'As if money was a substitute for fair play': feminist subtext in The Governess Affair

After the Vicki Essex review and the feminist heroine fiasco, I've been feeling like many of my latest posts have come down on the negative side of the critical spectrum. To balance things out, I kept an eye out for positive examples of romances with feminist leanings -- and now I'm thrilled to say that Courtney Milan's The Governess Affair has a strongly feminist subtext based around power, money, consent, and women's autonomy. {Be ye warned: spoilers abound. Also, at present the novella is free on Amazon, so I'd run right out and grab it if I were you.}

Cover for Courtney Milan's The Governess Affair: a light-skinned woman with dark hair wears a long gold gown. She has her back to the viewer, and is turning to look at the viewer over her right shoulder.

The book opens with a description of two men, one of them a duke, and the other, our hero:

An untutored observer would focus on the Duke of Clermont, apparently in full command ... his patrician features were sharp and aristocratic. Compared with Hugo's own unprepossessing expression and sandy brown hair, the untutored observer would have concluded that the duke was in charge.

The untutored observer, Hugo thought, was an idiot. (2-3)

Less than a page in, the visible marks of patriarchal power—expensive clothing, "patrician features"—are irrevocably undermined. Hugo isn't a servant. He's a former boxer who is now something of an enforcer, working to eliminate the duke's many debts. If he succeeds before a given date, he will be rewarded with enough money to launch his own business empire. He successfully helped the duke marry an heiress, but the new duchess' father was canny enough to put her fortune in trust, to be doled out on a regular schedule—provided, of course, that the duke does not do anything to irritate his new bride.

This is worth unraveling further. The 'official' channels of social power—a husband's authority over his wife and her property, a master's authority over his hired hand, and an aristocrat's authority over a coal miner's son—are subverted by the ebb and flow of money. The legal actions of the duke's father-in-law do much to thwart the duke's own exercise of power, proving that emotional ties and competing agendas can complicate what should be straightforward hierarchies. As Hugo observes soon after: "A duke should have known how to take charge. But no; Clermont was so used to having others bow before his title that he'd never learned to command by force of personality" (5). I love how this reverses the usual romance trope where a titled hero is so used to getting his own way that he becomes autocratic or commanding or a force of nature. Privilege, in Courtney Milan's text, means never having to work to exert one's will upon the world.

Our hero Hugo, of course, has to work very hard to do the same thing. His past as a boxer means he has more than common physical power, of course, but his past as an abused son of a battered mother makes him wary of the uses of physical force, particularly against those less powerful than himself. His low-class birth and shady employment further exclude him from the halls of official authority—from government as well as from society. The solution he seeks is wealth, "his own empire" (7), which will allow him to exist comfortably outside the channels of official power. Money is, in the aristocratic system, unofficial power.

Again, at this point we're still about seven pages into this novella.

Enter our heroine.

Or rather, say that she is revealed to be our heroine. She first appeared on page three, in a bit of description where the duke was looking at her and grinding his teeth. She wears a hat with a "thin pink ribbon." She appeared again, "a smudge of pink for her lips," on page seven. And she gets finally introduced in the least impressive manner possible: "'You see,' Clermont muttered, 'there was this governess … that's her, now. Waiting. Demanding compensation from me" (8). Our heroine wants money too.

Actually, she wants a great deal more than money. Unlike Hugo, who sees money as some kind of proof that he's transcended the legacy of his abusive father, Serena Barton wants the things money can bring her rather than money for its own sake. She wants to buy a lavender farm to ensure her financial independence, and she wants a guarantee that the duke will pay for the future education of his unborn son (or a Season for his daughter, if the child is a girl).

Serena Barton, you see, is a survivor of sexual assault. She is also pregnant with the duke's illegitimate child.

I've seen plenty of rapes in romance, whether by the hero or by the villain. I've even seen some heroines get pregnant after being raped by the hero, in a few romances of the 'sweeping generational epic' type. And there's the heroine in Loretta Chase's Not Quite a Lady, who has a bastard child with a deceased rake.

The duke is clearly, unambiguously not the hero.

And yet our heroine is carrying his child.

This is textual violence as well as sexual violence. Babies tend to be almost magical in romance. They embody hope, happiness, love, and the future. Secret babies bring long-estranged lovers together. Children's troubles are often the inciting incident to reunite formerly feuding spouses and exes. Barren heroines are mystically un-barrenated by True Love in cherubic baby-filled epilogues. If a couple has One Night of Passion, the chances of baby go through the roof. (Does nobody understand how condoms function?) But this particular baby is an accident, an unfortunate consequence of a traumatic experience. This is not a baby born to solve its parents' problems. In another romance, an author would let her heroine wonder if she could possibly love a child born from such a cicumstances. Serena Barton, however, seems to have simply accepted this baby as hers to protect—not out of defiance, but as a matter of simple responsibility. It's very quietly powerful.

Virginity, too, is fetishized in romance, and Serena Barton was a virgin until Clermont came along. But Serena Barton does not spend a lot of time mourning her lost innocence. In a romance so concerned with money, it would have been easy to depict the heroine's rape as a robbery, in the commodity model of sexual relationships. Especially since it also cost her her governess' wages. But this is not what Courtney Milan does. Yes, Serena is traumatized by her rape—she has nightmares, she gets triggered (though she doesn't of course use the term), and she has been fired from her position as a result of her pregnancy. She fears being silenced, she wonders if she should have fought back harder, if there was something she could have done to protect herself—all very standard responses for victims of sexual violence. But while her rape has affected her, it has not taken something from her femininity, and this is hugely important in feminist terms.

Serena Barton has no money, no character, no prospects, no power. But she still has agency: "I am done with things happening to me. From here on out, am going to happen to things." (38)

Reader, I admit that I flat-out cheered.

And this is the moment when Serena first begins her assault on Hugo's bleak and tender heart. Though she doesn't realize it at the time.

Because Hugo is sensitive to the workings of power, and one of the other visible marks of official power is that it allows men like Clermont to succeed in abusing women like Serena. "I'm a duke," he says in the first chapter. "I have no need to force women." (10) Astute readers will notice that this is not the same as saying I did not force that woman. And it's true he did not use physical force—but then, he didn't have to. "He promised not to wake the household" (98) Serena explains later. His wealth, his title, and his gender all allow him access to unpunished violence. The duke is not a moustache-twirler in the classic romance tradition—unlike, say, my own heinous and much-beloved Lord Wart—he's an average man, with average appetites, and the unshakeable conviction that he is entitled to satisfy those appetites no matter what it costs anyone else. "I was so bored, and she was the closest thing to a woman around. What would it hurt?" (171)

As a governess, Serena has no official recourse against abuse and violence. All the duke has to do is tell her to be quiet, once during the rape, and once when she takes up her vigil on the bench outside his home: "She'd been cut deep by her own silence, cut to the point of shame … Silence could cut both ways—for instance, when one failed to repudiate rumors that might cause damage. She wished Clermont much joy of her silence." (17-18) Privilege thrives on being unseen, so Serena makes her silence conspicuously visible: "What do you suppose the gossip will run to once I begin to show?" (109)

Hugo, whose instincts for abuse are finely honed, sees through the duke's feeble lies about the rape; he even sees through Serena's insistence that she was not forced under the legal definition of the term: "Somehow, what had happened seemed even worse than physical violence—as if Clermont had taken not only his pleasure and her future, but had robbed her of the right to believe herself blameless." (99) Note that the robbery metaphor here pertains to Serena's sense of herself, not to her status as a virgin. It is the damage to Serena-as-a-person that matters in this text, not the damage to Serena-as-a-sexual-object. Her virginity is barely even established as having been taken—a brief mention of blood on the sheets when it wasn't her time of the month—but the results to her security, happiness, and peace of mind are thoroughly explored.

Hugo, unlike Clermont and unlike many other romance heroes, is very very good with boundaries. A list:

  • When he first suspects Serena has been raped, he sets a twig on the bench between them, declaring his intention of treating it as a wall. He does not move the twig; Serena does, at the end of the scene.
  • He tries to take her glove off to warm her hands, chilled from standing all day in a downpour. When she flinches at the touch, he stops, lets go, apologizes, and asks if she can take her own gloves off. When she can't manage it with stiff fingers, he asks her permission again before gently removing the gloves, not touching her any more than he has to, not turning it into a caress or a seduction. (Since I love Lord of Scoundrels, I read this as a clear callback to the famous glove scene between Dain and Jessica.) If she'd refused, he would not have touched her, even though it meant she continued to shiver and drip in the rain. He would not have manhandled her "for her own good," as so many heroes are wont to do.
  • In the scene where they finally consummate the relationship, he turns it into a game, with hairpins as tokens, and pre-arranged rules. The rules apply to him, not to Serena: "You can make me touch you," he says. "I can only make you touch yourself." (132) He deliberately gives her more power. She is explicitly the one in charge of this encounter. He never loses control and breaks the rules he's set, never pushes her, even after they both forget about the pins.
  • When Serena mentions how clever the games with the twig and the hairpins, he explains that things like this were how his mother dealt with the reality her own abuse. Hugo's mother is not shown to be a passive victim—she has coping strategies, mental tricks to avoid being dragged down by hopelessness, which she has passed on to her son. The fact that she was killed by her abuser is a tragedy, but it does not dehumanize her in the text or in Hugo's eyes.

Hugo, despite his declarations of ruthlessness and his nickname (the Wolf of Clermont), is incapable of true cruelty. Serena notices this, recognizes his value and strength, and makes her decision. I'm going to quote at length:

She'd thought of the Wolf of Clermont as the duke's tool, his thing. Yet Mr. Marshall was sitting in the rain feeding her sandwiches. Maybe this was some twisted, diabolical strategy on his part. It seemed unlikely. It would have made more sense to keep her cold and hungry.

Her heart beat hard, half fear, half excitement. This was the man who, if the gossip papers had it right, had brought Clermont's estates back from the verge of imminent doom. The duke relied on him for everything. Without him, Clermont was nothing.

She could steal him away. (62-63)

To clarify: she's initially looking to use Hugo, but this quickly changes: "She wanted to steal him away—not to deprive Clermont of his use, but to have him for herself." (91)

This is precisely what she does.

It's a beautifully inexorable plot. One step at a time, Hugo becomes Serena's. She mentally declares him hers at precisely the midpoint of the novel—in the same scene where she agrees to marry him in name only, for the legitimacy of her unborn child. In the same scene she ends with this thought: "He was fooling himself if he thought she would settle for a half-marriage. She'd vowed to win him from Clermont. She'd be damned if she stopped with less than full victory." (116) I kept expecting it to fall apart; I kept expecting she would have to humble herself, or change, or compromise what she wants in some way.

Instead, she gets married, gets one night with Hugo—on her insistence—and gets her lavender farm. After she leaves for the country, the reader stays with Hugo, watching him suffer (in the best romance-y sense of the term). He writes her letters; she writes back with wit, and warmth, and friendship, and a few delightfully prosy innuendoes. He watches the money come rolling in, and can't think why he used to feel it was so important. Unofficial power is still power, which is not the same as love. It's not the same thing as trust, even. The duke returns, having reconciled with the duchess, and asks Hugo what to buy first with all this lovely, lovely money.

Hugo punches him right in the stomach. And does it again, once the duke has admitted to the rape. Physical violence finally has an appropriate use and an appropriate target. Hugo then blackmails the duke into handing over everything Serena wanted, both funds for the child's education and a written confession of what he's done.

And then Hugo shows this confession to the duchess, saying: "I think you've lied to quite enough women." (173) It's not a prosecution, not really justice. Justice is impossible under the laws of the time. But Hugo, through the duchess, can change the balance of unofficial power—money—in such a way as to be a punishment. (A punishment the duke can't really openly discuss, either, echoing Serena's position that silence is a weapon.)

Then—only after Serena has everything else she's wanted—Hugo goes to the lavender farm and tells her he loves her. This is what he says next: "I want to be somebody. Let me be your husband. Let me be the father of your child—of all your children." (177)

I couldn't believe that passage was real the first time I read it. A romance hero was defining himself in relation to the heroine, rather than the other way around. Possessing and stealing and claiming and owning tend to be the domains of the hero, not the heroine—but here, Hugo is the one being claimed. He even—I can't believe this, either—he even asks permission to be claimed: Let me be yours. This ending is not papered over with gender essentialism; it's not the you woman have taught me to love and open my manly heart to your nurturing feminine ways trope. It's not about power, because Hugo and Serena have always related to one another as equals, even when they were on opposite sides. There's no magical shower of money gilding this particular lily. It's just sweet, and human, and utterly romantic. (Side note: there's something intensely poetic about the idea of a lavender farm—why hasn't this come up before? It's ready-made for romance heroines.)

In sum, this ending? It's fucking revolutionary.

I'll stop before this post hits the 3k mark. I know I've practically written a novella analyzing Courtney Milan's novella. But strongly feminist romances are still rare and remarkable, and this was not only a strong feminist book, it was a strong book. I can't wait to get started on The Duchess War.

{You can find digital copies of The Governess Affair at Amazon, ARe, and Third Place Books. It's also a finalist in this year's DABWAHA, if you feel like a bookish brawl.}

The Great Boat Book-a-thon

You know how you've picked the right crew for your tropical boat vacation? When you look around on the evening of the first day and discover that everyone has silently and unanimously concluded that it's book time. We had paperbacks and hardbacks, mass markets, Kindles, and iPads. Even if you count an e-reader as one book, we had about three times as many books on this trip as we did people. It was magical.

This also means I got more read than I usually would on a group trip—and in another wave of good fortune, everything I read just happened to be spectacular. So I thought I would recommend them to you.

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed.

If you are looking for sword-and-sorcery fantasy with an older protagonist that takes place in an Islam-inflected world rather than your standard faux-medieval Europe, you are totally in luck. Characters include a tired old ghul hunter, an ascetic young dervish who needs to learn to relax, an orphaned tribal girl who can turn into a tiger, and some really terrifying monsters. The city of Dhamsawaat is as vibrant and unique as anything you'll find in Dickens or Mieville. I really cannot recommend this highly enough, and I cannot wait for the next book in the trilogy.

The Siren by Tiffany Reisz.

One of our fellow vacationers was reading Fifty Shades and mentioned that it was a bit tamer than she expected. I said she ought to try The Siren, even though I was only a few chapters in at the time. This book, to put it plainly, does not fuck around. The characters are all thoroughly fleshed-out—which comes in handy, since that flesh gets seriously tested as the plot unfolds. This is the kind of clearly consensual, intense lifestyle BDSM that occasionally puts people in the hospital, but is also very intimate and emotional. Kink is a method of sexual expression, rather than a way to cope with mental illness (as E. L. James has depicted it). This book is also very Catholic, which surprised me more than the kinky sex but which was fascinating and unique.

The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America by Sally Denton and Roger Morris.

A great piece of non-fiction, full of speculation and anecdotes and behind-the-legal-scenes stories of how Las Vegas was founded on shady finances and money laundering and violence. Later it deals with presidential politics (so many Kennedys!) and the eventual corporatization of organized crime. It's well-written and complicated and will very probably destroy whatever remaining political innocence you have. I was seeing conspiracy theories everywhere for at least a week after I finished this. Bonus points for being written before the current New Depression, so occasional delightful anachronisms will pop up about the sterling reputation of Lehmann Brothers and other now-defunct institutions.

A Gentleman Undone by Cecilia Grant.

Cecilia Grant's first book featured a chilly widow and a charming rake slowly opening up to one another. This book features a card-counting courtesan—she's amazing—and an ambitious gambler with plenty of baggage from the battlefield. Together they have a plan to fleece a gaming hell, so it's basically a heist story as well as a romance. If there's a better way of getting me excited about a book, I haven't found it yet (I love heist stories!). Ms. Grant's usual poetic style and spot-on metaphors are back in full force, so definitely check this out if you like angsty, intense historicals.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

Everyone who told me to read this book—there were at least seven of you!—was totally correct. It was great, and I loved it. I ended up buying three copies, actually: one is a signed first, but I didn't want to take that on a boat, so I picked up a digital copy as well. But my iPad screen is difficult to read in direct sunlight—which there was plenty of, in the tropics—so when I saw a mass-market paperback for sale in one of our ports of call, I grabbed it as well.

Suffice to say, this is a book totally worth buying three times. Herr Thiessen forever!

And now I am in need of recommendations for what to read next. Suggestions, anyone?

{Disclosure: clicking on the above links may result in benefits to me. And by "benefits to me" I mean "more books for Olivia." It's a good thing.}

The First Book I Ever Wrote

We here at Olivia Waite can't remember the first thing we ever tried to write, but we sure do remember the first book we ever finished writing. It was a terrible high school romance written longhand on blue-lined notebook paper, and it was inspired by seeing an ad for this book in Seventeen magazine:

I knew nothing about the book and I didn't want to know. {NB: The author is still writing, and appears quite popular! Here is her Amazon page!} All I knew was that the title—Zoey Fools Around—struck me as the most ridiculous title in the world. What kind of plot went with that title?

I sat down over a weekend and wrote it.

And oh, looking back, it's clearly horrible. You know that scene in Twilight where Edward and Bella are partners in science lab or whatever? {Disclaimer: I haven't read Twilight, though I've read just about every piece of Twilight criticism on the whole wide internet.} Imagine that scene without the abstinent sexual tension and sparkly vampires. Then imagine that scene drags on for several more scenes, before ending with something even more disappointing than a whimper.

There may also have been attempted date rape depicted at one point, to let the reader know the popular-kid villain was the villain and not the hero. (He was handsome, and I didn't want anyone to get confused.) I was reading a lot of Catherine Coulter at the time, and date rape seemed like the high school translation of the forced seduction that was The Thing in romance of that era. Especially as I hadn't been to high school yet myself, but had gathered my information on it from a variety of terrible movies, magazines, and after-school specials.

It's possible this manuscript still exists either here in my library or at home in the house where I grew up. I'm a little afraid to go looking.

From such a beginning, there was nowhere to go but up. No manuscript I ever write will be as awkward, as shallow, as wooden as that first one. Damned if You Do and Hearts and Harbingers are masterworks by comparison—and hopefully those too will be eclipsed by the books I have yet to write.

It's a comforting thought. The worst book I've ever written is behind me, and I hope that the best is yet to come.

The Friendliness Of Finnish Tea

It is particularly cold outside, one of those sharp December days where the frost never really has a chance to melt and one's mind lightly turns to thoughts of wearing as many layers of sweater as humanly possible. One's mind also turns to thoughts of warm beverages liberally laced with sugar and caffeine—and, specifically, the most delicious tea I've ever known. Uskollinen Ystävä, from Nordqvist. The name means Faithful Friend.

A scan of the teabag for Nordqvist's Uskollinen Ystava tea: a friendly yellow color with light turquoise spots and bold black text.

Löytö: Discovery

On another cold winter's day, several years before, I checked my email to discover a friend had sent me a link to a sale Scandinavian Airlines was running. Roundtrip, nonstop flights to Helsinki were going for a mere three hundred clams, plus taxes. At the time, I was living with my parents for a few months between apartments, and even a bookstore clerk can build up some savings when you're not paying rent and your mother is feeding you. Plus, I'd just become a one-day Jeopardy! champion (under my day-name, for those of you quick on the Google) and had some vacation days to use up.

The choice was clear. I bought my ticket, went down to REI, and outfitted myself like Shackleton.

The plane ticket came with restrictions, which is how I ended up in downtown Helsinki in February, disoriented in a labyrinth of narrow old-world streets, with everything I owned in a single backpack. I'd been up for more than 36 hours at this point, and though I tried to find my chosen hostel I eventually gave in to the desire for a bath and a bed and got myself a spendy room at the Radisson (the only hotel I could find that was open). Once I finally was warm and cozy and tucked between some very high-thread-count sheets, it hit me.

Loneliness—hard and fast and solid, like a brick to the throat.

I'd never traveled on my own before. Even my first weeks of college had been packed full of other people, with the sense that friends yet unmet were waiting just around the corner. Maybe if I'd found the hostel that night it would have been different, but right then it was dark and beginning to snow and everyone I loved was half the world away.

It was a miserable night.

I rallied my spirits the next morning over the continental breakfast. Coffee tends to tap-dance in my stomach, so I turned to the tea selections instead. And there, shining like a beacon among the other tea choices, was this sunny little number called Faithful Friend. It offered black tea with peach and orange—a combination I already knew I liked—with the tantalizing addition of pineapple.

How good could a tropical fruit tea be in a near-Arctic climate?

It was phenomenal. Strong and sweet and lush, with none of the black-tea bitterness. Wonderful with lemon and honey, or cream and sugar. It was also loaded with caffeine.

And it helped me believe things were going to work out.

I found the hostel—and some interesting-looking fellow travelers—and later that day I found a place to stock up on food supplies that also sold whole boxes of Uskollinen Ystävä. It became my morning ritual to have a cup before starting the day's adventures: hiking down the snowy freeway to the zoo (camels in winter = pissed off!), drinking beer with Australians, recklessly walking across part of the frozen Northern Sea. I made sure to take a box of Nordqvist tea home with me when I left, knowing I could parcel them out slowly over the next few months.

And then my roommate drank them all while I was out one evening.

I stared aghast at the five little yellow tags hanging from the giant water pot. "Oh, was that your tea?" the roommate asked. "It was really good."

"Yes," I agreed sadly, "yes it was."

Metsästys: The Hunt

A year or so later, I had just entered graduate school and was taking a class in Finnish when I met Mr. Waite at a karaoke bar. I sang "Creep"; he sang "Sledgehammer"; within a month we knew we were going to get married someday.

He was also being sent on a whirlwind European tour that winter for work—a tour that included Helsinki among other cities. I pleaded with him to find me this tea, showed him photos of the box online, found descriptions for him. He agreed to do his best.

In the 24 hours Mr. Waite spent in Helsinki, he enlisted the help of his Finnish comrades and came home with two boxes of teabags and two packages of the loose-leaf variety. The latter was especially delightful, as it contained actual chunks of dried pineapple, scattered amid the tea leaves.

This tea, which I'd used as a talisman against loneliness, was now evidence that I was loved.

I was careful with my treasure, this time; it lasted me over a year, as Mr. Waite and I designed rings, got engaged, and planned a wedding.

Rakkaus: Love

Reader, I married him. We went to Helsinki for our honeymoon, where my two years of Finnish language classes proved adequate for reading things but not for much conversation. There was some trouble finding places to buy Uskollinen Ystävä, but we eventually tracked down a few boxes in a hidden grocery store on the outskirts of town. The adventure took us three hours, two smartphones, and a couple experiments with stop-and-ask-the-locals. But we found it, together, and carried it home in our bags as though those friendly yellow boxes were gold bars.

I drank the last cup of Uskollinen Ystävä about a month ago. I miss it still. Lady Grey and English Breakfast are all very well, but nothing quite bolsters the spirit like a Faithful Friend. (And if you have an octopus teacup to drink it from, so much the better.)

A pale table holds a white teacup, and the teacup holds black tea gone beige with cream and sugar. To the left is an opened yellow packet that once held an Uskollinen Ystävä teabag.

All I Want For Christmas Is: Boooo!

The year was 1995. I was in eighth grade. Christmas was approaching, and with it a holiday party hosted by a friend of mine, with both boys and girls invited. Including my first crush.

And oh, my friends, I had it bad. Granted, it was mostly based on the fact that he'd accidentally introduced me to the Beatles' Abbey Road—but the more I look back, the more legitimate that appears as a reason to fall in love with someone.

I was an absolute bundle of nerves, sitting in the tinsel-drenched living room while we all opened presents and sipped hot cider, when onto the stereo came a song I'd never heard before: Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas is You.

They say that you know you're in love when all the songs make sense. In this case, not only was Mariah singing what was going through my head at the moment, she was doing it while I was sitting in the same room as the love object in question. The effect on me was a shocking, profound, and secret happiness—the sense that someone understood what I was feeling and had put music around it. I bought the single and learned the words. Singing it felt dangerously expressive, even if nobody else was in the room.

It's been one of my favorite Christmas songs ever since—even though I would be soundly rejected when I later worked up the nerve to ask my crush for a date. That never felt like the important part, somehow—what mattered was that I was putting words around my own romantic feelings for the first time, even if I had to borrow someone else's words to do it.

Skip forward to 2011. I've married a lovely man (unrequited crush < thoroughly requited passion) but that Mariah Carey song still gives me goosebumps of happiness. And then Twitter tells me it's been recently covered by Justin Bieber and the video features Mariah Carey.

Despite my better instincts, I couldn't stop myself from watching.

You will be unsurprised to hear that the video is terrible.

I am not going to rant about the ravages of Auto-Tune or Justin Bieber's melodic cop-outs in the second verse. (Though I could.) Instead, I'm going to tell you how they've killed all the power of this song in some very specific and very troubling ways.

First, The Original Version

The song has two official videos. The first is a home-movie-style romp with snow and sledding and an astonishing number of baby animals. It is flirty and fun and warmly intimate.

Mariah throughout is active: she's wrestling Santa in the snow, running, sledding, opening presents, laughing, waving her arms, snuggling with bunnies, and scratching reindeer under the chin. There's not a lot of skin shown (she's got an off-the-shoulder dress at one point, but is wearing it with gloves and leggings). Her smile is frank, open, and friendly. She's sexy, to be sure—but it's the kind of sexy that happens when someone feels good about themselves and the people around them. It feels like a glimpse into a happy, fulfilled life. Actual presents are either adorable baby bunnies, or just an excuse for the kids to put boxes on their heads and make people laugh.

The other Mariah video ups the sex appeal with a little 1960s black-and-white glamor. The aesthetic is a callback to classic girl groups like the Ronettes—a visual reference which would also be picked up later by Alicia Keys' stunning Every Little Bit Hurts and, of course, Beyoncé's Single Ladies.

In her achingly good book Where the Girls Are, author Susan J. Douglas talks about girl groups and sex and girls' experience: "In the 1960s, pop music became the one area of popular culture in which adolescent female voices could be clearly heard." Groups like the Ronettes, the Shirelles, the Supremes, and so on sang about women and girls' approaches to sex and romance, whether traditional ("Goin' to the Chapel"), assertive ("Be My Baby"), or wary ("Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?").

It's pretty clear that the Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, and Alicia Keys videos mentioned above are explicitly weaving their voices into this pattern of female expression. Mariah is front and center at the microphone, in control, making her desires plain. She sings with her whole body, so even though she is on that stage for the whole song, she is neither static nor trapped. Note that this video is also completely free of dudes, even though it's ostensibly a love song addressed to one.

{An aside: The parallels between the power Douglas ascribes to girl-group music and modern explorations of romance reading are pretty interesting. Both are things enjoyed primarily by women, and which serve as a source of bonding and way of navigating the tricky waters of dealing with men and relationships. Both are also ridiculed in the culture at large. In a familiar echo of the constant dismissal of romance, Douglas cites a male music critic discussing girl-group music: "I feel this genre represents the low point in the history of rock 'n' roll."}

The other significant element of this song is its disdain for commercialism—gifts are explicitly dismissed in favor of love, lust, affection, seduction, whatever you want to call it. "I won't even wish for snow," claims the lyric. The idea of Christmas as a time of shopping and buying and money matters is entirely pushed aside in favor of sexual satisfaction. (And if you ask me, there's a clever little double entendre when Mariah sings that "Santa Claus won't make me happy / with a toy on Christmas Day").

This message is more subversive than it may appear. It refutes both the stereotype of the woman as a money-grubbing gold-digger, and the stereotype of the woman as a passive object of sexuality. She's a complete subject, in both grammatical and Foucauldian terms.

And those are basically the two halves of the song: a woman's desire, and the unnecessary nature of presents.

So it makes total sense that it would be covered by a teenage boy standing in the middle of a mall.

The Bieber Variation

I can't compete with the brilliance of Linda Holmes' satirical riff, but there are a few points I'd like to set down.

At the risk of echoing Arrested Development: Who is the "you" in that chorus? Is this really supposed to read as a romance between forty-one-year-old Mariah and seventeen-year-old Justin Bieber? Because whether or not you intended to portray a romance between our two singers, a word that you are going to see tossed around a lot is: uncomfortable.

Or else the romance is between Justin Bieber and a Nintendo DS. I'm not sure that's any better.

And just what is with this one shot in the middle of nowhere?

A screencap of Mariah Carey, wearing a Santa hat and large snowflake earrings. Her head is tilted up and to her left, her eyes are closed, and her lips are parted. She leans slightly forward, and the frame cuts off her shoulders and collarbone before her bodice starts so that she appears to be naked.This is a screencap from the video. It looks as though Mariah is singing, but she is not. This is a brief clip that is inserted at around the 1:08 mark. It is so short as to be almost subliminal, but during that brief window Mariah appears to have a tidynice little orgasm. In a cutout Santa dress. While we watch.

And this takes place between all the pose-y, cheesecake shots of Mariah flashing booty at the camera, which start to feel really creepy by the time four minutes full of them have passed. She's not romping in the snow anymore. She's not owning the stage, or dancing with her girlfriends in Nancy Sinatra boots. She's trapped against this one mystery wall being leered at by a gaggle of high schoolers.

And presumably by the audience, or at least a portion of it. The whole thing reeks of the male gaze.*

*{Aside: sometimes, when I think of the male gaze, this is what comes to mind:

People who have boobs might as well be carrying the One Ring.}

The only explanation for this colossal misstep is that someone wanted to hit as many demographics as possible: Bieber will appeal to the teenage and preteen girls, and Mariah Carey will appeal to middle-aged women who remember her from their youth, and if we sex her up we can get all the straight men and boys watching too. It's a trifecta!

But Bieber & Pals at least get to do something in the video, even though it looks like they're trashing a retail store during the holidays to the dismay of the Macy's daytime staff, who will have to clean up all those boxes they're flinging around. Let's hope there's nothing fragile in there! Meanwhile, Mariah Carey must be content to flirt with the camera in close-up, and we have lost all track of what we're supposed to be feeling and what the song's story is trying to tell us.

And oh, there is product placement everywhere. All I want for Christmas is to mob-rush a mall at midnight where teenagers start handing me gifts for free. I guess that's not as catchy a song title, though.

TL; DR

Maybe being a grown-up these days means you're doomed to see new versions of old things that fail to resonate with you in the same way. (I'm looking at you, Star Wars.) And it's true that holiday albums can be a wasteland of retreads and tired old melodies worn thin from overuse. But this cover feels so nakedly contrary to the original song's theme and presentation that it could be a parody, if it were funny for even a single moment.

It's not Bieber's fault, either. If this were merely a Justin Bieber cover of a popular Mariah Carey tune, that would be one thing. I don't expect pop stars not to make albums they think will sell. I'm an author; I have no stones to throw from my house with the Buy My Books welcome mat on the porch. I also have no particular antipathy for Justin Bieber, who must be having a hell of a time with the voice changes in a frighteningly public setting. (Can you imagine?)

If they'd written a new song, I could have dismissed it easily and gone about my day. If I had never heard the original before, I would not have cared enough to write almost two thousand words about these two different versions and what they mean for our future. But I care, and I cannot exorcize my disappointment except by talking about it. This is the uncanny valley between pop music as a product for sale and pop music as an experience in our lives.

It's An Erotic Steampunk Print Anthology!

We here at Olivia Waite are absolutely tickled to announce that we are appearing in a print book. And not just any print book, but a steampunk erotic romance anthology. And not just any steampunk erotic romance anthology, but a steampunk erotic romance anthology with the glorious Delphine Dryden and the magnificent J.K. Coi. And check out that cover!

Cover image for Steam HeatSteam Heat contains my own Generous Fire (Dickensian alternate history), Iron Seduction by J. K. Coi (Chinese steampunk), and The Lamplighter's Love by Delphine Dryden (straight-up gaslamp fantasy).

In conclusion: Eeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

{Disclosure: clicking on some of the above links might prove profitable to myself or the other authors mentioned—so you should totally do it. Go on; you know you want to.}

Lessons From Disneyland

And so it was that Mr. Waite and I spent a day at Disneyland.

Tweet from Disneyland. Text reads: "Shuttle to Disneyland. A parent behind me: 'That's called a scab.' To the Magic Kingdom!"

As you can see, the day started off perfectly. A child learned something new! We had our sunblock and various layers, but not so many things that it was burdensome to walk for long periods. We also had two tickets for both Disneyland and California Adventure, courtesy of two very generous friends. It was determined that in return for their generosity, we would find them some sort of awesome souvenir.

But until then, grand adventure beckoned!

And then we learned that both Space Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean—our two top priorities for the day—were both closed.

But there was ... the Matterhorn.

Tweet from Disneyland. Text reads: In line for the Matterhorn to face my childhood demons. #Disneyland #badwithrollercoasters When I was about eight or thereabouts, my family came to Disneyland. It was when they were still building Splash Mountain, if that helps. So the Matterhorn was basically the scariest roller coaster at Disneyland.

Either I had to go along on the ride because my parents refused to separate the family in a place so crowded—it's true I had a notable tendency to get myself lost—or I had some fit of mistaken pride that I could rise to the roller coaster's challenge. Either way, I was horribly, horribly wrong. By the time the cars rolled to a stop, I was in tears and hysterics.

So of course, after two decades, I had to have another try.

Disneyland Tweet. Text reads: No wonder I was terrified of the Matterhorn as a kid: that was terrifying! #Disneyland #stillbadwithrollercoasters The first thing you do on the Matterhorn is ratchet up a steep tunnel in the dark. Pitch-black. Creaking, clanking, ticking sounds that are far from reassuring. You could go left, or right, or plunge into the depths at any moment. I felt the adrenaline kick after three seconds and had to tell myself to breathe normally.

Finally, after an eternity, we found the light. Two glowing Yeti eyes, with a roar, as we began to wind along steep mountainous curves.

I loved those monster eyes—anything was better than the darkness.

And then my seatbelt decided to loosen. So every time we went around a curve, I came up off the seat a little bit. Only my own grip on the bars inside the vehicle was keeping me attached. This was still not as frightening as that initial blind climb.

Soon enough, we were done, and I climbed off the ride with shaking joints and a noticeable lack of breath.

At some point in the course of life, we learn that our childhood memories don't always match up with reality. Yards and playgrounds were not as big as we remember, monsters were not as realistic as memory paints them, facts we put together ourselves from hearsay and conjecture are revealed as glaring mistakes (like how I thought soufflé was pronounced SOFF-ull for an embarrassingly long time).

At some later point, apparently, we have to face the fact that our younger self was right about something.

Childhood Olivia was right: I am not good at roller coasters.

Something else I was right about: Cruella de Ville is awesome.

Picture of a golden-haired, pale-skinned moppet with a dalmation puppy toy. The girl is unwisely offering the puppy to a white-fur-coat-clad, red-gloved, black-and-white-haired woman with pale skin, who more often goes by the name of Cruella de Ville.

We saw a lot of characters on our walk through two parks. Male characters tended to be encased in costumes: Mickey, Pooh (adorable!), Pluto, Goofy, Buzz Lightyear. But most of the female characters are princesses, who are very human and very interactive. And it was only at the end of the day, just before we left to see what California Adventure could offer (turns out, booze), that we spotted Cruella de Ville at the gateward end of Main Street.

I had no idea they had a whole set of villains. Most of them are found only seasonally and in specific locations—but we lucked out, and here was Cruella, trying to get the little girl to give up her dalmatian puppy toy.

It must be challenging to be a Disney character—staying sweet and cheery underneath all that makeup and in that costume and with all those screaming children. More challenging still to be a villain, to walk the fine line between giving children a bit of a chill down the back of their necks and making their experience (and by extension, their parents') a torture and a blot upon the memory.

We watched Cruella for a few minutes, and she was fantastic: pleasant and approachable, but with a sinister air they never let the princesses play with. Look at the way she's holding her hands in the photo above—any woman who wears red gloves and uses her hands that gracefully is probably up to no good. Even kids can figure that part out.

Seattle's Two-Day Summer

There is no happiness so potent as being out in Seattle on a sunny day. It's a contagious, city-wide feeling, as though the sluggish, mossy blood in everyone's veins gets replaced by champagne. It's lucky this past weekend was clement, as two of my close friends were getting married in an outdoor sculpture park. It was so beautiful, in fact, that I got off the bus early and walked an extra mile just to be out and about and ended up following this woman for five blocks:

An intersection in the city. A brunette woman with slightly dark skin faces away, wearing a lime-green print sheath dress. She has a large red tote over her right shoulder, and is carrying an orange bucket full of long, thin balloons for the making of animals.

We had our hair and makeup arranged and got the bride laced into her gown and met up with the groomsmen and groom. A limo took all ten of us up to Kerry Park for photos, and then to the Olympic Sculpture Park for more photos. By this time it was nearing 5 p.m. and was about 80 degrees—we bridesmaids were totally happy in our strapless, jewel-toned gowns, but the groomsmen were a bit sweltery in three suit layers.

By this point, too, we'd been out in the sun for most of the day, but the makeup folk had given us plenty of sunblock and nobody was burnt. Instead, we swam through an invisible ocean of good cheer, a collective good mood shared with not only our fellow wedding party members but also the other people walking through the park around us. Dogs played in the chilly waters of Puget Sound, children ran around shrieking happily, passers-by stopped to gawk at the bride in all her glittering beauty.

And then it was time for the ceremony.

I think it's safe to say that the bridesmaids were more nervous than the bride, which is unusual, but everything went perfectly and soon we were standing on the patio, drinking daiquiris while the setting sun turned everything bright gold, including me:

Background is an outdoor patio. Olivia, normally pale of skin, glows golden in the setting sun. Her hair is red, her gown is bright yellow, and her earrings and necklace are glittering amber.The sun went down, the toasts were made, and the band began playing. Mr. Waite and I danced until my feet could dance no more, and didn't get home until midnight.

Nighttime in the pavilion at the Olympic Sculpture park. A white wall to the back is covered in colorful raindrops, and in front are the members of the Portage Bay Big Band. They wear white shirts and dark vests and hold various musical instruments.

It's raining again now, of course, but that's alright. We Seattleites are built for endurance. It will take more than one pleasantly rainy Monday to bring us down from our vitamin-D high.

Lucille Bluth And The Body Battle

Lucille Bluth, the booze-swilling, social-climbing, sexpot matriarch played by Jessica Walters in Arrested Development, is quite probably my favorite television character of all time. I fully intend to transform into her on my fiftieth birthday—minus the completely devastating criticism of loved ones. A pale woman with carefully coiffed short hair, a bright pastel-patterend blazer, with the world's most intimidating scowl.

Because Lucille's tongue? It is beyond vicious. Often this is awesome, but equally often it is jaw-droppingly, inventively mean. Which is why she's so fun on tv, but also why I would never ever want to be part of her family.

The comment that always sticks in my mind is one she makes to her daughter, Lindsay, in regard to a brooch Lindsay always wanted to inherit. Lucille objects:

"But it's an elephant and I didn't want to invite the comparison."

This in spite of the fact that Lindsay is later criticized as a flat-chested "surfboard," and in spite of the fact that she is played by Portia di Rossi, one of the world's prettiest skinny people. And this is all very funny, but it hits very close to home.

Skinny is a thing I once was that I am not any more. There are times when I miss the thinner me's ability to enjoy shopping and fit into awesome clothes. There are times—and not as far apart as I'd like—when I feel like bigger me is failing some moral test by taking up an unwarranted amount of space and having unsightly blemishes like stretch marks and cellulite. When the overwhelming pressure to be thin thin THIN gains a temporary victory over my health, my peace of mind, and my love for pasta and cheese and fine cocktails.

But there are also times when I get to fight back.

One of these happened today. I was out shopping for a dress to wear to a bridal brunch this weekend—idly shopping, hoping to find something but not willing to lay odds on my success. As usual, I was in Anthropologie, when all of a sudden one garment stopped me right in my tracks.

Ladies, you haven't really lived until you have asked a saleswoman, "Could you get me the largest size you have in the elephant dress?"

Close-up of bodice pleating with the elephant-and-polka-dot fabric on a strapless party dress.Elephants! Happy little Babar-style elephants, with polka dots! The pop of that yellow sash! The pleating on the bodice—so winking and naughty and sweet! Meanwhile, the quote-happy phonograph in my brain piped up automatically: "You don't want to invite the comparison."

And I realized: I totally want to invite the comparison.

Despite the fact that my proportions usually mean separates are going to fit better than off-the-rack dresses, and despite my tendency to avoid anything strapless on account of the need for support for the Double Dames … I had to try it on.

And it fit just beautifully.

The zipper zipped, and even without a strapless bra the bodice looks great—'40s pinup cleavage great—and I have the perfect yellow floral cardigan to throw over it to keep things family-friendly and brunch-appropriate.

And standing there in front of a triad of mirrors, wearing an elephant dress and boat shoes, I felt as though all the good things about Lucille Bluth were invoked: the backbone, the boldness, the supreme confidence in her own abilities to attract and manipulate and succeed on her own terms. And I feel equally that the put-downs, the barbed witticisms, and the vitriol would roll off me like water off a duck's back.

Few things on earth are as deeply satisfying as a dress that can make you feel both pretty and strong.

Plain, pale background, with a strapless black dress covered in tiny white elephants, with a bright yellow sash.

 

In Memory of Diana Wynne Jones

I never met Diana Wynne Jones, who died this past Saturday morning. I was simply one of her countless grateful and devoted readers, and like many others I read and re-read her books and held them close and deep in my heart. The first one I remember was Castle in the Air, one of the sequels to Howl's Moving Castle. I was about ten or twelve, and my recent discovery of the Arabian Nights had caused me to look for other stories with genies and lamps and such. After this, I read the Chrestomanci series and Dogsbody and Cart and Cwidder and everything else of hers I could find.

Her books completely transformed what I thought about fantasy, fairy tales, magic, and young adult stories. They changed the way I thought about parents, and siblings, and heroes, and villains. I was young and anxious and well aware of my own weirdness; at the time I thought that I was the only person who still liked fairy tales and myths and books that combined magic with a world that looked very much like our own. A Diana Wynne Jones book was like an oasis, a place where nothing was quite normal so you didn't worry about whether or not you stood out as odd. Certain scenes will be with me as long as I have memory: Cat sawing open his silver bonds with his left pinkie, or Sophie cursed into becoming an old woman.

Every so often, even as I grew up and studied Very Serious Literature in Very Dead Languages, I would make a foray into the library or used bookstore and see if there was anything new, or anything old I'd missed. Quite often, there was—and this constant dedication to her craft and her readers was as astonishing and magical as anything in the books themselves.

Her stories did that most impossible, and most valuable thing: create a living bridge from one mind and heart and life to another.

She will be deeply missed.