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August 22, 2007

Feminine Fantasies, Revisited

During our absence we were suprised (surprised, too, even) to see the decidedly masculine Grim blogging about Romance novels and feminine fantasies:

An article of the sort that Cassandra and I often discuss appeared in The Nation, by one Nona Willis-Aronowitz, under the title "The Virginity Mystique." It is another examination in the the problems feminism faces around the rampant sexuality currently prominent with many of today's young people: what should feminism advise? Most likely you have encountered versions of the debate before, as it is a standing issue for feminism, and so will find little here that is new.

What did interest me was this claim:

The culture has not yet carved out a space for women to indulge their own fantasies rather than to fulfill those of men. Feminism has not finished its job; a version of nonmushy, nonmarital sex that makes women feel good about themselves is still hard to achieve.

Grim went on to a discussion of whether Romance novels are, or are not, a realm in which women may indulge their sexual fantasies free of the oppressive influence of The Patriarchy. That is, however, a question in which the Princess is relatively uninterested, mostly because she doesn't read romance novels (note: clarification added).

What interested her more in the article, which she read this morning, was what she thinks the author was getting at: (or perhaps more accurately what was implied in the author's words) the very real problems that occur when women and girls try to live out their fantasies:

The question remains after all these years: Why should sex have an everlasting warranty of love attached to it? Sex is the ultimate risk, a risk that makes human relationships complicated, intoxicating and wonderful. It is a risk that women are finally allowed to take without being chastised for it. And if young women choose to keep their sexuality under wraps, fine. Girls deserve the space to figure out a sexual reality that makes them happy, rather than dwelling on the difference between "Madonna" and "whore"--and deciding which is worse.

Fantasies are odd things.

The other day I was noodling around and ran across this list of 100 Best Novels. What struck me about it, after noticing how different the reader list was from the list chosen by the Board of the Modern Library, was how prominently Ayn Rand was featured in the top ten:

ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand
THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand
BATTLEFIELD EARTH by L. Ron Hubbard
THE LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. Tolkien
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee
1984 by George Orwell
ANTHEM by Ayn Rand
WE THE LIVING by Ayn Rand
MISSION EARTH by L. Ron Hubbard FEAR by L. Ron Hubbard

I wanted to write about this odd phenomenon, actually, in the context of two articles I read this week: this one and an article almost diametrically opposed to this by Roger Scruton, which posits that far from being the cause of violence, religion is the antidote. There are two facets of Rand's most famous novels that make them memorable, and notably they deal with two of the great third rails of American conversation: sex and religion.

Oddly, though Rand contemptuously shuns the notion of belief in God, her works feature an almost transcendant worship of human ability. For a society rapidly intent on banishing God from the public square, this may be the last acceptable icon. But that is a topic for another post. The other interesting, though briefly dealt with, thread that runs throughout Rand's work is her intertwining of sex, violence, and female submission. In The Fountainhead, the joining of Howard Roark and Dominique is anything but tender; in Atlas Shrugged the union of Dagny and John Galt is openly referred to by Dagny as a rape. And yet, both women are strong, independent, what most women would consider archetypical feminists.

What went wrong? What is feminism to do with these women who, having reached the zenith of freedom from male domination, wish only to surrender to it again?

In broad terms, the contemporary culture generally assumes one of two sexual paradigms: First, there is the traditional Madonna/whore complex, which defines women solely by virtue of their sexual behavior. This perspective is often ascribed to those who are conservative, or religious. But even sexual subcultures, such as the prostitute-activist groups like COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) and PONY (Prostitutes of New York) adopt this paradigm when they proudly define themselves as "sluts" or "whores," and usurp the words as defensive badges of honor.15 The other currently popular paradigm comes from political correctness, which, in this context, might be called sexual correctness. This paradigm defines women and sexuality in political terms--specifically in terms of gender politics.

Rand presents a third alternative. Her heroines are radical individualists who define their own sexuality, specifically through embracing their gender role vis-à-vis the ideal man. As such, Dagny and Dominique defy the Madonna/whore analysis of women. They revel in carnal pleasures, yet they cannot be sexually approached except by a man who embodies what is sacred. Equally, Dagny and Dominique defy the politically-cor-rect paradigm. As women, they are role models of strength, intelligence, and independence; yet what is arguably their finest moment lies in the arms of a man. For such a man, Dagny Taggart, who runs the major railroad in America, is even willing to cook and clean in the capacity of housemaid. Consider the psychological surrender embodied in Dagny's reaction to a question posed to her by John Galt. Dagny has just offered to pay for her room and board in his house by becoming his servant.: "Is that what you want to do?" he asks. Rand ([1957] 1985, 707) describes Dagny's response: "'That is what I want to do--’ she answered, and stopped before she uttered the rest of the answer in her mind: more than anything else in the world."

The psychological surrender lies in her overeagerness to serve him. Many feminists would consider this surrender to housework to be more egregious than consenting to rough sex. But whatever emotional reaction Rand inspires, her meticulous ideology deserves to be accepted or rejected for what it is and not on the basis of misinterpretation.

On a personal level, I have moments of deep disagreement with--deep emotional reservations with regard to--Rand's paradigm of sexuality. As a woman who has experienced sexual violence, I have an abiding personal ambivalence toward the brutality portrayed in Rand's sex scenes. I became a runaway at the age of sixteen and, for as short a period of time as I could arrange, I lived on the streets. Anyone who has experienced the streets as a home will never be able, to walk down a dark alley again with anything akin to a sense of comfort.

Equally, any woman who has been battered or raped will probably have difficulty with Rand's harshly graphic sex scenes--and understandably so. Although such women may grasp and enjoy the intellectual values being portrayed, the emotional impact of those values will be lost upon them.

Certainly, it is lost upon me. Rand's ideal of surrender is too violent and too literally bruising for me to embrace willingly. As thoroughly as I appreciate the intellectual values being stylized in the initial sex scene between Dominique and Roark, I cannot get past the fact that--in similar circumstances--I would try to maim any man who caused me that sort of physical pain. Even in the alleged pursuit of ultimate values.

And, yet ... what heterosexual woman, hasn't fantasized about being swept into the strong impetuous arms of Rhett Butler and conveyed up a curving staircase to the satin sheets of ravishment? These gentler, less threatening fantasies of "being taken" seem to survive intact through actual violence; perhaps because they express a natural urge within women (and some men) to relinquish control and be conquered by a mutual passion.

This urge within women is deftly captured by Ayn Rand, and captured in a manner that is typical of both her life and her work: the woman goes to extremes. I am left wondering whether the discomfort caused by her extreme presentations might not be a positive thing. In the final analysis, the main purpose of art might be to shake us all up a bit.

Women still have a long way to go on the road to complete comfort with their newfound role in society. At present they still seem caught in limbo between the increasingly uncomfortable restrictions of yesteryear (the good girl/bad girl double standard) and the not always realistic expectations of today's hookup culture, with its unsatisfying insistance on sex without intimacy.

The real irony is that both visions of womanliness, past and present, still tell us that beauty and sex are the most important things we have to offer the world. In many ways the modern version may well be worse, since women are increasingly turning to the surgeon's knife instead of to lipstick and padded bras. Is this really the message we want our daughters to learn? That, in the end, is the crux of the problem. Women instinctively trade in what they perceive to be most valued by society. Unfortunately, some trade it away too lightly. Or they make bad bargains because, assuming others think as they do, they fail to explicitly negotiate the terms of the transaction up front.

What do we want, what tradeoffs are involved, and what are we realistically willing to give up (understanding that the world owes us nothing in return) to please others? Until young women learn to answer those questions intelligently, all the advice in the world is likely to fall upon deaf ears.

Posted by Cassandra at August 22, 2007 08:36 AM

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Comments

Nowhere is Gone With The Wind mentioned. The ultimate Objective novel.
What a travashamockery!

Now, I have to hie me to the brand spanking new Barnes and Noble that will be opening up in our town (even Peachtree City doesn't have a B&N, they get a BooksAMillion and Joe Muggs) to get those books.

Don't you find it interesting that Ayn Rand wrote about something that Oprah harps on: Fulfillment of self?

heh.

Gadzooks I hate it when I get behind the reading power curve here.

Posted by: Cricket at August 22, 2007 02:16 PM

BATTLEFIELD EARTH by L. Ron Hubbard

Battlefrackingfield Earth. Now that is hilarious, because I did read that book.

# GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell

is number 24.

Some of this is freakishly ironic. One's a modern day fiction, Atlas Shrugged and the Fountainhead, while the next one is futuristic science fiction set in alien invasion land, while the very next is the epic fantasy genre of elves and great battles against Dark Lords.

Then we get the anti-heros, literally, like 1984.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 22, 2007 02:32 PM

Silence, peasant!

Only professional journalists may analyze events of the day and important matters such as Literature, with a capital "L". You, Toad, are merely an impertinent blogger.

Know your place.

Posted by: Joseph Rago at August 22, 2007 02:36 PM

I had to google it and found it, since my browser likes to block pop-ups. Well, I have about forty of those top 100, so I don't feel so bad. It is all about feelings, right? And yes, Gone With The Wind is #24.

Ahh. Bliss restored. Part of the reason I love that book so much is it was one of the first novels I read when I was 14. I had read a lot
of Sir Walter Scott's books (Ivanhoe being a favorite), but there was something about Scarlett and Rhett and the Civil War that just sucked me in and kept me there. I guess it was because Scarlett didn't scruple to work hard, but she had nothing to live for besides Ashley...and when that blew up, she realized all along that a man like Rhett was what she needed.

They were equally yoked, and he had the decency that Ashley lacked. I just loved Rhett...he truly made my heart flutter. Especially when he
dragged her off to bed. Now THAT was sexy.


Posted by: Cricket at August 22, 2007 03:06 PM

Well, there was Tara.

Posted by: Cricket at August 22, 2007 03:08 PM

Well, the only reason I blogged about it was that you asked me to guest-blog here; it seemed like something that would fit the interests of your audience. :)

Now let me tell you what I found most interesting in the long piece you cited. It was this line:

"As a woman who has experienced sexual violence, I have an abiding personal ambivalence toward the brutality portrayed in Rand's sex scenes."

Ambivalence is not the word I was expecting to see there. I would have expected someone who had experienced sexual violence personally to use a word like rejection or disgust for the idea that brutal-sex-is-good-sex.

I don't dispute how the lady feels, of course, and I certainly wouldn't be so bold as to try to tell her how she ought to feel. I'm only trying to convey how different her reaction was from how I would expect her to feel. Once again, I'm awed by how deep the differences between men and women can be.

Posted by: Grim at August 22, 2007 03:35 PM

What Grim said.

Posted by: Eric Blair at August 22, 2007 03:37 PM

Well, the only reason I blogged about it was that you asked me to guest-blog here; it seemed like something that would fit the interests of your audience. :)

Oh, I know that. I found it amusing (and quite admirable) that you don't worry about what people think. That takes a very secure man (and knowing your sense of humor, you were secretly laughing a bit too, Grim - admit it). Not so much AT anyone, but at the idea. You know me - I like independent-minded people but I'm not above tweaking them a bit :p

I think you have to look at the fact that it is Wendy McElroy, writing. She's an unusually sensible woman - I think that she is rather more capable than most of stepping back from her feelings and examining things objectively. My husband likes her writing for that reason - he used to send me her columns.

I feel the same way, actually. It is one thing to fantasize about being brutally ravished. It is quite another to have someone actually hurt you. As I've read in literature, it's not uncommon for extremely strong-willed men to have fantasies about being dominated sexually and in fact historically several world leaders have turned out to have some perverse private habits. If you spend all day having to make decisions for others and having other people depend on you, the idea of being rendered temporarily helpless could be quite intoxicating, and it makes sense that the more strong and secure one is, the more enticing (and consequently less threatening, because it bears so little relation to real life) this idea would be.

As she says, you have to keep in mind that this is a novel, and also the mores of the time.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 22, 2007 03:51 PM

"As I've read in literature, it's not uncommon for extremely strong-willed men to have fantasies about being dominated sexually and in fact..."

I'm going to leave that lay, but you realize that Sly will be along any time now to torment you. :)

Dominance fantasies are probably mostly about getting permission to do forbidden things, I suspect. A man who is very responsible and upon whom others depend may not want to be made to feel helpless because he wants to feel helpless; he may just want to feel helpless because then he doesn't have to feel guilty for giving in to the sex he wants. If he's powerless to stop it, then he can have the woman he finds desirable without having to feel guilty for engaging in extramarital sex, or whatever other duty is preventing him from just asking her out.

I suspect some of the lady's feelings are along these lines too, although again I don't presume to know for certain. Still, the brutality angle may simply be a form of the desire for helplessness -- not that you want to be brutalized, by that the brutality excuses the submission by a woman who is otherwise taught to be, and may personally feel it important to be, chaste. As a fantasy, it excuses giving in to things you wouldn't admit into your life for real.

Posted by: Grim at August 22, 2007 04:18 PM

*sigh*

If you had ever met me, you'd quickly realize that I'm hardly the dominatrix type :p

And that is exactly what I was trying to say. You just said it far better than I was able to. But helplessness can also signal freedom from the responsibility of having to make decisions or be in control, which in real life can get wearisome. If you know you're not giving that up for good, I'd imagine that might have some attraction as a temporary diversion. If you feel some compulsion towards having to constantly perform some unpleasant or difficult duty, momentarily being rendered helpless might make you feel free of the necessity of the burden of having to take action, because you could act only at the direction of another.

And Sly is a dead woman if she opens her boca :p

Posted by: Cassandra at August 22, 2007 04:33 PM

Ahhh women's fantansies... Ooioohhh yes.. you know that "Women love me" ...

Oooohhh yes, just a boy-toy in the grand scheme of things.

*sign*

Posted by: Nanu Ram Jogi at August 22, 2007 04:48 PM

The top 100 novels, whether the Board's or Reader's lists is mind boggling. I cannot believe some of the garbage on it.

Posted by: Mark at August 22, 2007 04:50 PM

"And Sly is a dead woman if she opens her boca :p"

I think I'll make some popcorn. Where's JHD when you need him?

Posted by: Grim at August 22, 2007 04:58 PM

I don't dispute how the lady feels, of course, and I certainly wouldn't be so bold as to try to tell her how she ought to feel. I'm only trying to convey how different her reaction was from how I would expect her to feel. Once again, I'm awed by how deep the differences between men and women can be.

There are women with submission fantasies, that can both feel fear and disgust as well as a hidden desire, hence the ambivalence. Good and bad. Men have submission fantasies too, given the amount of stories floating around concerning masochism and men wanting to be tied up.

If you had ever met me, you'd quickly realize that I'm hardly the dominatrix type :p

Uho, dominatrix, watch out.

It would be interesting to see a psychotherapist handle the triggering traits of sadism, masochism, and the various sexual habits that they might produce or influence.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 22, 2007 05:47 PM

Have you encountered my occasional writings on psychology, Ymar? I'm always bothered that anyone gives it serious consideration as a form of inquiry. Not that it's a surprise when people do; the society is infused with it. But I don't think the, ah, 'discipline' of psychology stands up to any sort of intellectual rigor.

Posted by: Grim at August 22, 2007 05:57 PM

The top 4 or so, before 1984, seems to touch upon the human need for heros and heroines. The idea of a man facing adversity and not bending because of his principles and integrity, is a story that may draw folks that can find evidence of it no where else.

Ayn Rand had her own problems with her husband and sexuality. The divide, extreme in one way, can be seen as the personal conflict she had manifested upon paper and acted out by characters.

Her saga connects many lives. Alan Greenspan, the fed chair, was one of her disciples. They met together and talked. He is probably the most notable of her students, her inner circle so to speak.

I won't pretend to try to encapsulate Rand's situation in comments like this one, but I will say that she tried to resolve a moral and physical dilemma in her life combining sex, relationship, and morality all in one. There was some of the cult of personality going on there, of course, but it is similar to the one created for G'Kar in Babylon 5. An unwanted one, in some ways, but also a vindication of the power of her writing and beliefs.

I have analyzed the logic and the wisdom of her beliefs, and except for one thing (premise) concerning god in the physical and non-physical realms, it was astonishingly inspirational and true.

Few people can see past Ayn Rand's philosophy to the message beyond the message. Most of the reasons is lack of study or lack of exposure. Others, may be due to a lack of exposure to logic, deductive or inductive, or just philosophy. I was studying philosophy on my own at about the same time I was reading her books and the autobiographies of her closest advisers and friends. Her means of looking at philosophy was very clear cut and transparent, to someone ignorant in the basics of philosophical debate and construction.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 22, 2007 06:03 PM

But I don't think the, ah, 'discipline' of psychology stands up to any sort of intellectual rigor.

Ah, but you have not been brought up in psychology the way I was introduced to it ;)

The art of psychology, rather than say the science of psychology, is adeptly wielded by such Masters as Neo-Neocon, Dr. Helen, Dr. Sanity, Shrinkwrapped, and Siggy of Carl Alfred. Most are primarily psychotherapists, the classic "talk" therapist so to speak.

If you wrote a post on psychology on your own blogspot address, Grim, then I can say with some certainty that I have not read your post on them.

I think I can guess at some of the things you would have said, Grim, and by all means psychology, as well as philosophy to some extent, is plagued by such. Such things as confusing emotion with thoughts, or such things as political re-education by changing the thinking of a person through making them use certain words. Noam Chomsky, one of the founders or at least contributors to the Cognitive School of Psychology, would be a leading figure in many of the ills that you might assign to the field, Grim.

Yes, Noam Chomsky, the one and only.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 22, 2007 06:08 PM

This thread was promising... shaping up to be as caliente as an after Midnight Latin Novella. So let's not become embroiled in psychology or pushing pins into facsimiles either. *brack* *cough* *cough* Eh ?

Posted by: Ruben J. Blades at August 22, 2007 06:26 PM

It is ze Men, I tell you! Zey are hard-vired to talk about ze psykology, veras ze vomen, zey are hard-vired to talk ONLY about ze sex. ALWAYS with zem, it is ze sex!!!

Zey are maniacs!

Posted by: Dr. Ruth at August 22, 2007 06:39 PM

Yes! Zat, and Noam Chomsky!

Posted by: Dr. Ruth at August 22, 2007 06:39 PM

So let's not become embroiled in psychology or pushing pins into facsimiles either. *brack* *cough* *cough* Eh ?

Do you have something against my conversing with Grim?

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 22, 2007 06:41 PM

Oh, shut the hell up and but the bar a round.

Tuna.

Posted by: spd rdr at August 22, 2007 06:52 PM

*Opening boca*

"...can be seen as the personal conflict she had manifested upon paper (or pixels)..."

Well said, Ymar, and one that I've oft wondered lately.....

Posted by: Sly2017 at August 22, 2007 07:00 PM

Oh, and by the way, Madam Cassandranitanova, in the figurative sense, boca does mean "opening mouth", so to say "opens her boca" t'would be redundancy.........hmmmmm, the concept of repeating and repeating, doing it again and again .......could this be another Freudian slip? Perhaps we should call Fred.

I thought the trapeze broke.....

>;~}
*dodging merrily away*

Posted by: Sly2017 at August 22, 2007 07:14 PM

I can't hear you.

I am running a very hot bubble bath and lighting candles. Shortly I plan to be floating, somewhere very far away from here, with the lights off and my favorite CD on the stereo.

Posted by: Tiny Bubbles at August 22, 2007 07:21 PM

"Do you have something against my conversing with Grim?"

Senior, at any other time or place, absolutely not. But, and no offense meant here, I think that I would rather listen to the ladies talk with us about their fantasies.

Es much more interesting dan psychology. Si?

Posted by: Ruben J. Blades at August 22, 2007 07:27 PM

Well, we could talk baseball -- or juggling....
>;~}

Posted by: Sly2017 at August 22, 2007 07:37 PM

"tiny bubbles
In my bath...
Make me happy
I feel no wrath."

heh.

Posted by: MeanMeanSnarkyOne at August 22, 2007 08:00 PM

Senior Rdr, if ju would be so kind, have de bartender make a berry berry big Margarita. I'll be needing it chortly.

Now, if ju weel excuse me now, I think es time for me to go take a cold chower.

Posted by: Ruben J. Blades at August 22, 2007 08:02 PM

Heavy on the Zss Cass, but elegantly humorous nonetheless.

one that I've oft wondered lately.....

You doctored my pixels, Sly. I wonder how you will explain how my pixels changed when you quoted them.

The boca is good, Sly. How else can it be?

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 22, 2007 08:14 PM

I am pretty much out of it tonight I'm afraid, Ymar.

Scraping the bottom of the barrel. Goodnight guys. And thanks for everything.

I think I'm going to drink Ruben's margarita and go to bed.

Posted by: Tiny Bubbles at August 22, 2007 08:30 PM

Ymar,
I did not doctor your pixels, your words were copied, pasted, quoted exactly and italicized to show such. My parenthetical addition, was not. I contemplated putting my comment outside the quotation marks, but, IMHO, the flow of my comment would have been disrupted, hence the specific change of html style.

Posted by: Sly2017 at August 22, 2007 08:55 PM

Gezzus. Isn't there any Tuna left to buy the bar?

Posted by: spd rdr at August 22, 2007 09:04 PM

Very interesant, Sly. Yes indeedy.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 22, 2007 09:14 PM

I am asking because I was wondering if I could acquire similar skills doctoring Sammy's pixels.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 22, 2007 09:15 PM

snooze city

Posted by: crickets chirping at August 22, 2007 10:25 PM

Trust me, Ymar, if I had such tech wizardry available, it would have be deployed quite a few trolls ago. IMHO, Sammy's pixels are already so overblown that they have become fuzzy and indistinct without form or definition.

Posted by: Sly2017 at August 22, 2007 11:48 PM

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 08/23/2007
A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

Posted by: David M at August 23, 2007 11:19 AM

L Ron Hubbard my ass! The reader list is clearly stacked by a group or groups of motivated "list stackers" I'm surprised Ron Paul isn't in the top 10.

Posted by: Kenneth at August 23, 2007 02:12 PM

Spd,

my response is up and online.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 23, 2007 09:56 PM

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