Woman Inherits the Earth: Dinosaur Feminism and Virgin Births

Their children will surely be dangerous. Men don’t want them having children. So men create expensive, inefficient, and cruel systems to control the potential for reproduction. This is the secret history of Jurassic Park.

“You want to have one of those?”

There are two primary systems the male scientists use in their efforts to contain the dangerous potential of the creatures on Isla Nublar. One: electrified fences, which keep the animals isolated not only from humans, but from each other. Some dinosaur species are given more freedom than others—look at the wide open plain teeming with brachiosaur and pachycephalus herds, and then at the high-walled, claustrophobic fortress of the velociraptor pen. The more times I watch this movie the odder this enclosure seems: why create this species for the zoo if people are never going to be able to actually look at it? Did they just try every dinosaur species they had cloneable samples for and breed groups of the ones that proved viable? That hardly speaks of a stable technology under its creators’ control.

Control, I believe, is central to this question: it is impossible to imagine a conversation in which male InGen scientists believed they could clone a velociraptor, but chose not to because the creature was too dangerous. Such self-doubt would look too much like cowardice. So they clone not just a single velociraptor—though that would be hubris enough—but a whole pack of them. Even though both Muldoon and Grant tell us—and how exactly does Grant know this?—that velociraptors are most dangerous in pairs. Muldoon’s entirely justified paranoia must have been contagious, though. Later we learn that the raptor pen is not only separate from the perimeter fence but is also almost literally on top of the island’s central power station. The male scientists—no doubt egged on by the imperially-coded, quintessentially patriarchal Muldoon—have placed their most dangerous creation at the center of what they feel is their bastion of strength. It’s a dungeon, plain and simple—and every good storyteller knows that a dungeon primarily exists to be escaped from. The velociraptors have no choice but to break free.

“There is no unauthorized breeding in Jurassic Park.”

The second system of control is medical manipulation. What’s striking about Dr. Henry Wu’s statement in the laboratory scene is how nakedly authoritarian it is: children aren’t conceived in this world, they are authorized. Gender is rigidly policed as an absolute law, in defiance of real biological science (where intersex bodies and ungendered bodies happen all the time). We learn that all the Isla Nublar dinosaurs are designated female—because female animals are presumed to be easier to control, and male animals are assumed to be necessary, but more on that later—while Malcolm delivers his famous line about how life, uh, finds a way and a baby velociraptor hatches from an egg. Hammond is as giddy as a grandfather shoving his way into a maternity ward: “I insist on being here when they’re born…Come on, little one! Very good, push!” But he’s applying human patterns to what is a fundamentally inhuman birth. This baby velociraptor has to bring itself into the world. It has to be its own mother. And it isn’t cute or sentimental: it’s bloody, with eyes and claws and a hissing beak and sinister undertones to the musical cues. The shape of the egg and the sterile laboratory setting are strikingly reminiscent of Alien/s, another franchise obsessed with how feminized reproduction resists male control and containment.

Throughout this early part of the film, Grant is excited to learn what ‘real’ dinosaur behavior is like, but he’s been tricked by an illusion. He’s reading these dinosaurs as authentic, when they are the results of provably ignorant human manipulations. We know now that many of the species on Isla Nublar would have been feathered—imagine the proud cloning scientists watching the growth of their first newborn hatchlings, only to see those babies sprout plumes and pinions and down in vivid, eye-searing colors. Would those men recognize such seeming chimeras as authentic prehistoric animals in truth? Or would they assume instead that there had been some mechanical error in the cloning process, and go through batch after batch tweaking the recipe until they produced something that looked more comfortably reptilian? They’re not so much trying to discover the truth as they are trying to manufacture a species to fit a faulty pattern.

Considering how often scientists get it demonstrably wrong in this movie, it’s a wonder nobody has stepped up to challenge Grant’s later assertion that frog DNA allows adult dinosaurs to change sex to produce offspring. There is a lot of evidence against this hypothesis: it’s time- and resource-intensive, for one thing, and would be unimaginably complex in an animal as big as, say, a fully grown T. rex. Grant observes the evidence of wild dinosaur eggs, but is misled by the interpretive lens of human patterns of reproduction. He assumes dinosaur babies imply the existence of dinosaur fathers. He also assumes human science made this unauthorized reproduction possible, giving InGen's scientists much more credit than I think they actually deserve.

In fact, a much more likely explanation for these wild offspring is that they were created by parthenogenesis, the scientific term that means virgin birth and which describes the process wherein a female animal produces offspring that are genetically identical to the mother (usually) but otherwise viable for survival (more or less). This phenomenon has been observed in captive populations of pythons, cobras, turkeys, Komodo dragons, and chickens.

In other words, I contend that the female dinosaurs in the matriarchal dystopia of Jurassic Park have learned how to clone themselves. Which is not to say Isla Nublar has to remain strictly matriarchal forever: certain types of parthenogenesis can result in male offspring with the capacity to reproduce. Human fixations upon rigid gender and sex categories completely fail to apply to what the dinosaurs are doing as they recolonize their prison. (My dinosaur feminism will be trans inclusive or it will be bullshit.) The process male scientists and capitalists spared no expense struggling to master and control from the outside is something these creatures are naturally capable of. And the humans don’t even recognize this, thanks to what Dr. Sattler aptly terms “sexism in survival situations.” Human civilization has the gender binary and the nuclear family and the cultural narrative that women and children are weak and need male protection. Nature—inhuman, insatiable nature—needs none of these social constructs to ensure a species’ survival. Nature is happy to improvise.

“Dinosaurs eat man, woman inherits the earth.”

Since Frankenstein, male attempts to colonize and control female-coded powers of reproduction have driven countless science fiction plots. It never ends well. But just why should artificial reproduction always turn out so terrifying? Part of it surely is that what’s reproducing itself on Isla Nublar are predator species. But the terror here is not just the fear of death. The dinosaurs we read as villains in the film—the T. rex, the velociraptor, and the dilophosaurus—aren’t killing mindlessly, or for the evil joy of it. They’re killing for food. The fear is not that our characters will die, it’s that they will be devoured. The most notoriously frightening scene in the film happens in a kitchen as two raptors learn how to open human doors and try to make a meal out of two children. This beautiful piece of horror edges beyond butchery and into a realm I’d dare to identify as almost cannibalistic, with overtones of both Hansel and Gretel and Hannibal Lecter. This means the real threat in the film is about being used, or used up. Consumed. Human bodies are reproductive resources: women use men for genetic material (parthenogenesis has yet to be firmly established in mammals) and then women use their own bodies to build children. And we see at the start that Ellie Sattler’s desire to become a mother is explicitly presented as the key thematic framework in which this whole story takes place. Grant is hesitant about becoming a parent—a father—so the story sends him to an island full of monstrous mothers and gives him two human children to protect. As a test of his fitness. Grant’s arc is triumphant not because he has conquered the dinosaurs—he really, really hasn’t—or even (re)conquered Dr. Sattler (he hasn’t—compare this with, say, the reconquering romance arc in Die Hard). Grant wins because he’s learned to accept becoming a father in the human civilization he’s returning to.

We misread this plot arc badly. Distracted by restrictive meta-conversations about characters with agency, we mistake Grant’s busyness for narrative centrality. We watch him slowly warm up to the kids and we know it matters but we never stop to remember why. Grant’s not changing for himself. He’s changing so he can live up to Dr. Sattler’s hopes. The whole point of the whole plot is to get him up to her level. At the end the dinosaurs reclaim the island, and Dr. Sattler smiles approvingly at her newly nurturing partner. The dinosaurs have eaten the men; the mothers inherit the earth.

Updated Covers and Re-Release Dates!

At long last, my final two backlist books have been shined up and champagne-polished for re-release! The romance formerly known as Color Me Bad is now titled A Thief in the Nude, and will be available in June in both print (new!!) and ebook.

Cover image for A Thief in the Nude. A red-haired, pale-skinned woman in barely a dress embraces a dark-haired, slightly scruffy gentleman whose white shirt and waistcoat are soon to be removed.

It has been ten years since Hecuba Jones last burgled her way into a darkened house, but it’s the only way to recover her rightful inheritance from her artist mother. She manages to find the Earl of Underwood’s study and the four paintings she’s searching for—but just when she is about to make off with her prizes, she is discovered by the earl’s sardonic younger brother.
 
John Rushmore has all but given up on his talents as a painter, unable to recapture the passion of earlier days. He is pleased to have his boredom lightened by the appearance of a redheaded thief—and even more delighted to be introduced to her the following night in an elegant Society ballroom. Miss Hecuba Jones is prickly and suspicious and absolutely irresistible. She’s also an inspiration. Before long John finds himself working deep into the night to try and capture the feverish, erotic visions she provokes.
 
Soon, they reach an agreement. John will trade the four paintings she attempted to steal for four portraits of Hecuba herself. Intimate nights and candlelight soon transform artistic pleasures into physical ecstasy—but old family secrets and a blossoming scandal threaten to shatter their fragile liaison.
And then, in September, I'll be releasing the follow-up novel, At His Countess' Pleasure, which involves a lot of angst, some light pegging, and an infertility plotline (a heads-up to those readers who avoid those, it's okay, I get it):
Cover image for At His Countess' Pleasure. A woman with dark hair and pale skin stands looking at the viewer in a deep red gown. In her hand, almost hidden in the folds of her skirt, is a slender riding crop.
Anne Pym and Simon Rushmore are still reeling from the scandalous marriage of Anne’s cousin Hecuba to Simon’s brother John. But Simon’s position as Earl of Underwood has shielded him from the harshest criticisms. In a bid to repair Anne’s shattered family reputation, Simon proposes a most practical solution—he will make her his countess and they will set about the business of producing an heir.

But marriage is a beginning rather than an ending and scandal has a long life. Old hurts and new family crises threaten their burgeoning passion, even as Simon finds himself more and more eager to submit to his strong-willed wife’s every carnal command. When Anne’s bitterest secret emerges, destroying their hopes for the future, Simon must learn whether he is enough to bring Anne a lifetime of happiness—and just how completely he is willing to submit.

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Hurt/Comfort: Two Shapeshifting Books Reviewed

Lately, and quite accidentally, I read three books in a row that involved shapeshifting or similar transformations. I'm going to talk about two of them. RoAnn Sylver's Chameleon Moon (kindly loaned to me by Corey Alexander) is a fantasy novel about a trans, queer, and poly found family struggling to survive in a burning city hemmed in by overwhelming surveillance. Nearly everyone left alive in the city has been transformed by the miracle drug Chrysedrine -- some people get wonderful, powerful talents, while others get horrible, painful conditions that might as well be magical curses. The story was beautifully built but at times too painfully earnest for me to disappear into like I wanted. Certain scenes were so palpably aware of the presence of the reader: explorations of one character's newly realized asexuality, for instance, or fierce objections when villain deliberately misgenders a trans family member. The book went out of its way to showcase characters being kind to one another, outside of the demands of plot. I initially read my discomfort as a flaw of the book -- as if you'd dropped by a friend's place casually to say hi and they'd immediately set out the best china and made three of your favorite desserts from scratch. I felt horribly awkward.

Then via NetGalley I received a copy of Masked Possession by Alana Delacroix, a debut in a new paranormal romance series about shapeshifting magical creatures called masquerada who can take on different physical traits and personae, depending on their level of talent and training. The prose is polished and the premise is a novel one for a paranormal. The reviews so far are strongly positive. A lot of people are going to enjoy this book.

I am writing this review for you, the trans reader, wherever you may be. Because I do not think you will enjoy this book. I think it's going to hurt you and I am writing this review to offer evidence.

Masked Possession is a story centered on trans-coded characters and experiences that never once stops to consider that the reader might be trans. This story about modern-day shapeshifters, about masks and passing and secret identities and mental trauma and family rejection and love and who someone really is deep down -- this story never once acknowledges the existence of actual trans humans in the world, despite having trans parallels at all levels from the worldbuilding right on down to the individual phrases.

To briefly show why this is inherently harmful it helps to consider The Matrix, which is certainly also a trans allegory but which places the burden of the metaphor on computers and machines. Neo's journey is a search for truth outside of the falsely imposed limits of the physical body. Masked Possession, on the other hand, consistently makes the characters' physical bodies the source of truth, power, and identity. The only place for trans people in such a metaphor is as collateral damage.

Did I really wince at Chameleon Moon being too considerate? I should have known better than to undervalue kindness.

I started Masked Possession with enthusiasm and a lot of questions I hoped the book would explore. Here is what I found; stop me when this starts to sound familiar.

Masquerada are manipulative, vain, and frivolous. They cannot be trusted. They cannot be intimately known, because they change appearances too drastically. One masquerada can recognize another wearing a masque (except all the times when they can't because the plot requires them to be fooled). Learning to take on a masque is referred to as a transition. Only the most powerful can change genders -- but that includes our hero, our heroine, and the Evil Other Woman. Masquerada are long-lived but prone to something called la vide, a severe depression that commonly ends in suicide. (The French term translates to "the void" or "the gap," which is probably worth a whole bitter essay of its own in this context.) Masquerada believe in their superiority to humans, and though humans find them captivating and sexually alluring intermarriage is extremely rare. They have a secret, glamorous hierarchy with royalty and etiquette of their own. They object to being incarcerated in human prisons.

It gets worse. As a cis woman, I don't often respond viscerally to descriptions of what amounts to body dysphoria, but the climax of this book left me sick and shaking. I'm going to provide a summary and very short quotes below, but I'm also going to put two rows of asterisks around the whole thing and set it in italics in case you want to skim right past this part.

*****

*****

Our heroine, Caro, is a journalist in hiding. Attacked and almost killed by the book's main villain, she now lives in Toronto under an assumed identity. The parallels to a deadname are evident from the start, and the fact that the heroine keeps her past life a secret from the hero is presented as a fault and a failing. The very first thing we see on page one is her arriving at work in mile-high stilettos, and her Francophone boss praising her for dressing "more like a woman." Later, when she finds her boss is in league with the villain, Caro will transform into a giant, muscular, "dickless" man and crush her boss's genitals with her bare hands. The prose goes needlessly, graphically out of its way to emphasize that A) she hates this form and we should never ever picture the heroine as having a penis, and B) that the genital-crushing is a severe and likely permanent injury (telltale phrase: "his ruined groin"). Caro is forced into this giant's body by the villain, who intends to send her in his place to duel the hero to the death. No, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense in the text either. At the novel's climax, Caro has to fight the mindless demands of her unfamiliar, aggressive, frightening, masculine body in order not to kill the man she loves. It is one of the most violently grotesque things I've ever encountered in a romance and it ruined my belief in the HEA, my trust in the author, and any sense of critical distance. And then we are treated to the final sex scene where the hero fucks Carol in those mile-high heels, then takes on a woman's masque and suggests having sex in that form, which Caro finds playful and arousing and I found infuriatingly flip and fetishizing.

*****

*****

The one good thing about having read all the way to the end of Masked Possession is that I can look at Chameleon Moon with a newfound sense of appreciation. It is now startlingly obvious that Sylver's book is centered on caring, on kindness, on radical acts of trust and belief in other human beings. There is conflict -- real, profound conflict, that endangers lives and futures -- but the conflict does not make anyone unworthy of human consideration. This story is founded on love, and not merely the characters' love for one another within the bounds of the plot. It is founded on love-as-a-verb, in the best sense, and it makes sure the reader knows some of that love is directed at you. The unease I felt with being so deliberately taken into account -- as if the book were looking back at me -- now feels like a major misread. Chameleon Moon opens its arms wide and shows a beating, vulnerable heart to the world just in case one reader, somewhere, is feeling raw and shaky and in need of succor. The world is better because this book exists.

In such an age as ours, I can think of nothing more necessary.

All The Iron Filings Line Up Nice and Neat

1. Magnetism seems magical not least because it is invisible. It acts semi-secretly in plain sight, whether it's holding one photo suspended on a refrigerator door or protecting all of Earth from the ravages of the harsh solar wind. We don't see it act -- we only observe the effects, as in this illustration of iron filings being rearranged by a bar magnet.

2.

I am going to ask you to keep that image in mind while you read this passage from a recent George Saunders essay on the process of writing:

When I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame. 

But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure asshole” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.

Did you see the iron filings move?

Saunders starts off with two characters, Bob and the barista, connected by an action. Saunders then adjusts the story until his alignment with Bob becomes clearer and clearer -- Bob gets a past, a backstory, an emotional landscape. Bob becomes me, on a different day. The barista gets a single adjective: young. Saunders says this is "more compassionate."

But I notice the barista's still the one getting yelled at. She never even gets a name.

I found this jarring because in the initial setup, I allied myself far more strongly with the barista than with Bob. Granted, we started with Bob is an asshole so the initial flinch is tied to that whole I'm not an asshole self-defensive impulse that's so hard to shake. But even though I'm now a middle-aged lady who writes full-time and prefers tea to coffee, I've worked enough years in retail to automatically class myself as barista-adjacent. So I was waiting for her part in this drama to be more completely revealed. And it never happened. She stays a passive grammatical object, a thing that exists for Bob to do something to.

Quick poll: how many of us assumed the barista was white? I caught myself doing just that. Same with Bob, now I think about it.

Did you see the iron filings move? I did, but not soon enough.

Later, Saunders gives us another example of his composing process. He starts with a sentence, Jane came into the room and sat down on the blue couch. This makes him "wince." Slowly he pares away at it, word by word, making it more and more "Hemingwayesque" until he's left with merely Jane, which, he says, "at least doesn't suck, and has the virtue of brevity." Even in text, I guess, women should take up as little space as possible.

I want to tell you that Saunders isn't doing this deliberately, even though he's in the middle of an essay about self-editing and artistic deliberation. But on purpose or not, it fits a larger pattern.

3.

Saunders' essay is about how writers make millions upon millions of tiny, instinctual decisions that add up to internally consistent structures. Recognizing the partly hidden pattern is what makes the book satisfying to the reader. I resonate with a lot of what he says, because a lot of it is very close to my own process. A lot of it is also connected to a certain mystical strain in writing about writing: my characters tell me what they're doing, I just write it all down. Writers say this all the time, in every genre. Thousands of craft books talk about building a character as though you're exploring a map of a place that already exists. A writer's instincts are held as authoritative, unerring, no matter what stage of her career she's at. It's like love, or pornography: you know it when you see it. (For those of us who write romance, it's often a lot like love AND pornography.) It's impossible to overstate how revelatory this feels in practice -- I have felt it myself, more than once. I chase it. It's one of the best parts of being a writer, that breathless of course! moment. A wild story appears, and the pattern makes itself clear, as if without my input.

Of course it's bullshit -- but it's very useful bullshit, when you're trying to finish a draft.

But: Saunders' essay is also about how a writer connects with a reader. And this is where seeing the cause behind the effect becomes so much more important.

Because we are surrounded by patterns that seem natural, but aren't. This is every comment section about the wage gap where someone chimes in to say Well women just happen to choose lower-paying professions. It's every conversation about mothers who just happen to be the ones who stay home to raise the kids. It's black people just happen to live in the inner city and all rural voters are white -- even though we can point to the longstanding existence and wealth of data about redlining and sundown towns to show that these living patterns are the result of decades of fear, financial oppression, and outright violence. When queerness is framed as a perversion and classed with behaviors like kink or sex work, the mere existence of queer characters becomes enough to get a YA story flagged for 'sexual content' even if all your lesbian character does is live next door in the company of thirteen cats. Invisible networks of oppression and privilege nudge us into place, inch by inch, and then culture tells us this is all perfectly natural.

All those iron filings line up naturally in coruscating rays. Remember: naturally does not mean precisely the same thing as freely. Force is at work even if you can't see it. We've all got a little iron in our soul.

4.

Saunders is deeply interested in what it means to be a human in the world: "This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you, and that, to communicate intimately with her, you have to maintain the state, through revision, of generously imagining her." This is a lovely thought. But it's important to remember the iron filings and ask: what do you see when you imagine this reader? Not just her personality and taste -- what do you see? 

It shouldn't matter, people will say, except that like fiction real life lives and dies in the specifics. And identity is very, very specific. Saunders flatters the reader of his essay by imagining that Tolstoy "thought well of you," that he would be thrilled you responded to the ideas in his work -- but it's clear this is Saunders projecting his own warmth and generosity onto other artists. Tolstoy was not writing for me. Even the briefest glance at the diaries of Tolstoy's wife Sofia suggests that Tolstoy took a very dim view of women intellectually, sexually, and morally. Imagine him deigning to converse with a bisexual, American, agnostic, staunchly feminist author of smutty romance and Greek-myth-inflected fantasy. This is not to say I cannot enjoy Tolstoy's work -- I have -- but it does mean that I have to enjoy Tolstoy's work a little bit in spite of Tolstoy. He weaves a pattern that has symmetry, consistency, beauty -- and which leaves me out entirely. It is difficult, at times impossible, to take pleasure in being deliberately left out.

Closer to home, award-winning librarian Robin Tuphlos recently tweeted about a webinar wherein a publishing professional wouldn't believe there was an audience for a book if she didn't think it would appeal to her own circle of family and friends. This is a jaw-droppingly limited perspective that does real-world damage to aspiring authors' careers. This is what happens when publishing imagines a reader who shares the imaginer's unexamined bigotry. It's like putting two mirrors opposite one another and then standing between them: the whole world becomes artificially homogenous.

5.

And books can certainly be mirrors. For instance, this pivotal Rudine Sims Bishop essay about the difference between mirror books and window books. Authors from the margins are always working hard to create much-needed mirrors so more people can look into the stories we tell and recognize themselves. Recognition -- both being seen and being known -- is a profoundly universal human need. Need, I'll say again -- not a luxury, not a trifle, but a need.

Unfortunately, marginalized groups have had to learn to recognize the lies that are told about them: black-on-black crimethe gay agenda, model minority, so inspirational. Remember that mirrors can distort as well as reflect. Whiteness, straightness, any systemic privilege puts you one step closer to the mirror: your reflection takes up more space and leaves less room for anyone else to be seen.

There are privileged authors -- far too many -- who have come to view this situation as a trap for them more than for marginalized voices: you can do a search for "scared to write diversity" if you would like more of that perspective. A great many of these authors are trying to do what they see as the right thing by getting more diverse faces in the mirror. But they are trying to do it without taking a step back, because that little iron filing tells them they're in the right place, that they're just naturally closer to the mirror. (Have I stretched this metaphor to the breaking point yet?) They have recognized the problem, but not the whole problem, and not their specific relationship to the problem.

Justina Ireland critiques one recent example. White YA author Jodi Meadows' next book is given a cover with a black girl in a pretty dress, while POC authors' covers get routinely whitewashed. Meadows tweeted that she did not want to tell the model she was being removed from the cover because she was black -- but it's wrong to frame the model's skin color as the crux of the dilemma. The problem originated when a white author staked a claim to her black character's visibility above and beyond that afforded to characters created by black and brown authors. Because Meadows doesn't reflect on her own position as a white writer she ends up only replicating the problem.

Privilege is all the more insidious for being least seen by those it benefits most.

6.

One becomes a better human the same way one becomes a better writer: by learning to see those invisible forces and call them by name. We cannot resist what we do not acknowledge, cannot change what we do not first identify as a problem.

We are living through a moment where the power of collective action is increasingly palpable. This is an opportunity for all of us to make more deliberate choices that have a meaningful impact on each other's lives and the future of the world. This is not hyperbole: in a political climate fraught with fear, lies, pettiness, and violence, it is more necessary than ever to stand up for truth, for justice, for caring, for the full humanity of all people. Right now even the smallest actions matter more. We are living in terrible times, yes, but also times of great moral opportunity.

Uplift the voices that are missing. Retweet #ownvoices book links, spread the news about new and upcoming releases, find the authors the gatekeepers overlooked. Submit your work to agents and editors of color, and let other writers know about them, too. Encourage the people the gatekeepers discourage. Support outlets (publishers and media) that focus on neglected voices. This is not a problem only one person can solve -- publishing is not itself a Chosen One narrative. (Oh, to be able to say as much to Jonathan Franzen's face!) You cannot fix everything by yourself -- but you do not have to! There are so many others who are doing the work, for themselves and for others. Find them. Support them. Buy books, make recommendations, write reviews. You're already doing this anyway, right? You hardly have to change a thing.

Take a deliberate step back from the mirror. Make the choices that you know are right, even if they feel awkward at first. It's not going to feel quite natural. It's still the right thing to do.

Work at getting those iron filings out of your soul. Disrupt the patterns that don't bring benefit to everyone. We'll all breathe a lot easier once they're gone.

 

Romance for the Resistance: A Primer

It's so hard to balance principled resistance with self-care and necessary breaks from The Self-Sustaining Dumpster Fire. Sometimes you need direct confrontation with the world, and sometimes you need escape. I've been having trouble with purely escapist stuff, though -- my brain just seems to slide right off it, sensing the real emergency is elsewhere. I suspect I'm not alone in this, so I've compiled the following list of semi-escapist romances. These are all things I've read for fun on my own, so it skews heavily in the direction of m/f historical and historical fantasy -- I'll be adding other lists with broader recs over the course of the year as I dive into my ebook backlog and other places.

  • Daughters of a Nation (Kianna Alexander, Piper Huguley, Lena Hart, Alyssa Cole): This anthology has received plenty of buzz but it's a privilege to add to the chorus. Alyssa Cole's Let Us Dream was a personal standout for me (cabaret scene in 1900s New York is my literary catnip) but don't miss Piper Huguley's sharp and funny story based on Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's real-life daughter and the Washerwomen's War. I do wish there'd been a content note for sexual assault early in Lena Hart's opening story -- so I'm adding one here.
  • Let it Shine (Alyssa Cole): Civil Rights-era protest romance with a black heroine and a Jewish hero. Heart-wrenching and gorgeous. You know what? Let's just read all the Alyssa Cole there is.
  • Congress of Secrets (Stephanie Burgis): slow burn historical fantasy romance set in post-Napoleonic Vienna. There is a muzzled press and a secret police and a subplot with an acting troupe that absolutely gutted me. Note: there's also magical torture that gets reasonably harrowing. I read this right after the election, in that maze of grief and shock and horror, and it was like a thread leading me out of the labyrinth.
  • The Suffragette Scandal (Courtney Milan): an outspoken suffragette with her own newspaper meets a disreputable left-for-dead-once forger intent on revenge. Sparks fly, secrets wound like knives to the gut. Even with my expectations at sky-high huzzah! Courtney Milan! levels, this one surprised and staggered me.
  • Starlight (Carrie Lofty): British-set historical. Astronomer hero. Ignore the gown on the cover -- this heroine's a union organizer in industrial Glasgow. I thought the ending pulled a few punches, but I'm in burn it to the ground mode right now.
  • The Jade Temptress (Jeannie Lin): In addition to being one of my top romances of all time (of. all. time.), this book looks hard at sex work, wage theft, police brutality, classism, and poverty. I wrote a whole spoiler-filled essay comparing this book (favorably!) to King Lear in terms of how it constructs monetary wealth and emotional labor.
  • Blades of the Rose series (Zoe Archer): Four-and-a-novella-book series about a secret society who fights to keep magical artifacts out of the hands of British imperial supremacists. Basically a Victorian Indiana Jones-type arc. Great adventure, sizzling romance, memorable characters (such as brilliant black inventor and waistcoat enthusiast Catullus Graves, hero of book four).

{Disclaimer: I chat occasionally with several of the above authors on Twitter (social media makes fangirling so easy these days) but I was not compensated for any of these recs.}

Updates will be linked here as they appear.

 

Space, Science, and the Gender of Perfection

{Courting Critique is a post series that takes an analytic and intersectional feminist look at romance texts — not so much to prove that romance is feminist or anti-feminist, but because good criticism can be as fun and escapist as a love story. Spoilers abound!} Engineer Eugene Parsons demands perfection. It's the first thing, possibly the only thing, people know about him.

The problem: perfection is unattainable, like a limit in calculus that is never quite reached. The other, less obvious problem: the definition of perfection keeps shifting, especially where gender is involved.

Cover image for Earth Bound. Starry background behind two light-skinned people in a tense embrace. The woman has dark hair, artful makeup, a black dress, and full-length black gloves. The man has a grey suit, intense expression, and his hands on the woman's bare skin.

First, a capsule review: Earth Bound,  the latest entry in Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner's stellar Fly Me to the Moon series, is an absolute gut-punch of a romance between two difficult, critical, closed-off engineers who put their ambitions and the mission above everything else. Oh, and seedy '60s motel sex. I could not have possibly loved it more. Full spoilers from here on out.

The most basic definition of perfection is free from factual or mathematical error. Parsons has good reason to pursue this kind of perfection, as the lives of real people depend on the machines and mathematics used by the American Space Department to send men and machines into orbit: "If the capsule wasn't traveling fast enough, wasn't flying straight up, the massive hand of gravity would catch it and pull it straight back down. It could crash right into a place filled with houses and families" (Kindle location 63). Not to mention that whole Cold War business, which Parsons at times seems to be fighting as though he's out to win it single-handed. The urgency of this mission leads him to look for the very best -- which is how he meets our heroine, computer and programmer Charlie Eason.

Charlie is a perfect hire for ASD -- except that she's a woman.

To clarify, Parsons has absolutely no issue with hiring women. Many of the computers are women (just like in real life: see the wealth of links at the end of this piece). Parsons does, however, have a problem with how deeply attracted he is to Charlie's astonishing beauty. With the other computers their gender is a nonvariable, an unimportant detail he can put aside in the interests of getting the best work from the most competent people. But he can't do that with Charlie -- "his body refused to stop noticing hers" (197) -- and he loathes himself for this failing, even as he insists on hiring her for her undeniable talents. In the classic romance tradition, this self-loathing adds a potent charge to the characters' interactions on the page (Parsons happily avoids being creepy or domineering, or at least not any more domineering than he is with his male subordinates).

Charlie doesn't recognize it's attraction at first, of course. Parsons is a closed book (and locked, and chained, and encrypted…), and Dr. Eason is used to being undermined and underestimated on account of her gender: "It would never be enough. No matter how many papers she authored, no matter how many projects she successfully completed, deadlines she met, or snafus she navigated, all they'd ever be able to see were the breasts" (879). No matter how objectively skilled a woman is, her femininity is read as a flaw when it appears in spaces and roles designated masculine. She will always be imperfect by default. The same is clearly true about race, though the text only briefly glances at this. (Again, links below!)

[perfectpullquote align="right"]No matter how many papers she authored ... all they'd ever be able to see were the breasts.[/perfectpullquote]

Which is not to say there is no standard for a specifically feminine perfection, because of course there is -- rigidly defined and lionized gender roles trouble the course of both hero and heroine. There is an unwritten expectation of purity in the binary gender construct, and a sense that real, flawed humans are constantly falling short of what it means to be a perfect man or a perfect woman. Consider this bit about the astronauts' wives: "Their wives sat among the spectators, looking cool and polished, and in the case of the new Mrs. Campbell, a little bored. She didn't yet have Mrs. Reynolds' expertise in being utterly blank every second of the day" (1508). Blankness is perfectly feminine; polish is perfectly feminine; emotion and thought are to be hidden or erased while attempting to conform to the ideal.

Charlie has the markers of idealized femininity down pat: makeup, polite smiles, skirts and heels, never a sign of anger or hurt. Cool, cool as marble, polished, frozen -- these descriptions surface over and over about Charlie and other women. I feel like I've seen a lot of romance heroines characterized as 'naturally' feminine (contemporaries do this with surprising frequency): in this text high-femme presentation is explicitly a strategy for social leverage, even though it leaves women open for predation (lecherous astronaut Carruthers) and exploitation (shameless magazine photo ops to get good press for ASD): "Yes, she used her looks to gain the advantage in certain situations. But they were her looks and her advantage. She was furious that her face was going to be used to sell ASD to the public. Why couldn't they discuss the mission, the technology, and the sheer wonder of what they were trying to do? Why did it have to be the surface, the glamour, the stuff that meant nothing?" (2033). Having spent so much time constructing that surface in self-defense, Charlie is nevertheless frustrated by people who choose to treat it as the sum total of who she is. It's a double-bind that still feels far too familiar to those of us here in 2016.

Expectations of purity also underscore a beautifully ironic conflict between Charlie's love for computer programming and her parents' romanticization of physics: "For a long time, the conversation had been about Charlie's field of study. Why couldn't you go into physics like Tom? Tom the golden child, who couldn't get enough of splitting and combining atoms -- and whose genitals were the right shape" (290). Charlie's mother even pronounces the word engineering "like she might pronounce shit" (281): in her parents' eyes Charlie's intellectual talents make her too pure for her chosen profession. They believe she is squandering herself on something corrupt and pedestrian: the scorn they heap on her career choices is couched in the language of support and pride in their daughter (why isn't she living up to her potential?) but Charlie can't help but read this as scorn for her as a person -- especially in comparison to her brother, whose gender is part of what makes him the Platonically Ideal Physicist. All this despite the fact that the pure 'secrets of the universe physics' the elder Easons are so enamored with is the actual Manhattan Project. Hardly a landmark of non-applied, non-militarized, above-it-all science.

Meanwhile, Parsons' family offers a contrasting image of masculine perfection in war hero brother George. He's smart, handsome, charming, and brave: the town is literally putting up a statue to him to memorialize his death in combat. Like younger siblings the world over, Parsons feels he suffers by comparison: "I felt like I was this weaker, lesser version of him and could never measure up" (1795). This sense of falling short mixes with grief and guilt (Parsons and George had argued before he was killed) and poisons Parsons' interactions with ex-Nazi rocket scientist Friedrich Gerhardt (clearly a von Braun analogue). Gerhardt's presence not only reminds Parsons of the masculine standards he feels he fails to meet, but he's also an indication that the world itself is the furthest thing from perfect: "The fact that George -- his wonderful, boisterous, heroic brother -- wasn't here and Gerhardt was was all the evidence Parsons needed to know the universe was fundamentally fucked" (1676).

Defining the universe as unfair, perverse, and cruel is absolutely vital in a historical that addresses sexism and misogyny in such a head-on manner. We know -- at least, if we've been reading tons of books about the Cold War and the Space Race and the Manhattan Project, have you not? -- that Charlie's contributions are not only neglected by her contemporaries, but also erased from the broad historical narrative. Like Lise Meitner, Margaret Hamilton, Hazel Ying Lee and the WASPthe Mercury 13, the real-life women of NASA, and countless others, Charlie's battle against discrimination and diminishment will be endless and unrewarded. She'll be written out of the narrative, and that unwriting will be used to deny women spaces and voices in decades to come.

[perfectpullquote align="left"]The fact that George wasn't here and Gerhardt was was all the evidence Parsons needed to know the universe was fundamentally fucked.[/perfectpullquote]

What saves this point of view from being far too harsh to nourish a romance plot is the last and, I think, best definition of perfection: something that is neither too little nor too much, but just right. This is perfection as completion: two satellites meeting in orbit against all odds, the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. What makes this kind of life-saving perfection possible? Love, of course.

If you think I wasn't hearing Origin of Love while rereading this, think again. (Two Plato references in one blog post! It's a banner Thursday.)

An early passage sees Parsons thinking of himself and Charlie in astrodynamic terms: "She was the capsule here, serenely making her orbits, while he was the rocket casing, jettisoned to burn up in the long fall back to earth" (158). Geeky penis metaphors aside (come on, right?), Parsons continually views himself as secondary to Charlie, as a resource who's only there to be used and discarded so she can achieve her proper glorious heights. He's a man who demands perfection, but once he decides she is perfect, his devotion is absolute: "I'll work to get you whatever you need, Charlie. You know that" (1305). This is undoubtedly part of what makes Parsons work so well as a version of the Demanding Boss hero archetype, which usually makes me grimace: the dedication and generosity he displays toward the mission and toward Charlie more than balance out the barked orders and fraying temper.

Charlie recognizes this devotion and even refers to Parsons once as an "acolyte" (916); she also envisions their relationship in terms that echo his : "She didn't think she was perfect, but she thought that together, they might be more than they were apart. Together they might be something like it" (2465). The inevitable crisis in the relationship is paralleled by a crisis in a planned orbital rendezvous mission. Charlie and Parsons have to navigate their way back to one another emotionally even as they maneuver two soaring metal ships within kissing distance of one another. Their final reconciliation is as subtle, tense, and minutely managed as any astronaut's docking procedure.  It's a sublime and elegant piece of work and as an author I am equal parts delighted and envious.

Charlie and Parsons' HEA doesn't make the world perfect -- he's still going to be snappish, and she'll still be subject to plenty of micro- and macro-aggressions --  but it shows they've earned the kind of perfection they find with each other. And what more can a romance possibly offer?

 

___

Barry, Emma, and Turner, Genevieve. Earth Bound. Amazon Digital Services, 2016. Kindle edition.

___

Further Reading:

  • You know about the Hidden Figures book and movie already, right? Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe? I could not possibly be more excited.
  • But since that's not out until September, here is Rise of the Rocket Girls, a primer on the race to the moon focusing on women's contributions and participation.
  • Also Amelia Earhart's Daughters, which expands the years examined and looks at women pilots in WWII and the Cold War.
  • Something from the Russian side of all this: The Night WitchesMost of the prose in this book about Russian women flying bombing runs in WWII comes straight from interviews with survivors, so it's a little plain prose-wise -- but you cannot beat the level of detail and vividness.
  • Girls of Atomic City. Summers spent driving by Hanford on our way to Eastern Washington campsites kicked off my fascination with the Atomic Age. (You might have noticed this is something of a pet topic of mine, huh?) But Hanford was basically a glorified military base -- Oak Ridge was a whole damn city, with segregated living spaces and sock hops and I swear to God a rabbit breeding club.
  • Also great: 109 East Palace, about a woman who worked as Oppenheimer's trusted secretary (and front) during the early days of Los Alamos.

Cover Reveal: Hearts and Harbingers Reissue!

If it seems like we just had a cover reveal around here, you're right! This is how it goes when you've got your books back and you can finally pretty them up the way they deserve. Hearts and Harbingers is a sexy Regency fairy tale with a voyeuristic Cinderella, a charmingly carnal prince, and a brothel mistress-turned-fairy godmother. Coming later this month! Cover for Hearts and Harbingers: a pale-skinned woman in a dark corset squares her shoulders and faces away from the viewer. Background is blue and full of diamond shapes.

Our Dear Author

Here's a fun set of facts:

  • I am an Ellora's Cave author who donated to Jane Litte's defense fund.
  • I am an author who writes reviews (more like critiques/analysis really) and sometimes those reviews are negative. Like: really, really negative. Sometimes they're ecstatic! But: you know.
  • A lot of my (long and thinky) analysis posts have cited Dear Author, because they're a known and important voice in the romance industry.
  • I use the same pen name and website for both my books and my reviews.
  • Before I was published, and had no pen name, I wrote a few sharp reviews under my dayname, on Goodreads. They're still out there: I stand by them. One of the authors I know for a fact has gone on to write a series that won a Rita, so clearly I've sunk nobody's career.

So. Now you know where I'm coming from at the start. This is important. Nothing we write comes without baggage: the best you can do is be clear what baggage you carry, so people can take the necessary grains of salt. <-- Probably a hint about where we're going to go, so buckle up.

Here is the baldest, boldest fact I keep coming back to: Dear Author used to be a reader space, and now it's not.

Like many, when I saw the headline on that now-famous post I worried the site was closing down. I was initially swamped with relief that my dread was unfounded. It was four in the morning (Pacific Time) (I am mildly insomniac) and when I went back to bed I kept waking up and thinking I'd dreamed the whole thing.

Over time relief gave way not to delight, but to more dread. I don't give even a single fuck if a reviewer or author-reviewer gives negative reviews. Even snarky ones. Even mean ones. Someone once gave an audiobook of mine a one-star review that said "Too much sex" and I could have kissed them. This post is not about "bashing" or "mean girls" or "haters" or Jane's semi-mythical army of detractors.

It is also not about author-envy. If I spent time envying every author with a bigger platform or more sales than me I wouldn't have time to eat, sleep, or write ill-advised blog posts like this one. Yeah, there's probably some schadenfreude out there in scurrilous corners of the internet (comments sections and author loops) -- but thing is, everybody is not obligated to like you or support you, and I've never gotten the sense from reading Dear Author that Jane has spent many sleepless nights on account of people disagreeing with her, even vehemently.

So now that we know what it's not about, here's my question:

Where do the readers go now? 

Let's not pretend this is purely an altruistic question for me. Submitting a book of mine for review to Smart Bitches and Dear Author was a specific publicity goal of mine: they are strong platforms, with smart reviewers, and a vast readership. They are also two blogs I've been reading for years, long before I started writing. These are the two largest, most wave-making blogs in Romanceland, and even a middling review there could have a huge impact on any author's career. If you add All About Romance and Mrs. Giggles, you've got probably the most influential corpus of romance writing in the history of the entire genre.

Publisher blogs are materially different from reader-oriented blogs. It's disingenuous to pretend otherwise. Look at Carina Press' blog, or Heroes and Heartbreakers, just to name two. They are wonderful, social, frequently thoughtful places -- but they have a sales agenda and everyone knows it and they play by a slightly different set of rules. Author-blogs are also something else: storefronts, sometimes, or more rambly text-intense spaces like this one, or research bastions like Loretta Chase and Isabella Bradford's Two Nerdy History Girls.

Readers go to all these, but they are not reader spaces. Reader spaces are vital, and their numbers are shrinking. We need them not so authors like me can put books in front of them, but because reader spaces grow readers, and readers are the reason the whole book ecosystem exists in the first place.

Where do the readers go now that Dear Author shares a title with her blog?

To Goodreads? Goodreads is a cesspool of either vicious trolls or shallow commercial squee (or both!), depending on who you ask -- and lately they've had their own troubles finessing the relationship between authors and readers. (THERE'S that schadenfreude! I knew I could find some in me somewhere!)

The question we've asked but not real loudly, because we're all nervous about the answer: what is Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches going to say, if anything? Did she know in advance? This question bugs me not because I want to parse all the layers of potential disclosure and obligation -- there are better people for that -- but because I want to know that one of the two pillars romance readers flock to is feeling the same things I and many others are feeling right now. Yes, there are many readers who are simply excited that two names they like (Jane and Jen) belong to the same person -- but there are a lot of us who are shocked and saddened and bemused by what this means for the future. For our future.

Dear Author may still be a reader space -- but it's probably no longer a space where I should look for readers of mine. I write erotic historicals and erotic historical fantasy romances (they're a mouthful! *rimshot*). Jane/Jen writes NA and has a penchant for extreme romance. When Dear Author was a multi-fronted reviewers' blog this didn't faze me -- but now, as I said earlier on Twitter, the space has become not a place to seek reviews, but another author's playground. I'm not going to invite myself onto the blog of an author in a completely different genre just to try and snag readers. This is not polite. It makes me feel cringey just to think about.

Much has been said about Jane being caught between a rock and a hard place in regard to this disclosure. That nobody would be happy with it, no matter what she did. But a lot of being an author, or a reviewer, is about choosing between two risks. Authors like myself have to decide whether or not they want to review other authors' books. (Some do, some don't.) Reviewers have to decide whether or not they want to give negative reviews or not. Both these are significant career choices, with consequences that may extend for years.

Jane's timing may have been forced by EC, but the choice she faced is uncommon only in scale, not in character. And, I suppose, in the fact that most authors face this choice the other way around: now that I'm published, do I review? Jane had to ask: now that I'm a well-known and influential reviewer, do I publish, and how? I'm not convinced the romance world has faced this particular question before. It's interesting, but it is not comfortable, and I resent being asked to brush it aside as business as usual.

I'm not angry that Jane Litte is Jen Frederick. I'm not angry that her books are doing well. I AM angry that I'm expected to be uncritically happy about this news, though, if I want to be seen as nice. Sondheim tells us and we know it's true: Nice is different than good.

I don't yet know if I feel this change is good.

___

As a reward for making it this far, and just to make sure this is the MOST ill-advised blog post ever involving disclosure, here is the very first piece of romance writing I ever did: my entry in AAR's Purple Prose Parody contest, starring the two pioneer missionaries my college was named after. It was submitted under my real name and I thought it would be super-embarrassing but then I reread it and oh lord I am so proud.

Die Hard, Jupiter Jones, Cinderella, and Character Agency

When I'm talking narrative and I want someone's eyes to light up, I just tell them this: Die Hard is one of my favorite Cinderella stories. I cannot take credit for making the connection myself. It was at a conference. An editor from a well-known publishing house was defining an elevator pitch for the benefit of a new writer. "It's like: Cinderella meets Die Hard," he said. The audience laughed, and the editor with them. "I know," he continued. "What would that even look like?"

Reader, I was shaking. Instantly abuzz. If I hadn't been conspicuously seated in the second row at this panel, I'd have run straight out of the room and started writing.

OF COURSE Die Hard is Cinderella. A mysterious stranger crashes a party he wasn't officially invited to. His feet are covered in glass. Later he is pursued by people who are desperate to uncover his real identity. He ends up reunited with the person he went to the party to see. Holly is the prince. Al is the fairy godmother. Argyle's limo is the pumpkin carriage. And Hans Gruber, naturally, is the wicked stepmother.

John McClane sits by the sink and picks glass shards out of his bloody, injured feet.

I've been thinking a lot about this in context of a recent NPR story by the ever-revelatory Linda Holmes -- this paragraph in particular:

[Cinderella is] partly a fantasy about simplifying the relationships between social standing and coupling — one that makes the most sense in a world in which class differences are an accepted barrier to a good man choosing to marry a woman. If the prince is a man who believes from the outset that love conquers all, the story doesn't really make any sense. It would be hard to set Cinderella on a properly functioning egalitarian collective.

The gender-flip in Die Hard turns the prince into a princess -- but the class chasm stays the same. Bonnie Bedelia's Holly is a corporate ladder-climber, an executive at a Japanese company that occupies an entire LA skyscraper. Her job is far more high-status than that of her scruffy blue-collar cop husband. But where the original Cinderella is about elevating the low-born heroine to the prince's aristocratic level, Die Hard's perfect, meticulously constructed plot inexorably undermines the foundation of Holly's higher status.

Imagine Cinderella blowing up the palace.

Yes, technically Hans Gruber is the villain -- but our hero John McClane does at least as much blowing up of things as his nemesis does. One by one, the connections between Holly and her career are severed: her boss is killed, her douchey co-worker is shot, the company is burgled, the building is destroyed, and finally even her new Rolex must be sacrificed to ensure Hans Gruber's downfall. (See what I did there? Oh, Hans, please forgive me that joke, I love you -- you were raised to be charming, not sincere.) She is given no choice but to take John back almost out of self-defense.

It's not just me saying this, either -- witness this really  detailed PopMatters essay about the political/social/cinematic context of the film:

The obvious professional success of Holly at Nakatomi, which led her to forsake her husband in New York, is presented in Die Hard as a metaphor for the threat of feminism to the family institution and to the established patriarchal social order.

There's a lot in there about westerns and WWII and Vietnam and categories of masculinity; it's pretty dense and I recommend reading the whole thing.

Getting back to the fairy tale, everyone's always framing Cinderella stories in terms of agency. Here is Linda Holmes on the Prince in Disney's earlier Cinderella film:

If you were putting on a stage play based on that cartoon and you were short of actors, my very first suggestion would be that you obtain a large bag of flour and a toupee, allowing you to dispense with casting anyone at all as the prince.

And yet when we criticize the storytelling in Cinderella tales, it's never the prince's role that comes under fire. Because even in the most bare-bones versions, the prince goes in quest of something -- and there is a long, long, Western narrative tradition that tells us the quest story is a hero's story and automatically worthy (oh hello, Star Wars fans who like to cite Joseph Campbell). We read the prince as a little mini-hero in this tale, while we dismiss Cinderella for being confused and conflicted and passive. (Sondheim's Into the Woods will always be the most resounding critique of this structure, for me.)

Joseph Campbell has a lot to answer for.

But agency is only one axis on which a character can be given importance. Perspective, choice, centering of a protagonist can happen regardless of the level of doing-ness. For comparison: Hamlet is notorious for passivity and indecision, but his inability to act is a feature of the story, not a bug, and critics discuss it as such. Die Hard reads as anti-feminist thus not so much because Holly is inactive -- she is the agent of several key turns of the plot. The movie is anti-feminist because Holly's perspective/wants are not centered by the film's arc. We see a little bit of her emotions at the beginning, on the phone with her children, but we never see the real defining moment where she decides she and John can make their relationship work. (They ultimately don't, as the next few films demonstrate.) We do see John's moment of revelation -- but crucially, this transformation appears in a scene between him and Al. Al and John's developing trust, of course, is the real emotional arc in the film, and a much more convincing romance.

Using pure action-based agency as a metric to judge female characters as more or less feminist has become this year's Manic Pixie Dream Girl: it started as a useful critical lens, but when it's the only lens we apply it blinds us to other aspects of storytelling. The protagonist's lack of agency in recent glorious mess Jupiter Ascending was frequently singled out as poorly written and regressive.

From the Mary Sue's review:

If I had to critique this movie in any sort of, you know, actual way (beyond “it was a hot-ass mess”), I would say that I do wish the film had been a little less caught up in the traditional model of princess-saving. When I hear “Mila Kunis black leather space princess,” I want to see her bulked the hell up, Emily Blunt style, kicking ass and taking names. We don’t get to see Kunis looking really cool until the very end of the film, at which point I wanted way more of that. Which, I guess, means I would pay for a sequel.

From Variety:

Although clearly conceived as an empowered female heroine, poor Jupiter spends most of the movie being kidnapped and shuffled from one unpleasant situation to another...

From The New York Times:

Though she has more space opera swirling around her than any actor could possible hold together, Kunis does an admirable job even if never given much of a chance to be the prime mover in her fairy tale.

All these reviews and many others have bought into a limited concept of agency: kicking ass and taking names. Partly this is habit -- quest narratives and violence-as-agency are hugely enshrined in sff/geek culture and film blockbusters both, most especially when those two fandoms overlap: see The Matrix, The Fifth Element, Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien/Aliens, Terminator/Terminator 2, and even The Princess Bride. Take a good hard look at your love for The Princess Bride, those of you who found Jupiter Jones too passive a heroine.

See also: critiques of Twilight that point out how much of the series is designed to give Bella Swan everything she wants. People hate when you suggest that maybe Twilight is doing something interesting with its heroine. (Standard disclaimer: not a Twilight fan, haven't read it, found some persuasively written articles.)

Jupiter Jones does not hit very many people in the course of her movie, it's true. But her life, her experience, her anxieties, and her choices are all central to the film's framework. She is important, and not merely as a vessel of power: she narrates her own birth in voiceover and explains how it is significant, she worries about trust and love and an inherited history of unhappy relationships, she struggles with a difficult family whose engagement is embarrassing and an irritation, she is burdened with sudden knowledge and terrible power and galactic prominence without ever asking for it, without being sure if she even wants to be a part of what seems like a really shitty system of government and exploitation. That she hesitates to wield this power is, I think, a mark of intelligence and good moral sense. She mistrusts her sudden elevation in rank, and does not consider herself automatically an expert in an ancient and politically fraught hypertechnological culture she's only known about for three days.

Imagine Cinderella realizing she has no inclination to rule a kingdom where three of the most powerful nobles are constantly trying to kill one another.

Caine, by contrast, is given the cardboard quest narrative: get your wings back, brooding hero, and find your pack or mate or whatever. It's as plain and predictable as the prince's agency in the traditional Cinderella. Caine has only one possible choice or motive in this movie: to save Jupiter, to choose Jupiter, to support Jupiter. Jupiter, meanwhile, gets everything she wants. Caine objects to a relationship between them because of her higher rank, but she laughs this off and they end up together despite his objections. Caine gets his wings back (hardly a spoiler), and Jupiter lovingly caresses them as though they belong to her. She insists that he call her "Your Majesty" because she likes it -- and then she straps on his gravity skates and flies away with him.

Is our heroine really the one with the lack of agency in this framework?

Screen shot from Jupiter Ascending. Jupiter Jones is seen from behind, in a fancy white dress spotted with red feathers and a headdress to match. She faces away from the camera, shoulders tall, while far below her crowds of tiny people look up in awe.

The scene where Sean Bean lays out Caine's angsty backstory for Jupiter's benefit is so full of lingering shirtless Tatum camerawork that I laughed aloud in the theater. It is the single most romance novel-esque thing I have ever seen on film (though I haven't seen the wedding episode of Outlander, which author Alisha Rai assures me is the most Female Gaze-y thing in all the world). The critics focusing on action might have misread the film: the romance readers and authors I know were all hailing it as one of our own.

Romance as a storytelling form has long existed in counterpoint to the mainstream male narrative canon -- counterpoint both in the sense of alternative, and in the sense of harmony (since not all romance is automatically feminist in nature or perspective). Romance features happy endings instead of 'important' tragedies, female characters given pride of place as heroines, love and family and domestic concerns treated as weightily as wars and battles. Romance also deals quite often with limits on agency: the unmoneyed gently born heroines of Austen's novels; those notorious scenes of forced seduction during the era of Woodiwiss, Rogers, and Small; even E. L. James' The Book That Shall Not Be Named explores what it means to be constrained on both a physical and metaphorical level.

A romance heroine's limited agency is, like Hamlet's, not a bug but a feature.

Jupiter Ascending is a Cinderella story -- but it is also, importantly, Jane Eyre. We begin with our heroine's birth, we see her thankless labor and her mortified body (someone write me an essay comparing the egg-selling clinic with Lowood School IMMEDIATELY PLEASE), she finds a secret family and a brooding love interest, there is an interrupted wedding and an unpleasantly insistent relative and at the end everything burns to the ground but our heroine finds happiness anyways. And you could make a pretty good case for this narrative being anti- or ambiguously feminist, as people often do with Jane Eyre --but the critics of Jupiter Ascending have not been making this argument. The sci-fi movie lovers have not been making this argument. They have been arguing for more violence, more unquestioned use of questionable power. More doing simply for the sake of doing-ness.

It is not enough to critique a character's lack of action, especially a female character, without looking at the context in which that action or non-action takes place.

If what Jane Eyre really wanted from her story and her wold was agency for agency's sake, she'd have gone off with St. John Rivers. Rochester would have struggled alone with his disabilities. Jane herself would have died while bolstering a racist colonial empire in a sexless marriage with a coldly principled, joyless man. Instead Jane makes a choice -- as Jupiter Jones does, over and over, not carving out a space with fists and weapons but picking the least bad of several options -- and that choice is given weight and heft by the narrator. Reader, I married him, she says, speaking out to us from the page.

I've always loved dogs, says Jupiter Jones. And we laugh, because it's ridiculous, and she rolls her eyes, and says it again, horrified at what's just come out of her mouth.

And we laugh again, in recognition. Because we've been there, so many of us, at the peak of a crucial romantic moment, saying something that initially seemed clever but turned out to be an absolute disaster.

Jupiter Jones may not be the Heroine With Agency we're supposed to want -- but she may be the heroine we didn't know we've been missing.

___

There's always someone, somewhere, writing about Cinderella. Here's a very incomplete list of the most recent/most interesting ones I've seen:

For bonus fun, here is a short and pointed Jupiter Ascending fanfic that imagines an alternative wedding scene because, per the author, "I spent too much of the movie waiting for Chekhov's bees to go off."

Batman and Bootleggers: For the Love of Lit Crit

{For the Love of Lit Crit is a post series that takes a feminist look at romance texts -- not so much to prove that romance is feminist or anti-feminist, but because sometimes analysis can be as fun and escapist as a love story. Spoilers abound! Also, a content note for discussion of guns and violence, though I don't think things get really graphic or specific. Meanwhile, during the month of January I'm catching up on a bunch of books from the TBR list, most of which have been out for some time because I am perpetually behind the curve. I'm also tweeting about what I find as I read; follow #Readening on Twitter for comments, thoughts, Titanic design corrections, and critiques of bee metaphors.}

That last long post must really be sticking with me, because here I was reading a lusty paranormal romance set in Jazz Age San Francisco and all I could think about was the violence. Not the sensual wardrobes, not the issues with race -- nope, the violence and how actions are morally coded based on the actor rather than the deed itself. Cover for Bitter Spirits by Jenn Bennett.

Capsule review: I'm torn about whether to recommend this. I loved the detail of the built world and I'm definitely going to read the next in the series because I already ship Bo and Astrid and I need to at least stay caught up until their story in book 3. And I'm revising a Prohibition paranormal of my own now (with monsters instead of ghosts and magic) so this series is totally Necessary Author Research and probably even tax-deductible. But I had a lot of issues with the way the book dealt with race: those concerns are pretty much covered in this Dear Author review (click the spoiler tag), and they're just problematic enough that I hesitate to give this book an enthusiastic two thumbs up. Not because I am easily offended, but because lot of the issues here are recognizable stereotypes with a long horrible history, and seeing them repeated in modern texts can make a reader so damn tired. It's less How outrageous! and more Ugh, not this again.

I'm glad Dear Author's review tackled the issues with depiction of Chinese-American characters, because that leaves me free to talk about the contradictory way this book presents violence -- specifically gun violence and domestic violence -- in regard to our hero.

A Good Man Who Does Bad Things

I knew going in that a bootlegging hero was probably going to have to kill someone. Not every rumrunner forbade guns like Seattle's Roy Olmstead, though I suspect that's partly who Bitter Spirits hero Winter Magnusson was based on. And there's definitely room in romantic heroism for killing: Han shot first, after all. So I wasn't surprised when the book revealed that Winter has a few deaths on his conscience.

I was a little surprised that one of them was his wife, though. Again, spoilers everywhere in this analysis.

It's negligence rather than murder, but Winter still holds himself responsible for the car accident that killed his mother, his father, his wife, and left Winter himself visibly scarred. The fallout of this trauma is one of the major emotional arcs of the romance. And you know what? All I could think was: That sounds about right. You killed your family, buddy. That feels like one of those events that maybe one shouldn't be able to entirely get over? It's like Batman, only instead of a thief in the alley it's like little Brucie was playing with a pistol and shot Mr. and Mrs. Wayne himself.

(I just giggled for five fully minutes imagining how self-flagellating and angsty Batman could get in that scenario. Batman really is the funniest superhero.)

Winter reserves the greatest measure of guilt not for his parents, but for his wife Paulina -- because, he explains, she'd asked him for a divorce and he'd refused: "I should have just let her go. I'm not sure why I didn't. I think maybe I saw it as a failure, and that was unacceptable ... I told her divorce was impossible, that I'd never let it happen ... So that's why I feel guilty -- because even though I didn't love her, I refused to let her go. If I had, everyone would still be alive" (Kindle location 2335).

Heroine Aida replies: "Paulina made the decision to marry you. You didn't hold a gun to her head."

This metaphor struck me as being in extremely poor taste.

For one thing, while I haven't specifically researched divorce laws in 1927 California (anyone with a quick link is free to add it in comments), my understanding is that divorce at this time in this place has to be agreed to by both parties. So that if Winter refuses to grant a divorce, Paulina has to stay married to him, no matter how she personally feels about it. This may not be violence, per se, but it's definitely an unpleasant level of control for him to exert for very little reason. It feels mean. It feels petty. It feels, in a word, unheroic.

For another thing, he's literally just told Aida he caused his wife's death. A woman is dead -- two women, and a man, if you count his mother and father, but he doesn't seem to agonize over that as much. And the best our heroine can muster is: "But the important thing is you shouldn't feel bad about it."

I for one am perfectly okay with the hero feeling bad about this. Forever. Maybe not to Batman levels of self-flagellation, but surely this tragedy is more than just an opportunity for him to grow emotionally as a person. There should be consequences for a mistake of this magnitude. Our hero is not in prison, he is not making restitution to his wife's family, he is not working to make automobiles safer or donating to charity or doing anything else to atone for his actions. He is merely berating himself emotionally. I find it unpleasant that those are the only consequences for such a colossal waste of life, but I am equally loth to see any consequence of that event erased because the heroine feels one should "live in the moment." (Yep, actual quote, Kindle location 2335 like the others.)

Taken on its own, bereft of genre context, this exchange makes Aida look cold and amoral. She's not, of course. She's simply being a Good Heroine: her job in the narrative is to reassure the hero about his past mistakes to prove he is a Good Person Deserving Of Love. And Good People don't do Bad Things. The hero is by definition a Good Person -- ergo his actions are Good, and must be construed in the best possible light. The cause of Paulina's death was not really the hero's inattention while driving; the cause of Paulina's death was her own "character defects" -- specifically, not being 'strong' enough to leave on her own when her husband refused to divorce her. Her rich, powerful, musclebound, lawbreaking husband with a ton of underworld connections and corrupt cops on his payroll, who'd just said he'd never let her go. Gosh, why wouldn't she be scared to leave? Again, "character defects" is a direct quote from our heroine. About the dead wife, not about the hero.

I was a little stunned. We're blaming the dead wife for her own death at this point and I'm supposed to be rooting for these two as a couple.

And it's not as though the violence of Winter's career as a bootlegger can be separated from his family life. His job was the reason why Paulina wanted a divorce in the first place. Later, when Aida gets nervous before she and Winter have sex for the first time, our hero reflects: "he was reminded of Paulina, timid and guarded -- worse, he was reminded of how he used to feel around her. Like a monster and a bully. Like the bad guy" (2412).

Two points:

  1. Winter clearly prioritizes his own feelings in this moment over his sexual partner's. He thinks his feeling that he might be 'the bad guy' is worse than Aida's feeling of being unsafe or unsure about the sex they are about to have.
  2. Winter wants Aida because he likes that she believes he's a Good Guy -- not because she has a solid moral compass, not because he can trust her judgment, but simply because it makes him feel better about himself. It's an ego-stroke, pure and simple. There's no sense that Aida expects him to do better. In fact, it's the opposite: Aida is presented as a better match for Winter because she can accept his violent actions.

We are a long way here from the world of Filthy Lucre, where the heroine wants a good man to stop doing bad things, and tells him so. Winter's tendency toward violence is by definition Good, because he is a hero, and the text gives him leave to be as vicious as he wants, consequence-free.

My concern about this moral framework is not only for Paulina: it's for our villain, too. Our evil Chinese necromancer villain whose big evil plan is to bring Pauline's corpse back from the dead as a weapon against our hero. Reader, I'd be lying if I said this wasn't a really fun plot point. I was hoping Pauline would get some of her own back; there's an earlier scene where Aida, a spirit medium, calls forth a dead husband who exposes his much younger widow's adultery and callousness. I was hoping either Paulina would get to yell at Winter, or that she'd get to say she understood it was an accident; either one would be fine with me.

Instead, Paulina is a wordless, mindless zombie monster, controlled by black magic. A really lushly described, viscerally gross zombie corpse. Who never talks. Who maybe needs to be exorcised by the heroine and/or shot re-dead by the hero because that's how we deal with first wives in romance, amirite?

Ugh, not this again.

A Bad Man Who Does Bad Things

The weirdness of the division between Good People and Bad People is illustrated most vividly in a scene between Aida and Doctor Yip, our villain.

Here is the first part.

Doctor Yip's motivation, as Dear Author pointed out, is a historical truth and major act of bigotry: "After the Great Fire, the city tried to move Chinatown and seize our land, and when we resisted, you kept us in cages on Angel Island, separating our families for years" (4126).

Aida's response: "didn't."

(#NotAllWhiteHeroines)

The text continues: "Aida could empathize with grief for a lost sibling, but she didn't lash out and kill people for revenge when [her brother] Sam died." Note what happened here: the villain laid out a sustained, horrible, systemic, racist injustice he personally suffered from, and the heroine rejected his moral claim because she personally had not participated in said injustice.

Here is the second part.

Doctor Yip makes another moral claim: despite the many killings he's orchestrated, he has not shed a single drop of blood: "'I have no blood debt on my hands. I am clean.'"

Aida's response: "'Just because you didn't pull the trigger doesn't mean you're not guilty.'" She refuses to allow him to salve his conscience with technicalities when the greater point is that he's responsible for several murders.

These two parts? They happen on the same damn page.

What this tells me as a reader is that the underlying moral structure of this text is tied to something other than action. Or facts, really. Aida resists any moral statement made by the villain, even if doing so means she contradicts herself within three paragraphs. The villain is Bad: he must be opposed. Winter is Good: he must be supported. Even if his actions in this same scene are comprised of several brutal murders (one done with Aida's complete knowledge and approval). But he's defending the heroine and himself, so it's okay, right? He's Good, isn't he?

I'm coming down hard on this text not because it makes a uniquely irritating choice, but because it's a vivid example of something I find all over the romance genre. I don't mind having Good People and Bad People in fiction; I am not criticizing the lack of moral subtlety. But I do object to moral categories being applied as fixed traits, regardless of what we see a character actually do. Like many readers I bring my own moral compass with me when I read, and it is a rare book that can convince me to abandon it. I can sympathize with a hero who wants to not seem monstrous on page 10: but when we get to 100 and he's murdered, tortured, threatened, and intimidated his way through the book, I begin to think that all those frightened secondary characters have a point.

If you've noticed a lot of gun metaphors -- pulling the trigger, put a gun to her head -- you're picking up on one of the very strong motifs of this book. Guns both as props and as symbols are everywhere. Even at the climax of the sex scenes!

... he shuddered in her arms like a great, divine beast taken down by a single bullet.

She didn't know if she was the gun that fired the bullet or the hunter who'd pulled the trigger ... she knew she had made a terrible miscalculation.

She was the one who'd been shot. (2910)

There's also a lot of guns-as-power imagery, but I won't tire you with all that. Suffice to say that in the world right now -- what with Ferguson, and Ottawa, and Paris, and now Boko Haram -- I am increasingly wary of those who idealize guns as the proper tools of Good Men, whose violence shouldn't be questioned.

At least Batman tries not to kill people.

___

Chinese-Canadian romance author Vicki Essex points out that new CBC show Strange Empire is an awesome diverse take on Western tropes, including violence and vengeance.

Speaking of Batman and the pitfalls of vigilante justice, here is a marvelous article from Cracked that lists Batman's 6 most brutal murders. Some of these veer hilariously into self-parody, and others are just plain awful, so click at your peril.

Leigh Kolb at Bitch Flicks has a grounded and thoughtful feminist reading of Sons of Anarchy's inescapably violent masculinity.

___

Bennett, Jenn. Bitter Spirits (Roaring Twenties Book 1). New York: Berkeley Sensation, January 2014. Kindle edition.

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.

___

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.

___

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

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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S is for Suleikha Snyder

{Content note: the following post contains very brief discussion of sexual assault and suicidal thoughts. Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

One of the biggest themes of this series is the idea of people being trapped by stories -- we saw how Jade Yeo refused to yield to the colonial narratives that threatened her autonomy, and how the Navajo were destroyed by the lies and omissions of American authorities. Suleikha Snyder's Bollywood-set novella Bollywood and the Beast is a further addition to this list. Jackie C. Horne at Romance Novels for Feminists has already done a complete breakdown of the feminist elements of the novella's plot, which covers just about every point I jotted down during my reading, so I'm free to go in a more metaphysical direction as I discuss the ways in which characters in this book struggle against the narratives that entangle them or mask their true selves. Because the film world of Bollywood is, like its Western counterpart, a tailor-made metaphor for exploring the points where image and reality differ, where appearance and substance are at odds. And I'm going to break with the analytic essay format and use bullet points! I like bullet points. This may partly be the Theraflu talking. My brain is going in tiny swirls and circles and I cannot seem to make it do anything in a cohesive line.

Cover image for Suleikha Snyder's Bollywood and the Beast. A background of lush red brocade pillows. A tan-skinned, dark-haired woman with closed eyes has one arm wrapped around a brown-skinned man in a half-on, half-off white shirt. He is facing away from the viewer, and she is pressing her lips to his shoulder.

  • Taj Ali Khan

The main story tangling around Taj is Beauty and the Beast and he knows it. He positively relishes his role, sitting around in dramatic half-lighting and using a wheelchair as a prop more than a mobility aid. (Which our heroine rightly chastises him for.) He takes a visceral pleasure in monstrosity and heroine Rocky immediately calls him on it; it becomes a running conversation between the two of them as their relationship progresses. The scars from a long-ago car accident and fire destroyed Taj's career as an action star and filmi hero; since then, he's stayed locked away from the outside world, growing roses in the garden and watching his old films alone in the dark: "he'd built himself a perfect cage of stone and soil and celluloid" (Kindle location 75). Appearances are currency in this Bollywood world: since Taj cannot trade on his anymore, he chooses to have no appearance, to retreat from the world entirely and go unseen by anyone for ten long, dark years. To surround himself with flickering, intangible images, like a Bollywood Norma Desmond. Jackie Horne rightly pointed out that the novel's end requires Taj not to fulfill the original fairy tale's narrative arc, but to rebel against it -- to go out in public is not only to refute the Beast's domestication of Beauty, but also to reassert the existence of his own face. I honestly tried to find a more elegant way of putting that -- damn you, Theraflu -- but there really is a nearly mystical sense to Taj's seclusion and then emergence: to the outside world, it really is as though he has recreated his own features from nothing. Taj is really very compellingly sharp and epic in scope: it's hard for me to be convinced that a hero is large these days because all heroes are written to be large -- but with Taj, it was very easy to believe that this one man could fill not just the room, but an entire crumbling mansion.

  • Rakhee/Rocky Varma

Rocky is the Beauty in our story, but this is by no means the only fairy tale she inhabits. There's a scene at the beginning where she imagines a trio of catty Bollywood starlets as predatory birds -- as RNFF put it there's a whiff of misogyny here, but I liked the slight unreality of the imagery. I also liked where it wound up: "[Her mother said,] 'This is no fairy tale.' Maybe not the Disney kind. But the dark, gory, original kind with all sorts of ironic lessons ...? Rocky stared at the blood-red heel of one fallen shoe and shuddered" (53). And I clapped gleefully, remembering the vicious birds and the lopped-off heels and the bloody shoes of the original Cinderella story. Cinderella's arc, like Beauty's, finds its closure in a castle with a Prince -- but Cinderella's arc is also about escaping the house, about class boundaries and artifice and whether or not you're the same person when you're dressed up as when you're in your workday wear. An entirely appropriate fairy tale for an actress, whose job description is to put on masks and take them off as needed. It's an open question whether this Cinderella promise is fulfilled in the novella; the ending is a trifle too ambiguous on the practicals. (I think Taj should become a director!)

And also, there's our heroine's nickname. "Rocky" is an American error: "The first time someone had mispronounced her real name, Rakhee, it had turned into a nickname she embraced wholeheartedly" (92). But by adapting to the American syllables she's made herself in a way unfit for Mumbai. In Bollywood the nickname becomes another reminder of her American-ness, associating her with a Western film about a lower-class male fighter whose voice is distinctively low and slurred; this is the opposite of the high, refined treble tone and fluid tongue expected of heroines in Hindi-language films. Like her namesake, Rocky goes through intensive training and works constantly to live up to the industry's expectations: diction coaching, Hindi language courses, script memorization. (And now, yes, I'm imagining all this happening in a montage set to "Eye of the Tiger," or better yet this catchy Bhangra remix.) The reason why Rocky comes to stay in Taj's house while filming is that her fellow actors and industry people are miffed because she dropped the polite, perfect heroine's mask and spoke too candidly in an interview about Bollywood's hypocrisy and bigoted underbelly: she pulled the mask off, just for a moment -- but nobody likes a spoilsport. So she is sent to the haveli, where she pulls off more masks. Taj's, of course -- but also his younger brother's.

  • Ashraf Khan

The gap between appearance and the substance beneath is most poignantly illustrated with Ashraf, or more familiarly Ashu. Like Rocky, he has two names: one formal and public, the other a private diminutive, familial and intimate. Ashraf Khan the actor is attempting to fill the void left by his brother's departure from the industry. There's a lot about this dynamic that I may be missing, since I haven't (yet) read the earlier book in the series, but Ashraf's bitterness and terror are palpable enough. He is acutely, achingly conscious of the many ways he fails to be as big a star or as powerful a presence as his elder brother; this consciousness becomes more and more a figure he uses against himself, to erase his own talents, desires, and even his existence:

He had never been one to hallucinate. Not until his brother's phantom taunting had taken root in his brain and Nina's oily threats had begun spreading like a slick down his spine. Now, those voices were almost deafening. With him always. And they all said the same thing: You are worthless, Ashu. You are terrible. You are filthy and dirty and godless. No one will ever love you. (1030)

Bollywood's conservative cultural standards place great burdens on their stars: no nudity, no kissing, no alcohol -- at least not where anyone can see you. It's a world of polite fictions and open secrets, of making sure you always smile for the cameras no matter how much you are hurting inside. Ashu's growing despair is typical for those who feel out of step with systems that privilege silence as a means of maintaining a pristine, false image of wholesomeness. His traumas are significant and impossible to speak about: he was sexually abused at a young age by an older woman in exchange for career advancement (an advancement that has tragically failed to materialize, which is also a source of trauma); he posed for nude photos for her, which she later uses to attempt to blackmail him and which could end his career completely; eventually it is revealed that Ashu is also gay, an orientation still highly marginalized and recently re-criminalized in India. The constant effort it takes to bridge the void between how Ashu feels and how he knows he should feel drain him both physically and emotionally -- eventually he is interrupted in an attempt to throw himself from the roof of the haveli. His brother, his co-star, and his caretaker Kamal have to talk him down. It's a moment as intensely, perfectly melodramatic as anything in a classic Bollywood tearjerker (personal gold standard for tearjerkers, and not just Bollywood ones: Kal Ho Naa Ho). At the same time, it's also a desperate gesture toward nothingness: Ashu has been straining against the void for so long that eventually he concludes it would be easier just to throw himself in. He is only able to begin recovery with the (unexpected) love of Kamal.

  • Kamal

The most opaque character, especially to a Western-culture influenced reader: I find it very hard to separate Kamal from the stereotype of the Magical Asian, or from other South Asian/Indian caricatures (hello and goodbye forever, Punjab). The other characters appear to be at least as puzzled as I am -- they refer to him at times as a ghost, a dead man, as cursed, a resident of the Hotel California, and so on. He is, as animated Kirk might say, the least scrutable man ever, a doctor who has somehow become a domestic nurse of sorts but who only follows his own orders, the bearer of an unrequited passion that finds only the tiniest gestures of expression until suddenly it bursts forth to give his beloved a new reason to live. Kamal has virtually no surface, no expression -- his smiles are rarer than diamonds, his mask welded on and impenetrable. He is entirely substance: even when he becomes more human toward the end of the book, he is still something a little bit apart, too much himself to really fit into anyone else's narrative -- not the fairy tales, and not Ashraf's burgeoning love for him. I freely admit that Kamal is a piece of this puzzle I have not yet figured out. Is there some key that I am missing? Or is he simply inexplicable? And why, if I do not know who he is or what he means, do I feel so much for him?

I have dabbled slightly in the films of Shahrukh Khan, so I am not entirely ignorant of Bollywood culture, but I wish I knew more about the politics and the industry to comment further, particularly on the dialect issues, which strike me as emblematic of a lot of fractures in current Indian politics and culture. I've included a few links to this effect in the extras -- just because I don't know what to say doesn't mean there aren't other smart people who are more expert and on top of this.

And finally this, because I could not resist, is "Dhoom Taana," a song from 2007 film Om Shanti Om, in which Bollywood reimagines its own history. If you ever have a chance to see this in theaters, I highly recommend doing so. There's an essay waiting to be written about Om Shanti Om and Singing in the Rain and a medium retconning its own past via musical spectacle for an audience in the know, but that Theraflu is really kicking in now and I feel a nap coming on.

___

On Twitter recently, Suleikha Snyder tweeted a link to this piece about Bollywood's mishandling of mental illness. The Guardian also recently discussed sex and censorship and Bollywood, and Priyanka Srivastava in the Daily Mail talked about Bollywood's use of ethnic stereotypes for comedy.

Recent legislation in India has recriminalized gay sex but also given legal recognition to transgender people -- which goes to prove that barometers of improvement in social justice vary from culture to culture. There is no Great Historical Narrative of Universal Progress: there is only the work that must be done in every culture to undo oppression and inequality.

___ Snyder, Suleikha. Bollywood and the Beast. Samhain Publishing: February 11, 2014. Ebook.

P is for Cathy Pegau

{Click here for the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.} Cathy Pegau's sci-fi heist romance Rulebreaker has one of the most on-point titles I've seen in some time. From the con-artist heroine to her executive lesbian love interest to the giant mining company determined to cover up a sinister corporate secret, it feels as though rules and the law are created only to be broken, bent, flouted, or twisted. What's more, the way the book unfolds treats the usual turns and tropes of romance the same way, playing with reader expectations in a way not unlike a good con.

Cover image for Cathy Pegau's Rulebreaker. Vaguely futuristic metallic background. One woman with pale skin and short dark hair stands facing the reader. One hand is on her hip and the other rests casually on her head, holding a sci-fi looking pistol. She wears a dark blue strapless garment and her expression is cool and challenging. Behind her is a second dark-haired woman with pale skin, looking down demurely as though hiding something.Bisexual con artist and occasional thief  Liv has a whole set of rules for appropriate criminal behavior: "Felon's Rule Number One: Don't get emotionally involved" (87). Of course she's going to break this rule: she's going to get involved, and hard. It's one of the strongest types of what TV Tropes calls Tempting Fate -- similar examples include the cop who mentions he's two days away from retirement (and you instantly know he's going to be killed), or the computer geek who declares himself invincible (only to be immediately drenched in liquid nitrogen). They're practically prophecies in fiction and film. So when Liv's hot ex-husband Tonio reappears to ask for her help with an absurdly lucrative new heist, the reader is primed to expect a classic reunion story about a couple of exes rediscovering how to be together.

And it looks for a while as though that's what we're getting. Liv and Tonio have chemistry that is off the charts. Liv is intensely, frankly sexual and Tonio pushes all her buttons -- but they both keep pulling back, trying to keep things simple and uncomplicated because they knew that as a couple they were something of a disaster. And this would all seem very cliché and expected except that the astute reader (read: me) has read the blurb and noticed that we are to have a lady love interest at some point.

I'll confess: I was intrigued. Zia -- short for Jadzia -- first shows up at the halfway point in the text. Remarkably late for a main character. In authorly circles I have seen people dinged in critiques or pitches for not introducing both protagonists in the first ten or so pages. But bending this particular rule really serves the story, because in the first half of the book we get plenty of time to learn about the sci-fi world of Nevarro, and thanks to Tonio we get to see how Liv behaves both when she trusts someone and when she does not. Tonio might be her ex and they might have some unresolved issues about their past, but he's miles safer for Liz than Willem Grey or his son Christian, the two arch-criminals who have set up our blackmail heist.

[Author's note: I only just realized that one of the cold-blooded killer characters in Rulebreaker is actually named Christian Grey. There's a little one-off about his sexual preferences at the end of the novel that is suddenly a whole lot more hilarious.]

Liv's job is to cozy up to hard-nosed executive Zia Talbot, who has hidden files about a piece of safety tech that would earn the company heavy fines if the Central Mining Authority learns about it. Seduction is implied, if not explicitly required, and Liv is slightly anxious about this: she has had crushes on women before, but she's never slept with or dated one. I was worried we were in for a coming-out arc -- which is fine, just not that exciting to me -- but instead it turns out Liv is worried that she won't be as successful in seducing a woman as she would be with a man. She's anxious because of her inexperience, not because she's questioning her same-sex attraction. And when she does meet Zia, the intensity of the blaze between them is not presented as qualitatively different from her attraction to Tonio. When they do eventually sleep together, she notices the different textures and responses of a woman's body, but it's not presented as somehow validating or confirming anything we didn't already know about Liv. It's emotionally transformative -- but that's because Liv and Zia have a much more sustainable romantic connection than Liv and Tonio ever did. It's to the narrative's credit that this isn't presented as a competition, as though Zia is Liv's Tru Lurrv while Tonio was a mistake -- Liv and Tonio cared about each other but also hurt each other, while Liv and Zia bring out the best in each other. It's sweet and realistic and doesn't make anyone into the villain -- this being one of my pet peeves about love triangles and why I generally avoid them. (I haven't read much YA recently, as you can imagine.) A bisexual heroine is a rare enough thing in romance: a bisexual heroine who gets to actually display her attraction to both sexes on-page for reasons other than titillation is like some sort of romance unicorn.

Ah, Zia ... She is intelligent, demanding, controlled, and lovely -- a Harlequin Presents-type fantasy CEO who just happens to be female. No wonder Liv so quickly breaks that first felon's rule by falling in love with the mark. This part of the text plays out another traditional romance narrative: Pining Secretary In Love With Sexy Boss. Zia responds to Liv's flirtations the way any alpha would: knowing smiles, innuendo, seductive compliments, expensive gifts. She notices Liv's hesitation and chalks it up to inexperience (Liv has told her this would be her first time with another woman), so she offers to go slow and do things right -- again, all very classic protective alpha.

Only the reader knows that Liv is anxious not just because of romantic timidity or the newness of lesbian action, but because she's dreading the moment when Zia learns Liv's been conning her the whole time to break into her computer system. Moral twinges are read as virginal shyness -- it's a clever twist on an old trope and it makes for some nicely angsty reading. It also preserves the fantasy of the boss-secretary dynamic without undermining Liv's agency as a character: one of my biggest problems with the alpha CEO hero is how often the heroine is made passive as a counterbalance or contrast (Christian Grey and Ana Steele being a fairly obvious example). Liv is an excellent assistant, due in no small part to the skills she's honed on the shady side of the law, and it really is a pleasure to watch her blossom in the cutthroat corporate world. There are hints that she could easily transition into a permanent position in the company -- a feint toward the well-trod redemption arc, where the thief goes straight because of love. A cop from the CMA appears to try and get Liv to turn on her fellow criminals: she has an opportunity here to get in good with the law, for possibly the first time in her life.

But Willem and Christian are growing impatient: the pressure is on for Liv to find the right files so the blackmail can begin. When she does, the discovery of what's in them twists the usual tropes again: Zia is not innocent. She's covered up deaths and allowed more deaths to happen just to preserve her career; the fact that the actual death rate is higher than she realized is not treated as a mitigating factor to absolve her of blame, but as a demonstration that she should have been asking better questions and made more ethical choices. It's a bold move by the text -- especially since the secret really is a plausibly dirty one, involving the forced labor of conscripted prisoners and faulty safety equipment -- but it mens that Zia's high-status position as a wealthy and successful woman is compromised. The fantasy is tempered by the truth. In many ways this revelation also makes Zia a better match for Liv -- they both know how to hide their tracks from the inquisitive eyes of the law. Liv's own past is far from pristine, so now they can move forward together on a more equal footing -- or they could, if Liv still weren't on the con. And if she didn't know that turning evidence for the CMA would get Zia not only fired but imprisoned in the same prison mines Liv's spent her whole life avoiding, and from which Zia picked people to die in the mines.

At this point, I had no idea where the text would go. My sense of the narrative direction had been twisted too many times -- I was being conned, and I was delighted. Everything depended on the characters' choices at this point: there was no one story shape (reunion story, Presents romance, redemption arc) that was controlling the narrative's direction: "None of these choices ended with a happily ever after. In my world, what did I expect, roses and rainbows?" (2699). Things go merrily to hell in the manner of all the best heist stories (Sneakers being my perennial favorite). Liv confesses her hidden agenda to Zia. The Greys take Liv's mom hostage. In the resulting shootout Tonio is killed and Zia is critically injured. It's the rock-bottom black moment for our heroine:

Zia and Tonio were both gone because of things I'd done. Did I think I could get away with breaking all those rules? Who the hell was I that they didn't apply? And now look what had happened. (3683)

I knew as a reader that Zia wasn't going to die, but I couldn't help worrying about it anyways. Tonio had died, after all, and up until that moment I'd thought we might also be in for a last-minute menage romance (I do like a good menage). It didn't help that I was reading this book in the lead-up to the Purple Wedding on Game of Thrones and was having a week where every character felt vulnerable. Ms. Pegau's text had shown itself so willing to play with genre tropes that my usual rock-hard certainty about the protagonist's survival was ever so slightly shaken. I was impressed.

Liv ends up in a CMA holding facility, a place where nothing exists except rules. A mostly recovered Zia comes to find her, and the book ends with a new rule: "Find someone you love who loves you back, the job be damned" (3988). It's a sweet yet plausible ending, not unmixed with difficulty -- really very satisfying.

You may be wondering, in all this, where the feminist angle comes in. Partly it's that this is a story about women with agency that isn't based on violence or magical powers, but on intelligence, persuasion, perception, and guts. Much as I love a good fantasy premise, it's refreshing to have people -- especially women in fiction -- who are strong because of purely human traits.

But also, I believe that stories can be either a way to keep the walls up or to tear them down, both in our individual lives and in our collective culture. We saw with Zen Cho's book how the (re)interpretation of the colonizers' literary traditions helped people with colonized identities manage the oppressions and obstacles they faced. If the nature of oppression is restriction -- through the law, through custom, through reductive stereotypes -- then a plot about breaking rules and confounding expectations must be somewhat liberating. Liv and Zia go through a process of discovering which rules are solid and which rules deserve to be broken: they are more sensitive at the end of the book to each other and to the consequences of their own actions. The text's meta-narrative at the same time shows us how flexible stories really are -- it suggests that we can decide to some extent which story we're living in, which set of rules we want to follow. Like Jade Temptress, this ending feels almost like a beginning, with two people who have a wider understanding of their own powers and a greater resistance to forces that would try to keep them from reaching their full potential of happiness and self-assertion.

Sounds pretty feminist to me.

___

Sexism in SFF and geek culture is really having a moment lately -- this post by Foz Meadows lays out some of the ways that women's participation in the history and culture of geekdom has been consistently overlooked, tested, or erased entirely.

This older post from Tor.com is a recap of a WorldCon panel from 2010, and opens up some interesting questions about bisexuality in sff more specifically (especially: why is there not more of it?).

Romance Novels for Feminists has a great post on the interaction between heist plots and romance.

___ Pegau, Cathy. Rulebreaker. Carina Press: August 8, 2011. Ebook.

N is for Zora Neale Hurston

{Click here for the complete alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.} With great difficulty, let us put aside (IF WE CAN) the verifiable fact that Their Eyes Were Watching God is a masterpiece. A perfect book, where perfect does not mean without flaw, but does mean stands out against the background of the mundane world and is so boldly itself that discussion of its flaws does nothing to diminish its power. It's lush and poetic and funny and heartbreaking, all at once. I know the vernacular dialogue can be hell on the eyes (and was criticized by Richard Wright at time of publication), but I do believe that if you don't find marvels in this book, you may in fact have a rock where your heart should be. I tremble every time I read it: from bliss, from fear, from awe.

Cover image for Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Sepia-tone background. A dark-skinned woman with rosy cheeks and dark, full lips tilts her head toward the reader, eyes closed and brow slightly furrowed. Gold leaf flowers sprawl across the bottom third of the cover, lending a mystical, magical air.Like many people, I first encountered Janie Crawford/Killicks/Starks/Woods as part of a high school English class. We also read Jane Austen, and Jane Eyre, because all three books are considered fundamental parts of the Western literary canon. At least, they are now -- none of them were overly popular in their time. All three had to be resurrected and dusted off by succeeding generations before they could be set up on the pedestals they currently occupy. Two of these Janes are widely considered foundational heroines of the romance genre. I don't have to tell you which book is the odd one out, do I? (Hint: it's the black woman.)

Romance authors and readers are only just beginning to discuss what a canon of the genre would look like (example: this Smart Bitches podcast). What are the most important texts of so rich and populated a tradition? The most influential? The most copied and rewritten? The most astonishing or moving or surprising or genre-changing? Lists inevitably grow long. Certain names come up often: Kathleen Woodiwiss, Julie Garwood, Georgette Heyer, Barbara Cartland, Jennifer Crusie, Nora Roberts, Susan Elizabeth Phillips. And, of course, Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, whose texts provide classic story patterns even though romance as a genre hadn't really been established yet. Other books have also had influence, but are frequently disqualified as romances on account of their less-than-blissful arcs: Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, and as I recently, memorably discussedGone With the Wind. 

You may notice that all these authors are white. As are all but two of the authors on AAR's Top 100 Romances Poll from 2013. (The exceptions are Sherry Thomas, who writes excellent 19th-century romances starring white people, and Nalini Singh -- we should talk some time about race and paranormal/UF romance, because more of that conversation needs to happen.) There is a black romance tradition -- a lengthy one, going back to the 19th century -- but somehow those books and those authors never make best-of lists when readers line up to cite their favorites. Beverly Jenkins is often named as the Queen of African-American Historical Romance, but she's never won a RITA. In fact, as far as I can tell from hours of focused and increasingly angry internet searching, no black author has ever won a RITA in the twenty-year history of the award. Only a handful have even been nominated.

It's a serious gap that becomes more noticeable and less explainable the more you look at it, and learning more about the publication history of Hurston's text. Their Eyes Were Watching God was first released in 1937, one year after Margaret Mitchell's insanely popular Gone With the Wind -- did you remember that won the fucking Pulitzer? because I did not -- a novel which is often heavily criticized for its depictions of black characters (for instance Mammy, who's getting an upcoming prequel authored by a white man, so help me God I want to smash something now). Mitchell's book went on to inspire a major movie of Hollywood's Golden Era and vast numbers of plantation-set romances, while Hurston's work languished in obscurity until being rediscovered decades later by Alice Walker.

Part of this obscurity is no doubt due to the divide between commercial fiction (though apparently not too commercial for the Pulitzer Committee) and literary fiction; the former tends to have a much greater tendency to trickle over into romance. Hurston's literary heirs are now numerous: they include Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Edwidge Danticat (who write the foreward for my digital edition of Hurston's text). But at the time of TEwWG's debut, she was heavily criticized by black male writers, including Richard Wright, Alain Locke, and Ralph Ellison, who felt her works either pandered to the white gaze or had no relevant social urgency. The idea that black Americans could lead happy and fulfilled lives was difficult to untangle from the racist narrative that black Americans had led happy and fulfilled lives under slavery: much of the work of black writing was/is to undo white supremacist narratives that were/are designed to nullify and silence black voices -- in this framework, Hurston's lyrical, deeply personal prose lacked a direction and an agenda that many black authors at the time felt (and still feel! and rightly!) was necessary to their very survival as a race.

Black/white, literary/commercial, male/female -- Their Eyes Were Watching God always seems to end up on the wrong side of history's divides, though nowadays it's closer to popular literature than it once was. This unlikely resurrection is both heartening and tantalizing: I dream of an alternate history where the novel was hugely influential on the romance genre. There are plenty of connection points ready and waiting: the focus on Janie's personal journey toward happiness and the enduring value of love, the secondary characters drawn in economically brief but vivid and memorable ways, the small-town feel of both Eatonville and the 'Glades, the melodrama of the trial scene. Romance is an omnivorous genre and the past few years have seen erotic retellings of Much Ado About Nothing and Regency reboots of The Brady Bunch, as well as creation of entirely new subgenres like New Adult and a groundswell of interest in sci-fi romance and the 1920s as a setting for historicals. Why shouldn't authors turn to Hurston for inspiration as they turn to Austen and Brontë? But the race line in romance seems incredibly starkly drawn: there is mainstream (read: white) romance, and there is AA romance, and the two strains rarely meet.

It's a sign of my profound privilege that I'm able to get mad at this only now: black romance authors have been caught in this mess for decades. Zora Neale Hurston herself articulated this problem half a century ago:

Now, do not leap to the conclusion that editors and producers constitute a special class of un-believers. That is far from true. Publishing houses and theatrical promoters are in business to make money. They will sponsor anything that they believe will sell. They shy away from romantic stories about Negroes and Jews because they feel that they know the public indifference to such works, unless the story or play involves racial tension. It can then be offered as a study in Sociology, with the romantic side subdued. They know the skepticism in general about the complicated emotions in the minorities. The average American just cannot conceive of it, and would be apt to reject the notion, and publishers and producers take the stand that they are not in business to educate, but to make money.

Beverly Jenkins' description of getting the copyedits on her first book is heartbreaking proof that not enough has changed since then:

The draft went from the editor to a freelancer. Scenes were changed. The scene where Cara’s grandfather appears, “nigger, nigger” replaced his name. Characters were depicted as “black as coal.” I was devastated when I received the galley. I called Vivian Stephens, my agent, and told her that she should return the advance on the book. I did not want the book published like that. The editor called. She cried and apologized. For four and a half hours, the editor and I were on the telephone going over the revisions. There should be trust between editor and author.

The truism that white readers won't buy romance books about black characters has echoes of similar truisms in other media. White readers won't buy YA books with POC on the covers. Male gamers won't buy games with female protagonists. Films with women as lead characters are box office poison. They are all self-fulfilling prophecies: it is not considered a wise financial strategy to throw good marketing money at a low-reward product, so movies with female leads and games with female protagonists and romances with POC heroines routinely get under-marketed and under-financed -- that these books so rarely become wildfire hits is then taken as proof of the gatekeepers' sound business sense, and the cycle repeats. Marginalization begets further marginalization.

Rereading Hurston's book after Beverly Jenkins' Vivid illuminated distinct similarities in structure. Both books take place in all-black towns, where white people's oppression happen mostly on the fringes: racism is still a part of the characters' lives, but not necessarily a central feature or most significant obstacle. I fully expected to see Hurston's name crop up at some point in that IASPR interview. But it didn't, and to further confound my assumptions Ms. Jenkins indicates that part of her project as an author is to show strong black women in the past working for the betterment of their society, putting her firmly in the Wright/Locke/Ellison camp:

I do know that what these illustrious foremothers stood for—justice, equality, education, a commitment to community and the desire to push the envelope on race and gender—is something I consciously place in each of my heroines. I “borrowed” the concept from the great historian Dorothy A. Sterling. Her book, We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the 19th Century, is my bible. In it, she states that nineteenth-century Black women had three gifts: a strong work ethic, a commitment to community, and a penchant to push the envelope on race and gender. Whether it’s schoolteacher Cara Lee Henson, journalist Kate Love, or banker Grace Atwood, I try to bestow at least one of Sterling’s gifts on them. Nineteenth-century Black women changed the world not only for themselves and the race but for women of other races as well. Women like Black abolitionist Maria Stewart, who in 1832 became the first woman in America of any race to lecture to a mixed audience; Rebecca Lee and other pioneering Black doctors of the late 1860s were often not only the first Black doctors, but many were the first doctors of any race in their communities. Their experiences helped shape crusading Dr. Viveca Lancaster, the heroine in my second novel, Vivid.

We are down to the heart of things now, where I have too many questions and no answers that aren't uncomfortable: should we expect all literature to be morally uplifting? Is it hypocritical of me to want to defend Their Eyes Were Watching God against the requirement that it feature social protest and activism, even as I continue to criticize romance as a genre for its perpetuation of harmful attitudes and stereotypes? Romance in particular is often excused on the grounds of "escapism" -- critics are told they're overthinking an essentially trivial genre, that they're ruining other readers' fun or shaming them for their enjoyment. In this response there is a tiny grain of truth like the sand that starts the pearl, which is why this response is so irritating. But I think when the word "escapism" shows up there are two questions we should answer before letting the discussion proceed: Who do we imagine is escaping, and what are they escaping from? One person's hilarious Southern romp is another person's racist garbage nightmare. And one of the reasons I want to call out problematic tropes in romance is that their existence threatens my own sense of safety in my escapist reading: when a hero turns controlling and jealous, for instance, I feel the muscles in my neck kink up with fear, and the romance loses all its spark and sizzle. I don't want to erase those books from existence -- but I would like to know in advance which ones they are, so I can detour around them and read something more my style. In the growing debate about trigger/content warnings, I come down firmly on the side of more rather than fewer labels and tags.

There are harder, more shamefully personal questions as well: is my desire to connect Hurston's text with the romance genre an act of appropriation, as I suspect it could easily be? How many of the similarities I see between Their Eyes and Vivid come from my own knowledge of their authors' skin color? Unconscious biases are the blackberry vines of the mind: you think you've pulled them all up at the roots, but they seem to start growing back as soon as you put down the spade. I've thought and unthought and rethought every paragraph above: you can tell when my opinions are doubling back because I go very heavily in for parentheticals (which I've noticed I use when my thoughts are either too fast or too scattered or both).

I honestly don't know where to go from here. The best I can say is this: it seems I have a great deal more reading (and listening) to do.

__

The Zora Neale Hurston essay cited above, "What White Publishers Won't Print," is required reading and feels far more on-the-nose about 21st-century publishing than we might hope. Clearly my next post-April project is to read Hurston's entire body of work, especially the essays and fiction.

A book-length analysis of black historical romances can be found in Black Women's Activism: Reading African-American Women's Historical Romances by Rita B. Dandrige.

A 2006 article from The Free Library about the founding of Harlequin's Kimani line has some great names and data about African-American romance.

For some amusing hate-reading, here is one gentleman's one-star opinion (via Goodreads) about how Their Eyes Were Watching God is just like a trashy romance novel.

___

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009. Ebook.

K is for Jacqueline Koyanagi

{Click here for the complete alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance. And be warned that there are enormous spoilers in the post below!} It's easy to say that Jacqueline Koyanagi's luscious debut Ascension ticks just about every box on the anti-kyriarchy bingo card: our heroine is a queer disabled woman of color (in space!). She falls in love with a disabled starship captain who's in a polyamorous relationship with another queer woman: a medic who plans on having children with a man-slash-engineer-slash-sometime-wolf. But like we saw with Her Love, Her Land, this book was written from deeply within the perspective of the identities it represents. The characters' disability is a plot point, but it's not The Plot Point -- the same goes for queerness and race: they're baked in, functions of character rather than Moving Moments. Polyamory gets a bit more of the Very Special Episode treatment, but this aspect is presented as bridging a gap between two different planetary cultures, one more sexually conservative than the other.

Cover image for Ascension by Jacqueline Koyanagi. A green space-ish, tech-ish background. A dark-skinned woman with dreadlocks stands in profile with one hand on her hip, looking skeptically at the viewer. Her suit is close-fitting and very jointed, with futuristic seams. Her left hand holds a large futuristic gun, pointed down.And all the characters are compelling, and several scenes made me gasp out loud (Adul!), but what I can't wait to talk about is how this book treats the problem of humans having bodies.

I say problem because human bodies are a source of profound tension, both in Ascension and in fiction and philosophy and human existence more generally. Our bodies are ourselves -- but they are not entirely ourselves. They connect us to the world -- except when they prevent us from connecting to the world. When we looked at the meaning of bodies in Vicki Essex's In Her Corner, they were always one or the other: male or female, healthy or injured. Bodies in Ascension are better described with the conjunction and: they are weak and strong, burdensome flesh and transcendent gifts all at the same time. Characters are not restricted to one single and never-changing attitude to their own physicality: instead, there is a web of constantly shifting priorities, needs, limitations, and abilities.

We begin with Alana Quick, whose genetic disability, Mel's Disease, is a daily obstacle:

I dropped the scrap and looked at my empty hands to determine how bad the tremors were today -- hands that should have ben learning the curves of a ship instead of reaching for prescriptions. Hands that would become unreliable without medication, weak and gnarled. I didn't feel sorry for myself. I knew I could accomplish amazing feats with these hands, given the right tools and a ship to love. It's just that, well, I got frustrated that my ability to function -- to do the one thing I'd loved since childhood -- was entirely dependent on synthesized chemicals. (Kindle location 87)

At the same time, the self-awareness her disease requires of her enhances Alana's natural flair for mechanics and ship-fixing:

Every ship I worked on, I got to know by learning her song. I imagined each one stringing wires through me like new arteries, connecting us until I could feel what ailed her reflected in the pain patterns of my own flesh ... Each job made me feel alive. (319)

Her body's particularity, her disability, becomes a source of helpful experience. It's not an idealization -- disability here is not a superpower --  but it has given her practice with a mode of thought that comes in handy in her work.

At the same time, Alana's disease is more than simply a personal affliction: it's a financial burden as well. Alana (and her aunt Lai, who has the same disease) are dependent upon a medication known as Dexitek, which means they have an extra expense they can ill afford with the lack of ship-repair jobs: "People like [therapist] Shrike had no idea what it meant to have to choose between paying bills and paying for food" (107). This is a classic and very real meeting point between disability and poverty: the one reinforces the other, compounding Alana's suffering just as it compounds the suffering of disabled persons in our own present society. "Life was a privilege, not a right," Alana says. "Something you had to struggle for when you were unlucky enough to be born at the intersection of poverty and bad genes" (1841). Yes, precisely.

As with Tessa Dare's Three Nights with a Scoundrel, in Ascension we have a plethora of disabled characters, each of whose experiences is unique and personal. Captain Tev Helix (oh, the hotness!) wears a prosthesis since she lost a leg in a mining accident: her disability has a before and an after with a moment of trauma as punctuation, leading to a different experience of embodiment than Alana's chronic pain issues or pilot Marre's terminal slide toward invisibility. "At some point I knew I couldn't pretend to be whole anymore," Tev says. "It didn't even occur to me at first that I'd still be able to have a leg, just not the one I was born with" (2267). The prosthetic is still her leg, still a part of her body: but years later, she's still paying off the debt for the new leg and her post-injury medical care.

Tev's leg and Alana's Dexitek highlight the common SF trope of technology as a means of compensating for physical disability. Where Ascension goes a step further is treating implanted non-compensatory tech as a part of a person's embodiment. To elude the authorities, who are pursuing them for a crime they didn't commit, the entire crew of the Tangled Axon remove their communication implants. Alana finds this loss profoundly disconcerting:

I still slept on one side to avoid hitting the transmit switch even though it wasn't there anymore. I still reached for my neck when I wanted to talk to someone. I still had to remind myself that I now had to seek them out face-to-face. I'd lost a sense almost as integrated as my vision or hearing, and I didn't know if I'd ever not feel a little incomplete. My body missed the metal I'd lost just as badly as if it had been blood or bone. (1899)

The great anxiety surrounding cyborgs, of course, is that adding robot parts decreases a person's humanity (Robocop, replicants, the Terminator, the Borg, the current preview for that Johnny Depp thing I'm too lazy to look up right now). Here, the tech incorporated in the body is all but transmuted into human flesh. This is a flexible, inclusive definition of humanity that I admit I can't stop thinking about: of course we're going to think of implanted tech as part of ourselves, just as we already personify and anthropomorphize our cars and our phones and our gadgets. Add to this Ascension's overlap between a ship's body and its captain's, and the metaphysical connection between the pilot and the ship and the crew ... There is a receptive physical inclusivity in this world, a fluid resilience and incorporation (pun intended) that I want more of.

Though the Dexitek works well enough most days, Alana and her aunt are saving for a more permanent cure, which the sinister corporation Transliminal Solutions offers for a hefty price tag. At the book's beginning Alana is offered a temporary taste of this cure, but once she takes it she will need to keep taking it and each treatment is shockingly expensive. Her therapist assures her there are payment plans: "I knew all about their 'payment plans.' More like indentured servitude. They'd own not just my city, but my body. My suffering and its relief. My life" (126). Alana carries this miracle drug with her for over half the book but never ingests it -- her disability, though often frustrating and limiting, is not the worst-case scenario for her as an individual. Her struggle with Mel's is at least a familiar struggle -- she would like a cure, but not at the expense of her personhood. Life with a disability is preferred to (and importantly not equivalent to) dehumanization.

That able-bodied-ness is not itself an idealized state in Ms. Koyanagi's text is shown by the attitude of Alana's sister Nova, a spirit guide (read: New Age-y type thing) who feels that her own healthy able body is still not good enough, still not the sum total of her true self:

The first time I saw Nova injured as a child -- a paper cut, nothing more -- she screamed and wept for hours, unable to reconcile the visceral, heartbreaking reality of blood and split skin. It was too much, too far removed from her expectations of what little girls should be made of. Surely a tear in her flesh should have leaked purity and rapture into the world. Surely her soul should have escaped in vaporous arabesques, dissipating into the ether. (1115)

The language here is strongly reminiscent of our own culture's trope that girls' bodies are innately delicate and ethereal -- witness this stunning Yahoo Answers thread from the antiquity of the internet about women farting, only some of which appears to be trolling -- but despite that, from all I can tell the hierarchy in Ascension is gender-neutral at minimum and matriarchal at maximum. Most of the characters we meet are women, including all those in positions of power. It's a straight gender reversal of the usual fictional ratio and as such is welcome and soothing as sinking into a warm bath.

And yet it's unsettling that in this book we have a sci-fi religion that elevates asceticism and self-starvation as practices that purify the soul, in ways that echo both the modern dietary compulsions of high fashion and the spiritual guidelines from, say, medieval Catholicism or Jainism. I admit to a personal lapsed-Catholic distrust of any doctrine of self-abnegation. Alana, so connected to her body even when that connection causes pain, is horrified by what she sees as her sister's casual disdain for a functional body: "Her words came from a kind of healthy privilege I couldn't begin to process" (2168). To Alana, Nova feels ungrateful, squandering a pain-free existence for no practical gain, unnecessarily scornful of an able body that does nothing to impede her connection with the wider world.

And yet ...

And yet Nova's words in this passage are impossible to refute:

"One day, you'll feel it too ... Only you'll feel it when it's too late. Your eyes will weaken. Your legs will start to hurt when you climb stairs. The space behind your knees will ache, like growing pains all over again, but this time you'll know the feeling is your body stretching and reshaping, pulling itself apart to make room for death. You'll fight it with medication like you always do, but she'll still come for you. Memories will lose definition around the edges, smoothing over in places that were once sharp and precise. Your skin will seem to expand and deflate, wrinkling in places that were once like silk. You'll feel as if you're shrinking inside your skin, disappearing. You'll get implants and upgrades, you'll fill your body with scaffolding to hold it together, to buy time, but the truth will remain: you're dying. You've always been dying. Life is a thin film, a veil between deaths." (2169)

Nova is right: Alana is going to die. Even the cure from Transliminal that she hopes for proves to be an illusion, a fraud. Alana's focus on her body blinds her to the long-term destiny of every human life. I was strongly, gut-wrenchingly reminded of the passage in Catch-22 where Yossarian spends entire pages wondering which organ could be the first one to fail, the first soldier to fall, the first sign of his own impending demise. And barring catastrophe, there has to be a first step into the descent, doesn't there? Nova is entirely, horribly right: by virtue of the fact that we are alive, our bodies are destined to fail and to die. This is the way of all flesh.

There is a quote late in the book from another character who resists the inevitability of death: "Birke's voice echoed in my thoughts. I will never lose her again. I will build a new universe where bodies aren't fragile, where the soul is limitless, where medicine is pure magic" (4093). And this is our villain. Who -- spoilers! -- happens to be a double of our heroine, from another universe, one where Nova had Mel's and died of it instead of Alana. So the Alana-double is searching through various realities, trying to find a Nova-double she can use to resurrect her sister. She is Alana's resistance to the gospel of death, taken to its logical conclusion.

And yet ...

And yet Birke is clearly, unambiguously a villain. She kills remorselessly, wiping an entire planet and its population in one stunning surprise of a scene. (I told you there were spoilers!) It's doubtful this is the first time she's done this in one reality or another; if death is inevitable, why bother waiting for it? Why allow other people to wait for it, when you have a personal stake in eliminating them? Nova's self-abnegation is a questionable virtue, but Birke's willingness to abnegate others is clearly much more terrible.

While Birke-as-Alana's-doppelganger does show up somewhat out of nowhere at the climax of the plot -- can this really be the very first double we've met from the othersiders? -- the way her appearance complicates the text's structure of embodiment is symbolically satisfying to a profound degree. As Alana wonders: "How could someone who shared my body be so alien? Was it the difference of a single synapse? One twist in the timeline, and this is what I would have been?" (3904).

The answer to this question is yes, as Alana realizes while Nova chooses to give her life in sacrifice to save Marre's (despite what she's said earlier about death's inevitability):

Her [Birke's] grief resonated with mine. I knew its bitter taste, its color. I knew how it felt to see the empty space they once occupied. To resent even happy memories for the flaying pain they brought to the surface. I understood then that it was true: given the right set of circumstances, I could have become Birke. Any version of me from any reality could have become her. (4093)

Body and self, self and other, the individual and the universe -- it always comes back to that first conjuction, the all-important andAlana is right about the body, and Nova is too. Nova is also right about the soul: her last gift to her sister is this memory from their childhood:

"I said there's two reasons to have a soul ... One ... is to feel the all world inside you, from now to then and back again. To breathe the breath of every ancestor, to know where you've been and anchor you to the physical world -- to your body and everything it touches."

I grabbed Nova's finger and pretended to bite it. She laughed and shook it out, but didn't break her stride. "The other ... is so that one day, you can look into the eye of the universe and burn away that which separates us from God." (4112)

Reader, I admit I teared up at this part. So often genre fiction will set one ideology against one another until one of them wins -- the brooding isolated hero is brought back out into the world, the cold uptight heroine learns to relax and enjoy life. Ascension manages to draw a great deal of tension out of opposing worldviews, yet it doesn't feel the need to resolve the tension in favor of one or the other. Engineer Ovie is a wolf and a man, simultaneously. Alana and her sister are both right, and both wrong. The body is a gift and a burden. It depends on who you ask -- and how they're feeling when you ask them.

Side note: Stay tuned for my upcoming essay Oh My God, I Just Realized How Many Parallels This Book Has To Star Wars Let's Talk About Them Forever Especially The Things About Tech And Disability And Family And Choices.

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Last year Tor.com posted an excerpt from Kathryn Allan's Disability in Science Fiction, and later a review of the book. I haven't had a chance to read this yet myself, but Interlibrary Loan has a chance to change all that!

Dr. Laura Vivanco let me know that for a limited time, the archives of the Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies are free to access. There's a lot of great things in there! I'm going to learn so much!

I owe a great intellectual (and therefore personal) debt to the incisive Ana Mardoll, whose writing on the now-defunct-but-still-visible FWD/Forward was a light in the darkness of my privilege, and who continues to be awesome by writing the viscerally readable Annotated Index of Ross Geller.

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Koyanagi, Jacqueline. Ascension. Masque Books, 2013. Ebook.

I is for American Indians, Native Americans, First Nations, Indigenous Peoples, Etc.

{Note: for the purposes of this article, I will be using "Native American" as a general term, and tribal designations or individual preferences for identification when appropriate and/or available. Click here for the complete alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

When it comes to the treatment of Native Americans in fiction, the romance genre has a lot to answer for. E.g. the millions of historical Western romances with the word "savage" in the title. Or that time white author Cassie Edwards filled her novels with plagiarized passages from nature writing and out-of-print Native American memoirs. I mean, the words holy shit are utterly inadequate there: cultural appropriation does not get more shameless and literal than that.

Romance's appropriation of American Indian experience is often cloaked in New Age-y terms of appreciation and/or reverence, such as this quote from Western historical author Paty Jager's 2011 post on Romance at Random:

The Indians love of the land and nature make wonderful backdrops for the use of language and how they portray their lives. This honest connection with the world around them adds to the romance of the story. Their distinct and different culture from ours is fascinating to us.

Notice the use of pronouns there: they are Native Americans, primitive and romantic and exotic. We are romance authors, sophisticated and language-oriented and cultured. The phrasing splits the two groups and allows for no overlap between them. Similar stereotyped language appears in this RT Magazine Theme Spotlight piece: "The Native American romance emphasizes instinct, creativity, freedom, and the longing to escape from the strictures of society to return to nature." It's Noble Savages all the way down. With this kind of othering so strongly at work in the subgenre, it's hardly surprising that actual examples of Native American/American Indian romance authors are very difficult to come by.

Cover image for Her Land, Her Love by Evangeline Parsons Yazzie. A brown-skinned, dark-haired woman in a Navajo rug dress looks sadly down to one side. Gold triangles frame the corners of the image.Naturally, as I often do when stumped, I asked Twitter for help -- a Storify of the collected responses can be found here -- which is how I learned about Evangeline Parsons Yazzie.

Of all the authors mentioned in that Storify, Ms. Yazzie is the one who most explicitly identifies as Native American (specifically Navajo). Her Land, Her Love (Amazon link: publisher page is here) is the author's first romance: her other works are children's books based on Navajo legends and stories. Ms. Yazzie makes clear in her introduction that she chose the historical romance form deliberately, and that this story is a way of remembering and retelling her people's past: therefore it seems appropriate to talk about the ways in which this book departs significantly from the usual forms of white-authored Native American romance.

This book's roots are in oral storytelling and the prose shows it: the opening chapters have zero conflict and are simple and descriptive in the manner of folktales and poetry. Time moves in fits and starts and great leaps -- we start with our heroine Nínááníbaa' as a baby and move quickly forward into her youth and the day of her marriage to hero Hashké Yił Naabaah. At the same time there's a wealth of detail of Navajo daily life: it felt more as though I were reading a work of historical scholarship rather than a historical romance. I'll admit: it was at times quite frightfully dull. But those conflict-free, happy chapters full of loving family members and yearly rhythms and hilarious sheep and goat sounds give us the space to see the Navajo as they are when they are free to be themselves, with their religion, culture, and living places mostly intact.

This in-depth depiction is the opposite of what we see in the captivity narratives identified by Janet at Dear Author as part of the romance genre's foundations, where a white heroine (it's usually a heroine) is captured by a local tribe and gradually assimilated, often marrying a Native American man (or a white dude who has been similarly assimilated). This is the voyeuristic and colonialist arc we see in -- to take one popular example -- James Cameron's Avatar, where an outsider can out-native the natives, for some reason. By contrast, none of the white characters in Her Love, Her Land is going to out-Navajo the actual Navajo -- this romance novel is centered firmly in indigenous culture, looking out, rather than from the mainstream white colonial perspective, looking in. Practically all of the dialogue is in Navajo, an extremely complex language, with English translations following. I liked this a great deal: it reassured me that the author was writing from within the tradition, with personal knowledge of Navajo language and culture. (I'm also a bit of a language geek, so I would occasionally try and work out which words were doing what in a given Navajo sentence. I got basically nowhere, which isn't surprising since there's a reason this language was used for coded messages in WWII, but it was fun trying.) Most of all, this book felt profoundly real -- perhaps it was just knowing that many of these stories were real, had been handed down the author's family tree for several generations. I can't separate that from my reactions, and I'm not sure I'd want to if I could. Reading this book felt like bearing witness.

This sense of a place well-lived in, with real-life families, makes the text absolutely terrifying for a reader aware of what's to come. We know this idyllic continuity is not going to last, and the happier our main couple and their relatives become, the harder it will be when everything is taken away from them. We see, in exquisite detail, precisely how much our here and heroine are going to lose in the years to come. And by this point we've come to care for them just as they've come to care for each other. (Seriously, Nínááníbaa' and Hashké Yił Naabaah's four-day honeymoon where they're living together but not allowed to touch one another is the sweetest, shyest thing. They're all trembling and nerves and yearning eyes, both of them.) The fall happens gradually -- the capture of two daughters here, the loss of a son there, the need to compromise for safety's sake as Kit Carson's men burn villages and poison waterholes -- and it is all the more heartbreaking for being drawn out. Hashke Yił Naabaah is a war leader, admired and respected and responsible for his people's happiness, so at every turn he is trying to understand what the white men want from him, how he can find a way to compromise, how to get across the vital needs of his people. There are a few moments of narrative omniscience, where the story pulls back to tell us what one particular white officer might be thinking, but for the most part the white men we see in this novel are all completely opaque, nameless and inhuman. There's occasional reference to the state of national politics, but it is not nearly enough to outweigh the terrible crimes happening here, on the page in front of us, to people we've spent years of book-time with.

One of these moments, however, is particularly worth our attention as intersectional feminists (practicing):

Never in the wildest dreams of the Naabeehó naabaahii did any of them think that the greed for gold and silver was at the forefront of the decision to remove the noble Naabeehó people to a place far from their land between the four mountains. Once again, the soldiers lied to them!

General Carleton, along with a man who had been a territorial governor of New Mexico, had secretly met at Santa Fe and created a grand scheme for removing the "savage" Navajos from their lands. The two men believed the land the Naabeehó occupied was rich in gold, silver, and copper. The Union Army was becoming poor fighting a war in the south known as the Civil War. General Carleton felt their contribution of precious metals would be valuable in helping their Union Army fund the war. (Kindle location 3212)

The Civil War, while not "fought over slavery" precisely as whitewashed history would have us think, nevertheless did have the outcome of making the chattel slavery system illegal in the United States. (Unless we want to talk about sharecropping and Jim Crow but I digress.) The huge effort required for the liberation of the slaves is here directly tied to Indian removal and violent oppression. This is intersectionality at its most basic: the legal/military means by which black people became legally people (as opposed to property) necessitated the destruction of Indian nations in territories hundreds of miles away from the battlefield -- at least in the eyes of the white men in charge of the Army and US domestic policy. We like to believe -- are often taught to believe -- that the US's story is an arc of decreasing racism and the long slow death of white supremacy: direct connections like this one between black and Native American oppression prove that comforting fiction to be a sweet and poisonous lie.

Ms. Yazzie's text walks a fine line between realism and romanticism: the pain our hero and heroine suffer -- removal from their homes, the loss of their children, fear for their safety and the ever-present possibility of rape and starvation and death -- is arbitrary and malicious, unthinkably sadistic. At the same time, the resourcefulness and strength Haske Yił Naabaah and Nínááníbaa' show in supporting one another and their fellow Navajo is highly idealized. Frankly, I was glad this was so. I didn't want to watch those strong hearts lose hope in one another, even though they lost hope in plenty of other things (the promises of soldiers, for example). This is not a subtle moment in history, so the heightened contrast feels appropriately stark.

In the middle of the book, our hero and heroine are removed from their home and sent on the Long Walk. Again the tropes of the captivity narrative are reversed: the Navajo people are the ones being taken and removed, forced to depend on the dubious charity of Union soldiers in an internment camp on the outskirts of a fort. People starve, people sicken, people vanish, people die. There's no moral justification for any of it. Our protagonists are still living in the camp at the end of the book, though historically the Navajo were eventually moved to a slightly better location (not great, and not their proper home, but not quite as barren and hostile as Bosque Redondo). Perhaps this is part of what makes Native American romances so comparatively rare: the implausibility of a happy ending in the face of flat-out genocide. The history of contact with Native peoples in the US is irredeemably tragic and negative, a difficult setting for a genre whose most recognizable trope is a happy ending.

This would make Native invisibility in romance more understandable if it didn't dovetail so nicely with the prevailing cultural notion that Native Americans only exist in the past, rather than being present citizens, neighbors, friends, and potential lovers/heroes and heroines of romance. I expected to be able to find at least one contemporary romance with a Native American protagonist -- but everything skewed immediately paranormal and urban fantasy. You can apparently have Muscogee or Navajo characters, but only if they're magical. Special. Not really human or normal at all, in fact. It put my hackles up in ways I haven't been able to articulate, though this post is a good start.

So going forward I shall continue my search for that unicorn: a (hopefully contemporary) romance with a Native American hero/heroine written by a Native American author. If anyone knows of one (or has written one!), let me know!

Let everyone know. We'll be listening.

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The Navajo People have a truly excellent website, with plenty of links about history, culture, and news.

Native American authors are definitely out there: they're just writing things that aren't genre romance. Here is a list of 20 Native American authors you need to read (hometown hero Sherman Alexie shoutout!). 

Speaking of Native peoples and children's literature, Colorlines recently did an eye-opening post about the interplay of racist sports mascots and children's books.

Photographer Matika Wilbur's Project 562 aims to photograph people from every one of the 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States. It's amazing and beautiful and vital -- go look!

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Yazzie, Evangeline Parsons. Her Land, Her Love. Flagstaff, Arizona: Salina Bookshelf. 2014. Ebook.

H is for Harmony

{For the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance, click here.} Sienna Mynx's 1920s-set interracial romance Harmony was a mixed bag for me. The book was self-published and it shows, especially in the comma confusion and some occasional editing errors that jerked me right out of the story ("romp" for "rump" and such). Hero Vinnie is an alpha male mob boss, neither of which tropes are really my jam, and I had some minor quibbles with the pacing and the plot. But by far my biggest disappointment is -- spoilers! -- the fact that our two villains (well, one-and-a-half villains: thanks, redemption arc) are both gay. People, I am so damn tired of gay villains in romance: it was cliché and reductive in the 80's, and it's cliché and reductive now.

Cover image for Harmony by Sienna Mynx. A brown-skinned, black-haired woman with a white flower behind one ear stares challengingly at the camera. She wears a spaghetti-strapped black dress. Behind her, a pale-skinned man with slicked-back blondish hair dangles a cigarette between his lips and stares at the camera with a shotgun raised to one side.It's especially disappointing in an interracial romance that is explicitly concerned with how societal norms punish our black heroine and Italian-immigrant hero for the taboo nature of their relationship. Harmony and Vinnie lament the hardships they will face as a mixed-race couple, to the point where they end the book starting over in a new town out West where they won't be so blatantly discriminated against. There are only a few states where their relationship is even legal, and our hero and heroine suffer from the stigma and prejudiced disdain of others at several key points in the plot.

None of this gives Vinnie and Harmony any immediate empathy for their gay siblings: Harmony's brother Willie's homosexuality is described as a "sickness" (Kindle location 3185) and Vinnie's brother Antonio's as a "madness" (3289) and "sins" (4256). (Side note: I have a hard time using the word "queer" in relation to this text, as it appears several times as a slur.)

Any excuse to post this exchange between Jeff Winger and Troy Barnes.In fact, it is Antonio, our villain, who most strongly makes the argument that it's hypocritical to defend your straight mixed-race relationship while disapproving of his mixed-race relationship with another man: "You can fuck Annie, playhouse with her, but you would never accept me and Teek" (3208). Teek is the gay brother of Vinnie's ex-girlfriend Annie -- so for those of you playing along at home, we now have three gay brothers. Two of the three are black. One of the three, Teek, is dead when the book begins, and the other two conspire for revenge -- though the main impetus is Antonio's, since Teek was "the only person who ever loved me unconditionally" (3206). Antonio is killed pretty much immediately after this reveal, and Willie gravely injured.

With the various bootlegging gangs poised for war thanks to Antonio's big gay treachery, Harmony gives her brother a wad of cash and sends him to Chicago, saying he should "go wherever you want and be who you are ... You of all people should know we can't help who we love, only the choices we make" (4053). This has the phraseology of acceptance, but it's really a Pilate-like washing of the hands: an earlier exchange between Harmony and Vinnie about her brother's future sees Vinnie encourage her to "Let him go. Let him be his own man, make his own mistakes" (3487). It's an unfortunate turn of phrase that equates gay relationships with shady criminal activity (the context in which we mostly see men's choices characterized as "mistakes" in this text). Harmony expresses love for her brother, but it has the regretful love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin flavor we've seen so often in 'not officially bigoted' homophobic parlance.The happy ending requires Harmony and her brother to be separated, possibly forever. The text's inability to distinguish between Willie's criminal actions and his sexual desires is one of the many points where a thoughtful editor could have improved the book immensely. Instead we're left with a three-pack of the Bury Your Gays trope, with a hefty sprinkling of the myth that black people are especially prone to homophobia.

Fortunately, this disappointing dynamic is only a small part of the text. The part that resonated most strongly with me is the way this text deploys the human voice as a tool and a motif -- in particular, the voice of our heroine Harmony.

Harmony's voice is an instrument of unassailable power. It soothes her when she feels anxious, and it undermines her opponents. In a narrative where she is often vulnerable, trapped and surrounded by violent, untrustworthy men -- our hero included -- the power of her voice consistently levels the playing field: "Nothing could touch her when she sang" (532). Even as Harmony's song keeps her protected, it utterly destabilizes our aggressive alpha hero:

Words he hadn't spoken since he parted the shores of Sicily escaped him. He whispered them forgetting she didn't understand his language. He wanted to stop time. Never in his life had a woman's voice had such an affect on him. Silently he had craved her for months after the first time he heard her sing. He bought all the jazz records he could, trying to capture the calm soothing feeling of her voice that chipped at the iceberg in his chest most would call a heart. (543)

Harmony yells "No!" more often than any heroine in my recent memory. Shouts it, more than once, to the hero and others, often after eavesdropping and overhearing something vital she wasn't supposed to hear. In keeping with this vocal self-assertion, she consistently refuses to be sidelined, deceived, discounted, ignored, or dismissed. At one point she is given solid cause to distrust the hero, and -- praise be! -- she distrusts him, as any reasonable person would when choosing between a long-loved brother in peril and a three-days' Mafioso hookup who has kidnapped you and is keeping you in the dark about his plans. When Vinnie's racist henchman beats her and tries to prevent her escaping from the isolated farm where she's being kept, Harmony takes a pickax to his face. Then she steals a gun and a car, finds her brother, and threatens to shoot our hero for being a jackass. The fact that she happens to be wrong about who's really behind the conspiracy does not become an emotional plot point: she is not made to atone for her mistake the way romance heroines are so often punished by the narrative for distrusting the hero. In fact, Vinnie seems rather impressed (as well he should be).

Words are the heroine's best weapons. Antagonists more than once refer to her as "mouthy." This in a text that emphasizes different modes of speech -- singing, promises, lies, and confessions most prominently -- makes Harmony something of a superhero. She argues back against those who would shame her for loving a white man. She unravels lies and compels the fulfillment of promises. At the book's climax, she persuades two rival gang leaders to help her rescue Vinnie from assassination -- a welcome reversal of the usual suspense dynamic.

Hero Vinnie, unfortunately for him in such a world as this, is more a man of concrete physical action:

He should just hold her and talk out their goodbye. Find the comforting words to give her so she would remember him fondly, and not like this, broken and needy. But he craved the physical more. (3901)

In the course of the plot, Vinnie tries to fight violence with violence and gang warfare with gang warfare. The fight scenes tend to feature him grabbing someone by the throat, choking them, or stepping on someone's throat -- silencing moves, reflecting his discomfort with language and speech. He is simultaneously paranoid about and vulnerable to his brother's lies, and his inability to discern the truth of someone's words often leads him to retort with his fists rather than with argument. Many romance heroes are described as dangerous, but few truly are: Vinnie kills multiple people in truly brutal ways over the course of the plot, and experiences little if any remorse for it. Yet time and time again, Vinnie fails at what he sets out to do -- to reform his brother, to get back his stolen booze shipment, to convince Harmony to trust him implicitly, to be different than his abusive, larger-than-life father.

Often in romance the violence of a dangerous hero is justified and made palatable by the narrative: he defends the heroine, he kills the villain, he defeats enemies who are equally or more brutally vicious. The hero's violence is within his control, or at least within the scope of sympathy and heroic morality. But Vinnie's violent nature is almost fatal to himself, to Harmony, and to their shared future. It's a part of himself that he hates, and for once the narrative supports the hero's self-loathing: Vinnie is absolutely right to hate the part of himself that is hateful. Harmony gives him several earfuls about it, and his stubborn refusal to listen to her is presented as a mistake (unlike her earlier distrust and threats against him). His brother, his booze-running, his loyal gangster friends -- all of these are taken from him, one by one, as the consequences of violence compound and increase. Just stop, I was mentally pleading by the time of the final showdown. Just leave while you're still alive. There's nothing left for you here. Vinnie nearly dies in a blaze of glory, haloed by bullets, hung from his arms in the barn where he failed to get former captured enemies to confess (that language weakness again). His farm, a longtime refuge, burns to the ground in the turmoil, while Harmony throws an unconscious Vinnie in the back of her car and they take refuge with the unspeaking Amish (no, seriously, it was kind of weird).

Normally, especially in romantic suspense (which I'd argue is the proper subgenre for this book), we see the heroine's life destroyed to push her closer to the hero. In Vivid, for instance, Viveca's cottage was set on fire by a disgruntled local douchebag, after which she moved in to the house where Nate and his family lived. In Harmony, for once, it's the hero's world that burns: Harmony gets everything she dreamed of since the start of the book. Vinnie puts aside his violent urges, for the sake of Harmony and their child. It's like the end of Jane Eyre, if Rochester used more Italian words and was only emotionally rather than physically wounded at the end. I am left feeling that it really shouldn't be so rare for an alpha hero in the romance genre to renounce a life of violence. To have a black heroine's voice be the most powerful in the book, to have the white alpha hero ultimately yield to her authority, is kind of a radical move.

I think I've talked myself into liking this book.

I guess there's something to be said for overthinking things.

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For actual period takes on black-authored romance in the 1920s, check out this gem from the Popular Romance Project about romance stories in black newspapers of the early 20th century. 

And for a wider historical perspective, here is a piece from The Root on black LGBTQ authors during the Harlem Renaissance.

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Mynx, Sienna. Harmony. The Divas Pen: 2012. Ebook.