Monday, May 04, 2009

A Feminist Of A Certain Age Rants

An Octavian Nothing vs. Hunger Games discussion is underway over at Read Roger. One commenter said that in addition to its other attractions, The Hunger Games offers what she described as a "'two worthy men are in love with you' scenario that never fails to satisfy."

I have to agree with her that many people like that scenario. But it seems to me to be an incredible cliche. Talk about an old warhorse that ought to be let out to pasture. (Speaking of cliches.)

Why is what I prefer to call the torn-between-two-lovers triangle trotted out over and over again in books for both teens and adults? Why do people like it so much?

Is there a sports thing going on here? Is there a competition going on in these books between the two males with readers taking sides? (As they did with the Twilight books.) In which case, of course, the female character is the prize. Female as a thing a man wins. (Try to imagine me speaking that line out loud.)

Is the torn-between-two-lovers set up the remains of some kind of genetic memory in which either males competed for a female or females chose among available males? We'd then be attracted to it (well, not me) because we recognize it as coming out of our past?

Please don't tell me it's romantic. That's creepy.

In the last couple of decades the female character will sometimes choose neither of the male characters. She chooses instead to do something, herself, that doesn't involve defining herself in relation to a man. This is a nod to late twentieth century feminism. Huzzah.

But the torn-between-two-lovers triangle is still there. Why include it at all? Why does there need to be a second guy?

What? To create conflict, you say? But there's no law that requires conflict to be created in that particular way. Conflict can be anything.

So again I ask, why is this incredibly overused situation slapped into so many books, and why do readers like it so much?

Training Report: I was right. I didn't get any writing done over the weekend. I did do some planning, though. I wrote three segments today. What's happening now is I'm thinking of more and more segments I need for January through March, months which I'm supposed to have finished. So I'm writing those segments with no specific plan for where they'll go. I'll work it out next January. This means that at any point in time, I will have more segments than I'll need for the numbers of days of the year that have passed. That is a good thing. It's always good to generate material.


OpenID takumashii said...

Have you ever heard of the theory that romances are really "a love story between myself and myself"? At one level, the men are literal men -- but at another level, they're aspects of the heroine's identity that she needs to discover, explore, pull into her own concept of herself.

In Hunger Games, it's interesting that Gale hunts, gathering his food from nature, whereas Peeta is the son of the baker -- bread-baking being a process that relies upon a lot of human labor from growing the wheat to milling the flour to baking the bread. So you could say there's a dialectic going on between the natural/spontaneous and everything that's artificial and constructed about the Games. Or I could be reading too much into what is essentially a fast-paced adventure thriller. But I do think it's a bit more comfortable, from a feminist POV, to read the competition as symbolic rather than some attempt to foist one lifestyle on all women.

7:45 PM  
OpenID grrlpup said...

I was taught in college that the romance-- like from medieval romance through Austen up to the Brontes and Henry James-- took the form of educating young women on how to choose wisely whom to marry, and that's how it explored character and society.

If that's so, having to choose between two GOOD guys is the hardest, best situation to examine. Much better than between one good guy and one guy that everyone but the heroine knows is a cad. That's the cliche that I get tired of.

8:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's obviously just to create drama. You need to chill out.

5:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with grrlpup, though I would add that your love triangle stands in for all the difficult decisions people have to start making as they become adults. It would be nice if we all our decisions were clear. Go to College? Or become a homeless drug addict? Hmmm. But it's more like, Save the money and go to U of M? Spend the money and go out of state to UVA?

Katniss's decision about the Hunger Games is easy. Don't die. That clear cut path is balanced by a genuinely difficult decision about who she is going to be now that she is still alive. It makes for a much sturdier story without adding too much complexity or detail that might slow the pace. It provides the momentum to move to the next book.

I like it because the two guys are dissimilar, but both worthy choices.

8:31 AM  
Blogger tanita davis said...

Boy, the question itself generates a lot of intriguing discussion. My only comment is that it sells, which is why its used repeatedly, whether or not its particularly solidly based in realistic feminism is less the point when one is looking less at literature and more at sales numbers and familiar-trope-reader-satisfaction.

But I'm now totally into the love story between self-and-self idea. Wow. That's deep.

11:12 AM  
Blogger Sarah Rettger said...

Takumashii, that's fascinating! I've never heard that theory before, but I want to know more about it.

Gail, I wonder if the appeal is that the torn-between-two-lovers is seen less as "female as prize" and more as "female as decider."

There's probably a wish-fulfillment aspect to it - when you're 16 and no boys are attracted to you (okay, when I was 16...) the idea of reversing the power structure, so that you're in a position to choose is pretty appealing.

(Okay, I'm no longer 16, but I still see the appeal of it in a fictional context :)

1:58 PM  
Blogger gail said...

I'm loving the "a love story between myself and myself" theory, also. The "torn between two lovers" stereotype would then give women readers two aspects of themselves to consider. A conflict within themselves.

The idea of traditional romances serving as some kind of education for women so that they'll choose wisely whom to marry is fascinating, too, particularly when you throw in two lovers for them to consider and make decisions about. Though why, in an age when women no longer need marriage to survive (as they did in Austen's day), are romances still so popular?

I find it a lot harder to buy that the torn-between-two-lovers scenario is used over and over again because it's dramatic. Cliches aren't dramatic. That's why they're cliches. Anyone over the age of sixteen or there abouts has seen this situation over and over again in books and movies. They know how it's going to end. The female character is going to choose one of the guys.

The Hunger Games had plenty of real life and death drama. The plot only needed the one guy for the romantic setup. Why add another? Why do readers like it so much? Because it shows that in addition to being a powerful human being, a survivor, Katniss is also all woman because she's able to attract two men?

(I realize HG is an incomplete story because it's the first volume of a serial and the two guys may end up having some significance beyond a romantic battle. Unfortunately, serials are still assessed book by book and not as a completed serial.)

"Female as decider" instead of "female as prize." Hmmm. That would mean women readers can find the torn-between-two-lovers scenario empowering because the female character has the power to choose her own destiny. I can buy that, though we're still talking about a destiny that is only in relation to a man.

Aren't we talking primarily about female readers here? What about the male readers of a book like The Hunger Games? Are they getting anything from the old torn-beween-two-lovers thing?

When a male character has two female suitors, is he usually all that torn? Doesn't the action usually shift to the two female suitors who are actively competing for him in some unpleasant way? And isn't this usually in movies? Does it happen often in books?

3:32 PM  
OpenID takumashii said...

I first read about the "romance with oneself" theory in Laura Kinsale's essay "The Androgynous Reader," anthologized in "Dangerous Men & Aventurous Women" and elsewhere. I find it compelling as far as my own reading is concerned; I spent my own teenage years reading about seductive bad boys not because I wanted to meet a seductive bad boy, but because I wanted myself to be less goody-two-shoes.

I actually don't think that the romantic dilemma in Hunger Games is that compelling, perhaps because we don't see too much of Gale. What I find compelling in the love story is the conflict between real love and performance -- does Peeta feel anything for Katniss, or is he pretending? Does Katniss feel anything for Peeta, or does she just desperately want to? But it's a series, and I hope it'll be developed further in the second book.

9:47 PM  

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