Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Fat as a Feminist Issue for Teens: Julie Murphy's DUMPLIN'

Kelly Jensen's BookRiot post this past summer on Fat Phobia in YA points out how rare it is to see a fat person in books for teens portrayed as anything but a villain, or at the very least, a person who needs to lose weight in order to be deemed worthy of happiness and love. Despite the rise in activism around issues of body size and fat acceptance since the turn of the 21st century, YA books have been slow to embrace fat politics. Kind of makes you want to bundle up the 20+ books listed as references in Wikipedia's "Fat Feminism" page and drop them in the hands of the nearly one third of American adolescents who are, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overweight or obese.

Or you might want to give them a copy of Julie Murphy's new YA, Dumplin'.

As Dumplin's narrator, sixteen-year-old Texan Willowdean Dickson, explains,

     The word fat makes people uncomfortable. But when you see me, the first thing you notice is my body. And my body is fat. It's like how I notice some girls have big boobs or shiny hair or knobby knees. Those things are okay to say. But the word fat, the one that best describes me, makes lips frown and cheeks lose their color.
     But that's me. I'm fat. It's not a cuss word. It's not an insult. At least it's not when I say it. So I always figure why not get it out of the way? (9)

Willowdean has always been pretty comfortable in her body, at least by her own account. Her mom may be a former beauty queen who can't quite bring herself to accept her daughter's far-different figure, but Willow could always turn to her live-in aunt Lucy to give her unconditional love and support.

Miss Texas Teen 2014 & court
But six months ago, Aunt Lucy, only thirty six, died from a massive heart attack. Lucy's obesity—she weighed four hundred and ninety eight pounds at her death—was undoubtedly a contributing factor. And Will's mom, wrapped up in her volunteer work for the annual Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant, can't seem to help Will mourn her lost surrogate mother.

And now, this summer, so many other things in Will's life are changing, things that feel completely out of her control. Her best friend, Ellen, becomes sexually active with her boyfriend. And El's been hanging out with her summer job friends, the skinny girls obsessed with the fashions they sell at Forever 16. Both things make Will feel that she and El, best friends since before first grade, are slowly but inevitably drifting apart.

And even more unbelievably, Will's coworker at Harpy's Burgers & Dogs, Private School Bo, former super jock and still super hot guy, seems to be interested in her. Like, really interested. And not just in her ability to keep a conversation going when he can barely string a few sentences together at a time. So interested, in fact, that he kisses her, out by the dumpsters at work. So interested that he and Will end up driving to the old elementary school for epic make-out sessions almost every night after work.

Will believes she's never been really embarrassed by her size before. So when Bo starts to take things beyond kissing, Will (and the reader) are both pretty shocked by her reaction:

His hands travel down to my neck and along my shoulders. His touch sends waves of emotion through me. excitement. Terror. Glee. Everything all at once. But then his fingers trace down my back and to my waist. I gasp. I feel it like a knife in the back. My mind betrays my body. The reality of him touching me. Of him touching my back fat and my overflowing waistline, it makes me want to gag. I see myself in comparison to every other girl he's likely touched. With their smooth backs and trim waists. (58)

And Will's negative reaction to Bo never seems to abate. Especially after summer ends and schools starts, and Will finds out that her secret lover is no longer attending private school, but is going to be in her very public school. So Will breaks things off with Bo, without really telling him why. Because Bo lied/didn't tell her the truth? Because he kept her a secret? Or because she kept him one, and is afraid of trying to merge her secret and her everyday life? Because who wants to constantly hear "how did she end up with him?"

After being teased one too many times by the school jerk boy about her weight (and kicking said jerk boy in the nuts), Will spends her week on suspension brooding and longing for her dead aunt. But when Will uncovers a blank entry form for the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant amongst Aunt Lucy's old papers, an "obscene thought" crosses Will's mind. And before she knows it, she's signing up to participate in her mom's obsession: The Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant. And providing inspiration for a small group of other teens whose bodies do not meet the conventional norms of beauty to join her.

But this isn't a Disney Channel story, one in which the underdogs triumph, or are at least offered acceptance by the normative folks. Instead, it's a story about fighting against one's own internalized prejudices. And taking a stand for what everyone, not just the beautiful people, deserve.

As Will's new friend tells her when Will's on the verge of dropping out of the competition:

"Maybe fat girls or girls with limps or girls with big teeth don't usually win beauty pageants. Maybe that's not the norm. But the only way to change that is to be present. We can't expect the same things these other girls do until we demand it. Because no one's lining up to give us shit, Will." (325)

If this were a Disney Channel film, a potential new boyfriend, a passel of new friends, and a chance to compete for a cubic zirconia crown would of course lead Willow to recapture her old self-confidence. But instead, Murphy sets a harder path for Willowdean:  to create a new sense of herself, one that recognizes the hidden loathing she harbors within herself, for herself and for others, and to move past it. Only then can she find the courage to "step into her own light" (371).

Photo credits:
Miss Texas Teen 2014: voy.com
Thin Privilege: Everyday Feminism
Crown: Miss Universe Bahamas Application

Friday, November 20, 2015

What Makes for a Good Battle of the Sexes Romance?

What makes for a good battle of the sexes romance? This question was much on my mind while I read reading Kate Meader's contemporary, Playing with Fire, which made both Publishers Weekly's and The Washington Post's lists of best romances of 2015. Though neither list's summary of the book includes the phrase, I think I can be forgiven for hoping that I'd found my catnip, a romance novel focused on two protagonists of the opposite sex who duke it out not only on their own behalves, but also on behalf of their sex, after reading the following:

...a smart, sexy book that stars Alexandra, a smart-mouthed, rough-and-tumble firefighter who has worked hard to succeed in a world where femininity is considered a weakness. Her hero? The handsome, eligible mayor of Chicago, how is about as masculine as it gets and has clear aspirations for higher office. These two are all wrong for each other, which, of course, makes their eventual match that much more rewarding. Their verbal sparring is tremendously fun, and when they finally succumb to their attraction, sparks fly (literally and figuratively). (Sarah MacLean, Washington Post)

Meader's flawless contemporary is a lust-hate match between a conservative mayor and a female firefighter. She thinks he's anti woman and anti-union; he thinks she's a dangerous hothead. Deft characterization, high stakes, and unabashed sexual hunger drive the gripping fast-paced story. (Publishers Weekly)

In many respects, Meader's book is an ideal romance novel. The writing is crisp, the dialogue is both funny and smart, and the characters each undergo clear development arcs before they can make their unlikely relationship a success. And the sexual tension between its protagonists, Alexandra and Eli, is smoking hot.

But somehow, despite its many positive qualities, I found myself getting really annoyed with Meader's book. And led me to the question, just what, and what doesn't, at least for me, makes for a true battle of the sexes book. Here are a few thoughts.

1. The female combatant has to appreciate other women, and women's concerns

Alexandra is a firefighter, the only woman in Chicago's Engine Company 6. Professionally, then, she is a feminist; she is carving out a job for herself in a traditionally male-only space. Yet Alex grew up surrounded by boys (4 foster brothers), and idolizes her now-dead firefighter adopted father. Because of this, and because of her physical size (larger than the average woman), I got the feeling that she had internalized many of the gender assumptions that typically go along with male, rather than female, socialization.

For example, Alex doesn't tend to have much respect for other women, as she reveals during this interchange with her potential love interest, Eli Cooper, the mayor of Chicago:

"You trade on your looks with the female voters, Mr. Mayor. All style, no substance."
     "So women vote for me because of how I look, and not because of the issues? You're very dismissive of your gender, Alexandra."
     Too right, she always had been. She was tougher and stronger than practically every woman she knew. It bothered her that the female sheep bought shares in the crap Eli Cooper shoveled by the bucketful. (73)

And wth the notable exception of two of her brothers' recently acquired girlfriends (a contrivance which allows characters from previous stories to pop up for guest appearances), Alex does not have, and has never had, she reports, any real female friends. Alex is not a girly girl; are we supposed to assume she ostracized by more typically feminine mean girls as a kid? Alex finds herself far more comfortable in the male world of the firehouse, even despite the male hazing she purportedly must endure (but which, significantly, we are rarely shown), than with other women who are not relatives.

Alex is deemed outspoken, a characteristic that many would find positive (in opposition to Eli, who can't stand Alex's "total lack of a filter"). But the expressions Alex used to express that outspokenness often set me on edge. Not because she swears, but because her language is often unthinkingly misogynistic:

     Across the table in the farmer-chic restaurant Smith & Jones, Alex Dempsey blinked at heir thirty-fourth date in ten months and pondered a suitable response. Perhaps the smartass retort, which she could manage in her sleep. Or the bitch-slap, which would be eminently more satisfying. (1, emphasis added)

"Less than two months to the election and you're hovering under forty percent."
     "All that matters are the numbers on the night."
     "Still, I'm sure you have babies to kiss, MILFs to ogle." Donor dicks to suck. "Don't let me stop you." (8, emphasis added)

"I"m not sure I was prepared for the womankind backlash I'd case if I didn't [rescue Eli from a fire]. Gnashing of teeth, gouging of hair, deflation of breasts. Just doing my part for the sisterhood." (66)

She should pull away, even though she had begged for it [his "brutal" kiss] with her smart mouth" (77)

She hadn't gone to her high school prom because no one had been interested (or brave) enough to ask her, and now she felt like she was getting another chance with the star quarterback. She'd be the envy of all the other bitches. Go Wildcats! (166, emphasis added)

Alex's language and sense of humor make sense from a character standpoint, given the predominantly male environment in which she was raised. Yet her unquestioning adoption of language that relies for much of its charge on denigration of other women makes me more than a little uncomfortable investing in her as a feminist icon.

Occasionally, Alex will say or think something that suggests she's aware of sexism ("Derek Phelan, who was lower than her on the rookie pole but didn't seem to feel the effects. The penis benefit" [86]). But such instances occur far less frequently than thoughts and comments that, intentionally or not, denigrate women. Which really bothered me.

2. No battle in which the sexism is primarily for show

Weirdly, despite Eli's sexist insistence that women shouldn't be firefighters, it is Eli, not Alex, who puts a feminist name to what Alex must be experiencing, both on the job and in her male-dominated family:

For the first time, Eli saw how hard she had it. He'd thought it was limited to institutional misogyny, but she was getting it from every angle. The press, her coworkers, and even the brother who was like a father figure to her. (283)

A man who knows the phrase "institutional misogyny," can use it correctly in a sentence, and actually believes it's real—and he believes men are superior to women? No, not so much, as it turns out. Alex pegged Eli as a "patriarchal woman hating asshole" after Eli "made it clear that firefighting and breasts were incompatible" in the previous book in Meader's series (9). I haven't read Flirting with Fire, but from what occurs in this book, it seems as if Eli's taunting is more a way to deflect attention away from his own attraction to Alex than a reflection of his deeply-held belief in the inferiority of the opposite sex. His campaign manager is a woman, and he appears to have no trouble working with other females. Is it really a battle of the sexes book if one of the battling parties is only expressing sexist beliefs in order to yank the other's chain?

3. No sexist behavior recast as attractive masculinity

While Eli's beliefs aren't really sexist, many of his actions felt misogynistic, at least to this reader. But the novel doesn't endorse such an interpretation of them. Instead, Eli's drive to protect, to control, and to dominate Alex are presented either as sexual turn-ons, or as positive qualities that reflect Eli's appropriately masculine love for Alex. For example

Guy making a decision on behalf of the girl, for her own benefit:

In the novel's opening scene, Eli threatens the police officer with whom Alex is dining with demotion if he doesn't leave Alex mid-date. Said police officer is a jerk, no doubt, talking about Alex behind her back ("Dyke or not, she's up for it tonight. Keeps leaning in to give me a good view, y'know. She's a bit chunky, but they're usually the most grateful ones" [17]), but is Eli any better for taking matters into his own hands, rather than allowing Alex to figure it out for herself? "She was a woman of incredibly poor judgment. And she needed saving from herself," Eli thinks to herself (19). By the end of the book, Eli is apologizing for this behavior, but Alex doesn't say "yeah, jerky behavior!" but smiles, and lets him off the hook.

Traditional romance novel male protectiveness:

Alex saves Eli from a fire (but of course he got caught in said fire because he ran back to save another woman first). And then Eli gets to save Alex in turn, when she passes out from smoke inhalation. In the hospital, after the rescue, the two verbally spar:

"It's a man's job to take care of—"
"Be careful, Mr. Mayor."
"A woman. So it's a good thing I made up for it by saving your ass" (47)

And again, after they first begin fake-dating: 

"After tomorrow with a few pictures online, it won't be necessary. It'll be clear that you're under my protection."
     My protection. Falling under a man's shield was the one thing she had been fighting her whole life, but when Eli said it, she enjoyed an erotically forbidden thrill at the prospect. (109)

And, of course, dominant-guy sexual hotness:

"You need to be taken in hand," he rasped, every word a provocative puff of air against her lips. "You are wayward and out of control, and a danger to yourself, and if I wasn't your boss, if I wasn't worried about all the lines I've no doubt crossed every additional sec on I spend with you, I would be the one to tame you."
     Do it, her lust-scrambled brain urged. Take me in hand. Use those big, forceful hands to take me and tame me. (76)

     "I just don't want to be with someone who doesn't respect me and what I do. Or who's using me to get ahead."
     Kinsey hummed. "Not even for the amazing orgasms, orgasm hog?"
     Alex opened her mouth. Closed it. Maybe she'd been looking at this all wrong. What did it matter what she thought of his worldview, his total lack of political correctness, or even his sketchy motives as long as he was delivering the goods in the bedroom, the hallway, or maybe a fire truck? Since when had she become so fussy? (168-69)

During the novel's climactic scene, in which Eli does some major groveling to atone for his characteristic manipulative ways, he tells Alex, "You said I never saw you as an equal and you were right, but not the way you think. You're a goddess and I'm not worthy to worship at your feet, but I'm happy to spend the rest of my life trying to be good enough for you" (350). Quite a major turnaround from the previous dynamics of their relationship.

But it's not a shift that appears to be permanent, or which excludes Eli acting in the dominating manner to which he has become accustomed. Weirdly, we never hear Eli recanting his belief that women firefighters are less able than male ones, only that "He might never fully come to terms with the dangers she faced in the job she loved, but he didn't nag. Just gave her the support and respect she needed" (359).

And perhaps this is what really makes Playing with Fire not feel like a true battle of the sexes book. As a reader, I'm not sure if Alex wants a romantic relationship in which the partners consider each other equals, or a relationship in which she is dominated by a strong male, or one in which she is worshipped as an all-powerful goddess. I'm guessing that she (and we, by proxy) are supposed to want all three. Simultaneously.

And all without admitting that that is nigh near impossible.

Photo credits:
Challenge Girl Hate: We Heart It
End Institutional Misogyny: crunchings and munchings

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Best Romance Book Lists?

It's November, which means 'tis the season for best books of the year lists. In the past few weeks, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Amazon, and Goodreads (via their Goodreads Choice Award nominations) have culled from hundreds, nay thousands of romance books published in 2015 to come up with 6, 10, 13, or more select few that they deem stand out from all the others issues in the past year. The reasons behind their choices are rarely transparent, if articulated at all; some lists include a byline, so we know who is doing the choosing, while others do not.  What do you make of such lists?

I'm struck by several things. Something to celebrate: the appearance of two romances with gay male couples not just in supporting roles, but in the leads: Elle Kennedy and Sarina Bowen's Him (a Goodreads Reader's Choice nominee) and Alexis Hall's For Real (on the PW list). Some things to decry: no lesbian romances. And, unless I'm missing something because I haven't read all of the books that made the lists, no romances with or by people of color. Lordy, here's hoping that when RWA announces the RITA and Golden Heart nominations, the landscape won't be so blindingly white.

And, since I review romances with feminist sympathies, I was struck by the fact that there is very little overlap between the books on these lists and the books I've written about on RNFF this year. I reviewed Hall's For Real in this post, and Lilah Pace's Asking For It here (both from the PW list). And I just read and enjoyed Him, although when I went to write about it, I found myself leaning more towards writing a post about whether female heterosexual readers are more comfortable with m/m romances in which the protagonists, with the exception of their sexual orientations, embody traditional masculinity (as do the two hockey playing friends who become lovers in Him) rather than a review of the book itself. But I haven't reviewed, or even read, the majority of the other list-making titles.

Because there is little overlap between generally praiseworthy (or generally popular?) romance novels and romance novels with feminist appeal? Because no one reviewer has the time to ferret out, read, and review all potential great romance novels, even when the scope of what constitutes "great" in said reviewer's mind is restricted to feminist-friendly books? Some combination of the two, or some other reason altogether? I was curious enough to go out and get a hold of many of the books on these lists, reading them to see if I could figure out the answer to these questions. Sadly, it's looking like the answer is closer to the former than to the latter, so far.

Hence, then, no feminist-positive review today—I've spent too much time being disappointed by the list books, and not enough time tracking down and reading feminist-friendly titles. I like to keep the review section of the blog to books I feel comfortable endorsing, but I do write up my thoughts on other books I've read on my Goodreads account. I've added a feed showing my current Goodreads reviews to the right-hand sidebar, if any RNFF readers are interested in my take on other romance novels. And I've love to connect with other feminist-minded readers on Goodreads, if you, too, write up your thoughts about your reading there.

In the meantime, anyone have any feminist-friendly romance novels published in 2015 that you haven't yet seen featured on this blog? Would love to hear your thoughts...

Friday, November 13, 2015

Are Beefcake Covers Sexist?

Over on the IndieRomanceInk Listserv this past week, one poster wrote of a male friend who accused the romance genre of sexism for objectifying men. In particular, this friend had a problem with the recent trend in romance novel covers, covers that feature headless male torsos, typically wearing little to no clothing. Such images, this friend felt, reduce the male body to a sexual object, and thus are sexist.

The original poster felt ambivalent over her friend's claim, and asked her fellow writers for their thoughts in response. A fascinating discussion has resulted, with some authors arguing in support of the male friend's position, others taking issue with it. And still others complicating the question in various intriguing, often feminist, ways.

So I thought I'd ask you, readers, what you think of the beefcake cover? Is is a celebration of the male body? Or an objectification of it? And if it is an objectification, is that a problem? Why or why not?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Fantasy Heroine with no Superpowers? Meljean Brook's THE KRAKEN KING

I've been a big fan of Meljean Brook's Iron Seas series, especially of Heart of Steel (#2) and Riveted (#3). But when I heard that the fourth book in the series, The Kraken King, was to be published in serial form, I decided to hold off until the entire book was available. A fan of Victorian literature yes; a fan of Victorian-style publication, sometimes; a fan of paying $1.99 per part for an 8-part serial, thank you, no.

The publication date for serial-as-book came and went, though, and somehow I never pulled The Kraken King to the top of my TBR ebook pile. Only after my teen daughter began plowing through every fantasy romance book could recommend to her this past summer, including Meljean Brook's Iron Seas titles, did I remember that I myself hadn't yet read the latest addition to the series.

I'm sorry now that I waited so long to dive in. For while this steampunk fantasy is named after its hero, the real star of the show is its writer-heroine, Geraldine Gunther-Baptiste, otherwise known as Zenobia Fox. Despite penning popular serials about the adventures of treasure-hunter Archimedes Fox, Zenobia has long been a stay-at-home, content to remain in the shadows. First, to keep out of the way of an abusive father; then, to put off would-be suitors after they discover her relation to the actual Archimedes, a wealthy treasure-seeker; and, then, as depicted in Heart of Steel, to seem as innocuous as possible while enduring several kidnapping plots designed to bring her brother down. While her brother "flung himself at every peril," Zenobia is content "to observe it from a safe distance" (9).

Unlike Zenobia, the heroines of Brook's previous Iron Seas books had all been empowered, kick-ass warriors, fighting side by side with their equally kick-ass future mates. How would Zenobia, whose greatest superpower is her ability to wield a pen, survive, never mind prove herself heroine material, I wondered?

The opening of The Kraken King has Zenobia taking a small step out of the shadows, leaving home and hearth to set off halfway across the world with a childhood friend who is traveling to the Red City in Australia (in the alternate history Iron Seas world, Europe has been overrun by zombies; the "Golden Horde" [i.e. the Mongols] control much of the world through despotism and nanotechnology; and Australia has been partially colonized by Nippon [aka Japan]). Though in the wake of multiple kidnappings, Zenobia has hired two bodyguards (just in case), nothing of much event has occurred during the journey—just as she expected.

Until, that is, they reach the western coast of Australia, and their airship is attacked by unidentified marauders. Current manuscript and store of gold in hand, Zenobia jumps from the doomed airship—and is pulled from the ocean by a man straight out of the most fantastic adventure story. Ariq, the Noyan or leader of Krakentown, a Mongol settlement on the Australian coast, is larger, stronger, and physically more powerful than anyone that Zenobia has ever met. Known as the Kraken King (because once he gets something or someone in his grip, he never lets go), Ariq had once been a major player in the rebellion against the Mongol ruler. But when the rebel leaders began fighting with themselves over who would take power once the Khagan fell, Ariq felt the need to distance himself not just from their infighting, but from the rebellion as well.

Sounds like the perfect set-up for a he-man rescues imperiled woman storyline, no? But in Brook's capable hands, Zenobia isn't forced to magically transform into a warrior-woman fighter or to reconcile herself to playing the damsel in the typical damsel-in-distress storyline. How?

In part, because Brooks uses an alternating point of view narrative, a narrative that shows us Zenobia through Ariq's perceptive eyes. Ariq falls for Zenobia almost the moment he first sees her—but not from unmotivated "insta-lust." As Brook's describes it, "he remembered her expression when she'd jumped from the falling balloon. Serenity. Acceptance. As if her entire life had been leading to that moment and she faced it without fear" (30). Fighters, Ariq knows, are not the only ones who are brave. And when he begins talking with the woman he's pulled from the sea, and discovers that she also has a sense of humor as well as a quick, agile mind, he's even more drawn to Zenobia. Her unremarkable face, her unremarkable hair—none of it matters, not after he first looks into "her eyes like jade stones lit by an inner flame.... There was nothing unremarkable behind those green eyes—and this woman might have the power to lay waste to him. But if she did, he didn't want to fight it" (37). Throughout the story, Ariq interprets Zenobia for us, showing us how our expectations of heroine-ism might be blinding us to the kind of heroine that Zenobia is.

Also in part because Zenobia does undergo a transformation over the course of the novel, though it takes place internally, rather than externally. All her life, Zenobia has waited—waited for her abusive father to leave on another trip; waited for her suitors to tire of her; waited for Archimedes to bring the ransom and rescue her from her kidnappers. But when Zenobia is captured by a former ally of the Kraken King's, an ally who now wants to use her to manipulate Ariq, Zenobia is no longer content to be a pawn in others' machinations. She knows that Ariq, or her bodyguards, or her brother will eventually come to save her, and that it might make more sense to wait, now, too.

But she couldn't bear to wait. She couldn't bear to let Ghazan Bator determine the course of her life. She couldn't bear to let anyone decide who she would be or what she would do. Not anymore. And the thought of staying here on this ironship with a man who would use her to frighten her friends and threaten thousands of others? Who would wield her like a whip on Ariq's back? She'd rather burn the ship down and sink with it.
     Yet far better to escape—even if she died trying. And if this meant her death, maybe the effort would be all for nothing.
     But if she lived, that effort would mean everything. (303)

Zenobia does not train to be a fighter, nor does she magically gain new skills that enable her to overcome stronger foes. But she does discover the power of refusing to be driven against her will, a power that she will have to draw on throughout the second half of the novel in order to survive.

And finally, because Brook brings Zenobia to the realization that courage does not mean a lack of fear. In fact, fear is at the very heart of courage—the courage to fight against tyranny, yes, but also the courage to accept love.

The Kraken King
Berkley, 2014

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Sheik and I: Academics and Authors On the Sheikh Romance

I've been reading my way through the latest issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, and my eye was caught by a pair of articles that focus on contemporary Sheikh romances. Reading the two side by side helped me understand why romance writers and scholars of the genre often find themselves at odds.

The first article, "Love in the Desert: Images of Arab-American Reconciliation in Contemporary Sheikh Romance Novels" by historian Stacy E. Holden, is far longer than the second, "Stacy Holden's 'Love in the Desert': A Response," by romance author Megan Crane—17 pages, plus 2 pages of "Works Cited" references, in contrast to Crane's less than 3 pages, with no sources cited. Academics are trained to point to past work that has been done in their field, and then build their own arguments in response. As one of the professors in my graduate English program once said, "You have to show how your work is intervening in the current critical conversation." Whenever a scholar writes an essay, s/he must show awareness of what previous critics have said about the topic, as well as explain how the argument made here differs from that previous criticism.

A book by Megan Crane (under her pen
name, Caitlin Crews)
Crane opens her response essay by making it clear that she, like Holden, has an academic background: "I was an avid and enthusiastic reader of romance novels long before I found myself pursuing my doctorate in English Literature" (1). Crane's essay, though, does not follow the scholarly model of drawing upon previous sources to build one's argument. Instead, Crane uses her own experience ("I feel"; "I'd argue"; "I'd argue further") to frame the arguments she makes. Academics are sometimes told directly, and are certainly trained indirectly by examples, to avoid using "I" statements, a practice which results in prose that often makes the person doing the arguing disappear, replaced by a faceless voice of authority. I'm guessing that many romance authors find that faceless voice annoying, frustrating, or even oppressive, and struggle against its claims to authority by highlighting their own experiences, their own "I"s. But academics, trained to cite their sources, are likely in turn to find Crane's "I" arguments, unsubstantiated by citations from scholarly sources, less than convincing.

Holden's article argues the increase in the number of sheikh romances published in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, as well as the narrative patterns within them, "highlight the vast cultural differences between the Arab hero and the American heroine that will be overcome during the course of the book. In this way, they emphasize an implicit political fantasy that undoubtedly contributes to this genre's popularity in a post-9/11 world" (1). Crane takes issue with Holden's thesis, arguing that "As a life-long romance reader, former scholar of literature, and a current author of romances, I feel one could as easily substitute 'Scottish highlander' or 'Greek tycoon' for 'sheikh' and make many of these same arguments. Which is more persuasive? Your answer may have as much to do with your own background as anything in each of the essays.

Both Crane and Holden employ literary theory to ground their arguments. But the theoretical lenses they each don are often viewed as antithetical by contemporary literary critics. Crane takes a universalist view, one most commonly associated with Archetypal literary theory: finding "recurrent narrative designs, patterns of action, character-types, themes, and images which are identifiable in a wide variety of works of literature, as well as in myths, dreams, and even social rituals. Such recurrent items are held to be the result of elemental and universal forms or patterns in the human psyche, whose effective embodiment in a literary work evokes a profound response from the attentive reader, because he or she shares the psychic archetypes expressed by the author" (Abrams 13). That is, archetypal critics tend to focus upon patterns that can be found across genres, across cultures, universal commonalities.

Though Crane cites no specific archetypal critics, she displays her archetypal leanings in statements such as these:

"The reconciliation fantasies that lurk within romance novels are between the heroes and heroines first and mainly, are not specific to any particular culture or even in some cases species, and are certainly not restricted to stories featuring sheikhs" (2-3)

"Romance novels are not the exclusive province of Americans or, indeed, Western women, and tus, the fears they strive to address lie more within the scope of human frailty and the darkness of the human soul than any purely Western, quasi-colonialist gaze on the shifting geo-political landscape" (3).

(emphasis in both quotes added by RNFF)

Old Skool literary criticism?
Archetypal criticism had its heyday in the 1950s through the 1980s, although many past and contemporary romance authors still embrace it (many of the writers in 1992's essay collection, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance drew on archetypal arguments in their championing of the genre). The last decades of the twentieth century saw this school of criticism come under attack, though, from many different quarters: from feminists; from New Historicists; from critical race theorists, and others. Such critics pointed out the ways that all too often what was viewed as "universal" by archetypal critics was far more often a Western norm than a human-wide pattern. Universalizing, what was once seen as a strength, is now more often viewed as a weakness. Current literary critics, then, would likely not be very responsive to an argument based on archetypal tenets.

Though Holden, like Crane, identifies patterns, she uses culturally-specific, historically situated lenses to explore the meaning of such patterns. Each section of her essay presents a specific sub-argument that works to support her overall claim. First, she references two previous studies that showed a sharp increase in sheikh romance titles since 9/11 (six in 2000, eighteen in 2002) to back up her claim that there is something different about sheikh romances published before 9/11 and those published after. Then, she notes how the fictional sheikh kingdoms in romance novels leave out the urban settings common in contemporary Arab countries, preferring to focus instead on desert settings. Third, she points to the pattern of cultural clashes in the novels she examined, clashes between male Arab sheikhs and their Western female loves. Finally, she analyzes how these clashes are resolved, finding that "The careful negotiation between sameness and difference... —ultimately, sameness is primary, though difference must be there—can also be found in any given sheikh romance's denouement, and in the political fantasy offered in it" (13).

Historically-situated literary theory
What makes Holden's essay particularly fascinating is that she does not just draw on the sheikh texts themselves, but also on interviews with eleven authors and two editors of sheikh romances, to back up her claims. Many literary critics have moved beyond the "intentional fallacy" (trying to read a text and guess an author's intentions) to Barthes' "Death of the Author" position—the belief it is a mistake to cede the interpretation of a text to its author, even if its author has openly stated what s/he intended when s/he wrote it. Holden, in contrast, finds value in an author's take on the text, so much so that she conducted interviews with eleven authors and three editors of sheikh romances to find out their thoughts on the works they had created.

Holden's interviews demonstrate that the authors of sheikh romances themselves typically intend their books to be culturally positive: "I would love to think that we are in some way getting people to look at other people and other places, and saying it doesn't all have to be, you know, American Velveeta cheese on white bread" says Sandra Marton (14). But at the same time, she uses her interviews as only one of many types of evidence she brings to bear in her analysis. And ultimately her analysis demonstrates that there is often a gap between what an author intends and the cultural work the text she produces actually accomplishes:

Marton and other authors express the desire to break free from the negative stereotypes of Arabs put forth in other media via the vehicle of romance, a worthy intention indeed. In order to accomplish this goal, however, authors sometimes suppress certain aspects of Arab culture and contribute inadvertently to Orientalist discourse" (14).

Holden concludes her essay by suggesting two possible readings of sheikh romances:

Read skeptically, against the grain, these novels present a fantasy in which autocratic leaders of the Arab world—those sheikhly heroes who love American women—embrace the values of their Western fiancées and wives, reconciling their two cultures in a way that secures and privileges American interests. But read more generously, in light of their authors' intentions, the sheikh romance novel does present a hopeful vision of the world, one which exchanges Huntington's Clash of Civilizations for a world in which the class between individuals from two worlds, now at odds, is ultimately an erotic clash: one which leads them to fall in love, resolve their differences, and live harmoniously together" (17).

In contrast, Crane's essay opens by reducing Holden's nuanced argument from two open possibilities to one closed interpretation:

"Do contemporary sheikh romance novels fetishize Arabs and subject the to the unwavering, privileged glare of the Western imagination as Holden asserts? Or is there a way in which all stories of the beloved fetishize and objectify the beloved—both heroine and hero in their turn, regardless of their cultural background or racial make-up, across all subgenres of romantic fiction?" (1)

Crane, then, misreads Holden, just as she claims Holden misreads sheikh romances. And just as many romance authors feel scholars of romance do...

The "archetypal" Western sheik:
Rudolph Valentino
I myself find Holden's arguments far more persuasive than Crane's. But then, of course, I was trained as a literary critic. I'm curious to hear whether other romance readers, those not familiar with the debates between and assumptions by academically-trained readers will feel the same.

If you're curious. both Holden and Crane's essays are available online:

Holden, Stacy E. "Love in the Desert: Images of Arab-American Reconciliation in Contemporary Sheikh Romance Novels." Journal of Popular Romance Studies, August 2015.

Crane, Megan. "Stacy Holden's 'Love in the Desert': An Author's Response." Journal of Popular Romance Studies, August 2015.

I've also cited from M. H. Abrams' canonical A Glossary of Literary Terms. 8th edition. Boston: Thomson/Wadsworth 2005.

Illustration credits:
Archetypal chickens: The Educated Imagination
Postmodern cross-dressing: Frank Grady syllabus

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Making the Past Harder for Women? Mary Balogh's LONGING

Reviewers and discerning readers often criticize heroines in historical romances for acting and thinking in ways far more appropriate to twenty-first-century women than to women of the near or distant past. Coming across a Regency-era miss who spouts gender critiques that echo Ms. Magazine far more than anything Mary Wollstonecraft or her radical contemporaries wrote is a particular pet peeve of mine, and in my Goodreads reviewing, I've often joined the "this character is a historical anachronism" bandwagon.

Maybe that's why I was so surprised when I came across the following passage in the "Historical Note" of Mary Balogh's Longing, a romance novel set in early Victorian Wales, with an English Marquess for a hero and a Welsh miner as heroine:

     I have taken two deliberate liberties with history.
     Some women did attend the Chartist meetings and take out membership in the Chartist Association. For the sake of my plot I have made it seem as if women were forbidden to have anything to do with the movement. (403)

From the Caledonian Mercury, 1842
The second liberty—having the real-life mayor of Newport, who was injured in the failed Chartist demonstration in 1839, appear "hale and hearty," so he might interact with the novel's hero—is a small, inconsequential change, one hardly likely to cause much surprise. But this first liberty—changing history to make it appear that gender roles and rules were more, rather than less, stringent in the past than they actually were—now that is a change worth thinking more about.

Longing opens with the widowed Marquess of Craille, Alexander Hyatt, walking the grounds of the Welsh estate he has recently inherited. During said walk, he stumbles upon a secret meeting of the men who work in the mine and ironworks he's also inherited, a meeting during which national and local political organizers urge the men of Cwmbran to sign the great Charter that was to be presented to Parliament, a list of six basic rights working class reformers demanded the government grant them: the right for every British male to vote; the holding of annual Parliaments; the secret ballot; no property qualification for members of Parliament; the paying of members of Parliament; and that each member of Parliament would represent the same number of voters. The majority of the men are eager to sign, and to join the Chartist Association, too.

Alexander is sympathetic to the Chartist's cause, even if he disagrees with the movement's tactics (strikes, mass meetings, and public protests all too often lead to violence, he feels). But the overseer who has been managing the mines and the works for years tells Alex that the workers are happy, and that Craille, a landowner, not a businessman, doesn't understand how modern industry works. Humble in the way of many a Balogh hero, and wary of his own ignorance, Alex agrees to hold off on making any management changes, even though he is "troubled at his own inability to act from personal conscience as he usually did" (67).

A Chartist Member card, with both a man
and a woman on it
Alex is also troubled by his attraction to the woman he stumbled across also spying on the Chartist meeting, a woman whom he later discovers is a worker in his own mine. Like Alex, Siân Jones has also lost a spouse. And like Alex (and unlike the majority of the other Welsh townspeople), she has had a genteel upbringing, as the illegitimate daughter of a Welsh girl and the owner of another local mine. Because of her mother's shame, Siân has always felt like an outsider in the town, even after marrying a Cwmbran boy. Acknowledging her attraction to the town's lord, even to herself, would hardly improve her chances for greater acceptance from the wary townspeople.

Throughout the novel, Siân is presented as a curious, headstrong, courageous, and principled woman. But while she, like her fellow townspeople, deplores the pitiful wages and the poor working conditions of the miners, Siân herself isn't very interested in the Charter, or the large-scale protest her local suitor, Owen, is working to bring about in neighboring Newport. Even if she were, though, the novel presents the male Chartists as opposed to the involvement of women in their political movement, a ban that Balogh acknowledges is historically false. Why?

Because while on the level of plot, the novel is about class conflict, on the thematic level, it is far more interested in gender conflict. While Owen openly agitates for full male suffrage, he is far less progressive than many of the men in the actual Chartist movement when it comes to the rights of women. Though he loves Siân, and is eager to marry her, he believes wholeheartedly in the right of a husband to "control my own woman" (170). He chastises Siân for being too friendly to their natural opponent, the Marquess, and for encouraging their fellow townspeople to believe Siân is colluding with Craille. And he warns her that after their marriage, "You won't find me so easy to rule" as her first husband did (170). Needless to say, the strong-willed Siân finds Owen's opinions about the role of men and women in marriage more than a little worrisome.

1994's cover
In contrast, the aristocrat Alex has far different views. When Siân asks her employer how he would discipline a wife, he is surprised:

     "A wife?" He frowned. "I was talking about children. Unfortunately we need to discipline children because we have a responsibility to train them and they are never angels. I was not talking about a wife. A wife is a man's equal.
     "But what if she does not tow the line?" she asked.
     "What line?" he said. "Whose line? What if he does not toe it? Marriage is not an easy business. We have both experienced it. We both know that. It is something that has to be worked hard at every single day. If one partner refuses to make the effort, then they have a problem and an unhappy marriage. But violence would not solve anything." (176)

Constructing Alex as forward-thinking and Owen as hidebound when it comes to women's roles and rights would have been far more difficult if women were actively involved in the Chartist movement in Cwmbran. Balogh takes great pains to make Owen a nuanced, even a sympathetic figure, but in the end, it is Alex, not Owen, who proves worthy of Siân's love, because aristocratic Alex has more progressive ideas about gender roles than does working class Owen.

Thus, Siân's major plot conflicts come not from her growing feelings for aristocratic Alex, but from her unwillingness to bow down to the demands of the Chartists that she cease working for the enemy. During the course of the novel, Siân proves her own heroism several times over, making her a heroine well-worth a feminist's admiration. But because of Balogh's reimagining of history, Siân's heroism ends up pitting her against, rather than beside, her fellow workers. So, in many ways, Siân's gender triumph goes hand in hand with her town's class defeat, when the workers' planned march on Newport goes dreadfully awry—a piece of history Balogh does not change.

The 2015 cover
Longing, first published in 1994, was Balogh's "first all-Welsh" book, a book set in the Wales where Balogh was born and spent her childhood (i). I can't help wondering if the gender norms of her post-WWII growing-up years had as much, if not more, to do with Balogh's decision to change the role women were allowed to play in the Chartist movement as did the needs of her plot. And if she realized this when she penned her next Welsh book, 1996's Truly, which turns class, not just gender, on its head.

* (according to Goodreads; Balogh's "Dear Readers" note in the new edition lists 1995 as the original pub date)

Photo credits:
"Meeting of Female Chartists": British Library
Chartist membership card: Tameside Metropolitan Borough