Oh, Mr Darcy!

Why do so many heterosexual women still find the Darcy figure attractive? Sheryl Plant ponders the influence of romantic fiction on women's expectations of love and relationships. She discusses how lusting after the dominant male archetype can be interpreted both as resistance to patricarchy and compliance with it.

, 29 May 2006

Many modern women are stuck in an eternal double-bind. They want a career, financial independence, a full and varied social life (all in theory attainable to them in our current society); yet often, many women also lust after a dark, brooding and deeply patriarchal man who is dominant and controlling.

The man in question is Jane Austen’s fictional hero, Mr Darcy; a character who has been reproduced thousands of times since his creation in 1812. He has not just appeared in adaptations of Austen’s book, he appears in most romantic fiction – take Mr Big from Sex and the City, Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind, or even James Bond, to name but a few examples.

a dark, brooding and deeply patriarchal man who is dominant and controlling

All these characters have some very important similarities. More powerful in class and wealth than the heroines? Check. Seemingly unattainable? Check. Older than our heroines? Check. Nearly always dressed in black and have dark hair? Ohh, yep check that one too.

I believe Jane Austen’s Darcy character still exists in today’s society and still holds some women in a love like trance, exercising power over women, using and controlling women to his (usually sexual) advantage. In all walks of life such men exist; he is usually the town womaniser or ‘badboy’, picking up and dropping women whenever he likes, whereas the nice men who respect and treats women with dignity are left on the shelf, as they say, nice guys finish last.

As many feminist scholars and columnists have questioned (most notably Cherry Potter), although it is understandable that such a man as Darcy held sway over women two centuries ago when society was deeply patriarchal, why should such a figure hold sway over educated feminist women in the 21st century?

why should such a figure hold sway over educated feminist women in the 21st century

I have spent hours contemplating this question, firstly for this feature and other works on the subject and secondly, in my own life, gossiping with girlfriends who are treated badly by a Darcy-like figure, yet still cannot bring themselves to let him go. What is it about the Darcy figure that keeps women so fascinated?

Is it the challenge? The fact that Darcy is so unattainable suggests that the woman who truly wins his love must be one very special lady indeed. Or is it a form of revenge fantasy? Many scholars have argued that this is a form of rebellion, that it is only through love that a woman can hold any form of power over a man like Darcy, and once she has power over him she has him controlled by her every whim – she has tamed the beast, so to speak.

These two arguments do suggest that falling in love with a romantic hero like Darcy is suggestion of resistance against patriarchy.

falling in love with Darcy could be a form of resistance against patriarchy

However, although this argument suggests discontent with the patriarchal system, it doesn’t suggest that women are looking for change; we have discovered a way to cope with male brutality, true, but not a way to challenge this male behaviour and not a way to change it so that we are treated better in our relationships.

What many women suffer from is being unable to distinguish between the fantasy of taming the brutal romantic hero and the reality: the beast cannot be tamed and women will and do end up in terrible situations; they get ‘humped and dumped’ or worst case scenario, they get stuck in a violent marriage and/or relationship. Some have argued that lusting after such a man as Darcy is simply about the need to be looked after and protected from the outside world. However, what happens when the person meant to be protecting you is the very thing you need protection from, in matters such as domestic violence?

This is what is the most worrying aspect about creatures like Darcy and our understanding of romance in our society. As women, we have been educated to associate brutality with sexual passion and true love. Many of the characteristics used to describe Darcy relate to his potential ability to hurt the heroine – brutal, conquering, dangerous, etc. But, through romance fictions, we are led to believe that all the time the hero is being so horrid, he is actually internally grovelling. Thus, the more brutal the hero, the deeper and more passionate his love, and a violent emotion is presented as the foundation of a secure and loving relationship. But as any rational woman would know, there can be fundamental contradictions between passionate attraction and longer term love, yet somehow we equate the former as being the basis for the latter.

we have been educated to associate brutality with sexual passion and true love

I will diverge now to the latest reproduction of Mr Darcy, as in theory he should represent how Mr Darcy has been translated into what is desirable for young women in our modern society.

The latest Darcy is Matthew McFayden’s floppy-haired, blue-eyed Darcy in the recent star-studded feature length adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

On the surface this film does suggest some changes in the power levels between men and women. For one, it is Keira Knightly, who plays Elizabeth Bennett, who is quite obviously the star of the show. She has far more box office smash films under her belt, with McFayden’s biggest role being in TV programme, Spooks. It is Knightly’s name the graces the top of the DVD and film poster in big letters, whereas McFayden’s go alongside the actors who played Mr and Mrs Bennett; it is Knightly’s face that takes centre stage on the film cover whereas Darcy lingers in the background. In the original BBC adaptation it was Colin Firth who stole the show. What does the decision to put the bigger star in the role of the heroine suggest?

McFayden’s Darcy seems much more sensitive

In terms of size and wealth Darcy continues to be as all-powerful as ever, he still towers over Elizabeth. He is still her superior in terms of wealth and class, but, there is something altogether more vulnerable about this Darcy. He seems nervous, shy, tortured, dare I say it almost bumbling. Although he is abrupt he is no longer as rude as Colin Firth was in the 1995 BBC TV series adaptation of Austen’s book. McFayden isn’t even as dark-haired or as brooding, in fact his brooding tends to come off as rejection or irritation with himself that he is “unable to converse easily with others.” He seems much more sensitive and no match for Knightly’s feisty Elizabeth Bennett. Yet he is still enormously attractive.

So, does this suggest that our once all-powerful Darcy can no longer exist in our more liberated society – that in order for younger women to feel attracted to him, they’ve had to seriously water down Darcy’s arrogant and somewhat violent potency?

How I would like to think this is the case, that as the world gradually becomes more accepted to feminist ideas, famous patriarchal romance figures who effectively set us womenfolk up for disappointment when it comes to love, are on the way out; that we are in fact turning our Mr Darcys into more sensitive, giving creatures who are capable of being in touch with their feminine sides.

As women how do we move on from the brutal, brooding hero?

However, I admit that I am not so optimistic; it is much more likely that Darcy’s lack of potency is more due to McFayden’s inability to truly inhabit the Darcy role. Yes, women found McFayden sweet and lovely, but did they find him passionately and violently attractive like they did with Colin Firth? The answer to that one is no. In fact the most common comment when discussing the new film is…”Colin made a much better Mr Darcy.”

So what do we do? As women how do we move on from the brutal, brooding hero? Give up romance fiction? Is romantic fiction still a means of brain washing women into subservience? Is it still a form of control? Our understanding of love and romantic fantasies are not natural but taught though various different influences around us as we grow up, therefore, have we as women been brainwashed into finding such a dominant man, like Darcy, attractive as a means of subconscious patriarchal control? Or is romance a genre that brings an enormous amount of pleasure to many women and can in many ways suggest resistance against patriarchy? Is it simply a way for women to escape the humdrum of daily life?

In many ways romantic fiction is contradictory: it is both resistant and permissive, both feminist and, I will go as far to say, anti-feminist. The strands of female discontent and rebellion are complicated and interwoven. However, as 21st century, liberated and educated women, it really is about time we let Darcy go and turned to men who are capable of more equal and open relationships.

Sheryl Plant is a journalist living in Cardiff, South Wales.

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