ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

November 13, 2010

Besieging the Fortress – ‘The Virgin’s Choice’ by Jennie Lucas

It is no secret that I am not a fan of violent language in romance fiction (and, indeed, any fiction). I’m referring specifically to violent language in the context of romance – you know, the old romance trope of the ‘punishing’ kiss, the ‘painful’ grip as he whisks her away, ‘rough’ grabs’, ‘savage’ growls… and that is all just from me flicking through the first thirty pages of the romance novel I have sitting next to me.

This novel is ‘The Virgin’s Choice’ by Jennie Lucas, and, as the name suggests, it is yet another virgin heroine novel. This particularly virgin is called Rose, who has made it to the age of 29 without ever being kissed. She seems to have managed this by having a spectacularly inactive libido – as far as I can tell, she has never once experienced desire before she meets the hero, Xerxes Novros. This is despite the fact that he kidnaps her from her wedding to another man, Lars, who is trying to pull a bit of a Mr Rochester on her – marry her even though he has an invalid wife somewhere else – purely so he can sleep with her. Hello, fetishisation of virginity.

Before I continue, two fun facts about this book:

1) The hero is called Xerxes. Despite being Greek. As someone who knows their classical history pretty well, I find this humorous.

2) This book contains an actual bodice ripping. And I quote:

‘Xerxes’s hands slowly moved down her arms, against the see-through lace of her sleeves. His lips turned down grimly.

“I told you to take that dress off.”

He felt her shiver, even as she stuck out her chin and glared at him with her beautiful turquoise eyes.

“No.”

“Then I will take it off for you.”

Her eyes widened. “You wouldn’t dare to -“

With a rough motion, he ripped apart the shoulders of her wedding dress, tearing through the layers of white lace and opping the line of tiny white buttons off the back. He yanked the sleeves down her arms with such force that she stagged forward, nearly falling to her knees.’

Lucas, J., 2010, The Virgin’s Choice [Harlequin: Mills & Boon] p.36

I’m pretty sure this bodice ripping is meant to be a tongue in cheek reference to ye olde worlde bodice rippers, but I don’t need to spell out all the reason’s why this is troubling. There is a sort of love triangle in this book – as much as you can fit into a category novel, anyway – and there is a lot of fighting over Rose between the two dudes, hero Xerxes and villain Lars. She figures essentially as the shiny new toy that the two dudes are fighting over. In fact, she figures exactly as the shiny new toy – Xerxes steals her from Lars to trade for Lars’s invalid wife, who (spoilers) is Xerxes’s sister. And then it’s a sort of game of first-one-to-bone-her-wins. Which is… troubling.

As for Rose’s agency in this matter… yeah, there’s not so much of that. For example – this is from that bodice ripping scene:

‘He should have known she’d be wearing tarty white lingerie for her wedding night to the baron. Pretending to be a virgin – just pretending, because he’d obviously been bedding her for some time. No man would resist Rose’s charms, her soft blond beauty, her lush body.”

ibid., p.37

Note how, in Xerxes’s reckoning of the world, Rose seems to have no choice as to whether she’s ‘bedded’ by Lars or not. There is a current running through this book of the fairy tale – the first line of the book is ‘It was a fairy tale come true’ – and Rose figures very much as the sleeping princess in the tower. She has an extraordinarily little amount of control over her own actions. She is whisked off her feet by Lars – he seems to sort of decide he’s going to marry her and she goes along with it – and then whisked away by Xerxes, who then promptly sexually assaults her. See below:

‘”Don’t think that you can bully me into being afraid of you, because I will never -“

Her words ended in a gasp as Xerxes seized her in his arms. Lowering his mouth to hers, he brutally kissed her.’

ibid. p.39

Xerxes’s awesome rationale for kissing her is that if she were a gold digger, she would try to seduce him and change sides. He is obviously a real prince.

But this isn’t actually what I wanted to write about – yes, it’s only taken me about 750 words to get to the point. What I actually really noticed when reading this book was the way that Rose’s virginity functions like a fortress – it is something that is besieged and then something that is won. It’s a race between Xerxes and Lars as to who sleeps with Rose first and the one who wins, possesses her. In fact, choosing which one to sleep with, which one to let into her castle, is the only real power Rose has in this book. And yet, even though she has remained a virgin for 29 years, the thought of sleeping with neither ever really occurs to her.

There is no notion that Rose belongs to herself (before or after her defloration). Seduction is a siege to which she must succumb. It is directly figured as such:

“Overpowered by her captor’s strength and the intensity of his commanding embrace, she surrendered.”

ibid., p.40

The dialogue of possession and surrender is something that flows through a lot of romance fiction, and, indeed, modern parlance. Sex is often talked about as the man ‘taking’ the woman or ‘having’ her – this book is (unsurprisingly) no exception. Since I’m in an example-y mood, here’s one:

‘He moved closer to her, so close that she felt consumed by the black fire of his gaze. “He wanted to make sure no other man could have you.”‘

ibid. p.65

This, of course, is not just true of virgin heroine novels. But I think that often in these books – particularly when you know that once the heroine sleeps with the hero, that’s it as far as other sexual partners are concerned – the dialogue of siege and possession is heightened. Once the heroine has let the hero into her castle, she is his for always. And yes, I do realise how dirty that sounds, and I would like it noted that there were a number of other dirty wordplay options open to me that I nobly did not take.

Quite apart from the gender dynamics inherent in the concept of hero possessing the heroine – and much as she does remake his sexuality in the model of her own, I would contend that he possesses her more than she possesses him, because her identity only exists in respect to his after he defines her sexuality (yes, that was long and convoluted, but I promise it makes sense) – one of the major problems inherent in this dialogue of siege and surrender is that it is violent language. (Look how I came back to the point there!) There is a fine line between seduction and destruction, and this line is often blurred. It certainly is in this novel – the way that both Xerxes and Lars attempt to seduce Rose is very violent. Their desire to possess her leads them to enact violence on her. They would rather destroy her than let the other win. (And by sleeping with her, they are destroying her for the other one. Because we are all about those ideals of the ruined woman. Oh yes we are.)

So… that was a long and quote-filled ramble. But here is my point in a nutshell: in many books, and in this book in particular, virginity is figured as a fortress which must be besieged. And once the heroine surrenders, and lets the hero into the castle, his possession of her is total and complete. This model not only has very fraught gender dynamics and figures the heroine as a thing rather than a person, it is also violent, which promotes a dialogue of abuse and assault.

March 3, 2010

Rape is Not Romance: ‘The Innocent’s Surrender’ by Sara Craven

I have read some truly, truly bad category fiction in my life. I mean, come on, I’ve read three books by Trish Morey, all of which were absolutely repellent (see my earlier article Sexual Violence is Manly! Glamorised Sexual Violence in Romance Fiction). But I’m currently reading one at the moment which might just take the cake.

The book is The Innocent’s Surrender by Sara Craven. To bring you up to speed to where I am – all of p. 33 – here’s a quick synopsis. Natasha, our heroine, was brought up by some Greek shipping magnate family for some reason, despite the fact that she is British. (Oh, and a virgin. Gee, I wonder how this is going to go). This family has an enemy Greek shipping magnate family, who are about to buy out their fleet. Natasha’s evil stepbrothers have somehow coerced her into signing a letter to the son of the enemy family (our hero, Alex) saying that she’ll marry him. I’m not quite sure what this is supposed to achieve, but whatevs.

Anyway, the evil stepbrothers, for whatever reason, have sent a different letter to Alex. They’ve forged Natasha’s signature and written a letter full of lewd sexytalk. The implication of which is that Natasha (who is, we must remember, a blushing virgin) is going to be Alex’s mistress. And he’s agreed to this. And has power over her. Or something. It’s weird. I don’t quite get the legality of it. But Natasha has been whisked off to Alex’s mansion. She’s standing there, expecting to explain that, no, she won’t marry him, when he springs the whole mistress thing on her – something about which she had no idea.

I’ll just let the following quotes speak for themselves.

‘”You may well regret your candour in writing to me, agapi mou,” he added, the firm mouth twisting. “But I do not. And, while I may never have believed in you as a future wife, I look forward with eagerness to enjoying your versatility as my mistress. Which is why you are here with me tonight, as you must know by now. To begin your new career in my bed.”

Her voice seemed to come from a great distance.

“I’d rather die!”

His brows lifted cynically. “When it was your own idea?” he challenged. “I hardly think so.”

“But I keep trying to tell you… There was never any second letter. Oh, why won’t you believe me?”

“Because I have the evidence which makes a liar of you… They [her evil stepbrothers] will have to endure the shame of knowing you belong to me as my eromeni – my pillow friend – and that when I tire of you they will have you returned to them – used, and discarded.” He paused. “Maybe… even pregnant. A final blow to their family honour from which they can never recover,” he added harshly as Natasha caught her breath.

“You can’t do such a thing.” Her voice was ragged. “No one could. It’s barbaric – vile. And do you imagine that I’ll let you get away with it? That I won’t have you arrested for kidnap and – and rape, no matter how powerful you may think you are?”

“Kidnap?” Alex Mandrakis repeated musingly, and shook his head. “When you responded willingly to my invitation, and allowed my driver to bring you here? He reported no scene at the airport. No screams or struggles. As for rape, I doubt whether such an accusation could possibly succeed. Not when your letter is made public, as it would have t be. No court would convict me for taking advantage of the services you volunteered of your own free will.”‘

Whoa. WHOA WHOA WHOA WHOA WHOA.

For every woman in the world, I would like to say this. RAPE IS NOT ROMANCE.

There’s no ‘I will not rape you’. No, ‘I will not force you to sleep with me’. No, there’s just ‘you could never make a rape conviction stick’.

What a huge motherfucking hero.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this book when I’m further on than p.33, but this is something which makes me see absolutely red. Sexual violence, and the threats of sexual violence, are not foreplay. Threats of sexual violence are not about desire and a growing romance. Sexual violence is about power and exploitation and is not sexy.

You fail, Sara Craven. If a romantic union is the happily ever after in your story, then your characters need to deserve it. And men who threaten sexual violence against women? They belong in a place called JAIL, not in a coma of domestic bliss. This is completely and utterly and in every way ENTIRELY UNACCEPTABLE.

ETA: This book just gets worse and worse. Check out this excerpt from p.35.

‘She said, “I am not your Natasha.”

“But you will be,” he said. “And your life will belong to me – until I decide otherwise. Did I not make that clear to you?” He smiled at her. “However, you plead with passion, agapi mou. I hope you will bring the same intensity to the pleasure we shall soon share, when I prove beyond any doubt that I do indeed want you, and not just for revenge.” He paused. “My attentions may even console you for the English lover you have lost.”

He took two of the pillows from behind him, and placed them beside him on the bed. “But now we have talked enough. Now, my lovely one, it is time you came to me. So, take off your clothes.”

She took a step backward. “No,” she said fiercely. “I won’t do it.”

His brows lifted. “Would you prefer my men to help you?”‘

NO NO NO NO NO NO NO. Fail on EVERY SINGLE FUCKING LEVEL. Coercion is not sexy. Rape is not romance. This is absolutely, totally, unequivocally DISGUSTING.

January 4, 2010

The Female Journey: Crusie, Romance and Chicklit

I originally got into reading romance novels because I thought they were so bad they were funny. A very narrow view, I admit, and one I thought I had largely got over – but after the book I read yesterday, it’s totally not true. Yesterday, I had my first ever encounter with a romance novel which was seriously good.

The book was Tell Me Lies by Jennifer Crusie and it was made of awesome. The heroine, Maddie, was both believable and likeable; the hero, C.L., wasn’t a total douchecastle like some romance heroes; and – which I found most shocking of all – the side characters were fleshed out, well drawn and likeable too. The highest mentions here need to go to Maddie’s daughter Em and Maddie’s BFF Treva, but the whole cast was pretty much awesomely well written. And the villain wasn’t demonised – Maddie’s husband Brent was a bad guy, but he wasn’t evil. (Though I did think the domestic violence incident should have been given a little more weight, but I’ve seen much, more worse in romance fiction).

I read a lot of category romance, as I intend to write my PhD thesis on it, so this was a really pleasant surprise for me. I wanted to read some Crusie after enjoying her essay so much – there’s still more from it I need to talk about, but I got distracted by Christmas and New Year and what not – and it was a real treat. I definitely intend to read more. Categories are limited by length if nothing else and it was great to read a book wherein you had a rich cast of characters instead of it being focused purely on the main pair. And it was funny, and Crusie has a beautiful turn of phrase, and… oh, it was great.

But.

Oh yes, there is a but.

It didn’t feel like romance to me.

This is all to do with me and my personal hangups and not to do with the book. It obviously is romance – I mean, hello, the genre is not based on what I think is romance. And having read so many categories and nowhere near as many standalone titles, my view is obviously skewed. So this was a real eye-opener for me in terms of what romance could – and should – be: real, honest to God, readable literature, compelling and heartwarming.

But to tell the truth, Crusie’s book read to me like chicklit.

And this, of course, got me thinking – where exactly does this fabled boundary between chicklit and romance lie? And is there one?

There is a boundary, I would contend. I think that they are different (related, but different) genres. But it’s a fuzzy boundary, a blurry one, and if you slapped a different cover on Tell Me Lies, I’m pretty sure you could market Jenny Crusie in much the same way as you market Sophie Kinsella or Marion Keyes.

Crusie fulfils the tenets of romance. There is a central pairing – in this case, Maddie and C.L. – and they get their happily ever after. They both grow as people and go on a journey and improve each other and complete each other (hello, Foucault) and whatnot. This is all basic romance 101 stuff.

But then Crusie goes another step further, and I think this is where I find myself reading Tell Me Lies as chicklit rather than romance. To me, the book wasn’t about Maddie and C.L.’s relationship. Sure, it was a major feature, but that is totally not what it was about. The book was about Maddie. C.L. was a big figure, but to me he seemed like a supporting character. Tell Me Lies was as much about Maddie’s relationship with her best friend Treva as her relationship with C.L., and in a way was more about her tumultuous relationship with her husband Brent than anything else. And Maddie’s relationship with her daughter Em was key, as was Em’s relationship with Treva’s daughter Mel, and the whole town was a major character.

It was a novel of relationships – plural. If we’re working on a scale, where pure chicklit is at one end and category romance is on the other, and the spectrum of standalone romance is somewhere in the middle, it put me more in mind of Meg Cabot than Lynne Graham. Actually, let’s look at it in terms of a Meg Cabot novel – Boy Meets Girl. That book (which I love, by the way – the email format is ingenious) is focused on Kate, a girl working in HR at a big newspaper. It’s about her relationship with the young, socially-conscious lawyer Mitch (the C.L. figure), her best friend Jen (the Treva), lunch lady Ida, her evil boss Amy, Amy’s evil lawyer fiancé, editor Dolly, and a whole host of other characters. The email format of Boy Meets Girl makes it very clear that it is about more relationships than Kate and Mitch – the fact that people email each other distils this presupposition of a relationship.

Compare that to something like Getting Physical, where characters other than Zoe and Stephen get next to no screen time, and you know where Crusie is falling.

This sort of sounds like I’m saying that chicklit is better than romance, and that’s not the case at all. Chicklit has a wider scope, I think – it doesn’t have to be focused on a happily ever after, which is one very strict tenet of romance: you can’t really have a romance novel without the ubiquitous HEA (though I suppose books like the Stephanie Plum series are on the line… but I’m pretty sure you’d call that chicklit rather than romance). One thing chicklit is able to do that romance often doesn’t is focus on friendship, particularly female friendship. Look at classic chicklit novels like Bridget Jones’ Diary or Confessions of a Shopaholic or Single White E-mail. The protagonist’s relationship with her friends is just as important as her romantic fulfilment. And this was definitely true of Tell Me Lies – Treva is definitely just as important to Maddie as C.L.

And chicklit is, I think, more heavily focused on the journey of the heroine, while the hero is pretty much a supporting character – and I thought this was definitely true in Crusie. This was Maddie’s book. Sure, C.L. grew as a person – just as Mitch in Boy Meets Girl does, or Luke in Confessions of a Shopaholic – but his journey was nowhere near as great and arduous as Maddie’s, nor is it the focus. In fact, if Crusie hadn’t followed the romantic convention of having some parts of the book from the hero’s perspective, you’d be forgiven for thinking that C.L. doesn’t really change that much over the course of the book at all. Category romance in particular focuses on the fact that the heroine grows and matures and reforms the hero – hence all that discussion before Christmas about the heroine replacing the hero’s model of sexual fulfilment with her own. In Tell Me Lies, I don’t think Maddie changes C.L. – and I don’t think she would want to. She brings out the best in him, but actually change him…? Not so much.

In her essay, Crusie describes romance fiction as:

“..fiction about women who had sex and then didn’t eat arsenic or throw themselves under trains or swim out to the embrace of the sea, women who won on their own terms (and those terms were pretty varied) and still got the guy in the end without having to apologize or explain that they were still emancipated even though they were forming permanent pair bonds, women who moved through a world of frustration and detail and small pleasures and large friendships.”

 – Crusie, J., 1997, ‘Romancing Reality: The power of romance fiction to reinforce and re-envision the real’ [originally published in Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres. Number 1-2, 1997: 81-93, accessed via http://www.jennycrusie.com/for-writers/essays/romancing-reality-the-power-of-romance-fiction-to-reinforce-and-re-vision-the-real/, 21/12/2009]

Tell Me Lies is definitely that kind of romance fiction. Crusie walks her talk when it comes to writing romance novels. But when you’re looking at category stuff and some of the lesser breed of standalones, I don’t know if it’s necessarily true. Crusie is, I think, an idealist. Romance fiction should be this. If all romance novels were as good as Tell Me Lies, then more people would read it. But I don’t think it is this, not all the time – not if the first time I read a really, really good romance novel, I go, ‘hey, this is chicklit’.

In conclusion, I think I found Tell Me Lies so chicklitty because it was so heavily focused on Maddie. The romance with C.L. was peripheral to her own journey and growth – it was an element of it, sure, but it wasn’t the whole of the story. I don’t necessarily think that all romance fiction has to be like this to be a good book. Tell Me Lies is a good book because Crusie is a good writer and tells a good story and develops her characters – all of them – well. And I liked that it was about Maddie, even though that kind of sets up C.L. as her prize for self-discovery, which is a bit disturbing.

“Therefore the consistently satisfying endings of romance fiction, far from being unrealistic, actually bring balance back to the perception of reality by reminding the romance reader that along with every thing else, good things happen to good people, too, especially to strong, courageous women, especially when they work for it, at the centers of their own lives and stories.” [that Crusie essay again]

Tell Me Lies is definitely like this. Maddie liberates herself and good things happen. And she does it herself, as well – C.L. doesn’t save her, though he certainly gives her a helping hand. Tell Me Lies is a damn good read and I’d recommend it to anyone.

But is it romance? I’m not sure.

December 20, 2009

Tantra, Completion and Sexual Healing: Getting Physical by Jade Lee

“Didn’t it come straight out of the fifties phrase book? How to please your man and act like a moron in six words or less.”

– Lee. J., 2009, Getting Physical [Mills & Boon] p.172

That, right there, is one of the things that really annoys me about romance fiction – the regressive gender roles. I wrote my rant about Trish Morey’s The Italian Boss’s Mistress of Revenge some time ago, and it really brought to a head for me what makes me so mad when reading romance fiction sometimes. Jade Lee is spot on (unintentionally, I think) when she starts talking about the fifties. Ideal happiness in romance fiction is domestic bliss – a man, a house, perhaps some kids and a dog. Take the end of Getting Physical:

“Then she laughed, the realisation hitting her broadside. She could had it all: career, family and love. Most especially love.” (Lee, p.211)

I felt like slapping Zoe, the main character, upside the head and asking her who told her she couldn’t. The reason she gives throughout is that ‘there isn’t time’. She’s working shit hospitality jobs in order to make ends meet while she pays her way through an MBA after a messy divorce. Good on her for striking out on her own after her life turned to shit and trying to make it solo, but ‘there’s not time’ really is not an excuse for avoiding relationships.

Not that I think people should have relationships for the sake of it – that came out wrong. But I’ve read a few romance novels now where the heroine always seems to think she has to choose between a man and, well, a life. Usually at the end she’s like, ‘duh, I can have them both’. Odd how the men never seem to have these problems.

Getting Physical is centred around the aforementioned Zoe and Stephen Chu, a Tantric master. Now, I don’t know where Lee did her research, but I’m pretty sure what she has in this book about tantra is totally messed up. It seems to be very much pop-tantra, completely ignoring the fact that sexual tantric practices are one tiny, tiny element of tantra and are not for seeking some kind of divine orgasm, which is what the book seems to suggest. I could write a lot more about this, but it’s not really serving my overall purpose… if I was going to write a thesis about the portrayal of tantra in romance fiction I don’t think it would be very long.

But considering this book is a book about tantra and in the light of what I was talking about before – the whole Foucault-sex-and-the-individual thing and the notion of sex as completion – I found this quote (courtesy of my good friend Mr Wikipedia) from Tibetan Buddhist Tantric Master Lama Thubten Yeshe very interesting:

“Everything that we need in order to be complete is within us right at this very moment. It is simply a matter of being able to recognize it. This is the tantric approach.”

– Yeshe, Lama Thubten, 1987, Introduction to Tantra:The Transformation of Desire [(2001, revised ed.). Boston: Wisdom Publications] p. 4

This is completely counter to the message which definitely runs through this novel, that Stephen and Zoe need to have sex to fulfil and complete each other. Of course, tantra is such a multifarious thing with so many incarnations it is possible that there are different texts somewhere. I am certainly not an expert – what I know of tantra I learned from a couple of lectures in some of my courses at uni. But it’s interesting.

Anyway, off the tantra, back to  the novel. Having read and written that stuff about the individual and sexuality this morning, I was really very interested when I got to one particular passage in the novel where Zoe actually heals Stephen through sex. Like, literally. He has all this mental pain and agony from having parents who didn’t love him and whatever blah blah blah, and through one tremendous night of sex, Zoe actually heals him of this pain. Through some mystical tantric connection/bond/thing she manages to express some kind of maternal love for him (incest ahoy!) and he finds that he doesn’t feel tha pain any more.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a romance novel where the hero’s pain (or heroine’s, for that matter) has been healed bam! like that through sex. Sure, it’s implied A LOT, but this was explicit. One day pain there, one day gone. The reason? Sex.

I found the way sex was encoded in this book a little troubling, to tell the truth. Stephen is a tantric master and Zoe, via a series of events, becomes his student. Sure, he’s all like ‘you’re not my student, I’m so omg important and advanced I don’t take students, only partners’, but considering he’s always bossing her around in the bedroom, she’s pretty much the pupil. (She actually calls him on this at one point. I cheered). Their sexual liaison starts off focused on ‘gaining heaven’ – again, I’m pretty sure that this is not really the goal of tantric sex, but whatever. This means that they are focused on each other’s mutual pleasure (as well as a whole bunch of other ritualistic stuff and opening energy channels and whatever – I found it pretty amusing that all Zoe had to do to guarantee an epic orgasm was what the author attractively called ‘breast circles’. Basically, this meant performing what was essentially a breast exam on herself. I laughed, I’ll admit it). And I was all over this mutual pleasure thing, and the language of partnership, even if it didn’t exactly play out that way.

But then the second time they have sex, we get this delightful set of words:

“It was hard because she had brought him to his most primal self, the animal in him that pounded inside a woman, that took what he wanted and claimed it for his own. That primal man was infinitely powerful as he branded this woman with every penetration. Zoe was his.” (Lee, p.103)

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Steady on there, young one. No more mutual pleasure (though Lee does go to an effort to say that he makes sure Zoe has a good time as well). No more attaining bliss. This is all caveman throw-her-over-his-shoulder stuff. And this is presented as some sort of ideal response – that instead of wanting just to give her pleasure, he now wants to possess her as well.

This dialogue of possession has been running through literature for, like, ever – and not just romance fiction. Thing is, romance fiction is in a position to begin subverting this kind of dialogue. It’s fiction by women for women (most of the time), and as a woman, I don’t have a great desire to be possessed. I object strongly to this possession being some sort of form of higher love, while the mutual pleasure thing is somehow lesser, even though the mutual pleasure thing is certainly fairer and generally more awesome.

After a while, when Zoe follows Stephen to China, they start having ‘regular’ sex instead of (though not to the exclusion of) tantric sex. This is, in terms of story, anyway, something that makes sense –  they start having sex that’s all about them instead of attaining heaven or whatever. This is where the individual/completion thing really comes to a head. Previously, when they were having tantric sex, sex was about attaining heaven – and it was a very individual thing. The first time they have a sexual encounter, Zoe manages to go to heaven (some kind of sparkly shiny place, from the not-very-descriptive description) but Stephen does not. The second time, they both make it, but it’s not like they see each other there, and Stephen makes it to a higher level than Zoe does. This is the occasion on which she manages to heal him through the power of love or whatever, and it’s where the line really begins to blur. By the time they’re in China and are screwing for the sake of it, it’s no longer about this individual satisfaction and goal – it’s about completing oneself with the other.

The whole ‘two halves of a whole’ metaphor has been running through literature for years – and it’s compelling. Think of Heathcliff and Cathy (‘we are the same, he and I!’) or thousands of other couples. And I’m not against it, per se – though I think it’d be nice if Zoe and Stephen and assorted others could achieve some kind of individual realisation that doesn’t result in them being codependent. What I do object to is the way this is usually gendered. Getting Physical played out almost exactly the way I was talking about before. Zoe, a divorcee, has been subject only to Bad Wang and sex with Stephen is true initiation into the sexual realm for her. Stephen, on the other hand, is a tantric master (a dragon master, Lee calls him – somehow I doubt the veracity of this term, though the moment when he called his penis his ‘dragon organ’ had me on the floor in tears of laughter) who has been having good sex, for, like, ever. He is the teacher, the initiator, the high priest. She is the student, the novice, the one being initiated. He completes her through sex, fills a hole in her life. She also fills a hole in his life, but it’s one he didn’t even realise he had – he didn’t even realise he needed her Magic Hoo-Hoo until she’d healed him with it.

So it ends up being mutual – a kind of codependence. But it never starts out that way. And it’s insulting to both men and women, really. It suggests that a woman needs a man to be complete, and that a man needs to be fixed before he can love.

I’m going to keep an eye on this trend. It’s interesting.

I would, however, tell people to read this book, because it is totally freaking hilarious. The quote I posted a few hours back in only the tip of the iceberg. This book has some absolute pearlers in it. And the whole tantric phone sex scene absolutely freaking killed me. Seriously, I had cramps from the laughing.

There was one moment, though, which I thought was genuinely superlative writing. It was the beginning of a chapter – just one sentence, but it really stood out to me. It’s the night after Stephen and Zoe have first had ‘regular’ sex, and they’re waking up in bed together. The chapter begins with this line:

“Stephen woke to the sound of a page turning.”

I thought that was really good writing. Simple, but effective. Even if it can’t erase Stephen’s ‘dragon organ’.

December 18, 2009

Sexual Violence is Manly! Glamorised Sexual Violence in Romance Fiction

Originally posted at Feministing Community.

Romance fiction is unusual in that it is a genre written largely by women, for women. In their excellent book Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Fiction, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan create Mavis, a caricature of what is imagined to be a stereotypical romance reader: she’s undereducated, oversexed, rather dim, a bit chubby and wears cardigans with appliquéd kittens. However, apparently one in five women read romance fiction in the USA, and in Australia (where I’m from), it’s much the same. And there just aren’t that many Mavises in the world.  

I remember walking past the racks of Mills and Boon category romances in department stores as a child and a teenager and watching people pretend they weren’t looking at them. These books were bad and forbidden on account of they contained OMGSEX!!!1!!! and moreover, were books about OMGSEX!!!1!!! by women, for women. There’s a reason people think that only Mavis reads romance fiction, and it’s because no one admits to it. Female titillation is synonymous with shame. Mavis, the woman who reads romance, is someone to be made fun of.

When I picked up my first romance novel, it was not with the notion of busting stereotypes or proving that Real Women Read Romance or anything like that – or even titillation. It was to laugh at, pure and simple. 

This was not especially big of me, I confess, but oh, I laughed at it. My first romance was called A Love Beyond Forever and featured a Fabio-type cover model wearing exceptionally high-waisted jeans as he carried a dazed woman in a floaty white nightgown. I cackled madly through the whole dreadful thing – the ditzy New York girl getting transported back through time to Cromwell’s England, falling in with (and losing her virginity to, in a fit of gushing orgasms) a Handsome Royalist Hero, being pursued by evil witches who would pop up occasionally to screech maniacally and who eventually tried to burn her at the stake for no apparent reason, before Handsome Royalist Hero rescued her helpless arse so they could have more multi-orgasmic sex after he came back with her to modern-day New York. It was, in short, awful, and hilarious in its awfulness. A wolfskin rug was involved. Comedy gold.

However, my interest was piqued, and the genre still continued to intrigue me. I was doing a degree in literature and had begun to identify very strongly as a feminist by this time, and so the idea of a genre that was almost, if not entirely, targeted towards women was fascinating. Why, thought I, were one in five women so into something so very dreadful?

I picked up a few more romance novels. And I read them. Sometimes, yes, I laughed myself stupid. Other times, I found myself genuinely going ‘awwwwwwww’. And other times, ‘ewwwwwwwww’.

However, speaking generally, several things began to disturb me.

Why, in a genre written largely by women for women, was Confession of Twoo Wuv, Marriage and (usually) Pregnancy considered pretty much the sole path to happily ever after?

Why was there such a strong focus on the heroine’s previous sexual experience (or lack thereof)? This isn’t true of all romance novels, but the amount of virgin!heroines getting together with ihavehadvastamountsofsexandwillinitiateyouintoitsways!heroes was completely ridiculous.

Why were heroines always getting themselves into stupid situations from whence they had to be rescued by their Big Strong Hero, or getting themselves into trouble from which their Big Strong Hero would protect them? Again, not true of every novel, but a common theme. Helpless damsel in distress saved/protected by Big Tough Guy. Because she can’t do shit like that by herself.

Why wasn’t anyone allowed to have had good, meaningful sex in the past? Occasionally, the hero might have an ex-wife with whom he slept, but no one arouses him like the intrepid heroine! The heroine is almost never allowed to have had good sex – or any sex – before. Occasionally, she might have had mundane sex, or have suffered some sexual abuse (which she is able to brush off once she has been cured by the lovin’ power of the hero’s mighty cock), but good sex? It might happen, but I’ve never read it. Only the hero’s mighty cock can give her the orgasms of Twoo Wuv.

If I haven’t disclaimed it enough, these things are not true of all romance novels. Not by a long shot. Like any genre, there are varying degrees of quality, execution and inversion of standard tropes within romance fiction. Some books are execrable, but some are actually quite lovely – I read one a little while back about a harried single dad falling in love with his next door neighbour and while it wasn’t disturbing-trope-free by any means, it was a shy, sweet romance that left me with warm fuzzies.

But then I encountered a trope within romance fiction that made me so angry I started throwing books at walls. I would – and still do – walk around in a red haze of anger for days after encountering a book that included it. In a genre that is largely by women for women, how did we ever start to glamorise sexual violence?

Sometimes it’s so insidious it almost flies under the radar. I remember raising my eyebrows at the first few ‘punishing’ and ‘ravaging’ kisses I read, but then, as I read more, it became so par for the course that I stopped noticing.

But then as I read heroes grabbing their heroines, forcing them into kisses, throwing them against walls, onto tables, the ground, any other available horizontal surface, tearing their clothes, pushing them into what is often described as ‘forced seduction’… my ire began to be raised. This seemed to be a shorthand form for denoting a hero as alpha – by physically dominating their heroines, they convey their power and their Ultimate Manliness. And the heroines? They like it. LIKE IT. They’re participants in their own sexual subjugation.

May I mention once more that this is a genre written by women, for women, and that an estimated one in five women is a reader? This isn’t just Mavis. There are a whole lot of women reading this.

This casual glamorisation of what is basically indecent assault got me mad, sure. But then I read this shitful piece of dreck and I exploded.

This book, The Italian Boss’s Mistress of Revenge by Trish Morey, is a category romance telling the story of Dante Carazzo, an Italian businessman who seems to be some kind of a property developer, and Mackenzi Keogh, the manager of a hotel which Dante has just purchased. Dante, for some deep, dark vengeful reason of his own, wants to tear the hotel down. Mackenzi begs him not to. He says he’ll think about not pulling it down… if she becomes his mistress.

Oh yes. Sexual blackmail is so hot right now.

I won’t ruin the whole repulsive story, save to say that it is completely nauseating. But one of the worst bits (and oh, there are so many) is at the very beginning. In the second chapter of the book, Dante stumbles on Mackenzi asleep and naked in the bed in his hotel room. (He wasn’t due till the next day; as the hotel manager, she’s taken what she assumes to be a vacant bed). He assumes she is a prostitute and intends to wake her up and send her on her way, on the grounds that ‘no-one decided who Dante Carazzo slept with’. However, after looking more closely at her naked body:

‘What had been before no more than a general but suppressible interest in the fairer sex, had combusted into something much more carnal. Much more necessary. What would it take to wake her up? If she could sleep through a storm like this, it might take a while to wake her by conventional methods.

Which left him with the unconventional.’

Personally, I was unaware that indecent assault was a legitimate, albeit unconventional, way of waking someone up. But he is a Hawt Alpha Male Romance Hero, so he is above the law.

Dante makes the conscious decision to ‘bury himself deep inside this woman’, even though she is a) asleep and b) has never met him, because lo! she is in his bed and that obviously means she consents to fuck his brains out: ‘her perfect breasts exposed for the taking. His taking.’ He then goes on to remark:

‘He was glad she hadn’t awakened when that clap of thunder had rent the skies. This way would be much more entertaining. “And much more satisfying,” he murmured as he gently knelt down on the bed alongside her.’

 That’s right. Sex with sleeping women is so much hotter than consensual sex. Choice is for wusses.

 Dante proceeds to commit indecent assault upon Mackenzi by touching her and kissing her even though she is asleep and unable to consent.

 ‘It was different, he realised, pleasuring a woman asleep, different and more arousing. There was something more evocative, more empowering.’

Empowering? Oh no, you did not just go there. Empowering for who, exactly? Certainly not Mackenzi, that’s for sure.

But wait! There’s more!

‘He wanted her awake. He wanted her to realise just who it was making love to her… there would be time enough to explore later. His fingers scooped down her chest. Right now her breasts were at the top of his agenda.

“Time you woke up, Goldilocks,” he said, before his mouth descended on one perfect nipple.’

 Mackenzi – at long last – wakes up. She finds a strange man sucking her nipple and… consents to screw him. As one does.

Well, actually, it’s a little more complicated. She wakes up, says that she should be going (putting it mildly there, Mackenzi) to which Dante responds by putting on a condom. Awesome logic, Dante! They then proceed to have earth-shattering, shake-the-walls sex, with orgasms and punishing kisses aplenty. And, in effect, her consent is a shorthand to negating any crime Dante might have committed – because he was OMG sexually assaulting her but she OMG loved it!!!!111! which makes all that stuff he did while she was asleep so hot right now because he is oh so very manly and alpha.

I don’t know what reaction I was supposed to have. I was nauseated. I was furious. There is nothing sexy about sexual assault. And this book sets up a man who ought to be imprisoned as a romantic hero.

This opening scene is definitely not the only objectionable one in the book – in fact, it goes from bad to worse. This is before Dante blackmails Mackenzi into becoming his sex slave – sorry, mistress, before he knocks her up and tells her that she ‘will not’ have an abortion and that no child of his will be adopted out, before he decrees they’re getting married to everyone he knows before actually asking her, before his Epic Childhood Trauma Oh Noes!!!!1! is revealed (thus abdicating him of any responsibility for any shitful thing he might have done at any point in his life) and his tragic inner pain is healed by the mystical power of Twoo Wuv.

And, guess what? This insulting piece of shit excuse for a book won the Australian Romance Book of the Year Award in the ‘Short and Sexy’ category.

I don’t understand how a book that calls itself a ‘romance’ and a ‘love story’ can open with such an unromantic hate crime.

I hoped that The Italian Boss’s Mistress of Revenge was some kind of aberration, that a line had been crossed that usually wasn’t. But no. A little research revealed that the rapist hero is not uncommon. In fact, in romances of the early ’80s, it seems like it was practically impossible to write a romance wherein the hero did not rape the heroine. Instances of the rapist hero are lessening, it seems, but he’s still hanging around, and people still love him – for example, Whitney, My Love; The Flame and the Flower and Devil’s Embrace all purportedly contain rapist heroes, and all remain popular. And Mr Punishing Kisses Sexual Assault Is So Hot Right Now, Captain Rapist’s younger brother, is alive and well. Dante Carazzo is not unusual.

If men were writing this, fiction where women were sexually subjugated to men and sexual assault was glossed over by having women enjoy it, I don’t think we’d be able to hear ourselves think for the uproar. But it’s not men writing it. It’s women. Women are writing for women, and they’re glamorising sexual crime.

I’ve read a whole heap of justifications for this – that it’s to do with moral panic (the virginal heroine cannot express sexual desire on her own, but if forced into it, well, it’s not really her fault); that it’s the other side of the coin to the sexualisation of violence (the violentisation of sex?); that it’s an effort to ‘reclaim the rape’ (WTF?!) But you know what?

I don’t care.

I would like to state again that this is not true of all romance fiction. It is definitely possible to write a romance novel without glorifying sexual violence. But this is a trope within the genre that cannot be ignored. I don’t care how you justify it, I don’t care that it’s women writing for women and that somehow makes it ‘safe’. In fact, it makes it worse – it makes us complicit in a dialogue of our own sexual oppression.

There is nothing romantic about sexual violence. And it is completely unacceptable to attempt to glamorise it. Even in fiction.

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