I had the pleasure and privilege to speak at the IASPR conference at NYU yesterday. IASPR=International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, or as I dubbed the group on Twitter yesterday, the Ravenclaws of Romance.
Since then, I’ve been taking notes at various sessions, sometimes able to capture more of what a speaker says than others. I’m going to post some of them here, but with the caveat that I can get down no more than the basic gist of some of these incredibly thoughtful and analytical papers of these scholars.
I’ll start with the keynote remarks of Laura Kipnis. I thought her name was familiar to me, and indeed it was, from this 2005 article on Slate about how Deep Throat is a utopian fantasy.
Under the cut, my notes from her talk, “What I Learned from Writing About Love.”
What I’ve Learned from Writing about Love
My interest was the unhappily ever after ending rather than the HEA (happily ever after), my entry into the “love plot” was via a counter-romantic route: adultery and betrayal. I took modern coupledom as my text, gleaning details from couples I knew, pop culture, and my own experience though I never wrote in first person as a confessionalist.
It was the [Bill] Clinton years that got me thinking about marital betrayal. It led to felling two house speakers and possibly a president, resignations of congressman, women, derailed the nomination of a joint chief, etc. Adultery had become a national crisis. My thought was adultery was acting as a trope, with the electorate playing the role of the cheated wife. We’d become a nation of cuckolds waiting patiently at home while they whooped it up behind the doors of power. It had become the national metaphor for the way the political class ignored their vows to the public.
But readers didn’t want to focus on the metaphor or the politics, they wanted to read the personal aspects. Many read the books as an endorsement of adultery(!). Because I wrote about the texture and structure of the foundering marriages, “the suburban gulag,” I received a lot of gratitude from readers who felt I described their experience. I was also on the receiving end of vituperation from people who had been cheated on or feared being cheated on, and blamed me, misplaced the blame onto me. One letter I got said basically, “I hope you end up old and alone, you asshole.” The book wasn’t even out yet, so she hadn’t read it!
But I continue to get mail today with people asking for advice in marital relations. I had written a book Against Love, a work of social theory, citing Freud, Foucoult, Nietzsche, etc and which I said in specific wasn’t an advice book but… I found people were really scraping bottom if they were turning to me as an expert and how to reconcile expectations of coupledom and happiness.
Are adultery and romance fiction similar pieces of social glue?
What can’t be said? This matter of “something else” has preoccupied me, having written on porn in Bound and Gagged, I was interested to find that romance had changed quite a lot since my last writing, and that the genres of erotica and romance have converged.
What sort of fantasies are these? An invented erotic world where the fantasies and the realities fit more closely together. Are there anatomical facts about female bodies that culturalists want to ponder while analyzing romance and porn fantasies?
It’s practically a verboten subject to write about anatomy when writing about women. Deficient upper body strength, the placement of the clitoris apart from the vagina, pregnancy, PMS, etc… according to sex surveys, the male cannot fathom these things. (He has it all combined in one package.) The percentage of women who don’t have orgasms is as high as 58%. Note the paucity of books for men on how to get more sexual pleasure in their relationships and its abundance for women. They have porn instead. Take Deep Throat as an example. The joke of the film is that her clit is even further away from her vagina … in her throat. However fantastically, it’s a film devoted to how to get women to have orgasms. The better comparison isn’t romance, it’s science fiction, a genre that takes a what if wild alternative universe. Porn has an allegorical use, an AU where men and women get sexual pleasure from the exact same things. If women did have orgasms during oral sex the battle between the sexes would fall apart.
Having the sex organs you have isn’t an ignorable piece of life.
What we see in porn we see the fantasy of one gendered universe. WHile retaining their female bodies, they would get their pleasure from the same things as men. Romance is the same, in which women want the male character to be more like a woman, vulnerable, emotionally available, and more emotionally mature. THis is yet another fantasy of a one-gender universe. These fantasies pervade real life as well. In the 1980s Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer saw her patients fixating on the idea the men are lacking something. Emotionally closed, not receptive or empathic, they can’t connect to the nner feelings. It was the absolutism of these characterizations that drew her, and their repetitions. It’s the opposite of the Freudian thing of the boy’s discover that women don’t have penises. Now they think that men aren’t complete and it congeals into the same kind of contempt. When she probed her patients about diaper changing their boy babies. They seemed to have the same problems “everything is on the outside, there’s no inside to him” the same complaints as the discomfort descriptions of their anatomy.
It starts to look as if new stereotypes are being invented to replace old stereotypes. It solidifies into an inoperable metaphor. In the same way the male Freudian was afraid to lose his penis, women are afraid of losing their ability to open up.
New bodily metaphors rise up but old metaphors don’t fall away. Women remain focused on beocming complete, something needs to be “fixed” (complexion, clothes, personality, anxiety about lack of something)
The Vulnerability Fetish
Freud knew something about the internalization of female anxiety. Penis envy plays out as equity feminism, give us the corner offices even though the work is soul-sapping and life-destroying. If men have it, we should have it, too. Rampant female dissatisfaction with male domesticity hasn’t stopped the marriage dynamic.
The desire for reparation is to have something that men could give women what they want if only they were less like MEN, and more like frogs who become princes. 79 million women read romances last year, and romance readers are more likely to be married and living with a partner. If what women most want is what men don’t have to give, then the fantasy must go somewhere. If there is such a thing as female psychology, it seems its template must be buried in the pages of popular romance.
[Apologies, I didn’t get a good writing of the conclusion here, but thanks very much to Laura for a thought-provoking analysis. The question and answer session afterward was also brilliant but I really couldn’t do justice to trying to write it down.]