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.