Sunday Salon – The Ear Tuck Database & Appeal of Male Dominance, Female Submission

The Sunday

Some readers have requested that I post my ongoing list of “ear tuck” incidents from fiction.

I only started this database a couple of years ago after noticing the “ear tuck” many, many times, especially in young adult books, so a lot of potential entries went unrecorded. I also was noticing a lot of boy-objects-of-ardor with crooked smiles and hair that fell into their faces, but regrettably, did not start databases for these as well.

This post has two parts. In Part One, I speculate about why the ear tuck is part of so many romantic moments. I’ve written about this before, so if you’re tired of hearing it, or inexplicably didn’t memorize my previous post, you might just want to scroll down to Part Two. There I provide you with some Greatest Hits from the actual database.

Part One: Why the Ear Tuck?

Most of these ear tuck passages convey that the person doing the ear tucking is strong yet gentle, caring yet dominant, and in general, suitable to be the sweep-you-off-your-feet swoony type.

Theorists of women’s studies contend that women want equal treatment in all areas of their lives except in their erotic lives. Robin West, reviewing survey data, observes:

” . . . the experience of dominance and submission that go with the controlled, but fantastic, ‘expropriation’ of our sexuality is precisely what is sexually desirable, exciting and pleasurable – in fantasty for many; in reality for some.” (Robin L. West, “The Difference in Women’s Hedonic Lives: A Phenomenological Critique of Feminist Legal Theory,” Wisconsin Women’s Law Journal, 3:81, 117, 1987)”

fabio book cover

West also notes that “the undeniable reality of the pleasure many women find in the eroticization of controlled submission” exemplifies, for some theorists, the extent to which women have absorbed the male construction of desire and its conflation with power. In other words, we get off, at the most basic level, by men being in control, by men “taking care” of us. Heroines can be as “spunky” as brave as they can be, but when the lights go down, they want to feel like the guy is the strong one, who will wrap her in his arms and make it seem as if everything is going to be okay. And men prefer this picture as well; it reinforces their sense of their own “masculine” image.

Yep, she wanted it, she just didn't know it!

Yep, she wanted it, she just didn’t know it!

What’s wrong with this picture? For one thing, even in fiction, it simply isn’t the case that the male is the one who can fix things. And yet the heroines in books as well as real-life females strive mightily to think it is true. The result is that women contribute to the perpetuation of this concept of pleasure, love, romance, and commitment: the male is the strong one, the one who has the power to control our feelings of well-being, and who are better than they themselves or other females at “taking care of” us.

You're so big and strong!  And taller!  And yet caring and gentle!

You’re so big and strong! And taller! And yet caring and gentle!

What else is behind the ear tuck? (Well yes, besides the back of the ear.) There is an element of danger with respect to encounters between women and men, particularly in an erotic setting. No matter what their inner strengths or lack thereof, men are often just more physically powerful. This creates a risk. The ear tuck shows us that there is no reason to fear, that this particular male is gentle and caring and that he can be trusted. Going even farther, we can also feel relief that dependency, or giving in to the desire to be taken care of, is going to be a good thing; even a romantic and positive experience. One can see why those in the power seat might want that construction of desire perpetuated!


The truth is, almost every one of these books that include hair tucks are written by women. This is a powerful meme, and one it will take a great deal of awareness to overcome, if one even wants to do so.

You may ask, where is the harm? Besides the subconscious reinforcement of the “rightness” of men “taking care of” women [or as they say in academia, women embracing male domination], there are other consequences. Once desire and eroticism are so closely associated with female submission and male domination, where, for example, does the line get drawn?

Gang rape:  you know you want it

Gang rape: you know you want it

Look at the problems we still have defining “rape” – if you don’t fight, apparently that means you “wanted” it. (And if you don’t get pregnant, that means, according to some lawmakers, that you didn’t actually get “raped.” You may recall that Republican Todd Akin, former U.S. Representative for Missouri’s 2nd congressional district, explained his opposition to a rape exception for abortion by claiming that “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.”) Males are encouraged to have attitudes like these, expressed only recently by a hand stamp used at a local bar near the University of Maryland.


Indeed, some of our most popular representations of romantic lust (I’m looking at you, Rhett and Scarlett), construe the forced “taking” of a woman to show how much the man really loves and/or wants her – so much so that he cannot restrain his own animal nature! (For more on this see Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, University of North Carolina Press, 1984.) This phenomenon gets cleverly inverted by the media to suggest that it shows how much “power” the woman actually has (through her sexuality).


Moreover, as mentioned in another previous post, the whole sex = power-over-women formula has had serious repercussions for women trying to serve their country via the armed forces. Sexual abuse in the military is out of control, with the U.S. Defense Department estimating that there were 26,000 sexual assaults in the military in 2012. Fewer than 1 percent of these resulted in a court-martial conviction. Why aren’t they convicted? Senior officers (sometimes themselves complicit) often prevent cases from being investigated and prosecuted. Victims therefore can’t trust those in command (or don’t trust them not to punish the victims themselves) and so don’t report their attackers. And there is a history of “acceptance”. [Worse yet: according to a 2011 report from the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault and Prevention Office, 90 percent of military rapes are committed by men with previous histories of assault. What are these guys still doing in the military?]

Unfortunately, these cultural norms are reinforced constantly by the media. Everywhere one turns one encounters images promoting the idea that women are sexual objects whose primary purpose is to provide for the pleasure of men.


Women are encouraged to dress in a way that emphasizes not only their sexual availability and their identity as sexual objects, but even their dependency. If you’re wearing a short skirt or tight pants and/or stilettos, can you really take care of yourself? Can you even walk a mile? Can you run away if threatened? [And I might add, do you have money saved up for the podiatrist when you get older?]

Screen shot 2013-06-12 at 7.08.20 AM

The whole get-up announces that you are a sex object AND you need someone to protect you. (For an extended discussion of this issue, see Duncan Kennedy, “Sexual Abuse, Sexy Dressing and the Eroticization of Domination, 1992 online here or in his book Sexy Dressing Etc., Harvard University Press, 1995.) The ways women appear in public, in ads, on the media, and in books, reinforce gender stereotypes and expectations.


What else do these norms convey? One of the most subtly deleterious is the idea that aggressive, clearly competent women are awful witches or we just don’t like them for reasons we can’t articulate. You only have to think of all the negative press given to women like Hilary Clinton and Michelle Obama. They act too much like men, people cluck, with distaste. But ironically, sexualized women and teens are judged to be less intelligent, competent, determined, and capable. (See K. Graff, S. Murnen, & L. Smolak, “Too Sexualized to be Taken Seriously?,” Sex Roles, June 2012, Vol 66(11-12), pp. 764-775.) Moreover, many young women and girls craving the social reinforcement of being “valued” by males (for their sexual appeal), end up with eating disorders, depression, and/or lower self-worth. And heaven forbid if they are considered unattractive or overweight.


What, you say? Women don’t want to be objectified? It’s simply not so. Desirability of women in our society is not associated with, say, mathematical prowess. Rather, an important criterion is how attractive you seem to males. Take, for example, this passage from a recent review I posted of a book by a popular author for young adults:

[High school friends Cam and Lexi are talking together about Lexi’s new look]:

Cam sighs. ‘They’re all like…’ Cam makes her voice low, ‘Dude, have you seen Lexi, she’s looking hot, wouldn’t mind getting me a piece of that.’ You know, stupid guy stuff.”

Lexi: ‘Really?’ I try to not make it known how happy this makes me.”

Or just turn on the television or watch a movie.

Don't take me seriously as a businesswoman!  Because underneath my serious clothes, I'm just a slut!

Don’t take me seriously as a businesswoman! Because underneath my serious clothes, I’m just a slut! (Jennifer Love Hewitt in Client List)

Sometimes, there is actually a bit of protest, as with the publication of this issue of The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s (SFWA) magazine “Bulletin.”


This cover generated some controversy. You can read about it here.] Ironically, scifi author C.J. Henderson wrote in this very same Bulletin that he doesn’t go for this type of woman. Rather, he maintains:

“The reason for Barbie’s unbelievable staying power, when every contemporary and wanna-be has fallen by the way-side is, she’s a nice girl. Let the Bratz girls dress like tramps and whores. Barbie never had any of that. Sure, there was a quick buck to be made going that route but it wasn’t for her. Barbie got her college degree, but she never acted as if it was something owed to her, or that Ken ever tried to deny her.

She has always been a role model for young girls, and has remained popular with millions of them throughout their entire lives, because she maintained her quiet dignity the way a woman should.”

Yep, “she maintained her quiet dignity the way a woman should.” …


Conclusion: Get your hands out of my hair; I have a barrette! And about that “quiet dignity” bit? Don’t get me started!

On A Personal Note: Am I totally immune to socialization? No, of course not. I wouldn’t have minded being a beautiful swan instead of an ugly duckling. I wish I could wear beautiful sparkly swirly dresses sometimes, but I wouldn’t look “good” as defined by society (and by retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch), and unless it becomes the fashion to go to Target or the grocery store that way, I wouldn’t really have anywhere to go. I admit to loving the stories of Eva Ibbotson, even though her heroines tend to be without exception blonde, beautiful, and harboring an inordinate fondness (and talent) for the domestic arts. And I invariably love the swoony YA romantic encounters envisioned by Maggie Stiefvater.


But even more, I would have wanted to have been allowed to take advanced math in elementary school (I was told it was “for boys”). And I hate seeing media images of women in bondage, women objectified, women loving abuse, and men encouraged to think of women in those ways. I don’t like reading about it either. If I had a young daughter, I would like her to have a swoony romance, but with a boy (or girl) who appreciated her for the fact that she had a talent for astronomy, or a way with physics, and was a really good person, and was someone who would never, ever, think it was romantic to be dominated by anyone. No more role models, please, like this one:


Part Two: Highlights from The Ear Tuck Database, or Cafuné*

*Brazilian Portuguese for the act of tenderly running one’s fingers through someone’s hair.

Note: I am not including all of the hair tuck examples (the post is already way too long!) nor do I give page numbers, since some of these quotes come from advanced review copies.

You could do one heck of an ear tuck here!

You could do one heck of an ear tuck here!

Pure by Julianna Baggott:

“He simply tucks her hair behind her ear. It’s a small gesture – so delicate, like the feathery touch she didn’t think his large hands were capable of. He’s just a kid. He’s just a kid who’s raised himself. He’s tough and strong and angry – but tender, too.”

Prized by Caragh O’Brien

“She felt his touch skim her hair, and then he gently tucked the loose lock back behind her ear again.”

Bittersweet by Sarah Ockler

“He tucks a lock of hair behind my ear and steps closer, kissing the sensitive skin beneath my jaw.”

Unearthly by Cynthia Hand

“They kiss, not a little peck, but a long, lingering kiss….Then he steps back and bushes his hand across her cheek, tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear.”

Awaken by Katie Kacvinsky

“I smiled back at him and the wind picked up my hair and tossed wisps of it across my face. He surprised me and reached out his hand and tucked a piece of my hair behind my ear.”

Silence by Becca Fitzpatrick

“He reached out to tuck a runaway strand of hair behind her ear. She blushed with pleasure.”

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

“He gently pushes the hair out of my face, tucking it behind my ears and then he nods.”

Alpha and Omega (in On The Prowl) by Patricia Briggs

“He stopped just in front of her and touched her raised chin gently, then laughed. Still smiling he tucked a piece of her hair behind her ear. ‘I promise you will enjoy sex with me,’ he murmured.”

Insurgent by Veronica Roth

“He pulls me against him and runs his hand over my hair, tucking it behind my ear.”

Once by Anna Carey

“Caleb tucked a few stray hairs back under my cap, so gently it nearly made me cry.”

What the Heart Remembers by Debra Ginsberg

“’Look,’ he said, ‘I know what you’re going to say; I do.’ He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear – such an intimate, sweet gesture.”

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

“His eyes are clouded with desire and joy. His skin already seems less pale to me. He reaches up and tucks a stray hair behind my ear.”

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin

“I’m picking you up tomorrow morning,” Noah said, as he brushed a strand of hair from my face and tucked it behind my ear. His touch felt like home.”

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

“’I just want you to be happy, my Mary,’ he echoes, reaching out and tucking a strand of hair behind my ear and then leaning in to kiss the path his fingers just took.”

“Taylor turns to me with a crooked smile. ‘Sorry.’ He tucks a stray piece of hair behind my ear. ‘I couldn’t help myself. Next time, I’ll make sure we’re totally alone. Sound good?”

And last but not least, from “The Rules of A Gentleman”:

Screen shot 2013-06-11 at 6.28.34 PM

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21 Responses to Sunday Salon – The Ear Tuck Database & Appeal of Male Dominance, Female Submission

  1. Sandy says:

    This is a masterpiece! It should be used for college studies (or high school!) in some form or fashion. And OMG some of those ads that you’ve pictured. I’ve never seen those but they are way too much. I can’t believe they were allowed to be published. I think that one scary indication of where many women stand on this topic is how they reacted to the Fifty Shades of Grey series. Women went APESHIT over this story of a control freak asshole spanking and abusing an “innocent virgin”. It was their fantasy! Millions of women! I just shake my head. And any time I speak up (and I do, obnoxiously and often) women get pissed at me. Say I’m too uptight. I see that whole scenario as a huge, glaring example of one of the problems. Anyway, I’m glad I scrounged for Internet to read this!

  2. Beth F says:

    Preach it, sista!

  3. Iris says:

    Those advertisements 😦 Gah, they made me feel a little sick. I have seen very few of them, but summed up like this.. It also makes me wonder just how aware I am when viewing advertisements..

  4. Amazing post – I had never thought of this, so thank you for collating all of those examples and distilling them so brilliantly. Those advertisements make me feel sick, too, just like Iris. 😦 We need so much more awareness of the way women are still treated.

  5. BermudaOnion says:

    I agree with so much of what you’ve said, I don’t even know where to start. I’ve seen the results of what you wrote about in some of the young women I’ve watched grow up.

    I will never read another ear tuck scene without thinking of you.

  6. Barbara says:

    And here I thought no one else had noticed the ear tuck phenomenon. 😀 Part I should be required reading for every teenager, girl or boy. Actually this old geezer thinks it’s time for a return to the concept of respect for the other sex and respect for yourself.

  7. sagustocox says:

    All of these instances make me ill! I cannot believe society has not improved in all of these years. I got the opposite in high school with a business course in typing — I was told that it was for those who had no future in college like I did…it was for the “dumb” kids as was mechanical drawing.

    I just wonder when the categorization of women/men and book smart/common sense smart will stop. Why not let us all try to be who we wish to be or to explore outside of our normal confines…we may surprise ourselves and everyone else.

  8. Lisa says:

    Oh lordy, between a teenaged girl, two twenty-something boys and my husband, I have my hands full on a daily basis trying to keep their heads straight on this subject!

  9. Athira says:

    Hear hear! I have to share this post with as many people as I can. I am so sick of all the perceptions men have about women. Couple of months ago, I had to listen to someone from my husband’s family say that women who get raped ask for it because they love to show skin, wear a ton of makeup and look for male appreciation. It was THE most disgusting discussion I’ve ever listened to. Some people are just in the back country and will never get out of there. Diversity in thinking is a wonderful thing but she can be a curse too sometimes.

  10. bookingmama says:

    You never cease to amaze me! Many good points… of course!

  11. Rita K says:

    Wow! Great post, Jill!
    I was never the type of young woman who inspired a man to tuck my hair.
    Also, my mother was my elementary school teacher and put both my brother and I into advanced math books as we finished our math so quickly she didn’t know what else to do.
    Loved your post! Must have missed it earlier, as I don’t remember it.
    Never liked “Gone with the Wind” because of that whole so called romantic taking. One of the reasons I avoid romance novels.

    • Rita K says:

      And PS – tell Sandy I have the same issues with the Fifty Shades books! I tried reading the first one but couldn’t do it and when I explained my objections to the story only my own daughter seemed to agree with me. But loved that she did!

  12. Alyce Reese says:

    Fantastic post! Such a deep discussion of the topic in a very entertaining fashion (so to speak). I loved the bits about the podiatrist and the barrette! None of those ads are forgivable, but I actually find the BK ad the most offensive because the food product is something that could be targeted at any age group and I certainly don’t want my kids seeing that (although they’d be clueless about why it’s offensive at this point). Some brands I just expect to be offensive, like Abercrombie, and that doesn’t make it any better but a more mainstream product like BK really shocks the sensibilities. As for all of the political happenings that are affecting women in this country, I have to wonder how far it can go before people stand up and say, “Enough is enough.” Do we have to end up characters in some dystopian plot first?

  13. Charlie says:

    Love this, Jill, a brilliant idea and written really well. So much to think about. With the ear tucks I’ve always noticed it being the start of relationships but not so much about the protectiveness, though it’s true. It seems ever related to looking at each other and realising a connection. That D&G ad is awful and I have to agree with Alyce about the Burger King ad, it’s far to inappropriate.

    Unlike the ear tucks I do notice the hair in face and smiles. There are a lot of samey men in fiction. If you start a list you should definitely write that up, too, because this post is just so good!

  14. JILL. This is such a great post. I was delighted to read about ear tucks to begin with, and then you went and said all these lovely sensible things about gender and socialization.

  15. 1. I noticed the ear tuck in Prized, and I thought of you!
    2. I love this post.

  16. Rachel says:

    What a great post! I hadn’t noticed the ear tuck thing but I’m sure I will now. And those ads are horrible. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  17. stacybuckeye says:

    I love you Jill, but did you have to completely ruin the ear tuck for me?
    Those adds you included are so gross. When I had a boy there was some relief for me (we know how that turned out) because it is so hard to be a girl these days without being sexualized.

  18. Wow! Not only was I blown away by the words that you wrote, but also by those ads. I’m more than appalled by them. I feel like I might live under a rock because this is the first time I’ve seen them. What a fantastic post!!

  19. Pingback: Emily and Einstein | Care's Online Book Club

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