Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Sexism and Gendered Workplace Competition: Christina Lauren's DATING YOU / HATING YOU

I've written about several different battle of the sexes romance novels here in RNFF, particularly BotSs that take place in male-privileged work spaces (Julie James, anyone?), and even proposed possible guidelines for crafting feminist BofSs storylines. So I thought I knew what would be in store when I picked up Christina Lauren's latest contemporary comic romance, Dating You / Hating You. Two Hollywood agents "meet awkward" at a party, then go on a first date. But when their competing agencies merge, the two wind up pitted against each other for the same spot in the "Features" department that will remain after the post-merger reorganization. The book's sell copy makes the BofS's theme perfectly clear: "What could have been a beautiful, blossoming romance turns into an all out war of sabotage. Carter and Evie are both thirtysometing professionals—so why can't they act like it?"

What I wasn't expecting was to discover that Carter (who is actually twenty-eight to Evie's thirty-three) wasn't the embodiment of unthinking sexism that the male half of most BofS's romances typically feature. No, Carter espouses none of the privileged male beliefs that undergird most sexist workplaces: no assumption that men are more, women are less; no belief that his way is the best way and her way is the wrong way; no taking-it-for-granted that equal opportunity for women really means that men are getting the short end of the workplace stick. Carter's approach to agenting is far different from Evie's, yes, but he views their strengths as complimentary, rather than at odds, and has a deep respect for her talents and accomplishments.

But even without overt sexism, the authors suggest, competition, even between friends and prospective lovers, can lead colleagues to anger and frustration. For a people-pleaser like Carter, such feelings are difficult to openly acknowledge. Especially when both Evie and Carter are still smoldering from the sparks of frustrated sexual desire. And so, despite their continual assurances that they can and will work together to undermine the winner-take-all situation in which their boss has placed them, both Carter and Evie find themselves pulling back, and even slipping into more defensive, aggressive postures, at the least sign of unfair or privileged behavior in the other. Because underneath their agreeableness, each one believes the other has the advantage: Carter, because his company was the one that got bought out, and he's now working for Evie's boss; Evie, because she sees how her sexist boss keeps favoring his fellow male colleague and undercutting her work.

Both Evie and Carter are über competent, über in-love with their jobs, and über competitive, qualities which lead not to a "war of sabotage," but rather to a series of amusing pranks—Evie substituting decaf cups in Carter's Keurig; Carter replacing Evie's go-to hand cream with bronzer; Evie taping over the speaker in Carter's phone; Carter loading the air system in Evie's car with glitter. But as the work tension escalates, will the pranks edge over into more damaging work-related sabotage?

Carter may not be openly sexist, but the novel shows that he's definitely the beneficiary of male privilege, privilege that he is not that aware of, and is not all that willing to acknowledge. He'd rather believe that he and Evie are on even footing. But Carter isn't blind, and he gradually begins to realize that even if he isn't behaving in a sexist manner, his competitive instincts have led him to overlook, or even contribute to, the sexist environment at the office: "I guess we could go with when our boss knocked Evie's breakfast [a doughnut] into the trash because he's a sexist dick, and I just sat there and watched. Or when I let her sit through a meeting with two of her shirt buttons undone. Two very important buttons," as he admits to his best friend (199). It takes his own growing self-awareness, as well as a good talking-to by another agent, the wife of said best friend, to accept that the "normal" he's taken for granted isn't the same normal Evie lives with:

"Playing into Brad's sexism? That makes me angry at you, Carter. Its hard enough for a woman to be taken seriously in this business and seen as a person with a brain and not an object. Men get passes for acting like it's 1960 and every woman in the office is their secretary. Evie will have to be smarter, faster, and better at her job than you are, for possibly less money and a whole lot less recognition, all while appearing totally grateful for it" (200)

Which (along with some prank-ful starch in his suit), leads Carter to a moment of clear self-awareness, a moment he shares with Evie:

     "So here's the thing, Evie: if we put our heads down, and do our jobs, and stay out of each other's way, then we can just be colleagues."
     She gives me an aggressive shrug. "Okay? Sounds good to me."
     "Colleagues. That's it," I say, and her shoulders fall a little as she gets where I'm going with this. My heart is pounding so hard, I have to pull off my suit jacket so I don't feel like I'm going to hyperventilate. Evie watches me take it off and drop it next to us, eyes rapt as she looks back to my face.
     "Passing in the hallway, small talk, work emails. Whatever this is," I say, waving between us, "would go away. You may not like the glitter explosion in your car, but at least you know I was thinking about you when I did it." I pause, swallowing. "At least now you know I can't stop thinking about you." (220)

It takes some more back and forthing, some managing of competitive flare-ups and honest discussions of privilege and feelings, before Evie and Carter can begin to come close to figuring out how to work as true colleagues, rather than as cutthroat competitors. And some seriously hot trysts before they can come together not just as friends but as lovers, rather than sublimating their desires for one another into secret, silly sabotage.

Stop here if you don't want the ending of the book to be spoiled for you...

My one disappointment with the book was in the way it ended up dealing with its sexist villain, Evie and Carter's boss, Brad. He's never done anything that would break any of the equal opportunity rules at their company, but his behavior towards Evie is overtly sexist throughout the story. But it turns out that said sexism is not the reason for his ultimate downfall; instead, it turns out that he was trying to get Evie fired because he worried that she was on to his embezzlement scheme. Brad doesn't get fired for being sexist, but gets arrested for being a criminal. In one way, you can read this as a wish-fulfillment fantasy: that the condescending sexist pig you work with would be sent to jail for his piggish behavior. But on the other, it suggests the difficulties in taking a sexist pig to task for his sexist behavior, even in today's purportedly equal opportunity workplace. Brad can only be punished because he's an embezzler, not because he's unfair to his female employees.

Illustration credits:
When you Disagree: Hello Giggles

Dating You / Hating You
Gallery Books, 2017

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