Part of our goal in creating a new workshop on rape culture was to force ourselves and our audiences through an unpleasant process of reassessing what we think we know in light of all of that privilege we would like to pretend that we do not have. More specifically, sexual violence is intimately linked to rape culture. Rape culture tells stories about how we (don’t) value people in our communities and how those types of value judgments create dehumanized figures that are perceived as “unrapeable.” It is important to convey that so much of our response to sexual violence has been conditioned by the legacy of slavery- enduring in our communal memory and vocabulary is the pernicious narrative of the black male rapist threatening white female purity and the horrific reality of white slaveowners raping black female slaves (while white women stood by, and even profited). The primaries have thrown much of this uncomfortable baggage into the limelight, and I’m ashamed to say that many women claiming the title feminist have deliberately refused to honestly engage with these issues.
These types of messages are particularly hard to get across on my campus, where an elitist-ironic post-everything vibe helps us distance ourselves from the consequences of what we do and say. After all, we know better, so we can do whatever the hell we want…
I find everything increasingly problematic and I feel horribly uncomfortable with most of the images and the narratives that I consume. And yet I often find myself at sea about which battles I need to fight and where it’s most effective to leverage my strength. Facilitating uncomfortable conversations has taught me that there are teachable moments and there are messy battles that will only alienate the person I’m trying to, if not convince, at least destabilize.
The connection to romance? As I caught up with Teach Me Tonight I stumbled across a blogworld debate about certain white feminists’ inability to be transparent about their own privilege as well as the intellectual debt they owe to women of color. Following a long trail of links (at one point I had about fifteen tabs open) led me in a circle right back to where I began, romanceland. Monica Jackson, whom I really respect for consistently asking hard questions of romance readers who would rather live in fantasyland, commented on this situation at length.
One particularly interesting quote:
I have long realized that the liberal, supposedly hip, and feminist romance folks don’t give a frick about black oppression.
“Then there’s Gloria Steinem, Erica Jong, Jessica Valenti, Amanda Marcotte, and any number of white feminists from the second and third wave that really ruin feminism for the rest of us. If they’re not insisting we put aside our “of color”-ness in favor of our woman-ness, they’re busy using their white privilege to marginalize, dismiss, silence, or otherwise treat us the way those pesky white men they’re so angry with do.” – Angry Black Woman
This is the way it works within romance too. The genre is dissed by darn near everybody literari, basically because it’s a women’s genre with plenty of pulp type fiction-but pulp SFF and mystery genre fiction don’t get the same treatment. Romance by and for black folk is treated just as badly or worse within the romance genre as literary folk treat romance.
Which then sent me thinking back to a collection of essays I just finished, Empowerment Versus Oppression: Twenty First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Perhaps most relevant to the above is the excellent essay by Guy Mark Foster entitled “How Dare a Black Woman Make Love to a White Man! Black Women Novelists and the Taboo of Interracial Desire.” However, being the hopeless NELC major that I am my thoughts instead turned toward Emily A. Haddad’s “Bound to Love: Captivity in Harlequin Sheikh Novels.”
Haddad describes the evolution of the captivity plot though several sheikh romances spanning the years before and after America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. Haddad writes:
The conventional hyperbole entailed in the trope of captivity serves much the same purpose as the folktale’s supernatural villain; the heroines’ imprisonment does not violate the novel’s insistence on the “real,” yet it is extreme enough to remain potentially therapeutic. When such hyperbole begins to appear more likely than fantastic, captivity loses its tropic, figurative character and instead acquires an imminence that must prevent it from fulfilling its previous function. Events in Iraq since March 2003 have forced captivity out of the realm of the hyperbolic; fears engendered by the threat of Arab men’s aggression may have therefore exceeded the reach of the captivity-based romance plot… Instead of exaggerating the threats through fantasy in the manner of a folktale, they downplay them, shielding the reader from what scares her: foreign locations, still-populated harems, overly powerful Arab men (60).
Orientalism and the romance novel demands a whole new post; indeed, I am dying to write about As You Desire and Mr. Impossible. However, for now I want to stick with my stated theme, which is thoughtless consumption of images and narratives. I can never decide whether uncritically consuming awfulness takes a lot of work or is instead frightfully easy. On the one hand, I know many a person (myself included) who has exerted inordinate effort to deny what is directly under their nose. This generally takes the form of long and convoluted protestations that some racist material isn’t really racist or that a sexist joke is actually harmless. On the other hand, I myself thoughtlessly consumed romanceland’s racism-by-omission for years and never once asked myself why everyone was so damn white.
Is Haddad on the right track? Is racism such an active and powerful psychological threat to mental stability that white women cannot incorporate race into what John G. Cawelti labels “formula fiction”? That would be some pretty deep-seated attachment to privilege. In Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture, Cawelti writes:
Formulas enable the audience to explore in fantasy the boundary between the permitted and the forbidden and to experience in a carefully controlled way the possibility of stepping across this boundary (35).
Monica Jackson notes:
Any other controversial issues are eagerly discussed in the romance community: Sexism, gays, plagiarism, kinky erotica, publisher bugaboos, conservative issues, but as a whole they really hate blacks and refuse to discuss black racial issues without hysteria and rancor.
I would expand upon this. I have read, for example, several “mainstream” romances that incorporated ambiguous constructions of sexual orientation into the courtship plot. Mary Balogh’s Slightly Tempted comes to mind, as does the more obscure Emma Holly Beyond Innocence. Even though these two authors are sympathetic towards their gay characters, it is also true that their gay characters function as plot-roadblocks to the happy heterosexual betrothal. It is worth continuing Cawelti’s next thought on stepping across the boundary:
This seems to be preeminently the function of villains in formulaic structures: to express, explore, and finally to reject those actions which are forbidden, but which, because of certain other cultural patterns, are strongly tempting (35).
Although the mechanism is different in Slightly Tempted and Beyond Innocence, the lesbian couple in the former and the gay couple in the latter do function more in villain territory than in secondary character territory. That is, these couples pose problems that must be overcome for the heterosexual hero/heroine couple to have their happily ever after.
So to end this rambling on consumption, what does it mean that black characters of any persuasion (ie hero/heroine, secondary characters, villain) seem to be lacking in “mainstream” white romance? Does absence, as Emily Haddad suggests, indicate deep and real anxiety so great it cannot even be mediated through the “therapeutic” aspects of genre fiction? What the hell is wrong with this picture?
Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
Goade, Sally, editor. Empowerment Versus Oppression: Twenty First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.