Friday, May 20, 2016

Happily Ever After: Catherine Roach's thoughts on the endings of romance novels

The third, and last, in my series of posts on Catherine M. Roach's Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture focuses, fittingly, on the endings of romance novels (see posts #1 and #2 here and here). "In romance, the ending is crucial," Roach notes in the introduction of her book's final chapter (165). That that ending be a happy one has become not just a given, but one of the key parts of the definition of the genre as a whole. Romance authors whom Roach interviewed "view the ending as a contract they have with their readers: No matter how wounded the characters are by plot conflicts in a book's middle, all will be well by the end" (166). What is the larger cultural meaning of the romance novel's HEA, or "happily ever after"?

Roach's answer is two-fold:

(1) People have faith in love. The romance story functions similarly to a religious belief system that offers guidance on the end goal of how to live a good and worthy life

(2) The romance story is a reparation fantasy of the end of patriarchy. In this fantasy, the romance hero stands in for patriarchy itself in a vision wherein gender unfairness is repaired and all works out. (167)

I'm completely on board with claim #1. Romance, at least for many women, has become "the Highest Good," a replacement for (or, perhaps a supplement to?) Christianity, a religion that has been in steady decline in the West and the North since the 18th century (see chart at right). Traditional romance novels certainly demonstrate a "faith in the healing power of love" (169). And even romances that eschew the romantic love heals lovers paradigm do share with their less progressive counterparts an "underlying conviction" in "the power of love to make the world a better place" (169). In almost all romance novels, to love romantically is to want to strive to be a better person, a kinder person, a person who does good, rather than harm, both within the romantic relationship and without, in the greater world. 

Claim #2, though, feels more iffy to me. To make her argument, Roach uses/revises the theoretical model constructed by literary critic Leslie Fielder in his famous essay "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" As Roach notes, Fielder's essay is

essentially about the literature of white male America as a homosocial reparation fantasy for racism. In this fantasy, the predations of racism are repaired through an interracial buddy story, a narrative of a white male and a colored male who share friendship and brotherly love. The story is offered with remorse and affection on the part of whites and read with pleasure by them, partly because the friendship offered by the characters of color implies forgiveness and absolution for white people's acts and attitudes of racism. (177)

Roach takes Fielder's model and turns it on its head, suggesting that the central fantasy of romance novels is offered not by the oppressors, but by the oppressed; not by the racists, but by the women who have been subject to patriarchy's sexism. Instead of a friendship and brotherly love of the oppressed, romance offers the emotional and sexual love of the oppressor: the "myth of the male beloved." In Roach's interpretation, the mythical male beloved figure, "the alpha male, the patriarch—loves with tenderness, devotion, and sensitivity, even while maintaining his alpha ways" (177). But not really. Because, Roach asserts, "the core appeal of romance fiction is this fantasy of the end of patriarchy in which the alpha male hero is revealed as the submissive"—submissive to the female, and submissive to a more feminine conception of gender relations, a conception based on love and connection (178, emphasis added).

When I was drafting the previous sentence, I initially added "not on dominance and oppression" to its end. But then I began to wonder: doesn't the idea of male "submission" by necessity imply female "dominance"? Can the hero be "submissive" by agreeing to a relationship that refuses a "dominant/submissive" binary? And if there is no refusal of a dominant/submissive binary, is there any real challenge to patriarchy?

This idea of alpha male submission echoes the arguments of many of the romance writers who contributed essays to Jayne Ann Krentz's 1992 essay collection, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women. These writers argued that romance's appeal lies in the way it inverts traditional gendered power relations:

Why is this ending so satisfying? Not only because love has triumphed, but because he has capitulated and she has won. He's willing, finally and at the very last minute and after much resistance, to do anything to keep her with him. This is the ultimate fantasy, the quintessential escapist fare. (Doreen Owens Malik, "Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: The Hero as Challenge," 76)

He is the mightiest of the mighty, the strongest of the strong. But, because he has been tamed by our heroine, because she exerts such a powerful emotional stranglehold over him, his almost superhuman physical strength is now hers to command (Susan Elizabeth Phillips, "The Romance and the Empowerment of Women," 58).

The hero must be part villain or else he won't be much of a challenge for a strong woman. The heroine must put herself at risk with him if the story is to achieve the level of excitement and the particular sense of danger that only a classic romance can provide.
     And the flat truth is that you don't get much of a challenge for a heroine from a sensitive, understanding, right-thinking "modern" man who is part therapist, part best friend, and thoroughly tamed from the start. (Jayne Ann Krentz, "Trying to Tame the Romance," 108-109).

In the minds of many of the contributors to Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, for a heroine to "win," a hero must lose: he must "capitulate," he must be "tamed." And in the books of many romance writers, such a vision of female winners and male losers still remains.

But many 21st century romance novels do not rely on this dominance/submission model. Instead, they push for "equality" between the hero and heroine, a relationship in which power is shared (and in the sexual realm, often played with), rather than wrested from the male by the female. I'm not certain how Roach's idea that romance is "a reparation fantasy of the end of patriarchy" applies to them.

Even if we limit her argument to just those novels in which gender relations are constructed as a win/lose, rather than a struggle toward equality and parity, I wonder just how reparation "ends" patriarchy? Roach takes the concept of "reparative reading" from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a type of reading in opposition to "paranoid reading," critical interpretation focused on uncovering "the violence hidden in texts and culture," concerned about "oppression and false consciousness," and working to "leverage the power of exposing injustice to bring about positive change" (178). In contrast, reparative reading is less about suspicion, and more about love: "The desire of the reparative impulse is to repair an object of relationship—say, the readers' relationship to the hero or heroine—that will then have resources to offer the self" (178).

What resources does romance offer the (female) self? Roach argues that "Women readers 'extract sustenance' from romance novels in the imaginative play of repairing the alpha male and of restoring gender relations" (179).  This "repairing" of the alpha male "is one in which the domineering or uncaring patriarch becomes the good man" (182). A romance must still feature an alpha man, Roach suggests, because "if it is still a man's world out there, then for a woman to have a good man at her side is a good thing. A woman is safer from danger and has more resources to draw on, to the extent that she is in a committed relationship with, and thus protected and aided by, the good man" (182). This seems to contradict Roach's assertion that within the romance, patriarchy has "ended." The "good man" hero may no longer be sexist by book's end, but he is still enmeshed within, and benefits from, patriarchy, because patriarchy is a system, not an individual relationship. Both within and outside the book, patriarchy remains, no matter how "good" one's man becomes.

In discussing J. R. Ward's 2005 Dark Lover, Roach seems to comes to a similar conclusion: "The reader fantasy here is that patriarchy ends, yet patriarchy continues. In this end, you have the alpha-king for your own, since you have conquered him on the battlefield of love and taught him how to love" (187). There seems to be a vital "and" missing here: "and, because patriarchy continues, he still can behave with impunity like an alpha-hole to everyone else, and still reap the benefits of male power and privilege."

So yes, the traditional romance novel, invested in a binary conception of romantic power relations, does invoke a fantasy of female empowerment. But while gender unfairness may be repaired on the level of the individual couple, through the alpha male's "submission" to his beloved female, patriarchy as a whole has hardly been "ended." Because patriarchy isn't just about relations between an individual man and woman; it is "the predominance of men in positions of power and influence in society, with culture values and norms favouring men" (OED online). The fantasy, then, for a woman reader of traditional alpha male romance seems less about imagining the end of the system of patriarchy, and more about dreaming of becoming its unlikely beneficiary.

Or perhaps I am just too much of a "paranoid reader" to appreciate Roach's argument?

I hope you all have a chance to take a look at Roach's intelligent, provocative book, and talking about (and debating) its fascinating theories.

Photo credits:

Catherine M. Roach
Happily Ever After
The Romance Story in Popular Culture
Indiana University Press, 2016

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

(Gender) Coding for the Space Race: Barry & Turner's EARTH BOUND

In the 1960s, when electronic computers began to be used in commercial as well as scientific settings, the people who most often programmed them were not men, but women. My own mother-in-law, who programmed computers for a big insurance firm in New York City in the early 1960s, enjoys telling stories about the largely-female department, and how women were thought at the time to be better programmers than men. Naval Admiral Dr. Grace Hopper, who invented the first computer compiler, concurs: "It's just like planning a dinner.... You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it's ready when you need it. Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are 'naturals' at computer programming." (quote is from Cosmopolitan article pictured below)

From an 1967 Cosmopolitan magazine, extolling the new kind
of work for women: computing
My spouse, who followed in his mother's footsteps to become a computer programmer himself, tells me that during the early days of computer science, men staked claim to computer hardware, deeming it more manly, and left the more "feminine" software programming to the ladies. But in our age of Gamergate and obnoxious dude "brogrammers," it's almost become a given that both computers and computer programming are by their very nature the domain of the male. Such an assumption erases the history of the field in a decidedly sexist way.

Which was why I so enjoyed Earth Bound, the latest volume in Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner's "Fly Me to the Moon" historical fiction romance series. Unlike the first two installments in the series, which featured male astronauts and the women they fell for, Earth Bound focuses on the people behind the scenes, the engineers who drew on cutting-edge technology, including computers, to create the rockets that would send human beings into space.

Not a few of those behind-the-scenes people were of the female persuasion.

Eugene Parsons, Director of Engineering and Development at the ASD (American Space Department, Barry & Turner's fictionalized NASA) is caustic, demanding, and committed to the mission of landing an American man on the moon before the Soviets do. To make sure his country achieves that goal, Parsons insists on hiring only the best. And Dr. Charlie Eason, engineer and computer programming pioneer, is the best.

Even if she also happens to be a woman.

Parsons has no control over her job title, though, and Charlie is named Deputy Director of Computing. Though in practice, it is she, rather than the gladhanding Director of Computing, who directs the department. Everyone else at ASD's Houston facility quakes in their boots whenever Parsons steps in the room. Everyone else but Charlie, that is, a woman secure enough in her own accomplishments, and equally committed to excellence, to take Parsons' intensity in stride.

The tenor of their working relationship is set during Charlie's initial interview:

     "I expect perfection. I know I can't have it, but I expect it." People hated him for that, but better their hatred weighting him down than the deaths of any of the men they were sending up.
     Again, she wasn't put off. "You'll always have my very best. And my very best is better than everyone else's." (Kindle Loc 222)

Unfortunately for the uptight Parsons, Charlie is as physically stunning as she is intellectually. Something that makes him both angry and turned-on, because "he needed her to do this job, and his body refused to stop noticing hers" (193). But Parsons won't let anything distract him from the task at hand, especially not his own unruly desires.

Charlie is used to using her physical assets to catch the eyes of men—not because she wants to sleep with them to get ahead, but because she wants to distract them before they can dismiss her:

The 6 women classified as "scientists" who worked
at NASA's Langley, VA location in 1957
Graduate school has taught her an important truth about being an intelligent woman, one she hadn't been able to learn growing up in Princeton: It helped to be stunningly beautiful, especially when dealing with the Zeppelin-like egos of scientific men. They never saw her coming; it was only after she'd outthought them that they realized they'd been flanked. (77)

Charlie and Parsons are both thinkers, both scientists, and excel at keeping their private feelings private. But since the narrative is told from their dual points of view, we as readers get to see inside, see the problems that make them both feel like outsiders not just at work, but in the world at large. Charlie has to cope with a family of scientists, parents who do not understand, and do not respect, her choice to pursue computing rather than the "pure" science of Physics. Not to mention her mother's resentment of her ability to pursue her own career, rather than act only as a supportive wife for another scientist. For his part, Parsons compartmentalizes his issues, issues related to social class and to guilt about the death of his elder brother.

Thus the low-level attraction that simmers between them during ten months of working together is never openly acknowledged by either. Charlie cooly bears the everyday sexist aggressions offered by many of her male colleagues (except for Parsons). But after a particularly galling meeting with the head of the program—"It would never be enough. No matter how many papers she authored, no matter how many projects she successfully completed, deadlines she met, or snafus she navigated, all they'd ever be able to see were the breasts" [870]—she feels even more like an outsider, more like a freak. Until suddenly she's struck by the idea that she's not the only freak in the Department. And perhaps, two freaks together might find some solace, if only of a temporary and intermittent kind.

At first, the two scientists are careful to keep their clandestine affair completely separate from their professional lives—"We never talk about this at work," Parsons demands before engaging in their first shockingly erotic interlude. And careful to keep their affair only about sex, not about anything as uncontrolled and messy as feelings. But as the tensions of work and the emotions stirred up by families begin to collide, it becomes increasingly difficult for both Parsons and Charlie to compartmentalize their growing need for emotional, as well as intellectual and sexual, connection. Even if neither of them is as close to being as competent with emotions as they are with engineering.

Especially when casual sexism puts their space mission in danger.

I'm a sucker for intelligent-heroine romances, especially when that intelligence is a major turn-on for hero in question. Earth Bound is compelling, intense, and sexy romance reading catnip.

Photo credits:
Cosmopolitan article: Backstory
Women at NASA: NASA History

Earth Bound
Penny Bright Publishing, 2016

Friday, May 13, 2016

Many Ways to be Gay: Amy Jo Cousins' HARD CANDY

The latest installment of Mary Robinette Kowel's "Debut Author Lessons" blog column had me thinking about a recent romance read that aptly illustrates several of the points she is making (albeit in narrative form). Kowel's post, "Sensitivity Readers and Why I Killed a Project," features a list of things she's learned while planning and drafting a story about a "marginalized community," a project that she later ended up killing after a beta reader drew her attention to problematic aspects of her representation of said community.

"Culture is not a monolith," and "Internalized oppression is very real," two of Kowel's take-away points, really resonated for me in the context of reading the latest installment in Amy Jo Cousins' "Bend or Break" series, Hard Candy. Unlike some of the male/male romances that are popular with female heterosexual readers, those that feature hot, sexy, masculine guys who just happen to be gay, Cousins' books have included a broad variety of gay masculinities. And as Hard Candy's storyline points out, some of those gay masculinities are more acceptable to society at large, and even to some within the larger gay community itself, than others.

Victor Lim, first introduced in Level Hands (book #5) as one of a handful of gay male rowers on the crew team at a small, elite Massachusetts college, is uptight, caustic, and studious to the max. He knows he's not naturally smart, and that in order to do well in school he has to work his ass off. The only times he lets loose are after he finishes a big paper, when he gets drunk and has roommates-with-benefits sex with his best friend, Austin. But now that Austin has gotten tired of waiting to become more than an afterthought to Vinnie and has found himself a real boyfriend, Vinnie is at a total loss.

Which is why he finds himself waking up with a major hangover in the bed of a total stranger. A stranger who is nothing like fellow-rower Austin. A stranger who rocks lip gloss ("Well, I'm not gonna knock on my neighbor's door looking like something the cat banged last night after ten too many beers" [Kindle Loc 43]), calls him sweet things and pets him as if they were sweethearts, and even helps him as he pukes his guts into a purple trash can. "No one could put up with Vinnie's pain-in-the-ass ways, not even his best friend," Vinnie thinks to himself as the stranger, whose name turns out to be Bryan, nurses him and tucks him back into bed.

You'd think Vinnie wouldn't be able to exit such an embarrassing scene fast enough. But even when he's back in his own room, Vinnie can't help remembering Bryan's silk robe and shiny lip gloss. And really, really wanting to see Bryan again. Even though nothing about gay, black, southern femme dancer Bryan is "part of Vinnie's organized plan of attack on his student life. He stuck out in every venue like a sore thumb" (336).

Bryan, too, has his doubts about hooking up again with Vinnie: "Lots of guys only want to be with someone who can pass for straight, especially once they sober up, and, honey, that is never going to be me. I've made my peace with that" (257). And his previous experience with gay jocks suggests that Vinnie probably hasn't.

But Vinnie manages to persuade Bryan to give him a chance. And soon, before they even realize it, the two are spending serious time together. Boyfriend-like time together.

Even though Bryan is who Vinnie's body wants, his mind can't help worrying, especially when one of his crew teammates starts sprouting homophobic bullshit when Bryan and some of his dance squad friends come to cheer the crew team at their first race of the season. Though he tries to hide his reaction, Vinnie can't help but cringe:

It shouldn't bother him. It didn't bother him. He did not believe there was only one way to be gay. Or two ways. Or whatever. And nothing about the way he dressed or the choices he made was better or more valid than Bryan's way of living. It wasn't.
     But, God, no matter how many times he repeated that in his head, he still braced himself every time he looked over his shoulder to see if anyone was staring at him.
      It kind of sucked to realize he gave that much of a shit about what other people thought of him. (886)

Vinnie is gay, but his "gayness" is less obvious than Bryan's, less disruptive to conventional masculine norms. Vinnie's class position, as well as his cis-gendered looks and activities, grant him enough privilege that he has not been subject to the same degree of "crap" (i.e., homophobic taunting and physical abuse) that the far more feminine Bryan has. And straight-arrow Vinnie cannot help but feel amazed that "Bryan didn't feel the need to tone himself down in the face of it" (594).

Not surprisingly, internalized homophobia is not conducive to a happy romantic relationship. Vinnie's comes back to bite him during a fraught incident with Bryan, an incident that has Bryan feeling that Vinnie is just like all the other gay jock boys he's been with: ashamed.

But as Vinnie's roommates have all discovered (in previous books in the series), relationships have their ups and downs, their sweet moments and their failures, their fuck-ups and their make-ups. Now Vinnie has to decide if being a boyfriend—being Bryan's boyfriend—is what he really wants. And if he's willing to work on both on his relationship skills and on rooting out his own internalized homophobia to make it happen.

Photo credits:
Femme to Femme: Lambda Literary
Korean rowing team: Getty Images

Hard Candy
Bend or Break #7
Samhain, 2015

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Merits of Romance: A Debate from Catherine M. Roach's HAPPILY EVER AFTER

In between reading romance novels, I've been gradually making my way through Catherine M. Roach's academic study of the genre, Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture (see my post about the book's opening chapter here). Because Roach is in the unusual (although not entirely unique) position of being both a scholar and a writer of romance, her nonfiction study includes more than just straightforward analyses of individual books, or analysis of the romance genre as a whole. Instead, academically-oriented chapters are sandwiched between chapters that Roach describes as "more narrative in style, with passages of my own romance writing and with stories based on my time spent among romance communities of readers and authors" (15). One of the most curious of these chapters is Chapter 3, "Notes from the Imagination: Reading Romance Writing." The chapter stages an imaginary debate between the author's two romance-related identities: Catherine Roach, gender and cultural studies professor, and Catherine LaRoche, historical romance author.

The idea behind such a "performative ethnography," Roach argues in the introduction to this chapter, is to allow the reader to "have fun" rather than "drowning you in jargon and theory" (48). By making fun not only of herself, but of "certain conventions of sober analysis," Roach hopes to destabilize the "insider/outsider boundaries that can make conversation—serious conversation—difficult across the divide between academics and the general public" (48).

I have to admit, though, that I found myself frowning more often than laughing while reading Chapter 3, and not quite knowing why. Was I just not getting into the spirit of Roach's self-described "tomfoolery"? Or was there something else going on here?

When I went back to re-read the chapter, I found my eye caught this time not by the content of Roach and LaRoche's arguments, but by the stage directions and voice intonations Roche gives each of her two "identities" to perform. Can you tell which Roach/LaRoche's identity goes with which set of stage directions?

Debator ADebator B
sneering tone sighing
more sneering sounds of slurping coffee
sound of coffee cup slamming down squealing noisily
bewildered sounds of chair scraping
annoyed pouting, sitting back down
sanctimoniously sighing
whining mockingly
grudgingly pouting again
sarcastically sounds of shuffling paper
with more sneer laughing
bewildered, again laughing
paper rustling noises that sound suspiciously like a woman fanning herself sounds of slapping the table
humph angrily

(answer will appear in comment section below at the end of the day)

What stereotypes of romance writers, and of female academics, does each set of stage directions suggest?

Does deploying such stereotypes in the middle of a mock debate help call our attention to them? Or simply reproduce them? Can using them (and having readers notice you using them) help break down the "insider/outsider boundaries that can make conversation—serious conversation—difficult across the divide between academics and the general public" (48)? Or does it just invite readers to uncritically mock both sides?

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Making Fun of the Romance Reader

But when I consider a girl, who is nearly entering into life with a susceptible heart, instead of recommending novels in general to her perusal, I would strongly dissuade her from reading them.... Should we even allow, that the generality of novels are written without the least indelicacy, yet as their only subject is love, why should we wish to lead the mind to that disposition, which nature is sufficiently ready to supply without art!  —Honoria, The Female Mentor, or, Select Conversations (1802)

On a rare outing to the movies last month, a friend and I sat down to watch Sally Field in the newly released My Name is Doris. I didn't know anything about the film, but my friend's description of it—a middle aged woman who has lived with her mother all her life gets to explore her own interests after that mother dies—made it sound right up my alley. A coming-of-age story about a middle-aged woman? Bring it on!

Early on in the film, though, a single shot of Doris commuting to work from Staten Island to Manhattan told me that this movie was not likely to be an unequivocal celebration of an older women blossoming into independence and a new sense of self:

Can you see it? There, held in Doris's two slightly wrinkled hands. Yes, readers, Doris his holding a romance novel. A real-life romance novel, in fact: A SEAL at Heart by Anne Elizabeth, which was published in 2012.

Yes, Doris, our frumpy, out-of-touch, sixty-something heroine, is a romance reader. As soon as you see that paperback in her hands, with its hairless, bare chested cover model, sweeping ocean waves, and gorgeous sunset, you're supposed to make the leap: Doris reads romance, hence Doris has wildly unrealistic expectations about what her own romantic life can possibly be.

And the film goes on to demonstrate the inevitability of that linkage of romance reading with the usual clich├ęs: Doris owns a cat; Doris is a secret hoarder; Doris doesn't have a boyfriend; Doris falls madly, ridiculously in love with John, a new coworker decades younger than herself.

Cue the laugh track.

Or, if you are a romance reader yourself, cue the gnashing of teeth.

Doris learning the ins and outs of Facebook from her best
friend's 13-year-old daughter
Doris's story is wildly uneven in tone. At times, it invites viewers to cheer Doris on as she starts to experience life far outside her traditional comfort zone of work, home, mother, and occasional dinner with her brother and his family. But at other times, it asks us to laugh at Doris's ridiculous dreams and expectations, especially when it comes to romance. Not the fault of Field, who does a marvelous job turning what could have been a figure of fun into a fully-realized human being. But because the script in which she is performing can't quite imagine how to portray a sixty-something woman whose sexuality is just beginning to blossom without making her appear, at least at times, a figure of ridicule.

And of pity.

Stalking her handsome co-worker leads Doris to exploring (and abusing) Facebook; attending (and enjoying) a "Baby Goya and the Nuclear Winters" electronica concert in hip Williamsburg; and joining her crush's girlfriend in a lesbian rooftop knitting circle ("I'm not a lesbian, but they are just so welcoming, you know?"). Doris really enjoys said activities, and we are invited to take pleasure in her pleasure, to be happy for her as she tries new things and finds herself welcomed by new people. But at the same time, viewers, more aware than Doris herself, are also meant to catch the cultural critique of hip millennial culture her unsocialized eye reveals.

And we're definitely meant to laugh (and, perhaps, cringe) at her Walter Mitty-like daydreams, daydreams not about her own heroism, as are Mitty's, but about being sexily wooed by co-worker John. Daydreams that are informed by the tropes of contemporary romance, be it in rom-com or novel form. Tropes that Doris has imbibed by reading romances during her daily commute to work.

And, if we've been reading our romance novel symbolism correctly, we should also be prepared for the painful crash when Doris attempts to bring her romance-inspired daydreams into real life. Romance readers are, by nature, deluded, immature, in need of a good dose of wide-eyed reality, aren't they? Or so asserts knowing pop culture.

Uneasiness about women who read, particularly women who read romance, has been a part of social discourse since the 18th century, as Jacqueline Pearson's intelligent book, Women's Reading in Britain, 1750-1835: A Dangerous Recreation clearly demonstrates. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, that uneasiness manifested as fear, in particular, as fear that romance reading would lead to female sexual transgression: seduction, adultery, rape. Many, many novels of the period even used the types of books their female protagonists read as symbols of their virtue (or lack thereof).

Today, though, fear has been transformed into humor: we are invited to laugh at poor Doris, inspired by A SEAL at Heart and other romance novels to pursue a wildly unsuitable romantic partner. But behind that laughter, uneasiness still remains. Uneasiness at female sexuality, at female desire, and a hope that both might be safely contained, if only women would stop reading those damned romance novels.

Keep reading, Doris, I say. A dangerous "re-creation," indeed.

Have you noticed the trope of romance reader = deluded, repressed, or laughable in other current-day works of popular culture?

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Bread for all, and Roses, too: Courtney Milan's HER EVERY WISH

Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes,
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread but give us roses.

As we come marching, marching, un-numbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread,
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses, too.

Bread and Roses strikers
As I was reading Courtney Milan's latest novella, I could not help but think of the Lawrence, Massachusetts "Bread and Roses" strike of 1912. In response to a new Massachusetts law limiting the number of hours women and children could work (from 54 to a mere 52!), textile mill owners in Lawrence cut the wages of their workforce. Expecting such a move, leaders in the Industrial Workers of the World union organized a strike of primarily female immigrant millworkers, workers whom several other unions claimed could not be organized.  The strikers demanded not that their wage be returned to its former level, but that it be raised by 15%. Because working women deserved not only the lowest wage that would allow their survival, but a wage that would allow them "small art and love and beauty," too.

Milan's novella is set hundreds of miles away from Lawrence, in London, England. And it takes place 46 years earlier than Lawrence's Bread and Roses strike, in 1866. Yet its heroine, Daisy Whitlaw, has the same thirst for the small beauties of life as did Lawrence's textile workers. Daisy (whom readers of book 1 in the "Worth Saga," Once Upon a Marquess, will remember as the working class best friend of that book's heroine), a woman who cannot stop reaching for her dreams, no matter how many times her hands are slapped away, opens the story by entering a contest offering fifty pounds to the person who presents the best plan for a new business. Ten semifinalists have been selected based on their written proposals (wise Daisy entered under the name "D. Whitlaw"), and now each must give a public presentation to the members of the parish. Unlike the other finalists (all men), whose proposals include the same old ideas for new stores and businesses, Daisy's proposal is a novel one: Daisy's Emporium, "a small shop of carefully selected goods. Durable, beautiful, and inexpensive. Designed for—" For women, Daisy had planned to say. But the hostility of the crowd, angered that a woman has dared enter the contest, makes it almost impossible for her to deliver her intended speech (Kindle Loc 121).

In spite of the difficulties of her presentation, Daisy is chosen as one of the five finalists invited to prepare a more detailed proposal. The man in charge of the program suggests that her invitation has little to do with her proposal's merit, however:

"We'll see you all next Saturday. And it looks like we have our entertainment in order. After all, we've just lined up the jester." He gave Daisy an exaggerated waggle of his eyebrows and let out a great, braying laugh, one that explained precisely why she'd been chosen. (163).

Daisy, though, can't help but hope that her proposal might have a slim chance of winning, even in the face of such sexist condescension. And so when Crash, her former lover, an impudent, self-confident flirt of a man whose ancestry is so mixed that people who barely know him feel entitled to come up and ask him, "What are you?" offers to serve as audience while she rehearses her speech—"You need to practice in front of someone you hate. Someone who makes your stomach curdle. Someone who will ask questions while you want to smash his face in," (i.e., himself)—Daisy finds herself accepting.

A 1868 velocipede race in France
And finds herself not practicing her speech, but being thrust upon a velocipede, learning self-confidence by learning to ride this newfangled wheeled contraption. And learning a lot more about Crash in the process, a man with whom she had once thought herself in love. A man so arrogant and self-assured that she'd thought nothing could wound him—especially not herself.

Though Crash and Daisy appear to be polar opposites, Milan shows that their common experiences of facing discrimination—sexist discrimination for Daisy, racist discrimination for Crash, and classist discrimination for them both—the two have far more in common than they, or we, ever thought. And that both deserve more, far more, than society tells them they should want.

Not just bread, but roses, too.

Photo credits:
Bread and Roses strikers: New England Historical Society
Emporium: Haute Design
Velocipede race: The Online Bicycle Museum

Her Every Wish
The Worth Saga, #1.5

Friday, April 22, 2016

Compensatory Romance: Charlotte Stein's NEVER SWEETER


     "Mom, that boy is hitting me!"
     "Oh, honey, that's only because he likes you..."

Female readers: when you were a girl, did you ever have an exchange like the one above with your mother, or another older authority figure? I know I did. The words were meant to make me feel better, and they did, to a certain extent. Though I certainly didn't like getting pushed, or hit, or having my hair pulled, thinking that such behavior was less about how much a boy hated me and more about how much he liked me bolstered my wilting self-confidence. But at the same time, the words also unconsciously taught me that it was okay for boys to hit me. Though boys could be violent, said violence was simply a stand-in for caring feelings boys were did not know how to, or were not allowed to, express, and so I should not protest, at least not too much.

I couldn't help thinking of such exchanges as I read Charlotte Stein's latest erotic romance, Never Sweeter, book 2 in her Dark Obsession series. In the novel's prologue, Letty, a senior in high school, is walking home after her car has broken down and comes across her long-time tormentors, fellow students Jason, Patrick, and Tate. She knows once they see her, they "were going to pull some stunt," but even she could not believe that they would force her off the road: "They weren't going to actually do it for real. Bullies like them never really did anything. It was all just safe things that made their target feel like shit" (Kindle Loc 89).

Yet Letty spends the next two years in rehab, recovering from the injuries she sustained after Jason's truck shoved her off a bluff. And none of the boys was prosecuted for the act—"just an accident," Jason tells the police, who believe him because he's popular, and a sports star.

The book itself opens when Letty starts college, two years late, only to discover that Tate, the worst of her three tormentors, is not only attending the same school, he's actually in her film studies class. Yet each time their paths cross, there's no sign of the cunning, cruel, feral bully of her high school years. In fact, Tate seems to be making a major effort to be nice to the girl whose life he once made a living hell. And to compliment her. And to help her feel less skittish around men.

When Letty makes her first female friend at college, she cannot help but think of how different it is to have someone who believes her side of the story: "Clearly, Lydia would never tell her that she had to stop doing whatever she was doing that goaded Tate. There would be no calls to the college's office to talk about the transfer she should get, instead of the one he should" (Loc 480). And she's thrilled to find someone who can help her keep in mind the old Tate, the one that Letty is certain is waiting just around the corner, ready to spring a new humiliating trap on her as soon as she lets her guard down.

When Letty and Tate are assigned to partner on a project about the depiction of sex in film, though, their relationship takes an unexpectedly sensual turn. Watching White Palace, Dirty Dancing, Nine and a Half Weeks and others turns them both on, something that Tate is not at all shy about noticing. Or talking about. Or acting on, at least when it comes to himself. And Tate's sexual self-display, combined with his ever-increasing displays of emotional vulnerability, lead Letty to do just what she could never have imagined doing: enjoying hot sexy times, and touchingly emotional times, with her one-time enemy. Yes, despite their harasser/harassee history, Letty and Tate fall for one another. And such is Stein's skill as a writer that she has the reader cheering for (and turned on by) this unlikely outcome.

One aspect of cultural work romance novels do, Catherine M. Roach argues in Happily Ever After: The Romance Story in Popular Culture, is "to try to make up for the costs to a woman's psyche of living in a culture that is still a man's world" (11). Roach terms this work "reparative," but I wonder if the better word might be "compensatory." Though both words are synonyms for "make amends," reparative also has an additional meaning that compensatory does not: to remedy an undesirable condition or situation; to restore or repair. Reparative suggests that something is going to be changed, fixed, mended; "compensatory" makes no such promise.

And it seems a far better word to describe what occurs in Stein's novel. Neither Tate nor Letty can go back and fix the past, the past in which Tate made Letty lock herself in the janitor's closet, or called her "fatty" and "thunder thighs," or put up flyers at school with her picture "telling everyone to watch out for the whale that had gotten loose from Sea World" (Loc 3576). In fact, the entire idea that your tormentor is actually tormenting you because he secretly loves you is deeply compensatory. Presented as reality within the novel—Tate, it turns out, was secretly in love with Letty all the time he tormented her—outside the novel, it serves as a fantasy, a fantasy that can make a reader who has been bullied feel better about the experience, even if, as is far more likely in real life, her own tormenter acted out of cruelty and privilege than out of frustrated caring.

Towards the end of the novel, Letty dumps Tate, because she believes she found evidence that he really is just conning her into thinking he cares for her. But of course, since this is a compensatory fantasy, Letty is mistaken, and the two tearfully reunite. During their getting-back-together conversation, Tate reveals that he only started bullying Letty after she called him a "jug-head" and turned him down when he asked her for a date. Letty then feels guilty for having started the whole vicious cycle, and, of course, for not trusting Tate this time round.

But Stein does not allow Letty to accept the guilt that such a plot turn initially seems to dump on her plate. And she uses Tate as her mouthpiece to explain why none of this is Letty's fault:

"But you're not fucking responsible for shit that I chose to do. You didn't owe me your love. You didn't owe me a polite yes. It was not on you to let me down gently and somehow ward off punishment I was fucking stupid enough to think you deserved." (4030)

Yes, the very zenith of compensatory fantasy: not only does the hot, sexy bully turn out to be in love with you; he also turns out to be a closet feminist.

Is reading Stein's compensatory fantasy a first, positive step toward restoring a bullied girl's stolen self-esteem? Or, more problematically, does it encourage the reader to side with the purportedly "loving" bully?

I guess the answer lies in whether said reader will tell her own daughter that she's "not fucking responsible" for a bullying boy's actions, or feelings, and should not stand for being teased, tormented, or hit by a boy just because he likes her.

Or whether instead she just ends up repeating the old line, "Oh, honey, he's only hitting you because he likes you..."

Never Sweeter:
A Dark Obsession Novel
Loveswept, 2016