A few weeks ago, I read a fantastic piece by Annie Zaidi on literary fascinations and the ‘Mr. Darcy’ syndrome that stubbornly persists amongst a vast majority of women, even 200 years after Jane Austen made him immortal in Pride and Prejudice. “What does he have, after all, except the luxury of not being a cad who must woo for money?” she asks. Does he really deserve a firebrand like Elizabeth? For someone who grew up in the library, nose buried in the classics, seeing a character as dearly loved as Mr. Darcy being brutally taken apart was heartbreaking. “Don’t tar him with the same brush as the Christian Greys and Edward Cullens of the literary world,” I wanted to holler at Annie, horrified, when she analysed why a certain kind of literary hero can still make his female readers swoon with desire.
When you’re in the throes of passion, lost in your literary lover’s world, it’s easy to ignore inconvenient concerns like logic and the fact that in real life, most of these lovers would, at best, need therapy (Darcy) or restraining orders, at worst (Grey). I have to admit, rather shamefacedly, that while I can scornfully dismiss the appeal of Grey, Cullen and the endless parade of Greek tycoons and Italian playboys in the Mills & Boon series, the truth is decidedly murkier as we edge towards the dysfunctional male protagonists that inhabit the classics—Heathcliff, Rhett Butler and Mr Knightly have all, at some point, set my heart aflutter and made my secret womanhood tingle. But just because my attractions are protected by the respectability afforded by nostalgia, are they really superior to the devotion that Cullen inspires amongst his younger readers?
At this point in my inner diatribe, I am reminded of what Germaine Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch, way back in 1970. “I cannot claim to be fully emancipated from the dream that some enormous man, say six foot six, heavily shouldered and so forth to match, will crush me to his tweeds, look down into my eyes and leave the taste of heaven or the scorch of his
passion on my waiting lips. For three weeks I was married to him.” Somehow, when you have Germaine Greer for company, it is easier to accept that deep down, smothered and gagged with logic, still exists a girl who is quite capable of losing her head over an entirely inappropriate and pig-headed man.
This realisation is quickly followed by a spot of appropriate hedging. “They’re just books… stories that allow us to escape into our fantasies and experience some guilty pleasure. It’s not that I’m a bad feminist”, I assure myself hastily. Intellectual posturing aside, I cannot escape the gaping, glaring hole in my own argument: even if it is about pure escapism, why is it that our fantasies are centred around regressive stereotypes about male and female sexuality?
If someone were to ask me to pen down the three most important things I look for in my Mr Forever, I’d write down kindness, gentleness and generosity of spirit. And yet, in that twilight zone between wakefulness and sleep, I invariably always want to jump the Supermans of the world, men who have little more to offer to the women in their lives other than saving services. Awake, I smother myself with logic and tell myself that I want the available and uncomplicated Mr Kent – but not really. I want to want him, but I don’t, not in the primal way I want to have a man comfortable with the idea of putting himself in the way of bodily harm for me.
Accepting and owning this part of myself makes me feel bad for the men that I (and so many of my friends) date and leave in bewildered confusion. Who is going to tell them that what we really, truly desire is a man who is a gentleman at dinner and an animal in bed? Men who will remember our important girlfriends’ names and birthdays, and charm them when they’re feeling low, and can be fully expected to ask us useless questions like, “Do you need a pillow?” and “Does that hurt?”, but who in reality will crush, bite and bruise us with a savagery that only borders on tenderness for the same reason that tigers claw trees – to brand us as theirs. Who’s going to tell the men that thanks to the Molotov cocktail of what we women have been taught to want, what is safe to want and what we actually want, they’re completely and irreversibly screwed?