Certainly, we’ve done worse. It’s hilarious and dismaying to look back at “The Rules,” the 1995 self-help book by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider that became a massive hit by selling what even they admitted was the old-fashioned art of playing hard-to-get as a surefire path to a terrific marriage.
The book was an obvious response to a marriage panic embodied in Newsweek’s infamous 1986 cover story “Too Late for Prince Charming?” “When you do ‘The Rules,’ you don’t have to worry about being abandoned, neglected, or ignored!” Fein and Schneider pledged in “All the Rules,” a collection of the original book and its sequel. The pair presented the husband hunt as a joyless slog, lecturing that “Simply being a better person won’t get you the man of your dreams. You have to do ‘The Rules.’ ”
But by 2003, even the most famous Rules Girl, Charlotte in “Sex and the City” , had given up the gospel. After having followed that philosophy into a dysfunctional marriage, Charlotte found true love with a man she pursued with a total lack of cool detachment. If American women weren’t quite prepared to emulate “Sex and the City” libertine Samantha Jones, Charlotte’s tale gave them permission to chuck “The Rules” and to pursue a wider range of desires.
Enter, eight years later, E L James’s trashy, moderately addictive “Fifty Shades” series. The books, which follow the travails of traumatized kinky billionaire Christian Grey and the feisty Anastasia Steele, started as “Twilight” fan fiction.
But James hit the zeitgeist in her own right, arriving at a moment when many women were reckoning with the gap between their sexual and romantic aspirations and realities. How were young women supposed to close the distance between campus hookup culture that seemed unsatisfying at best and violent at worst, and the sexual liberation that “Sex and the City” sold?
James’s solution was contract negotiation: specifically, the document Christian and Anastasia used to govern their sexual relationship roles as dominant and submissive. The novels and movies prompted a vogue for floggers and nipple clamps — and underneath it all, some useful new values.
Certainly, the #MeToo movement has prompted some unwarranted anxiety among young daters about the ethics of making the first move. But the conservatives who mock millennials for checking in on their sexual partners every step of the way miss James’s key insight: Communication and negotiation can be a way of ramping up passion, not dampening it.
If James’s novels treated domination and submission as a kind of trauma therapy, Regency romance, as embodied by “Bridgerton,” takes a lighter touch. In these stories, everyone knows that the rules that govern relationships between young, unmarried people are ridiculous. Chaperonage is an easily evaded farce. A single smooch shouldn’t actually require the swift dispatch of wedding invitations. And yet, both nominally following these conventions and pushing up against their limits turns out to be a lot of fun for the characters.
No wonder NBC is planning a Jane Austen-inspired dating show, and Netflix is looking to build a “Bridgerton”-inspired live events business. Obviously, there will be concessions to modern mores: No one’s calling for the resurrection of the London marriage market or the end of sex education.
Rather, the genre in its current form makes the case for restraint and formality as forms of play. Experiment with — and push up against the limits of — convention, “Bridgerton” argues, not because men need to be tricked into marriage a la “The Rules,” or because passion requires formal safeguards, per “Fifty Shades,” but because it’s hot. As pornography and soft-core content become more mainstream and ubiquitous, holding back is more intriguing than stripping down.
That argument seems even more persuasive after seeing “Zola,” director Janicza Bravo’s recent adaptation of A’Ziah King’s epic Twitter thread about two strippers on a work trip that turns into a sex-trafficking nightmare. “Zola” is set in an anarchic zone, where women think of themselves as liberated sexual capitalists. But they find out too late that they can’t always enforce the rules that are supposed to keep them safe.
Better to have some agreed-upon guardrails, especially if they can turn into something fun. After all, if you put on a corset, whether for a pole-dancing class or a Regency reenactment, you can always take it off later.