The Fallen Woman

‘I push open the door and stumble through, tripping over my own feet and falling head first into the office.

Double crap – me and my two left feet! I am on my hands and knees in the doorway to Mr Grey’s office, and gentle hands are around me helping me stand. I am so embarrassed, damn my clumsiness. I have to steel myself to glance up. Holy cow – he’s so young.’

– E L James, Fifty Shades of Grey

I didn’t get that worked up when Ana fell at the start of FSoG. According to a friend, that was as it should be.

‘Bella is clumsy in Twilight. That’s the whole point.’

Maybe it is the whole point of Twilight. I don’t know. I haven’t read/seen it. What I do know, though, is that Ana’s clumsiness is completely fucking irrelevant to Fifty Shades.

I’m not sure that E L James thinks it is, however. I think E L James thinks it might be how Christian spots that Ana would make a good sub. After all, there’s lots about BDSM that confuses E L James – the fact that it’s not born out of a disturbed childhood, the fact that the love of a good woman can’t ‘cure’ somebody of it, and the way no fucking helicopter can make up for the fact that nowhere in the book does Ana suggest she might have submissive leanings.

Anyway. I wasn’t that bothered at the time because it was just a book. Not a book that had sold millions of copies. Not a book that had changed the landscape of erotica. Just a book. And then this happened:

He sank into an elegant crouch in front of me. Hit with all that exquisite masculinity at eye level, I could only stare. Stunned.

Then something shifted in the air between us.

As he stared back, he altered … as if a shield slid away from his eye, revealing a scorching force of will that sucked the air from my lungs. The intense magnetism he exuded grew in strength, becoming a near-tangible impression of vibrant and unrelenting power.

Reacting purely on instinct, I shifted backward. And sprawled flat on my ass.

– Sylvia Day, Bared to You

I’m a big believer in the power of chemistry. But I can honestly say I’ve never sprawled on my ass due to a guy’s ‘elegant crouch.’

I did a bit of Google research earlier this year, when I first started thinking about this. Surely, I reasoned, women falling must be an established trope in romantic literature. I couldn’t find anything. And then it occurred to me that maybe falling/injury is a modern update of this:

“MY DEAREST LIZZY,—

“I find myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose, is to be imputed to my getting wet through yesterday. My kind friends will not hear of my returning till I am better. They insist also on my seeing Mr. Jones—therefore do not be alarmed if you should hear of his having been to me—and, excepting a sore throat and headache, there is not much the matter with me.—Yours, etc.”

“Well, my dear,” said Mr. Bennet, when Elizabeth had read the note aloud, “if your daughter should have a dangerous fit of illness—if she should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Mr. Bingley, and under your orders.”

– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Romance relies on a weak heroine almost as much as it does an alpha hero. In the past, illness was enough to create a situation in which the hero and heroine are thrown together. These days, it’s harder to convince the average reader that a woman ‘needs’ a man, and so romance does everything in its power to recreate that situation of old. There are various approaches – the heroine can be pregnant, sick, young, poor or just plain clumsy. Because if she doesn’t need rescuing, the author is (ostensibly) breaking the pact they have with the reader.

I’m a cynic, but I was a sucker for Mills & Boon in the past. I loved these women who needed saving so much, I didn’t just read them; I made some shoddy attempts at writing them, too:

He knelt beside her and kissed her gently. She opened her eyes and gave him a sleepy smile. “Bedtime?” he asked.

She nodded, but made no attempt to move. He stood up and gathered her into his arms. She kicked off her stilettos and snuggled up against his chest. He handed her the warm mug, and headed for the stairs.

In their bedroom, he sat down on the edge of the bed and set about undressing her. He slid the straps of her satin dress down and placed her briefly on her feet so that she could step out of it. He unsnapped her suspender belt, removed her stockings and unclipped her bra. As he pulled her white cotton nightdress over her head, she gave a contented sigh, still half asleep. He pulled back the duvet and laid her down.

I think I excelled myself with that particular piece (in my defence, I was eighteen when I wrote it). The FMC has a minor case of being a bit tired, but it affects her so badly that she gets carried upstairs by the hero, undressed by him, and even ‘laid down.’ She couldn’t be more passive if she tried.

Looking back, it wasn’t the passivity that attracted me to writing these kind of women. It was the bodies that they’d need for these kind of scenes even to work. Women who get carried up to bed must naturally be willowy and feather-like. Not only that, I think I thought they were also easy women – if you could simply scoop a woman up and literally put her exactly where you wanted her to be, she wasn’t exactly going to cause you many other problems. And god, I wanted to be that kind of girl.

Luckily, I’ve grown out of that. A bit, anyway. But I’m still writing women who fall.

Falling is seriously grim. I know that not only from my own extensive experience, but also because I’m hyper-alert to other people falling. When I did the Moonwalk back in May, I witnessed a horrific one – an elderly lady tripped over a tree root and gained momentum as she attempted to right herself. Just as I thought she’d regained her balance, she went absolutely flying. And the smack of body hitting concrete, of other people’s gasps, they bring back every fall I’ve ever suffered. I hate seeing it almost as much as I hate doing it.

So we have to stop writing falls as though they’re romantic. They’re not. They’re painful, humiliating, scary. But those things can all be sexy. There’s one particular scene that’s stuck with me from Unfaithful with Richard Gere and Diane Lane, where she falls and we see the aftermath as a series of vignettes designed to foreshadow the risks and pain inherent in the affair she’s embarking on. She eases her tights away from an oozing graze. There’s a flashback to a boiling kettle hissing as she does. It’s all a bit predictable, perhaps, but it turned me on.

I’m fascinated by cuts, grazes, bruises. And not just the ones caused by kink, either. Watching skin knit back together, or blood bead, waiting to spill. The stickiness of it as it clots. The metallic, iron-rich taste of it. I completely accept that these things won’t work for everyone, though. They’re fairly dark, I guess.

Essentially I feel much the same about falling as I do about disability. We need to write it, to see it in the media, to acknowledge that it’s part of many people’s reality. It’s not kooky, or adorable, or cute. What it could be though, if we wrote it well, is really, really fucking hot.

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Wicked Wednesday: Crumpled

She’s lying in the surf, unexpectedly. Or perhaps not so unexpectedly.

This has happened many times before. One minute, she’s negotiating her way across steeply banked rocks into the shallows, the next she’s an untidy heap in the water. Usually, it’s a particularly vicious wave that takes her down; today a small child on an inflatable has crashed into her legs and toppled her.

And the whole time, he’s standing there, watching.

It’s moved fast. They’ve only been together three months, and the holiday’s been planned for two. Summer was a bad time for it to start – she’s more vulnerable from June to September.

It sounds ridiculous when she thinks of it that way, but it’s true. On their first date, he suggested a walk. She was glad he saw that as an option, but fuck, she agonised over shoes for hours. Flat sandals make her tired, and wedges are too much of a risk. Trainers would make the most sense, but she knows they do her no favours. She’s seen people who’ve never batted an eyelid when she’s wearing sturdy boots look down curiously when she’s wearing trainers. They make her ankle lazy. She wears the wedges. She’s nothing if not stubborn.

On the beach, he helps her up; holds her hand as they move into deeper water. She wishes she could tell him some of this stuff.

Every time she falls, she tries to think of crumpled things that she loves. There are lots. Slept-in beds, still warm. The Sunday papers, read from cover to cover over a lazy breakfast, or a few days later, screwed up tighter and nestled into a pile of kindling, waiting for someone to strike a match. Sweet wrappers. A surprise £20 note in the pocket of her jeans. Crunchy, orange leaves in autumn.

The holiday ends, as does the summer. Shortly after, he moves in, and adds new crumpledness to her life. His shirts on the ironing pile. Condoms wrapped in screwed up tissue in the bathroom bin. And a receipt that she finds in the hallway one morning when she’s tidying. There’s something written on the back, and she flattens it carefully so she can make out the words. In his sloping, squished up handwriting, he has written

Will you marry me?

Marry me?

I love you.

Any of those would do.

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Is it me?

I don’t think I’m massively out of touch with the world, nor do I think I’m particularly romantic, but recently a few things have caused me to call my views on monogamy and love.

I’ve never dated in the traditional sense of the word – met someone online, through a friend, at work – and seen that blossom gradually into a relationship, so I don’t know at what point most couples discuss the subject of exclusivity. I’d imagine, and hope, that it happens once they start to like each enough that they’d rather spend time with one another than anyone else who might be on the dating horizon. That they agree to be monogamous because, y’know, they care about each other. And even then, it confuses me a bit that it requires a full conversation, or even a discussion – surely you just need to establish that you’re both similarly into each other, and that’s that?

I can see that, when it comes to discussing monogamy with someone you’ve been sleeping with on and off for several years, the situation becomes a little more complex. The fact that the existing arrangement has carried on for so long suggests that both parties find it largely satisfactory. Except, of course, if you’re having to have a conversation about a potentially different set up, it suggests one of you maybe isn’t quite as happy with the arrangement as they used to be.

When it comes to my own life, if I’m having that conversation, it means I’m really not happy with the old arrangement. I’ll avoid difficult conversations at all costs – in fact I’ve fucked someone in the Gents at his place of work in order to stall the conversation for as long as possible. The reason for this is simple: even when we’re just fucking on and off, I’m already being faithful – I have neither the desire nor the emotional capacity to handle sleeping with more than one guy at a time.

So that’s where I behave badly – if you know a conversation needs to be had, shying away from it is counterproductive and unfair on the other person, who may also have had to psych themselves up for this chat. However, I’m shying away because I don’t understand what there is to discuss. If I’ve been sleeping with you for a while, and the subject of monogamy comes up, I think only the following three paths are possible:

1) Ideally, it won’t have been me who brought the subject up in the first place. I already have feelings for you, but I haven’t said anything because I’m a complete scaredey-cat and have been doing my utmost to hide the way I feel (no, this story isn’t very ‘girlpower’). One day you realise that you have feelings for me and that these feelings are important enough to warrant us being in an exclusive relationship. It may not work out, but the mutual affection is great enough for it to be definitely worth a try.

2) I somehow find the guts/something pushes me (far more likely) into admitting that I have feelings for you and that I’m no longer happy to sleep with you if you’re also sleeping with other women. I tell you this, and you care about me enough to want to try being in an exclusive relationship with me. It may not work out, but the mutual affection is great enough for it to be definitely worth a try.

3) I somehow find the guts/something pushes me (far more likely) into admitting that I have feelings for you and that I’m no longer happy to sleep with you if you’re also sleeping with other women. I tell you this, and you say  that you’re sorry, but while you like me and enjoy the sex, you’re not interested in an actual relationship with me. Sure, I’m sad and a little bit hurt, but with time I’ll get over it and find a guy who does like me enough to want the same things I do.

Do you see why I don’t think there’s a full-on discussion in any of these scenarios? To me, monogamy is black and white – you either like me enough to give it a go, or you don’t. Yes, there’ll need to be conversations about the ins and outs of a monogamous relationship: how often we see each other, if/when we get to meet each other’s friends etc. etc., but the actual monogamy bit is much more clear cut.

Because sadly, I think that if, like me, you avoid conversations you’d rather not have, from time to time people will exploit that. I might have told a guy that I’d rather he no longer slept with other women, but if I keep putting off actually talking about it, the word can keep cropping up and yet nothing ever changes: I’m still sad and jealous as hell that he’s still fucking other people, and he too gets to carry on exactly the same way he did before.

The above situation has happened to me, and it’s made me more cynical about men than I used to be, something which in the past I wouldn’t have thought possible. Now I think they’ll all play on my unwillingness to talk about commitment, and I’ll keep fucking them nonetheless – trapped between fear of the conversation on one side and the fear of them no longer being in my life on the other.

And I do think there’s a romance side to it, too. No one wants exclusivity to become a business deal to be wrangled out with both parties trying to concede as little as they possibly can. I don’t want you to be faithful to me because you feel you have to be, I want you to be faithful because you want to be – because your feelings have developed to the point where you’re happy to give up other girls, not resentful about it.

So what do you think? Do I need to man up and tackle the issue of monogamy head on or am I right that the desire for monogamy comes from the heart, not the head, and that it doesn’t therefore need a discussion at all?