Snow White Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Laughter, pleasure, malice, and the pursuit of adult fun

"Romance" Can Hurt Rather Than Help Real Partners

Relying on fairy tales or the plots from films and novels can erode real love

Life is not a text—not a fairytale, not a novel, not a song—with a guaranteed happy ending; the catch is that you can’t have happy endings in the middle. Life means risking trouble. As George Bernard Shaw writes in Pygmalion, “Making life means making trouble. There’s only one way of escaping trouble; and that's by killing things. Cowards, you notice, are always shrieking to have troublesome people killed.”

As long as we’re alive, we can’t look for a happy ending. Only a final, deadly ending means nothing will ever change again. The happy endings we were promised—men and women alike—are checks that reality can’t cash.

In fact, romance generally writes checks that reality can’t cash.

The lure of the Cinderella story has kept women enthralled for centuries, and it has led to the disturbing belief that if you wait long enough and keep your fingernails clean (and your virginity intact) then the right man will come along and save you from having to fill out all your own federal income tax forms.

Interestingly, the resistance movement against romance did not coincide with the advent of the pantsuit or even with the demand for the vote for women. The diatribe against romantic novels put forth by the proto-feminist protagonist of Victorian author George Gissing’s 1893 novel The Odd Women gives us insight into the perpetual nature of this struggle against the seductions of romance.

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Gissing unfolds for us the world of England in 1887, where “‘there are half a million more women than men in this happy country of ours’” as one character puts it. The novel centers on the choices women have available to them: living single, being married, or even living together without marriage. Most significantly for our present argument is the declaration given by one of the “older” women in her thirties concerning the influence of romantic novels on the notions of the younger women around her.

Rhoda declares that "If every novelist could be strangled and thrown into the sea we should have some chance of reforming women. . . . Love--love--love; a sickening sameness of vulgarity. What is more vulgar than the ideal of novelists? They won't represent the actual world; it would be too dull for their readers. In real life, how many men and women fall in love? Not one in every ten thousand, I am convinced.” Rhoda’s presses home her point that “Not one married pair in ten thousand have felt for each other as two or three couples do in every novel. . . . When (a “fallen” young woman) rushed off to perdition, ten to one she had in mind some idiot heroine of a book." Angry at what she sees as the enslavement of women’s minds by the poisons of sentimental fiction, Rhoda fights against romance the way a temperance worker fights against alcohol.

If it were possible to mention every novelist who lists the dangers presented by lesser novelists, this would no longer be a book of reasonable size, but it is a fascinating and tellingly gender-specific pattern: there are not nearly so many recorded cases of men being drawn to “perdition” because of their reading habits as women. When the girl who is the object of Rhoda’s concern dies, Gissing allows his readers to sentimentalize her death as the inevitable outcome of a girl who married the wrong man. Margaret Drabble writes that “In the past, in old novels, the price of love was death, a price which virtuous women paid in childbirth,” and that is exactly the fate allotted by Gissing.

The sort of idea that suggests that even death can be a woman’s friend since it allows her to escape pain can be called an “enabling fiction.” What is an enabling fiction? Enabling fictions are the stories we tell ourselves to maintain equilibrium. Enabling fictions are as complex and subtle as the reasoning behind a murder mystery: their narratives try to tell you why the person holding the smoking gun isn't the murderer - in other words, why the obvious isn't true.

Enabling fictions are the internal monologues we rehearse and the silent arias we sing to tell ourselves that we live in the best of all possible worlds. They are the narratives we create for our own lives so that we won't have to confront our anger, or disappointment, or unhappiness. Dr. Mary Ann Caws, Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English and French at the City University of New York researched this idea and applied it to literature and developed the term "enabling fictions" to describe the “story” created by the character that works inside the larger “story” created by the author.

The idea of the "enabler" is originally drawn from psychologists' work with the families of  alcoholic and substance-addicted adults.

Enabling fictions can be created by anyone who wishes to avoid having to face the cracks in the facade of their false sense of security. For example, a young couple in Virginia Woolf’s story “Lapin and Lappinova” comes to depend increasingly on a fantasy-world inhabited by woodland creatures representing their inner-selves. When one of the partners, tired after a long day at work, refuses to participate in this emotional game, their entire world collapses.  Woolf believes the relationship between the young couple to be entirely dependent on their fantasy world of being two little bunnies in the vast meadows and forests of their imagination. When the husband announces that his character has died--thereby ruining the enabling fiction--Woolf ends the story abruptly with the single line “That was the end of that marriage.” Nothing actually changes in the "real world" insofar as their circumstances remain unaltered. Nevertheless, nothing looks the same anymore.

Enabling fictions keep us stuck.

Enabling fictions tell us there are no good jobs (so why bother looking), no good apartments (ditto), no better men (so stick with the one you've got), no way to change anything because that's the way the world works (and always will). Enabling fictions tell you that he needs to take a holiday on his own because he is, after all, a man who needs solitude to create his: 1. art; 2. music; 3. critical theory; 4. financial game-plan; 5. pottery. Or get away from his office, practice, classroom. Not that he wants to get away from you. 

Yeah, right. Enabling fictions are easy to spot when they belong to somebody else.

Along the same lines, we can see enabling fictions working through Fay Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil--(the book, not the movie). The enabling fiction of the bulky, unhappy protagonist Ruth at first appears in the guise of "the litany of the good wife" where she recites the attributes listed in anachronistic "guides to a good marriage": not making demands; not asking for sex; taking the backseat always; forgiving infidelity; and understanding her own insignificance. To be a good wife is to be unimportant, declares Ruth's early enabling fiction. She bought the entire package until the moment she confronts her own ability to continue the incantation. Her second enabling fiction becomes the obsession to look like, to become, her husband's mistress, the tiny, successful romance writer Mary Fisher. Ruth believes that if she can reduce herself and "look up to men,” literally as well as figuratively, then she'll be happy. She replaces one enabling fiction with another. She cannot therefore ever be happy; she can win (and she does, with a vengeance!) but happiness must elude her. She replaces the "guide to good marriages" with a "romance novel."

But the trouble with all formulaic plots--especially the ones focused on romance-- is that they cannot and do not reflect life. Real relationships don't follow plotlines and deserve to be let off the narrative hook.

 

Gina Barreca, Ph.D., is Professor of English at UConn, and author of It's Not That I'm Bitter: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World.

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