Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Politics of Baby-Marriage: Molly O'Keefe's INDECENT PROPOSAL

Apologies for skipping last Friday's post. Child throwing up in the middle of the night with food poisoning ("well, that apple did taste a little fizzy, but the caramel and chocolate were fine") = no brain space left for blogging. Luckily, the bout was short-lived, and everyone's stomachs and brains are back to normal. So, on with the book musings...

Genre romance is rife with familiar and oft-beloved tropes. The marriage of convenience. The secret baby. Lovers torn apart to later reunite, or potential lovers stranded together all by themselves. One of my least-favorite, from a feminist standpoint, is the "one-night-stand leads to pregnancy leads to 'we must marry'." Given the latest statistics on unmarried mothers (in the United States in 2012, 40.7% of all births were to unwed mothers, according to the Centers for Disease Control), few Americans still believe marriage should and must follow any pregnancy, whether planned or not. But its not the lack of historical accuracy that gets in the way of my taking pleasure in this trope, but rather the patriarchal assumptions that often accompany it when it makes its appearance in a romance novel.

No baby mamas here: an example of
the "we will get married" trope
My memories of the trope come from the category romance reading I did as a teen, as well as some more recent stand-alone romances, stories in which the male half of the relationship insists that, despite barely knowing the woman with whom he had sex, she and he must marry. His reputation/his family's reputation/the future of the child/his budding business deal/his run for political office demand that they avoid scandal, he insists, not willing to listen to any objection she may raise. But what it really all boiled down to was they must marry because the child is his. His rights as the father take precedence over hers, and since she is now the receptacle for his unborn child, he has the right to assert control not only over the body of the child, but also over the body of its mother. Typically, he is the one who has more power—financial, social, sometimes even political—and thus even if the heroine opposes the idea of marrying a relative stranger, even actively resists it, because of this power imbalance, she usually ends up throwing up her hands fairly early and succumbing to the hero's often less-than-romantic wooing. By romance's end, of course, the two relative strangers have bonded over pregnancy and childbirth, have fallen in love, and thus persuade both themselves and readers that their unplanned marriage was, of course, all for the best.

It's a true delight, then, when an author can take a trope with such sexist underpinnings and recast it in feminist garb. That's just what Molly O'Keefe does in her latest contemporary, Indecent Proposal, the fourth title in her Boys of Bishop series. Our heroine, white working-class Ryan Kaminski, might be the evil villainess in a less thoughtful writer's book; a girl who for years allowed her striking good looks to be her identity, who, selfishly, believed her looks entitled her to more than other people, even her own sister. A girl who not only stole her sister's boyfriend, but married him. A girl who's been estranged from her family for years. But Ryan's done a lot of growing up in the years since her modeling career stalled, since her husband turned out to be far less a prize worth winning than she'd originally thought, since she realized how much her selfishness and entitlement had not only hurt others, but also made her a person she doesn't even like. At thirty-two, working as a part-time bartender and modeling when she gets a rare job, Ryan may not be on top of the world, but she finally knows who she is: someone secure enough to offer an ear and a kind word to the people who come to her bar.

And the man she and her fellow bartender christen "Sad Ken Doll," the man who has haunted her New York City bar for the past three nights, surely could use a kind word. His sister's in trouble (see book #2, Never Been Kissed), and he doesn't think he's going to be able to help her. Ryan knows that a bartender should never cross the invisible barrier down the middle of the bar, knows that the employee handbook says "no fraternizing with the drinkers." But still, Ken Doll, aka Harry, is so sad, so floundering, that Ryan consciously chooses to "shove her first right through that barrier and put her hand over his" (10). And she gifts him with of a night of human connection, of truth-telling and of sexual passion, taking him just as he is, and giving of herself the same. Though she finds herself, as she is all too wont to do, falling a little bit in love with Harry, and with the "rare illusion of care" their night together creates, she's not surprised to find him gone when she wakes up the next morning. She's not expecting to see him again; she doesn't even know his last name.

Even after Ryan discovers that the condom a friend gave her did not do its job, she has no plans to track down the mysterious Harry. But it turns out that it doesn't take much effort to find Sad Ken Doll/Harry; as the privileged son of a scandal-ridden white southern governor, the brother of a recently kidnapped sister, and a candidate himself for the U.S. House of Representatives, Harrison Montgomery is on the news almost as much as is Taylor Swift. Unluckily for Ryan, her volatile brother Wes happens to be in the room when Ryan catches the latest news report on Harry's run for Congress. And Wes takes it into his own hands to confront Harrison Montgomery, even though Ryan insists that she needs time to think about how to deal with the shocking revelation of the true identity of her baby's father.

Not surprisingly, given his own father's philandering past and the hard-ball politics he's grown up around, Harrison had real doubts about the truth of Wes's claims. And when he confronts Ryan, he's ruder than an arrogant Mr. Darcy proposing to Elizabeth Bennet. But "Ryan had been pushed into plenty of corners, so she knew when to come out swinging" (77). And swing she does, even after Harrison proposes to rescue his sure-to-be-floundering-in-the-wake-of-a-sex-scandal campaign by asking Ryan to marry him: "Listen, Harrison, you broke into my apartment. Called me stupid. All but accused me of being a gold-digging whore. I wouldn't marry you if you were the last man on earth" (84).

Harrison acts far differently than other "you're carrying my baby" heroes I've read. He takes little to no interest in the idea of the baby, or in the responsibility of impending fatherhood. All he wants is to not be like his scandal-ridden father, and to have the chance to do some political good in Washington. Thus his proposal is just that—a business proposal, not a claim on Ryan's body or on the baby. They'll marry, and, if he wins the election, they'll stay married, for at least two years. If she wants a divorce after those two years, he'll grant it, buy her a house, send alimony and child support, and step out of her life. In public, they'll pretend they're in love, but in private, they can be who they really are.

Harrison tells Wallace, his campaign manager, "she doesn't have a choice.... Neither of us do." And after her neighbors and her estranged family are besieged by the press, Ryan comes to the same conclusion: "There wasn't any other option but to agree to Harrison's proposal" (91, 98). This is the one point where the trope seems to fall back into its old patriarchal norms, taking away the woman's sense of being able to choose. To prevent the reader from thinking Ryan a gold-digger? Or simply to make the trope/plot possible?

Accepting may be presented as the the only option, but Ryan doesn't accept meekly; she hires her own lawyer and negotiates her "own terms for this indecent proposal," one which will benefit not only her child, but her family, as well (98). In a genre-referential moment, Ryan thinks to herself, "she was not going to show up at the Governor's Mansion like some impoverished historical romance heroine who'd been knocked up by the Duke" (110); instead, she does her homework, and is ready to hit back whenever anybody tries to demean or insult her. In particular, she refuses to accept the slut-shaming label of gold-digger. "Do you think your mother would have taken this deal?" she asks Wallace, Harrison's campaign manager, an African-American who grew up with a single mother in the housing projects of Chicago.  "When she found out she was pregnant with you. Do you think is some man had come out of the blue and promised to make sure your life was set up in a way she could never dream of making happen on her own, would she have done that?.... I think she would have. I think we both know your mother would have done anything for you. Including agreeing to this proposal" (114-15). After going a few more verbal rounds together, Wallace acknowledges her point.

Ryan may feel as small and alone as one of those historical romance heroines, but she refuses to act as if she is. And as long as she insists on her own value, insists that she's worthy of respect not because she's the mother of a future Montgomery child, but because she's intelligent, funny, a natural on the campaign trail, and a kind, caring human being, Ryan will be nobody's pawn. Not her mother-in-law's, not any reporter's, not any of the campaign's staffers'. And especially not Harrison's. For, as the balance of O'Keefe's novel delightfully and sexily demonstrates, Ryan has far more to offer Harrison than anything his contract could ever grant her.

Have you read other "one-night-stand leads to pregnancy leads to 'we must marry'" romances out there that move beyond the patriarchal trappings of the original trope?

Photo credits:
Condom failure: HIV-info.net
Gold Digger: Anti-Jokes

Indecent Proposal
Bantam, 2014

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Feminist Lessons in an Unfeminist World?: Kit Rocha's BEYOND series

A few weeks ago, I became engrossed by the dystopian fantasy world created by erotica writer Kit Rocha (the pseudonym for co-writers Bree Bridges and Donna Herren) in the Beyond series. Well, perhaps not by the world itself, but for the sexual activities of the inhabitants of that world. For a fantasy, world-building is on the light side in Beyond Shame (2012) and its four and counting full-length sequels. Solar storms have decimated the country, leaving only one self-sustaining city, Eden in their wake. Eden is purportedly only for the "righteous"; those who live within "must abide by a strict moral code or risk exile to the brutal lawless sectors" (Author's note, "Welcome to Sector Four"). But hypocrisy lies just below the platitudes, and the sins of the powerful find their support in the eight lawless "sectors" which surround Eden. In each sector, gangs led by a kingpin (all men, with one exception) devote their energies to creating the means of sin—drugs in one sector, prostitutes in another, material goods in a third. Dallas O'Kane is the boss of Sector Four, where he and alcohol rein supreme.

Not everyone who lives in the sector is an O'Kane; to join the gang, you have to prove your usefulness and your loyalty. Once in, you're rewarded with brotherhood (and sisterhood; women as well as men are members), an ink tattoo with the gang's insignia, and lots and lots of sex, in both private and public. For the O'Kanes party not only by drinking their own hootch, but by getting it on with their own partners and with their fellow gang members, at the bar and back in their own rooms: "You can join in or you can watch, but that's pretty much all it is. Wall-to-wall fucking" (Loc 519). Eden puts something in the water to suppress fertility, so no one has to worry about pregnancy (and there's no mention of sexually-transmitted diseases; maybe the solar flare somehow eradicated them, too, along with much of the world's population?)

The only other possible place to live besides Eden or the sectors is on a "commune," described by the heroine of Beyond Shame as "horrifying places where farmers lived primitive lives of indentured servitude. No electricity or running water, only backbreaking labor from dawn to dusk and being bred until you died in childbirth" (Kindle Loc 140). The repression women experience in Eden (premarital sex is worthy of banishment), in sectors led by less enlightened leaders (where women are married without their consent, forced into prostitution, and/or physically and sexually abused), and on the communes makes Sector Four look like a woman's paradise by comparison.

And there is a lot of positive feminist energy in Sector Four. Lex, who will become the "Queen" of Sector Four in the second book of the series, Beyond Control, has gradually persuaded Dallas of the importance and value of including women in his gang. All the male members of the gang show women respect, unlike the men of the other sectors, or the men in Eden. And while sex is used against women in all other places in this post-apocalyptic world, in Sector Four, female sexuality is celebrated. Noelle, the heroine of Beyond Shame, is an exile from Eden, thrown out for being too curious about sex. Hearing about an O'Kane party she's been invited to attend, Noelle is both titillated and ashamed, a reaction hero Jasper, raised in the sectors, can't begin to fathom:

"Do you think I'm a harlot?"
"No. I think maybe you're a lady who likes to fuck."
"You say it so easily, like it's not the same thing at all."
"Because it's not. No one here is going to think you're a bad person." (Loc 526)

Noelle gradually comes to embrace her sexual self, moving "beyond shame" to acceptance and celebration.

Additionally, the romance arcs of the five full-length Beyond novels all revolve around men making stupid, patriarchal assumptions or choices, assumptions and choices that they have to take back by book's end in order to secure the affections of the woman (or in one case, the woman and the man) whom they love. Jasper chooses to break off his relationship with Noelle when she has the chance to return to Eden, but Noelle takes exception to his noble self-sacrifice, choosing to remain in Sector Four whether she's with Jasper or not. In book 3, Beyond Pain, Bren initially chooses to hold off on rescuing thirty-two people, most women, being sold into slavery, in the hopes of wreaking vengeance against the traffickers' leader, a man who betrayed him, but changes his mind once he realizes that his lover, Six, isn't about to sit quietly at home but is off to rescue the captives herself. In book four, Beyond Jealousy, former prostitute and current tattoo artist Ace bails on his ménage-a-trois partners Rachel and Cruz, leaving them before they, inevitably to his mind, leave his fucked-up ass in the dirt; only a male sacrificing for another male, rather than for a female, can pull these three lovers back together.

And yet... I can't help feeling a bit uncomfortable championing Rocha's series as unreservedly feminist. For one thing, the jobs women are allotted in Sector Four are pretty limited; as Dallas tells Lex when Noelle first arrives in Four, "If she's not willing to tend bar, clean house, or suck dick by the end of the week, she's gone" (Shame 193). Add to that short job list "exotic dancer" (several of the O'Kane women dance, from burlesque to complete stripping to being sexually whipped on stage), "bouncer" (one particularly tough woman), and "brewer," and you've just about covered all of the career possibilities for women in the sector. Men can go out with guns, protecting the business and enforcing the O'Kane rules, but women typically stay inside. When times are particularly violent, Dallas O'Kane dictates that no woman will go outside without a man accompanying her. Though Lex becomes "queen," no other women act as counselors or decision-makers when it comes to O'Kane business, a situation mirrored in the other sectors, all of which are ruled by men (with the significant exception of Sector Two, the sector devoted to prostitution). When it comes to leadership and decision-making, gender equality is only limitedly at play.

Another bothersome issue: while the series celebrates female sexuality, and the characters are each devoted to different specific kinks (receiving pain, exhibitionism, watching, inflicting pain, controlling others during sex), all the women ultimately "submit" to their male lovers. The series casts sexual submission as powerful in itself—"This was pleasure. This was power, bringing Ace to his knees while she was on hers" (Jealousy page 74)—and something of which a woman should not be ashamed, something that is ultimately freeing, not constraining: "Begging was her final grasp for control, and being denied was permission to let go and float on freedom" (Jealousy page 263). I wouldn't have a problem with this construction at all, if only each woman in the series did not follow the same trajectory. But to construct female sexual submission as the only way to achieve sexual freedom strikes me as almost as limiting as constructing any type of female sexuality as shameful.

Finally, female sexual submission plays out symbolically in the concept of the "collar," a gift from a male O'Kane lover to his female lover, one that promises "that things were serious, that there would be no friendly visits to hookers or casual fucking with other friends. Well, or at least that they'd visit the hookers and fuck the friends together" (Jealousy 1708). Everyone gets an O'Kane tattoo, but only a woman gets a physical collar, or, if in a committed, long-term relationship, a collar tattooed onto her skin (the one exception comes in book 2, when Dallas and Lex, king and queen, get matching tattoos, each sporting the name of the other on the back of his/her neck).

Compared to Eden, to the communes, and to the other sectors, Sector Four seems the epitome of sexual freedom for women. But is this only because the other options Rocha allows her characters are so utterly sexist/abusive?

Curious to see what other Rocha readers make of the intertwining of sexism and feminism in these books...

self-published, 2012-2014 and beyond

Friday, November 7, 2014

Critiquing from Pleasure: Julie M. Dugger's " 'I'm a Feminist, But... Popular Romance in the Women's Literature Classroom"

I've been dipping with pleasure into the latest issue of Journal of Popular Romance Studies (4.2), with its dual themes of popular romance in Australia and a 30th-anniversary consideration of Janice Radway's groundbreaking study of romance readers, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. But it was an article in the "Teaching and Learning" section of the issue that particular caught my eye, an article about the difficulties students may encounter when reading genre romance in a broader course on Women and Literature. Professor Julie M. Dugger teaches a unit on popular romance in such a class, and writes about both the difficulties and the opportunities presented by such teaching in her article "'I'm a Feminist, But...': Popular Romance in the Women's Literature Classroom" (1).

As I often found when teaching college classes in children's literature, when students who have been trained in literary methods of analyzing a text are asked to analyze something other than canonical literature, they often have one of two reactions, neither conducive to productive learning. Some, committed to the critical literary reading practices they've learned and internalized during their college studies, assert that popular literature, unlike the literature commonly studied in the college classroom, is lesser, and thus unworthy of rigorous critical analysis. Others, more comfortable with popular reading practices than with literary analysis, practices focused more on the pleasure one takes in reading than in analyzing how texts work, object to applying the techniques of literary analysis to their favorite books. "You're overanalyzing this!" and "Don't ruin it for me!" were two common refrains in my children's literature classrooms, as I'm sure they are in any literature course that includes popular romance on its syllabus.

The situation becomes even more complicated when you add feminist literary theory to the mix. Many students are aware of the negative views many feminists have about popular genre romance, yet at the same time, those same students often take real pleasure in reading romance. As Dugger asks, "What is the women's studies critic to do when a genre dominated by women writers and readers appears to conflict with feminist ideals?" (1) Rather than attempt to ignore the discomfort that a student who is a fan of romance may experience when asked to analyze individual romances, or the genre as a whole, Dugger suggests, teachers should take advantage of this discomfort, for it "provides key opportunities for reflecting not only on romance, but on the assumptions in literary and feminist studies that might otherwise go unexamined" (1).

It's important to lay the groundwork for such an examination, though, to help students move beyond both discomfort and their refusal to engage. First, Dugger suggests, it is vital to explain that feminism has both criticized and praised romance as a genre.

The feminist case against romance:

• Romance endorses women's relational roles at the expense of their individual development
• Romance plots and characters validate abusive relationship patterns
• Romance novels are commercial, formulaic productions of very little literary value that perpetuate harmful media stereotypes (in particular, gender stereotypes) (6-8)

The feminist case for romance:

• Romances offer women a way to acknowledge their oppression and imagine a better future
• Romances challenge a male-modeled individualism
• Romance provides women with an alternative to a sexist high-culture literary canon (9-11)

Additionally, Dugger argues that it is vital to approach romance texts not just with suspicion—they are all sexist, and it's our job to point out their sexism—but also with an eye toward the pleasures they offer readers:  "If we really want students to analyze the narratives of romance—utopian as well as dystopia—especially when we teach in a culture that is so caught up in these narratives, we must enable them to work critically from their pleasure as well as their discomfort" (14).

Dugger offers the following suggestions as ways to critique from pleasure, ways that I think general readers of romance might appreciate, even outside of a college classroom:

• First, acknowledge that "all interpretive practices have strengths and weaknesses, and academic reading is no exception. Literary critical reading has its own limits, its own professional turf to defend, and its own forms of sexism.... Correspondingly, just as scholarly reading has its strengths, so too does pleasurable reading. We can encourage multiple modes of approaching a text."
• Use and integrate multiple venues of discussion (full class, small groups, online posts, etc.)
• Juxtapose high- and low-culture romances (to unpack why some texts are valued while others are not, and how a text or entire genre's association with women affects readers' perception of literary quality)
• Analyze pleasure: Why does a text give you as a reader pleasure? How do other readers of the same text talk about the pleasure it gives them? How does the text work to create such pleasure?
• Give air-time to both sides of the debate
• Don't be shy about announcing that you (in Dugger's case, the teacher) like romances (or admire people who do). Knowing that other smart women like romance can help readers confront the stigma often associated with reading such a devalued genre (14-16)

These practices both resonated with me, as things I attempt to do via this blog, and gave me food for thought about potential future RNFF posts. I especially appreciated Dugger's generous conclusion: "It cannot hurt to remember how often love is a positive force in human endeavor, whether it be romantic love for other people, or readerly love for the stories they tell" (17).

As a romance reader, do you find yourself conflicted over your reading? Are you able to read for pleasure and read analytically? If so, can you do so both at the same time? Or can you read in only one mode at a time?

Illustration credits:
Keep calm: Keepcalm-o-matic
Love 2 read: Read 2012

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Wrestling with the B-word: Lucy March's THAT TOUCH OF MAGIC

Bitch: Feminist Responses to Popular Culture
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women

Smart women with feminist leanings have long been attempting to reclaim the derogatory term "bitch," suggesting that the qualities which it points to as worthy of insult are the very qualities that women should celebrate. As author Laura Wild argues,

To me, someone calling me a bitch means they think I'm aggressive, asserting my control, in charge, whatever, and they're probably threatened by that. I am those things, there's no reason why I shouldn't be, and the shock attached to the use of the phrase by whoever's saying it that suggests I shouldn't be those things is what annoys me most.

Such reclamation projects were on my mind as I read the second book in Lucy March's light comedic paranormal series about the small town of Nodaway Falls, That Touch of Magic. Its brash, foul-mouthed, rule-breaking protagonist, budding conjurer Stacy Easter, could well be termed a bitch in the positive, reclaimed sense. Her typical way of interacting with others is through snarky, barbed sarcasm: she greets the sight of her friend (and soon-to-be sister-in-law) Peach "It's Rosie the Riveter, the spank-me version." Peach simply replies, "Yay! She's being mean. She's okay" (26). Stacy wisecracks her way throughout the novel, not afraid to speak her mind, to take control of a bad situation, or to protest, loudly, when others treat her or her friends poorly.

The only thing (or person, rather) who leaves her tongue-tied is her ex-boyfriend, Leo North, who, ten years before, in a drunken, grief-stricken mistake, slept with another girl then left Stacy to study for the priesthood. Back in town for Peach's wedding to Stacy's brother, Leo, it turns out, did not end up taking on the collar. And it also turns out he's not just back in town for the wedding; his therapist recommended that he see Stacy once again, so he'd stop "thinking of you as ... well. Mine. He said you'd be different. He said those feelings would go away, and I'd be able to finally let it go and move on" (70). To Leo's chagrin, his therapist had it wrong: he's just as drawn to Stacy as he was ten years ago.

And Stacy knows her feelings for Leo are just as strong as they ever were. But tough Stacy isn't as ready to mend fences as Leo is: "I wanted to throw my arms around him, kiss him until neither of us could see straight. Bring him to my bed and keep him there forever. But that was weakness, and if loving Leo had made me anything, it wasn't weak" (72). Intriguingly, though, it turns out that Leo's transgression isn't the only thing standing in the way of a joyful Stacy-Leo reunion. Turns out that Stacy's embrace of reclaimed bitchiness is not as unambiguous as she makes it seem.

Stacy herself often deploys the b-word; it appears 16 times in the book, most often spoken by or thought by our protagonist. She uses it to describe her over-the-top narcissistic mother after Mrs. Easter insults Peach during the rehearsal dinner ("You have captured my son's heart, and he's a good man,, so there must be some great virtue in you.... It is my sincere hope that you will find your way back to Jesus, and repent of the poison you have injected into my good boy with your whorish ways"): "She's a hellbitch, Peach" (50-51; 56). When Mrs. Easter tries to return to the rehearsal dinner to spew more vitriol, Stacy uses the word again, threatening her mother with a pretend potion: "If I hear one word from anyone about you being a bitch to anyone, not just Peach... if I see one expression on your face that isn't kindness and delight, all I have to do is get a drop of this on your skin, a single drop, and your face will break out in wrinkles they can see from space" (62). In this sense, being a bitch is being selfish, being completely uncaring of the feelings of those around you.

Stacy also deploys the male form, "son of a bitch," when she wants to insult men who act in a similar, unfeeling way. Initially, when Leo first attempts to explain and apologize: "You slept with someone else, then left me to become a priest, you son of a bitch!" (68) and "You son of a bitch!... You left me" (69). And later in the story, when she discovers that Desmond Lamb, a fellow (male) conjurer has less than benign intentions towards her and the other women of Nodaway Falls, she uses it on four separate occasions to signal her contempt for his selfish, unfeeling attempts to use others for his own gain.

Yet despite her contempt for those who do not feel for others, tough, brash, rule-breaking Stacy is really worried that it is not her mother, or any of the unfeeling men in her life, but Stacy herself who is the true bitch. And that a bitch, even of the reclaimed variety, is not someone whom anyone can love. She attempts, mid-book, to apologize to Leo for their breakup:

     "It's... me.... I'm ugly.... Not physically, okay. I know I'm pretty physically. But inside, where it matters. I'm an ugly person."
     He huffed in the darkness. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
     "You should have left.... You saw me for what I really was.... Oh, come on. You saw me. When I was screaming at you, when I was throwing things at you... I saw the look on your face.... I scared you.... When I get angry, I get ugly. I know that. And once someone has seen that... I mean, how can I expect them to want to be around me?" (180-81)

Stacy has internalized the cultural message (and her mother's message, too) that her emotions—in particular, her anger—are bad, hateful, making her worthy only of being shunned. Over the course of the novel, then, Stacy will have to go beyond a surface reclamation of "bitch," digging deeper into both the sexual and emotional connotations of the earlier derogatory usage before she can rest easy in the reclaimed, celebratory sense of the word.

According to the OED, the word "bitch" stems from the Old English bicce, or female dog. But by the sixteenth century, the word was just as commonly used as an insult aimed primarily at women, in particular at "lewd or sensuous" women, women whose sexuality was seen as threatening because uncontrolled. Today, its connotations include both this earlier sense, as well as a more general sense of a "malicious or treacherous woman"; when applied to an object, it also indicates something "outstandingly difficult or unpleasant."

Significantly, it is during Stacy's sexual reunion with Leo that she is finally able to channel the magical power which Desmond inadvertently granted her. And only after Leo challenges her, mid-sex, to reject the assumptions that derogatory bitch-hood projects ("I'm not ugly. I'm not vicious.) and embrace instead the strength inherent in reclaimed bitch-hood ("I'm powerful") can she take control of that magic. Viewing both her emotions (especially her anger) and her power as equally worthy of celebrating, Stacy comes to reject the construction of bitch that argues that a powerful woman can only be powerful if she lacks sensitivity to others.

Only after fully embracing reclaimed bitchiness can Stacy counter the unfeeling Desmond when he lofts the b-insult (in its earlier sense) in her direction during their final showdown. And only by forcing Desmond to reconnect with his own detached emotions, rather than shunning the power of her own feelings, can Stacy ultimately prevent Desmond from harming the people she loves.

Do you think "bitch" as a word is worth reclaiming? Are there other romance novels which use the word in a feminist, rather than a derogatory, way?

Photo credits:
I'm Not a Bitch: Life Inspiration Quotes
Leymah Gbowee: Working Women in Aid and Development blog

That Touch of Magic
St. Martin's, 2014

Friday, October 31, 2014

Romance Novels and Male-Centered Sexuality

I'm in the midst of reading sex educator Rebecca Chalker's The Clitoral Truth: The Secret World at Your Fingertips, a fascinating, polemical look the seat of female sexual pleasure, and it's making me wonder about the sex scenes in romance novels. Chalker points out how much more attention is paid in Western culture to the clitoris's male counterpart, the penis, in both popular culture and in the medical and scientific literature, and how this bias in favor of the penis has important implications for female sexuality. Though Chalker's book was written in 2000, her claim about the cultural attention paid to the cock as compared to that paid to the clit seems just as true nearly fifteen years later; a basic Internet search reveals

Google search for "penis":     14,700,000
Google search for "clitoris":    2,230,000
(a ratio of 6.9:1)

The statistics are even more skewed when it comes to scientific research, as a similar search of the online medical articles database PubMed reveals:

Pubmed references found when searching for "penis":    41,777
Pubmed references found when searching for "clitoris":   1,967
(a ratio of 21:1)

This penis/clitoris imbalance is not just an amusing sign of male arrogance, Chalker argues; this difference in attention has serious consequences for women and their ability to experience sexual pleasure. Because of Western culture's singleminded focus on the penis, the heterosexual male pattern of sexual response—quick arousal, erection, vaginal intercourse, single orgasm—has come to be perceived as real "sex." A female pattern of sexual response—slower arousal, pleasure stemming from the clitoris rather than from the vagina, the ability to orgasm multiple times—is "considered second rate, not 'real' sex," argues Chalker.

While reading Chalker's arguments, I began to think about how sexual arousal and response are portrayed in romance novels. Since romance novels are written primarily by women and for women, do they do a better job at portraying a female patterns of sexual arousal and response than our culture at large? Or is the male-centered heterosexual model of sexuality so ingrained that it serves as the basis for the sex depicted in this woman-centered genre?

Would you like to join me in a little experiment to consider this question? Take the last romance novel you finished, and examine each of its sex scenes. Do they follow the pattern that Chalker terms the male heterosexual model of sexuality? Things you might look for:

• vaginal intercourse as the centerpiece of sexual activity, the primary goal
• a single orgasm, rather than multiple orgasms
• orgasm as the end of the scene (climax reached = goal accomplished!)

Or do they follow a different script? If so, what does that script look like?

Looking forward to hearing the results of your explorations...

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Late Bloomers? K J Charles' THINK OF ENGLAND and Sarina Bowen's THE UNDERSTATEMENT OF THE YEAR

Reading the posts on the Queer Romance month web site, and reading KJ Charles' and Sarina Bowen's latest books, brought back the memory of a conversation I had with a fellow student from a writing class I took a few years ago. The two of us had bonded a bit, feeling like the only two outliers in a fairly conservative and conventional group of writers: me, a feminist who vocally protested the lack of gender diversity in our class readings; he, a quieter but insistent voice for sexual and racial diversity. His style of dress, as well as his talk of his partner, suggested that unlike the rest of us in the class, it would not be safe to assume he was among the heterosexual majority. And yes, when we met outside of class for coffee one day, somehow the topic of his sexuality came up. "When did you know you were gay?" I remember asking, and we talked about his sheltered upbringing, and how he didn't really cotton on to his sexual preferences until he was far older, not until he was in college.

"When did you know you were straight?" What would I have done if my fellow student had asked me this in return? It's not a question heterosexuals get asked very often, given the heteronormative assumptions upon which our culture is based. For queer-identifying folks, though, "when did you know" gets asked on a fairly regular basis.

According to both popular and medical wisdom, most kids begin to develop a general interest in sex around the ages of 12 or 13, at the onset of puberty. Some progressive groups or communities may recognize and openly discuss with teens that such interest may turn not only toward those of the opposite sex, but for some, towards those of their own, but most Western societies are largely built around heteronormativity, the assumption that everyone will be attracted toward someone of the other sex. Though some queer folk report feeling "different" as early as elementary school, growing up with the assumption that you (like everyone you know) will of course be straight may lead adolescents and young adults, like my classmate, to not recognize or even to ignore their own sexual desires until far later in life than that 12-13-year-old norm.

That proves to be the case for one half of each romantic pairing in two recent male/male romances, Think of England, an Edwardian-period piece, and The Understatement of the Year, a contemporary New Adult. England's Archie Curtis, whom author K. J. Charles audaciously and amusingly imagines as the nephew of the fictional Sir Henry Curtis, one of the three male adventurers in H. Rider Haggard's classic of Victorian imperial masculinity, King Solomon's Mines (1885), seems on the surface to be the epitome of decent English gentleman-hood. White, an ex-army man, and former Oxford boxing champ, he's come to a house party in search of evidence that will implicate his host in the production of the faulty guns that killed, maimed, and injured more men of his company during two minutes of practice firing than in all of the previous six months' fighting. Despite having lost three fingers in the melee, Archie is tall, broad, and blond, as attractive as a "Viking," according to fellow houseguest and poet Daniel Da Silva. Unlike Archie, Da Silva is everything a gentleman is not supposed to be: a Jew, a "dago," and, most obviously, a "bloody pansy," one of those "poisonous decadent types" Archie had spent his years at Oxford avoiding (Kindle Loc 183, 140).

Archie's not the most self-reflective sort; it is only after he and Da Silva find themselves forced to engage in a sexually compromising situation to throw off suspicion after almost getting caught searching in their host's office (it seems that Daniel, like Archie, may have other reasons for attending the house party) that he starts to wonder just why he found the situation—and Da Silva himself—so compelling:

He had been in exclusively male company at school, of course, and at college. He could have sought out female companionship at Oxford, as many did, but he had been occupied elsewhere, concentrating on his sporting career and, as a poor second, getting his degree. He had joined the army straight out of university, and from then on he'd mostly been in one or another part of Africa, at least up until Jacobsdal. He had, in fact, spent his life with men. And if, in those circumstances, one played the fool with other fellows, as he had at school, and college, or had a particular friend as he had in the army, well, that was only natural. Men had needs. Today's business with Da Silva was very far from his first time with another chap. It was simply the first time he'd been forced to think of it.  (1261)

Because he has always embodied the characteristics that describe the average, normal English gentleman, Archie cannot read his own acts as anything that could rightly be labeled "queer." It takes some time, and some delicious flirting and spying with Daniel, until Archie gradually comes to realize that his own definition of "queer" might be a bit too narrow to encompass both himself and Daniel and "this—whatever it was, between them that he wanted to pursue" (1477).

The Understatement of the Year's Michael Graham is a bit more self-aware about his sexual desires than Archie Curtis. Unlike Archie, who simply thought himself too busy to pursue a relationship with a member of the opposite sex, Graham actively courts the college girls who pursue him and the other the hockey players of Harkness University (a thinly disguised Yale—yeah, alma mater!). But he has to be pretty drunk to persuade his body to "get it up for a girl" (363). As his new teammate and former friend Rikker realizes, "it didn't take a genius to see that Graham had decided that he was a straight guy now. Or at least deep in the closet" (157).

Graham has the luxury of hiding from his sexuality, but Rikker doesn't, not since his former coach at his Catholic college kicked him off the team after a disgruntled sex partner sent pictures of the two of them having sex. Two men having sex. Though it is against ACAA rules to discriminate against players on the basis of their sexual identities, the Catholic college backs up its coach, and Rikker finds himself playing at a new school. For a team on which his first love, and first sexual partner, Michael Graham, has a leading—and straight—role (Both young men are presumably white).

Graham's fears of his own sexuality are deep-seated, with multiple roots, including his guilt over betraying his first love, Rikker, when the two were in ninth grade. Their past history makes it next to impossible for Graham to interact civilly with his new teammate, while Graham's avoidance only goads Rikker to provoke him. It takes Graham far longer to come to terms with his sexual orientation, his self-hatred, and his feelings for Rikker, than it took Archie. Lucky for Graham, Rikker is willing to cut his former friend—and secret hook-up—a lot of slack. None of that "be honest with yourself and everyone else or I won't be with you" stuff on Rikker's part here: "See, just like I know you can't help being gay, I also know that you can't help being twisted up over it. I never blamed you for that, G. I get it" (Loc 3468). Rikker isn't happy about it, but he's patient, and loving, and ready to accept the slow pace that Graham needs. And because of his patient love, Graham finds himself ready to be there for Rikker when his lover faces a crisis of his own.

When did you first realize you were gay/straight/bi/queer/trans? And what other romance novels would you recommend that depict difficult coming-to-terms with one or both partners' sexual identities?

Photo credits:
Yale Hockey Players: Yale University Athletics

Think of England
 Samhain, 2014

The Understatement of the Year (The Ivy Years #3)
Rennie Road Books

Friday, October 24, 2014

Reporting from the "Unsuitable #1" Panel at Duke University

It was a honor to be asked to participate in the first of Duke University's Unsuitable panels, a series of "open, frank, and informed conversations about women and popular fiction historically and today." Professors (and romance authors) Laura Florand and Katharine Brophy DuBois (pen name Katharine Ashe) are coordinating this speaker series in conjunction with the course they will be teaching in the spring semester, "The Romance Novel." Here's a brief recap of this first panel, for those who did not have the good fortune to attend:

Laura Florand and Katharine Brophy DuBois opened the program by jointly welcoming attendees and participants, inviting all interested parties to join in the conversation about why books aimed primarily at a female audience are often either ignored or denigrated. Audience members included romance writers, undergrad and graduate students, scholars from related disciplines, and readers of popular romance, a mix that suggests the goal of the series—to get people from different backgrounds but a common interest talking about the most popular (and most financially lucrative) genre being published today—is well on its way to being met.

Rachel Seidman, a historian who specializes in the history of women's activism, opened the program by talking about the "Who Needs Feminism" project that students in her "Women and the Public Sphere" class at Duke created in response to her call for final projects that engaged in activism on behalf of women's issues. Her students, recognizing that if you "identify yourself as a feminist today... many people will immediately assume you are a  man-hating, bra-burning, whiny liberal," decided to create a PR campaign on behalf of feminism, a campaign focused on erasing the assumption that we "no longer need feminism." The project was originally intended to extend no further than the Duke campus, but when students posted the photos they had taken to Facebook, "Who Needs Feminism" went viral. Now, people around the world are writing down the reasons why they need feminism and posting them to the tumblr site the class created.

Seidman spoke about the backlash against the project, initially primarily by men but more recently by women, too. While much of the male backlash was simply offensive or abusive, Seidman found it fascinating that the anti-feminism pictures posted by women often included arguments similar to those made by nineteenth-century women who protested against women's suffrage. Patriarchy often allows women a small degree of power, and feminism has had a difficult time, Seidman suggested, convincing women invested in the power patriarchy has offered in giving up that power in the hopes of gaining agency of their own.

Seidman concluded by asking "How much of this matters? Is this a breakthrough moment for feminism, or an empty gesture?" Seidman suggested that shifting the feminist discourse from "I am a feminist" to "I need feminism because it allows me to do x" might be a positive step, suggesting that those wary of identity politics might come to regard feminism as a tool they can employ to meet their goals, rather than a label they have to wear.

Romance author and scholar Maya Rodale spoke next, recounting the research she had done for her Master's thesis on the history of romance, and the reasons why the genre, and women's reading in general, has so often been stigmatized. She recounted her own mocking attitude towards the genre when she was a college student, until she thought to ask herself how she knew to mock romance when she'd never even read a romance novel? Digging into the history of both romance and women's reading, she discovered that reading, especially reading by women and by the poor, was considered dangerous. Romances developed a bad reputation, a reputation intended to frighten women away from reading that might call patriarchal and class hierarchies into question. 

Rodale points to four reasons why romance novels might be considered dangerous:

• Romance celebrates a woman's right to choose

• Romance focuses on independent women, in the period after they've left the domesticity of their family home and before they've begun to create domestic homes of their own. The "Sex in the City" years of a woman's life, as Rodale terms them.

• Romance asserts women's sexuality is not worthy of punishment, but of celebration. In literary fiction, women who have sex often end up dead (think Anna Karenina, or myriad other 19th century cannonical works). But in romance, women get to have sex and enjoy it. A scary thought for many...

• Romance insists on a happily-ever-after. Literary critics tend to agree with the opening line of the above-mentioned Anna Karenina: "All happy families [or lovers] are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." If a book ends happily, they feel, it must be formulaic, and thus lacking in true literary merit. Romance takes issue with this belief.

Maya is currently at work on a longer nonfiction project about the reputation of popular romance, but if you'd like the details of her past work, check out this uTube video she made summarizing her thesis.

Florand and DuBois saw my work as a bridge between the two earlier speakers' work, and thus asked me to speak at the end of the program. I recounted the genesis of the RNFF blog in my own history of reading"unsuitable" romances (see this early post for details), and then talked about the pleasures of the blog, in particular the cross-section of commenters that have posted thoughts, ideas, questions, and challenges over the two years of the blog's existence.

Katharine Dubois, Jackie Horne, Laura Florand,
Maya Rodale, and Jessica Scott
A short but lively discussion followed our presentations, a discussion which touched upon the state of sex education in our country, how constructions of masculinity in romance have changed far more slowly than constructions of femininity have, speculation about the reasons for the current resurgence in alpha males, the role of sex and sexual pleasure in romance, the tensions between feminism and capitalism, and just how stigmatized romance really is today. I want to thank the audience members for their thoughtful questions and insights; their ideas have given me much food for thought, and for future posts here at RNFF.

One thing I did want to clear up. While the writer from Duke Today who reported on the event quoted me as asking "Why is it that we have to hide our romance novels in our nightstand drawers or under our beds?" (I believe it was actually Katharine DuBois who asked this, and as a rhetorical question), what I actually said was that while as an adolescent I had kept my Harlequin romances in a paper bag in the closet, I now had several shelves in my office devoted to my single-title romance keepers, below my children's literature scholarly books and above my fantasy and science fiction collections.

It's the erotica I keep in the nightstand table...