|Benedict and Beatrice battle it out in Much Ado about Nothing|
For example, Payton's boss, Ben, isn't quite comfortable with women:
She had begun to suspect that Ben—while never blatantly unprofessional—had a more difficult time getting along with women. It certainly wasn't an unlikely conclusion to draw. Law firms could be old-fashioned at times and unfortunately, female attorneys still had a bit of an 'old boy network' to contend with. (4)
If collegiality plays into decisions about who makes partner and who doesn't, then Ben's discomfort with Payton and other female associates places a barrier between them and advancement, particularly if Ben and others like him aren't aware of (or aren't willing to acknowledge) their own biases.
Sometimes Payton can be pragmatic about the everyday sexism she faces at the office, and in the courtroom:
A jury consultant she had worked with during a particularly tricky gender discrimination trial had told her that jurors—both men and women—responded more favorably to female lawyers who were attractive. While Payton found this to be sadly sexist, she accepted it as a fact nonetheless and thus made it a general rule to always put her best face forward, literally, at work. (2)
"The problem is, getting business is part of the business. It's like a ritual with these guys: 'Hey, how 'bout those Cubs'"—the bad male impersonation was back—'"let's play some golf, smoke some cigars. Here's my penis, there's yours—yep, they appear to be about the same size—okay, let's do some deals.'" (33).
Complaining about socializing may strike some as petty. But Payton knows that the way male lawyers can choose activities that exclude women and use them as an opportunity to forge relationships with other male lawyers, and with clients, gives them an advantage in a culture where the social and the business worlds are far from separate.
A true battle of the sexes comedy requires not only a heroine pointing out the failings of men, but a man who will take equal relish in doing the same of women. Payton's opponent at the law firm is one J. D. Jameson, cocky, privileged scion of a wealthy Chicago family. Ever since J.D. and Payton started in the same "class" at the firm, they've engaged in an undeclared competition, striving to prove to the firm, and to themselves, that each is better than the other. And the battle is edging into outright war now that the firm has announced only one of them will be allowed to make partner this year.
As in the classic battle of the sexes comedies, Payton and J. D. spend much of their time flinging sharp verbal zingers at one another. Many of those zingers take the form of gender-based insults:
" 'Forty Women to Watch Under 40,'" J. D. emphasized. "Tell me, Payton—is there a reason your gender finds it necessary to be so separatist? Afraid of a little competition from the opposite sex, perhaps?"
"If my gender hesitates to compete with yours, J. D., it's only because we're afraid to lower ourselves to your level," she replied sweetly. (11).
J.D. also refuses to acknowledge the simmering attraction that underlies his gender-based attacks on Payton, a failing he shares with Payton herself. James' story thus allows the reader to know more, or to know better, than its main characters do. Payton continually reminds herself that she's "above such petty nonsense" as competing with J. D., while J.D. reassures himself, "Not that it was a competition between them" whenever he finds himself gloating over his latest Payton-related triumph (28). It's funny to see J.D. and Payton both act in ways that give the blatant lie to such self-justifications. But their blindness also serves a second purpose: to suggest to readers that if our protagonists are mistaken about their own feelings, they might also be mistaken about their gender-based assertions.
This certainly proves true of J.D., who must gradually come to see the validity of Payton's gender critique over the course of the novel in order to become a worthy romance hero. Payton's change comes not in the form of political consciousness-raising, but in a personal recognition that ideological soul mates do not necessarily make the best life-mates.
Equal opportunity for women in the old boys' world of the law office is a goal feminism surely should embrace. But when that opportunity comes at the expense of other women, we might want to pause in our praise. Has James pulled a sly bait and switch, offering up gender equality in romance in exchange for readers' turning their own blind eye to larger, institutionally-based gender discrimination? The personal is political, but is the political no longer necessary in a world of personal gender equality?
What other romance novels can you think of that feature a politically-inflected battle of the sexes storyline? And how do the endings of those novels reinforce, or undermine, feminist goals?
• Much Ado About Nothing: Fandango
• Old Boys' Network: Cafe Press
• Battle of the Sexes Tug of War: Brittany Jones blog
• Wal-Mart cartoon: Walt Hangelsman, Newsday via Ottinger Firm
Next time on RNFF
RNFF Pet Peeve #2: Romance novels that diss feminism