Friday, September 27, 2013

The Appeal of the Obsessive Alpha?

In a post earlier this week on the Romance University blog, Avon romance editor Lucia Macro listed four items on her "personal wish list" for historical romance submissions, including this at #2:

A word about those heroes: lately, contemporary romance heroes have been super-sexy, self-assured, and single minded in their pursuit of the heroine. And while she can give as good as she gets, these men know who they want and they stop at nothing to get her. And readers are responding—in droves. It might be worthwhile to take a page from the contemporaries and give us heroes to swoon over.

Editors, and the publishers for whom they work, surely noticed that the top slots on the bestseller lists last year, both in e-book and in print, were E. L. James' 50 Shades books. Said books' hero, Christian Grey, is "super-sexy, self-assured, and single-minded" in his pursuit of innocent Ana; ergo, rename him and put him in other romance sub-genres, and we'll get equally-stratospheric sales, publishing marketers and execs can be forgiven for believing. It's always easier to sell something that you can compare to something else that's already popular; the success of Sylvia Day's far better-written Crossfire trilogy, with its equally dominant if slightly less kinky hero, Gideon Cross, proves the truth behind this marketing truism. Readers may have responded in droves to the 50 Shades phenomenon, but will they keep responding to Christian Grey clones?

A doctor friend of mine reminded me that psychology asserts that all people, whether female or male, have an unconscious desire to be protected, to be taken care of, as we were when we were infants. Men are often shamed into denying and ignoring such unconscious needs, for fear of being labeled gay, but women are given the option of indulging in them—if they displace the desire for the original mother figure onto an adult male romantic partner. Books featuring powerful billionaires obsessed with the one woman of their dreams are just the most recent example of such culturally-sanctioned avenues for women to fantasize about a return to an all-consuming, all-satisfying relationship with one's early primary caretaker.

Though I'm sure that marketers would prefer it otherwise, the caretaking fantasy is not the only fantasy in which women indulge. And I for one am not willing to give up the myriad delights of my diverse romantic desires to purchase the same fantasy over and over again. I swoon over many different types of heroes, not only (or in the case of Christian Grey, not at all) over the hyper-obsessive alpha. I may have checked the Crossfire books out of the library, but I'll be placing putting my book-buying dollars in baskets far more diverse than those containing Christian Grey, Gideon Cross, and their look-alike progeny.

How do you, readers, fight against marketing forces that strive to homogenize romance? Or do you enjoy riding the wave of a trend, for as long as it lasts?

Illustration credit:

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Detective Love, 1930's style: Dorothy Sayers' GAUDY NIGHT

Before I discovered romance novels as an early adolescent, the genre that occupied most of my reading hours was the mystery. It was rare to find me without a yellow-spined Nancy Drew, or, later, a Trixie Belden, in hand, pages turning almost as fast as my eye could scan. In the days before amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Waldenbooks, I haunted the book aisle of the local Child World toy store, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the latest installment in my favorite series. Even after I became a romance reader, I still read a lot of mysteries (although Nancy's relationship with bland beau Ned Nickerson hardly supplied the romantic punch of a Harlequin). My go-to author during those teen years, as she was for so many other millions of mystery fans, was Agatha Christie. My favorite of her detectives was not the intellectual Hercule Poirot, nor even the small-town amateur sleuth Miss Marple, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the friends who turn into lovers and later marriage partners Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. My paperback copies of The Secret Adversary (1922), Partners in Crime (1922) and N or M? (1941) all had pages leaking out of their bindings, so often had I cracked them open to read and reread about the intrepid, impulsive Tuppence and the solid, loyal Tommy, bright young things whose complimenting personalities made them not only the perfect detective pair, but a winning romantic couple.

It wasn't until college, though, when I discovered the works of Dorothy Sayers, that I truly found a writer who was as interested in the workings of egalitarian romantic relationships as she was in teasing out the intricacies of a tangled mystery plot. The difficult courtship between Lord Peter Wimsey, English aristocratic gentleman detective, and mystery writer Harriet Vane, unfolds over the course of three novels. In 1931's Strong Poison, Harriet is accused of murder, and Peter discovers the true culprit; in 1932's Have His Carcase, the two work together to discover a murder after Harriet stumbles across a dead body while on holiday; and in 1935's Gaudy Night, Harriet calls Peter in to help her find the culprit behind a rash of poison pen notes and other offensive pranks played against the dons and scholars of her alma mater, the invented Shrewsbury College of the very real Oxford University.

Both the setting and the crime provide fitting counterpoint to the unfolding of Harriet and Peter's relationship. Oxford had only recently admitted women to membership in the university; the women's colleges (dorms) Lady Mary Hall and Somerville had opened in 1879, but even as late as 1906, male dons could exclude women from their classrooms if they wished. Women students pushed to be allowed to take the same examinations as their male counterparts, a request that led to much controversy during the opening decades of the century. Even those who passed their exams, such as Dorothy Sayers, who took first-class honors in 1915, were not granted degrees until 1920, when at last the University deigned to give women students full status.

Women of St. Hilda's College, Oxford, 1921
The quest for gender equality serves as the backdrop against which the novel's mystery—who is the perpetrator of the smear campaign being conducted against the unmarried dons and the most successful female students of Shrewsbury—plays out. Is it a man, disgruntled by the unprecedented inroads female scholars have made in the previously male-only preserve of Oxford? Is is a failed student, out for revenge against the women dons? Or is it, more frighteningly, the very specter misogynistic nay-sayers have been waving for years to warn against the dangers of educating women—the specter of the repressed virgin intellectual spinster, a female scholar whose overtaxed brain and sexually-frustrated body had driven her mad, turning her viciously against her own kind? Even though any intelligent female would laugh to scorn such an obviously sexist straw woman, Sayers seems to suggest, its all-too-frequent invocation cannot but echo, sending invidious tendrils of doubt creeping even into the minds of the most rational.

The issue of gender equality also lies at the heart of Harriet and Peter's potential relationship, a relationship that began under the most unequal of circumstances. Harriet's motive for murdering her former lover, stems not from jealousy or betrayal, but because he made a fool of her.  Insisting that she live openly with him because he did not believe in marriage, Philip Boyes only told her a year later that in fact her acquiescence was only a test of how abject her devotion was. Harriet immediately broke up with him. "Were you friends?" Peter asks her when they first meet. "No" she says, "the word [breaking] out with a kind of repressed savagery that startled him" (SP 36). Her former lover didn't want a friend, especially a female one, and Harriet despises herself for not seeing his self-absorption sooner.

At first, Peter seems little better than Harriet's callow former lover. So overwhelmed by his unexpected reaction to her during her first trial (which results in a hung jury), he can't stop himself from proposing the first time they meet—while she is still in gaol. He tells her:

I was absolutely stunned that first day in court, and I rushed off to my mater, who's an absolute dear, and the kind of person who really understands things, and I said, 'Look here! here's the absolute one and only woman, and she's being put through a simply ghastly awful business and for God's sake come and hold my hand!' You simply don't know how foul it is. (SP 38)

Even for Lord Peter, renowned for hiding his sensitivity and intelligence behind a self-mockingly loquacious manner, the outburst is ridiculously self-absorbed. But the novel ends a bit more promisingly: rather than hang about after Harriet's acquittal, Peter drives off. As Harriet's friend tells her, "He's not going to do the King Cophetua stunt, and I take my hat off to him. If you want him, you'll have to send for him" (SP 192). King Cophetua, the king in the story of the King and the Beggar Maid, feels no sexual stirring for any woman until he spies a beggar maid outside his window. Rushing outside, he scatters coins to the beggars; when the girl draws near, he tells her that she must be his wife. Harriet's friend thus suggests that Peter won't use Harriet's gratitude toward him for saving her life to guilt her into marrying him. Harriet insists she won't be sending for Peter, despite her friend's assurances that she will.

Throughout the middle book, Have His Carcase, Harriet's frustrations at being beholden to Peter, being cast in the role of beggar girl to his beneficent king, continue to plague her, and the two fall into bouts of snapping and bickering worthy of any romance novel. But still, at novel's end, they remain apart.

King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, by
John Byam Liston Shaw
At the start of Gaudy Night, though, when Harriet revisits Shrewsbury for the first time since graduating, and impertinent people cannot help but ask her about the famous aristocratic detective, she finds herself taken aback by how "the mere sound of his name still had the power to provoke such explosions in herself—that she could so passionately resent, at one and the same time, either praise or blame of him on other people's lips" (GN 57). And when she asks him for his help with the mystery at Shrewsbury, and he comes to offer his aid in person, she sees him through the eyes of others—his nephew, now at Oxford himself; a college porter who once served in Wimsey's army brigade (he served as a Major in WWI); the Balloil dons who taught him while he was an undergraduate; former college friends. Their assumptions about Peter, as well as her own newly awakened eyes, allow Harriet to realize that there is far more to Peter than her initial embittered perceptions allowed her to see.

The question for Harriet, then, becomes not "do I love him," but rather, is "a marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences... reckless to the point of insanity" (376)? Can a romantic relationship exist without one party being subordinated to the other, subsumed by the other? Though the means by which Harriet and Peter explore this question—sonnets, chess sets, punting on the river, classical concert-going, and above all, arguments both abstract and personal—are grounded in the fierce intellectualism of 1935's Oxford elite, the answer this early 20th century novel provides proves just as feminist, and just as romantically satisfying, as that found in any 21st century romance.

Placetne, magistra?

Who are your favorite romantic mystery-solving couples?

Photo credits:
St. Hilda students: Oxford Today
Shaw, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid: Incredible Art Gallery

Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night 1935

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Scent of Love

He was tall and strong, and he smelled like fabric softener and wine and man. — Ruthie Knox, Along Came Trouble

      He smelled like sweat and horse and man. — Eloisa James, Winning the Wallflower

      He smelled like bay rum and male, with a sweet hint of pipe tobacco. — Kate Cross, Heart of Brass

I've been thinking a lot about chemistry of late. Not Chemistry with a capital "C," the high school class kind. No, the kind that Sky Masterson of Guys and Dolls challenges prim Sergeant Sarah Brown with, after Sarah tells him that she'll recognize the right man for her by the outward signs of his steadiness and moral fiber. In contrast to Sarah, Skye asserts:

     Mine will come as a surprise to me
     Mine I leave to chance and chemistry.

Just what is this chemistry, this invisible something that makes your ears prick, makes your attention hone in on one specific person, and not another? Have scientists been able to find evidence for it, or is it simply a myth? And if there is a scientific basis for sexual chemistry, is the science reflected in romance fiction?

Interestingly, not a lot of research has been done on the topic of sexual chemistry, according to Dr. Tim Loving, a relationship researcher and blogger at Science of Relationships. Many scientists have put forth interesting hypotheses pointing to general preferences for certain characteristics that are theorized to signal genetically positive traits, traits that will help the species propagate: a low waist-to-hip ratio for women (good for bearing children), broad shoulders and strong jaws for men (signs of higher testosterone = good protection for said children). Yet few studies look at individual attraction, why one particular person is attracted to another particular person, as opposed to the other twenty people in the room.

Interestingly, the one line of study about sexual chemistry that's been explored by multiple researchers examines not the visual, which many assume is the most important sense in attraction, but the olfactory. In 1995, Swiss biologist Claus Wedekind and his colleagues published the results of what has now come to be known as the "sweaty t-shirt study."* Wedekind asked 44 college-aged men to wear a new t-shirt for two straight nights, providing them with odor-free toiletries so that only their own scents would mark the shirts. After collecting the shirts, they asked 49 women to smell them, and asked each to identify the ones they found most appealing. The results were quite intriguing. Far more often than chance would allow, women selected the t-shirts of men who were immunologically dissimilar to themselves. Mating with men with whom they did not share MHC (major histocompatibility complex) genes makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint; children of such unions will be more disease-resistant than children of parents who share most of the same 100+ MHC genes, and so will have a greater chance of survival.

In heterosexual romance novels, the expression of olfactory sexual chemistry typically comes via the three-fold scent description. Two scents indicative of a romance hero's personality or environment are added to a third smell, that of "man," "male," or occasionally, simply "masculinity" (see epigraphs above). Not "a" man or "a" male, but a generic, all-encompassing odor indicating a person of the opposite sex.

A 2009 study** has shown that in general men's body odors smell differently than women's (apparently women smell more like onions or grapefruit, while men smell more like stinky cheese, even though women generally have higher levels of a sulfur-containing compound in their sweat—go figure). And a 2006 study*** suggests that women are more attracted to the scent of men with low cortisol levels (the stress hormone), and, except during their fertile period, to men with lower testosterone levels.

Why do romance writers emphasize these aspects of a hero's scent (not the stinky-cheese aspect, but the difference between male and female smells, or the presumably testosterone "male" scent), rather than the more interesting one that suggests we might find some specific individuals' body odor more attractive than the odor of others?

The three-scent description is so common that it's become a bit of a joke among romance readers. But even well-regarded romance authors (see epigraphs) continue to deploy it. What would happen if romance writers stopped fetishizing the scent of the generalized "male" and instead called attention to the way that a specific individual makes a heroine's nose cilia and chemoreceptors jump to attention?

Can you recall any memorable scent-descriptions from your romance reading? Is there a difference between how heroes and heroines' scents are described?

*Wedekind, C, et al. (1995) "MHC-dependent preferences in humans." Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 260: 245-49.

** Troccaz, M. et al. (2009) "Gender-Specific Differences Between the Concentrations of Nonvolatile (R)/(S)-3-Methyl-3-Sulfanylhexan-1-Ol and (R)/(S)-3-Hydroxy-3-Methyl-Hexanoic Acid Odor Precursors in Axillary Secretions." Chemical Senses 34.3: 203-210. Here's a link to a summary of the research written in words the non-scientist can understand.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Jean Simmons & Marlon Brando as Sarah Brown and Sky Masterson: cerebralcereal
Nose to Nose:

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Epic BDSM: Jacqueline Carey's KUSHIEL'S DART

Back in May, in response to a post about whether a romance featuring the trope of the evil woman could ever be feminist, commenter mepamelia suggested we try Jacqueline Carey's fantasy novel, Kushiel's Dart. It's taken a while for Carey's novel to make it to the top of my TBR pile (reading primarily romance for the past year, books that I can usually plough through in a day or less, made me cautious about devoting an entire week to a 700-page epic fantasy), but once I picked it up, I found it nearly impossible to put down. Kushiel's Dart is a good book to think with, a book that asks its readers to interrogate their assumptions not just about gender, but about religion, power, sexuality, and love.

Having taught a class on fantasy for children and young adults for nearly a decade, I've come to appreciate books which imagine fantasy worlds far different from our own, especially those built upon models that point out the problematic aspects inherent in ours. The world Carey creates in Kushiel's Dart is an alternate version of Europe in the early Middle Ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire. But instead practicing Christianity, the people of Terre d'Ange revere Blessed Elua, an angel formed when the "bitter salt tears of the Magdelene fell upon soil ensanguined and moist with the shed blood of the Messiah" (24). Scorned by God, rejected both by the Roman Empire and by the Yeshuites, Elua wandered the earth singing, flowers blooming in his wake. Tales of his wandering reached Heaven; after the King of Persis imprisoned Elua, eight of the angelic hierarchy descended to earth, flouting the One God's will to come to his aid. Naamah, "eldest sister," offered her body to the King in exchange for Elua's freedom; later, she lay with strangers in the market for coin to sustain Elua and his followers. Terre d'Angelines do not find her actions abhorrent, but worthy of reverence. After years of wandering, Elua and his followers at last found welcome in the unnamed land that becomes Terre d'Ange, where the people accepted his one Precept: love as thou wilt.

The society of Terre d'Ange, then, is one with a far different attitude toward sex and sexuality than a Christian-based one. In Terre d'Ange, the pleasures of sexual love are valued, rather than feared or shunned as sinful. Bisexual, homosexual, and heterosexual encounters are all embraced (although each person is allowed to choose his or her own partner(s) and sexual preferences), as are sexual encounters based on the pleasure of pain. Adepts of the angel Namaah prostitute themselves in sacred service. Rape, a heresy against the teaching of Elua, is considered an abhorrent crime.

But if Terre d'Ange is a sexually-liberal society, it is hardly a paradise; even as it accepts multiple sexualities, it remains as mired in the same political power struggles that troubled not only real medieval Europe, but the kingdoms in the majority of 20th century high fantasies, too. And while it may be a crime to rape, using an enemy's sexual desires against him to gain secrets and reveal lies is a far from uncommon practice. At least in the House of Anafiel Delaunay, where our protagonist, Phèdre, has been raised since the age of ten.

Sold first by her mother into servitude to one of the Houses of the Night Court, the thirteen Houses where adepts of Namaah offer their courtesan services, Phèdre's indenture is later purchased by Delaunay, a potentate of the royal court. For Phèdre bears Kushiel's Dart, a red mote in her eye, the rare sign of an anguisette, or lover of sexual pain. Kushiel, one of the angels that fled Heaven to follow Elua, was originally an angel of punishment, sent by the One God to torment sinners and make them repent. But Kushiel believed that chastisement could be an act of love, could offer pleasure as well as pain, a belief the One God did not tolerate, but Elua did. Delaunay knows that the rarity of Phèdre's inborn proclivities, as well as the prevalence of sadism among many of those in power, will make her the perfect spy, and trains her up accordingly.

The book unfolds in three sections; one, portraying Phèdre's early years as a courtesan/spy in Elua City; a second, depicting her months as a captive of the uncivilized western tribes of the Skaldia, who threaten Terre d'Ange with invasion; and a third, which recounts her imperiled journey to Alba (England) to negotiate an alliance on behalf of Terre d'Ange's young, beleaguered, unmarried queen. Intelligent, pragmatic, impeccably educated in not only politics, history, and languages, but in all the arts of pleasure, Phèdre proves a compelling high fantasy heroine as she struggles to see herself not as Kushiel's victim, but as his weapon. And a compelling romance heroine, too, as two very different men come to care for her, and she for them, over the course of her travels.

There's so much more to say about this fascinating book, so many other questions to ask: How is an anguisette different from others who enjoy sexual submission and pain? Are Phèdre's self-sacrificing actions truly heroic, if the pain she endures on behalf of others is a pleasure to her? Can a partner who doesn't share Phèdre's sexual proclivities ever suit her? What does committed love look like, in a society where infidelity is not a recognized concept? And, the question that teases at novel's end: once you've tasted the thrill of the political power game, can you ever be satisfied with a quiet life in the countryside, far from all court intrigue, even if you've the one you love beside you?

No time to answer; I have to run to the library to pick up the next book in the series...

What other high fantasy novels feature so many, and so many powerful, key women as players (spy Phèdre; Queen Ysandre; and Machiavellian machinator Melisande Sharizai)? Do these fantasies also include compelling romance?

Illustration credits
Love as Thou Wilt:
Map of the world of Kushiel's Dart:

Jacqueline Carey, Kushiel's Dart.
Tor, 2001.

Friday, September 13, 2013

In Search of the Romance Short Story

In spite of my best intentions, the promises I made to myself that I simply would not press that "buy" button, I did it again: I purchased another e-text-only short story by a romance writer whose novels I admire. And yes, yet again, said short story did little but disappoint, failing to meet the standards set by said author's previous books. And, just as important, failed not only to acknowledge the differences between the short story as a form and that of the novel, but also to take advantage of the similarities between the two genres.

In many ways, a short story seems completely the wrong form to convey the pleasures promised by romance. Readers read romance in large part for the slow build, the push forward-pull back tension, the repeated pattern of desire escalated then frustrated, only to culminate after that frustrated desire reaches the point of explosion. In contrast, the short story is all about tightness, focus, honing in on one key scene or, in the words of its first practitioner, Edgar Allan Poe, "a certain unique or single effect."* A short story often begins at the climax, or close to it, rather than slowly building toward it as does the novel; a romance only about the climax is hardly a romance at all.

One of my "click too often" disappointments...
Other e-romances are being published as "novellas," linking them more closely to their more lengthy printed forms. But in general I've found most of the romance novellas I've read just as disappointing as the short stories; without the time to gradually construct a romance arc, the declarations of love between novella protagonists often feel false, unearned. The ones that I've found the most successful (see this post) often focus on an already-established couple struggling through a difficult point in their relationship, rather than depicting a new love being built from scratch.

During the days of print-only books, few publishers found it profitable to publish short stories or even novellas. How could you print and bind a single story? Who would spend even a dollar to purchase a novella with a spine narrower than a pinky finger? How would such slim books be shelved in bookstores without becoming lost?

But with the advent of e-publishing, the tables have been turned. During the past year or two, both romance publishers and self-publishing authors have released a plethora of short stories and novellas, priced lower than a full-length novel but promising the same pleasures as their longer counterparts.

I'd hail the e-book revolution, and the opportunity it presents for authors to experiment with different, shorter, forms, if the resulting experimentation resulted in innovative, or even interesting, work. But far too often the short story or novella is simply a marketing gimmick, a way for a writer with an established reputation to make more money by building on her brand, churning out a bad novel, a text lacking both the novel's development and structure and the tight focus and honed theme of a true short story or novella.

And another, both by favorite authors...
At this past July's Romance Writers of America convention, a successful e-book author advised writers to have at least five works ready to be published before they attempted to make a name for themselves in the market, with a new work ready to be published following each month. Short stories, novellas, and yes, the occasional novel. Only by creating a constant flow of content would authors be able to elbow their way onto romance readers' overcrowded radar screens.

How many writers do you know who can churn out work at such a pace and actually write stories worth reading? Yet as long as fans keep click, click, clicking away, purchasing small slivers of story that they'd never have forked over hard cash for if they could pick them up in their hands and have a physical reminder of how little they contain, the flood of underdeveloped novels will continue. Please, keep my finger away from that mouse...

Do you agree that for romance readers, the novella/short story boom is more of a bust? Or have you read and admired a short story or novella issued since the advent of the e-book revolution? Did it take into account both the different demands of their forms and still provide the satisfying romance kick of a full-length novel?

* from Poe's review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice Told Tales, 1842. Qtd. in M. H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 8th ed. Boston: Thompson Higher Education, 2005.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Thinking Outside the Oppresor's Box: Courtney Milan's THE HEIRESS EFFECT

As a young adolescent, I spent most of my afternoons either reading (largely romance fiction) or watching soap operas. Plots of both genres often rely on the either/or dilemma for their emotional charge: Pretend to be my lover, oh sweet young girl, says the evil villain, or I'll tell your true love that you once worked as a hooker (to support your dying mother, of course, but I won't let that relevant detail slip). Break up with your girlfriend, the conniving villainess orders our rough-around-the-edges-but-truehearted hero, or I'll play on your younger brother's penchant for gambling to ruin your family's finances. One category romance from this period (late 70's/early 80s) that still sticks in my mind featured an overbearing brother informing the heroine she would have to pretend to be his fiancée, or he'd reveal to his sister that the heroine had been dating said sister's fiancé while the poor girl had been recuperating from illness in the hospital (no matter that she'd had no idea the smarmy fiancé was engaged, and was trying to break up with him anyway)*. Soap opera protagonists, just like many heroes and heroines of romance, are put in a powerless position, faced with the untenable either/or formulated to keep true lovers apart (and keep viewers, and readers, on the edge of their seats, waiting to see how they'll ever get back together).

Courtney Milan presents the male lead of her most recent Victorian historical with just such an appalling either/or. Oliver Marshall, the bastard son of a duke, has fought most of his life to make a place for himself in the world of the privileged. As a schoolboy, he often fought back against those with more power, those who teased him for his working-class roots and his lack of knowledge about acceptable behavior among England's elite. But years of fighting can wear even the best man down; as an adult, Oliver has learned to be more politic, biting his tongue and currying favor, biding his time until he earns his own share of power and can make the men who abused their power, and forced him to grovel, grovel in their own turn.

From Punch, August 1867. Passage of the Reform Bill, extending
the franchise = "A Leap in the Dark."
Oliver's most fervent wish—to extend the vote to the working class, in particular to his beloved father (not the duke, but the man who raised him)—seems on the cusp of achievement, if only he can persuade former schoolfellow and political powerhouse the Marquess of Bradenton to switch his vote, and the votes of the men who typically side with him in Parliament. But Bradenton is wary about ceding his vote, not only because he believes that every man has his rightful place in society, but because he isn't sure Oliver shares this view. In order to convince himself that his potential ally is "going to be part of the proper order.... That he'll know his place, and expect everyone to be in theirs," (34) Bradenton demands something in return: Oliver's willingness to publicly humiliate a woman who keeps stepping outside her designated social place.

Heiress Jane Fairfield has cut a wide swath through Cambridge society, but hardly one that any other young lady would envy. Clothes dripping with ostentation designed to signal her abundant wealth, tongue wagging with entirely unintentional insults ("She asked Whitting about his studies, and when he made a wry comment about preferring to concentrate his efforts on the study of liquids, she stared at him. 'How surprising,' Her eyes were very round. 'I had not thought you to have the capacity of intellect to read physics!'" [17]), Jane has come to be known as the "Feather Heiress," for "being around her is like being beaten to death with a feather" (11). Her unintentional snubs have more than rubbed Lord Bradenton the wrong way; they've so offended him that he wants her gone, banished from Cambridge society, no longer the sharp pebble in his oh-so-proper shoe. Too lofty to undertake his own dirty work, Bradenton tasks Oliver with the job, holding out the carrot of his Parliamentary vote as recompense.

Not half as garish as Jane Fairfield's "fuchsine" dress
What makes Milan's novel so very interesting is that even while Oliver protests, insisting not only to Bradenton and his colleagues, but also to himself, that he'd never accept the Marquess's offer, inside he's not entirely certain:

     "And as for you, Marshall..." Bradenton looked at Oliver. "Take the time you need to salve your conscience. To tell yourself whatever it is you need to make this palatable. You'll be doing her a favor, you know."
     No, Oliver thought. Not a favor. And I'm not doing it.
     But that sick pit in his stomach felt differently.
     Yes, it whispered. Yes, you are.  (35)

Oliver's dilemma grows even worse when he comes to realize that Jane Fairfield is not the simpleton she pretends to be. Her feather-wielding is a deliberate disguise, one devised in order to scare away suitors for vital reasons of her own. But even as he works to befriend the friendless heiress, Oliver is honest enough to realize that he'd be doing the same, whether he intends ultimately to betray her or not. He's committed smaller betrayals in the past; can he rely on his common decency to keep his ambition from pushing him to make one last betrayal, no matter how inexcusable?

This is the point in the soap opera, or the traditional romance novel, when the protagonist would be forced to make the choice: refuse to give in to the evil villain, and watch those you love come to hate you; sacrifice yourself and your principles, and watch your own dreams fall apart at your feet.

But neither Jane Fairfield, nor Courtney Milan, believe in the inevitability of the either/or. In fact, this novel suggests, when we accede to the either/or terms that oppressors set, we help contribute to our own oppression. Jane urges Oliver, and through him, readers, to look beyond the choices those in power would force upon him, to imagine a third way, a path that simultaneously allows him to keep his self-respect and achieve his goals. And each of the story's sub-plots, most focusing on patriarchal men thinking they have not only the responsibility, but the right, to make decisions on behalf of younger women, echo this theme. Rarely is all power held in one villain's hands; look beyond the lies that keep your fellow oppressed at odds, find allies, and work together to devise a different solution to the problem, and you'll go a long way toward knocking down not only class privilege, but gender and racial privilege as well.

* If anyone knows the title of this one (a Harlequin Presents? Or a Silhouette?), I'd love to find it again!

Illustration credits:
"A Leap in the Dark": Punch cartoon, from the syllabus web site of "Mid-Victorian Britain in History and Art," Prof. Meg Cronin and Hugh Dubrulle
Fuchsine dress: Fashion

Courtney Milan, The Heiress Effect.
Self-published. 2013

Friday, September 6, 2013

In Praise of Confident Women

An interesting post on the blog Role/Reboot caught my eye yesterday, relating as it did to an important article in last week's Economist about "the lamentable lack of female professors" in academia. Kristie Theodoris's Role/Reboot post, "Men with High Self-Esteem are Confident, But Women Are Cocky," calls attention to the "fine line of self-esteem" girls and women are asked to walk. While boys and men are allowed to brag about their personal qualities, physical and intellectual accomplishments, even their sexual prowess, girls and women who do the same are seen as too self-confident. Given the plethora of negative consequences for girls of having low self-esteem, educators often champion programs that aim to develop girls' pride in themselves. Yet the social consequences for girls who give active voice to the very self-esteem such programs aim to foster are often deeply negative. Other girls, in particular, often feel that a "cocky" member of their sex needs to be put in her rightful place, to be "knocked off her pedestal," Theodoris argues. Since parents and educators rarely openly discuss or even acknowledge the contradiction between these two very strong messages, girls are left on their own to figure out just where that narrow window of acceptable self-esteem lies.

The Economist article, reporting on a study recently published in the journal International Organization (abstract here), demonstrates that the self-esteem conundrum is not just a problem that plagues girls, but one that continues on, far into adulthood, with real consequences for women's career and financial advancement. University of San Diego researcher Barbara Walter compared the number of times male political science scholars cited their own work in subsequent research, compared to the number of times female scholars did the same. Her findings—on average, male-authored articles were cited five more times than those by female-only authors—reflect the fact that not only do men tend to cite their own previous work more than women do, but also that men cite other men "more often than chance would suggest they should." Since Promotion and Tenure committees increasingly regard the number of times a scholar's work is cited by other scholars as a sign of said scholar's standing in the field, such a clear gender gap in citation might account in part for why full professors of the male persuasion still outnumber tenured females, typically by at least 4 to 1 in most disciplines.

How do women in romance novels fare in the self-esteem wars? Romances in general do tend to push heroines to develop higher self-esteem. But I can't begin to count the number of times I've read a romance in which the heroine is compared favorably to a "cocky" female rival, said rival embodying the "bad" confidence upon which society frowns. Why does society demand that women have some self-esteem, but not too much? Do romance novels teach women frame themselves in the narrow window of "acceptable" self-esteem? Would you admire a romance heroine who crowed about her own accomplishments or skills? More or less than you would a romance hero who did the same? What are your favorite romances that feature "cocky" women? And can we come up with a term less gender-biased than "cocky"?

Photo credits:
"Tell me...": Girls Inc.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Gender-Bending Appeal of the Cross-Dressing Hero: L. H. Cosway's PAINTED FACES

Yesterday in the United States we celebrated Labor Day, a holiday dedicated to the social and economic achievements of the American worker. I've had my share of jobs over the course of my life, both ordinary—babysitter; counterperson at McDonalds; college professor—and unusual—one aborted day as a telemarketer; nearly a decade in various positions in children's book publishing; a long but fascinating summer working in a factory that manufactured tampons. But these all seem rather mundane after reading about a career created by the hero of a romance novel I read recently: drag queen. Especially because said hero is decidedly straight.

With the exception of a third-person prologue and epilogue from the hero's point of view, L. H. Cosway's Painted Faces is narrated in the first-person by twenty-five-year-old Freda, who cobbles together a living working part-time in a Dublin charity shop and baking cupcakes every morning for a local bakery. Fred's got a wise-ass mouth, but as far as romantic experience goes, her bark is worse than her bite. She and her first boyfriend parted after "we basically figured out that we just couldn't really stand each other"; her only other boyfriend "turned out to be quite the psycho kettle of fish," stalking her for a whole year after she broke up with him (21). Compared with her flatmate Nora, Fred's not a looker; her rounded figure and comfortable style of dress mean that Nora's the one the men turn to first whenever they hit the Dublin bar scene, a situation which suits Fred just fine, thank you very much.

But when a new man moves into the apartment next door, it's Fred, not Nora, who catches his eye. Telling her she can call him "Vivica" after she introduces herself as "Fred," and his quick Marilyn Monroe gesture and voice when she responds "Cool, if we become friends can I call you Viv?" seem to suggest he's gay. But the way he openly leers at her rain-soaked top ("Did I miss the wet t-shirt competition, again?") points to the opposite.

Eddie Izzard, the only other
heterosexual cross-dresser
Freda knows
In fact, though Nicholas has come to Dublin to work in a friend's new gay club as a drag queen, his sexual tastes turn entirely toward women. And curvy, irreverent, snarky Freda is just the type of woman he prefers. Given her past experience, though, Fred can't help but be taken aback by Nicholas's directness ("You're very pretty, Fred," he says, matter of factly. Then he brings his face closer and traces his lips along my ear. "I'd really like to fuck you." [30]), and refuses his sexual advances. But when Nicholas asks Fred to work for him as his dresser, helping him get ready before his shows, and their friendship develops, Fred increasingly grows to feel that Nicholas is "plunging my black and white world into a vibrant technicolor rainbow" (52).

"I'm not trying to fool people into believing I'm an actual woman.... I think being somewhere in between male and female is just as intriguing," Nicholas tells Fred when she questions him about his cross-dressing (110). And it's this mixture of male and female, or, perhaps, of over-the-top campy gayness and aggressive masculinity, that captures Fred's imagination. She dreams about "Nicholas wearing boxer shorts, high heels and a lacy black bra over his muscular chest. He's wearing make-up too, but not much; a little mascara and some dark lipstick. For some reason I am incredibly turned on by the sight. He's half boy, half girl. All gorgeous" (99). But Fred remains cautious, not willing to risk this wonderful friendship, afraid that for her, sex and love cannot be separated, as they can for Nicholas. For Nicholas may be direct about sex, but expressing emotional intimacy is a far different story.

Cosway's novel acknowledges that Nicholas's urge to cross-dress stems from childhood loss and trauma. But like Anna Cowan's Untamed, Painted Faces never indulges in the "love will fix you" trope, never suggests that the feminine "painted face" that Nicholas puts on is something that needs to be set aside if he is to be psychologically whole. A fitting acceptance for a book dedicated to "all the men who are women and the women who are men, the men who are men and the women who are women. And those of you who are a little bit of both. You colour my world" (3).

Photo credits:
Labor Day:
Eddie Izzard: Eddie Izzard

L. H. Cosway, Painted Faces.
Smashwords, 2012.