The following post was inspired by two things: first, a conversation between Jodie and Renay about romantic plotline outcomes and epilogues on the comments of my post on The Adoration of Jenna Fox
; secondly, a comment I read somewhere last week (but sadly can no longer find – I seriously should bookmark these things) about how making romance central to the plot of any novel always undermines the female characters.
There’s a phrase the three of us have been repeating in our behind-the-scenes conversations, and which seems to be on its way to becoming a sort of unofficial motto for Lady Business: there’s no wrong way of being a girl. So although there are several legitimate concerns surrounding how many romantic plots play out, it seems pretty drastic and problematic to me to make a statement of the kind this unknown commenter made. Do we really
want to add “fall in love/enter a relationship” to the list of things female characters are not supposed to do if they are to be considered proper feminist icons?
With this in mind, I wanted to analyse how different narratives I’ve encountered in the past dealt with “lady who didn’t want a relationship changed her mind” storylines, as I think these are filled with particularly good examples of my personal “dos” and “don’ts” of romance. I’ll start with my favourite negative example: Summer Finn, Zooey Deschannel’s character in (500) Days of Summer
The reason why this movie let me down was not
because Summer starts out saying she doesn’t want a serious commitment and ends up married. Regardless of my own misgivings about marriage as an institution, I find it extremely problematic to single out any one woman’s chosen course of action as a betrayal of feminist ideals or anything of the sort. I also have no issues with Summer’s inconsistency, as I think it’s only human to have contradictory feelings and wishes or to simply change one’s mind.
No, what bothers me about Summer is how the narrative frames her change of heart. It’s the fact that she sits on a park bench and tells Tom, her ex, that he was right all along. Her former views on romance were silly, misguided and naïve, whereas his ideas about destiny and soulmates were correct – it’s just that she hadn’t met the right person yet. Over the course of their conversation, Summer doesn’t just show she has changed – she belittles, erases and delegitimised her previous position. Ladies changing their minds = perfectly fine by me. Ladies who deviate from convention being shown to have been RONG all along and laughing at the folly of their past selves? Not so much.
My favourite antidote to (500) Days of Summer is probably Dorothy L. Sayers and her Harriet Vane/Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries
, Have His Carcase
, Gaudy Night
and Busman’s Honeymoon
). It’s no spoiler to say the two main characters end up together, as most readers go in already knowing that. What surprises people (and what is an absolute joy to discover and savour) is the how
of it. Yes, Harriet Vane begins be rejecting marriage and then changes her mind, but this doesn’t happen through a rejection of her previous stance. It happens through a slow and careful negotiation of each of her concerns about entering a relationship (which are further complicated due to issues of class, money and dominant views of employment for women in the 1930’s). These concerns are never shown not to have been legitimate – quite the contrary. And it’s exactly this that makes the romance so satisfying from a feminist perspective.
I can think of other single heroines who end up paired up, such as Amelia Peabody or Alexia Tarabotti from Soulless
, and whose stories don’t bother me in the least. Again, nothing about how the novels frame their transition from singledom to coupledom dismisses or delegitimises their previous lifestyle, and that’s all I really ask for.
Having said that, I completely understand people being frustrated with the inevitability
of heroines like Amelia Peabody or Alexia ending up in relationships, especially in a world where so few stories feature single heroines and show them to be leading happy and fulfilling lives. And here we enter representation issues territory. I think this kind of thing does matter. I think it matters a whole lot. But. At the same time, what Jodie was saying
recently resonates with me more and more. Yes, we need more ladies doing and being everything. But I don’t want to hold what doesn’t exist against any single female character. The problem is in the pattern more than in any individual story (problematic issues like the ones surrounding Summer aside, of course). Let us demand more ladies, but preferably without hating on the ones that already exist. It’s not that they’re doing anything wrong, or that the solution to our current problems is to despise or erase their more traditional choices.
I’m an unapologetic sucker for a good love story, yet all the same I really
don’t want romantic relationships to be held up as the end-all and be-all of every woman’s existence. But saying that they all
weaken or undermine female characters? Creating even more rules that limit what women can do, be or experience? Let us not go down that road, please.*
By which I mostly mean ladies entering relationships and opting for whatever arrangements they choose. It just so happens that all the examples I’m analysing here do involve marriage.