Shifting Away from Gang Rape to the Plight of the Modern Woman

LLB writes on RtB about the career woman in romance. How come so many heroines give up their big-shot jobs in the city to move to the rural idyll of small-town America to be with their heros, she asks.

My theory: much like I suspect chick lit is impressing the idea of home-and-family-based personal fulfillment on young women instead of career-based fulfillment, I suspect that plot lines that follow this path are blithely parallelling a “back to nature” argument that women are truly fulfilled in a traditionally-established atmosphere. Rural America with wheat fields and family trips in the Winnebago are more natural and authentic than living in a box apartment high above the city.

It’s not “natural” for women to have high powered careers at the expense of being caring homemakers, and a heroine who gives up her career to follow her man to Rural Outskirts, USA, is fulfilling herself and her life in a more traditional manner.

So what does this say about career women who find love? How many romances are there in the contemporary sphere that feature women in business falling for hunky men yet still making the board room meeting the following morning? I know I’ve read a few category romances of women in fields like real estate and journalism, but what about business? Lucy Monroe’s The Real Deal comes to mind, and SEP’s Hot Shot but is it as rare as my memory thinks it is?

I’m not saying that authors choose a traditional-fulfillment ending for their plot do so deliberately, nor am I wailing on them for their betrayal of feminism. It’s a perfectly valid decision – one that I encounter a LOT on pregnancy message boards between the stay-at-home moms and the work-out-of-home moms, and one that I think is as valid as the other choice(s) available to women.

But the number of traditional/home-fulfillment vs. career-fulfillment, or rural vs. city fulfillment romances seem, in my memory, to be imbalanced. Does this mean I should go home and put my feet up, after baking a pie? Because I could totally go for pie.

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Random Musings

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  1. 1
    Candy says:

    In many of the contemporaries I’ve read, if the woman has a high-powered, high-stakes career, she usually sucks at it. Amanda of The Real Deal actually serves as a prototype for this sort of heroine: we’re told over and over that the woman is great at her job, but what we’re shown is that she’s incompetent, easily overruled by her twiddly bits and incapable of maintaining professional distance or even a semblance of business protocol, especially when she’s around the hero. Robin Nixon Uncapher actually wrote an amazing dissection of what a terrible executive Amanda is in Issue 192 of At The Back Fence.

    From what I’ve observed, heroines who have nurturing careers (teacher, nurse) or creative careers (painter, writer) are much more likely to be allowed to retain their careers or career identities at little or no cost.

    The one instance in which heroes are the ones to switch careers is when the hero is a secret agent or assassin. By the end of the book, he’s constrained by the white picket fence and domesticity too.

    The idyllic rural setting is very much a fantasy for people. This happened even before cities became as big and industrialized as they have; the pastoral as a literary form was big even as far back as ancient Greece.

    Hmmm, my captcha today is property69. SEX ON THE FARM!

  2. 2
    Becca says:

    Some of the early Krentz books had women in high powered positions who find love and keep the high powered position and thrive in it. And I know you’re not Norahollics, but some of her books also have women who are, if not in high-powered positions or careers at least doing pretty well in that area. HOMEPORT comes to mind: the heroine is an internationally renouned art historian or something like that.

    I’m sorry to see that there’s a move away from that in romances, back to the women-as-natural-caretaker trope. Maybe that’s why I’m only readng older books these days.

  3. 3
    Sarah says:

    You are so right – nurturer career women and artistic career women are frequently still working at the HEA ending. And women who are in business are still in creative, nurturing, or service businesses, or combinations of all three: flower arranging, greenhouse/garden center ownership, art gallery manager, etc.

  4. 4
    Shirin says:

    Candy said:
    The idyllic rural setting is very much a fantasy for people. This happened even before cities because as big and industrialized as they did….

    How very true. And isn’t romance about escape?

    I’m having trouble thinking of books where the h/h can work together in the board room, but I’m coming up with a few (lame) movie titles. Working Girl and maybe Two Weeks’ Notice. Hmm, interesting that a working relationsip it can be hinted at in movies.

    Maybe that archetypal film image of the wife, wearing a flowing white cotton dress, standing next to a wicker rocking chair on the front porch of the farm house, gazing off into the fields is just too strong to shake.

  5. 5
    Candy says:

    How very true. And isn’t romance about escape?

    Yes, exactly. The fact that these books are successful indicates that many people find this fantasy palatable—or at least not objectionable enough to prevent them from buying the books. Variety is the spice of life, though.

    I also find it disturbing that the woman is more often than not the one to make all these career sacrifices, often without a peep of protest.

    In other words: I want a fantasy, but I don’t particularly want the fantasy to be facile. A certain amount of realism is important to me when reading a contemporary, far more important than when I read a historical or paranormal.

  6. 6
    Kate R says:

    I just realized I have no clue what happens to careers. I’m too wrapped up in the yippee-happily-ever secondary endorphins. (or the yippee-finally-finished-that-first-draft primary rush.)

    AND now I’m going to have to keep track? damn. You guys keep making me think of stats when I’m reading my escapist happystuff.

  7. 7
    Kate R says:

    smirking…ha…just remembered current smut has tacked on ending of HERO changing job to match HEROINE’S career goals. Ha.

  8. 8
    Jennifer says:

    But maybe romances are clinging to a fantasy that is dying out.  After all, aren’t the romance pubs trying to reach out and grab new, younger audiences and finding a difficult time doing so?  As a new mom myself, I am very cognizant of the SAHM v. WOHM choice itself, but I don’t think you even need to get to that point in a romance because you do not need the dreaded baby epilogue for a good romance. 

    Finally, Holly Lisle?  Who the heck is she and why so much hate for the WOHM and the day care kids?  Resentful much?

  9. 9
    Kate R says:

    okay, I give up, Jennifer. Where’s the Holly Lisle reference in all this?

    All I know about her is that she’s a rabidly antifanfic person (got that from some Goldberg brother blog or another)

  10. 10
    Maili says:

    YESH!! It took me a while to figure out what these acronyms WOHM and SAHM are. Oh, wait. Maybe I’m wrong … are these right?  ‘Stay At Home Mother’ and ‘Work Out of Home Mother’?

    Um, sorry for wasting bandwidth here.

  11. 11
    Robin says:

    I agree with your assessment, Sarah, and it’s one of the reasons I read less contemporary Romance than historical.  I know people complain that historical Romance is too socially conservative, but I think it’s sometimes the opposite, and your comments account for one reason.  I often find the sexual politics in contemporary Romance to be profoundly conflicted, and not necessarily in an overt or self-conscious way.  Your entry here is one of the reasons I can’t read SEP.  Besides the “embrace the chaos” disaster of Breathing Room, for example, when the heroine of It Had to Be You “reclaimed” her “womanhood” by having sex with the hero, I totally lost it. 

    My two favorite Romances of 2005 both feature women who have and keep their careers at the end—Blair in Howard’s To Die For, and Daphne in Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible.  And in both of these books, this characteristic was a BIG reason I loved them.  Blair, in TDF, started and owns a successful fitness center, and she is adamant with Wyatt that she will not give up her business, even if he is concerned about her physical safety doing all the gymnastics she does (and the fact that someone seems to want to kill her). 

    I think this is also the reason I love Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books and Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series.  Sookie definitely has a more traditionally female job, but she’s become so powerfully independent as a woman that her job becomes ungendered to me.  Stephanie, on the other hand, may be a loss as a bounty hunter, but she also refuses to give in to the domestic life that Morelli wants for her. 

    Is this trend also true for paranormals, or not?  How about Romantica? 

    And man, now I think I might have to bake a pie.  But it’ll have to be after I make my homemade meatballs and sauce.  See, I bake to procrastinate from my career and relieve stress (one of the benefits/detriments of telecommuting).  I don’t even want to know what that means.

  12. 12
    Kate R says:

    Oy, Stephanie Plum. I love Evanovich, but Plum wore out her welcome for me.

    Is she improving as a bounty hunter? Does Ranger or Morelli still have to rescue her every damn time she does something unprofessional or stupid? Has she rescued either of them yet? (I did like the running gag of the destruction of her cars.)

  13. 13
    Sharon says:

    Here’s me inserting foot in mouth, but I can only speak from my own experiences.  I think the reason you see more of the “traditional” settings in romance is that romance is read by more women who embrace more “traditional values” than women who do not.  It’s a matter of audience.

    Judgemental? No, it’s merely my observation.  None of the women I know who are in the corporate world, professionals etc would be caught dead reading a romance novel.  Maybe it’s difference elsewhere.  I’m sure there are women in these situations who read romance, but I’m betting my last dollar fewer of them read romance than the other side of the spectrum.

  14. 14
    Rosario says:

    becca said:

    Some of the early Krentz books had women in high powered positions who find love and keep the high powered position and thrive in it.

    Emphasis on the “some”, but, yes, absolutely, and that’s why I’m still trying to get her backlist, even though a couple have been horrific. I especially remember one, Gamemaster, in which the heroine is an accountant and the hero owns a videogame company.

    IIRC, at one point, she’s auditing some firm and has to work until very late at night. She gets home and the hero’s waiting for her with dinner ready, and he tells her something like that some days he’d have to have dinner waiting for her, other days she’d have dinner waiting for him, and the rest of the time they’d make dinner together

    And I know you’re not Norahollics, but some of her books also have women who are, if not in high-powered positions or careers at least doing pretty well in that area. HOMEPORT comes to mind: the heroine is an internationally renouned art historian or something like that.

    Well, I am a Noraholic, and this is one of the things I like best about her books.

  15. 15
    Jennifer says:

    Holly Lisle has posted several comments on the blog article including one to “shut the fuck up, sweetie” since I didn’t know what I was talking about – despite the fact that her stance was clearly laid out in her original post.  My favorite thing is to see authors publicly insult readers.  It does alot for her readership.

  16. 16
    Jennifer says:

    Sharon, I completely agree with you that it is about audience.  But aren’t publishers trying to gain a new audience.  Is one of the reasons that they are failing to do so because the romances are lacking in stories that validate the potential reader’s choice?

  17. 17
    Sharon says:

    Jennifer,

    I’ve never maintained that publishers were poster children for intelligence.  But honestly, and again this is just my two cents based on personal observation, but in the cases of the women I know, it wouldn’t matter what was between the pages.  It’s the label “romance” and the fact they don’t feel they would be taken seriously if anyone knew they, GASP!, read one.

    It’s taken years for the stereotype to become what it has when it comes to the romance genre, and it ain’t going to change overnight.

  18. 18
    Candy says:

    okay, I give up, Jennifer. Where’s the Holly Lisle reference in all this?

    Check out the comments to the Romancing the Blog column Sarah links to, Kate. You’ll get to see Holly telling Jennifer to “shut the fuck up, sweetie.” CAT FIGHT CAT FIGHT!

  19. 19
    Sarah says:

    I think the reason you see more of the “traditional” settings in romance is that romance is read by more women who embrace more “traditional values” than women who do not.  It’s a matter of audience.

    I think you are right. One of my beefs with the chick lit rhetoric (of SOME of the novels, not all!) is that the audience is the women who are on the subway with me, reading their way through Shopaholic on the way to 49th street. The idea that the subtle message is that they’ll find fulfillment outside of the job that they are commuting to bothers me.

    But your question of romance audience is a curious one. Is there a breakdown of category vs. historical vs. contemporary vs. romantic fiction as pertains to age, employment, location, political affiliation? I know the RWHey! keeps track of the roughly quantified numbers of readers and their household incomes and various other factors, but who specifically reads all these books that vilify the corporate career woman’s personal fulfillment, and espouse the rural, traditional life?

    And moreover, WHO reads these SECRET BABY books?! Is it the polyester-track-suit-with-the puffy-paint-kittens set?

  20. 20
    Jennifer says:

    I am in a quandry – do I perpetuate the cat fight or leave it alone?  I feel that Ms. Lisle is just a prod away from totally going off?

  21. 21
    Sarah says:

    Could you imagine the bi-coastal smack-down if I told Candy to “shut the fuck up, sweetie?”

    Man, the sweetie alone would merit a serious assing.

  22. 22
    Sharon says:

    *shrugs*  Dunno, Sarah.  I have a sneaking suspicion, and hoo boy am I really sticking my foot in my mouth, but I suspect that some, not all women, are threatened or feel threatened by the competent, kick ass successful woman in the corporate world.  Like she’s super woman and since I am not her, I am shit.  lol.

    Women like to read about women they relate to, and I’m guessing that romance readers don’t always relate well to the corporate chick.

    But heck, what do I know.  I’m just a country hick from the sticks. :)

  23. 23
    Candy says:

    Could you imagine the bi-coastal smack-down if I told Candy to “shut the fuck up, sweetie?”

    Man, it raises my hackles when people use endearments while cussing other people out. I’d much, much rather have someone tell me to “shut the fuck up, you rancid whore.”

    As for the cat-fight: I’m not sure what’s gotten into Holly. I don’t agree with her much of the time, but she seems by and large pretty sane and polite. Telling Jennifer to shut the fuck up based seems out of line, especially once you read what Holly was responding to.

  24. 24
    Jennifer says:

    I think its a poor example of her writing if all she can come up with is shut the fuck up sweetie.

  25. 25
    Kate R says:

    Ms. Lisle was pretty ballistic about the fanfic subject too. She might consider employing some calming techniques like deep breathing…she ought to try one of Monica’s too.  http://monicajackson.com/blog/2005/05/13/new-author-claming-visualization-aid/

    I’ve got some baby bunny pictures that might be useful as relaxation aides…Wonder if I should send them to her.

  26. 26
    Kate R says:

    Sharon, good point—that makes a lot of sense.

    (I will now shut the fuck up.)

  27. 27
    Wendy says:

    This just proves that this is still very much a hot-button topic for women, and one that many of my generation (Gen X) are still struggling with. 

    For instance, I am not married – but am in a committed relationship, and unless something happens to change my mind, I will likely never have children.  My mother asked me, “But don’t you want any Little Wendys?”  My response?  “You just answered your own question Ma!”

    Now I’m sure some women would find my desire to not have children as unnatural or “freakish.”  Like I’m not a real woman if I don’t squeeze out a couple of kids.  Or I’m not maternal (bullshit – I love kids.  I just don’t want any of my own!)

    Personally I think women should make the choice(s) that are best for them & their families.  Whether that’s working or staying at home.

    And as for some of the discussion over at RtB – well it’s amazing I’ve haven’t bitten my tongue off.  Who knew I was still capable of showing restraint?

  28. 28
    Monica says:

    The work-out-of-the-home Mom vs the-stay-at-home Mom argument seems pretty visceral.  Wow.

    Most of the women I know simply don’t have that choice, so there’s nothing to argue about.  They have to work and their kids have to go to daycare if they want to pay the bills and eat.

    But if given the opportunity I think they would love to quit their funky jobs and sit the hell down, play with their kids, write their books or whatever.  So often, I give them their fantasy in my books.

    If there’s an argument, there’s a choice. IMO, folks would probably be better served by remembering the different stroke rules and being happy as hell that at least they have the choice to argue about. 

    I think as far as Holly, some people have buttons and that may be one of hers.  I tend to off on clueless white women myself, but would only tell someone that they don’t know what the fuck they were talking about on my own blog. And take it and let their comments stand when they fire back at me.

  29. 29
    Dawn B. says:

    I’m with Sharon on the reason why the traditional ending is there.  Especially if you add in the fact that “traditional” women often have more time for reading said books than “career” women.  Hence, they account for a larger market than the interested career women who would like to see the woman choose her high stakes career.  Furthermore, many of those women did make the choice to forgo their career for the motherhood/wife angel.  Thus, the romance speaks to them and validates their lifestyle.

    Publishers are smart cookies.  They know this.  They know the fastest way to piss off that contingent would be to showcase a heroine who stays at her high stakes job and perhaps lets the marriage or children suffer as a (perceived) result.  My mother is an avid reader of romances.  She doesn’t have a college degree and firmly believes she made the right choice in being a stay at home mom.  Having benefitted from this, I’m inclinded to agree and note that my mother is smart.  However, she felt constantly condensended to by “career” women.  Who didn’t read romance.  Therefore, having heroines that she can identify with is a good thing.

  30. 30
    Wendy says:

    Dawn brings up an excellent point:

    My mother is an avid reader of romances.  She doesn’t have a college degree and firmly believes she made the right choice in being a stay at home mom.  Having benefitted from this, I’m inclinded to agree and note that my mother is smart.  However, she felt constantly condensended to by “career” women.  Who didn’t read romance.

    And that’s the problem I have with this argument – the condescending.  Isn’t feminism all about women having the power to make their own choices?  Whether that be to stay at home or work outside the home?  If the woman makes the best choice for herself and her family, what’s the big yank?

    Conversely, I might add I tend to get my hackles up with back-to-Earth-mother types sneer at career women and call them unnatural.  Drives me batty.

    Oh and someone mentioned Krentz’s early books.  In case anyone doesn’t know – Krentz was an academic librarian at one time.  That can be a ruthless world to navigate – as many academic librarians publish and work towards tenure just like professors.

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