(Originally aired 2023/02/18 - listen here)
It might seem a bit odd, when doing these shows on tropes in sapphic historic romance, to combine the “friends to lovers” and “enemies to lovers” tropes into a single discussion. But it seems to me that both tropes can be explored in a more interesting fashion by contrasting them with each other, while simultaneously contrasting them with how the tropes work in mixed-gender couples.
To review briefly (because you never know who might have just stumbled on this concept for the first time), a trope is simply a recurring, conventional literary device or motif. And in the context of romance fiction, it has come to mean any of a variety of fixed structures or scenarios involving the romantic couple that is used regularly enough that it has come to carry a weight of expectation and meaning, and that connects the story in the reader’s mind to other stories that have used the same trope. The trope could be a character type, or a situation, or even a plot-sequence or mini-script. In the context of historic romance novels, popular tropes include ones that describe attributes of the romantic couple, the context in which they meet, the barriers keeping them apart, or the mechanism by which they connect romantically.
Historic romance readers love their tropes, and in this series of podcasts, we look at how some of the more popular tropes function for female couples in historic settings—how they change the dynamics of the plot due to social expectations, prejudices, or assumptions around gender relations that are specific to the setting.
As usual, my examples tend to be drawn from Western culture. If you’re writing your story in a significantly different cultural setting, you should research what the differences might be with regard to expectations for friendship and for social conflict between women. However for this particular set of tropes, I’m going to be discussing general dynamics more that specific historic examples.
It helps to begin by dissecting how the “friends to lovers” and “enemies to lovers” tropes work for mixed-gender couples, and how they work differently in historic settings than in contemporary stories.
“Friends to lovers” plots for male-female couples lean heavily on the cultural expectations and stereotypes around the imperatives of sexual desire. Men and women in close social proximity—so the model goes—will invariably find desire entering the picture unless there’s an overwhelming counterforce. That counterforce could be a lack of physical attraction; it could be a significant social taboo such as a pseudo-sibiling relationship between two people who have interacted closely since childhood; it could be a matter of social classification, where the other person has been tagged as “inappropriate for romance” for any number of reasons.
As has been noted in previous installments of this series, there have been large swathes of cultural history in which non-sexual friendship between men and women was considered implausible as a concept, or at least only possible within very narrow contexts. (Contemporary settings are more open to the idea, of course.) So for a historic romance, there can be a significant hurdle to arranging for your protagonists to be non-romantic friends in the first place, if you have a male-female couple. And once a friendship is established as existing, there needs to be an ongoing barrier that initially prevents the characters from recognizing (or at least acknowledging) the romantic potential.
In contrast, a mixed-gender “enemies to lovers” trope often tends to lean into seeing romance as conflict. Whether the conflict is a generic “war between the sexes” where personal desires are in conflict, or whether there’s an external clash that gets personalized, the underlying theme tends to be that the heightened emotions of conflict is re-interpreted by the body as arousal. Arousal, in turn, when embraced, forces a reanalysis of the underlying emotional state.
In a historic context, the initial conflict sometimes stems from the coercive dynamic of courtship and marriage itself. A woman who—for any number of reasons—feels disinclined for marriage in general, or for marriage to the other protagonist in particular, may view the courtship itself as a hostile act. In a context where courtship is inherently an unequal and adversarial dynamic, setting up your characters to be in conflict can be extremely simple. Of course, they may also be in conflict over other issues: politics, personality or history, misunderstandings, conflicting loyalties. But maneuvering them through that conflict and into romantic alignment is, to some extent, simply an exaggerated version of default courtship negotiations. If one partner is expected to resist, and then to be won over, the reasons for the resistance don’t necessarily change the shape of the plot.
These dynamics of male-female conflict and resolution come from culturally-driven assumptions about gender essentialism, but keep in mind that even if you toss biological essentialism out of the mix (or even better, hurl it with great force), we’re still placing our characters into cultures that were steeped in essentialist beliefs. And those beliefs will shape what your characters are dealing with and how they react.
I’m going to digress for a moment for a personal note. I have to confess that I have a hard time wrapping my brain around enemies-to-lovers romances when the enmity stems from aversion and distaste for the other person as a person. Even the ones that aren’t flat out “I totally hate you” but are just “you’re annoying, go away.” My basic attitude is, “Given all the perfectly reasonable people in the world, why would you put all that effort into fighting through dislike to see if maybe there’s love on the other side?” And don’t get me started on the topic of hate-sex. But that’s probably because I’m asexual and simply can’t imagine why you’d want to get intimate with someone you don’t even like. So stories that are basically, “I hate you but the sex is so great that readers will stick with our story up to the last chapter where we decide we actually love each other after all” … um … just not working for me. The enemies-to-lovers stories that work for me tend to be ones where the conflict is external—where the characters are set up by their personal histories to be in conflict, but where they see things to like and admire in the other person before desire enters the picture. Take this as context as we move on to look at female couples as friends and enemies, because I have some serious gaps in my awareness as a result.
Friends to Lovers
A regular theme of these sapphic tropes discussions is the simple fact that, all other things being equal, historically, women were more likely to do their default socializing with other women rather than with men. When it comes to friendships, there are pervasive expectations that women will be friends with other women. Those friendships may include elements of romance and sensuality, but the two aspects are not considered to be in conflict. So the same factors that make it challenging to set up a male-female couple as friends first, before there’s a romance, often don’t exist for a female couple. There may be other social factors in their lives that make this particular friendship difficult or unlikely, but it won’t be because of gender.
And in certain social contexts (like the romantic friendship phenomenon) there was an assumption that friendships between women could and would partake of romantic feelings and displays of physical affection. Whether you’re looking back in history or listening to contemporary stories of how female couples got together, you hear time and again that they were friends who came to realize that what they felt for each other was a different flavor than how they’d been viewing it. (I’m working very hard here to use language that doesn’t frame romance as being more or better than friendship.)
So the difference in the trope comes when one or both of the couple comes to the realization that what they feel or what they want is different from what their culture categorizes as friendship. Or maybe they don’t? We’ve talked a lot about how the emotions and displays of affection between female friends were often given license to be overtly romantic. In a mixed-gender “friends to lovers” romance there are generally behaviors that signal the tipping point. But in many historic contexts, those behaviors were part of a continuum of behavior between female friends. This means the “recognition point” when the relationship irrevocably becomes erotic (or moves toward an exclusive marriage-like arrangement) can occur much further along the scale.
Of course, there are also historic cultures where friendship behavior has more narrow limits, or in more recent times, when a hyperawareness of theories of sexuality makes it harder to put off that recognition point. These are factors that you need to investigate and consider for the particular setting of your story. What’s the normal range of behavior for female friends? At what point would your characters feel the need to discuss a realignment of their relationship? A major part of Lillian Faderman’s book Surpassing the Love of Men focuses on the gradual turning point in the early 20th century when that “recognition point” shifted significantly.
How would reaching that recognition point change the couple’s expectations for the future? Would that change be apparent to their community as a qualitative difference? How does this shift in their relationship affect how they act with other women they’ve categorized as friends? Do they consider the shift in their relationship to create an expectation of exclusivity? If so, exclusivity in what sense? They’re still likely to be leading lives centering around a female community, so a drawing away from other friends might be viewed negatively if they don’t feel able to be open about being lovers or whatever feature their exclusivity revolves around.
In this episode, I’m primarily focusing on the relationship itself, and not on external features like living arrangements, which have been discussed previously.
As noted earlier, for male-female couples, even when the initial relationship is understood to be a friendship, there will tend to be a social pressure to turn it into a romance, or simply an assumption that that will be the natural progression. But for female couples, the pressures and assumptions are different. There may be an assumption that long-term friends will tend to become closer and more devoted over time, but there isn’t a looming cultural expectation of erotic entanglement. At least, not necessarily, though such expectations may exist in specific subcultures. And the couple is less likely to have easily available social scripts for recognizing and negotiating the shift to an erotic or exclusive relationship. (Though, again, in some specific cultures, such scripts existed. For example, the late 19th and early 20th century culture of same-sex crushes in women-only educational settings.) This means that the most interesting complications, misunderstandings, and crises in the romance plot are likely to happen in a different part of the relationship arc than they would for a mixed gender couple.
Enemies to Lovers
So how about those enemies-to-lovers stories? Where are we going to see differences for our female couple?
One factor that drops out of the equation is the stereotype of the “battle of the sexes” — that is, the assumption that men and women will inherently be in conflict. Even when there’s a butch-femme dynamic to the relationship, it’s a different power negotiation from a mixed-gender couple.
Another factor that drops out—or at least is muted—is the external social pressure for the conflict between the protagonists to resolve in couplehood. Not only do the protagonists have to work past their mutual antipathy to find romance, but they have to do it without the support of societal expectations that interpersonal conflict is simply another form of courtship.
Sources of Conflict
So what are potential sources of conflict that could resolve into romance (or at least be worked through in the process of finding romance)? The basic one, which I’ve touched on already, is simple conflict of personality. Their surface presentations grate on each other—or perhaps it’s a one-way grating. This can intersect with some of the personality-based tropes, like “grumpy-sunshine”. But at a deeper level it can fall into the category I don’t really grok, the one where they genuinely despise each other personally, but some situation forces them into a proximity that sparks desire.
Another version of this—and it’s another one that I have some trouble getting into—is the stereotype of women jockeying for social status and identifying other women as enemies in this sort of rivalry. This is a motif that is too often seen in popular media of the “there can be only one woman” variety, the sort where female characters don’t seem to have friends and communities and always view other women as enemies. Quite frankly, it feels artificial and unrealistic to me that a conflict of this sort would resolve into romantic desire. But maybe that’s just me.
I think there’s a lot more promise in situations where the two female protagonists are rivals for some goal, but the resolution can involve discovering that they can both achieve their goals, or that the rivalry was misdirected. The 19th century socialites who vie for prominence as a hostess but end up combining their talents. Two business rivals who discover the joys of collaboration (and perhaps of monopoly once they aren’t trying to steal each other’s customers). And keep in mind that women have always been active in business in all ages, though the nature of the businesses open to them might vary. A similar dynamic can be seen in a competition for resources, such as an inheritance or a desirable job, where the conflict doesn’t come from personality but from desperation and need.
In a romantic comedy, there could be a lot of potential in overlaying the default heteronormative expectations with a same-sex romantic arc, where two women are set up to think they’re competing for the same man but realize they prefer each other. Or it could be even more complex if they’re each trying to arrange marriages for siblings or friends and come into conflict over misunderstandings about who is being matched with whom. (Think about every complex Shakespearean romantic entanglement plot you’ve ever seen and then add a layer where resolving into a same-sex couple is one of the options.)
One eternally reliable source of enemies-to-lovers stories is conflict that derives from family or national loyalties. Whether it’s the equivalent of Romeo and Juliet, connecting in spite of feuding families, or the spies who loved each other, or complex diplomatic negotiations that turn personal, a romance where there is no personal animosity but a vast external pressure arguing against the connection provides a satisfying storyline that brings in both internal and external conflicts. And stories like this can be set in almost any age and at any level of society.
Structuring historic romances between women using a friends-to-lovers or enemies-to-lovers trope offers a wide scope of story possibilities—wide enough that I’ve barely skimmed the surface here. Many of the enemies-to-lovers possibilities will be very similar to those available for mixed-gender couples, though without the overlay of the whole “battle of the sexes” nonsense. But friends-to-lovers stories operate out of a very different dynamic than the one that makes sense for male-female romances, due to the historic differences in how same-gender and mixed-gender friendships were viewed. And either of these will likely be combined with other tropes that address how the couple organizes their future life together, in contrast to the standard mixed-gender marriage plot. So find a context in the setting of your choice that either brings your couple together as friends or that sets them in conflict as enemies and let them have at it!
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online