Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Battle of the Sexes, Courtroom Style: Julie James' PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedict. Howard Hawks's Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns. George Cukor's Adam and Amanda Bonner. Tennis's Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King. The battle of the sexes comedy has been a staple of stage, screen, and popular culture since Aristophanes' Lysistrada. But in the genre of the contemporary romance, true battle of the sexes storylines seem remarkably few and far between. Perhaps this is because the heterosexual romance novel is, at its heart, always about a struggle between a woman and a man, so writers feel little need to write explicitly about gender politics. Or perhaps it is a sign of our purportedly post-feminist times, when many believe that feminism has achieved its goals and therefore is no longer useful or even necessary. Plots that take issue with such a belief may find it more difficult to find a ready readership.

Benedict and Beatrice battle it out in Much Ado about Nothing
But with Practice Makes Perfect, author Julie James proves herself more than up to the challenge of crafting a compelling battle of the sexes romance, one as funny as it is politically savvy. The story's heroine, Payton Kendall, daughter of a openly feminist single mother, has worked her butt off for the past eight years, striving to prove herself at the high-powered Chicago law firm she joined just after law school. Because of her mother's feminist teachings, Payton recognizes that she has to work harder than most men to achieve her goal of making partner; though her firm may openly declare its commitment to women ("In order to honor its commitment to the policies created by the Committee for the Retention of Women, the firm is proud to announce that it has set a goal of increasing the number of female partners by 10 percent by next year" [19]), the unwritten cultural assumptions of the firm still favor men.

For example, Payton's boss, Ben, isn't quite comfortable with women:

She had begun to suspect that Ben—while never blatantly unprofessional—had a more difficult time getting along with women. It certainly wasn't an unlikely conclusion to draw. Law firms could be old-fashioned at times and unfortunately, female attorneys still had a bit of an 'old boy network' to contend with. (4)

If collegiality plays into decisions about who makes partner and who doesn't, then Ben's discomfort with Payton and other female associates places a barrier between them and advancement, particularly if Ben and others like him aren't aware of (or aren't willing to acknowledge) their own biases.

Sometimes Payton can be pragmatic about the everyday sexism she faces at the office, and in the courtroom:

A jury consultant she had worked with during a particularly tricky gender discrimination trial had told her that jurors—both men and women—responded more favorably to female lawyers who were attractive. While Payton found this to be sadly sexist, she accepted it as a fact nonetheless and thus made it a general rule to always put her best face forward, literally, at work. (2)

But when the sexism presents her with a challenge she can't over come (such as a colleague taking their mutual client to a golf club that doesn't allow women), her frustration, and her sarcasm, go into overdrive. As she complains to fellow associate Laney:

"The problem is, getting business is part of the business. It's like a ritual with these guys: 'Hey, how 'bout those Cubs'"—the bad male impersonation was back—'"let's play some golf, smoke some cigars. Here's my penis, there's yours—yep, they appear to be about the same size—okay, let's do some deals.'" (33).

Complaining about socializing may strike some as petty. But Payton knows that the way male lawyers can choose activities that exclude women and use them as an opportunity to forge relationships with other male lawyers, and with clients, gives them an advantage in a culture where the social and the business worlds are far from separate.

A true battle of the sexes comedy requires not only a heroine pointing out the failings of men, but a man who will take equal relish in doing the same of women. Payton's opponent at the law firm is one J. D. Jameson, cocky, privileged scion of a wealthy Chicago family. Ever since J.D. and Payton started in the same "class" at the firm, they've engaged in an undeclared competition, striving to prove to the firm, and to themselves, that each is better than the other. And the battle is edging into outright war now that the firm has announced only one of them will be allowed to make partner this year.

As in the classic battle of the sexes comedies, Payton and J. D. spend much of their time flinging sharp verbal zingers at one another. Many of those zingers take the form of gender-based insults:

     " 'Forty Women to Watch Under 40,'" J. D. emphasized. "Tell me, Payton—is there a reason your gender finds it necessary to be so separatist? Afraid of a little competition from the opposite sex, perhaps?"
    "If my gender hesitates to compete with yours, J. D., it's only because we're afraid to lower ourselves to your level," she replied sweetly. (11).

J.D. believes that white men are getting the short end of the stick in a "socially liberal, politically correct" society. "There is no glass ceiling anymore—these women choose to leave the workforce of their own volition" he gripes to a fellow (male) associate after hearing about the firm's plan to increase the number of female partners (20).  "The playing field isn't level," he goes on to assert, stating as a fact that "if a man and a woman are equally qualified for a position, the woman gets the job" (21). A proponent of the "reverse discrimination" theory, J.D. takes pride in his own "fairness": "I'm just saying that everyone should be judged solely on merit. No 'plus' factors for gender, race, national origin.... so that each person is given a a fair chance" (22). J.D. refuses see that his own background has already give him an edge in the purported meritocracy of the law firm.

J.D. also refuses to acknowledge the simmering attraction that underlies his gender-based attacks on Payton, a failing he shares with Payton herself. James' story thus allows the reader to know more, or to know better, than its main characters do. Payton continually reminds herself that she's "above such petty nonsense" as competing with J. D., while J.D. reassures himself, "Not that it was a competition between them" whenever he finds himself gloating over his latest Payton-related triumph (28). It's funny to see J.D. and Payton both act in ways that give the blatant lie to such self-justifications. But their blindness also serves a second purpose: to suggest to readers that if our protagonists are mistaken about their own feelings, they might also be mistaken about their gender-based assertions.

This certainly proves true of J.D., who must gradually come to see the validity of Payton's gender critique over the course of the novel in order to become a worthy romance hero. Payton's change comes not in the form of political consciousness-raising, but in a personal recognition that ideological soul mates do not necessarily make the best life-mates.

Practice Makes Perfect's feminist credentials would be impeccable, but for one disturbing factor: Payton is an expert in race and gender discrimination cases. But she is typically not on the side of women: she earns her hefty paychecks by defending large corporations against gender discrimination charges. She wins the one case James depicts in the novel, a case in which the woman suing the company that Payton represents is obviously misguided. But are all, or even most, such cases so obviously spurious? Or is this simply wish-fulfillment on the part of those whose, like Payton and her fellow corporate lawyers, build their fortunes defending big business?

Equal opportunity for women in the old boys' world of the law office is a goal feminism surely should embrace. But when that opportunity comes at the expense of other women, we might want to pause in our praise. Has James pulled a sly bait and switch, offering up gender equality in romance in exchange for readers' turning their own blind eye to larger, institutionally-based gender discrimination? The personal is political, but is the political no longer necessary in a world of personal gender equality?

What other romance novels can you think of that feature a politically-inflected battle of the sexes storyline? And how do the endings of those novels reinforce, or undermine, feminist goals?

Photo/illustration credits:
Much Ado About Nothing: Fandango 
• Old Boys' Network: Cafe Press
• Battle of the Sexes Tug of War: Brittany Jones blog
• Wal-Mart cartoon: Walt Hangelsman, Newsday via Ottinger Firm

Next time on RNFF
RNFF Pet Peeve #2: Romance novels that diss feminism

Friday, October 26, 2012

Rape in romance

Over the last few weeks, I've been researching and writing entries for The Encyclopedia of Romance, to be published by Greenwood/ABC-CLIO. Writers got to choose the entries they wished to work on, and my list is pretty eclectic, including topics from "Samuel Richardson" to "YA romance." The most unusual topic I selected, and the one furthest from my past research interests, must be the topic "rape in romance." But ever since my adolescent reading of Harlequin and 70s historical romances, I've been both fascinated and horrified by the "forced seduction"/rape trope, and was eager to explore where and why romance novels draw the line between seduction and rape.

I discovered far more information than I was able to include in the brief 1000-word entry for the EofR, of course. I'd like to share some of it with you here in upcoming weeks in a variety of posts. The first topic I want to tackle is the surprising (at least to me) fact that in real life, many women have erotic fantasies about being raped.

In 2008, psychologists Joseph W. Critelli and Jenny M. Bivona of the University of North Texas undertook a meta-study*, searching for and analyzing previous scientific studies that had attempted to account for the "psychological enigma" of erotic rape fantasy (57). Though most women (99% in one study) do not want to be raped in reality, many do fantasize about it, and find such fantasies sexually stimulating. The statistics from twenty scientific studies (dating from 1974 to 2006) suggest that such fantasies are not rare, isolated incidents; between 31% to 57% of women surveyed reported experiencing erotic fantasies described as "rape" or "overpowered or forced" to engage in sex. Though rape fantasies were not the most common type of fantasy reported, the theme did show a median ranking in the top ten (of five to 34 topics, depending on the study). For women who did report fantasizing about rape, the theme was cited in the top 3 of the most frequently experienced fantasies. Fascinatingly, though one might expect the prevalence of rape fantasies to have changed over time, just as awareness of rape and depictions of rape in film, television, and fiction have changed, the prevalence of rape fantasies appear to have been relatively stable over the last four decades (61).

Why would women fantasize about being sexually violated, and be sexually turned on by such fantasies? Critelli and Bivona describe eight possible explanations previous scientists have theorized, and comment upon the likelihood of each:

1. Women are Masochists

Must be a girl snake...
The first theory,  posited in the 1940's, argues that women are inherently masochistic. Later studies have shown that while some women who fantasize about rape do enjoy the masochistic elements of such fantasies, the percentage is quite small, is true of men as well as of women, and is not usually considered pathological. Most scientists discount this clearly sexist explanation.

2. Avoiding the Blame

The most frequently cited explanation for rape fantasies is that they are a way to avoid blame. In societies that frown upon female sexuality, women might fantasize about rape in order to experience sexual feelings without having to take responsibility for them, or be blamed for them. I remember reading this explanation in Nancy Friday's books about women's sexual fantasies (My Secret Garden, 1973; Forbidden Flowers, 1975). The evidence to support this theory is decidedly mixed, leading Critelli and Bivona to suggest that explanation might be true for women with "high sex guilt," but not for the population in general.

3. We Love Sex, All Sex

By the late 1980s and 1990s, the discourse about rape fantasy had begun to shift, with several researchers suggesting that rape fantasies reflected a relative openness to and acceptance of sexual experience. As women have more sexual experiences, the diversity of their fantasies increases, research shows. But researchers have not be able to explain the most paradoxical aspect of  rape fantasy: why should women who would not find being sexually violated in real life find fantasies about the experience erotically pleasurable?

4. Do You Really Want (to hurt) Me?


Another psychosocial explanation researchers have set forth is one that should be familiar to readers of Old Skool romance: rape (or "forced seduction") occurs because a woman is "so attractive, seductive, and desirable that the man loses control, breaking core expectations of civil decency in order to have her" (64). In other words, I'm so powerful that I make you want me/rape me. Critelli and Bivona argue that there are other themes that address the issue of desirability equally, or perhaps even more directly, than rape fantasies do, and suggest that further study should be done to test this theory.

5. My Enemy, My Lover

Another possible explanation also stems from the romance novel, or of critics' interpretation of it. Helen Hazen's Endless Rapture (1983) argues that for a romance novel's heroine, the challenge is to overcome an apparently evil man, "conquer his heart, seduce him into falling in love with her, have him voluntarily make a lifetime commitment to her, and transform his apparent evil and cruelty into something more socially acceptable without diminishing his masculinity" (Critelli and Bivona 67). In such novels, rape is used as a tool to create "excitement and dramatic tension." No one has asked women who fantasize about rape, though, whether their fantasies include the transformation of their rapists, so again this explanation lacks credible supporting evidence.

6.  Brainwashed by Rape Culture

In her influential 1975 book, Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, Susan Brownmiller argued that women's rape fantasies were the pathological result of living in a male-dominated culture, in which women are the objects for the dominant male's desire. Several interesting findings seem to invalidate such a conclusion. First, women who claim feminist identities are just as likely to have fantasies of forced sex as other women. Second, men do not fantasize about raping women nearly as often as women fantasize about being raped. Finally, many men (between 10-20%) also fantasize about being forced into having sex. Critelli and Bivona do concede, however, that American culture is filled with depictions of women as sexual objects of male desire.

7. That Primitive Brain...

The final two theories are not psychosocial, but biological in nature. One suggests that since in many species, the male must put on a show of dominance or pursuit before copulation can take place. Perhaps this predisposition lingers in "primitive brain regions that have evolved to insure successful mating in reptiles, birds, and mammals.... females may have a natural desire to surrender to a selected, dominant male. If so, humans may also have a corresponding tendency to portray this ritual in fantasy," although they have no actual desire to experience rape itself (65). A lot of "perhaps" and "may" in this theory....

8. Scare Me, Turn Me On

Recent scientific studies on "sympathetic activation"—the physical manifestations of the "fight or flight" reaction—show that sympathetic activation can enhance sexual response. If you frighten me, you might also sexually excite me. But you can't scare me too much; while moderate levels of fear can increase pleasure, too much is simply "disruptive" (66). Roller coasters, yes; Freddy Krueger, no.

Critelli and Bivona conclude their article by suggesting that a combination of biological predisposition to surrender fantasies, sympathetic activation, and adversary transformation (7, 8, & 5) provide the most likely general explanation for women's rape fantasies, while blame avoidance, openness to sex, and desirability theories (2, 3, & 4) might best account for a particular woman's attraction to particular types of rape fantasies.

What research would you want scientists to undertake to help explain women's rape fantasies? Can you think of any other explanations for why women would fantasize about rape, and take pleasure from such fantasies? And which of the above explanations do you think best accounts for the prevalence of rape and/or forced seductions in romance novels?

*Published in the Journal of Sex Research 45.1 (2008): 57–70.

Photo/illustration credits:
Journal of Sex Research: Taylor and Francis Group
Tread on Me flag: Althouse
Culture Club record: 45cat 
Roller Coaster: Flaguide.org

Next time on RNFF: Battle of the Sexes in the Courtroom: Julie James' Practice Makes Perfect

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


For today's post, I had planned to write about the character arc of the hero in Ann Herendeen's Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander. But when I checked out the most recent edition of Journal of Popular Romance Studies, I discovered that Herendeen had already beat me to it by writing an article that analyzes her own book. So instead, I'm going to write instead about another aspect of the book that I admire for feminist reasons: Phyllida's depiction of the multiplicity of ways that one can enact homosexuality.

Herendeen's lighthearted Regency tells the story of Andrew Carrington, heir to an earldom, who considers himself a "sodomite" but decides to marry in order to father an heir. To his surprise, after his marriage of convenience to Gothic novel writer Phyllida Lewis he discovers that bedding his wife has more than its share of charms. But this isn't a "bad man gone straight" story; Andrew doesn't give up his sexual interest in men when he realizes his growing attraction to, and love for, his wife. In fact, Andrew becomes sexually and emotionally involved with another man after his marriage, a man for whom he comes to care as deeply as he does for Phyllida. He has discovered "a new kind of love, in the strangest place" with Phyllida, but he won't give his old love up in exchange for the new  (48).

And Phyllida does not ask him to. She agrees to the marriage knowing that Andrew, like the man who introduced them, her neighbor and his friend Sir Frederick Verney, prefers the sexual company of men. She also knows Andrew's reasons for marrying,  that sex with him is part of the agreement. But the chance to better her mother and sisters' lives through canny negotiation of the marriage, as well as her own attraction to Andrew ("when he smiled, he looked like the fascinating villains in her books, whom she always ended up falling in love with, try though she might to make them wicked beyond redemption")  makes it worth her while (23). She's more than willing to allow Andrew to explore his own sexual proclivities, and even discovers the added benefit that watching her husband with another man is almost as exciting as being with him herself.

Thus the male/female coupling privileged in most romance—Andrew and Phyllida—is transformed into something far from normative—Phyllida and Andrew/Andrew and Matthew. Their relationship does not only challenge heteronormativity (the belief that the only normal sexual relationship is one between a man and a woman), but homonormativity (the adoption of key components of heteronormative belief, such as binary gender norms and monogamous romantic relationships, by LBGTQ individuals and communities*).

Phyllida and Andrew/Andrew and Matthew are not the only challenge to homonormativity in the novel. The founders of "The Brotherhood of Philander," a club for gentlemen sodomites to which Andrew belongs, are part of another tripartite relationship. In this case, however, it was the wife, Lady Isabella Isham, originally the daughter of a tradesman, who "purchased" her man,  Lord Isham. The third partner in their relationship, Lord Rupert Archbold, is the linchpin in their relationship, as Lady Isham explains to Phyllida: Marc—Isham that is—and I would roll the dice many an evening. Winner to enjoy the favors of our mutual friend, Rupert. Loser to wait his turn, or hers, although I tried very hard not to lose" (362).

Andrew's other friends, all members of the Brotherhood, construct their sexual relationships in still different ways. Sir Frederick Verney has relationships with different partners at different times (when Andrew asks him if he has a "friend," Verney replies "Not the marrying kind.... Not even with men." [21]). The Honorable Sylvester Monkton, a dandy of the highest order, asserts the same: "The day I take on a partner until death does us part, man or woman, is the day you can lock me up in Bedlam" (513). Sir David Pierce and Mr. George Witherspoon begin the novel as a monogamous couple, devoted to each other for years. Their partnership turns into a trio, however, as David becomes attracted to George's sister, the rather masculine Agatha, and she to him. We even get glimpses of traditional heterosexual relationships: Lord Isham's son, though he has great affection for his father, has a wife and children; Charlotte Swain, a friend of Phyllida's, longs after the very male, very beautiful Alex Bellingham.

As Andrew tells Phyllida after the two are reconciled and admit their love in one ending in a book that has several, "But I do not have to be a gentleman in this bed, just as you do not have to be a lady. So long as we treat each other with kindness, that is all that is required" (481). Protesting the unkindness of heteronormativity and its insistence that there is only one correct way to love others, Herendeen's novel is its own gift of kindness, a gift that blesses multiple ways of loving and being loved.

Photo/illustration credits:
Anti-heteronormativity card: someeecards.com
Homonormative card: urbandictionary.com

Ann Herendeen, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander. New York: Harper, 2008.

Next time on RNFF: Rape in the romance novel

Friday, October 19, 2012

Cheers for romances that talk about romance

In the world of literary scholars, there's a type of book called metafiction: a book that reflects on what a book is, or could be. Many different literary devices can be used by the author interested in exploring the nature of story within his or her book: a novel in which a reader reads a book to another character (William Golding's The Princess Bride); a book in which the book asks its reader to interact with it (Mo Willem's Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!); a book whose characters realize and comment upon that fact that they are characters in a book (David Wiesner's Three Little Pigs). Works of metafiction actively seek to challenge readers to consider the relationship between reality and fiction, to break down the boundaries between reader, author, and text.

One pig helps another escape the book: Wiesner's The Three Pigs
Perhaps because they rely so heavily on reader identification with their protagonists, romance novels rarely feature metafictive elements. But I've noticed one metafictive strand in several books I've read or reread since starting this blog: romance novels that openly refer to, or debate with, the conventions of the genre of romance. In future posts, I'll look at books that do this implicitly, by constructing characters or plots that actively subvert the rules of romance. But some romance novels also include scenes in which characters explicitly discuss and debate romance's conventions. I'm sure there are many others, but I noticed such scenes while rereading two books I discussed in earlier posts—Victoria Dahl's Start Me Up, and Ilona Andrews' Magic Strikes. Each of these books include brief, but provocative discussions of romance, focusing in particular on the relationship between readers and the genre.

In Magic Strikes, shape-shifter Raphael has been courting a reluctant Andrea for months. Andrea's friend Kate tells him that one way to win Andrea's regard would be to find the novels missing from her collection of the works of Lorna Sterling, an author of romance novels such as The Privateer's Virgin Mistress. Raphael not only tracks down and purchases some of these rare editions of Ms. Sterling's books, but actually reads them, looking for a clue as to why Andrea, despite her obvious attraction to him, continues to rebuff his advances.

Lorna Stirling's cousin??
Raphael's reading leaves him not only puzzled, but dismayed. Why would a strong, gun-toting woman such as Andrea want to read about men who kidnap the heroine's brother and hold him for ransom until the heroine has sex with him? What's with these "pseudo-bad guys just waiting for the love of a 'good' woman"? Does Andrea really want a "bad and aggressive as shit" man, one who, after meeting "some girl" is "not an über-alpha" anymore, but rather a "misunderstood little boy who wants to talk about his feelings"? (201) Because if she does, Raphael doesn't stand a chance.
Raphael assumes a one-to-one, direct relationship between the type of romance hero a reader likes and the type of man she'd like to court/date/marry. Kate tries to help Raphael by disabusing him of this overly simplistic view, pointing to the difference between a romance reader's fantasy and reality:

I'm guessing—and this is just a wild stab in the dark—that Andrea might not mind if once in a while you dressed up as a pirate. But I wouldn't advise holding her relatives for ransom nookie. She might shoot you in the head. Several times. With silver bullets. (202)

Romance novels are not always reflections of what readers desire in their day-to-day lives and lovers, Andrews, through Kate, suggests. Instead, they can also function as written versions of inner fantasies. We might consider performing a role described in a fantasy, for a short time, to enhance romantic or sexual pleasure, even if we have no desire to take on such a role permanently in everyday life.

We might even find pleasure in reading about sexual situations we'd never want to experience, even in a role-playing situation. As erotica-writer Molly explains to her friend Lori, the protagonist of Dahl's Start Me Up, when Lori asks if she could ever write a story featuring sexual practices that she's not into:

"I've got a friend.... Delilah Hughes. She writes stories about pretty heavy submission and bondage. Stuff I'm totally not into. But her books are beautifully done, charged with emotion and conflict. Very sexy. I love them. And Ben [her boyfriend] always appreciates it when I read them, if you know what I mean." (44)

Molly's "if you know what I mean" suggests that even though she herself has no desire to experience "heavy submission and bondage," she can still be turned on by stories which explore such sexual situations. Just because our complex, messy minds dream about cruel, ravishing pirates, or stern men (or women) wielding handcuffs, and search for parallels in our reading, doesn't mean that we have any desire to date Captain Blood or Christian Grey.

What other romance novels can you think of that contain provocative discussions of romance as a genre?

Photo credits:
David Weisner, The Three Pigs, page 7. From the collection of Jackie Horne.
Book covers courtesy of Goodreads
Captain Blood poster courtesy of Wikipedia.

Next time: RNFF recommends Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Power Games... RNFF Review of Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels series

In a recent post on the Popular Romance Project web site, Jayashree Kamble discusses the rise of paranormal romances featuring heroes who are part human and part animal. As the construction of dominant masculinity popularized in 1950s-80's Harlequins and 70s-90s single-title romances has become less culturally acceptable (or, perhaps, simply less desirable) to many women raised in the wake of second-wave feminism, the alpha-hero who once dominated contemporary and historical romance has become, if not an endangered species, at least a far less commonly sighted beast. But he has found a safe haven in the subgenre of paranormal romance, a development that gives Kamble pause. "It is no grievous fault to desire a passionate hero," Kamble argues, "but when that translates into animality (and a dismissal of men who do not care to be animals), it is time to reassess the desire."

An early shape-shifter: Jupiter as bull abducts Europa
Just as I'm wary of critics who would dismiss the entire romance genre, I'm also suspicious of those who would reject a subgenre without looking at individual books within it. Do all paranormal romances that feature beast-men return readers to a male dominant/female submissive paradigm? Or are there differences between titles, and between authors? Do some books endorse female submission to the alpha male, while others espouse a more equitable relationship between hero and heroine?

Ilona Andrews' Magic series (Magic Bites, Magic Burns, Magic Strikes, Magic Bleeds, and Magic Slays) provides at least one example of a man-beast story which doesn't glorify the alpha male at the expense of any woman. Urban fantasy novels, the Magic books focus on action and suspense in an Atlanta transformed by repeated periodic incursions of magic. But romance, in the form of the developing relationship between the novels' narrator, mercenary Kate Daniels, and Curran, the shapeshifting leader of the "Pack," serves as an underlying leitmotif.

Curran's shapeshifters,  who include not only were-wolves, but also were-jackals, were-rats, were-bears, and, in alpha-male Curran's case, were-lion, are organized strictly along the biologically-based hierarchical lines common to pack animals: a dominant alpha rules over the entire group. Such is the appeal of many a man/beast tale: the alpha-male dynamic frowned upon in more realistic fiction gets validation from its occurence in the natural world of the beast half of the man/beast.

But Andrews' Pack also includes sub-alphas, who rule over each sub-group (for example, were-jackals have their own alpha, whom they obey, but who owes allegiance to Curran). Kate believes Curran "wasn't in charge because he was the smartest or the most popular; he ruled because of those three hundred and thirty-seven [shape-changers in Atlanta] he was unquestionably the strongest. He was in charge by right of might; that is, he had yet to meet anyone who could kick his ass" (Bites 52). Curran is called "alpha," "Your Majesty," or, most often, "The Beast Lord." Though Kate learns through the course of the series that there's a lot more to Curran than just physical strength, if you're looking for egalitarian political structures in your romance reading, you're not going to find them in Andrews' alternate Atlanta.

Leader of the Pack
But if political structures in the Pack are regressive, gender relations prove far more nuanced. The pack contains both male and female shape-shifters, and most sub-groups in the pack are lead by both a male and a female alpha. The alphas are generally mated (i.e., married or in a long-term-relationship) couples; the only exception to the male/female couples are a male-male alpha pairing, a welcome, unobtrusive nod to homosexual romance. Female as well as male shape-shifters fight and kill, and protecting the children of the pack seems a primary shape-shifter goal, no matter what gender one is (not surprisingly, given the action-based nature of the genre, little actual child-care is depicted in the novels).

Kate Daniels, the novels' heroine, is not a member of the Pack. But she proves herself the equal of any of its members, including its alpha leader. Readers are first introduced to Kate as she easily dispatches a vampire with a single toss of her knife. No damsel in need of rescuing, Kate is more than capable of saving not only herself, but also the denizens of Atlanta, whether they be human, shape-shifter, or even, when absolutely necessary, necromancer. She's also a rebel, a woman who hates authority with a capital H. Kate works as a freelance mercenary, unable or unwilling to be subject to the rules and regulations of any of the several institutions designed to do what she is best at: subduing magical threats and creatures. Looking for the embodiment of "kick-ass heroine"? Kate Daniels easily fits the bill.

As the series of Magic books unfurls, Kate and Curran engage in a cat and cat game, each trying to assert dominance over the other, each resisting the other's attempts to do the same. Curran assumes his usual tactics—intimidate via a mere show of his overpowering lion form—will lead to Kate's submission. Kate, in contrast, resists through wisecrack, using her anger (and fear) at being expected to be submissive to drive her ever-sarcastic mouth. For example, at their first meeting, she thinks:

     Where was he? I scanned the building, peering into the gloom. Moonlight filtered through the gaps in the walls, creating a mirage of twilight and complete darkness. I knew he was watching me. Enjoying himself.
      Diplomacy was never my strong suit and my patience had run dry. I crouched and called out, "Here, kitty, kitty, kitty." (Bites 54).

Though Curran initially tries to intimidate Kate through word and appearance, and even through physical force, over the course of the series he learns that mere displays of power won't impress or subdue her. For she has power of her own, power different than his, perhaps even stronger than his in many ways. And she will never agree to subject her power to his.

Myrna Loy and William Powell as Nick and Nora Charles
But Curran can verbally spar with the best of them, and the insulting back-and-forthing between hero and heroine as each asserts her or his will in the face of one equally as strong gradually shifts to bantering designed to signal knowledge of the other, and even affection. My favorite bickering motif occurs when Curran teases Kate whenever he has to "rescue" her, when in fact all that's usually necessary is to take her to the infirmary after each battle she fights and wins. In the grand tradition of verbally-duelling detective couples like Nick and Nora Charles, The Avengers' John Steed and Emma Peel, and Moonlighting's Maddie Hayes and David Addison, Kate and Curran trade verbal ripostes between bouts of fighting the bad guys (and girls, and disgusting demonic creatures), and over the course of four books, gradually learn to trust each other and open themselves to vulnerability.

In an intriguing exploration of power, Kate and Curran also learn the dangers of their alpha-ness. Though were-wolf Derek, who becomes Kate's friend, protests her budding romance with a human doctor by arguing that "You're harder than he is.... The man's supposed to be harder. So he can protect," his real objection is that "He will never tell you no" (149, 150). But the head of any social hierarchy needs to have someone to stand up to him or her; otherwise, power becomes absolute, sliding from alpha-ness to despotism. Kate seems to be the only one who will stand up to Curran, who will disobey his orders, who will fight him, both physically and intellectually. And if she wants any kind of romantic relationship with Curran, Kate needs to recognize the need to compromise, to listen when he protests her plans, agreeing with him when she can see the reasonableness of his objections, proceeding if those objections simply wish to keep her safe from harm.

In Andrews' world, an alpha male doesn't need a submissive mate. He needs a woman with as much alpha-ness as he has. In Kate Daniels, alpha Curran meets his alpha-match.

What other man/beast romances explore the dynamics between two strong protagonists without forcing a heroine to cede her power?

Ilona Andrews, Magic Bites. New York: Ace Books, 2007.
      Magic Burns (2008)
    Magic Strikes (2009)
    Magic Bleeds (2011)
    Magic Slays (2012)



Photo/Illustration credits
• Titian, Rape of Europa (1562). Courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
• Wolves sparring for dominance. Courtesy of Marty Sloane.
• Alpha lion. Courtesy of Christian Sperka.
• Myrna Loy and William Powell. Courtesy of Megan Walsh Gerard.

Next time on RNFF: Cheers for meta-fictive romance

Friday, October 12, 2012

Romance as Pornography for Women: A History (part 1)

In my previous post on what a feminist can gain from reading from romance, I discussed the use of the phrase "pornography for women" to describe the genre. Several readers suggested that the phrase might refer to other things besides the idea that romance cloaks sex in narrative clothing. In the wake of such responses, I began to wonder about the history of the term. Who first used the phrase to describe romance? What did he or she mean by it? And how has the meaning of the phrase changed over the course of its history?

The earliest usage of the phrase that I could find in reference to romance fiction, as opposed to actual pornography, is from 1979, in an essay by Ann Snitow called "Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different."* Snitow was one of the earliest literary critics to look analytically at Harlequin romances, and one of the first to move beyond viewing genre romance as either a patriarchal opiate for the female masses or a rebellion against patriarchal restrictions. Instead, she was interested in exploring how the Harlequin novels accurately describe what she terms "certain regressive elements in the female experience" (308).

Viewing romance as "pornography for women" was not original to Snitow; she heard a fellow scholar, Peter Parisi, make the connection in an unpublished talk he gave at Rutgers in 1978. Parisi claimed that Harlequins are "essentially pornography for people ashamed to read pornography"; the romance and promised wedding serve only as a cover for readers raised to think sex outside of marriage is sinful or shameful, but who still read primarily for sex (314-15).

Snitow agrees with Parisi that Harlequins are pornographic, but takes pains to note that she is not using the word pejoratively. Rather than judging Harlequins because they sexualize all contact between hero and heroine, Snitow is more interested in thinking about whether the books "contain an affirmation of female sexuality" (315).

In considering this question, Snitow makes a fascinating argument, one that compares pornography to "infant desire and its furious gusto": "In pornography all things tend in one direction, a total immersion in one's own sense experience, for which one paradigm must certainly be infancy. For adults this totality, the total sexualization of everything, can only be a fantasy. But does the fact that it cannot be actually lived mean this fantasy must be discarded?" (316). While misogyny may be one aspect of contemporary pornography, another is its "universal infant desire for complete, immediate gratification, to rule the world out of the very core of passive helplessness," Snitow argues (316).

Because of the way it explodes the boundaries of the self, Snitow believes the "abandon" of pornography gives it the potential for subversion, even for social rebellion. Especially when it also depicts the power balances of society run to excess. But she sees this radical potential as still unrealized, both in pornography for men being published in the 1970s and in the Harlequin romance of the period.

Intriguingly, though, she does not read Harlequins as simply oppressive to women. Rather, she sees in them a strength: the insistence "that good sex for women requires an emotional and social context that can free them from constraint" (320), an insistence rare in any literature of her time. Unfortunately, Snitow notes, the road to good sex that Harlequins of her day map requires romance heroines to give up the very qualities—aggression and spontaneity—that are the hallmarks of rebellious infantile abandonment. In order to gain emotional intimacy, heroines must passively wait for it, for fear they will scare off their emotionally wary heroes.

In future posts, I'll be taking a look at how the phrase "pornography for women" has changed since Snitow (or more accurately, Parisi) coined the term. For now, I'd like to consider the conclusion of Snitow's essay, in which she imagines what a progressive pornography, one for both men and women, might look like. Her vision cals for both "personal feeling and abandoned physicality together in wonderful combinations undreamed of in either male or female pornography as we know it" (320-21). Such a progressive pornography will not be achieved, she posits, until equality between the sexes as both workers and child-rearers is far more commonplace than it is in America in 1979.

Today, U.S. society is far more egalitarian than it was in 1979. But many barriers to full equality between the sexes remain. How close do you think today's romance novel (Harlequin or otherwise) is to embodying Snitow's dream of a positive pornography?

* First published in the journal Radical History Review (20), and later reprinted  in Susan Ostrov Weisser's collection Women and Romance: A Reader. New York: NYU Press, 2001, 307-322. Quotations above have been taken from Weisser's reprint.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Happy Baby   
• Two covers from Harlequins analyzed by Snitow courtesy of Goodreads  

Next time on RNFF: Book review of Ilona Andrews' Magic series 


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

It don't breakeven... Gayle Forman's WHERE SHE WENT

 RNFF Book Review

After spending six+ hours in a car with a fourteen-year-old this past weekend, I have first-hand evidence that the songs on just about every pop music station are almost always about falling in love. Running a close second, however, are songs about falling out of it. While Neil Sedaka famously crooned that breaking up is hard to do, apparently singing about the end of a relationship is not nearly so tough.

Unlike pop music, popular romance fiction rarely focuses on the breakup, at least a final, absolute breakup between two lovers who truly care for one another. Instead, romance offers the trope of the separated lovers, their relationship broken apart (usually through no fault of their own) sometime in the past, before the action of the novel begins. During the course of the typical separated lovers story, the hero and heroine recognize the signs they misread, or discover the evil figures who tricked them apart (cruel parents, jealous siblings, rival lovers), and mend the breaks that have kept them apart, making them miserable for months (or more often, years).

Young Adult romance* rarely features the separated lovers trope; given the typical age of its protagonists and their relative lack of romantic experience compared to their adult romance brethren, such a finding is not that surprising. To discover a YA romance that dances on the edge between breakup and separated lovers is rare in itself, but to find one that also tells its story from the point of view of the male in the relationship seems well worth looking at from a feminist perspective. Especially when the writing in the book is as good as it is in Gayle Forman's Where She Went.

Back in high school, Adam Wilde and Mia Hall were known as "Groovy and the Geek." Adam wrote songs and played guitar in an emo-core punk band, while Mia devoted herself to classical cello. The story of how two such disparate teens came together, as well as the horrific accident that broke apart Mia's family, is told in Forman's previous novel, If I Stay. Where She Went begins three years later, long after Mia, who moved to New York City to study at Julliard, gradually stopped returning Adam's texts and phone calls. The action of the novel, told in the immediacy of the present tense, unfolds over a single night and day; Adam recounts the events that led up to this day via memories interpolated between the current action.

In the now, Adam's a troubled, alienated rock star, having risen to fame on the strength of the songs he wrote after Mia dumped him (lyrics from that album—Collateral Damage—serve as epigraphs for the book's even-numbered chapters). Both on the verge of leaving for a 3-month tour of Europe and on the verge of a personal breakdown, Adam attempts  to lessen the anxiety caused by the grind of the spotlight, unresolved grief, and an overly inquisitive reporter by walking the streets of the city alone. But instead of finding the solace he seeks, Adam comes across a poster advertising that evening's performance at Carnegie Hall: YOUNG CONCERT SERIES PRESENTS MIA HALL. Deciding to violate "the three-year restraining order she basically put out on me," Adam buys a rush ticket, telling himself he'll be content to hear Mia even if he can't see her (54).

Zankel Hall, at Carnegie Hall
But such is the fame of Shooting Star and its lead songwriter that even the crew at Carnegie Hall recognizes Adam. Instead of signing the expected autographs, though, he finds himself being invited backstage. To see Mia, the girl who told him she loved him more than life itself before she stepped on the plane to New York three years ago. To Mia, the girl who never came back.

Mia, on the verge of departing for her own concert tour to Japan, invites Adam to accompany her on a farewell tour of NYC. But will it also a final farewell to Adam, providing closure to their unofficial breakup, a closure Mia never gave him? During the night and day that follows, Adam and Mia dance painfully along the edge of revelation, the weight of what isn't said far more meaningful than the awkward commonplaces that are all either can initially bring themselves to offer. Later, as Mia gradually begins to tell Adam about her life since leaving him, and her feelings about the accident and her lost family, Adam cannot stop himself from reading each statement as a potential rejection. But finally he allows an unscripted emotion to escape, discovering the courage, or perhaps the anger, to ask Mia why she left.

Forman doesn't offer the typical romance excuses of a misunderstanding, or interfering friends or parents; instead, Mia's heartbreaking answers point to the pain even those we love, and who love us, can cause. Even when (perhaps especially when) they are trying their hardest to help:

     "All I wanted was for you to be okay. All I wanted was to help you. I would've done anything."
     She drops her chin to her chest. "Yes, I know. You wanted to rescue me."
     "Damn, Mia. You say that like it's a bad thing."
     She looks up at me. The sympathy is still in her eyes, but there's something else now, too: a fierceness; it slices up my anger and reconstitutes it as dread.
     "You were so busy trying to be my savior that you left me all alone," she says. "I know you were trying to help, but it just felt, at the time, like you were pushing me away, keeping things from me for my own good and making me more of a victim." (184)

Unwilling to continue to play the victim, Mia makes the (feminist) choice to reject self-sacrifice, even if it means sacrificing her relationship with the man she loves:

"You wrote, 'She says I have to pick: choose you, or choose me. She's the last one standing.' I don't know. When I heard 'Roulette' I just thought you did understand. That you were angry, but you knew. I had to choose me."
     "That's your excuse for dropping me without a word? There's cowardly, Mia. And then there's cruel! Is that who you've become?"
    "Maybe it was who I needed to be for a while." (186-87)

Forman's novel contains many other understated feminist moments. One of my favorites is Adam's dismay at the realization that he's allowed himself to degenerate from being a "Man" to being a mere "Guy": 

     One day she'd told me that they'd decided that my gender was divvied into two neat piles: Men and Guys. Basically, all the saints of the world: Men. The jerks, the players, the wet T-shirt contest aficionados? They were Guys. Back then I was a Man....
     She's right. I am a Guy now. And I can peg the precise night I turned into one. (144-45)

Others include his recognition of what playing music really means, and especially the decision he makes about the direction his career will take once's his finally made his peace with Mia. Needless to say, this is not a book that makes a heroine give up what she loves doing in order to be with her man.

On which side of the breakup/separated lovers divide does Adam and Mia's story ultimately end? That Forman manages to keep readers unsure even up until the final chapters is not only a testament to her skills as a writer, but also to her ability to re-create a unique, and feminist, romance by experimenting at the boundaries of existing genre tropes.

 Gayle Forman, Where She Went. New York: Dutton, 2011.

*Unlike the RWA, which, through its recent change in their RITA award qualifications, has narrowed its definition of "romance" for the YA audience, I take a broader view in this blog, considering literary YA fiction as well as that packaged specifically as "romance."

Photo/Illustration credits:
• Cello ribbons & bows: Luana Krause 
• Zankel Hall: Robert Silman Associates
• Les Paul Junior Guitar: Top Guitars

Next time on RNFF: The origins of the phrase "pornography for women"