Carmen is not a good girl heroine. Carmen freely chooses and dumps lovers. Carmen dies. The wages of sex is death. Well, at least that’s the way it always used to go. Carmen, the antiheroine of a 19th century French novel by Prosper Mérimée, was such a bad girl that for the famous opera of the same name, the librettist actually invented a good girl to balance her. The good girl does not get the guy. Any guy. In fact, the good girl mostly stays with the hero’s dying mother, in that tediously virtuous manner of good girls.
But back to Carmen. Carmen wreaks havoc. We first meet her as she’s roughing up another girl at the cigarette factory. She’s going to prison for that, but she cozens the naive village boy solider, Don José, into letting her escape. Then, she hangs out with her smuggler buddies, and starts flirting with a glamorous bullfighter. Don José comes calling and professes his love. But this is not enough for Carmen. She insists that he desert the army and join the smugglers. Meanwhile, she flirts with his commanding officer. Don José is so maddened by jealousy that he attacks him, then has to desert. Once Don José has joined the smugglers, Carmen realizes what a drag he is. When the bullfighter comes to visit, José almost kills him. Carmen dumps José, but José doesn’t want to be dumped. He follows her to the bullring where she has gone with her new lover, and kills her.
That’s the plot. Carmen is aware of and uses her sexual power over men, which destroys her lover even as he in turn destroys her. Don José is probably the first stalker ex-boyfriend in fiction. Neither of them comes off well, but Carmen gets killed. Not a good end. But considered a suitable ending for a woman whose approach to love is amoral. Carmen’s crime is her willingness to take love where she finds it, and move on when she’s no longer interested. And that’s a behavior pattern historically forbidden, punished, and otherwise discouraged—for women. (Men get to do it all the time in all cultures.)
But I’m a good girl. I’m not going to get it in the end. I’m going to be with one guy and live happily ever after in my hearts-and-flowers, paper doll world. I’m going to be lucky. At least, that’s the way most people think, that the bad stuff isn’t going to happen to them, especially if they behave themselves. But what if we don’t behave? Do we all end up like Carmen?
Although romances don’t generally go to the extreme of punishing sexually active women with death anymore, they certainly have in the past. Just think of Madam X dying of absinthe addiction or the tragic heroine of Elinor Glyn’s Three Weeks, or of Madame Bovary coming to a sad end. And romances still do punish women, just not the heroines. The classic romance heroine is almost always portrayed as a modest type who hardly uses makeup, who never wears sexy attire to attract the attention of anyone but the hero, and who is mostly unaware of the power of her feminine allure. Moreover, most romance heroines do not actively pursue the men they fall for. If they do, it is seldom with the self-confidence of an experienced woman. Instead, the men pursue them.
But remember the Glamorous Other Woman? The Femme Fatale? The Bitchy Rival? She was a staple character in romances as long as the heroine was competing for the hero with another woman. In a culture with few opportunities for women, marrying well is the most important achievement. So it was definitely a competition. But virginal heroines were constricted by their very purity from using any of the ploys of the experienced other women who haunted their romances. These other women knew about makeup, and used it. They knew about allure, and used it. They even knew about manipulating men. And used them. Until the hero woke up and realized that the untouched heroine was the better bargain, because she had an honest soul. The glamorous other woman of romance got punished by not landing the man as a marriage partner. Yet meanwhile, she often was free with her sexual favors to the hero, and he took advantage of that. She got little long-term return on her sexual coin, and the goody-two-shoes heroine walked down the aisle instead.
Recently someone was posting on a romance blog about how annoying it is that we never see heroines who are women of sexual experience and sexual confidence. Although we’ve gotten past the convent-bred virgin heroines, and we’ve even gotten past the glamorous other woman rivals, we still mostly do romances about women who are consciously good girls, not Carmen types in any way. And this romance reader was expressing her wish that we could get past the virtuous stereotype of the romance heroine. It’s a reasonable request, because women’s lives in our culture have changed so much. Love doesn’t change. But a girl who’s having sex at age 14 and then having a full-bore sexual relationship all through college and then doing casual hook-ups with friends while pursuing a career has got to have a different take on sex than a virginal heroine does. Or even a selective, relatively inexperienced heroine who doesn’t have the backlog of relationships that didn’t add up to much except sex. And that’s where chick lit comes in as a genre, but chick lit almost never is about the romance, it’s about what the heroine is going to do with her life. So we still don’t have romances about experienced, sexually self-confident women. We’re still mostly writing about good girls who are convinced that if they acted on their sexuality the way Carmen did, exploring the fullest reaches of its power and its pleasure, they’d get it in the end.