Very interesting conversation yesterday brought up questions and discussions of the “locking a girl in the basement” trope. That is, the romance and urban fantasy stories where an angel/demon/vampire/fairy/werewolf/Other male character confines and/or sexually tortures or seduces the female main character, and after some misunderstandings, fights, and time, the female main character realizes that the male antagonist is actually a hero/good guy/ was just doing it to protect her/is the love of her life, allows herself to be seduced, and lives happily ever after. (Dismissing Stockholm Syndrome for the purpose of my argument, let’s assume that the female main character actually does come to love the male who imprisons her; also, feel free to substitute the pronouns as you prefer – I say ‘he’ and ‘she’ because the heteronormative binary is what you usually see in these sorts of stories, but I’ve also read great tales where the couple is homosexual, or the female is the dominant player).
In an attempt to understand why this trope was so popular and pervasive (go glance at the Women’s Fiction/Romance/Erotica section of your local book store if you don’t believe me), I pointed my conversation partner to my MA thesis, where I talk about fanfiction as a pedagogical tool, and the role of the Mary Sue in a young writer’s apprenticeship within the world of fanfiction.
However, as my MA is wordy and filled with academic jargon that sometimes makes even my head spin, I decided to write a bit of a jargon-free synopsis of my theories on why the “girl in a basement” trope is so popular.
Firstly – I am taking the assumption that a) everyone has sexual fantasies and b) that a majority of the writers who are doing “girl in the basement” stories are women. I allow that it is possible that there could be male writers creating this sort of story, but am going to maintain my assumption that they are primarily female. C) In critiquing this trope I am NOT, in ANY WAY, calling it “bad” or “poorly written” or “garbage”; I myself enjoy a good, suspenseful, tense “girl in the basement” film/TV show/book every once in a while. It makes my heart pound and makes the walls feel like they’re closing in on me and that is a sign of a great writer – that I actually get scared when I’m reading their work.
So, the idea is that people, but women especially, write these sorts of stories to either consciously or unconsciously explore those fetishes that might otherwise make them feel unsafe to explore in real life. The Id is released and tortured sexually or forcefully seduced and is allowed to take pleasure in it. At least in the west, we come from a culture of permission, where “no means no” and issues of consent are so pervasive and important that I have known men who are scared to initiate sexual relations for fear of being accused of accidentally raping their partners. Again, I am not attacking this – I for one am happy and thankful to live in a society where I can say ‘no’ and my partner will respect that.
But when you delve into the world of fantasy, that changes. People fantasize sexually because they are looking for a thrill – a new sensation, like the sting of a leather whip biting into soft flesh, or a new scent and taste, or a new sort of stimulation, like having heterosexual or homosexual sex for the first time, or a new adrenaline high that comes from doing something considered a social ‘no’ in society: sex in public, sleeping with someone in a different age category, or experimenting with the pain/pleasure dynamics of BDSM. They fantasize because they are not comfortable or ready to enact these fantasies in real life.
So, the “girl in the basement” trope taps into what I would call a very visceral and adolescent fantasy about early acknowledgement of sexuality. Adolescents, both men and women, or those just coming into their own sexuality (some people for instance do not become comfortable with themselves as sexual beings until well into their twenties, and some not until their thirties or forties) struggle with the dichotomy of recognizing that they are sexually desirable, but romantically and sexually inexperienced.
As Bella is to Edward in the “Twilight” books, the “girl in the basement” trope allows the writer/reader to experience the rewards of being sexual without having to fumble with their severe inability and inexperience at being the initiating or aggressive partner. In these fantasies and tropes, they get to be passive, and are still wanted by the other party, without the possibility of the humiliation of rejection or an inability to seduce (and we all know there’s nothing more embarrassing then getting shot down at the high school dance/in a bar/ at the club).
Therefore, the “girl in the basement” trope allows us to safely explore the power of our own sexuality without having to do any of the work. In a way, the forcible confinement is the ultimate compliment – being wanted so badly that the dominating partner literally cannot help themselves.
The reason for the confinement is often due to the dominant partner’s culture, which dictates that the dominant partner has the right to/must keep and protect their romantic/sexual partner or mate, who in a twist of events or fate turns out to be the main character, either by accident or because of destiny. The woman resists because she feels the need to uphold social (human) mores, and oft times allows herself to be seduced by way of acknowledging and accepting the norms and taboos of a different culture, be it vampire/werewolf/fairy/ angel. That way the MC is both sexually satisfied, romantically satisfied, and has also done the good deed of opening herself to another culture. Er. Pun not intended.
I want to take a time out here to say that while this kind of behavior is sexy, steamy, and interesting in fantasy, in real life it what leads to horrible sexual abuse and rape. Make no mistake, I am not advocating for this kind of behavior. And in NO WAY do I condone kidnapping, sexual assault, and abuse on people of either gender or sex.
Back to the fantasy: So, we’ve established the precedence of the early adolescent fantasy. But what happens as people mature? As we grow we hold onto those fantasies, or at least something in the visceral, primal memory of them stays with us – there is something endlessly appealing about being wanted.
Sometimes these fantasies mature and morph into rape fantasies or gangbang fantasies or harlequin fantasies or loss of control fantasies. But the point is that they mature. Sometimes people find safe spaces in which to enact them, finding GGG partners or BDSM communities, or sometimes people just read and write and watch films featuring them and that is satisfying enough. Sometimes people outgrow them entirely and forced seduction is culled from their mental library of wank material.
However, some people also hold on, in whole or in part, to the more adolescent version of instant romance and overwhelming seduction, and the notion forever after. This accounts for the popularity of “Twilight” among the older audience, of the adults who adore Disney movies and theme parks (I stand accused and plead guilty proudly; I have such a thing for Disney princesses, it’s disgusting), of harlequin romances and the “girl in the basement” trope on the romantic side, and films like “Silence of the Lambs”, “Deliverance” and “Saw” on the other. (Horror is scary because it takes out fantasies and warps them, showing us the worst outcome).
And that’s why I think the “girl in the basement” trope is popular. Because it taps into that primal, primary fantasy of early sexuality and allows us to celebrate our own bodies and take pleasure in them without any real-life repercussions or shame.
Example of a “girl in the basement” fiction/ Mary Sue fanfiction plot:
My main character, let’s call her MC, is an average librarian whose ambition in life is to be invisible to her mean boss and marry someone plain and average like herself, and get her mom off her case by popping out some plain and average kids. But, in a twist of fate she meets Romantic Lead, a werewolf on the run from a pack of gypsy supernatural-killers who are convinced that this werewolf is the man who murdered their father. RL runs into the library at closing time and MC is forced to hide him, thinking she is saving him from a street gang. RL thanks the MC for her help; MC gets a papercut in the flight to hide him, and he feels responsible and/or the irresistible lure of her scent/blood/eyes. RL must fight is overwhelming werewolfy instincts to throw her down amid the stacks and take her RIGHT NOW.
RL leaves and fights with his werewolf instinct to possess MC, and she goes about her day, oblivious to the werewolf stalking her and the gypsies staking her out to use as bait. Gypsies attack MC, and RL is forced to intervene, revealing what he is. MC is hurt and RL scarpers with her and locks her in his basement for her own protection and because the alpha male in him demands that he make her submit.
During her confinement, MC first fears then hates the RL, until she comes to realize that he truly is only doing this horrible thing to protect her, and that he cannot truly help himself. His desire helps the MC learn and accept her own sexuality and beauty, and she accepts his advances (possibly after a few forced encounters, which the RL may or may not feel guilty about) and allows herself to be initiated into a society where someone like her – average, plain, boring, without ambition – is allowed to be powerful and desirable if she chooses. With her newfound confidence in herself, MC aids RL in destroying the gypsies, and agrees to marry RL and become his Life Mate.
They have a litter of decidedly un-average puppies and MC’s mom shuts up once and for all.