It is generally accepted that Western patriarchy has been much softened by the concepts of courtly and romantic love. While this is certainly true, such influence has also been vastly overestimated [...] traditional chivalrous behavior represents – a sporting kind of reparation to allow the subordinate female certain means of saving face. While a palliative to the injustice of woman’s social position, chivalry is also a technique for disguising it. One must acknowledge that the chivalrous stance is a game the master group plays in elevating its subject to pedestal level. Historians of courtly love stress the fact that the raptures of the poets had no effect upon the legal or economic standing of women, and very little upon their social status. As the sociologist Hugo Beigel has observed, both the courtly and the romantic versions of love are “grants” which the male concedes out of his total powers. Both have had the effect of obscuring the patriarchal character of Western culture and in their general tendency to attribute impossible virtues to women, have ended by confining them in a narrow and often remarkably conscribing sphere of behavior. It was a Victorian habit, for example, to insist the female assume the function of serving as the male’s conscience and living the life of goodness he found tedious but felt someone ought to do anyway. (Millett 1971: 36-37)There are plenty of romance heroines who seem to possess 'impossible virtues': as Radway notes, 'the fact of her true femininity is never left in doubt. No matter how much emphasis is placed on her initial desire to appear a man's equal, she is always portrayed as unusually compassionate, kind, and understanding' (Radway 1991: 127). Sexually, the heroines of romance are very often virgins paired with more sexually-experienced men. Of course, a lot has changed in the genre since Radway wrote her Reading the Romance, and there are all sorts of different heroines, some more traditionally 'feminine' than others, and even Radway recognised that the romances did engage with the inequalities between the sexes in contemporary society by creating 'heroines in these female-sponsored fantasies [...who] explicitly refuse to be silenced by the male desire to control women through the eradication of their individual voices' (1991: 124). This could sometimes tip over into excessive 'feistiness' and a heroine so determined to do things her own way that readers might nowadays dub her 'too stupid to live', but nonetheless a heroine of this type was generally asserting her individuality, her right to think and act for herself in a male dominated society. That the heroines retain many aspects of femininity as traditionally defined (usually being in possession of exquisite beauty and a caring personality) does not mean that they should necessarily be read as repressive: there is nothing wrong with being caring and beautiful. One might, however, begin to question the cumulative effect of a genre which only featured such heroines, but fortunately the modern romance genre does provide us with other types of heroine. Heroines of the kind described above may not represent a total overthrow of sexual stereotypes, but one can see evidence of a struggle by the authors of romances to assert women's worth and to give them some sort of victory in a patriarchal society.
That victory is not infrequently framed in terms of her 'taming' of the hero:
With courage, intelligence, and gentleness she brings the most dangerous creature on earth, the human male, to his knees. More than that, she forces him to acknowledge her power as a woman. (Krentz 1992: 5)This could be read as an acknowledgement of the dangers that men pose to women in a patriarchal society, and, given that the heroine in romances with this type of plot is usually exceptional, as an acknowledgement that in the normal course of events many dangerous men remain 'untamed'. Doreen Owens Malek writes:
So what is the fantasy? Simply this: a strong, dominant, aggressive male brought to the point of surrender by a woman.For me personally, winning the 'battle of the sexes' holds no appeal at all: I'd rather we all 'work together as a team', as Bob the Builder and Wendy would say, but clearly winning the battle is a fantasy that has appealed, and continues to appeal, to many woman, perhaps precisely because they have frequently felt oppressed by patriarchy in their daily lives. Krentz adds that
Why does this particular fantasy hold so much appeal for us? Because it dramatizes, colorfully and dramatically, a battle of the sexes in which the woman always wins. Women are weaker physically, perennially behind in civil rights, always playing catch-up ball with men. This type of fiction offers a scenario in which a woman inevitably emerges victorious. (1992: 74-75)
the heroes in the books undergo a significant change in the course of the story, often being tamed or gentled or taught to love, but they do not lose any of their masculine strength in the process. [...] The journey of the novel, many writers say, is the civilization of the male. (1992: 6)Leaving aside the issue of whether the hero and heroine can be read as two aspects of the readers' own personalities which need to be integrated (see, for example, Barlow and Kinsale, in the same volume), if one reads the stories on a literal level they show the heroine's triumph over the hero. But the heroine has to accept the responsibility for 'civilizing' the male: in other words, she, as Millett observes, 'assume[s] the function of serving as the male’s conscience' and although the hero may be 'tamed' with regards to the heroine and any children she may have with him, he does not lose his 'masculine strength', so in many respects his behaviour is likely to remain the same in his interactions with other individuals (although if he was rakish this particular part ofbehaviour will cease permanently). If read as a recipe for challenging patriarchy, it suggests a case-by-case approach, with the woman putting herself at considerable risk in order to achieve this desirable end. It also suggests that in order to succeed the heroine must be exceptionally feminine. In addition, there may be issues of class involved.
As George Eliot noted in her 1856 essay on 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists', 'The heroine is usually an heiress, probably a peeress in her own right'. Although this is not very often the case in modern romance novels, the heroines of historical romances still tend to be 'ladies', very often from aristocratic families. Even in modern, contemporary-set romances there is often a class element to the fantasy:
Harlequin romances allow their readers to experience the ideal rewards of capitalism, insofar as the novels are usually fantasies of financial empowerment as much as they are romantic fantasies. The standard Harlequin narrative, for instance, usually involves a middle-class woman’s relationship with a rich, single male—usually a businessman, wealthy rancher, or male engaged in some similar occupation. The inevitable marriage at the end thus also involves a marriage into wealth, or at least improved financial security. (Darbyshire 2000)According to Pamela Fox
During the early decades of the twentieth-century in Britain, it was predominantly middle-class women who felt the daily strictures of (and protested against) romantic codes of behaviour. Working-class women were more typically denied access to those codes by their own cultural experience. Romance functioned as an emblem of privilege, was reserved for others. While the cinema and popular novels encouraged their diverse female audiences to identify with an array of romance heroines, working-class mothers made sure their daughters understood that romance was purely a fantasy with little relevance to their lives [...]. Unlike their middle- and upper-class counterparts, who frequently suffocated at the hands of father, brothers, guardians and mothers while playing out the real-life role of romance heroine, working-class women suffered chastisement or ridicule within their communities if they merely made attempts to try the role on. (1994: 141)Of course, times have changed, as have romance heroines, but it's worth remembering that, as Millett says of the concept of chivalry (vis-à-vis women), 'the Victorian doctrine of chivalrous protection and its familiar protestations of respect, rests upon the tacit assumption, a cleverly expeditious bit of humbug, that all women were “ladies”' (1971: 73) and she quotes the words of Sojourner Truth, a freed slave:
That man over there says women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages or over puddles, or gives me the best place - and ain't I a woman?The triumph of the lady and the privileges she was accorded were limited and did not extend to her working-class sisters.
Look at this arm! I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me - and ain't I a woman?
I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? (Millett 1971: 72)
If we take Edmund Blair Leighton's painting 'Accolade' as a portrayal of the workings of chivalry, we can see that the woman, or rather princess, since she wears a crown and has her hair loose (which often, though not always, indicated that a woman was a virgin) and is dressed in white (another indication of purity, as in The Book of Margery Kempe), is knighting a young warrior. In the background stands another figure of male power, the priest. For the moment, the young princess is in control, holding a sword, while the knight, whose black eagle perhaps suggests his wild, strong nature, is on his knees before her, 'tamed'. The knight is a warrior, not a peasant, a monk, priest, merchant or physician, and he represents temporal power. Medieval society was, according to the three estates theory, divided into three classes, the oratores, bellatores and laboratores. The aristocratic, warrior class were the bellatores, in whom rested earthly, physical power, while spiritual power was in the hands of the priests, or oratores. The painting does indeed indicate a degree of female power, but at the same time, it's worth remembering that the laws of male primogeniture made female rulers rare (and non-existent where the Salic law on the issue was in effect), and that most women were neither ladies nor princesses.
- Darbyshire, Peter, 2000. ‘Romancing the World: Harlequin Romances, the Capitalist Dream, and the Conquest of Europe and Asia’, Studies in Popular Culture 23.1.
- Fox, Pamela, 1994. 'The "Revolt of the Gentle": Romance and the Politics of Resistance in Working-Class Women's Writing', NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 27.2: 140-160.
- Krentz, Jayne Ann, 1992. 'Introduction', in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 1-9.
- Millett, Kate, 1971. Sexual Politics (London: Rupert Hart-Davis).
- Owens Malek, Doreen, 1992. 'Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: The Hero as Challenge', in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 73-80.
- Radway, Janice A. 1991. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press).