Friday, December 27, 2013

How I Started Writing Feminist Books: A Guest Post by Courtney Milan

Please join me in welcoming guest blogger Courtney Milan, whose Victorian-set historical romances have often been featured in reviews here on RNFF. In this post, she reveals the surprising origins of the feminism in her writing.

My feeling is that if you read my books from the beginning of my career to current times, you'll see an evolution—and specifically, you'll see an evolution that takes a sharp jump with one book. That book is Unveiled, the third full-length book that I wrote. When I first got the idea for Unveiled, I had planned that Ash was going to be a very typical alpha male.

I write books out of order, so one of the very first things I wrote (and I wrote this in 2008) was a scene (not in the book any longer, for obvious reasons) where Ash first kisses Margaret. Here it is:

     She gathered that preternatural calm about herself. Despite her pale beauty, it descended on her like a cloak of darkness. And he wanted to crack it, to shake it up, to make her respond with something other than the mere hint of a whisper.
     He strode forward until he bracketed her against the wall. Her calm slipped, just a tad. Ash reached down and touched her face. Her cheek was warm and soft in his hand, and her lips parted just a fraction. She said not a word, though—just looked up at him.
     "Please," she said. "Don't—"
     But he did. He wanted her, and damn, he was going to kiss her.

So there you are. That's Ash as I initially planned him.

And then someone (@redrobinreader) on Twitter complained that it was creepy that in every historical romance, the hero tells the heroine how turned on he is by her pale skin.

There's nothing wrong with pale skin, and yes, Victorians did have a pale skin fetish. But when it's the only color that gets praised, that's seriously messed up. And since I don't have pale skin myself, this complaint led to a bit of introspection on my part. Why was I accepting this without question? Why was I writing this way? Why was I writing something I didn't believe, and what did it say that I'd internalized something like that enough to regurgitate it without thinking?

So the scene I wrote after that was a kind of response to how I felt about that moment. This was the scene where Ash says:

Do you know why my peers want their brides to have pale skin?.... They want a woman who is a canvas, white and empty. Standing still, existing for no other purpose than to serve as a mute object onto which they can paint their own hopes and desires. They want their brides veiled. They want a demure, blank space they can fill with whatever they desire.

I hadn't expected to write that. I hadn't planned to write it. The book I had been planning to write had no room for that kind of Ash. But when I wrote it, it felt right in a way that nothing I had ever written before had. Writing those words changed Ash, changed the book, changed what I write about, and changed who I am as a writer.

And you know what it was that pushed me over the edge into writing books that are more feminist? It wasn't feminism directly. It was race.

Even though the race part has rarely shown up directly labeled as such in my books to date, the fact that I am half-Asian, and have had to deal with stereotypes that I should therefore be more submissive, that I've had to deal with being sexualized because of my race, the long and very complicated relationship I have with my mother... These are questions that, for me, are so bound up in the question of who I am as a woman that I don't think I can separate them, and they're things that show up in my books, over and over.

I started paying attention to the feminist content in my books because of a question of race.

The moral of the story is, if something's bugging you, complain about it. You might not reach the person you're talking about, but someone else might hear, and it'll make a difference.

Photo credits:
Courtney Milan: Copyright Jovanka Novakovic,

Courtney Milan's debut novel, Proof by Seduction, was published in 2010. Since then, her books have received widespread praise, including starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. She's been a New York Times and a USA Today Bestseller, a RITA® finalist, and an RT Reviewer's Choice nominee. Her latest book, just released this month, is The Countess Conspiracy, book 3 in the Brothers Sinister series.

You can find Courtney on Facebook, Twitter, or via her website,


  1. I don't see how the change was any better in regards to race being shown in a fair light. As someone who was called albino all through childhood, it certainly didn't make me feel good about myself when reading it. I find it sad when an author puts down one skin color in an effort to elevate another. As opposed to the idea that perhaps ALL skin colors can be perceived as beautiful in and of themselves. As opposed to simply giving the heroine a skin color other than pale, and showing how the hero loves her for what she is. Frankly, the approach highlighted in the snip comes off as reactionary, preachy, and not what I'd like to think of as enlightened.

    1. I'm wondering whether I should reply--this is perilously close to commenting on my books--but I think I need to say something in response here.

      Note that what Ash is putting down here is not "pale skin" itself but the overall societal preference for pale skin. One can put down the latter without putting down the former. There's a big difference between saying "pale skin is bad" and saying, "it is screwed up to say that pale skin is preferable, and we need to talk about that." The latter is not putting down pale skin; it's deconstructing an overall preference for paleness.

      And I can see how you can say that maybe we should just keep silent and let people appreciate things for how they are, but when someone points out (rightly) that an entire genre is not silent and in fact regularly expresses a preference, I think it's important to take some time to deconstruct that preference.

      If 90% of the books praise heroines for their pale skin and the other 10% are silent, that's really, really screwed up.

      A refusal to examine what is accepted as the implicit default does not constitute enlightenment.

    2. I think Anonymous unwittingly makes the point when s/he says "I certainly didn't feel good about myself when reading it." Yes! But take that feeling further and use it to think about what it's like for others who routinely feel excluded from the pages of romance novels. I think that's Courtney's point in saying that the overwhelming preference for only one category makes everyone else feel devalued when they aren't in that category. Critiquing the societal preference for pale skin allows those who haven't previously "felt bad" when reading about their skin color (or gender or sexual orientation or age or social class...) to get a glimpse into what it's like for people who routinely feel devalued by not seeing themselves in romance novels. It's an opportunity to question the categories we have constructed and to think about how they affect people's experiences. It's an opportunity to recognize privilege by saying, "wow, I usually don't have to feel this way when I read romance novels; imagine what it's like for people who always feel this way."

      Pointing out that pale skin is preferable says more about the society we live in (or the romance genre specifically) than it does about any one person, no matter that person's skin color. I applaud Courtney's efforts to be reflective and to introduce some critical thinking into the mix. I would fall head over heels for a hero who challenged the status quo and critiqued the male dominated control over which women are "valued" more than others. And that's another way this passage rocks--Ash is a feminist for pointing out how the culture allows *men* to decide which women are desirable, which of course pits women against each other, preventing them from coming together and overthrowing the patriarchy. *sigh* I'll be reading this book!

  2. It's pretty amazing that you can start wondering about one thing (race) and then you end doing something different (a clearly feminist POV in romance). I would have never imagined that. I guess that's what being a creative person is.
    And I do agree: we should complain or, at least say something about the things we don't quite like in romance. The limits of romance should be pushed in order to find something fresh and new in the genre. As C. Milan does, IMO.
    Thanks for your article.

    1. I see race and gender as intricately related: both are categories of privilege/oppression that affect people's experiences in life dramatically. Once we start to question the stratification system, or as Courtney says above, the societal preferences for one thing over another, we open up not only the genre but our preference for diversity on a cultural level. It's all part of the same cultural soup!

  3. There seems to be in the last few years anyway, an awareness of the "vanilla" concept in romance, particularly in contemporary romance. Not to say that there aren't some great stories in romance about characters from different backgrounds, however they aren't even close to the majority of books written. It's nice to see the conversations progressing and I'm hoping that it will translate into a diversity of characterization within the genre! Thanks for the article!

  4. So glad you wrote it that way because that veiled/unveiled comment is exactly the point where I felt myself sighing and falling in love with your writing. Thanks for a writing sensibility that is not unconscious or unexamined.

  5. This book is still my favorite Courtney Milan book, and definitely marked the point where she became an auto-buy. The way he saw the heroine and the way they interacted just made me melt (respectful of each other, after a certain period, with the hero actually liking to spend time with the heroine. Imagine that!).

  6. Interesting piece. The first way of writing the scene sounded kind of creepy, but the second seems out of context for early in a relationship in Victorian times.

    I've read the original preference for pale white skin, as opposed to tanned, arose from the idea that the person owning it did not have to labor outdoors signifying they were rich. Some books mention that the heroine is tanned and while her peers view this as a negative, we and the hero regard it positively.