Love Stories

Today has been less than enjoyable. I’ve recently come down with a dry cough, but over the last day or two, it’s developed into a full-blown sinus cold. Headache, sinus pressure, congestion, the whole works. Being smart, cautious, and unmotivated to do anything more than slip into a stupor, I went straight home after work. I crawled into bed, pulled the covers over my head, and promptly slept for over four hours.

Once I dragged myself out of bed and had some food, I felt a little better, but I still felt raw and had no desire to work on any homework whatsoever. Rearranging my calendar to accommodate my newfound lack of energy, I sought something I could do to enjoy myself and feel a little better.

“Oh, hey, I can watch a movie!” I thought to myself. What a great idea! So I opened my laptop, propped myself up with a bunch of blankets and a water bottle, and settled into watch 2005’s Pride and Prejudice.

I have seen Pride and Prejudice probably six or seven times since it came out. I do enjoy the acting, screenplay, scenery, soundtrack, and composition of the film, but there are deeper reasons why I enjoy it.

As a feminist, I am particularly drawn to Elizabeth Bennet’s willful spirit, courageous heart, and powerful sense of self. She is unafraid to make her own choices, unafraid to say “no” to men in positions of power, and unafraid to love with her mind as well as her heart and body.

First, she allows her own spirit to become part of her cognitive process, which speaks to feminist epistemology’s esteem of one’s personal experience in the intellectual realm. Second, while women around her succumb to societal or physical pressure, she maintains her right to say “NO”, even in the face of overwhelming pressure to give in; she therefore presents a great example to young women today. Third, she does not allow traditional perceptions of womanhood – nervous hysteria, submissive love, or physical desire – to influence her ability to think and love creatively, sensitively, and passionately.

On a more complex level, I am also drawn to the social commentary inherent in the film. It strongly exhibits the cramped prison of a typical woman’s life in the era. As victims of societal systems of oppression, women belonged to their fathers until they were suitably married off, in which case they became possessions of their husbands. It was not love but money that mattered, and women were bought and sold like cattle between privileged families. Because gender oppression works both ways, men in such a society – while undoubtedly privileged – are presented as having become largely emotionally crippled, and desired only for their funds.

While it is of course critical to mention the privilege of the Bennet family in relationship to other families – even worse victims of racial, gender, and class oppression – overall, I think Pride and Prejudice can be valued by feminists, even as a love story.

Here’s the question I have, though: What other romances can feminists be proud of?

I got to thinking about the love stories available to women in contemporary literature. Four examples came to mind, and really only these four.

1. Trashy sex novels
2. Time-Traveler’s Wife (and other romances)
3. Twilight
4. Chick/bitch lit

Virtually all of these are sexist, pining, poorly-done, or all three.

Trashy sex novels propagate virtually every female and male stereotype there is, while also presenting women as secretly pining always for male attention. Women are always presented as weak, helpless, and typically a damsel in distress. Men are nearly always rippling with muscle, strong, silent, hard, and domineering. Such books are terribly written and usually go straight in the recycling when I’m done with them.

Time-Traveler’s Wife – while not explicitly sexist or badly written – presents a woman pining forever and always for an unattainable man. TTW is actually a very enjoyable book, but the idea of a woman constructing her entire life around a man’s tumultuous reality does not sit well with me.

Twilight, of course, is all of these and worse. I needn’t go into it too much here, but we should all know by now the potential ramifications of an entire demographic adopting such a sexist, codependent, addictive, and poorly-constructed relationship as a model. I have no issue with the fact that Twilight books and movies exist, I just dislike their effects.

Chick/bitch lit is frequently represented as feminism’s answer to typical gender roles, but I tend to disagree. Women, even if they’re in positions of power – Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, whatever – are usually only in positions of power through the sexualization of their bodies. Their “feminine wiles” get them the job, the man, the car, the success, the friendship, the power. I’m not really okay with that either.

So, the obvious question is, where can I find a love story or romance that speaks to me? Where can I – especially as a straight woman – find some kind of romance that delivers on these critiques?

I guess I don’t really know. I’m half-tempted to write one.

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