Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Sex and Power - a few speculations

My thoughts keep returning to Celia's bracing post of a few days ago - the zesty codswallop-and-guff language of it (you go, girl) but more particularly the wonderful roll call of Jane Austen's bad girls. Taken together, it's an impressive argument.

And it's an argument that adds up to strong evidence that Regency young ladies were a whole lot more knowing about earthy and bodily matters than a generation or two of trad regency novels have led us to believe - even though (as in the case of Austen herself) the young ladies might never have acted upon that knowledge.

And then there was Lacy's post about the Rowlandson prints, and also Kalen Hughes's post at History Hoydens - about V.A.C. Gatrell’s City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-century England and the case it makes for the ubiquity of those dirty pix as part of everyday Georgian and Regency life.

All of which makes it more difficult to accept what had been the standard (and beloved) image of the sheltered Regency miss - and prompting some Regency romance writers (at least on one loop I'm on) to cast about for historically valid ways to continue to write books in that chaste mode.

And leading me to wonder just what makes that image of the sheltered Regency miss - that mode, that mythology, if you will - so beloved in the first place.

And to speculate that the element that has been missing from the conversation thus far is power.

Because what makes the Regency so compelling as an imaginary landscape, I think, is that the more covert the erotics, the more naked the power relationships and the social inequities. In Austen at any rate, every character seems to wear his or her net worth and social consequence as though on a placard around his or her neck. Mr. Darcy's ten thousand a year; Emma Woodhouse's thirty thousand pounds... it's all clear on the nose on your face - and pointing to a map of power and a set of rules as elaborately explicated as you'd find in vampire horror fiction.

And also as available as a source of guilty pleasure, especially for someone like me, who got my novelistic chops from writing S/M erotica.

Comic S/M, I always hasten to add - but do I need to add it? The Marquis de Sade was often wildly funny, and in her essay "The Pornographic Imagination" Susan Sontag wrote about the deadpan Buster Keaton quality of some of her favorite hot literary texts.

I may never completely understand why inequities of power should constitute an erotic reading pleasure when they cause so much pain in the real world - when on the front pages they're a source of real-world shame and consternation, and to my mind quite rightly so. I'll probably spend the rest of my writing days trying to work this out.

But I do know that part of the answer to this question lies in the power of comedy and wit to deflate the excesses of power (at least on the printed page). Which brings us back to the traditional Regency, as Jane Aiken Hodge describes it in The Private World of Georgette Heyer:

We are all snobs of some kind, and it is comfortable to find oneself in a world where the rules are so clearly established, where privilege and duty go hand in hand, and a terrible mockery awaits anyone who takes advantage of position. This is a world, like that of Shakespeare’s comedies, where laughter is the touchstone and the purifier; where exposure to the mockery of one’s equals is punishment enough...
In the traditional (ie non-sexually explicit) Regency, the heroine's most formidable weapon is often her wit - or her wits. And I agree with the advocates of the traditional Regency that this quality is to be cherished. Absurdly powerful rakish duke meets absurdly clever girl; I'm on board for that.

But hey, that's where I came on board at the first place, and why I got into comic S/M.

And that's where the arc becomes a circle for me - sex and power talking to each other through the medium of humor. The power of wit and of erotic attraction as correctives to political despotism and overreaching - and also as their funhouse mirror reflections and the reader's fantasy ways of getting all the good stuff.

And that's the world I think that some of us crumpet strumpets and our friends have often espied lurking among the genteel teacups.

Which only begins to open this line of inquiry for me. But I'd love to know what you think. Have a crumpet.


Kalen Hughes said...

Tee-Hee, I'm on the blog. *grin*

I'm very interested in the inner workings of the power struggles that people go though as part of courtship. I find it fascinating to see who has "hand", to put in modern parlance. How the power shifts, and why, can be amazingly provocative, and need not be limited to sex. Nearly all human interactions are, IMO, about power. Power over others. Power over oneself. The power to decide. I think one of the reasons so many people are describing my writing as “erotic” is that I pay special attention to “who has hand” during my characters’ conversations and during sex.

Kate Pearce said...

For me, bringing brought up in that infinitely complicated finely nuanced English class system, I find the smallest hint of behaving badly absolutely fascinating. The British are such snobs that the idea that all this naughty erotic stuff happens behind the closed net curtains and high moral values absolutely inspires me to write about it.

Jane George said...

Wow. Nicely put. And timely too. You've added depth to something I'm currently struggling with.

Mostly I've abdicated from society's power games by being an artsy outsider, jealously clutching my illusions of independence to my breast. But it took until middle age to realize that there is no opting out. Even folks who are off the grid are in the system.

So what do I do? I get a job in the financial industry. :-) Three years later I'm now financially responsible for myself on the planet, which is good. But I'm no closer to being powerful by society's gauge, because while I'm no longer abdicating, I am only observing, not playing.

Now, you'd think a system where a person's net worth determines their consequence would be logical,but I'm more convinced than ever that the system is completely nucking futs.

Yesterday I read an interview with a clever money guru who has upped his visibility by combining "neurobiological behavior" with investing and financial advising. Now I could have told him that fear and greed are our culture's two main motivaters. But here he is telling advisers how to present information, which brain lobe to target, so as to trigger those motivaters. Apparently pie charts don't do it.

Evil, I tell ya! To make a long story less painful, I came to the conclusion that my only recourse is to lampoon this. It's going in the next mainstream I've been cooking on the back burner for a while now.


Jane George said...

Kalen, "hand" is not a term being bandied about Lafayette, so I'm clueless. Clue me in?

"Parlance" has been forever ruined for me by the Coen brothers The Big Lebowski. Every time I see it I hear Julianne Moore as Maude Lebowski speaking in her crisp prep school accent, " use the parlance of our times." Cracks me up. I swear there's a line in that movie for every occasion!

Celia May Hart said...

Yes "hand" is a mystery to me too... but otherwise I agree with Kalen -- its the power struggles that are fascinating... I'm working on a real doozy right now.

Kalen Hughes said...

Really? It’s a term I’ve seen bandied about since I was in college in the early 90s.

It's short for having the "upper-hand". The person in the relationship who has "hand" is the one in charge, and of course when you're dealing with issues of attraction, dating and sex, who has "hand" can shift suddenly and unexpectedly.

Jane Lockwood said...

I've always wondered about the appeal of the sheltered Regency miss as a heroine. I don't find the idea of the blank slate attractive--I'd rather read about someone who's had, if not physical experience, certainly a range of emotional experience, and who has done some growing-up.
Doesn't it come back to the mantitty? (I'm finding everything does. I need help). It's another borrowed male fantasy (this time a heterosexual one), where an experienced older man breaks in a young innocent. It smacks of inequality, of course, but if you give her some sort of an edge--brains and perception--that levels the playing field. God forbid the seduced should laugh at the seducer.