All posts by Olivia

Z is for Zoe Archer

{Content note: the following post contains brief mentions of rape and nonconsensual attitudes in romance.

Click here for the complete — actually complete! — alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

This post is both an ending and a beginning: an ending, because we have reached the letter Z, and after tomorrow’s brief wrap-up of the whole series I am going to explore the exciting new field of Shutting The Hell Up; a beginning, because Zoe Archer’s books were the ones that first got me really looking for more varied representation in romance all those (five) years ago. Rebel is the third book in Ms. Archer’s Blades of the Rose series, which I thoroughly enjoy for their mix of magic, historical romance, and adventure. (I’m several books behind in terms of keeping up with her many series — the curse of being a slow reader!)

Cover image for Rebel by Zoe Archer. Background of snowy peaks and high alpine forest. In the foreground a sharp-faced, dark-haired, tan-skinned man kneels, looking around observantly. He wears trousers, boots, a pale coat, and a fancy gold waistcoat. One arm is thrown out protectively to the woman who stands behind him, looking off in the opposite direction. She has pale skin and blond hair in a long braid down one shoulder. She wears goggles, trousers, a belted overshirt, and a long duster coat. A long knife is tied to the belt at her waist. One hand holds a pair of binoculars, and the other rests lightly on the man's shoulder. The premise of this series is an explicit treatise on the ethical and unethical uses of power. The Blades of the Rose (as in compass rose) are a group of fighters, spies, and scientists who travel the world to protect magical artifacts from being exploited. Their nemeses are a group known as the Heirs of Albion, whose purpose is to collect as many magical artifacts as they can for the purposes of elevating England above all other nations: “If the Heirs had their desire, Britain’s empire would see no limits” (Kindle location 13015). The contest is perennially uneven: the Heirs are aristocratic and wealthy, central figures of the real-world British Empire, and they do not scruple to use every means available to achieve their goal. Our heroes, in contrast, only use magic “that is theirs by right or gift” (15869). It leaves them perpetually outgunned and outmanned, forced to rely on their wits and strategy rather than brute force — ripe terrain for anyone who likes rooting for the underdog.

It’s been a while since I read the whole series, but in broad strokes the Blades’ own structure unfortunately replicates the pattern of imperial power, where the center is located in England (Southampton) and agents are dispatched out to the margins (Mongolia, Greece, Africa, Canada) on limited-time missions. I chose Rebel to discuss not only because it has a Native Canadian hero, but because the colonial themes of the series are brought out most vividly in this particular installment. Unfortunately, just as the Blades’ resistance to imperialism takes an imperial form, the resistances to oppression and colonial power in Rebel often replicate the patterns that sustain those systems.

Hero Nathan Lesperance is part Cowichan and part Stoney, but he’s never really known either tribe. Like many Native Canadian children, Nathan was taken from his parents at a young age and raised to be assimilated into white Christian culture. It’s a particularly cruel piece of North American history whose present ramifications include dying languages, broken traditions, lost cultures, and traumatic isolation for many First Nations people. Nathan’s determination to resist the colonial pressure that attempts to erase his history and his personhood has led him to become a lawyer on Vancouver Island, doing pro bono work to ease the burdens of injustice on Chinese and Native populations: “From the inside out, he’d smash apart the edifices of their prejudice, and the victory would be all the sweeter because they’d put the hammer in his hands” (12464). I was reminded of heroine Starbride from Barbara Ann Wright’s Pyramid Waltz, who also hopes to use the law as a means of fighting imperialism. I was also very strongly reminded of Audre Lord’s famous essay, “The Master’s Tools Cannot Dismantle the Master’s House” (PDF). In this light, Nathan’s project is doomed to fail because he cannot see that the very foundations of the edifice are stacked against him. The law is created by imperial minds, with racist biases, and backed by prejudice at every level. A system that encourages settler colonialism through land grants, broken treaties, and military action cannot be used to dismantle imperialism: it would be like trying to use a hammer to smash itself.

Nathan, moreover, is not even truly within the system. One of the first descriptions we get of him explicitly marks out his difference through the eyes of a local Mountie:

“I’m not your typical lawyer,” said Lesperance, dry.

On that, the sergeant had to agree. For one thing, most lawyers resembled prosperous bankers, their soft stomachs gently filling out their waistcoats, hands soft and manicured, a look of self-satisfaction in their fleshy, middle-aged faces. Nathan Lesperance looked hard as granite, hale, barely thirty, and more suited for a tough life in the wilderness than arguing the finer points of law in court or from behind a desk. (12231)

This description is a typical hero’s look – “hard as granite” in particular is one of romance’s more often-applied phrases. But we’re still gazing at Nathan through the imperial lens here: the definition of banker or lawyer implies male, middle-aged (well, yeah, after all those years of schooling!), soft and white. By invoking Nathan’s difference from this type, the text reiterates his marginalization.

Soon after this, Nathan discovers an ability to shapeshift into a large grey wolf. Our Native hero quite literally has a beast inside him, one which matches faintly remembered stories told to him by his dead mother: “A legendary race of changers lived in the sacred mountains” (12811). But our white heroine has to fill in the gaps in his knowledge: “The race of changers are called Earth Spirits … I have heard the legends, too. But I learned long ago that there is much more truth to legends than society would have us believe … You are an Earth Spirit.” The colonialist rupture of tribal tradition means Nathan now has to learn about his innermost self from a woman who comes from that same colonizing culture. When Nathan objects, as this seems to confirm every bigoted thing that’s ever been said about him — and he’s not really wrong, is he? — Astrid qualifies her statement:

“I did not say you were a man-beast. A man who can change into an animal. That is different.”

His bark of laughter held no humor. “Stupid of me not to see the difference.” (12847)

Bark of laughter — again, a common romance turn of phrase that in context proves rather infelicitous. The problem of where Nathan’s self as man begins and where his self as wolf begins (or later bear or hawk — spoilers! he has three beasts in there!) troubles the text. As is common in paranormal romance, strong emotions tend to bring out Nathan’s bestial form, especially anger, arousal, and fear. I am increasingly uncomfortable with the way these emotions are elided into one another in romance generally and paranormal romance most of all; I get that it’s all connected to self-control but as someone who can’t help flinching at loud noises I get uncomfortable at the thought of a partner who’s one inciting incident away from literally turning into a slavering monster with sharp teeth and claws. Nathan can change shape at will and is able to understand speech in his animal forms, but this comforting sentience disappears when he changes under the pressure of emotional impulses. And the way this ties back into the stereotypes of Natives as bestial only compounds my discomfort:

An animal within himself. He’d always felt it, fought it down every day. White men thought Indians were animals. He would prove them wrong, even if it meant brutally tethering a part of himself. But that hidden beast recognized her [Astrid], saw its like within her. And demanded. (12313)

The existence of Nathan’s beast-form here is a literal proof that white prejudice against Native peoples has some basis in fact in the world of the text. Some Native people are literally, not figuratively, animals. And the bestial nature is brought out by contact with (and attraction to) our white, blonde heroine.

It must be confessed: I love Astrid as a character. She’s lonely and standoffish and deeply wounded in ways that usually only the hero is allowed to be. I love a prickly heroine, and she’s a top-notch example. Astrid is frequently characterized, like Nathan, as beast-like or having a hidden beast that matches his. Astrid’s beast, however, is metaphorical: Nathan’s is literal. I cannot read this as an even distribution of power – unless her position as a white colonizer with greater knowledge (of magic, of his own people, of the threats posed by the Heir) compensates for the fact that Nathan is constantly fighting the urge to — if you’ll allow me a mild euphemism – disregard her sexual non-consent:

Nathan lowered back down to sitting, though he grimaced in pain from his aching cock. He breathed in hard, forcing himself and the beast back under control but having a hell of a time. The beast demanded more. He never took an unwilling women — even if the woman’s body was so damned willing she could start a firestorm with her heat … He clenched his jaw so tightly it throbbed, felt the animal in him growl, demanding to be set free. But he was more than animal. He had to prove that to her, and to himself. (13959)

“He never took an unwilling woman” — the pronoun’s most immediate antecedent is the beast, not Nathan, but both are active so both are mingled here. Normally such language is an externalization of a purely interior struggle — the classical example is Athena grabbing Achilles by the hair in the Iliad to prevent him from striking Agamemnon. But Nathan’s inner beast is frighteningly, fatally real. He never for one moment accepts that Astrid might honestly, truly reject him: all her denials are ascribed to fear, or avoidance of pain, or her desire to hide from complicated emotions. Their bond is presented in the text as something diegetically real and palpable even before they have exchanged more than three sentences: it is not quite a fated mate scenario, but it is close. The problem with this is that, like Nathan’s beast, the ethical landscape changes when what is usually a metaphor becomes factual. If you meet someone and the two of you have an instantaneous, real bond that happens because of magic, then it is accurate to say that rejecting that must be immoral or deluded, just like denying climate change or the benefit of vaccination is deluded (note: there will be no arguing about those statements in comments). But in real life, such palpable bonds are not scientific, they are not demonstrable by any outside measure, they are not objectively true — they are, however, frequently used as justifications for sexual assault and abuse. A brief tour through the many blog posts about the Jamie-Cersei rape scene from the recent Game of Thrones episode “Breaker of Chains” (this one from the Mary Sue is my favorite) will provide ample parallels for why this is an important sticking point.

This tension between threat and desire is resolved in the plot when Astrid yields her consent, as often happens in romance, whereupon Nathan’s beast of course turns protective instead of ominous. And to the text’s credit, Nathan’s change is not purely presented as an increase in power. It unsettles him, disturbs the course of his life, and makes him vulnerable in new ways. In fact, he way Astrid and Nathan progress from shame about the change/looking away, to watching the change as though watching is a gift, becomes highly sexually charged: “‘We shared something before,’ he nodded toward the direction from which they’d come, the riverbank on which they’d made love. ‘We’ll share this now.’ He pulled off his boots with hands that shook slightly with the intimacy of what he was about to do. A greater intimacy than the joining of their bodies in sex. They both knew that no one had ever seen him so unguarded, so truly exposed as he would be in a moment” (27211). This further complicates the interplay of violence and sexuality, and strikes me an unsatisfactory answer to the questions raised by the text. More and more, I am unsettled by the idea of romances whose erotic charge is He could hurt you, but he doesn’t. That is not a fun fantasy for me; that is not an escape; that is far too close to real life and my nightmares. You’re special: you’re the only one he shows the monster to. <– A horrible pun I could not resist.

If Nathan’s sexualized shapeshifting is a vulnerability, it is one that makes him and the other Earth Spirits a target for the Heirs, who want to colonize tribal powers the way the British colonized tribal lands: “Captive breeding … They will force you into captive breeding and create their own army of shape changers” (14754). The Heirs will do this by using three totems — a bear, an eagle, and a hawk — that each give them the power to control that animal’s shifters. There are repeated statements that the tribes can do nothing to resist the Heirs. There are repeated statements that the power of the Heirs is generally irresistible. It is hard to discern which of these statements are textual (setting us up for the eventual triumph of our heroes) and which of these statements are interacting with real-world historical narratives, which holds that all Native cultures eventually fall beneath the onslaught of white settlement and militarism. Similarly, Astrid’s eventual sexual submission is never really in doubt in the text — this is romance, where we know our hero and heroine will get together, so all her protestations are mere bumps in the road. Nathan has been colonized and is under the threat of an even more terrifying colonization by the Heirs — at the same time, his determined sexual pursuit of Astrid bears a strong resemblance to the forward movement of an irresistible, implacable enemy. At one point when Nathan is explaining why it’s particularly hard for men to watch the women they love take risks, Astrid says, “I thought that, rebel that you are, you’d have a bit more progressive attitude.” Nathan’s reply: “Some things are carved into a man’s blood and bones” (15520).

Let us have rebellion, this book says, but not too much.

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Snarky Cake’s post Multicultural Tokenism in Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy has informed much of my analysis in this post, and aligns with many of my own observations of the genre.

I really wish I had had the time to read Stranger as well for this post, since black English genius inventor and waistcoat enthusiast Catullus Graves is the closest I’ve ever come to having a real-life crush on a romance hero. And Ms. Archer pairs him with a buxom, redheaded writer, so the self-identification for me there is off the charts.

Now added to my impossibly long reading list: Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture.

Definitely worth checking though it may not be still trending when this post hits: the hashtag #DiversityIsNot. Those who devalue Twitter as a means of amplifying decentered voices are talking out of their (frequently centered) ass.

This Goodreads thread about abuse red flags, sexual violence, and paranormal and erotic romance (and a bit of romantic suspense) is full of food for thought. I don’t necessarily endorse every comment in here, but I do endorse having the discussion. This post asking whether we give paranormal heroes a pass on abusive behavior is also important.

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Archer, Zoe. Blades of the Rose bundle. New York: Zebra Books, December 1, 2010. Ebook.

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Y is for Y Chromosomes: Gender Binary (Part 2)

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

Yesterday I talked about the gender binary in mainstream romance; today’s post is all about m/m and f/f romance. I’m a mere dabbler in each of these deep pools, with much of my knowledge gleaned second-hand from scurrilous if entertaining places like Tumblr, so I hope there will be experts around to chime in with points I may not have considered or come across. None of the below comments will have anything to do with the writing quality of either subgenre — instead I’d like to explore the various intersections that crop up around the reading culture and reception of m/m and f/f separately within the broader mainstream culture of romance.

Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that this month’s posts have not featured a romance with two male leads (though we have seen gay secondary characters). As I mentioned in comments to the Evangeline Parsons Yazzie post, I tend to give m/m romance a heavy side-eye: although I’ve read quite a few m/m fics and fanfics as a youth on the internet, my early experiences with m/m romance as a genre came when I started publishing erotic romance and joined my first author loops. (Oh, author loops, those gutters of self-promo and tone policing — it’s like being in a cutthroat high school clique with your mom.) <– Statement that may ensure I’ll never be in another author loop ever again?

The m/m authors I learned about on the loops were primarily straight women. They were upbeat, self-consciously naughty, and self-described allies of gay men. Note: gay men. A standard example comes from author Tara Lain (screencap), who writes m/m and the occasional m/m/f menage: “I love the intensity, passion, lack of gender roles, diversity, and innate drama that accompany two men in love.”

LACK OF GENDER ROLES COMMA DIVERSITY. This right here could easily fuel a two-thousand word post about privilege and appropriation and the way political theory devolves into marketing buzzwords. Limiting gender to one half of the binary is not compatible with diversity as a value. For one thing, despite the many parallel comments in this Goodreads thread on m/m romance, erasing the presence of women is not an acceptable solution to the problems that gender inequality presents. Not even in fiction. Because simply erasing one gender from a text does not erase capital-G-Gender from the text. A post at Vacuous Minx puts it most succinctly:

Let’s be honest and acknowledge that m/m provides a respite from what women’s gendered roles in romance novels make us confront, not from “gendered power relationships” more generally.

For another thing, “diversity” here is a feel-good term and an emotional manipulation: it aligns the straight author and her books with the morality of tolerance even as she makes money from the appropriated lives of marginalized identities. This is the very definition of fetishization.

When Victoria Brownworth wrote about m/m romance for Lambda Literary several years ago, including her own experience as a young lesbian reading f/f stroke fiction authored by men, it became A Huge Thing. [Updated to add: Victoria Brownworth has been active in TERF circles, which if I had known when I was writing this post would have made me pass her over in silence. Sometimes I get turned around by internet chronology. I stand by my citations below, mostly because they do not cite Ms. Brownworth.] One of the very first commenters was a female author of m/m who took issue with the terms:

[A] fetish by definition means to hold something in awe or in high regard. How does that jive with the hate-filled connotations that you want to associate with it? I also have a shoe fetish… does that mean I hate shoes?

Note: in her example, gay men = shoes. The definition of objectification. This is the facet of the m/m culture that always gives me the impression the (straight, female) author has taken two GI Joes and is mashing their faces together while saying, “Now kiss!” It gives me the heebie-jeebies and it means I hesitate to pick up an m/m romance that does not come with a recommendation from a trusted source. (Much more thoughtful responses to Brownworth’s argument can be found in this post by Sarah Frantz at Teach Me Tonight, and in comments. It’s a good old-fashioned internet clusterfuck and now my brain hurts so I’m moving on.) I know there are gay male authors of m/m and I know there are wonderful books out there — but the fetishizing gatekeepers have so far succeeded in scaring me away from nearly the entire subgenre.

Let’s revisit Tara Lain’s author page again, because it brings up another issue I’d like to develop more fully, and which I haven’t seen brought to the forefront of any mainstream m/m discussions in the past few years. Here is her front-page bio, in full, where I’ve added some crucial emphasis:

I’m Tara Lain and I write The Beautiful Boys of Romance. I love all my characters, but especially my unique heroes. I write mostly MM romance with some MMF as well. I love the intensity, passion, lack of gender roles, diversity, and innate drama that accompany two men in love. Giving my guys their happy ever after is my favorite thing. I write serious themes with a light touch and readers often call my books “sweet” despite all the hot sex!  I believe in love and enjoy giving more of it to the world! Please say hi, ask questions, and make yourself at home!  : )

The theme here is of ownership and control: the author is explicitly foregrounding her authority in the world of her texts, not only in regard to “her” boys but in regard to the shape of their (fictional) lives. The issue of control is also what makes discussions of m/m so quickly vitriolic on both sides: lgbt people object to feeling not in control of the bulk of fictional depictions of their own lives (and have been systemically erased from history and literature), and m/m authors and readers object to the idea that their own creative endeavors must be limited by considerations outside themselves (especially volatile for romance authors/readers, who are routinely pushed outside the literary tradition).

The idea of control helps explain why the same kind of rhetorical turns and attitudes that put my hackles up in professional publishing tend to merely (or sometimes profoundly) amuse me when I see them on Tumblr and in fan spaces. For instance: the Science Boyfriends fandom, which imagines that Bruce Banner and Tony Stark are in a romantic relationship and/or like to hang out and do lab work and experiments and make inventions together. It tends to be pretty cute, with a sweet rom-com vibe in both art and fic. Like many popular fan and slash pairings — the Winchesters, every Sherlock/Watson iteration, the original Kirk/Spock — these stories and artworks are a response, a reframing of an original work that is both culturally resonant and light on female characters or straight romantic relationships. Fanfic/slash is often deeply personal, experimental, self-aware, allusive, complex, and vivid. It is also mostly read and written by young women. In a world where young women’s own bodies and sexuality are constantly policed, scrutinized, and appropriated by everyone else, I suspect the way slash takes control back from creators (generally also men) is profoundly therapeutic: These are the characters you’ve given us, but we are reclaiming them as our own. Or else it’s an echo of the way young women feel appropriated by media? Taking the image or depiction of someone and putting that to your own use: if this is how value is created for young women, perhaps it also can become how young women create value? (See yesterday’s thought about authors swapping beefcake photos.) Remember the Creamsicle fandom? That time when a cartoon pointing out sexist depictions of girls on social media became a sweet lesbian romance between two characters who hadn’t even existed twenty-four hours earlier? God, that made me so happy. Young women (and some of them young queer women!) working together to create something positive out of misogyny and systemic erasure. I tear up just thinking about it.

Of course, if this is a major propellant of slashfic (hint: probably not entirely!), then it’s an impulse that must eventually need tempering with an eye toward other marginalized identities. No matter how many Science Boyfriend fics are written, Bruce Banner and Tony Stark will remain safely un-marginalized: actual gay men do not have this luxury. Making the switch to original characters transforms the writer’s ethical landscape – especially if this change happens to align with your own social privilege as a straight or straight-identified person in a homophobic culture. I’m starting to think this dynamic (a straight female writer progressing from slash fic to original fic to a career as an author of m/m romance) parallels one identified in this piece from Restructure, where geeky men redefine intelligence/math skills/computer savvy as masculine in response to jock bullying and identification of manliness with physical prowess. So when women claim to be intelligent/skilled in math/computer savvy in the same way, geek men push back out of ingrained self-defense. Similarly, slash writers potentially reclaim and reframe male relationships as a vital means of self-expression; when real-life gay men object, writers push back to defend themselves as a matter of course. I think this might explain certain common rhetorical moves in these debates — the description of m/m romance as works of respect and pure imagination, for instance, read very similarly to defenses of fan fiction against authors who object to it. You don’t own that, is the general refrain all around.

To get back on track … The money is, I realize now, a large part of what makes the m/m industry so distasteful to me on a grand scale. When the BBC Sherlock mocked fan culture in the Series Three premiere, I was appalled and put off. It was an inappropriate use of power: Moffatt and the producers of Sherlock were much more culturally and financially powerful than the fans they were poking at. In m/m, the existence of royalty relationships tends to amplify hegemonic power, so that straight women — Suzanne Brockman and J. R. Ward come to mind — reap the bulk of the attention and financial rewards in a subgenre centered on the love lives of gay men. Particularly when straight women can build entire careers and lengthy backlists on just books with m/m pairings. I can’t get past this as a sticking point, quite honestly. Not every m/m romance is automatically appropriative — but the structure of the industry itself deserves some sharp critique. So all this isn’t to say that I’m against m/m romance as a thing per se — merely that I’m going to be extra-careful about where my dollars go in an industry that feels so fundamentally imbalanced.

And now, for f/f fiction!

I’ve had incredible luck with f/f romance for this series. I’ve found wonderful new authors whose books I’m now itching to read more of, and I’ve found great resources like The Lesbrary which features lesbian-themed fiction both popular and literary (often reviewed by actual lesbians!). Not everything has been perfect, but nothing has made me feel as deeply uneasy as with m/m, either — not even the unabashedly pulpy ones like Rebekah Weatherspoon’s Better Off Red. There’s probably something about the intersections between straight women/queer women, as opposed to those between straight women/gay men, that has implications (but people smarter than me will have to work on this for the moment). When discussing f/f fiction, there are few genre-wide arguments to cite, few clusterfucks to dig up — but why? I can think of many reasons and all of them are depressing. Is it because:

  • Two women having sex is not as much of a social threat as two men (witness all the anti-marriage equality materials that featured scare grooms, and the way lesbian sex was never as thoroughly criminalized as gay sex between men).
  • If romance is “women writing about women,” then f/f romance is “women writing about women falling in love with other women.” That’s like a Double Romance. “Gross,” says Patriarchy.
  • The much lower revenue streams of f/f mean there are far fewer presses, authors, and readers with a financial stake in the subgenre. So there will be arguments, but they will rarely reach the heights of a debate that hits, for instance, a revered literary institution for gay lit, a top-notch romance review site, Gawker, and OUT Magazine.

F/f has yet to go mainstream in the way that m/m has/is about to — but I’m certainly going to be reading more of it. And that seems as good a place as any to call it a day.

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A Twitter-borne recommendation from queer gamer scholar Todd Harper has gotten me hooked on sci-fi gay romance animated webcomic Buying Time. I’m only a little ways in but I am thoroughly charmed. More like this, please.

Gay author of m/m romance Theo Fenraven has some thoughts on this issue, which do not entirely align with my own, but which are definitely worth bringing up for debate.

This year’s Lambda Literary Award winners were announced today! I freely admit this is just a coincidence, but it’s a pleasing one nonetheless.

Edited to add: An email remnded me of this thoughtful post from author E. E. Ottoman about the popularity of f/f versus m/m romance.

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X is for X-Chromosomes: The Gender Binary (Part 1)

{Click here for the complete alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

Romance has a distinct gender essentialist undercurrent, as I’ve talked about briefly in the past. Men are Men, and Women are Women, and never the twain shall meet except in approved narrative arcs with guaranteed happy endings. Between romance reading/criticism and conference marketing and the thousand or so friends of mine who are having babies presently (another one since I started this post! no, for real though, the pics just went up on Facebook) and thus seeing all the baby shower pictures and gender reveals, I sometimes have to fight off the absurd notion that genders are like Hogwarts houses in constant competition and we’re all just assigned to one or the other more or less at random even though many of us could have done just as well in Ravenclaw as in Gryffindor – oh, god, and now I have this image of the Sorting Hat glomming onto people’s junk and shouting out Man! or Woman! and now how could I possibly look J. K. Rowling in the face without blushing?

But ridiculousness aside, I’ve also started to notice the ways in which these false boundaries are asserted both within and around the romance genre. The performance of gender is repeated at every level in countless ways that reinforce the male/female binary, at the expense of people who don’t quite fit within the limits of that mode of expression. A list may be helpful at this point, moving from the level of the text outward through the discourse:

  • Many a romance novel uses terms like “masculine” or “feminine” to mark sexual desirability and/or arousal – as though gender is never inseparable from sexuality or is the primary basis for attraction (as opposed to honor, wit, charm, kindness, etc.). For instance, the hero who always smells like “some combination of Thing A, Thing B, and man,” where “man” is the word that clues you in to the fact that this is a sexualized sense experience for the heroine. It often happens with heroines, too — there’s a soap smell (lavender, lemon, sandalwood), and then something like “the indelible essence of woman/[heroine's name].”
  • Many a romance novel mentions how the hero/heroine is desired by all women/men — as though attraction is an objective measure, or as though gay and bisexual people don’t exist, or as though the hero/heroine’s sexual allure is a rule of physics like gravity or entropy and doesn’t involve another person’s desires or personal preferences at all. This often becomes a point of confusion for heroes in particular, puzzling over the heroine’s resistance to their advances. “Did she not know his reputation with the ladies?”
  • Gendered euphemisms: “her most womanly places.” As though gender were rooted in biology rather than culture and performance. And I don’t know about you, but when I get tingly in my tingly bits, I don’t respond by thinking, “How womanly of me!”
  • The improbably muscular hero — even if he has no reason to be muscular because he works at a desk all day or because gyms didn’t exist in Regency London. As though masculinity, social power, and physical power were all interchangeable, and a proper hero must have all three.
  • The improbably hairless historical heroine — as though modern notions of grooming and hygiene were in operation in earlier centuries. (Google “merkin” if you doubt me.)  As though ungroomed femininity is somehow unspeakable, in need of mediation through beauty work. Someday I hope to find a historical heroine who actually spends time depilating with some gross pre-modern concoction, simply because that would be novel. (And hair removal has a long and fascinating history.)
  • The “kickass heroine” – because she stands for type of aspirational womanhood that is inevitably tied up with the equivalence between violence and power that we see in the muscular hero. Fictive violence is in itself an inadequate rebellion against the stereotype of women’s passivity and weakness. If we have learned anything from Quentin Tarantino movies (have we learned anything from Quentin Tarantino movies?) it’s that power through violence does not automatically subvert patriarchal stereotypes. There was a moment from Laura K. Curtis’ Twisted where the heroine claimed she was not like the killer’s other victims, implying that she was physically stronger — sadly, this empowerment comes at the expense of numerous dead women.
  • Heroines are often special because they are Not Like Other Women. Heroes are often special because they Exceed All Other Men. Either way, masculinity is the benchmark by which all characters are judged.
  • The term “book boyfriends,” which elevates heroes over heroines and makes readers monolithically female and heterosexual. I’ve certainly fallen in love with fictional characters before — who hasn’t? — but I think the fact that “book boyfriends” exists as a term while “book girlfriends” doesn’t is telling. There is plenty of conversation around desiring men, but we so rarely talk about the heroines we want to hang out with – for instance, as great as Alec Kincaid is in Garwood’s classic The Bride, it’s heroine Jamie who I want to actually meet in person, because she’d be awesome. Sweet and thoughtful and if a horse tried to bite me she’d punch that horse in the face — she’s exactly what I want in a friend.
  • The idea that m/m romance is free from gender roles — as though masculine and feminine are the only gender options, and as though there’s only one way of performing each role. (More on this tomorrow in The Gender Binary Part 2!)
  • The appearance of male cover models at conferences, purely for titillation. It is presumed that (female) romance authors are interested in (male) cover models, which is not universally the case — think of all the lesbian romance authors, or happily married romance authors, or male romance authors, or romance authors who aren’t really into the cover model type (especially when he’s headless, the poor thing). Yet cover model appearances are always presented with a winking faux-naughtiness, the full weight of capitalist sexualization, and a great deal of pressure to go along with this imposed notion of fun. As though offering up cover models for readers’/authors’ visual enjoyment were the same thing as offering food or drinks.
  • Any romance writers’ conference is sure to feature a workshop on how to write plausible male characters — as though men are interchangeable and can be built from one set of blueprints, or as though creating complex male characters is qualitatively different than creating complex female characters. As though we do not get a crash course on male characters in fiction simply by surviving a single year of high school English (much less college or graduate school). “Plausible male characters” in romance so often translates into “emotionally closed off” or “casually misogynistic in a dudely fashion.”
  • The sharing of beefcake photos by authors on social media. This is a very complicated thing, because it is still a bold act for a woman to declare herself a sexual subject against the pressures of patriarchal culture. And there is a pure visceral pleasure in a good sexy pic that is very hard to deny: people are visual creatures. But I’ve come to believe that much of this photo-sharing also functions as performative heterosexuality — not so much an actual personal desire as a show of personal desire for the purpose of community building (the “socially intelligible” part of this Wikipedia chunklet). Especially since the “hot men” thing is so often used as a way of establishing an author’s personal brand for marketing purposes. This pattern echoes the way patriarchy asserts itself through the consumption of women’s bodies — to take one example, the sexually based bonding implied by the term “wingman,” where the friendship between two men is cemented through sexual pursuit of women (who are then presumably discarded, while the friendship is kept). <– Is this the most pedantic description ever of two dudes hanging out in a bar trying to get laid? Possibly!
  • Any time a major publication wants to talk about romance novels, they hire a male writer with little experience in the genre to write the piece. Noah Berlatsky’s recent article in Salon (via DoNotLink) was not the most egregious example, and I do share his taste in romances to a large degree, but it adheres closely enough to the established pattern that I can hardly read it through the rolling of my eyes. I can only think of two exceptions to this rule, and both have taken place this year: Sarah MacLean’s letter in the New York Times Book Review (about which she was interviewed at All About Romance) and Lorraine Heath’s recent piece on dukes for NPR (DO NOT read the comments on that one, unless you are near-fatally low on blood pressure).

Entrenched gender performance like this means it really is an uphill battle for romance with trans or genderfluid characters to get enough mainstream traction to be noticed. That’s starting to change — witness the recent discussions of Painted Faces and Untamed — but there’s still a lot of room for growth. And I didn’t even begin to approach the ways in which gender is not sex and biology is not as black-and-white as culture would have us think. (Useful search terms for those wishing to learn more on their own: CAMAB and CAFAB.) I’m still at the point of thinking about this issue where I can recognize a lot of what’s wrong but have no map for where to go from here. I have said this before but it’s perennially accurate: I have a lot more reading to do.

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For a real-world example of how the focus on biology-as-gender-and-sex is harmful and reductive, here is Laverne Cox being interviewed by Katie Couric, and her response to a particularly invasive and common line of questioning.

If you have not already read Cordelia Fine’s excellent and most necessary book Delusions of Gender, I highly recommend doing so. It lays to rest a lot of the pseudo-science around the idea of gendered biology, particularly in regard to the idea of male brains and female brains being innately different. Eye-opening and keen and at times pure angry feminist fun.

Genderbent Romance is a young but worthy Tumblr I have stumbled over, that exists purely to swap the genders of characters in romance novel blurbs. The results are exquisite, and they accept reader submissions!

I am delighted to present you this charming piece from The Toast on Rules of Gender Variant Chivalry. Personal favorite: “A high femme must do battle for any androsexual in peril from dragon or Frenchman.”

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W is for the Other Woman

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

It’s impossible to write a month’s worth of posts on feminism in romance and not bring up the trope of the Other Woman.

She’s as old as the genre itself, and appears in many of the canonical works. The ur-example is probably Pride and Prejudice‘s Caroline Bingley, snobbish and catty and redolent with poisonous politeness. We have two Other Women in Jane Eyre: lovely and self-important Blanche Ingram, and monstrous, pitiable Bertha Rochester. These figures have countless echoes in romance, from the mad villainess in Julie Garwood’s The Bride to Julia Quinn’s Cressida Cowper to all the immoral, cheating, heartless first wives that have stomped on the hearts of angsty alpha heroes since time immemorial.

Screenshots from both the 1995 and the 2005 versions of Pride and Prejudice, showing heroine Elizabeth Bennett and rival Caroline Bingley standing side by side for comparison.At her most basic level, the Other Woman functions as a way to generate conflict by means of female competition. She battles the heroine for the hero’s affections/penis/hand in marriage (a typical shallow take: this evo-psych video which honestly I only made it halfway through on account of some predictably vapid statements about “Harlequin romances”). The symbolic function of the Other Woman is to demonstrate the distance between the heroine and herself — to the left you will see a pair of screenshots of Elizabeth Bennet and Caroline Bingley (from the 2005 Pride and Prejudice above and the classic 1995 Firth-tacular version below). Note how both Carolines have dresses of finer material, showier jewelry, and more artful hairdos than the Elizabeths. Note the posture, as well: the Elizabeths have their arms at their sides, approachable and vulnerable. The Carolines have their arms crossed in front of them — right in front of their ladyparts, in fact! — showing that they are essentially closed off, distant, and cold. Keira Knightley’s waifish Elizabeth Bennet is contrasted with a womanly, sultry Caroline, while Jennifer Ehle’s bouncy, bosomy Elizabeth is set off by a thin, birdlike Caroline (always the feathers! Anna Chancellor, I love you).

To go a bit further, the Other Woman is frequently a representative of hegemonic power: in historicals she commonly has birth, wealth, and a gift for adroit social backstabbery. She has beauty and knows how to use it, or she is more sexually available (the word “overblown” often marks this, especially in older historicals). Contemporary Other Women (Cin from Bet Me, or C. C. from modern sitcom classic The Nanny) are often portrayed as overly ambitious and career-focused, which are fiction-code for a woman who is cold and self-interested. To them the hero is a prize, an item they intend to acquire as an accessory to a life lived successfully. The most common Other Woman archetype in contemporary romance is not the rival, however, but the ex: the cheating first wife, the neglectful mother of the hero’s kids, the too-desperate former girlfriend who can’t accept that it’s over. These figures are the mirror image of ideal womanhood as embodied by the heroine, who is invariably contrasted as faithful, nurturing, and sexually resistant.

Typically, the Other Woman has obviously put effort into the work of being beautiful: she has elegant clothing, wears visible makeup (rouge in Regencies, blood-red lipstick in contemporaries), carefully coiffed hair, and a figure on deliberate display (daring decollétage, fake boobs). She is using femininity as power, and it’s often presented as artificial in some way, particularly in contrast with the heroine’s innocence/earnestness/virginity. The heroine feels; the Other Woman calculates. The Other Woman is usually snobbish and elitist — she treats servants poorly, while the heroine is democratically friendly and un-self-important.

The difference between the two figures adds a moral aspect to the romance plot. The hero is not choosing between two women so much as he is choosing between two models of womanhood: the question needing an answer is not Which woman will he choose? but rather How should a woman be? The Other Woman’s inability to snare the hero is often read as a punishment — she shouldn’t have been so self-involved/aggressive/sexually available/shallow/etc. — as though the hero’s romantic choice constitutes a moral judgment, rather than a personal attraction or a choice about mutual compatibility. All the Other Woman’s social privilege crumbles beneath the heroine’s genuine affection and lack of agenda. Caroline Bingley’s pursuit of Darcy is rebuffed and shut down at every turn, while Elizabeth Bennet’s success with him is marked at first by a powerful (and deserved!) refusal of his suit. Later, when she does love him, she does not say so openly, but instead declares that she will not say she will not marry him — a positive expressed in a double negative, a deferral rather than a statement of desire. Darcy correctly interprets this, but it’s always struck me as a bit of a reach: I knew you loved me because you didn’t say you didn’t!

Unfortunately, the way this trope rewards the heroine who earns love/sex without actively seeking it tends to reinforce patriarchal narratives about women’s sexual expression and passivity. It’s the classic femininity trap: you have to be pretty but not work at it, thin but not too thin, have boobs but not big boobs, be available but not too available. Plus, you are expected to guard against the negative agency of brazen hussies without actually becoming one yourself — and if all your interactions with other women take the form of competition over men, it’s unlikely you’ll have time or energy for things like calling out sexism or dismantling systemic discrimination or figuring out how to articulate what you actually want instead of falling in line with a dominant cultural narrative about what you should want.

The Other Woman is a symptom: she is the deliberate embodiment of the negative aspects of femininity, a challenge to the heroine’s approved goodness. She destabilizes the text’s tight focus on the hero and heroine’s bond, and threatens that narrative throughline. She is a reminder, also, that there is a wider world outside two people’s romance. I’ve found it a useful exercise in feminist praxis to root for the Other Woman whenever I encounter her. So Caroline Bingley pursues Darcy obviously and aggressively — but what the hell else is she supposed to do with her life? Get a job? Oh, now I want to write about Caroline Bingley getting a job — perhaps a banker like Lady Sally Jersey. I’ve even thought about writing her love story (exciting discovery: someone already has!). Blanche Ingram is fairly uninteresting, but Jean Rhys has received great critical acclaim for telling Bertha Rochester’s story in her anti-colonial Wide Sargasso Sea. (Much as I kind of hate that book, I’m glad it exists. The response was necessary; I just get irritated with the prose style.) One of the greatest moves Margaret Mitchell makes in Gone With the Wind is that Scarlett basically is the Other Woman, a desirous, scheming mischief-maker contrasted with the sweetness, self-abnegation, and porcelain-fragile goodness of Melanie Wilkes. Tessa Dare’s Wanton Dairymaid trilogy also plays with this trope: the Other Woman of the first book is the heroine of the second, and neither she nor the first book’s heroine end up with the man they’re rivals for. (Side note: the plot structure of that trilogy is one of my favorite things ever, and I really need to reread it.)

It’s easy to reduce conflicts between women to catfights and an inborn female viciousness – but this not only minimizes women individually, but leaves no room to discuss the meaningful divisions in women’s agendas that shape our daily lives and stories. In particular, I’m thinking of the the well-documented conflicts within feminism — not only the movement’s long history of white supremacy, which spurred black women to create and foster womanism, but also feminism’s history with class bias, which privileges discussion of the problems of white upper- and middle-class women (stay-at-home-mothers a la Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique) over issues facing working- and lower-class women (domestic service workers, sex workers, immigrant women, etc.), to say nothing of the specific challenges faced by gay women and trans women and disabled women. These disagreements are important and worthy of debate, but the figure of the Other Woman and the pervasive specter of Cattiness often serves to shut down otherwise useful conversations. We are afraid to play into the stereotype, so we keep silent and let harmful things slide (or are urged to do so in the name of solidarity). It reminds me of the way we minimize feminine-coded activities in the name of equality: women are just as good as men, we’ll say, because we like whiskey and climbing trees and hunting and being physically strong. And by saying that we’ve ceded the ground that masculine-coded things are good and admirable and feminine-coded things are backward and inferior. We’ve mistaken the limits of patriarchy (for instance, the idea that women do/should wear pink) for the marks of patriarchy (feminism means never wearing pink!). With the Other Woman, the defensiveness is identical: Don’t punish us, the Good Women, the heroines — we’re Not Like Her at all.

The Other Woman is a symptom of patriarchy, but she is also a victim of it. She too must be humanized and defended. Because as soon as we start making a list of Women We Don’t Need To Listen To, Women We Can Discard, Women Who Are Less Human — we all lose.

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Justine Larbalestier unpacks the idea of Scarlett O’Hara as a feminist icon/feminist target in a truly incisive piece.

Last year Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar received the National Book Critics Circle’s Lifetime Achievement Award, in no small part for their masterwork The Madwoman in the Attic. Maureen Corrigan at NPR describes the revolution inspired by this book and its continuing relevance.

Here is an old but excellent post from The Book Riot about the “for women, by women” tagline used to defend romance and why it ought to be retired. I’m not sure I entirely agree, but it’s a debate I’m really eager to participate in!

The Toast once again knocks it out of the damn park with Suffragettes Who Sucked: White Supremacy and Women’s Rights.

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