Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Feminism in Inspirational Romance? Francine Rivers' REDEEMING LOVE

Are feminists less religious than women who do not claim a feminist identity? Sociologist Kristin Aune and blogger Catherine Redfern would say yes. The survey they conducted for their book, Reclaiming the F-Word: The New Feminist Movement, which posed questions to nearly 1,300 British feminists, revealed the following:

• Only one in ten of the women surveyed identified with a major world religion (mostly forms of Christianity)
• Just over half said they were either atheist or had no religion
• One in six identified themselves as agnostic
• One in twelve considered themselves spiritual but not conventionally religious
(See Aune's Guardian article on the topic here)

I've not seen any comparable research on American feminists' religious beliefs, but I'm guessing that they would be similarly, if not as dramatically, skewed toward non-belief as are their British counterparts. With many Western religions' historical investment in patriarchal power, a woman who wants to be both a feminist and a religious believer has a difficult path to tread.

Given the apparent antipathy between organized religion and feminism, I've been tempted to dismiss out of hand books from an entire sub-genre of of popular romance, believing them unlikely to appeal either to myself or to readers of this blog: romances of the inspirational variety. But whenever I remember how easily many people dismiss the entire genre of popular romance without having read a single word of one, I feel a guilty twinge about my own dismissal of the religious romance sub-genre. Over the two+ years I've been writing this blog, I've picked up the occasional Inspy, when its plot description made it sound as it if might have feminist leanings. My reading has not by any means been extensive, but the few inspirational romances I have picked up have not given me any reason to question my original reluctance to engage with the sub-genre.

Last week, though, Maggie Boyd wrote a column for Heroes and Heartbreakers listing her picks for "Top 10 Inspirational Romances," quite a few of which sounded intriguing. If I read the best of the sub-genre, would I find books that were more compatible with feminist thinking? Or less?

My first foray into the list—Francine Rivers' 1991 retelling of the Bible's story of Hosea and Gomar, the historical inspirational Redeeming Love—engaged my interest with its a complex interweaving of both patriarchal and feminist assumptions. (Lots of spoilers ahead, so if you haven't yet read the novel but are planning to, you might want to stop here).

Having just read the chapter on "White Protestantism" in Jayashree Kamblé's Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction (more about which in Friday's post), I could easily identify the Protestant threads in Rivers' novel. Sexual control, self-control, and economic striving (in the form of hard farm laboring) are the cornerstones of hero Michael Hosea's character, a devout Protestant who has already accepted God's will at novel's start. 

Choosing a hardened prostitute, rather than a good girl (or even the hooker with a heart of gold), as Michael's love interest is a risky move. Rivers, though, works hard to ensure reader sympathy for her heroine by depicting Sarah's childhood in detail, presenting the innocent child repeatedly sinned against, before ever giving us sight of the unfeeling grown-up whore. Sarah's mother, Mae, is the lover of a married man, a man who regrets being unable to persuade his mistress to have an abortion so that they might continue their burden-free affair without interruption. The novel opens on the day when Mae finally risks allowing father and daughter to meet, a day that proves the beginning of the end of the romantic idyll. Mother and daughter flee to New York City, where Mae descends into prostitution and drink. After her death, Mae's most recent feckless lover finds a home for the eight-year-old girl with a prominent, wealthy man who claims he wants a daughter, but who is really a pedophile in search of a new child to sexually abuse.

The novel's long prologue, entitled "Child of Darkness," ends precisely at the moment that Sarah, renamed "Angel" by "Duke," her abuser, is on the verge of being pushed from innocent to victim. The book proper does not begin until ten years later, the years during which Sarah was abused, then pushed into prostitution when she grew too old to appeal to her abuser any longer not depicted directly, only through the effects those experiences have had on the adult Angel.

San Francisco prostitutes during the Gold Rush
At eighteen, Angel has found the courage to flee Duke, only to find herself forced into prostitution again, this time in a mining camp in Gold-rush California in 1850. This is where she meets twenty-six-year-old Michael Hosea, a hardworking farmer who finds himself as thunderstruck by Angel's beauty as he is by the words he hears God speaking in his head: "This one, beloved" (53). Despite his doubts, Michael offers marriage to the worldly, seductive woman, only to have her rebuff him, over and over again. Only after Angel is beaten within an inch of her life for disobedience to her her procuress is she too weak to protest. "I want you to marry me before we leave together," Michael tells her. "Just say yes." Angel manages a weak "Why not?" hardly realizing the words are legally binding her to the man who would not say no.

Michael tries hard over the course of Angel's recovery to win her trust, persuade her of his love. Yet Michael's romantic love love, pure and devout though it may be, is not enough to heal Angel, as it would be in many another romance novel with a broken heroine. Instead, it takes the arrival of another homesteading family, a family whom Michael takes in for the winter, to lead Angel to take the first tentative steps toward recovery. Angel is befriended by two of the daughters of the family, as well as by their mother: "I've prayed unceasingly that you might learn to love, and now you have." Michael tells Angel. "Only you fell in love with them instead of me." He laughed softly in self-mockery. "There were times when I wished I'd never brought them here. I'm jealous." (274). Learning to give and receive, to accept feminine kindness and to give kindness in turn, proves vital to Angel's recognition of her own feelings, her own wants and needs.

The arrival of the Altman family simultaneously gives Angel a lesson in what a happy Christian/patriarchal marriage looks like: "The Altmans fascinated Angel. They all liked each other. John Altman was clearly in charge and would tolerate no disrespect or rebellion, but it was clear he was not held in fear by his wife and children" (240). When spring arrives, John Altman is eager to move on to Oregon, even though his wife would prefer to remain near the Hoseas. Michael offers to sell Altman some of his land; Altman agrees, but insists that the building of their new house remain a secret from his wife. Up until the day they move out of Michael and Angel's house, Mrs. Altman believes that she's packing for another extended journey. While everyone knows that she's upset and angry, Mrs. Altman makes no protest. The husband in a Christian marriage is the one who is in charge, who makes the decisions, who chooses the path the family will tread.

The issue of choice comes up over and over again in the novel. Does Angel (whom Michael renames Mara, for bitterness, then Amanda, because "it sounds like a gentle, loving name") have any say in how her relationship with Michael will unfold? Michael desires Angel physically, but will not allow her to use his desire to control him, or to keep him at a distance—"You're not going to have it your own way. It's got to be my way or not at all," he tells her (138). Angel chooses not once, but twice, to leave Michael when he gets too close to breaking down her defenses, only to find Michael hot in pursuit. The first time she returns out of desperation, but the second, in fearful hope.

One might have reasonably expected the novel to end here, Angel having healed enough to fall in love with the man who loves her and claims her. Yet God/the narrative forces Angel to leave Michael a third time, this time out of self-sacrifice: Angel believes her leaving will allow Michael to wed a woman who can (unlike her) bear him children. But there's far more to this third abandonment than a veneration of female self-denial. When an anguished Michael begs God to tell him why Angel has left him again, and hears God's response—"You shall have no other gods before me"—Michael is confused. "I love her, but I never made her my god," he cries. God's answer is somewhat at odds with Evangelical Christianity's focus on the husband/father's patriarchal authority: "You became hers"(383). Ephesians 5:23 may assert that "the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church," but in Rivers' narrative, the husband cannot and should not take the place of God. And thus, this time, Michael does not follow Angel to bring her back; this time, he must allow her to choose.

When Angel leaves this third time, she finally does develop her own personal relationship with God, rather than one mediated through Michael. Intriguingly, though, even after Angel has her own spiritual epiphany, she still does not return to her husband. Instead, she remains in San Francisco (for almost three years!), working to establish and then run an institute that teaches prostitutes skills so they can earn a living without having to sell their bodies. When Michael first rescued Angel from the mining camp, she has no such skills: "She was stupid! She didn't know anything! How was she going to manage on her own if she couldn't cook a simple meal? She didn't even known how to build a fire. She didn't know anything necessary to survive" (126). And she was completely at his mercy: "Hosea was the one man she had wanted most to avoid, and now he owned her. She had no strength to fight him. Worse, she had to rely on him for food, water, shelter—everything. Her utter dependency on him chafed bitterly. She was raw with it. And she hated him even more because of it" (109). Over the course of her time with Michael, Angel learned skills, and lessened her dependence on him. Yet it is only after she has built a life for herself, completely independent of Michael, a life focused on helping other women, that the narrative deems her ready to return to him (this is a romance, after all).

The explicit impetus for Angel's return to Michael is hearing from Michael's brother-in-law how her leaving did not help, but instead hurt her husband. Still, Angel is reluctant until she hears that Michael won't "drag you back this time. He said it was your decision, that you had to come back on your own or you'd never really understand that you were free" (453). The narrative may clothe Angel's character arc in the Evangelical ideals of feminine self-sacrifice and submission to husbandly authority, but it simultaneously insists that female self-reliance and self-determination are values of equal importance.

What other inspirational romances have you read that you'd argue contain feminist ideas/ideals?

Photo credits:
Gold Rush Prostitutes: San Francisco digital archive
Inspirational romance: Inspirational romance writers.com

Redeeming Love

Friday, September 26, 2014

Evolution and the Alpha Male

While reading Jill Shalvis's latest Lucky Harbor contemporary romance, It's in His Kiss, I couldn't help but notice how often Shalvis used the word "alpha" to describe not only the male lead, but also his group of male buddies. (Anybody with an e-book version out there who could do a search and find out exactly how many times the word appears??)  Rather than describe a male character's characteristics in detail, Shalvis uses the shorthand "alpha" to signal to readers that the character possesses a certain type of über-desirable masculinity, a masculinity characterized by toughness, strength, and the need to protect those around him, particularly his girlfriend/spouse/mate. Seeing the word repeated so many times got me wondering—when (and why) did romance writers start using the word to describe their male protagonists?

The trusty Oxford English Dictionary includes an entry not just for "alpha," but also for the phrase "alpha male":

alpha male n. orig. and chiefly Zool.  a male individual that is dominant among others of its own sex, esp. in a mixed group of social animals; (in extended use, sometimes with humorous or depreciative connotations) a man tending to assume a dominant or domineering role in social or professional situations, or thought to possess the qualities and confidence for leadership.

The earliest example cited in the OED dates from 1938, by one J. Ulrich, writing in the Journal of Comparative Psychology (25: 386): "The despot may be regarded as the primary dominant, or alpha male, and the male subordinate to him but dominant over others as secondary dominant, or beta male." Both the extended definition and this early example include words with more negative than positive connotations— "domineering," "humorous," "depreciative," "despot." Did early users of the term wish to differentiate behavior they associated with animals from that they associated with educated, scientific, civilized men, drawing a distinct line between human and animal?

Interestingly, none of the other examples cited in the OED reference popular romance, although the first example from a work of fiction rather than science comes from genre literature: the fourth original Star Trek novel, 1977's Price of the Phoenix: "He's—an alpha male. You know the idea of ranking the dominant males in a primate group, alpha, beta, gamma" (8). I don't own a copy of the book, so I'm not sure who is the speaker here, or who is being spoken of. I would have guessed Captain Kirk before reading this line from an Amazon.com reviewer: "The melodrama also results from the authors' tendency to cast Spock as a superhero, with Kirk in the Lois Lane role of damsel-in-distress." Spock as protective alpha male, Kirk as damsel-in-distress? And what does the m-dash indicate? A hesitation to use the term? A hesitation about whether it is being accurately applied? Or, since the term is immediately followed by a definition, a worry that the term will not be understood as the speaker intends it to?

Only when you reach the OED's most recent citation, from a 2009 Daily Telegraph article, do you get the more positive sense of "alpha male" as used by Shalvis and many other romance writers and readers: "With those words Russell Crowe launched himself as the ultimate alpha-male, triggering a swoonfest." The words in question? Crowe's lines in the film Gladiator, lines that focus on his power, aggressiveness, loyalty, and protectiveness toward those weaker than himself:

My name is Maxiumus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.

The OED thus clearly traces the shift in connotation in "alpha male" over the past eighty years, but it has little to say about when and why romance authors began to use the phrase. Lucky for me, a conversation about alpha males in romance over on Teach Me Tonight a few weeks ago included mention of Heather Schell's 2010 article, "The Love Life of a Fact," as well as Laura Vivanco's thoughtful review of same, both of which discuss the evolution of the term "alpha male" in the romance community.

Schell's article, published in How Well do Facts Travel? The Dissemination of Reliable Knowledge, argues that the term "alpha male" became part of romance discourse in large part through romance writers' attempts to counter negative assessments of the genre, particularly criticisms of its gendered power dynamics, being made by feminist scholars of popular culture in the early 1980s. Searching for a positive explanation of genre romance's appeal, Schell argues, the romance author/contributors to Jayne Ann Krentz's 1992 essay collection, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, turned to the realms of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology to explain why their heroes were domineering and their heroines inexperienced. Though the collection does not cite scientific scholarship directly, Schell points to striking similarities between its authors' justification of the alpha male and hypotheses being popularized by evolutionary psychologists during the 1980s that "human gender relationships might be understood as a vestige of our ancestry, reflecting the sexual strategies most successfully used by past hominids to reproduce" (emphasis added).

Differing female and male sexual strategies, a la evolutionary psychology
In addition to arguing that, evolution-wise, men and women have inherited very different mating strategies, evolutionary psychology's sexual strategies theories also suggest that it makes evolutionary sense that women would choose "successful" men as sexual partners; successful men will pass along genes that will make their children more likely to survive. It's not culture, which constructs men and powerful and women has powerless, but nature, that makes women desire powerful, dominant, successful—i.e., alpha—men.

This "alpha hero" thus became an avatar for the romance community, Schell suggests, enabling "the sexual strategies facts to expand from their role as mere explanation for the genre's appeal: They could become an actual part of the romance storyline. Once in the storyline, they could be easily transmitted from one novel to the next, and they could move beyond the relatively narrow confines of the romance community's internal discussion into the homes of romance readers across the globe."

In her discussion of Schell's article, Laura Vivanco suggests an earlier genesis of the term than Krentz's collection: in the guidelines for the British Mills and Boon romances. Joseph McAleer's history of the company* relates two guidelines the Boon brothers required their romance authors to follow, one of which was named the "Alphaman":

The "Alphaman," according to the Boon brothers, is based upon a 'law of nature': that is, the female of any species will always be most intensely attracted to the strongest male of the species, the alpha. In other words, the hero must be absolutely top-notch and unique. The wimp type doesn't work. Women don't want an honest Joe," Alan Boon said. (275)

McAleer's description suggests that the M&B guidelines have existed for some time, although no date is given. His article was written in 1990, so the term at the least existed at M&B at the same time, if not before, its popularization in the States. Did the M&B term arise at the same time as evolutionary psychology began to espouse sexual strategies theory, as Schell argues it did in the American romance community? Or did the concept pre-date evolutionary psychology? Does it have any connection with Nietzsche's or Hitler's Übermensch? Shaw's Superman? Anybody up for a trip to the M&B archives (donated to the University of Reading in 2011) to do some digging?

Not just the star, but the title, too:
a 2003 Mills & Boon Modern
Whether the alpha male concept entered romance via the Boon brothers or via Krentz, though, does not change Schell's most ironic point. Since its birth in the 1980s, evolutionary psychology has been the subject of controversy and criticism by feminist scholars and by scientists in other fields (see this brief Wikipedia discussion for the major players in the controversy), particularly around the issue of whether its theories could ever be proven through scientific study. During the late 1990s and 2000s, some evolutionary psychologists began to turn to romance novels to provide evidence for its sexual strategies theory. With little awareness that romance writers were likely been influenced by the earlier popularizations of the sexual strategies hypothesis, such scientists used romance novels (and romance novelists' justifications of the alpha hero in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women), as proof that their theories were valid. As Schell concludes:

...the truth status of the Alpha Hero facts for evolutionary psychology is based on the facts' freedom from the influence of human culture. If instead it was clearly understood that the romance community had adopted and perpetuated the Alpha Hero facts, then the heroes of romance novels might cease to embody the facts. The novels would no longer look like "a window into our natural preferences" (Salmon 245)—that is, a clear, transparent, unmediated view of our true selves, untainted by culture. Even if the Alpha Hero facts could survive, they would be messier, equivocal facts, tainted with human intent.

Amazing, how hypotheses in one field can inspire practice in another, and then practice, in its turn, can magically become "evidence" for the originating field at a later date...

If a romance author writing in 2014 wanted to find scientific evidence to explain/justify the popularity of the alpha male, might she in turn draw on the more evolutionary psychology studies discussed by Schell, thus setting the cycle spinning yet again?

Next week, the latest literary critic to weigh in on the rise of the alpha male in romance: my review of Jayashree Kamblé's Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction: An Epistemology (Palgrave Macmillan 2014).

* McAleer, Joseph. "Scenes from Love and Marriage: Mills and Boon and the Popular Publishing Industry in Britain, 1908–1950." Twentieth Century British History 1.3 (1990): 264–288.

Illustration credits:
Russell Crowe in Gladiator: Daily Mail
Sexual Strategies cartoon: Darwinian Gender Studies

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

There's Something about Stereotypes: Emma Barry's PRIVATE POLITICS

Reading Emma Barry's latest contemporary romance, Private Politics, got me thinking about the connections between stereotypes and self-identity. According to the OED, a stereotype in our modern sense of the word was coined in 1922 by American journalist Walter Lippman, to refer to "a preconceived and oversimplified idea of the characteristics which typify a person, situation, etc.; an attitude based on such a preconception. Also, a person who appears to conform closely to the idea of a type." The definition focuses on the beliefs of the judger, the viewer. What does stereotype look like from the opposite end—from the one being stereotyped? Can stereotypes be claimed, transformed, empowered? Can they be used, manipulated, for positive effect?

The first line of the blurb for Private Politics— "New York socialite Alyse Philips is not the airhead people take her for"—simultaneously invokes a particular stereotype and calls the same stereotype into question. What is the stereotype of a "New York socialite," and in what ways does Alyse embody it? Do "people" take Alyse for an "airhead" because the stereotype "New York socialite" by definition assumes a person of little brain? Or do Alyse's own actions and behavior encourage such a conclusion?

The questions I list above rest upon a binary view of stereotypes: a stereotype is either wrong, a "preconceived, oversimplified" and damaging idea about a person or a group, or it's right, an accurate assessment of a person or group's character. The opening pages of Private Politics, though, ask readers to move beyond the good/bad binary, suggesting that while the label "New York socialite" goes a long way toward describing Alyse, it doesn't capture everything about her. And "New York socialite" isn't the only stereotype with which Alyse is labeled by other characters, by the narrator, and, most interestingly, by herself.

The opening lines of the novel present us with an Alyse long used to using both her good looks and her WASP (white Anglo Saxon Protestant) background, as well as people's assumptions about the personality that of course must accompany them, to manipulate situations to her own benefit. Simultaneously, however,  the same lines comically undermine her ability to do so in this particular instance:

Smart, capable and in awe of her: was that really too much to ask from the men in her life? Alyse Philips dragged perfectly manicured nails through her blond hair and flipped it over her shoulder. But did the accountant across from her so much as acknowledge it? A practiced movement that had melted bartenders on three continents, received appreciative smiles from congressmen and even caused her father to once issue a compliment—and Fred of all people was unmoved. (Loc 86-89)

Though Alyse wishes that men looked at her and thought "smart and capable," "dazzled" is the far more "typical" response her chic blond good looks evoke. And if she can't get smart and capable, she'll settle dazzled, a reaction that has not only made her a successful fundraiser for Young Women Read, Inc., a Washington D. C. charity that sends books and funds schools focused on educating girls, but that has greased the wheels of her everyday life:

Alyse leaned on the table conspiratorially and flashed the hint of a smile. The effect was flirty. It was the kind of practiced move she usually reserved for bribing the checkout guy at the grocery store not to charge her for plastic bags when she forgot the canvas ones her roommate insisted they use. (Loc 126-128)

Alyse is well-aware of the power that she gains by playing to the stereotypes others have about her, and the image Alyse projects—part charming socialite, part dumb blonde—typically gets her what she wants. Barry sets Alyse up as the opposite not just of the typical romance heroine, then, but the heroine of the Western novel since the days of Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Clarissa: the girl who is valued for her authenticity, her lack of artifice and disguise.

Even while Alyse takes advantage of the stereotypes that others hold about her, though, she also finds herself chafing at the limitations they place upon her. The "dumb" part, for example—especially when it's not just a man, but her own (female) boss, who accepts her clueless act at face value. When Alyse begins to question irregularities she's discovered in donations while gathering documents for an audit, Geri blows off her concerns:

     “I’m certain it’s because of your great fundraisers.”
     Everyone was always saying things like that and it was true: her fundraisers were great. But whenever Geri joined in, it seemed insincere—the verbal equivalent of a pinch on the cheek or a pat on the hand. Sweet condescension.
     “Thanks. I’m sure you’re right.” The words stung her mouth as she accepted the stupid non-compliment. Accepted all the low judgments Geri had of her. She felt dirty. Like she’d walked home in late August and needed a second shower. (Loc 438-442)

Alyse may have spent her college years partying rather than thinking about her future, but she's far from stupid. Certainly not stupid enough to ignore the financial discrepancies she's discovered, discrepancies that she worries will eventually be blamed on her.

Lucky for Alyse, the best friend of her roommate's fiancé is a political blogger with a nose for D.C. dirt. Unlucky for said friend, Liam Nussbaum, Alyse has been the object of his unrequited crush for the past six months: "The girl was the most ridiculously perfect creature he’d seen outside the pages of a magazine. Tall, blond and stylish—so sophisticated and fashionable even he couldn’t miss it" (Loc 226-227). But Liam has noticed far more than the image that Alyse works so hard to project: "The slightest edge of NYC in her voice, the way he felt her smile in his gut and the intelligence she tried so hard to hide until it flashed out: everything about her drove him insane" (Loc 228-229). Liam sees the "smart, capable" woman behind Alyse's image, and is more than a little in awe of her. The perfect mate, no?

But wait. It's not that simple. For the stereotype game takes on a different dimension when it comes to Liam. Intellectual, geeky, (presumably white) and not nearly as conventionally attractive as his two best buds, Barry's male protagonist is about as far from the alpha male hero stereotype of Romancelandia as you can get. Yet at the same time, he embodies another stereotype quite closely: that of the nice Jewish boy.

Liam's Judaism is mentioned in the text more often than Alyse's WASP-i-ness, although not ever, interestingly enough, in connection with the "nice Jewish boy" stereotype. "His family was more culturally Jewish than anything. He remembered entire years when they’d never darkened the door of a synagogue. His bar mitzvah experience had been pretty laid-back," Liam recalls before a conversation with his mother, who wants him to get married, preferably to a Jewish girl (Loc 613). But later in the story, when Alyse tries to make a joke of Liam's desire for a family, the joke turns into a more serious revelation about Liam's identity:

    “The whole big white church wedding,” she teased, struggling to keep her teeth from chattering.
     “The whole big white synagogue wedding. Not to put too fine a point on it.”
     He was Jewish. Liam was Jewish. She wasn’t sure why she was surprised. She was a New Yorker. Many of her childhood friends were but somehow the news came as a shock.
     Realizing she hadn’t responded, she said, “Right. Yes. Of course.”
     Speaking rapidly as if he had caught on to the shock under her words, he said, “I’m more culturally Jewish than anything else. I mean, my family doesn’t really care either way.”
     “I’ve attended my share of seders, Liam, I get it.”
     An awkward tension settled between them. (Loc 2464)

Liam may be a cultural Jew rather than a religious one, but his Judaism is important enough to him for him to want it to be present at a key transitional moment in his life. Contrast this with Alyse's playful, self-mocking, and questioning view of her "WASP" identity: "She felt longing—and WASPs simply weren't supposed to" (Loc 164).

The text clearly names Liam Jewish, but never directly labels him a "nice Jewish boy," a construction of masculinity that emphasizes the studiousness, sensitivity, and gentleness of a traditional Talmudic scholar (see Daniel Boyarin's Unheroic Conduct for more on this). Why? Is it because "nice Jewish boy" has both positive and negative connotations, depending on who is doing the judging? Because it lacks the power traditionally associated with the "WASP" stereotype? Because WASP is a label that comes from outside the culture it names, while "nice Jewish boy" comes from within? Because it suggests an uncomfortable lack of traditional masculinity to the reader? Because Liam is not comfortable manipulating others through playing a role as is Alyse? I'm not quite sure.

Perhaps it is simply because Liam finds himself limited by certain aspects of the stereotype, even while as a whole he embraces it. For Liam, unlike his two best friends, has never had much luck in the dating department, something that he connects directly to his self-image: "He couldn’t attract someone that hot. Someone that vivacious. Someone like her.... She’d never see him as anything other than a nerdy friend of Parker’s. There was no hope that they might be different. He was what he was and so was she—that didn’t stop a guy from wishing that for one night, she’d decide to go slumming" (Loc 234-235; 305-307).

Thus, as Liam and Alyse's relationship begins to unfold, Barry flips the confident male/self-doubting female stereotype common to conventional romance on its head, making Liam, not Alyse, the one who won't just fall into bed, who worries about his feelings and the effect a casual fling with his formerly unrequited crush would have on them:

"I’m vulnerable here. For months I pictured exactly this. Pictured falling into bed with you knowing it was just the once. And I was okay with it. But now, I know that I can’t. I won’t. From this—” he made a motion she thought was probably supposed to represent the making out, “—we might be able to go back to being friends without permanent damage. But from that I couldn’t.” (Loc 1569-1572)

The inversion of the stereotype here isn't just for comic effect. Barry is asking readers to both accept the accuracy of the stereotype—the anxious, worried, vulnerable person in love really does exist out there in the world—but also, to play with the possibility that the stereotype is not as gender-exclusive as it commonly appears.

The novel isn't content to give just one take-away message about stereotypes. Instead, it insists we take a more complex view. Alyse comes to love Liam because he sees more than just the stereotypes, the self-fashioning she uses to navigate through her world: "You who saw through my layers." But it's not just that she can finally "be herself" with someone, can drop her "act" when he is around. Because Liam also admires her for the very layers he sees through, admires her for her ability to use those layers, those stereotypes, to "strategically manipulat[e] your opponent" (Loc 2304). The layers, and Alyse's ability to use them to achieve her goals, are just as much a part of her as what Liam can see "through" them. Alyse doesn't have to stop acting, stop being strategic in her manipulation of self-image and others' assumptions about it, in order to be deserving of love.

But neither Alyse nor the novel demands that Liam practice the same self-fashioning. Liam is open, honest, and direct, even (or perhaps especially) about his feelings, something the text, through Alyse, insists is valuable in a man:

     “Thank you,” he said.
     “Sharing your passion with me.”
     “You never need to be thanked for sharing your passions.”
     “I just go around spilling them all over the place,” he teased.
     “No. Because you trust people enough to share. You’re open. It’s a gift.” (Loc 1221)

One of my favorite lines from the novel comes toward its end:

Just that morning they’d been arguing about whether she’d been snoring the night before. She had been, but that didn’t stop her from vigorously denying it. “That’s a highly dubious accusation. I don’t think WASPs are allowed to snore.” “Really? Among my people, it’s encouraged.” (Loc 3244-3247).

I've leave it to you to unpack the different ways that each character plays with, rejects, and embraces cultural and gender stereotypes in this funny, but thought-provoking passage...

Carina Press, 2014

Friday, September 19, 2014

Making Whiteness Visible?

While writing my book review post earlier this week on two Lambda-nominated lesbian romance novels, the issue of race, and how reviewers account for it, kept popping into my head. The covers of Mason Dixon's Date with Destiny and Andrea Bramhall's Clean Slate don't give any clue about the race of either book's protagonists; both go the symbolic rather than representational route, Destiny signaling its crime plot by depicting a bank building and a gun, Clean Slate, oddly enough for a romantic suspense, depicting a pair of swans on a lake. And neither book's blurb mentions race, either. But after reading my reviews, you'd know which book featured characters of African descent, and which didn't.

But by the third page of Destiny, the reader is well-aware that protagonist Rashida Ivey is black:

Black don't crack, she thought as she smoothed moisturizer on her face. Save for lipstick, she usually eschewed makeup, preferring the natural look. The aesthetic extended to her hairstyle as well. After tiring of visiting the hair salon every few weeks for a fresh perm or a touch-up, she had cut her chemically straightened, shoulder-length locks short and allowed them to return to their natural state. (Kindle Loc 73)

Dixon also signals that Rashida's future love interest, Destiny Jackson, is not white only eight paragraphs after Rashida first meets her: "Her skin was like milk chocolate," thinks Rashida (Loc 182). Cultural rather than description-based signals inform us that Rashida's colleague and best friend, Jackie, is of African descent: "Yeah and I'm married to Denzel Washington," she protests when Rashida tells her there's nothing to tell about the attractive woman Jackie saw her with in the coffee shop; Jackie's children are named Jade and Jabari; and she praises Destiny to Rashida in American black vernacular: "That sister was fine" (Loc 297, 308, and 318). The word "white" never appears in the novel, but Dixon uses description clues—blue eyes, auburn hair, a deep tan—as signals of whiteness.

In contrast, Bramhall's Clean Slate, the racial identities of our two protagonists, married couple Morgan and Erin, are far less clearly marked. The first, quite lengthy physical description of Erin, as seen through Morgan's eyes, includes no mention of skin color:

Her head rested on a blanket that she had wedged into a pillow, her hair thick and dark as treacle, hanging in big soft waves over her shoulders and curling across one eye.
     Her lips twitched as she slept, parting slightly as the tip of her tongue swept over the sensuous sweep of her lower lip. The top had a deep cupid's bow and a slight upturn at the corners. It was a mouth made for smiling, laughing; lips that were meant for kissing. (Loc 366)

Morgan is described as having "dark" hair, as are her children, but it takes until about two-thirds of the way into the story until we are given any skin-based description: her "knuckles turned white" (Loc 3187).

Why, then, did I take it for granted that both of these characters were white?

Theorists of Whiteness Studies would argue that it's because whiteness is treated as the norm in American culture. Education professor Audrey Thompson's brief "Summary of Whiteness Theory" explains it thus: "Whereas whiteness is not treated as a race, and thus is invisible, blackness and brownness are 'marked' racial categories—departures from the racial norm. Sometimes this departure will be marked as exotic; sometimes, as a difference that well-meaning whites politely ignore. More often, it will be marked as a special interest, a problem, or a form of deviance." Whiteness studies scholar Ruth Frankenberg suggests that " 'the invisibility of whiteness' refers in part to moments when whiteness does not speak its own name....whiteness assumes its own normativity" (81)*. An author does not have to make any special effort to call a reader's attention to a character's whiteness, because a reader (or at least, a white reader such as me) has been trained to presuppose that any character will be white, unless marked "Other"wise.

Neither the construct "race," nor the term "whiteness" to refer to race, appeared in the English language before the period of colonial expansion and conquest; both were birthed, as Frankenberg notes, to meet the needs of imperialism (74). More intriguingly to me, Frankenberg points out that between the 16th century and the present that whiteness has not always been invisible. In fact, she suggests, it is only in the second half of the twentieth century that whiteness "went underground in the United States" (81). Signs declaring "For Whites Only" appeared regularly outside public and commercial buildings until mid-century; laws criminalizing cross-race marriage were not overturned until 1967. She also argues that whiteness is invisible primarily to those who identify as white.

What does all this have to do with me, a feminist who reviews romance novels? It's making me, as a woman of Northern European ("white") descent think harder about how I talk about the race of the characters in the books I read, and how I signal characters' race to my readers. By only noting when a book features a non-white character, and making no mention of white, or presumably white, characters' race, am I perpetuating the invisibility of whiteness, an invisibility that by its very nature perpetuates the ideology that white is the norm, and anything other than white is devalued "Other"? Is there a way that I as a reviewer can problematize whiteness, disrupt its normative assumptions?

What would happen if I mentioned the race of the characters in every book I review? What if I wrote "presumably white" or "presumably of European descent" if a character's race were not made explicit? What effect would that have on me as a writer and reviewer? Would it just give me a self-congratulatory boost, without doing much to change what blogger Ridley at Love in the Margins has described as the problems of this blog's "White Feminism writ large"? Or would it make me think more critically about race in romance? Or perhaps both?

What effect, if any, do you think, it would it have on you as a reader?

I'm going to give this experiment a try in the coming weeks, and see what results. I hope you'll let me know what you think.

* Frankenberg, Ruth. "The Mirage of an Unmarked Whiteness." In The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness. Ed. Birgit Brander Rasmussen, Eric Klinenberg, Irene J.  Nexica, and Matt Wray. Duke UP, 2001.

Illustration credits:
White Trade Only: The Oregon History Project
Deconstructing White Privilege cartoon: Black Educator

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Lesbian Romantic Suspense: Mason Dixon's DATE WITH DESTINY and Andrea Bramhall's CLEAN SLATE

During my summer vacation, as part of my ongoing project to read and review all of the books nominated for this past year's Lambda Award for best Lesbian Romance, I took on two books that can also be considered works of romantic suspense. Both Mason Dixon's Date with Destiny and Andrea Bramhall's Clean Slate feature heroines whose lives, and loves, are under threat. Would that threat stem from the fact that both protagonists are out lesbians, I wondered? Or would the danger result from something completely unrelated to the heroines' sexual identities?

The answer is slightly different for each book. In Date with Destiny, Rashida Ivey has been off the dating market for the past two years, throwing herself into her work as district operations manager for Savannah, Georgia's Low Country Savings Bank after her break-up with her partner of six years. But when Rashida accidentally dumps her coffee on another patron at her local GLBTQ coffee-shop, she finds herself immediately drawn to the attractive butch with the unusual name of Destiny. Destiny, out of work and looking for a job in the want ads, isn't someone professional Rashida, who has worked hard to pull herself up from her working-class roots, would be drawn to in the normal course of events. But when their paths cross again, and Destiny's background as a security guard comes up, Rashida suggests she apply for a job at one of her bank's branches. The fact that it's against company policy to fraternize with a fellow employee makes Rashida more than reluctant to pursue a relationship with Destiny, but the heat that sizzles between them has the usually rule-abiding Rashida tossing the rules to the wind. Rashida's referral of Destiny stands the bank in good stead, though: she discovers an embezzler, and helps rescue bank patrons during an elevator fire. But when Rashida is threatened with incriminating photos of her trysting with Destiny (accompanied by the kindly note "Is this any way for a reputable business woman to behave? Obviously, you can take the girl out of the 'hood, but you can't take the 'hood out of the girl"), and discovers the threat of a robbery plot, she finds herself questioning the wisdom of placing her romantic life ahead of her job.

It was exciting to read a romance with not just one, but two African-American heroines, as well as one that touches upon class as well as race as a category of identity. Rashida's competence and devotion to her job is made abundantly clear (too much so, perhaps, as the details of bank mergers and security procedures slows down the story's pace), a welcome change from the plethora of stereotypical negative depictions of the black woman in much American popular culture. The narrative structure itself is also interesting, with the first half of the book told from Rashida's point of view, the second relating the same events from Destiny's. For me, the surprise revelation that occurs mid-book wasn't very surprising, alas; I'd guessed it pretty early on, which made the novel's plot feel quite predictable. On the surface, Rashida's lesbian identity seems to play little to no role in the threat which she finds herself facing, but once the villain of the piece is unmasked, sexual identity certainly plays a role, and not a feminist one. Definitely a mixed bag for this reader.

Andrea Bramhall's Clean Slate (the ultimate winner of the 2014 Lambda Award for Lesbian Romance) takes one of the most popular, and most often laughed-at, tropes of category romance—the hero or heroine who's lost his/her memory—and gives it a lesbian spin. After being attacked and viciously beaten, art teacher Morgan Masters wakes up in the hospital thinking it's 1992, not 2014. She doesn't remember her kids (13-year-old Tristan and his younger sister, Maddie); she doesn't remember her mother's death; she doesn't even remember Erin, the woman with whom she's been in love for the past fifteen years. And she certainly doesn't remember that three weeks ago, she asked Erin for a divorce.

Given that Morgan moved out without ever explaining what went wrong, and hasn't seen her family since, Erin feels caught between anger, fear, and guilt, especially when she finds herself even more attracted to the "younger," more carefree version of amnesiac Morgan than she was to her more melancholy wife. Is it really wise to respond to the attraction that Morgan inspires. Can she really take Morgan back, when even Morgan herself can't explain why she left in the first place?

Morgan's lesbian identity certainly plays a role in her being subject to danger; the opening attack (which we as readers witness) appears to be motivated by her attacker's clear prejudice against lesbians. But is this the only reason? Even in this early scene, we are given hints that there's more behind Morgan's beating than a random hate crime. When the motivations behind Morgan's abrupt divorce request come to light, sexual identity once again looms large as a motivating force. The vanquishing of the villain, then, strikes a symbolic blow against all who discriminate and abuse women who choose to live their lives outside of normative heterosexual sexuality.

Clean Slate possesses both the strengths and the weaknesses of much category romance. Its quick pace, heightened emotion, and out-and-out evil villain will likely appeal to readers who don't read for deep characterization and who do not mind a few "why in the heck did she do that?" moments in their plots, as long as the story delivers excitement and angst in equal dollops.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Nancy Garden on My Mind

It's always bittersweet to turn to the "Obituaries" page of the Horn Book Magazine, listing the latest luminaries of the world of children's literature who have passed on to the next. The column in the HB that awaited me in my mail pile when I returned from summer vacation included profound losses in both the professional realm—legendary Farrar, Straus, and Giroux editor Frances Foster; disability advocate library professor Margaret Mary Kimmel—and in the creative—Eric Hill, author and illustrator of the Spot the Dog books; Mary Rodgers, the author of wacky middle grade novels A Billion for Boris and Freaky Friday; and Walter Dean Myers, the innovative and widely lauded African American writer whose legacy includes award-winning picture books, fiction for middle schoolers and teens, as well as outstanding works of nonfiction.

The novel's first cover, by (I believe!)
Trina Schart Hyman
But the obituary that hit me the hardest was that of Nancy Garden, best known for a novel published when I was still in high school: 1982's Annie on My Mind. Young adult fiction featuring gay protagonists were few and far between when I was growing up in the 70's and 80s; what little existed tended to be in either the "gayness is tragic and must be punished" mold, or, (in the few books with girls falling in love) "oops, sorry, just experimenting a little before taking up the heterosexual mantle" one. Garden, an out lesbian, wanted to tell the story—in many ways, her own story—differently.

As a tribute to Garden, I pulled my copy of Annie from the shelf this week and sat down to reread it. Garden's novel is a story within a story: in the frame narrative, a third-person narrator tells how Liza Winthrop, a first-year architecture student at MIT, begins writing a letter to her high-school love Annie, struggling to stop "thinking around" the very public revelation of their hidden relationship months earlier and come to terms both with her own sexuality and her feelings for Annie. The main narrative, in Liza's first-person voice, begins from the beginning, telling of the two girls' meeting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; their initial forays into a cross-class friendship; and Liza's growing awareness that her feelings for Annie are not those that her friends, family, or even she had expected. Brief passages jump from the past to Annie's present, showing how the memory of moments from her past with Annie are affecting Liza in the present.

My own 1992 edition
Garden's novel is not at all sexually explicit. There's no blow by blow descriptions of what parts touch what parts, no details of what the lips, or hands, or bodies of these girls do with, and to, one another. Perhaps this is why so many recent commentators and reviewers have called the novel "sweet." Yet for its day, Liza's narratives of her encounters with Annie are both frank and evocative in their depictions of the joys and possibilities of the wonders of discovering sex for the first time:

I remember so much about that first time with Annie that I am numb with it, and breathless. I can feel Annie's hands touching me again, gently, as if she were afraid I might break; I can feel her softness under my hands—I look down at my hands now and see them slightly curved, feel them become both strong and gentle as I felt them become for the first time then. I can close my eyes and feel every motion of Annie's body and my own—clumsy and hesitant and shy—but that isn't the important part. The important part is the wonder of the closeness and the unbearable ultimate realization that we are two people, not one—and also the wonder of that: that even though we are two people, we can be almost like one, and at the same tie delight in each other's uniqueness (146).

It was new every time we touched each other, looked at each other held each other close on the uncomfortable living-room sofa. We were still very shy, and clumsy, and a little scared—but it was as if we had found a whole new country in each other and ourselves and were exploring it slowly together. Often we had to stop and just hold each other—too much beauty can be hard to bear. And sometimes, especially after a while, when the shyness was less but we still didn't know each other or ourselves or what we were doing very well—once in a while, we'd laugh. (150)

The most recent cover
Horn Book Magazine's obituary suggests that Annie was "the first LGBTQ novel for young people with a happy ending" (Sept/Oct 2014, 140). Happy may be stretching it a bit; much of the second half of the novel depicts the fallout from the discovery of Annie and Liza in flagrante delicto at the house of two of Liza's teachers (Liza's been cat-sitting for them over spring break), fallout which has presumably led to the estrangement described in the opening frame narrative. The "have illicit sex then immediately get punished for it" trope is present and accounted for. Yet through the reflective frame narrative, and Liza's decision in the book's final scene to reach out once again to Annie, the book ends with hope and reconciliation, rather than punishment and rejection of a lesbian identity. In the words Liza's teachers: "Don't punish yourselves for people's ignorant reactions to what we all are.... Don't let ignorance win.... Let love" (232).

Before I was a blogger, I was a children's literature professor. And before that, I worked in children's book publishing. Though most of my publishing work was in an administrative capacity, there were a few short years during the mid-1990s when I had the opportunity to acquire and edit new projects. Spurred by a piece in one of the trade journals about the lack of books for gay young people, I decided to move beyond being a fan, and wrote to Nancy Garden, asking if she might be interested in working together on a book. Garden, who, like me, lived in Massachusetts, agreed to meet, and we talked about a picture book story she had written,  which featured two princesses who ended up together. Her other publishers had not been interested in publishing it—might I be? I looked forward to reading the story with eager interest, but the actual manuscript she sent was less a story and more a heavy-handed lesson. With great regret, I, like the other editors with whom she worked, declined it. I left publishing soon after, and did not stay in touch with Garden, but I couldn't help thinking of her when picture books King and King (2000) and Tango Makes Three (2005), which featured gay males as protagonists, arrived on the scene. I'll bet she was smiling, but also wondering when we'd see a similar picture book with lesbians as the romantic protagonists (rather than just the parents of the protagonist child). As far as I know, we're all still waiting...

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


I'm guessing that for many American kids, their first introduction to the history of women's suffrage comes not from a history textbook, but from a Disney film. In a scene not included in P. L. Travers' original novel, the movie Mary Poppins opens with Edwardian mother Mrs. Banks arriving home from a political rally for women's suffrage, excitedly breaking in to song as she relates the day's doings (see full lyrics here.) One protester has chained herself to the Prime Minster's carriage, another sings while being carted off to gaol, scattering pro-suffrage literature in her wake, and the otherwise unidentified "Missus Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again!" she informs her parlourmaid, cook, and governess, adorning each with her own "Votes for Women" sash as she dances them around the room.

The servants, alas, have news of their own for Mrs. Banks: the children have gone missing, and the governess is resigning her post. Women's suffrage comes across both empowering and problematic, the struggle for the right to vote clearly energizing and enlivening Mrs. Banks, but also taking a married woman's attention away from where it rightfully belongs: on her household and her children.

Historical romance has often taken up the figure of the bluestocking (the educated woman), or at least the woman fighting for equality in the face of a doubting, often disparaging, masculine culture (see All About Romance's list of "Bluestockings, Independent Misses, & Feminists" and the list of "Women's Rights in Romance Novels" on Goodreads). But I hadn't come across any that feature an actual suffragette as a heroine until this summer, when I had the pleasure of reading not just one, but two, suffragette romances, one written for YA's, the other intended for the Historical Romance market. And neither, surprisingly enough, creates conflict by placing its hero and heroine in opposing ideological camps.

In an 1870 letter, reacting to the news "that Viscountess Amberley had become president of the Bristol and West of England Women's Suffrage Society and had addressed a... public meeting on the subject," Queen Victoria of England wrote:

I am most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of "Women's Rights," with all its attendant horrors.... Were women to "unsex" themselves by claiming equality with men, they would become the most hateful, heathen, and disgusting of beings and would surely perish without male protection. (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Victoria_of_the_United_Kingdom)

Victoria Darling, the heroine of Sharon Biggs Waller's YA historical A Mad, Wicked Folly, initially has little interest in the political activists urging the British government to grant women the vote—except as potential subjects for the portfolio she is preparing for her application to the Royal College of Art. She's even taken for an anti-suffragist cartoonist by a sympathetic-to-the-cause police constable during a suffrage protest outside of Parliament. But privileged Victoria gradually discovers she has more in common with the women and men fighting for an expansion of the vote that she ever imagined. Meeting the artist Sylvia Pankhurst (daughter of the activist Emmeline Pankhurst referred to in Mrs. Banks' song), learning how art can play a role in political protest, and discovering just how little choice the upward mobility of her socially ambitious family allows her, even regarding her art, ultimately leads Victoria down a far different ideological path than her royal namesake. As a friend encourages her to imagine, freedom lies not only in personal choice, but in economic independence:

"How about loving who you want instead of settling for someone your parents have chosen for you? Wouldn't it be a real lollapalooza to bring him home and say, 'Ma and Pa, this is my guy and if you don't like him... well, then, too bad. I don't need your money or anyone's money. I don't even need him to have money, 'cause I got my own.'" (315).

The 1909 Women's Exhibition in London (the panels
in the background were painted by Sylvia Pankhurst)
Caught between two potential suitors, Victoria ends up choosing the course that will allow her to pursue her art. That she wins the love of her dreams in the process makes for a tidy, but satisfyingly happy ending to this informative dip into early twentieth-century women's political history.

Courtney Milan's The Suffragette Scandal takes place a few decades before Waller's A Mad, Wicked Folly, in 1877, before the word "suffragette" was even part of common English parlance.  But Frederica "Free" Marshall, who played minor but memorable roles in earlier stories in the "Brother Sinister" series, is far more committed to women's rights than either Victoria Darling or Victoria regina. James Delacey, a man waiting to be officially declared Viscount Claridge (his elder brother having disappeared nearly seven years earlier), is infuriated by Free's refusal to become his mistress. But Milan, like Waller, refuses to cast a misogynist who must be persuaded through love of the wrongness of his beliefs in the role of hero. Instead, it is Delacey's mysterious older brother Edward, now calling himself Edward Clark, who becomes embroiled in the fate of the Women's Free Press: by women, about women, and for women, the newspaper funded and edited by Free. Drawn in initially to help a friend, now the paper's "Ask a Man" columnist, from being unfairly smeared by his vengeful brother, Edward, a liar, forger, and flirt extraordinaire, declares Miss Marshall "in need of a scoundrel," and offers her his services accordingly. Each protecting their own secrets and vulnerabilities while keeping one step ahead of the other, Free and Edward warily join forces, cannily defeating James' initial plans to discredit the paper. But English peers, even potential ones, wield real power, and James' plans for vengeance are far from scuttled:

   "So far as I am aware, the only circumstance of note is that you made me an offensive proposition and I refused. From that we come to all of this?"
     His hands clenched at his sides. "I've already forgotten that," he said coldly. "I do not wish to think of it."
     "Of course you don't want to think of it," Free told him. "It's obvious that you don't want to think at all. But despite your carefully cultivated ignorance, you'll have to comprehend that a woman has a right to say no."
     He bristled further. "That's precisely it. You said no, so that is what I wish for you. No newspaper, no voice, no reputation, no independence." He looked away. "No is apparently all you understand, and so I've made sure that when I talk to you, I use language that you can interpret." (126).

Like Waller, Milan presents a detailed, accurate, and compelling historical background of women's struggles for equal rights not just under the law, but in the minds of their arrogant "superiors." Milan has never been one to shy away from the more distasteful (to current-day audiences) of Victorian views, particularly those towards women. But by placing them in the mouths of her villains rather than her heroes, she eschews the game of personal male reform through love so common in more traditional historical romances. Part of what makes Edward and Free's romance so tender and compelling is Free's realization that it's not her job to fix Edward. Instead, she must grant him the freedom, and the time, to reform himself—changing not outdated political beliefs, but coming to terms with the traumas and betrayals in his past, and recognizing the limits his own cynicism and disillusionment have imposed upon him. Only then can he become a worthy partner for Free, and embrace the far more satisfying work of political reform to which Free has devoted her life, reform made all the sweeter when both members of a couple believe wholeheartedly in their work.

At the end of Disney's Mary Poppins, Mrs. Banks symbolically gives up her "Votes for Women" sash, transforming it into the tail of a kite repaired by her now child-friendly husband. A rejection of her feminism, I often thought, until someone pointed out that "Votes for Women" was now flying high above London, its political message visible for all to see. 

Let me offer my own kite, then, with its own words of praise for Waller and Milan: "Well done, Sister Suffragettes!"