In her book about Marilyn Monroe, Gloria Steinem describes the star’s marriages to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller. To Norma Jeane, Steinem says, these were men “whose images she wanted to absorb”. When Marilyn wanted to be America’s sweetheart, she married America’s hero. When she wanted to be taken seriously as an artist, she married a serious playwright.
While Marilyn Monroe is a historical figure, I would argue that women in fiction have been marrying male proxy figures for quite some time.
In a previous post, I discussed how both masculine and feminine romances were descended from the quest narrative, and that the quest was, according to Scott McCracken, about desire and it’s fulfilment over time and obstacles. While one of the main features of the masculine romance is the hero’s demonstration of the special qualities needed to be the alpha male in a given situation, it may be argued that the feminine romance is about acquiring the object of desire by socially acceptable means. You might think the male is the object of desire in these narratives, but he is also – as alpha male – the socially acceptable means. In cultural and historical contexts where women have not had the easy freedom of personal ambition, it might be argued that the male hero character stands in as either the person the heroine would be if she could be, or the channel through which she can achieve her goals.
As with the masculine romance, I think some interesting insights might be found by looking at the changes to these aspects of the romance over time. Deconstructing the characteristics of the hero – often neglected in literary studies of this genre – might give us insights about the lives of women in the time and place in which the romance was written and read. In a popular literary form written by women, for women and about women, the attributes of the male proxy character may tell us quite a bit about what women desired but felt unable to achieve or acquire on their own.
Lizzy Bennet and Jane Eyre, for example, both gain large estates and secure futures through marriage, in a time when women of their class and situation did not often own land unless they were widowed, and estates were often entailed to male-only heirs. Post-war category romance of the 1940s and 1950s abounds with women in clerical or service rolls marrying the owner of the company or the lord of the manor. In the 1980s, when women were just beginning the struggle with work-life balance and finding their place in a corporate world where greed was good, the buttoned-up corporate heroine was marrying the busting-out-of-his-blue-jeans adventure hero. More recently, now that many women feel they have the power to make their own financial way but may be juggling responsibilities and struggling to find time for themselves, we see the popularity of the supernatural hero. In Twilight, Bella not only gains financial freedom through marriage to Edward, but also flawless beauty, eternal youth and boundless energy, all while never needing to sleep, eat vegetables, or work out.
I wonder what else women’s popular fiction can tell us about the lives of women in the past and how this genre might evolve in the future. Is it a genre whose time has past now that women feel empowered to engage in quests of their own? Will it remain as novelised erotica, perhaps? I wonder, also, how women’s narratives will adapt and change in the 21st century as millennial girls grow into women. If the quest narrative remains, what will be the objects of 21st century desires? What demons or villains will be faced along the way, and what methods will female characters use to attain their desires and achieve their goals?