Friday, June 28, 2013

What's New (and Feminist) About New Adult?

Asking whether the emergence of a new literary genre occurs because of the sudden recognition of an audience with unmet literary needs, or because a publisher's marketing department itself creates such an audience by giving a new name to an already existing product, may ultimately be just as frustrating as asking which came first, the chicken or the egg?

According to Wikipedia, the term "New Adult" first appeared in print in a 2009 announcement from St. Martin's Press, marketing a contest aimed at discovering authors who could write "cutting-edge fiction with protagonists who are slightly older than YA and can appeal to an adult audience." Realizing that "twenty-somethings are devouring YA," St. Martin's hoped to find books that could be "published and marketed as adult—a sort of 'older YA' or 'new adult.'" Other publishers quickly followed suit, signing multi-figure book deals with authors who not only wrote about the trials and tribulations of the 18-25 year-old set, but who lived them, most being in their twenties themselves. "New Adult" Fiction Is Now An Official Literary Genre Because Marketers Want Us to Buy Things, proclaims the Jezebel blog, not without some cause.

But New Adult author Cora Cormack argues that the term is just emerging now not because publishers are falling over themselves to hop on the St. Martin's bandwagon, but because changing social conditions have created a new social group, a group with needs different from both adults and teens. In an entry from her blog in 2012, The One About What New Adult Means to Me, she writes:

...the world is a very different place than it was when YA first became an accepted genre. It used to be that many people got jobs straight out of high school, and only some people went on to college. And usually those who did go to college were more financially and emotionally dependent. Now, it has become the norm to go to college, and for young adults to remain in contact or even dependent upon their parents for years after graduating high school. College is the new high school, and as such that 'growing up' phase has been stretched to include a few extra awkward years.

Whether or not the New Adult market or the New Adult marketers came first, New Adult as a genre is distinctly gendered. All of the "popular authors" listed in Wikipedia's "New Adult" entry are female, as are the majority of those on the catalog of recommended NA Reads on the NA Alley web site. The majority of the books on the NA Alley list also have female narrators, or employ dual narrators, one of whom is a young woman.

The demographic changes Cora Carmack describes as characterizing "new adulthood" are not restricted to young women. Why, then, should New Adult books be skewed so highly toward females? Do girls have a more difficult time "figuring out what it means to be an adult" than do boys? Or are they just more willing to read (and write) about their difficulties? Is the genre just another example of social attempts to infantilize women? Or a genre focused on helping them avoid such infantilization?

The overall question I'm asking, I think, is this: is there feminist potential in the New Adult genre? If so, which books, and which authors, are taking advantage of its feminist possibilities?

Photo/Illustration credits:
Chicken with Dictionary:
New Adult: A New Adult Man

Next time on RNFF:
Something of a New Adult flavor...

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

1980s Feminism in Lois McMaster Bujold's SHARDS OF HONOR

After the recent fracas over sexism in the science fiction writing community earlier this month (see this post), I promised myself to spend this summer spending more time tracking down and reading science fiction romance. But where to start? I decided to begin with one of the most acclaimed writers in the field, the multi-award-winning Lois McMaster Bujold. Before I began writing this blog, I had read two books in her The Sharing Knife fantasy series, enjoying the first but finding the second a bit frustrating, romance-wise. But I'd never tackled her science fiction, worried that the 1986 publication date of the first book in the Vorkosigan series might indicate a rather dated presentation of sexual politics, a datedness that would seem all the more awkward in a genre meant to depict the future, not the past. But jumping in mid-series seemed wrong, too, so off I went to the library, to pick up a copy of Shards of Honor.

Shards tells the story of the romance between thirty three-year-old Commander Cordelia Naismith, head of a scientific survey team from Beta Colony, and forty-something Captain Aral Vorkosigan, a former admiral in the militaristic Barrayar fleet. Stranded together on a partially-explored planet after Vorkosigan's enemies foment a mutiny and attack Naismith's party, Cordelia and Vorkosigan must work together while they navigate unfamiliar territory to meet up with and retake Vorkosigan's ship. Several back-and-forth tussles between Vorkosigan and his betrayers follow their days-long trek, days during which the two shared stories as well as stores. After Vorkosigan regains his command, and his ship, he proposes marriage to his prisoner, Cordelia, but acknowledges that a plan to invade Escobar, an ally of Beta, that factions in Barrayan are pushing but which he opposes, might make such a relationship problematic. Before Cordelia gives him her answer, her own crew, with the aid of Vorkosigan's betrayers, sneaks in to rescue her. Knowing that their rescue has once again put Vorkosigan in danger, Cordelia takes out the plotters before departing with her team to inform her home planet of the impending invasion.

The two meet again in the book's second act, under even more highly charged circumstances: The proposed Barrayan invasion of Escobar now underway, Cornelia has been sent (rather improbably, but since this is Bujold's first book, we can cut her some slack) on a mission to distract the Barrayan fleet while another team delivers a war-changing weapon to Escobar. Lives, governments, even entire societies are at stake as both Cornelia and Vorkosigan fight to keep war-changing secrets from each other, even while maintaining their own personal sense of honor in the face of their growing respect and love.

The novel's depiction of the star-crossed romance is understated, but satisfying. Both Cordelia and Vorkosigan are mature, sensible adults, not given to histrionics despite the difficult situations in which they find themselves. Each feels compelled by his or her own sense of duty and honor, and respects the same desire in the other, even when it conflicts with his or her own. Brief, but heartfelt moments of connection make their feelings for one another believable, even after being together for such a short time. Can their romance, or the book in which it appears, though, be read as feminist?

Sylvia Kelso terms Bujold a "covert feminist," one whose feminism lies in incorporating (heterosexual) "femalestuff" into the predominantly "malestuff" world of SF rather than in openly espousing feminist ideas or themes. In Shards, much of this covert feminism lies in demonstrating Cordelia's competence in a male-oriented world of political intrigue and battle. Cordelia weathers the difficult multi-day hike without complaint, as physically tough if not quite as strong as Vorkosigan. She can tie up and threaten to drown a psychiatrist who endangers Vorkosigan, can outwit and defeat a group of mutineers, and can command male subordinates with aplomb. She proves herself over and over to be as competent as any male SF hero.

Yet even while proving Cordelia's competence, Bujold must simultaneously code her as distinctly and reassuringly "feminine." Cordelia is an astrocartographer, not a fighter. She mourns her subordinate killed by the attacking Barrayans, and insists that she will not leave another injured man behind while she and Vokosigan make their cross-country journey, even though Vorkosigan argues that it would be kinder to slit the mentally-incapacitated boy's throat. She serves as caretaker for the injured man throughout their journey, comforting, guiding, even feeding him just like a baby. Even as she comes to admire and care for the bitingly honest Vorkosigan, she still regards his culture as barbaric in its militaristic focus and disregard for human life.

Such qualities can be seen as a feminist assertion of the importance of typically denigrated feminine qualities of caretaking and life-giving. But they serve to reassure both Vorkosigan and male readers that allowing women to serve in the military will not lead to their inevitable emasculation: As Vorkosigan notes, Cordelia is as "professional as any officer I've ever served with, without once trying to be an imitation man."

If the book had continued in this vein, I would have found its engagement with feminism typical of its era, a time when pushback against the gains of 1970s feminism required a difficult balancing act between depicting strong women and assuaging male fears of newly-empowered female protagonists. The book's third section, which depicts Cordelia's second separation from Vorkosigan and her ultimate decision to return to him, leaving her own society to become a part of his, mirrors the sexual politics of this opening section, depicting a competent, independent woman whose most important role ultimately becomes that of caretaker: this time, of a drunken, despondent Vorkosigan.

But Shards' middle section introduces a sexual predator antagonist who fashions himself the current-day embodiment of the Marquis de Sade. An old boyhood friend of Vorkosigan's, Admiral Vorrutyer purportedly serves as the embodiment of the wider corruption of the Barrayan political structure that Vorkosigan must sacrifice himself to defeat. Even though Vorrutyer appears in only ten pages of the book, the ghost of his decidedly non-consensual female-directed sadism hangs like a pall over the balance of the book. The pall takes on ghastly physical presence in the form of seventeen "uterine replicators" sent to Vorkosigan, containing fetuses apparently extracted from women who were raped by Barrayaran soldiers during the invasion, several on orders from Vorrutyer. The perverted Admiral, who almost but not quite succeeds in raping Cordelia, can be read not only as the cancer at the heart of Barrayan society, but also more disturbingly, as the threat of punishment against the competent SF woman heroine that always lurks in the wings.

I'm looking forward to reading more of the Vorkosigan series, to see if and how Bujold's feminism changes as the books' publication dates grow closer in time to the present. And if the whiff of sexual violence against competent women continues to linger, a sexist smog, in the Barrayaran air...

Photo/Illustration Credits:
What Can I Do?: Real Life. Woman Talk.
Uterine Replicator: TV Tropes

Baen Books, 1986.

Next time on RNFF:
What's new about "New Adult"?

Friday, June 21, 2013

Feminism and Revenge: Lori Austin's BEAUTY AND THE BOUNTY HUNTER

I'm not typically a big fan of Westerns, of either the literary or the filmic variety. So many include unthinking stereotypes of Native Americans—some of the obviously negative, Indians-as-bad-guys variety, far more of the seemingly positive but just as misleading "noble savage" kind—that my cringe-o-meter is constantly beeping. And others focus on adventure rather than character, not a problem for many readers, but a turn-off for this particular one.

So when I picked up a copy the first installment of Lori Austin's "Once Upon a Time in the West" series, Beauty and the Bounty Hunter, I was primed for disappointment. But I don't think it was only low expectations that led me to be so charmed by this tale of a ruthless bounty hunter and a beautiful con artist on the lam in the post-Civil War west. Is it because Austin invites readers in on the deceptions, rather than trying to pull the wool over our eyes?

The title itself (chosen by the Marketing department?) is more than a bit of a con—a cute reference to a familiar fairy tale (and Disney movie) designed to make readers laugh their way into purchasing. Readers expecting a straightforward retelling of the classic story of a beastly man transformed by the love of a beautiful woman are bound to feel a bit cheated, for Austin changes or simply ignores many of "Beauty and the Beast's" key elements. She inverts the story's traditional gender roles: our "ruthless bounty hunter" is a woman, Cat O'Banyon, while our "beauty" is the trickster confidence man Alexi Romanov. And unlike the Villeneuve or Beaumont stories, or the Disney film, which rely upon the decidedly unequal power dynamic of having a female beauty living as the guest/prisoner of a male beast in his castle, Austin sends Cat and Alexi off on a road trip of equals, two competent, bickering protagonists bent on catching (or avoiding) a killer. Little else in the novel, plot-wise at least, mirrors the story the book's title is meant to evoke.

Austin's novel is far more interested in the degree to which stories—the stories we tell each other, and especially the stories we tell ourselves—can not only shape identity, but can help mitigate the pain of trauma. Both Cat and Alexi have prior histories, both with others and with each other, when the action of the novel begins. Cathleen Chase was once a southern belle, a newly married woman who moved west to start a new life with her beloved husband after the ravages of the Civil War. But after that husband chose to die himself rather than allow his wife to be murdered, Cathleen reinvents herself as Cat O'Banyon, determined to wreak vengeance on the man who not only killed her lover, but made a mockery of his very sacrifice by raping her.

Before she can do so, however, she must learn an entirely new set of skills. Skills only a man who dons disguises and spins tales so compelling that strangers give him all their coin, and smile while doing so, can teach. Alexi Romanov can hardly be the trickster's real name, but then again, Cathleen need not tell him hers, either, when she challenges him to teach her all he knows. The name of the game they will play is pretend, a game that not only can reap financial rewards, but more importantly, can "get you through the night, through the pain" (257). When you've been hurt far beyond what you can tolerate, pretending you're someone else may be the only way you can survive.

What conman Alexi asks for in return for his lessons—that Cat pay not with the coin she doesn't have, but with her body—is something most readers would find difficult to countenance if this were the the first glimpse they were given of Alexi as a character. But we're introduced to Cat and Alexi long after that first meeting, after Cat has left the confidence man far behind to pursue her quest for vengeance. Readers find out about the beginnings of their relationship only after they've been told other stories, stories that give proof both to Cat's myriad strengths and to Alexi's strong feelings for her (the story is told in alternating viewpoints). A story's power to persuade lies not just in its details, but in the order in which those details are revealed.

Or which details are withheld, up until the very last moment. We do not find out until very late in the novel what Alexi's own real story is, how trauma has shaped not only Cathleen but also a young immigrant once known as Fedya. And it is only at the book's very end that Alexi's real motive for that seemingly heartless bargain with Cat is revealed—an arrogant, touching, yet ultimately false belief in the message of the original fairy tale after which this book is named. Beauty, even when Beauty is a trickster, does not have the power to transform, to redeem, a Beast. "I thought I could fix you," Alexi tells Cat at novel's climax, an ironic statement given his own inability to move beyond the traumas of his own past (296). Alexi's make-believes, and his inviting of a "ruined" woman to his bed, may have helped Cat to survive, but ultimately it is only Cat who can "fix" Cat. By choosing to affirm life rather than simply deal death, Cat comes to the shocking realization that there might be life beyond revenge, and that she might just have more than one life story to tell.

And that even the same story, especially a story we tell about our own past, can be open to interpretation. Cat may see ruin when she looks in the mirror, but Alexi sees courage and determination. And while Alexi sees a betrayer, a killer, in the far-too-familiar story of his own past, Cat shows him a man making the best of a horrific situation, a situation with no possible right choice. Stories may keep us alive, but too often we're limited by our own narrow ways of interpreting them. Fear may blind us to the most important, most human, parts of our own stories, but the people who love us can help us to see our stories, and ourselves, in an entirely new light.

Of course, this is just my interpretation. One reviewer on Goodreads suggested Austin's book embodies "rape culture," an interpretation with which I disagree, even though I can see how one might make a case for it. I'm curious to see if there are any other readers out there who, like me, view Austin's romance as invested in feminism and equality between the sexes, rather than in rape culture?

Photo/Illustration credits:
Walter Crane, illustration from Beauty and the Beast: Wikipedia
Snake Oil Salesman: The Banning Museum
Vase or Two Faces: Optical Illusion Collection

Signet, 2012.

Next time on RNFF:
What's new about "New Adult"?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Masculinity in RITA and YALSA-award winning YA romance

My apologies for the lack of a post this past Friday. I was attending the Children's Literature Association's (ChLA) 40th annual conference, held this year in Biloxi, Mississippi, and got too caught up in conference-doings to put together my planned post on masculinity in YA romance. So this week, I'll switch things up, with a general post on Tuesday and a review on Friday.

Back in February, I posted about the topic I planned to speak on at the conference: comparing YA romances nominated by the Romance Writers of America (RWA) for their annual RITA award to YA romances (or YA books with strong romantic elements) named by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) as Michael L. Printz Award winners or Printz Honor Books. Now that I've completed and given my talk, I thought I would share some of my findings here.

At the time I proposed this paper to the conference committee, neither YALSA nor RWA had announced their nominees/winners. And after mid-January's American Library Association meeting, where the Printz winner and Honor books were announced, I found myself in a bit of a bind. Only one of the five books lauded by this year's Printz award committee focused on a developing romantic relationship between two teens: Benjamin Alire Sáenz's Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. If I were to make this topic viable, I would have to look a bit further afield: to YALSA's "Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults" list, compiled by a separate committee of YA librarians. I wanted to use the same number of books for each of the two groups I studied, and so anxiously waited for the end of March, when the RITA nominees were announced. Surprisingly, there were only four books nominated for RITAs in the YA category (most of the other RITA categories had seven or eight nominees). Finalists must score in the top ten percent of all books submitted, suggesting the pool of YA romances was far smaller that of other RITA categories.

The RITA nominees for best YA romance include Robin LeFevers' Grave Mercy, Katie McGarry's Pushing the Limits, Emily McKay's The Farm,  and Erica O'Rourke's Bound.

Turning back to the YALSA Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults list, then, I selected three additional titles: Alethea Kontis's Enchanted, David Levithan's Every Day, and Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys. None of these books focused exclusively on an adolescent romance, but each contains a strong romance storyline.

Some interesting things to note about these two groups of books:

• All of the YALSA titles were published by traditional New York children's book publishers (Harcourt/Houghton; Knopf; Scholastic; and Simon & Schuster), while only one of the RITA-nominated titles was (Houghton Mifflin); three of the four RITA nominees were issued by traditional romance publishers (Berkley; Harlequin Teen; and Kensington).

• All of the YALSA titles were published in hardcover, or simultaneously in hardcover and paperback, while only one of the RITA-nominated titles appeared in hardcover (the one published by Houghton Mifflin). The three RITA romances published by romance houses were issued in paperback.

• Fantasy, not realism, predominated on both lists: each list features three works of fantasy, and only one example of contemporary realistic fiction.

• While the YALSA books and the RITA-nominees both achieved high scores on reader review sites such as Goodreads and, only one RITA nominee received strong praise from professional reviewers (again, the title published by Houghton Mifflin). The other three received lackluster reviews, if they were reviewed at all.

In addition to these general observations, I noticed several important differences between each group of books' depiction of ideal masculinity:

• The four RITA-nominated titles all featured heterosexual masculinity, while the YALSA books portrayed a broader range of masculine sexuality. Two of the YALSA books focused on heterosexual romance; one on a gay male relationship; and one, Levithan's Every Day, attempts to disrupt our current assumptions about sexuality and gender by having its narrator wake up in a different body each day, some days a male body, some days a female one, some days a body that desires the same sex, some days a body that desires the opposite sex.

• The male protagonists in the four RITA-nominees are all white. Or at least, readers can assume that they are white, though race is never discussed as a salient category of identity in the books. In contrast, the characters in the YALSA books are more diverse: two Latino boys, and a narrator who wakes up in differently-raced bodies each day, in addition to white characters.

• Three of the four RITA boys appeal to their books' female protagonists in large part because they are "bad boys": leather-jacket-wearing authority spurning rule-breakers. The one exception, Grave Mercy's Gavriel Duval, is cast more in the heroic than the bad boy mode. But all five (we have one love triangle, in Bound) are highly competent, a key component of normative American masculinity. The YALSA boys, in contrast, are more "outsiders" or "outcasts" than "bad boys." They, too, refuse to play by the rules, but the rules of normative society rather than the rules of institutional authority.

• The boys in both groups, however, reveal emotional vulnerability to their romantic counterparts. Normative American masculinity may push boys not to reveal emotions, or emotional vulnerabilities, but in order for romances to appeal to the largely female reading market, male characters must demonstrate their ability to feel.

• In the RITA-nominees, male strength, another key characteristic of normative masculinity, most often takes the form of physical violence. Boys fight others to protect the girls they love, or to protect their more vulnerable younger siblings or friends. In the YALSA books, in contrast, physical violence is often viewed as a problem, something that stands in the way of developing relationships.

• Physical fighting isn't restricted to males, at least not in the RITA books. Two girls fight alongside of their boys, while a third works violence behind the scenes, as an assassin. This might make it appear as if the RITA books offer more positive models of empowered femininity. But this conclusion only works if you accept the equation of strength with physical violence. The YALSA books reject this, not only for their male, but also for their female protagonists.

• While the RITA books allow their female protagonists to act masculine (to fight), they do not extend the same gender flexibility to their male characters. Boys performing actions or feeling emotions traditionally coded as feminine are far more prevalent in the YALSA books than in the RITA titles.

The overall conclusion of my small study—that librarians who specialize in young adult literature tend to honor books that are far less normative in their depictions of masculinity than do romance writers—is perhaps not surprising. But it is interesting, especially given that the guidelines of the Printz Award specifically note that the judging is based "entirely on its [a book's] literary merit." Librarians are not supposed to allow a book's ideology to influence their decision, yet this comparison shows that questions of content and ideology are often part and parcel of judging a book's literary merit.

And it is disappointing that YA romance writers, for whom "literary merit" is not as much at issue as it is for librarians, prove far less willing to embrace masculinities that depart from the norm. During the past decade, a substantial body of romance fiction grounded in feminist principles has been written for adults. Yet if a teen girl wishes to read romances that offer alternatives to a normative masculinity, a masculinity heavily invested in proving the dominance of males by eroticizing the subjection of girls, she'll still do far better if she looks to the books nominated by YALSA than to the ones held up as exemplary by RWA.

Do you think these patterns will remain constant over the next few years' cycle of awards?

Next time on RNFF:
Feminism and Revenge in Lori Austin's
Beauty and the Bounty Hunter

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Moving Beyond the Sex Talk: Tom Leveen's MANICPIXIEDREAMGIRL

In preparation for the talk I'll be giving on masculinity in romance novels for young adults at the Children's Literature Association conference this coming Friday, I've been reading C. J. Pascoe's fascinating study, Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Pascoe, a sociologist, spent a year in a California high school, observing how teenage boys enact masculinity in an educational setting. Building upon the work of previous gender scholars such as Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick, Pascoe argues that masculinity isn't something inherent in male bodies, but a set of practices and behaviors that people (mostly males, but sometimes females) perform. That is, gender is not just natural, or something one is, but rather something we all construct through our actions. By constantly repeating certain behaviors, and repudiating others, people create masculinity, then assert that this constructed masculinity is a timeless truth.

At "River High," Pascoe wanted to find out just what behaviors and practices students (and teachers) associated with "masculinity." Her two key findings are rather disheartening for feminists. The first is how often boys use the word "fag" to discipline each other, and themselves, into adopting behaviors considered traditionally "masculine." An epithet less about homophobia or sexuality than about power, calling another boy a "fag" is meant to signal a boy's weakness, his lack of mastery over others, his failure to display the competence that is the center of American teen masculinity. The second is the prevalence of heterosexual "sex talk." Boys constantly discuss their sexual knowledge, prowess, and conquest of girls. They do so not simply because their raging teenage hormones compel them to do so, Pascoe asserts. "Sex talk" is less about who boys desire, and more about showing other boys "their ability to exercise mastery and dominance literally and figuratively over girls' bodies," thereby proving their masculine credentials (85).

Pascoe sees a ray of hope amidst this grim news. "Sex talk" occurs far more often in group settings than when boys talk one-on-one. "When with other boys, they postured and bragged. In one-on-one situations with [Pascoe] (and possibly with each other), they often spoke touchingly about their feelings about and insecurities with girls. While the boys [Pascoe] interviewed, for the most part, asserted the centrality of sexual competence to a masculine self, several of them rejected this definition or at least talked different about girls and sexuality in their interviews. When alone some boys were more likely to talk about romance and emotions, as opposed to girls' bodies and sexual availability" (107).

This potential gap between public performances of masculinity and privately-held beliefs puts heterosexual teen girls in a difficult position, though. If girls have no idea that this split is happening, if they think that the boy they see during one-on-one interactions is the only identity a boy performs, they can often end up being blindsided, as was the high school girl who sent a photo of herself naked to her kind, caring boyfriend, only to discover that he'd shared his phone, with its picture, throughout the football locker room (a story told to me just this morning by the male college-aged trainer at my gym when I talked to him about my research). If girls are aware, consciously or unconsciously, of the pressures boys are under to compulsively "perform" masculinity in public, they are stuck having to judge (or simply guess) which persona a boy will adopt in any particular situation. Or, in traditional romance novel fashion, they may come to believe that it is their responsibility to cultivate the emotional side of a boy, lead him to drop the immature male posturing of high school masculinity. Or they may assume that that the "private" is the "real," the "public" only a false front, which may be the case for some boys, but not all, as the qualifications in Pascoe's own assertions above ("possibly," "for the most part," "or at least")  reveal. Believing that a boy's expression of dominance and mastery over her body is not really "real" has the potential to encourage girls to remain in abusive situations in the mistaken belief that "private" masculine identity will eventually win over the "public."

Romance novels, whose primary audience is girls and women, typically do not depict the way teenage masculinity is expressed through the objectification female bodies, or, even less encouragingly, take it as a given, something girls just have to put up with. That is why I so appreciate books like Tom Leveen's manicpixiedreamgirl, a book that shows how constructed, how performed, teen masculinity is, and how those performances have real-life implications for relationships between adolescent girls and boys.

Told in the first person by Tyler Darcy, a high school junior, Leeven's narrative unfolds simultaneously in real-time (the course of one evening), and, through flashbacks, over the past three years of Tyler's life. The three years since he first saw Rebecca Webb on the first day of freshman year, and she became "the sun that lit and warmed my world. If I could be any more melodramatic about how she made me feel, believe me, I would. It's the best I can do" (4). But Tyler, a straight-A student, a writer, and not the most assertive of boys, cannot bring himself even to approach the aloof girl with the iridescent blond hair and the nautical star tattoo, never mind tell her about the feelings that threaten to overwhelm him every time he catches sight of her. For Tyler, Becky is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin to describe a female character who serves primarily to "teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." Becky becomes the the embodiment of all Tyler desires, the liberating spirit who haunts his dreams. An object, not a person.

Tyler may be "soulful," but he also performs a more normative masculinity when he's with his male friends. Robby and Justin and Tyler are hanging out in the park, drinking and talking, the night during which the real-time story takes place. Throughout the evening, the three repeatedly engage in the sex talk Pascoe suggests is so characteristic of teen boys:

"But I want to tell a true story, Robby says. "I want to be able to tell a story that ends with the sentence, 'And that's when the profound tsunami of blow jobs started." (2)

"Three years, and she has no idea how you want to give her a bit of the old—" Robby asks. Tyler interrupts, claiming "It's not about sex," but quickly qualifies, "If she showed up naked at my bedroom door and said, 'Let's go,' I wouldn't say no... I'm not that honorable" (7-8).

"You don't know why Syd digs you?" Robby says. "I'll tell you why. It's because you're swinging a poleax down there!"
     I stare at him. "Dude... what?"
     "Hell yeah," Robby goes. "I can tell just by looking at ya. There's no cork in that bat. That's a hundred percent American grade A steel, dude."
     "I think he's saying you have a big dick," Justin reports. (78)

When Tyler tells Robby about the story he's written about Becky and says he's determined to read it to her, Robby replies, "I just got a complete and total stiffy. You romantic little thing, you." He starts laughing.... "She'll probably throw you down right then and there" (206-07).

During sophomore year, Tyler demonstrates the connection between sex talk and domination of actual girls when expresses his frustration about a completely different situation by taking aim at two girls sitting at the lunch table: "I'm sorry, you matter because?" he says to one, and to the other, "Have you gained weight since [last year]?" (61-62). Leeven demonstrates how teen boys, even boys like Tyler and his friends, who also talk about their emotions and relationships, express their masculinity through sex talk.

Ironically, despite his unrequited crush on Becky, it is Tyler, not Robby or Justin, who ends up with a steady high school girlfriend: "Somehow, by the time the second half of freshman year started up again after Christmas, Sydney and I were a couple. I couldn't tell you how. I called her, and she texted me, and I texted her, and we hung out, and we friended each other, and she called me, and we hung out again, and I texted her and..." (47). Sydney, a smart, confident go-getter, knows of Tyler's crush on Becky, but the power of her own attraction to him, as well the fact that she knows the real Becky is far different from the girl Tyler imagines, makes her believe Tyler will get over his immature infatuation. Leeven plays with gender roles in interesting ways here, with Sydney taking on the more masculine role of pursuer, Tyler the feminine of pursued. But Tyler still benefits from male privilege, as his admission demonstrates: "I liked hooking up with [Sydney]. Not going to lie about that. As August rolled around, I was initiating our make-outs as often as she was, because, I mean... well, it was there. I was fifteen, a guy, and here's a cute chick who likes hooking up with me. Maybe a better man could have called it off, but I wasn't a better man" (49). Even the pursuer can end up being used, especially if the pursued is a boy.

The novel might have turned offensive here, with Sydney being punished for taking on the masculine role by geting dumped when Tyler finally overcomes his "utter lack of balls" to reveal his feelings to Becky (49). Or it might have developed into one of those coming of age stories in which an adolescent boy is disillusioned by the shocking revelation of the gap between his dream girl and the girl in reality, and is punished for not recognizing the value in the girl he's missed seeing through the haze of his own illusions. Leeven, though, takes neither path, but forges one that attempts to move beyond punishment, beyond the power dynamics of masculine sex talk. By joining the Drama Club, of which Becky is a part, Tyler gradually moves from simply observing Becky to becoming her friend, even though everyone else keeps their distance from her for a reason Tyler doesn't really understand. At the novel's climax, the decision Tyler really must confront is not whether to tell Becky about his feelings for her, but whether he can move beyond the limits set by normative masculinity. Will he continue to see her only as his Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the object of his desires? Or can he acknowledge her as a person with problems and desires of her own, completely separate from his?

I applaud Leeven, not only for pointing out the gendered oppression inherent in the figure of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (whom Bitch magazine writer Holly Welker argues serves to help a man, rather than pursue her own happiness or desire) but simultaneously showing how adolescents might come to move beyond it.

Illustration/Photo credits:
Secure poodle cartoon: Mike Twohy, Condé Nast Collection
Boys Silhouette: ClipArtOf
Manic Pixie Dream Girl cartoon: Moonfruit Comics

Tom Leveen, manicpixiedreamgirl
Random House, 2013.

Next time on RNFF:
Masculinity in Award-winning YA Romance

Friday, June 7, 2013

Sexism in the SF community

This past week, discussions of what and what does not constitute sexism have roiled the Science Fiction writing community. The controversy initially began as a response to a two-part column on women in SF by Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg, which appeared in the Winter and Spring 2013 editions of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Many SFWA members objected to the first column's condescending title, "Literary Ladies," as well as to the second column's discussion of a now-deceased female SF editor's looks. Even more objected to the art used on the cover of SFWA #200, in which the second column appeared. When Resnick and Malzberg wrote a follow-up column in their own defense (issue #202), said defense—that anonymous critics who deemed their writing, or the cover of #200, sexist were simply "liberal fascists" advocating censorship—sprayed lighter fluid on an already sky-high fire.

The offending Bulletin cover
Hundreds of SF writers, many of them women, blogged expressing their frustration and outrage (see a partial list here), including author Ann Aguirre, who detailed the many sexist attitudes and acts she's encountered in the SF community during her career as a female SF writer. A handful of hateful, obscene comments in response to Aguirre's post clearly demonstrate that a belittling, denigrating attitude toward women writers is still alive and squirming in small pockets of the SF world.

What's encouraging, though, is that the silent majority of SF-writing men, those who do not agree with sexism but who, by not calling their sexist brethren on their egregious behavior, indirectly benefit from it, seem to finally realize that they need to speak out. Including SFWA President John Scalzi, who offered a letter of apology to the membership on June 2. And on June 5, SFWA Bulletin editor Jean Rabe (a woman, ironically) tendered her resignation.

At its best, Science Fiction celebrates the possibilities of the future, the wonders of technology, how we as human beings can create progress, both social and political. It doesn't seem too much to expect that some of that progress be in the realm of gender relations.

I've not reviewed very much SF romance on this blog. But this controversy has made me eager to read more, written by either women or men, to see what their visions of gender relations in the future might be like. Surely Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness isn't the only SF title to tackle this issue. Any recommendations of new (or classic) feminist SF romances are more than welcome.

Next time on RNFF
When adolescent male fantasy and
slut shaming collide:
Tom Leveen's manicpixiedreamgirl

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Wanting what you're not supposed to want: Cecilia Grant's A LADY ENTANGLED

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Between high school, college, graduate school, and miscellaneous other intellectual venues, I've listened to more than my fair share of lectures on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The one I remember the most, in an undergraduate Victorian novel class for which I was serving as a Teaching Assistant, began with the professor reading aloud the above opening line of Austen's novel. Rather than pose the expected question—what does this line say—he asked the fifty undergraduates to consider what it didn't say. What is Austen deliberately leaving out, even as she calls our attention to it by its absence? The answer—that a single gentlewoman, at least in Jane Austen's day, must be in want of a husband in possession of a good fortune. Or at least a fortune sizable enough to support her in the manner to which she has been brought up.

Mrs. Bennet in raptures...
Austen's female characters openly gossip about potential suitors' yearly income ("Ten thousand a year! Oh, Lord! What will become of me. I shall go distracted") in a way rarely found in novels published during the Victorian period. Yet, like those later novels, Austen's romance simultaneously suggests that thinking too much about "worldly advantage," as does Charlotte Lucas, is to "disgrace" oneself to a humiliating degree. Women must care about how much their potential suitors earn, Austen indirectly suggests, but, just as she does in her opening line, they must do so only without openly acknowledging that this is what they are doing. Actively work to secure your financial future through marriage, and, like Charlotte, you're punished, wedded to a Mr. Collins. But scorn a man in spite of his fortune, and you're rewarded with the fortune anyway. This paradox—only when a woman rejects material gain does she prove herself worthy of it—serves as the central organizing structure not only of many a 19th century novel, but also in much 20th (and 21st) century historical romance, in the trope of the romance heroine choosing to throw over a wealthy fiancé in favor of the poorer man she has truly come to love. Rewarding women for denying desire—not the most feminist of messages.

So my heart sank just a bit when I turned to the latest offering from Cecilia Grant and discovered that its female protagonist, Kate Westbrook, intends to hunt down and snare a man of fortune, one who can open "the door to that glittering world of champagne and consequence—the world that ought to have been her birthright." Though her father is the son of an earl, he married not only a commoner, but an actress, an alliance which his family refused to acknowledge. Kate may have other, more altruistic reasons for wishing to slip through that aristocratic door—to "haul her family back into respectability," to save her sensitive youngest sister from constant teasing at school, to reunite her father with a brother for whom he obviously cares deeply—but Kate also wants, wants the beauty and the luxuries, the "courtesy, consideration, and etiquette" lacking in her current life as the daughter of a gainfully-employed barrister.

Of course, there's a young barrister just waiting in the wings, who once thought of winning her hand but who big-heartedly takes an interest in her assault on the ton, and offers his help in her mercenary endeavor (the brother of Martha and Will, the Blackshear siblings featured in Grant's previous two books). And, by the way, Kate's amazingly beautiful, and she knows it, too: "stupefaction was her stock-in-trade, and she would not stoop to the tedious false modesty of pretending not to know it." For readers conditioned by romance tropes with two hundred years of history behind them, Kate is a heroine made to hate on-sight. It seemed, disappointingly, I was in for a story of a "bad" girl's reformation, a schooling of a young woman in how not to want.

But Grant's first two novels (A Lady Awakened and A Gentleman Undone) openly rejected many of the traditional romance novel tropes, so I kept reading, counting on her to do something with this very traditional storyline other than make Kate give up her material dreams in order to achieve her romantic ones. And while the romantic outcome of the novel is never in doubt (the novel is told in alternating hero/heroine points of view), the reasons why Kate chooses her impassioned barrister rather than the newly-ennobled Baron are far from the expected. Kate discovers what to most women during the period must have been obvious, but that many romance writers seem to have forgotten—that not only marriage, but female friendship, can help advance a woman's standing in society. That helping another realize her own romantic prospects is almost as gratifying as realizing one's own. That marrying into a life of consequence and ease might just be "dreary beyond imagining. What did you do all day, once you'd married Mr. Darcy?" That the challenges and industry required to strive for a goal such as marrying well might be at least as much of a pleasure as achieving the goal itself. Though it might take a bit longer than she had first imagined, Kate doesn't have to give up her material desires altogether; she just has to have the patience, and the drive, to achieve them by working with a husband, rather than accepting a hand-out from a husband.

In a blog post back in March, Cecilia Grant questioned whether there is such a thing as feminist romance. Romance certainly does privilege relationship over all other aspects of a person's life, which may disqualify the genre as a whole from being inherently feminist. But I would argue that there are many books within the genre that certainly align with feminist sensibilities. Especially those written by Cecilia Grant.

ARC courtesy of Netgalley

Photo credits:
Mrs. Bennet: Fanpop
Marrying for Money: CollegeTimes TV

Bantam, 2013.

Next time on RNFF:
Sexism in the SF community