Friday, May 31, 2013

Romance after Childhood Sexual Trauma: Rebecca Rogers Maher's FAULT LINES

On Goodreads,, and many other web sites where readers post book reviews, reviewers often justify giving a romance a low rating with the explanation, "I didn't like the heroine." Heroines who are too selfish, too tough, too distant, too unromantic, too (fill in the blank with your least favorite personal characteristic) make romance readers unhappy, often so much so that they reject the books in which they feature out of hand. When it comes to romance, most readers expect their female protagonists to be nice.

What, then, to do with a heroine whose life experiences have made her anything but? Wedding planner Sarah Murphy is very good at pretending—pretending that the color of the bridesmaids' dresses matter. Pretending that the order she creates out of the chaos of each wedding can extend to her own life. Pretending that the guarded face she shows the world—the nice girl face—is all there is to see.

But the real Sarah, the one behind the façade, knows the truth. Knows that the gleam in her eyes that brings men running, the one that "promised easy sex and plenty of it, the gleam that said she didn't give a fuck about anything," isn't natural, but forced. Knows that the ease with which her overripe body draw a man's eye is simultaneously a thrill and a source of self-disgust. Knows that no matter how much she's been turned on by any of the hundreds of guys she's slept with, at some point they all "trip the fuse that was always waiting to be tripped, and she would go cold inside, and wait for it to be over." Knows that she uses sex to gain a sense of control over her life, a control wrested away from her  childhood self by a man who was supposed to love her, supposed to keep her safe.

When a casual hook-up catches a glimpse of the real Sarah, the frightened Sarah, her nice-girl Sarah façade quickly gives way to angry, tough-girl Sarah, a woman who knows how to dish out cruelty with the best of them. Rudeness, insults, foul language followed by mind-blowing sex, then more rejection should put Joe in his place, show him who's in charge, keep him at a safe distance. But Joe, a photographer, doesn't just take pictures at weddings; documenting military men and women suffering from PTSD has become his passion, his attempt to understand and come to terms with his own distant soldier father. To Joe, who has served as witness to the damaging effects of trauma, Sarah's behavior isn't that of a cruel person, a crazy person, but simply that of one struggling to come to terms with the horrors she's endured, as best as she is able.

Because of its brevity, because it is told completely from Sarah's point of view, and because several other people, not only Joe, play a role in Sarah's gradual coming to terms with her victimization, Maher's novel works better as women's fiction than as a straight romance. As a romance reader, I wished Maher had given me more time with Joe, and with Joe and Sarah together, rather than just showing them during the intense turning-point moments that mark Sarah's emotional growth. But despite its shortcomings as romance, Fault Lines has taught me the valuable lesson of not writing off a heroine because she's too something to be immediately likable. And, in real life, to look for the bravery in those people who may not be living up to my ideals, but who are trying as hard as they can to struggle through the aftermaths of their own individual traumas.

What romances have you read that made you feel for an initially unsympathetic heroine?

Illustration credits:
PTSD word map:

Fault Lines.
Carina Press, 2012.

Next time on RNFF:
Back to the usual Tuesday book review, 
Friday general topic rotation

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Romance Novels for Memorial Day

A brief post today, after a long Memorial Day weekend here in the States. In keeping with this holiday commemorating those who lost their lives during war, a question: what are your favorite romance novels featuring protagonists who have served in the military, or lost a family member to war? Bonus points if the protagonist in the military is a woman....

Photo credits:
Military women with flags:

Next time on RNFF:
Romance after childhood sexual abuse

Friday, May 24, 2013

Merida's Makeover and Violent Masculinity in Disney's BRAVE

Last week, the feminist blogosphere was alight with celebration at the apparent triumph of public activism against sexist marketing to young girls. In anticipation of her ascension into the pantheon of Disney Princesses, Merida, the star of Disney's animated film Brave, had been given a makeover by Disney Consumer Products, a makeover that replaced her bow and arrows with a sash, transformed her wildly springy hair into touch-me flowing locks, and endowed her with hips and a bust worthy of Barbie. Many Merida fans, who had embraced the unconventional princess as the first feminist Disney heroine, were outraged by Disney's marketing changes. A petition started on by "A Mighty Girl," a female empowerment website, asked others to join it in objecting to the makeover, arguing that because Merida "speaks to girls' capacity to be change agents in the world rather than just trophies to be admired," such a sexualized makeover was a "disservice to the millions of children for whom Merida is an empowering role model." Soon after, the glammed-up Merida disappear from Disney's web site, which led some news outlets and bloggers to praise Disney for acknowledging its misstep and listening to consumer opinion.

For its part, Disney claims that it had never intended the sexed-up version of Merida to replace the original; as reported on the pro-Disney web site Inside the Magic on May 15, Disney claims that this 2-D version had been created only on a "limited line of products" as a one-time "stylized version." Though the new-look Merida is gone from Disney's web site, she still graces Target's, as well as merchandise sold at Target stores (wouldn't you like to see the marketing information that drove that decision?).

I remember watching Brave with my early adolescent daughter and both appreciating how different Merida was from many of her passive princess forbearers and feeling uncomfortable with the widespread praise of Merida as a feminist role model. In the face of this most recent brouhaha, I decided to re-watch the film, looking more closely at its feminist (and anti-feminist?) themes and messages. 

On the plus side:

• Rather than waiting passively for her prince to come, as did many of the most popular Disney princesses before her, Merida actively resists the finding-a-prince = happily-ever-after trajectory of the majority of Disney films aimed at girls. 

• Merida, a la Atalanta in Betty Miles' retelling of the myth for the 1970s feminist Free to Be You and Me record and television show, responds to becoming the prize for which men compete by entering the competition herself, and winning it.

• The witch of the piece is far from the typical sexy-terrifying temptress common to most Disney films. But she's not a sweet goody-two-shoes, either. Instead, we're given a portrait of a witch of many dimensions—equal parts mysterious and silly, canny and conniving. 

• Merida doesn't end up married, or even in a romance, by the end of the film. When Merida's mother tells her the story of the other kingdom, the story of a prince who asked a witch for the strength of ten men in order to wrest the crown away from his three brothers, I thought for sure we were in for a Beauty and the Beast retelling. After the marauding bear Mor'du had been defeated, I was convinced we'd find ourselves with a chastened, but suitably appealing prince with whom Merida could fall in love. Instead, Mor'du's clearly older human spirit thanks mother and daughter for freeing his spirit from its animal entrapment, and wafts away.

• Merida's story focuses on a mother/daughter relationship, a rare theme in any film for young children, but especially in one created by Disney. The main quest of the film is not to win a princess or to defeat a villain, but to repair an estranged mother/daughter bond.

On the not so encouraging side:

• Would you want to marry any of Merida's suitors? Resisting marriage seems the only possible choice when you're presented with an inarticulate clod, a self-admiring whiner, and an awkward wimp, doesn't it?

• Why doesn't Merida want to marry? "I don't want my life to be over. I want my freedom," she cries, without ever saying why marriage would bring her life to an end, or restrict the little freedom she currently experiences. In fact, you might think Merida would look forward to marriage, if only to get away from the oppressive gender-role harping of her mother. None of the men in the film seem to care whether Merida rides a horse and carries a bow or not...

• And why is Mom, rather than patriarchy, the oppressive force insisting that Merida must conform to strict gender roles? "A princess doesn't...", "A princess never...", "A princess must...", we hear over and over from the queen, but are given no explanation for why she's so insistent on embracing a restrictive vision of femininity, particularly when there seems no pressure from anyone else for her to maintain it. Perhaps Disney is suggesting that for young viewers, a parent's rules appear to be completely arbitrary. And it is certainly true that women contribute to socializing younger girls into gender conformity. But with the only other adult female in the film used solely as comic relief, the impression viewers are left with is that gender policing only occurs because adult women enforce it, for no logical reason.

• The film constructs feminism in a very second-wave way. Merida's feminism consists primarily in her rejection of stereotypically feminine activities, and embrace of masculine ones.  Merida doesn't like to play music, or sew; she likes to shoot her bow, she likes to ride out on her horse and explore, she likes to climb mountains: "I will fly, chase the wind, and touch the sky" the background music declares during her solitary nature jaunt at the beginning of the film.

• Once she's inadvertently turned her mother into a bear, Merida can't get mom out of the castle herself; she needs the help of her annoying little brothers to do so.

• The film's messages about self-determination are muddy, to say the least. Both Merida and the Prince/Mordu actively work to change their fates. But because their reasons for doing so are selfish, the film suggests, their actions are wrong: "I know how one selfish act can turn the fate of a kingdom," and "I've been selfish," Merida proclaims during the first reconciliation scene between mother and daughter. "Mend the bond / torn by pride," the witch declares. Was Merida's resistance to marriage selfish? An act of unacceptable pride? If she had found a different way to object, would her attempt to change her fate have been acceptable? "Our fate lives within us. You only have to be brave enough to see it," Merida's voice-over says at the film's conclusion, a suitably uplifting but rather confusing statement; in what way has Merida "seen" her fate?

• Is the film's message, then, less about self-determination, and more about accepting personal responsibility? "It's not my fault," Merida continually cries after her mother is transformed into a bear. Even taking up the feminine task of "mending the bond" by sewing back together the family portrait tapestry Merida had ripped is not enough to undo the transformation. Only after she acknowledges responsibility for her act—"I'm sorry. This is all my fault. I did this to you. To us."—does the spell begin to unravel. But it does not disappear until Merida recants her earlier mother-bashing does it completely lose its hold: "You've always been there for me. You've never given up on me. I just want you back." Mother-bashing, rather than denying personal responsibility, is the ultimate sin, a rather invidious message for a film that actively sets its viewers up to regard the mother up as the villain of the piece.

Watching the film this time through, I was struck by this image, of Mor'du about to ravage (ravish?) Merida. If you dig past the usual Disney bromides and think about what is happening on a symbolic level, this picture gives you a much clearer sense of why a girl might not want to get married. Early in the film, the queen acknowledges, "even I had reservations when I faced betrothal," an admission that's a bit hard to understand, given the far from fearful (in fact, quite bumbling) vision of masculinity the film has presented to that point. and continues to present in its depiction of the other clan leaders, their sons, and Merida's own brothers. But in Mor'du, we have a darker, more violent vision of masculinity, a selfish, sexual masculinity that threatens not only to take away a woman's freedom, but her very life. That the queen rescues her daughter not once, but twice from such masculinity, and Merida in turn rescues her mother when her father turns that portion of his masculinity on his queen, suggests a quite feminist underlying subtext: that only by protecting one another, and working together, can women keep violent, aggressive masculinity from destroying their lives.

Girl power indeed.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Merida before and after:
Brave photographs:
Merida comic: Dork Tower

Next time on RNFF:
Romance and childhood sexual abuse

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Polyamory Pleasures: Laurell K. Hamilton's A KISS OF SHADOWS

Do you ever find yourself doubting your judgment of a romance after you turn its final page? Especially one that's given you great pleasure? As a literary critic, I was trained to recognize not only the pleasures texts have to offer, but also how a text's pleasures can work to draw your attention away from ideas or values within the book that you might otherwise find objectionable. So sometimes, after I shut a book's cover and find myself in an end-of-the-book-pleasure-wallow, doubt start to creep in. Did I let pleasure dull the thinking parts of my brain? If I end up reviewing said book, am I going to be horribly embarrassed when a blog reader comment points out some horribly obvious plotline/character/underlying ideology that calls this book's feminism into question?

When I find myself in such a situation, I often double-check my reaction against those of other readers and reviewers. If others have seen something that I've overlooked because I've been too focused on a book's pleasures to pay attention to the more analytical parts of my brain, on Goodreads or amazon or other romance review sites, I'm certain to find at least one other reader whose pleasure centers light up for different reasons than mine do, and so will see a book's flaws more easily than I.

Reading A Kiss of Shadows (2000), the first book in Laurell K. Hamilton's Merry Gentry fantasy series, put me smack in the middle of such a situation. I had ILL'ed a copy from the local library during a quest to find BDSM novels with heroines, rather than heroes, in the dominant sexual role (a post on this topic will follow at a later date). Hamilton's Merry, an exiled princess from the Unseelie Fairie Court, admits to liking a bit of pain during sex, but this first book in the series contains only hints of dominant/submissive sexual dynamics. Instead, I found myself reading about a powerful but self-deluded Queen, an outcast princess on the cusp of coming into her long-overdue supernatural gifts, and a collection of damaged, strange, and often intensely sexy male fey faced with choosing which of the two women to serve. Not what I was expecting, but quite pleasurable, so much so that I was seriously tempted to feature the book on RNFF. But a small corner of my mind said "wait just a minute, now, girl, not so fast..."

The first Goodreads review that pops up under A Kiss of Shadows helped me to understand both my hesitations, and my fascinations with Hamilton's fantasy. Kat Kennedy's review points out many of the book's flaws, flaws that I hadn't given much thought to as I greedily sucked up the book's pleasures. On the level of mechanics, the writing has real problems (a penchant for the comma splice, and an annoying tendency to repeat a key word in a sentence in a failed attempt to sound artful). Not much happens, plot-wise, over the course of the 48 hours during which the story takes place: Merry, a detective in the human world, gets involved in a sex-abuse case that causes her previously dormant fairy powers to emerge, which draws the attention of her Aunt Andais, the Unseelie Queen, who sends a group of male fey to bring her back to the fairy court. Lots of fighting ensues until Merry agrees to return. After arriving, negotiations, threats, and punishments ensue; after Merry agrees to the role her aunt wishes her to play in court politics, she returns to her human life, albeit with her own personal male fey platoon of bodyguards. On the ideological level, one of Merry's emerging powers seems to be an ability to physically (and perhaps emotionally?) heal men with whom she has sex, a trope that Kennedy finds rather disturbing. Worst of all, Merry's polyamorous sexual interactions, far from demonstrating her sexual liberation, in fact show the opposite: "I was hoping that this book, unlike Anita Blake [the heroine of Hamilton's first fantasy series], would actually show Merry CHOOSING to have sex with a bunch of men, but not really. Once again circumstances and people more powerful than herself force her to do it. Really. She's just a victim here, guys."

Cause for pause, indeed. Yet even after reading Kennedy's review, I still couldn't shake off my liking for the book. And even though it is not a romance novel in the traditional sense, I hope you'll forgive me for using the blog to figure out through writing just what it is I find so intriguing, and even potentially feminist, in Hamilton's book.

At the start of the novel, Merry is in the midst of a sexual relationship with Roane, one of the seal people. Because a fisherman had found his sealskin and burned it, Roane can no longer return to his seal form. Though the two share sex, they don't share secrets: "Roane couldn't breech my shields, but he knew they were there. He knew that even in that moment of release, I held back. If he'd been human, he would have asked why, but he wasn't human, and he didn't ask, just like I never questioned him about the call of the waves" (29). Sex is separate from emotional intimacy for Merry and Roane, a  separation that in most romance novels would be seen as a deep fault (usually in the hero-as-rake figure, but occasionally in a female self-punishing slut heroine), something that needs to be corrected in order for true love to flourish. But Hamilton does not suggest that sex for sex's sake, sex without sharing deep emotional intimacy, is a problem.

Hamilton also questions another basic tenet of romance novels: that of the one true love. The sexual predator whom Merry's detective agency is pursuing uses the lure of romance's one true love, particularly the lure of the reformed rake, to reel in unsuspecting victims:

    I looked up at him. "Are you buying [a house] with an eye for the future? Munchkins and the family thing?"
     He raised my hand to his lips. "With the right woman anything's possible."
     Lord and Lady, but he knew just how much carrot to dangle in front of most women. Imply that you could be the woman to tame him, make him settle down. Most women love that. I knew better. Men don't settle down because of the right woman. They settle down because they are finally ready for it. Whatever woman they're dating when they get ready is the one they settle down with, not necessarily the best one or the prettiest, just the one who happened to be on hand when the time got to be right. Unromantic, but still true. (42-43)

Merry's pragmatic attitude does not change over the course of the novel, nor is it significantly challenged by any other character in the book. Polyandry is considered the norm for those of the Unseelie Court, at least until one marries; even then, marital sexual continence is not valued for itself, but for its reflection of one's honesty: "The sidhe don't worry about fornication, but once you get married, give your word that you will be faithful, then you must be faithful. No fey will tolerate an oath breaker. If your word is worthless, then so are you" (41). Merry's attitude toward sex is part fey, part human, but as far as premarital relations go, the fey side seems to win out: "I like sex, my queen, and I have no designs upon monogamy," Merry tells her aunt when the Queen makes her a political offer that rests upon Merry's choice of sexual partners.

Merry has, in Kennedy's words, a "magic cooter": sex with Merry can heal the wounded male. Kennedy is bothered by Merry's power to heal through sex, feeling that it "sends a message when Merry has so little self esteem and values her body so little. In fact, I worry about the disconnected way that Merry uses her body—as if it were just a tool to share around for the greater good." Merry never struck me as lacking in the self-esteem department, or careless of her own body; must having multiple sexual partners always equate to a disregard for one's own body? I myself found Merry's sexual healing powers both interesting and amusing; they seem to make explicit the implicit assumption of many romance novels, that sex with one's true love grants one, in the words of Smart Bitches Candy Tan and Sarah Wendell, a "Magic Hoo Hoo," a vagina that, through sex, is able to "heal all ills, psychic and sexual" (Beyond Heaving Bosoms 38). But Merry's sexual healing inverts the traditional romance trope. Said "Magic Hoo Hoo" typically serves to bind the romance hero to the heroine. But when Roane regains his sealskin after having sex with newly-empowered Merry, it allows him to leave her: "He was in the ocean with his new skin. He hadn't left me unprotected, but he had left me. Maybe it should have hurt my feelings, but it didn't. I'd given back Roane his first love, the sea" (87).

One of many fan-created visions of a powerful Merry
Kennedy suggests that Merry is a victim because she is forced into having sex, rather than choosing her own sexual partners. But Merry herself agrees to the Queen's bargain, and chooses which of the Queens' Guards will become part of her retinue, and which will never see her bed. And Merry gains a boon from the Queen in return. It is true, the Queen does physically coerce Merry at the very end of their negotiations, but not because Merry has refused to have sex; instead, Merry objects to the Queen's control over when Merry will begin to implement her side of the bargain. It struck me as a breath of fresh air, having a fantasy novel feature not just one, but two women, one in power, another just coming into her own, fighting and negotiating to gain the upper political hand. So very different from the typical power struggle between two men, fighting over a woman, or the romantic struggles between a man and a woman, using sex to gain or manifest power over one another...

Merry and her harem
Finally, Hamilton also offers her heterosexual female readers another, far more rare pleasure: the pleasure of the male harem fantasy. While the words "harem," "seraglio," "serail," and "zenana" have historically referred only to groups of women focused on serving the sexual needs of a man, in the realm of fantasy (written as well as daydreamed), a harem can function just as well when the sexes of its members are flipped. And being the head of a harem by its very definition means being able to choose one's sexual partner.

It also suggests a role as protector; the head of a harem is responsible for keeping its members safe. Even though her fey guards return to the human world with her as bodyguards, Merry takes her own role as protector quite seriously. As she explains on the book's final page, "I don't want the throne if I have to climb over the bodies of my friends and lovers to get it. I don't want anything that badly—I never did. I always thought love was more important than power, but sometimes you can't have love without the power to keep it safe. I pray for the safety of those I care about. Maybe what I'm really praying for is power, enough power to protect them. So be it" (435). At heart, most fantasy novels are about power: its use and abuse, whether a hero or heroine defeats a villain who has allowed power to corrupt, or embraces his or her own power it in order to shape a better world. I'm looking forward to reading the next books in the Merry Gentry series, and seeing if, and how, Merry chooses to use her power, and if she does so for feminist goals.

A Kiss of Shadows
Ballantine, 2000

Photo/Illustration credits:
Unseelie Court: IMVU
Selkie: Merlyn's Musings
Merry Gentry power and seduction: Fair Cruelty at Deviantart
Merry and her harem: Aurora30 at Deviantart

Next time on RNFF:
Merida's Makeover

Friday, May 17, 2013

Romancing Northrup Frye: Laura Vivanco's FOR LOVE AND MONEY

In the literary world, Mills and Boon has long been the black sheep. Its books—to call them novels would be to raise them far above their station—are lightweight, the plots recycled and the endings predictable and to read them is a waste of precious life. — Sarah Freeman, "100 Years of Romancing the Readers." Yorkshire Post, 2008

Having spent a great deal of time reading [Harlequin/Mills & Boon] romances, I would argue that many are well-written, skilfully crafted works which can and do engage the minds as well as the emotions of their readers, and a few are small masterpieces—as I shall show. —Laura Vivanco, For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance, 2011

For an academic scholar, admitting that one reads and studies romance novels is a particularly risky move. Though literature scholars pride themselves on uncovering the hidden oppressions in the texts they analyze, they rarely talk about the strict hierarchies within their own field, hierarchies often based upon the cultural capital of the texts one analyzes, more than the skill with which one analyzes them. When I met Mary Bly, a scholar of Renaissance literature, at a romance writers conference and asked how her colleagues at Fordham University felt about her other identity, award-winning historical romance writer Eloisa James, her answer was disappointing if unsurprising: she'd kept her alter ego a secret until one of her books made the New York Times bestseller list.

To proclaim that the mass-produced romances of Harlequin (or of Mills & Boon, the company's name in the UK) are not only worthy of analysis in a cultural studies context, but that they embody "literary art," then, is to open oneself up for knee-jerk ridicule from academe. Which is why I so admire Laura Vivanco's courage in writing and publishing her monograph, For Love and Money: The Literary Art of the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance. Bucking the cultural studies trend of previous literature, sociology, and psychology scholars who have written about category romance, Vivanco instead meets literary scholars on the field of literary value.

What evidence does Vivanco muster to support what to most readers might seem a dubious claim? Rather than argue for her claim directly, she justifies it by disproving specific criticisms previous writers have aimed at the genre. In her opening chapter, to counter the claim that romances are unrealistic works of wish-fulfillment fantasy, she calls upon an unlikely ally: mid-twentieth century literary scholar Northrop Frye. Frye's 1957 Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays argued that literary scholarship should move beyond value judgments of individual texts, and instead take a more scientific approach to the field as a whole. Frye seems an odd choice to help make a case for a value-based argument, but applying his ideas to category romance does lead to some helpful insights.

Like Carolus Linneaus's taxonomic system of classifying life forms based on their shared physical characteristics, Frye sorted the fictions he studied into different groups, or what he termed "modes." Frye's modes—Mythic, Romantic, High Mimetic, Low Mimetic, and Ironic—are differentiated by whether their heroes (the term used by Frye) are superior or inferior in kind or degree to your average human being, and to their environments. Vivanco argues that HM&B books can fall into any mode but the Mythic, although most tend to be either in the High Mimetic (with heroes who are superior to other humans, but not to their environments) or Low Mimetic (with heroes who are equal to other humans). Placing the category romance within the context of these modes helped me to understand why so many of its protagonists are larger than life figures; many of the HM&B guidelines call for stories written in the High Mimetic mode. Vivanco's discussion of two romances written in the ironic mode, a mode very few romance writers choose for their novels, proves especially interesting, allowing me to see why I enjoyed Jennifer Crusie's Strange Bedpersons (1994) and Kristin Higgins' Catch of the Day (1996) even while feeling that neither was really quite a romance in the conventional sense.

The second part of the chapter rebuts other, more specific criticisms aimed at the unrealistic nature of category romance—that they all must have happy endings and that they never include social problems or issues—before taking an abrupt turn back to Frye's modes to counter the argument that HM&B books are all the same. Not only are there HM&B books written in different modes, but even books within the same mode can vary, as there are gradients within each mode. Also, as Frye argues that while one mode "constitutes the underlying tonality of a work of fiction...any or all of the other four may be present," HM&B authors may include hints of myth or romance within their primarily high or low mimetic works. Frye suggests that "much of our sense of the subtlety of great literature comes from this modal counterpoint" (50-51), a suggestion that Vivanco quotes but does not directly apply to the books she analyzes. Instead, she explores how such modal counterpoint can be used to increase reader identification (with the "average" heroine in counterpoint to the larger-than-life hero), or to convey the impact of love (its ability to make a heroine feel as if she is in a completely different, and higher, mode). Analysis such as this, when Vivanco uses Frye as a jumping-off point for her own theoretical work, are the spots in the text that I found the most valuable.

Chapter 2 identifies HM&B books which retell or re-envision myths, fairy tales, or chivalric romances. Vivanco doesn't explain how identifying the stories that undergird HM&B romances supports her claim that some are "small masterpieces," or that others are "well-written" or "skilfully crafted," however, leaving the reader to assume that her exploration of how retellings can be cast in different modes, from high to low mimetic to ironic, was undertaken to disprove detractors' claims that category romances are all the same.

A HM&B "masterpiece"?
I found Chapter 3, "Metafiction," the most interesting. One section focuses on the self-reflexivity of romance (a topic about which I blogged about in this post), discussing books in which stereotypes about romance authors, and/or romance readers, are rebutted by featuring romance-writing or -reading heroines. Another discusses romances that make links between their genre and other popular culture genres typically denigrated by the "high brow," such as television, film and comics, or other low-status literary genres, such as the Gothic. The brief middle section touches upon books which reference classic works of literature (Austen; Shakespeare). Though Vivanco argues that some HM&B books can, like the best metafiction, lead readers to productively question the relationship between fiction and reality, the books she discusses seem to fall more in the category of books that simply use references to other fictions in order to participate in a "shared stock of common allusions, words, and metaphors" (149) than ones that actively work to disrupt the taken-for-grantedness of fiction's conventions.

The last chapter identifies common metaphors in HM&B romances, suggesting both that the use of extended metaphor demonstrates the talent of HM&B writers, and that particular metaphors can help the literary critic better understand individual texts. Vivanco describes books in which extended metaphors are used to symbolize love: buildings and interiors; bridges; gardens and flowers; hunting; and journeying.

Vivanco's chapters demonstrate both her skill in close reading individual texts and her wide knowledge of the HM&B field. They also provide clear evidence that many of the criticisms leveled against category romances are clearly overgeneralizations. It would have been interesting to hear more about why Vivanco chose these particular 147 books to discuss, though. Are these outliers that prove the rule that in general, HM&B books lack literary merit? Or do they provide a broad enough sample to suggest that most HM&B romances contain literary merit? What percentage of HM&B romances demonstrate "literary art," in Vivanco's view? If the percentage is small, are the books she discusses ultimately relevant, or simply mere curiosities, easily overlooked amidst a welter of far less accomplished writing?

Do these chapters ultimately support Vivanco's overall claim that some, if not all, HM&B romances, demonstrate "literary art"? In her conclusion, Vivanco suggests that genre constraints such as those placed on HM&B writers do not always have to be negative; like the formal constraints of a sonnet, or Jane Austen's "little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work," such constraints can provide fertile ground for literary artistry. But as Vivanco never gives her readers a definition of just what constitutes "literary art," readers are ultimately left unable to judge whether or not any of the 147 books she discusses embody it, or which among those 147 are "small masterpieces." Literary merit has become a vastly contested concept in the sixty+ years since Northrop Frye wrote Anatomy of Criticism; my idea of what constitutes it may be quite different from yours, or from Vivanco's.

Whether or not HM&B books contain literary artistry or not, they are certainly worthy of study by both cultural studies and literature scholars, particularly those of a feminist bent. The metaphors they deploy, the literary and cultural references they evoke, have much to tell us not only about gender assumptions, but also about female readerly desire. I applaud critics such Vivanco, Eric Selinger, Sarah Frantz, Pamela Regis and others, scholars brave enough to study popular romance in spite of the often denigrating attitude of many of their colleagues.

Next time on RNFF:
The allure of the male harem

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Individualist Feminism in Julie James

Julie James has made a name for herself writing contemporary romances featuring strong, successful, career-oriented professional heroines. Whether they are corporate lawyers, Assistant U. S. Attorneys, or owners of their own businesses, James' heroines get ahead through a heady combination of ambition and intelligence, and are drawn to men who share their competitive drive. Rarely do they have to worry about hiding their light under a bushel in order to find romance, as she crafts heroes who find smart, self-confident, successful women enticing, not emasculating.

Highly educated career women looking for reflections of themselves in romance will not be disappointed by James' latest offering. Love, Irresistibly details the budding romance between Brooke Parker, general counsel for Sterling Restaurants, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Cade Morgan, a former college football star who channeled his athletic drive into the law after suffering a career-ending injury. The two meet during a sting operation requiring the U.S. Attorney's office to bug a restaurant to capture a corrupt state senator; internet harassment of Sterling's CEO and a thieving general manager at one of the corporation's restaurants throw the warily attracted lawyers together often enough to convince them that a friendly hookup now and then might be worth making time for in their busy schedules. These lawyerly problems serve as realistic but not too intrusive background to the real story, the internal problems keeping Cade and Brooke from turning their casual relationship into something with a bit more of a commitment to it.

On Brooke's part, the sheer number of hours she works have made dating, never mind seeing a man on a regular basis, nearly impossible. Having lived in an upscale suburb of Chicago, but without the money to participate in the things most of her fellow schoolmates took for granted, Brooke has always worked especially hard—in college, at law school, and in all of the jobs she's taken on since. But at the start of the book, the third boyfriend she's had since starting work at Sterling has dumped her, and for the same reason the other two had: she works incessantly, and he's starting to think about "getting married, having kids, the big picture [and] I don't see a woman like you in that big picture" (10).

Cade is a hard worker, too, but his past relationship problems stem more from his inability to open up emotionally to anyone than to casework overload. He attempts to hide his failings by chalking them up to traditional masculinity when his latest girlfriend dumps him:

"Fine. You want me to elaborate, I will. Here's the deal. I'm a guy. Genrerally speaking, we're pretty simple folk. I know women always want to think we have these deep, romantic, and emotionally angsty thoughts going on in our heads, but in reality? Not so much. You women have layers and you're complicated and mysterious and you say one thing, but you really mean another, and it's this whole tricky package that intrigues us and scares us and challenges us all at the same time. But men aren't like that. You talk about me not letting you in, but maybe what you don't realize is this: there is no in... What you see is what you get." (33).

But even Cade can't buy his own bullshit, not after he catches glimpses of Brooke's "in," the vulnerability lurking under her "dry-humored, nothing-gets-to-me exterior" (128). Part of him wants more, but part of him thinks the post-sex afterglow is too damned dangerous: "Because to get in with a woman like Brooke, he would need to let her in, too. And that was something he... just didn't do, wasn't sure he knew how to do, even if he wanted to" (129). After being abandoned not just once, but twice, as a child by his father, Cade's not just the opening up type.

Well-written romances that not only address the problems of work/life balance and the need for both women and men to acknowledge and share their emotions, but also include smoking hot sex scenes, are rare enough to warrant a mention on RNFF. And the resolution of Cade's problems works wonderfully within the context of feminist values: not an easy, fairy-tale family reunion, but a slow recognition of his own self-defeating emotional patterns, and an acceptance of the same in the people who have let him down.

Yet the resolution of Brooke's inner conflict leaves me with an uncomfortable, distinctly unfeminist feeling. Or at least a feeling I'm encountering a feminism distinctly at odds with my own. [SPOILERS AHEAD—stop reading here if you'd prefer to find out the ending yourself...]

And it's not because Brooke gives up the opportunity to take on an even more high-powered corporate job, an opportunity with a much larger rival company that would require her not only to work even longer hours, but move halfway across the country. Despite the hefty increase in paycheck, stock options, and bonuses the rival company offers, it's clear that turning down a job that will make Brooke's work-life balance even more out of whack than it already is ("There was busy, and then there was crap-when's-the-last-time-I-called-my-parents busy" Brooke realizes [235]) is the right decision, whether Brooke's relationship with Cade prospers or fizzles. Giving in to the ever-increasing demands of anti-family corporate culture is not a feminist move, no matter how lucrative the rewards.

Yet the ease with which Brooke is able to come up with a solution to her problem—negotiating with her current boss to create better work-life balance for herself, by proving that such a move will actually be in the company's financial interests—gives me pause. On the surface, it clearly looks like a feminist win. Brooke doesn't rely on anyone else, especially a man, to rescue her, to come up with a solution to her dilemma. She keeps her job with a company whose values she believes in. And she acts for her own benefit, not so she can keep her job in Chicago and thus be with boyfriend Cade. What's not to like about that?

Ironically, by making Brooke the author of the solution to her own problem, James' romance suggests that only women who first give in to the anti-family demands of the corporate world, as Brooke has for much of her career, will have the leverage to demand work-life balance later in their careers. And by making her solution a solution that speaks only to one individual's problem, rather than to the work-life balance that the majority of working women face, the novel perpetuates the common myth that our work-life decisions are shaped solely by our own individual choices, rather than by a combination of choice, corporate culture, and government policy. As Laura Liswood, the co-founder of The Council of Women World Leaders, recently argued on the Huffington Post blog, "Having it all isn't just determined by a person's or family's choices. Those choices are informed and even forced by policy, customs, structures that are way beyond the control of the individual. The outside forces shape a woman's choices (and more and more men's choices) whether she realizes it or not." The more we continue to view such decisions solely in terms of individual feminist choices, the more difficult it will be to muster the political will to advocate for corporate and government change.

I'd like to think that the limitations of the novel form itself—its focus on individual triumphs and achievements over group activism and change—are what determined James' choice of ending for her otherwise feminist novel, not any conservative political bent hiding beneath a feminist veneer. But Brooke's offhand comment about the high cost of responding to "ridiculously onerous IDHR charges" during her negotiations with her boss gives me pause. I'm not a legal eagle, but I'm guessing that IDHR refers to the Illinois Department of Human Rights, the government office that administers the Illinois Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in that state. Now that she's negotiated not only work-life balance for herself, but an equity stake in the Sterling Restaurants, will Brooke be promoting more family-friendly policies throughout the corporation? Or will she consider such policies as "ridiculously onerous" as responding to charges of discrimination seem to be?

Wouldn't it be interesting if James were to write a romance about a sex-discrimination lawsuit in which the opposing counsel fall for one another? And if the lawyer prosecuting the case were a man, and the woman defending the company against the charges were a woman?

Illustration credits:
World's Greatest Workaholic:
Emotionally Unavailable shirt: Look
Work Life Balance:

Berkley, 2013

Next time on RNFF
A review of Laura Vivanco's For Love and Money

Friday, May 10, 2013

RNFF Commenting and Submission Guidelines

My thanks to everyone who chimed in after last week's blog post about the pros and cons of establishing an open submission policy here at RNFF. After reading through your posts, and thinking about the issues they raised, I've decided to conduct a 3-month experiment, accepting ARCs or e-galleys of romance novels for review from authors, publicists, and/or publishers who believe their works suitable for discussion within a feminist context. At the end of the summer, I'll report back and let you know if the policy will continue.

Before you as writer, publicist, or marketing person decide to submit to RNFF, I'd ask you to think about whether your book contains feminist ideas or encourages feminist values. If someone were to ask you, "is your book feminist?" would you be able to say more than just "it has a strong female protagonist"? If not, then RNFF might not be the best review site for your project.

I also feel duty-bound to inform authors that I've worked not only as a book reviewer, but also as an editor and as a professor of first-year college writing. Because of these experiences, the technical aspects of a book's prose inevitably impact my impression of it. I'm not a member of the grammar police; I will never toss aside a book because of a few stray typos, or a simple comma splice (though I have been known to pencil in edits on signs in bathrooms public and private demanding women not to flush their unmentionables down the toilet—if, of course, they expressed their warnings of the dire consequences which would inevitably follow in ungrammatical prose).

But if a book's grammatical errors are frequent enough to distract me from its story, I'm unlikely to review it. Nor am I likely to be won over by writing which, though grammatically correct, falls into the category of "bad writing" for me—writing with awkward or repetitive sentence structures, word choices that are frequently not quite right, writing that takes 50 words to say what could have been said in ten, and the like. Good books make a reader unaware of their prose; great ones allow a reader to take pleasure in it. Romances of either kind are far more likely to be reviewed here than ones with prose that would benefit from a reading of Ben Yagoda's How to Not Write Bad.

If, after ploughing through all of the above, you would still like to submit your romance for reviewing consideration, here are the official guidelines:

RNFF Submission Guidelines

If you are interested in submitting an advanced copy of your novel for reviewing consideration, please contact RNFF at romancenovelsforfeminists [at]

• RNFF welcomes submissions from all subgenres of romance, including contemporary, historical, fantasy of all stripes, science fiction, young adult, new adult, and erotica.

• RNFF accepts self-published books, if they have been professionally edited and copyedited. Books submitted by publishers, whether independent, academic, or commercial, should also have been professionally edited and copyedited.

• RNFF reserves the right not to review any book submitted for consideration. The choice of whether or not to review a submitted book is at the discretion of RNFF.

• RNFF strives to review only books that in its opinion espouse and/or encourage feminist values. Books which strike RNFF as problematic in feminist terms may appear in Friday's posts, which focus on general topics related to romance and feminism, but will rarely appear in a Tuesday recommended book review.

• RNFF does not rate, grade, or star books; rating systems often shut down, rather than open up, conversations about the complexities of fiction.

• RNFF grants permission to authors, publishers, and designated agents to use RNFF reviews, in whole or in part, for purposes of publicity. Editing of RNFF reviews is not permitted.

On a different, but related subject...

RNFF has experienced its share of spam postings in its comments section, but until recently, discourse has been remarkably polite. But a few recent posts, which focused on denigrating the poster rather than engaging in intellectual debate about the topic at hand, made me realize that it might be time to establish a blog comment policy as well as a submission policy. So here is a first stab at said policy:

RNFF Comment Policy (DRAFT)

Reading comments can be the most enriching aspect of a blog. But a blog's comments section can all too quickly become a site of controversy, especially when you write in response to a comment with which you vehemently disagree. To encourage thoughtful, vigorous, and respectful debate, RNFF has established the following guidelines, and asks that commenters abide by them.

1.  Comments should be relevant to the issues at hand. Personal attacks against individual commenters, or groups of commenters, are not allowed and will be removed.

2. Links relevant to the topic are welcome; links to unrelated posts or sites will be deleted.

3. Spam posts will be deleted.

And to appear below the "comment" box on each post:

Discussions of feminism and romance often lead to vigorous debate, especially when they intersect with topics such as politics, sexuality, or public policy. To help maintain a civil discourse community, RNFF asks that when you are commenting, you address the questions and ideas posed by a commenter, and not the commenter. Comments that do not follow this policy will be deleted.

What commenting policy will best serve your needs, readers? Any and all suggestions for additions or edits to the above are more than welcome.

Illustration credits:
Duty calls cartoon: The Big Picture

Next time on RNFF
Individualist Feminism in
Julie James's Love Irresistibly

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Gay Romance and Professional Sports: Sean Kennedy's TIGERS AND DEVILS

Romance novels have long been fascinated with the hero as professional athlete. From Susan Elizabeth Philips' Chicago Stars footballers to Rachel Gibson's Chinook hockey stars, Jill Shalvis's Pacific Heat baseballers to Erin McCarthy's NASCAR drivers, the celebrity athlete has a long history of dominating not only the sports page, but the contemporary romance bookstore shelves. The professional athlete has a hefty leg up on the hero competition, at least as far as traditional masculinity goes: competitive drive, ambition, aggression, and the dedication to a single goal are all required to excel at sport at the professional level. And let's not forget the amazing physical shape most professional sports stars are required to maintain, a level of fitness that proves not only aesthetically appealing to readers, but one that many books suggest translates into the most desirable sexual stamina and prowess. Thus the reader of the sports-hero romance can eagerly anticipate what's in store, masculinity-wise, before s/he even turns the first page.

What happens, though, when the sports star turns out to be gay? Reading last week's Sports Illustrated cover story on NBA player Jason Collins, and the subsequent responses to its announcement of the unsurprising fact that a gay man can play and succeed in a "major American team sport" reminded me of the ways in which male/male romance novels and novelists have been exploring this issue during the past decade. Jason Collins may or may not be the first pro gay athlete (see reports in The Atlantic New York Magazine, and Role Reboot, just to name a few), but he's certainly not the first to come out in the world of romance: just witness Goodreads list of "Best Gay Athletes," a list featuring 151 romance titles and counting.

One of the most interesting books on that list is Sean Kennedy's Tigers and Devils, which depicts the fallout after Declan Tyler, a famous Australian Football League player, is outed by the press. The novel's narrator is Declan's boyfriend, the self-proclaimed "arty wanker" Simon Murray, who meets Declan after the injured footballer overhears Simon defending his play even while admitting that Declan can "come across like a bit of an arrogant prick." Simon, the director of the independent film festival Triple F, has been out to his friends and family for years, although his family has taken a "don't discuss, don't get unnerved" approach to his sexuality. Declan, more cautious and guarded than the outspoken Simon ("I tend to rabbit on a lot"), has remained in the closet. Because of his attraction to Declan, Simon is more than willing to keep their long-distance relationship a secret; intriguingly, it is Simon's best friend, Roger, who takes umbrage at the sacrifice Declan's secret imposes on Simon. But after photographs of them embracing after Declan's father is hospitalized are leaked to the press, the point is moot. Kennedy's novel explores how two gay men can conduct a long-distance romance in the center of the public eye.

Two threads in the novel strike me as interesting to consider from a feminist angle. First, the way that Simon's comic interactions with his friend Roger and with Roger's wife, Fran, often simultaneously assert yet call into question the fixity of gender roles. When Simon tells Fran that Declan has called to ask him for a date, Fran asks:

    "So, what are you going to wear?"
     I looked at her, wondering if she thought I had suddenly grown a vagina in the past five minutes. "Clothes."
     She sighed. "Men."

Later, when Fran and Roger arrive on his doorstep to offer pre-date moral and sartorial support, Fran dives into Simon's closet, sorrowfully noting:

    "Simon, for a gay man, your wardrobe sucks."
     I glowered. "We're not all fashionistas or gym bunnies."
     "You should be at least one of them." Roger shrugged.

Simon suggests here that his masculinity trumps his sexuality when it comes to his interest in clothing. Is his rejection of the fashionista identity a rejection of the stereotypes associated with gay male identity? Or a rejection of qualities typically associated with the feminine? Or both? Later in the novel, when Declan asks Simon to accompany him to the Brownlow Medal ceremony (honoring the "fairest and best" Australian Football League player of the year), the issue of dress comes up once again, when Fran and Simon discuss the denigrating remarks sports commentators have been making in the wake of Declan's outing:

    "They did say I would look good in a dress, though. Y'know, because I'm a girl."
     "There are worse things than being called a girl."
     "That's true." I shrugged. "They also called me the little lady."
     "Wow, so they're misogynistic and homophobic. They're trying to tick every box, what else is new?"
     "You're not helping."
     "I could go dress shopping with you."
     "Shut up, Fran."

When Declan takes him suit shopping, Simon initially chooses a conservative one, hoping to avoid drawing the press's eye. But Declan urges Simon to choose something comfortable, knowing that his lover is "not going to be comfortable if you don't go as yourself." Ultimately, Simon compromises, pairing the conservative suit with a more colorful shirt and tie: not masculine, not feminine, but just Simon.

When feminine and masculine roles during sex itself come up for questioning, however, Simon proves far less willing to be tarred with anything hinting at femininity. When an obnoxious guest at his brother's engagement party asks Simon, "So, you know how Declan is like this really hot, good, footballer player? And you're like some guy in theatre or something? Does that make you, like, the woman?" Simon completely loses it: "You're old enough to have gained some life experience by now to know that was the stupidest fucking question you could have asked me. Maybe you should know what you're talking about before you go shooting your mouth off." When he attempts to explains to his Dad what's ticked him off, Dad clears his throat and asks the same question, albeit with genuine puzzlement: "Are you?" In many other places in the novel, Simon as narrator works to explain what it's like to be gay to a presumably heterosexual audience, expecting their lack of understanding, but when anyone presumed to think him a "woman," he's too angered to make any such effort. "I'm a man, and he's a man. We're gay because we like men. Neither of us is 'the woman.'" Declan, too, takes umbrage at such assumptions, walking out of a radio interview when a DJ asks him if he's a top or a bottom. The novel doesn't delve into the reasons for both men's anger—is it because of the BDSM associations of top/bottom? Because of the association of submissive service associated with being a "woman" ("Yes, Dad. I'm the woman, When we go home I hand Declan his pipe and slippers, put on my apron, and bake biscuits for him to take to training the next day," Simon initially answers his father with his typical sarcasm)? Does claiming both a gay and a masculine identity mean a man must reject anything that labels him feminine?

Simon may take issue with being thought a "woman," but the novel's larger message is that accepting traditional masculinity's reluctance to discuss feelings can prove problematic, no matter what gender or sexual preference one embraces. When Simon worries about Declan's rejecting his sexual advance, "Men," Fran sighed, not for the last time in her life. "It's hard enough being a woman and dating a guy. I can't imagine how much worse it would be when there are two guys in the equation not communicating with each other." And when Simon objects to Fran's plan that Simon fly out to Declan's home turf to console him after he's injured, Fran initially chalks it up to his gender: "Guys are such arseholes," she mutters. But she quickly goes on to suggest that it isn't just his gender, but his personality flaws, that stand in the way: "There are two reasons you don't want to do it. You're lazy, and you're chickenshit.... We know you love us, but you like to pretend you're all aloof and unreachable. That's what makes you chickenshit. Getting on a plane will show Declan how you feel, and you'd hate to be that transparent." Simon can hide behind the excuse of gender, but if he wants to make his relationship with Declan work, he needs to acknowledge that gender is just a cover, not a cause, for his unwillingness to communicate openly with his lover.

The majority of the problems that cause problems for Simon and Declan stem not from the notoriety and even verbal abuse they receive as a result of their high-profile romance, but instead from their inability to share their feelings with one another. Declan's used to running at the first sign of trouble; Simon prefers hiding behind a mask of sarcasm and rudeness. But until each proves "woman" enough to overcome their communication problems and talk openly about their emotions—not only the happiness and love, but the anger and pain their relationship causes—can they reach the happily ever after romance holds out as its defining promise.

Photo Credits:
Jason Collins: Sports Illustrated
Brownlow Medal: Coaches Corner
Emotions cartoon: Mark Anderson

Dreamspinner Press, 2012.

Next time on RNFF:
Book review submission guidelines

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Evil Women of Romance

I came of age during the heyday of the nighttime soap opera, with its opulent display of wealth, power, and above all, desperately scheming women. Just like their counterparts on daytime soaps, Dynasty's Alexis Carrington and Dallas's myriad angry villainesses hatched plan after devious plan to seduce unsuspecting men, win back long-lost lovers, and generally spoil any happy endings for all the "good" girls who served as their real rivals. Millions of viewers tuned in every week to watch the evil doings of these villainesses of the night, eager to both condemn their actions while taking surreptitious pleasure in their rule-breaking actions.

Who needs a knife, when you have pointy earrings?

In Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (1982, 2008), Tania Modleski suggests that soap opera villainesses function as the "negative image of the spectator's ideal self," the symbolic representation of the spectator's "resentment at being constituted as an egoless receptacle for the suffering of others" (88-87). The anger a good girl feels at being endlessly told to be nice, to be good, to sacrifice for others, returns in the form of her repressed opposite, the egotistical, greedy, evil woman. Cunning, powerful, and sexy, the evil woman proves adept at using what Modelski terms the "aspects of a woman's life which normally render her most helpless"—pregnancy, motherhood, loss of a child—and use them to manipulate the hapless men and good girls around her (87).

In the post-feminist world of twenty-first century romance, a genre which purportedly celebrates female desire rather than feminine self-sacrifice, is there a need any longer for the figure of the villainess? Though she served as a standard trope in the Harlequin and Silhouette books of my early teen years, the  greedy, heartless, self-absorbed woman who cares far more about her own needs than those of her swain has proven far less common in the romances I've found myself reading of late (though the lack of category romance in my daily reading fare may throw doubt upon this claim--any category readers out there have thoughts?)

Perhaps that was why I found myself surprised to read not one, but two romances this past week that featured bad old-fashioned villainesses. Laura Moore's contemporary, Once Tempted, features a throw-back villainess, one who attempts to use her sexual wiles to win back the fiance she dumped in the hopes of bagging richer game. This type of villainess worked in those 70s and 80s category romances in part because their point of view was typically restricted to that of the heroine; neither she, nor we as readers, were privy to thoughts of the hero, and thus the heroine's worry that the villainess would work her sexy mojo on the hero did not come off as entirely unmotivated. In Moore's book, however, readers know that the hero thinks as little of the scheming siren as does the heroine (in fact, everyone in the entire book thinks poorly of her, although her stepsister and future brother-in-law are just too polite to openly acknowledge it). The villainess, then, has absolutely no chance of winning over our hero. Her inclusion, then, adds little to no tension to the romance arc, making this reader wonder what purpose she was supposed to serve. As a decidedly unfeminist reminder of the guilt women are still so often encouraged to feel for pursuing a man, rather than waiting for a man to pursue them? (Not surprisingly, the climax of the novel occurs after the hero follows the fleeing heroine cross country to declare his love...)

Grace Burrowes' historical Darius features not one, not two, but three villainnesses, one of the old-fashioned greedy variety, and the other two embodying a trope more commonly associated with villains: the perverted sexuality = evil variety. The main story—an aged aristocrat in need of an heir arranges for his new young wife to sleep with a virile young man—is a pleasure to read. But the three villainesses who threaten, but do little to really endanger, the young couple's baby or growing love, do nothing but leave a bad taste in this reader's mouth. One, a shrew married to the natural son of the aristocrat, is so stupid that her actions would have led to the illegitimatizing of her own husband, rather than to his inheriting a title. The other two, female dominants whom Darius submits to sexually for pay in order to support a cast-off sister, are just as easily thwarted when our hero throws aside his false role and takes up his true identity as threatening alpha male. It's almost as if we needed a reminder, during this age of celebrating Shades of Gray, that while BDSM can be OK, even sexy, if the male is the one who dominates, women who get off on subduing a man are still too appalling to countenance. Or is it perhaps the fear of a submissive man that we find too gender-role-destabilizing to imagine?

What do you think—can there be any such thing as a villainess in a feminist romance?

Photo credits:
Joan Collins as Alexis Carrington: The Telegraph

Next time on RNFF
The first openly gay pro athlete in m/m romance