Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Virginal Virgins and Other Improbables of Contemporary Fiction

A confession. As I get the hang of this whole blogging thing, I’m going to be borrowing topics from other sources. Before I sit down to write, I’ve been cruising around the sites and blogs I frequent, and usually some article or entry in one or another has inspired fodder for my own entry. I don’t consider it stealing ideas because I’m using the original entry as a spring board from which to launch my own questions and observations. But I do feel the need to confess to this lack of originality. Then again, at this point if I didn’t borrow, you’d be stuck reading about my kids, the latest exploits of the hamster, or how sick I am of all this bloody snow.

Today I've been intrigued by Màili Ryan's column in Romancing the Blog in which she discusses what she sees as an overabundance of virginal heroines showing up in contemporary romances. These are the heroines of our current time who, for some reason that defies most modern conventions, have managed to remain virgins. Not only are these women virgins, but some are portrayed as almost complete innocents as well, sometimes not even having the most rudimentary understanding about sex and what’s involved. They appear as a reverse-anachronism, some kind of medieval princess brought forward in time after having been sequestered in a nunnery for her entire life.

In this day and age, presenting a thirty-something, or even a twenty-something, virginal heroine requires a whole lot of convincing on the part of the writer as to why such a case might be. With girls losing their virginity as teenagers and the constant bombardment of the media machine telling us to “just do it,” remaining a virgin is actually quite a challenge. I would imagine that the majority of women who remain virgins do so by conscious choice rather than lack of opportunity. Certainly the number of marriage contracts that require a virginal bride have slacked off since the beginning of the twentieth century.

There is a spectrum that ranges from virginal virgin – the woman who not only has never had sex but doesn’t even know about sex – all the way to the slutty femme fatale who needs a man to have only a pulse to make him fair game for a night of sheet dancing. What I’d like to know is where the lines are drawn for readers? How far can the writer push the modern-day heroine’s innocence until the reader loses the ability to relate in any way? Without the distance of time and the differences in social mores to help us suspend our own experiences, exactly how virginal can a contemporary heroine be before she’s pushed into too innocent to be believed?

Assuming that the writer can sell the premise (there are, after all, a lot of legitimate reasons why a woman might choose to remain a virgin) and convince us that the heroine is reasonably virginal, more problems arise when the hero seems more interested in the heroine's sexual status than her person as a whole. Rather than a woman with appeal in her own right because of her wit or intelligence or charm, the heroine by virtue of being a virgin becomes terra incognita for the hero and completely irresistible. You have a PhD in nuclear physics, tutor blind children in your spare time, and have single-handedly launched an initiative to eradicate hunger from all third world countries? Yeah, okay, but didn't you say something about being virgin?

What is it about a virgin that men find so intriguing?

Is it the prospect of having what no other man has ever had? A throwback to the women-as-property mindset where the rate of depreciation on a non-virgin is on par with that of a new car driven half a mile off the lot. I got you first, therefore you are mine.

Is it the appeal of playing teacher to the heroine’s role of student? The big, strong, worldly man taking the trembling heroine under his wing and introducing her to the delights of the flesh. Molding her into a creature designed to meet his every fantasy. No bad habits to unlearn or nasty past experiences that might cause the hero to look poorly by comparison. Don't worry, baby, I'll show you everything you need to know.

Is it the challenge of ultimate conquest and victory? Nothing is more appealing than something that is unattainable. The ultimate ego-stroke when at long last, the goal is reached. She’s held out this long, but she won’t be able to resist me, for I am God's gift to women.

Maybe a bit of all of the above.

For that matter, what is it about a virginal heroine that romance writers – who are largely women – find so intriguing?

I mean, from the perspective of a woman, being a virgin when my heroine at long last meets her one-true-love and soulmate is kind of a risky undertaking. What if – gasp – Mr. Charming is not so good in bed? What if he’s equally inexperienced or even bad? I’d be sentencing her to a mediocre sex life for the rest of all time. Of course, she’d never know the difference.

Which leads me to ask…how does a virginal heroine even know that her new lover is any good? She has no basis of comparison.

Which leads me to ask...would readers accept a trend of virginal heroes? How would we feel if our virile, manly men weren't quite sure exactly what to do with this virile manliness?

But I digress…and since we don’t have to deal in realities when reading romance novels, I guess the heroine won’t have to worry about the possibility of getting a dud of a partner her first time out of the gate. Lucky girl.

So why else would a writer chose to make her heroine a virgin? I guess the question has to be asked: what role does the heroine’s virginity play in the story? Does it make her different than the rest of the women the hero has known, and therefore more intriguing? Are there reasons she has chosen this path that are significant to her personality as a whole, like some event in her past that has made her afraid or reluctant? Is it simply a matter that she has taken a moral stance to wait and just hasn’t met the right man yet (until, of course, the hero comes along) in which case her virginity is really nothing more than a tiny part of her entire package?

I can accept any of the above reasons. And I’ll even go so far as to suggest another reason. The heroine is a virgin because she needs to be for plot reasons. Not a very common theme of modern stories, but I’m talking a sacrificial-virgin-to-be-thrown-into-the-volcano reason. Or a the-prince-must-marry-a-virgin story. (It happens – Charles and Di, anyone?)

What I think most of us believe – and perhaps what Màili is putting forth –is that the only really unacceptable reason for a heroine to be a virgin is to make her more appealing to the hero. If that’s the only reason he likes her, I’m not sure he’s the kind of man I’d call a hero.

I mentioned that sexual experience exists along a spectrum, from virgin through...well, not a virgin. It's on this end of the range - the not a virgin end - I'll discuss tomorrow. When does the experienced heroine become too experienced to be liked or respected? Is it still a double standard when it comes to acceptable experience on the part of the hero versus the heroine?

Funnily enough, I have story ideas for both types.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Lynn! I enjoyed Maili's entry at RTB, too. Very thought-provoking.


Larissa said...

Wow. Great post. Made me think! :)

Lynn M said...

Thanks for stopping by, Suzanne and Larissa. Hope to see you again :)


Sela Carsen said...

Excellent post! Especially after coming through a sex scene struggle with my not-quite-a-virgin heroine.

Jaye said...

Fantastic post, Lynn. Lots of good stuff to think about.

Hornblower said...

re the virginal hero - wasn't Diana Gabaldon's hero Jamie inexperienced when he first meets Claire? I think it worked because he was so alpha & so 'lord of the realm' otherwise; and yet, in this 1 area it was Claire who was the expert.

nice blog, btw :-)