ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

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.

February 27, 2010

Yin/Yang Love/Sex Woman/Man – Quick Shots

So I’m reading this really bad sheikh category at the moment – Exposed: The Sheikh’s Mistress by Sharon Kendrick – and while it has lots of elements which I am sure I’ll write about ad nauseam lately, I had something vaguely resembling an insight.

This is wildly simplistic, but in a lot of romance fiction, particularly the playboy/virgin type (my particular field of interest at the mo) the hero represents sex and the heroine represents love. He teaches her how to behave sexually and she teaches him how to behave emotionally.

This is done particularly clumsily in this book of Kendrick’s that I’m reading at the moment, which is probably why I noticed it (and why I feel comfortable reducing it to something so simplistic). I’m only a little way in, but we have our virginal, vulnerable heroine and our harsh, alphole sheikh hero. (Sidenote – that thing from Talbot about eroticisation coming from the polarisation of gender? Kendrick totally tries to play that out. The first time they meet, the hero is totally all ‘I want to crush her soft lips with my hard ones’. Not great writing, but it illustrates that point pretty clearly). There is a total double standard at play – he is obviously one of those virile do-anything playboy sheikhs, but he totally ditched her the first time they met because he thought she was a virgin (which she was and still is) but he found out she posed for topless pictures one time.

As noted, I haven’t finished the book yet, but I can tell you exactly how it will play out (and if I am wrong, apologies to Ms Kendrick). Our sheikh hero will initiate our virgin heroine into the ways of sex, and multilple orgasms will be had by all. He will then realise that he can’t live without her, because all this time, she has been awakening his empty barren heart, etc etc. When, at the end, they get their happily ever after, it will be the union of sex and love in one domestic paradise.

There are obviously gendered implications to the man representing ‘sex’ and the woman representing ‘love’, but I’ll get into them later… when I’ve thought about them some more.

February 19, 2010

Virginity as Shorthand: the virgin and the playboy strike again

I read this article yesterday – An Insider’s Guide to Writing for Mills & Boon. In it, three authors of category romance are interviewed – Penny Jordan, Sharon Kendrick and Maisie Yates.

Now, there were a ton of interesting issues raised in this article that I could write about for ages and ages and ages – one of which being that Sharon Kendrick apparently doesn’t like writing career women as heroines because she wants them to be able to spend time with the hero. Even though a lot of her heroes are sheikhs and mediterranean millionaires. With, you know, careers. Hello, Captain Double Standard.

But that wasn’t what I really wanted to talk about today. What I found most interesting in terms of what will hopefully one day be my PhD thesis – tentatively titled Defloration and Declaration: virgin heroines and the playboy heroes that love them in category romance fiction – was this comment from Penny Jordan on why she makes a lot of her heroines virgins:

“I think of it as a shorthand for me. It’s always by choice. When my heroine meets the hero, she wants to go to bed with him. For the reader, that’s the mark of the effect he has on her. Because you’ve only got so many pages, it would be very difficult for me to create a heroine who’s had lots of partners and immediately knew there was something different about this one.”

Now this is something that I found very, very interesting – and something that I hadn’t really considered, to tell the truth. Virginity as shorthand. The heroine chooses to sleep with the hero because he is different from all those other men – and by sleeping with him, this difference becomes tangible, because he is the only man to have slept with her. (That sounds a lot more convoluted when you write it down. Whoa.)

I think this is compatible with the theory I had about sex as moral currency, wherein the virgin heroine is rewarded for sexual morality by sexual pleasure when she meets the right man. By sleeping with him, she marks him as the right man, and she knows he is the right one for sure because she has a damn good time. However, there are troubling assertions underlying this theory – the first being that virginity and sexual morality are equated, which ties into the notion of the madonna vs the whore. Sure, the heroine gets to experience extreme sexual pleasure outside the traditional institution of marriage, which is a pretty subversive concept when talking in patriarchal terms, but the fact that this sexual pleasure is a reward for her sexual good behaviour is still intensely troubling. Through sex, the heroine and the hero are inextricably tied together. They might not have exchanged vows, but they might as well be married.

And the concept of virginity as shorthand exacerbates this even further. I don’t think Jordan is making any conscious assertions to equate virginity with sexual morality or anything, but I think the underlying assumptions are still very disconcerting when you consider the types of heroes that these heroines are paired with. The virgin heroine and the playboy hero. A study in double standards.

Let’s expound. I’ve pretty much covered this ground before but I’ll go over it again. The virgin heroine is untouched. As Jordan says, her virginity is a choice – it’s rarely because she just can’t get any. She’s nearly always made a conscious decision to remain a virgin because she hasn’t found that right guy yet. Which is totally fine.

However, the playboy hero is doing anything that moves. He’s had a thousand billion paramours and usually hasn’t cared a jot about any of them. Actually, I read a sheikh novel on the weekend where the hero was extolling the virtues of what he called ’empty sex’. This is a literalisation of what a lot of heroes go through. Even if the hero isn’t a playboy, it’s a pretty rare category novel where is less sexually experienced than the heroine. And I can’t say I’ve ever read a virgin hero, even paired with a virgin heroine.

So why does Penny Jordan get to use virginity as a shorthand to express the effect the hero has on the heroine – she wants to lose it to him – whereas there is no such shorthand for the hero?

I quoted way back at the beginning of this blog a line from Talbot, who said:

“Eroticisation in Mills & Boon depends on the maximisation of gender difference.”

I think what disturbs me most about the notion of the virgin heroine and the playboy hero is that this gender difference is often coded in terms of sexual morality. The woman is virginal, the man is virile. And this is a perfect match.

I think this is made pretty clear in Jordan’s shorthand – she says that the heroine knows the hero is different because she wants to go to bed with him. Does this mean she has never experienced any kind of sexual desire before in her life? The hero, on the other hand, clearly has experienced sexual desire – I mean, hello, he’s had sex. Usually a lot of it – even if it is this so-called ’empty sex’.

The hero knows the heroine is different because, as I have harped on and on and on about before, she inspires him to replace his free-wheeling do-anything ‘wild’ sexuality with her model of monogamy, usually leading to marriage and domestic bliss. However, the heroine knows the hero is different because he is the only man she has ever experienced sexual desire for, ever. This goes back to that crazy stereotype of men as sex-crazed beasts and women as the gatekeepers of sexual morality. A woman only has power and standing while she is untouched – once she has had sex she is effectively claimed, and her power is ceded to her seducer. And if her seducer is not in the picture, well…

This is the underlying basis of the stereotype and not what literally plays out in romance fiction. However, I find it very, very interesting in terms of power. The heroine desires – for the first time – to sleep with a man, the hero. When she does, he – cue Foucault – ideologically completes her and she cedes her selfhood to him. The man, of course, is already ideologically complete, but the heroine sort of modifies him, turning them into a unit. But what happens sexually seems to indicate something else, power-wise – the hero can function without the heroine. He’s had sex, and though he might not be emotionally fulfilled, he’s whole. The heroine, however, becomes dependent on the hero, because he is the agent of her completion.

This leads to an interesting debate on how sex and emotion are equated for the heroine but separate for the hero – but I’ll write about that another day. The crux of my point and the issue I take with the playboy/virgin dynamic is this – why can virginity function as a shorthand for true love for the heroine but not the hero?

February 6, 2010

Ugly Stepsisters: Desperate Women are Evil

I’ve been thinking about the portrayal of secondary female characters in romance novels. Why is it that so often that all women in romance novels, besides the heroine herself, are so evil?

This is definitely not a sweeping statement. I mean, look at Jenny Crusie’s books. She writes some brilliant female friendships – Maddie and Treva in Tell Me Lies, for example, or Min, Bonnie and Liza in Bet Me. In her books, the female friendships that her heroines have are almost as important as, if not just as important as, the relationships with the hero. I think I demonstrated this point with Tell Me Lies once. It is as much about Maddie and Treva as Maddie and C.L. I contend that Anyone But You is as much about Nina and Charity as Nina and Alex (though Nina and Fred is obviously the starring relationship of the book!) Welcome to Temptation features Sophie and her sister Amy and a whole host of issues there… and I could go on and on with examples from the Crusie canon about the way she portrays women other than the heroine – as, quite simply, People Too, and people that you care about.

But then I dived back into the world of category, given as that really is what I’m going to write my thesis on in the long run (it has a title now! which is more than it had before) and the contrast is very, very striking. You might get the odd wacky sidekick BFF character, but otherwise, the majority of the women are sad desperados or evil exes and basically Teh Ebil.

For example, I just read If the Slipper Fits, a category by Elizabeth Harbison. It’s sort of a Cinderella thing – the heroine, Lily, works as a concierge at a posh hotel and ends up posing as the girlfriend of one of the guests, Prince Conrad of FakekingdomohyesIamaprincelandia. I think it’s the second book of two as her sister Rose is married to someone very rich and there is whole subplot about how she and Lily have a longlost sister that they’re trying to find which doesn’t really sit too well with the rest of the book, to be honest – it seems to have nothing to do with anything.

But I digress.

Rose would probably fulfil the token role of nicegirl!BFF but we see so little of her it’s very easy to forget her existence. Her entire function in the novel (outside of the random subplot) is to tell Lily that it would TOTALLY be a good idea for her to pretend to be the Prince’s girlfriend, because seriously, what could go wrong with that? (I realise that came out sarcastic, but Rose is totally not sarcastic at all). The same goes for all the other staff at the hotel – I just put the book down and they’ve already blurred into one conglomerate hybrid in my mind, but I have the vague notion there was one called Karen who served pretty much the same function as Rose. Suffice to say that neither of these women were given enough screentime for their relationships with Lily to be truly meaningful. Liza and Bonnie they ain’t.

The women that are given screentime, however, are all OMGBADNEWS. There is Prince Conrad’s mother or stepmother or otherwise disapproving older female relative Princess Drucille, who seems to spend all her time trying to get Conrad to date someone she deems suitable – in particular, her friend Lady Penelope. The author goes to explicit lengths to suggest that Penelope is sooooo ugly – I believe the word ‘bovine’ is used a lot. Because if she’s single and has vague notions of marrying a prince she must be such an ugly desperado, right? Drucille also locks Lily in a closet one time to keep her away from Conrad. She is obviously a sparkling example of… sanity.

Then there is Baroness Kiki, who seems to be a professional prince-hunter (aka. professional desperado) who, at one point in the book, tries to pick the lock on Conrad’s room with a credit card because she is just so desperate/crazy. And then there is Brittany Oliver, fading starlet, who calls paparazzi to take photos of her and Conrad in what she hopes will be a compromising position in order to breathe some life into her career. Another desperado.

I get that the author is using this women as shorthand – and, in keeping with the Cinderella motif – ugly stepsisters, so that Lily looks that much better. I might be able to make an argument that by making these single women desperate that the author is demonising single women, but I don’t know if I want to be quite that bold yet… still, when you consider that the entire point of romance fiction and the plot of every single romance novel ever written is to make single women un-single, I think there is something in this portrayal of the single woman as sad and desperate. She is a laughable creature, the single woman – the conniving Brittany, the ugly Penelope, the flailing Kiki – and serves no purposes other than making the heroine look better. She is that rare thing, a single woman who is not sad and desperate, and thus worthy of graduating to the privileged role of coupled, which is eminently superior. Because even if she is completely self-sufficient, all she really wants is a man. (This makes me think of Karen Templeton’s Pride and Pregnancy, where Karleen tries to do everything for herself but then her sister ends up saying that all she’s ever wanted is a man to boss her around or something to that effect). And the thing is, the heroine might well be sad and desperate – at least people are kind of telling her she should be. Why else do the few good women, like Rose in this book, push her into situations where Holy Coupledom could result?

I think I need to think this through more, but I think that category romance – and a lot of single title romance – definitely does have a tendency to set up other single women as ugly stepsisters to the heroine’s Cinderella. In category, I can see how this functions as a sort of shorthand, but wouldn’t it be more meaningful if there were good alternatives to the heroine for the hero, and he picked her because he still liked her best? If the Slipper Fits read to me like Conrad fell in love with Lily because everyone else was crazy. Where’s the joy in coming out on top if everyone else is a loser?

This raises some interesting gender politics in itself, the idea of the man ‘choosing’ the woman… but I think it could work both ways, like if the heroine had good alternatives to the hero and still chose him. Now that would be a real relationship of desire and not just a sort of best of the rest mentality.

January 31, 2010

How Not to Introduce a Hero – Quick Shots

Hi all! I’m back and hopefully posting on a more regular basis now that the Australian Open is drawing to a close and I can indulge my love of writing about romance fiction rather than my love of writing about tennis.

A quick shot to get back on the horse – I wrote a few weeks ago about how not to introduce a heroine, using examples from Karen Templeton’s Pride and Pregnancy. Today, the coin is flipped. Here we have a classic alpha-arsehole (alphole) category hero. What a prince this guy sounds like.

“…he remembered the open, trusting, dark eyes of the voluptuously proportioned swamp brat he’d seduced and then jilted nine years ago to save his twin brother, Jake.”

– Major, A., 2009, To Tame Her Tycoon Lover [Harlequin], pp.1-2

Because… I routinely save my siblings by seducing swamp brats. That, um, makes sense. And makes me SUCH A NICE PERSON.

I’m only a few chapters into this book, so I’m suspecting this particular hero (his name is Logan, for those of you wondering) will improve and be redeemed by the POWAH OF TWOO WUV sometime soon. But at the moment… he’s pretty much an alphole. He’s some big business tycoon who’s come home to his palatial Lousiana home to visit his sick grandpa, to find out that said seduced swamp brat, now a successful war journalist, is looking after said grandpa. Does he say, ‘thank you, how nice?’ No, he tries to invalidate her lease and make her leave, even though she is doing him a huge favour, because it means his grandpa doesn’t have to go into a home (grandpa not keen on leaving palatial plantation home).

In short, he’s a total prick. The whole seducing incident aside, which verges on sexual assault.

Redemption is something that we see a lot of in romance fiction, particularly in heroes – it’s a very popular trope, redeeming your hero through the power of love. It even ties into that Foucault stuff I’m always yapping on about, about how the heroine replaces the playboy hero’s ‘wild’ sexuality with her own model (domestic bliss, feat. solid monogamy). But it’s books like these that pose the question – there has to be something worth redeeming in the first place, surely? If you start the book loathing the hero, how can you possibly want him to end up with the heroine?

…unless you loathe the heroine as well and wish them joy in their miserable little world together. But with this book, that’s not the case – the heroine, Cici, is really quite likeable. I want her to tell his punk arse off, instead of ending up with him – I want to win, not to surrender. And I think that means that this novel is flawed, right from the very beginning, because the hero and the heroine do not deserve each other.

Wow. Didn’t intend to end up there when I started this ramble. But it’s food for thought…

January 13, 2010

Karma and ‘Goodness’: Sex as a reward

I’ve spent a lot of the last week on a plane – crossing the Australian continent twice in three days, which is no mean feat, let me tell you! – and have passed the time very merrily by reading some more of Jenny Crusie’s books: Fast Women and Welcome to Temptation, to be specific. (And, being on a plane, I haven’t been writing here, as you can tell…) They were both excellent plane books – I loved Welcome to Temptation in particular. I’m definitely going to have to read more Crusie, perhaps even purely for pleasure rather than study. She’s so wonderfully… well, readable. And moreish.

Though the point I made about Tell Me Lies still stands – I’m still not entirely sure she’s ‘romance’ in the most traditional sense. I’m definitely going to have to track down some of her category stuff to see how she deals with that more restricted format – I’m yet to read a category that blows my mind, and I figure if anyone can do it, Crusie can. Welcome to Temptation was more about the town of Temptation than anything else, although Sophie and Phin’s relationship is obviously a major factor. Family is a huge thing – Sophie’s relationships with Amy and Davy, Phin’s troubled Tucker legacy and his struggle to escape from it… and then there’s the whole Rachel subplot, and who-killed-Zane – it’s so much more than your typical romance usually is, and I think why I like it so much. Without the cover, I’d probably call it chicklit, though it’s not exactly a perfect fit there either… it’s light reading, plain and simple. I don’t know if you can call it a genre, but that’s what it is.

But this genre talk wasn’t actually what I wanted to get into. I wrote about sex in romance novels figuring as some kind of moral currency a few weeks ago, particularly as regards the virgin heroine – she is allowed to experience excellent sex with the hero as a reward for her previous good behaviour, when talking within a frame of a patriarchal view of female sexual morality. This happens a lot in category romance – I think there’s probably at least one release in every line per month that features a playboy and a virgin. Revisiting what I talked about before, I basically said that this sexual reward, bestowed upon the heroine by the hero, allows her to become complete as an individual (though her completion is dependent upon him). In return, she supplants his existing sexuality (his playboyness) with her own model (domestically blissful monogamy), thus reforming him.

This emphatically does not happen in Crusie’s books – which is one reason I like them so much, I think. Crusie, in her essay, describes romance 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…”

– 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] 

Crusie’s heroines – Sophie, Nell, Maddie – do get to win on their own terms, which I really enjoy. There’s not a sense of them as incomplete, fragile individuals – they have their own pre-existing individuality, which is complemented by that of their respective heroes. There’s no sense that they lose their selfhood or somehow become dependent on their respective menfolk when their sexual relationships begin, either. Crusie is very good at having her heroines doing things on their own terms.

But yet there is still this concept of sex as reward, which I find interesting. In Crusie, it’s not figured as a reward for sexual morality. Instead, it’s almost an idea of it being the heroine’s turn to have a good time. Bad stuff happens to some of the heroines – Nell gets left by her husband, for example, and Maddie’s husband turns out to be a) crap and b) dead. In other cases, like Sophie’s, they’ve been putting themselves second for so long that it’s really their turn to put themselves first. There’s a real sense that these women deserve something good to happen to them – and as this is romantic fiction, that good thing happens to be excellent sex. (I find it interesting that Phin and Sophie’s sexual relationship explicitly begins as a reward for past good – for Sophie especially. This is paraphrased, but Phin actually says to her ‘let me give you an orgasm you don’t have to worry about for once’.)

Where Crusie really succeeds is making you like and identify with her heroines – I think this is why I preferred Welcome to Temptation to Fast Women, because I liked Sophie more than I liked Nell. When this happens – when you are truly engaged with a heroine and want good stuff to happen to her – the romance becomes that more effective. I’m paging my way through a category at the moment where the heroine is a single mum with a disabled son, and even though I know all this bad stuff has happened to her and now she deserves something good, she’s so friggin’ irritating that I couldn’t care less if she and the hero got it on. Crusie is excellent at creating likeable, but still flawed, heroines, who get the good things they deserve.

And where she also succeeds is not making her hero a cardboard cutout ‘good thing’. She doesn’t trot out any of the old staples – Phin Tucker, the mayor of Temptation, for example, has a whole lot of issues and things of his own. He’s being slowly crushed by the weight of his own family’s legacy, when all he wants to do is play pool and hang out with his nine year old daughter Dillie. He deserves Sophie as much as Sophie deserves him, which is why this novel works so well. And their relationship is not one of co-dependency, either, which is something I really appreciated. They are strengthened by their union, inspired by one another, but they don’t become a unit. Phin and Sophie remain Phin and Sophie – they don’t become Phin-and-Sophie. They fight plenty after they get together and retain fierce senses of their own individuality. Their familial bonds are both very important to them. There’s no throwing off everything and riding off into a happily ever after with no fights ever in a land where it rains sugarplums and the roads are rainbows. They are each other’s reward, but they don’t become indistinguishable.

So… I think what we have is karma in romance. In my opinion, the reason romance fiction is so popular is not because of the sex (the ‘female porn’ concept) but because it’s a world where good things happen to good people, which is very comforting. What is really interesting, though, is the definition of ‘good’. In novels like Crusie’s, which are quality, ‘good’ is figured as ‘likeable’. In others, however, it is figured as sexual morality. The former (Crusie-style) is totally fine by me. It might not be the most highly realistic form of fiction, but hey, I doubt anyone comes to romance looking for gritty realism. The latter, however, is tied up and twisted with all kinds of patriarchal assumptions of female sexuality and double standards which can be totally sickening… even though the virgin heroine’s reform of the hero is a subversion of patriarchal ideals.

NB: Just as I was off in Perth and Brisbane last week, I’m going to be in Sydney and Melbourne next week (indulging one of other writing loves – writing about tennis) so it’s going to be a little light-on here for a while. But I’ll be back. 🙂

January 5, 2010

Oh Karen Templeton No! #4 … … …whaddidyousay, sugar?

Oh no you DIDN’T, Karen Templeton. You did not emphasise how much Karleen loves her autonomy and is not miserable and likes being single and doesn’t want to be codependent to have her BFF come out with this absolute bullshit:

”” All Karleen’s ever wanted is to be won over, by a man more stubborn than she is.”‘

– Templeton, K., 2007, Pride and Pregnancy [Harlequin Mills & Boon] p. 196

Nothing else. Just a pigheaded man.

OH KAREN TEMPLETON NO!

…and it gets worse. Troy pays rent on an apartment for Karleen’s drunken aunt – without telling her, obviously, because she’s one of them stoopid wimminz who can’t take care of themselves. And Karleen thinks:

“And where Troy got off playing God. The creep. And why his doing so was making her heart go pitty-pat in a way it had never done before.” (pp.225-6)

Because all she needed was a man to fix her problems for her. Them stoopid wimminz!

No, Karen Templeton. NO.

Oh Karen Templeton No! #3 – Them Stoopid Wimminz!

Still not finished on this book! This time, we’re tackling parochialism and the ‘them stoopid wimminz!’ mentality. Again, Pride and Pregnancy is not the worst book I’ve ever read in this area. But it’s the one I’m reading while I’m in a ranty mood, and so…

…the next time I read a parochial hero – especially one who, up till now, has been a Good Guy ™ – I am throwing the book at the wall.

The scene: Karleen has just discovered that her session of afternoon delight with hero Troy has left her knocked up. He wants to marry her ‘for practicality’ (so she can go on his health insurance, even though she has her own), she tells him to get stuffed. I still don’t like Karleen and her clothes (sidenote: in their sex scene, Templeton describes Karleen’s underwear as ‘pale pink embroidered silk high-cuts’ – OH KAREN TEMPLETON NO!), but I like that she’s determined to be independent. There was a scene earlier I thought was good where Karleen’s BFF was all alike, ‘when did you fall off the man wagon? OMG u hav no man sooo sad!!!1!’ and Karleen, quite rightly, verbally bitchslaps her with something along the lines of, ‘I don’t no man!’

But I digress. So Karleen is determined to be independent. Troy, who has hitherto been reasonably decent, agrees with uncharacteristic sourness. And then comes this parochial exchange with Blake, his business partner:

‘”Meaning, at least I’m in the position to take care of both Karleen and this baby. But she’s not having any of it.”

“As in, marriage?”

“Well, yes. Except she’s insisting we didn’t know each other well enough or have enough in common to make a marriage work.”

“Not that she has a valid point or anything.”

“Especially since she’s been married three times already.”

“Dude.”

“Yeah. …Karleen’s got a real thing about trying to stand on her own two feet.”

“There’s a lot of that going around these days,” Blake said dryly, referring, Troy supposed, to his own wife, Cass, who – despite being broke and, as it happened, also pregnant – had given Blake a similar song-and-dance before finally agreeing to remarry him last year.’

– Templeton, K., 2007, Pride and Pregnancy [Harlequin Mills & Boons] p.111

This is by no means the worst scene of its kind in romance fiction. But still, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t rewrite it like this:

TROY: So Karleen should totally give up this crap autonomy thing she’s harping on about and just marry me. Y’know, so I could be a Real Man and paternalistically take care of them.

BLAKE: Yeah, them wimminz are real stoopid sometimes… don’t know what’s good for ’em!

Say it with me – OH KAREN TEMPLETON NO!

ETA: Two pages later, Blake manages to say what I was saying. So Karen Templeton knows exactly what her subtext is. But that don’t mean it ain’t parochial…

‘”But here’s a newsflash, buddy – women don’t much like being given ultimatums. And they especially don’t like feeling like somebody’s threatening their autonomy. Doesn’t matter what the motive is, or that you’re only doing whatever it is ‘for their own good’.” (p.113)

Or you could read it this way:

BLAKE: Them stoopid irrational wimminz! They don’t understand what’s good for ’em, even if you try to tell ’em. Too busy being all damn autonomous to let us take ’em under our patriarchal wing and take care of ’em!

Oh Karen Templeton No! #2 – Slut-Shamin’

Now, it might be a bit unfair to pick specifically on Karen Templeton for this one, because she’s definitely not the worst offender here. She’s created a rare thing – a heroine with three ex-husbands who isn’t exactly ashamed of it. This is unusual, and kudos to you, Ms Templeton, for going there.

But as I’m determined to make this book my bunny after taking an instant dislike to the heroine, her wardrobe and all of her intricately described furniture, I’m going to go there.

“…to point out to her aunt that if she spent less time time in a horizontal position… in the company of men of dubious character…” (p.35)

“…not to mention an appalling number of ‘gap guys’ in between…” (p.47)

– Templeton, K., 2007, Pride and Pregnancy [Harlequin Mills & Books]

No, Karen Templeton. You do not get to create a sexually liberated heroine and still participate in patriarchal dialogue of  female sexual interrogation and oppression. If you had a whole bunch of gap guys between your husband, good for you. If your aunt wants to sleep with men of dubious character, it ain’t your business, sister.

Here we see clearly the contradiction present in so much romance fiction – female sexuality is at once celebrated and interrogated. And, Karen Templeton, I think you could have done better, so all I have to say is:

OH KAREN TEMPLETON NO!

Oh Karen Templeton No! #1 – Just Bein’ A Man

I am aware I am pretty much liveblogging this book, but I’m only on p. 27 and there is already so much awful. Not only have we had more gratuitous clothing description (and furniture description – just as your heroine is not your Barbie, her world is not your dollhouse!) we’ve come across this delightful reinforcement of gender roles:

‘Bemusement danced in her eyes. “If you stare at my chest any harder, my bra’s gonna catch fire.”

“I – I’m sorry, I don’t usually…” He blew out a breath, his face hotter than the pizza. “I didn’t mean…” She laughed. Troy sighed again. “Okay, so maybe I did. But I’m not a letch, I swear.”

“Oh, don’t go gettin’ your boxers in a bunch. You’re just bein’ a man, is all. No harm, no foul. It’s kinda cute, actually.”‘

– Templeton, K., 2007, Pride and Pregnancy [Harlequin Mills & Boon] p.27

Heroine calling hero on his asshatery? EXCELLENT.

Heroine writing off hero’s asshatery as ‘just bein’ a man – and it’s kinda cute’? OH KAREN TEMPLETON NO!

That is going to be my new catch cry whenever this book makes me feel like beating my head against my desk.

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