THERE ARE BATTLES being fought out on the edges of literary criticism, and the territory in dispute is the female psyche. Ranged on one side is a multitude of feminist literary critics. On the other are a few gladiators battling for the vast legions of women who enjoy mass market culture such as romance novels and soap operas. The Maginot line, so to speak, is a bitter division of opinion on the subject of female fantasies. The feminists say that they're harmful; the anti-feminists (for want of a better word) think they're fine and healthy. At the moment, there seems to be no middle ground for a peace treaty.
The fantasies in question are those in which women dream of male domination, either emotional or physical. This type of fantasy is often found in the (mostly pre- 1980) contemporary romances in which the hero is older, experienced and macho enough to awe a young heroine, in historical romances where the heroine is abducted and seduced by pirates and other scoundrels (later to be revealed as heroes) and, in its most extreme form, in erotic literature such as The Story of O. This "rape fantasy" is abhorred by feminists who believe that it reinforces the stereotype of the female as passive, masochistic and a victim. The popularity of such literature has been a bitter pill for the feminist critics to swallow and, even when they acknowledge its presence, they often go to bizarre extremes to justify its existence.
Loving With a Vengeance, by film and literature professor Tania Modleski, is an example of such criticism gone haywire. Three types of "mass-produced fantasies for women" come under her analytic gun-- Harlequin romances (1976 vintage), Gothic suspense novels (Ma la Mary Stewart) and television soap operas. The premise underlying her arguments, unstated but obvious, is that the fantasies in these genres are harmful and destructive. Her discussion, full of turgid prose, relies heavily on psychoanalytical theory. And her conclusions are often arrived at by creating illogical connections between popular culture and female psychology.
Modleski quite clearly dislikes Harlequins and Gothic suspense novels for their portrayal of male domination and she sees no positive reasons for their appeal to women. She describes contemporary romances in which a young and inexperienced heroine falls in love with an older and dominant man as expressions of "feminine hysterical character," which contributes to women's psychic conflicts by forcing them to bear with masculine hostility and by trying to neutralize their anger at men. Gothic novels, on the other hand, feed the "feminine paranoid personality," which thrives on stories in which the heroine finds herself with a husband who is a lunatic or a murderer and in a world that is "terrifyingly out of kilter." This fictional situation, Modleski asserts, reflects the fear many women have in their real life marriages and testifies to "women's extreme discontent with the social and psychological processes which transform them into victims."
While Modleski doesn't attack soap operas with the same vehemence that she brings to romance and romantic suspense, like many other feminist critics she doesn't approve of the programs' constant focus on domestic and personal crisis and their lack of social realism. Her approach is therefore negative. She argues that the soaps have patterns which "accord closely with the rhythms of women's work in the home." Interruptions abound, plot lines zig and zag, characters come and go. It's not, says Modleski in a particularly weak argument, unlike the life of the busy housewife, who therefore must find the "repetition, interruption and distraction (in the soaps) pleasurable."
If the Modleski book fails by way of having too narrow a focus, Endless Rapture, a defense of women's romantic fiction suffers from too wide a vision. The author, librarian and critic, Helen Hazen, has bitten off more than she can chew. In 184 pages, she takes on not only the feminist literary critics but almost the entire body of feminist thought. Sweeping generalizations abound: "this (the romantic plot) is a stock plot which no reader would ever want altered"; the male antidote to pornography is "strenuous exercise, hard work and strict mental discipline." Her language is often muddy and vague, her reasoning illogical. She defends rape fantasy, for example, by attempting to minimize real rape, stating that it is not as prevalent or pathological as such feminists as Susan Brownmiller have claimed. This argument forms the weakest point in a weak book. Feminists are, I think, to be thanked for raising society's consciousness about the seriousness of rape.
But Hazen's premise, that women should not be castigated for their choice of reading matter, is worthy, and she launches a well-aimed attack at heavily politicized feminist fiction as generally unreadable and unentertaining. She is successful at analyzing feminist argument, particularly in the field of pornography, and discussing the femininst thrust in academic studies. While she attempts to counter radical and angry feminism with moderation, she unfortunately undercuts her attempt with virulent attacks of her own. Mary Daly, author of the feminist tract Gyn-Ecology, she says, is a "self-proclaimed witch and, as she shows us once more, it is society's habit to drown witches."
Works of philosophical intent require impeccable language and logic or they fall into the slough of posturing and proselytizing. Both Loving With a Vengeance and Endless Rapture take weak positions and, like carnival targets, can be shot down easily. Women are not honored when their fantasies are examined with contempt or defended in a simplistic fashion, and the desire of many women to read romances and watch soap operas must be analyzed with tolerance and an insight that combines both sensitivity and understanding.