Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Charlotte Phenomenon

My favorite doctor on Private Practice -- you know, the spin-off from Grey's Anatomy that everyone hates -- is Charlotte, the "steel magnolia" sex queen played by KaDee Strickland.  Personally, I think she's wasted on Cooper, and my sympathies are entirely on her side in their recent break-up.  So what if she didn't tell him she had been married before.  She's entitled to some privacy, and she can reveal the totality of her history when she's ready.  If that piddling detail is enough to derail their romance, then he's a fool and doesn't deserve her.

One of the many things that makes Charlotte so great is that she is unapologetically sexual.  She's creative in bed, versatile and enthusiastic.  She's perfect for Cooper, who's frankly stalled in adolescence and is this close to being a sex addict.  She's so good at sex that she's established a practice dealing with sexual performance and dysfunction.  Oh, and she can renovate their bathroom, too.




Charlotte is precisely the character I think of when I read posts on Dear Author and elsewhere about how romance novels need more sexually confident women.  Damn straight they do, and as we already have some pretty classic (and misleading) sexual tropes in romance (the simultaneous orgasm comes, you will forgive the expression, to mind), why not start introducing more women like Charlotte?  She has never, and will never, apologize for being sexually experienced and proficient.  Nor should she.

[Honest, if you haven't seen Private Practice, tape a couple episodes and watch just for KaDee Strickland's character.  Although, personally I love it all.  It's medical ethics with tears & tissues.]

I know I've given the impression of not favoring this movement to get Romance Fiction women (specifically, but not exclusively, heroines) to be more like Real Life women.  But that's not my position.  Here's what I believe:
  1. Yes, Romance Fiction women should be more like Real Life Women.  I don't take a position on what percentage of RF women need to be more like Charlotte (my exemplar for the sexually experienced and unapologetic female), but I completely agree that more women in romance novels should be more like Charlotte.

  2. Each romance novel should be judged on its own merits.  If it has a virgin heroine but is otherwise a good romance, then I'll all for that author's choice to make her heroine a virgin.  There are virgin women in Real Life -- not very many by the time they're old enough to merit an HEA, but a few -- and maybe this is a book about one of those very few women.  But understand -- to my mind, the author of a virgin heroine romance has a tougher hill to climb to convince me that her heroine is sensible, smart, autonomous, etc., particularly as virginity well into one's 20s seems counter-intuitive.

  3. Real Life women come in a range of sexual identities, so it's not unreasonable for Romance Fiction women to also come in a range.  It's a bell-shaped curve of sorts: the virgins at one end (statistically infrequent but not the null set) and Charlotte at the other end.  I consider Charlotte to be a narrow-end type simply because she is so proficient and experienced; I don't think many RL or RF women own a black latex cat suit.

  4. Historical fiction doesn't operate by the same rules as contemporary romances.  Sorry, but it's true.  In Real Life, 19th century women were almost all economically dependent on a man (father, brother, uncle, husband); the few professions for women were class specific (so even in poverty, a genteel woman would not have been able to get a job as a domestic servant) or outside the cultural norm (actress, opera dancer, etc.), and virginity -- or rather the appearance of complete sexual propriety -- was a fundamental element of a young woman's value as a spouse and mother.  Once she'd married, the rules changed. 

    Authors of historical romances must then juggle the degree of historical accuracy, the degree of modern cultural sensibilities, and the need for internal consistency that every romance novel has.  One reason Loretta Chase's Don't Tempt Me didn't bother me is that she found a historically accurate quirk (the tendency of certain Englishmen and women to travel to foreign parts) and exploited that to come up with a different sort of heroine.  If Zoe had been deflowered in the harem, that loss of value might have been the end of her hopes for a Society marriage.  But instead, she's both a Charlotte and a virgin!  How novel, and yes, how unbelievable in any statistical sense -- but Chase managed to win me over, so Rule #2 was satisfied.  I would say the same about every historical romance where a) the heroine is a virgin, b) isn't a virgin, c) is a mistress/courtesan/paid sex worker, d) in love with a Duke of Slut, or e) in love with a Duke of Discretion: They have to work as romances and to the extent the author has deviated from the cultural norms of the 19th century, she'd better make it work.

  5. Finally -- and this is where I have gotten in trouble -- there has to be a reason why we don't get enough Charlottes in our romances.  (As opposed to sheer random chance.)  Here are the reasons I can think of, any or all of which may be at work:
  • Authors aren't writing Charlotte romances so that even if publishers wanted more Charlotte romances, they aren't getting the manuscripts to reflect that.

  • Authors are writing Charlotte romances but they get rejected because publishers (or big box store reps, or whoever) don't want Charlotte romances.

  • Authors have written Charlotte romances that got published, but readers haven't bought them in sufficient numbers to push publishers to seek out more Charlotte romances.
I don't know which of those factors is at work here, but I do know that authors who want to read more Charlotte romances should write books with Charlottes in them.

It was with high hopes, then, that I read First Kiss by Marilyn Pappano.  Her heroine, Holly, is presented as being more like a guy when it comes to sex: she has serial affairs, she doesn't want anything but sex from the men she sleeps with, and she's definitely good in bed.  But she's no Charlotte, and I'll tell you why.

First off, let me say I liked everything about this book except for the first 135 pages, and the two angels.  Other than those minor details, it was a great read.  On page 136, the hero, Tom Flynn, asks Holly to marry him.  He's not in love with her; she's not in love with him.  Her counter-offer (he's a corporate lawyer so it's all about the deal for him) is no thanks to the marriage, but she would love to have sex.  He declines that offer, and counters with no sex, no marriage (for now) and how about if they date.  Get to know each other.  What makes this fun is that neither of them know how to date, where dating is defined as conversation and a nice meal but no sex.

What keeps Holly from being a Charlotte is her motivation for being so sexually active.  Turns out she has daddy issues, and lost her virginity as a teenager (and didn't enjoy the sex), then "did it" again and again with different guys.  Boys rejected her as being "easy."  She doesn't value herself as a result.  Trust me -- it's all in there.  She's not a Charlotte, she's a woman who has a legitimate reason to find it hard to trust, so she figures any man who will sleep with her will also leave her.  She rejects Tom's marriage proposals over and over until finally he gets it that this deal isn't happening.

It's actually got a nice emo-porn ending, and on balance I quite liked the book.  (Too bad about the first third, which dragged so badly I really despaired of ever finishing it.)  So, other than my reservations, it passes my Rule #2: it holds up on its own terms.  Pappano wanted to write a book about a sexually experienced woman who hadn't yet figured out that having great sex isn't the same as making love.  When she learns to love, the sex is better, yes, but the context has completely changed -- and, for the first time, when the guy leaves she's devastated.

Just a word on the angels:  No.  These characters were smart enough to get there on their own.  Supernatural interference shouldn't be necessary.

I'm still looking for good Charlotte contemporary romances.  Arm Candy by Jo Leigh had a sexually confident heroine but it didn't satisfy my Rule #2, as it just wasn't very romantic: All the emotional stuff was shoehorned into the final ten pages or so.  It's possible I've already read and loved a Charlotte romance but didn't recognize it as such at the time.  Two candidates come to mind:  Linda Howard's To Die For, which I know I loved -- enough to lend it to a non-romance reader who doubtless donated it to charity; time to buy it again! --  Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Ain't She Sweet.  I am actively soliciting suggestions for more titles; leave a comment please.

And yes, I have a Charlotte in mind for a future book I want to write.  I'd better obey my own Rule #2!

21 comments:

  1. I find Charlotte the most irritating character on that show and that is largely down to the actress who plays her. She has one of the most annoying voices on TV. Otherwise a good show.

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  2. Ann -- I know what you mean about the accent. I've gotten used to it. I actually think Strickland is a very good actress; the voice (her genuine accent) probably costs her roles. Her acting on PP is right up there with the more famous actresses: Amy Brenneman, Audra McDonald & Kate Walsh. And clearly Charlotte was going to be a minor secondary character -- I think Strickland wowed everyone and won the expanded role.

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  3. Cards on the table: I haven't ever seen this show. So here's my first problem: I kept thinking about the Charlotte in Sex and the City. LOL ... but the woman you described sounded great and even better was your review of the Pappano book. There's a famous Nora Roberts: "Born in Fire": she will not marry him and he stops having sex with her until she capitulates. VERY sexy book!!!

    And I can barely imagine a Charlotte equivalent in historicals ... maybe after marriage? Like the 2nd last Carlyle I just read? "Tempted All Night"? Because even with all the sexorating before marriage in historicals, the name of the game in historicals, for the most part -- unpaid-for-sex that is believable -- is often after the wedding day (I'm thinking "Devil's Bride" by Stephanie Laurens!).

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  4. Most of the "Charlotte" characters I've read have been in erotica rather than romance.

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  5. Just discovered your site, very nice. However I do have a question... How exactly is a simultaneous orgasm a misleading sexual trope in romance?

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  6. Janet -- I think there would be a way to write a Charlotte historical novel. Oh, hypothetically, the heroine is our snowflake virgin, but having had the run of her father's (the absent nobleman) library, she has a rather broad-based education regarding sex. Marriage mart leads to sparks with hero (hmm, let's make him discreet but still one of those okay-to-keep-your-mistress-on-the-side sort of aristocrats), so they marry because a) why not, and b) they're both under the influence of an irresistible tractor-beam of inchoate attraction. But he thinks she's an insipid snowflake virgin, so he figures he'll bed her sufficiently often to lose interest while also getting her preggers. That way, she's immured in the country and he's back to the mistress.

    Only, snowflake here is a Charlotte -- and insipid is the last thing she turns out to be in the bedroom. So now he's got a couple problems: he's attracted to her, and sees how attractive she is, so what if other schmoes see it too; he's not spending as much time (or any time) with the mistress, which is not how he imagined marriage to be; and finally, how'd she get so knowledgeable. (Combination of reading Ovid, etc., with chatty housemaids...it could be sufficient education to a lively mind.)

    Wow -- I should write that book.

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  7. Victoria -- I know what you mean, and I think that's actually one of the issues with Charlottes. Because they value sexual experiences, they presumably value the sexual component in relationships. I think erotica is great, because it is fun for erotia heroines to experience great sex, but when you're thinking about sex, you're not so much feeling romantic. In my opinion (and I acknowledge it's not universally held), a novel can be erotic and romantic, but in the end it is either a romance novel (about the emotions) or it's an erotic novel (about the sex).

    But Charlotte (the actual doctor from Private Practice) is a Charlotte even when she's in love and having romance issues. So maybe a romance novel wouldn't dwell as much on kinky positions and the black vinyl catsuit but we readers would still know she was a Charlotte.

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  8. Catherine -- Great question. I don't think that simultaneous orgasms are inherently misleading (they happen in real life and so can happen in romances), but I do think the frequency and ease of them -- particularly the first time a couple goes to bed! -- is misleading.

    What never seems to happen in a romance novel (and it sure does happen in real life) is one of the sex partners just doesn't get to orgasm. But I think that's a shame, because how the orgasmic partner deals with the non-orgasmic partner could be a really lovely aspect of their burgeoning relationship.

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  9. Ah, I see what you mean now. I've seen that comment before multiple times and never really understood it so I figured I'd finally ask.

    I was starting to develop a complex! I didn't think the orgasm at the same time thing was that special. It's hot, sure, but not really an event for the record books.

    I can see how people might doubt that it would happen the first time two people are together (though I wouldn't doubt that it could) but I don't see why everyone is always so doubting that it could be a common occurance. TMI for you I'm sure, but I've had it happen a lot. Sexy stuff but not rare.

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  10. Magdalen - I forgot to mention this in the last comment:

    One author that I saw handle the non-orgasm thing frequently was Amanda Quick aka Jayne Ann Krentz. Quite often her heroes would get a little swept away the first time and leave the heroine wanting more. The heroine would then conclude that it's not as fun as they thought it would be and maybe they'd rather not do it again. The hero is usually embarrassed and determined to show the heroine how much better it can be.

    I've always really liked that aspect of her stories because I just don't see it that often.

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  11. There are several books on your list that I haven't read. Thanks for the recommendations!

    I like variety in romance novels. While I have no issue with sexually confident heroines, it would be tedious if all heroines were suddenly Samanthas (Sex and the City).

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  12. Catherine -- You raise an important point that I think readers need to keep in mind about books and the way authors write them. Your experience may be the norm, or it may be more or less statistically unusual. Well, that's also going to be true of the author. I don't think anyone writes with a set of research graphs or actuarial tables in front of them, so what comes out of an author's imagination is that alchemy of what she thinks is true, what she desires to be true, and the fictional "truth" that makes the most sense for her characters.

    I had always assumed that simultaneous orgasms were something a couple had to work at, i.e., they happen, but they don't happen automatically. I don't know how common they are but, just to throw some research onto this topic, I do know that the average amount of time for a male to go from initial arousal to orgasm is 2-3 minutes; average for females is 20 minutes. Again, everyone results may -- and probably do -- differ, but you can see from the statistical average that simultaneous orgasms require some work to adjust for the time shift.

    Which still doesn't mean they can't happen ALL the time for romance novel couples. But if a romance novel reader thinks, Oh, that should be happening for me ALL the time, that may be misleading.

    Loving this topic (wow, that could be misinterpreted...), so thanks for the question. (And as a reward for your bravery in asking your question, I praise you in Wednesday's blog post. Hope that doesn't feel like the W.C. Fields joke about first prize is a week in Buffalo, and second prize is two weeks.)

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  13. Sarah -- I agree with you about Samantha, but only in this sense: she's a very particular sort of woman and not one, based on her story arcs, that needs or wants a romantic HEA.

    I also wouldn't like it if all heroines were loud, pushy and had annoying Southern US accents, all of which is also true of Dr. Charlotte. So it's not a specific character I'm trying to refer to, it's a specific attitude toward herself and sex that I find in Dr. Charlotte and would love to find in all kinds of other heroines. Not all personality types can be Charlottes: some women are in a different place in their lives, or have other reasons not to be Charlottes. Holly, in First Kiss, turns out not to be a Charlotte because she was looking for something else all those times she was having sex. A Charlotte would know the difference.

    So no, I don't expect all heroines to be Charlotte, if for no other reason than I'd like to read the romances for all those other women who -- for whatever reason -- aren't Charlottes. And yeah, I've got some non-Charlotte heroines milling around the waiting room in my head as well. I'll have to obey my Rule #2 with them just as much as with my Charlotte heroine.

    Does that make sense?

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  14. Magdalen - I agree that no one can truly know how accurate or absurd an event in a book is because every person out their has individual experiences.

    I can see how someone who has never (or rarely) experienced a simultaneous orgasm could think that the event was a myth outside of romance novels. However, the same could be said for a lot of sexual acts in romance novels. How many women out there have never even had an orgasm let alone multiples in one session?

    My confusion really stems from the fact that I see comments dismissing simultaneous orgasms as less than realistic quite often and in many different blogs. I've never understood why it's thought of that way.

    Thanks for the great discussion by the way. I've been enjoying it.

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  15. oops one of my comments isn't clear. Where's the edit button?

    In the third paragraph I said: "I've never understood why it's thought of that way."

    What I meant was that I didn't understand why it's thought of that way more than any other sexual act.

    Now I totally believe that multiple orgasms are possible to have on a very frequent basis. However, I'm quite aware that some people believe that it's just an exagerated myth and isn't really found that often in the average couple's bedroom.

    So, why do I see so many more dismissive comments about simultaneous orgasms than I do about multiple orgasms?

    It always baffles me how someone can be so dismissive of something because it doesn't fit with what they believe to be a common truth, but then turn around and be so offended when someone else does the same thing to them.

    (I don't mean to imply that you acted like that - because you didn't - I was speaking in general of some people's attitude toward their beliefs)

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  16. Catherine -- Sorry, no edit button, but you can preview your comment before publishing.

    I wonder if people dismissing simultaneous orgasms are frigid, dried up crones. Then I wonder if I'm a frigid, dried up crone.

    But I don't think so. Here's what would make me love a simultaneous orgasm sex scene: if the couple -- in a fun, flirty, sexy way -- made the SimOrg a goal which they then proceeded to accomplish. That would strike me as much more realistic and also more engaged.

    Which actually leads me to realize one of the things that make sex scenes less interesting to read (at least for me -- I'm in the "read one, skip the rest" school of romance reading) is that the characters seem less interesting when they're having sex.

    Well, that's not hard to figure out: if what makes the characters interesting in the rest of the book is what they're saying and what they're thinking in internal monologues and POV, most of that gets turned off during the sex scenes. It's a bit like an XXX movie where the stilted, pun-ridden dialogue stops and you just get cheesy music and non-verbal human noises! (Imagine listening to, but not seeing, a porn film, and you'll get what I mean.)

    It's not that bad in romance novels, of course -- we're still visualizing the action, so to speak -- but because the characters are no longer being so unique and interesting, I find (this is just me now) the sex less interesting. It's like that expression: At night all cats are grey. Only in romances, all sex scenes are body mechanics (hydraulics, mostly). With, of course, the understanding that it's not all sex scenes -- some are great, but a lot are pretty generic.

    To get back to simultaneous and multiple orgasms, I have a feeling that your expertise in this area is outstripping my own. Better be careful, or other readers will be pestering you for tips, hints & advice!

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  17. Magdalen - Your comment where you said:

    "I wonder if people dismissing simultaneous orgasms are frigid, dried up crones. Then I wonder if I'm a frigid, dried up crone."

    Was that meant to pointedly bring to my attention that I was coming off rudely? Because if I came off that way I am truly sorry. Rereading my comments I can't really see where I implied anyone who dismissed simultaneous orgasms was frigid though. I do know how tone is very hard to read across the internet and that how someone meant to say something isn't how it is always seen. So, apologies if I came off as an ass.

    Also, experiencing something more than once doesn't make me an expert in anything. I was just curious about the myth/exaggeration status. (now I feel like I was somehow presenting myself as an expert and coming off as arrogant from the first)

    So, once again I'm sorry if I implied anyone was frigid or sexually lacking if they thought simultaneous orgasms were rare.

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  18. Oh, no! \0/

    Catherine -- nothing could be further from the truth. I love your comments. You never ever suggested I was a dried up crone. I did that. (Well, we've never met, so you don't know -- I could be...)

    What I was trying to say -- and got wrong -- was that I was wondering if personal sexual dissatisfaction could cause people to have negative reactions to specific sexual experiences in books. (See, when I type it out like that, it just sounds so clinical.)

    But no, of course you said nothing like that, and even if you had it would have been okay, but you didn't and I'm very sorry if you thought I thought that you thought that.

    And speaking of clinical, someone showed me the most awesome book: The Technology of the Orgasm. I know, doubtful title, but here's what my friend tells me -- it explains how sex toys were invented by physicians to treat hysterical women because they (the physicians) believed a cause of hysteria was hypersexuality, and if the women just had some orgasms, all would be well. But of course the physicians (male -- did I mention they were male?) didn't actually want to cause these orgasms through direct, uh, contact -- hence the sex toys.

    Is that not a complete hoot? I have to get this book. It may actually be enough to get me to break my own rule and review a book here at Promantica.

    Catherine, I'm very sorry I made you think I was offended. As you can see, it's hard to offend me, and you haven't come close. (I find you charming.) (Really.)

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  19. Magdalen - Ok, I feel better now. I was worried for a minute because I was clueless as to how I was coming off like that! I had one of those internal moments where I told myself, "this is why you shouldn't post on blogs, you never express yourself well!" I'm relieved though.

    I didn't know about the book, but yes I was aware that orgasms used to be a cure. I first learned of it on Dear Author's website. The link to the post on it is

    The Hysterical Reader

    I found it fascinating and went on to search for more info on my own about it. Who knew?

    A little while ago I read Demon Bound by Meljean Brooks. The heroine, Alice, was treated for hysteria when she was human. I was very surprised to see that subject in a book when I never had before. It was a great book.

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  20. Whew! That's a relief. And a valuable lesson to me -- put "kidding" after ambiguous comment in comment thread. (not kidding)

    Thanks for the link to the Dear Author post; I only met them in mid-2009, so it's good to know people who remember these long ago posts. I'll go check that out.

    I have Demon Bound in my TBR pile, so I have that to look forward to. Thinking about the misogyny rampant among medical professionals 100 years ago or so -- it's actually quite grim. But if we got sex toys out of it, well, that's something at least.

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  21. Well truthfully I didn't remember if it was Smart Bitches or Dear Author. I had to go search for it. They were the first sites I found and followed after I came online searching for reviews so I knew it had to be one of them because I had read the post a while ago.

    How frustrating, your bold tags worked and mine didn't. I had to take them out of the last post because they kept giving me an error and not letting me post.

    I know it was a humiliating thing for a doctor to do to you back then, but the whole thing kind of cracks me up when I think about it. How many guys today strive to get their girlfriends/wives to achieve even one orgasm. Men back then had so much skill they had a whole profession based on it.

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