Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Rocking the Church: Amber Belldene's NOT ANOTHER ROCK STAR

I've been seriously fan-girling over Amber Belldene's Hot Under Her Collar series; it is one of the few contemporary romance series that manages to combine religious belief, feminist principles, and an acknowledgement that folks with spiritual conviction can also be deeply invested in the pleasures of the flesh. Belldene's series features female Episcopal ministers as protagonists, four women friends who went through divinity school together and who are now working to find their footing in their first jobs after graduation. The latest entry in the series, Not Another Rock Star, features a former opera singer turned priest who finds herself falling for a rocker who is subbing for an injured organist at her San Francisco church. Susannah ("Damn right, she was rector—the twenty-eight-year-old #girlboss" [Kindle Loc 42]) is an appealing combination of strong, sexy woman and empathetic but self-doubting parish priest who, like previous heroines in the series, struggles with a bad case of perfectionism. For Suze, said perfectionism stems from several sources: her failure to make it in the competitive opera world and her determination to do better by her spiritual calling; her feminist education, which tells her that while revealing her messy failures may help her appear more human to her congregants, since she is a woman it is also likely to lead many of those same congregants judging her as "weaker, and less capable" (908); and her highly accomplished realtor mother, who continually coaches her on how to avoid sexism by presenting a "never let 'em see you sweat" facade to the world.

The unlikely hero to Suze's "good-girl" priest is "bad-boy" Rush Perez, keyboard player of the rock band Stentorian Hush. Usually based in LA, Rush has encouraged rumors that he's checked himself into a detox center to keep the real reason for his erratic on and off-stage behavior under wraps: he's been diagnosed with Meniere's disease, a condition which causes episodes of dizziness, vertigo, and ringing in the ears, and which can lead to deafness. He's in SF to work with a doctor who specializes in the condition, hoping a new trial drug will help him enough so he can go on the road with the band for their upcoming tour, only a few months away. In the meantime, he doesn't want anyone to know about his physical problems: not his mother, not his manager, and especially not his bandmates, who he fears will toss him aside, just as his mother has.

Rush has a chip on his shoulder about church and preachers, as, on the basis of advice from her Catholic priest, his mother cut him out of her life after he turned to rock music. He's only doing a favor for a favorite teacher by filling in at Suze's church, and immediately gets off on the wrong foot with the priest by criticizing her perfectionist performance of the liturgy during church services: "I know something's off with your diva priest. She's trying too hard." [I remember having a similar feeling toward an ex-boyfriend, an actor who I felt was showing off rather than actual expressing religious feeling during services we attended together...].

But as Suze fights with some of the church's more well-heeled parishioners (including the former director of the SF Symphony, who feels that overlooking art's role in nourishing the congregation is a mistake, and who is also a former mentor of Rush's) over the establishment of an on-site food pantry, Suze and Rush have to spend more time together than just during services. And as Rush becomes involved in the food-pantry project, the two decide to act on their strong physical attraction to one another, both knowing that the relationship has a clear end-date: when the band goes on tour.

I loved how open Suze is about her sexual desires, and how willing she is to engage in a romance in which she knew the end goal was not marriage or even a long-term relationship. I also loved that despite that sex-positive attitude, her own past experiences with sex weren't always perfect. Orgasms during sex don't come easily to her, and in her perfectionism and her desire to please others (a key positive characteristic in her professional calling, but a problematic one when it comes to meeting one's own needs) she's faked orgasms in the past. After she does the same with Rush during their first time, Rush calls her on it, just the same as he called her on her "performance" during the liturgy. He's disappointed and angry, not because she lied, but because he doesn't like what such faking suggests about him: "Look, I'm not just in this to get off. I want to make you feel good" (1525). "You should have said, 'I'm not ready, slow down.' Or 'finish me off'," Rush insists. Suze acknowledges in her own head that he's right—"Perfectly reasonable words other women probably said all the time. But, it had been their first time, and she didn't want her lovers to feel like a failure for it. It was her fault, after all" (1525). Only after some honest talking, some physical experimenting, and some joking around do they reach a place where both Rush's need to please his partner and Suze's perfectionist ways can coexist in bed. And some recognizing how people sometimes get stuck in a limiting role, even (or perhaps especially when) they are engaged in something that's typically coded as "natural" behavior, like sex. Favorite line: "Did she think she was supposed to have a magic orgasm button, and come on demand when a man said so?" (1582).

As typically happens in the "just for now" type of romance, one partner in this unusual relationship starts to want more. But in this case, that partner is the male rocker, not the female priest. Suze is reluctant, having dated a would-be rocker in high school who dumped her after hitting it big. And also because Rush doesn't open up to her emotionally the way she has for him.

It takes some more honest talk, a controversial betrayal, some rallying of the friends and family Rush has kept determinedly away, and a big rejection before Suze begins to realize just how much Rush has come to matter in her life. It also takes some negotiating over how best to fulfill our many different human hungers—for food, for art, for spiritual enlightenment, for tight-knit community—before Rush and Suze can imagine a life in which a devoted priest and a disabled rock musician can both be life partners and be true to their own selves.

Illustration credits:
Meniere's Disease cartoon: via Christopher Garbrecht 
1934 Aeolian-Skinner organ at Grace Episcopal Cathedral, San Francisco, CA: Pipe Dreams

ARC via Netgalley

Not Another Rock Star
Hot Under Her Collar #3
Indie published, 2017

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Sexism and Gendered Workplace Competition: Christina Lauren's DATING YOU / HATING YOU

I've written about several different battle of the sexes romance novels here in RNFF, particularly BotSs that take place in male-privileged work spaces (Julie James, anyone?), and even proposed possible guidelines for crafting feminist BofSs storylines. So I thought I knew what would be in store when I picked up Christina Lauren's latest contemporary comic romance, Dating You / Hating You. Two Hollywood agents "meet awkward" at a party, then go on a first date. But when their competing agencies merge, the two wind up pitted against each other for the same spot in the "Features" department that will remain after the post-merger reorganization. The book's sell copy makes the BofS's theme perfectly clear: "What could have been a beautiful, blossoming romance turns into an all out war of sabotage. Carter and Evie are both thirtysometing professionals—so why can't they act like it?"

What I wasn't expecting was to discover that Carter (who is actually twenty-eight to Evie's thirty-three) wasn't the embodiment of unthinking sexism that the male half of most BofS's romances typically feature. No, Carter espouses none of the privileged male beliefs that undergird most sexist workplaces: no assumption that men are more, women are less; no belief that his way is the best way and her way is the wrong way; no taking-it-for-granted that equal opportunity for women really means that men are getting the short end of the workplace stick. Carter's approach to agenting is far different from Evie's, yes, but he views their strengths as complimentary, rather than at odds, and has a deep respect for her talents and accomplishments.

But even without overt sexism, the authors suggest, competition, even between friends and prospective lovers, can lead colleagues to anger and frustration. For a people-pleaser like Carter, such feelings are difficult to openly acknowledge. Especially when both Evie and Carter are still smoldering from the sparks of frustrated sexual desire. And so, despite their continual assurances that they can and will work together to undermine the winner-take-all situation in which their boss has placed them, both Carter and Evie find themselves pulling back, and even slipping into more defensive, aggressive postures, at the least sign of unfair or privileged behavior in the other. Because underneath their agreeableness, each one believes the other has the advantage: Carter, because his company was the one that got bought out, and he's now working for Evie's boss; Evie, because she sees how her sexist boss keeps favoring his fellow male colleague and undercutting her work.

Both Evie and Carter are über competent, über in-love with their jobs, and über competitive, qualities which lead not to a "war of sabotage," but rather to a series of amusing pranks—Evie substituting decaf cups in Carter's Keurig; Carter replacing Evie's go-to hand cream with bronzer; Evie taping over the speaker in Carter's phone; Carter loading the air system in Evie's car with glitter. But as the work tension escalates, will the pranks edge over into more damaging work-related sabotage?

Carter may not be openly sexist, but the novel shows that he's definitely the beneficiary of male privilege, privilege that he is not that aware of, and is not all that willing to acknowledge. He'd rather believe that he and Evie are on even footing. But Carter isn't blind, and he gradually begins to realize that even if he isn't behaving in a sexist manner, his competitive instincts have led him to overlook, or even contribute to, the sexist environment at the office: "I guess we could go with when our boss knocked Evie's breakfast [a doughnut] into the trash because he's a sexist dick, and I just sat there and watched. Or when I let her sit through a meeting with two of her shirt buttons undone. Two very important buttons," as he admits to his best friend (199). It takes his own growing self-awareness, as well as a good talking-to by another agent, the wife of said best friend, to accept that the "normal" he's taken for granted isn't the same normal Evie lives with:

"Playing into Brad's sexism? That makes me angry at you, Carter. Its hard enough for a woman to be taken seriously in this business and seen as a person with a brain and not an object. Men get passes for acting like it's 1960 and every woman in the office is their secretary. Evie will have to be smarter, faster, and better at her job than you are, for possibly less money and a whole lot less recognition, all while appearing totally grateful for it" (200)

Which (along with some prank-ful starch in his suit), leads Carter to a moment of clear self-awareness, a moment he shares with Evie:

     "So here's the thing, Evie: if we put our heads down, and do our jobs, and stay out of each other's way, then we can just be colleagues."
     She gives me an aggressive shrug. "Okay? Sounds good to me."
     "Colleagues. That's it," I say, and her shoulders fall a little as she gets where I'm going with this. My heart is pounding so hard, I have to pull off my suit jacket so I don't feel like I'm going to hyperventilate. Evie watches me take it off and drop it next to us, eyes rapt as she looks back to my face.
     "Passing in the hallway, small talk, work emails. Whatever this is," I say, waving between us, "would go away. You may not like the glitter explosion in your car, but at least you know I was thinking about you when I did it." I pause, swallowing. "At least now you know I can't stop thinking about you." (220)

It takes some more back and forthing, some managing of competitive flare-ups and honest discussions of privilege and feelings, before Evie and Carter can begin to come close to figuring out how to work as true colleagues, rather than as cutthroat competitors. And some seriously hot trysts before they can come together not just as friends but as lovers, rather than sublimating their desires for one another into secret, silly sabotage.

Stop here if you don't want the ending of the book to be spoiled for you...

My one disappointment with the book was in the way it ended up dealing with its sexist villain, Evie and Carter's boss, Brad. He's never done anything that would break any of the equal opportunity rules at their company, but his behavior towards Evie is overtly sexist throughout the story. But it turns out that said sexism is not the reason for his ultimate downfall; instead, it turns out that he was trying to get Evie fired because he worried that she was on to his embezzlement scheme. Brad doesn't get fired for being sexist, but gets arrested for being a criminal. In one way, you can read this as a wish-fulfillment fantasy: that the condescending sexist pig you work with would be sent to jail for his piggish behavior. But on the other, it suggests the difficulties in taking a sexist pig to task for his sexist behavior, even in today's purportedly equal opportunity workplace. Brad can only be punished because he's an embezzler, not because he's unfair to his female employees.

Illustration credits:
When you Disagree: Hello Giggles

Dating You / Hating You
Gallery Books, 2017

Friday, June 16, 2017

Pubic Grooming: Witnessing a Cultural Shift in Process

"What?" he asked, distracted by the flex of the muscles in her legs, the neatly trimmed curls disappearing behind cotton bikinis" (Anne Calhoun, Turn Me Loose)

And when you press your face there, you'll find I have no hair between my legs, either. I keep myself smooth as silk down there (Cara McKenna and Charlotte Stein, Way Down Deep)

First things first, Alex manscapes: there's no 70s style dick fro going on down there. He's not quite like my beaver—she sports only a short Mohawk—but he's neat and tightly trimmed. I know some guys do this to make it appear bigger. In this instance, I'm positive I'm not gawking at an optical illusion. It's huge. (Helena Hunting, Pucked)

When I first started this blog back in 2012, references to pubic hair in romance novels outside of sexual encounters were few and far between. So I was really struck when not just one, but three of the six romance novels I read this past week included some mention of grooming of a character's nether regions. From bikini waxes to Brazilians, from landing strips to Mohawks, even now crossing the gender line to "neat and tightly trimmed" manscaping, mentions of pubic grooming has become increasingly more common in romances published in the United States—at least in the romance worlds of white, college-educated protagonists.

Recent advertisement for Schick's new Hydrosilk Trim style razor: guess which woman used it?

Doctors and researchers have noticed this new trend in personal grooming, and have begun to study it. Since 2010, in journals such as The Journal of Sexual Medicine, the Journal of Pediatric Adolescent Gynecology, and JAMA Dermatology, such researchers have published their investigations into both the practices of pubic grooming (its prevalence, methods, characteristics) and its cultural components (why people do it, and what are their attitudes towards it).

I find the whole thing pretty strange, which is not surprising, given that I'm not among the demographic researchers have pointed to as being the most likely to groom down below. As the October 2016 JAMA Dermatology study reports, women who engage in pubic grooming are typically younger (18-24 rather than 40-55), white, and have attended some college when compared with woman who do not groom. They "also groom if their partner prefers them to do so," rather than because of the specific sexual practices in which they commonly engage.

What's a feminist to do? Simply chalk up the difference to generational preferences and move on? Or worry over the potential for injury that comes along with pubic shaving? Or about recent studies that have shown a correlation between frequent pubic grooming and STD's? Or about the implications of pubic grooming on body issues, not just for women, but also for men, if Helena Hunting's Pucked narrator is correct in suggesting that such grooming work is becoming de rigeur not only to maintain proper femininity, but also to be considered properly manly?

Are romance novels passively mirroring a larger culture trend? Or are they actively constructing a vision of acceptable (and unacceptable) pubic hair care? A vision that feminist-minded authors and readers should take steps to question?

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

"So hood but such a brainiac": Aya de León's THE BOSS

Given current trends in the romance market, you'd probably expect a novel with the title The Boss to feature a hunky guy in a suit on its cover. Or a tie and a pair of cufflinks. Both of which would belong to a decidedly rich, decidedly white male. Aya de León turns the table on such expectations by placing a sexy black woman on the cover of the second title in her "Justice Hustlers" series. And by making her, not any man, the boss in question.

de Léon's book, which is one third romance, one third heist caper, and one third Norma Rae for sex workers, turns the tables on a lot of other romance expectations, too. It does so by calling into question the boundaries between the morally good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the white and those of color. Its protagonist, Tyesha Couvillier, grew up in Chicago's South Side, in a neighborhood that was 95% black. As a "broke, hot girl," Tyesha's choices as a teen seemed pretty limited:

You could date young Mr. Broke But Sincere. End up with three or four kids—because when you get pregnant, you wanna keep it since you so in love—and you end up being broke along with him. Meanwhile, you don't get to go to college, so you work at some dead-end job all your life and raise your kids. Maybe you save up to go on a cruise once a year. Or you do like my older sister. You hook up with a drug dealer, and you have money, but he's always the boss. (1250)

Tyesha knew that neither of those routes were for her. Instead, she leveraged her assets (her looks, her body) in order to become her own boss:

I learned you could date brothers with money, but not get all wifed up. Just hook up and let them do something for you. Your hair, your nails, your clothes. Get you a job interview, a scholarship. Something. That's how you get out of the hood and end up in New York getting your master's. (1256)

The social norms of white middle class romance dictate that money and love should be separate, in part to make women accept as "natural" the ways that their work (the "love" work of keeping a home and a family) is not financially compensated. But Tyesha doesn't buy into the myth; she sees how sex and romance are inextricably tied to economics, and uses what she has to bargain with in economic exchange. As her niece reminds her, "You always told me that it was okay to date a guy who could move your life forward in some way" (538). From dating for favors to being a Sugar Baby to being a paid "escort," Tyesha becomes involved in sex work to pay for her own higher education. Only once she has leveled the financial playing field can she, rather than some man, be her own "boss."

Tyesha has a foot in several different, seemingly opposed, cultures; as one stockbroker date admiringly says, "That's what I like about you, Tyesha. You can use 'fuck' in two different ways in an analogy about socially responsible investing. You're so hood but you're also such a brainiac" (268). Rather than setting higher education and sex work in opposition, de León insists that a woman like Tyesha can exist in both realms. And perhaps that the realms themselves aren't as separate as we like to believe them. And while feminism in the past may have primarily served the needs of white middle class women, its principles can just as beneficially be applied to the lives of women of color of all classes.

As an adult, Tyesha moved to New York, earned her Master's degree at Columbia, then worked her way up to the directorship of the women's clinic. As part of that job, she becomes involved in a strike by strip club workers, a storyline which allows de León to advocate both for the rights of sex workers, presenting many of the current unfair labor practices which they are currently subject to, and for the view that sex work between consenting adults should be decriminalized. And it also leads to some not quite legal theivery, stealing from the bad guys in service of the oppressed (in keeping with the ambiguity of the series' title, "Justice Hustlers").

Tyesha's romantic life calls into question a lot of conventional boundaries, too. Before the opening of the book, she had been on several dates with rap star Thug Woofer. Tyesha knew his songs were pretty misogynistic, but she "thought you could treat other women like shit in public but still be good to me. Because I was special or something. But it didn't work that way" (1304). So when Woof's behavior abruptly shifted from politeness to an assumption that of course they will be having sex ("Like it was my duty to have sex with you because I was a sex worker" [1300]), Tyesha kicks him to the curb.

She's hooked up with some handsome "bougie" guys via Tindr since then, but none of them quite do it for her in the way she wants. And now, Woof's come out with a new album—"Melvyn: The Real Me"—which shows a softer, less misogynistic side to the rapper. And he's hoping that his "big gesture" might lead Tyesha to give him a third chance.

Woof's change of heart isn't just some "bullshit good behavior" (1332); he's really has made some major changes in his own life. At the insistence of his record company, he's been through counseling for anger management; by his own choice, he's continued to see a therapist, where he's been learning about how black men are socialized to express anger to cover up their fear and shame. And he's taken the "Rapper Respect Pledge," something which the text doesn't explain but which I'm assuming has to do with respecting women rather than degrading them, in both life and in the music rappers create and perform. While it is romance novels' central promise that the bad boy is really a good boy at heart —"Underneath every hard-shell rapper is a guy who needs love"(591), as Woof tells Ellen DeGeneres during a television interview promoting his new album—Woof's change isn't just a hollow one, as his subsequent behavior to Tyesha goes on to prove.

Tyesha tells Woof that she'll only date him if "you really respect me." And that "you have respect for women in general. I can't really fuck with you if you're still making music like your early stuff" (1301). She's learned that there is no real line between "his" woman and women in general; how he treats other women will inevitably influence the way he treats her.

Woof manages to convince her to give him one more chance, and the two begin dating again. But sexism isn't all that easy to rid oneself of, even if one has the best of intentions. And tough Tyesha is more than ready to cut Woof loose if he makes even one misstep . . .

Equal parts entertaining and thought-provoking, The Boss is definitely one for the keeper shelves of any feminist-minded romance reader.

Photo credits:
Strippers' strike: Live Nude Girls Unite
"Independent" by Webbie: You Tube

The Boss
Justice Hustlers #2
Kensington 2017

Friday, June 9, 2017

The scars you choose: Roan Parrish's SMALL CHANGE

In her latest contemporary novel, Roan Parrish proves herself as adept at writing m/f romance as she in crafting compelling stories of m/m love. The narrator of Small Change, Ginger Holtzman, dropped out of high school at age sixteen to work as an apprentice in a Philadelphia tattoo shop. Eighteen years later, she's now the proprietor of said shop, the only female-owned tattoo business in the city. Being un-tattooed myself, I didn't know that the tattoo industry has a history and reputation of being so male-dominated. But Ginger certainly does:

The number of talented artists drummed out of the business by macho posturing, unwanted sexual behavior, and abuse, not to mention good old-fashioned misogyny, was staggering. I thought of them often, the ghost crew of talented women who were the casualties of that toxic attitude. I thought of how different the industry could be—how much better—if they had a place in it.  (Kindle Loc 918)

Ginger has actively tried to create a more accepting vibe in her own shop, a place where both men and women, no matter their race, sexuality, or gender identification, feel safe and welcomed. Employing a trans man and an African-American woman as co-workers goes a long way towards creating such a vibe, as does Ginger's own refusal to take shit from anyone.

Unlike many other romance novels, which give a protagonist a job in a male-dominated profession to establish said protagonist's feminist cred, but then don't portray said job making much of an impact on the character's actual values or goals, tattooing is deeply embedded not just in Ginger's skin, but in her soul:

It . . . confronts you with yourself. With the things you've thought, felt, done. You can't pretend something didn't happen if it's on your skin. You can't forget. And they're also a way to retell the story, I guess. You know, like, if something bad happens, a lot of people get a tattoo. Not because they want to remember the bad thing, but because once they've lived through it, or figured it out, then every time they look at the tattoo they remember that process. Tattoos are the scars you choose. (586-88)

Ginger's "unchosen" scars stem from her family, who have never understood why she could not mold herself into something closer to the feminine norm that her mother and sister both so easily inhabit. And from the reaction to her gender queerness from other kids when she was a child, and even now, as an adult:

I'd been teased and dismissed for not being pretty, for not dressing like I wanted people to think I was pretty, for being outspoken, for not taking shit. In other words, called a bitch or a dyke or a freak at school" (159)

I always looked mad, people told me. My mouth naturally turned down at the corners, so even my neutral repelled the world"(472).

Ginger might have tried to conform to please her family and schoolmates. But "instead of changing, [I] squared my shoulders and rejected their premises" (472). Choosing not to graduate high school, working in a job that her conventionally middle class parents feel is far beneath her, engaging in monogamous romantic relationships with both men and with women—all of Ginger's life decisions have been made on her own terms, and without shame.

Living such a "fuck you" life has made Ginger pretty reluctant to open herself up to other people: "I'm pretty bad at doing things that make me feel like I'm leaving myself open for a hit, you know?" Ginger confides. But ever since her best friend Daniel (of Parrish's first novel, The Middle of Somewhere) moved to rural Michigan for a teaching job and found himself a boyfriend, Ginger's been feeling at sea, "always about to reach for something I kept forgetting wasn't there anymore." Which may be part of the reason why she finds herself so attracted to the owner of a new sandwich shop that has opened just down the corner from Small Change.

Thirty-something Christopher Lucen has a personality as sunny as Ginger's is spiky. He greets each customer to his shop with a friendly smile and a personal inquiry about their food or their day, not just to gain a good tip but because he is really interested in knowing. He brings Ginger, who is so busy with work and with preparing for her own art show that she often forgets to eat, coffee and sandwiches without her even asking. And he enjoys giving hugs.

But despite of their differences, each is unaccountably drawn to the other. And they begin a tentative relationship, one in which caretaker Christopher gives all of himself. But Ginger has a hard time trusting Christopher, or perhaps herself, enough to do the same. And when a blow-up in the social online community of the tattoo world ends up misogynistically making Ginger a target, not even Christopher's good will and good intentions can keep Ginger from lashing out. Does Ginger have to make a choice between being with Christopher, and maintaining her hard-won independence? Or is there room in her life for both?

There are so many terrific feminist moments in Parrish's book, many focused on refusing the dominant romance trope of competing with other women by denigrating them. For example, Christopher has only good things to say about his female ex'es. And Ginger points out how

. . . a big part of sexism in the industry—and most industries—is this idea that they rightfully belong to men, so there's only a limited amount of space that women have access to. And that leads to this sense that we have to compete with each other in order to get the few spots that are set aside for us. But of course, it isn't actually that way—that's just the way they want it to feel. (2954)

And the response to the online bullying that Ginger's devises with other female tattoo artists, one that encourages women to "have one another's backs" rather than knock each other just to get a seat at the table. But the novel's feminism never seems tacked on, a message weighting down the romance. Instead, it feels vitally connected to who Ginger is, and how she wants any romantic relationship she engages in to be imbued with the same sense of egalitarian respect that her relationships with her friends and colleagues are.

In perhaps my favorite lines in the book, in response to Ginger asking him why he wants to get to know her better, Christopher tells her,

"Did you ever find a new band or author or director or something, and you were instantly fascinated? You heard one song and wanted to get all the rest of their stuff. Sure, you didn't know what it'd be, and yeah you probably weren't gonna like every single second of it the exact same way you like the bit you just found. But you can just tell from the part you've found that you want to know the rest?" (1075)

I haven't "liked every single second" of every single Roan Parrish romance novel I've read. But I've found myself "fascinated" by each, especially this latest.  It may just be my favorite feminist romance of 2017.

Photo credits:
Female tattoo-er: ImagesforTattoos.com
Women bird tattoos: Tattoogiiiirl on Instagram
LO-VE matching tattoos: Piercing Models

Roan Parrish
Small Change
Small Change, Book #1
Indie published, 2017

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Wondering about the Feminism of Wonder Woman, the film

Last night, I had the pleasure of accompanying my eighteen-year-old daughter to see the first big-screen iteration of the iconic feminist superhero, Wonder Woman. And of sharing my impressions about the film with her, and hearing hers in response, during our ride home together from the theater.  I'd like to share a few of those responses, those related primarily to the romance aspects of the film, with RNFF readers.

But be forewarned: movie spoilers lie ahead.

I'm not a big superhero film fan myself. With the exception of Margot Kidder's tough-talking Lois Lane in the first Superman films, such movies have not been all that feminist-minded in their depiction of the love interests of their male protagonists. Serving as rescue-fodder/bait, being killed by a baddie to provide emotional impetus to a crime-fighter, or functioning as objectified, hypersexualized object for the male viewer's gaze seem to be the only roles available to female love interests in such films. The situation isn't much better for actual super-heroines who have been featured as part of superhero groups, either. So I was more than a little doubtful going in to Wonder Woman that the filmmakers would be able to overcome this sexist history of female depiction, even when given a female heroine as their lead.

A fierce Robin Wright as the Amazon General, Antiope
Both my daughter and I were happily surprised to find far less sexism, and some outright feminist moments, in Wonder Woman. Most striking, perhaps, was the battle scene in the opening section of the film, when a troop of World War I Germans in pursuit of spy Steve Trevor land on the beaches of Themyscira (Paradise Island) and are immediately attacked by the protective Amazons. No fear, no shame, no worry appeared on any Amazon's face; each woman dove into the attack with energy and strength, wielding sword and bow with a skill any man would envy. Even as many of their comrades in arms fell to the hail of gunfire, none stopped to cry or mourn; each continued, unapologetically aggressive in their defense of their home against this onslaught of men.

I can't recall any similar scene in all of my years of film-viewing, one that depicted women behaving so aggressively and so competently, AND not fighting against one another but against a common foe. To my mind, the film would be worthy of praise if only for that one scene.

The battle does end with Diana, Princess of the Amazons, keening and cradling her dying aunt, the Amazon's general in her arms. But the scene does not serve to lessen Diana. Rather, it serves a dual purpose. First, to anoint her as her aunt's heir, the one who will take up her mantle as (in this film's mythology) the most powerful of the beings created by Zeus to help his human creations fight against the corruption of Ares, the jealous god of war. And second, to point to the film's underlying theme: the horror and human cost of war. For Diana, sheltered on Themyscira, war has only been a heroic story up until this point; the opening segments of the film depicted a battle-hungry child and teen eager to train and learn to fight her own battles. But now, Diana begins to understand not only the value of peace, but the costs of war.

On a lighter note, I enjoyed the flirting that takes place between the inexperienced but clearly knowledgable Diana and an attracted but morally upright Steve Trevor, both during their time on Themyscira and during their (improbably speedy) sail from the island to London. Diana may be a virgin, but she's not blushing over it; she's read all ten volumes of the Amazons' treaties about the pleasures of the body. From her reading, she knows that the Amazons have found ways to achieve such pleasures without the participation of males. Men may be required for procreation, but they are not required for sexual fulfillment. Does Diana wish to test this nostrum for herself? Or is she truly not that curious about the first male that she's ever seen? Both Steve and the audience are left in tantalizing doubt.

"Is this what London women wear for armor?" a puzzled Diana
asked Etta Candy
Another positive: many commentators have noted that female costumes in previous superhero films do not look as if much butt-kicking could be done while wearing them (see this great Everyday Feminist post for one example). Wonder Woman takes direct aim at this incongruity during a scene after Diana and Steve first arrive in London, and Steve asks his secretary, Etta Candy (great to see this old friend of Diana's from the early comic strip integrated into the film, albeit in such a limited role) to help Diana shop for more suitable London clothing than her Wonder Woman battle gear. Etta chooses one beautiful Edwardian outfit after the next, but grows increasingly frustrated as Diana kicks, punches, and stretches while trying each one; her main criteria is how easy (or not) the garment will be for fighting in. Her final garment of choice, a dark coat and long skirt set, buttons all the way up to her chin, neither revealing, nor highlighting through an overly tight fit, her bust, the main eye-candy for the majority of past screen superheroines.

The multicultural, primarily male, war-fighting quintent
Joined by a multicultural cast of male colleagues (a French-Morroccan actor; a Native American tracker; a Scottish marksman), Diana and Steve take off for the German front, seeking to destroy a secret weapon being devised by a German general and a facially-scarred female scientist. My daughter, a history buff, took exception to the depiction of the Germans in the middle part of the film, particularly the suggestion that they had "enslaved" civilians. This ahistorical enslavement serves as plot device, the vital impetus to Diana to go off-plan and rush to the rescue of innocent villagers, thereby proving not only her superhuman strength, but also her connection to the plight of those caught in war's crossfires. She did appreciate the fact that the one member of the group who cannot perform his military function is not Diana, but one of the men; vulnerability is coded not as female, but as male, and pays a historically accurate nod to the shell shock (what we would now term PTSD) which first emerged during World War I.

Despite its feminist strengths, though, my daughter and I both felt that the film missed some additional feminist opportunities, and, toward the latter parts of the film, sometimes undercut the strong messages it had set up earlier. After their rescue of the enslaved village, Steve and Diana watch the villagers sing and dance in celebration. Steve invites Diana to dance, and he then walks her to her hotel room. Are they going to kiss? To tryst? No words are exchanged, here, but the decision all seems to lie in Steve's hands. They both enter the room, then Steve turns back, as if he is going to leave. But then he shuts the door and turns back to a silent, receptive Diana. And... we cut to the next scene. No room for talking about sex, no room for depicting sex, not in this film. With all the weight hanging on the film to depict women positively, did the (male) writer and (female) director find it too difficult/fraught to imagine what a sex scene between their female superhero and their male human might look like? A disappointment, this refusal to engage more directly with Wonder Woman's sexuality.

Another disappointment is the disappearance of female solidarity portrayed at the start of the film. With the exception of the brief appearance of Etta Candy, Diana proves the only woman character to engage in the battle to stop the Germans from deploying their deadly poison gas.

And let's not forget spy Steve's attempts
to romance Dr. Maru to steal her secrets...
Diana is convinced that once she kills the god Ares, the world will be free once again from strife and violence. Smart viewers will know that the person she tags as Ares is not in fact the god of war. My daughter and I were rooting the actual Ares to be revealed as the one female antagonist in the film, Dr. Maru, the German scientist also known as Dr. Poison. Only after reading a bit more about Wonder Woman's past, and discovering that Maru closely resembles a foe of the superheroine in her early comic book days, did I realize that the good doctor will likely be playing a role in future Wonder Woman/Justice League films, and so could not serve as the real Ares decoy. But wouldn't it have been great if Ares, like Diana, had turned out to be a woman?

The emotional heart of the film's climax was intended to be Diana's "coming-of-age," her recognition that despite humankind's fallibility, its potential not only for good but also for evil, human beings are worth fighting for. Yet the construction of the ending undercuts both the importance of this message, and the message itself, in seriously disappointing ways. First, the film keeps cutting back and forth between scenes of Diana combatting Ares, and scenes of Steve fighting to keep the Germans from bombing London with their deadly poison gas. Unfortunately, it is Steve's poignant sacrifice, rather than Diana's successful battle, comes across as far more emotionally powerful.

Second, it is Steve's words of wisdom that Diana gives voice to at her moment of insight, making it feel as if she is only learning what the male in the film needed her to, rather than something she has come to understand for herself.  She fights for "love," she declares. But her her memory dips back to Steve telling her "I love you." I wanted to believe she was fighting out of love for of all humankind, warts and all. But this flashback makes it seem more like she is inspired by the love of a good man.

And finally, Diana's success in defeating Ares is due not to her own power and fighting ability, but rather to her ability to turn Ares' own strength back against himself. The film's depiction of a primarily defensive, rather than aggressive, Wonder Woman echoes the construction of the comic book's heroine: Wonder Woman fought for peace, and against violence, and was known for never killing her antagonists (at least until the end of Wonder Woman series #2, in the early 2000's). But given the film's early construction of Diana as a fierce fighter, and her killing of the mistaken-identity Ares without consequence or scruple, this defensive posture towards Ares struck both my daughter and me as rather unsatisfying.

All in all, a far better film that either of us had been expecting. But still, one that has not quite managed to throw off the weight of sexism and misogyny that has haunted superhero filmdom for far too long.

Photo credits:
Antiope: LA Times
Diana and Etta: Newsarama
5 war-fighters: LA Times
Steve & Dr. Maru: FrFanPop
Fighting Misogyny: The New Yorker

Friday, June 2, 2017

Romeo or Robot? Penny Reid's DATING-ISH

If you could choose between a human lover, with all the flaws of any typical human being, and an "AIC"—"an Artificial Intelligence Companion," one tailored to your individual preferences and needs, programmed to meet the emotional and physical demands you specifically desire in a romantic partner—which would you pick?

Even the possibility of such a choice sounds fantastic, no? But as Penny Reid's latest Knitting in the City novel, the fiercely smart and hilarious Dating-ish suggests, the day when that choice might be before you may be far closer than you think.

Reporter Marie Harris is on the verge of cancelling her her FindUrParnter.com account when she gets a surprising message: "You and Derek are the perfect match." Wary but hopeful, Marie decides to give Internet dating one final whirl, waiting for her "perfect match" in a local cafe when Dating-ish opens. But the man who finally shows up looks nothing like the fellow Marie "stalked" online. Nor does he seem at all interested in the same things that their dating profiles told her they both "loved." And rather than romancing her after greeting her awkwardly, he instead begins to grill her about her dating preferences, acting as if he, not she, is the reporter.

Or an academic, interviewing women as part of his research for creating the above-mentioned AIC. Not "Derek" at all, but Matt Simmons, Ph.D., computer science nerd. Which Marie finds out only after she ditches the guy in the coffee shop, only to discover later that day that he's the next-door-neighbor of one of the women from her weekly knitting klatch.

Marie and Matt begin to verbally mix it up almost from the minute she discovers that Matt's research is focused on developing a "Compassion AI—as a replacement for human relationships" (35). Marie, along with most of her knitting friends, finds the idea deeply creepy, if not outright sad: "It felt like giving up. Like we were handing over the keys to our humanity, giving it away for free for the sake of saving ourselves from being inconvenienced" (43). But for Matt, who grew up with distant parents and who never felt all that connected to his (now ex-) wife, a Compassion AI seems the perfect solution to humanity's "archaic dependence on each other as a source of fulfillment and support":

    "You think relying on another person is archaic?"
     "It's not archaic if it's a choice, freely made and healthy." He shrugged, his tone growing lofty, academic. "But, I do think the practice of sacrificing oneself at the altar of physical urges and the fantasy of emotional equivalence in the pursuit of empathy, endorphins, and tachycardia is archaic" (35-40).

Given that this is a romance novel, the savvy reader will expect Matt's point of view on human vs. robotic connection to be firmly trounced by book's end. But what made Dating-ish such a fascinating read is that Reid, through reporter Marie's work on a series of articles about how "women, all of female humanity—can replace romantic relationships by using either paid services or robots," gives both sides equal, and equally compassionate, airtime.

It turns out that while Compassion AI technology is not quite ready for the market, there are already quite a lot of paid services currently available designed to meet one or more of the needs usually fulfilled by a romantic partner—"Professional cuddlers and massage for touch. Professional dry humpers for thrilling touch. Escorts for dinner dates, life coaches for affirmation, personal trainers for activity and movement"—even meditation salons that provide guided orgasm therapy. All perfectly legal, none based on the subjugation of a weaker person for a stronger one, and all in service of meeting unfulfilled human needs. Fiercely curious Marie cannot help but be drawn to the idea of exploring other creative ways of "solving loneliness" besides Internet dating.

Of course, for the second part of her series, the part focusing on robots, Professor Simmons proves to be the perfect source. He's direct, honest, and curious, characteristics he shares with Marie. And though Marie's "whoremones" ("That's what I called my hormones when they betrayed my good sense. Sandra said I was slut-shaming my body's appreciation for the opposite sex. I told her I was okay with that if it meant I remained free of STDs" [76]) begin to act up around the younger, rumpled, quirky, but decidedly good-looking professor, Matt's nothing but direct about not wanting to get involved in any kind of romantic relationship. Marie is looking for someone to settle down with, not fool around with, but she enjoys Matt's company so much that she asks if the two of them can be friends when the interviewing for her article is done.

Though Matt's a bit taken aback at being so directly "friend-zoned," he readily agrees to Marie's proposal. And the two begin to hang out together. A lot. Far more so that workaholic Matt ever did with any of his previous friends, or even with his wife. So much so that many of Marie's male friends assume the two are dating, or at least engaging in a bit of friends-with-benefits nookie. And as the line between friendship and flirt-buddies begins to grow ever fuzzier, and the two share not just quips but vulnerabilities, Marie finds herself wavering between squashing all fantasies about a long-term relationship with cagey Matt and throwing her body, if not her heart, directly into his sexy path.

Only after Marie begins to realize that she might just be using Matt as a crutch, and announces that "maybe there's such a thing as sharing too much . . . between friends" can she and Matt begin to stop dancing around the truth of what their relationship has become, rather than what they assumed it would be. A Companion AI, Reid's book suggests, might be the perfect solution for many people—the bereaved and grieving; the deeply lonely; children in foster care; and a long list of others. But as for Matt and Marie, they've already found the perfect companions—one another.

Illustration Credits:
Online dating graphic: Globe and Mail, via Holykaw
Cuddling: Cuddle Professionals International
Medical robot: Radio Canada International

Knitting in the City #6
Caped Publishing, 2017