Words Worth Noting

Favorite Quotes

"Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point. French. Pascal. The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing."— Madeleine L'Engle

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Review: It Had to Be You

It Had to Be You It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Love in the Time of Slick Willy, the Juice and the Donald.
This one was quite a throwback. Since this summer I've been making a conscious effort to better understand the genre I've been so engrossed by recently by reading some of the best known books in the romance canon, and It Had to Be You came highly recommended. It's one of Eloisa James's favorite books and appears on many best of all time lists. But reading It Had to Be You was an unsettling, frustrating experience for me. This pioneering, popular and well-received sports romance was published in 1994, the year of Nicole Brown-Simpson’s death, and former football superstar O.J. Simpson’s ill-fated low speed chase/attempt to evade arrest for killing her. It was also the second year of the Clinton presidency, two years before Monica Lewinsky burst into public consciousness, and, perhaps most important, just a few years after “Backlash” told of a powerful postfeminist reactionary political wave sweeping across America. That’s all to say it was a heady time, right on the cusp of some sort of transition in gender and racial politics.

So I should have been prepared for what a contemporary romance set in the testosterone heavy world of the NFL might look like in that time. It shouldn’t have been a huge surprise that the sexual politics made my head spin. And yet it still threw me for a bit— the gender dynamics aren’t pretty. Neither progressive nor fully reactionary, just deeply unsettling. It was an unsettling time. For all that’s wrong with 2019, this book made me incredibly happy that it’s not 1994 and that I could leave that world by closing the book. When I think about reading It Had to Be You I'm reminded of that terrible, scornful, old-school, Victorian set down— that someone is no better than they should be, meaning they're lacking but that's to be expected because of who they are or where they come from. This novel made me think its gender politics were awful and yet possibly realistic for the time, in other words, no better than they should be. The gender dynamics between the characters are too muddled and confused to be truly enlightening or thought-provoking, but they are unsettling. So maybe that's as it ought to be. Intentional or not, it was a terribly unsatisfying and muddled time for women. It Had to Be You certainly reflects that.

The heroine, Phoebe Somerville, is an heiress, a buxom “bimbo”, secretly celibate sex-bomb, and a kind and intelligent woman who craves the love she never had growing up. She’s also a rape survivor, who’s suffering from a great deal of trauma and tries to use her body and her sexuality as armor and as a tool of manipulation in every aspect of her life even as she feels ashamed of her body and uncomfortable and insecure about her sexuality.

When Phoebe inherits (with conditions of course) an NFL team from her horribly abusive, recently deceased father, she amps up the overt, outrageous sexuality and downplays her intelligence as she enters a new workplace dominated by men. She thinks she’s adapting to the way the world sees her and using her body and looks to her advantage, and it appears that we are supposed to understand that this is a workable strategy, but it’s also clear throughout that this strategy causes her great pain. It makes her hate herself and puts her continually at odds with her employees, other businesspeople, and her potential love interest who is also a colleague.

Is Phoebe's false sexual flamboyance and bravado a source of strength, shame, or success? Or all three? More to the point, why is this her only professional strategem? Phoebe’s choices are cringe-inducing. I found it very hard to keep reading at times. But then I questioned myself. Am I slut shaming this heroine, am I being prudish? Possibly. But I *really* don’t think so.

So the question remains: Why are bare cleavage and the sexual manipulation of men the predominant way that Phoebe uses her talents in business dealings until the very end? While she’s at it why does she not on her own at least learn something about the industry independently rather than solely relying on her burgeoning relationships with the men in her organization? And, above all, if it’s a smart strategy why is it such a continual source of pain? The workplace plot lines strained my belief in the character and the narrative as a whole.

In contrast, the love story and Phoebe’s reawakening after sexual trauma are handled incredibly well. The connection between Phoebe and Dan and how their physical relationship progresses is believable, specific, not at all cliched. Their relationship hinges on consent and trust as much as chemistry, and Phillips handles it beautifully.

It is hard to write a novel that is both sexy and gritty about social reality in that particular historical moment while avoiding being particularly political or preachy. That's a hard needle to thread with the social forces, hard choices, and traps women faced in a still hostile working world in the wake of the women’s movement. Phoebe is trying to succeed in, not just survive, an unjust situation and system. That is inherently political. It Had to Be You seems to want to be on the side of gender equality but in a not idealistic, not too orthodox, not too feminist way.

But the problem with the way Phoebe's written transcends gender politics. It's more fundamental than that. People say and do disrespectful, humiliating things to Phoebe; Phoebe says and does humiliating things to herself. And that lasts pretty much throughout the book in terms of her professional persona even though she grows in her personal life. Self-objectification and playing dumb are her favorite business strategies. And that's the contradiction I couldn't quite believe. Quirks and imperfection are human. Phoebe is human and therefore an imperfect heroine. Plus, all women struggle with self definition in a world that values and condemns female sexuality, but I'm unconvinced that she would choose to be imperfect in this particularly sexually exploitative, self-sabotaging way for this long in her professional life. I don’t buy that it would have gotten her the positive results she’d need to want to stick to that strategy for well over a decade. These choices make the book no better than it should be.

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Review: Nobody's Baby But Mine

Nobody's Baby But Mine Nobody's Baby But Mine by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is the second novel that I’ve read by contemporary romance legend Susan Elizabeth Phillips, and I’m finding it even harder to tolerate than the last. The first book in the series was frustrating because it felt twisted and unrealistic in how it depicted/distorted sexism in the workplace. This book might be worse. It portrays offenses against bodily autonomy and consent in a flippant ways— as though it's bad form but nothing one should hold a real grudge over. It enrages me not because it's “politically incorrect,” which appears to be Susan Elizabeth’s brand—she even uses the term in the text, and the story centers on a baby-hungry career woman who manipulates a celebrity athlete into impregnating her (how edgy). That’s bad enough, but the real issue is that she heaps abuse on this man. Making her a heroine after that manages to be aggressively anti-feminist (a woman wanting to have a baby on her own is portrayed as crazy, misguided and selfish).

Jane, the putative heroine of sorts, is a socially awkward physicist and former child scientific prodigy with a ticking biological clock, Cal the hero/victim an aging NFL quarterback. She decides to have a baby with him by any means necessary, consent be damned. The central premise, a woman chooses a man to father her child based on his perceived lack of intelligence is ridiculously condescending. Jane, condescends to her lover. The book condescends to its readers and women who've apparently lost their way in the modern world.

The way Jane goes about it also makes the sexual acts themselves into abuse. Jane coerces Cal while he repeatedly rebuffs her advances. And when he tries to engage her in the act so that it’s more mutual and enjoyable, she rebuffs him, making the sex humiliating for him. Even though that’s not her aim, that is clearly the effect. It doesn’t matter that she is just protecting herself. She’s using him as a tool and that is the definition of exploitation. This could be a negative case study in moral philosophy.

This made me think about a moral reasoning class I took as an undergraduate. What stood out most was Kant's concept of the categorical imperative.
Kant's formulation of humanity, the second section of the Categorical Imperative, states that as an end in itself humans are required never to treat others merely as a means to an end, but always, additionally, as ends in themselves.

This entire premise is that Jane uses Cal Bonner as a means to an end, which is bad enough, but even as she is doing that she does nothing to minimize the harm she inflicts on him. That’s why this drives me crazy. She says she’s driven to do this by wanting a baby so badly, and the fact that the baby needs to have genes that run counter to her own for its own good, so that the child won’t suffer the outsider status and social isolation she did. No matter how faulty that logic is at least it’s genuine. But she could still have tried to find someone to participate in this of their own free will.

Making matters far worse, it wouldn’t cost her anything but her own neuroses to treat Cal as a full human being during the process. And that, the sexual humiliation and insult she heaps on Cal during their two initial encounters plus the harm she does him by making him feel he’s potentially doing harm to her during the acts, that’s gratuitous. This is not a trivial harm. And yet somehow she’s still ultimately painted as a cute and quirky heroine.

This is not cute. Forced reproduction isn't funny. In another novel, this would be the key act that defines the villain (see Long Shot for one example).

The fact that I really haven't seen any critique of the forced procreation and sexual humiliation in this book compounds my disturbance with this book. As a feminist (and as a human being), my concern about someone being denied bodily autonomy is not something I take on and throw off at will depending on the identity of the victim.

The bottom line? Nobody’s Baby But Mine makes Jane into a heroine, abuser and the object of scorn at the same time. Why take a social phenomenon— career woman wants to have a baby on her own— and distort is this far from reality in this ugly a way? Is it just because that makes for good conflict and conflict means drama, equals compelling storytelling? Or is there an attempt to discredit the social phenomenon? Or do they just not see it that way? Does women doing grotesque things to men really not seem grotesque to Phillips and her fans?

Other issue: Casual racism. Not a fan!
When she learns Cal isn't the dim bulb she assumed he was just because he's an athlete, Jane worried their child will be freakishly smart and not fit in like she did growing up. Her solution: She’s going to move to a "primitive" part of Africa to keep her child away from people. Seriously:
She couldn’t let that happen. She’d die before she’d permit her child to suffer as she’d suffered. She’d move away! She’d take the baby to Africa, some remote and primitive part of the continent. She’d educate the child herself so that her precious little one would never know the cruelty of other children.

Because of course there are no people who count in "remote and primitive" Africa. That's it. I'm done here.

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