Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Pet Peeve Reconsidered: Falguni Kothari's IT'S YOUR MOVE, WORDFREAK!

Women, Aryan reflected philosophically, were from Venus. a man wasn't meant to understand them.

My father got everything, including us, two children who needed their mother and who my father could not possibly care for because that's not what fathers do. It's not their job.

The rest of their dinner passed in quick-witted banter and some suggestive talk—mostly on his part. Boys will be boys, after all.


In one of the earliest posts I wrote for RNFF, I ranted about the prevalence of "It's a guy thing" and other gender-universalizing statements in romance novels. I labeled that post with the title "Pet Peeve," indicating my frustration with the limitations of such gendered ways of labeling thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the romance genre.

I went back and re-read the post today, trying to make sense of my reactions to a novel I read this week, one in which many such gender-normative statements are both thought and uttered by the romance's protagonists, especially by its heroine. But despite these annoyingly gendered universalizing statements, I found myself liking this book, even charmed by it at times. Was I just allowing the pleasures of the book to blind me to the sexism it contained? Or was something else going on here beyond attempts to police gender?

The question becomes even more fraught when I consider that the book—Falguni Kothari's It's Your Move, Wordfreak!—is set largely in a country (India) far different from my own, and written by an author who was born and raised in that country (though she now lives in the United States). And it was published by a company in India, suggesting that Indian, rather than American, readers are its primary intended audience. How do my own cultural assumptions about what constitutes feminism play into my reading of this book? How do they differ from those held by women in/from India? I don't have any definitive answers to such questions, only an awareness that they exist, and might influence (for good and for bad) the analysis that follows.


Alisha Menon has been playing online Scrabble for months under the moniker "Worddiva." Her fiercest competitor is a man who calls himself "Wordfreak"; their epic battles have gradually segued into online chatting, until, at novel's start, they are just on the verge of meeting face to face for the first time at a restaurant in their home city of Mumbai. The three quotes serving as epigraphs for this post all come from that initial meeting, quotes that demonstrate how both Alisha and Aryan (aka Wordfreak) hold fairly stereotypical (at least by the American norms with which I am most familiar) views about gender roles, especially the roles of men, at novel's start. Yet Alisha is a successful divorce lawyer, not a stay-at-home mother or a woman ready to drop her career at the first sign of a potential mate. And for his part, Aryan doesn't seem to care much for patriarchal gender norms, himself; not dismayed by losing more often than winning to Worddiva in their Scrabble matches; "exhilarated" by the challenge of their matches; "enchanted" by their online chats, including moments when Worddiva had "called him a fool so many times that he had lost count," Aryan has been captivated by Alisha's outspoken, determined personality long before the actual sight of her "knocked him flat out (Loc 121). His commitment to environmentally-conscious practices in his job (as an architect and civil engineer) suggest his progressivism in other areas as well.


Alisha's feminism is both very much on display (her outspokenness, her commitment to her job, her standing up to jerky men who are angry at her role in ending their marriages), yet also often serves as grounds for conveying the story's humor. For example, when, early in their relationship "Aryan stiffened slightly and signalled her in a come-hither motion," Alisha wants to "instantly obey his command.... How had one long, blunt finger unhinged her feminist pride so easily?" We laugh, though, when Aryan's gesture turns out not to be a move of seduction, but one intended for secrecy, so he can secretly ask Alisha why Vallima, a member of her house staff, is staring at him. Aryan's acceptance of Alisha's way of being, as well as of feminism in general, is also littered throughout the novel. For example, when Aryan suggests that her food be reheated because it got cold while she had to take a call from work, and she tells him, "You're very easygoing.... It's just that most men or the men I've come across are not so accommodating," Aryan just shrugs, "understanding perfectly what she was getting at. 'The world is changing,'" he tells her, then goes into a paragraph-long thought digression on said changes:

The boundaries between the sexes were fading. There was nothing like women's work or a man's job anymore. If one thought himself—or herself—capable of doing something, one went out and did it. With varying degrees of success perhaps, but people were stepping out of their gender slots. Even in India. (Loc 716)

Why, then, do such gender-based statements as the ones above keep popping up throughout the novel? Particularly those related to men? Alisha doesn't seem to take pleasure in feeling superior to poor inferior male Aryan; nor does she seem to relish difference, or take comfort from it to account for relationship problems, all theories I put forth in my earlier post as possible reasons for the presence of gender-universalizing statements in romance novels. Instead, I wonder if, in this novel at least, such statements might be a sign of both recognition of and frustration at the persistence of "gender slots" in Alisha and Aryan's culture, even in the midst of a time of great social change. The boundaries are "fading," Aryan admits, but he doesn't claim they are entirely gone, a situation the novel's mixed gender messages clearly convey.

We see signs of the mixed messages of gender in a scene mid-novel in which Aryan and some neighboring boys are building a treehouse. When Aryan invites Alisha to come up, one of the boys replies, "How can she climb up? She's a girl." Alisha thinks "He was tiny, barely coming up to her hip, a male chauvinist in the making," and quickly responds to reject his sexism: "Girls can do everything that a boy can. More in fact." "Teach them young and maybe the world would be a better place," Alisha thinks to herself.

But it turns out that when he's with the boys, Aryan isn't quite as feminist-friendly as he is with Alisha: "That's not what AB [i.e., Aryan] told us," the boy tells her. "He told us that boys were stronger, smarter and more talented." Aryan's response is meant to be humorous—"Aryan winced and shook his head at the boy. 'I should have also taught you that some things were meant to be kept secret from girls'"—but it's also telling. Aryan feels the need to code switch, to endorse traditional gender norms when he's with a group of boys, even while recognizing how his society is changing around him. Even while taking falling in love with a woman who has been in large part shaped by those very changes.

Alisha's initial response to Aryan's code switching is to fall back into her own gender-normed beliefs: "Alisha sneered. Boys would be boys" (Loc 1742). Then, she tries to joke her point across: "No wonder God has to repeatedly send down messiahs and avatars to save the world. Even She knows you men botch things up spectacularly" (Loc 1742). The boys, unfortunately, don't get the joke, "too young to understand the finer points of feminism" (Loc 1749). Finally, she tries demonstrating in their own terms, rather than explaining in hers: "How dare they think her a scaredy cat even if she was one? She could do this, she would show then. For all women all over the world, she squared her shoulders and grabbed the rope. 'Ready,' she squeaked" (Loc 1764).

Earlier, at a party, Alisha muses, "In her experience, most people projected different personas under different circumstances. Maybe not different personas so much as different traits in their personalities dominated in different surroundings" (Loc 1392). Should sexism be thought of in this way, too? As a personality trait one can emphasize or de-emphasize, depending on the circumstances in which one finds oneself?

I thought this might be the novel's intended message, until I reached its final scenes. The story's emotional arc is not about teaching Alisha not to be so strong, to accept that love means subsuming oneself to another (i.e., a man), as I had worried it might be. Alisha does learn the necessity of compromising, but it is Aryan, not Alisha, who undergoes the biggest character growth, having to come to terms with his feelings about the death of his mother when he was a teen. As Alisha upbraids him, "You're a hypocrite, you know that? What did you tell me that day? That I have boundaries and I had set limits on our relationship, that I don't let people in? What about you?" (Loc 3181). Aryan may be a man, and he may be acting foolishly, but that does not mean that Alisha should attribute his behavior to his gender, she finally realizes: "Then she sprinted after the foolish man. Men were so silly. No, that wasn't true. Why charge the entire gender with the crime. This man was so silly" (Loc 3041).

New insights co-exist with old assumptions, though; later, when Alisha asks Aryan why he doesn't ask his father about his mother's death, and he says "I just don't want to, that's all," "she looked at him incredulously. Men were so foolish. It was becoming her mantra" (3196). And during their big reconciliation scene, when Aryan admits that he was wrong about a lot of things regarding his parents, Alisha tells him, "Men are so foolish" (Loc 3614). But the declaration is accompanied by the thought, "She wasn't one to 'there, there' someone and nor was she the type to spout nonsense such as 'life is nothing but a learning curve' even if it was" (Loc 3614). Her response isn't an explanation, but a chiding, a way to keep Aryan from taking her too much for granted. And when Alisha's friend Diya tries to use the same excuse—"You do know that you're expecting all that from a man?.... They're not exactly equipped to deal with life's vicissitudes" (Loc 3313), Alisha rejects her reasoning: "What rubbish! I've said my piece. Now it's up to him." (Loc 3313).

Gender universalizing? Or gender equity and equality? Or a messy mixture of both? The mixed messages continue throughout the novel, even through the book's final scene, a disagreement between Aryan and Alisha over whether they should sign a pre-nuptial agreement. Will Aryan use the disagreement to teach Alisha that "She's not always going to get her way," as he defensively tells his future brother-in-law on the eve of his wedding? Or will he follow Alisha's lead and compromise? The novel leaves the question tantalizingly open, the ball in Aryan's, and, perhaps the reader's, court.



Photo credits:
Scrabble feminism: Feminspire
Treehouse: Asia Travel
Woman holding "Equal?" sign: Asia Development Dialogue





Falguni Kothari,
It's Your Move, Wordfreak!
Rupa Publications, 2012

Friday, July 18, 2014

Jane Austen and Romance Readers

Both popular and scholarly works on the history of romance often point to the novels of Jane Austen as a point of origin for the romance genre. For example, Austen's name tops the list on the romancewiki page "Key Names in Romance History," while the Wikipedia entry "romance novel" names Austen "a pioneer of the genre." And in the more scholarly A Natural History of the Romance Novel, Pamela Regis uses Austen's Pride and Prejudice to illustrate the key elements of the romance novel, terming Austen's book "The Best Romance Novel Ever Written" (75). Readers who love romance, then, are often assumed to also love Jane Austen's works.

It's an assumption that I myself took for granted, until coming across more than a few romance writers who admitted (some shamefacedly, some with aplomb or even pride) that they had never read anything by Austen, or hadn't been able to finish an Austen novel that they had once started. Others claimed to love Austen, but only knew her from the many film adaptations of her works; if, inspired by their film viewing, they had gone on to check out the original from their library, many found themselves returning the volume, uninspired by prose far different than that they were used to finding in their contemporary romances.

Jane Austen, by her sister Cassandra, c 1810
 National Portrait Gallery
Do all romance readers love Jane Austen? Only those who enjoy historical romance? Or has the genre moved so far away from its roots as to make its origins not that palatable even to readers who love the genre in its 21st century forms, including the historical?

After the question of Jane Austen and contemporary romance reader preferences came up in the comments section of a recent RNFF post, one RNFF reader suggested conducting an informal poll. Great idea, I thought. So...

If you love reading genre romance, I'd welcome your responses to these two questions:

1. Have you read any books by Jane Austen? If so, did you enjoy them? Why or why not?
2. Are you primarily a historical romance reader? Or do you prefer other romance genres?

If I get enough responses to make the findings more than just anecdotal, I'll report back about them in a future post. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Short Takes: Dominant Woman Romances

Last fall, in a review of Cara McKenna's Unbound, I mentioned in passing how much more common it seems for BDSM romances to feature females, rather than males, in the submissive role. Not that stories about sexually submissive women must necessarily be anti-feminist (as I've argued in reviews of work by Teresa Noelle Roberts and Jacqueline Carey). But I have to admit that I find myself more curious about kinky romances with heroines placed in the dominant role, perhaps because, at least on the surface, they seem more overtly focused on calling conventional gender roles into question. So I was pleased to discover several intriguing examples of femdom romances over the past month, stories that led me to consider not just how femdom challenges traditional masculinity, but also how it addresses an audience that includes both those who might identify with its sexually dominant female heroines as well as those for whom such a role is less a mirror than a window onto a world of which they themselves are most definitely not a part.


Joely Sue Burkhart, The Billionaire Submissive

I chuckled at both the title (The Billionaire Submissive) and at the series title (Billionaires in Bondage) of Joely Sue Burkhart's new series with Carina Press, guessing that a certain irony was at play. The book's cover intentionally riffs on the more "mainstream" erotic romances of E. L. James and Sylvia Day, with its still life tableau of erotically-charged items. A closer look, though, calls the conventional symbolic logic of the gathered symbols into gendered question. Is that sparkling diamond an engagement ring? Or a cufflink? Could a lipstick be any more phallic? And who is that dog collar and whip intended for, anyways? Echoing the titles' placement of the male, rather than the female, in the position of submissive, such elements hint that the gender roles of James' books (and to a far lesser extent, Day's) are going to be called into suggestive question.

The Billionaire Submissive, though, follows the path taken by much femdom romance, creating a hero who is alpha strong in every aspect of life, even the submissively sexual. Donovan Morgan's stomping grounds may not be New York City, but he's just as much the larger-than-life businessman that readers have come to expect in their BDSM heroes: "His corner office was mostly glass, giving him an unimpeded view of the world he'd supposedly just conquered. He'd just closed another million-dollar deal" (Loc 2). But the thrill of conquest readers typically gain via proxy to such powerhouse heroes is notably lacking here: "He'd just closed another multi-million dollar deal, yet he felt nothing. No joy, exhilaration, or the rush of competition he'd thrived on his entire life" (Loc 2). Donovan finds himself frozen in the midst of a steamy Minnesota summer, lacking the one thing that might make him feel: a woman who can force him to submit sexually to her.

But Donovan's life changes irrevocably when he interviews Lilly Harrison, purportedly looking to hire the stained glass artist to design new windows for his St. Paul office building, but truly hoping he can persuade her alter ego, Mistress L, to take him on as a client, too. Donovan sends out clear vibes about his specific type of submission:

Yeah, he led the way. But only because she's letting me. Which was the crux of his issue. He wasn't the kind of submissive who would whine and beg and crawl to his Mistress's feet and kiss her toes. No. Donovan Morgan wasn't going down without a fight. The difficulty was finding a Mistress who'd relish the fight as much as him. Someone who was strong enough mentally to bend him to her will, even when he hated every minute of it.  (Loc 190)

Because Donovan's submissive desires are constructed here as strength ("She had to be strong enough to make him want to bend his pride to her will. He had to want to surrender" [Loc 190]), Lilly's wielding of power over him does not emasculate him, or de-feminize her. Lilly's explanation to herself about why she is drawn to the dominant role contains nothing that takes pleasure in a partner's belittlement, but instead focuses on her own power:

Mistress L had started out at the local BDSM club three years ago as Lilly tried to find what she'd been searching for her whole life. She'd dated. She'd had plenty of sex, some good, some not so good. She'd even been engaged. But there'd been an emptiness inside her the entire time, an aching, gnawing lack, even though she didn't know what it was. She'd found it at the club once she'd taken a crop in hand. "They test me. It's like each time I give them an order, and they do it, then I've proved my strength and will again. If they don't obey, then I have  to prove I'm strong enough to punish them until they do. Regardless, I'm growing every single day and becoming even stronger." (Loc 291)

Donovan gets turned on by pain—"There wasn't much on the discipline scale that didn't appeal to him"—but not by degradation: "the humiliation elements were easy enough to decline" (Loc 915). Because Donovan maintains the strength that serves as the cornerstone of conventional masculinity, and Lilly does not enjoy humiliating such men (and has never been sexually turned on by BDSM before meeting Donovan), Lilly's own dominant tendencies never threaten to become a turn-off for the non-kinky reader.



Delphine Dryden, The Principle of Desire

I've read a lot of "please pretend to be my date so my ex won't accost me/humiliate me" meet-cutes, but I've never come across one that takes place in a kink club. But a quarter of the way into The Principle of Desire (the third title in Dephine Dryden's The Science of Desire series), Dryden gives us just such a scene, and with a far less-than-conventional hero than Burkhart's Donovan Morgan. Geeky, cranky, less-than-cut aerospace engineer Ed follows his friends to what he thought was a music club to retrieve his phone, only to find himself in the middle of  kink club. Little does he realize that his offer to help out a friend of a friend when her ex-who-won't-take-no arrives will lead to more than just watching. But in her dismay, former submissive Beth tells her ex-dom Aaron that she came to the club not to meet her him, as he had commanded, but to try out the whipping post with her new boy—Ed.

Having just witnessed the unexpected sight of a female friend on the receiving end of a flogging, Ed consents to Beth's unexpected scenario ("I just found out all my friends are into this stuff, and you expect me to let you fake this in front of them? If Cami took it, so can I. Bring it on, Mistress" [Loc 580]). And he finds himself pleasantly surprised by how turned-on he becomes during Beth's unusual ministrations.

For her part, Beth imagines how comfortable it might be to lay her head on Ed's squishy stomach, and is struck by a craving to "see more of [his] intensity. To bring it out in him, see how suffering refined him into a clearer version of himself. To see how much he would be willing to take to please her" (Loc 498). Beth is not a straight-out dom, but a woman in the process of experimenting, trying to see whether she enjoys the role of dom as much as she did the role of sub. At twenty-eight, Beth has only recently recognized how lacking in mutuality her relationship with Aaron, who "claimed" her at the age of twenty after meeting her at their local kink club, has been. Aaron has no interesting in letting Beth explore her dominance desires ("He doesn't believe in switches. He was sure it was just a phase I was going through and now I'm supposed to be over it"), but misanthropic Ed accepts them without question: "You swing both ways. Got it." (Loc 487).

As their unconventional first date leads to another, and another, Beth, and through Beth, the reader, learn that Ed's unconventionality extends not only to his acceptance of Beth's sexual desires, but also to his views about his own: "I don't really know about this D/s stuff. I'm not either one, and I love doing this with you but I don't know that I'm really a switch either. I think I'm just generally kinky as fuck. I like it all. Is that a thing?" Beth knows that "Purists would say no," but she proves equally accepting of Ed as he is of her: "But it's like glueing your Lego. You have to do what works for you" (Loc 1343). Being a former sub may relieve some reader anxiety about Beth's less conventional femininity, but both her and Ed's refusal to fit neatly into categories may allow readers to question the rigidity of the boundaries of their own sexual desires.

Best line: "There was just something about a woman with a decent grasp of statistics and research" (Loc 892).



Rebecca Rogers MaherTanya

Author Maher confronts potential reader anxiety about dominant women by addressing it head-on, in the dedication to her novella: "This book is dedicated to all women who have more to offer than niceness. Fear us, world. We're coming for you." But her story is as much about convincing her protagonist, former alcoholic Tanya, that she doesn't have to be a nice girl as it is about convincing the reader. Though she's been sober for two years, Tanya has a hard time believing that she can be anything but a screw-up. She engages in one-night stands, sexual encounters in which she keeps tight control of the game. For Tanya, it's not about inflicting pain, but about "forcing [a guy] off balance, keeping [him] under her control" (Loc 152). She initially explains it to herself thus: "It's the filth of it I'm after, the vague sense of self-punishment, of eating something bad for me. I like it when they're mean, or sexist, or stupid. I like taking what I want from these men, and then shoving them out the door" (Loc 210). But there's more to it than just self-punishment:

I like it. I like being a bitch and I like making them want me that way. I like discarding them when I'm all done. It's payback, is what it is. For all those years I spent sitting in grungy apartments listening to the jam sessions and misogynist proselytizing of boys I got drunk with. It was all about them, then. What they wanted.
     Not anymore.
     It's about me now. What I want. (Loc 231)

After an anonymous hook-up with a guy who doesn't seem to feel degraded by her controlling, dominant behavior, but turned on by it, Tanya begins to question her motives even further. And when said anonymous hook-up turns out to be the brother of her sister's fiancé, his acceptance and her own questioning lead her to rethink the story she's been telling about herself: that's she's a drunk, a screw-up, a worthless person, destined to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Just maybe there isn't another shoe waiting to drop; just maybe she can be something else besides nice and still be valued.

Best line: "What is it that you think I want, exactly? Someone to look pretty and clean my socks? It's the twenty-first century. You don't have to be nice. You can be smart and funny and sexy as hell, and believe me, that will be more than enough." (Loc 1240)



Shelley Ann Clark, Have Mercy

In both The Principle of Desire and The Billionaire Submissive, it is the female half of each pair who undergoes the most character change/growth over the course of her story, which in some ways reassures the non-kinky reader who may find a woman with dominant tendencies a bit anxiety-provoking that these heroines are not all-powerful. Beth has to learn to imagine a life separate from Aaron before she can envision a relationship with Ed; Lilly has to learn to believe that a man can love both Lilly and Mistress L before she can commit to Donovan. But in Shelley Ann Clark's Have Mercy, the bigger learning curve is granted to the hero, musician/bar owner Tom. Tom's always been the responsible one, picking up the pieces after his alcoholic father, making sure his younger sister did her homework and ate her dinner. Touring's never been an option before, but now, with his father gone and his sister seeming to have turned the corner in battling her own addiction to liquor, Tom can't resist the offer to tour with rising songster Emily "Emme" Hayes, a woman whose "voice damn near melted his spine.... He heard desire in her voice, and he longed to give her whatever she wanted" (Loc 38). But when things fall apart back home, Tom has to decide whether to keep on giving when he's getting nothing in return, or to be "who he wanted to be, not who he was forced to be by circumstance" (Loc 2655). A daring move, to create a submissive hero who also has a mess of personal problems with which to come to terms.

For her part, Emme is the most openly dominant of the three heroines, even though she's the least aware of her own desires. Or, at least, readers are given far more access to Emme's thoughts and desires than we are to Lilly's or Beth's, desires that are directly at odds with conventional femininity. Early in the novella, Emme masturbates while fantasizing about using the band's new bassist for her own sexual pleasure:

What a stupid fantasy. He seemed different from all the other guys she'd known, sure, but she had no doubt that he'd be like them in bed—pulling her hair, trying to impress her with moves like tossing her around on the bed or putting their hands around her neck. Okay with the right person, maybe, but not what she'd ever really wanted for herself. Things that had always left her feeling a little dissatisfied. Lacking. (Loc 237)

Tom's sexual desires don't quite meet the standards of typical masculinity, either: When they play a new song she's written, "about asking the Lord for mercy for the man she was about to hurt, all he could think was, Please let that man be me" (Loc 475); "He wanted her to push him down and take hi over an dover and over again, preferably while she sang in that husky wet velvet voice" (Loc 457). He seems just the right fit for Emme, who "wanted him to want her, she wanted to make him hurt and yearn, and then she wanted to reward him for it, relieve him of it, make it all better" (Loc 1060).

Tom and Emme gradually discover each other's proclivities, choosing to have an affair despite the promise Emme's bandmates forced her to make before agreeing to hire Tom: she will not seduce the new bass player. The reason behind the promise points to the sexism of the double standard the press, and the public, hold about the sex lives of famous men compared to famous women. By surfacing such openly feminist concerns, rather than blunting Emme's dominant tendencies, Clark doesn't assuage reader anxiety about Emme's unconventional femininity, but asks readers to confront it head-on, then to recognize the sexism that may underlie it.

Best line: "It took its own kind of strength to retain that kindness, that openness, in the face of all his accumulated hurts. For all his guilelessness, he was the strongest man she'd ever met" (Loc 1928).



Can you recommend any other feminist femdom romances?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Searching for My Harlequin Past

As an early adolescent, I was a big reader of Harlequins. I remember hanging out in the local department store, in front of the serial romance bookshelves, poring over which titles sounded interesting enough to be worth the $1.25 I would have to shell out in order to take it home and read more than just the blurb. I remember shopping bag-fulls of the slim volumes cluttering up my closet, and later, after I became embarrassed by my early teen reading, being hauled out the door to be donated to a charity book sale or local Goodwill. Few of these books remained very long in my memory, far too similar in plot, characterization, and tone to stand out from any other.

There were two, though, that I still remember to this day, one with some fondness, the other with definite feelings of "yuck." I couldn't remember the titles or authors of either one, though, and so had a difficult time tracking either down when I rediscovered romance a few years ago (after leaving it far behind soon after graduating high school). But I was inspired by blogger Willaful's recent posts about rereading the romances of her own adolescence to try again to search.

You can easily find lists of all the books published by Harlequin in a certain year (on the romance wiki, and on Wikipedia), and I scanned both lists for the year 1979, thinking that year, the year I turned 14, the most likely one in which I'd find my titles. Could it be Victoria Wolf's Sweet Compulsion? Jane Donnolly's A Savage Sanctuary? Betty Neels' Sun and Candlelight? Some of the author's names sounded vaguely familiar, but since these lists do not contain book descriptions, it was pretty difficult to discover if any of these books were the one I remembered.

Then I hit upon the idea of doing an image search, rather than a straight web search. Maybe a picture would jog my memory more easily than a title alone?

And then, voila! There it was. The woman on the cover caught my eye first, even though she didn't seem the least familiar, with her brunette hair and brown eyes, a rose held lightly between her fingers, an engagement ring winking on her left hand. But when my eyes moved to the right, I knew I had hit pay dirt. Even though the blond man's suit, with its lime green shirt and blue striped tie, hinted at warmth, his downturned eyes and strong facial bone structure suggested just the opposite—a Harlequin hero worthy of his hard name: Stone Harland. Yes, I had finally found it: Harlequin Romance #2289, Jessica Steele's Spring Girl, published in paperback in October of 1979.

I ordered a used copy online, eager to reread and discover, if I could, just what about this particular Harlequin had found me turning back to it and rereading it, over and over, during my 14th and 15th years. I remembered the basic plot—a young woman, annoyed by the persistent sexual attentions of a man she's been dating, sends him a letter implying that she wants to marry him, a letter she hopes will scare the cad away. A few days later, she finds on her doorstep the brother of the cad's fiancée, insisting that she pretend to be his betrothed, to persuade his sister, distraught and hospitalized after a car accident, that her own fiancé has not played her false. Thinking back on this now, such an act seems pretty gutsy for a Harlequin heroine—using wit and guile to get the better of a man, rather than simply accepting unwanted attentions. Might this have been part of the book's appeal?

I also have strong memories of two particular scenes from the book, scenes that reflect less well on the novel's sexual politics. The first is a kissing scene: the hero and heroine kiss, an embrace that the heroine brings to a stop when the hero touches her breast. A pretty stock scene for the tamer Harlequin line. Boy did I ever learn the Harlequin lesson that it's the woman who's responsible for stopping the sexy times before they go too far!  The second scene I remember is one in which the heroine is sitting on the couch, the ankle she's recently sprained hidden under a blanket she's crocheting. The hero is in the midst of berating the heroine for not living up to her promise to visit his sister in the hospital, and, when she seems not to be paying any attention to his tirade, he angrily grabs the blanket and hurls it across the room. Revealing, of course, her horribly swollen ankle. As uppity womanhood is replaced by wounded femininity, our hero is transformed from verbal abuser to tender caring guy. Again, this seems similar to many a Harlequin, with male anger merely a screen behind which hides the vulnerable loving man. I don't think at the time I realized the underlying dynamic here—that "uppity womanhood is replaced by wounded femininity." I liked the fact that male anger could be changed, somehow, made less threatening, even though I did not understand the cost the heroine here paid in order to achieve this transformation.

When the book arrived (complete with a sweet "thank you" note from the reseller!), it migrated to the top of my TBR pile, and I breezed through it in a quick evening. To my surprise, the heroine, Carrie, seemed far more annoying, far less kind, than I had remembered her. A child of privilege, Carrie is supported not by a job, but by a stipend by her wealthy parents. A stipend she spends on clothes and travel; she's just returned from a shopping jaunt to Paris, where she met the aforementioned cad and dumped him via letter. I can hardly imagine identifying with such a girl, growing up as I did with parents who had been raised in the working class and who had, through education, raised themselves into the middle class.

Carrie is also a bit condescending to her less intelligent friend, Dee (although admittedly the rather wet Dee is so annoying in her constant harping about whether Carrie did the right thing by sending the letter to Lance Stevens). Dee is eager to find her future mate, while Carrie, whose parents constantly bicker and place her in the midst of every argument, has little desire to marry, a desire the text is obviously at pains to correct. As a teen, did I read against the text's intentions, admiring Carrie for her unusual stand in regards to marriage? Or did her family situation appeal to me, given the fact that my own parents were undergoing marital difficulties at the time? I can't say that I remember for certain.

Stone Harland is not as overbearing an alpha male as I had expected, although he certainly embodies many of the alpha male's characteristics. He's a rich guy (though we never see him at work); he's compellingly handsome; and he demands far more often than he asks, especially when it comes to Carrie. Carrie likes to be in control of her own life, though, and constantly finds ways to tweak or disrupt Stone's plans, even though ultimately she doesn't challenge them (for example, telling him she'll drive her own car to the hospital, rather than assenting to his "I'll pick you up at two" directive). He stops their first sexual embrace when she asks him to, and only kisses her out of anger (a familiar impulse in Harlequin heroes, as I recall) once, after she returns his "fake" engagement ring. Was I drawn to this book because its hero was a tad less overtly sexist than many of his counterparts? I'd have to reread some other books from the period to see if this theory holds any water.

I think the one thing I can say for certain is that the level of sexuality in this book seemed just right for my never-had-a-boyfriend 14-year-old self. Hot kisses, a tiny bit of groping quickly put to a stop—enough sex to be titillating, but not enough to be too frightening, too overwhelming. There was tension, excitement, but safety, too, in these sex scenes—something similar to nursing a crush on a compelling pop star, someone with whom you'd never (except in your wildest dreams) have the chance to actually having sex.

I did not remember the book's ending at all. Stone puts an engagement announcement in the newspaper, despite Carrie having given him back his ring. This sends an irate Carrie speeding down the motorway to his country house, where Stone, of course, reveals his love for her. And of course, Carrie has recognizes that she's fallen in love with him, as well, and her fears about marital discord fall by the wayside ("How could she tell him, after all she had said against marriage, that to have him as her husband was all she would ever want?" [182]). This time, it's Stone, not Carrie, who brings the sexy times to a halt ("one of us had to be sensible" [185])—did I find this appealing? Or condescending? I'm guessing that Stone's highhanded behavior in both instigating this confrontation or in stopping it before its sexual climax would have been the appeal, so I'm not surprised that the ending was not one of the things about the book that easily came to mind before rereading.

I had fun rereading this book from my youth, although I can't imagine finding my nearly fifty-year-old self compelled to reread it over and over as I did then. I am curious to find that other book that stands out from my adolescent reading—anyone remember a revenge plot about an (Italian?) guy wanting to hurt a man by marrying his daughter, forcing her to have sex with him a lot, and then (of course) falling in love with her, despite his own wishes?


Have you ever gone back and reread a category romance you first encountered as a teenager? Did you find yourself responding similarly to it as you did when you first read it? Or differently? Did you notice different things? I'd love to hear about your experiences...


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Gender Politics of Football: Miranda Kenneally's CATCHING JORDAN

A quick but heartfelt "thank you" to all the RNFF readers who recommended Miranda Kenneally's YA romance Catching Jordan as a good feminist sports read. I finally pulled the book to the top of my "TBR" pile this holiday weekend, and spent an pleasant, thought-provoking evening reading about several key months during the senior year of teen quarterback Jordan Woods. Catching Jordan can be read as an inspirational, aspirational story for teen girls, but what I found myself most interested in was the insights it offers about how boys police, and self-police, their own masculinity, particularly in the setting of sports. And how constructed such masculinity is, given the relative ease with which female Jordan fits herself into that setting.

10-year-old Abbey Johnson of the Harmony Longhorns
Pop Warner team
Despite being a girl, Jordan's been the quarterback of her small Tennessee town's football team ever since her Pop Warner days. It's not the fame of her father, though, an NFL quarterback himself, that's won her her the positions of both QB and team captain, but her own far-above-average skills, both as a sportswoman and as a leader. She can throw a pass farther than her older brother could, can run an offense in her sleep, and knows just how to "keep [her] players in line," taking them to task when they fail at their responsibilities, but also offering encouragement to keep their spirits high (1). All of her teammates (none of whom are female) treat her like one of the boys, rarely calling attention to her sex. And no one laughs when a call comes from the University of Alabama, one of the U.S.'s top football schools, informing Jordan that a recruiter is coming to watch her next game. Jordan not only wants, but expects, to continue to play quarterback with the boys once she hits college, an expectation with which her teammates quite obviously concur.

Though she's been playing since elementary school, Jordan hasn't always been entirely consumed by football, and by its male culture. Back in the seventh grade, Jordan was "okay friends" with future cheerleader Kristen, until Kristen laughed at one of her football teammates when he asked her to a school dance. After convincing the rest of the team to boycott the dance in retaliation for Kristen's slight, Jordan finds herself the focus of middle school girl wrath—"Kristen told everyone that I'd boycotted the dance because no guy would ever want to dance with me." Because I was taller than all the guys... and huge. Ugly (139). After this cringe-worthy incident, Jordan wisely decides "being a guy was better, because none of my teammates would ever say anything so horrible to me." (139). An insight that proves correct; Kristen continues to diss Jordan, calling her both a slut and a dyke (behind her back, of course), and accuses her of sleeping with any number of her fellow teammates. Part of the guy code is having the back of a teammate, and Jordan's fellow football players have never insulted her by making cracks about her sex life or her sexual proclivities the way Kristen does.

But if Jordan avoids cattiness of the stereotypically feminine by "being a guy," she also has to embrace many equally objectionable stereotypically masculine qualities, qualities based on insulting the feminine. Objectionable at least to this female reader, although interestingly Jordan herself doesn't seem to see them as problematic, in large part because they're considered the norm in the culture in which she spends most of her time.

Photo by: Malc Stone
For example, Jordan takes it for granted that men should be "masculine" and shouldn't display any feminine qualities. As she suggests in this explanation for why she's never dated:

     It's not that guys aren't interested in me, because they are, it's that most of the guys I know are either:
     1. Shorter than me;
     2. Pansies;
     3. On my team;
     4. All of the above (10)

Her most common insult is the gender-based "pansy," and when members of opposing teams insult her (most often by calling her a "dyke"), Jordan knows the best way to respond is to call said opponents' masculinity into question: "The only girlfriend he'll ever have is his right hand" (61). To be a successful male is to have and control women; to be unable to attract a woman is to be lacking as a male. Jordan unthinkingly accepts, and reinforces, the positioning of women as objects, men as actors, that forms a central part of male culture.

Jordan not only accepts, but sometimes even polices, her fellow teammates' masculinity. In fact, when we first meet Jordan, she is doing just that:

"He catches the ball, spikes it, and does this really stupid dance. Henry looks like a freaking ballerina. With his thin frame and girly blond hair, he actually could be the star of the New York Ballet.
     "I'm going to give him hell for his dance" (1).

Sam Henry's "dancing" may be objectionable because it leads to penalties, but it's also problematic because it hints at the feminine, something that is anathema in the context of the male-oriented football team. Recognizing this, Jordan feels it her responsibility as captain to tell Henry his actions are out of line.

Jordan also had little respect for any of the other girls at her school, lumping them all into the same "lame girl" pot as she's placed her nemesis, Kristen. For example, when Jordan comments about the missing Henry that "he's probably sleeping with Marie Baird right now," another teammate, JJ, opines, "She's a damn nice piece of ass." Jordan responds, "Don't be such a pig, JJ," but her own eye rolling, never mind her own positioning of Marie as the object of Henry's actions, suggests her rebuke of JJ is halfhearted at best. (114). And later in the book, during a co-ed game of truth or dare, when JJ dares the annoyingly feminine Kristen to "go into the kitchen and make me a steak and mashed potatoes, woman. Medium-well, please. Steak's in the freezer!"  Jordan initially protests, saying, "You chauvinist pig," but immediately ends up laughing when JJ and the rest of the boys start in (125). Interestingly, Jordan doesn't notice the reaction of the other girls in this scene. Jordan seems largely unaware that her embrace of the masculine code comes at the expense of viewing other girls not just as different, but as lesser than, the boys.

But Jordan can't entirely escape her sex, no matter how much she adheres to the guy code. She may be six feet tall, may weigh 170, but she still has breasts and a vagina. And having said body parts means she's fair game to other men beyond the accepting confines of her team, with their sexist insults such as those tossed at her by her older brother's best friend, Jake: "Not only can I teach you math, I can teach you math in bed, Jordan. You know, I'll add the bed, you subtract the clothes, you divide the legs, and I'll multiply" (29). As Jordan remarks, "This is standard Jake Reynolds behavior, so Mike [her elder brother] does the typical rolling of his eyes as I say, 'Charming' and shove Jake against the dishwasher" (29). Neither Jordan nor Mike tells Jake that such language or behavior isn't allowed in their home; to upbraid Jake for the sexism of his comments would be to reject not only Jake, but the larger culture in which all three move, a culture that is built in part upon regarding girls as inferiors, as object for their use rather than as people to be treated with respect. Jake's comments position Jordan as outside that culture, but Jordan refuses such positioning by responding with the acceptably masculine response—a verbal insult and a physical show of force. To do anything else would be to accept Jake's placement of her as outsider, rather than insider.

Others want to position Jordan as feminine, too, particularly the recruiter from Alabama, who sees her not as the perfect quarterback, but rather as the perfect fundraiser, daughter of an NFL star that she is. Jordan expects some action shots when the recruiter asks her to pose for a charity Alabama calendar, and is surprised, and more than a little put off, when she discovers that she's posing in full makeup and stylized hair, with only an oversized jersey and a pair of short shorts for a uniform. Especially when some of her younger teammates begin to position her as that dreaded feminine object: "You look smoking' hot, Woods!" (115). Only the intervention of her closest friends on the team stop the others from "disrespecting" her by positioning her as feminine object (116); first, when they block her from view, then when they distract them by offering a "show" of their own, a mocking inversion of the feminine beauty show Jordan's been asked to perform: "[JJ's] extra weight flops around as he struts up and down the sideline with his jersey thrown over his shoulder.... I crack up when JJ calls out, 'I'm ready for my photo op, Jordan!'" (117). But Jordan herself never openly objects to the way she's being treated; "I'll do whatever I have to do to play ball for Alabama" she tells herself, even while it feels "so wrong" to be positioned as object, not actor, by her fellow teammates.

                  (or other women)
The cover copy of Catching Jordan suggests that Jordan's main conflict will be "keep[ing] her head in the game while her heart's one the line"—can she both have a boyfriend and be the leader of her team? Especially when said boyfriend is her new second-string quarterback? But the real learning curve for Jordan has as much to do with recognizing how both her embrace of football, and her desire for a boyfriend, has placed limits on her as it does with balancing her seemingly conflicting roles as masculine team leader and feminine girlfriend. Only when Jordan realizes that being treated like "an equal" is what she most values, and begins to understand that girls deserve the same respect as do boys (at least until they prove they're not worthy of it), can she find the courage to reject the sexism with which the Alabama recruiter treats her, as well as the knee-jerk rejection she herself has been practicing against all of her female classmates.

Jordan still has a long way to go, feminist-wise—she still finds it all too easy to insult her fellow male football players by questioning their masculinity, for example, and the narrative doesn't suggest that she's at all aware of how sexist such insults are. But she has taken a small step in the right direction, a step for which she is rewarded by finding a love interest who can both light up her oh-so inconvenient hormones and respect her for for her less-than-conventional life goals. A fitting end to a sports romance which calls attention to the sexism underlying male sports culture, even while celebrating the strong team bonds such culture can foster.


Photo credits:
Abbey Johnson: Orlando Sentinel
Pansy Project: Gay Star News
Men still see only an object: Male Vegan Feminist






Miranda Kenneally
Catching Jordan
Sourcebooks Fire, 2011

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

In Praise of the Slow-Build Romance: Jo Goodman's IN WANT OF A WIFE

I've often heard it said that unless a romance novel's protagonists meet within the first five pages, no agent or editor will be at all interested in reading further. In our age of immediate gratification, a slow-build romance, one in which we get to know our protagonists as characters a bit before they fall insta-love (or at least insta-lust) with each other seems almost as difficult to find as a blue limestone columbine at an elevation lower than its native alpine Rocky Mountain meadows.

Blue Limestone Columbine in its natural habitat
Luckily for more patient readers, established writers are far less subject to such publishing truisms, especially ones that developed long after their own credentials were well-established. It was with real sense of luxury, then, that I found myself immersed in the pleasures of Jo Goodman's In Want of a Wife, a book that relied on a romance trope particularly suited to this more leisurely type of storytelling: the mail-order bride tale.

In the American West of the nineteenth century, unmarried European and Asian women were few and far between. European or Asian men who wished to marry and start a family, then, often found it necessary to employ a marriage broker, to draw upon their church connections, or even to advertise in eastern newspapers for a potential mate of their own race or culture. Once such an introduction had been facilitated, courting took place not in person, but via letter, until each party felt he or she knew the other well enough to commit to a train ticket west and to tying the matrimonial knot.

Not part of a culture that commonly employs marriage brokers, and far from being a godly man, Morgan Longstreet chooses the third option, placing an advertisement in multiple papers when he decides it's time to have a woman about his Wyoming ranch. The woman he chooses to correspond with, Jane Middlebourne, is from New York, the same place where he himself lived before being shipped west on an orphan train. Both, though, find themselves in for a surprise when Jane finally steps off her own "orphan" train in Bitter Springs, Wyoming—Morgan, because the photograph of a robust, hearty woman that he received looks nothing like the insubstantial, even fragile woman at the station; Jane, because the man's instant fear that she's somehow deceived him seems a less-than-auspicious beginning for a marriage.

The two decide to wait twenty-four hours before deciding whether to go through with their original plan to marry, a twenty-four hours in which they spend the bulk of their time together, seeing if the person each envisioned from the other's letters comes at all close to the one looming so large in the flesh. Jane discovers a reserved man, a man used to his own ways, not used to consulting with another when making plans or decisions. But several townspeople clearly hold him in respect, even in affection, and appreciate his "dry as four-day-old cake" wit. Morgan discovers an inquisitive woman with an impressive vocabulary, polite but surprisingly plain-spoken for all her eastern primness. A woman who, in spite of appearances, is not in need of coddling, and who has more than a little wit of her own. Comfortable enough—or intrigued enough?—to overcome their initial misgivings, Jane and Morgan decide to wed.

As Morgan recognizes, mail-order brides are often "running more than coming" when they agree to move west (70), and Goodman lays out the bones of Jane's reasons fairly early in the story: an uncaring aunt, a careless cousin in debt, a pretend pregnancy to gain enough money from said uncaring aunt for a pretend abortion, enough money to both wipe out the debt and purchase a train ticket to Wyoming. Morgan, of course, has secrets of his own, secrets that he fears would endanger Jane if he were to entrust her with them. Over the course of their first months together, Jane and Morgan build a partnership in bed ("So when he kissed her this time, she held nothing back. There was no lead for him to take. She met him as a partner, a friend, a lover" [197]). But when Morgan's ugly secrets fail to remain safely tucked away in the past, can Morgan accept Jane's admonishment—that "you make me vulnerable when you try to protect me from the truth" (189) and allow her her own role in bringing the bad guys to heel?

Given In Want of Wife's appearance on this blog, you probably already know the answer to the above question. But hearing about it doesn't come close to the charm of reading it. If you're a fan of the western romance with a subtle feminist twist, I'd recommend Goodman's latest wholeheartedly.



Photo credits:
Blue Limestone Columbine: Wildflower.org  Credit: Bransford, W. D. and Dolphia




Berkley Sensation, 2014

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Making it Rain for RAINN: SUMMER RAIN anthology

As readers of RNFF know, I'm not a big fan of the romance novella form (see an earlier post here). But I do love a well-crafted short story. Not something that comes across as an underdeveloped novel, as so many romance novellas tend to do, but a tale that has the tightness of focus and unity of effect that Edgar Allan Poe, one of the earliest and most talented practitioners of the form, identified as central to the form. And when my purchase of a collection of short stories has the additional bonus of having its proceeds going to support a praiseworthy feminist organization, well, you can just about guarantee that I'll have my wallet out and ready.

But I wouldn't write about any book here on RNFF solely because of its charitable intentions. A book has to strike me as feminist not just in the cause it supports, but also in the stories it tells. I'm happy to report that the recently released romance story anthology Summer Rain, published in support of RAINN, The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, fits both criterion to a T.

Surprisingly, perhaps, given the organization the book was published to support, few of the stories in Summer Rain feature protagonists who are coming to terms with past sexual abuse. Only RITA Award winner Molly O'Keefe's contribution, "The Heart of It," includes a protagonist/survivor (a hero, not a heroine) whose is working to understand why, despite an incredibly supportive network of family and friends, his relationship to his own sexuality is still so fraught. That O'Keefe is able to pair such a hero with an upscale call girl as heroine and still avoid drawing on the stereotypical, and often sexist, hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold trope demonstrates not only her strong skills as a writer, but also her familiarity with current activist work on the rights of sex workers to be treated as human beings rather than simply pathologized as agency-less victims.

If sexual abuse is not a prevalent them of the collection, many of the stories do focus on the related issue of consent in sexual relationships, exploring this issue in both fantastic and realistic settings. In "Real Feelings," Charlotte Stein wonders if, and how, an android created specifically so that a human can "Experience all the joys of a real relationship, without any of the risks" can ever grant meaningful consent. In "Sacrifice," Cecilia Tan imagines a more feminist son for god/serial rapist Zeus, a demigod who searches for a way to fulfill his role in fertility rituals that will not include coerced sexual coupling on the part of his partner. And in "Redemption," Ruthie Knox explores the ways that consensual role-play focused on coercive sex can offer a woman a needed respite from the failures that keep piling up in her life.

Rain, though, rather than abuse, serves as the unifying theme of the collection, the warm rain that brings relief from summer's scorching heat, from the pain of misunderstandings between lovers, from the vulnerability to words said in anger. Impending thunderstorms seem like a sign of potential rebirth to a former artist turned barista in Mary Ann Rivers' "Rainy Season," the story of a woman who takes a chance to find out why a certain customer "is so bright I can hardly look at him, and why I always want him to look at me" and ends up discovering not only him, but herself, as well. In Audra North's "Fitting In," dark, cold rain ruins an anxious, ambitious young man's attempt to win friends and influence potential voters by throwing a paintball party, but grants him the chance to find ways to move beyond shame by forcing him to spend one-on-one time with a woman whom he'd always thought of as the must-be-avoided "weird girl." And in perhaps my favorite story of the collection*, Shari Slade's "Private Study," a fierce downpour serves as fitting punctuation as a once-sheltered young woman demands with biting courage that the boy with whom she begins a tentative relationship admire rather than be ashamed of her newfound love for sex education, and treat her neither as a damsel in need of rescuing nor as a whore who should be feel guilty about her own sexual desires.

It's rare to find a volume that both supports a feminist cause and tells stories that help readers imagine what a feminist heterosexual relationship might look like. If I wish that the anthology had includes some stories with same-sex couples, and with more characters of color, that is not to take away anything from power and beauty of the accomplishments of these talented, politically-aware writers, nor from the work of the collection's editor, Sarah Frantz.

As a reviewer, I received a copy of Summer Rain for free. But I admired it so much that I'm going to purchase additional copies to give as gifts to my sisters. And hope very hard that the tagline on the anthology's cover—"Love in the Rain series"—means there are more feminist-friendly anthologies on the horizon, poised to shine out after the rainclouds clear.


*Although it is hard to whittle it down to just one, as there is only one tale in the entire anthology that did not engage both my aesthetic and ideological sympathies.


Photo credits:
Android sex: Greenprophet.com (and an interesting article about robots and sex tourism)
I love sex ed button: Cafepress.com







(Love in the Rain series)
Edited by Sarah Frantz
self-published by the authors
2014