Monday, February 16, 2015

Fifty Shades of Mr. D: The Unwritten Rules of Romance Fiction

Hollywood is making some big Valentine's Day cash off Fifty Shades of Grey, the movie adapted from the first book of E. L. James's mommy-porn trilogy. Let me say right up front that I have not read these books, because life is too short for that. But, like every living human in the industrialized world, I've been bludgeoned with so much unrelenting chatter about these books that I can recap the general plot: buff young billionaire punishes and dominates sweet young virgin in his sex dungeon, but also everywhere else. Which part of that plot bothers you most probably depends on who you usually roll with. In most of my social circles, the sex-dungeon part is not at all the problem because, hey, consenting adults. On the other hand, the punishing/dominating/stalking/abusing outside the dungeon part is very, very much the problem because Which part of "consenting" did you not understand, fool? 

The idea that a bondage-and-domination couple act out the same exaggerated roles outside the bedroom is shaky as psychology and lousy as storytelling. (My understanding is that domineering Masters-of-the-Universe types who are into BDSM are more likely to be the ones getting tied up; that dissonance between someone's behavior in bed and his behavior outside it is a potentially interesting story hook.) But that domination outside the bedroom is downright ugly as politics. Kinky sex may not be everyone's cup of tea, but the person doing the "submitting" is actually making some of the decisions and has a safe word so that she or he can bail out. (If that's not the case, as in the ugly story of disgraced CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi, it's not BDSM. It's just beating people up.) So in Fifty Shades of Grey, the hijinks with whips and restraints may disgust or bore you, but it's the rest of the story -- the boyfriend chasing the heroine around in helicopters and hacking her cell phone and so on -- that's really morally unacceptable. That's not a romantic guy; that's a stalker who might kill you.

I can't help comparing Fifty Shades to that perennial favorite, Pride and Prejudice. The comparison is obviously lopsided, because Jane Austen is one of the best novelists who's ever written in English and E. L. James is nowhere close. Austen is basically putting on a master-class in writing on the sentence-by-sentence level; reviewers have fun with James by picking out some of her clumsy, amateur-hour sentences for quotation. But Pride and Prejudice is one of the distant models on which Fifty Shades is built, because its influence (like the Bronte sisters' influence) is shot through all of romance fiction. Even if E. L. James has never read any Austen, all of the writers she imitates (such as the writer of the Twilight series) imitate Pride and Prejudice in various ways. And Christian Grey has distant but obvious resemblances to Austen's Mr. Darcy; both are aloof, emotionally-stunted but fabulously-wealthy guys deeply invested in their alpha-male status. (Grey also owes debts to characters like Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester, of course.) Darcy is part of romance fiction's DNA.

Every genre of storytelling has its own unwritten rules, which might never get articulated and which storytellers and listeners are sometimes not even consciously aware of, but which they stick to carefully. Even if no one has ever explained a rule, even if no one can explain a rule, the story will "feel wrong" to audiences if you break it. (The pioneering work on this was done long ago by Vladimir Propp in his Morphology of the Folktale.) This applies both to high and low art, including to self-consciously high art. And sometimes it's those underlying unwritten rules that are most interesting.

Now, if a central element of the Fifty Shades plot is "heroine tries to get away from love interest, who follows her around," it looks like Pride and Prejudice works in exactly the opposite way. It is Austen's heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, who ends up more or less following Mr. Darcy around England, eventually showing up in his actual house. Although people will tell you Pride and Prejudice is about manners, Lizzy's actual behavior is totally outrageous: after turning down the D-man's proposal of marriage, and taking his inventory at fairly insulting length, she then turns up uninvited in his home -- one of the classic "Oh, hi!" moments in world literature.

Austen gets away with this, and lets her protagonist off the hook, by contriving to make it seem that none of this is Elizabeth's idea. Although the main structure of Austen's plot is "Elizabeth goes to places where Darcy is," Austen crafts the story so that it always appears that Elizabeth is going to those places for some non-Darcy-related reason, often without knowing that Darcy will be there. "Oh, hi" is actually a fundamental narrative principle of Austen's novel. It is crucial that Elizabeth always be thrown together with Darcy "by chance." But "accidents" in a novel are never actually accidents. They are always the result of deliberate design, and Austen, especially, is a meticulous designer.

Austen carefully arranges all of these "accidents" because she is following a major unwritten rule of "romance" narratives: the heroine may not get the male character's affection by deliberately pursuing him. This rule is not officially articulated anywhere. But everyone follows it. If you downloaded twenty new romance e-books tonight, I am willing to bet you that none of those twenty involve our heroine seeing a man she likes, deciding to go after him, going after him, and getting him. That plot is excluded from the list of possibilities. This rule is most absolute in fiction aimed primarily at female readers.

This is not because it is impossible for a woman to attract a man's romantic attention deliberately. In the actual world, a heterosexual woman has ways to get a heterosexual man to notice her, and most straight adolescent girls have already mastered a list of these techniques: laugh at his jokes (especially the bad ones), hold extra eye contact, wear a nice dress, etc., etc., etc. While you can't win 'em all, you can bat a pretty good average. But if you are the heroine in a romance narrative, none of that will work.  It cannot work. The core rule is deliberate attempts to get the man will fail.

There are stories about women going after the man, but in those stories the women are villains (see: Gone Girl) or cautionary tales. And this seems connected to a wider set of cultural ideas about romantic relationships; as Phoebe wrote in a recent blog post: "For whatever reason, it's seen as insulting to a woman to speak of her relationship as having emerged from mutual attraction." It's likely even more insulting to imply that she did the chasing. Women who aren't imagined as having been pursued by men are imagined as being less valued.

There is an entire subset of narratives (Austen's Emma/Clueless; Gone with the Wind; Legally Blonde; etc.) where the heroine sets out on a deliberate campaign to win the wrong man, inevitably 1. failing to get the boy and 2. realizing that she is actually in love with another boy. (In Scarlett O'Hara's case, this ending is punitive: she spends the whole damn novel/movie chasing the unsexy one before realizing she'll never get him and that she's already blown it with the sexy one she does love. I'd feel bad for Scarlett, but she's a Confederate, so tough cookies.) Not only can you not get the one you want on your own, you can't even figure out which one you want on your own. The only narrative I can think of that comes close to breaking this rule is Sleepless in Seattle, where Meg Ryan spends the whole movie trying to get to the oh-so-romantically-bereft man she heard once on the radio, but even that film actually sticks to the rule; as soon as the Tom Hanks character sees her, he falls in love at first sight, so that the Ryan character never has to try to get him to like her, which never works in a story.

On the other hand, a straight male hero pursuing a female character (even, or especially, a reluctant female character) and getting her is clearly not against our rules of narrative. We tell that story All. The. Time. But a straight female heroine pursuing a male character and getting him is effectively impossible. No one is officially forbidden to tell that story, but we may as well be. Try it and you will hear that something is "wrong" with the story, that it doesn't "work."

Obviously, this unwritten rule forbids women from going after what they want, but it is strongly present in romantic fantasies aimed at women, even (especially) romantic narratives written by women for other women. These stories are about women's desires on a very basic level, but the rules require that those desires be officially disowned. You can get what you want. You just can't get it yourself. You have to get someone else to give it to you, and you have to do that unwittingly.

Both Pride and Prejudice and Fifty Shades follow this basic rule, as do the whole vast number of similar romantic narratives. Fifty Shades does it using the crudest and most obvious narrative solution possible: since she can't take the initiative, he will take it all. He'll follow her around, etc., etc., etc. One explanation for Fifty Shades's retrograde politics may simply be that E. L. James couldn't think of a less obvious way to move her story forward.

Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand, is cunningly designed so that neither Elizabeth nor Darcy seem to be doing the pursuing. The heroine-cannot-pursue rule is rigorously observed; indeed, there are a number of female characters, most glaringly Elizabeth's mother, who function to discredit outright or obvious pursuit of a husband. But Darcy is also usually not pursuing. The narrative logic of Pride and Prejudice is that once Darcy shows up at Elizabeth's house, the story is over; they're engaged. If Darcy approaches Elizabeth on any neutral ground, there is always a complicated advance and retreat; although each of these encounters is superficially different, the structure is always Darcy advances, a major plot revelation occurs, and Darcy scrams. (The given reason for retreat is always different; the structural effect on the narrative is always the same.) Austen is dedicated to creating the illusion that neither main character is seeking out the other.

Austen, of course, is not the only one who does this. Virtually every Hollywood romantic comedy is built on the "meet cute," whereby the male and female leads are introduced to one another by chance. He's not trying to meet her; she's not trying to meet him. It's always just, Oops! Just must be their lucky day. Disowning deliberate intentions turns out to be an essential part of the romance narrative.

What allows Austen to get away with this so smoothly is that she is enormously inventive in disguising her narrative moves and in creating plausible excuses for them. Austen is a great architect, and her novel is laid out in regular, symmetrical patterns. Readers respond to the book's soothing structural repetition, but if you consciously noticed how repetitive it was it would feel artificial and boring. Austen is wonderful at disguising those repetitions so that it seems like something new and different is happening; she camouflages the artfully-plotted symmetries and creates the illusion that a bunch of semi-random events are unfolding.

The novel has three parts, and in each of those three parts, right on schedule, Elizabeth visits a grand country house where Darcy happens to be. (Each of those houses is progressively more Darcy's own turf, until it's actually his own house.) The real reason Elizabeth goes to these places, the novel's reason, is that she has to be put in the same place as Darcy. But Elizabeth cannot be presented as deliberately doing that. So Austen contrives different narrative excuses; interestingly, they always involve Elizabeth going to whichever house for another woman, a close female friend or relative. This is dressed up in different guises:

1. Elizabeth's sister Jane falls dangerously ill at the country house where Mr. D. is staying with friends; Lizzy rushes to nurse her, and has to stay for several days
2. Elizabeth's best friend Charlotte has left home to marry the parson attached to a distant country house owned by D's aunt; Charlotte, homesick, invites Lizzy to visit, and Mr. D. turns out to be visiting his aunt
3. Elizabeth is touring Derbyshire with her own aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, who really wants to visit Darcy's house (which is on the Stately Homes of Derbyshire tour), so Elizabeth goes along, having heard that D. was away on business, and so ...

And so on. These are all superficially different. They are all the same move at the bottom. And Elizabeth is always nominally showing up near Darcy is in order to please a woman she already has a relationship with, rather than to start a relationship with Mr. D. The character has to have motivations that are not about Darcy. But these are just excuses for the the narrative to put her together with Darcy.

(All of these narrative excuses have their own excuses; Jane allegedly got sick because she walked to Netherfield Hall in the rain. But actually, it rained so that Jane would get sick, and Jane got sick so Elizabeth could go to Netherfield, where the novel needed her to be. And Charlotte's husband works for Darcy's aunt because Austen needs a second act here.)

The novel also needs to repeat the "third party gives Elizabeth information about Darcy" move over and over again, but Austen is always finding new ways to disguise it. Someone who dislikes Elizabeth tells her some news in order to hurt her; someone who loves Elizabeth writes a gossipy letter, assuming that Elizabeth already knows some news that she doesn't; someone randomly mentions some news without understanding its relevance to Elizabeth; it keeps on going. But it's always the same transaction: Elizabeth gets some information about Mr. D without Elizabeth asking or D. telling.

There are lots of go-betweens passing this plot information along. If Elizabeth can't go after Darcy, and if Darcy can almost never go after Elizabeth, there needs to be at least one go-between to relay information and also to move the plot forward. Austen manages this by having lots of go-betweens, in varied guises, almost none of whom are intending to move the Elizabeth-and-Darcy plot along but all of whom function to do so. Austen is ingenious enough to disguise many of these go-betweens as people trying to oppose the match. Heroine about to give up hope? Need to give her the news that she still stands a chance? Have someone show up and try to warn the heroine off. ("Why is this person suddenly so worried that Darcy is going to propose? What?") Then have that character double as the messenger who tells the D Man that he's still in the running. ("You told her not to marry me, and she said what? Huh.") It would look cheesy if a helpful friend did those tasks at the end of the story: too obviously convenient. But if an alleged "enemy" performs those tasks, it feels earned. That character is only opposed to the marriage inside the imaginary world of the story. In the deep machinery that makes the story run, that character is a crucial enabler of the marriage.

None of this makes Austen a feminist. I mean, she was writing in Regency England. And I would really, really love a great 21st-century storyteller to find a way to defeat the women-can't-pursue rule. But the differences between Austen at the dawn of the 19th century and James at the outset of the 21st are enormous, in ways that aren't to James's credit. Both Austen and James are stuck with the unwritten rule, bigger than either of them, that women can't just go out and get the men. James deals with that by having the man chase the woman even when the woman says no and isn't it all so sex-ay? Austen, on the other hand, deploys her nearly inexhaustible storytelling cunning in order to create the illusion that neither character is the main pursuer. And Austen, with artful indirection, lays out a subtle strategy that intertwines a prescription for playing the "good girl" with a prescription for playing a member of the upper classes. What permits Elizabeth to become Mrs. Darcy, i.e. to get the boy, is appearing never to strive for what she wants. But what qualifies Elizabeth to be a good Mrs. Darcy, i.e., a successful aristocrat, is also the ability to disown any striving or ambition, to get exactly what you want without appearing to try. That's a limited and equivocal kind of liberty, to be sure. But it's centuries ahead of Fifty Shades.

cross-posted from Dagblog

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