Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Film and Novel Feminism: Diana Wynne Jones' HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE

This past weekend, my daughter and I took some time-out from December's rush to have a mom-kid movie night. Our film of choice? The 2005 animated Howl's Moving Castle, adapted by Hayao Miyazaki from the 1986 novel by British fantasist Diana Wynne Jones. Miyazaki is a filmmaker of great imagination, one who does not feel bound to stick slavishly to his original source material when crafting an adaptation. Interestingly, though, in spite of their differences, both Miyazaki's film and Diana Wynne Jones's novel have been called "feminist" by various writers and critics. As I watched the film, I found myself thinking about the differences between it and Jones' novel, and wondering how those differences impacted the feminist messages of each.  Such wondering gave me the perfect excuse to indulge in a comfort re-read of Wynne Jones' novel.

In the film version of Howl, Sophie Hatter's problem at story's start is her lack of self-esteem. Unlike her mother or her sister Lettie, or the other girls in the hat shop where she works, Sophie is not that attractive. Plain, shy, and gray, Sophie is more upset than charmed when two handsome but large and looming male soldiers attempt to flirt with her in the town's streets. "Do something for yourself for once, will you?" sister Lettie calls to her as Sophie gradually edges away from the busy pastry shop where Lettie works, pointing to Sophie's penchant for self-sacrifice and linking it to her lack of self-esteem.

For Sophie of the novel, looks are not at issue; both she and her two sisters "grew up very pretty indeed" (1). Rather, her problem lies in her belief that story has the power to shape destiny. "In the land of Ingary," the novel opens, "where such things as seven-league books and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes" (1). Though the book's second paragraph hints that stories are not infallible (though the birth of Sophie's second sister "ought to have made Sophie and Lettie into Ugly Sisters," it had not), Sophie herself misses the hint. "She had read a great deal, and very soon realized how little chance she had of an interesting future. It was a disappointment to her, but she was still happy enough, looking after her sisters and grooming Martha [the youngest sister] to seek her fortune when the time came" (1). For the reader, the humor lies both in imagining a world where fairy tale tropes determine one's future, and in laughing at a character who buys into the convention, even when the evidence to disprove it is as close as the nose on her face.

With its focus on storytelling rather than feminine self-confidence, the book's opening may appear to be less feminist than the film's. But DWJ is a sneaky writer, with a lot of hidden agendas up her sleeve. Even while we're encouraged to chuckle at Sophie, we're also invited to think more deeply about the ways that story—in the form of social and gender conventions—can and do shape us, often despite our own better judgment. About which, more below.

The bulk of both versions take place after the Witch of the Waste comes to Sophie's hat shop and, for reasons only hinted at, lays a curse on her, a curse that makes her appear to be an old woman rather than a seventeen-year-old adolescent. Before moving to that section of the story, though, I want to discuss two significant differences between film and book that occur before Sophie's transformation. Sophie of the book is wont to talk to the hats as she trims them, spinning stories about their own futures: "You have mysterious allure"; "You are going to have to marry money!" "You have a heart of gold and someone in a high position will see it and fall in love with you" (7). Though the narrator does not come out and say it directly, astute readers will quickly pick up on the fact that Sophie's predictions turn out to be true for the women who buy and wear her hats. While Sophie believes that story has the power to shape her life, in fact it is Sophie who has the power to tell stories that shape the lives of others. But it is a power of which she, unlike the reader, is woefully unaware. Because she is so invested in the stories her society tells her?

A fearful Sophie being rescued by a handsome stranger
Unlike book Sophie, film Sophie has no latent magical powers. And film Sophie's first meeting with her future love interest, the purportedly evil Wizard Howl, is significantly different from book Sophie's. In the film, a slim, blond man rescues Sophie from the importuning of the above-mentioned flirty soldiers, claiming her as his "sweetheart" and using magic to send the soldiers marching away. We're immediately distracted from this "rescue" by the arrival of a new threat ("Don't be alarmed, but I'm being followed" the man tells Sophie as inky snaky blob creatures ooze out of the walls around them), but a rescue it is all the same. Though the girls of the town spread rumors about how Howl eats girls' hearts, they're clearly enchanted rather than threatened by the prospect, a course that Sophie is invited to follow. Some men may be threats, the film suggests, but this man (who we later discover is the wizard Howl) is not. "That's my girl," he tells her when he leaves her on Lettie's balcony, clearly the adult to Sophie's frightened child.

In the novel, though, it is not soldiers, but "a young man in a fantastical blue-and-silver costume" who spots Sophie and accosts her on the crowded street (9). Book Sophie's response to the man (who, again, turns out to be Howl) is similar to movie Sophie's response to the soldiers: "Sophie shrank into a shop doorway and tried to hide" (9). But the novel casts Sophie's response, not Howl's actions, as abnormal:

Crowds of young men swaggered beerily to and fro, trailing cloaks and long sleeves and stamping buckled boots they would never have dreamed of wearing on a working day, calling loud remarks and accosting girls. The girls strolled in fine pairs, ready to be accosted. It was perfectly normal for May Day, but Sophie was scared of that too. (9)

At the costumed man's pitying look, Sophie realizes that she's overreacting, and feels ashamed. Sophie's fear of aggressive masculinity, which in the film is justified by Howl's rescue, here is cast as part and parcel of her problem. Could that problem be less about believing in the stories her society tells, and more about using those stories to hide from her own fears? Does film Sophie lack self-confidence, while book Sophie fears her own powers? Including her own power to attract the opposite sex?

The Witch of the Waste's curse on Sophie "compels [Sophie] to seek her fortune" in both book and film. What fortune does she find? What is her quest? In the book, Sophie's transformation from maiden to crone allows her to free herself from many of her fears. A trapped dog frightens her, but "The way I am now, it's scarcely worth worrying about," she tells herself, and goes about freeing the canine with her sewing scissors (20). "Still, I don't think wolves will eat me. I must be far too dry and tough. That's one comfort," she thinks later in her trek (22). And finally, when she encounters Howl's moving castle on the moorland, one more comfort: "Wizard Howl is not likely to want my soul for his collection. He only takes young girls" (23). And thus old Sophie risks knocking on the castle door.

In contrast, film Sophie wanders rather helplessly on the moors, and relies on the help of a turnip-headed scarecrow, who gives her a cane, finds her a place to stay, and urges her to enter the moving castle in spite of her doubts and fears. Old Sophie initially has far more agency in the novel than in the film.

Once inside the castle, though, both book and film Sophie find themselves talking back to Wizard Howl. "What a nosy/outspoken/unruly old woman you are," Howl teases book Sophie, responding to her nosy, outspoken, unruly words and behavior. Far from the shy "mouse" he named her at their first meeting, old Sophie isn't afraid to speak her mind, or to act on her own behalf, in her own self-interest. Without having to worry about romance, about attraction and sex, book Sophie feels safe enacting an identity far different than the shy, mousy girl she's been playing for most of her life.

Film Sophie is initially a bit more cautious, a bit more tentative. But her anger at being suspected of being in league with the Witch of the Waste spurs her to throw off her caution: "I'm sick of being treated like some timid little old lady," she cries while attacking the dirty castle in a domestic cleaning spree. Both book and film Sophie invert the typical quest pattern of leaving the domestic to go and seek adventure. Instead, Sophie goes to seek adventure and finds herself hard at work in the domestic sphere.

Film Sophie crying over
 her lack of beauty
Film Sophie's personal quest turns out to be accepting her own beauty. In the novel, the uproariously comic scene in which Howl cries in despair after Sophie mixes up his potions while cleaning the bathroom, leading him to inadvertently dye his hair red, serves as another sign of his character: vain, self-centered, and entertainingly dramatic. But in the film, the scene serves to reveal Sophie's deep pain over her lack of looks. "I see no point in living if I can't be beautiful," Howl melodramatically despairs, to which Sophie responds, "Fine. So you think you've got it bad? I've never once been beautiful in my entire life!" Fleeing the castle, Sophie ends up outside, crying on the moor.

Interestingly, Sophie's curse seems to fade at this moment; the film pictures her as a young woman again. And throughout the rest of the film, at moments when Howl pays attention to her—remaking the castle to give her her own room, resetting the magical door to open upon a beautiful flower-covered plain, giving her presents—Sophie looks younger. The Witch of the Waste may have initially laid the curse of age on Sophie, but the film suggests that it is Sophie's lack of self-confidence that keeps it in place.

Significantly, film Sophie remains old even after the Witch of the Waste is stripped of her powers by the evil wizard Madame Suliman. Only after Sophie takes action to save Howl (by moving the castle) does she throw off her old-woman disguise for good.

At the climax of the film, after Sophie has figured out how to save Howl from the curse he has been under, Howl awakens and exclaims, "Wow. Sophie, your hair looks just like starlight. It's beautiful." Sophie's response—"You think so? So do I."—indicates that Sophie has finally accepted herself, finally believes in herself. Embracing feminine self-confidence is certainly a feminist message. But having beauty function as a proxy for self-confidence, rather than any sense of achievement, is troubling at best. And that Sophie regains her youth by acting to save another, rather than acting to save herself or to achieve her own goals, reinforces messages that women are meant to meet others' desires rather than their own.

In contrast, the climax of the book occurs when Miss Angorian, a woman whom the love-em-and-leave-em Howl has been courting, is captured by the Witch of the Waste. Sophie feels she's the one who put Miss Angorian in danger because she felt jealous of Howl's attentions to her, and immediately sets off to rescue the woman. Saving another woman, a woman endangered because of her jealousy, rather than saving a man with whom she is in love, sends quite a different message about Sophie's agency.

But Wynne Jones' message gets even more complicated. Because after she and Howl join forces to defeat the Witch of the Waste, it turns out that Miss Angorian is not as innocent as she initially appeared. And Sophie must act again, this time to rescue Howl. But also to rescue herself, from being too femininely nice, so nice that she's allowed others—her stepmother, Miss Angorian, even Howl—to take advantage of her.

New York Times film reviewer A. O. Scott may be right that Miyazaki's film "resonate[s] with... determined, somewhat romantic feminism," and that its Sophie "joins an impressive sisterhood of Miyazaki heroines, whose version of girl power presents a potent alternative to the mini-machismo that dominates American juvenile entertainment." But given a choice, I'd take Diana Wynne Jones' version of feminism every time.

Friday, December 12, 2014

What I Learned from Romance Novels: Fact or Fiction? Falling Asleep in your Lover's Arms

When he put his arm around her tummy, the softness of her skin felt perfect. When he spooned her so that he felt her body against his chest, his thighs, he sighed with contentment. This was exactly what he'd wanted. And from her sigh, he knew she wasn't unhappy about it, either. He closed his eyes and drifted off. — Jo Leigh, Ms. Match

I've been thinking a lot about a conversation I had recently with my significant other, about our expectations about romance. Our real-life relationship qualifies as a friends-to-lovers story, a slow, steady liking leading to affection, connection, living together, and, finally (at least for my mother-in-law), years later, marriage. I told him that I sometimes regret not having experienced the "grand passion" type of love—Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, Tristan and Isolde, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara—and asked if he ever felt the same. "No," he said, looking at me with some puzzlement. "That's not something I expected at all." It made me wonder where his expectations about love and romance had come from, and in what ways they differed from, and in what ways they overlapped with, my own.

In particular, I started to think about what expectations about love and relationships I had learned from reading romance novels. And I thought I'd write an occasional post here on RNFF about different things I've come to expect after my years of romance reading, whether they have in fact played out in my real life, and then ask you about whether these things have proven to be true or not in your real, day-to-day relationships.

An ad for the "Cuddle Mattress," which "let's you hug your
better half intimately without any arm or wrist problems"
This first one is something I've always been disappointed about not happening in my real life. Unlike Paul Bennet, hero of Jo Leigh's Harlequin Blaze novel Ms. Match quoted above, as well as thousands of other romance heroes and heroines, I've never been able to fall asleep in a lover's arms. Oh, I can take a quick catnap, especially after a lazy weekend daytime tryst, but fall truly, deeply asleep? No way. My legs start to twitch; my brain starts thinking about the chores of the day to come; my body gets uncomfortably warm, even sweaty, tucked up so close to another person's heat. My love may be snoring beside me, but though my eyes are shut, my body just will not allow itself to drop off into unconsciousness. I always find myself slowly pulling away, needing to turn onto my tummy and pull the covers up over my shoulders, safe in my own solitary bubble of space, before golden sleep can reign.

Am I just an oversensitive oddity? Or is the falling asleep in your lover's arms a comforting fiction of romance? Enquiring minds (at least this one) want to know: Can you fall asleep while spooned up close to another person?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

You Don't Complete Me: Solace Ames' THE SUBMISSION GIFT

"You complete me." "You're my missing half." "You make me whole." Such phrases were once the stock in trade of romance, both of the filmic and the written variety. Find your soul mate, connect with your one true love, and you'd find the one person who could—and would—give you everything you'd ever wanted, ever needed. Fall in love, and you'd be happy and sated for the rest of your life.

In real life, people who expect their mates or spouses to fulfill their every need are doomed to disappointment. But even today, romances that reject the "you complete me" trope are far less common than those that embrace it. Perhaps that's why I found Solace Ames' The Submission Gift such a treat. For Ames' erotic romance (the second in her LA Doms series) insists that one can be happily married, even if one's partner can't meet all one's sexual desires.

Adriana and Jay, a Mexican-American couple, have had a difficult start to their married life. A car accident a little over a year ago seriously injured Jay, and Adriana has spent the subsequent months splitting her time between caring for her husband and working grueling hours as a sous chef. But now Jay's almost completely recovered, and ready to resume his life, including his sex life with his wife.

Jay loves Adriana so much, he'd do anything for her. Or, at least, almost everything. Adrianna's into being dominated in bed, but Jay's just not that into playing that role. Because he cares for her, Jay can sometimes get into such scenes:  "Even though he wasn't much into controlling—he played these games for her sake, not his own—sometimes he'd sink far enough into her feelings that he'd genuinely enjoy this easiest, most playful level of teasing, denying, restraining" (Kindle Loc 162). But he doesn't enjoy it enough to fully satisfy Adrianna: "If he gripped her wrists and held her down... She wanted that. Such a small thing, and he couldn't do it, couldn't take that step. Because she only wanted it if he wanted it. And he didn't, not really" (187).

Jay wants Adrianna to be happy, though, and comes up with the idea of using some of the insurance money they've just received to hire a "rent boy," a sex worker who can take on the dominant roles that Jay just doesn't enjoy. Jay finds Paul, a white thirty-year-old who specializes in BDSM work both with gay men and also with couples. As a threesome, and later, pairing off individually with Paul, Jay and Adrianna gradually find themselves growing not just more sexually fulfilled, but also developing a real emotional bond with Paul. A bond Paul, too, recognizes: "We've got a strong emotional connection.... I feel it as much as you. It's okay. It doesn't take away from what you have with Jay," Paul reassures Adrianna (1039).

All too soon, though, the extra settlement money is gone, and Jay and Adrianna can no longer afford Paul's services. But before they can tell Paul, Paul announces he's firing them as clients. Not because they've done anything wrong, but because he wants to "see you, both of you, on a non-paying relationship basis.... Dating. Or free sex. Whichever way you want to look at it. I'm easy. I'm very easy" (1915).

Ames gives us the point of view of all three members of this unusual threesome: Adrianna, tough and competent on the job and in everyday life, who gets off on sexual domination and pain, but not discipline or punishment; Jay, a "bi guy on the femme side," a social worker who counsels abused women (2867); and Paul, who enjoys his sex work but imagines leaving it behind someday, after he's earned his architecture degree. Each continually questions his or her own motives, his or her desires, wondering if they are wrong, if they are hurting one another, or themselves: for example, Jay thinks "Maybe there was something wrong with his mind, or his heart, for him to not feel particularly torn or jealous. But he just couldn't bring himself to care about whatever flaw it was. As long as she was happy, the whole issue was academic. Boring, even" (1159). They key is to find a proper balance, one that allows each member of this threesome the chance to have his or her needs met. Their sex together, as a threesome or in pairs, is hot, but it's not just there to titillate the reader; it's there to convey and develop a fascinating set of characters.

In typical romance novel fashion, secrets from Paul's past throw a huge monkey wrench of a black moment into the burgeoning relationship of this threesome. Add in some work angst, some overblown tempers, and, ultimately, some straight talk, and you have all the emotional lows and highs of a traditional monogamous romance story. It's a tribute to Ames' skills as a writer that she had this reader, with her own personal investment in monogamy, rooting for this unconventional threesome to overcome their differences and hurts and make their relationship work.

Photo credits:
Feet in bed: Advertolog

The Submission Gift
LA Doms Book 2
Carina, 2014

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Beauty Double Standard

"There's only one problem with going to an Ivy League school," a (male) friend of mine once said as we made our way, bleary-eyed, into our college dining hall one post-exam morning. "The women here don't make any effort to look good. See, they're all hanging out in ratty sweats and mangy t-shirts, no makeup, no dresses. Some of them haven't even washed their hair. Girls here care more about their grades than they care about their looks," he concluded, shaking his head in chagrin.

We're all familiar with the gendered double standard about sex. Men who like sex, who engage in it for its own sake rather than in the context of a relationship, who collect sexual partners as if they were baseball cards or comic books—those men are studs, worthy of admiration and awe. Women who like sex, who engage it in outside the context of a romantic relationship, who sleep around—those women are sluts, whores, worth only our most cutting epithets. But reading witty Brit Stella Newman's anti-romance novel, Pear Shaped, brought back memories of that less talked-about, but equally sexist, double standard: the double standard of beauty. No matter how unattractive they may be themselves, most men feel entitled to the admiration of the most beautiful women in the room. Entitled to get the girl they want. And girls should work their hardest to make themselves attractive, because, damn it all, that's why there here: to look good for men.

Snarky Sophie Klein, the first-person narrator of Pear Shaped, experiences this double standard first-hand. When she meets wealthy James in a bar, she's a little surprised when he calls her "skinny." She may be a size 10 (U.S. size 6), but she'd got "tits and an arse," unlike the other girl James was chatting up before talking with her ("one of those girls you can count the vertebrae of through her silk shirt") (Kindle Loc 87). Sophie and James hit it off right away, though, Sophie drawn to his carefree charm, boundless energy, and confident ways. He's far from drop-dead gorgeous, and he's forty-five to Sophie's thirty-three, but he's just Sophie's type: "a big man," "tall and broad, with a stomach he wears well" (301). Before long, Sophie's falling for him, big time.

But James? He's not so sure. Over dinner one night, after the two have been dating (and shagging) for three months, Sophie thinks James might on the verge of proposing. But instead, his declaration turns out to be embarrassingly insulting: "I'm worried.... you're not my normal type.... physically..... I know I'm no Adonis, but..."  "BUT WHAT?" Sophie thinks to herself. "You're rich and male so it doesn't matter?" (1137) But Sophie keeps her outrage inside, not challenging James about the sexism that has him feeling that he's somehow less than a man if he doesn't have a trophy woman on his arm.

Sophie realizes that James' worry doesn't actually have "anything to do with me not being his type. It's either his ego's need for a trophy, or his fear of commitment. Whatever the problem is, I reckon it's about his head, not my body" (Loc 1167). Later, she tells him straight out what she thinks of his worry:

Whatever your 'type' is, that 'type' clearly hasn't been working out for you so well. Some men have a turning point in their lives where they realise what long-term relationships are all about. Love isn't all about crazy hot sex in a glass lift. It's about finding someone you fancy and like and respect and who you can be yourself with. Find that and you're very, very luck. The reason I'm calling you back is because I don't think you're a total idiot; I think you might be smart enough to grow up and realise that.  (1126)

Yet even though she's both furious and crushed by James' unfeeling revelation, Sophie can't stop herself from longing for him, both emotionally and physically, and ends up taking James back, even though he never openly acknowledges the truth of her interpretation of his fears, or even apologizes for his obnoxious comments. He asks her to move in, and even proposes.

James certainly thinks of himself as a nice guy, and thus, of course,
deserving of a trophy girlfriend
But over time, it becomes more and more obvious that James has not grown out of his worry, or at least out of the assumptions of male entitlement that lie behind it:

His thoughts about Sophie's friend, who is suffering from postpartum depression: "He's supposed to be eternally grateful that she's a lard arse? A wife should make an effort for her husband. She should get down the gym, get on the high heels and suspenders, that'll sort out their marriage better than some stupid therapy" (2013)

Sophie's impression of his thoughts when he introduces her to his business associates: "When he says 'this is my girlfriend, Sophie,' the word 'girlfriend' sits heavily on his tongue like an ulcer" (2137)

" 'One of your eyes is bigger than the other,' he says. I have noticed this only recently myself.... It is truly a microscopic difference, but he has spotted it and seen fit to comment on it. Not in a 'your flaws make you unique/beautiful to me' way. Just in a 'you are not perfect' way" (2300).

Sophie watching James fixate on a model: "James is staring at her in a way that I have never, ever seen him look at me. It is the way he sometimes looks when he is driving his car too fast" (2162).

James' only half-way joking comment when Sophie rolls on top of him to admire his good looks: "Get off me, you big lump" (2284).

After a lot of determined avoidance on Sophie's part, and a lot of wiggly, passive-aggressive behavior on James', James finally admits that he just can't overcome his worries. The two part ways, and in the second half of the book, Sophie goes into, and climbs her way back out of, a major emotional trough, chronicled with equal parts humor and pain. Sophie's well aware of what went wrong:

The truth is I am furious: furious that I took him back, furious that I didn't pick him up on all the comments about my weight, furious that I didn't assert myself more, furiuos that I shagged him in the car when he was almost definitely seeing Noushka (the model), furious that I put his value above mine, furious that I believed his version of me.  (3818)

But its not so easy for her feelings to catch up with her brain. Especially because she, like many white middle class women, has been "conditioned to think of anger as ugly, ugly, ugly" (4681).

Sophie does end up with a different, far better man by book's end. But the climax of the story is less about her new romance, and more about her acceptance, not only of her own strengths, but also of James' limitations:

I know what my life would be like with James. If I stayed slim and well maintained and aloof and played a constant game and kept him on his toes all the time, he'd eat out of my hand, for a while. If I never had a bad day, never showed weakness, never put on weight, never needed reassurance, never gold old, I'd be just fine..... And while I want him to fight for me, and tell me he's realised he's making a mistake, and that he wants me, fat, think or in the middle, the truth is, he really isn't built that way. And for the first time I actually start to feel sorry for him.  (4255; 4274)

I wonder if someone could write a romance with a hero who starts off with the same entitled attitude as James, but who gives it up/moves beyond it? And not because he falls in love (changed by the love of a good woman trope), but because he comes to understand how limiting it is, both for women and for himself?

Illustration credits:
Beauty double standard: Good Men Project
Entitled to a girlfriend: The Lion's Roar

Pear Shaped
Avon, 2012;
ebook by Bookouture, 2014

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Rejecting the Horror of Sex: Charlotte Stein's INTRUSION

Do you like scary stories? I enjoy a creepy tale every now and then, but I have to admit that I avoid true horror, especially horror films, like the plague. I have enough trouble coping with anxieties and fears of my own; the idea that anyone might enjoy watching or reading about other people who are stalked, attacked, and violently murdered strikes me as close to incomprehensible. Especially because in American horror films, the "other people" being stalked, attacked, and killed tend to be women. In particular, women who desire, or actually engage in, sexual behavior. I can't imagine that watching women being punished for being sexual would in any way, shape, or form be a pleasure.

Perhaps that's why I so enjoyed Charlotte Stein's latest novella, Intrusion. Stein's romance fiction often dances on the edge of the creepy, but Intrusion engages more directly with horror and its tropes than any other of her works I've read. Not to endorse horror's misogynistic agenda, but instead to challenge it.

Clarice Starling: defeating horror, gun in hand
Stein's story opens with female fear, in particular, fear of a man: "I know he has my dog." The initially unnamed first-person narrator is in search of her missing pet, and neighborhood rumors about the strange recluse living down the block have her half-convinced that the man must know something about the pet's whereabouts: "Psychopaths and maniacs steal animals. And if I am honest, his house looks like the home of someone who does that sort of thing. I'm certain I saw it once on True Serial Killer Stories" (Kindle Loc 34).  She'd like to believe herself a Clarice Starling (heroine of that classic horror film Silence of the Lambs), but unlike Clarice, she has nothing close to a gun. Despite her lack of firearm, and despite a past trauma that has her convinced that "Nothing will ever make me strong again in the way I was before," (Loc 57), our narrator finds herself in her reclusive neighbor's yard, wavering between imagining the impending confrontation as "some empowering exercise, winning one over on a guy who decided to take something from me" and fearing "something very bad indeed" will confront her if she ever knocks on the door (Loc 57).

But our narrator doesn't have to knock; the strange man opens the door, just a sliver, at her approach. She makes her accusation, and he doesn't reply; he simply closes the door without saying a word. Only after she marches back across the street does she understand the significance of the chain the man kept across his door: "People put chains on their doors when they are afraid of you. Not when they want you to be afraid of them" (Loc 89). Rather than a terror like those that haunt her nightmares, might her reclusive neighbor be just as afraid as she is? Could what drove her across the street be less fear for her dog (who of course is waiting for her when she returns home), and more curiosity about a person who is in many ways acting the way she worries she might, if she ever gives in to her fears?

Sleepwalking, apologies, and thank-yous bring our narrator (whose name we find out is Beth) back in contact with her mysterious neighbor, who turns out to be just as strange, and just as wary, as Beth is herself. For Noah Gideon Grant, a former criminologist and forensic psychologist, has experienced trauma worthy of the most chilling horror flick. Unlike the audience of a horror film, though, Noah has no ability to distance himself from the terror, is able to gain no catharsis by telling himself "oh, this isn't real." Because Noah has in truth been traumatized by what horror films typically offer up as over-the-top, fake, performed entertainment: witnessing the sexual violation and murder of women.

Despite their growing friendship, and their obvious physical attraction, Noah and Beth's previous history with violent men makes any kind of romantic relationship difficult to navigate. Only when they begin to unlock each other's psychological truths, to understand what boundaries are important, what boundaries can be pushed, can they recoup the pleasure in being kind to another, in experiencing sexual desire.

Who would you rather be? Halloween's Laurie
Strode? Or Silence of the Lambs' Clarice?
I initially found myself annoyed when, at the end of Intrusion, Stein's story takes us right back to the horror film plot, with the inevitable confrontation scene with a villain from the past. But form mirrors ideology here; recovery from trauma is not a straightforward, linear process, Stein insists, but one that forces victims to confront and re-confront their trauma. Just like the villain in a horror film, the effects of trauma return, again and again. And Stein's invocation of what film scholar Donato Totaro calls "the final girl" scene, where the one (virginal) girl left standing vanquishes the serial killer, plays with gender in ways that do not simply echo, but re-imagine, the patriarchal assumptions of horror.

Avon Impulse, 2014

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Traumas and Temptations of a Military Life: Jessica Scott's ALL FOR YOU

Romance novels are rife with military heroes, particularly those belonging to elite special operations forces. As military romance writer Kaylea Cross notes about the appeal of the subgenre, "writing about men and women who stand up for what they believe in, serve their country with honor and who are willing to do whatever it takes to protect the lives of their teammates and loved ones—come on, what's not to love about that?" Fighting men are sexy, military romances assert; fighting men who rise to the top of the military are sexy super-sized.

Most military romances I've encountered are of two types. The first type typically features an elite military group protecting the country (or the world) from a major threat while one of their members simultaneously protects a threatened loved one. The second focuses less on the heroics, and more about their aftermath; in these books, military men (or, less often, women) who have been injured or traumatized in some way by their war experiences learn to adjust to civilian life while they also fall in love. It's far more rare, I think, to tell a story like the one career army officer and romance writer Jessica Scott creates in her latest romance: a story that depicts active-duty soldiers dealing with trauma while still a part of the military.

In her "Dear Reader" note at the end of All For You, Scott is careful to explain that "this book is not meant as an indictment of our men and women in uniform or the military that we serve or the thousands of leaders who do the right thing every day and try to take care of their soldiers" (Kindle Loc 3777). A necessary caveat, given the often dysfunctional organization in which Scott places her two troubled protagonists, Sergeant Reza Icaconelli and Captain Emily Lindberg. Bad enough that half Iranian, half Italian Reza "look[s] like every stereotype of jihadi"; bad enough that Reza's commander cares more about stats and paperwork than about his soldiers. What's worse are army shrinks who've never been in combat put in charge of making decisions about which soldiers qualify for psychological help, and which are simply drug addicts or malingerers. Especially when the docs cite privacy regulations as an excuse for not telling Reza what's really up with his men. It's enough to drive a man to drink—especially one who's spent most of his adult life half-toasted, except when he's actively deployed. Keeping his promise to himself not to drink anymore seems a hell of a lot harder than storming a house filled with Iraqi insurgents...

Reza's especially irked by one particular soldier, Wisniak, a new recruit who keeps running off to the Rest and Resiliency Center even though he's never seen a single day of combat. To Reza's way of thinking, the Center is supposed to be "a place that helped combat veterans heal from the mental wounds of war," not "the new generation's stress card, a place to go when their sergeant was making them work too hard" (113). A place for men like Neal Sloban, who lost his bright laughing eyes and steady trigger finger after his third deployment, all "buried from too many head injuries and no time off from the war,"  (404). That the psych docs shelter Wisniak but seem ready to kick Sloban out of the army infuriates Reza; without his usual pressure-release-value (alcohol), Reza's far too ready to let his temper fly.

And let it fly he does, straight at Captain Emily Lindberg. Emily's life has been as different from Reza's as is fine wine from cheap beer. Growing up as the daughter of privileged white doctors, Emily hardly imagined making a career for herself in the army. Until she toured a VA hospital, that is, and saw the sadness and red tape standing in the way of military men and women desperately in need of mental health care. And after an engagement gone bad, that's just where Emily finds herself, rebelling against her privileged background and the wishes of her parents to serve her country and its fighting women and men. Making a difference is what Emily wants to do, but dealing with the army bureaucracy, and, even worse, with the "rampant hostility and incessant chest beating" of many of the arrogant army commanders makes her faith in the system weaker by the day. Just how much of a difference can she make when all she seems to be doing is putting out one fire after another?

From their first meeting, Reza and Emily regard each other as the enemy. Captain Lindberg is keeping Reza from helping his men; Sergeant Iaconelli is just another example of the arrogant asshat military man, unconcerned about his men. But as they are forced into each other's company, each gradually begins to realize that there's more to the other than first appearances suggested. And when the trauma of war makes an unexpected visit stateside, Reza and Emily find themselves taking much-needed comfort in one another.

Active-duty suicide rates at Fort Hood are the highest in the army, Emily notes early in the novel. Though Scott never articulates this directly, her depiction of life at Texas's Fort Hood (where she herself twice served as a company commander) makes it clear that the military's construction of ideal masculinity—stoic, aggressive, and above all willing to repress all emotional hurt—lies at the heart of many a soldier's unwillingness to admit weakness, or to ask for help when emotional trauma threatens to overwhelm him. Soldiers will find a way to deal with their emotional distress, Scott's story asserts, but the majority of their coping mechanisms—alcohol, sex, drugs, self-injury—will only lead to greater harm.

At one point in the novel, Reza describes combat as "the most potent of drugs," "a heady marriage of fear and adrenaline and death" which "rewired the brain like nothing else. And his blood was now hardwired to need the fix" (616). Part of why romance readers enjoy military romance is to vicariously experience this heady drug without ever risking becoming addicted.  Scott's romance is a heartfelt call for romance readers who idealize the military's members to recognize that the fix exacts a high cost from many real-life military men and women. Allowing such warriors a time-out, a space in which they can admit their weaknesses and ask for help, doesn't seem too much to ask in return.

Forever, 2014

Friday, November 21, 2014

Did You Tell Your Parents When You First Became Sexually Active?

Having a teenage daughter in the house, one who is just beginning the journey of discovering and exploring her own sexuality, is flooding me with memories my own first forays into the overwhelming, exhilarating, and often embarrassing shoals of sex. The unrequited crushes of my junior high and high school years, both the ones I had on boys who didn't like me, and the ones boys whom I didn't care for had on me. The fiery blush that raced over my face when my male pediatrician asked "Are you sexually active?" when I'd barely even been kissed. The even more awkward talk around the kitchen table, my parents telling (and showing) me and my two younger sisters the box of condoms they had bought, the one they'd be placing upstairs in the linen closet, just in case we ever found ourselves in need—not that they were recommending we have sex, no, not at all! 

I never talked much with my friends about sex (Catholic high school). And I didn't talk with my sisters about it either. They are both younger than me, and both began dating at a much younger age than I did; asking them for advice about sex, or inquiring about their own sexual experiences, felt awkward, even prurient, and was more than this shy, introverted geek could ever bring herself to do.

And I certainly didn't talk with my parents about sex. I didn't tell them anything about my sexual experiences with my first boyfriend (during freshman year in college), or about the first boyfriend with whom I engaged in sexual acts that required the use of birth control, not at the time nor in the years since. I wonder, now, though, how much they knew, or picked up from my behavior at the time? Or were they not at all interested in knowing?

Not something parents are likely to hear from their teens...
Given my own teenage reticence on the topic, I've been thinking a lot (and reading a lot) about how best, and how much, to talk with my daughter about her own sexual explorations. Would I have appreciated it if my parents had tried to talk with me more about sex in the abstract/general? About my relationships and experiences in particular? Or would I have simply melted into the floor in a puddle of agonized adolescent embarrassment? (Both, most likely). 

Given that in our culture, sex is most often regarded as a private act, is it an invasion of teens' privacy to try and talk with them about it? How can a parent balance these rights to privacy with the need to ensure that their teens are taking proper care to protect themselves and their partners against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases? (Just came across this fascinating book—Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex—which compares the ways parents in the United States and in the Netherlands treat teen sexuality; am looking forward to reading it!)

Did you talk with/tell your parents when you became sexually active? If not, did they know (or inadvertently find out) anyways? Did they engage you in conversation about it?

And are there any good romance novels out there that feature heroes and/or heroines who not only have to negotiate a new romantic and sexual relationship of their own, but who are also faced with the transformation of their own children from asexual to sexual beings? (The only one that's coming to mind is Pamela Morsi's The Lovesick Cure, which I reviewed here back in November of 2012, although it spends more time talking about why the teens shouldn't have sex than talking about it after they already have...).

Photo credits:
First time sex: Kathleen Hassen