mostly they are exceptionally the worst.

Even recently, back in the Golden Age of the 1990s, there have been romances with flawed but compelling heroines who fall in love with flawed but compelling men.  Perhaps most famous of these heroines is Bridget Jones (though I can’t say for sure, as I was like five when the novel came out, and as a rule the only time I talk about the ‘90s as if I remember them is when I’m hitting on a guy) (this is a thing young folks do now, welcome to love in 2012).  Bridget is a 30-something single woman living in London and a self-described “pissed floozy.”  She is locked in an eternal battle to stop drinking, smoking, and eating all together.  Though attracted to dickhead men, she tries her best to avoid “emotional fuckwittage” and to instead “be complete in oneself as a woman of substance.”  Though her struggles sometimes make her want to “spend the evening eating dough-nuts in a cardigan with egg on it,” she hilariously and touchingly becomes a stronger woman over the course of a year.  The novel is actually so funny that I have begun stalking Helen Fielding (the author) in an attempt to force her to be my best friend or at least my mom.  What makes Bridget so funny and so loveable is all her flaws and stumbles; as love interest Mark Darcy puts it, “Bridget, all the other girls I know are so lacquered over.  I don’t know anyone else who would fasten a bunny tail to their pants.”

But that was the ‘90s, and for better or for worse (seriously, I don’t know, I was born very recently) the ‘90s are over.  A trip to the bookstore in late 2012 – or, I guess, a trip to Amazon – does not find books about flawed, funny, interesting, relatable heroines in complicated but worthwhile relationships.  Instead it finds Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, the great romantic novels of our age.  You can be disappointed that these are the great romantic novels of our age, but you can’t say they aren’t, because you can’t argue with The Numbers, and The Numbers are like 200 million and 60 million, respectively.  Anyway, the task these novels set themselves is not to describe a realistic relationship.  The task is to describe the perfect romance.

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Summarizing Twilight is difficult, because people know either everything about the book, from the histories and special powers of each Cullen to the intricacies of Quileute tribe lore, OR only that “there are vampires, and you can be on Team Robert” (synopsis courtesy of Todd Venook, male friend).  BUT: here goes.

Twilight is told from the perspective of Bella Swan, a high school junior who is 17 in body age but approximately 42 in emotional age. Everyone in the rainy town of Forks, Washington, is in love with her: Mike, Eric, Tyler, Jacob, a virtual who’s who of the 1993 most popular boys names.  But Bella only has eyes for the “devastatingly, inhumanely beautiful,” “interesting… and brilliant… and mysterious… and perfect” Edward Cullen, who is 17 in body years but 104 in actual been-alive years.  Because, of course, Edward Cullen is a vampire.  He is a vampire who loves Bella completely, saves Bella’s life, introduces Bella to a whole new world, and becomes the reason for Bella’s existence.

The suspense of the novel comes from Bella’s slow discovery of Edward’s vampirism, and then from a rogue vampire who makes it his mission to kill Bella.  But most of the actual word count goes to the mental experience of being a teenage girl obsessed with a boy.  In either the novel’s most annoying failing, or its greatest accomplishment (I’d say the latter), paragraph after paragraph after paragraph is spent describing Edward’s perfection.  He is physically exquisite, talented in all things, extremely intelligent, wonderful-smelling, a great kisser, and can parallel park in seemingly impossibly small spaces (the real power of vampires obviously being parallel parking).

Though she can’t see it, Bella is perfect, too.  She is beautiful, smart, caring, self-sacrificing.  She is reserved, and the implication is that those who aren’t are gauche and egotistic and a little dumb.  She worries about being pale, about having brown hair, about liking books more than she likes boys – but it all comes off really humblebrag-y.  Bella’s big supposed flaw is that she is clumsy.  Hundred of examples of stumbling and tripping and aversion to movement could be cited, but the degree of her clumsiness is best explained in that, after she is almost killed my a vampire, her parents completely buy the explanation that her injuries came when she “fell down two flights of stairs and through a window.”  Clumsiness is obviously not a real flaw, and not even because a real flaw involves a fault of character as opposed to inner-ear balance.  Clumsiness is not a flaw because it shows that Bella doesn’t really have control over her body, and that preservation and ownership of her body is easily transferable to her male love interest.  This ability for the man to control the woman’s body is the most perfect of all his perfect qualities.

Because, beyond the fantasy of being a perfect woman (or, really, girl), Twilight is about the fantasy of relinquishing agency to a man, especially agency over your body.

Kind of intuitively because this is a romance, but still creepy as fuck, Edward has sole power over the sexual aspects of Bella’s body.  Before Edward, Bella has never had a boyfriend, or any romantic feelings about anyone whatsoever.  Not even a crush.  Completely asexual.  And it is Edward who regulates what physical affection Bella can show – because he is so intensely attracted to the smell of her blood, any sudden kisses on her part might push him to kill her.  So, he is allowed to lean in and kiss her, but she must receive the kiss without reciprocating, standing completely still, no lip action, definitely no tongue.  She asks Edward if they can one day have sex, but he adamantly refuses.  Such a situation would lead him to lose control of his super-strong body (AKA BONE HER TO DEATH).  At the very least, giving Bella partial ownership of their physical relationship would make Edward lose control of her body.    

In fact, Bella has so little connection to or agency over her body that it is hard to imagine how she has survived in the seventeen years before she met Edward.  She is constantly putting herself into dangerous situations – almost getting run over by a car, almost getting raped in a dark alley, almost getting killed by a vampire – from which Edward must save her.  She is also always forgetting to eat, since it holds no real interest to her.  (Which is 100 million times less believable than the existence of vampires.)  Over and over Edward has to cajole Bella into eating, or taking medicine, or doing any basic body maintenance-type activities.  In quite the feat, Edward even has control over Bella’s visceral functions.  Multiple times in the novel, Bella’s breath and heart stop in Edward’s presence.  Not in a cute, cartoon hearts coming out of my eyes way, but in an actual way.  In one scene, her heart monitor flat lines, and in another she faints.  Edward’s perfection gives him control over Bella’s ability to continue living.

And so, Bella has no choice.  She literally cannot live without Edward.  She cannot love without Edward.  They are destined to be together – as we learn later in the series, their love is fated, they could never have been with anyone else.  She is perfect and he is perfect and as such they must be perfect together, with he, the stronger and more experienced by about 80 years, basically making all her decisions.  “You are my life now,” Edward says.  Says Bella: “I didn’t know if there ever was a choice, really.”

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Summarizing 50 Shades of Grey is a far easier task because everyone already knows the shocking part – THERE IS S&M STYLE SEX!!! – and no one is super obsessive about the character intricacies because there aren’t any, really.  The book is narrated by shy graduating college senior Anastasia Steele. Like Bella, she is perfect, except she is clumsy teeheehee (she is perfect).  All the boys in Washington and northern Oregon are in love with her, but she has never wanted to be kissed by anyone because why kiss an icky boy when you could be drinking English breakfast tea and reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles?

Ana falls for a mysterious beautiful man who in a shocking twist turns out to be not a vampire but a Dominant, into whips and nipple clamps and women who will submit to him in all aspects of their lives. Christian is Edward without the annoying need to feast on blood and with the added virtue of having overcome childhood abuse to become a multi-millionaire philanthropist/CEO who knows how to fly a helicopter and sex a lady up real nice.  (The similarities are hardly surprising, as 50 Shades started its life as a Twilight fanfic called Master of the Universe by “Snowqueens Icedragon.”)  Of course, as this is a female fantasy, Christian ends up having very little actual S&M sex with Ana because she’s not ready and because he has weird strange feelings for her that he soon identifies as love.  Instead of entering a Dom/Sub relationship, they date, and she meets his family the morning after they first have sex.  He is sweet and perfect and they banter and never part without saying “Laters, baby.”

What is great about 50 Shades of Grey is that it takes all the sexual implications of Edward’s physical effect on Bella, and all the (pretty obvious) subtle underminings of the concept of free will, and makes them the entire point of the book!  Since Ana is four years older than Bella, there’s no need to be coy about sex.  Christian is an experienced and skilled lover who knows all about vaginas and as an added bonus has a refractory period of like a minute and a half.  He teaches Ana everything she could ever need to know about sex (though she somehow already knows what a clitoris is, which is frankly miraculous considering she’s a virgin who is embarrassed to say “sex” out loud).  And because he is so confident and controlling and perfect, he does all this without making her feel slutty or embarrassed.

Christian has control over Ana’s body in all the non-sex ways as well.  He saves her from getting run over by a bike, and from being taken advantage of while drunk.  His perfect bod makes her “medulla oblongata neglect to fire any synapses to make [her] breathe.”  E.L. James zeroes in on the wish fulfillment “not interested in food” thing happening in Twilight and magnifies it to the point of thin-girl pornography.  Christian and Ana never share a meal that doesn’t involve Christian scolding Ana for not eating enough.

Observant readers will tell you that Twilight is about free will, but even people who haven’t read 50 Shades will tell you that it is about the same thing.  Christian wants Ana to submit to him not only in sex but in the clothes she wears, how much she sleeps, how she behaves.  He offers to use his vast riches and impeccable taste to make her a more perfect human without her having to think about it, and without her having to think about dating, because he is the obvious and only choice.  What woman wouldn’t want zero control over her life?

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Um, maybe a lot of women?  How is this the state of popular romance in late 2012?  We are living in the age of Hillary Clinton, killer diplomat and the embodiment of IDGAF.  We are living in the age of Adele winning all the Grammys.  We are living in the age of reproductive rights for women and the Atlantic devoting every other cover to the Fall of Men.  So why is the great romantic fantasy of our time basically to surrender our agency?  Why is the most popular romantic book in 2012 not about the fantasy that we will find a hot, intelligent man who knows how to do things but respects that we know how to do things as well, and also, that we will eat sensibly but once in a while we will eat way too many cashews?

Maybe it’s because women are discouraged from writing intelligent and thoughtful novels about love, since novels about women and love are classified as “chick lit.”  (Which, CAN I JUST SAY, is a construct invented by the patriarchy to make women feel like our concerns are less important!!!)

Maybe it’s because, as David Foster Wallace once wrote about TV shows, “people tend to be really similar in their vulgar and prurient interests and wildly different in their refined and moral and intelligent interests.”  And the desire to be perfect, with a perfect and controlling boyfriend, is kind of vulgar and prurient and a desire shared by a lot of women.  In an age where the publishing industry is having trouble, it makes sense to publish and publicize those books that appeal to a lot of women, vulgar or prurient as they may be.

What is left for a smart, funny, imperfect woman about town who doesn’t want to accept demeaning men and impossible standards of perfection?  Where is the Elizabeth Bennet or Bridget Jones for the 2010s?

She’s on television.  Strong, weird women are all over sitcoms.  30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and New Girl are three of the most respected comedies on TV, and they all center on quirky but intelligent women.  Leslie Knope, portrayed by Amy Poehler, is the feminist icon for our times, AND she has had a rich and adorable romantic arc with an intelligent nerdy guy who is now her fiancée.  Whereas Twilight captured the silly obsession I felt over a boy in high school, Parks and Rec is teaching me how to live.

Perhaps a more apt comparison to the romantic novel is Lena Dunham’s Girls.  Because it airs on HBO, Dunham does not have to produce an exhausting 24 episodes per season (as do network shows) but only 10 episodes.  This gives Dunham the ability to write or co-write every episode, to direct about half, and to of course act as the lead character, Hannah – making her an auteur, closer to an “author” than New Girl’s Liz Meriwether, who leads a writing room and does not direct.  Free of network standards, Dunham can be as honest as she wants, with superlatively uncomfortable sex scenes and copious drug use and messiness and even physical “ugliness” (read: normal looking people).  Girls is the most accurate depiction not only of modern romance, but also of the modern woman, because I don’t know, isn’t the modern woman an important part of the modern romance?  AM I BEING CRAZY?!

So, close your Twilights, young ladies and moms of America.  Close your 50 Shades of Greys, slightly older young ladies and moms of America.  The novel has nothing more to give you.  It had a pretty good run for 350 or so years, but it’s over.  Call your cable provider, get an HBO subscription.  Romantic narrative in the 21st century is all about TV.