Sunday Salon – What Is Erotic to Women Readers, or Why We Love Jack and Mr. Rochester

The Sunday

Mr. Rochester, is of course, the hero of Jane Eyre. Jack is the hero of the Nadia Stafford series (Exit Strategy and Made to Be Broken, about a female ex-cop who turned hit woman to help finance her nature lodge). These books feature women in love with Byronic heroes, and both have inspired many, many readers to swoon over these men. Why?

First, it’s helpful to take a look at what makes up the very popular trope of Byronic hero. [Cue up Dating Game music.] He is strong and attractive, yet flawed in ways most notably exemplified in the life and writings of Lord Byron. This hero (nowadays often a vampire) is moody, dark, cynical, independent, masterful, and has a mysterious past that gives him much pain. But he is also absolutely magnetic and sexually irresistible. He can be cruel, too, but who can blame him, given all the grief festering inside him? Not we, surely!

Lord Byron, Brooding

One of the Many Mr. Rochesters, Glowering

Furthermore, we know that only a very extraordinary woman [such as each of us secretly is] can get this guy to open up to her and let himself feel love. And by extraordinary, we don’t mean beautiful; on the contrary, she will not necessarily stand out in a crowd. (Those women already get their unfair share; we need to appeal to the rank and file here.) In fact, Ms. Eyre is the quintessential “plain jane.” This broadens the audience immensely; we may be just schlubby housewives, but we could very easily insert ourselves into these fantasies.

We women have the power to pull him out of the abyss in which he passes his days and long nights, with our comparative virtue as well as our faith in him and love for him in spite of his stern demeanor and dark past. The reward? We are needed by him, maybe more than we have ever been needed by anyone. And we earn his undying passion for us as well as his masterliness in the bedroom.

Pretty Woman: And Then She Rescues Him...

Look at what this fantasy says about the women who find it appealing (and I count myself among that number in spite of my efforts to intellectualize myself out of it):

1. We may want power and importance, but these desires pale besides the appeal of enticing otherwise recalcitrant men and then wallowing in the sexual submission to their uncontrollable desire [think of the very popular scene in “Gone With the Wind” of Rhett carrying Scarlett up to the bedroom, and her happiness the next morning after having sex forced on her].

Get Your Own Rape Figurine!

2. Besides, then we not only realize the power of having broken through the man’s supposedly impenetrable barriers, but we also have power conferred upon us by being his woman (and the one who conquered him!);
3. We consider hidden pasts or mysteriousness with its hint of danger exciting and erotic rather than something to avoid;
4. We can provide redemption for this tortured man because women are selfless, caring, and compassionate. And in spite of our moral strength, we are understanding and forgiving of lapses in the men we love.

The Newest Mr. Rochester, Smoldering

There’s a further benefit: you get occasional swooning moments such as this one delivered by Mr. Rochester to Jane – that is, if you can meet the qualifications:

“I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you – especially when you are near me, as now; it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame….”

But do you see that the string is tied to Jane’s little frame? This one word denotes so much: Jane is smaller than he (pretty essential to have that dominance thing symbolized by size); Jane is little in the sense of younger and “child-like” compared to a man of the world such as he (again, the dominance theme); and restated yet another way, Jane may be plain, but she is at least small and diminutive, which can help make Mr. Rochester feel protective and masterly.

Even his head is way bigger than hers!

Nadia is physically smaller than Jack as well, and also needs his protection. Although she is fierce by day, at night, she is beset by nightmares, and it is only when Jack takes her in his strong arms (optimally, with his shirt off, when she notices that he is “lean, hard, and sexy as hell”) and then fixes hot chocolate for her (she brings out the tender-hearted in him) that she is okay again.

Jack too has his own [modern] version of a string speech when he tells Nadia, “Whatever you decide? I’m here. Won’t tell you which way to go. Won’t let you walk off a cliff, either.”

And who doesn’t love all that? But is it a good thing? Where these ideas about what is erotic originate?

First of all, let’s face it: men have controlled publishing and even writing for years, and they have a vested interest in promulgating male privilege and sexual dominance.

Second, as feminist writers such as Elaine Showalter demonstrated many years ago, the so-called literary canon is androcentric, with a damaging effect on female readers. The “hero” has largely been defined by male writers. While Jane Eyre was written by a woman, and Jane shows an independence that was scandalizing for her day, Brontë herself, as a young woman, read Byron and considered him her idol. Thus what Brontë considered to be romantic and/or erotic was defined by her own exposure to male – particularly Bryonic – literature.

Critic Judith Fetterley argues that because of the overwhelming exposure to literature considered “classic” or “great” books written by men – in other words, just by becoming educated – the result is the immasculation of women by men; i.e., women imbibe a accept the male-defined system of values and even learn to agree with the male point of view.

Third, women have absorbed the inculcation that caring and connection are good traits for females to exhibit, and aggressiveness is a bad trait. Some contend this is a positive difference: it makes women “superior” to men. Others counter that women only think this way because society gives them few other choices and so they are trying to attach value to what in fact is not an option. Law Professor Duncan Kennedy maintains:

“If women are empathic, it is because they have to be alert to the moods of the dangerous men in their lives; if they are relational, it is because they need solidarity to deal with the constant reality or threat of violence. If they shun abstraction, it is because men control the textual universe of abstraction in ways that disempower and disadvantage them they try to enter it.”

In any event, it allows us to be nurturing to those “bad boys” we love so much.

As for what is “erotic,” a great deal of political and sociological theorization is devoted to its analysis, and the importance of male domination as a turn on for both men and women. I wrote about this in depth in my review of Hush, Hush, so suffice it to say here that American culture pervasively produces images of women portrayed as desirable and sexy who are not dressed in, e.g., clothing appropriate to doing manual labor. Rather, they are garbed in revealing clothing, sky-high stilettos, positions of submission, and “gender-appropriate” occupations. Men can’t resist them, and other women want to emulate them.

Two Role Models: Shakira and Beyonce

In fact, according to Peggy Orenstein in her new book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, by middle school, whether a girl thinks she is sufficiently thin, pretty and “hot” has become the single most important determinant of her self-esteem. How to look and be “sexy” dominates the stories in magazines for teens and young women, with many of the articles being written by women. Sexual gratification means pleasing a man, and “faking” orgasms has become a practiced art form. Who cares if you actually have any as long as he thinks you do? Sure, it’d be nice, but it’s not as important as pleasing the male.

As Andrea Dworkin noted, “the brilliance of [this] strategy of dominance is that it gets the woman to take the initiative in her own degradation…”

So what’s everyone’s conclusion? Is Jane Eyre as “feminist” as people want to believe? Or is it just the status quo with a belligerent face? Doth Jane protest too loudly?

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32 Responses to Sunday Salon – What Is Erotic to Women Readers, or Why We Love Jack and Mr. Rochester

  1. nymeth says:

    Jill! Could you possibly be any more awesome?

    I think Jane Eyre is interesting because it’s a novel where you can clearly see different ideologies pulling the text in opposite directions – like in so much 19th literature (which is part of why I love it so much :P). The proto-feminist elements are definitely there, and I love how in the end Jane Eyre only accepts a relationship established in her own terms. But the Byronic elements are also there, and like you so clearly showed they’re often problematic. To me they don’t nullify the feminism, but they’re certainly worth thinking about.

    About Byronic heroes in general, I can only say this 😛

  2. Sandy says:

    I haven’t read Jane Eyre, so it may not be fair for me to comment. It is possible for the story to be feminist, but not TOO feminist? Which is kind of how I see myself actually. I am a big pain in the ass sometimes, with my mouth and my opinions. But I would be liar if I told you that I didn’t enjoy a few fantasties involving Jack Reacher or Rhett Butler. So what does that make me?

  3. Patti Smith says:

    You’ve got me thinking this morning of two of my “guilty pleasure” reads…Stephanie Plum/Janet Evanovich and Anita Blake/Laurell K. Hamilton.

    Stephanie is on her own and supposedly making her own decisions about life…doesn’t want commitment etc. She’s a bounty hunter (which is tough, right) but she makes her captures by accident…and she is continually rescued by 2 men…and I’ve been swooning about it.
    Anita Blake, vampire hunter…how can you get any tougher…who is a slave to her own sexual needs as a paranormal herself. I have no idea how many men/creatures she’s had sex with…and I couldn’t care less except for the fact that it’s not her choice…she has sex because she HAS to…

    Both authors are women…would be interesting to find out where these particular parts of the storylines come from. I think I’ve read somewhere that Hamilton has a history of abuse…but I don’t know about Evanovich?

    Lots of thinking on a Sunday morning 🙂

  4. Jenny says:

    Mmmmmm, interesting. I mean I hate Rhett Butler and the rape scene is awful and I shall always think so. I do like Mr. Rochester though — I wouldn’t want him in real life (dude’s too intense for me), but I love the shared sense of humor he and Jane have. The intellectual connection they have sets them apart from a lot of other literary couples for me.

    (Oh, dear, I’m far too inclined to be forgiving of people who make me laugh. And I hate Heathcliff and Rhett Butler and that lot.)

  5. Belle Wong says:

    Great post, Jill. I never thought about the role men have played in the popularity of the Mr Dorchester hero before but it all makes sense to me. The only thing I found irritating about Jack was the way he made Nadia stay put or hang behind when they weren’t out working on something. It was way too protective and didn’t fit with the respect he gave to her professional abilities otherwise. But other than that, he was very enticing as a hero.

    I also wonder how much of what fits women’s fantasies would survive in real life. A brooding, masterful Byronic hero is very attractive on the pages of a book but I know I’d get pretty tired of all that masterly brooding pretty fast in real life. 🙂

  6. Trisha says:

    Being an avid reader of romance novels, I have thought about this issue often. I do so love me a brooding, dangerous, aggressive, dominating type of man…at least in books. I don’t think that feminism and a desire for this type of man are mutually exclusive; I do, however, see the danger in the consistent promoting of this particular form of erotica.

    And I agree with Belle that what I find attractive on the pages and on the screen don’t exactly transfer to real life. There is a difference between fantasy and reality.

  7. M Denise C says:

    Such an intelligent, scholarly post. I never thought Jane Eyre was a feminist statement, as much as a good story and one of survival of a character of the times. Maybe there was a little rebellion in the writing, but Ms. Bronte was a product of her time. We always want to look at the past in the context of our time. Jane and Rochester complement each other and i find Rochester more evolved than most of his time. He wants more than just a pretty woman.

  8. Barbara says:

    Whew! For a minute I thought you were going to write about Jack Benny and his Rochester! 😀

    I think Jane Austen was simply a product of her times, writing for people of that time. It’s all fantasy now – dark, brooding heroes are good for a novel, but as Belle says, I couldn’t possibly stand living with one. And that hero-type body? How about later in life when you’re still married and he has a pot belly or his skin sags a little?

    Seriously, though, I enjoyed reading this post and it provides food for thought, much more than my initial flippant response here.

    • That’s a riot about Jack Benny and his Mr. Rochester! That never occurred to me! 🙂 I used to love them too (albeit not for their eroticism LOL), although gosh, I wonder if it would seem awful and racist now to see them. I can’t remember well enough!

  9. ds says:

    Maybe it’s because I was a wee thing of twelve when I first read Jane Eyre or maybe it’s because i’m dense. But I have always loved Mr. Rochester. To me, though, he is less the ideal Byronic hero than is Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, whose impulses are more than matched by Catherine Earnshaw. Those two are both larger than life; it cannot contain them. Rochester is larger than [small] Jane’s life–she fights him & idolizes him at once. Interestingly, Charlotte has him blinded (from going back into the house to rescue Bertha) before he can be deferential to Jane.

    I love your scholarly litcrit posts, Jill–and I loved Nymeth’s link! Wonderful way to get the brain cells up and running of a Sunday. Such great stuff in this (immasculation, hmmm). Thank you!

    • I’ve thought a lot about the blinding. Does that make him more equal to her? It apparently does not make him less attractive to her, in spite of the way she was so turned on by his “masterfulness” in the beginning. Is the masterfulness compensated for by the absoluteness of his need for her?

  10. Margot says:

    Excellent essay, Jill. There’s so much here to think about. I’ve always loved the Bronte style romances but I always knew they were simply stories or fantasies. I never wanted those types of men in the other part of my life. All that game playing is fun to read about but not experience.

    I liked the Duncan Kennedy quote about empathy. I never thought about it that way before but I tend to agree with him. I believe I honed my empathy by spending most of my career working with men who were different from those I knew growing up. The business men I worked with were often devious schemers, aggressive, under-handed, and then considerate. It was confusing at first and always kept me on my toes. No wonder my empathy was so highly honed. It was a survival skill.

    You’ve given us a great Sunday morning topic and I appreciate all the obvious research you did. I’ll be thinking about this all day long.

  11. Florinda says:

    This is an excellent discussion, Jill, and as one who’s never really gotten the appeal of Mr. Rochester and his ilk, I really appreciate it. I tend to agree with DS’ comment re: Heathcliff being an even more representative example of the Byronic ideal, though – and as I CANNOT STAND Heathcliff, this is helpful.

    Truthfully, my first husband had some of those Byronic traits…or, perhaps more truthfully, I ascribed them to him. I have since learned that, either way, guys like that are not good for me.

    Oh, and thanks to Nymeth for that link – loved it! It really sums things up quite well, doesn’t it?

  12. Jeanne says:

    I’ve always found Heathcliff and Mr Rochester appealing for the fierceness of their attachments. As a tall women, though, I never identified with Jane Eyre. She is, as you point out, so often described as small and childlike. And I do think the masterfulness is replaced by the absoluteness of his need for her–isn’t the partial recovery of his sight at the very end another finger on the scales of their equality? I’ve been married for 27-1/2 years now, and it does seem like a balancing act in terms of equality.

    • Yes, I like that word: fierceness. It has great appeal!

      I think in many cases in modern times what looks like a voluntary compromise (e.g., we’ll live by my husband’s career choice only because he gets paid more) is not really voluntary at all, because in almost all cases the man would get paid more, even given the very same jobs. But still, I think that women now have much more freedom from stereotypical expectations even than there was as late as the 1970’s and early 1980’s. And certainly more than in Jane Eyre’s time! …which is a wonderful thing! And which allows spouses to engage in true balancing, which is also wonderful!

  13. Jenners says:

    Good Lord, woman! You have outdone yourself this time. All I know is that I did the bad boy thing forever before realizing ( quite painfully) that the price was too hi. It was then I chose the good boy–who may be less exciting but doesn’t make life into an epic roller coaster.

  14. EL Fay says:

    Great stuff here. I think what so many women like about Byronic heroes is that they’re dangerous-seeming but in a safe way, like a wild rollercoaster. In fact, heightened emotional states – i.e. lust, fear, pain, pleasure, love, hate – are pretty closely linked and can feed off one another. You can argue that the Byronic Hero is an easy, time-tested way to evoke these contradictory dichotomies.

    Hey, why can’t we have a Byronic heroine? Now there’s an idea!

    Also, the idea that a woman can “change” a man, because women are inherently more empathic, etc – is pretty damaging to both sexes. It makes women responsible for men’s behavior.

    • Oh, brilliant! Yes, and look how all that (with the heightened emotional states) corresponds almost one-for-one to the appeal of war for men. These Byronic types are our wars! I love it!

  15. Staci says:

    Well, a lot of what you wrote I must read again because there is so much to think about…haven’t we all thought at one time or another that we could change someone??? You bring up a lot to discuss actually!!!!

  16. OMG I’ve been thinking about this so much lately and I love this essay, I think you really capture the why..I also love how you say that you’ve tried to intellectualize yourself out of liking these kinds of heroes…
    I don’t always like them, but I do sometimes, I must admit.

  17. Alyce says:

    I love your analysis, and I do think that Jane Eyre (the book) was progressive for its time, but not by today’s perspective (and there is so much to think about in all that you have written here).

    I have to say that the picture captions are priceless. It’s a good thing I wasn’t drinking anything when I saw the Gone With the Wind Caption.

  18. Emily says:

    As Ana said (and I love that comic too!), I think Jane Eyre as a text is being pulled in multiple directions at once. I also think Jane as a character is being pulled in multiple directions at once. She’s not unaware of much of what you bring up here re: the dangers involved in being with broody, manipulative Rochester when their positions are so unequal and she’s clearly in the submissive role. Witness her unwillingness to let him buy her fancy clothes and jewelry before the wedding; her insistence on keeping him at arm’s reach during that same period; her uneasiness about losing her name (identity) and taking his, and her dreams about being saddled with a heavy, crying infant as she wanders the dark ruins around Thornfield. She totally knows that she’s in danger of being subsumed into his orbit and losing her own sense of self. It almost makes one feel the real “madwoman in the attic” (ie reason Jane can’t marry Rochester when she originally wants to) has less to do with his past life and more to do with the inequality between them, which is conveniently remedied once he’s a blind cripple and she’s inherited an independent income. In any case, certainly not un-problematically feminist, but also (in my opinion) a much more critical, ambivalent portrayal of the Byronic Hero than Margaret Mitchell’s in Gone with the Wind.

    • Emily,
      You make such interesting points. But I’m not so sure that financial equality would change the erotic equation (although who knows, I’ve never been in that position!) After all, Scarlett O’Hara became wealthy too but she still wanted to be overwhelmed by a strong, passionate lover. I would never claim that Margaret Mitchell is a nuanced a writer as Bronte, but Scarlett is certainly a strong independent woman in many ways. Ironically, and even humorously, she thinks redemption lies with Ashley, but when she finally gets him, she discovers he’s not “strong” and “masterful” at all – not as much as she herself is – and she wants and needs someone who is stronger than she. (You notice in almost all the pictures of Scarlett and Rhett, she is looking up at him, which I don’t think is a coincidence.) Frankly, (my dear), as much as I make fun of Gone With the Wind, I think Scarlett’s attitudes and readjustment of those attitudes toward Ashley and toward Rhett may provide the truer and more lasting description of women’s erotic obsessions.

  19. Nelson says:

    I just wanted to take some time point out that while you’ve made a great argument for the existence of a male-centric history of female erotic love in literature, I felt that this essay implied that men have deliberately influenced this. You write,

    “men have controlled publishing and even writing for years, and they have a vested interest in promulgating male privilege and sexual dominance.”

    We may have a vested interest in male privilege and sexual dominance, BUT not the paradigm you describe. I, like the vast majority of men, do NOT have a deep dark past. When asked about some old emotional pain, I’ll take a stab at describing it. I do not compare to the Byronic hero in most ways. And again, most men are more easily measured in their difference from this prototype than by their similarities to it. If we as a group created this prototype, we were foolish because most of us cannot measure up. I, and plenty of other men have been negatively impacted by the cultural implications as well: I’m annoyed by stiletto heels, I’ve actively worried that a woman was faking it, and I worry that if I “open up” too soon in a relationship, I will seem boring and predictable.

    So while I think this is an important discussion to have, I also think it’s important to accept we’re in an imperfect society and have been for hundreds of years. That no amount of intellectualizing can solve it. That that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying, but it’s also not the end of the world to notice it, and therefore not a problem to be thrilled by this flawed erotic prototype, whether reading literature like Jane Eyre or shamelessly erotic books that play up these ideas.

    • Nelson,

      I really think the problem is not so much about the literature appealing to women, but that women also have been known to make poor choices in real life that reflect the dominance/submission/bad-boy erotic fantasy, which doesn’t always have the same sort of happy ending it does in books!

  20. Wallace says:

    I haven’t read Jane Eyre (gasp!) so I don’t feel like I can comment on the topic. But I like your post!

  21. stacybuckeye says:

    I loved Mr. Rochester when I first read Jane Eyre in high school, but that was in my romance reading heyday. As a gal who read romances pretty much exclusively as a teen I do think it influenced how I thought about men and relationships – and not in a positive way. I do still love my alpha male romances, but they are fantasy now that I’m an oldish married mom. Fun to read about and watch, but when the last page is turned real life and my decidedly non-Byronic husband await me.

  22. JoV says:

    I just think Jane as a principled young lady who is guided a strong sense of moral and virtue but God knows why she is attracted to Mr Rochester!!

    And what about Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights)?

    Any wonder with portrayal of such men as attractive that women make mistakes in choosing the right man in real lives?

  23. Valerie says:

    Jill – this is a great post. I don’t know that I can comment on it adequately. Some things still stay the same, even when we think we women have come a long way.

    But, I will say that I feel I must re-read all of Bronte again; especially after that cartoon Nymeth (Ana) shared with us.

  24. vrbacotdavis says:

    It’s definitely news to me that Emile Brontë and Jane Austen are sexist patriarchs; and who knew these sexist patriarchs loved being compared to tall, lean, muscular, rich men. That’s definitely empowering as well as very realistic for the average Jo. Either way, scientific research contradicts your theory.

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