Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Feminism, First Kisses, and Beauty Pageants: Gina Willner-Pardo's PRETTIEST DOLL

Feminists have long held up the beauty pageant as an event particularly worthy of scorn. In 1968, protests organized by the New York Radical Women against the Miss America Pageant not only called attention to beauty pageant's sexist objectification of women, but simultaneously brought the Women's Liberation Movement into the broader national consciousness. The murder of child beauty pageant participant JonBenét Ramsey in 1996 only added fuel to the feminist fire, bringing global attention to the child pageant industry and the limiting standards of femininity girls as young as four were being asked to embody and perform. Interest in child pageants waned in the wake of Ramsey's death, but recent reality shows "Toddlers and Tiaras" and "Here Comes Honey-Boo-Boo" have led to an upsurge, accompanied by all the expected protests.

So when Gina Willner-Pardo's middle grade novel, Prettiest Doll, opens with narrator thirteen-year-old Olivia Jane Tatum, a long-time pageant participant, declaring—"It's good to be pretty. I'm really lucky"—I worried that I was in for little but heavy-handed ranting in the novel to follow. Books for teens often ask their readers to see beyond the limited scope of their still-developing narrators, and that opening line clearly suggested that Olivia would be in for a lot of hard knocks, holding on to such an obviously narrow view of herself and her world.

The opening third of Willner-Pardo's novel does read like a textbook case against the child pageant industry, at least at first glance. Olivia, or Liv, tells us right from the first page that despite knowing she's lucky to have been born with beauty, she still feels something isn't quite right: "Sometimes, if I really pay attention, it's like there are other feelings inside me, buried down deep, close but far away. It scares me a little, but then I remember about my hair" (1). The dulling repetition of pageant practice, more enervating than working on a factory line, as well as the negative messages about girls' worth that accompany it, drives Liv, and the reader, nearly to distraction. Though Liv has clearly learned the party line about the benefit of pageants—after a boy she meets says pageants are weird, she protests: "they give you poise. They make you confident.... You have to answer questions. It's hard, speaking in public, with everyone watching" (22-23)—the frustration she feels at being told to sing instead of dance for the talent portion of the upcoming Prettiest Doll contest makes her seethe. Liv stinks at singing, and no coaching will ever change that sorry fact.

The narrative also makes it clear that participating in pageants is as much, if not more, for the sake of Liv's mother, than it is for Liv, the "Princess by Proxy" syndrome. Left alone with a young child to raise after her truckdriver husband was killed in a highway accident, Mrs. Tatum works two jobs to be able to afford the expensive costumes and extra coaching necessary to make Liv into a winner. Staying up late into the night to sew on just one more sequin, Mrs. Tatum sees in the lovely, slim Liv the self that she once was, or might have been. Though her mother never says it out loud, Liv can see not only the love in her self-sacrificing mother's eyes, but also the "wanting," the wanting that only Liv's continuing agreement to participate in the pageant world can seem to fill.

So it is hardly a surprise when, about a third of the way into the book, we find Liv running away from home, hopping the bus to Chicago in the company of a fifteen-year-old boy who's having his own difficulties with the pressures of his mother's expectations. Oh, of course, during her trip, Liv will learn to stand up for herself, I thought to myself; she'll return home, diss her mom, take charge of her life, and stop this foolish pageant business. With such a predictable outcome, I was ready to just skim the rest of the book and set it aside.

But the remainder of Prettiest Doll doesn't allow its readers to come away feeling so smugly superior, as viewers of Toddlers & Tiaras does, sure that we would never treat our little girls in such a demeaning way. Instead, it asks readers to think a bit harder, not only about what parents owe their children, but what children owe their parents, particularly single mothers. And it asks readers to reconsider some of the judgments they made during that first third of the novel, to think about how social class is implicated in the disdain heaped upon the stereotypical mother of the child beauty pageant queen.

A romantic setting for a first kiss: Chicago's Navy Pier
"Mama says being pretty is the best thing to be good at because that's what people really care about. 'Being pretty is what opens doors,' she says" (7). As Liv watches the way people make fun of her mother, once a slim teenager, now an overweight woman who can't seem to give up the unattractive permed hairstyle of her adolescent years, Liv has seen firsthand all the doors that slam shut in the face of the not-so-pretty, particularly those without much in the way of financial means. But the empathy Liv comes to feel for Danny, the object of her first romantic feelings and a boy with body-image problems of his own, is what allows her, and through her, the reader, to come to recognize that being pretty isn't all that people care about. And it's far from all that there is to Olivia, either.

"Part of growing up is knowing when to stand up for yourself. And that, sometimes, backing down is the right thing to do, the better path to walk," Liv says during the interview portion of her final pageant. Sometimes, as Willner-Pardo's book shows, it takes a little of both in order to stop being just an object in others' eyes, and finally be seen.

Gina Willner-Pardo,
Prettiest Doll. Clarion, 2012.

Photo/Illustration credits:
• Miss America Protesters: Veteran Feminists of America
• Toddlers & Tiaras: VH1
• Ferris Wheel: Alina Bliach

Next time on RNFF:
Printzs and RITAs and boys, oh my!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Romancing the Condom: Contraception Use in Romance Novels

In the summer of 2011, the popular press jumped all over a 3-page essay published in a professional journal, one which attempted to discuss some of the problems reading romances might create for health care professionals offering formal sex and relationship education to their clients. Susan Quilliam's " 'He seized her in his manly arms and bent his lips to hers...' The surprising impact that romantic novels have on our work" pointed out, quite rightly, that "while women's exposure to formal sex and relationships education (SRE) may be as little as a few hours in a lifetime, exposure to the brand of SRE offered in romantic novels may be as much as a day every week." Quilliam wanted readers of the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care to realize that they might need to factor in this disparity of knowledge when they counseled their patients and students.

Though Quilliam praised romance novels on several fronts, the popular media pounced only upon the concerns she raised about the genre: that it might discourage condom use, and that the perfectionism and idealisation common to the genre may raise false expectations for women in real-life relationships. "Romance Novels Seduce Women Into Unsafe Sex, Says British Journal" ABC News proclaimed, while Time magazine explained Why Romance Novels, Filled with Passionate Love and Torrid Sex, Mislead Women." A plethora of other online articles with such fear-inducing titles as "Are Romance Novels Bad For Your Health?" "Mills & Boon Blamed for Sexual Health Problems" and  "Mills & Boon Cause Marital Breakdowns" joined the chorus, leading, in their turn, to frustrated, outraged, and occasionally witty rejoinders from romance readers and scholars ("Romances, According to Susan Quilliam, Don't Have Enough Condoms, Do Have Too Much Fantasy" from Smart Bitches, Trashy Novels; Romance Fiction and Women's Health: A Dose of Skepticism from NPR; "But Mr. Darcy, Shouldn't We Be Taking Precautions?" from The Observer).

Interestingly, another scholarly journal article, one published only a month before Quilliam's, was entirely ignored by the popular media and, as far as I can tell, by the romance reading community (with the exception of Laura Vivanco at Teach Me Tonight). A. Dana Ménard and Christine Cabrera, psychologists at the University of Ottawa, published "'Whatever the Approach, Tab B Still Fits into Slot A': Twenty Years of Sex Scripts in Romance Novels" in the journal Sexuality & Culture in April of 2011. Rather than make sweeping claims about the genre of romance, these two researchers were more interested in seeing if romances had changed over historical time. Though their sample size was small (only 20 novels), it might be more representative of the most popular romance tropes than studies with more titles, given that all 20 books included were winners of the RITA award for best contemporary single-title romance between 1989 and 2009.

Ménard and Cabrera hypothesized that they would find little change in sex scripts, or "cognitive schemas that allow individuals to plan their current and future sexual behaviours as well as to understand their past behaviours.... the who, what, when, where, and why of sexual behaviour." Despite their hypothesis, and despite the pessimistic title of their article, the psychologists discovered that depictions of sex and sexuality in romance novels had changed in two important, and decidedly feminist, ways.

One of these changes—that in books from the earlier time period, sex scenes were initiated more often by heroes (63.0%) than by heroines (33.3%), but in books from the later period, the percentages had become more balanced: 31.6% male-initiated; 42.1% female-initiated; and 26.3% mutually initiated (a category almost nonexistent, at 3.7%, in the earlier group)—is worth its own post. Here, I'd like to focus on the other change they discovered: contraception was used more frequently by characters in books published between 2000 and 2009 as compared to those released between 1989 and 1999 (57.9% vs. 18.5%). While Ménard and Cabrera bemoan the "relatively low" contraception usage rates even in the more recent titles, I'd argue that a nearly 40% increase is an impressive shift, particularly in the face of arguments that insist that discussions or depictions of birth control simply aren't sexy. I'd also wager that when RITA-winning books from the 2010-2019 period are studied, the percentage will show an equally high increase from the previous decade.

Ménard and Cabrera found it odd that the shift in contraception depiction had occurred not during the 1990s, when AIDS awareness campaigns were at their height, but after 2000. One reason for the late shift might be that the most popular writers in the earlier period were primarily authors who had come of sexual age before the dawn of AIDS, while those in the latter period had grown up knowing and using condoms to ensure their own sexual health. Another might be the publicity surrounding an earlier academic essay, Amanda B. Diekman, Mary McDonald, and Wendi L. Gardner's "Love Means Never Having to Be Careful: The Relationship Between Reading Romance Novels and Safe Sex Behavior," published in the journal Psychology of Women Quarterly in 2000.  Diekman and her co-authors were among the first researchers to move beyond the "romance novels brainwash their readers"/"readers know what's real and what's fantasy" argument, to actually test if and how reading a particular type of novel, and a particular depiction of sexual content in said genre, had an effect on readers' real-life behavior. Though many have criticized their methodology, their conclusions—that "high levels of romance reading were associated with negative attitudes towards condoms and reduced intent to use condoms in the future" and that "including safe sex elements in romance stories increased positive attitudes toward condoms and marginally increased intent to use condoms in the future"—may have influenced romance writers to give greater weight to encouraging safe sex practices amongst their readers than fears of alienating readers by including depictions of contraception use had previously allowed.

Has anyone read the last three RITA award-winners for single title contemporary recently enough to remember whether they include discussions of, and/or use of, contraception? We can expand the list to include RITA-nominated books, too, and keep a running tally here to save some future researchers some trouble...

Photo/Illustration credits:
• Romance: Too Great Expectations. The Daily
• Condoms: MenInsider

Next time on RNFF
Feminism at the Beauty Pageant: Gina Willner-Pardo's Prettiest Doll

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

E-books, Wonkiness, and Feminism: Some Thoughts on Ruthie Knox's ABOUT LAST NIGHT

"Yeah, well. Looks can be deceiving." She thought of how he'd seemed to her before she knew him, cold and polished as a marble statue at the train station. How he really was when they were alone. Hot and messy. Intense and conflicted. Vulnerable and real. — Ruthie Knox, About Last Night

 As a woman who's conducted a life-long love affair with the printed page, accepting the advent of the e-book has been a struggle. In the spring of 2010, a tech-savvy friend brought over his cool new toy, an iPad, and demonstrated how he could make the adventures of Lewis Carroll's Alice come to life with a flick of his finger. I smiled, but inside I scoffed; a child brought up in the age of technology would hardly be satisfied by the miniscule interactivity offered by such a silly program, while a bookish child would find making the cards fly around Alice's head an unwelcome distraction from the real action: the story. Just because technology makes it possible to create something doesn't mean that it's worth creating.

In the two and a half years that followed, I continued to hold out against the onslaught of the e-reader. I watched as my dad, my mother-in-law, my best friend's daughter all succumbed to the lure of the electronic book.  They bragged about the ease with which their Kindles and Nooks allowed them to download and read almost anything they wanted, about how it was so much easier to take a small e-reader on a trip than it was to lug around a bundle of books. Still unconvinced,  I would simply smile while I packed my tote bag full of hardcovers to take on vacation. Keep your technology, I sniffed; I far preferred snuggling up with a real book.

What finally made me reconsider my Luddite position was not any new app or gee-whiz technological advance bruited about by the e-reader companies, but the simple fact that books I wanted to read had begun to be published ONLY in e-book format. At first, it was stories and novellas, works I could justify resisting; largely gimmicks, I thought, these short e-texts were likely just another ploy by publishers to "extend the brand," to make as much money off gullible readers as possible by convincing them to fork over dollars for something in e-format that they would never spend money on if they ever saw how slim a paperback copy of the same text would be. The temptation became greater, though, when authors I liked began reissuing long-out of print books in e-format, books that I couldn't get even through my local library's extensive interlibrary loan system. But still, I resisted.

Finally the day came when I discovered a new, full-length romance novel recommended by multiple reviewers on which I simply could not get my hands. I searched for this book on my library network; then, at online bookstores. To my chagrin, I discovered that this book would not be simultaneously issued in both print and e-text, but as an e-book only.  And then, at long last, I finally broke down and clicked that "purchase" button for a brand spanking new e-book. Yes, Ruthie Knox, you are responsible for taking my e-reader virginity.

At least I gave it up for a wonk. Knox, together with six other romance authors, created the blog Wonk-o-Mance in January of 2012. Their manifesto argues for both the viability, and the appeal, of the non-traditional in romance: "We are the mythical readers, the undermarketed writers, who like our protagonists less conventional, our conflicts less tidy, our endings less certain. We want escapism, but with a nice shot of human frailty." The Wonk-o-mance moves beyond the tall and tan hero, the thin and plucky heroine, the de facto amazing sex (at least some of the time) to give readers stories of the less expected. Tightrope-walking the line of romance conventions, sticking a toe over it upon occasion, even giving it a kick now and then to see how far it will stretch and still remain tied, a wonky writer will not be constrained by the homogenizing force of the lowest common denominator of the mass market, but will carve out her own unique niche, certain that there are others out there like her.

Not all wonk-o-mance is necessarily feminist, but wonkiness and feminism turn out to have a lot in common, as illustrated by Knox's recent Loveswept e-book original, About Last Night. Combining the false engagement/marriage trope of the romance with the embarrassing too-drunk-to-get-home-need-to-be-rescued trope of chick lit seems like a recipe for conventionality. Yet in Knox's hands, the tropes reveal themselves open to unexpected possibilities, in large part because of the way Knox reveals more and more nuances in her characters as their story unfolds. Looks can be deceiving, as heroine Cath notes in the quote that opened this blog, but great pleasures await those who move beyond the surface into the world of wonk-o-mance. And some of those pleasures are decidedly feminist.

Commuter romance
One of those pleasures is the way Knox depicts sex between her protagonists. During Cath's first intimate encounter with the man she's noticed riding the train into London every morning, the man she's dubbed "City" when she writes about him in her journal, the sex is mind-blowing. Yet its greatness is not due to some magical true love connection between Cath and Nev (City's real name is Neville), but rather to Nev's willingness to take "the time to figure out what she liked." For Cath, none of whose previous lovers could be held up as exemplary, Nev is a revelation: "She tried to remember when another man, any other man, had taken her hand off his dick so he could kiss her neck and make her shivery. She drew a blank."

Cath doesn't expect her lover to mystically intuit her sexual preferences, either; instead, she communicates her desires: "She squeezed his hand tight whenever he found a good spot, gasped and moaned, urging him on." She does wonder, though, if a considerate man makes for a considerate lover, never having been attracted to a "nice" guy before. But Nev is not nice in an unattractive, insecure way. He, like Cath, knows what he desires: "No hesitation. No playing around. He behaved like a guy who was used to getting what he wanted." Cath finds not only his attraction to her, but her own active welcoming of it, a turn-on: "It was heady, being what he wanted and letting him get her." The narrative positions Cath not as a woman being possessed by a man, passively succumbing to his active sexual ministrations, but as a thinking, consenting adult who participates fully in their mutual sexual exploration.

Another feminist pleasure is the way the narrative refuses to succumb to the trope of having all of one's problems solved by falling in love. Cath and Nev do change over the course of the novel, but not because (or just because) they come to love one another. They change because each is able to show the other how the stories they've been telling themselves to make sense of their pasts—Cath convinced she's doomed to failure, destined to wreak pain and hurt on others; Nev believing he's done the best he can to carve out his own life in the face of his dominating family— can be retold, seen in an entirely different light. Love is not a cure-all band-aid; love sees both the worst and the best in the other, and helps the beloved see it, too.

I'm still not a big fan of the e-reader. I miss the deliberate choices made by an intelligent book designer about what size type, what typeface, best suits a particular story. I miss being able to pull out a quote from a book and cite a particular page, so my readers can find it again themselves if they wish. I miss the feel of paper in my hands, the smell of it in my nose. I worry that without its physical manifestation available for me to see and hold, a book isn't really quite mine.

But if the world of publishing continues to move in the direction of electronic books, I will have to grin and bear it. For e-publishing is making it possible for the strange, the unconventional, the wonky to find a market in a way the economics of physical book production rarely allow. And now that I've met it, I wouldn't give up the wonk-o-mance world for anything.

If only they would make those wonky e-books available through some print-on-demand service, for Luddites like me...

Ruthie Knox, About Last Night. Loveswept, 2012.

Photo/Illustration credits:
• Alice: Apple iTunes
Commuter Love: Virtual Tourist
• I Love Books: City of Waco, TX

Next time on RNFF:
Contraception Use in Contemporary Romance

Friday, January 18, 2013

RNFF Pet Peeve: "Baby, You're All That I Need"

In the early years of our relationship, my significant other traveled for business two or three times a year. I'd drop him off at the airport, and a few days or a week later, would drive back to Logan, leave the car in short-term parking, and wait by the arrival gate for his plane to land. Images from films and television commercials would flicker through my mind, visions of couples joyfully embracing, the man swinging his girl in his arms, the woman grabbing her man and kissing him, oblivious to the line of passengers their torrid embrace was holding up. But in those movies and advertisements, none of those passengers minded, not really; witnessing the pleasure of romantic love reunited more than made up for any delay it might cause.

Somehow, though, my own airport reunions never lived up to such visions. More often than not, a flood of annoyance, even dislike, overcame me as my man came striding toward me down the concourse. I'd often find myself turning away from his kiss, grabbing at his baggage and gruffly urging him to move out of the way of the other passengers rushing to push past us. That fug of airplane smell hung always hung over him, an odor not at all conducive to evoking tender emotions, and as soon as we'd get home, I'd urge him not into my bed, but into the shower.

For the longest time, I thought my unromantic airport reunions meant there was something wrong with me, or with my relationship. If I loved my guy, why didn't the mere sight of his familiar face emerging from the crush of a crowd of strangers send me into a cloud of delirious joy? It took me a good while to realize that part of me wanted to push him away when he returned from a trip not because I didn't care for him, but because I cared too much. How dare he have commitments more important than me. How dare he care about something else besides me. How dare he abandon me! My conscious brain knew, of course, that such a response was irrational, ridiculous, but even so, a small corner of my unconscious was angry, and wanted to punish him for enjoying, for needing, something else besides me.

Despite being a rational, educated, feminist woman, this patently false belief—the "Baby, you're all that I need" fallacy—had wormed its way into my brain. Indeed, it's difficult for any woman to rid herself of the annoying pest, at least a woman brought up under the influence of Western culture. From pop song lyrics* to iconic film lines, the message that all woman needs is her one true love reigns ubiquitous in the media. And romance novels often partake in its dissemination, even ones with seemingly empowered women as their heroines.

Case in point is a book that I started off loving: newcomer Kate Cross's steampunk fantasy Heart of Brass (2012). As the book's blurb asserts, Cross's heroine, Arden Grey, "enjoys a life most women in 1898 Victorian London can't even dream of": social status, wealth, and independence. She's an inventor, creating not only devices to help "hysterical" women relieve their tensions (what we would call vibrators and the like ;-) ) but also special glasses that allow her to see the final moments of a murder victim's life. Such inventions allow her both to help the police and to work as an agent for the Wardens of the Realm, protecting the nation against unclear but obviously dangerous menaces.

Best of all for romance junkies, Arden's beloved husband, Lucas, who has been missing for seven years, makes a sudden reappearance at the start of the novel (ironically for one who hates real-life airport reunions, lovers separated then reunited is a favorite romance trope of mine). Lucas, having had his memory altered by the mysterious "Company," has no recollection of Arden and instead has been programmed to assassinate her.

Plots twist and unravel, but the book isn't all about action. Both Arden and Luke reveal more nuanced layers of character as they gradually come not just to remember their past feelings, but to develop new ones in response to the quite different people the past seven years have wrought of them. In their early marriage, Lucas often left Arden for his work as a Warden; at the time, Arden played no role in the organization. The old Luke might not have appreciated this more intrepid, independent Arden, but this more disillusioned version appreciates her strengths.

Yet their present relationship is haunted by the ghosts of Arden's past fears, fears that Luke cared more for his work than for her. Before Luke's disappearance, their marriage was plagued by tension, tension stemming from Arden's frustrations at Luke's constant abandonment of her whenever the thrills (or "duties," as Luke justified them) of his spying work called.

Rather than showing Arden maturing, growing out of such fears as she comes to recognize the value of her own work and skills, the novel instead concludes by simply appeasing them. After Arden is almost killed when the murderers they've been pursuing are revealed and captured, Luke highhandedly submits not only his own resignation to the Wardens, but also hers. The narrative positions his decision as a positive one, a rejection of an agency that is only using him, and is negatively impacting his relationship with his wife: "He was done with being a spy, with putting his life in jeopardy for a country and an agency that would just turn around and demand that he do it again. He refused to be separated from her again. Refused to keep secrets from her, or endanger her because of his actions." But as becomes clear in the book's denouement, Luke's decision resonates because of what it tells Arden about his feelings for her.

Arden agrees to Luke's highhanded decision to resign on behalf of them both with surprisingly little protest. Readers can understand why when they see her old fears returning: "She didn't know how long it would last—how much time would pass before Luke began to crave excitement and chafe at the bonds of matrimony. It frightened her thinking he might leave her again." Only after weeks pass, and Arden brings herself to question Luke about his decision, is she finally assured by his declaration: "Arden, you are my life. I don't want anything else."

Critics of romance novels frequently complain that they too-often require their heroines give up everything in order to be with the man they love. The "baby, you're all that I need" trope is the flipside of that demand, a demand that a man give up everything he values in order to appease the insecurities of his woman. While such declarations and actions may be deeply satisfying to our infantile ids, which can only be satisfied by a lover/mother who will meet our every need, a feminist might wish to think twice before being pacified by the impossible-to-live-up-to siren song of "baby, you're all that I need."

 * Male singers or groups who have recorded a song titled "You're All That I Need" range from Michael Bolton to Marvin Gaye, Radiohead to Twisted Sister, Method Man to White Lion. No matter her musical taste, a woman can find a man ready to tell her he needs nothing but her.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Airport Kiss: Tumblr
Jerry Maguire: Mentoring Career Advice
Id/Ego/Superego: Fishegg Cartoons

Next time on RNFF
The Wonky Feminism of Ruthie Knox

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The politics of M/M romance and Alex Beecroft's BLESSED ISLE

In 1969, Kate Millett became one of the earliest feminist literary critics to protest the sexism prevalent in books by men. Sexual Politics, one of the most important books of second-wave feminism, argues that male authors, even the most lauded literary writers, typically depict women not as they are, but as patriarchy imagines them (or fears they might be). Using sex and sex scenes in particular to degrade and dehumanize women, male authors see women through a patriarchal lens, a lens that views it as natural that women are subordinate to men, or sees woman as simply an inferior sort of man. Such depictions of women are not simply drawn from nature, Millett argued, but instead reflect the socially-conditioned belief system of a patriarchal culture.

Millett's method—analyze literature written by members of a dominant group not from the perspective of that dominant group, but rather from the perspective of the oppressed—has been effectively adopted by other subordinate groups in the forty+ years that followed Sexual Politics. Literary critics have used her approach to identify and question the naturalness of other "isms" in the literary canon: not just sexism, but racism, colonialism, classism, and able-bodyism, to name just a few. And not just in the canon, but now, in popular literature such as romance, too.

The project of cultural critique becomes more fraught, however, when subordinate and dominant identities fail to break along clear, clean lines. For instance, do gay men who criticize straight women who write m/m (male/male) romances write from a position of oppression (as homosexuals pointing out the heteronormativity of such writing)? Or from a position of power (as men telling women how and what they should and should not write)? Are hetero female writers objectifying men in their novels, treating them as sex toys because they do not depict them from a perspective of authenticity? Are they appropriating gay male experiences? Fetishizing them? If so, are those necessarily un-feminist acts? Whose fantasies are m/m fictions bringing to life—gay men's? Hetero women's? Both? Neither?

The tangled politics of these questions have made me wary of reviewing m/m romances on this blog. But I've decided that such reticence is a cop-out, a cowardly refusal to get a bit wet when wading into potentially stormy waters. So I've decided to, if not take the plunge, at least to kick a toe in the waves, hoping to learn more about the issues at stake in this contested sub-genre, as well as to hash out for myself what might constitute a "feminist m/m romance" (if such a thing is even a possibility). Feel free to chime in with your thoughts about the possibilities and problematic aspects of such a genre.

My toe in the water today takes the form of a review of a specific m/m romance that strikes me as feminist, and my exploration about why it feels feminist to me. Historical romance is the genre that brought me back to reading romance after I had given it up after my Women's Studies consciousness-raising, and Alex Beecroft was the first writer of m/m romance that I read after returning to romance. So it seems fitting to begin with a work by this author, a novella originally published in the 2009 collection Hidden Conflict: Tales from Lost Voices in Battle (Cheyenne Publishing), but just reissued as a stand-alone e-novella this past December by Riptide Publishing.

Convict transportation ship Neptune
Told in the form of an alternating journal or diary, Blessed Isle tells of the burgeoning romance between eighteenth-century ship's captain Harry Thompson and his new First Lieutenant, Garnet Littleton. Harry, eager to prove his worthiness because of his plebeian origins (most naval officers were from the aristocracy and gentry), eagerly takes on the supervision of the second fleet to convey convicts to the new colony of Australia. But his voyage is doomed, not only due to storm, sickness, and revolt, but, at least in Harry's mind, to the immediate and overwhelming attraction he feels at the sight of the dark-haired aristocratic Lieutenant Littleton singing in the ship's wardroom.

Beecroft deploys the dual-stranded narrative to multiple effects. Allowing each character to "speak" through the journal allows each man's voice, and thus each's unique character, to emerge. The younger Garnet, secure in his aristocratic privilege, is a cocky daredevil. His narrative uses "I" far more often than Harry's does, and he is not at all shy about crowing about his own talents: "Evidently [Harry] was so dazzled by my numerous and wondrous qualities that my message utterly passed him by," Garnet remembers of their first meeting. Garnet is also more knowledgeable about the cultural codes of engaging in sex with other men, familiar with the right song to sing to bait his "hook," cautious never to engage in a liaison with a tar for fear that as an officer he could never be entirely certain the man had not felt coerced.

Harry, in contrast, is dutiful and hardworking; not willing to settle for climbing his way up from impressed seaman to lieutenant, he set his mind on becoming a captain, and committed himself to performing the heroic act that such an ambition required. In his journal entries, Harry writes more plainly and directly, with far fewer flourishes; his imagery tends to the mundane, natural world ("I took to the Navy as a bird, falling from its nest, takes to flight") rather than to the classical texts that the educated Garnet can reference at will.

Harry and Garnet have different attitudes to their sexuality, too, which are made clear through the dual narrative. Harry is not afraid to die, but fears disgrace if he acts on his attraction to Garnet. Garnet, in contrast, is more than willing to risk everything in order to sate his desires for Harry. Not just faceless, fetishized bodies upon which readers can thrust their own fantasies, then, Harry and Garnet emerge, through the dual narrative, as unique, nuanced, complicated individuals.

The dual narrative also allows Beecroft to present multiple interpretations of events, and different ideological viewpoints, without endorsing one or the other as correct. Harry points to the sight of Garnet as a signal of his doom, echoing the trajectory of much early gay fiction, in which romance inevitably ended in tragedy. Garnet, however, suggests it is not their attraction that caused the convoy's misfortunes, but rather Harry's rejection of it, "the most extraordinary event of my life, and I'm sure of his." "Oh, no, I thought, you do not feel the thunderbolt of Jove, and go on as though nothing has happened, The gods punish hubris such as that. You do not have the strength to fight against Olympus."

Garnet and Harry also have different takes on what constitutes healthy male/male sexuality. Harry falls clearly into what many critics might term the heteronormative (but which might be better termed the monogamy-normative) camp:

But it leaves a bad taste in my mouth that this love should go unrecorded, that posterity should judge men like myself—like him—by the poor fools driven out to grope strangers in alleys, all fumbling fingers and anonymous grunting. Those of us uncaught must perforce be silent. But one day, perhaps, when the world has grown kinder, this journal will be read by less jaundiced eyes. To them I will be able to say there was fidelity here, and love, and long-suffering sacrifice, and joy.

But this passage is soon contested by Garnet's thoughts, giving voice to a different view on sex between men:

I had enjoyed the game of it, in the past. I did not enter the Navy because I feared to put myself at risk, and I have always found that life tastes sweetest with a slight spicing of terror. If you go looking for them, there are always men to be found, three weeks out of port, who are willing to take the chance of a quick fumble. From a whisper misjudged so that the lips brush skin, to the torment of squeezing by, just that little bit too close in a confined space. All this leading to a hasty climax on the cable tier or in the spirit room. The gunpowder magazine, that's my favourite. Biting kisses and the little death in the dark, surrounded by all that slumbering fire.
     I'm not a gambling man, despite what my present neighbours may tell you. But I believe the reckless compulsion a man finds at the tables, I found in this. Knowing I could be destroyed at any moment, loving the high stakes and the thrill.

A feminist romance embraces the idea that there are multiple avenues of healthy, satisfying sexuality. It also recognizes that one person can never be enough in him or herself to satisfy every need of another. When Harry and Garnet are shipwrecked, and spend eight months alone together on a deserted island, Harry regards their land as a "Blessed Isle," a space where he and Garnet have "liberty to indulge our natures with no condemnation and no risk." But for the extroverted Garnet,  the solitary days on the island grow increasingly dark, despite the joy he takes in his new sexual relationship with Harry. He tries to hide his melancholy, but finally admits: "I miss other people, Harry. I am... sorry, but much as I love you, you cannot be a sufficient replacement for all civilized society." As soon as Harry understands Garnet's pain, he determines to find a way to allow them to escape what to Garnet has become a prison, even though to Harry, it is a refuge.

Harry and Garnet fight their way to a happy ending, each learning from the other the true meanings of cowardice and freedom, the need for both self-protection and self-expression. Though in public, they must still masquerade, in private, and inside themselves, they are no longer burdened by shame, but sent aloft by joy.

If feminism can be expanded to include not just equal rights between woman and men, but equitable relationships between all romantic partners, no matter their sex or gender, then Beecroft's Blessed Isle can surely stand as a feminist text, despite not featuring a single woman in a major or supporting role.

Alex Beecroft, Blessed Isle. Riptide Publishing, 2012.

Illustration/Photo Credits
Kate Millett on Time: Vitro Nasu
Raining Men: Romantic Times Book Reviews
Neptune: Australian History.org
Ship Journal: Wanelo
Quill pens: TJ Bookarts

Thanks to netgalley for providing me with a copy of Blessed Isle

Next time on RNFF
RNFF Pet Peeve: "Baby, you're all that I need"

Friday, January 11, 2013

Ranking Feminism, or Ranking Race? Disney's Princesses

How many girls are first introduced to the idea of romantic love not through a romance novel, but through the princess films made by the Walt Disney Company? I'm guessing a healthy majority, at least if we restrict the conversation to American-born kids, or perhaps just to English-speaking countries. Before any young reader thinks of picking up a Harlequin, a Gossip Girl, or a book by Stephenie Meyer or one of her many imitators, she's already quite likely to have unconsciously imbibed the patterns of the Disney-version romance through multiple viewings of her favorite Disney VCR tape, DVD disk, or You-Tube download.

That's why I decided to point my readers in the direction of Sonia Saraiya's "Ranked: Disney Princesses From Least to Most Feminist", even though it was originally posted on nerve.com back in July 2012. I hadn't seen the post first time round, but when it appeared on several lists of "most interesting web posts of 2012" my spouse browsed during his end of year week off from work, he kindly forwarded the link.

After watching the latest addition to the animated princess annals, 2012's Brave (distributed by Disney, but created under the auspices of Pixar), Saraiya got to musing about the relative feminism displayed by Disney princess heroines. With the caveat that few could do much justice to the label, Saraiya proceeds to rank, from 10 to 1, the Disney princesses, from least to most feminist. Here are her results:

10. Aurora  (Sleeping Beauty)
9. Snow White 
8. Cinderella
7. Ariel (The Little Mermaid)
6. Belle (Beauty and the Beast)
5. Jasmine (Aladdin)
4. Rapunzel (Tangled)
3. Tiana (The Princess and the Frog)
2. Pocahontas
1. Mulan

Four white princesses, front and center; four princesses of color, safely contained

My first reaction to the list was "Well, yes, of course." For with one early exception, and some minor shuffling amongst the most recent, the films listed appear in largely chronological order:

Snow White (1937)
Cinderella (1950)
Sleeping Beauty (1959) 7 here; 10 above
The Little Mermaid (1989)
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Aladdin (1992)
Pocahontas (1995) 4 here; 2 above
Mulan (1998) 3 here; 1 above
The Princess and the Frog (2009) 2 here; 3 above
Tangled (2010) 1 here; 4 above

Second-wave feminism emerged during Disney's dormant period (the gap between 1959's Sleeping Beauty and 1989's The Little Mermaid); given Mr. Disney's personal views, it hardly seems surprising to find that the earlier works, ones made under his own supervision, reflect far more regressive gender politics than ones made during and after the Disney Renaissance. Though it took Disney a few years to catch up to the times, its more recent films acknowledge feminist principles, at least those that have moved from radical assertion to taken for granted.

The more I looked at the pictures that accompanied Saraiya's rankings, though, the more I began to wonder about what role race played in the construction of feminism in the Disney oeuvre. Four of the top five "most feminist" Disney princesses are girls of color: the Arabian Jasmine; the Native American Pocahontas; the Chinese Mulan; and the African-American Tiana. The one white chick in the bunch, Tangled's Rapunzel, earns a  lower feminist ranking than three of these four, despite being the heroine of the most recent Disney release.

That Disney has taken strides to become more racially inclusive (even if often misguidedly so) is surely something for feminists to applaud. Yet I wonder what ideas about women and race will gradually be instilled in young viewers who watch these films over and over, as do so many American families with VCRs or DVDs, and young children. Being a strong woman is good (or perhaps even required?) if one is a person of color, but white girls need not bother? Young girls born into white privilege, but not into class privilege, may find themselves quite disillusioned when they find it takes a little more effort for all their dreams to come true than they were led to expect...

Photo/Illustration credits:
Disney Pictures logo: Logoblog.org
Disney Princesses, group and individual: The Disney Wiki

Next time on RNFF
Men in love in the Age of Sail: Alex Beecroft's Blessed Isle

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Feminism in the Military: M. L. Buchman's I OWN THE DAWN and WAIT UNTIL DARK

For her final project in 8th grade history last spring, my daughter wrote an essay about the role of women in the military during World War II. My girl always grimaces whenever I start analyzing the stereotypes in pop music during car rides, or on the Disney Channel shows she currently likes to watch, so I was quite surprised when I heard the topic she had chosen. And as she asked me to proofread her paper, I got to learn all about the WAVES and the WACS, the WASPS and the SPARS, and the different jobs these women played when they were allowed for the first time to serve in the U.S. military in an official capacity. Though about 70% of women were employed in "feminine," primarily clerical, jobs, some took on more traditionally masculine roles: machine gunner; sniper; tank driver; scout. And I got to read all about the sexism and discrimination these brave pioneers faced: not only from individual men in the military, but also from the military's image of women in the service. Recruiting posters, flag-waving films, and the like depicted females who served their country as overtly feminine, even domestically-inclined, out of fear that if the public believed women would be "masculinized" by military service, a huge percentage of the work force necessary to wage war would be prevented from joining up.

Sexism and discrimination rarely play a role in romance novels featuring heroes who serve in the military, and in particular those who serve in special or elite military forces. Alpha males willing to put their bodies on the line to defend their country (and, of course, their love interests); the heightened tension and emotions inherent in war- or battle-situations; the double shot of readerly pleasure available when patriotism and love become intertwined—these seem to be the characteristics that most appeal to readers of the military romance.

The military heroine is far less common than her country-serving counterpart. Perhaps this is due to writers' worries that a military man's heroism might somehow be undercut by the presence of an equally strong woman warrior. Or fears about a military woman's "masculinization." Or perhaps it simply reflects the U.S. military's 1994 Combat Exclusion Policy, which prevents women from being assigned to ground combat units.

But as former Army officer Steve Griffin points out, an administrative loophole that allows women to be "attached" if not "assigned" to combat units means that more than 230,000 American women have engaged in "combat situations" since 2001. This population of female soldiers, and the women who admire or wish to emulate them, seems a demographic ripe for romance authors to capture.

One writer set to take advantage of both the gap in military policy and the gap in romances with military heroines is M. L. Buchman, one of a growing handful of male writers who have begun to recognize the potential of the romance/suspense genre. His new series features the army's Special Operations Aviations Regiment (SOAR, gotta love those military acronyms!), nicknamed Nightstalkers, not a combat unit, but rather a support unit, an elite helicopter group designed to support general and special forces' operations. Thus, its members can (and do, in Buchman's depiction) include women as well as men.

But as the opening scenes of each of Buchman's novels makes clear, bullets shot and rockets launched don't care what label the army has slapped on a soldier; soldiers are wounded and die, whether members of official combat units or support. Whether male or female.

Featuring women in military roles primarily occupied by men in romance novels would be a feminist move in itself. But Buchman's books move far beyond token feminism, not only by featuring different constructions of military masculinity, but also by depicting heroines admirable for, and loved because of, their intelligence, their strength, and their desire to prove themselves the best of the best at what they do.

Archibald Jeffrey Stevenson III, a helicopter co-pilot, and Staff Sergeant John Wallace, a mechanic, are "all business" when they're in the air on a mission. But unlike their commanding officer, Mark Henderson, neither of them embody the  alpha hero character common in much military romance. Archie's a typical beta: co-pilot, happy to be second-in-command to Commander Emily Beale; tall and lean, more of a runner than a bruiser; and not at all easy around women, despite his economically-privileged upbringing. "Big John" has the body of a warrior (or an offensive lineman), but on the ground, he's the fun-loving, cheer-you-up type, "always the first with a story, a smile, a laugh." Neither is aggressive, controlling, or needs to dominate the world or his fellow unit members. Rather than drawing upon the same vision of alpha military masculinity for the heroes of his books, changing only each hero's name and job description, Buchman suggests instead that there are multiple types of men who can embody heroic masculinity: shy men and happy men; burly men and lanky ones; men content to allow a woman, or a man, to lead.

MH-60 Black Hawk SOAR helicopter
One thing that all Buchman heroes do have in common, however, is a respect for the skills and strengths of their fellow female soldiers. Neither Archie nor John needs to save, rescue, or otherwise lord it over the women with whom they serve. And especially not over the women they come to love. As John describes the new addition to his helicopter team, "Meeting Connie Davis, you wanted to dismiss her as some cute Connie Homemaker. The girl next door brought to life right out of the television screen. But he'd run into the wrong end of her very keen mechanic's mind more than once."

Neither Connie nor tough-as-the-streets sharpshooter Kee Smith is a perfect, flat military Mary Sue. Each has her problems, and her weaknesses, weaknesses that striving to be the best of the best in the army had allowed each to mask. Both Archie and John learn to care for these women because of the vulnerabilities they reveal. But ultimately it is Kee and Connie's professionalism, their skills, and above all their strength that makes these women mean more to them than any other person has before. "You share [Emily Beale's] strength," John tells Connie. "A quiet power. It's mesmerizing." Connie's response—"I like being called powerful. I like the way it makes me feel"—suggests how being recognized for ones' strengths, rather than simply being protected from ones' weaknesses, can be a particularly compelling spur to love.

Buchman's novels spend little time depicting the difficulties women still experience in the army and other armed services. Perhaps because his novels are romances, rather than works of realism, and thus are not obliged to present a fully rounded depiction of the military? Or perhaps because he wishes to portray women as heroes, rather than in any way as victims? The one incident in Dark in which a subordinate acts in a sexist manner leads immediately to punishment—the male soldier is not allowed to advance to the next step in the SOAR training. It's an ideal, perhaps, Buchman's assertion that there is no room at the highest levels of the military for anything likely to weaken the team or its mission, as discrimination and sexism do, but an ideal worth dreaming of.

Having spent the last ten years of her life attending a Quaker school, my daughter seems unlikely to choose a career in the military. But if in some strange case of young adult rebellion or patriotic fervor, she heads off one day to a recruiter's office, it's good to know that she has a long history of women before her paving the way for gender equality: the WACS, WAVES, and other World War II servicewomen; the four military women who, with the Service Women's Action Network, recently filed a lawsuit against the Combat Exclusion Policy, arguing that since women have been serving de factor in combat since 1994, they should be granted the rights, privileges, and opportunities offered to the men who serve in fact; and the military women in romance novels such as M. L. Buchman's, women who are valued not for the way they fill out a uniform, but for the way their skills contribute to the work of the nation's defense.

M. L. Buchman, I Own the Dawn. Sourcebooks, 2012.

 Wait Until Dark. Sourcebooks, 2012.

Photo/Illustration Credits:
"Be a Marine": Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, Inc.
SOAR Unit Insignia: Wikipedia
MH-60 Black Hawk Helicopter: American Special Ops.com

Next time on RNFF:
Disney Princesses, Feminism, and Race

Friday, January 4, 2013

RNFF Best of 2012


Meredith Duran, At Your Pleasure 
With At Your Pleasure, Duran proves herself as adept at depicting the early Georgian period as she is at the Victorian. Political and religious differences, as well as past history,  should keep former lovers Adrian Ferrers, Earl of Rivenham and Nora, widowed Marchioness of Towe, at daggers drawn. Yet serving as Nora's jailor proves far more difficult, and dangerous, than the world-weary Adrian could ever imagine. A more traditional romance than in Duran's previous books, yet one in which heroine and hero craft a relationship of equals.

To save her family's honor when her bookish younger brother refuses his commission as a midshipman, Sally Kent boards the Royal Navy's Audacious in his place.  Family friend Lieutenant David Colyear soon sees through her disguise, but Sally's skills, as well as his own secrets, keep him from revealing her identity. Cross-dressing heroines can often be difficult to buy into, but Sally's history (the only girl in a family of seafaring men) and her skillfully delineated character—quick, compassionate, and daring—make her impersonation not just credible, but compelling.

In her 2011 debut, A Lady Awakened, Grant overturned traditional romance conventions to surprising, and deeply moving, effect. She continues to do so in this companion volume, the story of sibling Will Blackshear. A honorable man in need of quick money, Will reluctantly joins financial and intellectual forces with mathematically-skilled courtesan Lydia Slaughter to rake in winnings at the gambling table. Will's war-related guilt tags him as a conventional Regency hero, yet the skill of Grant's writing allows not just Will, but more surprisingly, Lydia (who for most of the novel is being kept by another man, a huge romance no-no), to blossom in to complicated, original, and above all sympathetic characters.

Juliana Gray, A Lady Never Lies
Some might think it presumptuous for a first-time romance author to steal a plot from Shakespeare. Yet like Shakespeare, who borrowed most of his storylines from other writers, newcomer Juliana Gray deploys her gift for language to make a tale all her own, retelling Love's Labour's Lost in the age of the birth of the automobile. Bossy, bold, and unexpectedly impecunious Lady Alexandra Morley schemes to regain her riches by using her wiles on inventor Phineas Burke. Yet their burgeoning attraction keeps interfering with her best-laid plans, as well as her determination to win her bet with the Duke of Wallingford that the men living at the Italian castle will give into lust long before the women. With all the charm, wit, and style of the best stage comedy, Gray's book is the best debut of the year. 

Courtney Milan, "The Governess Affair" and "What Happened at Midnight"
I'm not typically a fan of novellas; they often come across as simply underdeveloped novels, an easy way to make money in this age of the short e-book. Yet in the hands of Courtney Milan, the form proves equal to the message of these two thematically related stories. Both "What Happened at Midnight's" Mary Chartley and "The Governess Affair's" Serena Barton have been betrayed by men they should have been able to trust. Yet once a victim does not mean always a victim, especially if a woman determines to act in the face of adversity: "She had stopped hoping to be granted her heart's desire. She was going to start taking it now" (WHaM 167).


Ilona Andrews, Steel's Edge
This year's installment in Andrews' Kate Daniels' series, Gunmetal Magic, proved a melodramatic soap opera of a disappointment. But the fourth book in this pseudonymous husband-and-wife team's Edge Chronicles more than made up for Gunmetal's lacks. Detailed but never dull world-building, taut action scenes, and a gradually-building romance between two very damaged people who both manage to keep going in the face of horror and pain make for a fitting conclusion to the plot arc begun in On the Edge. Here's hoping that the younger generation of Edgers warrants its own series in the years to come...

Meljean Brook, Riveted
Though the steampunk world remains the same as in Brook's two previous Iron Seas novels, Riveted features a hero far different from the alpha male of The Iron Duke and the charming schemer of Heart of Steel. David Kentewess initially follows Annika Fridasdottir because he believes she may hold the key to his dead mother's secret past. Yet as these two romantically-inexperienced characters gradually reveal their vulnerabilities to us and to each other, David comes to realize that Annika may be just as important to his future as she is to his past. Click here for full RNFF review.

Gail Carriger, Timeless
Carrying a romance across multiple books, especially past the point when the typical romance would end (with marriage or some other form of commitment) can be a difficult challenge for a writer. Yet in Carriger's skillful hands, the romance between alpha werewolf Connall Maccon and his equally alpha wife, Alexia (nee Tarabotti) Maccon continues to charm. "Dandelion fluff upon a spoon" might be a description of a vampire's dirigible, but they also serve as fitting characterization of this fifth and final volume in Carriger's light, witty, and entirely delightful series.


Laura Florand, The Chocolate Kiss
Florand's follow-up to the delectable The Chocolate Thief proves an even more delicious confection. Moving far beyond the typical battle-of-the-sexes (or in this case, battle-of-the-cooks), Florand's story of the supremely confident scion of a Paris pastry shop dynasty and one wary woman who refuses the gift of his hand-made macaron proves as tantalizing as a pot of Magalie's chocolat chaud. The sexual tension between potential lovers Philippe and Magalie keep readers on the edge of their seats, while fairy-tale allusions urge them to think deeply about the powers of witches and princesses, the differences (and perhaps more surprisingly, the similarities) between princes and beasts. Full RNFF review here.

Molly O'Keefe, Can't Buy Me Love
I'm not usually a fan of sports romance, but O'Keefe's deft touch with characters who are all far more than they appear to be quickly won over this reluctant reader. Tara Jane Sweet agrees to help dying boss Lyle Baker draw his spoiled estranged children home by pretending to be his gold-digging finance. Son Luc, a famous hockey star, storms back to Texas ready to save his sister's inheritance from a shallow, selfish blond bimbo. Both Tara and Luc need to move beyond their biased expectations, as well as their own difficult pasts, before they can recognize not only the importance of the relationship that develops between them, but that each, despite his or her flaws, is worthy of love.

Barbara O'Neal, The Garden of Happy Endings
A story about a disillusioned minister and the lover who gave her up to become a priest could have veered into the lurid, or even the maudlin. Yet O'Neal proves once again why her books have garnered so many awards over the years by offering us a different kind of second-chance story, one that allows its characters to grapple not only with the meaning of romantic and other kinds of love, but also with the problem of maintaining or recapturing faith in one's passions, be they religious or romantic, in the face of an often senselessly cruel world.


Jennifer R. Hubbard, Try Not To Breathe
With her two main characters—Ryan, a teen who tried to commit suicide, and Nikki, a young woman whose father succeeded in doing so—Hubbard gives voice to the two main audiences for this book: those who have suffered from depression, and those who haven't, but want or need to understand. Not a light read, but a moving, important one that offers hope for both those suffering from mental illness and those who love them.

Kristin Cashore, Bitterblue
Young queen Bitterblue has none of the magical abilities of Cashore's previous fantasy heroines, and her story is not a quest-narrative, but a stay-at-home and pick-up-the-pieces-after-the-catastrophe plotline, so many readers might find it disappointing after the adventure and romance of Graceling and Fire. Yet Bitterblue asks readers to ponder deeply important political and personal questions. How can one help people who have been victimized by their corrupt leaders to become active participants in their own government? How much should we take into consideration people's past history of suffering when we judge their own abusive actions? And perhaps most relevant for a teen audience, how can we learn to part gracefully from someone we still love? How do we accept that love is sometimes not enough to keep people together who have different life goals? Bitterblue, yes, and bittersweet, but well worth reading for those who are able to check expectations at the door.*

In looking back on my year's worth of reading, I was surprised and disappointed to see how few YA books I'd made it through. I'm guessing that at least a few of the following would have made it onto this best of 2012 list if I had taken the time to read them (which I will do in the coming months, and report back):

Madeleine George, The Difference Between You and Me
John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
Jessica Spotswood, Born Wicked
Huntley Fitzpatrick, My Life Next Door
Tabitha Suzuma, Forbidden

My list is also remarkably white, and remarkable straight, much to my chagrin. Reading goals for next year will definitely include broadening the scope of my romance selections.

What were your favorite feminist romance reads published in 2012? And what are your romance reading goals for 2013?

* FYI, in the interest of disclosure, Kristin Cashore was a student in a class I taught on children's and YA Fantasy and Science Fiction at the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College. 

Next time on RNFF
Feminism and the Military:
M. L. Buchman's I Own the Dawn and Wait Until Dark