E is for Vicki Essex

{Content note: the text below describes a character dealing with being triggered and recovering from a past sexual assault, though nothing is graphically depicted in this post. There is also some transphobic language quoted. For the complete alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance, click here.}

Vicki Essex has one of the sleekest voices writing in contemporary romance today. Her prose is clear and engaging, grounded in her characters' physical reactions, studded with moments that take my breath away as a reader and as a writer: "Kyle was still smiling, but inside, threads of anticipation and dread tangled into a tight, messy knot" (Kindle location 792). Damn, that just gets me right in the chest. This talent and her three-dimensional characters are what get me coming back to Ms. Essex's books even though, as I found when I read Back to the Good Fortune Diner last year, her plots tend to leave me frustrated and unsatisfied. In Her Corner, Ms. Essex's latest Harlequin Superromance, worked better for me than the earlier book, but still left me with unresolved questions.

Cover image for In Her Corner by Vicki Essex. Background is a running path at a park. A dark-haired woman with olive skin wears a yellow tank top with sweat stains and black athletic pants. She is running toward us, smiling off into the distance. Behind her runs a paler-skinned, dark-haired man in a blue tank top and shorts. He is smiling at the woman ahead of him.When your heroine is a Brazilian MMA fighter from a legacy family and your hero an Olympic gold-medal wrestler, your story is going to be more than usually concerned with the human body and your characters' physicality. For once, the romance genre's tendency to idealize its protagonists' bodies makes sense, because these characters work hard to be in peak physical condition:

She was shorter than he'd first thought -- five-eight at most. But she was built like a brick house with thick biceps that showed through the stretchy biking top and a trim, tapered waist. He'd been wrong to say that the biking gear hid all her feminine assets, because he could see them clearly defined now. Her grin widened as she unsnapped her helmet and shook out her hair. Long, thick, wavy black tresses slick with sweat tumbled out, barely tamed by an elastic hair tie at her nape. (133)

I have to admit, I cheered to see thick biceps on a heroine. Not just because it makes sense for the character, but because many athletic heroines are presented as slim and gamine rather than stacked or muscular, and it's nice to have a little variety there. Notice, though, how careful the text is to make sure we know that even though she's muscular she's still obviously a woman, and more specifically a sexy woman (would an Olympic wrestler really use a word like "tresses"?).

Not long after, we have some equal-opportunity objectification of the hero:

He was the living portrait of a Greco-Roman wrestler, complete with broken Romanesque nose and dark brown Brutus-style haircut. She wondered idly if he'd ever wrestled naked like the pugilists of those bygone days. (152)

(Pause to envision and appreciate the underrated sexiness of the Brutus haircut.)

Both Bella and Kyle are pressured to match this idealized physicality with an idealized performance of binary gender roles: Kyle's father was abusive and hypercritical, a chauvinist of the old school, and his son has been "forged by his father's unyielding will into the manliest of men" (2273). (Reader, I giggled.) Manliness, as I'm sure you've heard, requires a person to suppress all emotions, to defend others (especially 'weaker' women and children), to disregard physical caution and safety in favor of pride, and to never let a girl "push you around" (504). Meanwhile Bella's family -- all of whom, brothers, father, grandfather, are into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and training as a career -- are urging her not to fight, to settle down instead and raise babies with the boyfriend she dumped because he wanted her to stop fighting: "He said he didn't want to see me get hurt. He kept going on about how it wouldn't look right and how our kids would be affected" (102). Her family agrees, calling her desire to have an MMA career "selfish" (103). It's a pretty standard patriarchal line, and it's to Bella's credit (and Ms. Essex's) that she mourns their lack of support but never truly considers giving up on what she wants. I like a heroine with drive.

The tension between what is expected of Kyle as a man and Bella as a woman propels most of the plot. Bella struggles against gendered expectations for female fighters (skimpy costumes, sexism, underestimation of her abilities) while Kyle struggles to find ways to articulate the emotions he can no longer suppress (fallout from his father's abuse, the trauma of being a rape victim, the depth of his feelings for Bella). One of the more elegant tensions of this story is that Bella needs what Kyle has (encouragement for her career,  training in wrestling) and Kyle needs what Bella has (emotional support and reassurance, unconditional affection). This is a romance where the two genders meet in the middle (stay tuned for why this is not necessarily ideal!). The text throughout is careful never to portray Bella and Kyle as meaningfully different based on their physical bodies -- Kyle has experience and skills that Bella does not, and vice versa, which is why they are training together in the first place -- but the expected gender performance for male and female bodies in the gender binary system leads to vastly different experiences within the highly sexist culture of the UFF (a fictional stand-in for the UFC).

MMA fighting in this book is generally presented as dangerous but acceptably so, a physically difficult yet uniquely rewarding career … except that there's Wayne. For anyone who's been following the increased scrutiny on concussions in the NFL and the long-term health effects of contact sports, Wayne's sudden bursts of irritation, frequent migraines, and prescriptions for painkillers are a puzzle too easily solved, even before he explains it:

"It's  nothing you need to worry about," he said with a shake of his head. "I'm just getting old ... Even if I'd known this would happen, I wouldn't have given any of it up. That's the price of glory. This --" he indicated his worn-out body " -- is just a thing that happens." (3034)

Kyle himself has a bad knee from his early wrestling years -- and he is none too happy when Bella points out that this means his peak athletic days are behind him. It's less a matter of fetishizing youth and skill and more a question of control: "You think you can control everything in your life?" she asks him. "You can't" (2881).

The great fear in this book is not physical danger, but lack of control over one's own body. The real danger of a fighting career is not immediate pain, but a long-term debilitating injury -- the risk is that the fighter will lose physical control, either in the present or in the much-battered future. Wayne regrets his aches and pains not because they hurt, but because they mean his body is doing things he does not want and cannot stop. This is inevitable and tragic. Meanwhile, Bella loses an important exhibition fight when she is distracted by Kyle's voice at a critical moment, and this loss echoes the way Kyle's father once took ownership of Kyle's body and career:

The moment he'd opened his mouth, Bella had shifted because his voice had triggered her into taking a staggered stance. It was a Pavlovian response: the same thing had happened to Kyle whenever his father had pitched his voice in certain ways. They'd drilled that way, too, with Dad shouting instructions and Kyle going through the motions like a trained monkey. (1771)

This fear is the connecting thread between the gendered obstacles against which Kyle and Bella struggle: both dread giving (bodily) control over to someone else -- Bella because it is too expected for a woman, and Kyle because it is not permitted for a man. The "Pavlovian" and "trained monkey" language in the above passasge puts both Bella and Kyle in the position of objects rather than actors; part of Kyle's horror and regret after this scene comes from his disinclination to manipulate others the way his father manipulated him.

No wonder that in this context assault -- whether violent or sexual -- is presented as a more terrifying experience than simple hand-to-hand combat in a controlled setting. We have three characters assaulted over the course of the story: Kyle (raped by an ex-girlfriend), Bella (physically assaulted by a douchebag agent), and Shawnese (a teenaged recovering addict and prostitute who is stabbed by her former pimp). Control is a key issue in all three events, because the act of being assaulted takes bodily control away from the victim -- not just because of the physical force involved in the incident, but because of the resulting emotional and physical instability. For instance, when Bella's douchebag agent Ryan (a stock villain whose lines all come from Rape Culture 101) grabs her during an argument, Bella easily gets free and slams Ryan into the ground. But this moment is not followed by a rush of triumph:

Bella started trembling. Her heart pounded in her ears. She felt light-headed.

"Easy, easy." Kyle was at her side instantly. He sat her down in a chair and pushed her head between her knees.

Her vision cleared as she breathed deeply to calm the jackhammer of her pulse. What the hell was wrong with her? She fought for a living. She'd fought against women and men tougher and better trained than Ryan. Why was she freaking out? (1379)

She is freaking out specifically because this was not a fight, something she'd trained and prepped for -- this was an attack, by definition unasked-for and unwanted. When Bella next sees Ryan at a UFF gala, she loses physical control again: "She glared down at her ex-manager, heart pounding in her throat as those horrible feelings from that shocking day returned. Her fury intensified as all the things she should've said to him bubbled up" (2579). Again, the rush of rage is followed by a feeling of weakness: "I don't want to sound like a wuss, but I'm kind of freaked-out" (2578).

Bella doesn't use the word in the second scene, but it's obvious she's been triggered. Kyle recognizes it -- though he doesn't use the word either -- because the same thing happens to him on a fairly regular basis. Including the scene immediately following this one, when he and Bella first try to consummate their relationship: Kyle panics and stops the sex right at the end of Chapter Fifteen. He describes his rape and how it is still haunting him: "I might as well tell you you're not the first girl I've left in this state. They all thought I was just a doped-up loser who couldn't get it up ... It's hard to fall asleep when every creak sounds like someone in your house" (2756). This is by no means the first rape we've seen in romance, but it's one of the rare instances where the violation is separated from physical penetration (which I would argue is the feminized standard, particularly in the romance genre where rape or attempted rape is so often the province of the heroine). Kyle's experience traumatized him not because he was penetrated (he wasn't) but because someone took control of his body away from him without his consent. This is uniquely traumatic for Kyle on account of his father's past abuse, which took similar forms of physical control and denial of his agency and autonomy.

When he and Bella finally -- finally! -- do succeed in seducing one another, Kyle believes (in true romance fashion) it has healed his broken self:

Born again. That was the only thing Kyle could compare this feeling to as he woke up the next morning. Every limb felt supple, and his back and chest felt light. It was like he was twenty-one again, rather than thirty-six -- energetic, vital, invincible ... A sense of accomplishment and pride rushed through him. He'd made it through the night with Bella. He hadn't had any nightmares, hadn't shot up out of his bed at the slightest sound. He'd had sex without embarrassing himself. His body had listened to him. He'd stayed fully in control of himself. (3383)

Kyle's reaction to this miraculous event mystified me when I was first reading: he pushes Bella away and focuses on making future hotel-sex plans with his supermodel fuck buddy. No, really, he does. It's baffling -- there's a woman you care about, and you can finally have sex again after so many lonely years and sleepless nights, and the sex was amazing, and you're like, "Yep, time to ditch her in the most hurtful way possible!" But sitting down to compose this argument has shown me Kyle's deep need for control, and how Bella threatens that. (This deeper understanding of a book is one of the reasons I love criticism, and one of the reasons I'm doing this project in the first place.)

After successfully fucking Bella, Kyle believes he's fixed now. That he can go back to old playboy patterns (supermodels, no-strings-attached sex). One sexual assault caused the hurt, so naturally he thinks one sexual triumph can heal it. He feels younger, so he believes he can act like he did when he was younger. He's not thinking about his life currently, about his feelings or Bella's. He still has a profound disassociation from his own emotions, which has the unfortunate tendency of making him rather opaque from a reader's perspective -- and from the heroine's. "I didn't cure you, Kyle," Bella tells him. "You can't go chasing women trying to make yourself feel better. You need to talk to someone. You need help" (3540). (A heroine who refuses to play amateur therapist! Ten points to Gryffindor!) It is at this moment, when she questions his newfound sense of stability, that Kyle turns into a bastard and tells her he only slept with her to help her unwind before her big fight. (It may also be worth pointing out that Bella uses Portuguese words more in this scene than in the entire rest of the book -- no doubt on account of the unique and explosive emotional tenor of this argument, but I can't help wondering if this evidence of her foreign-ness helps Kyle find her more threatening than he would have if she'd been cursing at him in English.)

This theme of bodily control helps explain something else otherwise inexplicable in the book: why the text's presentation of Kyle's trans sister Jess is so ham-handed. I'll start with the concise analysis from Ridley's review at Love in the Margins:

The line about slapping Kyle’s shoulder seems to illustrate masculine strength, and a guffaw isn’t generally used for women’s laughter. When Bella compared her to a drag queen, I cringed, but the story goes on to basically portray her as one. She’s tall and ultra-feminine and her contribution to the book is to be part of Kyle’s rough relationship with his late father and to outfit Bella in a fabulous dress for a glitzy party. I wanted more substance and less stereotype. She wasn’t a character so much as a convenience.

It's abundantly clear that both Kyle and the narrative have no idea what to do when confronted with Jess' physical body:

He watched for that moment in Bella's eyes. That slight widening when she realized Jess hadn't been born a woman. With her surgically enhanced body and flamboyant style, he could understand how some people might miss the little details, but there were some things surgery couldn't erase. (2254)

Jess is presented as masculine-in-disguise, a man in drag rather than a 'real' woman. In this book's world, the body does not lie: it expresses the truth about sexual attraction, emotional trauma, age, strength, and someone's 'original' gender. These things can be distractions -- emotions especially -- but there is very little of the 'traitorous body' language we're used to seeing in romance. The body is right: it is only brains and hearts that get confused. Just as Kyle and Bella can't ignore their bodies' responses to one another, Jess' assigned-masculine body can't hide its 'true' gender. Therefore a trans woman is presented as a drag queen, and her assigned-masculine body combined with her feminine gender performance are read by other characters as dissonant and disturbing. Because of the body problem, the text has to go to great lengths to feminize Jess -- so she becomes of narrative necessity a makeup artist, highly skilled in performative femininity even though she fails to pass convincingly as a woman.

This contradiction is the symptom of a system unaware of its own baked-in assumption that gender and sex are identical concepts in a fixed binary system. (There's a lot to argue in that statement, I know, but I'm still only a neophyte in that regard and the short answer for our purposes is: no, sex and gender are not identical or equivalent and the binary turns out to look more like a spectrum.) Trans embodiment troubles a text so fixated on physical, corporeal truth, and Jess' appearance functions as something of a trigger for Kyle: "Jess reminded him of all the lessons their father had beaten into him, all the things a man was supposed to be. All the things he'd failed at..." (2291) The existence of a trans woman -- even his own sister! -- for Kyle does not lead him to realize that rigid sex/gender roles are notionally flawed, that there is a wider range of human experience and gender expression than simply This One or The Other. Genitalia is not destiny. Instead, Jess' existence is a reminder of the gap between Kyle's own fragile manhood and the fetishized, idealized masculinity his father insisted he embody both physically and morally. (Whispers: nobody tell Kyle about intersex people or he'll have to go have a lie-down.) While Jess' inclusion in the text is a step forward for trans representation in romance -- your mileage may vary -- it feels like Ms. Essex missed an opportunity for a deeper commentary on the way cultural binaries fail to describe the full possibility of human existence.

In short, I'm glad this hero gets himself a professional therapist by the end of the book. It seems like he's gonna need it.


While writing Back to the Good Fortune Diner with its Chinese-American heroine, Vicki Essex incorporated much of her own background and experience as a Canadian of Chinese descent. She also wrote a post looking forward to the first women's fight in the UFC.

For an upcoming multi-authored look at trans experience and resources, check out trans bodies: they've got a book coming out sometime this spring!


Essex, Vicki. In Her Corner. Toronto, Ontario: Harlequin Enterprises, 2014. Ebook.