manifesta: (Dangerous)

One of the reasons for my radio silence has been a historical analysis paper on white feminity and sexuality in early romance novels (1950s-70s). Have I mentioned that my women's studies/history professors are benevolent and wonderful and let me write about genre books?

I turned in that paper earlier this week, and now I have some time on my hands before finals to reflect on it. I think it was one of my better papers on romance novels; the process also introduced me to quite a bit of excellent research that I can use for other projects, including this journal.

I'm going to preface this by acknowledging that I can be very critical of romance novels. I'm also very critical of fantasy (I'm waiting to hear back on a presentation proposal regarding urban fantasy/paranormal romance) as well as young adult (re: YA & rape culture) but I tend to pick on romance in particular. I believe, and even more so now after writing my last paper, that romance novels have the potential to change how women think about ourselves and each other. They can be an outlet for dreams, desires, fears, and unexplored possibilities. Their influence as a pop culture phenomenon is frequently underestimated--something I'll delve into later on. Romance novels are written by women, for women, and are about women, a trend that's increasing in other genres but has strong roots in romance. There's power in that, and it's heady stuff. 

What I've noticed is that there is a certain stigma against criticism within the romance community. I see it as backlash against two things. A lot of feminist criticism has taken gleeful aim at romance novels, most often in an unflattering fashion that condemns romance novels as a whole without acknowleding their positive aspects or diversity. Likewise, the general media and American culture also tends to portay romance novels as fluffy fantasies and romance readers as bored, uneducated housewives with nothing better to do. There's a lot of rage in response to these accusations and dismissals, and a lot of hurt. Further, the rage and the hurt stems from the way women have been and continue to be treated as lesser--a socio-cultural norm that rears its misogynistic head whenever women or emotional content become the focus of the story.

So this me saying that I acknowledge the hurt and the rage, and the history behind it. And this is also me saying that when I criticize romance novels, it is not because I think romance novels are purely wish-fulfillment fantasies or lesser-than. It is also not because I believe women are stupid.*

I bring up the issue of criticism of romance novels precisely because there is a connection between how women are treated and how romance novels are perceived. It isn't a coincidence that women just so happen to be systemically and institutionally oppressed, it isn't a coincidence that romance writers and readers just so happen to consist predominantly of women, and it isn't a coincidence that romance novels take the heat from both sides when one side sees them as a threat to women's empowerment and the other sides sees them as a threat to male privilege and thus, in the interest of self-preservation, both sides choose to condemn them.

The unconditional feminist criticism of romance novels is backlash against what some feminists see as the perpetuation of heterosexual, monogamous, frequently white gender roles. The empowering aspects of romance novels are eclipsed in the rush to generalize. Is this quality of unconditional criticism justified? No. Is it understandable that feminist critics have reacted out of a similar hurt and rage as romance writers and readers when they feel that women--because that is who and what it boils down to--are being threatened, dismissed, or silenced? Yes. There are very real feelings on either side, feelings that can lead to blanket statements and end up pitting women against women. 

The media, on the other hand, dismisses romance novels as lacking in value because society dismisses women. American culture is riddled with double standards, and unless women conform to specific gender roles, they're either castigated or ignored, and if they do conform to specific gender roles, they might be acknowledged, but only in a context that subtly invalidates them in comparison to men. Because romance novels frequently do, in general, conform to the "feminine" gender role, it's easy for the media to dismiss them and thus by extension dismiss women.

The question of how the romance community can convince the rest of the world that romance novels aren't fluff has been bounced around for decades. The romance community wants respect; they want to be reviewed by major newspapers alongside the literary and crime novels; they want to be able to read their books on their lunch breaks at the office without being looked down upon or hiding the cover. They want respect for romance novels.* They want respect for women.

The feminist community views romance novels as tools used to perpetuate strict gender roles, heterosexuality, the virgin/whore dichotomy, and beyond. They want more egalitarian gender roles and more representation outside traditional identities. They want respect for women.

The two communities, at their core, want the same things. Both acknowledge that women are the bottom line and the ones being shafted by society. However, miscommunication and statements made out of fear and anger have resulted in creating the illusion that there's a boundary between the two, an utter incompatability. I don't subscribe to this illusion. Feminism and romance novels are not mutually exclusive.

Romance novels can be empowering for women.  Women authors writing about women to an almost exclusively female audience in a genre that consists of half the paperback sales in the country--that's strength. Women characters featured as heroines who have the potential to chase after love, money, sex, AND world domination (still waiting on this one, but I'm sure it's forthcoming)--that's power.

But romance novels can also be disempowering. When what women have created as a tool for enjoyment, empowerment, and to a certain extent fantasy is appropriated in the name of patriarchal goals and values or are imbued with qualities that silence, confine, and narrowly define women, that hurts women. And it's time to stop pretending that everything's fine by shutting out any hint of criticism regarding these elements of internalized sexism and take back what's ours.

In Part 2 I'll be taking a more in-depth approach in dissecting how romance novels can both empower and disempower women through either the breaking down or the perpetuation of patriarchal social norms. Stay tuned.



*I linked to two very different statements by Carolyn Jewel, a romance novelist nominated for two RITAs this year, to illustrate how powerful the stigma against criticism is. The second link, her essay on romance novels and respect, demonstrates a strong knowledge of romance and how it's perceived by society. The first link is a dismissal of a feminist critique as patronizing. The points she made in her essay and the points I made in my critique of forced seduction scenarios are both in support of women's empowerment, but because my critique was interpreted as (paraphrasing) "women are stupid," any potential for compromise was dismissed. Further, I think that the internalized sexism inherent in some romance tropes is frequently ignored because of the assumption that if women wrote it, then it can't support patriarchal ideals (or if it does, who cares?). I'll talk about this more in the next post.
manifesta: (Dangerous)
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: (Psych Major)

[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)
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: (Alex/Izzy)
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: (Coffee Shop)

From the Yale Herald, In Defense of Romance: Proving the Stereotypes Wrong:

Others rebut feminist critiques of romance novels by saying that such criticism is, at best, beside the point. Even if you believe that the books perpetuate harmful stereotypes, romance is hardly be the only genre to systematically denigrate women. “In many genres—horror or spy fiction, for example,” said Willig, “Women are treated horribly by men, whereas in romance novels at least the women are the heroines.” The pervasive nature of sexism in media means that to expect romance novels to be paragons of gender equality is to hold them to a much higher standard than any other form of popular entertainment.

Furthermore, despite the fact that this sort of indictment of the genre was first raised by feminist critics, there are ways in which the critique itself can be seen as sexist. After all, doesn’t the argument that romances inculcate women with “patriarchal propaganda” deny women the ability to judge the books for themselves?
Bold emphsis mine.

It is a symptom of the perversion of our society that we often justify sexism and gender inequality, regardless of the severity or context, by saying hey, it could be worse. If women are treated horribly by men in other genres, then not only is that not a cause for alarm, the stereotypical portrayal of women in romances--stereotypes with roots in sexism--is considered okay as long as they're the heroines. I can certainly appreciate the significance of romance novels, given that they're written by women for women and feature women leads, but that doesn't negate the the fact that they can still do so much better. There are more ways to end a HEA (Happily Ever After) than the heteronormative tropes of marriage and a baby. There are better ways to portray women's strength than to give them a gun or a paranormal boyfriend. Which isn't to say these things are inherently bad, but the consistency of how women are portrayed is the issue, and when these images repeatedly adhere to traditional heterosexual (not to mention able-bodied, white, thin) norms, the level of equality that romance novels possess becomes limited, and real people are impacted. Pretending that this isn't a problem is what is sexist.

I don't hold romance novels to a higher standard. I hold them to the same standard that I do for every other form of entertainment, precisely because my standards for every form of entertainment requires that they treat women with respect and include diversity. I don't see the media as demanding that romance novels stand on a stool of equality; when romance novels dominate the best seller list but don't appear even once in the reviews of the New York Times, I see the media as ignorant and dismissive. The issue of whether or not romance novels are decent examples of gender equality doesn't even enter their radar. 

 Lastly, because women are clever creatures, it is entirely possible for a woman to read a critique of a book and then judge the book herself. Criticizing a book, especially when that critique focuses on how the book perpetuates systemic male power through its portrayal of women, is not sexist. Denying others the ability to criticize books that contain sexist elements on the basis of women being unable to make objective decisions is sexist.  
manifesta: (Dangerous)
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: (Rory/Logan Snuggle)

Some follow-up links I've been hoarding.

On the Bloomsbury racefail, from Editorial Anonymous:

"One of the problems we have with racism today is that a fair number of people think that racism can only be deliberate. As in, it doesn't matter if something you say or do is racist. If you didn't mean it to be racist, then it's not.

"For the record, and I hope we're all really listening: THAT IS INCORRECT.

"And also for the record: those of us who objected to the cover were not objecting on the author's behalf. We were objecting on the readers' behalf. And especially on the minority readers' behalf, because some of us understand how excruciating and demoralizing it is to children to be made to feel that they are the wrong color. This is a question completely outside of the author's participation or non-participation."
On historical fiction, from[personal profile] naraht:
"If I can't even read about sugar on Elizabeth Bennett's breakfast table without thinking about slavery, then it becomes clear that the attempt to eradicate oppression and the products of oppression from the Regency period is doomed to failure. It's an inherently problematic project because it assumes that systems of oppression are window-dressing that can be easily stripped off and replaced with pleasant and happy-making equality for all. It isn't that simple. It never will be."

Read the entire entry. I think naraht elaborates more on historical fiction's inherent and interlocking systems of domination and oppression than I had a chance to.
manifesta: (Dangerous)

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. 

manifesta: (Psych Major)

From Dear Author, on female sexuality and romance:
 

"For me, the critical issue is that as a society we continue to value a woman’s sexual status and we give value to women (or take it away) based on this status. Society justifies whether a woman deserved sexual assault or even rape based on whether she appears sexually demure enough."
Word.

Several commentors made the distinction between having random sex and embracing sexuality-- a distinction I don't agree with. Random hook-ups can be just as fulfilling as planned sex within a relationship, and the notion that sex should only occur within a relationship is simply the other side of the coin that says women should only have sex with a single partner and--as seen in many romance novels--that that partner must be their True Love. This isn't a rule that's placed on romance heroes, which is part of the point Janet tried to make.

Further, women or men who choose to pursue multi-partner relationships or random play are not necessarily psychologically driven by traumatic factors to do so. Some, yes. Others make the conscious decision to do so because that's what they're into.

There's also a lot of fail in the comments regarding the biological differences in the sexuality of men and women. Given the many alternative sexual practices, including but not limited to homosexuality, transsexuality, asexuality, and poly lifestyles, and that women and men are not nearly as different as we tend to believe (see Janet Shibley Hyde's Gender Similarity Hypothesis), I'm not convinced that men and women are driven by separate evolutionary forces. Culture is far more important in determining whether men sleep around more or women stick with a single partner. If men are lauded as studs for having sex with as many women as possible and women are chastised for having sex with more than one man, it is no longer biological forces that shape men and women's sexuality, but society.

That said, when discussing the supposed differences between men and women, there are other types of information aside from evolutionary psychology that can be applied. Try developmental or social cognitive theory. Anthropological and sociological sources would also be good. Ev psych ain't everything, y'all.
manifesta: (Dangerous)


Catherynne M. Valente on the intersection of politics and books:

"My story is political.

"I can write from the heart--and seriously, where else would I be writing from? I'm such a commercial sellout with my popcorn novels and my stacks of cash that I have to dig down to my Grinchy literary heart with both hands and even then I might not find anything but hot sparkly vampires? I'm all heart, baby. But I can write from my ventricles and still be political, because I am a woman and a feminist and queer and there is no telling my story, no matter how cloaked in fiction, without bringing all my uncomfortable politics in. That is telling my story. It means I worry about colonial issues, it means I worry about portrayals of gay sex, it means I consider the race and gender balance of a cast of characters, it means I think long and hard before committing narrative. Because my politics are the politics of thinking long and hard about things."
This is the reason why I dedicate a large part of this journal to the intersectionality of books, publishing, and social justice. When I criticize specific romance novels for ignoring the laws of consent or modern urban fantasy for only portraying women as strong when they're overly sexualized or the lack of strong female characters and woman writers in epic fantasy or the recent trend in YA promoting domestic violence as socially-acceptable and makes caricatures out of young women in comparison to their male paranormal counterparts-- THIS is why. Because books are the dark mirror to our reality and they reflect the subtle truths of our thoughts and beliefs and attitudes that the privilege inherent to belonging in an advantaged group disguises.