W is for the Other Woman

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

It’s impossible to write a month’s worth of posts on feminism in romance and not bring up the trope of the Other Woman.

She’s as old as the genre itself, and appears in many of the canonical works. The ur-example is probably Pride and Prejudice‘s Caroline Bingley, snobbish and catty and redolent with poisonous politeness. We have two Other Women in Jane Eyre: lovely and self-important Blanche Ingram, and monstrous, pitiable Bertha Rochester. These figures have countless echoes in romance, from the mad villainess in Julie Garwood’s The Bride to Julia Quinn’s Cressida Cowper to all the immoral, cheating, heartless first wives that have stomped on the hearts of angsty alpha heroes since time immemorial.

Screenshots from both the 1995 and the 2005 versions of Pride and Prejudice, showing heroine Elizabeth Bennett and rival Caroline Bingley standing side by side for comparison.At her most basic level, the Other Woman functions as a way to generate conflict by means of female competition. She battles the heroine for the hero’s affections/penis/hand in marriage (a typical shallow take: this evo-psych video which honestly I only made it halfway through on account of some predictably vapid statements about “Harlequin romances”). The symbolic function of the Other Woman is to demonstrate the distance between the heroine and herself — to the left you will see a pair of screenshots of Elizabeth Bennet and Caroline Bingley (from the 2005 Pride and Prejudice above and the classic 1995 Firth-tacular version below). Note how both Carolines have dresses of finer material, showier jewelry, and more artful hairdos than the Elizabeths. Note the posture, as well: the Elizabeths have their arms at their sides, approachable and vulnerable. The Carolines have their arms crossed in front of them — right in front of their ladyparts, in fact! — showing that they are essentially closed off, distant, and cold. Keira Knightley’s waifish Elizabeth Bennet is contrasted with a womanly, sultry Caroline, while Jennifer Ehle’s bouncy, bosomy Elizabeth is set off by a thin, birdlike Caroline (always the feathers! Anna Chancellor, I love you).

To go a bit further, the Other Woman is frequently a representative of hegemonic power: in historicals she commonly has birth, wealth, and a gift for adroit social backstabbery. She has beauty and knows how to use it, or she is more sexually available (the word “overblown” often marks this, especially in older historicals). Contemporary Other Women (Cin from Bet Me, or C. C. from modern sitcom classic The Nanny) are often portrayed as overly ambitious and career-focused, which are fiction-code for a woman who is cold and self-interested. To them the hero is a prize, an item they intend to acquire as an accessory to a life lived successfully. The most common Other Woman archetype in contemporary romance is not the rival, however, but the ex: the cheating first wife, the neglectful mother of the hero’s kids, the too-desperate former girlfriend who can’t accept that it’s over. These figures are the mirror image of ideal womanhood as embodied by the heroine, who is invariably contrasted as faithful, nurturing, and sexually resistant.

Typically, the Other Woman has obviously put effort into the work of being beautiful: she has elegant clothing, wears visible makeup (rouge in Regencies, blood-red lipstick in contemporaries), carefully coiffed hair, and a figure on deliberate display (daring decollétage, fake boobs). She is using femininity as power, and it’s often presented as artificial in some way, particularly in contrast with the heroine’s innocence/earnestness/virginity. The heroine feels; the Other Woman calculates. The Other Woman is usually snobbish and elitist — she treats servants poorly, while the heroine is democratically friendly and un-self-important.

The difference between the two figures adds a moral aspect to the romance plot. The hero is not choosing between two women so much as he is choosing between two models of womanhood: the question needing an answer is not Which woman will he choose? but rather How should a woman be? The Other Woman’s inability to snare the hero is often read as a punishment — she shouldn’t have been so self-involved/aggressive/sexually available/shallow/etc. — as though the hero’s romantic choice constitutes a moral judgment, rather than a personal attraction or a choice about mutual compatibility. All the Other Woman’s social privilege crumbles beneath the heroine’s genuine affection and lack of agenda. Caroline Bingley’s pursuit of Darcy is rebuffed and shut down at every turn, while Elizabeth Bennet’s success with him is marked at first by a powerful (and deserved!) refusal of his suit. Later, when she does love him, she does not say so openly, but instead declares that she will not say she will not marry him — a positive expressed in a double negative, a deferral rather than a statement of desire. Darcy correctly interprets this, but it’s always struck me as a bit of a reach: I knew you loved me because you didn’t say you didn’t!

Unfortunately, the way this trope rewards the heroine who earns love/sex without actively seeking it tends to reinforce patriarchal narratives about women’s sexual expression and passivity. It’s the classic femininity trap: you have to be pretty but not work at it, thin but not too thin, have boobs but not big boobs, be available but not too available. Plus, you are expected to guard against the negative agency of brazen hussies without actually becoming one yourself — and if all your interactions with other women take the form of competition over men, it’s unlikely you’ll have time or energy for things like calling out sexism or dismantling systemic discrimination or figuring out how to articulate what you actually want instead of falling in line with a dominant cultural narrative about what you should want.

The Other Woman is a symptom: she is the deliberate embodiment of the negative aspects of femininity, a challenge to the heroine’s approved goodness. She destabilizes the text’s tight focus on the hero and heroine’s bond, and threatens that narrative throughline. She is a reminder, also, that there is a wider world outside two people’s romance. I’ve found it a useful exercise in feminist praxis to root for the Other Woman whenever I encounter her. So Caroline Bingley pursues Darcy obviously and aggressively — but what the hell else is she supposed to do with her life? Get a job? Oh, now I want to write about Caroline Bingley getting a job — perhaps a banker like Lady Sally Jersey. I’ve even thought about writing her love story (exciting discovery: someone already has!). Blanche Ingram is fairly uninteresting, but Jean Rhys has received great critical acclaim for telling Bertha Rochester’s story in her anti-colonial Wide Sargasso Sea. (Much as I kind of hate that book, I’m glad it exists. The response was necessary; I just get irritated with the prose style.) One of the greatest moves Margaret Mitchell makes in Gone With the Wind is that Scarlett basically is the Other Woman, a desirous, scheming mischief-maker contrasted with the sweetness, self-abnegation, and porcelain-fragile goodness of Melanie Wilkes. Tessa Dare’s Wanton Dairymaid trilogy also plays with this trope: the Other Woman of the first book is the heroine of the second, and neither she nor the first book’s heroine end up with the man they’re rivals for. (Side note: the plot structure of that trilogy is one of my favorite things ever, and I really need to reread it.)

It’s easy to reduce conflicts between women to catfights and an inborn female viciousness — but this not only minimizes women individually, but leaves no room to discuss the meaningful divisions in women’s agendas that shape our daily lives and stories. In particular, I’m thinking of the the well-documented conflicts within feminism — not only the movement’s long history of white supremacy, which spurred black women to create and foster womanism, but also feminism’s history with class bias, which privileges discussion of the problems of white upper- and middle-class women (stay-at-home-mothers a la Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique) over issues facing working- and lower-class women (domestic service workers, sex workers, immigrant women, etc.), to say nothing of the specific challenges faced by gay women and trans women and disabled women. These disagreements are important and worthy of debate, but the figure of the Other Woman and the pervasive specter of Cattiness often serves to shut down otherwise useful conversations. We are afraid to play into the stereotype, so we keep silent and let harmful things slide (or are urged to do so in the name of solidarity). It reminds me of the way we minimize feminine-coded activities in the name of equality: women are just as good as men, we’ll say, because we like whiskey and climbing trees and hunting and being physically strong. And by saying that we’ve ceded the ground that masculine-coded things are good and admirable and feminine-coded things are backward and inferior. We’ve mistaken the limits of patriarchy (for instance, the idea that women do/should wear pink) for the marks of patriarchy (feminism means never wearing pink!). With the Other Woman, the defensiveness is identical: Don’t punish us, the Good Women, the heroines — we’re Not Like Her at all.

The Other Woman is a symptom of patriarchy, but she is also a victim of it. She too must be humanized and defended. Because as soon as we start making a list of Women We Don’t Need To Listen To, Women We Can Discard, Women Who Are Less Human — we all lose.

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Justine Larbalestier unpacks the idea of Scarlett O’Hara as a feminist icon/feminist target in a truly incisive piece.

Last year Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar received the National Book Critics Circle’s Lifetime Achievement Award, in no small part for their masterwork The Madwoman in the Attic. Maureen Corrigan at NPR describes the revolution inspired by this book and its continuing relevance.

Here is an old but excellent post from The Book Riot about the “for women, by women” tagline used to defend romance and why it ought to be retired. I’m not sure I entirely agree, but it’s a debate I’m really eager to participate in!

The Toast once again knocks it out of the damn park with Suffragettes Who Sucked: White Supremacy and Women’s Rights.

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12 thoughts on “W is for the Other Woman

  1. Am still enjoying this series so much, and will be sad when it ends. But maybe I can convince you to follow it up with a series reviewing The Bachelor tv programme! 😉

  2. I’m a brand-new romance reader, and picked up Jeannie Lin’s The Dragon and the Pearl, because a great way to convince myself, as a new romance reader, that I am Not Just Reading Romance is to pick books with novel settings. That lets me protect myself with the veneer of some kind of sociological research (note that I’m not saying that’s what your series here is! Just what I’ve been doing).

    And I’m enjoying it, and feeling uncomfortable about it, because it includes tropes like the Other Woman trope. The main character discovers her particular suffering alpha had his marriage plans drawn up short by a resistant intended, who left him with a scar on his face. It also does a bunch of stuff with the whole Beauty-and-the-Beast kidnapping trope and with the worth of virginity and with being the first to understand the soft underbelly of a hero, being polite to the servants who all love her, etc. Yet I think it’s one of those where the Other Woman is the hero of another novel (the prequel, Butterfly Swords), but it’s odd to feel like I have to know that (have metatextual knowlege) to know that the Other Woman is *not* *just* the Other Woman.

    I’m not done with the book yet. Maybe there’s more to come that will play with tropes more.

    Rambling, but reading about the Other Woman is a particularly odd experience for me because I’m bi, and my life experiences mean I can see the potential for narratives where a f/m romance has the Other Woman except that Other Woman was the ‘wrong one’ for the *woman,* not the man. And boy can that go ungraceful and horrible places fast. I’d be interested in reading a book that made that somehow *work* and honor everyone, though.

  3. First, this series is amazing. So much thought is in this post, I appreciate it so much, so thank you. Side note, I read a Jeannie Lin book as the commenter above me mentioned. I think she does well taking some expected romance tropes and fleshing them out. Plus the historical China settings are interesting and offer something different than the scads of white lady Regencies 🙂

    I don’t mind a trope so long as a writer can do something new with it. I typically don’t like when women are pitted against each other in books or film unless the “other” woman has her own dynamic story as well. Two strong women sure, but not one obvious “good” character and a really trite, obvious “bad” girl (who usually is slutty, which is another tired trope). As long as we keep pushing those boundaries and asking for more, I think that’s a good thing to see in fiction.

  4. There’s definitely some older romances I’ve read where I’ve thought it would be more fun if the Other Woman and the heroine both ditched the hero and ran off together — and as you’ve pointed out, the option of including bisexual characters tends to change the shape of a lot of standard romances tropes, sometimes for the better but sometimes not. I love Jeannie Lin’s books, but I haven’t read all of them yet — I tend to skip around a lot in an author’s backlist. She’s an author I’d trust to do something interesting, even if the initial trope wasn’t my favorite. Her later series includes courtesans as heroines, so the virginity thing is much less of an issue there.

    Congratulations on being a new romance reader! It’s a difficult place to be. You’re going to find some duds before you figure out how best to find what you like (romance is chock-full of codes and clues for those in the know, but it’s hard for a novice who hasn’t learned the lingo yet). Luckily, everyone will be thrilled to give you recommendations and suggestions for where to go next! We’re an enthusiastic bunch that way. Let me know if you’re looking for something in particular, and I’ll try to help! 🙂

  5. Precisely! That’s one of the things I loved about Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls (fantasy romance, but still romance I think, and a Hugo winner to boot): there’s plenty of female characters, and some of them are working against the heroine, and yet they’re very human and real.

  6. Thank you for the congratulations!

    I do think I’ll give at least one more of Lin’s a try. I’m about 2/3rds through the current one, and it’s a fast enough read, investing in trying one of her later novels in the future should be easy to do.

    I had about a decade-long run with fandom, and, having come to romance after all of that time spent learning what was a drabble, what non-con meant (ah, the days when I thought it meant non-confrontational), and that high school AUs are not my thing but boy do they float other people’s boats, it’s interesting to see the parallels in culture and internal tagging/flagging/labeling. I don’t feel like I’ll be ‘at home’ in romance right away, but maybe quicker than people without that background.

    And I know what you mean about wanting heroines to run away with each other. As an ex-Doctor-Who watcher, I had my moments where I wanted companions to snatch the TARDIS and run off together and do their own thing.

    You’ve reviewed several books already that sound very interesting. I’ve been eying Ascension for some time, even before you reviewed it, and your review of Her Land Her Love caught me with its mention of how it handles languages (I do backflips for languages). I’m most interested in finding books where the hero is more a wiry, goofy thief or acrobat type than a Chivalrous Hunk of Tortured Man. Someone smaller and more playful and talk-or-sneak-his-way-out-of-trouble. Either that, or someone who’s Giles from BtVS 😉 And also anything that handles the ins and outs of bisexuality with grace, and that doesn’t end with what I think of as a magical menage (where three characters are all suddenly completely comfortable with polyamory, often despite a lack of poly upbringing, social support, or role models). The romantic suspense novel you reviewed here sounding promising, though I’d prefer one where the characters, and not the plot, did the final choosing of who’s with who. Or anything that wasn’t YA and dealt with the untidiness and fluidity of working out sexual orientation; adult novels seem more to go for the ‘Out for You’ feel. There’s this sense that someone’s just been repressing a ‘true’ side of themselves, which makes narratives tidy (anything that supports the ‘true’ identity must be ‘good’/’right’), but I find it much more satisfying and true-to-life when, instead, someone struggles with the pros/cons and conflicted feelings of having an identity that shifts and wants something from many different ‘camps.’

    Those aren’t complicated requests or anything! I can certainly see why so many romance authors get their start when they say, “I want a book but I can’t find it, so I’ll create it myself.” I know what I want, but I haven’t seen it yet.

  7. @Calque – I hear you. I’m a bi woman and long time romance reader – I’m kind of racking my brains for for suggestions to give you, because romance doesn’t really do bisexuality. LA Witt writes some m/m with matter of factly bi heroes – Conduct Unbecoming is the title that comes immediately to mind. I have a few f/f romances on my tbr pile that have bi women as heroines, but I haven’t read them yet. The only m/f with a bi MC that I know of is Butterfly Tattoo by Deidre Knight (and I’m not sure I totally count that as a bi romance, because while other people labeled him bi, the hero never claimed it himself – and he was closeted at work about his late husband, which pushed my buttons.)

    Amanda Quick’s Deception plays with hetero-normative expectations in a side plot involving the hero’s ex-fiance (it’s not a huge part of the story but I thought it was pretty well done).

    As for wirey, goofy thiefs, have you read Heart of Steel by Meljean Brook? Archimedes Fox isn’t exactly a thief, but he’s definitely a wirey trickster hero.

  8. @Cleo Closeted-at-work would push my buttons, too. If I’m reading fiction, I want the great part of fiction–the part where people are able to find solutions to things that are difficult in real life, like the pressure to be closeted (included the internal closets of certain relationships being ‘real’ or ‘not real,’ ‘the one’ or not ‘the one’). In an ideal fiction, for me, the leads would be able to fully own and declare their past and present relationships by the book’s close (without it also seeming like a magic social handwave has occurred. A tall order, I know).

    I’ve heard of Brooks. I’ll take a look at Heart of Steel; I’m all for woman mercenary captains.

    I had some good luck, with f/f stories, with the Lesbian Steampunk anthologies. There are some real clunkers, but there are also a few with more depth.

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