Friday, November 30, 2012

Rape in Romance, part 2: Rape in 1980s Harlequin romances

In speaking recently to a friend who had had an abortion as a teen in the early 1980s, I heard for the first time that her pregnancy had been the result not of unprotected sex, but of rape by her boyfriend.  "Call the police? And tell them what?" my friend exclaimed when I asked her why she hadn't prosecuted her rapist-boyfriend. "No one had ever heard of date rape back then," she reminded me. "I didn't even think of it as rape myself."

With "Take Back the Night" vigils on college campuses, documentaries about date rape on cable and network news programs, and widespread media outrage whenever a (usually male) public figure makes a sexist remark about rape victims, it's sometimes hard to remember that until quite recently talk about rape could rarely be heard in public.  Reading the first Mills & Boon/Harlequin romances to feature rape not as "aggressive seduction" but as criminal violation gave me a much-needed reminder of just how new our culture's acknowledgement of date/acquaintance rape truly is.

Charlotte Lamb and Daphne Clair were both popular Mills & Boon/Harlequin authors in 1980—Clair had published ten novels, and Lamb more than thirty— when each chose to use the romance form to explore the then-seldom confronted topic of rape and its effect on a woman's subsequent sexual and romantic life. Lamb chose to open Stranger in the Night with a scene depicting the rape her heroine, Clare experiences as "a young eighteen, straight up from the country" (5). Taken by her flatmate to a New Year's party, Clare drinks a bit too much, leaving her susceptible to an attractive man who flatters her and kisses her. Believing herself in love, Clare allows the man to draw her away from the party, where he violently takes her virginity, despite her physical and verbal protests (an act the back cover copy euphemistically terms "sudden and rough lovemaking"). In the aftermath, Clare vows never to allow herself to be "trapped by her own heart" again (23).

Fast forward nine years, and Clare has become a sophisticated, famous actress, not by sleeping her way to the top but by sublimating her entire emotional life into her performances. Between shows, she's vacationing in Nice with her best friend, playwright Macey, reading through his latest script. Though Macey initially hoped for a romantic relationship with Clare, he accepted a platonic one as the price of remaining her friend. Yet as he tries to convince her to take a role in his new play, its clear he still carries a torch for her.

Macey becomes far less willing to restrain his sexual feelings after he witnesses Clare's unprecedented emotional reaction to the nephew of another actress Macey is courting for his play. Readers realize that Luke Murray is the man who raped her, but Clare has never told anyone else about her violation, including her best friend. "I'd care like hell. I don't want people knowing, staring, smiling," Clare thinks when the perceptive Macey asks her what's wrong (70). In particular, she doesn't want Macey to know: "He would look at her quite differently; she knew that. Macey had an image of her, and she didn't want that image shattered" (71).

Clare can't tell Macey of her rape because she, like society, doesn't know any better than to blame herself for it: "He was bound to despise her when he knew how she had let Luke Murry take her that night. Clare knew Macey well enough to know how he looked at the sort of girl who got drunk at parties and went to bed with strangers" (77-78). Later, when Macey asks her why she never told anyone about what had happened to her, she responds, "Rape? How many people would believe me? I went with him of my own accord. And to do him justice, I suppose he thought I was willing, too. He thought I knew what he wanted. How was he to guess I was as thick as a plank?" (112-13). Women are raped, the novel seems to suggest, because of their own stupid behavior, not because rape is wrong.

In his jealousy, Macey becomes almost as physically and verbally abusive to Clare as her rapist was. A reader might expect that telling Macey her secret will mitigate this problem. But Clare tells Macey in the middle of the novel, not at its end, and his obnoxious behavior only continues. The real difficulty comes when Clare's revelation reawakens her long-repressed sexuality, and she begins to reciprocate Macey's attraction. But even though he desires her, Macey doesn't want Clare to use him just to satisfy a passing sexual urge, and his sexual frustration only increases.

Unfortunately, he doesn't tell her this until after he's already in the midst of a sexual encounter he initiates (although he, like her rapist, attributes his loss of sexual control to her, not himself). He blames her for his own frustrations,  calling her "a stupid little bitch," and a "tease," the same words Luke Murry uttered when she resisted his sexual advances nine years earlier. At the novel's climax, when Macey threatens yet again to "do something we'll both regret," i.e., force her into sex, her reaction is not "stop acting like a rapist," but instead "I love you" (183). With the traditional Harlequin construct that insists the hero prove his love by losing sexual control, it becomes distressingly difficult to differentiate lover from rapist.

Structurally, Daphne Clair's The Loving Trap takes the opposite approach. The novel begins in the present, not the past; both the hero and the reader are kept in the dark about just what happened to heroine Kyla to make her so skittish about sex. The back cover copy makes no mention of rape, either, framing the problem between Kyla and new husband as the "reluctance to commit herself that she still felt, despite her love for Marc." Clair drops myriad hints about Kyla's past, hints that a 21st-century reader would surely pick up on: Kyla dislikes  "big, aggressive men" like Marc, who, like most Harlequin heroes, is a wealthy, self-assured professional (11); she dates Chris, whose "very lack of masculine attraction was the chief quality that had attracted her to him" (25); she feels "panic shot through with sudden pleasure" when Marc kisses her (65). Would it take the 1980 reader far longer? Perhaps when she grows angry at the way Marc takes his own power for granted: "It must be lovely for you to shift us all of us little pawns around the way you do. And it's all done with kindness, too. Everyone benefits, don't they? We're all much better off than before" (65)? Or when Kyla faints when Marc's kiss becomes blatantly sexual? When she refuses to have sex with him on their honeymoon? Or when she admits to herself that "quite simply, she resented him and his male power" (124)?

Though Marc, unlike Macey, doesn't get to hear Kyla's story until near the novel's end, he realizes early that he needs to be gentle, that any abrupt, aggressive move will send her flying away. Before their marriage, he approaches her "with infinite slowness, as though afraid of frightening her with a sudden lunge" (43).  In order to win Kyla, Marc must become the opposite of a traditional Harlequin hero; he must restrain his violence, and his passion.

As a result of Marc's go-slow approach, Kyla begins to feel sexual passion for the first time: "She hadn't thought she could ever feel like that about a man. In a way, she felt an odd, detached relief, that it was possible, after all, that her body was capable of reacting in that way, because the men she had been fond of in the past had never been able to touch any core of pleasure or passion" (70). She even startles herself by thinking "It was high time she stopped being afraid of life and began to reach for what it had to offer" (105). Reach she does, for when Marc offers marriage, she agrees.

Kyla, like Clare, fears telling the man she loves about what happened to her. Not, thankfully, because she thinks she's at fault for her rape; Clair's novel is remarkable for the lack of self-shame it inflicts on its heroine. Kyla was even brave enough to tell the authorities, and to testify against her attackers. Kyla is reluctant to tell Marc because in the past, she told two other men she dated, with disastrous results: one pulled away, the other took a prurient interest.

Yet despite her love for Marc, Kyla cannot control her body's rejection whenever their physical contact moves beyond kissing. Marc becomes increasingly impatient, veering between restraint and force, lover and rapist: "I'm not going to apologize.... You asked for what you got," he tells her after one such aborted encounter (137). After they return from their unconsummated honeymoon, the alpha Harlequin hero/rapist who must force sex upon the woman he loves comes to the fore. Kyla resists, stopping him only by angrily revealing that he won't be the first, that he won't be able to inflict the pain of deflowering on her.

Marc finally realizes what has happened to Kyla, and listens while she tells her story of being raped by a drunken acquaintance and his two friends. Though Marc is disgusted by his behavior toward Kyla, we still have a few more pages to fill out, and so Kyla misinterprets his self-disgust, mistaking it for disgust with her. The two must dance a bit more around their own insecurities before Marc can finally admit that "I should have guessed, of course. The signs were there, if I hadn't been such a blind, arrogant fool.... I'd just damned near raped you myself, and that made me about on a level with them" (184).

In Stranger in the Night, Macey, too, had been dismayed by his own near-rape of Clare after he discovered what had happened to her in the past. Yet he continued to insult her and impose himself sexually on her. In contrast, in The Loving Trap, Marc recognizes the distressing similarities between his actions and those of Kyla's rapists, and quickly changes his behavior.  Only then can Kyla accept Marc as a sexual partner, demonstrating her readiness for sexual intimacy with him by initiating it, rather than simply responding to his advances.

Both novels demonstrate the limited discourses about rape available to women in the early 1980s, even to novelists wishing to portray rape victims with sympathy and understanding. That The Loving Trap proves a far more satisfying read for the feminist reader than Stranger in the Night also shows that significant differences can and do exist between category romances, especially those depicting social issues in the midst of a paradigm shift.

Next time on RNFF: 
The girl as romantic stalker in Sharon G. Flake's Pinned

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Subplotting Feminism: Pamela Morsi's THE LOVESICK CURE

When considering a romance novel's feminist credentials, the first place I typically look is at the novel's hero and heroine, and the relationship that develops between them. Does their love relationship work to support, or to undermine, feminism's central tenet, that women and men should have equal political, social, and economic rights? Do the novel or its characters pay overt lip service to such beliefs, all while the twists of the plot, or the decisions the heroine and hero make in order to be together at novel's end, undercut such glib pronouncements? Or are the heroine and hero truly engaged in the complex, difficult work of forging a love relationship in which each struggles to move beyond the limits of patriarchal sex, gender, and (if a wedding is included) marital roles?

Yet sometimes you have to look beyond a book's protagonists to discover its feminist principles, a discovery I made while reading long-time romance author Pamela Morsi's latest contemporary, The Lovesick Cure. Oh, the relationship that develops between city girl science teacher Jesse Winsloe and country boy physician's assistant Piney Baxley when Jesse escapes to the Ozarks to nurse a broken heart contains nothing to make a feminist cringe. The fairly new romance trope of "friends with benefits" (or in this case, "acquaintances with benefits") who turn into long-term partners even nods towards feminism by acknowledging that women have sexual needs and desires separate from any particular man. And, as is the case in Morsi's novel, when it is the heroine who proposes the initial sexual relationship, the friends with benefits trope acknowledges a woman's sexual agency as well as her sexual need. But the message that Jesse shouldn't have given up her own needs for her former boyfriend seems obvious, and not very deeply explored from a feminist point of view.

Intriguingly, the most striking feminist aspects of the novel unfold not in the relationship between Jesse and Piney, but in the subplots of other relationships: between Piney and his son, Tree; between Tree and his girlfriend, Camryn; and between Camryn and her female relatives, cousin Jesse and Aunt Will.

As a name, Piney hardly conjures up the traditional alpha male hero. Yet it fits Morsi's male lead as comfortably as a well-worn shirt. Married right out of high school to his pregnant girlfriend, Piney never had the chance to fulfill his dreams of going to medical school. After his wife left him (not once, but twice) to raise their son alone, Piney settled for studying to become a Physician's Assistant. Working under the supervision of a doctor, Piney hardly qualifies as a stereotypical dominant hero in charge of his own destiny; in fact, his role as provider of the everyday healthcare needs of the people of his small mountain town casts him closer to the stereotypically feminine role of nurse/caretaker than to any traditionally masculine role.

Piney's unconventional masculinity also informs his relationship with his seventeen-year-old son, Tree. After his wife's desertion, Piney's initial beliefs about childrearing ("he'd expected his wife to do most of the parenting. Women, he'd thought, were, by nature, more attuned to their offspring"), quickly gave way as he was forced to act in ways that belied them: "Maybe some women were. But Shauna knew even less about kids than he did. And she'd been a lot less motivated to care for one. Evidence of that fact being that Piney was all alone waiting up for his teenager. And he'd been all alone for most of his son's life" (34). Morsi introduces Piney to her readers not when he first meets Jesse, but instead while he's sitting on his home porch, waiting up in the dark for his son to get home. And despite the embarrassment Piney feels at speaking to Tree about his sex life, he doesn't shy away from discussing the potential ramifications of teen sex, or from encouraging Tree to not make the same mistakes he did when he was the same age. In her depiction of Piney, Morsi demonstrates that fathers can and do parent well, whether or not they embrace the construction of mother as by "nature" primary parent.

That Tree is trying, trying hard, to wait demonstrates the power of the open, honest, and respectful relationship he has with his father. But he's getting tired of people telling him what to do. Not just his dad, but also his girlfriend, Camryn, who keeps pressuring him to take their relationship to the "next level" for reasons completely unrelated to her love for him. That Tree insists upon making his own decisions about his sexuality, even to the point of temporarily breaking up with the girl he still loves because he doesn't want to compromise his own beliefs, gives a voice to those rarely-heard-from young men who break from the stereotypical masculine sexual imperative by choosing to abstain from sex during their teen years.*

Even while sympathizing with Tree, Moris refuses to make Camryn into the über-villainess a reader familiar with romance tropes might be forgiven for expecting when h/she discovers the girl's motives for enticing Tree into sex. Knowing that neither her unreliable father nor her cash-strapped single mother can afford to pay for her to go to college, and desperately fearful that as soon as Tree leaves for college he'll forget her, Camryn decides the only way to avoid being left behind is to get pregnant. Such a decision would likely cast her in the role of evil other woman in an Old Skool romance, but in Morsi's book, Camryn is portrayed not a villain, but a young woman with far too few choices in her life. Rather than demonize her,  Jesse and elderly Aunt Will encourage Camryn to rely on herself, instead of manipulating others. As Aunt Will counsels:

"To my thinking, the best plans are ones that don't require someone else's cooperation. I mean, folks are good to help when they are a mind to. But sometimes there is simply no help coming.... You've got to make up your own mind, form your own plan and get on with what you want in life. When you do that, you'll have your pick of men. Tree or some city fellow or a lug-head from the next mountain, it'll be your choice. But as long as you need a man more than he feels he needs you, then you'll always be stuck." (267, 271)

By watching Jesse and Aunt Will encourage, rather than denigrate or shun, the scheming Camryn, readers are invited to empathize with other young women who may be considering similarly poor plans when facing limited choices in their own lives. Neither turning Camryn into a villainous scapegoat, nor offering her an easy fairy-tale out (no long-lost relatives or benevolent billionaires drop a college scholarship in her lap), Morsi gives Camryn the same respect she demands the teen and other young women like her give themselves. That Camryn comes up with her own plan for what to do after the end of high school, as well as the courage to talk honestly to Tree about what their futures might look like, suggests that a feminist subplot might just be the best way to speak to a reader who may not be able to imagine herself playing the active lead role in her own life.

* In 1988, 60% of never-married males aged 15-19 reported engaging at least once in sexual intercourse, a number that has declined over the subsequent 20 years: 55% in 1995; 46% in 2002; 43% in 2006-2008. See Abma, J.C., Martinex, G.M., Copen, C. E. Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing. National Survey of Family Growth 2006-2008. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Statistics 23(30). 2010.

Photo/Illustration credits:
• Friends with Benefits Necklace:
• Sex books for kids: Wired/GeekMom 

Pamela Morsi, The Lovesick Cure. Harlequin/MIRA, 2012.

Next time on RNFF: 
Date rape in early 80's Harlequin romances

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Lesbian Allies, Heterosexual Romance: Meljean Brook's RIVETED

Early in the third volume of Meljean Brook's steampunk Iron Seas series, Riveted, readers learn that the novel's heroine, Annika, hails from a hidden all-female society. And when, soon after, we find out that its hero, David, is a vulcanologist, traveling with two other scientists intent on exploring the very area where Annika's people live, we have all the makings for a familiar science fiction trope: the exploration of gender roles through the depiction of a single-sex society.

From Greek myths of the Amazons to Wonder Woman and her home of origin on Paradise Island, stories of all-female societies being "discovered" by men have allowed writers to interrogate the gender norms of their times, or to imagine other ways gender might be constructed in imagined fantasy settings. Male authors have often depicted such societies as threatening or wanting in some way, but feminist writers typically take a more hopeful view, imagining what women might create when freed from the constrictions of patriarchy. While some authors banish men altogether from their female utopias, others imagine how a new type of society might be created when men interact with women raised with far different assumptions about gender roles than they have been.  Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1915 utopian novel, Herland, a staple of early women's studies classes during the 1970s and 80s, is a classic example of such gender-role exploration and re-visioning.

Yet as Riveted progresses, Annika and David's story proves not to be a meditation on gender roles, for Brook takes for granted the equality of the sexes that Gilman and feminists in the 1960s and 70s could only imagine. Instead, Brook uses the trope of the hidden single-sex society to meditate on heroism as it relates to sexuality. In particular, through Annika and David's developing romantic heterosexual relationship, Brook explores how heterosexuals might become allies to those with different sexual orientations.

First, a bit of plot: Annika Fridasdottor, a woolgathering dreamer back home in Iceland, has spent the last four years out in the wide world, working as an engineer on an airship while she searches for her missing sister. Källa, several years older than Annika, was always the brave one, the warrior, the leader. Only after her sister has disappeared does Annika discover that the elders of Hannasvik have banished Källa after she took the blame for a thoughtless action of Annika's, one that might have led to the discovery of their hidden society. And their culture has an imperative reason to remain hidden; not only did the founders of Hannasvik escape slavery by killing all their male captors, including a royal prince, but now many of their citizens live in single-sex romantic relationships, relationships which those from New World societies would condemn not only as unnatural, but so abhorrent as to warrant death.

Far from adventurous, Annika would far prefer to be working with fabric, designing and sewing beautiful clothing, than spending her days stoking an airship's engine, hoping against hope that Källa will answer one of the hundreds of personal ads she's taken out in every newspaper in every city where the cargo ship stops. At the novel's start, when a guard in the New World city of Navarra stops her, her panic is palpable. She's never been known for her courage, and fears that in the unstable country of Castile, no stranger would dare to help another.

Yet a stranger does step in. But not only out of the goodness of heart. For twenty years, David Kentewess has been trying to fulfill a promise made to his dying mother, a promise to find her people and return to them the runes she wore around her neck. But during her life, David's mother had been remarkably cagey about just where she came from, and David has had few clues to help him in his search until he hears Annika's voice, speaking with an accent he'd only heard once before, from his mother's lips. Thus, he intervenes with the guard, knowing that he'll gain the chance to talk with her after his technologically-enhanced arm, legs, and eye frighten the man away. Haven't they frightened almost everyone in the New World away, including any woman in whom David has ever taken an interest?

As a passenger on Annika's airship, David tries everything to convince her to reveal what he knows about his mother's people; Annika, already scarred by thoughtlessly risking the lives of everyone in her village, does nothing but refuse. Even the obvious and growing attraction between herself and this gentle outsider cannot persuade Annika to betray her trust, and the two decide to separate.

But the inventiveness of Brook's steampunk plot—a submersible whale, disappearing airships, a son bent on recuperating his scientist-father's lost reputation—continue to throw the two together, despite their agreement to part ways as friends. Yet the question of whether or not Annika should reveal Hannavik's whereabouts to David proves far less pressing than the question of how one finds the bravery to stand up for one's allies. And, perhaps more importantly, how to know when one should stand up, and when standing up is too dangerous a risk. David tells Annika she's brave to trust him with the why of Hannavik, if not the where. Annika replies that it is easy to die to protect someone you love:

     "For someone, it's easy. For something, though... I think it's harder to die for something you believe in. To stand up and to say that something else is wrong. I said it to my friend, but would I shout it abroad this ship? I don't know. I'd be too afraid of what would happen to me, because so many people think as she does. I hate myself for this."
     "When you're surrounded by stupidity, self-preservation isn't a sin."
     "Refusing to challenge that stupidity and letting it continue might end up hurting someone you love, later. I'd die to protect them, but not to tell people that I've kissed a woman, too?" (180)

Through his growing love for her, David helps Annika negotiate this very difficult question, when to speak up, when to hold back.  David doesn't ask Annika to be less for his sake; instead, he recognizes what is already in her, and urges it to blossom. He shows her the self that he sees: not the scared, inattentive, unadventurous girl forced by guilt to leave Hannasvik, but the brave, loyal, risk-taking woman who speaks her mind, calls others on their shortcomings, and will do anything to protect the people she loves.

And David, too, must learn to see himself as an ally, rather than an outsider, if he and Annika are to have any sort of future together. For as Iceland becomes ever-more populated, that future must include helping the women of Hannasvik gradually come out of isolation.  Källa left Hannasvik not only because she wished to help her sister, but because she believed that her people could not continue to hide the existence of Hannasvik from the ever-increasing populace of Iceland. After her own adventures, Annika agrees, and works to persuade her mothers of the same. "We can start small, here," Annika tells them. "And never back down."

No longer a rabbit, hiding at the first sign of danger, Annika will pick her battles, as well as when to conduct them. Annika can become a positive ally to her mothers' lesbian society even as she recognizes that she can no longer be a part of it now that she chooses to make a life with David. She can be that ally not only because of her love for her mothers, but also because her heterosexual love for David, and his for her, gives them both the courage to embrace hope, rather than be led by fear.

Hats off to Ms. Brooks, not only for showing us that not all feminists have to be kick-ass actions heroes, but for writing a sweet, touching romance, as well.

Meljean Brook, Riveted. Berkeley, 2012.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Wonder Woman Paradise Island:
• Airship: Liss@Random
• Steampunk Whale: CurtisRU
• Stand Up for What You Believe In: Postitsforlove

Next time on RNFF:
Enjoy your after-Thanksgiving Friday!
And look for another RNFF review on the 27th

Friday, November 16, 2012

Feminism and Heterosexual Romance: Strange Bedfellows?

In 1992, in the interdisciplinary scholarly journal Centennial Review, feminist Barbara Ryan noted a common belief expressed by those unfamiliar with feminism: a fear that "feminist women cannot allow themselves to love men, or that, if they find themselves falling into this patriarchal 'trap,' they would earn feminists' scorn for following where their hearts lead" (464*). Ryan suggests that this misconception isn't entirely the public's fault; feminists, she notes, seem oddly reticent when it comes to discussing heterosexual love, especially "when you consider that many, many of us go right on looking for AHL (adult heterosexual love), and many believe that they have found it" (464). Mother/child love, sister/sister love, homosexual love, friend/friend love, lesbian love—feminists rarely feel constrained to discuss any of these love relationships, but mention heterosexual love, and the silence can be deafening.

Ryan acknowledges that theorizing "companionate intimacy" should not be feminism's primary goal. Yet she cautions that feminism's failure to engage with the issue leaves many feminists embarrassed or ashamed of their heterosexuality. It also leaves potential feminists feeling shut out or ignored. "If we do not manage to bring AHL within feminism's purview, then we agree to denigrate some of straight people's most significant activities" (466), Ryan argues.

Christopher Tietjens and Valentine Wannop (BBC Parade's End)
After exploring some of the reasons why feminists shy away from discussing AHL, Ryan concludes by encouraging feminists to begin talking about what a positive vision of heterosexual love might look like. Interestingly, both of her models are from works of literature (although not from romance literature, alas). The first is from a  story by Simone de Beauvoir, "The Age of Discretion," which tells of a couple in their sixties negotiating a difficult situation with their only child. What interests Ryan is the depiction of the couple's relationship: in it, adult heterosexual love is constructed as "an ongoing conversation in which both lovers speak and listen": "He takes care of her, and she takes care of him; they get cross, and time passes, and they talk it over, and the relationship emerges strengthened" (471). Ryan's second model is a quote from Ford Maddox Ford's Christopher Tietjens, in Parade's End: "marriage is justified by two people's desire to go on speaking with each other" (471).

Ryan's brief article ends with a call to other feminists to begin a conversation about "what comprises a truly feminist AHL" (471). Yet a search on the citation tracker Web of Science reveals not one subsequent scholarly article or book makes reference to Ryan's essay. A search of the Harvard Library catalog using "feminism" and "heterosexuality" as subject terms revealed only 12 works, 4 of which were in languages other than English, and few of which discussed the two terms in a mutually positive light. Clearly, academics have failed to acknowledge, never mind accept, Ryan's invitation to envision a positive, feminist, heterosexual love.

Perhaps this would be different if more academics begin to study romance writers and their works? Many romance writers have been attempting to envision and depict just what a positive, feminist, heterosexual love might look like over the past two decades since Ryan issued her invitation. By analyzing their work, might feminism finally move "beyond embarrassment" when the topic of heterosexuality and love comes up for discussion?

* Barbara Ryan, "Beyond Embarrassment: Feminism and Adult Heterosexual Love." Centennial Review 37.3 (Fall 1993): 471-74, 477-86. Reprinted in Susan Ostov Weisser, ed. Women and Romance: A Reader. New York: NYU Press, 2001. 464-73. Quotations are taken from the Weisser volume.

Photo/Illustration credits:
• "Lone Wolf" cartoon: Katy at
Parade's End call sheet #11: Partner in Crime
Who Needs Feminism?

Next time on RNFF:
Steampunk Feminism in 
Meljean Brook's Iron Seas

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Laughing with the Conventions: Eloisa James' YOUR WICKED WAYS

All genres have their own conventions, patterns of form, style, and content that differentiate one genre from another. A tragedy must end badly to be a tragedy; a metaphysical poem must include a metaphysical conceit or pun; a melodrama must include an out-an-out evil villain. Romance novels, of course, are no exception. Plots that focus on courtship, a tone of hope rather than despair, a story that concludes happily—all must be present in order for a romance to make sense as romance.

In addition to genre-defining conventions, many literary genres also develop historically-specific conventions, conventions that change over time. Such conventions flourish for a short while, then give way to new patterns, different types of events, characters, or settings as history moves on. For example, in the opening chapter of Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan describe the conventions of romances published in the 1970s, then note how books published since the late 1980s feature quite different patterns: romances that were once solely written from the heroine's point of view shifting to include both heroine's and hero's viewpoints; the gradual disappearance of the rapist hero; the rise of romances that mention birth control. Though more recent romances still feature courtship, a hopeful tone, and happy endings, they've left behind many other non-genre-defining patterns, conventions that would feel dated to today's readers.

Snoopy plays with genre conventions, not entirely successfully...
Conventions are often ripe for poking fun at, not only by writers who have little respect for a genre, but also by its most innovative practitioners. A romance writer tired of, or ideologically opposed to, a certain convention might call readers' attention to its more absurd aspects, not only making readers laugh at it, but pointing to the ideology behind said convention, an ideology readers might prefer to do without. And if other romance writers follow said innovator's lead, one convention may disappear, and be replaced by a new one.
One such romance convention that I've been thinking about lately is "sex will always be fantabulously out-of-this-world—once I find my True Love." I don't know about you, but my first experience of sexual intercourse was not all that great. Neither was my second, or my third. In fact, it took a good long while for me and my partner at the time to figure the whole sex thing out, inexperienced practitioners that we were. Scientists and sociologists who have studied first heterosexual intercourse confirm that such a pattern is far more common than the one depicted in most romances. These studies consistently find that women find less pleasure in first intercourse than do their male partners; one 2010 study found that 52% of women experienced pain, only 34% reported physical satisfaction, and a mere 11% reported experiencing orgasm during their first intercourse. I haven't seen studies that look at experiences beyond the loss of virginity, but I'd guess that the satisfaction rate doesn't shoot up overnight from 34% to 100%, but instead only gradually increases over time, as young women gain knowledge both of their own bodies and of the act of sex itself.

Though the fantasy of ideal sex with one's beloved might be appealing for sexually experienced readers, younger readers who have yet to cross the virginity barrier might find themselves unpleasantly surprised by their initial sexual intercourse if romance novels have served as their primary source of sexual information. Perhaps this is why I so enjoy romance novels that poke fun at the convention of a heroine's virginity giving immediate way to earthshattering, blind-blowing intercourse once she's found her One True Love. One of my favorites is Eloisa' James Regency-set comedy Your Wicked Ways (2004). Not only does James make us laugh at the romance convention that as long as you're in love, the sex will always great, she does it with wit, charm, and a warmhearted sympathy for both her less than rakishly-experienced hero and her sexually self-doubting heroine.

Helene, Countess Godwin, and her husband Rees Holland have been separated for nearly a decade, Rees having thrown his wife of only a few weeks out of the house after she dumped a chamber pot over him. Serving as supporting role characters in the previous three books in James' Duchess quartet (Duchess in Love, Fool for Love, and A Wild Pursuit), Helene and Rees provide the comic counterpoint of the amorously disillusioned as their friends fall in love around them. 

Yet Rees and Helene's relationship began as a love-match, Your Wicked Way reveals: the seventeen-year-old Helene and a not much older Rees fell in love over the piano. Both musicians, they would often steal away from a ball or party to discuss each others compositions, and to exchange a few heated kisses. Despite having the approval of Helene's parents, the two chose to elope to Gretna Green, high on the romance of their own newfound amour.

Yet when sex is introduced into the equation, la vie en rose of young love all too rapidly gives way to the snarkiness of wounded feelings. The insults that flew fast and furious during previous books, and continue in this one, have an added poignancy now, as readers gradually come to see how both Rees and Helene are attempting to protect their own vulnerabilities in the face of their own mistakes, particularly their laughably disastrous wedding night, and the increasingly hurtful sexual encounters that follow it.

After living a life of spotless respectability for nearly ten years,  Helene decides she wants a baby, even if Rees won't give her a divorce and allow her to remarry. As she begins her search for a potential lover/father, Rees, advised of Helene's plans by her friend, pragmatically offers his own services. After all, it wouldn't be fair to his brother for a child not of their blood to inherit Rees's earldom, would it? Besides, he doesn't want Helene's feelings to be hurt when no eligible man expresses an interest in his scrawny, belligerent wife.

Rees has only two conditions: Helen must  move back into Godwin House, and she must help him complete his current opera, a project that has come to a standstill in the wake of the marriage of Rees's best friend, Darby, and Rees's longing for the "same kind of fire that burned" between Darby and his bride. Add Rees's brother, a minister, as well as Rees's current (and quite bored) mistress, both of whom also currently reside at Godwin House, and the double entendres, sarcastic quips, and hilariously surprising conversations bubble forth like the frothiest of champagnes:

    "If it is quite all right with you, I would like to borrow him once a day.... From what I remember, I only need around five minutes of Rees's time," [Helene] told Miss McKenna.
     "Sometimes Rees is good for seven minutes," Miss McKenna said with just a hint of laughter in her voice. "I would give him the benefit of the doubt."
     "Seven minutes!" Helene exclaimed. "How nice to know that one's husband has matured a whole two minutes in the past nine years."
     "I like a man to have ambition, don't you?" Miss McKenna said, taking a sip of wine. (169-70).

As they work together on the opera, Rees and Helene gradually remember why it was they came to care for one another. And with the maturity of an additional ten years, and a little soul searching, they each find the courage to reveal their vulnerabilities to one another, rather than hiding them behind the protective armor of insult and slight.

And as they grow closer emotionally, Helene and Rees also grow more sexually compatible. Not simply because love must lead to great sex, but rather because each works to discover what it is that the other needs in order to take pleasure from each other's bodies, and from their own.

Many romance novels construct sex as an act that people in love must already know how to perform; in contrast, Helene and Rees show that in order to perform sex with any degree of success, one must diligently study one's role, paying careful attention to the cues of the person with whom one takes the the sexual stage.

What other romance novels can you think of that open with a bad sexual relationship between the hero and heroine, a relationship that gradually transforms over the course of the novel? Or that discuss the difficulties adding sex to a relationship can raise?

Eloisa James, Your Wicked Ways. Book for in the Duchesses quartet. Avon, 2004.

Photo/Illustration credits:
• Snoopy playing with conventions: Snoopy's Guide to the Writing Life
Romance novels: Shannon Simbulan, Flickr
1-star lover: Spreadshirt
Doing it fast: Michael Crawford, Condenast store

Next time on RNFF:
Heterosexuality and feminism, strange and uncomfortable bedfellows?



Friday, November 9, 2012

Free to Be... A Feminist

I was musing the other day, wondering when it was that I first became a feminist. It must have been in college, I guessed, after first taking a course in Women's Studies and being introduced to the central ideas of the second wave feminist movement. But my memory is remarkably bad, something brought home to me yet again after reading these great posts by Dan Kois on Slate about the 40th anniversary of the making of the record album Free to Be... You and Me, which was first released in November 1972. Marlo Thomas and the myriad talented authors, songwriters, actors, and musicians that she recruited to create this groundbreaking album never used the word "feminist" in any of the songs or skits on the record. Yet the examples they set before these (at the time) seven-year-old ears clearly had a lasting effect, allowing me not just to dream of a world where I could "be almost anything [I] want to be," but to take it for granted that such a world would exist when I became a grown-up. Yes, I first became a feminist not in college, but after listening to "Parents Are People," "My Dog is a Plumber," "The Sun and the Moon," and all the other stories, poems, and songs on Free to Be...

The record album is long gone (did one of my younger sisters score it during one of the many "please move your stuff out of our house, we're not your offsite storage" kicks my parents went through over the years?). But I still have a copy of the book, originally published in March of 1974 as an expanded companion volume to the album. Interestingly, the copyright page of my edition reads "Bantam edition/December 1987," dating not from my childhood but from the months right after I graduated from college. Was it a nostalgic purchase, a last glance back at childhood before I moved definitively into the working world of grown-up-ness? Or was it simply a recognition of my roots as a feminist?

Given that the Free to Be project aimed, in the words of one of its co-creators, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, to "dispel myths that distort reality—like pretty-equals-good, and all-mothers-stay-in-the-kitchen, and big-boys-don't cry," to "challenge stereotypes that have imprisoned children's imaginations [and] stunted their emotional development," it's hardly surprising that romance stories are hardly to be found amongst the album's track or the book's pages (12). Yet the story that first comes to mind when I think back to Free to Be... is a romance, at least a romance of sorts: Betty Miles' retelling of the Greek myth of Atalanta.

Second-wave feminists began arguing that folk and fairy tales socialized young children into patriarchal ideology around the same time that Marlo Thomas was putting together the original Free to Be... album. Marcia Lieberman's " 'Some Day My Prince Will Come': Female Acculturation Through the Fairy Tale" (College English 1972) first took issue with the sexism in many familiar fairy tales, and many feminists debated the role such stories should play in childrearing throughout the 1970s and 80s. Some wished to toss out folklore and its outdated sex roles altogether, sex roles that taught girls that beauty and passivity were the highest feminine virtues. Others, arguing for the psychological importance of this literature, decided instead to collect relatively unfamiliar tales that featured stronger, more active female characters (for example, Rosemary Minard's 1975 Womenfolk and Fairy Tales). Still others chose to rewrite the "classic" tales in ways that challenged conventional views of gender socialization and sex roles (Jay Williams' The Practical Princess, published in 1969, and Jack Zipes' 1986 collection, Don't Bet on the Prince).

Hippomenes and Atalanta at the Louvre
Betty Miles proved herself at the forefront of this trend with her retelling of the story of Atalanta for the original Free to Be... album. In the Greek myth, Atalanta, who has taken a vow of chastity in the name of the huntress goddess Artemis, has no wish to marry. After her father pressures her to do so, she agrees, but with one condition: she will only marry a man who can best her in a footrace. Many men try, and many men lose, forfeiting not only Atalanta, but their own lives. Until one young man, Hippomenes, calls on Aphrodite for aid. The goddess of love gives Hippomenes golden apples, which he throws at Atalanta's feet each time she pulls ahead of him during their race. Distracted by the irresistible apples, Atalanta veers off course to retrieve them, ultimately allowing Hippomenes to win the race and her hand in marriage.

The opening of Betty Miles' version of the story tells a similar tale, with small but telling tweaks. Atalanta is desired not for her looks, or for her bloodlines, but because she is "so bright, and so clever, and could build things and fix things so wonderfully" (128). Atalanta's father, a king, is constructed not as simply domineering, but rather as "a very ordinary king; that is, he was powerful and used to having his own way"(128). It is the father, not Atalanta, who comes up with the idea of the footrace, choosing it not only because of his daughter's resistance to marriage, but also because of his own inability to decide who will be the best suitor. In these opening paragraphs, it is not the king, but Atalanta who strikes the reader as the competent and confident participant in this joust over marital prospects.

As the story progresses, Miles makes even larger changes to Atalanta's story. First she re-imagine its hero. It is not Hippomenes, who claims the blood of Poisedon, but the far more prosaic "Young John, who lived in the town" who proves to be Atalanta's chief competitor. While Hippomenes desires Atalanta at first sight, the highly enlightened Young John wishes to meet the princess after seeing her "day by day as she bought nails and wood to make a pigeon house, or choose parts for her telescope, or laughed with her friends" (131). And while Hippomenes does not question the wisdom of winning a mate via footrace, Young John believes it "not right for Atalanta's father to give her away to the winner of the race. Atalanta herself must choose the person she wants to marry, or whether she wishes to marry at all" (131). He races not to win her hand in marriage, but rather for the chance to talk with her, to get to know her, to ask the bright, clever girl if she will be his friend. (On the album, both the patriarchal King and the feminist  Young John were voiced by Alan Alda, suggesting not just difference, but continuity between the two characters. A hopeful sign that the conventional view could easily be transformed into the progressive? Or an ironic warning that Young John might all too easily slip back into the role of dominating patriarch?)

Illustration by Barbara Bascove from Free to Be... You and Me
Miles also rewrites the outcome of Atalanta's footrace. It is not through the intervention of a goddess that John becomes the victor, but instead through his own hard work, running every night after his studies are finished. And Atalanta is not distracted by gaudy fruit, nor is she defeated. For she, too, has practiced every day until she, just like John, "could run the course more quickly than anyone had ever run it before" (131). Instead, John "ran as her equal, side by side with her" until "smiling with the pleasure of the race, Atalanta and Young John reached the finish line together" (135). The memory of Marlo Thomas' and Alan Alda's voices, joined in joyful celebration of their characters' mutual triumph, rings with pleasure in my head to this day.

Miles ends her story not with a wedding, but with adventure. After the two spend the day together, sharing their ideas and interests, each leaves home: "John sailed off to discover new lands. And Atalanta set off to visit the great cities" (135).

Yet the possibility of marriage, of a romantic relationship that develops out of shared admiration and shared interests, remains temptingly open between these two friends: "Perhaps some day they will be married, and perhaps they will not," the narrator teases. The openness of that ending offers young listeners, and young readers, the opportunity to envision either possibility, without insisting they choose one or the other. The story ends by assuring us that no matter which we chose, Atalanta and John would both be "living happily ever after." A feminist fairy tale conclusion indeed.

Do you have any Free to Be... memories? And can you remember when you first considered yourself a feminist?

Photo/illustration credits:
Atalanta and Hippomenes statues: Oregon Live

Next time on RNFF:
Subverting romance conventions in Eloisa James' Your Wicked Ways

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Feminism, YA style: E. Lockhart's RUBY OLIVER series

Romance novels are often regarded as fantasies, stories that tell about love not as it is, but as we wish it would be. In the world of young adult fiction, though, with its strong tradition of literary realism, love stories often feature a far more rocky road to the HEA (Happily Ever After) than do many other sub-genres of romance, if they arrive there at all. If an author can provide a wealth of laughter to help cushion a reader's ride on said rocky road, he or she is likely to find an eager audience. And if on top of that, a writer in our so-called "post-feminist" age adds a healthy dollop of feminist consciousness-raising to her tale, then she just might find herself a featured author on Romance Novels for Feminists. As does E. Lockhart, author of four feminist books about wisecracking neurotic adolescent Ruby Oliver and her travails through the pitfalls and pleasures of teen romance.

Lockhart's quartet, beginning with 2005's The Boyfriend List: 15 Guys, 11 Shrink Appointments, 4 Ceramic Frogs and Me, Ruby Oliver and concluding with Real Live Boyfriends: Yes, Boyfriends, Plural. If My Life Weren't Complicated, I Wouldn't be Ruby Oliver (2010), is chock-a-block full of "of course this is the way it is" feminism, as well as recognition of the ways in which feminism's goals are still, frustratingly, out of reach.

Each reader will have her/his favorite feminist moments. In the spirit of Ruby, who loves to make lists, I've jotted a few of mine below.

1. Ruby's lists of romance patterns from movies and books that hardly ever occur in real life: 

From Ruby's list of break-up then love films
Another thing that happens in the movies: They all have these dramatic crises where everything looks bleak and you think the couple will never, ever get back together. But then they realize they can't live without each other, and in the end they live happily ever after. (BL 65)

I thought maybe heartbreak would make me lose my appetite, like it always does to heroines of books, and then I could waste away tragically to nothing and Jackson would see me and I'd be pale and haunted-looking, and he'd realize that he never should have hurt me like that. But no. It turned out my stomach has no idea of what's going on in my heart and I could eat just like normal, if only there was normal food in my house). (BL 151)

Movies where the heroine meets a guy who is funny and cute and kisses her—but then she never lays eyes on him again: none. (BB 146)

2. Ruby's hilariously trenchant comments on the limiting construction of masculinity her culture (the well-to-do kids who attend Seattle's Tate Academy) offers:

If you're trying to talk to a boy in front of his friends, don't mention anything too girly. Like mermaids. Or kittens. If you do, he is apt to act like a complete wanker and cause severe injury to your self-esteem. Beware.

And after she and her friend Meghan get a boy to recruit others to bake for their bake sale:
A bit more secure in their masculinity than Tate boys...
     "This is going to change the whole social order at Tate," I said to Meghan as we left the B&O in the rain.
     "It'll get us out of this state of Noboyfriend, if that's what you mean," she answered, unlocking the doors and climbing into the Jeep.
     "No, I mean it'll change the antiquated sex roles that go on during bake sales," I said.
     "Speak English."
     "You know. Every year, girls bake. Boys eat. It's like the nineteenth century."
    "I guess."
     "That's why I never liked CHuBS [the bake sale club] that much in the first place. It was all girls in the kitchen. In fact, I bet you no boy has contributed to CHuBS, ever. And like Wallace said in American H and P last year, if you change one part of the pattern in a social system, the rest will have to shift in accordance." (TMofB 83)

3. In this book, it's the jerks who sling anti-feminist comments, not the heroes:

     "Ooh," I said, all innocent. "Can I see? Let me look!"
     "I don't know," said Darcy.
     "Please," I coaxed, scotting in next to him and leaning over flirtatiously. "Just for a sec. I love pictures."
     He pulled them into a stack and handed them over. As soon as I got them, I yanked the Nora pictures [ones featuring her friend topless] from the bottom of the pile, dropped the others on the floor and ripped the ones of Nora into tiny pieces.
     "Oliver!" barked Darcy. "What'd you go and do that for?"
     "You have to ask?"
     "Don't go all feminist on me," he muttered. "Geez."
     "I wouldn't need to be feminist if you weren't such a pig." (BB 82)

4. And especially, the way Ruby points to how difficult it is to reconcile what we know (from what feminism has taught us), what we even believe, with how we feel

Ruby thinking about Spring Fling:

The second mentally deranged thing about the situation was that I was waiting for someone to ask me. Obviously, this is the twenty-first century, and as I'd told Nora, girls can ask guys out. We should ask them out. There is no reason to sit around being passive and hoping to that someone will ask you to a dance when you can easily invite the person you want to go with. How are women going to become president and win Oscars for directing if we sit on our butts waiting for things to happen?
     I know this. I believe it. But I still wanted someone to ask me to the dance. Yes, like it was 1952. Yes, like Gloria Steinem never existed. Yes, idiotically, yes. (TMofB 188)

What I'd like to spend the bulk of this post on, though, is a feminist message that may not be so obvious on a first reading of Lockhart's series: the message that girls play as much a role in the suppression of other girls as does "the patriarchy."

In the opening book of the series, Ruby has recently been dumped by her boyfriend of six months, Jackson Clarke. Three days after dumping her, Jackson begins dating Ruby's best friend since kindergarten, Kim. Because she is so invested in being the nice girl demanded by contemporary femininity, Kim begs Ruby, "Don't be mad" before she drops the news of her new romance on Ruby. Though unbeknownst to Ruby, Jackson has been talking to Kim for a long time about his troubles with her, Kim has kept to the letter of the "Rules for Dating in a Small School" their quartet of friends has worked out and written down in their self-authored The Boy Book: A Study of Habits and Behaviors, Plus Techniques for Taming Them:

Rule 4: Never, ever kiss someone else's official boyfriend.
Rule 5: If your friend already said she likes a boy, don't you go liking him too. She's got dibs.
Rule 6: That is—unless you're certain it is 'truly meant to be.' Because if it's meant to be, it's meant to be, and who are we to stand in the way of true love, just because Tate is so stupidly small? (BB 16)

Kim invokes rule 6: "I'd never do this to you, except the thing with you was never working out anyway—and I think Jackson and me are meant to be" (BL 131), and continues to beg "Please don't be mad." Kim can thus position herself as acting "nice," as following the rules, while suppressing the knowledge that her behavior is hurting Ruby.

But when Kim can't attend the big upcoming Spring Fling dance, Jackson asks Ruby to go with him—"as friends." Ruby decides to say yes, realizing only later that she didn't consider how it would affect Kim, or Angelo, the son of her mother's friend whom her mother had fixed her up with to go to the dance: she was "only thinking about how Jackson still had some feelings for me, would love me again in my silver dress, and how we would stand in the moonlight, looking over the railing at the light playing across the dark water" (BL 156). Yes, even though she can see the false romance patterns movies put forth, she still finds herself sucked in by them, as well as by her lingering feelings for Jackson.

Crusing alone in the moonlight is safer...
But standing is not all Ruby gets up to with Jackson in the moonlight. And though Jackson is more than a willing participant in their Spring Fling smooch, somehow he comes out without a scratch. The resulting spin is that Ruby is the slut, the boyfriend stealer, the friend-betrayer. Jackson is the "faithful saint who was only doing a favor taking a poor, rejected four-eyed ex to the dance when she had no other date" (BL 168).

Ruby becomes a metaphorical leper in the Tate universe; she loses not only Kim, but also her other two best friends, both of whom take Kim's side. Ruby even agrees, at first, with Kim's interpretation, and begins experiencing panic attacks. Only after several months of therapy can she acknowledge her own anger at Kim, and admit that "I just didn't think she had been nice at all, really" (BL 153).

Very few books for teenagers demonstrate so clearly the damage that socializing girls to be "nice" can cause, not just to themselves, but to other young women. Getting along with one another at all costs, even at the cost of deluding themselves when they act in a way that isn't nice at all, becomes a defensive skill for girls raised under patriarchy's dictates. Learning to recognize when a girl, (your friend, or even more difficult, you, yourself) is hiding behind the "oh, I didn't intend to hurt you, please don't be mad at me" line to protect herself from knowing how much pain she has brought to others is a truly difficult skill. But a vital one in a society in which girls are supposed to hide their anger and jealousy behind a facade of niceness.

For Ruby, it takes three more books' worth of therapy, losing and gaining new friends, and figuring out just what she wants from a boyfriend before she truly gets it. Only then can she see which boy in the Tate universe might be generous enough to recognize, as she has, that "people are complicated and make mistakes" (TMofB 231). And that when they make mistakes, and hurt you, you shouldn't hide behind niceness; you need to tell them that you're mad. And then, if you love them, you also need to forgive. 

With Ruby's help, it just might not take readers quite so long...

P.S.  For readers in the U.S.: Don't forget to vote today!

E. Lockhart, The Boyfriend List: 15 Guys, 11 Shrink Appointments, 4 Ceramic Frogs, and Me, Ruby Oliver (Delacorte, 2005)

The Boy Book: A Study of Habits and Behaviors, Plus Techniques for Taming Them (Delacorte, 2006)

The Treasure Map of Boys: Noel, Jackson, Finn, Hutch, Gideon—and me, Ruby Oliver (Delacorte, 2009)

Real Live Boyfriends: Yes. Boyfriends Plural. If My Life Weren't Complicated, I Wouldn't Be Ruby Oliver (Delacorte, 2010)

Photo/Illustration credits:
Say Anything: IMDb
Men at Bake Sale: Flickr CarrieApple
Gloria Steinem: WDYDWYD
Moonlight cruise: Pasatter's nature favorite pictures
Be Nice: Seth Drury

Next time on RNFF: Free to be a Feminist