manifesta: (Kahlan)
2010-10-14 12:20 pm

Sirens Conference: Report #1

[Partially written on 10/10/10 before life got in the way and other manifestas needed to be written.]

I just got back into Seattle this evening and thus I bring you as much of a first report on the epic that is Sirens Conference as my brain (which is still on mountain time and thus precisely one hour ahead) can handle before collapsing into mush.

First impressions include: OMG PRETTY; an undeniable attraction to shiny, glittery things; sheer gratitude that free caffeine was offered at almost every opportunity; relief that everyone was chill and awesome; and the sense of being welcomed, by the Sirens staff, the Vail Cascade resort staff, and the attendees.

Sirens is a labor of love. It really is. This isn't a huge, sprawling con with hundreds or thousands of attendees; it's still in its infancy, a baby conference trying out its wings for the first (or in this case, second) time. The staff and volunteers worked tirelessly to make sure every person's experience was positive, respectful, and fun. They set the tone for the conference, and it could not have happened without their hard work.

As one of the organizers explained at the keynote, Sirens is a motley combination of various qualities found in different types of cons--it's part academic, part fannish, and part retreat. All three elements (plus more that I probably forgot) contributed to the experience, and although I went primarily for the academic bent, the fannish side of me skipped around in glee at all the pro-female geekery going down, and I felt the retreat aspect all the way down to my bones.

My presentation (on portrayals of women's strength and sexuality in urban fantasy and paranormal romance) went very well. I spoke for about 40 minutes (the longest amount of time that I think I have ever spoken in my life) before we dived into a great discussion. One thing I noticed about all the presentations, panels, and roundtables was that every person in the room simply loved the topic at hand. Everyone was incredibly enthusiastic and wanted to be there. I'll do a break down of some of the programming that I went to in the next post, but for now suffice to say every last bit of it was fabulous, and I came back feeling both relaxed and re-energized. 

Additionally, I'd like to thank some people for their support both before and during the conference: To those who have commented on any topic on my DW prior to my presentation and thus helped shaped my analysis, for your bravery and your insight; to Dr. Laura Vivanco, who was incredibly generous in giving her time to edit my paper; to one of my professors, who will remain anonymous so her name isn't associated with my journal, but was also very supportive in looking over my paper and giving both her encouragement and advice; and to my new friends that I made while at Sirens and the people who made the conference into a safe, welcoming space. It was an enriching, inspiring experience and I encourage anyone who has been thinking about it to register for next year's con* (the theme of which is monsters! Lots of good meta there).


*The registration fee for next year's con is $150 if you register here before November 1st. I also recognize that the expensive nature of the con is significant in many ways, which I promise to address in my next report.
manifesta: (Marauders)
2010-08-10 09:22 pm

The one with the unwritten paper (that should have been done last month)

So I realized today that for my presentation for SirensCon, I have to effectively create two different write-ups: an academically pristine version for the paper, and still very shiny but imperfect version for the actual presentation. This means swapping between my academic voice and my natural voice, which is full of "y'all"s that make my friends look at me askance because a) I don't have an accent and b) I'm not from the south but in fact both coasts (but half of my family is deeply southern, okay?) and plenty of sinful contractions. I'm also wrestling with the fact that I won't have any props--no poster, no PowerPoint, nada. Just me. Talking. With nothing to gesture frantically at.

The paper/presentation is currently just bits and bats, but I wanted to share a quote I read today and will be including. It's from Ellen Neuborn's essay “Imagine My Surprise” in Listen Up: Voices From the Next Generation.
“I don’t understand where the programming began. I had been taught that girls do could anything boys could do. Equality of the sexes was a unimpeachable truth. […] I’m a good feminist. I would never apologize for having a different opinion.
“But I did.
“Programming. It is the subtle work of an unequal world that even the best of feminist parenting couldn’t overcome. It is the force that sneaks up on us even as we think that we are getting ahead with the best of the guys. I would never have believed in its existence. But having heard it, amazingly, escape from my own mouth, I am starting to recognize its pattern.” (pg. 183)
Later, she asks:
"Do you think you would do better? Do you think you would recognize sexism at work immediately?
“Are you sure?” (pg. 184)
Sometimes it can be excruciating, trying to find the language to explain how something we see, do, or hear reflects societal norms and thus can be potentially very damaging. It becomes even harder when there's a chorus of voices shouting that you're wrong, you're imagining things, it's not as bad as it seems, you're just looking for a fight.

I feel like this quote eloquently describes just how difficult it can be to recognize, and put into words, not just the systemic, implicit norms that perpetuate inequality but how those same systemic, implicit norms can silence any discussion about inequality--thus perpetuating it even more so. The system is self-serving in its design to preserve the status quo. This quote also demonstrates that picking up on sexism, or even (especially?) internalized sexism, can be incredibly difficult, even for people who are educated or aware of the issues.

To echo Neuborn, do you think could recognize rape culture automatically? Do you think you could always identify victim-blaming, or make the distinction between a forced seduction and a rape? 

Are you sure?
manifesta: (Mischief Managed)
2010-08-02 05:31 pm

sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes the cigar is actually a cannon

A huge thank you to everyone for your thoughts on my last two posts. It was certainly an interesting weekend.

The idea of even having to compile this list makes my stomach turn, but I figure it will be useful in future conversations. These are variations of statements I've seen made in recent discussions that were used to dismiss someone's concerns or objections about the potential negative implications of a book's content and minimize their argument. In my response to each I've included reasons why I believe these statements were made and why they are not the best choices for a conversation, particularly one that involves discussion regarding inequality. I write this because all too often it's the people who bring up issues about power and privilege that are not given the benefit of the doubt in a discussion and are forced into defending their position instead of hosting a conversation about it.

(1) Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. AKA, you're reading too much into it. I think this one crops up so frequently because high school English classes in the States try very hard to emphasize the apparent symbolism in every single book they can get their hands on (truly, I love Elie Wiesel's Night, but I'm not convinced there's symbolism in the snow) and after being told over and over again to look for the deeper meanings that seem to exist solely because you wanted to find them, the whole concept becomes silly. Combine this with (a) the internalization or lack of awareness of systemic inequality and (b) the societal norms that perpetuate and disguise systemic inequality, and the idea that the text is more than just the text is rendered unfathomable.

This cut was brought to you by the Society for Shorter Reading Pages (SSRP). )
manifesta: (Battle Eyeliner)
2010-07-30 10:13 pm

backlash against feminism: the YA version (or, it's not just for stuffy politicians anymore!)

It seems the interwebs has suddenly decided to provide me with plenty of fodde-- I mean, food for thought.

Hannah Moskowitz discusses "the boy problem" in YA.

"The problem we're talking about is fairly simple: boys don't read YA. This isn't an issue of "boys don't read"--we're not talking about these boys. We're talking about avid readers, boys who ate up middle grade but go to adult fiction and non-fiction instead of passing through YA, and nobody really knows why."
I agree with some of her bullet points, but she loses me about halfway through with this:

this cut has been brought to you by the Society for Shorter Reading Pages (SSRP) )
Tamora Pierce posted an eloquent reply on her own blog.

just kidding about that society thing )

With this, I think the "there is no YA for boys" myth has been adequately debunked. I also don't think I need to address the fact that why yes, Harry Potter is YA, or that pretending one of the best selling books in the world isn't YA is quite convenient when that series happens to be about a boy and the discussion is about boys in YA.  

Which allows me to move on to what the heart of the boys-in-YA debate is really about, and the underlining belief system of Moskowitz's post: That by writing about girls, by empowering girls, we have somehow managed to disempower boys through a lack of representation or quality of characterization. And in believing this, can we go back to the boys now, please? (Also known as Sarah Palin's so-called feminism.) 

There have been similar arguments recently made  in various arenas, including politics and academia. They say we achieved equality, we finally made it, but in doing so we also disempowered men.* The gender and women's studies programs are too exclusive, they say. We need to study men more! Men are four times more likely to commit suicide, they say, and more women than men are graduating college. Naturally, the people to blame are the women, what with all the time and money spent catching up from that problem with no name thing. Meanwhile the poor men have had their masculinity withered away.

This is called backlash. I tried to find a link that describes it in better detail than I can, but the posts I've read in the past have been lost in the nether. Backlash is when a movement toward equality for a marginalized group gains momentum and the privileged group(s) freak out. This usually takes the form of denying that there's a problem or firmly announcing that the problem has been taken care of, all while doing a little dance in the opposite corner of the room to refocus the attention on who's really suffering.

Yes, boys deserve to have books written about them as much as girls. But it seems to me that we aren't talking so much about whether there are books out there for boys as we are about whether we perceive there to be as many books for boys  in comparison to the surge of books for girls. It also reminds me of how minority groups are often perceived as the numeric majority in a room even when they only represent 30% of its composition. The current ratio of boy to girl books (if we must abide by gender roles here) is closer to being equal than that, but in comparison to all the books written for boys in the past? No. We've come a long way, but it's still an uphill battle. And if there are more girls than boys represented in YA right now, it's because they've never had this kind of significant representation before.

Moskowitz asked, "...how many books about girls do we need before we can consider that a job well done?"

Make no mistake: We're just getting started. Advocating for more books for boys is one thing, but shifting the blame onto girls and women undermines the tentative progress** we have made and neglects to take into account the intersection of social systems of power and the books that we read.



*Although I don't understand how we achieved equality AND disempowered men at the same time.

**And by tentative, I mean entirely relative. See my posts on YA and rape culture.

As an aside, I don't know if I agree 100% with the entirety of Tamora Pierce's post. I'm not up for trying to figure it out at the moment, however.
manifesta: (Saving the World)
2010-07-14 02:22 pm

female fantasy authors: fact or fiction?

A quick thank you to all those who posted some love on [personal profile] petra's Be Excellent to Each Other meme. I really appreciated all your comments about my work here at [personal profile] manifesta, especially considering how burnt out I've been feeling lately. <3 I'm hoping to join in with some more love of my own soon, too.

There's been some discussion recently regarding the presence of women fantasy writers over at [livejournal.com profile] xicanti's journal. Apparently the general consensus seems to be that female authors are not nearly as prevelant in secondary world/epic fantasy as much as contemporary, urban, or romantic fantasy. I find this interesting, because my bookcases are filled with female fantasy writers.

Some examples include Anne Bishop, Melanie Rawn (who, to me, defines the term 'epic fantasy'), Holly Lisle, Mindy L. Klasky, Trudi Canavan, Jacqueline Carey, Amanda Downum, Violette Malan (currently reading), Sara Douglass, Elizabeth Haydon, Sherwood Smith, Tamora Pierce, and more. Women have been incredibly influential in the evolution of the genre. Margaret Weis and Laura Hickman were two out of the three leading authors of Dragonlance. And what about Mercedes Lackey? So to quote [livejournal.com profile] xicanti: "It’s not that women are producing little in the way of quality fantasy--it’s just that they get less press."

Indeed. I do think that there is an underrepresentation of women in epic fantasy in comparison to male authors, but female fantasy authors are not unicorns.
manifesta: (Battle Eyeliner)
2010-06-09 12:05 pm

science fiction is apparently devoid of women

A new SF anthology is coming out titled "Before They Were Giants." Of the 15 contributing authors, only 1 is a woman.

[livejournal.com profile] cassiphone's periodic table of SF women:

"One of the most frustrating responses I heard to the ‘Before they were Giants’ discussion, itself the latest in a long line of TOC rows, was the kneejerk “but there just aren’t as many women who are giants in the field.”

"[...] Because of course there were women. And it’s time to stop and think about the fact that the majority of authors considered “giants” in the history of field are male. Is it really because their books were better? Because what they were saying was more important? Because more people were talking about them, critiquing them, being influenced by them? Are we absolutely certain that none of those things could have been affected by societal pressures other than the pure “quality” of the text?"
The editor of the anthology responded here. (Also indicates that nonwhite and LGBTQ authors were not considered.)

[livejournal.com profile] strangedave on the lack of female representation in SF anthologies. Apparently and a few others have been criticized for criticizing the lack of diversity.
"And we are still having this conversation in the SF field after at least 35 years. If just politely helping people become aware of the issue worked, we wouldn't still be talking about it. And yet, it keeps happening, again and again. People are still putting together anthologies without even thinking about gender as an issue — and the only way to make them think about the issue is to make sure it isn't thought of as just a nicety, just another thing to try and improve that fellow editors will give you hints about (like font choice, or cover layout), but rather as something that is a major mistake if you get it wrong, something that will attract not mild criticism but anger. Anger is entirely appropriate. No one should expect not to get publicly called on their big mistakes, rather we should all endeavour not to make them, and learn to handle them gracefully when we do (as, to his credit, Sutter largely has)."

When fail is put on the interwebs, I consider it free game. If it's relatively isolated incident that doesn't impact a ton of people, I might contact the author(s) privately or on their own site and address the issue there. But this is an anthology that we're talking about; it's going to be on physical bookshelves and it's going to impact people who will never run across the discussions that are happening right now on the internet. That anthology is not going to come with a disclaimer that apologizes for its silencing of nonwhite, LGBTQ, and female SF writers. And so if the only option availiable is to discuss its inherent privilege all over the internet, then that's what I intend to do.

For additional reading: A partial podcast transcript about the debacle.

manifesta: (Coffee Shop)
2010-05-22 03:21 pm

sexuality and choice in YA

Sumayyah on faith, choice, & sexuality:
"So, the young adult literature world has (for some time) been all abuzz with talk about female sexuality. It's a hot topic that's been debated and talked about and explored forever. I have very strong opinions about it, about who gets to regulate it (if anyone at all) and whether or not women have it (because, apparently, some people think that women don't have red hot blood running through their veins. or hormones.). And when you boil it down, my opinion is this: choice and freedom.

[...] As a Muslim, I choose to wear the headscarf, I choose to remain a virgin until I get married and I choose that I will shank any man that thinks I'm going to do different. Similarly, another friend can choose to sleep with her boyfriend, she can choose to wear tight clothes and strut her stuff, and she can choose to laugh in the face of the people who thinks she's wrong for doing so.

I think that as a world we need to stop trying to simultaneously suffocate and liberate our girls and women. Educate them. Let them choose. Don't make girls feel like they're sluts for choosing a sexual life. And don't make girls feel guilty for choosing to pick one sexual partner and stick with them. For not wanting to flaunt her body for you."
manifesta: (Battle Eyeliner)
2010-05-17 02:00 pm

earning the happily-ever-after

Remember, the 3W4D Book Giveaway ends tonight at 11:59PM PST! The contest entry post is here.

From Kiersten White, author of the upcoming YA Paranormalcy, on romance in YA:
"But I knew—KNEW—that we were meant to be together. And if I could just figure it out, convince him, I’d be able to root out his personal demons. He would confess he simply feared he wasn’t good enough for me/was actually protecting me, and we’d be able to have our happily-ever-after.

As long as I earned it. As long as I was good, and pure, and self-sacrificing. Then I could make it work.

Romantic, isn’t it?

Wait. You mean that was creepy? You mean that no girl should ever, EVER have to “earn” the right to be treated well in a relationship? That if a guy treats her like that, he is not worthy of her?

[....] So here’s to making sure that our girls know they are worth far, far more than a bad boy. That they shouldn’t have to work to earn the right to be treated like they deserve. That they shouldn’t have to sacrifice themselves or their dreams for someone to love them."
It's good to know some YA authors are listening.

I particularly appreciated her emphasis on how women, and especially young girls, are socialized to believe that they must earn their happiness, and in earning it they must compromise themselves (which isn't portrayed as compromising oneself at all, but rather making a general compromise for the good of the relationship if not solely for the boy).

I think that, in regards to relationships, there is a very strong American rhetoric of "making it work." Couples are encouraged to compromise and to be flexible enough to take as well as give, which all in all is sound advice. Gender roles throw a wrench into the equation because women are already encouraged by society to give more than they take. And so when you look at the current trend in romantic YA (and especially in paranormal), what Americans see--because it's what they expect to see--is a couple "compromising" when what's actually occurring is a greater portion of the burden of "compromise" being shouldered by the woman.
manifesta: (Never Turn Down Tea)
2010-05-03 01:45 pm

publishing's knapsack

In a guest post at The Rejectionist, Zetta Elliott applied Peggy McIntosh's Unpacking the Knapsack principles to the publishing industry.
"1. You can submit a manuscript and it will likely be judged by someone of your race—even at a multicultural press.


2. You can query a number of agents who have extensive experience selling manuscripts by authors (and to editors) who share your race.

3. You can be pretty sure that the book buyer in a large chain or indie bookstore is someone of your race.

4. You can be pretty sure that your book—if it’s lucky enough to get reviewed by the major outlets—will be assessed by someone of your race who operates with an appreciation of your culture’s particular literary tradition(s).

5. You can attend numerous children’s literature conferences with programming that reflects your interests and/or your culture, you can network with industry professionals who share your race, and otherwise feel comfortable as a member of the majority.

6. You can write about anyone who lives anywhere and be accepted by many as an extraordinarily creative person and/or an expert on topics outside of your lived experience."

And the list goes on.
manifesta: (Dangerous)
2010-04-29 11:06 pm

hook, line, and sinker

I promise the 3W4D book posts are forthcoming; my life should wind down considerably after today. Expect the first book analysis sometime tomorrow.

However, today at Dear Author I found the perfect example of what I refer to when I say that not all readers, even educated ones, can recognize a forced seduction scenario as rape every time. I think this particular example highlights exactly how hazy the distinction can be and the cognitive dissonance we may endure when faced with two conflicting images: how we are inclined, as a society, to believe that if, later on, a rape is presented as though the woman wanted it, then we dismiss any other reactions she may have had.
"This is one of the problematic areas. Charlotte is not a prostitute but nor is she a virgin. At the beginning of the coupling, it appears from Charlotte’s point of view that this is unwanted and initially fights him off, yet the two proceed to climax. Later in the chapter, clues are given that Charlie not only consented but was a full participant. During the consummation scene, I wasn’t sure. I read it twice and came away with some ambiguity. However, the post consummation exchange displays what I enjoyed so much about this story."
This book received a B grade from Jane at Dear Author.
manifesta: (Default)
2010-04-26 02:44 pm

three weeks for dreamwidth book giveaway! aka rules and other necessary details

It's [community profile] three_weeks_for_dw!

I mentioned briefly, back in the dark ages prior to [personal profile] manifesta's renovation, that I wanted to do a giveaway of books that I thought were awesome. More recently I brought up the idea of analyzing some of these books, focusing what I thought was done poorly or done well, and there seemed to be some support for this idea.

So, here's the deal:

1. Over the course of the next Three Weeks I'll be posting about different books that I've read in the last 8 months. The facets I will focus on in my analysis will vary from book to book but ultimately stem from a feminist perspective, and I'd highlight whatever I thought relevant or simply struck my fancy.

2. I will try very, very hard not to post spoilers. If I do think something is spoilery but essential, I'll hide it under a cut.

3. My discussion of each book will not be comprehensive; i.e. if one of the female characters is stuffed in a refrigerator, I'll mention that, but if there are tragic plot holes, I might not mention that (though really, if there are tragic plot holes I think I'd be less inclined to consider the book "awesome"). Thus I wouldn't by any means consider my posts to be reviews, but because this is a giveaway, I suppose you could say that I'm endorsing them.

4. There will be two (2) winning participants, which means I will be giving away two (2) books,* though I will be posting about more books than that. Winners can choose which book from the ones that I've posted about as their prize. I don't have a finalized list of books that I intend to include, but they'll range from fantasy to romance to paranormal romance and include at least one YA. I realize this isn't a very broad spectrum and won't suit everybody, but it's what I like to read.

Because Three Weeks is a celebration of Dreamwidth and a way to foster content and community, there are a few rules. You must do one of the following to enter the giveaway:

a. post at least one (1) entry of 250 words or more exclusively to Dreamwidth (personal journals, comms, etc.) for the festival, content choice up to you; if you want to do photos, vids, poetry, icon spams, etc. that's fine, too
OR
b. post at least five (5) comments of 50 words or more (each) to Three Weeks-related content** during the festival

Don't know where to start? All posts tagged with three weeks for dreamwidth or threeweeks will show up on this feed: http://www.dreamwidth.org/latest?feed=threeweeks

The word minimum is more of a recommendation than a strict guideline. Quality over quantity.

I reserve the right to disqualify any entries or comments that I consider to include hatespeech of any kind.

5. At the end of the Three Weeks festival, the week of May 10th, I will make a post that people can comment on to enter the giveaway. Your comment, in order to be considered eligible, MUST INCLUDE a link to your entry or five separate links to your comments. (If you're not sure how to link to comments, look for a 'LINK' button around or below each individual comment.)

You do not have to be subscribed to me to enter. You also do not have to link to or comment on my journal or entries, but if you'd like to signal-boost the giveaway, I'd appreciate that.

I recognize that not everyone who reads DW content has a DW journal. I could require that people sign up with the site in order to participate, but I don't want a flood of otherwise unused accounts sitting around after the festival's done. I will accept open-ID*** participants that post comments on Three Weeks-related content but ask that you consider trying out DW. We're pretty cool. Really.



Questions? Thoughts? Feel free to comment, message me, or email me at manifesta at dreamwidth dot org.

Ironically, this week is my busiest of the quarter, so I may not be as active around the community as I would like. I will try to read and comment as much as possible, but my response time to any queries may be slow. Please have patience with me.

And on another vein, I truly wish I could give away more than two books, but it isn't plausible at this time. Perhaps in the future I'll do a used-book giveaway, which may cut down on costs.

*Giveaway open to everyone on the planet as long as I can ship to you through B&N, Amazon, or some other book distributor. If you would prefer an ebook version, then assuming there is one, I can do that, too.
**I chose to restrict comments to Three Weeks content in order to promote feedback within the festival itself. If anyone has serious issues with this, I will consider changing it to include comments on entries outside the festival.
***I will not accept anonymous entries because I won't be able to figure out if you were the one who actually posted the linked comments.
manifesta: (Psych Major)
2010-04-20 10:19 pm

more thoughts on forced seduction and rape culture

[trigger warning for discussions of rape culture]

I've had a week to think about it, and the fallacy I keep coming across whenever there's a discussion regarding rape culture in books is the notion that if the reader is educated, then they are exempt from being influenced. This notion focuses on a small portion of readers that have been educated about what rape culture is and what it looks like, can recognize rape culture when they read or see it (and let me be the first to say that there are times when I, as a violence prevention and survivor advocate, and as someone who analyzes everything, cannot recognize it), and ignores the social norms that are inherent to and disguise, to the point of acceptance, rape in our society. It also shifts the burden of responsibility to the individual to educate themselves about what rape--and what the social norms that perpetuate rape--looks like.

Forced seduction scenarios contain an inherent element of confusion. They blur the line between rape and not-rape, perpetuating the society-accepted notion that "no" really means "yes." They are different from rape fantasies because a properly constructed rape fantasy not only defines itself as a rape fantasy but also creates a context that validates what consent is and isn't. While rape fantasies may still have a psychological impact on the reader, forced seduction fantasies are far more dangerous, because in a rape fantasy the reader is made aware that it is rape that is occurring, whereas in a forced seduction fantasy, there's no such tell.

I am a proponent of education that paints a clear picture of what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like. However, no education in the world can stand in the face of the repetitive and mixed messages American* culture is currently sending through every possible venue. Popular culture can be a magnificent, terrifying force. I'm sure there are people out there who can say, with utmost certainty, that they know exactly what rape and rape culture looks like and that they would be able to identify every facet of it every time. And I have no doubt that they can. But this isn't about the individual.

When books, movies, songs, advertisements, and tv shows, the things we buy and the things that are force-fed to us, depict unhealthy relationships as healthy and violence against women as acceptable, then even a discerning individual's ability to see beneath the sparkle can waver. Even more significant than these messages' impact on the individual is the impact they can have on the group. The 'culture' part of 'rape culture' reflects the systemic and institutional schemas that normalize rape on a scale of millions. 

I am currently in the midst of conducting experimental trials regarding stereotype threat, i.e. negative stereotypes about a particular group that reduces performance on a related task. The particular stereotype threat my research focuses on is the stereotype that women are bad at math. Previous research has found that almost all American women have been exposed to and are thus influenced by this stereotype, regardless of whether they consciously believe it or are even aware of its existence. Simply checking the box that says 'female' before a math test is enough to consciously or unconsciously trigger the stereotype threat and reduce performance.

My point is that, in any discussion regarding rape culture or oppression or privilege, the words unconscious, subliminal, and implicit cannot be stressed enough. Simply by being a part of a culture, we are exposed to repetitive, frequently subtle, unrecognizable messages that we unconsciously allow to influence our beliefs, attitudes, and actions.

One example would be writers that write forced seduction scenarios. Either they have been exposed to the idea that a women who says no but then says yes after the hero ignores her original response is not rape, and

(1) thus not only consciously or unconsciously believe it themselves, but are also consciously/unconsciously sending it to the reader in equally implicit conditions because it corresponds with what societal norms say rape looks like, or

(2) consciously don't believe it, but underestimate the power of subliminal messages, particularly in the context of a culture that promotes the image of rape under narrow circumstances (which forced seduction does not fall under).

Rape thrives in part because women are blamed for the violence committed against them and because the definition of rape is frequently limited to a rape that coincides with physical violence. By writing forced seduction scenes, the author is caught in the bind that is rape culture, regardless of whether they recognize the harm their words can cause. It's a double-edged sword, one designed specifically so that women either perpetuate ideas that further their oppression or are silenced.

The other example would then be readers who intentionally or unintentionally read a forced seduction fantasy. A reader with education regarding healthy relationships or what rape looks like might be able to discern that it is, indeed, rape. Or they won't, and that'll be that. Or they won't, and this scene--coupled with other scenes and other books and other movies--might begin to chip away at what they thought they knew. Myths like gray rape might seem to gain credence.

A reader without any education regarding healthy relationships or what rape looks like might recognize it as rape. Or they might unconsciously or consciously integrate the scenario into their schemas of what rape isn't, based on what society has already taught them. If you're given two contrasting images, such as she said no/she liked it, the resulting cognitive dissonance will demand that you choose a side or find a happy medium. She said no = rape, she liked it = not rape, happy medium = it could have been rape, because she said no, but it wasn't, because she liked it.

It is rape culture when we're taught to believe that no means yes.

It is rape culture when our fiction reaffirms that no means yes and there is no context that disconnects this idea from reality.

It is rape culture when we're taught to believe that fiction that reaffirms that no means yes, without any context, doesn't harm us.

I don't consider myself to be patronizing women when I say that forced seduction scenarios are a symptom of a larger, cultural problem, one that not only sends mixed messages about what rape looks like but then also perpetuates the societal acceptance of violence against women. I don't consider myself to be patronizing women precisely because while I know for a fact that women are quite sharp, this kind of shit is sinister. 

We've been taught to believe that violence against women is acceptable, that rape is only rape if it's violent. To combat this idea we've worked hard to raise awareness and demand better, and we've seen progress. But now we face the conundrum of whether some of our attempts at progress reflect and promote the very attitudes we seek to rid ourselves of.
 
To go back to the original question of the responsibilities of the writer, I don't think that writers are obligated to teach readers appropriate beliefs and values. I do think that they are responsible and should be held accountable for the messages that their books send, messages that are reliant entirely upon the context that either validates or invalidates them, particularly when the content of the message coincides with subtle, real world attitudes and is conveyed in an implicit manner. I don't say this to censor authors or limit readers or suggest that only certain things should be written. A fantasy about a mass murderer doesn't hold the same water in terms of readers' unconscious or conscious impressions because it's quite obvious that in the real world, being a mass murderer is a Bad Idea. A romance that portrays rape as not-rape coincides with social norms that also consider some rapes as not-rape and is that much closer to normalizing and condoning narrow definitions of what rape is and what rape looks like.
 

*Though I imagine this extends to other cultures as well, being an American, I can only speak from my experience as an American.
manifesta: (Default)
2010-04-12 11:48 pm

forced seduction/rape fantasies & rape culture

Shiloh Walker wrote an interesting post on the responsibilties of a writer, specifically in the context of writing forced seduction/rape fantasies and whether or not they perpetuated violence against women.
"The discussion had a lot of focus on supposed responsibilities as writers. I’m not shouldering the responsibility of perpetuating violence against women if/when I decide to write a book with forced seduction or a book with a rape fantasy. Because I have no responsibility in the violence committed against women unless I’m one of the ones who either turn a blind eye when I see (or am aware) of a woman being assaulted, or I’m the one doing the assaulting."
Because I don't think I can better articulate my thoughts at this time, this was my reply:
"No, you are most certainly not responsible for perpetuating violence against women–only the perpetrators can do that.

My issue with forced seduction/rape fantasies is that they can subliminally advocate for its acceptance as norm. Many people, many women, do not recognize forced seduction *as* rape because our society tells them it’s not; our society says that they really wanted it all along, and as proof, the heroine is suddenly overcome with pleasure and falls in love with the hero in the end. If this was a straight-up stereotypical violent rape scene that had “THIS IS BAD” written in red all over it, there wouldn’t be a problem, because most people would read it and recognize it as violence, and then make an informed decision regarding whether or not they want to continue reading accordingly. A person unfamiliar with the definition of rape may not– and as a survivor advocate, I’ve come across a large number of people who do not, and further would not define forced seduction as rape. This is the message that forced seduction in romance novels has and in many cases continues to send, particularly because now days the “forced” part manifests in an even subtler, less easy to identify form than its 1950-70s cousin. By painting rape in a positive light through forced seduction we diminish its violence. The message taken away from that can result in conscious or unconscious beliefs about and narrow restrictions on what “real rape” looks like.

To be clear, I’m not referring to people who WANT to read forced seduction/rape fantasies. They exist, and their desires are completely valid, but they aren’t the demographic I’m focusing on. I’m also only referring to forced secution/rape fantasies where the heroine does not welcome the perpetrator’s advances but is then overcome; I’m not referring to fantasies where she is clearly distraught over the rape and wants nothing to do with the rapist.

I realize there isn’t a clean-cut answer and that advocating for a ban on forced seduction/rape fantasies would take away from the readers who want to read them, but their presence in your average vanilla romance presents a problem for unwary readers. Rape is perceived as such a blurry concept for so many women–after reading a forced seduction scene, would the reader thereafter be able to recognize the way her husband ignored her refusals, if he laughed and told her she wanted it, as rape?

Books send potent messages we don’t even realize we’re receiving. While the author does not perpetuate violence against women, I do wonder whether writing forced seduction/rape fantasies, without addressing them as a violent acts in the text, in turn promote rape *culture*–and that in some ways is even scarier, because while it doesn’t teach men to rape, it reinforces the notion for women that rape is only rape if it conforms to specific standards and includes overt violence. It doesn’t perpetuate violence, but it further confuses the distinction between what is and isn’t rape in a patriarchal society that relies on that confusion in order for violence against women to continue unchecked."
Thoughts? In some ways I feel like this discussion mirrors that of the rape culture and YA debate.
manifesta: (Rory/Logan Kiss)
2010-04-06 07:06 pm

re: healthy relationships in YA

Maggie Stiefvater on young love in YA, bold emphasis mine:
"I think true love comes if you believe in it. If teens get nothing else from SHIVER, I hope they get this: that if you are open to love and are willing to settle for nothing less than someone who is completely into you and just you, who respects you for who you are, who is happy with your boundaries and interested in keeping you happy, you will find it. I want every teen who reads SHIVER to settle for nothing less than a relationship with that kind of equality and respect. Because you'll get what you demand, and if you go into it knowing that sort of love is possible -- well, you're a heckuva lot more likely to get it. It kills me when I meet teen girls who are dating some jerk who is less than respectful of them or who is making them do things they aren't ready for or who is disinterested or condescending. Real love lets you be the person you're meant to be. It makes you a bigger person, not less of one."
Though I haven't read SHIVER, this is the kind of message I can get behind. Whether the author's intentions are translated to the text or not is up for debate (anyone care to chime in?) but as soon as I get my hands on a copy I'll discuss it here.

Another thing that interested me was what I found while digging up reviews for it. The general summary I see going around is this:
"For years, Grace has watched the wolves in the woods behind her house. One yellow-eyed wolf—her wolf—is a chilling presence she can't seem to live without. Meanwhile, Sam has lived two lives: In winter, the frozen woods, the protection of the pack, and the silent company of a fearless girl. In summer, a few precious months of being human... until the cold makes him shift back again.

Now, Grace meets a yellow-eyed boy whose familiarity takes her breath away. It's her wolf. It has to be. But as winter nears, Sam must fight to stay human—or risk losing himself, and Grace, forever."

Here's another summary from Beyond Hollywood:
"When a mysterious boy name Sam with yellow eyes show up, Grace realizes that he’s the wolf, but can only be human for a few months during the summer. In winter time, when it gets cold, he must revert back to wolf form. Further problems arise when a local boy is killed by a wolf, and a wolf hunt by the locals threaten Sam’s life. Can Grace save her hairy boyfriend?"
The most jarring difference between the two is how Grace's agency is framed. In the former, it's up to Sam to save himself, but in the latter, it's up to Grace to save him. It could very well be that it's a mix of both (and I don't doubt that it is), but both summaries convey a very different feel of autonomy. I think they also draw the line between a book that is just another mirror image of Twilight and a book where it's up to the mortal heroine to save her paranormal boyfriend, a new twist on a tired trope, and one that could potentially counter rape culture to boot.

Whether it actually does this... we'll see.
manifesta: (An's Fury)
2010-04-05 11:21 pm

the reality of oppression and the fantasy of freedom

Potential trigger warning for discussions regarding sexual assault/rape culture. Though I think it might be mostly in the links.

A week or so ago, [personal profile] kaigou wrote an incredibly powerful post in reaction to discourse occuring within the rape culture/YA debate. The post is currently frozen, but I still recommend reading it.

"What's the message in there? That to write a story where a girl stands up against the rape culture is only possible and believable if it's not in our world, and not in our present day? That we need to wait twenty years -- or be on another planet altogether -- before it'd be okay for a young girl to tell a guy where to get off and have her demands be respected?

"[...] Yes, science fiction and fantasy have their place. I'd be one of the last to argue otherwise. But in this context, in this genre, the contemporary has a power that cannot be defeated by "what it'd be like in thirty years" or "what it'd be like if we were all blue and living on Pluto" -- it can only be defeated, I've come to believe, by showing our next generation of women that the things they deal with, here and now, can be changed, should be changed, and that we -- the generation who went before, who now produces the works that these younger women read -- are aware of what they face, and we are using our own experiences to give them paths to follow, to lead them out of that goddamn cage of the rape culture, and that yes, as a matter of fact, that we do not believe that the only path to true love is to accept the stalker-rapist, that we call that as bullshit and are here to help them see there is a better life -- a better world! -- possible."  

In the post [personal profile] kaigou temporarily sets aside scifi-fantasy in favor of exploring the power of the contemporary (possibly also paranormal) YA (i.e. "this context") and demands why women and girls are only allowed to set boundaries and experience agency within scifi/fi but not contemporary YA. I think this raises some interesting questions, and I'd like to expand on it a little further. Note that I'm not setting contemporary YA and scifi/fantasy in opposition with one another, painting one as bad and the other as free of problematic portrayals of women; rather, I'm following the basic premise that women in scifi/fantasy are able to experience more agency (however layered or illusory) than their counterparts in contemporary YA due to fundamental beliefs about  women's lives in contemporary society that don't seem to apply to AUs.

I think it's a given to say that the contemporary holds a certain power of immediacy that scifi/fantasy doesn't, and I think this is significant in understanding why issues such as the perpetuation of rape culture become so prevalent across a single contemporary genre. I've said before that books often reflect the underlying beliefs of society, and while this holds true for scifi/fantasy as much as it does contemporary YA, by introducing the element of the fantastic we also introduce the possibility that not everything is the same as in the real world. Part of the reason scifi/fantasy, urban fantasy, and paranormal romance hold my attention from a meta-analytical perspective is precisely because of this possibility; it is also why I think they are incredibly powerful tools, particularly given their popularity and success, that could potentially shed light on systemic beliefs and counter them in an unrealistic context with realistic results.

That said, I think this exposes the inherent cognitive error that does set contemporary YA and scifi/fantasy in opposition: that scifi/fantasy should or does completely fill in the gaps left in between the reality of oppression and the fantasy of freedom. By this I mean the idea that if scifi/fantasy's role is to explore alternate possibilities, then contemporary YA's job is to reflect current realities. An alternate approach to the latter, and one I'm loosely basing on [personal profile] kaigou's above statement, is that contemporary YA's job is not only to reflect current realities but to also create a model for improvement.

This isn't to say that contemporary YA shouldn't tackle issues such as rape as a reality of many women's lives. But it is to say that the repetitive tropes that place girls and women in positions of vulnerability and their boyfriends in positions of power, without raising any questions about this arrangement in the text and thus subliminally advocating its acceptance does harm.* The defense that women are dealing with these issues in real life is not a reason to portray unhealthy relationships as healthy nor the women themselves as helpless victims too oblivious to recognize the violence in their own relationships.

From Bitch Magazine, in an article on why contemporary intersectional feminism isn't necessarily anti-racist,** which may seem off-topic, but I do believe the basic idea applies here, too:
"I mostly think this because my method of measuring where feminism is at isn't coming from the "oh, well it's better than it was before" place or the "oh, we need to understand that the second-wavers were women of their time" starting point. My measurement says that things have been really fucked up, are still really fucked up, but most importantly that I don't have to keep swallowing the pill of "understanding" why they remain that way in many instances."
Bold emphasis mine.

Part of the reason that many YA books are currently a vehicle for the perpetuation of rape culture is not just because the portrayal of relationships are riddled with socially accepted violence but also because we as a society have swallowed the defense of "this is the way things are." It is certainly pertinent to reflect "the way things are," but it is equally important to do so with an awareness and respect toward the people being impacted and to take a stance, implicitly or explicitly through the text, that does not in any way condone the behavior. 


*In accordance with my idea that genre books are the "dark mirror" to our reality--reflecting negative yet prevalent societal norms in a subtle manner--it follows that if stereotypical or negative portrayls of people, particularly marginalized groups, in scifi/fantasy books can have a dentrimental psychological impact on readers, then so, too, can contemporary YA. However I would suggest that the lag time between the absorption of the messages we receive and their solidification in our unconscious is greatly reduced (i.e. the amount of consistent messages need not be so high) due to the inherent relateability of contemporary/YA books. The messages are more powerful because they are all that more obvious. (And by obvious I refer to the connection between the realistic setting and the negative portrayal, not their subtlety as a function of privilege.)

**See how I slipped that in there? Read it. It's important, too.

Reposted because the original timestamp backdated it. Sorry if you're seeing this twice on your reading pages.

manifesta: (River)
2010-04-02 11:22 am

sirens conference etc.

I should really cease in promising which post will come next, because invariably that's the post I get stuck on, which then puts me off of writing any new content until I become unstuck.

I've been working on a proposal for Sirens Conference in between classes, salsa practice, and running pilot tests for experiment #1. 

"Inspired by the daring adventures of women characters and compelled by the brilliant works by women authors, Sirens is dedicated to women in fantasy literature. Our conference, part scholarly examination and part networking retreat, welcomes academics, authors, professionals, and readers—and encourages all attendees to provide their perspectives on fantasy books by women, female characters in fantasy works, the market for fantasy by and about women, and how to support women in fantasy literature."
The guests of honor this year are Holly Black, Marie Brennan, and Terri Windling. Anyone can propose a topic for a presentation and there are multiple mediums (papers, workshops, discussions, etc.) availiable. I think it's a great concept, but I wish it wasn't in Vail. 90 minutes from the nearest airport in Denver. At an expensive spa resort. I see the costs stacking up there, and while I recognize that the location was chosen specifically to create a private, welcoming atmosphere, it makes me question its accessibility for people who can't afford to drop several hundred dollars on a single con.

*****

Recent book acquisitions include His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik, Carnal Innocence by Nora Roberts, Auralia's Choice by Jeffrey Overstreet, Elantris by Brandon Sanderson, and Vision in White by Nora Roberts. 3 fantasy, 2 romance. I've already finished Vision in White; while I found some of the characterization to be overdone and annoying, it was a charming story.

I reread Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small quartet over Spring Break (Tamora Pierce has become my paragon of feminist high fantasy that I go running to, sometimes screaming, when the rest of the world seems to have gone utterly batshit) and it occurred to me how much more in-depth Pierce went/was allowed to go with Keladry in comparison to Alanna from her earlier books. Alanna certainly had her share of struggles, but because she was forced to pass as a boy, others treated her like a boy, and so she was not bombarded with others' judgments of her as incapable every day. Alanna's successes enabled her to believe in herself, because when she succeeded, others also saw her succeed; with Kel, when she succeeded, others saw her fail. Kel's successes weren't considered legitimate in the eyes of the men (and some women) who wanted her to fail, and so the rugged determination borne from success in Alanna's case actually had to come from somewhere deeper for Kel. While Alanna's story will probably always be my favorite of Tamora Pierce's, Keladry's contains a more nuanced look at gender relations, particularly at the emotional level, and illustrates Tamora Pierce's growth as a writer.
manifesta: (Alex/Izzy)
2010-03-22 09:38 pm

reading & writing female characters link roundup

Congratulations to Sarah J. Maas on her book deal with Bloomsbury for her novel, QUEEN OF GLASS! Sarah has been on submissions for many months now, and it will be wonderful to finally see QoG on the shelves in 2011/2012.

Also, welcome to new subscribers! If you're here because I added you, it's probably because I found you via the non-fandom friending meme. I usually try to introduce myself/comment relatively soon before or after adding someone, so if I haven't yet, I will soon! A general overview of what this journal's about can be found here.

Although I only post on DW, in support of Three Weeks for Dreamwidth I'm planning a series of original content posts that will go live during the three week celebration. If you have any suggestions, please feel free to comment or PM me.

******

Loving the Unlikeable Heroine from Dear Author:
"I often find their heroism in the lack of compromise to their characters, their lack of subservience to the traditional fairy tale model of Cinderella, the ultimate “cinder girl,” who humbly accepts social ostracism and the abusive attentions of the “wicked stepmother” (aka the Bad Mother). And it’s not just that I want to see these heroines “rewarded” with love. In fact, I appreciate that the genre can celebrate these women without changing them overmuch, even as I wonder sometimes if I am in the minority for liking them so much."
DA's definition of the what the "unlikeable" heroine is leans toward a woman who exhibits (and DA acknowledges this) traditionally male traits--rudeness, impatience, and arrogance, for starters. Call me crazy, but an unlikeable heroine for me is one who is utterly unable to stand up for herself or others or is so compromising that she constantly, and to her own detriment, puts others--particularly the lead male character--before herself. The bright side is that if the book can convince me to hang in there long enough, I can respect those characters if they eventually grow into their strength. One example would be Meiglan from Melanie Rawn's Dragon Star trilogy, who wasn't strong in the way that the majority of the otherwise fierce female cast were, but was able, in the end, to be strong in her own way. Of course, Rawn had an entire epic fantasy trilogy to develop Meiglan's character, meanwhile surrounding her with a very independent and diverse cast that carried the book. Nor was she a main character. A romance novel doesn't have these advantages, which may be why I'm less tolerant of what can be fatal flaws.

First Girl Ever by Marie Brennan at SF Novelists:
"What is fresh is the stuff that follows the First Girl Ever, the stuff that doesn’t get talked about nearly as much. And this is where I reveal why Pierce is my touchstone, because she didn’t just write a FGE story; she went on from there, too. The first two books of the Alanna quartet are about the heroine disguising herself as a boy and winning her shield; the second two are about what happens after. Because her problems don’t end there. She’s the first Tortallan lady knight in centuries, but not everybody likes that idea, and so it takes legendary deeds on Alanna’s part — and the rise to power of a younger generation, the guys who grew up with her and acknowledge her worth — before she’s anything like accepted at home."
Tamora Pierce was my introduction to fantasy, and especially my introduction to fantasy written by and for women/girls. I agree that we tend to take the First Girl Ever stories for granted, because girls doing something for the first time isn't considered all that revolutionary anymore, and there's this assumption in the air that women are engaged in this unstoppable forward momentum and it's only a matter of time before we're, y'know, Totally Equal. I think this is an accurate perception in and of itself, but danger lies in forgetting that we are still a long way from equality, or that there aren't any more FGE stories to tell. I also really appreciate Brennan's point that there's even more of a story in the details of what happens after the original story is told, and that a movement is not propelled by a single individual. If there's momentum, it's because a lot of people are moving forward, often in the face of immense opposition.

*****

Up next, for the curious:
-my distinction between traditional and modern urban fantasy & a (long over-due) commentary on Philip Palmer's "Is Urban Fantasy Really All About Sex?"
-a discussion of the first three Bloody Jack novels by L.A. Meyer from a feminist perspective
manifesta: (Dangerous)
2010-02-07 08:46 pm

romance novels ad nauseam & academia

fiction theory has a lot of good stuff to say:

"It boiled down to me wanting to say that I think we as writers have an obligation to remember that when we write about things that they've actually happened and will happen to real people, and that our works may fall into the hands of someone unfortunate enough to have some experience, directly or indirectly, with them. But more than that, what people read shapes their attitudes and their attitudes shape their actions (or inactions) - and I think people who seek to make a profit should make sure that profit does not come at the cost of influencing bad attitudes and bad actions or harmful inactions on the part of our audiences. "
and
"Further, I don't like the implication that romance - being a female dominated field - is somehow the child of a lesser genre in the world of literature. I don't like the idea that when a man writes a romance under another genre, it's a sweeping literary classic. I do not like that men's reflections on women are given so much credibility but women's reflections on men and on themselves are devalued, relegated to genre ghettos. I do not like that somehow the women in male-written novels are seen as characters and symbols worthy of praise, but the women in women-written novels are Mary Sues. When women dare to express our desires and fantasies and dare not to stake our claim to sexuality, dare to reflect our side of the conversation when it comes sex, love, and relationships that it is automatically cheap, tawdry, infantile."
*****

Some meandering thoughts.

I. One of the reasons why I can go on and on about the implications and ramifications that various types of romance novels present is because they're written by women for women and thus reflect women, even when written badly and have traditional gender roles strewn all over the place, more than books written by men. Romance novels are a series of conundrums that at once adhere to and defy social norms. Further, I think others' responses to them--that romances are "soft" or "guilty pleasures" or not nearly as "deep" or not "real books"--are even more telling. Why are romance novels disparaged so-- and what does the answer imply?

II. I'm attempting to pick a specific topic regarding romance novels for my big feminist theory paper. My current ideas are a toss up between analyzing (1) how a woman's strength is moderated by her sexuality in paranormal romance/modern UF and (2) how heterosexual privilege is perpetuated and justified through romance novels. I realize I've touched on the former periodically but never dissected it in-depth or outside the context of other issues; one of these days I'll drum up the energy to write out a case. In regardgs to the latter, I'm thinking the Lambda awards fail, the lack of non-hetero novels that are (a) shelved in the romance section, (b) are not erotica, and (c) are preferably written by non-hetero authors, as well as the mandatory HEA or happily-ever-after that defines the genre but often exists with the very narrow confines of engagement, marriage, and a baby (even when the last isn't logically feasible).

III. In writing academic papers like these, I've often found myself thinking, "Oh! Fiction-theory had something awesome to say about this!" but being unable to quote her because an online blog isn't considered a reputable source. Instead I must cite works that have been published and established as official "feminist theory" written by official "feminists." This is frustrating, because a large chunk of my education has come from the online realm. The majority of feminist experience has been from offline community work and Livejournal. 100% of what I've learning about publishing has been from five years of dedicated online research. There is so much more knowledge out there worth having that isn't taught, or is rarely taught, in the classroom.
 
manifesta: (Kahlan)
2010-02-03 07:37 pm

gender violence in the military

Tamora Pierce speaks out on sexual harassment and rape in the military:
 

"Representative Jane Harman of California visited a Veterans' Administration hospital, where she was told by doctors that 41 percent of the women veterans seen there were victims of sexual assault during their time of active duty. Harman went on to say, "We have an epidemic here ... Women serving in the U.S. military today are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq."

[...] And it's not just a woman's issue--it's a GLBT issue, and a man's issue. Why has the military been allowed to get away with encouraging this behavior, even if it's only to turn a blind eye? Why are they not educating about this problem at the boot camp level, and the officer training level? Are they, and no one is mentioning it? "It's getting better" isn't good enough; we shouldn't have "friendly rape" as part of the issues leading to PTSD (as compared to "friendly fire," when one of our people is killed by our own troops or artillery)."
One of the many reasons why I love Tamora Pierce.

Related: a post on the reality of women in the military:
"11% of women have experienced rape. 1.2% of men have experienced rape. These are only reported numbers. The Veterans service exit polls show that 28% of all female service members were raped during their time in service. Reports must be made to chaplains, predominantly male chaplains, and in order for an investigation to be launched against the attacker the victim must make a public statement. Yet while the investigation goes on the victim must remain at their post, interacting every day with their attacker, who may be their superior in their job, and his "buddies". The military's answer to this problem is to create a method for women to report rape and get help anonymously, but there can still be no investigation without a public statement."
manifesta: (Dangerous)
2010-01-15 04:01 pm

portrayals of women in romance & The Raven Prince

It is an unfortunate truth that I live in a wind tunnel. For some reason, Bellingham likes to show its worst side in the morning hours when I need to walk to class. The wind tunnel is a direct line from my apartment to campus. With little to no cover. My jeans are still hanging out to dry from the crazy wind and rain.

However, an hour after my last class, it became perfectly sunny out. I live in a city with a cheeky sense of humor.

*****

Dry, warm, and armed with a caramel macchiato, I offer forth my analysis of The Raven Prince (with an introductory divergence into my reading habits).

I feel like I frequently purchase or choose to read books from specific subgenres (urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and historical romance in particular) in hopes of finding one that redeems the rest of the genre. Being a fantasy reader first and a romance reader second, urban fantasy and paranormal romance should be right up my alley. And in many ways, they are. Setting aside my dislike of repetitive tropes, I enjoy the fantasy aspects of most UF and PR. My main complaint tends to be the author's portrayal of women, using multiple boytoys or leather or guns to create the illusion of strength while still keeping them firmly tied down in the realm of acceptable femininity.  The most disturbing aspect of this is that the majority of these books are written by women for women.*

Historical romance is not only rife with strict gender roles and reduce women's worth to their sexuality, often times domestic violence is disguised as ecstacy, the laws of consent are bent until they're broken, and sexual assault is sugar-coated and justified. Given the fact that historically women are and have been oppressed by men and a system of male domination, I argue that it is inherent within any historical romance set prior to the 1970s that there will be rampant sexism.**

Which brings me back to every once in a while picking up another one of these types of books in hopes of finding something that isn't utterly appalling. I love history. To my chagrin, this is the first quarter that I've been able to take a history course since high school. And so it is a particularly awful quandry I've found myself in, wanting to immerse myself in a romance that takes place in a non-contemporary setting while also wanting the female characters to be written with respect.

There have been many women from history who we now describe as strong and empowered despite the times they lived in. These women persevered despite the oppression that surrounded them. Most didn't outright ignore their society's social norms but instead learned to adapt them. If they couldn't vote, they influenced their husbands'. If they could only wear skirts, they would wear trousers when in secret.  If they weren't allowed to fight in a war, hell, they disguised themselves as men and fought anyway.

It is because of this that I am convinced that historical romances can do better. I understand and respect the need for accuracy in historical romances, but accuracy is more than just correct fashions or dialogue--it is the little things, the details that differentiate a novel that depicts women in history as unknowing victims from a novel that illustrates women's strengths in the face of adversity.

Now. The Raven Prince

I picked it up on a whim over Christmas break and recently sat down to read it. It's a compelling, spicy tale of an impoverished widow who actively seeks a job (!!!) and becomes the resident Earl's secretary. Anna is snarky, inquisitive, and uncowed, even when dealing with Edward's temper. At one point, she questions the social construction of propriety:

"Had she ever met a prostitute? She thought not. such persons lived in a different world from poor country widows. A world that her community explicitly forbade from ever intersecting hers. She should do as John suggested and leave the poor woman. It was, after all, what everyone expected of her.

"John Coachman was offering his hand to help her up. Anna stared at the appendage. Had her life always been this constrained, her boundaries so narrow that at times it was like walking a tightrope? Was she nothing more than her position in society?

"No, she was not." (page 69)
Hoyt takes risks in writing The Raven Prince; Anna pushes more boundaries than I've ever seen in a historical. She toes the line between what is acceptable and what is not while still remaining, if somewhat precariously, on the side of societal respectability. She does not break so many rules that she becomes discredited as fringe or Other, but instead bends enough of them that she shines as a strong individual capable of asserting her opinion and taking care of herself.

This is what I mean when I say women in historical settings can and did adapt to their circumstances instead of merely conforming. This is what I mean when I say historical romances can do better.

There are flaws, of course. The constant reminder of how Anna is "feminine" and Edward "masculine" was overkill and unnecessary, explicit gender stereotyping. Edward himself was as decent a hero as I've seen, which the exception of an episode later in the book where he pinned her against a wall with his weight in a fit of rage. Believe it or not, this falls under the banner of domestic violence, and it is a prime example of how violence against women is frequently glorified as acceptable "because she deserved it" or passed off as sexual aggression in romance novels and our society at large. He didn't hurt her, but he damn well made sure she knew he could if he wanted to.

Additionally minor spoiler warning )

I also have a niggling feeling that Anna is only allowed to bend so many rules because she is a widow. I'd like to see a romance of a single, nonvirginal  single woman in a historical period that questions the structure of her society and then defies it. In many ways a single woman would have more to lose, and so I believe the risks taken would be greater and thus more compelling.

Overall The Raven Prince is my favorite historical romance that I've read by far, and I'm looking forward to the second book, The Leopard Prince.*** Hoyt did justice to Anna and wrote her as a strong, salient female character despite and within the confines of the era's social norms. 



*If history is any indication, romance novels tend to quite accurately reflect the reality of middle-class, heterosexual White women. Romances of the 50s-70s featured rape as the main form of initial intercourse between the hero and heroine; rape was used as a justification for the female character's sexual pleasure in a social climate where women were not supposed to want to have sex, let alone enjoy it. I would theorize that the sexualization of women in modern UF & PR is a reflection of an evolved but decidely insidious form of the same gender stereotypes from the 50s. Women are allowed to have sex and be sexual, but only if it takes place in the form of what men want; women are allowed to be strong, but only in ways men find acceptable. A woman is not allowed to stand strong on her own merit. This isn't to say, of course, that women shouldn't wear leather or pursue multiple sexual liasions--certainly. I am more concerned about the overall trend, and, no, I'm not convinced that the what-sells-is-replicated model is a good enough answer. I question why it sells.

**Not that there isn't sexism in contemporary romance, or any other genre for that matter. Our society was built on and perpetuates sexism, and until that system is revolutionized, even the most egalitarian novel will reflect that.

***The interspersion of the fairytale "The Raven Prince" was a charming detail, one I hope is repeated. 


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