Thursday, December 25, 2014

Happy Holidays from RNFF!

Happy holidays to you and yours, feminist romance readers! I'll be taking a break from posting for the rest of 2014, to focus on celebrating with family and friends. But RNFF will be back in January, when our annual list best feminist romances of the past year. Looking forward to hearing all about your best reads of 2014...

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Romance Community on Film: LOVE BETWEEN THE COVERS

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a screening of a full rough cut of Love Between the Covers, a documentary that takes "an honest look at the amazing global community that romance writers and readers have built" ( Award-winning filmmaker Laurie Kahn (A Midwife's Tale; Tupperware!) notes on the newly-launched web site for Love that she has a special interest in exploring "communities of women who haven't been taken seriously (but should be), who deserve to be heard without being mocked." If ever a community of women fit such a bill, romance readers and writers surely do...

Kahn asked me and several local romance writers (the filmmaker works in eastern Massachusetts) to view the current "draft" of the film, and then to discuss it with her and with the film's editor, Bill Anderson. Laurie asked us not to give away any of the details of the film, but I feel safe in saying that Love Between the Covers gives a far less biased look at both the industry and at the (primarily women) who create or/and consume its wares (remember the "documentary" Guilty Pleasures, anyone?). I'm not sure which was more fun—sitting in Laurie and Bill's editing room, watching the rough cut on an oversized computer screen, or gathering around the fireplace in Laurie's living room, talking about the whys and wherefores of the filmmaker and editors' creative decisions, as well as the industry as a whole. Thanks, Laurie and Bill, for the invitation, and for listening to our feedback with such attention and care.

Patricia Grasso, me, Myretta Robens, and film editor Bill Andersen, drinking tea and exchanging ideas about
Laurie's film, Love Between the Covers

Laurie's project has been funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities (as well as a successful Kickstarter campaign), and, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been a target for grandstanding politicians eager to denounce the exploration of romance as a wasteful use of taxpayers' money. One Representative (a man, of course) actually introduced a bill in Congress seeking to defund the Popular Romance Project, the web site affiliated with the film (more details here). Though the bill has not been passed, Laurie reports that NEH funding for the PRP web site has been put on hold. Needless to say, any donations to help defray the expense of completing the film would be more than welcome.

When will you have a chance to see Love Between the Covers? Another sneak preview is being screened in February 2015, at the Library of Congress, as part of the Center for the Book's free conference,  "What is Love? Romance Fiction in the Digital Age". Laurie reports that the documentary will also be screened at film festivals across the country (and the world) in 2015, and that several television outlets have expressed interest. If the film comes to a city near you before it premieres on broadcast TV, I'd recommend you jump at the chance to take a look.

In the meantime, you can find Laurie and her work at the web sites The Popular Romance Project and Love Between the Covers, and at twitter at @LoveBTCfilm.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Film and Novel Feminism: Diana Wynne Jones' HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE

This past weekend, my daughter and I took some time-out from December's rush to have a mom-kid movie night. Our film of choice? The 2005 animated Howl's Moving Castle, adapted by Hayao Miyazaki from the 1986 novel by British fantasist Diana Wynne Jones. Miyazaki is a filmmaker of great imagination, one who does not feel bound to stick slavishly to his original source material when crafting an adaptation. Interestingly, though, in spite of their differences, both Miyazaki's film and Diana Wynne Jones's novel have been called "feminist" by various writers and critics. As I watched the film, I found myself thinking about the differences between it and Jones' novel, and wondering how those differences impacted the feminist messages of each.  Such wondering gave me the perfect excuse to indulge in a comfort re-read of Wynne Jones' novel.

In the film version of Howl, Sophie Hatter's problem at story's start is her lack of self-esteem. Unlike her mother or her sister Lettie, or the other girls in the hat shop where she works, Sophie is not that attractive. Plain, shy, and gray, Sophie is more upset than charmed when two handsome but large and looming male soldiers attempt to flirt with her in the town's streets. "Do something for yourself for once, will you?" sister Lettie calls to her as Sophie gradually edges away from the busy pastry shop where Lettie works, pointing to Sophie's penchant for self-sacrifice and linking it to her lack of self-esteem.

For Sophie of the novel, looks are not at issue; both she and her two sisters "grew up very pretty indeed" (1). Rather, her problem lies in her belief that story has the power to shape destiny. "In the land of Ingary," the novel opens, "where such things as seven-league books and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes" (1). Though the book's second paragraph hints that stories are not infallible (though the birth of Sophie's second sister "ought to have made Sophie and Lettie into Ugly Sisters," it had not), Sophie herself misses the hint. "She had read a great deal, and very soon realized how little chance she had of an interesting future. It was a disappointment to her, but she was still happy enough, looking after her sisters and grooming Martha [the youngest sister] to seek her fortune when the time came" (1). For the reader, the humor lies both in imagining a world where fairy tale tropes determine one's future, and in laughing at a character who buys into the convention, even when the evidence to disprove it is as close as the nose on her face.

With its focus on storytelling rather than feminine self-confidence, the book's opening may appear to be less feminist than the film's. But DWJ is a sneaky writer, with a lot of hidden agendas up her sleeve. Even while we're encouraged to chuckle at Sophie, we're also invited to think more deeply about the ways that story—in the form of social and gender conventions—can and do shape us, often despite our own better judgment. About which, more below.

The bulk of both versions take place after the Witch of the Waste comes to Sophie's hat shop and, for reasons only hinted at, lays a curse on her, a curse that makes her appear to be an old woman rather than a seventeen-year-old adolescent. Before moving to that section of the story, though, I want to discuss two significant differences between film and book that occur before Sophie's transformation. Sophie of the book is wont to talk to the hats as she trims them, spinning stories about their own futures: "You have mysterious allure"; "You are going to have to marry money!" "You have a heart of gold and someone in a high position will see it and fall in love with you" (7). Though the narrator does not come out and say it directly, astute readers will quickly pick up on the fact that Sophie's predictions turn out to be true for the women who buy and wear her hats. While Sophie believes that story has the power to shape her life, in fact it is Sophie who has the power to tell stories that shape the lives of others. But it is a power of which she, unlike the reader, is woefully unaware. Because she is so invested in the stories her society tells her?

A fearful Sophie being rescued by a handsome stranger
Unlike book Sophie, film Sophie has no latent magical powers. And film Sophie's first meeting with her future love interest, the purportedly evil Wizard Howl, is significantly different from book Sophie's. In the film, a slim, blond man rescues Sophie from the importuning of the above-mentioned flirty soldiers, claiming her as his "sweetheart" and using magic to send the soldiers marching away. We're immediately distracted from this "rescue" by the arrival of a new threat ("Don't be alarmed, but I'm being followed" the man tells Sophie as inky snaky blob creatures ooze out of the walls around them), but a rescue it is all the same. Though the girls of the town spread rumors about how Howl eats girls' hearts, they're clearly enchanted rather than threatened by the prospect, a course that Sophie is invited to follow. Some men may be threats, the film suggests, but this man (who we later discover is the wizard Howl) is not. "That's my girl," he tells her when he leaves her on Lettie's balcony, clearly the adult to Sophie's frightened child.

In the novel, though, it is not soldiers, but "a young man in a fantastical blue-and-silver costume" who spots Sophie and accosts her on the crowded street (9). Book Sophie's response to the man (who, again, turns out to be Howl) is similar to movie Sophie's response to the soldiers: "Sophie shrank into a shop doorway and tried to hide" (9). But the novel casts Sophie's response, not Howl's actions, as abnormal:

Crowds of young men swaggered beerily to and fro, trailing cloaks and long sleeves and stamping buckled boots they would never have dreamed of wearing on a working day, calling loud remarks and accosting girls. The girls strolled in fine pairs, ready to be accosted. It was perfectly normal for May Day, but Sophie was scared of that too. (9)

At the costumed man's pitying look, Sophie realizes that she's overreacting, and feels ashamed. Sophie's fear of aggressive masculinity, which in the film is justified by Howl's rescue, here is cast as part and parcel of her problem. Could that problem be less about believing in the stories her society tells, and more about using those stories to hide from her own fears? Does film Sophie lack self-confidence, while book Sophie fears her own powers? Including her own power to attract the opposite sex?

The Witch of the Waste's curse on Sophie "compels [Sophie] to seek her fortune" in both book and film. What fortune does she find? What is her quest? In the book, Sophie's transformation from maiden to crone allows her to free herself from many of her fears. A trapped dog frightens her, but "The way I am now, it's scarcely worth worrying about," she tells herself, and goes about freeing the canine with her sewing scissors (20). "Still, I don't think wolves will eat me. I must be far too dry and tough. That's one comfort," she thinks later in her trek (22). And finally, when she encounters Howl's moving castle on the moorland, one more comfort: "Wizard Howl is not likely to want my soul for his collection. He only takes young girls" (23). And thus old Sophie risks knocking on the castle door.

In contrast, film Sophie wanders rather helplessly on the moors, and relies on the help of a turnip-headed scarecrow, who gives her a cane, finds her a place to stay, and urges her to enter the moving castle in spite of her doubts and fears. Old Sophie initially has far more agency in the novel than in the film.

Once inside the castle, though, both book and film Sophie find themselves talking back to Wizard Howl. "What a nosy/outspoken/unruly old woman you are," Howl teases book Sophie, responding to her nosy, outspoken, unruly words and behavior. Far from the shy "mouse" he named her at their first meeting, old Sophie isn't afraid to speak her mind, or to act on her own behalf, in her own self-interest. Without having to worry about romance, about attraction and sex, book Sophie feels safe enacting an identity far different than the shy, mousy girl she's been playing for most of her life.

Film Sophie is initially a bit more cautious, a bit more tentative. But her anger at being suspected of being in league with the Witch of the Waste spurs her to throw off her caution: "I'm sick of being treated like some timid little old lady," she cries while attacking the dirty castle in a domestic cleaning spree. Both book and film Sophie invert the typical quest pattern of leaving the domestic to go and seek adventure. Instead, Sophie goes to seek adventure and finds herself hard at work in the domestic sphere.

Film Sophie crying over
 her lack of beauty
Film Sophie's personal quest turns out to be accepting her own beauty. In the novel, the uproariously comic scene in which Howl cries in despair after Sophie mixes up his potions while cleaning the bathroom, leading him to inadvertently dye his hair red, serves as another sign of his character: vain, self-centered, and entertainingly dramatic. But in the film, the scene serves to reveal Sophie's deep pain over her lack of looks. "I see no point in living if I can't be beautiful," Howl melodramatically despairs, to which Sophie responds, "Fine. So you think you've got it bad? I've never once been beautiful in my entire life!" Fleeing the castle, Sophie ends up outside, crying on the moor.

Interestingly, Sophie's curse seems to fade at this moment; the film pictures her as a young woman again. And throughout the rest of the film, at moments when Howl pays attention to her—remaking the castle to give her her own room, resetting the magical door to open upon a beautiful flower-covered plain, giving her presents—Sophie looks younger. The Witch of the Waste may have initially laid the curse of age on Sophie, but the film suggests that it is Sophie's lack of self-confidence that keeps it in place.

Significantly, film Sophie remains old even after the Witch of the Waste is stripped of her powers by the evil wizard Madame Suliman. Only after Sophie takes action to save Howl (by moving the castle) does she throw off her old-woman disguise for good.

At the climax of the film, after Sophie has figured out how to save Howl from the curse he has been under, Howl awakens and exclaims, "Wow. Sophie, your hair looks just like starlight. It's beautiful." Sophie's response—"You think so? So do I."—indicates that Sophie has finally accepted herself, finally believes in herself. Embracing feminine self-confidence is certainly a feminist message. But having beauty function as a proxy for self-confidence, rather than any sense of achievement, is troubling at best. And that Sophie regains her youth by acting to save another, rather than acting to save herself or to achieve her own goals, reinforces messages that women are meant to meet others' desires rather than their own.

In contrast, the climax of the book occurs when Miss Angorian, a woman whom the love-em-and-leave-em Howl has been courting, is captured by the Witch of the Waste. Sophie feels she's the one who put Miss Angorian in danger because she felt jealous of Howl's attentions to her, and immediately sets off to rescue the woman. Saving another woman, a woman endangered because of her jealousy, rather than saving a man with whom she is in love, sends quite a different message about Sophie's agency.

But Wynne Jones' message gets even more complicated. Because after she and Howl join forces to defeat the Witch of the Waste, it turns out that Miss Angorian is not as innocent as she initially appeared. And Sophie must act again, this time to rescue Howl. But also to rescue herself, from being too femininely nice, so nice that she's allowed others—her stepmother, Miss Angorian, even Howl—to take advantage of her.

New York Times film reviewer A. O. Scott may be right that Miyazaki's film "resonate[s] with... determined, somewhat romantic feminism," and that its Sophie "joins an impressive sisterhood of Miyazaki heroines, whose version of girl power presents a potent alternative to the mini-machismo that dominates American juvenile entertainment." But given a choice, I'd take Diana Wynne Jones' version of feminism every time.

Friday, December 12, 2014

What I Learned from Romance Novels: Fact or Fiction? Falling Asleep in your Lover's Arms

When he put his arm around her tummy, the softness of her skin felt perfect. When he spooned her so that he felt her body against his chest, his thighs, he sighed with contentment. This was exactly what he'd wanted. And from her sigh, he knew she wasn't unhappy about it, either. He closed his eyes and drifted off. — Jo Leigh, Ms. Match

I've been thinking a lot about a conversation I had recently with my significant other, about our expectations about romance. Our real-life relationship qualifies as a friends-to-lovers story, a slow, steady liking leading to affection, connection, living together, and, finally (at least for my mother-in-law), years later, marriage. I told him that I sometimes regret not having experienced the "grand passion" type of love—Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, Tristan and Isolde, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara—and asked if he ever felt the same. "No," he said, looking at me with some puzzlement. "That's not something I expected at all." It made me wonder where his expectations about love and romance had come from, and in what ways they differed from, and in what ways they overlapped with, my own.

In particular, I started to think about what expectations about love and relationships I had learned from reading romance novels. And I thought I'd write an occasional post here on RNFF about different things I've come to expect after my years of romance reading, whether they have in fact played out in my real life, and then ask you about whether these things have proven to be true or not in your real, day-to-day relationships.

An ad for the "Cuddle Mattress," which "let's you hug your
better half intimately without any arm or wrist problems"
This first one is something I've always been disappointed about not happening in my real life. Unlike Paul Bennet, hero of Jo Leigh's Harlequin Blaze novel Ms. Match quoted above, as well as thousands of other romance heroes and heroines, I've never been able to fall asleep in a lover's arms. Oh, I can take a quick catnap, especially after a lazy weekend daytime tryst, but fall truly, deeply asleep? No way. My legs start to twitch; my brain starts thinking about the chores of the day to come; my body gets uncomfortably warm, even sweaty, tucked up so close to another person's heat. My love may be snoring beside me, but though my eyes are shut, my body just will not allow itself to drop off into unconsciousness. I always find myself slowly pulling away, needing to turn onto my tummy and pull the covers up over my shoulders, safe in my own solitary bubble of space, before golden sleep can reign.

Am I just an oversensitive oddity? Or is the falling asleep in your lover's arms a comforting fiction of romance? Enquiring minds (at least this one) want to know: Can you fall asleep while spooned up close to another person?

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

You Don't Complete Me: Solace Ames' THE SUBMISSION GIFT

"You complete me." "You're my missing half." "You make me whole." Such phrases were once the stock in trade of romance, both of the filmic and the written variety. Find your soul mate, connect with your one true love, and you'd find the one person who could—and would—give you everything you'd ever wanted, ever needed. Fall in love, and you'd be happy and sated for the rest of your life.

In real life, people who expect their mates or spouses to fulfill their every need are doomed to disappointment. But even today, romances that reject the "you complete me" trope are far less common than those that embrace it. Perhaps that's why I found Solace Ames' The Submission Gift such a treat. For Ames' erotic romance (the second in her LA Doms series) insists that one can be happily married, even if one's partner can't meet all one's sexual desires.

Adriana and Jay, a Mexican-American couple, have had a difficult start to their married life. A car accident a little over a year ago seriously injured Jay, and Adriana has spent the subsequent months splitting her time between caring for her husband and working grueling hours as a sous chef. But now Jay's almost completely recovered, and ready to resume his life, including his sex life with his wife.

Jay loves Adriana so much, he'd do anything for her. Or, at least, almost everything. Adrianna's into being dominated in bed, but Jay's just not that into playing that role. Because he cares for her, Jay can sometimes get into such scenes:  "Even though he wasn't much into controlling—he played these games for her sake, not his own—sometimes he'd sink far enough into her feelings that he'd genuinely enjoy this easiest, most playful level of teasing, denying, restraining" (Kindle Loc 162). But he doesn't enjoy it enough to fully satisfy Adrianna: "If he gripped her wrists and held her down... She wanted that. Such a small thing, and he couldn't do it, couldn't take that step. Because she only wanted it if he wanted it. And he didn't, not really" (187).

Jay wants Adrianna to be happy, though, and comes up with the idea of using some of the insurance money they've just received to hire a "rent boy," a sex worker who can take on the dominant roles that Jay just doesn't enjoy. Jay finds Paul, a white thirty-year-old who specializes in BDSM work both with gay men and also with couples. As a threesome, and later, pairing off individually with Paul, Jay and Adrianna gradually find themselves growing not just more sexually fulfilled, but also developing a real emotional bond with Paul. A bond Paul, too, recognizes: "We've got a strong emotional connection.... I feel it as much as you. It's okay. It doesn't take away from what you have with Jay," Paul reassures Adrianna (1039).

All too soon, though, the extra settlement money is gone, and Jay and Adrianna can no longer afford Paul's services. But before they can tell Paul, Paul announces he's firing them as clients. Not because they've done anything wrong, but because he wants to "see you, both of you, on a non-paying relationship basis.... Dating. Or free sex. Whichever way you want to look at it. I'm easy. I'm very easy" (1915).

Ames gives us the point of view of all three members of this unusual threesome: Adrianna, tough and competent on the job and in everyday life, who gets off on sexual domination and pain, but not discipline or punishment; Jay, a "bi guy on the femme side," a social worker who counsels abused women (2867); and Paul, who enjoys his sex work but imagines leaving it behind someday, after he's earned his architecture degree. Each continually questions his or her own motives, his or her desires, wondering if they are wrong, if they are hurting one another, or themselves: for example, Jay thinks "Maybe there was something wrong with his mind, or his heart, for him to not feel particularly torn or jealous. But he just couldn't bring himself to care about whatever flaw it was. As long as she was happy, the whole issue was academic. Boring, even" (1159). They key is to find a proper balance, one that allows each member of this threesome the chance to have his or her needs met. Their sex together, as a threesome or in pairs, is hot, but it's not just there to titillate the reader; it's there to convey and develop a fascinating set of characters.

In typical romance novel fashion, secrets from Paul's past throw a huge monkey wrench of a black moment into the burgeoning relationship of this threesome. Add in some work angst, some overblown tempers, and, ultimately, some straight talk, and you have all the emotional lows and highs of a traditional monogamous romance story. It's a tribute to Ames' skills as a writer that she had this reader, with her own personal investment in monogamy, rooting for this unconventional threesome to overcome their differences and hurts and make their relationship work.

Photo credits:
Feet in bed: Advertolog

The Submission Gift
LA Doms Book 2
Carina, 2014

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Beauty Double Standard

"There's only one problem with going to an Ivy League school," a (male) friend of mine once said as we made our way, bleary-eyed, into our college dining hall one post-exam morning. "The women here don't make any effort to look good. See, they're all hanging out in ratty sweats and mangy t-shirts, no makeup, no dresses. Some of them haven't even washed their hair. Girls here care more about their grades than they care about their looks," he concluded, shaking his head in chagrin.

We're all familiar with the gendered double standard about sex. Men who like sex, who engage in it for its own sake rather than in the context of a relationship, who collect sexual partners as if they were baseball cards or comic books—those men are studs, worthy of admiration and awe. Women who like sex, who engage it in outside the context of a romantic relationship, who sleep around—those women are sluts, whores, worth only our most cutting epithets. But reading witty Brit Stella Newman's anti-romance novel, Pear Shaped, brought back memories of that less talked-about, but equally sexist, double standard: the double standard of beauty. No matter how unattractive they may be themselves, most men feel entitled to the admiration of the most beautiful women in the room. Entitled to get the girl they want. And girls should work their hardest to make themselves attractive, because, damn it all, that's why there here: to look good for men.

Snarky Sophie Klein, the first-person narrator of Pear Shaped, experiences this double standard first-hand. When she meets wealthy James in a bar, she's a little surprised when he calls her "skinny." She may be a size 10 (U.S. size 6), but she'd got "tits and an arse," unlike the other girl James was chatting up before talking with her ("one of those girls you can count the vertebrae of through her silk shirt") (Kindle Loc 87). Sophie and James hit it off right away, though, Sophie drawn to his carefree charm, boundless energy, and confident ways. He's far from drop-dead gorgeous, and he's forty-five to Sophie's thirty-three, but he's just Sophie's type: "a big man," "tall and broad, with a stomach he wears well" (301). Before long, Sophie's falling for him, big time.

But James? He's not so sure. Over dinner one night, after the two have been dating (and shagging) for three months, Sophie thinks James might on the verge of proposing. But instead, his declaration turns out to be embarrassingly insulting: "I'm worried.... you're not my normal type.... physically..... I know I'm no Adonis, but..."  "BUT WHAT?" Sophie thinks to herself. "You're rich and male so it doesn't matter?" (1137) But Sophie keeps her outrage inside, not challenging James about the sexism that has him feeling that he's somehow less than a man if he doesn't have a trophy woman on his arm.

Sophie realizes that James' worry doesn't actually have "anything to do with me not being his type. It's either his ego's need for a trophy, or his fear of commitment. Whatever the problem is, I reckon it's about his head, not my body" (Loc 1167). Later, she tells him straight out what she thinks of his worry:

Whatever your 'type' is, that 'type' clearly hasn't been working out for you so well. Some men have a turning point in their lives where they realise what long-term relationships are all about. Love isn't all about crazy hot sex in a glass lift. It's about finding someone you fancy and like and respect and who you can be yourself with. Find that and you're very, very luck. The reason I'm calling you back is because I don't think you're a total idiot; I think you might be smart enough to grow up and realise that.  (1126)

Yet even though she's both furious and crushed by James' unfeeling revelation, Sophie can't stop herself from longing for him, both emotionally and physically, and ends up taking James back, even though he never openly acknowledges the truth of her interpretation of his fears, or even apologizes for his obnoxious comments. He asks her to move in, and even proposes.

James certainly thinks of himself as a nice guy, and thus, of course,
deserving of a trophy girlfriend
But over time, it becomes more and more obvious that James has not grown out of his worry, or at least out of the assumptions of male entitlement that lie behind it:

His thoughts about Sophie's friend, who is suffering from postpartum depression: "He's supposed to be eternally grateful that she's a lard arse? A wife should make an effort for her husband. She should get down the gym, get on the high heels and suspenders, that'll sort out their marriage better than some stupid therapy" (2013)

Sophie's impression of his thoughts when he introduces her to his business associates: "When he says 'this is my girlfriend, Sophie,' the word 'girlfriend' sits heavily on his tongue like an ulcer" (2137)

" 'One of your eyes is bigger than the other,' he says. I have noticed this only recently myself.... It is truly a microscopic difference, but he has spotted it and seen fit to comment on it. Not in a 'your flaws make you unique/beautiful to me' way. Just in a 'you are not perfect' way" (2300).

Sophie watching James fixate on a model: "James is staring at her in a way that I have never, ever seen him look at me. It is the way he sometimes looks when he is driving his car too fast" (2162).

James' only half-way joking comment when Sophie rolls on top of him to admire his good looks: "Get off me, you big lump" (2284).

After a lot of determined avoidance on Sophie's part, and a lot of wiggly, passive-aggressive behavior on James', James finally admits that he just can't overcome his worries. The two part ways, and in the second half of the book, Sophie goes into, and climbs her way back out of, a major emotional trough, chronicled with equal parts humor and pain. Sophie's well aware of what went wrong:

The truth is I am furious: furious that I took him back, furious that I didn't pick him up on all the comments about my weight, furious that I didn't assert myself more, furiuos that I shagged him in the car when he was almost definitely seeing Noushka (the model), furious that I put his value above mine, furious that I believed his version of me.  (3818)

But its not so easy for her feelings to catch up with her brain. Especially because she, like many white middle class women, has been "conditioned to think of anger as ugly, ugly, ugly" (4681).

Sophie does end up with a different, far better man by book's end. But the climax of the story is less about her new romance, and more about her acceptance, not only of her own strengths, but also of James' limitations:

I know what my life would be like with James. If I stayed slim and well maintained and aloof and played a constant game and kept him on his toes all the time, he'd eat out of my hand, for a while. If I never had a bad day, never showed weakness, never put on weight, never needed reassurance, never gold old, I'd be just fine..... And while I want him to fight for me, and tell me he's realised he's making a mistake, and that he wants me, fat, think or in the middle, the truth is, he really isn't built that way. And for the first time I actually start to feel sorry for him.  (4255; 4274)

I wonder if someone could write a romance with a hero who starts off with the same entitled attitude as James, but who gives it up/moves beyond it? And not because he falls in love (changed by the love of a good woman trope), but because he comes to understand how limiting it is, both for women and for himself?

Illustration credits:
Beauty double standard: Good Men Project
Entitled to a girlfriend: The Lion's Roar

Pear Shaped
Avon, 2012;
ebook by Bookouture, 2014

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Rejecting the Horror of Sex: Charlotte Stein's INTRUSION

Do you like scary stories? I enjoy a creepy tale every now and then, but I have to admit that I avoid true horror, especially horror films, like the plague. I have enough trouble coping with anxieties and fears of my own; the idea that anyone might enjoy watching or reading about other people who are stalked, attacked, and violently murdered strikes me as close to incomprehensible. Especially because in American horror films, the "other people" being stalked, attacked, and killed tend to be women. In particular, women who desire, or actually engage in, sexual behavior. I can't imagine that watching women being punished for being sexual would in any way, shape, or form be a pleasure.

Perhaps that's why I so enjoyed Charlotte Stein's latest novella, Intrusion. Stein's romance fiction often dances on the edge of the creepy, but Intrusion engages more directly with horror and its tropes than any other of her works I've read. Not to endorse horror's misogynistic agenda, but instead to challenge it.

Clarice Starling: defeating horror, gun in hand
Stein's story opens with female fear, in particular, fear of a man: "I know he has my dog." The initially unnamed first-person narrator is in search of her missing pet, and neighborhood rumors about the strange recluse living down the block have her half-convinced that the man must know something about the pet's whereabouts: "Psychopaths and maniacs steal animals. And if I am honest, his house looks like the home of someone who does that sort of thing. I'm certain I saw it once on True Serial Killer Stories" (Kindle Loc 34).  She'd like to believe herself a Clarice Starling (heroine of that classic horror film Silence of the Lambs), but unlike Clarice, she has nothing close to a gun. Despite her lack of firearm, and despite a past trauma that has her convinced that "Nothing will ever make me strong again in the way I was before," (Loc 57), our narrator finds herself in her reclusive neighbor's yard, wavering between imagining the impending confrontation as "some empowering exercise, winning one over on a guy who decided to take something from me" and fearing "something very bad indeed" will confront her if she ever knocks on the door (Loc 57).

But our narrator doesn't have to knock; the strange man opens the door, just a sliver, at her approach. She makes her accusation, and he doesn't reply; he simply closes the door without saying a word. Only after she marches back across the street does she understand the significance of the chain the man kept across his door: "People put chains on their doors when they are afraid of you. Not when they want you to be afraid of them" (Loc 89). Rather than a terror like those that haunt her nightmares, might her reclusive neighbor be just as afraid as she is? Could what drove her across the street be less fear for her dog (who of course is waiting for her when she returns home), and more curiosity about a person who is in many ways acting the way she worries she might, if she ever gives in to her fears?

Sleepwalking, apologies, and thank-yous bring our narrator (whose name we find out is Beth) back in contact with her mysterious neighbor, who turns out to be just as strange, and just as wary, as Beth is herself. For Noah Gideon Grant, a former criminologist and forensic psychologist, has experienced trauma worthy of the most chilling horror flick. Unlike the audience of a horror film, though, Noah has no ability to distance himself from the terror, is able to gain no catharsis by telling himself "oh, this isn't real." Because Noah has in truth been traumatized by what horror films typically offer up as over-the-top, fake, performed entertainment: witnessing the sexual violation and murder of women.

Despite their growing friendship, and their obvious physical attraction, Noah and Beth's previous history with violent men makes any kind of romantic relationship difficult to navigate. Only when they begin to unlock each other's psychological truths, to understand what boundaries are important, what boundaries can be pushed, can they recoup the pleasure in being kind to another, in experiencing sexual desire.

Who would you rather be? Halloween's Laurie
Strode? Or Silence of the Lambs' Clarice?
I initially found myself annoyed when, at the end of Intrusion, Stein's story takes us right back to the horror film plot, with the inevitable confrontation scene with a villain from the past. But form mirrors ideology here; recovery from trauma is not a straightforward, linear process, Stein insists, but one that forces victims to confront and re-confront their trauma. Just like the villain in a horror film, the effects of trauma return, again and again. And Stein's invocation of what film scholar Donato Totaro calls "the final girl" scene, where the one (virginal) girl left standing vanquishes the serial killer, plays with gender in ways that do not simply echo, but re-imagine, the patriarchal assumptions of horror.

Avon Impulse, 2014

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Traumas and Temptations of a Military Life: Jessica Scott's ALL FOR YOU

Romance novels are rife with military heroes, particularly those belonging to elite special operations forces. As military romance writer Kaylea Cross notes about the appeal of the subgenre, "writing about men and women who stand up for what they believe in, serve their country with honor and who are willing to do whatever it takes to protect the lives of their teammates and loved ones—come on, what's not to love about that?" Fighting men are sexy, military romances assert; fighting men who rise to the top of the military are sexy super-sized.

Most military romances I've encountered are of two types. The first type typically features an elite military group protecting the country (or the world) from a major threat while one of their members simultaneously protects a threatened loved one. The second focuses less on the heroics, and more about their aftermath; in these books, military men (or, less often, women) who have been injured or traumatized in some way by their war experiences learn to adjust to civilian life while they also fall in love. It's far more rare, I think, to tell a story like the one career army officer and romance writer Jessica Scott creates in her latest romance: a story that depicts active-duty soldiers dealing with trauma while still a part of the military.

In her "Dear Reader" note at the end of All For You, Scott is careful to explain that "this book is not meant as an indictment of our men and women in uniform or the military that we serve or the thousands of leaders who do the right thing every day and try to take care of their soldiers" (Kindle Loc 3777). A necessary caveat, given the often dysfunctional organization in which Scott places her two troubled protagonists, Sergeant Reza Icaconelli and Captain Emily Lindberg. Bad enough that half Iranian, half Italian Reza "look[s] like every stereotype of jihadi"; bad enough that Reza's commander cares more about stats and paperwork than about his soldiers. What's worse are army shrinks who've never been in combat put in charge of making decisions about which soldiers qualify for psychological help, and which are simply drug addicts or malingerers. Especially when the docs cite privacy regulations as an excuse for not telling Reza what's really up with his men. It's enough to drive a man to drink—especially one who's spent most of his adult life half-toasted, except when he's actively deployed. Keeping his promise to himself not to drink anymore seems a hell of a lot harder than storming a house filled with Iraqi insurgents...

Reza's especially irked by one particular soldier, Wisniak, a new recruit who keeps running off to the Rest and Resiliency Center even though he's never seen a single day of combat. To Reza's way of thinking, the Center is supposed to be "a place that helped combat veterans heal from the mental wounds of war," not "the new generation's stress card, a place to go when their sergeant was making them work too hard" (113). A place for men like Neal Sloban, who lost his bright laughing eyes and steady trigger finger after his third deployment, all "buried from too many head injuries and no time off from the war,"  (404). That the psych docs shelter Wisniak but seem ready to kick Sloban out of the army infuriates Reza; without his usual pressure-release-value (alcohol), Reza's far too ready to let his temper fly.

And let it fly he does, straight at Captain Emily Lindberg. Emily's life has been as different from Reza's as is fine wine from cheap beer. Growing up as the daughter of privileged white doctors, Emily hardly imagined making a career for herself in the army. Until she toured a VA hospital, that is, and saw the sadness and red tape standing in the way of military men and women desperately in need of mental health care. And after an engagement gone bad, that's just where Emily finds herself, rebelling against her privileged background and the wishes of her parents to serve her country and its fighting women and men. Making a difference is what Emily wants to do, but dealing with the army bureaucracy, and, even worse, with the "rampant hostility and incessant chest beating" of many of the arrogant army commanders makes her faith in the system weaker by the day. Just how much of a difference can she make when all she seems to be doing is putting out one fire after another?

From their first meeting, Reza and Emily regard each other as the enemy. Captain Lindberg is keeping Reza from helping his men; Sergeant Iaconelli is just another example of the arrogant asshat military man, unconcerned about his men. But as they are forced into each other's company, each gradually begins to realize that there's more to the other than first appearances suggested. And when the trauma of war makes an unexpected visit stateside, Reza and Emily find themselves taking much-needed comfort in one another.

Active-duty suicide rates at Fort Hood are the highest in the army, Emily notes early in the novel. Though Scott never articulates this directly, her depiction of life at Texas's Fort Hood (where she herself twice served as a company commander) makes it clear that the military's construction of ideal masculinity—stoic, aggressive, and above all willing to repress all emotional hurt—lies at the heart of many a soldier's unwillingness to admit weakness, or to ask for help when emotional trauma threatens to overwhelm him. Soldiers will find a way to deal with their emotional distress, Scott's story asserts, but the majority of their coping mechanisms—alcohol, sex, drugs, self-injury—will only lead to greater harm.

At one point in the novel, Reza describes combat as "the most potent of drugs," "a heady marriage of fear and adrenaline and death" which "rewired the brain like nothing else. And his blood was now hardwired to need the fix" (616). Part of why romance readers enjoy military romance is to vicariously experience this heady drug without ever risking becoming addicted.  Scott's romance is a heartfelt call for romance readers who idealize the military's members to recognize that the fix exacts a high cost from many real-life military men and women. Allowing such warriors a time-out, a space in which they can admit their weaknesses and ask for help, doesn't seem too much to ask in return.

Forever, 2014

Friday, November 21, 2014

Did You Tell Your Parents When You First Became Sexually Active?

Having a teenage daughter in the house, one who is just beginning the journey of discovering and exploring her own sexuality, is flooding me with memories my own first forays into the overwhelming, exhilarating, and often embarrassing shoals of sex. The unrequited crushes of my junior high and high school years, both the ones I had on boys who didn't like me, and the ones boys whom I didn't care for had on me. The fiery blush that raced over my face when my male pediatrician asked "Are you sexually active?" when I'd barely even been kissed. The even more awkward talk around the kitchen table, my parents telling (and showing) me and my two younger sisters the box of condoms they had bought, the one they'd be placing upstairs in the linen closet, just in case we ever found ourselves in need—not that they were recommending we have sex, no, not at all! 

I never talked much with my friends about sex (Catholic high school). And I didn't talk with my sisters about it either. They are both younger than me, and both began dating at a much younger age than I did; asking them for advice about sex, or inquiring about their own sexual experiences, felt awkward, even prurient, and was more than this shy, introverted geek could ever bring herself to do.

And I certainly didn't talk with my parents about sex. I didn't tell them anything about my sexual experiences with my first boyfriend (during freshman year in college), or about the first boyfriend with whom I engaged in sexual acts that required the use of birth control, not at the time nor in the years since. I wonder, now, though, how much they knew, or picked up from my behavior at the time? Or were they not at all interested in knowing?

Not something parents are likely to hear from their teens...
Given my own teenage reticence on the topic, I've been thinking a lot (and reading a lot) about how best, and how much, to talk with my daughter about her own sexual explorations. Would I have appreciated it if my parents had tried to talk with me more about sex in the abstract/general? About my relationships and experiences in particular? Or would I have simply melted into the floor in a puddle of agonized adolescent embarrassment? (Both, most likely). 

Given that in our culture, sex is most often regarded as a private act, is it an invasion of teens' privacy to try and talk with them about it? How can a parent balance these rights to privacy with the need to ensure that their teens are taking proper care to protect themselves and their partners against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases? (Just came across this fascinating book—Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex—which compares the ways parents in the United States and in the Netherlands treat teen sexuality; am looking forward to reading it!)

Did you talk with/tell your parents when you became sexually active? If not, did they know (or inadvertently find out) anyways? Did they engage you in conversation about it?

And are there any good romance novels out there that feature heroes and/or heroines who not only have to negotiate a new romantic and sexual relationship of their own, but who are also faced with the transformation of their own children from asexual to sexual beings? (The only one that's coming to mind is Pamela Morsi's The Lovesick Cure, which I reviewed here back in November of 2012, although it spends more time talking about why the teens shouldn't have sex than talking about it after they already have...).

Photo credits:
First time sex: Kathleen Hassen

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Politics of Baby-Marriage: Molly O'Keefe's INDECENT PROPOSAL

Apologies for skipping last Friday's post. Child throwing up in the middle of the night with food poisoning ("well, that apple did taste a little fizzy, but the caramel and chocolate were fine") = no brain space left for blogging. Luckily, the bout was short-lived, and everyone's stomachs and brains are back to normal. So, on with the book musings...

Genre romance is rife with familiar and oft-beloved tropes. The marriage of convenience. The secret baby. Lovers torn apart to later reunite, or potential lovers stranded together all by themselves. One of my least-favorite, from a feminist standpoint, is the "one-night-stand leads to pregnancy leads to 'we must marry'." Given the latest statistics on unmarried mothers (in the United States in 2012, 40.7% of all births were to unwed mothers, according to the Centers for Disease Control), few Americans still believe marriage should and must follow any pregnancy, whether planned or not. But its not the lack of historical accuracy that gets in the way of my taking pleasure in this trope, but rather the patriarchal assumptions that often accompany it when it makes its appearance in a romance novel.

No baby mamas here: an example of
the "we will get married" trope
My memories of the trope come from the category romance reading I did as a teen, as well as some more recent stand-alone romances, stories in which the male half of the relationship insists that, despite barely knowing the woman with whom he had sex, she and he must marry. His reputation/his family's reputation/the future of the child/his budding business deal/his run for political office demand that they avoid scandal, he insists, not willing to listen to any objection she may raise. But what it really all boiled down to was they must marry because the child is his. His rights as the father take precedence over hers, and since she is now the receptacle for his unborn child, he has the right to assert control not only over the body of the child, but also over the body of its mother. Typically, he is the one who has more power—financial, social, sometimes even political—and thus even if the heroine opposes the idea of marrying a relative stranger, even actively resists it, because of this power imbalance, she usually ends up throwing up her hands fairly early and succumbing to the hero's often less-than-romantic wooing. By romance's end, of course, the two relative strangers have bonded over pregnancy and childbirth, have fallen in love, and thus persuade both themselves and readers that their unplanned marriage was, of course, all for the best.

It's a true delight, then, when an author can take a trope with such sexist underpinnings and recast it in feminist garb. That's just what Molly O'Keefe does in her latest contemporary, Indecent Proposal, the fourth title in her Boys of Bishop series. Our heroine, white working-class Ryan Kaminski, might be the evil villainess in a less thoughtful writer's book; a girl who for years allowed her striking good looks to be her identity, who, selfishly, believed her looks entitled her to more than other people, even her own sister. A girl who not only stole her sister's boyfriend, but married him. A girl who's been estranged from her family for years. But Ryan's done a lot of growing up in the years since her modeling career stalled, since her husband turned out to be far less a prize worth winning than she'd originally thought, since she realized how much her selfishness and entitlement had not only hurt others, but also made her a person she doesn't even like. At thirty-two, working as a part-time bartender and modeling when she gets a rare job, Ryan may not be on top of the world, but she finally knows who she is: someone secure enough to offer an ear and a kind word to the people who come to her bar.

And the man she and her fellow bartender christen "Sad Ken Doll," the man who has haunted her New York City bar for the past three nights, surely could use a kind word. His sister's in trouble (see book #2, Never Been Kissed), and he doesn't think he's going to be able to help her. Ryan knows that a bartender should never cross the invisible barrier down the middle of the bar, knows that the employee handbook says "no fraternizing with the drinkers." But still, Ken Doll, aka Harry, is so sad, so floundering, that Ryan consciously chooses to "shove her first right through that barrier and put her hand over his" (10). And she gifts him with of a night of human connection, of truth-telling and of sexual passion, taking him just as he is, and giving of herself the same. Though she finds herself, as she is all too wont to do, falling a little bit in love with Harry, and with the "rare illusion of care" their night together creates, she's not surprised to find him gone when she wakes up the next morning. She's not expecting to see him again; she doesn't even know his last name.

Even after Ryan discovers that the condom a friend gave her did not do its job, she has no plans to track down the mysterious Harry. But it turns out that it doesn't take much effort to find Sad Ken Doll/Harry; as the privileged son of a scandal-ridden white southern governor, the brother of a recently kidnapped sister, and a candidate himself for the U.S. House of Representatives, Harrison Montgomery is on the news almost as much as is Taylor Swift. Unluckily for Ryan, her volatile brother Wes happens to be in the room when Ryan catches the latest news report on Harry's run for Congress. And Wes takes it into his own hands to confront Harrison Montgomery, even though Ryan insists that she needs time to think about how to deal with the shocking revelation of the true identity of her baby's father.

Not surprisingly, given his own father's philandering past and the hard-ball politics he's grown up around, Harrison had real doubts about the truth of Wes's claims. And when he confronts Ryan, he's ruder than an arrogant Mr. Darcy proposing to Elizabeth Bennet. But "Ryan had been pushed into plenty of corners, so she knew when to come out swinging" (77). And swing she does, even after Harrison proposes to rescue his sure-to-be-floundering-in-the-wake-of-a-sex-scandal campaign by asking Ryan to marry him: "Listen, Harrison, you broke into my apartment. Called me stupid. All but accused me of being a gold-digging whore. I wouldn't marry you if you were the last man on earth" (84).

Harrison acts far differently than other "you're carrying my baby" heroes I've read. He takes little to no interest in the idea of the baby, or in the responsibility of impending fatherhood. All he wants is to not be like his scandal-ridden father, and to have the chance to do some political good in Washington. Thus his proposal is just that—a business proposal, not a claim on Ryan's body or on the baby. They'll marry, and, if he wins the election, they'll stay married, for at least two years. If she wants a divorce after those two years, he'll grant it, buy her a house, send alimony and child support, and step out of her life. In public, they'll pretend they're in love, but in private, they can be who they really are.

Harrison tells Wallace, his campaign manager, "she doesn't have a choice.... Neither of us do." And after her neighbors and her estranged family are besieged by the press, Ryan comes to the same conclusion: "There wasn't any other option but to agree to Harrison's proposal" (91, 98). This is the one point where the trope seems to fall back into its old patriarchal norms, taking away the woman's sense of being able to choose. To prevent the reader from thinking Ryan a gold-digger? Or simply to make the trope/plot possible?

Accepting may be presented as the the only option, but Ryan doesn't accept meekly; she hires her own lawyer and negotiates her "own terms for this indecent proposal," one which will benefit not only her child, but her family, as well (98). In a genre-referential moment, Ryan thinks to herself, "she was not going to show up at the Governor's Mansion like some impoverished historical romance heroine who'd been knocked up by the Duke" (110); instead, she does her homework, and is ready to hit back whenever anybody tries to demean or insult her. In particular, she refuses to accept the slut-shaming label of gold-digger. "Do you think your mother would have taken this deal?" she asks Wallace, Harrison's campaign manager, an African-American who grew up with a single mother in the housing projects of Chicago.  "When she found out she was pregnant with you. Do you think is some man had come out of the blue and promised to make sure your life was set up in a way she could never dream of making happen on her own, would she have done that?.... I think she would have. I think we both know your mother would have done anything for you. Including agreeing to this proposal" (114-15). After going a few more verbal rounds together, Wallace acknowledges her point.

Ryan may feel as small and alone as one of those historical romance heroines, but she refuses to act as if she is. And as long as she insists on her own value, insists that she's worthy of respect not because she's the mother of a future Montgomery child, but because she's intelligent, funny, a natural on the campaign trail, and a kind, caring human being, Ryan will be nobody's pawn. Not her mother-in-law's, not any reporter's, not any of the campaign's staffers'. And especially not Harrison's. For, as the balance of O'Keefe's novel delightfully and sexily demonstrates, Ryan has far more to offer Harrison than anything his contract could ever grant her.

Have you read other "one-night-stand leads to pregnancy leads to 'we must marry'" romances out there that move beyond the patriarchal trappings of the original trope?

Photo credits:
Condom failure:
Gold Digger: Anti-Jokes

Indecent Proposal
Bantam, 2014

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Feminist Lessons in an Unfeminist World?: Kit Rocha's BEYOND series

A few weeks ago, I became engrossed by the dystopian fantasy world created by erotica writer Kit Rocha (the pseudonym for co-writers Bree Bridges and Donna Herren) in the Beyond series. Well, perhaps not by the world itself, but for the sexual activities of the inhabitants of that world. For a fantasy, world-building is on the light side in Beyond Shame (2012) and its four and counting full-length sequels. Solar storms have decimated the country, leaving only one self-sustaining city, Eden in their wake. Eden is purportedly only for the "righteous"; those who live within "must abide by a strict moral code or risk exile to the brutal lawless sectors" (Author's note, "Welcome to Sector Four"). But hypocrisy lies just below the platitudes, and the sins of the powerful find their support in the eight lawless "sectors" which surround Eden. In each sector, gangs led by a kingpin (all men, with one exception) devote their energies to creating the means of sin—drugs in one sector, prostitutes in another, material goods in a third. Dallas O'Kane is the boss of Sector Four, where he and alcohol rein supreme.

Not everyone who lives in the sector is an O'Kane; to join the gang, you have to prove your usefulness and your loyalty. Once in, you're rewarded with brotherhood (and sisterhood; women as well as men are members), an ink tattoo with the gang's insignia, and lots and lots of sex, in both private and public. For the O'Kanes party not only by drinking their own hootch, but by getting it on with their own partners and with their fellow gang members, at the bar and back in their own rooms: "You can join in or you can watch, but that's pretty much all it is. Wall-to-wall fucking" (Loc 519). Eden puts something in the water to suppress fertility, so no one has to worry about pregnancy (and there's no mention of sexually-transmitted diseases; maybe the solar flare somehow eradicated them, too, along with much of the world's population?)

The only other possible place to live besides Eden or the sectors is on a "commune," described by the heroine of Beyond Shame as "horrifying places where farmers lived primitive lives of indentured servitude. No electricity or running water, only backbreaking labor from dawn to dusk and being bred until you died in childbirth" (Kindle Loc 140). The repression women experience in Eden (premarital sex is worthy of banishment), in sectors led by less enlightened leaders (where women are married without their consent, forced into prostitution, and/or physically and sexually abused), and on the communes makes Sector Four look like a woman's paradise by comparison.

And there is a lot of positive feminist energy in Sector Four. Lex, who will become the "Queen" of Sector Four in the second book of the series, Beyond Control, has gradually persuaded Dallas of the importance and value of including women in his gang. All the male members of the gang show women respect, unlike the men of the other sectors, or the men in Eden. And while sex is used against women in all other places in this post-apocalyptic world, in Sector Four, female sexuality is celebrated. Noelle, the heroine of Beyond Shame, is an exile from Eden, thrown out for being too curious about sex. Hearing about an O'Kane party she's been invited to attend, Noelle is both titillated and ashamed, a reaction hero Jasper, raised in the sectors, can't begin to fathom:

"Do you think I'm a harlot?"
"No. I think maybe you're a lady who likes to fuck."
"You say it so easily, like it's not the same thing at all."
"Because it's not. No one here is going to think you're a bad person." (Loc 526)

Noelle gradually comes to embrace her sexual self, moving "beyond shame" to acceptance and celebration.

Additionally, the romance arcs of the five full-length Beyond novels all revolve around men making stupid, patriarchal assumptions or choices, assumptions and choices that they have to take back by book's end in order to secure the affections of the woman (or in one case, the woman and the man) whom they love. Jasper chooses to break off his relationship with Noelle when she has the chance to return to Eden, but Noelle takes exception to his noble self-sacrifice, choosing to remain in Sector Four whether she's with Jasper or not. In book 3, Beyond Pain, Bren initially chooses to hold off on rescuing thirty-two people, most women, being sold into slavery, in the hopes of wreaking vengeance against the traffickers' leader, a man who betrayed him, but changes his mind once he realizes that his lover, Six, isn't about to sit quietly at home but is off to rescue the captives herself. In book four, Beyond Jealousy, former prostitute and current tattoo artist Ace bails on his ménage-a-trois partners Rachel and Cruz, leaving them before they, inevitably to his mind, leave his fucked-up ass in the dirt; only a male sacrificing for another male, rather than for a female, can pull these three lovers back together.

And yet... I can't help feeling a bit uncomfortable championing Rocha's series as unreservedly feminist. For one thing, the jobs women are allotted in Sector Four are pretty limited; as Dallas tells Lex when Noelle first arrives in Four, "If she's not willing to tend bar, clean house, or suck dick by the end of the week, she's gone" (Shame 193). Add to that short job list "exotic dancer" (several of the O'Kane women dance, from burlesque to complete stripping to being sexually whipped on stage), "bouncer" (one particularly tough woman), and "brewer," and you've just about covered all of the career possibilities for women in the sector. Men can go out with guns, protecting the business and enforcing the O'Kane rules, but women typically stay inside. When times are particularly violent, Dallas O'Kane dictates that no woman will go outside without a man accompanying her. Though Lex becomes "queen," no other women act as counselors or decision-makers when it comes to O'Kane business, a situation mirrored in the other sectors, all of which are ruled by men (with the significant exception of Sector Two, the sector devoted to prostitution). When it comes to leadership and decision-making, gender equality is only limitedly at play.

Another bothersome issue: while the series celebrates female sexuality, and the characters are each devoted to different specific kinks (receiving pain, exhibitionism, watching, inflicting pain, controlling others during sex), all the women ultimately "submit" to their male lovers. The series casts sexual submission as powerful in itself—"This was pleasure. This was power, bringing Ace to his knees while she was on hers" (Jealousy page 74)—and something of which a woman should not be ashamed, something that is ultimately freeing, not constraining: "Begging was her final grasp for control, and being denied was permission to let go and float on freedom" (Jealousy page 263). I wouldn't have a problem with this construction at all, if only each woman in the series did not follow the same trajectory. But to construct female sexual submission as the only way to achieve sexual freedom strikes me as almost as limiting as constructing any type of female sexuality as shameful.

Finally, female sexual submission plays out symbolically in the concept of the "collar," a gift from a male O'Kane lover to his female lover, one that promises "that things were serious, that there would be no friendly visits to hookers or casual fucking with other friends. Well, or at least that they'd visit the hookers and fuck the friends together" (Jealousy 1708). Everyone gets an O'Kane tattoo, but only a woman gets a physical collar, or, if in a committed, long-term relationship, a collar tattooed onto her skin (the one exception comes in book 2, when Dallas and Lex, king and queen, get matching tattoos, each sporting the name of the other on the back of his/her neck).

Compared to Eden, to the communes, and to the other sectors, Sector Four seems the epitome of sexual freedom for women. But is this only because the other options Rocha allows her characters are so utterly sexist/abusive?

Curious to see what other Rocha readers make of the intertwining of sexism and feminism in these books...

self-published, 2012-2014 and beyond

Friday, November 7, 2014

Critiquing from Pleasure: Julie M. Dugger's " 'I'm a Feminist, But... Popular Romance in the Women's Literature Classroom"

I've been dipping with pleasure into the latest issue of Journal of Popular Romance Studies (4.2), with its dual themes of popular romance in Australia and a 30th-anniversary consideration of Janice Radway's groundbreaking study of romance readers, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. But it was an article in the "Teaching and Learning" section of the issue that particular caught my eye, an article about the difficulties students may encounter when reading genre romance in a broader course on Women and Literature. Professor Julie M. Dugger teaches a unit on popular romance in such a class, and writes about both the difficulties and the opportunities presented by such teaching in her article "'I'm a Feminist, But...': Popular Romance in the Women's Literature Classroom" (1).

As I often found when teaching college classes in children's literature, when students who have been trained in literary methods of analyzing a text are asked to analyze something other than canonical literature, they often have one of two reactions, neither conducive to productive learning. Some, committed to the critical literary reading practices they've learned and internalized during their college studies, assert that popular literature, unlike the literature commonly studied in the college classroom, is lesser, and thus unworthy of rigorous critical analysis. Others, more comfortable with popular reading practices than with literary analysis, practices focused more on the pleasure one takes in reading than in analyzing how texts work, object to applying the techniques of literary analysis to their favorite books. "You're overanalyzing this!" and "Don't ruin it for me!" were two common refrains in my children's literature classrooms, as I'm sure they are in any literature course that includes popular romance on its syllabus.

The situation becomes even more complicated when you add feminist literary theory to the mix. Many students are aware of the negative views many feminists have about popular genre romance, yet at the same time, those same students often take real pleasure in reading romance. As Dugger asks, "What is the women's studies critic to do when a genre dominated by women writers and readers appears to conflict with feminist ideals?" (1) Rather than attempt to ignore the discomfort that a student who is a fan of romance may experience when asked to analyze individual romances, or the genre as a whole, Dugger suggests, teachers should take advantage of this discomfort, for it "provides key opportunities for reflecting not only on romance, but on the assumptions in literary and feminist studies that might otherwise go unexamined" (1).

It's important to lay the groundwork for such an examination, though, to help students move beyond both discomfort and their refusal to engage. First, Dugger suggests, it is vital to explain that feminism has both criticized and praised romance as a genre.

The feminist case against romance:

• Romance endorses women's relational roles at the expense of their individual development
• Romance plots and characters validate abusive relationship patterns
• Romance novels are commercial, formulaic productions of very little literary value that perpetuate harmful media stereotypes (in particular, gender stereotypes) (6-8)

The feminist case for romance:

• Romances offer women a way to acknowledge their oppression and imagine a better future
• Romances challenge a male-modeled individualism
• Romance provides women with an alternative to a sexist high-culture literary canon (9-11)

Additionally, Dugger argues that it is vital to approach romance texts not just with suspicion—they are all sexist, and it's our job to point out their sexism—but also with an eye toward the pleasures they offer readers:  "If we really want students to analyze the narratives of romance—utopian as well as dystopia—especially when we teach in a culture that is so caught up in these narratives, we must enable them to work critically from their pleasure as well as their discomfort" (14).

Dugger offers the following suggestions as ways to critique from pleasure, ways that I think general readers of romance might appreciate, even outside of a college classroom:

• First, acknowledge that "all interpretive practices have strengths and weaknesses, and academic reading is no exception. Literary critical reading has its own limits, its own professional turf to defend, and its own forms of sexism.... Correspondingly, just as scholarly reading has its strengths, so too does pleasurable reading. We can encourage multiple modes of approaching a text."
• Use and integrate multiple venues of discussion (full class, small groups, online posts, etc.)
• Juxtapose high- and low-culture romances (to unpack why some texts are valued while others are not, and how a text or entire genre's association with women affects readers' perception of literary quality)
• Analyze pleasure: Why does a text give you as a reader pleasure? How do other readers of the same text talk about the pleasure it gives them? How does the text work to create such pleasure?
• Give air-time to both sides of the debate
• Don't be shy about announcing that you (in Dugger's case, the teacher) like romances (or admire people who do). Knowing that other smart women like romance can help readers confront the stigma often associated with reading such a devalued genre (14-16)

These practices both resonated with me, as things I attempt to do via this blog, and gave me food for thought about potential future RNFF posts. I especially appreciated Dugger's generous conclusion: "It cannot hurt to remember how often love is a positive force in human endeavor, whether it be romantic love for other people, or readerly love for the stories they tell" (17).

As a romance reader, do you find yourself conflicted over your reading? Are you able to read for pleasure and read analytically? If so, can you do so both at the same time? Or can you read in only one mode at a time?

Illustration credits:
Keep calm: Keepcalm-o-matic
Love 2 read: Read 2012

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Wrestling with the B-word: Lucy March's THAT TOUCH OF MAGIC

Bitch: Feminist Responses to Popular Culture
Smart Bitches, Trashy Books
Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women

Smart women with feminist leanings have long been attempting to reclaim the derogatory term "bitch," suggesting that the qualities which it points to as worthy of insult are the very qualities that women should celebrate. As author Laura Wild argues,

To me, someone calling me a bitch means they think I'm aggressive, asserting my control, in charge, whatever, and they're probably threatened by that. I am those things, there's no reason why I shouldn't be, and the shock attached to the use of the phrase by whoever's saying it that suggests I shouldn't be those things is what annoys me most.

Such reclamation projects were on my mind as I read the second book in Lucy March's light comedic paranormal series about the small town of Nodaway Falls, That Touch of Magic. Its brash, foul-mouthed, rule-breaking protagonist, budding conjurer Stacy Easter, could well be termed a bitch in the positive, reclaimed sense. Her typical way of interacting with others is through snarky, barbed sarcasm: she greets the sight of her friend (and soon-to-be sister-in-law) Peach "It's Rosie the Riveter, the spank-me version." Peach simply replies, "Yay! She's being mean. She's okay" (26). Stacy wisecracks her way throughout the novel, not afraid to speak her mind, to take control of a bad situation, or to protest, loudly, when others treat her or her friends poorly.

The only thing (or person, rather) who leaves her tongue-tied is her ex-boyfriend, Leo North, who, ten years before, in a drunken, grief-stricken mistake, slept with another girl then left Stacy to study for the priesthood. Back in town for Peach's wedding to Stacy's brother, Leo, it turns out, did not end up taking on the collar. And it also turns out he's not just back in town for the wedding; his therapist recommended that he see Stacy once again, so he'd stop "thinking of you as ... well. Mine. He said you'd be different. He said those feelings would go away, and I'd be able to finally let it go and move on" (70). To Leo's chagrin, his therapist had it wrong: he's just as drawn to Stacy as he was ten years ago.

And Stacy knows her feelings for Leo are just as strong as they ever were. But tough Stacy isn't as ready to mend fences as Leo is: "I wanted to throw my arms around him, kiss him until neither of us could see straight. Bring him to my bed and keep him there forever. But that was weakness, and if loving Leo had made me anything, it wasn't weak" (72). Intriguingly, though, it turns out that Leo's transgression isn't the only thing standing in the way of a joyful Stacy-Leo reunion. Turns out that Stacy's embrace of reclaimed bitchiness is not as unambiguous as she makes it seem.

Stacy herself often deploys the b-word; it appears 16 times in the book, most often spoken by or thought by our protagonist. She uses it to describe her over-the-top narcissistic mother after Mrs. Easter insults Peach during the rehearsal dinner ("You have captured my son's heart, and he's a good man,, so there must be some great virtue in you.... It is my sincere hope that you will find your way back to Jesus, and repent of the poison you have injected into my good boy with your whorish ways"): "She's a hellbitch, Peach" (50-51; 56). When Mrs. Easter tries to return to the rehearsal dinner to spew more vitriol, Stacy uses the word again, threatening her mother with a pretend potion: "If I hear one word from anyone about you being a bitch to anyone, not just Peach... if I see one expression on your face that isn't kindness and delight, all I have to do is get a drop of this on your skin, a single drop, and your face will break out in wrinkles they can see from space" (62). In this sense, being a bitch is being selfish, being completely uncaring of the feelings of those around you.

Stacy also deploys the male form, "son of a bitch," when she wants to insult men who act in a similar, unfeeling way. Initially, when Leo first attempts to explain and apologize: "You slept with someone else, then left me to become a priest, you son of a bitch!" (68) and "You son of a bitch!... You left me" (69). And later in the story, when she discovers that Desmond Lamb, a fellow (male) conjurer has less than benign intentions towards her and the other women of Nodaway Falls, she uses it on four separate occasions to signal her contempt for his selfish, unfeeling attempts to use others for his own gain.

Yet despite her contempt for those who do not feel for others, tough, brash, rule-breaking Stacy is really worried that it is not her mother, or any of the unfeeling men in her life, but Stacy herself who is the true bitch. And that a bitch, even of the reclaimed variety, is not someone whom anyone can love. She attempts, mid-book, to apologize to Leo for their breakup:

     "It's... me.... I'm ugly.... Not physically, okay. I know I'm pretty physically. But inside, where it matters. I'm an ugly person."
     He huffed in the darkness. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
     "You should have left.... You saw me for what I really was.... Oh, come on. You saw me. When I was screaming at you, when I was throwing things at you... I saw the look on your face.... I scared you.... When I get angry, I get ugly. I know that. And once someone has seen that... I mean, how can I expect them to want to be around me?" (180-81)

Stacy has internalized the cultural message (and her mother's message, too) that her emotions—in particular, her anger—are bad, hateful, making her worthy only of being shunned. Over the course of the novel, then, Stacy will have to go beyond a surface reclamation of "bitch," digging deeper into both the sexual and emotional connotations of the earlier derogatory usage before she can rest easy in the reclaimed, celebratory sense of the word.

According to the OED, the word "bitch" stems from the Old English bicce, or female dog. But by the sixteenth century, the word was just as commonly used as an insult aimed primarily at women, in particular at "lewd or sensuous" women, women whose sexuality was seen as threatening because uncontrolled. Today, its connotations include both this earlier sense, as well as a more general sense of a "malicious or treacherous woman"; when applied to an object, it also indicates something "outstandingly difficult or unpleasant."

Significantly, it is during Stacy's sexual reunion with Leo that she is finally able to channel the magical power which Desmond inadvertently granted her. And only after Leo challenges her, mid-sex, to reject the assumptions that derogatory bitch-hood projects ("I'm not ugly. I'm not vicious.) and embrace instead the strength inherent in reclaimed bitch-hood ("I'm powerful") can she take control of that magic. Viewing both her emotions (especially her anger) and her power as equally worthy of celebrating, Stacy comes to reject the construction of bitch that argues that a powerful woman can only be powerful if she lacks sensitivity to others.

Only after fully embracing reclaimed bitchiness can Stacy counter the unfeeling Desmond when he lofts the b-insult (in its earlier sense) in her direction during their final showdown. And only by forcing Desmond to reconnect with his own detached emotions, rather than shunning the power of her own feelings, can Stacy ultimately prevent Desmond from harming the people she loves.

Do you think "bitch" as a word is worth reclaiming? Are there other romance novels which use the word in a feminist, rather than a derogatory, way?

Photo credits:
I'm Not a Bitch: Life Inspiration Quotes
Leymah Gbowee: Working Women in Aid and Development blog

That Touch of Magic
St. Martin's, 2014