This is the very first Average Everygirl comic I drew. In fact, it’s where her name originated. I had taken to doodling plot points that annoyed me, and really, what’s more annoying than the Rich Sociopath as a Love Interest scenario?
A Trope for the Ages
Sadly, this premise goes all the way back to the dawn of the English novel. In 1740, Samuel Richardson published Pamela. Its plot? A chamber maid evades her noble employer’s repeated sexual assaults by fleeing or fainting (or both). When he finds he cannot have his way with her as he pleases, he marries her instead.
My favorite part of the book is its subtitle: Virtue Rewarded.
“Congratulations, Pamela! You’ve successfully escaped several traumatic attacks on your person! Now you get to marry your would-be rapist! Hooray!”
It really is that bad. The guy paws and pursues her. He intercepts her letters to her parents. He yanks her onto his lap, kisses her against her will, rips her clothes, hides out in her bedroom closet, and gets into bed with her—once with a female accomplice holding her in place while he cozies up on the other side. Pamela’s faints and fits are the only things that save her, though the astute reader will discern that we don’t actually know what happens to her in those blackout periods. We only have her attacker’s assertion that he didn’t do anything, and he lies about that to other servants, so why would he tell the whole truth to Pamela?
(But did I mention he was rich? So it’s fine, right?)
Later in the story, after they’re married, it comes to light that he previously seduced another working girl, who then had his baby and is off living in another town with the child. So it wasn’t just Pamela ur so hott i need u now. It was I’m so rich I can do whatever I please with whomever I want and have no lasting consequences. What a gem.
In a perfect world, the novel would have consisted of one letter:
Dear Mom and Dad,
My employer tried to molest me, so I punched him in the face. Am packing my things and will be home shortly.
Your devoted daughter,
Instead, we have two volumes of Pamela gushing about dozens of contrived situations. Mr. B, despite his repeated assaults, never gets charged with anything. He never even suffers from a tarnished reputation. He’s young and rich and hot, and all his “foibles” stem from his youth and wealth and hotness. He displays red flags like the feathers in a peacock’s tail, but his servants dismiss them because he’s their employer. Meanwhile, we are supposed to dismiss them because everything turns out “happy” in the end.
A Rich Response
The public at the time ate the story up. It was preached from pulpits as an ideal of virtuous, womanly behavior. And while I can agree that, yes, we should run from our attackers, Pamela is hardly a role model. For one thing, she continues working for the squire despite his repeated, often violent attempts to seduce her. She also doesn’t reject his offer of marriage when it finally comes around. She hems and haws over whether he’s sincere or trying to trick her, but ultimately she gives in.
He’s reformed, you see. The right woman has that effect upon a man. It’s the Power of Romance™.
And it’s utterly, utterly false.
The great shame of Pamela, and of the many other novels of its ilk that have followed since, is that it neutralizes fundamentally repulsive behavior with something as shallow as money and a handsome face. Even worse, it sends the message that when a man inflicts violence upon a woman, she secretly wants it and she’ll eventually accept it if the conditions are right. In other words, she likes the repulsive behavior; she just doesn’t know it yet. The man and the audience both do, however, and we revel in her journey of enlightenment. Or at least, we’re expected to.
I don’t. Of all the subversively destructive literary tropes, this one really chaps my hide.
But Pamela at least has an excuse: a man wrote it. Richardson was a product of his era, when women were property and marrying well ensured them a comfortable life. He did break boundaries with a working-class heroine who entered the ranks of nobility, but the mess of a story undermines that message. In the end, the sole triumph of Pamela is that it spurred Henry Fielding to write Shamela and Joseph Andrews, both parodies of this literary atrocity.
A literary atrocity, I remind you, that reincarnates every time an impossibly rich, impeccably hot, implicitly abusive hero swaggers onto the page.