Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

Thoughtlessly consuming

   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.


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Masculinity and the problem of chivalry? My boss Vickie at Resources for Sexual Violence Prevention has often clarified this by saying something along these lines:

You’re a woman, and you’re sitting alone in a bar. Maybe you’re waiting for your friends to come join you. A guy sidles up and starts to hit on you. You’re not interested, you feel uncomfortable, and you tell him in some way to back off. Maybe he does, just as likely he doesn’t. Now your boyfriend/husband/friend/brother walks into the bar, sizes up the situation, and comes up to greet you. He puts his arm around you and gives the other guy that look. And what does that guy say? “Sorry, man, I didn’t know she was taken.”

Put it like this and the problem is clear. Men’s protection can be welcome, valuable, even life saving. Yet in the end, this chivalry reinforces the idea that women are only safe if under male protection. The flip side of this coin is that women outside of male protection are fair game, a threat that is often targeted in very particular ways at openly lesbian women. Either way, women’s voice in consent is lost. Ignored by this equation is the fact that sexual violence is a crime overwhelmingly committed by intimates and acquaintances. That is to say, statistically speaking the guy at the bar isn’t nearly as dangerous as the people waiting for you back home. Despite this, we can never quite escape the damsel-in-distress/knight-in-shining-armor story.

One interesting reflection on the endurance of this power dynamic is found in Robert Jensen’s Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. In addressing the role of feminist men, Jensen notes that this community is not immune to the posturing and the “dick waving” associated with American norms of masculinity. Jensen then writes:

These observations, and my own continuing struggles, forced me to ask: Should the goal simply be to reconstruct a kinder-and-gentler masculinity? If so, how do we keep ourselves from backsliding into the dominant conception of masculinity that surrounds us in a patriarchal world? Does that desire to find some new way to “be a man” and hold on to masculinity reveal a deep attachment to a position of dominance? Is that backsliding inevitable so long as we hold on to the idea of masculinity? (143)

These are important and difficult questions. These are also the type of questions that tend to upset people, birthing accusations that feminism can be equated with man-hating. Jensen notes,

…the fact that most men react with reflexive hostility to the idea indicates to me that it’s a good place to start the conversation; if men are that afraid of moving beyond masculinity, there’s something there to investigate further” (143).

Very nice, but all very abstract thus far. Yet several pages later Jensen engages with anti-violence campaign materials and generates a critique of man-as-protector that has a direct bearing on the role of many heroes in the romance. Jensen analyzes Shared Hope International’s “the Defenders” campaign of 2006, an attempt to interrupt male participation in sexual-exploitation industries that utilize children. Jensen writes that the campaign communicates,

…male dominance is a positive force, but one that must be used to protect rather than exploit children. At first glance it may seem hard to argue with this, no matter what one’s political grounding. If one wants to reduce men’s violence against children, having men publicly state their opposition to “the sexual exploitation of children, using pornography, and buying sex” is to be celebrated. But the underlying conception of masculinity is troubling. Why should men do this? Because such behavior “is not something real men will tolerate.” Why not? Because “real men” are defenders, “Men who take seriously our role to be protectors and providers” (146)

Where’s the problem?

Men provide. Men protect. Men defend. The campaign speaks only of men protecting children, which raises obvious questions: Where are the adult women in all of this? Shouldn’t they be protecting children, too? Can they be defenders? Or do they need protection as well? Another obvious question: Who put men in charge?… Real men protect, which means real men must have the power to protect, which means real men must have the right to tell women what to do. All this talk is a cover for a simple, ugly fact: Women and children don’t need to be protected by men- they need to be protected from men. This talk of protection should be seen for what it is: A protection racket. One man or group of men promises to protect women and children from other men. And to do that, these good men must have the power to protect, which means the power to control” (146-147).

Jensen does not pull his punches, it’s true. The very notions of male protection that are critiqued in the above quotes are, in my experience, common themes in many romances, especially those that feature a heroine who has survived sexual assault.

I have read many scenes of vigilantism on behalf of a survivor in romance novels. Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s It Had To Be You leaps to mind, if only because I just read it again yesterday. Hero Dan Calebow beats up Reed, the man who raped the heroine Phoebe:

Dan took his first swing, a hard jab to the jaw, and Reed flew back against the couch. He gave a howl of pain and scrambled to his feet, panting with fear.

“You get out of here, Calebow. I’m going to call the police. I’m going to-”

Webster calmly ripped the phone from the wall. “Too bad, Chandler. Phone’s not working.”

“You guys are crazy! You’re fucking maniacs.”

“We’re not maniacs,” Dan said. “We just don’t think a slimeball like you should get away with rape.”

“Is that what she told you? I didn’t rape her! She’s lying. She wanted it. She-”

Dan’s next blow destroyed Reed’s nose…Dan dropped his parka on the back of the couch. “When I’m done with you tonight, you’re gonna be hurt real bad” (361).

In this exchange Reed articulates common societal responses to a rape survivor. He names Phoebe as a liar and a whore. (Earlier in the book Dan himself perceived Phoebe in similar ways.) This outpouring of misogyny and contempt is interrupted by Dan’s fist, and thus the “good guy” has chastened the “bad guy” and everyone is supposed to go home happy. Dan had been deeply hurt when Phoebe disclosed to him; Dan has gotten his revenge, and thus the plotline of Phoebe’s rape is closed.

How do I respond to Robyn Carr’s Virgin River books? I must say, upfront, that I enjoyed all three books and found them to be powerful, joyful in the face of pain, and, in the end, comforting. However, I am intrigued by Carr’s portrayals of sexual violence. Take, for example, the scene in Shelter Mountain where Paige’s abusive husband has just caught up with her. He manages to injure Paige before the hero and his friend arrive on the scene. While the hero, Preacher, is tempted to do the man violence, his friend Jack convinces him to go help Paige. Jack is left with Lassiter, the husband:

“Good thing you stopped him,” Lassiter said, putting out his hand for assistance. “I’d have had his ass.”

Jack pulled him to his feet with a snarl, and once he was upright, threw a punch into his face that blew him across the street four feet. He walked the few feet and stood over Lassiter, looking down at him. “Now you gonna have mine?” he said. Lassiter looked up at him, blood immediately spurting from his nose. “What the hell…?” He got clumsily to his feet and faced off with Jack, his fists up as a boxer would do. He shuffled his feet a little, dancing, ready to land a blow with a closed fist.

Jack actually laughed, completely loose, relaxed. “You’re kidding me, right?” he said. He wiggled his fingers. “Come on.”…[Jack] delivered one more blow to the man’s face, sending him airborne a few feet before he landed in the dirt, rolling around, semiconscious (115-117).

In this scene two masculinities face off. Lassiter is clearly strong (gym time, we learn). He has had a high-flying career in finance and he kept his family in upper-middle class style. He is loud, opinionated, and aggressive, a recognizable figure in American pop culture. However, we read him as a hollow force, a shadow of a man. The career is derailed by drugs, the house is soon repossessed. The physical body of Lassiter, as intimidating and hurtful as it might be for Paige, is weak in comparison to the bodies of Preacher and Jack. The fight between Jack and Lassiter settles this issue once and for all- Lassiter is a joke, a straw-man, and he kicks like a girl. He can hurt women but he cannot win against Jack, the ultimate man’s man. Jack is an ex-marine, bartender, and woodsman. He takes Lassiter down with ease. All this strength is used by Carr to defend the good guys, the honest people of the town of Virgin River. This traditional and chivalrous masculinity is summed up in the words of the sheriff’s deputy, “I just can’t figure out why anyone in his right head would bother these Virgin River women” (121).

I would not have found this scene to be particularly remarkable if it were not for the masculinity of the next book’s hero. While Shelter Mountain provides a rugged variation on the theme of male protective chivalry, Whispering Rock engages with gender, violence, and power in a more nuanced fashion. In Whispering Rock Carr tells the story of Brie, a rape survivor, and Mike, an ex-marine, ex-policeman, and divorcee.

In some ways Mike conforms to the ultra-masculine type that seems to populate Virgin River. He is tough, physically and mentally. His service in the armed forces and then in the LAPD have exposed him to violence. His past is that of the helpless womanizer- he is never able to settle and has clearly charmed many women into his bed.

Yet Mike is also left vulnerable by the gunshot wounds that got him invalided off the force. Among other things, these wounds have left him impotent and until he makes love to Brie toward the end of the book he is left uncertain of whether he will ever have intercourse again. These gunshot wounds have also had an impact on his personality- by being a victim of violence himself Mike is able to relate to Brie and support her in her recovery process. In this way Mike and Brie connect as human beings first. They bond through their shared experience of victimization and each relies on the other for support.

I particularly like the moment when Brie and Mike decide to go out for lunch on a more equal footing:

“I was wondering- do you want to have lunch again? Meet me this time? Provided you don’t have far to go and agree to leave the gun at home…”

“Where?” she asked.

“Maybe Santa Rosa,” he suggested. “I’d be happy to come to Sacramento, but it might be good, you driving somewhere that’s not just around the corner.”

“It’s a long way to go for lunch,” she said.

“Practice,” he said. “Expand your boundaries. Get out there.”

“But what’s in it for you?” she asked quietly.

“I thought that was clear,” he said. “There are a hundred reasons I want to help you in recovery, not the least of which is, I like you. And… I’ve been there” (50).

An intriguing blend of typical masculine tropes and feminized vulnerability, Mike is a testament to the changing roles of men in survivors’ lives and in the anti-violence movement. I still see the ambivalence described above by Jensen. Mike is made vulnerable to both Brie and the reader; Carr compensates for this by gifting him with a promiscuous sexual past and an ultra-masculine resume. Additionally, over the course of the book, Mike brings a Virgin River serial rapist to justice. He is not a vigilante in the Jack/Preacher mode but he is invested in the act of holding rapists accountable and bringing them to justice. This investment is highlighted in a secondary romance plot between another rape survivor and a local boy. Mike is an intermediate figure between the unapologetically and violently protective Jack and the humanized, non-masculine figure championed by Jensen. Mike operates in many ways as though he has set aside his masculinity, but he is only able to act in this fashion because he is characterized in an exuberantly uber-masculine fashion.

I read the progression from Jack and Preacher to Mike as an interesting commentary on the role of male lovers and relatives in survivors’ lives. The tensions between vengeance and justice, hurting and healing, are thrown into relief by the heroes’ different reactions to the problem of sexual violence. Carr intermingles old chivalric/protecting masculinities with new identities, but Jensen’s “end of masculinity” is not yet in sight. However, I believe Carr’s work represents a new direction in romance and I am excited to see where things go next.

Carr, Robyn. Shelter Mountain. Toronto: Mira, 2007.

Carr, Robyn. Whispering Rock. Toronto: Mira, 2007.

Jensen, Robert. Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. Cambridge: South End Press, 2007.

Phillips, Susan Elizabeth. It Had to Be You. New York: Avon, 1994.

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