Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Harlequin Christmas Presents

Harlequin Presents editor, Tessa Shapcott, has written a Harlequin version of the Twelve Days of Christmas, the last verse of which is:
On the twelfth day of Christmas,
My true love sent to me
Twelve diamonds sparkling,
Eleven billionaires bidding,
Ten princes proposing,
Nine mistresses marrying,
Eight sheets – they’re silken,
Seven playboys pleasuring,
Six Greek tycoons a-laying,
Five desert kings!
Four virgin brides,
Three French men,
Two hired wives,
And the boss’s secret baby.

And, as reported at Dear Author, Harlequin is also giving away some free ebooks between Christmas and New Year. Details are here.

The illustration of the Virgin and the Boss's Secret Baby (secret from King Herod, at any rate) is from Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, via Wikipedia.

The Christmas Price Index is an economic indicator, maintained by the U.S. bank PNC Financial Services, which tracks the cost of the items in the carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas". If your true love happens to be a desert king, a Greek tycoon, a billionaire or a prince, he could easily afford such an outlay.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Syndicate and Power Dynamics

The Syndicate, Vols. I and II, by Jules Jones and Alex Woolgrave is a very English product. All the slang is English and the humor is ultimately English. For one thing, it made me realize how much of an American I have become (although a twenty-year displaced South African hardly counts as English, anyway). For another, the tone of the novel(s) make for some fascinating erotica. Dry humor and hot sex are an interesting combination.

The story is told 100% from the third person point of view of Allard, a computer geek, who falls into a relationship and then (we assume, although it's never actually explicitly stated) into love with Vaughan, the engineer of a syndicate spaceship, on which all of the crew own a share of the ship and no one is in charge. Allard hires on as a tech consultant for a year and a day, the timespan of the two volumes, at the end of which he is still unsure about buying a share of the ship, but agrees to marry Vaughan. (I could do a fascinating analysis of the economic and political aspects of the romance in this particular setting, but I don't have time, skill, or specific knowledge to really do it justice.)

The main kink Vaughan and Allard share is a "deflowering the virgin" role-play, in which Allard usually acts the role of virgin. In the context of a gay relationship in which the partners literally take turns bottoming to each other, and in which both men despise and disavow political and economic authority over those around them, the role-play is played for laughs the first time they do it. In the second volume, however, Vaughan begins to play more serious dominance games and Allard is discomforted by his positive response to them and baffled by his own innocence in the face of Vaughan's obvious experience.

Jones and Woolgrave manage to get to the heart of a BDSM relationship in one scene in ways that are food for reflection not only in relation to the attraction of BDSM in a long-term relationship, but also in relation to a truly trusting romantic relationship between any two people, and to the generic romance narrative and the romance genre as a whole.1

In the scene under consideration, after Allard agrees to submit to Vaughan, Vaughan has Allard wear a collar, as well as wrist and leg cuffs. This alone is enough to freak Allard out, and he admits, "I'm scared, Vaughan" (253). However, the trust that Vaughan and Allard have built up between them after almost a year together is always in the forefront of Allard's mind as he submits to Vaughan's demands:
He nearly panicked at the idea that Vaughan had him helpless, was refusing to turn him loose. Then he remembered--safeword. Vaughan would ignore any pleas for mercy, unless he used the only one that counted in this context.

No, Vaughan wasn't abusing him. Knowing that helped.

He tried to get control of his breathing. His panic settled, a little. (254)
A little later, Allard tests the situation a little further, more comfortable with his role:
"Let me go!" said Allard. This time, he didn't really mean it. He was testing the parameters of this odd situation. Yes, he was free. Not free to move, not free to go, but free to say whatever he liked without it making any difference. In this room, he could say or do anything, and nothing would open the door to the outside world until he either used his safeword or they finished what he was doing. (256)
I loved this paragraph of contemplation, especially in relation to the romance narrative itself, in which the hero and heroine (or, obviously, hero and hero) are free to attack each other, verbally or emotionally, because fundamentally the narrative as a romance can be trusted not to abuse the love relationship or the characters and to provide a happy ending. Although never free from each other, the characters are free in their relationship to test the boundaries of what it means to love while the author and the reader are free to stretch the parameters of the definition of a romance, as long as the happy ending can be relied upon.

Later in the scene, Vaughan attaches Allard's leg cuffs to a spreader bar (very NSFW picture here, for those curious), and Allard thinks:
A picture of how he must look popped into Allard's mind. Spread open, exposed, completely unable to do anything about whatever Vaughan might take it into his head to do. Vaughan's property. (260-261)
The characters in a romance are exposed to each other, and more importantly, to the reader's gaze, their emotions dissected almost surgically by the author for the edification of the reader. And once again, it comes down to the trust in the relationship between the reader and the text, as long as the text provides the happy ending.

Additionally, while delving deeply into power dynamics that are stereotypical of a romance (shrinking virgin at the mercy of the more experienced dominant male), it's made obvious that Allard is enjoying himself, despite being pulled beyond his comfort zone:
"I told you I'd make you enjoy it," Vaughan said. "You don't get a choice in the matter."

"Please, Vaughan, give me some more." He didn't want to beg, but he couldn't touch his cock, and he needed something. (261)
Allard felt uneasy. Half an hour ago, he'd definitely have said that the only reason he'd beg to put the chains on would be role-play to please Vaughan. At the moment, he wouldn't beg and mean it, but now he could see that there might come a time when he would.



"I don't think I like that idea."

Vaughan sat down where Allard could see him easily.

"That's all right, Allard. Changing your mind is my job." His expression softened slightly. "You didn't really expect to feel like this, did you?" he asked, more seriously.

"Isn't that what you liked about the idea?"

"Yes," Vaughan said, utterly sincere and utterly honest. "You don't like the idea that you like this, but you'll let me do it anyway." (262)
While this last sentence is the heart of a loving BDSM relationship, it's also part of the appeal of the romance narrative. One or both of the characters don't want to fall in love, but they do, despite themselves, and watching that process is what is attractive to the reader.

At one point, Vaughan tells Allard, still chained, to stand up. He realizes he can't do it without Vaughan's help:
Then he realized what was expected of him. "Help me, please."

Vaughan took hold of him by his upper arms and pulled gently. He made another attempt to stand up. Yes, this time he could make it, with Vaughan steadying him. If he could trust Vaughan enough, trust him not to let go.

He took a deep breath and stood up.

"Well done," Vaughan said, and kissed him lightly.

He was on his feet, but he still felt unsteady, so he asked, "Hold me, please."

Vaughan put his arms around him and held him close. He leaned into the reassuringly solid bulk of Vaughan's chest. (266)
This seems to me to be the perfect microcosmic representation of the best romantic relationships: mutual trust, mutual respect, mutual help, mutual understanding, and mutual comfort. For me, BDSM represents the distillation of a relationship. If it's bad, it can be monumentally, dangerously bad, but if it's good, it's the essence of romance, of trust, of mutual caring and responsibility, all wrapped in a stunningly politically incorrect package that can look like abuse to an outsider. The same can (and has) been said about romance fiction.

Finally, the most profound paragraph for me:
After a while, he pulled himself together a bit and moved back enough to see Vaughan. Vaughan's expression was a mixture of lust and tenderness. It's not just that he likes me being afraid, and it's not the BDSM stuff. More than anything, he wants to be the cause and solution to my fear. Allard had known that for a while, but this was the clearest he'd ever seen it. It wasn't Vaughan fantasising about rape, but about seduction, and about a person who was afraid but willing to be led through the fear and out through the other side. For the first time, he had a tiny glimmer of perception that there was another side, something through the fear.

"Whatever you want to do," he said to Vaughan. "I know you'll take me further than I want to go, but not further than I can go."

"You do understand, don't you?" (267)
I pretty much think this quote speaks for itself, but just to clarify: In the recent discussion in Romancelandia about rape, or seduction, or force--that's not what romance is about, for me at least. Instead, it's about the characters finding someone, and the reader finding an author, who is afraid, but willing nonetheless to lead them through the fear of death and unhappiness and strangely compelling gender dynamics to the happiness on the other side. "The cause and solution to our fear": romance narratives certainly occupy this role, as do our own lovers, and the lovers in our favorite romances. "Further than I want to go, but not further than I can go": romance narratives sometimes threaten our understanding of ourselves, our likes and dislikes, what turns us on, what pushes our buttons, but one way or another, for romance readers the best romances help us understand ourselves better.

1. For those who might not know: BDSM as an acronym stands for a combination of things: Bondage/Discipline, both common practices in the BDSM repertoire; Domination/submission, the poles of behavior that might have nothing to do with pain or sensation play but speak more to how the partners relate to each other, whether in sexual play or all the time; and Sadism/Masochism, which speak specifically to the use of pain in the sexual relationship. These three aspects of BDSM might be used separately, but are more commonly used in conjunction with each other, although one's place on the three axes may differ. For example, one may not enjoy bondage or discipline, but may be a strong sexual sadist with an interest in domination. If I were to place Allard and Vaughan on the various axes, I'd say they have strong interest in Bondage, with only a slight tick onto the discipline scale; they share the D/s axis, but more from a top/bottom perspective than from a service or humiliation D/s aspect, and the S/M axis is not explored at all, at least in these two volumes.

The foundation of BDSM lies in the phrase "Safe, Sane, and Consensual." As much as possible, when participating in BDSM, one should be sure that what you're doing is as safe as you can make it, is followed in a sane manner and performed by sane people, and that all who participated have consented to everything being done. Some in the community say that BDSM is, by its very nature, unsafe and relatively crazy, and advocate instead the phrase "RACK": Risk-Aware Consensual Kink. Because practices like needle play, knife play, or breath play are never safe, and (most vanilla people would argue) not sane, those participating should be aware of the risks and have consented to the play.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Bindel and the Beast

First off, thanks Laura for the lovely picture accompanying your post this morning! And the exclamation points!!! Not much action over at my Romancing the Blog post, but I console myself that everyone's probably out doing Christmas shopping, and I'll get scads of comments as the week goes by.

Last week we talked a lot about Ms. Bindel's brief against romance, and the comments we received were long and thoughtful as well. Robin posted more at length here at Access Romance, with comments back already from Laura and Sarah and me.

There were a few comments here, though, that I wanted to pull out and respond to here "above the fold" because they seemed to me to touch on important issues for romance criticism, as well as for the genre itself. I'll do that over the next few days, so that no single post gets too long--as much to plant the ideas deeper in my own memory as anything else.

Lazaraspaste got some excellent points in right away, I thought, about critical condescension:
What Bindel fails to acknowledge is that what one likes to read is just that, what one likes to read. It is a matter of taste. If we must analyze literature and art from a (sigh) sociological and anthropological perspective, endlessly debating whether these books may or may not harm women's psyche, progress, personal quest for self-actualization, etc. then we must acknowledge that different women need different things at different times in their lives. [...]

What I found particularly obnoxious about Bindel's statements wasn't that she thought romance was trash but the implication that she knows what is best for women. That if women want to be free from patriarchal oppression not only must they not want men to behave this way (P.1) in real life but they must not read about it in a book.

And it isn't Bindel alone. Most opponents of the romance genre take a similar tack. Most of these critics write their arguments from this moral high ground, shaking their collective heads at those poor, benighted souls who have failed to see the light (whether it be ideologically left or right) and realize that the only literature worth reading is literature that ennobles us. And if people are resistant to being ennobled then we enlightened few must continue to educate them through a process of shame and condescension.
It's worth revisiting, in this context, Plato's arguments on behalf of throwing "poets" (which is to say "fiction makers," broadly speaking) out of the Republic, precisely because they will tempt the citizenry into liking what they, ruled by reason, should abhor. The discussion is in Book 10, which you'll find here; I'm partial to the commentary by Harvard professor Stephen Owen in his wonderful book Mi-Lou: Poetry and the Labyrinth of Desire. I'm going to quote a few passages and silently change the word "poetry"--which, again, to Plato meant imaginative literature more generally, or so I'm told--to "romance." Watch what happens:

Romance may indeed lead the citizenry astray. It may speak sweet seductive words, catch us up, work changes upon us. We would legitimately call such an event a straying, dimly recognizing in it the joys of swerving from weary and commonplace values of the community, values to which, when asked, we must always loudly reaffirm our adherence. Do not misunderstand: we affirm these values because they are our own. They seem to appear spontaneously whenever there are two or three of us together. They are precisely the words on which we concur and by which we survive as a community. Yet each of us possesses a liberty of desire that renounces nothing and wants all. We tire of our virtuous restraints, and we hunger. There may be something in great romance fiction, even and most perilously in its soothing disguises, that betrays those values we believe we ought to hold; here may be something that subverts the common good and pays honor to the beast.


By words the community binds us, and romance fights back with words: perfect words, double-edged words, weighted words, words made to rebel against the drudgery to which the community commonly puts them. With these words romance addresses us and quietly tries to compromise all who are so incautious as to listen. Perilous conditions may be taken for granted, and unreasonable enthusiasms may become, for a moment, our own; words can cast a glow of desire around some things and expose others to anger and disgust. Most of all, romance may seduce us with a freedom of opposition that can hold all contradictory and unrealized possibilities together in one fierce countermotion.

The experiments of spirit that we pass through in romance pose no immediate or pragmatic danger to the community, but they may work secret changes in the heart; they give sustenance to the beast so that it does not die of our public habits. We live in limitations, imposed by ruthless Nature and by a human society that desperately aspires to equal Nature’s inevitability. But there is in each of us a beast that does not love its chains. Romance would feed the beast with words, calling it back to resistance and desire.

This may be a little campy sometimes--that bit about paying "honor to the beast" makes me want to play an LP backwards, or at least cue up Spinal Tap--but I'm a sucker for it, every time.

"Secret changes in the heart": yes, romance does work those, and it does so by refusing to be embarrassed about self-contradiction, wanting it all--freedom and commitment, feminist politics and nostalgia for traditional sex roles, resistance and surrender--even if its desires don't stick to the moral or political high ground. (There's a moment in Crusie's Manhunting where Jake, "a nineties kind of guy" asks Kate why he always has to row their boat. "'Cause I'm a fifties kind of gal," she replies. She's not, but the two of them seem to enjoy pretending that she is, however lightly, in this particular interaction. That sort of messiness and playfulness is typical of romance, but too self-contradictory for a critic like Bindel to appreciate, perhaps.)

So as Lazaraspaste points out, we don't always read to be ennobled, and sometimes what we really, really want to read (or think, or feel) isn't at all the way we want a whole community, or even ourselves, to behave. At that level, the scandal of romance is the scandal of poetry, despite their very different audiences. That's fun to know.

A later comment from Xandra Gregory also leaped out at me, again because of the broader issue it raises. "Her attitude," Gregory notes, "seems to suggest that I as a reader should stop reading what Daddy (the patriarchy) tells me to read and start obeying Mommy (Bindel) instead. Neither option actually taking into account the possibility that I know my own mind."

I wonder whether part of the objection to Bindel--the vehemence of some reactions, if not the substance of them--stems from this sense that she's striking an unwanted note of maternal concern. Says linguist Deborah Tannen, who has written at length about Mother / Daughter communication:
Mothers subject their daughters to a level of scrutiny people usually reserve for themselves. A mother's gaze is like a magnifying glass held between the sun's rays and kindling. It concentrates the rays of imperfection on her daughter's yearning for approval. The result can be a conflagration -- whoosh. This I knew: Because a mother's opinion matters so much, she has enormous power. Her smallest comment -- or no comment at all, just a look -- can fill a daughter with hurt and consequently anger. But this I learned: Mothers, who have spent decades watching out for their children, often persist in commenting because they can't get their adult children to do what is (they believe) obviously right. Where the daughter sees power, the mother feels powerless.
Obviously we're dealing in metaphors here, and the source I need may not be Tannen (or not this book by her), but there's a dynamic in this fracas that strikes me as distinctively intramural: female readers reacting to a female critic. Tannen's latest book is called You're Wearing THAT? Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. Bindel's article might as well have boasted the headline You're Reading THAT? As a man, I'm certainly part of the conversation--but I'm slightly distanced from it, or at least caught up in it in a different way, with different flashpoints and hot button issues. Someone needs to think this through--although precisely because of that distance, I'm not sure I'm the one to do it.

Besides--to be honest, I'm a bit worn out from all this sober, even angsty dwelling on the politics of romance. It's time for me to sign off on that topic for a while, and kick back with my dear Stephen Owen instead.

"Each of us possesses a liberty of desire that renounces nothing and wants all.
We tire of our virtuous restraints, and we hunger.

Laura? Sarah? Toss me that Les Paul. I just remembered a particularly catchy bit of patriarchal propaganda from my youth. (Surgeon General's warning: the following video makes smoking look cool, along with pouting, tossing your hair, and and truly unimaginative lyrics. But you know, these guys were kind of cute...)

Eric's Learnedly Optimistic and Authentically Happy

Laura Vivanco

Eric's over at Romancing the Blog today. Building on the work of Martin Seligman, Eric's "hunch, which I plan to test across the next few months, is that romance novels are often primers in positive psychology, in ways that measure up quite well against current research." He'd like some suggestions:
what romance novels have you read that particularly picked up your mood? Are there books that you return again and again to for some sort of encouragement or “lift”? Any especially resilient or optimistic characters or authors I should investigate? Any tough sells or counter-examples I’d better consider if I want to keep this inquiry honest?
Please go to Romancing the Blog if you think you can help him out. And since I'm trying to be optimistic, I'll use too many exclamation marks and add that I'm sure you can!!!

The paintings are both by Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo (1617-1682). The first is of a Boy with a Dog and the second is
Two Women at a Window, painted in 1670, Murillo is able to capture the gentle amusement of a young teenage girl, perhaps in observing from afar a handsome would-be suitor, while her governess, above and behind her, discreetly hides her knowing laughter behind a head scarf. (Lane)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Fantasies and Romance as Fairy Tale

I've recently come across a paper written by Jennifer Lohmann for her degree of Master of Science in Library Science. It's titled "'Beauty and the Beast' Themes in Romance Novels" and I'm going to quote some of the points she makes, because I think they're relevant to the ongoing discussion we've been having about rape, power dynamics and reading romance as fantasy. The full paper is available here and Lohmann illustrates her argument with particular reference to Laura Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm (23-27), Judith Ivory's Beast (28-32) and Nicole Byrd's Beauty in Black (32-35).
Radway and Modleski have already argued romance novels help women manage the problems of modern American culture. I extend their arguments to include the problems Bettelheim believes “Beauty and the Beast” helps children cope with. (35)
Bettelheim argues “Beauty and the Beast” helps children work through specific developmental problems they encounter as they age. These problems are: understanding the uglier side of self, overcoming anxieties about sex, and surmounting the desire to remain a passive actor in life. Specifically, I argue that in a culture where “female characters […] and their sexuality has remained quite rigidly imagined as either virginal or whorish,” the “Beauty and the Beast” theme helps readers in a similar way fairy tales help children (1-2)
Modleski argues Harlequin romances reveal deep confusion and fear in women regarding sex and violence. The pseudo-rape scenes of the novels and “the desire to be taken by force (manifest content) conceals anxiety about rape and longing for power and revenge (latent content)” (48). In the novels, Modleski finds a great deal of anger over the power men have over women and domination, which often gets confused with desire. (17)
The reason for an animal-groom and not an animal-bride is “it is the female who has to overcome her view of sex as loathsome and animal-like” (Bettelheim 285). Linking back to the divided self, Beauty must overcome her loathing of the Beast (as he represents her animal self and her sexual nature) before she can come into her full personhood. [...] Of concern to this paper is the virgin-whore dichotomy, “the axis of sexually ‘pure’ or sexual ‘ruined,’ of virgin or whore, of loose woman or bad girl” (Gameson 158). Women can be either virginal (childlike, not aware of their animal self) or whores (their animal self has taken over). (19)
Another issue which is briefly touched on by Lohmann is the role of another woman in turning the hero into a Beast:
Only Lion has a sorceress to blame for the hero’s curse and, unlike the fairy tale, the sorceress is punished for her misdeed. However, many of authors create the beast around a woman. In Ravished, Sale, and Only, society suspects the hero of killing a woman. In Ravished and Only, this woman was unfaithful and killed by someone for her misdeeds (in Ravished it was her father, in Only her lover). Kinsale suggests a woman is responsible for the hero’s madness by making the malady (it seems as if the hero of Flowers has a stroke) take place as the hero is leaving his lover’s bed and runs into her husband. The hero in Taming retreats from society because the scars he got after an accident repulsed his ex-wife. This creates a situation like the fairy tale, where a woman creates the beast in the hero. (11)
In the Christian tradition, the Virgin Mary is often seen as the woman who reverses the actions of the (sexual) Eve, and we've discussed the heroine's role in redeeming the hero in previous posts. As I mentioned in a comment to an earlier post, there is a long tradition of male fears about suffering harm as a result of vaginal intercourse and as Talpianna added, this "links ups, in a curious way, with the charges against witches in the Malleus Maleficarum: they mostly involve spells interfering with fertility/virility." Germaine Greer once wrote that
Women have very little idea of how much men hate them. Any boy who has grown up in an English industrial town can describe how the boys used to go to the local dance halls and stand around all night until the pressure of the simplest kind of sexual urge prompted them to score a chick. The easier this was the more they loathed the girls and identified them with the guilt that their squalid sexual release left them (249).
Perhaps in some romances in which the hero distrusts women and/or treats the heroine badly, or poses a threat to her, we can see this as a fantasy, in which the heroine must deal with male fears of female sexuality (which have led men to fear, despise and/or (ab)use women) and find a way to be both good (the redeeming female) and sexually active (but without becoming the feared woman).

The images are both of pig-men. The first is an illustration from Wikipedia by Walter Crane, for Beauty and the Beast. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1874. In the second illustration the enchantress Circe has turned Odysseus's men into swine.

Friday, December 14, 2007

An Internet Event of Stupendous Proportions!

In the recent uproar over the Guardian article by Julie Bindel and Daisy Cummins about the centenary of Mills & Boon, Bindel mentions Louise Allen's Virgin Slave, Barbarian King as indicative of "misogynistic hate speech." Louise Allen responded to the comments in another article in the Guardian. We at TMT thought this was interesting enough that we spent a lot of time exhaustively analyzing Bindel's argument.

Here at TMT, we though it might be fun to do a "Dueling Literary Analysis" of Allen's novel, a la Dear Author's Dueling Reviews. And then we saw Jane at Dear Author saying that she was going to do Dueling Reviews of Allen. So we all invited Smart Bitch Sarah, and we're going to have a review event!

So, at the beginning of January, TMT will post four (count them!) literary analyses of Allen's novel (myself, Eric, Laura, and Robin). Jane and Jayne will review the novel at Dear Author, and Smart Bitch Sarah will review it at Smart Bitches Who Read Trashy Books. If you'd like to join us all, run, don't walk, to your local bookstore to buy Virgin Slave, Barbarian King and read it by the beginning of January. You can also buy it as an ebook from eHarlequin.

Louise Allen can thank us later! You can't buy publicity like this! :)

A warning: while Jane, Jayne, and SB Sarah will probably not give away spoilers, because they write reviews, we here at TMT will write analyses and will provide spoilers galore.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bindel, Piece by Piece

There has been so much discussion of this piece lately that I almost hesitate to do this, but since several of us seem to disagree on the "meat" of Julie Bindel's argument--the substantive points she's making, or trying to make, rather than the dashes of rhetorical chipotle that spice things up or make us sputter and cough--it seems the way to proceed is simply to look over the article, piece by piece, and see if we can agree on what it says.

Here it is, then, paragraph by paragraph (numbers added for easy reference). Laura, Sarah, and the rest of us contributors can weigh in by editing this post and adding commentary after each paragraph, as well as in the comments boxes.

Let the games...begin!
1. Fifteen years ago, I read 20 Mills & Boon novels as research for a dissertation on "romantic fiction and the rape myth". It was the easiest piece of research I have ever done. In every book, there was a scene where the heroine is "broken in", both emotionally and physically, by the hero. Having fallen for this tall, brooding figure of masculinity, the heroine becomes consumed with capturing him. The hero is behaving in a way that, in real life, causes many women to develop low self-esteem, depression and self-harming behaviour - blowing hot and cold, and treating her like dirt. But all comes right in the end. After the heroine displays extraordinary vulnerability during a crisis, Mr Macho saves the day and shows her he cares.
EMS: Laura has already written about Bindel's research methods here, so I won't cover that. Instead, let me just observe that I don't know what "rape myth" she means, and it matters. Imagine this same paragraph--this one and the next one--as having grown out of a different dissertation, one on "romantic fiction and dominant / submissive sexual fantasy" and see how differently it reads. (One can also imagine it as deriving from research into "romantic fiction and the power of random reinforcement.")

SSGF: Doesn't exploring a "myth" or a narrative give us power over it in real life? Don't various narratives exist precisely so that people can explore the extremes (as Lazaraspaste says in the comments) in order to give us psychic control over the situations if/when they happen to us?

EMS: I agree, Sarah, and I’d like to link this idea to your discussion, below, of the ending of the romance novel. Bindel snidely dismisses the victory of the heroine: “But all comes right in the end.” Why is the ending to be mocked? Because it doesn’t happen that way often enough in “real life”? On those grounds, couldn’t we just as easily dismiss the genres of mystery and detective fiction? Bindel seems never to consider any function of literature other than to inculcate values / ideology or to reflect reality. The notion of literature as dream-work, a way to work through and triumph over threats, does not enter in to her discussion.

2. By this time (you know how uppity women can be), our heroine is so fed up that she does not comply when he grabs her inevitably small frame in his huge arms, and attempts to take her to bed. And so begins the "gender dance" - man chases woman, woman resists, and, finally, woman submits in a blaze of passion.
EMS: I'm puzzled by the euphemism here: "gender dance." Clearly Bindel wants us to see the scenario she describes as a rape, with the final clause an unthinkable, ridiculous finale. On the other hand, again, if this were in a piece about power disparity and sexual fantasy or consensual sex-play, there's nothing particularly unthinkable about the scene she describes; anyone who follows Dan Savage or other sex-advice columns, or reads the LustBites erotic authors blog knows how common such scenes and fantasies are.

EMS: It’s clear from what Laura has posted below that Bindel dislikes this particular “dance,” whether as sexual fantasy or as consensual play. She speaks, for example, of “pornography and sadomasochistic sexual practices” as having “invade[d] the lesbian community.” Her assumption would seem to be that women as such, were they not “invaded” by patriarchal ideology, would not find power differentials erotically exciting. I don’t know what evidence she has for this; certainly as far back as Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite” (Frag. 1) we find differences in power between women being eroticized:

[Anne Carson’s translation]

Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind,
child of Zeus,who twist lures, I beg you
do not break with hard pains,
O lady, my heart

but come here if ever before
you caught my voice far off
and listening left your father's
golden house and came,

yoking your car. And fine birds brought you,
quick sparrows over the black earth
whipping their wings down the sky
through midair---

they arrived. But you, O blessed one,
smiled in your deathless face
and asked what (now again) I have suffered and why
(now again) I am calling out

and what I want to happen most of all
in my crazy heart. Whom should I persuade (now again)
to lead you back into her love? Who, O
Sappho, is wronging you?

For if she flees, soon she will pursue.
If she refuses gifts, rather will she give them.
If she does not love, soon she will love
even unwilling.

Come to me now: loose me from hard
care and all my heart longs
to accomplish, accomplish. You
be my ally.

That penultimate stanza makes it pretty clear that Sappho doesn’t fantasize about equal, reciprocal affection, even between two women. Rather, what she wants the Goddess of Love to promise is a reversal of the existing power dynamic: the chased one will be the pursuer, the beloved the lover, “even unwilling.”

A lot of work was done on this issue in Emily Dickinson's love poetry back in the 1990s. There were two distinct waves of criticism: the first tried to argue that when ED wrote about love between women, it was egalitarian and reciprocal and kind, but when she wrote about heterosexual love, the poems were about hierarchy and domination / submission and so on. A few years later, the problems with this grew unmistakable: the theory simply didn't fit the facts, the actual poems. Bindel strikes me as very much a "first wave" critic in this scheme: on whatever grounds (taste or ideology) she wants to assert that love should be a certain way and that certain behaviors and dynamics should not be attractive. If they are, there's something wrong with you: you've been infected, invaded, etc., by the patriarchy.

EMS: It's also worth pointing out how false to many romance novels this description of the "dance" turns out to be. In novels from The Sheik to The Flame and the Flower the rape scenes are not played out this way: they're scenes of violation with no "blaze of passion" or pleasure on the woman's part. The shocking thing about these novels is the fact that the rapist turns out to be the romantic hero, that the novel forgives or redeems him, which is a different issue, although one that Bindel might well address.
3. My loathing of M&B novels has nothing to do with snobbery. I could not care less if the books are trashy, formulaic or pulp fiction - Martina Cole novels, which I love, are also formulaic. But I do care about the type of propaganda perpetuated by M&B. I would go so far as to say it is misogynistic hate speech.
EMS: Has she shown, so far, that the novels perpetuate propaganda? Has she shown that they are misogynistic, evidence of what we might call "female self-hatred" (as one hears of "Jewish self-hatred," for example)? I don't think that she has.

EMS: Let me say that again, more loudly. I don’t think that Bindel has shown, so far, that these novels perpetuate propaganda. She has read selectively, distorted some facts, and implied that a common, even commonplace locus of sexual excitement (hierarchy, differences of power) is at best contemptible, and at worst (as in the later passage, quoted by LV below) radically foreign to women, so that if women like it, even between themselves, they merely testify to their own corruption. I am unconvinced.

EMS: So far, then, the core argument seems to be that these novels feature heroes who "behave in a way that, in real life, causes many women to develop low self-esteem, depression and self-harming behaviour." Am I wrong to see this as meaning, essentially, that Bindel objects to the fact that many women enjoy reading about men who behave in ways that they wouldn't put up with in real life, which is to say that she objects to women fantasizing about things that they wouldn't want to do (or suffer) in real life.

EMS: The logic would seem to be that by enjoying this fantasy, they give aid and comfort to men who act (in real life) like these heroes, and they undermine support for women who have been abused by such men. Let me offer a comparable case from another cultural realm: supposing there was a body of popular work (fiction, songs, movies) in which people have a wonderful time binge drinking, or drinking and driving. Someone who came from the world of public health might well look at all those films and stories and songs--ah! the songs: "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer," "Hey, Bartender," "One for My Baby (and One for the Road)," "Seven Drunken Nights"--and write a similar case against them. Yes?

LV - One might also want to make a comparison with smoking in the movies. There's been quite a lot of research done on that. For example, Mekemson and Glantz found that "Both the entertainment and tobacco industries recognised the high value of promotion of tobacco through entertainment media. The 1980s saw undertakings by four tobacco companies, Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds (RJR), American Tobacco Company, and Brown and Williamson to place their products in movies." and, Dalton et al observed that "Exposure to smoking in movies has been linked with adolescent smoking initiation in cross-sectional studies. [...] Our results provide strong evidence that viewing smoking in movies promotes smoking initiation among adolescents."

EMS: I'd thought of that analogy also. But smoking is, in all circumstances, a threat to one's health. Drinking leads to alcoholism and alcohol abuse less pervasively or inevitably, except in perhaps in particularly at-risk populations. Are all women to be considered an "at-risk population" here? Heterosexual romance and marriage don't strike me as being quite as dangerous, case for case, as smoking, although I don't know the statistics. Perhaps if I did I'd feel differently?

SSGF: I think the analogy is much closer to the crime fiction Bindel likes so much. Nothing gets resolved in films with drinking and smoking. No one stops the vice, nothing gets fixed. But at the end of crime fiction, the world is a more just place. The killer is apprehended or dead, and the protagonists have saved the day. And it's the END that is valorized in considerations of the genre. The end isn't denigrated as they are in romance fiction, because of course the criminal has to be punished, the crime solved, and order restored. No one questions that ending, and because of the ending, crime fiction has slightly more respectability that romance fiction. And yet, as romance defenders say again and again, no one expects crime fiction readers to go out and commit the crimes they read about. Ah, but you're not identifying with the criminal, right? You're identifying with the solver of the crimes. Then again, what about Dexter, which I've heard is a fabulous show in which one does identify with the serial killer, because he is the protagonist. Still, readers/viewers don't go out and commit their own crimes. It comes down, again, to which part of the story has the most "influence"? The beginning/middle where the hero might be acting like a jerk, or the end where he has reformed, changed his ways, and treats the heroine as she deserves, admitting her power over him. If that's the influential part of the story, then again, as I said in my post, romances are "good for you" rather than "misogynistic hate speech" (I really can't believe she said that).

LV: Sarah commented that "Nothing gets resolved in films with drinking and smoking" which is sort of true, in one way, but in another, if characters drink and smoke and this makes them appear glamorous and more successful sexually, then it's suggesting that drinking and smoking have positive effects, and so that perhaps makes their portrayal in film closer to the ways that some heroes behave. In real life these behaviours might be indicative of an abusive relationship, but in the romances kidnapping a heroine or blackmailing her, or deciding to take her virginity as revenge for something her father did to your father, is part and parcel of the hero's glamorous, sexy alpha-ness. And it could be argued that even the way he changes could be read as encouraging the idea that an abuser could also change, whereas in fact abuse tends to escalate.

LV - and why am I ending up playing the role of Devil's Advocate here?

EMS: Because you're a fair-minded, reasonable person, doing what an academic is supposed to do: take ideas seriously, test them, and see what you think!

LV - anyway, to get back to smoking and alcohol, here's some of the research: “one in every five deaths in the United States is smoking related” and smoking is, as we have seen, encouraged by certain representations of smoking in films.

LV - Re alcohol, "Estimates for 2002 show that at least 2.3 million people died worldwide of alcohol-related causes accounting for 3.7% of global mortality. Alcohol consumption was responsible for 4.4% of the global burden of disease" (Global Alcohol Policy Alliance). Alcohol consumption is affected by portrayals in film and the media:
The central conclusion reached by Hanewinkel et al. is that exposure to incidental portrayals of alcohol use in US movies has contributed to the early onset of alcohol use by a group of German adolescents.
and a
study, funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, is the first-ever national longitudinal survey of the influence of alcohol advertising on youth. Snyder and her colleagues conclude that greater exposure to alcohol advertising contributes to an increase in drinking among underage youth. Specifically, the analysis shows that for underage drinkers, exposure to one more ad than the average for youth was correlated with a 1 percent increase in drinking, and that an additional dollar spent per capita on alcohol advertising in a local market was correlated with a 3 percent increase in underage alcohol consumption as well. (from here, and more research into the link between advertising and alcohol consumption can be found here)
LV - So those are two activities which can be very harmful and consumption of both substances has been shown to be linked to their portrayal in film/the media. Given the horrific figures relating to violence against women, one might argue that relationships with men, while potentially pleasurable and even beneficial (like alcohol), can often have extremely negative consequences. According to the US Department of Justice’s 2000 Full Report of the Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: "Women experience more intimate partner violence than do men: 22.1 percent of surveyed women, compared with 7.4 percent of surveyed men, reported they were physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, cohabiting partner, boyfriend or girlfriend, or date in their lifetime."

EMS: Just to jump in for a second, Laura: you say "relationships with men," but the report speaks of assalut by "boyfriend or girlfriend." According to the this website website (which I have not evaluated), "Domestic abuse occurs in approximately 30 to 40% of GLBT relationships, which is the same percentage of violence that occurs in straight relationships. It is a myth that same-sex couples don't batter each other, or if they do; they are just "fighting" or it is "mutual abuse"." Here too, on the AARDVARK site, I read that "The rates of domestic violence in same-gender relationships is roughly the same as domestic violence against heterosexual women" and "The GLBT community itself is often not supportive of victims of battering because many want to maintain the myth that there are no problems (such as child abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, etc.) in these relationships." One might argue that Bindel's brief against heterosexual romance fiction perpetuates this myth, because it suggests that violence against women is a problem only when women are in relationships with men.

LV: According to the Findings from the Australian Component of the International Violence Against Women Survey (2004) "Over one third of women who had a current or former intimate partner reported experiencing at least one form of partner violence over the lifetime, and four per cent in the past 12 months" (and there are more Australian figures here). In the UK, “One in four women will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime” and globally “At least one out of every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime, according to a study based on 50 surveys from around the world” (Amnesty).

LV - Unlike alcohol and smoking, it's much more difficult to establish quite how romance-reading relates to domestic violence. But what evidence there is, is discussed below, in relation to paragraph 4.
4. Why do I care so much about books that few take seriously? Are there not more important battles to fight? Challenging the low conviction rate for rape certainly seems more urgent than trashing novels that perpetuate gender stereotypes, but there is no doubt that such novels feed directly into some women's sense of themselves as lesser beings, as creatures desperate to be dominated.
EMS: "There is no doubt." Does that mean "there is evidence"? If so, where is it?

LV - There is some evidence in Julia Wood's "two-year study, which she described in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, [in which] Wood identified 'women's use of gender and romance narratives to make sense of violent relationships'" and "People commonly use stories to make sense of their lives, placing themselves within those stories, said Wood: 'Some of the images of men and women in these romance novels are entirely consistent with the dynamics of violent relationships'" (from here). As noted previously, Bindel is only saying that romances have a particular effect on "some" women, just as Wood's study was of a small group of women who had been/were in abusive relationships.

EMS: But "make sense of" doesn't necessarily mean "excuse" or "stay with," does it? Is there any evidence that women who repeatedly "make sense of" their situation by reading romance novels tend to change that situation in higher or lower numbers than women who do not?

We'll need to get this study or the full account of it to evaluate it properly--from the description here I'm not sure it qualifies as a "no doubt" proof, or even as very persuasive.

SSGF: I'm with Eric: we need to read this study in full, because it's very unclear (to me) as to whether Wood is looking at women already in an abusive relationship? Again, romance narratives might compound their problems, but I can't believe that they're the sole reason women are in those relationships. But this doesn't cover the blanket statement that Bindel seems to be making that all (or most) readers are adversely affected by the patriarchal ideology of the romance narrative. And if romances contribute to just one women staying in an abusive relationship, that is of course too many, but I think there's too many variables to be certain about anything.

EMS: And, as I've observed before, romance fiction is hardly the only genre or text that can be used to make sense (bad sense, destructive sense) of an abusive relationship. Thus, for example, this:
LV - Pointing out potentially unsavoury aspects of other genres/belief systems doesn't get romance off the hook, though, does it? I mean, if I commit a crime, it's still a crime, regardless of whether other people commit more crimes or worse crimes. And in fact, if other genres and belief systems could be used in the same ways as romance, might that not suggest that romances form part of a wider set of cultural ideas which validate abusive relationships? So if we're defending romance, I don't think we should distract attention onto the beams in other genres's eyes in order to dismiss claims that there's a mote in our own. But is there a mote in our eye? That is the question. And having now misquoted both the Bible and Shakespeare, I think I'd better stop.

EMS: Motes, shmotes! OK, you caught me, Laura. But my point--if I had one besides wanting to give Sarah something nifty to think about at church--was twofold:
  • First, if romance does contain this set of cultural ideas, it may not do so any more than any other genre or branch of culture, in which case it's unfair to single it out for derision or critique; and
  • Second, if romance and the Bible both contain such negative material, they also both contain material that contravenes or complicates or flatly contradicts it. The Bible contains the book of Lamentations, which is one of the more unsettling accounts of an abusive relationship I know, but it also contains the book of Job, which radically ironizes anyone's attempt to justify unfortunate events as divine punishment, and it also contains the Song of Songs, which is one of the loveliest accounts of equal and reciprocal companionate love that I know--in which, I might add, there is occasional play with hierarchy and power and so on.
SSGF: Eric, OMG, where did you GET that? I love Jesus the dom, spanking his little submissive! (I could go into a very long discussion of how Christianity is actually all about submission, but I'll do that another time!)

LV: Wendy Larcombe's Compelling Engagements : Feminism, Rape Law and Romance Fiction. Annandale, N.S.W.: Federation Press, 2005 is described by her publisher as being
a ground-breaking work which investigates the narratives of rape law and of romance fiction, and explores the outmoded and strikingly similar depictions of their normative female subjects. These are women who are not only vulnerable but also evidently worthy of the protections or rewards promised: punishment of the rapist or the hero’s love. [...] Larcombe shows how the legal construction of gender and subjectivity in rape law is still working to disempower victims. She suggests feminism’s failure to accommodate women’s investment in heroines of romance fiction has limited their effectiveness in transforming rape law.
I haven't been able to get hold of either of these works to read them in full, so I don't know how much evidence, or what sort of evidence, Larcombe provides.

EMS: Does every woman (or man) who wants to be dominated think of him or herself as a "lesser being"? Again, on what evidence does she make that claim? This paragraph seems quite weak to me, but perhaps I'm missing something.

SSGF: Eric, from the BDSM perspective, absolutely not. In fact, most sexual submissives I know are incredibly self-confident, self-assured people who are usually Type A personalities IRL. In fact, in the community, if a submissive is needy and DOES imagine him/herself as a "lesser being," red flags are thrown up around them and clever doms learn to stay away. BDSM is not counseling, it's a sexual orientation. It shouldn't be used to work out self-esteem issues unless all the partners know exactly what they're doing. But that's not what Bindel is talking about. She's talking about a more pervasive unconscious drive that women apparently have to debase themselves because society tells them to. Part of the disconnect here, I think, is that most non-readers still buy into the stereotype of romance readers being undereducated housewives who shore up their "false consciousness" by addictively reading romances, whereas statistics show that, in general, romance readers have a higher education level than the general population, and are probably therefore slightly more conscious about how and why they read, and therefore less likely to "succumb" to the supposed patriarchal influence of romances.

SSGF: And furthermore, while Bindel is looking at how far we HAVEN'T come in feminist aims of an equal society and blaming it on romances, one could turn that on its head and look at how far we have come toward meeting goals of equality in the last forty years, which is precisely when romances have had their resurgence. As in, for hundreds (thousands) of years, equality for women was unavailable, even unimaginable, but since romances became popular, we've been creeping closer and closer to equality. Correlation or cause--you be the judge! (tongue planted firmly in cheek).
5. One argument from M&B apologists is that the heroine has moved with the times. True, she is now more physically active and sexually imaginative. The modern-day character often dares to have sex before marriage, knows what she wants in terms of her career and personal life, and even has a sense of humour.
EMS: So far, she's ceding points to us apologists. I'm getting suspicious. (Did she not have a sense of humour before? I haven't read enough category romances to comment--but then, has Bindel?)
6. As a result of the changing heroine, the hero has been required to catch up. But rather than becoming a "new man", it seems he has become even more masculine and domineering in order to keep the heroine in line. This is how the rape fantasies so integral to the plot have been able to persist.
SSGF: Oh, Lord, where to start. Hey, in the 90s, we tried the "beta" hero in a lot of category romances, and he wasn't so popular. I'm sure Bindel would say that this proves her point, but I'm not so sure. Yes, true, the hero has become more masculine and more domineering, but we've also gained much more access to his thoughts, to his point of view, and this gives us more access to understanding why he does what he does. Again, Bindel would probably say this is patriarchy at its worst, but I still wonder what part of the novels we're valorizing. If it's the end, where the hero is brought to heel--tamed, in fact (sorry, Laura, I know you don't like this word)--then the fact that he's super-domineering means the heroine's victory is that much more powerful (and empowering?).

LV - I also much prefer beta heroes (though because of the very different ways that people use the terms "alpha" and "beta" to describe romance heroes, they often aren't very helpful and you have to provide your own definition of each term before they can really be meaningful).

EMS: There's no logic to this paragraph, folks. Why would we expect the heroes to become more "beta" (mo' betta'?) if the heroines have become stronger? Wouldn't we expect precisely what has happened: stronger heroines need bigger challenges?
7. Take this description of a recent M&B novel, The Desert Sheikh's Captive Wife: "Tilda was regretting her short-lived romance with Rashad, the Crown Prince of Bakhar. Now, with her impoverished family indebted to him, Rashad was blackmailing her by insisting she pay up ... as his concubine! Soon Tilda was the arrogant Sheikh's captive, ready to be ravished in his far-away desert kingdom."
EMS: The "rape fantasy," if there is one, is staged as anticipation here. Does Tilda actually get ravished? Does the Sheikh remain arrogant? Bindel doesn't care enough to find out, but surely it makes a difference. This is one more retelling of E. M. Hull's classic The Sheik, evidently, but I suspect that its actual plot, turn for turn, and its characterization of both hero and heroine are radically different.
8. Or Bought: One Island, One Bride: "Self-made billionaire Alexander Kosta has come to the island of Lefkis for revenge ... He doesn't count on feisty pint-sized beauty Ellie Mendoras to be the thorn in his side! ... There's a dangerous smile on Alexander's lips ... As far as he's concerned Ellie's a little firecracker who needs to be tamed. He'll seduce her into compliance, then buy her body and soul!!"
EMS: "Seduce her into compliance" may mean "rape" in somebody's book, but I don't think it will mean rape in this one. And again, does anyone who reads much romance believe that Ellie will be the only one "tamed"?
9. Or Virgin Slave, Barbarian King: "Julia Livia Rufa is horrified when barbarians invade Rome and steal everything in sight. But she doesn't expect to be among the taken! As Wulfric's woman, she's ordered to keep house for the uncivilised marauders. Soon, though, Julia realises that she's more free as a slave than she ever was as a sheltered Roman virgin."
EMS: We're going to read this one collectively, here at TMT, in January: stay tuned for details. Dibs on the Wulfric costume!

SSGF: This one is fascinating to me, because the titillation factor is high on that last sentence, but the book is actually discussing definitions of civilization vs. barbarism and their treatment of women.
10. The first two were published this year, the third comes out in January.
SSGF: And we all know how accurate the front cover and back blurb are in depicting the atmosphere and actual ideology of the book (see all SBTB Cover Snark!). Great research there.

LV - And yet, people do pick up books at least partly as a result of looking at the covers. So presumably words such as "blackmail," "concubine," "ravished," "revenge," "dangerous," "seduce," and "compliance" are ones which attract some readers. Bindel might wonder what it is about these concepts that's attractive to readers.

EMS: I think Bindel knows what about these concepts is attractive: she just doesn't like it, and doesn't think they should be attractive. On the other hand, readers who know the genre also know that although the books may give them the frisson that these words promise, they will also end with an HEA, so that the book as a whole will take them from the ordinary world into the world of romance and then (as it were) carry them safely home. Even more, they know that they will get to indulge in a fantasy of power that is doubled: male power and female power, even if neither of these play out in a way that Bindel thinks is safe or sage.

LV - In another of the interviews Bindel's done, she spoke to Sheila Jeffreys, for whom
heterosexual sex is sexual desire that eroticises power differences. Lesbian and gay sexual practices do not escape her scrutiny. Two of her books, The Lesbian Heresy (1993) and Unpacking Queer Politics (2003), focus on how "queer" sexual politics have led to oppressed sexual minorities embracing any kind of sex, such as sadomasochism, in the name of liberation. Jeffreys tends to see things coming before they happen. She was the one who warned, in the early 1980s, that pornography and sadomasochistic sexual practices would invade the lesbian community. They did.
LV - Maybe I'm extrapolating too much from Bindel's overall positive response to Jeffreys, and from the word "warn," but I would guess that Bindel isn't exactly embracing sadomasochism. I've only found one other reference to Bindel's position on the issue: "Julie Bindel of Justice for Women even believes a 'bridge between lesbian feminism and S/M politics' is possible (Taylor and Chandler, 1995: 42). This is an unusual acknowledgment that sadomasochism does not necessarily rule out lesbian feminism" (O'Sullivan 118). [O'Sullivan, Sue. "What a Difference a Decade Makes: Coming to Power and The Second Coming." Feminist Review 61 Snakes and Ladders: Reviewing Feminisms at Century's End (1999): 97-126.]

SSGF: ::sigh:: If one sees BDSM purely as a representation of the repressive patriarchal power dynamics in society, then seeing it "infiltrate" the lesbian community must be devastating. But if one realizes that being kinky is, itself, a sexual orientation above and beyond being lesbian, then kinky lesbians do not herald the end of civilization as we know it. Kinky lesbians are just women who happen to enjoy playing with power dynamics in a relationship and I very much doubt the lesbian community has ever been free of them. Let's see, I know an incredibly feminine lesbian dom who calls herself "Master," and a very butch female dom who calls herself Daddy. The feminine dom is partnered with a very butch submissive. The butch femdom is partnered with an incredibly beautiful femme sub. I also know a butch femdom partnered with a butch submissive. How do we unpack the patriarchal power dynamics in these relationships? Or more to the point, should we unpack them? I would argue that we shouldn't.

EMS: "Heterosexual sex is sexual desire that eroticises power differences"? You mean, if I have hot power-exchange sex with another guy, it will still be heterosexual sex? Damn! No one tells me anything. More seriously, see Sappho's poem above, among any number of other texts.
11. In 1970, one of M&B's regular writers, Violet Winspear, claimed that her heroes had to be "capable of rape". Another, Hilary Wilde, said in 1966, "The odd thing is that if I met one of my heroes, I would probably bash him over the head with an empty whisky bottle. It is a type I loathe and detest. I imagine in all women, deep down inside us, is a primitive desire to be arrogantly bullied." These comments may have been made some time ago, but the tradition seems to continue in the many M&B novels that depict female submission to dominant heroes.
SSGF: Or maybe all women, deep down inside, have the primitive desire to control the arrogant bully, because that's certainly what romances give them, if we valorize the ending, not the middle.

LV - I don't think "all women" have either of these "primitive desires". The term "primitive desire" is interesting, because it suggests that these desires are innate/"natural". But if we accept that, does it mean that true vanilla-ness is deviant/kinky/subversive of the norm?

SSGF: I like the way you think! :-)

EMS: Face it, Laura: you're utterly bent! As for Bindel, has she in fact demonstrated that there are "many M&B novels that depict female submission to dominant heroes"? She's shown me the heroes; no evidence yet of the submission. Not in this article, anyway.

SSGF: Ooh, nice point, Eric. Is Bindel arguing by proxy that dominant male necessarily equals submissive female, without thinking that dominant male might just as easily equal dominant female as well?

12. My horror at the genre is not directed towards either the women who write or, indeed, read them. I do not believe in blaming women for our own oppression. Women are the only oppressed group required not only to submit to our oppressors, but to love and sexually desire them at the same time. This is what heterosexual romantic fiction promotes - the sexual submission of women to men. M&B novels are full of patriarchal propaganda.

SSGF: So what dynamic are the kinky gay men in Joey Hills' Rough Canvas replicating? Is Thomas in the feminine position as the submissive/bottom? Isn't that an equally egregious stereotype of homosexual relations as Bindel's view of power relations in romance novels?

EMS: Having gone through this article paragraph by paragraph, I simply do not find that she has demonstrated any one of these central points. She has not shown that heterosexual romantic fiction promotes female sexual submission, nor that the novels are full of patriarchal propaganda. She argues by assertion, with flimsy evidence or none at all. She has convinced me that she has a "horror" at the genre, but that "horror" seems mostly her own disgust with fantasies she neither shares nor enjoys, and with the women who have them. (But it's not their fault! Really--they can be saved!)

SSGF: For what it's worth, going back to the ritualized submission of BDSM sexual orientation and practices, the submissive has all the power in the relationship. It is the submissive's right and duty to say "Stop!" at any point, and the dom's responsibility not only to respect this negative, but also to make sure the submissive is alright, whether or not s/he says stop at all. While this might be viewed at patronizing from outside the community, it absolutely isn't when practiced in real life. Any dom who earns a reputation for not stopping or makes any kind of remarks about respecting safewords should be and usually is completely ostracized. The submissive has all the power, precisely because the submissive gives up the power.
13. I can say it no better than the late, great Andrea Dworkin. This classic depiction of romance is simply "rape embellished with meaningful looks".
SSGF: Nothing is ever black or white. Nothing is absolutely one thing or the other. Does Bindel's argument hold some water for some women? Probably. Her fault is in not realizing that romances can be and are empowering for other women. Her fault is in throwing around words like "misogynistic hate speech" without recognizing that others might feel differently and that for the women who subjugate themselves to patriarchal practices, romance novels are the least of their concerns.

LV - Given Bindel’s admiration for Dworkin, it may be fruitful to examine possible similarities in their thinking. Dworkin, as noted in the obituary Bindel wrote about her, “came to represent the fierce debate on pornography and sexual violence.” Bindel has done research into “sexual violence and the criminal justice system. A founder member of the feminist law reform campaign Justice for Women, Julie believes that doing paid work, however ethically and responsibly, is not enough, and remains a committed political activist.”

LV - Dworkin “achieved fame when, in 1983 along with legal academic Catharine MacKinnon, she drafted and promoted the civil rights law recognising pornography as sex discrimination in Minneapolis” and later “Dworkin and MacKinnon were commissioned by the Minneapolis city council to draft a local ordinance that would embody the legal principle that pornography violates the civil rights of women, and is ‘hate speech.’”

SSGF: Personally, I don't feel repressed by the porn I watch and read.

LV - In paragraph 3 Bindel used the term “hate speech” to describe romances, and I wonder if she also believes that they are pornography. Certainly romances have been described this way by some feminist critics of the genre. 1979 saw the publication of Ann Snitow’s “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different” and it was followed the next year by Ann Douglas’s “Soft-Porn Culture: Punishing the Liberated Woman.” Douglas’s comments are particularly relevant, as I think her ideas about romance may be similar to Bindel’s:
The Harlequins are porn softened to fit the needs of female emotionality. They are located inside the female consciousness, but so are most current hard-porn (heterosexual) stories and magazines; so, for that matter, are the Marquis de Sade’s Justine and John Cleland’s Fanny Hill. Female, not male, consciousness is the most satisfactory repository and register for the forced acknowledgement of male power. The Harlequin heroines initially resist domination, but so do the hard-core heroines. Breaking down female antagonism is half the fun. (27)
How can they [romance readers] tolerate or require so extraordinary a disjuncture between their lives and their fantasies? Probably the Harlequins are not written by men [...] but the women who couldn’t thrill to male nudity in Playgirl are enjoying the titillation of seeing themselves, not necessarily as they are, but as some men would like to see them: illogical, innocent, magnetized by male sexuality and brutality. It is a frightening measure of the still patriarchal quality of our culture that many women of all ages co-sponsor male fantasies about themselves and enjoy peep-shows into masculine myths about their sexuality as the surest means of self-induced excitation. (28)

[LV - I've put all of the Bindel paragraphs into a dark green (green being one of the colours of the suffragette movement).]

Louise Allen responds

This is yet another update in the ongoing debate sparked by Julie Bindel's article about Mills & Boon in the Guardian. Louise Allen, whose novel Virgin Slave, Barbarian King was cited by Bindel because of the language used in its back cover copy, has now had her response printed in the Guardian under the title "My heroines are independent. This is not patriarchal propaganda."

But to return to the cover for a moment, though this time the contents of the front cover rather than the back, I have a suspicion that the cover art was inspired, at least in part, by the scene of Mr Darcy's bath, in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Heroes learn something too; or, Exactly WHO is subjugated?

So the online romance world got a little upset this past week about the "debate" in the Guardian. Laura posted about it here and Smart Bitch Sarah posted about it here, generating incredible debates in the comments of both posts. I think Laura did a fabulous job (as always) of talking about the fact that the books in question in the original article were Mills&Boon and how that affected the debate, and commenters at SBTB pretty much hashed over all possible issues of feminism and romance.

What I'd like to discuss in this post is the juxtaposition of a number of comments from the SBTB post that caught my attention. I don't remember if any of them were in direct response to each other or just to the general debate, but the combination interested me immensely.

First is this comment by Trumystique:
I was initially disgusted with the fact that the heroines consistently had one happy future.
This is the common charge leveled against popular romance fiction, of course: it's a tool of the patriarchy and that the heroine is subjugated by the fact that the only viable option established by the romance narrative is that she "dwindles into marriage."1 For those trying to change societal expectations enough to establish more possible life choices for women, I imagine this does feel pretty limiting. And it's a charge that's been leveled against domestic fiction and the marriage plot since feminist literary criticism began doing its thing. To quote myself from my dissertation:
Feminist criticism has long argued that the marriage plot, in which the heroine's story necessarily ends either with marriage or with death, is inherently conservative. Rachel Blau DuPlessis explains that the marriage plot "muffles the main female character, represses quest," and "is based on extremes of sexual difference," finally arguing that the marriage plot "is a trope for the sex-gender system as a whole" (5). The marriage plot, then, replicates for women the repression of the patriarchal system to which they are subject. While admitting the validity of DuPlessis's critique, Laura Mooneyham White attempts "a partial defense of the marriage plot" (72) by maintaining that it "persists in the fictive imagination for some compelling reasons, and while the attack on the marriage plot as indicative of repressive social conditions and ideologies is well justified, feminist critics might benefit from seeing beyond the historical and cultural dimension of marriage" (76) to examine its narratological purpose. (150)
White argues that marriage plots, specifically those of Jane Austen,
emphasize that through marriage one becomes part of a social and economic entity. Marriage allows the heroine to join the wholeness of society even as she joins the unity of male and female. (83)
As I argue in my dissertation, however:
by examining Austen’s marriage plots from the perspective of Austen’s construction of the subjectivity of her heroes, it is possible to expand understanding of the marriage plot beyond its efficacy for the heroine. While White demonstrates convincingly that there is more involved in the appeal of the marriage plot for female readers than brainwashing about the benefits of subjugation to the whims of a husband, [I argue] that Austen is fundamentally refocusing the marriage plot to establish the benefits for the hero of concluding his narrative with marriage. The progress of Austen's heroes through her novels constitutes a narrative strategy that is just as empowering and much more practical for the female reader--and potentially revolutionary for the male reader--as questioning the effectiveness of the marriage plot for female characters in a world where marriage was almost an economic imperative for women. Austen's novels argue that civilized and civilizing associations with women in a permanent, romantic, heterosexual, companionate relationship are necessary for men to achieve their full potential. (151)
That is, then, that the MALE characters are also "subjugated" by the marriage plot.

This point was not lost on the SBTB commenters. kis wrote:
Problem with feminism as a science is that they consider men a control group, when they’re as much a variable as anything else.
And Xandra commented:
I’m having a hard time coming up with titles that didn’t end with heroes also coming to prioritize their relationships with the heroines.
While feminist ideology has focused on the heroines in domestic fiction with marriage plots, they've forgotten about the heroes and the fact that they end up exactly like the heroines: married and happy. And while they don't necessarily give up their high-powered careers as Greek tycoons (although some definitely do), they do generally slow down a bit to smell the flowers and be with their heroines and their families. Every example I can think of in modern popular romance fiction has the hero not only admit that his love for his heroine and its return is necessary to his happiness and contentment--is necessary, in fact, for him to be a complete person--but also has the hero in some way indicate through his actions in an Epilogue or similar ending that time with his family has become the most important part of his life, at the expense of whatever high-powered career he might have pursued at the beginning of the book. Although "at the expense of" is misleading as the romance presents it, because the hero is almost always depicted as more successful when making time for his family than he is at the beginning of the book. Shane in Crusie and Mayer's Agnes and the Hitman gives up his career as a hitman to be with Agnes. All of Susan Elizabeth Phillips' football heroes are seen after their football careers, happy and content doing something else that gives them more time with their heroines. Suzanne Brockmann's heroes might seem to be the exception, but they prove the rule in another way: they end up working WITH their heroines, spending time with them that way. And historical romances do the same--the heroes go back to their estates and learn how to enjoy being gentlemen farmers, taking care of their larger "families" of tenants, farmers, servants, and of course their own wives and children.

Romance novels argue, then, that *men* are better off when they spend more time at home, giving up their soul-destroying, high-powered careers, and focusing instead on the domestic bliss their heroines give them, along with the babies they make together with such abandon. And while this view of the narrative of popular romance fiction necessarily endorses the domestic and the marriage plot as the Ideal To Which We Should All Strive, which might in and of itself be problematic from an ideological standpoint, it is not only the heroine who succumbs to the lure of domestic bliss by any means. In fact, I would argue that it's much more important--at least for the Alpha Male hero of modern popular romance--that the hero admits the value of and strives for the domestic lifestyle that that the heroine does. So while we're still definitely prioritizing the domestic, it's not the heroine who "dwindles into marriage," the the hero who embraces it as his lifeline to all things good.

On SBTB, Lone Chatelaine speculates about the implications of this view of romance novels:
Maybe instead of us females berating each other for what we all think each other should want, we should instead start requiring more males to step it up and be real men, the kind of men that a strong woman could lean on if she wanted to. . . . But perhaps we should put a little pressure on the men to try and attain a female driven genre’s idea of the fantasy. I’m not saying that men should start trying to be highland warriors or dark broody vampires, but there are obviously some common and attainable qualities in romance novels that women like in men. Strong, dependable, nice, loving, honest, considerate, protective, etc.2
If critics are convinced that romance readers are unable to separate the fantasy of the romance from reality, why does that mean that readers are more likely to submit to the patriarchy's view of subjugated femininity and not, instead, insist that their male partners become sensitive, caring, dependable, honest men who are in touch with their feelings?3

1. Apparently a quote from William Congreve about a male character, interestingly enough.

2. My strong, dependable, nice, loving, honest, considerate, protective husband disagrees. He thinks that he'd look great in a kilt, with long canines. :)

3. If we want to take the unscientific "results" of myself and my reading experience and relationship expectations, everything I learned about how my husband should treat me come from the end of romances when the hero has admitted the necessity of love and his need for the heroine in his life. So rather than learn from romances that I need to subjugate myself to his masculine authority, I learned precisely the opposite.

Works Cited:
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Frantz, Sarah S. G. "How Were His Sentiments To Be Read?": British Women Writing Masculinity, 1790-1820. Diss. U. of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 2003.

White, Laura Mooneyham. "Jane Austen and the Marriage Plot: Questions of Persistence." Jane Austen and the Discourses of Feminism. Ed. Devony Looser. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 71-86.

The picture is (obviously) Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn from the film version of The Lord of the Rings. Because who is a more perfect example of all things good about the Alpha Male than Aragorn? And he's awfully easy on the eyes.