Category Archives: Intersectional Feminism A-Z

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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V is for Vorkosigans, eVentually

{For the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance, click here.}

Reader, I was terribly excited about working on today’s post. I fell head over hells in love with Lois McMaster Bujold while reading The Curse of Chalion and the exquisite Paladin of Souls. Then I picked up Cordelia’s Honor and Barrayar and was blown to absolute smithereens. I put Miles down for discussion in this series because of his disability and because I knew the Vorkosigan books have a strong feminist vibe — plus, the title of Miles’ romance hinted at Heyer’s A Civil Contract and I wanted to draw out the parallels. I was so excited to take notes and make citations and really dig in to all the work of this freewheeling lit crit thing I’ve been practicing here.

But in the midst of keeping up with the series, and fighting off not one but two colds (thanks, immune system), I realized it just wasn’t going to happen. Oh, I could skim both books, throw up some paragraphs, and move on like nothing was wrong — but it wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted this post, of all posts, to be strong and thought-out and well-edited. I wanted it to have something new to say, even for those who (unlike me) have long lived in the Vorkosigan world. For that, I need to do a lot more research and a lot more listening and a lot more reading — especially since I would be skipping many books in between Barrayar and A Civil Campaign and that would hamstring my analysis.

If I wanted to do this right, it wasn’t going to happen quickly.

So this post is now a promise. Miles will get his day — but he’ll get it when April’s done, when I have time to really sit and think again. In the immortal words of Ronald Ulysses Swanson: “Never half-ass two things. Whole ass one thing.” I plan to do just that.

GIF of Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation. He is a white man with dark hair and a luxuriant mustache. He wears a collared brown coat with an earthtoned plaid lumberjack shift. Behind him is a forest scene with a lake and ferms. He frowns thoughtfully as he delivers his words of wisdom:

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U is for Katya Nar Umbriel

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

Barbara Ann Wright’s The Pyramid Waltz is a charming lesbian adventure romance in a fairy-tale setting. Heroine Katya Nar Umbriel is a quick-tongued, irreverent princess who strolls around the castle in tight trousers looking bored and charming the pants/skirts off any woman who catches her eye — this rakish persona is an excellent cover for her real work, which is ferreting out threats to the throne and the lives of her family along with a band of roguish misfits.

Cover image for Barbara Ann Wright's The Pyramid Waltz. A gold stone gastle stands gleaming against the background of a reddish sunset. In the right-hand foreground is a CGI illustration of a woman with chunky shoulder-length blond hair and pale skin. She wears a short red coat over a long white vest with gold buttons, unbuttoned to show a bit of cleavage. Her hips are canted slightly,  her feet apart, and in her left hand she loosely holds a long thin sword.Our second heroine Starbride is a new courtier with red-brown skin and dark hair, who is less interested in the politicking and catty gossip of the court and more interested in the trade law of the kingdom of Farraday, since the people of her home city are being taken advantage of by Farradain traders. Unlike the world of Ash, women are free to marry other women and start families; they can wear trousers or gowns as they please, and daughters can inherit titles and estates and even the crown, depending on their place in a family’s birth order. It’s a fun premise and a sweet romance, though a little less sophisticated than I hoped. It hits that awkward spot where it’s too sexy for YA, but feels too juvenile for adult romance. (Fantasy NA? Is that a thing yet? Please tell me it isn’t a thing yet.) But despite the lack of refinement, the world of the text has a great many things to say about the ebbs and swells of power that are precisely what intersectionality was created to address.

Katya is second in line to the throne, but her elder brother the Crown Prince lives elsewhere with his wife and children so Katya is the nearest direct link to the King and Queen. (The royal family can’t be all in the same place, for reasons that only eventually become guessable.) She is constantly besieged by favor-seekers, opportunists, and those who offer false friendship to advance a hidden agenda; as a result, she finds it hard to trust the kindness of others, particularly new acquaintances. At the same time, she plays the role of rebellious princess and seductress to mask her work as head of the Order of Vestra, a small band that uncovers traitors to and conspiracies against the crown — Katya’s friendship or attention, when offered, is therefore often as false or calculated as the flattery she receives in return. Katya unhesitatingly uses against others the same tactics (persuasion, lies, flattery, evasion) that she considers unethical when used against her.

(Over the course of the novel, I started to feel perversely sorry for the courtiers as a group — they’re characterized as universally shallow and silly and rank-obsessed and trend-mad in a way that reminds me a lot of the baseline misogyny in fantasies like Game of Thrones, where Sansa’s girlish desire to be a lady with a devoted knight is negatively contrasted to Arya’s boyish desire to take fighting lessons and run around outdoors.)

Complicating this power dynamic is the fact that Katya bears the Aspect, which is roughly to say she can transform into a Fiend when provoked or when involved in certain rituals. It gives her enormous physical power (horns, fangs, super strength and speed, the whole demon bit) but it is terribly inhuman and its lust for slaughter is insatiable. The pyramid necklace she wears keeps it mostly contained, but there is always a risk that anger or fear or other strong emotions will break the pyramid and loose the Fiend, in which case lots of people will die. This is different than many fantasy or paranormal romances, where the beastly side of a shifter is usually within the person’s control and does not impact their personhood — with the Fiend, however, Katya-as-Katya is so lost that she doesn’t even remember what she does when she’s changed. The Fiend is decidedly Not Her on a profound level — which makes her to some extent its victim, though not as victimized as those she kills when transformed. Power in this metaphor is something inimical to humanity, something cold and malevolent that needs to be kept in check.

Starbride’s POV expands the terms of power, for Starbride comes from a colonized people. I’m going to quote at length:

She ignored the Nereems’ words on courtly life and studied the architecture and tapestries, the small statues, and the representations of the ten spirits that were everywhere. She knew them already, though she hadn’t grown up with them. Like all aspects of Farradain culture, they had seeped into her homeland like a creeping tide of marmalade.

Allusia allowed Farraday into their land over one hundred years ago, to the mountains where the pale-skinned outlanders harvested the crystal to make pyramids. Some of the Allusian warlords had traded with them; others who attempted to drive them out were crushed by their army. The remaining Allusians organized to meet the Farradains on equal footing, learning more about these people, about their laws, but there was always more to learn. One hundred years hadn’t solved all their problems. (Kindle location 296)

Starbride has come to the Farradain court at Marienne because her mother would like her to find a well-connected lover to ease the trade burden on the people back home in Newhope; Starbride herself means to do research on the law to help her people, rather than offer herself up as bait to induce someone else to do it. She has a meet-cute with Katya while trying to find the library, but the more they talk and the closer they become, the less Starbride is inclined to explain her people’s problems to the princess: “Allusia has to fight its own battles. We can’t expect Farraday to solve all the problems it creates. [Ed note: why, precisely?] If we lean on them to do everything for us, we won’t know how to do anything for ourselves. We won’t even know when we’re being taken advantage of” (1172).

I have several problems with this approach  — the first being that Starbride quickly finds that what Farradain traders are doing in Newhope (something like price-fixing?) is illegal under Farradain law. Now obviously this is a bullshit move on the traders’ part, but what it tells the reader is that Farradain trade law has become the standard even in the Allusian capital. This is as clear an illustration of an imperial situation as I have seen in my recent reading. It is the threat of the Farradain army that makes this imposition possible and sustainable — so while Starbride’s urge to learn the law is all well and good, this will do nothing to eliminate the military threat that maintains the social imbalance. Her bootstrappy assertion that Allusians have to learn to cope on their own similarly ignores the nature of colonization and creates the illusion that Allusians and Farradains are operating on equal planes of agency. They are not, and we know it in the text: Starbride is ridiculed, fetishized, and Othered by the Farradain courtiers, who more than once refer to her as “exotic.” Eventually, she reveals the situation to Katya, who not only says that she should definitely have been told (on account of the illegality) but who instantly comes up with the idea of offering law scholarships for students from Allusia. Though this does further entangle Allusia and Farraday in the imperial machinery, it does so by including Allusians as actors and so must be counted as something of a win.

Not that Allusian culture is entirely free from problematic elements — they have a servant caste with something like a lifebond pledge. There wasn’t enough detail for me to explore, but it reads like a very cultish, benevolent slavery and I wanted either more or less of it than I got. More, because then it would be more than a throwaway, and less, because then I wouldn’t have to be occasionally squicked out by the casual way Starbride’s maid offered to sacrifice her life to save Starbride’s — like all the time, in casual conversation, in hypothetical poisonings, just constantly. It was weird.

The imperial legacy of Farraday, rather underexplored in the text considering how troubling a dynamic it is for the romance, dovetails with the sinister origin of the Umbriels’ power base: more Fiends. Every Umbriel within three removes from the throne has an Aspect like Katya’s — because centuries ago, an Umbriel ancestor bound the great Fiend Yanchasa beneath a giant pyramid and saved the kingdom. This was only possible by taking some of the demon into himself and his children, and the royal family has continued performing the binding ritual (the titular Pyramid Waltz) every five years, adding later descendants and children as needed. Yanchasa has become legend rather than fact in the minds of the common Faradains, so the Umbriels have to hide the monstrous sides of their nature from the population they rule over, even as they induct spouses and children into the ritual and give them their own Aspects to (hopefully) control. It is obviously in the kingdom’s best interests to keep the great Fiend imprisoned, but the Umbriels assume royal power is the reward they earn for being the Fiend’s jailers — even though this reward is not consented to by the populace, and in fact there are many who would object.

Needless to say, I am uncomfortable with this status quo. Which makes for a really fun read, until the threads start to unravel. Some pretty major spoilers to follow.

Ready? Let’s begin.

I knew by the third time dead uncle Roland’s name came up that he was probably going to turn out to be not-dead uncle Roland, and sure enough there he is, leading the rebellion. Roland had been leader of the Order in his day, and he had often been eager to use pyramid magic and mind-magic in ways not endorsed by his family or his teammates. ‘Enhanced interrogation techniques’ is about the size of it — he was more concerned with his own right to information than to any other person’s right to anything (mental privacy, health, life). Katya has been warned away from similar impulses by her father’s pyradisté (pyramid-wizard) Crowe, just as he’d once warned Roland. But Roland’s near-death experience has led him to merge himself with his Fiend: “Roland smiled, and the features of his Aspect dropped over his face … But his expression didn’t lose its character, didn’t become the Fiend’s. He was himself, even with the Aspect” (5283). Note the ambiguity in “he was himself”: Roland’s lust for control has caused him to embrace the monstrous side of his nature to the point where all human affection and empathy disappear. All that’s left is the desire for power: “All I ask is a kingdom ruled the right way, my way … the people of Marienne will finally get a ruler they deserve, one who will protect and guide them by any means necessary” (5301).

Katya refuses — but in the course of the fight scene that follows, she has her own humanity stripped away by the rising Fiend within. By the time Roland escapes, Katya has imbibed far more of Yanchasa’s essence — far more demon — than is considered safe. Starbride’s newly discovered powers as a pyradisté mean she is the only one nearby who can help, but in her inexperience she takes away not just the extra demon, but all of Katya’s Aspect. This is presented, quite clearly, as a loss:

No Aspect. No Fiend. That which her parents had passed to her, that which all Umbriels possessed, gone. What did that make her? … No more Fiend, maybe no more Umbriel. How could she lead the Order of Vestra if she didn’t have what the original leader of the Order had possessed? (5584)

Considering the nature of the Aspect, it is tempting to snark back a reply that What that makes you, young lady, is safer to be around, but it is not so simple. The Fiend is the embodiment of both personal and political power. Many of the secret passages running through the castle are tuned only to those who have Fiendish elements, for instance — and what’s worse, it is not made clear how Katya’s cleansing (if you can call it that) will affect the way the great pyramid imprisons Yanchasa. I’m sure this is covered by the next two books in the series, but I could have used a bit more closure at the end of this first novel. As it is, we’re left with an unfinished thought on how much monstrous power one person/kingdom can contain without it consuming them.

{Minor note because it was just too good to let go unpraised: during one early scene Katya’s Fiend is unleashed and we get one of the best descriptions of violence I have ever, ever read: “She reached between his legs and clawed him from groin to chin, cutting through him as if he were warm pie.” Warm pie! I still squirm with delight to read it. GRRM eat your heart out.}

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Lately I’ve been finding and enjoying a lot of great sff that deals with colonialism and/or race relations in some way: for instance, Zen Cho’s The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo and Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice.

N. K. Jemisin, whose Inheritance trilogy fits in nicely with the above list of books, had a great post recently on confirmation bias and epic fantasy.

Wonderful author Malinda Lo recently posted her breakdown of diversity in the NYT YA Bestseller lists. She has pie charts for characters of color, characters with disabilities, and LGBT characters: the numbers are pretty stark and worth checking out.

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Wright, Barbara Ann. The Pyramid Waltz. Bold Strokes Books: September 18, 2012. Ebook.

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T is for Twisted

{Content note: the following post is about a romantic suspense novel and contains some discussion of physical and sexual violence. Nothing graphic, but it’s a pervasive mood. There are also some mild spoilers, but that’s the price we pay for informed criticism.

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

I’ll admit, I picked up Ms. Curtis’ romantic suspense Twisted because not only were there two major characters with disabilities, but also the author has epilepsy and penned a pretty epic rant about disability portrayals in fiction. So I bought a copy of Twisted (see? rants do sell books!) and it kind of sat around until I thought of this post series, because I am terrible at reading books in a timely fashion. And now that we’re in the home stretch of the alphabet — the letter T! I’m amazed it’s gone so fast! — I feel like resisting the urge to talk about specifics of the disability portrayal. Yes, there are two main characters, each with a different disability (one genetic, one a result of injury) that impact their lives and the plot in different ways, but do not take over the bulk of the story. They’re well-rounded and specific portrayals, which is such a relief. But I’m trying to keep this project from becoming myopic, from making the inclusion of marginalized characters a niche topic — so it’s appropriate at times to talk about a particular book’s inclusion in the wider world of romance. Because these books are romances, and must be understood as such. And Twisted in particular seems to be a book that exists in conversation with its genre in a more self-aware, metafictional way: the novel simultaneously illustrates and refutes some of my personal issues with the subgenre of romantic suspense.

Cover image for Twisted by Laura K. Curtis. Cover is divided in two. Upper half is a sepia-toned image of the top part of a blond woman's face. She looks frankly out at the viewer, her curling hair tumbling over one eye. There is a faux-paper tear that prevents us from seeing more of her face. Lower image is blue-toned, a man from the chin down, head tilted slightly to the side. He wears a pale uniform shirt with a star over his left breast. Trees wave ominously through the mist behind him.First, let me say this book is a page-turner; despite the occasional moments of feminist-lens side-eye, I was desperate to find out what was going to happen next and I had pre-ordered the sequel even before I hit the final page. It starts with our heroine, true crime writer Lucy Stone, returning to her hometown to solve her mother’s cold-case murder. I believe it’s significant that Lucy writes true-crime rather than mystery; she’s neither Jessica Fletcher or Harriet Vane (love you, Harriet!). She deals in fact, not fiction: her skills are the same as any detective’s, and unlike many true crime authors she specifically focuses on the victims and the survivors:

“All that time and energy, all that ink and air devoted to a man whose every act was destructive. It’s criminal in and of itself. He doesn’t deserve it. How do you think the friends and families of his victims felt when, every time they opened a paper or flipped a channel, they were confronted by another talking head spouting off about him? He killed those girls, but the media machine erased them.”

“So you fix it.”

“I can’t fix it. All I can do is create a tiny bit of balance, a little resistance.” (1424)

Lucy resists the true crime genre’s slant toward voyeurism and fascination with monsters in favor of empathy for the survivors and the victims of violence. I am very tempted to also read this career choice as a subtle reaction to the way women’s perspectives and experiences are often discounted in the justice system: Lucy is a woman who is literally not in the business of making things up. She’s a great heroine, steely and vulnerable and sympathetic without feeling syrupy.

Our hero, police chief Ethan Donovan, is the perfect blend of laid-back charm and sharp-eyed observation. He’s got secrets of his own and the usual ex-wife — who, charmingly, is not demonized or blamed for his relationship failings! Oh frabjous day! things just didn’t work out — and he’s also got a protective streak a mile wide. And I’ve got an absolute hair-trigger sensitivity for protective streaks: not enough, and I read the hero as callous; too much, and I read him as controlling. Ethan does pretty well, but he has an unsettling tendency to push Lucy’s boundaries in ways that put up the hairs on the back of my neck. One example, from mid-(consensual)-kiss:

He palmed her breast through the jersey and she froze, a reaction even he could interpret. Lost in his own fantasies, he’d pushed her too hard, too fast. He loosened his grip, easing back slightly. She tried to wriggle completely free, but he kept her near. If he allowed her to step away, it would create a rift he’d never bridge.

Besides, he wasn’t ready to let go. He wasn’t at all sure hanging on to her wasn’t the only thing keeping him standing. (1254)

We’ve already had plenty of hints in the narrative that Lucy’s past includes trauma: she goes pale and chilly when certain men show up, she avoids questions about her childhood in Dobbs Hollow, she asks that evidence be sent to the state lab for testing and not the county lab controlled by the sheriff who she went to high school with and who she point-blank claims not to trust. It does not take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that something happened, and I expect any decent cop to be able to put two and two together. I would also expect any decent cop to respect a woman’s physical boundaries and resistance, even if they happen to contradict his urgent pants-feelings at the time. Alas, little beats like this crop up continually during the romance and rather kill my buzz. We’re in a romantic suspense, with heightened stakes, where women are being raped and killed and tagged with the word whore, or left to die in a pool of blood on the kitchen linoleum: it’s an atmosphere where I’m encouraged to think of the world of the text as sinister and rife with hidden agendas. Ethan’s disregard for Lucy’s physical boundaries made my stomach twist every time, even after she started to accept it, even as they grew closer both physically and emotionally. It reminded me of the thousand Victoria Holt books I read as a teenager, where the hero is brooding and mysterious and may have killed his first wife but (probably) didn’t (except for that one time he did, not that I can remember which Holt book that was). And we’re supposed to thrill at the contrast of the good man who seems villainous versus the villain who seemed good up until the point where their villainy was unmasked.

The problem for me is the problem of escalation: just as many killers start sloppy and grow more methodical, as Lucy and Ethan discuss, men who push small boundaries are much more likely to push large boundaries. (Required background reading: Shrodinger’s Rapist.) It’s the sense that the hero knows what Lucy needs (emotional support, physical touch) more than she does, and that that knowledge entitles him to override her wishes, expressed or merely telegraphed physically. (And Ethan is under no misapprehension as to her wishes in the above quote.) So while a certain balance was built into their relationship from the start — his disability (bad knee, mild mobility issues) meant he couldn’t be as physically overpowering as many RS heroes, while Lucy’s martial arts training and willingness to pick up a gun felt more empowered than I expect from a RS heroine — it was not enough to override that little pulse of Ethan knows best, Ethan knows best. Especially since all Lucy’s self-defense training never seemed to help her out in the clutch: I feel that was a missed opportunity. And Lucy’s parallel desire to protect her younger brother Tim — who has in fact been targeted by our villain — is presented as a bit suffocating, as something she needs to let go so that Tim can be a full human being. Why is Lucy not granted the same privilege?

This aspect, and a persistent undercurrent of gender essentialism (“super-feminine” was used of our heroine’s feeling of attraction at one point in the text and I rolled my eyes to the point of strain) were my biggest problems with the book, and they are problems I have with romantic suspense more broadly. Why are so many villains sexualized, and so many killing scenes eroticized? I think sometimes there must be a lot of overlap with mysteries and thrillers and horror, genres that skew male in their readership and are thus more prone to make victims out of their female characters in order to motivate their male heroes and titillate male readers. I think the urge to make fictional crimes more shocking and edgy pushes things in directions that go wrong quickly in careless hands. And, too, humans are never entirely immune to the voyeur’s urge. That little twist in the gut that I hate so much is some people’s sought-for pleasure.

Where Twisted really gets interesting, and definitely meta, is not the scenes where characters are in danger. Shootouts in the woods (spoiler?) is a pretty standard climactic move — instead, the genre’s usual feature of the villain’s POV scene is twisted (aha haha) and multiplied, to really great dramatic effect.

Villain POVs are always a bit squicky for me, and the first one we see in Ms. Curtis’ book is no different — except that our villains are named. I was a little puzzled by this, since usually you’ll get a few clues and a few red herrings in this kind of scene, but rarely names. Names give the game away too soon, would deprive the reader of the fun of solving the puzzle along with our hero and heroine. And then there comes a second villain’s POV, from a second villain — and it becomes clear (to the reader at least, if not to our protagonists) that there are two sets of crimes being committed in Dobbs Hollow. That we have two networks of bad guys whose operations are starting to converge and get in each others’ way.

Reader, I was delighted. Not only does this triple my fun as a puzzle-solving reader (solving is the thing that keeps me coming back to mysteries and romantic suspense, despite all my other reservations), but it breaks the usual good/evil binary down. Evil in this book is not a monolith. Some people are monstrous, but some others commit terrible crimes just out of apathy and entitlement. Persistent harrassment, isolation, and poisonous gossip can be as traumatic as outright harm. Good is equally various — witness librarian Eulie, who starts off as the classic Small Town Harridan but segues into a more humanized figure. I won’t spoil the end of the book for you — I will just say that this narrative choice made me super-happy despite all the dozens of disappeared and drugged and raped women, and that is no small thing.

Of course, we do have all those nameless, faceless victims — rapes and murders and kidnappings, other cold cases that have never been solved, that may not have even been intensely investigated, which form the data constellation that helps our heroes solve Cecile’s murder. This constellation shows us exactly which groups of people are considered disposable in the small Texas town of Dobbs Hollow: prostitutes, illegal immigrants, and Hispanic women, no matter their class. There’s an unsettling construction of personal strength, particularly female strength, that sometimes veers a little too close to victim-blaming for my taste. Some sample quotes:

  • “‘It’s only fair you understand up front that whatever he can do to you is nothing compared to how far I am willing to go to find out who killed my mother.’ The words were emotionless, cold, but over the red rage that filled him, Ethan noticed the rise and fall of Lucy’s chest, how her breath came faster and her chin rose even as she half flinched, expecting the violence in him to take physical form. Why would she deliberately provoke such a reaction? Did she even believe what she was saying? He already knew she didn’t trust him, so perhaps this was nothing more than another test. Artie had been right. Lucy’s single-mindedness would get her into trouble in an inhospitable town with secrets to hide. She might not want a protector, but she was going to need one.” (623)
  • “‘Pretty’ doesn’t exactly scream ‘competent police officer.'” (1059)
  • “‘I’m not like those poor Hispanic women you chased through the woods,’ Lucy said, leaning over. ‘I fight back. I’m stronger than you are. Better in every way.'” (3723)
  • “‘He killed her because she wouldn’t sleep with him.’ Impending hysteria added a sharp edge to Lucy’s voice. ‘Of all the men she could have turned down and didn’t, she had to pick the psychotic killer to get some standards with.’ Ethan jerked his head at TJ, who rose and left. He took her spot, putting his arm around Lucy and pulling her into him. ‘She always had standards, sugar. She’d never have slept with anyone in your school, and she never brought men into the house. You stressed that yourself. He broke her rules, rules she set to protect you and Tim, so she sent him and his pals on their way. You’ve lived in Dallas. I’m sure you saw women there who truly lived without standards, whose lives had beaten any fight out of them. You can’t say that about your mother.'” (3738)

Again: if Lucy’s as take-charge and self-protective as the opening scene would have us believe — and it’s one hell of an opening scene — why does she never actually get to fight back effectively in the course of the novel? Why is women’s strength always tied to how sexually attractive and/or available they are? Why is women’s agency — Cecile’s thwarted plan for escaping the town, Lucy’s plan to find her mother’s killer — seen as provocative, as a woman making herself a target? Dobbs Hollow in these moments brought up a lot of the same questions asked about True Detective — remember True Detective? — particularly one raised by the Hairpin: what is the distinction between a work of fiction that shows misogyny, and a work of fiction that is actually misogynistic? I had no trouble buying the realism of the above quotes. But they would make my lip curl if uttered by someone in whose presence I was standing. I’d mark them down silently as a minor red flag and make sure not to have feminist arguments with that person unless I felt like I could spare the effort. Yes, Lucy is a strong heroine in many ways — but when the heroine’s strength is somehow exceptional among her gender, I start to have questions about the politics of the worldbuilding.

In the course of writing this I found a fascinating argument, not all of which I agree with, by author Tracy Cooper Posey:

Romantic Suspense novels had their golden age in the nineties and the early years of the first decade of the twenty-first century, and that was when women were just getting used to the idea of equality and beating men at their own game.  The glass ceilings were crashing down all over the place.  Having alpha heroes rescue us was still sort-of okay in our fantasies, until erotic romance fantasies like Sex and the City showed us that we could be equals or better in bed,too.

These days it’s no longer a matter of equality.  It’s a matter of being more powerful and completely different.

She goes on to suggest that paranormals and urban fantasy grew more popular because they gave their heroines power, rather than damselling them, while still preserving the marks of difference that keep men and women from being identical rather than equal (I’m extrapolating from her use of phrases like “And she never forgets she’s a woman”). Someday I’m going to do a lengthy post on power structures (race, class, gender) in PNR/UF, but that day is not today. Suffice to say I rather disagree with her analysis of how power functions in paranormal romance — and her assertion that alpha male heroes and rescue plotlines are a thing of the past.

I quote Ms. Posey’s argument because to me it seems, like the worldbuilding in Twisted, expressive of the idea that women and men are equally but differently powerful. Men in Ms. Curtis’ text are in positions of official authority: sheriff, mayor, DA, chief of police, county coroner, FBI agent. Women are in service or communication positions: author, librarian, cleaning service, diner owner. Lucy’s friend Tara Jean/TJ is a cop, but most of her time is spent either talking with Lucy or eavesdropping on her well-connected family (including the mayor) for our hero and heroine’s benefit. This unequal division of power is precisely what allows for the crimes Lucy and Ethan are eager to solve: women will always be primarily victims in a world that constructs them as inherently less powerful. This is true of Dobbs Hollow, it is true of romantic suspense, and it is sadly true of the real world in which readers live.

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A powerful refutation of the ‘monster myth‘ has been making the rounds of the internet recently, and seems like an excellent companion piece to Lucy’s focus on the humanity of her subjects.

Romance Novels for Feminists has done several posts on romantic suspense and related genres like the Gothic, which may be found via the tag.

Speaking of sex workers, writer and activist Melissa Gira Grant has a great roundup of the best sex work writing of 2013. It’s a lot of links and a lot of information — I plan on coming back to this one many more times myself.

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Curtis, Laura K. Twisted. New York: Intermix, November 19, 2013. Ebook.

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