Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Illustrated Guide to Female Power Fantasies: The Bella Rose

The Bella Rose, named after its two most well-known modern incarnations, is the woman who find herself in a position to choose between two male suitors. While she may struggle with issues unrelated to this choice, her main conflict as a character revolves around the fact that two men are interested in engaging in a monogamous romantic relationship with her (often marriage or something equally permanent) and circumstances internal as well as external complicate that choice.

In some cases the right choice will be clear to her personally but she will be externally pressured to go against her own wishes.

In most cases though, the right choice will be completely unclear to her and she struggles internally with the decision. To her, both suitors are attractive in equal measure but in different ways.

In historical fiction, this often manifests as the choice between a rich, safe man and a poor, adventurous man. When this devolves into caricature the rich man will be pompous, arrogant, sometimes abusive and disrespectful to her and those of perceived lower class. The poor man by contrast will be kind, adventurous, respectful and humble. The reverse, where the rich man is kind and caring and the poor man is arrogant and abusive, only very rarely occurs in female-centric Bella Rose fiction.

A (Severely Incomplete) History of the Bella Rose

Many stories dating back to the earliest recorded writing talk about love triangles between a woman and two male suitors. However, those are almost exclusively the stories of these men and their quest to "win" the woman in question or "steal" her back from the other suitor. Historically, we rarely (if ever) learn how the woman they compete over feels about them and their quest, and she is very much an object, a trophy for the men to win.

If not a trophy, she is presented as an instigator of conflict between two formerly friendly or brotherly men. The focus is not on her and we do not learn much about her internal desire at all. They do not represent the Bella Rose, whose story focuses on her internal struggle.

During and after the 14th century revival of the ideals of chivalry, the woman in these stories becomes a bit more of a human being. One of the earliest fictional incarnations of the prototypical Bella Rose in western fiction comes in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, specifically The Knight's Tale. While it is still very much a story of two men competing to win the prize that is Emily, quite literally so, the story does take time to focus on her internal struggle and her desires. We learn what Emily wants: she prays to remain unmarried, but if that's not possible, to be married to the man who loves her most. This is the core desire of the Bella Rose: to discover and know for herself which suitor loves her most and represents the right choice according to her own needs and desires.

Skipping ahead, perhaps the most famous of the Bella Roses in modern western fiction is Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice (and her watered down Hollywood cousin Bridget Jones.) This is a rare case of the rich man/poor man trope being subverted: the cold, rude man turns out to be a defrosting ice queen while the warm and adventurous man is revealed to have selfish intentions.

The more normal and accepted it became for young women to exercise an often very limited choice in her romantic life, and the more the idea of marriage and romance as a personal choice took hold, the more stories about the Bella Rose emerged. To the point where today, a lot of fiction targeted at girls and women is exclusively about this subset of the female romantic experience.

Traits of the Bella Rose

In modern fiction (that is to say, 21st century western fiction), the fictional Bella Rose character displays the following traits:

She is the protagonist or a plot-driving main character. In a long-running series, she is one of the main cast who shares roughly equal time. When the love triangle focuses more on the men pursuing her than her thoughts and feelings on this, she is not a Bella Rose. In other words, all Bella Roses are love interests, but not all love interests are Bella Roses.

She is a fairly passive participant in the romance, regardless of how active she is in the rest of the plot. The suitors come to her and most of her external actions are reactions to either their wooing or the actions of the various people surrounding her (both those trying to keep her apart from a certain suitor and those cheering her on.) Most if not all of her conflict comes from her internal struggle, as opposed to external action.

The love triangle needn't necessarily be the two male suitors pursuing her, although it is by far the most common. The other possibility, where she must choose between the man who is ready and willing to enter into a romantic relationship with her or the man who is practically (but not emotionally) unavailable in some way, also exists.

She is presented as being different or undesirable in some way. In historical fiction, this usually presents as her being too "modern," too outspoken, educated and confident. In a modern setting, this is usually reversed, with her being insecure, clumsy or otherwise not presenting as confident. This is especially true if the Bella Rose is a teenager.

She places a lot of importance on romantic love. The classical Bella Rose because she is expected to, the modern Bella Rose because she wants to. Either way, she is internally and/or externally motivated to pursue romantic love and/or marriage.

Everyone involved in the love triangle is heterosexual and monogamous, excluding any and all possibilities for a polyamorous relationship. Whatever happens, she must choose.

[Ed. note: insert picture of every Hollywood movie ever made]

Wilcard: The James Marsden Effect

James Marsden has never sucessfully pursued a woman in a movie. If James Marsden is cast as one of the suitors, that counts as a spoiler. The more kind and charming James Marsden becomes, the less likely he will be to end up with Bella Rose. Pop culture analysists are unclear on the reason for this curious trend, as pop culture analysis have conducted a survey of Me at the esteemed university of My Pants and have concluded that James Marsden is dreamy.

 It's one of cinema's most enduring mysteries.

The Power Fantasy

I brought up before that a woman's right to choose their own romantic partners is a very, very modern concept. So modern in fact that there are many cultures where this right is still opposed and negated somehow. If you're reading this in English, I'm going to go ahead and say your culture, probably.

I don't watch a lot of romantic movies and I have very little patience for romantic B-plots in movies and TV shows, but I've never seen a true Bella Rose not be happy in love by the time the time everything wraps up. The other suitor, the one who wasn't chosen, slinks off into the background or is done away with in some manner and she knows she has made the right choice, as evidences by a generous glob of Vaseline smeared on the lens. Bella Rose's choice is sacred. Not always to the characters, especially the rejected suitor, but definitely to the writer and audience. Once she knows her own heart and decides on what she wants, she gets it. If the rejected suitor is nice, he usually gets a secondary girl. If he's not nice, he usually gets dead. Either way, problem solved.

Bella Rose love triangles are clean. By the end, things are resolved. They are usually stories of soul-searching, of a woman coming into her own and learning to be at peace with her desires even if they frighten her. Even when the deck is stacked against her, everything works out in the end, when she finds clarity through circumstances and emotional honestly. Rich man, poor man stories especially are usually about her finding the courage to go against societal expectation and find the bravery to choose her own desires, instead of accepting what her desires should be. After her turning point, things usually work out for the best. Her disapproving family sees her joy and accepts the scruffy poor man, the rich suitor dies in a tragic monocle disaster or gets with the secondary female, if finances were a problem they are magically not anymore, and somehow Edward doesn't shatter Bella's pelvis even though that was, like, the main problem with them fucking before if I've read these books correctly, so what the hell? What the hell even, Edward?

The Good: Choice

The woman's power of choice is something we're still a bit uncomfortable with as a society. If you can't think of some examples where (part of) most cultures are uncomfortable with female autonomy in almost all areas of life, you're reading the wrong blog, and I have no idea how you're even doing that from Parallel Earth where everything isn't shitty.

One area where entertainment culture is perfectly alright with women exercising their right to choose however is romance. Romance movies are targeted at women so hard the genre has been nicknamed after the audience: chick flicks. No other genre does this, although I am totally on board with calling action movies dick flicks if you are.

The wish fulfillment seems to go further than the commonly stated speculation that what pulls women to this subset of the genre is the fantasy of being so desirable that multiple men would be pursuing her come hell or high water. And that's certainly part of it. But if that was all there was to it, the template wouldn't include the clean break and the inner turmoil. I've never seen a Bella Rose story where the woman looks at her options, picks one and gets on with it. It always includes anguish, doubt, heartbreak, compassion for both suitors, and a turning point where she gets in touch with her own true desire and is rewarded for making the choice. Bella Rose fiction is not about the woman's power to attract men with her siren song. The stories aren't about a confident, happy woman having a great time with her dreamy harem. It's about her struggle to face her own desires in a moment of crisis. It's the female equivalent of young Arthur finding the inner strength to pull the sword from the stone and Bruce Willis blowing up the asteroid. She finds her courage, she makes her choice, and she is rewarded for it. The Bella Rose story is better suited as a subset of the coming-of-age genre than it is of the "chick flick" genre.

At their best, Bella Rose stories aren't about the power of love. They are about the power of choice and the journey to the clarity and confidence needed to make that choice in good faith.

The Bad: Path Not Taken, Road So Far

A lot of stories ignore the hidden, unexplored option almost all Bella Rose characters have: how about neither?

I've actually got a lot of patience and goodwill regarding this debacle. If you set up the character to be looking for romance and lasting love, and the theme of your story is how she goes about finding it and what she discovers about herself, I'm not exactly peeved that the story doesn't end halfway through the second act when she decides fuck it and goes back to college instead. Not all female characters have to be Strong Independent Women saving the world or fighting the good fight. Sometimes women want to focus on romance instead, just like all non-aromantic human beings. It's as fine a character motivation as any other.

What does piss me off is that the genre... has become a genre, to start with, and that the genre is quarantined and generally regarded with derision. It itches me that this is the only genre where female protagonists thrive. I've written my bleeding heart out about chick flicks, so I'm not going to repeat myself here.

The path not taken with Bella Rose isn't "what if she just dumped both and started fresh?" The storyteller made a choice to tell us about a woman whose main motivation is being happy in a relationship, and that's a fine story to tell. The path not taken is "What if this wasn't the only female-driven story this culture could stomach?"

What is it about the female power of choice that pisses us off so much? All you Nice Guys flooding my comment section and inbox lately, here's your homework: ANSWER ME.

As for the road so far, I've noticed and mentioned the fairly modern switch in characterization of the Bella Rose herself. I'm not a literary scholar, but I have noticed that the main thing that attracts men to the Bella Rose is that she is different in some way. Rather than being the Exceptional Woman that other genres love, she is a misfit and an undesirable. In historical fiction of this nature (what little of it there is) going against the grain for women meant to be intelligent, witty, deeply passionate, cultured and headstrong. In modern iterations of this story, the exact opposite is true. For the most blatant example of this, compare Elizabeth Bennet to her modern incarnation, Bridget Jones. Same story, same suitors, but these women could not be more polar opposite if they tried.

Not being a sociologist either I can't talk with any real confidence about the implications of this trend, but I can't say I haven't noticed it either. If Bella Rose characters are an example of a woman who does not fit into her society, those implications might be more hopeful than is readily apparent.

I guess what I'm saying is that I'd hate for the Bella Rose fantasy to become prescriptive instead of descriptive.

The Ugly: Why Did the Nice Guys Attacked?

Here's an obvious concern: what if they're both skin-crawlingly horrible?

If there's one thing worse than the cultural insistence that fictional women only get to exercise clean choice in one particular female-coded arena, it's the cultural insistence that their options must be frankly appalling. I'm only bringing up Twilight because it's Twilight, and I'm sick of talking about Twilight. All I can say is that it was a ballsy move to give the rejected suitor a secondary woman in the form of a baby. A baby. Hah! Who saw that coming, right? Points for shock value if nothing else. There are some nightmarishly awkward Thanksgiving dinners in these people's future.

It illustrates the template to an amazing degree though. The break must be clean. The rejected suitor must find his own happiness in some way, if he doesn't outright die. This rule is so hardcoded that even a goddamn baby will do.

It's why I personally, and for all my talk about respecting chick flicks, can't exactly put my stamp of approval on this subset of the genre. It comes with the creepy unintended message that even if the options are terrible, a woman who wants love is either too irrational and emotional to see that her options are terrible, or that terrible options are good enough.

But the ugliest part of all of this is the heartache I get when I see missed opportunity. It pisses me off  that what is supposed to be a story about a girl coming into her own and exploring her desires and options and growing into a confident woman so often comes down to a dick-measuring contest between assholes.

I adore this clip, by the way. I really do. I imagine myself slowly freezing to death in agony and fearing for my life while my lovely suitors have a bitchy argument about who gets to cuddle with my near-corpse.

"For fuck's sake!" I would scream. "Edward, I am literally freezing my ass off! Maybe in light of my imminent death you could possibly kindly fuck off with your adolescent nice guy bullshit. And Jacob, fuck you for making my hypothermia about your dick. Now both of you take your goddamn clothes off and fight to the death. We'll cut open the loser and sleep in their innards."

That's a choice too.

Maybe we're slowly coming full circle. Maybe the age of the coming-of-age Bella Rose story of choice and soul-searching is past and we're slowly regressing back to stories about abstract woman-shaped harbingers of strife sowing the seeds of conflict between men. Maybe we're done with Elizabeth Bennet and Emily and we'll go back to more Helen of Troy, more Lillith, more Bella. As hopeful as I am about the social implications of the clumsy, awkward, shy Bella Rose, I can't say I'm not worried about this renewed focus on male anguish, rather than female choice. There is room for imperfect female heroines, but only as long as they're the hero of their own story.

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