Friday, July 20, 2018

In the Aftermath of Manipulative Men: Lucy Parker's MAKING UP and Molly O'Keefe's THE TYCOON

When my alarm went off this morning, it tore me from the midst of a very unpleasant dream. My spouse and I had bought half of a two-family house, but it turned out that we didn't in fact actually own the house; we'd only paid for the right to live there, something my spouse knew about but never told me. Thinking I'd just protest, and knowing in his own mind that it was "for my own good," he decided to manipulate me by keeping the relevant information hidden from me. I was so very, very angry in that dream, even though a part of my brain knew my spouse would never ever do such a thing to me.

Can you guess what romance novel I was reading the night before I had this dream?

Fifty Shades Freed.

Why was I reading the third installment of E. L. James' BDSM/romance series? Because next week, I'll be taking part in a Facebook Live event next week at the Boston Public Library, a discussion with radio host Cassie Crossley and Harvard literature professor Susan Weaver Schopf about the changing face of romance from the 19th to the 21st century. The books we'll be talking about all appear on PBS's The Great American Read's "100 most-beloved books" list, which includes James' 50 Shades books.

I'll have more to say about that event in a future post. Today, though, I'm writing about how my 50 Shades-inspired dream made me think less about the differences between 19th and 21st century romances, and more about the differences between contemporary romances—particularly when it comes to the celebration of—or warnings against—the manipulative lover/hero figure.

Two recent books by RNFF favorites inspired this post: Lucy Parker's Making Up, the third book in her London Celebrities series; and Molly O'Keefe's The Tycoon, the first book in a multi-author series about the siblings of a wealthy, dysfunctional Texas family. Both authors take markedly different approaches to the manipulative lover/hero figure than does James, approaches that ask romance readers to question the genre's longstanding embrace of the hero who lies or misleads a heroine, purportedly because he loves her and thinks its for her "own good."

Parker's approach is to recast the manipulative male lover as villain rather than hero. In Pretty Face, the previous book in The London Celebrities series, secondary character Trix was in the midst of a bad romance, one in which she hadn't yet realized she was being majorly gaslighted by Dan, her seemingly charming boyfriend. Towards the end of that book, Trix finally recognized that Dan was manipulative and verbally abusive, and told him where to get off, a major moment of female empowerment.

But now, as the heroine of her own story, pink-haired white Brit Trix is recognizing that a single moment of empowerment does not an empowered woman make. "Telling him exactly what she thought of him had been cathartic, and closed the chapter of him being physically present in her life," Trix thinks to herself (Kindle Loc 578). But despite kicking Dan to the curb more than a year ago, Trix doesn't "just spring back to being the person she'd been before, as if he'd been a temporary blip" (578). Her sense of herself, and her confidence in her own judgment, has taken a major beating, as she tells best friend Lily:

"It's about me, and the fact I could ever have thought I was in love with someone like that in the first place." She'd let him strip so much away before she'd realised what he was doing. Weak. It made her feel weak, even thinking about it. And she'd never, ever thought that about herself before him.She'd never seen herself that way. (591)

Trix, who has always loved performing, finds herself struggling to take on a new role in her show,  a role that she'd once coveted. And having another man from her past, one who dealt her a less damaging but still painful blow to her amor propre while she was in high school, abruptly join the show, isn't helping matters in the least. Or is it?

As a fellow worker in the London theater scene, black Brit makeup artist Leo Magasiva keeps making "a surprise appearance every ten pages or so in the picture book" of Trix's life (212). Sprite-like Trix revels in dishing out the snappy insults and quick comebacks to the "mountain of a man" that is Leo. But even as their bickering shifts from anger to attraction, Trix's wariness and self-doubt make it difficult for her to believe in her own abilities on the stage—or her judgment off it.

Parker makes it clear that recovering from a relationship with a selfish manipulator takes more than just insight and a cathartic rejection scene. It even takes more than having a friend tell you hundreds of times that it's not your fault (as Trix recognizes, it's "easier to listen to them than it was to believe them" [588]). Recovering from a manipulative lover takes days, months, even years, rebuilding new trust in one's own abilities and especially in one's ability to judge others.

Making Up
London Celebrities #2
Carina Press 2018

Where Parker makes the manipulative male lover the villain, O'Keefe tries a sneakier tactic to call the Christian Grey-type hero into question. Appealing directly to readers who typically go for the alphahole hero, she packages her novel as a story that appears to celebrate him. But throughout her bad-boy-redemption romance are subtle hints about how problematic it is that women in general, and her heroine in particular, are encouraged to leave themselves in the hands of a "loving" man. And although she gives her bad-boy hero a reason for why he acts as manipulatively as he does, O'Keefe never suggests that his manipulative behavior is acceptable, nor does she force her heroine to compromise her own sense of self in order to appease her manipulative lover.

The ad copy for The Tycoon makes it sound as if it will play out like a typical dark romance, with a disempowered white woman at the mercy of an obsessed, manipulative bastard of a brooding (also white) hero:

Five years ago, Clayton Rorick loved me. Or so I thought. Turned out he only wanted to get his hands on my daddy's company, Heartbroken, I ran away with nothing but the clothes on my back. Like a twisted Cinderella. When my father dies, leaving my sisters in a desperate situation, it's up to me to help them. I'll have to beg the man who broke my heart to save us. But Clayton hasn't forgotten me and what he wants in exchange for his help is. . . my body, my heart and my soul.

With such expectations in place, it's a bit of a shock to read the opening lines of Veronica King's story:

No one had ever told me about orgasms.
     Like, I had a sense, from movies or whatever. But no one ever gave me the complete picture. How they were tricky. How you had to be patient and vulnerable. Naked in a lot of ways—more than just, you know, actually naked. No one told me that they were a little frightening, that feeling of chugging up the incline of a roller coaster. Of something powerful and scary being just over the edge of a cliff.
     Really, what no one told me was how freaking consuming they were. . . .
     All I could think about was sex (41)

It's twenty-two-year-old Veronica King's innocence about sex—about its power, its pleasure, its orgasms—that leads her to accept the proposal of an employee of her father's, a man who has spent more time giving her orgasms (8 to be exact) than telling her anything about himself. And it is this innocence that leads to Veronica's disillusion when she overhears her fiancĂ© Clayton and her father arguing over just what payment Clayton will be receiving in exchange for taking Veronica off Mr. King's hands.

Fast forward five years later, and Veronica isn't just pining away for a manipulative lover lost. She's taken his engagement gift, an expensive diamond, and hocked it to support herself and to help her start a business with a distinctly empowering goal. As she explains to the reader:

You know what no one ever tells girls about?
     No one ever tells women to have their own money and know what to do with it. How to protect it and take care of it. How to make a fire out of it that will keep a woman warm and safe her whole life. No one ever tells a newly single woman how much she'll need to take care of her household after her husband dies or runs off with someone else. Or how to pay for the kids' college and her husband's spousal support, if that's how it shakes out. (335)

Tired of feeling like "women were lambs to the slaughter in so many ways," Veronica has opened a business focusing on helping women learn to manage their own financial lives: Her Safety Net Accounting and Investments. Veronica herself is in fine financial shape; discovering that her heel of a father has disinherited all of his daughters in favor of her one-time fiancé is annoying, but not crippling, either emotionally or monetarily. O'Keefe even has Veronica reject the typical romance novel jerk-hero redemption move, yelling at Clayton after he forces a man who had been coming on to her at her father's funeral from the premises:

     "You do't get to do this, Clayton," I said.
     "I just want to be sure you're okay."
     "No! You don't get to be the hero. You can kick out all the jerks and look as concerned as you can force yourself to look, and you're still not the hero." (701)

In a more conventional dark romance, the heroine would be forced into an abject position, desperately needing the very man who earlier betrayed her: as the ad copy says, "When my father dies, leaving my sisters in a desperate situation, it's up to me to help them. I'll have to beg the man who broke my heart to save us." But Veronica doesn't need saving, and she certainly doesn't beg. And Clayton doesn't force her or demand that she do anything. He offers; she negotiates; and to Veronica's surprise, he compromises: "I'd expected him to be bossy and cruel and demanding. Not... giving. Reasonable. Or fair" (1416). O'Keefe here points to what every woman should demand from a spouse: reasonableness, fairness, compromising. To not lie. To be willing to compromise. And to apologize when you make a mistake, and hurt the other. Not a cardboard hero, to protect and rescue, but a life partner.

And then O'Keefe suddenly switches point of view, allowing us inside Clayton's mind, showing us the details of his life that he kept from Veronica during their engagement. Showing the reader that he, too, has been a victim in many ways. The bad boy hero typically has a tortured background, a background that often serves as an excuse for past and present arrogant, controlling behavior.

But O'Keefe doesn't allow the hurts inflicted on Clayton to excuse his hurt he inflicted on Veronica. Clayton chose not to stand up against Veronica's father; he chose to lie to her while he was courting her. And now he has to accept his own central role in pulling their relationship apart, and apologize for it, if they are to start over again. The villain of the piece becomes not a hero, not a savior, but instead a flawed human being: "Clayton isn't a bad guy. He's just bad at being good. I don't think anyone ever showed him how" (2963).

Readers drawn to The Tycoon expecting the thrill of a manipulative, controlling hero brought to his knees by his love for a seemingly abject woman will find quite a different model in the second-chance relationship that Veronica and Clayton create. A model less about the thrill of submitting to a controlling lover, or making that controlling lover ultimately submit to you, and more about a feminist vision of a mutually respectful, and mutually beneficial relationship. With, of course, lots of hot sex in the bargain.

I'll be curious to see if future books in this series, written by other authors, will follow more conventional bad-boy romance tropes, or will provide the same feminist bait-and-switch that O'Keefe does in The Tycoon.

The Tycoon
The King Family #1
indie-published, 2018

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

"The First Man To Give Me One": The Assumptions About Female Orgasm in Romance

How do heterosexual women reach orgasm during sex? From reading many a romance novel, one could easily conclude that orgasm is not something a woman need actively strive for at all. Instead, orgasm is often described and portrayed, as something a romance heroine receives from her male lover.

In Old Skool romance, with its typically virginal protagonists, the usual sign that a hero was the right partner for a heroine was the fact that he could sexually excite her when no other man could or had. In the 1970s and 80s, good romance heroines did not ever get turned on, at least not until they met their one true love.

We assume that the sexual experiences of real women are far different today than they were in the 70s and 80s. But in fact, the average age of first sex has gone up a tad since its low of just below 17 in the mid 70s, to a bit closer to 18 in 1989, and then back down a bit to about 17 today (see info from the Guttmacher Institute). So perhaps it's just that social acceptance of premarital sex has finally caught up to social practice of same.

In romance novels, what does this social acceptance look like? Well, heterosexual romances in 2018 features far fewer virginal heroines than they did in the 70s and 80s (although they still do exist, and in both female and male types). But despite heterosexual romance novel heroines' increasing sexual experience, many a romance novel still links the discovery of a heroine's true love with the simultaneous discovery of a partner who can bring her to orgasm. Let's call it "The First Man to Give Me One" trope.

Take this example from the compulsively readable Harlequin author Maisey Yates. In Untamed Cowboy, book #2 in the Gold Valley series, Yates' veterinarian heroine, Kaylee, embarks on a sexual relationship with best friend Bennet. Kaylee's made herself orgasm before, but "She had never come with a man before. She just could never get herself all the way into it. Could never stop feeling self-conscious. About where to put her hands, about whether or not he was enjoying it. About whether or not she was enjoying it enough" (Kindle Loc 2067). For Kaylee, thinking about sex is a problem, one that interferes with her ability to relax enough to reach sexual climax.

But with Bennet, who is not only her business partner and closest friend, but also the man she's been nursing a secret crush on for years, it's far different:

Then he pressed it [his finger] between her slick folds, rubbing her slowly, methodically. Before pushing inside of her completely.
     She broke. And he swallowed her cry of pleasure as her internal muscles pulsed around his fingers as he gave in to the deepest, most intense orgasm she had ever had in her entire life. The only one she had ever had in front of another person.
     And it was Bennet. Bennet was the one who had seen it. Bennet was the one who had caused it." (2091).

The narrative here puts Bennet in the role of actor ("pushing inside her completely"), Kaylee as reactor ("She broke"). Kaylee's internal dialogue echoes this narrative positioning: "Bennet was the one who had caused it." A woman has an orgasm not because she strives for it, reaches for it, but because she responds to the actions of her male partner.

Kaylee echoes this same language around female orgasm later, in the midst of a fight with Bennet:

"Thank you. Thank you for the orgasm. It was awesome. I'm putting it in my diary. Because you are the first man to ever give me one."
     Well, crap.
     She hadn't meant to confess that. And right about now you wud be able to hear the tinest piec eof straw fall onto the concrete barn floor. Because Bennet had fallen utterly silent, his mouth dropped open in an expression of shock.
     "What?" he asked. . . .  "No man. None of them. None of those douchebags I watched you date."
     She crossed her arms and shook her head, defiant. "Nope."
     "Well, that's just . . . I'm torn between wanting to beat them up and wanting to take a damned victory lap."
     "This is not really more charming than any of the other crap you pulled earlier."
     "I'm the first one to give you an orgasm?" he asked as if he hand't heard her previous statement.
     "Yes," she said, "don't let it go to your head."
     "It's not my head it's going to."
     "Bennet!" . . . .
     "It's just hard for me to believe."
     "That there's something wrong with my body.
     He shook his head emphatically. "It's not you, Kaylee. Hell, no. It was them." (Kindle Loc 2433)

In Yates' construction, female orgasm is something a man "gives" to his partner. A bad male sexual partner will fail to give the gift ("Hell, no. It was them"), while the right male sexual partner will always bestow it. Responsibility for an orgasm thus lies completely with the male partner, not with the female ("It's not you"). Even though earlier Kaylee admitted to herself that her own self-consciousness stood in her way, Yates' novel tells its readers that self-consciousness will inevitably vanish in the face of the right male partner, clearing the way for the gift to be received. In such a construction, a woman plays no real role in achieving climax with a partner, beyond picking the right man; all responsibility for female orgasmic pleasure lies with her male partner.

Is male climax with a female partner portrayed in the same way? Yes, Bennet is just as blown away by his own climax (in a later scene) as Kaylee is by hers in this one. But the language Yates uses to describe orgasm from Bennet's point of view does not cast it as something that Kaylee does to him or gives to him; Bennet still remains the active party, even as he loses control:

     Pleasure gathered at the base of his spine, electric and undeniable. It was like fire building inside of him. One that was going to rage out of control at any moment. One that might consume him completely. That need again. That thing he had known would be a raging, destructive thing. And it was. It was. But he was ready to jump feetfirst into it.
     He lost his hold on his control, letting go completely, igniting and bringing Kaylee along with him.
     If they were going to burn, at least they were burning together.
     They clung to each other, his orgasm taking them over completely, a feral growl on his lips as he let it all go completely. (2803)

Bennet's orgasm is all about his choice to lose control. "He was ready to jump feetfirst into it"; even though he "lost his hold," he still is the one who is "letting go completely." It is not Kaylee who gives him the gift of orgasm; in fact, it is Bennet who "brings Kaylee along with him." Female orgasm is a gift from the right male to the right female, but male orgasm is an active male choice.

What's at stake when female heterosexual orgasms are constructed as a gift from a man to a woman, while male orgasms are portrayed as an active choice a man makes all by himself? Here are just a few downsides:

• It ignores the fact that many women never not reach orgasm during p in v sex at all, and that those women who do often need additional clitoral stimulation to achieve it. According to a 2017 study of 1478 women in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, 51%-60% of respondents reported reaching orgasm via intercourse plus clitoral stimulation, while only 21-30% reported reaching orgasm without such assistance. Needless to say, such "assistance" can come from either partner. But if a woman believes that she is the passive recipient of the gift of orgasm, she's far less likely to take matters into her own hands, or to ask her partner to take them into his.

• It plays into the linkage between the ideal male romantic partner and the ideal female sexual experience. Good sex usually takes time to develop; more women report reaching orgasm with a familiar partner than with a new or casual one, no matter how weak or strong their romantic feelings are for each other at the start of their relationship.

• It puts men in the drivers' seat when it comes to sex and female sexual pleasure. If you're waiting for a guy to give you an orgasm, you might be waiting a good long while.

• It suggests that women are not responsible for their own sexual pleasure, which can make women reluctant to ask for what they want, or suggest to their partners that they do something different than they are currently doing.

• Just because sex for men is the cycle from arousal to ejaculation doesn't mean that climax has to be the end goal for a woman. Multiple orgasms, or no orgasms, can be just as good an option for a woman than the one orgasm per sexual act common to the male.

• And as one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite web sex education web sites, Scarleteen, reminds us: "Don't forget: the vagina, all by itself, is an active muscle. It grips what is around it: it doesn't just hang out and whistle Dixie while things happen to it." Check out the rest of this post, which busts the myth that males are active, females are passive during sex.

How often do the romance novels you read portray female orgasms as a gift from a male to a female? How often do they portray sex as an active experience for both partners?

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Romancing Female Ambition: Claire Legrand's FURYBORN

The danger of ambition is a theme at the heart of many a high fantasy novel. Even if one's ambition stems from the desire to do good, fantasy novels generally warn that political ambition often engenders a far more dangerous desire, a desire for power itself. And as French politician and philosopher deLemartine argued, "absolute power corrupts the best natures"; or, as English Lord Acton wrote, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great me are almost always bad men."

And if the striver in question happens to be of the female persuasion? Well, then the warnings grow even more pointed. As Robin Romm notes in the Introduction to her essay collection Double Bind: Women on Ambition, "striving and achieving [have] to be approached delicately or you risk the negative judgment of others." Twenty-first century American women are socialized to be soft, feminine, but are simultaneously urged to "go for it," a paradox Romm describes as "the double bind of the gender, success paired eternally with scrutiny and retreat."

That is what intrigued me about the first volume in Claire Legrande's YA fantasy novel, Furyborn: its portrayal of not one, but two deeply ambitious women. After an opening scene in which a queen gives birth and then gives up her baby to prevent her from falling into the hands of a malevolent angel, Furyborn forks into two separate strands, one set in the near past, the other a thousand years into the future. The first tells how the queen of the first scene, Rielle, came to be "allied with angels and helped them kill thousands of humans. This queen who had murdered her husband" (Kindle Loc 91). The second tells of a the rise of an assassin who is asked to become a rebel against the oppressive Empire, a woman whose questionable morals make her seem just as unfit for the role of savior as was/is Rielle.

Eighteen-year-old Rielle, only daughter of  Lord Commander Dardenne, chief of the king's guards, chafes against the restricted life her father condemns her to after the uncontrolled power of her magic lead to the death of her mother. As she protests to her teacher, Tal, the Grand Magister of the Pyre, the head of those who bend fire to their magical will, "If Father had his way, I'd stay locked up for the rest of my life with my nose buried in a book or on my knees in prayer, whipping myself every time I had a stray angry thought" (Kindle Loc 380). Rielle wants more than a life stuck in a cloister: she wants to participate in the Boon Chase; she wants her childhood friend Audric, now Prince Audric the Lightbringer, the mot powerful sunspinner in centuries, to love her and not their friend Ludivine; most of all, she wants to show everyone just how powerful her magic is. For unlike every other elemental who had ever lived, Rielle needs no physical object to access her power, and her magic is not limited to one element. No, Rielle can control them all.

During an assassination attempt on Prince Audric, Rielle uses her powers to save her friend, despite her father's warnings never to reveal them. And Audric becomes convinced that his old friend is one of the Light Queen of prophecy, a human woman who will rescue them all from the angels who once oppressed humankind and who threaten again:

The Gate will fall. The angels will return and bring ruin to the world. You will know this time by the rise of two human Queens—one of blood, and one of light. One with power to save the world. One with the power to destroy it. Two Queens will rise. They will carry the power of the Seven. They will carry your fate in their hands. Two Queens will rise. (1649)

Rielle is not your usual fantasy heroine, not an empty placeholder for the reader nor a troubled, misunderstood, but deeply good at heart girl. No, as Prince Audric's mother recognizes, Rielle is "Cunning. Willful, and lovely. It's a volatile combination. It unnerves me" (3400). Rielle, with her naked ambition, is meant to unnerve the reader, too. Indeed, she unnerves herself: "Even while my mother burned, I was glad to feel the power simmering at my fingers... Even though you belong to Ludivine... I want you for my own. I want... I want. I crave. I hunger" (4285). Is she the Sun Queen, the one who will save humankind? Or is she the Blood Queen, who will destroy all?

If Rielle seems a questionable savior, what are we to make of the other heroine of Furyborn? We first meet assassin Eliana Ferracora as she helps round up a group of rebels, fighting against the Empire that rose in the ashes of Rielle's betrayal of humankind. Eighteen-year-old Eliana is tempted to let the rebel children of  group go, but resists: "children couldn't keep their mouths shut. And if anyone ever found out that the Dread of Orline, Lord Arkelion's pet huntress, had let traitors run free..." (648). Instead, Eliana watches as the eldest boy is beheaded.

Eliana's partner and lover Harkan wishes she were different: "Harkan paused, that sad, tired look on his face that made her hackles rise because she  knew he hoped it would change her, one of these days. Make her better. Make her good again. She lifted an eyebrow. Sorry, Harkan. Good girls don't live long" (643). Calculating, skilled, and deadly, Eliana focuses on the here and now, on keeping her mother and brother safe, and herself alive. Her ambition may be narrower than Rielle's, but it still burns bright. Though people in Eliana's time call Rielle the evil Blood Queen, it's difficult to believe that Eliana is more suited to the role of Sun Queen than is/was Rielle.

Eliana knows that any day now, she'll be recruited as a member of Invictus, a company of assassins that travels the world and carries out the Emperor's bidding. For she's not just skilled; she also seemed to have an ability no one else in her world has:

The problem was, she liked showing off. If she was going to be a freak with a miraculous body that no fall could kill, then she might as well ave fun with it. If she was busy having fun, then she didn't have time to wonder why her body could do what it did. And what it meant. (552)

But after her mother mysteriously disappears, The Wolf, a famed captain of the Red Crown rebels, bargains for Eliana's help in infiltrating the palace in exchange for his help in finding her missing parent. Coldly weighing both the costs and the benefits, Eliana agrees, looking out all the while for how to shimmy free of any acts, or any personal connections, not promoting her own safety or that of her mother and brother. She even accepts poor Harkan's self-sacrifice, leaving him behind in order to save herself and her brother.

One of the other rebel leaders tries to convince Eliana that "Revolutions mean nothing if their soldiers forget to care for the people they're fighting to save," but Eliana has more than her share of doubts (2609). Somehow familiar with the trajectory of the typical fantasy romance, she knows that she's supposed to be transformed by her time with the rebels, especially by her admiration for The Wolf, known to her now as Simon, a man who has endured much during his battles against the oppressive Empire. "People like us don't fight for our own hope... We fight for everyone else's," Simon nobly avers, but wily Eliana uses his own hope in her redemption to deceive him (2964).

At the end of this first installment, both Rielle's and Eliana's worlds are on the verge of war: Rielle's against the resurgent angels, Eliana's against the invading Undying Empire. Can either war be prevented? Will either young woman be Sun Queen? Or will both fall into the temptations of blood?

Or might the stark binaries of the prophecy be pushed aside, the opposition between sun and blood,  self-focused ambition and other-directed empathy, shown to be equally necessary in order to defeat true evil?

I'm gnawing on my fingernails, waiting to see what the next two volumes in the trilogy have to say about women and ambition and power.

Art credits:
Elemental magic symbols: Zenkora Wiki
Ambition: Girltalkhq

Furyborn: The Empirium Triology, Book 1
Sourcebooks, 2018