Johannes Vermeer, Girl Asleep, 1657
Have you ever noticed that women in romance novels sleep a lot? Naturally we all need sleep, but with something so ordinary it doesn't seem worth mentioning in a book unless there's a point, like going to the bathroom. So what's the point of all the sleeping? Tired writers? A zombified nation of near-catatonic workaholics who can only sympathize with people in a similar state of ennui? Or does it mean something?
While rereading New Moon last month, I couldn't help but notice that Bella kept passing out--or almost passing out--a lot. And not during entirely appropriate moments (like, you know, bed time), either. Of course, the story is based on Sleeping Beauty, so I figured that had something to do with it, and set the issue aside to think of it no more.
BUT THEN, since I was already thinking about it (despite my resolve not to), I kept noticing heroines in nearly every romance I picked up afterward had a similar problem! It seemed as soon as these women encountered an extremely tense, emotionally-wrought, or high stress environment, they decided they needed a nap because they were super duper tired. "Here I am, alone in the house of a rake who wants to ravish me. Snnnnooorrrrzzzzzzz." Really?
At first I guessed that it was some passive-aggressive way of avoiding conflict--kind of like how Scott Pilgrim runs off to the bathroom as soon as he's faced with a potentially awkward situation. But it seemed odd that so many heroines would fall asleep in different books and situations. "What purpose does this serve the story?" I wondered to myself (actually it went more like, "WHAT THE HEEEEEEECK?!?"). Reading about women who keep falling asleep isn't exactly exciting.
John Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781
It was an embarrassingly long time afterward that I remembered sleeping women in art history=SEX ALL OVER THE PLACE! Exclamation mark! The most famous example being Fuseli's wildly popular The Nightmare. Pointed toes, arched back, and expression of combined agony and bliss--that woman is totally having an organism. And what's being done to the horse behind that curtain? You don't know; and judging by its expression, I don't want to know.
Aside from the pulled-out chair and open doorway that suggests recently vacated company, Vermeer's Girl Asleep is, according to your friendly neighborhood symbologists, full of allegories for temptation, love, and intercourse. It also looks like there's someone under the table, and I don't think they're picking up silverware. IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN.
In literature, too, a sleeping woman is often a symbol of passive sexuality--think of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, for instance. Again, this is reflected in Twilight: there's a reason why the dynamics of Edward watching Bella sleep puts mamas' panties all in a twist. Or take the scene in New Moon when Jacob sneaks into Bella's room to tell her the Very Important Thing about him being a werewolf and she can barely keep her eyes open. Of course, the fact that she doesn't fall asleep while he's around could indicate that she's not as 'available' to him as he'd like her to be.
For hundreds of years, at the least, a sleeping woman has suggested a sexually available woman. Do I think romance novelists are deliberately using this imagery to make their heroines seem more sexualized? Perhaps--Meyer employs it very effectively--but I think at this point it's become such a part of our culture that we don't consciously take note of it, especially in contemporary-set novels. Most people aren't looking for allegories or subtext in books; if they were, it would make reading certain novels really uncomfortable (I'm looking at you, Lewis Carrol). Even if they aren't consciously aware of it, however, on some level it is clear that the heroine, while asleep, is more vulnerable to the hero. If she's dropping off to sleep, then obviously she trusts him.
Elizabeth Siddal, 1860. Photo courtesy of lizziesiddal.com.
Have you ever noticed this narcoleptic heroine phenomenon? Do stories where the power dynamic is reversed and a woman observes a man who's sleeping have the same subtext?