Friday, February 28, 2014

Friday Miscellany: Reviewers and Nebulas and Dads, oh my

A few brief thoughts for your Friday feminist romance consideration:

First, a link to Noah Berlansky's Salon post from earlier this week, "Highbrow Media's Sexist Blind Spot: Romance." Berlansky's not the first to point out the sexism behind major review journals' lack of coverage of the romance genre. But he's one of the first men to do so in a national publication. Do you think editors will start listening?

At least one appears to have done so: here's a link to the Washington Post's new romance review column, written by novelist Sarah MacLean. While mysteries get reviewed every Monday in the Post, both romance and science fiction have to settle for once a month attention (see explanation here). Still, a step in the right direction....

Also making news this week, the SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association) announced the nominees for the 2013 Nebula Awards, given to the best science fiction and fantasy books published in the United States. In a post last year, I had promised to spend a chunk of my summer reading science fiction romance, as it was a sub-genre with which I didn't have much familiarity. That reading (such that it was :-( ) did not inspire me to write any RNFF reviews or posts, so I'm hoping that some of the books on the Nebula list will prove worth discussing in feminist/romance terms. I've read two on the Young Adult list (Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy): Alaya Dawn Johnson's dystopian fantasy The Summer Prince, about which I blogged here, and Jaclyn Moriarty's A Corner of White, which I enjoyed immensely but which didn't really deal with feminist issues. I'm looking forward to reading several others on the Norton/Nebula list which look as if they might have romance connections. Haven't read any of the nominated novels for adults, though, perhaps because they seem far less romance-inclined than the YA books. Any fantasy/SF readers out there who can give the list a look and let us know which (if any) on the list might interest romance readers?

And one last note: this weekend is my Dad's birthday, and that, combined with thinking about the father in Robin York's New Adult romance Deeper, about which I blogged earlier this week, has me wondering—who are your favorite fathers in romance? In particular, can you think of fathers who actively support their daughters in ways that you would consider feminist?

Photo credits:
Feminist Father shirt: Feminist Philosophers

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Surfacing the Sexist Assumptions Behind Revenge Porn: Robin York's DEEPER

A week ago today, a Manhattan judge dismissed the first attempt in New York State to prosecute a "revenge pornographer." For those unfamiliar with the term, "revenge porn" (also known as non-consensual pornography or cyber rape) occurs when a person posts pictures of another person without his or her clothes on, or in a sexually explicit position or act, on a social media site such as Facebook or Twitter, without that person's consent. Most often, the poster is a former romantic or sexual partner of the person in the photograph, and the posting done in order to shame, intimidate, demean, and/or physically threaten.

According to the New York Daily News, Criminal Court Justice Steven Statsinger wrote in the decision dismissing the above case that while the defendant clearly sent sexually explicit photographs of his former girlfriend via Twitter to the woman's employer and her sister without her consent, the act did not "violate any of the criminal statutes under which the defendant was charged." Though the judge termed the defendant's act "reprehensible," under current New York state law, the defendant had not done anything criminally wrong.

The general tenor of the comments posted in response to Daily News piece were disheartening, if unsurprising:

This is why I tell my daughter, be mindful of pictures, who is taking them and where they are. This stuff will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Don't want anyone to see you [sic] nude pix? Then don't have them taken in the first place!! DUH!!

When will women learn not to allow anyone to take nude photos? There are too many stories of women showing up on these revenge sites.

Maybe woman in NYS should be nicer to the man they hurt!

Women can't help themselves. They LOVE to take pictures, and nude photos makes [sic] them feel sexy. They place a HIGH premium on looking and feeling sexy. Not their fault, though, as the beauty industry is so manipulative and suffocating.

Though several of the posters echoed the judge's belief that the man was a jerk, more of the comments (from both men and women) focused on cautioning against the behavior that led to the woman's victimization. Why are we so ready to blame the victim? Does it have anything to do with the fact that in the majority of these cases, the person featured in the photos is a woman?

New Adult author Robin York attempts to answer this question in her provocative, insightful, and surprisingly romantic first novel, Deeper. The story opens with Iowa college student Caroline Piasecki, opening a link sent to her by her roommate, a link that reveals photographs that Nate, her old boyfriend, took with his iPhone while they were having sex. The link, to an internet porn web site, includes not only the pictures, but also Caroline's name and home town. As a bonus, an added-on cartoon bubble has been pasted next to her face in the final photo: "I'm Caroline Piasecki! I'm a frigid bitch who needs to get FUCKED!"

Up until the middle of her sophomore year, Caroline had been the embodiment of the proverbial good girl. Dated the right guy, earned the good grades, got into the best colleges, Caroline never caused her single father the least bit of trouble. Though she'd recently broken up with her first serious boyfriend, Caroline thought she had the whole world ahead of her. But now, with sexually explicit images of her proliferating across the web, and the derogatory, shame-inducing, and outright threatening comments anonymous males are posting in response to them, Caroline believes that her dreams for the future have been irrevocably damaged.

The usually confident, outspoken Caroline finds herself with her head down, hoping that if she just keeps a low enough profile, the whole awful mess will just disappear. That someday she'll be able to get the chorus of vulgar men and the hateful, demeaning slurs they post in response to her photos, out of her head. York does not shy away from the shockingly aggressive, abusive, and denigrating words male posters feel they have the right to spew from the anonymous safety of their computers: Got what you deserved, didn't you? Slut.    I can't help it, Caroline... It's your fault or being so fucking hot! 

Lying low certainly means not getting involved with the campus bad boy and local pot dealer West Leavitt, even though the two have been attracted to each other since freshman year. The last thing Caroline needs is to discover West and her ex in the midst of a fistfight, a fight purportedly sparked by her ex's derogatory comments about her. "He'll draw attention to me. My primary purpose in life at the moment is to disappear.... I can't chance it happening again. I need to talk to West." But Caroline's "talk" doesn't quite go the way she had planned. And soon she finds herself in a tenuous "not-friendship" with the compellingly attractive West, a boy bent on protecting others, but unwilling to show anyone, even Caroline, the truth behind the facade he presents to the rest of the college world.

York hones in on just what is so appealing to readers in the New Adult genre: the overwhelming feelings of first, requited lust; the all-consuming focus on a new love; the difficult, often traumatic life circumstances that prevent young love from flourishing; the pleasure-pain of angst when love goes awry. She has a real gift for not only for limning the contours of passion, but also those of character, particularly characters from different class backgrounds, and the inevitable misunderstandings and miscommunications that result because of those differences.

But at the same time that she embraces some NA tropes, she clearly rejects others, carefully and convincingly exposes the sexism that underlies them. Fighting Nate on Caroline's behalf may seem heroic, but West's behavior also undercuts Caroline's own power, her own ability to fight her own battles. As does publicly staking his "claim" to her only two days after he's broken off their "not-friendship," cutting in front of a guy in whom she's expressed interest and kissing her in public during the women's rugby team fundraiser. While some girls might find such a public declaration swoon-worthy, it only infuriates Caroline, because she understands the sexual politics behind it: "Mine, his mouth says. Mine, mine, mine. But I'm not. I'm my own." Part of what Caroline has lost because of the outing of her photos is her sense of control, her ability to make up her own mind. Having someone she cares for take away that control is little better than having it stolen away by someone who means her harm. York also highlights how much the appeal of the NA "bad boy" rests on class differences, differences that simultaneously make working-class male rule-breaking attractive to "good" middle class girls, but deny young working-class men the power that their rule-abiding middle class male counterparts take for granted.

A good girl is not supposed to be a sexual creature; but a good girlfriend does what it takes to make her boyfriend happy. Including not making a fuss when he pulls out his camera. The paradox of two such diametrically-opposed messages is what lies at the heart of the blame-the-victim mentality when it comes to revenge porn, York's story argues. York shows how Caroline gradually comes to realize that she's drunk the patriarchal Cool-Aid, buying into the belief that she, not Nate, is to blame for the public release of his private photographs. Not only due to West's more earthy, matter-of-fact take on sexuality, but also due to Caroline's new involvement in sports, her willingness to allow female friends to support her, and her ability to mock the very derogatory terms intended to bring her down (for example, laughing rather than getting upset after a friend trying to persuade her to join the rugby team says, "Oh, right. I'll settle for the blow-job queen here, then"). Only after Caroline realizes "I'm not bad. I'm not good. I'm just alive. I'm just here, dancing," can she find the courage to face down Nate, to demand her father's love rather than his judgment, and to persuade West to allow her to be more than just the damsel in need of his saving.

At the end of her book, York includes a note to the reader, urging us to become involved in the campaign to outlaw revenge porn (currently legal in every state except New Jersey, York reports, although the above map suggests California has recently outlawed it, too), by visiting the web site End Revenge Porn. Immediately after I finished her book, I clicked on the link, and signed the petition encouraging legislators to draft and pass laws to criminalize this deeply anti-feminist crime. I hope you all will, as well.

And now I'm headed off to the bookstore, to buy a copy of Deeper for my teenage daughter. Because this is a book that every adolescent girl needs to read.

Photo credits:
End Revenge Porn: Traverse Legal
Revenge porn legislation map: apcrunch

Bantam, 2014

Friday, February 21, 2014

Police-Line Feminism?

I'm always intrigued when I come across a passage in a romance novel that refers, overtly or indirectly, to feminism. Take this one, from Anne Calhoun's latest contemporary, Jaded:

But no one possessed her. No one reached out and claimed her. Of course in the twenty-first century, women didn't want to be claimed. They built careers, made their own money, raised children on their own, planned for their own retirement.
     Given a little time, she could probably come up with a less politically correct ambition, but she really, really wanted to belong somewhere, to someone.

In this passage, told from the point of view of Jaded's heroine, librarian Alana Wentworth, feminism (the "politically correct") is positioned as an "of course," something "women" as an entire group should and do take for granted. Feminism sets certain wants, certain needs, off limits, cordoning off desires that make women less in charge of their own lives. The examples that come to Alana's mind of what feminism does allow women to want—building careers, taking care of their own financial well-being, raising children solo (i.e., without men)—position women as separate, individual, unconnected to a partner or spouse. In contrast, being "possessed," being "claimed," "belong[ing] somewhere, to someone" are positioned as the forbidden other, desires that feminism cannot and will not allow.

Just like Pride and Prejudice's opening line, "It is a truth universally acknowledged," Alana's "of course" sends a clear signal to the reader, asking him/her to question the universality of the truth being proclaimed. Just as not all early 19th century men in "possession of a good fortune" were "in want of a wife," not every twenty-first century woman wishes to be disconnected, to be separate, to not belong. In Jaded, Alana's character arc traces Alana's slow acceptance of the validity of her own desires, her recognition that she, unlike the rest of her high-powered family, does not wish to be in the spotlight, does not want to run for (or be married to a man who holds) political office, does not want work for a high-powered, high-impact charity. Alana works better on a smaller scale, in a small town, in one-to-one interactions with individuals, rather than on global problems dealt with by large organizations and government bureaucracies. To choose such a course is not a cop-out, Calhoun's novel argues, but a recognition of one's own desires and needs, a taking charge of one's own destiny, a feminist message if ever I heard one.

Alana's "of course," then, can also lead us to question the validity of Alana's own construction of feminism. Is Alana right when she claims that belonging, feeling claimed, wanting to be possessed, are inimical to feminism?

Of course, there is no one "feminism," which makes the question impossible to definitively answer. Some feminists might argue that Alana's got it right, that no women should depend on anyone else, especially a man, to make her feel wanted, to make her feel connected, to belong. I'd wager, though, that more feminists would take the opposite side, arguing that the very desire for connection, for belonging, is a desire that has long been coded as "feminine," and hence looked down upon by society. In a world where competition and individual success, typically coded as masculine, often reign supreme, championing connection is clearly a feminist act.

Why, then, do romance novel heroines like Alana so often see their desires to connect, to belong, as in opposition to the "politically correct"? Why is feminism made out to be the neon yellow police tape, screaming "DO NOT CROSS" whenever a female character desires connection, even possession?

I'd like to collect more examples of such passages from romance novels, passages that set feminism up as in opposition to female desires, and look more closely at them, to come up with some possible answers. Might I ask your help in such an endeavor?

If you remember such passages from past romance novel reading, would you be willing to add a comment to this post, quoting the passage in question, and letting us know from what book it came, and what author wrote it? And if you think that the book overall embraces or rejects feminism as a positive force in women's lives? This post will be here for a good long while, so I hope that if you come across such passages in your future reading, you'll think to come back here and give us a heads-up. I promise to do the same.

Thanks in advance for your help!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Rewriting the Beastly: Suleikha Snyder's BOLLYWOOD AND THE BEAST

The story of a beautiful woman trapped in an isolated location with a man who has been transformed into a hideous beast is one of the most prevalent tale types in all of western folklore. Myriad authors, including award-winning fantasists from Robin McKinley to Mercedes Lackey, and multiple filmmakers, from Jean Cocteau to Walt Disney, have turned to Aarne-Thompson tale type 425C for plotlines, characters, and ideological constructs in need of re-imagining. Analyzing different versions of the tale, and the ideological use writers make of it, often tell us as much about the reteller and the times in which s/he lives as about the original tale itself.

Madame de Villeneuve
In the first printed version of the tale, La Belle et la Bête by Frenchwoman Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve, the Beast asks his beauty each night not "Will you marry me," as many later versions of the tale present it, but rather "May I sleep with you tonight?" In 1740, when Villeneuve's tale was first published, women were considered the property of their fathers, and then, after marriage, their husbands; granting Beauty the right to choose whether or not to sleep with the Beast is a sign of proto-feminism on Villeneuve's part. My favorite B & B retellings, then, perhaps not surprisingly, are the ones that pay homage to the roots of feminism in Villeneuve's original tale.

In Bollywood and the Beast, romance author Suleikha Snyder gives us a Beauty and the Beast in a setting far from the Europe of the tale's origins: the cities and suburbs of modern India. Yet the feminism she brings to her retelling has clear links to the story's original interest in women's right to make decisions on their own behalf.

Half Indian, half gori (white), American Rakhee (Rocky) Varma has been working to establish her acting credentials in Bollywood. Most of the Indian-born actresses on the Bollywood scene look down on her because she doesn't understand Hindi, and because she's "fair without having to endorse a whitening cream." After Rocky somewhat intemperately calls the industry on its racial biases during a television talk show interview, the director of her new film refuses to have her bunk with the rest of the cast and crew, fearing the drama likely to ensue. When Rocky's protective father worries about the dangers of staying alone in a hotel, Rocky's co-star, Ashraf Khan, offers to have Rocky stay at his family's home, where her safety and privacy will be ensured. His Nani (grandmother) is friendly, and his reclusive brother, disabled ten years earlier in an accident, will surely stay far out of her way.

When Rocky arrives, however, Ashraf's older brother, Taj, is far from invisible. In fact, despite his scarred face and inability to walk, Taj seems to go out of his way to annoy Rocky with his sharp insults and sultry sexual innuendoes. Though she's attracted to the handsome, scarred older man (35 to her 21), Rocky makes it clear that she finds his beastly behavior less than charming:

Taj was a chauvinistic pig. Like any other chauvinistic pig out there in the street. No better than someone who catcalled her or undressed her with his eyes. "You know what? It's not your face that makes you a monster. It's everything else. You're disgusting."

Unlike earlier Beauties, whose kind behavior tames their Beasts, Rocky doesn't teach Taj to be less beastly. She hews more closely to romance novel conventions, the ones that have the hero drawn to the heroine because she speaks the truth to him ("you're disgusting"), rather than flattering him. And it's as much the urging of his brother as his own attraction to Rocky that brings Taj to gentle his behavior towards his houseguest. And then, in true Beauty and the Beast fashion, Taj and Rocky are soon in the midst of a passionate affair.

As Marina Warner has argued, many of the feminist retellings of B & B from the 1970s and 80s (see, for example, Angela Carter's "The Tiger's Bride," or the 1987 CBS television series) invert the traditional tale's domesticating dynamic. Rather than portraying the Beast being in need of Beauty's taming influence, these feminist retellings insist that it is Beauty who is in need of the Beast: "the Beast no longer needs to be disenchanted.... Beauty has to learn to love the beast in him, in order to know the beast in herself," in particular, to accept and embrace her own erotic desires (From the Beast to the Blonde, 312).

Snyder seems more interested in contesting the traditional storyline, the one which constructs Beauty as tamer of the Beast. Taj ironically imagines her in such a role several times in the novel, but Rocky is well aware that taking on such a role is not her job: "I'm not näive.... I don't think I can kiss your boo-boos and make them better. Only you can do that." To bring that point home, Snyder inverts the ending of the traditional story. In most versions, Beauty leaves the Beast, at least temporarily, a move that endangers his life. In order to save him, she must give up the outside world, and return to the confinement of his. In contrast, Rocky realizes that to remain in isolation with Taj (who has only left his house four times in the past ten years) would mean giving up far too much: "She didn't want to be here forever, trapped in a fairy tale. She wanted to go back to Mumbai and home to Chicago and visit Bali and Berlin and Botswana. She still had so many things to do and to see." And so this Beauty leaves her Beast behind, unwilling to remain in the cage he's crafted for himself. It is Taj, not Rocky, who must "return" to the world he's left behind if he is to win her love: the world beyond his garden's walls.

Snyder's book is not without its flaws. Its secondary plotline, conveyed primarily through a third point of view (Taj's brother's), takes up so much space, and demands so much of the reader's emotional energy, that the primary love story often feels as if it is given short shrift. The nasty portrayal of Rocky's female colleagues in the opening chapters contains hints of misogyny (although I can understand it, if not like it, by reading these female colleagues as stand-ins for the original Beauty's selfish sisters). The secondary plot's villainess seems to have walked straight in from an evil-stepmother fairy tale rather than a Beauty and the Beast story. And the construction of Taj's caretaker, Kamal, veers dangerously towards Orientalizing (in the Edward Said sense): "There was something almost unearthly about him. And not just the ninja-like way he moved. It was his calm and his confidence, and how he seemed to know so many things intuitively," Rocky thinks of him at one point. Snyder, to her credit, seems to realize that she's walking a dangerous line here, by having Rocky also think, "Kamal was somehow... more. But he was human. She knew that."

Yet despite its flaws, Bollywood and the Beast is well worth a read, particularly for those intrigued by the ways that European fairy tales continue to be re-envisioned for each author's, and each age's, ideological needs.

Photo credits:
Villeneuve: MetroNews

Bollywood and the Beast
Samhain, 2014

Friday, February 14, 2014

Equitable Marriage and Frequency of Sex—Is Correlation Causation?

Some of my best experiences of sex have come after, or even during, times when my spouse and I were working together on household chores. While solo housecleaning has its upsides and its downsides (think Carol Channing on Free to be You and Me, reciting the poem "Housework"), there's just something sexy about working with my spouse on household tasks. Maybe it's the physical exertion involved, two sweaty bodies in close proximity. Or maybe it's the sense of joint purpose, of two people working together to care for home we've built, and continue to create and maintain. Or maybe it's the potent combination of both these factors. Whatever the cause, all I know is that I find a housecleaning man a huge turn-on.

Sexy or no?
So when I saw the February 6th New York Times Magazine online, which featured an article with the provocative title "Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?" you can imagine my surprise. Such a headline is almost guaranteed not only to catch the eye of the curious reader, but also to strike dismay, or at the very least frustration, in the heart of a feminist. Feminism has had to defend itself against a lot of criticism, some of it warranted, but most of it not. Do we really have to defend the ideal of egalitarian marriage against the specter of bad sex?

Psychologist Lori Gottlieb, the author of this piece, lays out her thesis early on: while a vast majority of adults aspire to an egalitarian marriage, one in which both spouses are employed and both participate in domestic chores, "the very qualities that lead to greater emotional satisfaction in peer marriages...may be having an unexpectedly negative impact on those couples' sex lives."

Gottlieb was inspired to investigate the connections between sexual satisfaction and egalitarian power-sharing in married couples as she began to notice a pattern in the couples she was counseling, as well as in those with whom her fellow psychologist friends were working:

No matter how much sink-scrubbing and grocery-shopping the husband does, no matter how well husband and wife communicate with each other, no matter how sensitive they are to each other's emotions and work schedules, the wife does not find her husband more sexually exciting, even if she feels both closer to and happier with him.

Gottlieb went on to interview other psychologists and sociologists who study issues of marriage and sex, as well as to investigate the current social science papers published on the topic, and found some support for her position, particular in a study published last year in The American Sociological Review, "Egalitarianism, Housework and Sexual Frequency in Marriage." Julie Brines, one of the authors of said study, suggested to Gottlieb that "the less gender differentiation, the less sexual desire." Or, in Gottlieb's words, "in an attempt to be gender-neutral, we may have become gender-neutered." Men who take on manly chores have more frequent sex than men whose chores are more gender-neutral, the egalitarianism study claims.

Gottlieb's article is far more nuanced that its stark headline suggests. She's clear about the limits of her own theories, and the current research on sex roles and sex in marriage. Early on, she acknowledges the scientific truism, "correlations don't establish causation." She also acknowledges the "risk of reporting bias and selective sampling" inherent in such scientific studies. But as I read through her article, I had a lot of questions:

• Is sexual frequency the only, or even the best way to measure sexual satisfaction?
• Do men and women value sexual frequency equally?
• Does less sexual frequency always mean less sexual desire?
• Would you prefer to have more sex, or to be happier and more emotionally intimate, with your partner?
• Is the opposite of stark gender differentiation complete gender neutrality? Where does gender flexibility fit in?
• Do Americans place a higher value on sexual frequency than people in other cultures?
• How does the very act of applying numbers and percentages to human relationships impact our thinking about them? For example, a study by Lynn Prince Cooke that Gottlieb cites found higher divorce rates when a wife earns more than her husband than when the opposite is true. But she also found that "the predicted risk of divorce is lowest when the husband does 40 percent of the housework and the wife earls 40 percent of the income." This might give you the impression that if we all strove to create that precise proportion of income & chores in our own relationships, we, too, would avoid divorce. But I'm guessing that no such outcome would happen, even if everyone in the country managed to hit the "right" balance.
• Numbers also seem to de-historicize relationships. What I mean is, would the 40/40 percentage cited in the point above have been the same 10 years ago? Will it still be the same twenty years from now? How does the historical moment in which a study is taking place influence the results one gets from it?

What I found the most provocative about Gottlieb's article was her discussion of the way power and sexual desire play out in relationships, in ways that are often at odds with the way they play out in everyday life. Esther Perel, another couples therapist, told Gottlieb that "Egalitarian marriage takes the values of a good social system—consensus-building an consent—and assumes you can bring these rules into the bedroom. But the values that make for good social relationships are not necessarily the same ones that drive lust.... most of us get turned on at night by the very things that we'll demonstrate against during the day." In other words, the power dynamics you've worked out with your romantic partner in everyday life do not have to be the same as the power dynamics you engage in in the bedroom.

Many couples, though, seem to have difficulty doing what I would term "code-switching," being flexible enough to take off one set of expectations, one sexual script, and don another, depending on the circumstance. For example, Gottlieb reported about one couple she worked with, where the woman asked her partner to be rougher with her during sex, asked him to dominate her. But "he said he just doesn't see me that way, that he doesn't see us that way." Having learned to be an egalitarian partner in his day-to-day interactions with his wife, this man just could not shake off the behaviors associated with such norms when he came to bed.

I asked my scientist-spouse to take a look at the actual American Sociological Review article, and he noticed something quite interesting. While there is a correlation between less sexual frequency and egalitarian roles in marriage (about -.4 for the science nerds out there), it's not the highest correlation the researchers uncovered. The factor that had the greatest (positive) impact on sexual frequency was, perhaps not surprisingly, how much time couples spent alone together (+.7; see Table 3, page 39, of the study). Perhaps if these couples didn't simply share the housework, but did it together, they'd find themselves having sex more often?

Of course, correlation is not causation...

How is married sex portrayed in romance novels? Is it less frequent than amongst newly in-love couples? Is it less hot?

Photo credits:
Man cleaning toilet: The Prisma
Power dynamics in bed: Lifestyle,

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

In Search of Feminist Romantic Suspense: J. D. Robb's NAKED IN DEATH

I've had mixed feelings after reading many of the romances of Nora Roberts, the most popular writer in the genre. While I admire Roberts' clear, concise prose, as well as her ability to craft intriguing plots and sympathetic characters, I often find myself wishing for a touch more variety in the depiction of masculinity of in heroes. Though each have different backgrounds, even different personalities, the choices they make, and the emotional place in which they end up by each book's end, often feels remarkably similar, and homogenizing. What's more, in her more recent books (the Bride quartet, and the Inn at BoonsBoro series, for example), the line between male and female, between masculine and feminine, strikes me as sharply drawn, with characters often speaking of things that women like, or do, or are, vs. things that men prefer. In such books, there's little room for depictions of characters who veer from conventional gender identities, or even acknowledgement that such veering even exists in the real world outside the novels. And while Roberts grants her heroines far more flexibility in characterization than she does her heroes, several of her books seem to include a latent hostility toward women in their depiction of secondary characters (especially toward errant mothers: see for example Seth's mother in the Chesapeake Bay books) that gives me pause.

I've also had mixed feelings about the entire subgenre of romantic suspense, as I've written about in previous post (see here). Given these two sets of mixed feelings, then, it's probably not surprising that up until last week, I hadn't picked up any of the books in Roberts' (writing under the pseudonym J. D. Robb) futuristic police procedural In Death series. But I found myself pleasantly surprised by Naked In Death, even though it has some of the same weaknesses of the romances I note above. I'm sure many of you have already discovered the pleasures of this series, but as a newcomer, I find myself wanting to write about what it is that's making me look forward to picking up volume 2.

Robb's series is set in the New York City of the mid-21st century, futuristic enough to have lasers instead of guns, savvy computers that can calculate the odds of a suspect having committed a specific crime, and a political landscape similar enough to the world of 1995, the year in which its first two volumes were published, to ring familiar, but different enough to make readers think about the ideological assumptions underlying it. Prostitution has been legalized so it can be monitored and controlled; women have safe and easy access to birth control; guns are tightly controlled, so the murder rate is far lower than 1995's. Though a conservative movement is battling to roll back such reforms, it's clear that the book's protagonist, New York City Police and Security Department lieutenant Eve Dallas embraces what she views as progress, especially in regards to women's lives:

"In the year 2016... at the end of the Urban Revolt, before the gun ban, there were over ten thousand deaths and injuries from guns in the borough of Manhattan alone..... Before we legalized prostitution, there was a rape or attempted rape every three seconds. Of course, we still have rape, because it has much less to do with sex than with power, but the figures have dropped. Licensed prostitutes don't have pimps, so they aren't beaten, battered, killed. And they can't use drugs. There was a time when women went to butchers to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. When they had to risk their lives or ruin them. Babies were born blind, deaf, deformed before genetic engineering and the research it made possible to repair in vitro. It's not a perfect world, but you listen to him [a conservative Senator] and you realize it could be a lot worse" (278-79).

In the year 1995, in the midst of Democratic President Bill Clinton's first term of office after the conservativism of the Reagan/Bush years, hope that progressive political change would be the story of the future made Robb's depiction of a female-friendlier mid-21st century America seem likely, not improbable. That the targets of murder in this first book in Robb's series are prostitutes, however, hints at fears that such progress might not come without protest, or even violent backlash.

Robb chooses for a protagonist a woman who has confronted such violence on a personal level, as well as one who fights it on an institutional level. The girl that would grow up to become police officer Eve Dallas was abandoned at the age of eight by her father, a father who sexually abused the child so severely that she cannot even remember her own name, and refuses to remember her past. But Eve is good at compartmentalizing, allowing her to focus on the task at hand rather than allow the past to undermine her. Eve is good at her job, a ten-year veteran so skilled that she's assigned the case of a murdered prostitute, sensitive because of the identity of the victim: the granddaughter of a powerful conservative Senator. She has good instincts, hones in on the relevant evidence, and slowly but surely leads the investigation, and the reader, to the killer. And when she finds herself unexpectedly attacked by said woman-hating killer, her love interest/knight in shining armor arrives not in time to rescue her, but only in time to pull her off her attacker before she does him irreparable harm.

Eve Dallas's love interest, the billionaire-with-only-one-name, Rourke, reminds me both of his television predecessor, Remington Steele, as well as his literary descendants, the rich but emotionally tortured financial titans currently populating the world of romance in the wake of 50 Shades and Sylvia Day's Crossfire books. If Dallas' past is a mystery, so is Rourke's; I'm guessing that future books in the series traffic on that mysterious past to pull Eve and Rourke closer together, as well as push them apart. In this first book, their attraction is immediate, and Rourke is not loath to tell Eve directly what he wants from her:

     She lifted her gaze again. "That's what you want to do, Roarke? Seduce me?"
     "I will seduce you," he returned. "Unfortunately, not tonight. Beyond that, I want to find out what it is that makes you what you are. And I want to help you get what you need." (104)

Though the narrative is focalized primarily through Eve's eyes, short passages from Roarke's point of view demonstrate not only his attraction to Eve, but his insight into her personality, his curiosity about her, his willingness to allow her to set the pace of their encounters. I'm curious to see how his character emerges over the course of the series, whether the masculinity he embodies lines up with that in Roberts' romances, or is given freer (or tighter?) rein. And to seeing how gender plays out as the series progresses. In this book, the gender lines between Eve and Roarke seem far less sharply drawn than they do in Roberts' later romances; will this prove true in the later In Death books, as well, or have the more recent ones become more conservative in their depiction of gender?

My biggest turn-off in reading romantic suspense books are the scenes told from the point of view of the villain, scenes that ask the reader see through his eyes as he stalks/rapes/kills female victims. I'm guessing that such scenes are meant to show us evil, and heighten suspense. But far too often they veer into eroticization, casting violence against women as something not only to be appalled by, but also turned on at witnessing. That's not a readerly position in which I enjoy being placed.

Naked in Death gives us one brief murder scene, told primarily from the point of view of the victim. Like the scenes between Roarke and Eve, though, readers are given a few brief paragraphs from the killer's point of view, a decision which not only structurally contrasts Roarke and the killer, but also gives an important clue as to the killer's identity to the careful reader. Eroticization is there, no doubt, but for me, it weighed far less heavily than in the typical romantic suspense book.

So, I'm off to the library, eager to pick up book 2 in the series, Glory in Death. Readers familiar with the series—will I be pleasantly surprised once again? How feminist would you say the series overall is?

Photo credits:
Nora Roberts Bride quartet: Penguin
Kiss the Pimp Goodbye: The Canadian
Remington Steele: Persephone Magazine

Friday, February 7, 2014

Guess Who's Dissing Romance Novel Covers? It's Not Who You Might Think...

Though the genre of romance is often held up for ridicule, comics and cultural critics alike seem to take particular pleasure in targeting the covers of romance novels. It's an easy way to make fun of the genre without actually having to read it; all you need are a few funny one-liners, a heavy dose of snark, and a finger to point at images that you assume anyone with even a daub of intelligence would find as laughable as you do. Even many romance readers complain that the covers of the books they read often don't reflect the words inside them; "garish," "cheesy," and "embarrassing" are only some of the kinder adjectives I've heard fellow romance lovers use to explain why they never read their romance novels in public.

Many a romance novel cover is worth a laugh, or even a cringe. But are they truly in need of "vandalizing"?

Teens socializing at a branch of the TPL
Yes, apparently someone at the Toronto Public Library thought inviting hip teen readers to attend an Anti-Valentine's Day party, where the activities would include not only "test[ing] your knowledge of former celebrity couples" and "writ[ing] the worst break-up letter," but also "vandaliz[ing] romance novel covers," would be a big draw.*

A library inviting readers to vandalize books? What alternate universe are we in, here? Intent on raising its coolness factor, the TPL completely ignored the sexism behind the assumption that romance novels deserve to be vandalized.

After Toronto-based Harlequin author Vicki Essex penned an open letter of protest to the TPL, the library modified its plan. Now, party attendees can be productive rather than destructive, designing their own "bad" romance novel covers rather than defacing the covers of others'. Ironic, isn't it, that Toronto is the home base of Harlequin Enterprises?

I can understand the impetus behind the library's Anti-Valentines' Day event. Many a young teen in my neighborhood went through a Twilight romance craze only to abandon it a year (or less) later, mocking with biting scorn what had once been beloved. The Anti-Valentine's Day party attempts to tie into the energy behind that rejection, to validate a teen's sense of maturity at having outgrown certain books and the fantasies they contain. There's even a feminist aspect to the anti-Valentines' Day party idea, in as far as it contests the social insistence that (especially for girls) finding true love is the most important thing that will ever happen in your life.

Yet urging teens to deface actual books (or even photocopies thereof) does not sound like it is quite in keeping with the spirit, if not the letter, of the American Library Association's Library Bill of Rights.

If there was one person I thought I could count on not to diss the romance genre, it would be a librarian. So disappointing to discover that librarians, too, can have sexist feet of clay...

*As reported Wednesday on the Jezebel blog, here

Photo credits:
TPL: Toronto Public Library
Anti-Valentine's Day Candy Hearts:

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Mixed-Message Feminism: Kristen Callihan's SHADOWDANCE

     "You go into that house, and you'll have every human there in a snit. Women are not fit to handle death, much less view a murder site. You know that as well as I."
     "Not fit to handle death?" she ground out, her arms twitching to do him violence.
     But he waved an annoyed hand. "Do not start quoting Wollstonecraft on me. I'm repeating pure social fact. That is what they believe. And that is what they will do, should you"—he pointed at her for emphasis— "waltz in there and expect to be treated like a man." (41)

Some romances wear their feminism openly on their sleeves. Others don the thinnest of feminist overcoats, shoddy garments that don't really hide the restrictive patriarchal underthings lurking beneath. And some dress in traditional, often repressive, tropes, then transform them before our very eyes, dowdy, dated gowns refashioned for contemporary times and mores.

And then there are the romances so weighted down with scarves and necklaces, furbelows and furs, that you're not quite sure what ideology they are meant to convey. Reading Shadowdance, the latest book in Kristen Callihan's Darkest London Victorian steampunk romance series, presented just such an experience. Even while I found much of the book frustrating, there's something about it that's sticking with me, making me want to puzzle out just what lies behind its appeal. Bear with me as I attempt to unravel its mix of old-school romance tropes from its empowered heroine discourses.*

Trafalgar Square, sans demon bodies...
The main plot of Shadowdance focuses on the search for a murderer who is preying upon demons and leaving their corpses in the middle of Trafalgar Square. We soon learn, however, that this is not your typical who-dunit, for the murderer is none other than our book's hero, former valet and now Regulator (a type of investigator) in the secret Society for the Suppression of Supernaturals (SOS), Jack Talent. In the previous book in the series, Jack had been kidnapped and tortured by vicious demons aiming to drawn on the healing power of his shifter blood; in this book, we discover that his torture included not only verbal and physical, but also sexual abuse. Jack is hunting down and killing the demons who preyed upon him, unable to live in the world if he must share it with his abusers. But now someone has begun killing shifters like Jack, too, not just demons. Has another murderer joined the game?

Theme-wise, the novel is less interested in catching a murderer, and more interested in how a man responds to sexual violation. Is it different from how a woman reacts? Shadowdance invites us to ask such questions by casting a woman with her own history of sexual violation as Jack's counterpart. The daughter of a courtesan, Mary Chase was on the verge of being auctioned off to the highest bidder to pay her mother's debts when she fled into even worse hands: three "thugs" caught her in the street and raped her. She escaped them only to be hit and killed by a gin cart. She now exists thanks to a demon-invented mechanical heart, as a GIM (or Ghost in the Machine), and, like Jack, works as a Regulator for the SOS. She's been told by an informant right from the start of the book that Jack is the murderer, yet even though he's been teasing and insulting her for the past four years, she feels she needs to find proof before she can feel justified in turning him in.

Because Mary, we discover, has already trod the path Jack finds himself on:

"The first thing I did after becoming a GIM was to hunt down each piece of filth who raped me.... I gutted them. And each time, I returned home and threw up until there was nothing left inside of me. It was as if they raped me all over again." A hard, choked laugh left her. "You've thought me a cold fish, a heartless creature.... You were right. I am. I've spent a decade learning to feel nothing.... I looked the other way for you, and will keep on looking, because I know, Jack. I've been there too.... just as I know that if you keep this course, there will be nothing left inside of you, either" (330).

Both men and women long for revenge against sexual abusers, Shadowdance suggests. But is such revenge against sexual predators allowable? Ethical? Psychologically healing or hurtful? Early on in the book, Jack expresses doubts about his own course: "Relief and despair mingled. Jack now had the means to kill those who had hurt him. But deep in his heart, he feared that was not what would heal him." (164) Mary's later admonition seems to give weight to such doubts. Yet shortly before this little speech, readers watched Mary kill one of Jack's tormentors herself, "Because Jack could not live in a world where they existed, and now, neither could she" (314), because she's fallen in love with him. And when he finds out what she's done, "A strange, happy ache surged into something sharp and cutting, wonderful yet at the same time terrible. Mary had killed for him" (335). In older stories, heroes often killed men who had raped their beloveds; is Callihan's inversion of the trope a feminist move, or simply a confusion about which message about revenge to convey? Or a bit of both?

The book's mixed messages about female sexuality are similarly puzzling. On the one hand, Callihan depicts Mary's sexual desire in evocative, detailed prose:

She did not feel like herself anymore, didn't recognize this woman she'd become. An invader had taken over her skin. Logic had fled like a frightened spirit. Instead she felt. Everywhere. Everything. Her bones thrummed. She was at once too heavy yet oddly buoyant. Her breasts ached and tingled, as though the flesh there had been asleep ad now needed to be rubbed fully back to life. A horrid though, and yet the very idea of big, rough hands rubbing over her tender flesh...God almighty, she quivered. Intolerable.
     It was endless, this feeling. When she walked, she felt the length of her own legs and the curve of her bottom, where the fabric of her drawers moved and teased. And she felt her own slickness between her legs, a strange slip-slide that sent little judders of sensation over her, an uncomfortably hot syrup that coated her inside and out. (209)

Yet Mary, we discover, was only pretending to be another man's courtesan during the book's prologue, a role that inspired much of the jealousy and anger underlying Jack and Mary's subsequent relationship. In fact, Mary has never engaged in consensual sex with anyone, making her a virgin in all but name. Given the sexual attack she suffered, her lack of desire makes sense. But it also leads to the question: would Jack's overwhelming attraction to Mary have been quite so overwhelming if she'd turned out to truly be as sexually experienced as he'd originally thought? The above passage actually opens with the line "Blast him," as if all of the feelings she's experiencing stem from Jack, rather than from something within her; is it only because Mary has found her one true love that she's allowed to experience sexual desire?

How does the book attempt to depict feminist heterosexual love? Jack and Mary's relationship through much of the book is that of the typical bickering romance pair, attracted to one another but sublimating that attraction into biting wit and cutting insult. Given his murderous spree, Jack clearly has reason to set Mary at arm's length. And its not only demons in the flesh that keep them apart; there are multiple personal demons in Jack's past, too, some of which tie him to Mary's death. The two begin to move past their bickering only after Jack's desire to protect her leads to revelations about his past, a past that included even more abuse than Mary, or readers, had been told of. Only when Mary doesn't reject him as undeserving, as everyone else in his family had, and Jack is able to share the pain of his childhood trauma with her, can the two begin not to forget the pains of their pasts, but to face them and move on together.

Jack, needless to say, is the epitome of the tortured hero, the man women readers love to love because we want to be the one and only one who can ease his pain. In Old Skool romances, such pain-abatement typically requires that the hero to dramatically change his spots, turning from a demanding, demeaning alpha male into a vulnerable (at least to the heroine), kindhearted fellow. Is the initial abuse the hero dishes out to the heroine more palatable if the hero doesn't really change, but rather, like a faded dress remade, turns the fabric of his personality inside out, making what was once hidden away inside available for external viewing? As Mary puts it, "On the outside Jack Talent was tarnished and battered, but underneath he was sterling. Not even Jack truly understood this. But she would help him see it" (361). Does presenting masculinity as breakable, rather than invulnerable, send a clearer feminist message?

For her whole life, she'd thought of men in terms of force. Blunt instruments that asserted their will and strength. Jack was that, more so than most. But she had never truly realized a man's vulnerability, that a man might need comfort and tenderness. In truth, a man was like crystal, all hard, cool surfaces and solid strength, yet so easily broken if mishandled. (361)

At the novel's climax, the relationship between Jack and Mary has been transformed, and not only in the sexual realm. Jack receives the typical message from the villain, listing, "a time, a place, and request that Jack arrive alone" (381). At this point, readers might be forgiven for expecting him to sneak off, to steal away from Mary without telling her, in order to keep her safe, in typical romance hero fashion. But instead, "Jack, having learned a thing or two from the men in his life, all of whom loved headstrong women, woke Mary and showed it [the note] to her" (381). Afterwards, the two set off together, each now willing to share their work, and their burdens, with one another.

As Jack recognizes after the two become separated, "How could he be strong and still keep her safe? He couldn't. The realization surged through him. He had to rely on her strength to get her through. He had to believe in her. Just as she believed in him" (403). A relationship of equals, each contributing his or her strengths. But is the fact that Mary's "strength" takes the form of the ultimate sacrifice of self, rather than an act of physical bravery, a throwback to the endlessly self-sacrificing heroines of romance novels past? Or a sign of a feminine (feminist?) kind of heroine-ism?

Even after spilling all the above ink, I'm still left feeling confused. Would stronger editing have been able to help Callihan convey her ideological and thematic messages with less ambiguity? Or is the ideological muddle intentional, a way to appeal to both readers longing for empowered heroines and to those who prefer their stories more Old Skool?

Do you have thoughts on Callihan's novel (and series)? Have you had similar experiences in reading a romance that seemed to convey mixed mixed messages about its embrace of feminist ideals?

Photo credits:
Trafalgar Square: The Victorian Web
Bickering Hearts:

* And to unravel both from writing that could benefit from a more careful editing. Shadowdance opens with a prologue, and continues into a narrative, that is overly dependent on readers' knowledge of the previous books in the series to make sense. I've actually read all three of the previous full-length books in the series, and I had difficulty at times following things, and I'm not a careless reader. Please, Kristen Callihan (and fantasy writers the world over): do us all a favor and don't name-drop or event-drop until our heads are spinning, especially if you're writing a series with different protagonists in each book. For example, don't mention "Una" if you're not going to explain who she is, or if she's never going to appear again in the later story...


Forever, 2013