Category Archives: Feminism

on Having It All

I never wanted the accidental housewife to turn into an internet wasteland – who ever wants that for their little corner of the internet? But even though I firmly believe what’s online is real life, it turns out the bits of real life that are offline have a way of asserting themselves. My real life offline is demanding everything I’ve got, right now.

For those of you who feel like I just announced the birth of my daughter, let me update you to the sixteen-month-old spark that fills my hours, my senses, my mushy mum-brain:

And let me also announce the expected birth of my son, in March. The body is truly a terrifying and miraculous thing! Didn’t that womb, like, only just finish building a whole person???

Before I began my second baby, I spent the first half of last year writing the beginnings of a new book. The hero, Merryweather St Acre, turns up at the heroine’s door in one scene and she sees him thus: She had thought perhaps she’d invented or exaggerated his beauty. That the circumstances of their meeting had made her imagine that extra quality to him – the something naïve and ardent and easily broken. But there he stood, too close and without speaking, and he may as well have been the virginal unicorn in human form.

The virginal unicorn in human form. It also has the heroine murdering a man in cold blood, the hero ruining some cheap pornography in the throes of pleasure and lots about the tender horror of motherhood. It’s kind of a hot mess, and I think my agent might have cried a bit when she read it because I will obviously never write anything marketable.

But. Then motherhood visited a second time.

So this isn’t a mum-blog post, this is a writer-blog post. But it’s about being a mum, because the two have collided in my life, and I made the decision that being a mum wins this round. I decided this because being a writer really, really wanted to win, and all that did was make me feel bad about everything. 

A friend said to me recently, “In the scheme of things it’s not really that many years out of our lives.” She’s right. What’s 5, 6, 7 years in a whole lifetime? But it’s not just 5, 6, 7 years. It’s the difference between being 30 and having my first novel published, and being 38 with almost no work experience, and qualifications in a shrinking industry.

Before becoming a mum I had the vague impression that huge strides had been made into supporting women to be mothers and also have careers. Being a mum, I now know that to even begin to keep up you have to be motivated and organised. Two inadequate words to describe what it takes.

I also don’t think you can really know, until you’ve experienced it, how even though you are taking on half the work of your family life, somehow it’s the invisible half. And no matter how you tell yourself that what you do is important there is a subtle shift in the way your family relationships work.

This is the contradiction that bothers me. There’s an assumption that our babies are the best of us, our greatest achievements; and yet we are somehow diminished when we embrace motherhood fully. This is the risk I take in choosing motherhood: that it diminishes me. How sad that it’s not an easy, obvious choice to make. How especially stupid when it’s the hardest thing I have ever done, the steepest learning curve, forging something true and tough from whatever wibbly stuff I brought into my thirties with me.

I’ve spent a long time trying to write this post, and it’s this contradiction I keep bashing my head against. If I describe the deep sense of completeness and contentment that comes from holding my daughter while she curls an arm around my neck and pulls my hair in a short, gentle rhythm – I feel like I’m reinforcing the idea that she’s my greatest achievement. If I describe my frustration that being a mother necessitates me also becoming a dependant – I feel like I’m misrepresenting my situation as awful.

And at the heart of it is this inescapable biological difference. I don’t know how exactly motherhood would look in a truly equal society, but this isn’t it. When being a woman and wanting a child throws you into playing a certain role, this isn’t it.

I’m not removing myself from that inequality, either. Much as I dream of being a working, autonomous adult, when it comes down to it I’m not prepared to give up being the primary care-giver. I covet being the safe harbour in my daughter’s life. I covet the comfort only I can give, the intimacy we share that only hours upon hours upon years can create. I wouldn’t give up being the final word.

So.

It’s an intense experience of living with compromise, making a good life out of unequal parts. There’s something about the physical nature of motherhood – the body used as an incubator, the labour of birth, the bovine lactation – that cannot be easily sorted into an equal or even a common experience between men and women. It’s the first truly immovable experience I’ve had – more complete than heartbreak.

It’s not really just one or the other, though: writer or mum. My decision has had a slow, positive, exciting effect. I’m not one of those mums who can suddenly do a day’s work in an hour, haha, no. But I never did get that second book out within a year of my first, so now it’s like – the pressure’s off. Now I have time to think again about the kinds of books I want to write and the kind of career I want to have. Now I have the experience to understand that overnight success in the American market doesn’t necessarily equal a fulfilling career. Things take time. I like being able to – having to – let things take time.

So really, all of this is to say, to any wonderful readers out there waiting for my next book: I’m so sorry. It’s going to be a long wait. And also, hopefully, it’s going to be worth it.

 

 

feminist is one side of a shape

All those posts about romance and feminism last week kicked off some huge discussions on twitter. Where those discussions more or less ended up: It’s kind of irrelevant whether romance is feminist or not – I love reading it.

This gave me Thoughts.

As I said last week, my stance is that romance isn’t obliged to be feminist, and the most feminist thing about it is the critical discourse surrounding it. I’ve engaged in this discourse. I find the feminist readings of romance novels fascinating and enlightening. It’s helped me become a better, more engaged writer.

But I’ve been wondering whether we truncate our reading experience by not reading romance with the same level of critique in other ways.

Example: I recently read Pleasure Unbound by Larissa Ione. I found it cheap at a charity shop, and remembered being curious about the series years ago when I first discovered the particular crack that is paranormal romance. It was kinda fun, kinda forgettable.

The first sex scene between the hero and heroine is only consensual if you really, really squint. Through binoculars. She’s a demon slayer who’s been brought, critically wounded, into a demon hospital. The demon doctor heavily drugs her then patches her up. While she’s still off her face, the doctor’s brother gets inside her head with his special demon powers and gives her a really hot sex dream. (The brothers are incubi, natch.)

The doctor, summoned by her arousal, sends his brother off but then becomes overwhelmed by his own instincts. He “wakes her up” (she’s still off her face), and she, thinking this must all be a dream, tells him to take her. So, consent. But not really, because she’s injured and drugged and was just coerced into arousal while innocently sleeping.

They have really hot sex.

And the thing is – it is hot. These two sex-demons are taking full advantage of the woman, but it’s still hot. It’s even hotter when she realises she’s having sex with a demon – a race she hates – while he’s still inside her.

None of that is particularly yay-woo feminist. It’s not something that ever gets addressed in the book, like, he shouldn’t have taken advantage of her. But that didn’t stop it from being enjoyable.

It makes me think there are other critical conversations we could be having around romance – like about erotic power dynamics.

There’s been a lot of conversation about the slavery in S.U. Pacat’s Captive Prince. From what I’ve seen, the discussion has been solely about: What stance does this book take on slavery? And is it problematic? I’ve seen no discussion about the erotic dynamics of slavery – which wouldn’t cancel out the socio-political conversation, but would add another, equally important angle to the critical discourse. I didn’t read it as a book about slavery – I read it as a book about (sexual) power dynamics.

Whether romance is escapist or not, it is largely emotional and erotic fantasy.

I think this is the reason it’s so interesting to read from a feminist perspective. It’s a direct look inside female desires, largely undiluted by what’s correct or progressive. It’s a kind of snap-shot of what is.

But it’s also something worth looking into for itself. For what it tells us about fantasy, about erotics, about emotional desire. (I had written “separate to the feminist context”, but I’m not sure whether this is true or not. Feminist can sometimes feel restraining to desire, but that seems like a counter-productive statement to make, so I’m probably missing something.)

It’s totally possible these discussions are already happening, and I haven’t found them yet. Please point me in the right direction, if you know where the party’s at! For myself, I’ve enjoyed these thoughts, and the direction they’re leading me in both as a reader and a writer.

 

a cup of tea

I’m imagining a round wooden table in an alcove of windows somewhere – Scotland, maybe. The house is old, the glass is old, and I’m looking out over my favourite kind of countryside: a bit desolate, low and scrubby, its few trees like fists raised at the sky. The sky, of course, is full of movement.

But it’s so snug inside. Let’s have a cup of tea, and a catch-up!

That silence on my end has mostly been about productivity. I’ve been through the revision process for My Lady Untamed, and it has added so much value to the book. There’s one scene in particular that just melted my heart as soon as I’d written it. Going with a publishing house has been worth it just for that one scene alone, not to mention how cool Penguin Aus HQ is.

The book’s in copy-editing at the moment – which means someone’s picking up my spelling errors or logistical errors, and no doubt fainting in horror at my…unconventional use of punctuation. I can’t help it. I love the truncated sentence with a full-stop.

All signs are pointing to a May 15th publishing date (so soon!) – but you can be sure I’ll keep you updated. I can hardly wait for you all to meet Kit and Darlington.

I’ve also fallen head over heels in love with the idea for my next book. This is what I know so far:

The heroine is a debt collector.

The first time she and the hero meet, she’s murdering someone.

He’s the lovely, naive youngest son of someone-or-other.

He’s engaged to a very proper young woman whose family have just lost everything.

In other news, I was recently mentioned in an article in The Atlantic about romance and feminism. The article’s an interesting overview/jumping in point for looking at what romance is up to these days.

And as this is a discussion that will never be done, and can be looked at endlessly from all angles, there are wonderful follow-up conversations over at Cecilia Grant’s blog (can romance be feminist?) and Something More (are we doing ourselves a disservice when we dismiss early romance?).

I think the heart of my stance on all of this is: Romance is not obliged to be feminist; and the most feminist thing about romance is the critical discourse around it.

I’ll be back to regular blogging next week. Damn that was a good cuppa!

and she had plucked him

In her essay “Let Us Now Praise Scribbling Women“, Jenny Crusie describes how she found romance fiction. Part of the journey has to do with fairy tales. She writes:

As I studied romance and its roots further, I realized that the academic canon wasn’t the first form of narrative that had let me down. As a child, I’d been looking for myself in fairy tales and finding only disappointments. If I’d been a boy, I could have found great role models in stories like “Jack & the Beanstalk,” with a protagonist who climbed to the top to get what he wanted, grabbed the prize, killed the giant, and came back home a hero. Jack’s story remains a great model for little boys, telling them to be active and quest for what they want in life and they will be rewarded. But what did I have as a girl?

Well, I had Sleeping Beauty, who got everything she’d ever wanted because she looked really good unconscious. Or there was Snow White, who got everything she’d ever wanted because she looked really good unconscious. Or there was Cinderella, who should be given some credit for staying awake through her whole story, but who got everything she’d ever wanted because she had really small feet. The fairy tales I read as a child told me that boys’ stories were about doing and winning but that girls’ stories were about waiting and being won. Far from setting out on their own quests, women were the prizes in their own stories, and the less active they were–do NOT be a pushy, knife-wielding stepsister–the better their chances were of getting the castle and the crown.

Hehe. Jenny Crusie is the best.

There was one fairy tale I was told as a child that doesn’t quite fit into this critique. It has forever remained my favourite fairy tale, and as an adult I’ve begun to understand why. It is an old Scottish tale about Janet and Tom Lin (more commonly Tam Lin, but he was always Tom Lin to me). There are countless versions, but I asked Mum to send me the book she used to read us as kids so that I could pick out my favourite lines.

She said, “Now, are you sure you won’t lose it, if I send it to you?” Being 30 years old, I answered that no, of course I wouldn’t. A photocopy of the story arrived in the mail. Thanks Mum!

Janet is a girl who lives in a village, or in the castle of a village. Growing up, she is told, “Do not go near Oakwood.” It’s a dark forest a mile or so distant, where no young woman dare go for fear of meeting Tom Lin. He will take something from you. He might take your maidenhead from you.

When Janet is old enough to find fear more enticing than off-putting, she rides into Oakwood, which now belongs to her. In her head is a song she heard the night sing, Pin all your broaches in your hair, wear all your finest clothes, but if you break into my lair, I’ll pluck you like a rose. She comes to a clearing where there is a well, and a white horse. She is surrounded by roses. There is no sign of Tom Lin.

She pats the horse, who shies away, and drops a rock down the well. Then she plucks a two-headed rose, and Tom Lin appears out of thin air.

“You sing my song,” he said.

“You are Tom Lin?”

“I am. You sing my song,” he said.

“I do?”

“But you do not heed its warning.”

“I do not.”

“You must not come here.”

“But here I am.”

“You must return. You have no business here.”

“And why not, may I ask?” said Janet, smiling.

“Leave now. You must not stay.” He took her by the hand, not roughly, but gently, and led her away, back the way she had come.

“How does he know the way I came…?” she wondered. Then:

“He is kind to me,” she thought, as he held back the brambles for her to pass.

They said not a word to each other until Janet was stepping out of the wood.

“Now, go,” he said, and his voice was kind. “And do not come again.”

She can’t stop thinking about him, of course. Who is he? Why do people say he’s dangerous? Was he just a silly dream?

In the original, this is where her parents discover she’s pregnant. In the version I grew up on, this is where she realises she loves him. The story reads:

Tom Lin had plucked her like a rose. And she had plucked him. It was as simple as that.

So she returns to the wood and demands to know who he is. He reluctantly tells her that he’s the son of a local lord. When he was out hunting as a boy he became lost, and the Queen of the Fairies found him. She trained him in magic and he became her favourite knight.

Every year on Halloween she pays tribute to the Prince of Darkness, and offers one of her knights up to him. This year, Tom Lin fears, he is to be the tribute.

Janet demands to know what she can do. Tom Lin tells her, though probably he shouldn’t.

She must stand in the middle of the cross-roads at midnight, as the Queen and her whole retinue ride past. First the black horses, then the brown, then the white. Tom Lin will wear no glove on his left hand, so that she will know him. She must pull him from his horse, and hold onto him, and not let go.

The Queen will change his shape. She will do everything in her power to make Janet let go, but Janet must hold on until he is himself again. Then if she throws her cloak over him, he will be free.

She does as he asks:

Just before midnight, Janet stood at the crossroads. She was wrapped in her great green cloak. The night was darker than she had ever known it. Only rarely was there a faint glimmer of the moon, through the heavy clouds. And a wild wind howled about her and snatched at her cloak as if to tear it from her.

She clenched her fists and bit her lips in her anxiety. But nothing on earth would drive her from that place. So she stood, trembling, and waited for the trial of strength.

When the first troop of riders came galloping out of the dark, on their black horses, she hardly found time to see them come, sweep past, and disappear again. Fast and furious they swept past her, their black cloaks like storm clouds, their silent horses like strange dreams.

Then the second company came sweeping past treading the air, as if they were carried by the wind. They came, rushed by, and disappeared.

So Janet knew the time had come for her to risk all. To pour all her strength and courage and love into her struggle with the Queen. If she failed, Tom Lin would be dragged down in chains to the dungeons of the Prince of Darkness.

Suddenly the white horses were almost on her. She gasped, her heart raced and thundered, and she looked so hard at the darkness that her eyes ached with the effort. The horsemen swept by. On and on, they passed. There seemed no end to them. “But Tom Lin! Where is he? Oh, where is Tom Lin?” she cried.

And then she saw him, his left hand bared. He was the last of the company, the very last. His horse flashed by, she closed her eyes, and threw herself at Tom Lin.

It was like drowning. It was like being kicked by a thousand feet. It was like falling. It was like a tornado. It was almost a death.

But Janet holds onto him. She holds onto a slippery newt, a snake, a bear, a lion. At the very last a swan, that beats her with its powerful wings and pecks at her. In the original, she holds a burning coal in her hands. Then she is holding Tom Lin, and the furious Queen can do nothing.

In the version we heard as kids, she sings, He was the best of all my knights, but woman’s courage proved too strong. Tom Lin is now your man, by rights. So here’s the burden of my song: I failed to reckon with your will, your courage, and your heart so true, Fair Janet. So for good or ill your life together now pursue. (I love that: for good or ill.)

In the original, she says she should have poked his eyes out and replaced them with wood. Or, in another version, she should have removed his human heart and put clay in its place.

Briefly, the things I love most about this story:

1) Though it’s not in the original, the line, “And she had plucked him.” is so, so perfect. She isn’t an unconscious heroine being done to.

2) Tom Lin asks an awful thing of Janet. The selfless, heroic version of love says he should never have asked such a thing of her. I much prefer this version of love. He trusts in her strength. He is a thousand times more interesting, because he asks her instead of martyring himself. It takes incredible personal power to ask something so awful and difficult.

3) He is trapped, enthralled to a woman. He is passive. Janet is a land-owner of high standing, and she fights with all her strength for what she wants.

The version I’ve quoted from is from the book Tales Three, ed. Geoffrey Summerfield.

reader reader writer reader

There was a post on Romance Novels for Feminists recently about the way we read “feisty heroine” as “feminist heroine”, even though this is often not true. In the comments, Jackie and I talked specifically about the feisty heroine who sees some “wrong” and runs about fixing it as she sees fit. She either makes this pig-headed mess that the hero has to clean up afterwards, or comes to realise her strongly held beliefs were wrong and wouldn’t be strongly held by anyone with more sense than a worm.

Doesn’t exactly scream intelligent, competent woman.

So it was a joy to read Courtney Milan’s The Duchess War the next day and see her tackle this heroine trope head-on. Her heroine, Minnie, has declared war on her hero, Robert, when he refuses to give up the dangerous activity he’s involved in. She tells him she’s going to find proof of his involvement and turn him in to the authorities. Robert proceeds to think this:

In reality, he suspected that he was about to be subjected to a barrage of amateur sleuthing. Bad disguises, ham-handed questions, attempts to go through his rubbish in search of clues… Miss Pursling was undoubtedly the sort of hotheaded young lady who would throw herself into the chase with abandon.

Instead, she ignores him. And then they have this conversation:

He swallowed and cleared his throat. “This isn’t what I expected when you said you’d go to war with me.”

“Let me guess.” She fingered her glove carefully, and he noticed that she was worrying at a tiny hole in the tip. “You thought I would simper if you smiled at me. You supposed that when I said I would prove what you were doing to everyone, that I planned to engage in a bumbling, graceless investigation into your surface activities.”

“I–no, of course not.” But Robert felt his cheeks heat. Because that was precisely what he had thought.

She bit her lip, the picture of shyness. But her words were the opposite of shy. “Now,” she whispered, “you’re surprised to find that I overmatch you.”

Reading it again gives me tingles. She’s quiet, composed and confident. And she does outmatch him, and it surprises him. It worked for me as a kind of romance-trope satire because what Robert – and the reader – expect of her contrasts powerfully with what she really is. It’s creating character on the deepest level. However, it is still satire, in a sense. Robert doesn’t have any reason to expect silly sleuthing from her. He doesn’t think, “That’s how women are,” or even, “That’s how they are in silly romantic novels.” The expectation comes entirely from the genre itself, so it’s playing against the reader’s own expectations in a meta fashion.

Milan tackled quite a few romance tropes in The Duchess War. Some of them worked less well for me – they were less character-driven and more satirical, and so asked me to be conscious of myself as the reader and pulled me out of the story. This conversation between Minnie and Robert’s mother in particular (**CONTAINS SPOILERS**):

“Second,” she said, “you might consider not consummating the marriage.”

“What? Why? So it can be annulled?”

The duchess rolled her eyes. “That is a horrid myth. You cannot annul a marriage for simple lack of consummation. Trust me; I have consulted every lawyer in London as to the ways in which one might end a marriage. I know the law to an inch. … “

Perhaps women did hold the misconception back then that an unconsummated marriage could be annulled, and Minnie’s reaction is accurate. But it’s been one of the most pervasive, old-school misconceptions of historical romance, and I can’t help but feel that this exchange is a tongue-in-cheek jab at that, more than at any notions Minnie had or didn’t have.

The sex scene also challenged common romance tropes, though in this case it was absolutely wonderful, and served their characters before it served anything else. But it did make me think about social reading, and how it affects what and how we read.

There was a rash of Wish List posts recently, asking for more of certain romance trends. Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of sex stuff in the comments: mostly requests for more bad sex and more virgin hero sex.

I’m not saying Milan is responding directly to what readers are asking for, it’s not as simple as that. For one thing, she would have started writing this book ages ago. For another, she’s an author who writes consistently ahead of the curve. Also, she’s as engaged with the genre as any reader and would be as frustrated with certain tropes.

But her innovation isn’t read in a black hole. It immediately becomes part of the conversation.

I enjoyed the book a lot, but to me it felt one draft away from ready; some scenes felt as though they’d been changed from one POV to another and not entirely cleaned up, and there was one conversational exchange that should clearly have happened after, not before, an event. I particularly would have wished for Robert to depend on Minnie and her superior tactics for his end-game. She may not have been an unfeminist feisty heroine, but she was still not allowed to act in the crucial moment.

Maybe it’s because it felt unfinished that I could see more clearly than normal where Milan’s taking up the romance conversation, and what her book is doing to generate more of that conversation. The critical conversations around romance online is one of my favourite parts of the genre. There is so much intelligent, fascinating, engaged discussion going on, and I suspect we will see it affect what is written and published more in the next few years, just as what’s published feeds back into the discussion.

Note: every comment puts your name in the hat for an accidental housewife e-reader cover.

the marriage that knows itself

I want to talk about marriage, but I’m going to start by talking about sex.

One of the difficulties in writing sex scenes as a feminist writer is that so much of female desire is learned. What women have learned to be aroused by has traditionally been shaped by male desire.

It’s tricky.

I don’t want to just write my heroines as objects of desire – but just because it’s learned doesn’t make it any less real. In fact, when our learned desires come into conflict with our educated feminist ideas, they can gain a level of taboo that only heightens them.

So how do you write what’s genuinely arousing, without playing into an idea of female sexuality that doesn’t allow for real female pleasure?

As far as I’m concerned, Cara McKenna has figured it out.

Her characters are self-aware when it comes to sexual desire. They understand the role fantasy and objectification play in arousal, and they allow it to heighten their arousal.

In Curio, Caroly visits a Parisian prostitute to lose her virginity before her thirtieth birthday. Caroly is intelligent and self-contained – she’s almost cold. She’s no blushing virgin. Perhaps it’s because the whole premise of the book is about exploring sexual desire that I could see how McKenna sets her characters apart from their desires.

The following extract is a good example of what I’m talking about:

His hand abandoned mine to its clumsy devices. I measured him with light caresses, loving how tense the rest of his body had grown.

“You feel harder than I expected.”

“This is how I felt when I thought of you the other night. Thinking of you made me hard then, just as your touch does so now.” He was quiet for several strokes, save his labored breaths. “Do you like it?”

“Yeah.” Bolder, I wrapped my hand around him as much as possible through his slacks, squeezing to discover how thick he was. He moaned and I felt different, as I never had before—powerful and beautiful and wild.

“I’m the first,” he murmured.

The idea that he was fetishizing this experience gave me permission to do the same. I’d already grown quite fond of Didier—surely fonder than was rational, given our perhaps six cumulative hours of acquaintance—but reducing him to a stiff, suffering cock was electrifying. I’d always loathed this idea, openly lavishing a beautiful man with my admiration. As if such a fortunate specimen deserves more validation. But of course it felt nothing like that with Didier. I adored this glimpse into another side of him, a darker, cockier version of the man I was just coming to know.

“Kiss me,” I said.

He did. He turned and kissed me as no one ever had before, urgent and demanding. I ached for his hand on top of mine again, dictating—perhaps even forcing—the friction. But I was in charge. I imagined teasing him this way until he begged to be taken out and given release. I imagined denying such a request, degrading him with my refusal until he lost control, quaking and pleading and erupting beneath my hand, inside his clothes, perspiration shining on his forehead.

But of course I wasn’t ready for that. Indulging the idea was breakthrough enough.

In most romances with a virgin heroine, the virginity fetish is naively expressed in the narrative itself. By which I mean – the reader has the virgin fantasy by reading the book. McKenna adds another layer by having her character consciously experience the virgin fantasy, about herself, and allowing it to heighten her arousal.

McKenna separates her characters from their fantasies. When a novel becomes the fantasy of the reader, the characters are essential players in the fantasy and can’t be separated from it. In the above excerpt Caroly plays with different fantasies – different ways of constructing herself sexually – but none of them defines who she is.

In her essay Expressing Herself: the Romance Novel and the Feminine Will to Power Sarah Frantz explores the rise of the hero’s point of view in romance. She argues that

[b]y having ever-increasing access to the inner confessions of the hero’s mind, the reader can trust in his romantic transformation as he abandons his belief in a masculine economy of use (hence all the rakes and libertines among romance heroes), and recognizes the superiority of and adopts a feminine economy of exchange (hence the requisite exchange of vows at the end of the romance).

I didn’t entirely understand what Frantz means by “economy of use” and “economy of exchange”. Google tells me they’re actual economic terms, but the only academic references I found came from Frantz.

As far as I can tell, the masculine economy of use is a one-way relationship that involves the heroine satisfying a need for the hero; it requires nothing of him in exchange. The feminine economy of exchange is a relationship that passes back and forth and requires each party to give, take and be transformed by each transaction.

By getting inside the man’s head, by watching him fall in love, women are fantasising that they can understand and control the patriarchy – and also that they are freeing men of the constraints of patriarchy “into the emancipation of feminine exchange”. But Frantz goes on to point out that

romances seem to be “violat[ing] the cardinal rule of patriarchy, famously articulated by Jacques Lacan: the Phallus must remain veiled.” In lifting the veil from the hero’s thoughts, romances are pretending to readers that all the secrets of patriarchy are revealed as secrets they already know and control. However, the romance hero’s confessions are of course not representative of what a “real” man thinks—the narrator is seducing herself when she looks into the mirror of the romance novel. The reader believes that she is lifting patriarchy’s veil to find … “mortal men standing behind it, somewhat sheepish, perhaps, at having been exposed, but maybe a little relieved as well.” However, female authors and readers are actually lifting the veil to reveal a nonthreatening phallus that they themselves have created, one that bears little relation to the reality of patriarchal power structures besides their own fantasies about it…*

Frantz goes on to showcase some rather hair-raising examples of the power exchange in romance novels. In one instance the heroine likens herself to God – the ultimate patriarch – and her male lover becomes a supplicant. It’s a gutsy and appealing reversal, and it throws a powerful light on gender dynamics.

But the problem is, as Frantz points out, that it’s a woman looking into a mirror. It doesn’t bear on the reality of living with a subconscious, internalised view of the world that privileges men.

From within this world view all the signifiers of power are still male: God the patriarch, the breast milk spilling from erect nipples that becomes phallic. It’s a world trying to describe itself from the inside, with the language of power structures that already exist and which say – Female is defined by being Male or Not-male.

I think it’s incredibly difficult for women to re-imagine gender and power from within a patriarchal world without still privileging the great devirginator.

Partly this is because, as I said earlier, we learn desire a certain way and realising it’s biased doesn’t make it any less arousing. But partly it’s because we live subjectively in the world, and don’t have the words to describe ourselves from outside it.

What we do have is the ability to acknowledge and describe the way we react in the world.

This is why McKenna’s approach appeals to me. Her characters aren’t women trying to become powerful by becoming masculine or not-masculine. They’re individuals who recognise their patriarchal desires as separate to who they are as people – but who consciously embrace their desires, for their own pleasure.

McKenna’s approach acknowledges that gender and desire are constructed. It also acknowledges that there’s no way to live separate from how you are constructed.

Which brings me, finally, to marriage.

The feminist critique of romance that the patriarchy is brought into the “feminine economy of exchange”, represented by the exchange of wedding vows, bothers me.

Why is marriage the sphere of women? (Why is there a sphere of women?) What makes us so invested in the idea of marriage? What makes us tie our sense of success and accomplishment and status with the idea of marriage?

I don’t actually have an answer, because I would need a couple of degrees in sociology and anthropology and psychology and maybe even politics and history.

But I think it’s important to ask the question – and to reflect on it. Which isn’t the same thing as dismissing the fact that marriage is, for the most part, a female domain, or that women are emotionally invested in and fulfilled by it.

I would like to see romance address the idea of marriage the way McKenna addresses the idea of sexual desire – by having characters self-aware enough to acknowledge that their desire for marriage is learned, then choose it consciously, because of what it will add to their life.

When special k and I got engaged at 24, there was definitely some fetish attached to it. I would look at him – this vibrant, slim, intelligent, funny boy – and it gave me a thrill to think that I was turning him into a Husband. The idea of belonging and possessing is a fetish – just as a wedding ring is a fetish object.

None of that makes the fact of marriage in my life any less significant. It’s one of the most powerful forces that works on me every single day. But I know it’s constructed, and when I embrace that fact it empowers me to act out the Wife in ways that contribute to my life, and to be an individual outside of being a wife.

I wanted to say something about this that didn’t really fit in the post. I don’t think all romance is disconnected from reality – not even the reality of “real” men. Frantz quotes Laura Kinsale’s theory that romance is an internal reality check that allows us to become adult, which requires us to turn away from “adventure, from autonomy, from what-might-have-been, and [...] mourn the loss and deal with it”. But I think it goes further than coming to terms with our social reality.

I was really taken with this blog post about the reluctance of feminists to to deal with heterosexual relationships. For me, feminist romances dream up new ways for the world to be. They play with ideas about truly equal heterosexual relationships. They don’t look only at emancipated women, but at what their equal partners could be. They create a new set of expectations – a reality that we can live into, and create by living into it.

I would also like to thank Sarah Frantz for sending me her essay. Such nerd-joy to bring my literature degree and my love for romance together!

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Okay, so you had to be there. And a man. And from the fifties.

We saw A Funny Thing last night at Her Majesty’s theatre. A musical about a Roman slave who has to match-make the hero and heroine to gain his freedom. I had problems.

So I get that it’s high farce, and camp as hell and in the first couple of minutes they even sing morals tomorrow, comedy tonight. But while I could kind of see the alternate universe where most of the audience was laughing, I just felt a bit horrified.

It wasn’t something I could just set aside, or lighten up about.

It wasn’t about me Making a Stand for Women Everywhere, or anything so complicated. It was simply that the story I was watching unfold on-stage appalled me.

Just to get it out of the way – yes, the farce is brilliant. The different story elements build seamlessly on top of each other then resolve like a deft magic trick. The slapstick was mostly funny, the script was mostly clever, and Geoffrey Rush on stage is a revelation.

But.

All the women in the show – with one exception – are courtesans/flesh. In the opening number they were wheeled on stage in a cage, dressed in skimpy bits of hessian. As cavewomen, maybe? It didn’t bother me – I figured it was just a kind of visual gag. Haha, treating women as just flesh? LOL, no. That would be stupid and wrong.

The next time we see the women, they’re paraded out one by one for the benefit of a lowly male slave who’s convinced their pimp he’s free now and cashed up. They weren’t in hessian this time – they were in gorgeous, amazing costumes. And it was somehow worse.

I think it was worse because although it was campy and over-the-top and slapstick – it had no layer of irony or self-awareness. The women were actually being paraded across the stage as objects of desire, for the audience as well as for the characters. And the men – lowly slave, airhead hero, pimp – were evaluating them.

Um, uncomfortable.

Not to mention the eunuchs (I’d kind of rather not). Apparently if you take away a man’s balls he becomes incoherent and baby-like. A kind of idiot animal.

Of course, the courtesan the hero is in love with is the one pure courtesan on the face of the planet. She’s a virgin. She is also apparently so stupid she can’t even count.

At this point I was trying to reason with myself and I was like, “Okay, but the hero’s a virgin and an airhead, too.” Yes, myself replied. He is also the free son of a senator; she’s a courtesan who’s been sold to a man she’s never met.

So, no – watching a woman play the blonde bimbo on stage, getting laughs for explaining that the only talent she has is being lovely, wasn’t funny. It just made me sad and uncomfortable.

There’s a distinction in humour here that was in force throughout the play, so I’m going to try and define it.

Because the tone of the play is funny, it’s easy to say, “Yes, but it’s poking fun at the idea of a blonde bimbo, it’s not taking the blonde bimbo seriously.” But who’s making the joke, who’s the butt of the joke and who’s laughing at the joke?

The joke of the airhead blonde virgin never felt to me like it had a punch-line that was kind or powerful to women. I didn’t feel like it was going, “Haha, and this is what’s traditionally the ideal woman? Traditional ideals are crazy, yo!” It felt like, “Haha, women are so stupid and compliant.” And I know that makes me seem humourless – but I find the way humour obscures an issue troublesome. Because it’s really hard to define why it’s still not right, when it seems to be making fun of itself.

Maybe it’s simply the context of gender inequality. The airhead hero is funny because it’s playing against the existing/unquestioned assumption that a male hero is powerful, manly, intelligent and supreme. The airhead slave heroine is discomforting because it plays into the assumption that women are submissive desire objects. If the play itself had set up some other assumption about women for it to play against it wouldn’t have upset me in the same way.

I tried to read the kindest possible interpretation into the play, and came up with the airhead heroine as a subversive image of the feminine: When a woman is so deeply compliant that she’ll do whatever any man tells her to, she becomes somehow un-graspable. No man can have her when any man can have her. No man can ever grasp the woman as a person because she is reduced to an object.

But I just don’t think the play was being that complex.

The one woman who isn’t a prostitute is the hero’s mother. I loved the pants off Magda Szubanski’s performance! The mother is a powerful matriarch who is still a fully sexual being. I think this interpretation owes a lot to Szubanski’s performance, though, as the mother is treated in the story as a shrewish wife whose own husband can’t stand her – and finds a middle-aged woman’s sexual desires off-putting.

I enjoyed the second half of the show. I’d become a bit numb to the sexual politics and the farcical elements of the play started to really pay off. Also, there’s an excellent piece of cross-dressing by the head male slave of the hero’s household.

I honestly don’t understand why this play has been revived without a single speck of self-awareness.

I can think of so many interesting ways it could be subverted, the most obvious being a gender-swap version – parading men across the stage to be assessed by the women. Three women singing about how nice it is to have a male servant around to ogle when he bends over would at best be confronting and at worst vaguely refreshing. Three men singing about ogling the female servants they’re going to be sexually assaulting later on is just yuck.

The only reason I can think of to revive this naïve performance is as a celebration of cultural heritage. Like watching a movie from the 60s, but it’s a play. But that got me thinking – there are parts of our cultural heritage that just don’t beg reviving. If this play had been about white masters and black slaves, I just don’t think any amount of humour would cover up how deeply wrong it is.

The only way that play could be revived would be to have the black slaves prove some supremacy over their white masters, in a subversive commentary on the original play.

Our airhead virgin heroine? Well, she got the guy in the end, I guess. Woo women!

he makes me feel so feminine

When I started reading romance novels in earnest, about four years ago, I was drawn to the powerful heterosexual narrative. Actually, it’s more than that, isn’t it? It’s a really traditional sort of hetero-sex.

A big, hard man and a soft, curvy woman having sex – and reaffirming their genders by having sex.

Growing up, I never felt like a typical girl. (I’m assuming no girl does.) I let my body hair grow, because I didn’t see why I should waste all that effort shaving, when it was a losing battle. I wore some crazy outfits that were much more, er, aesthetically interesting than either feminine or sexy.

I did a Bachelor of Arts in my mid-twenties that further taught me to question everything. Turn any given dichotomy around. Subvert it.

I never felt entirely comfortable with straight-up hetero sexuality. The dominant paradigm always had to be confronted, questioned, investigated.

So there was something amazing about discovering romance, and letting myself read romance, and indulging in a simple man/woman relationship. It gave me permission to be a woman to my husband’s man in a way I hadn’t let myself before. I still think that was an important time for me, because there was a kind of guilt associated with “giving in” to traditional gender roles. To just being a woman as society constructs a woman. And that should, obviously, not be a guilty thing.

But I’ve come through the other end of it, and I’m back to questioning traditional gendering. (As you may have noticed.)

Now, the very thing that made me feel so comforted makes me pause. There’s one line in particular that I have read hundreds of times. When a man and woman have sex in a romance novel, the hero makes the heroine feel some variation of “soft and feminine”, because of how hard and different he is.

In that moment the hero and heroine reaffirm themselves as gendered.

I understand why the traditional gender roles are sexy – and hey, I might question it, but I mostly find it sexy too. We’re constructed that way our whole lives long, and our libidos are wired into it no matter what our rational minds might have to say on the subject.

But I can’t help wishing it wasn’t just the traditional genders being reaffirmed. “She felt so feminine,” is a hell of an ambiguous phrase. And just to prove that Arts degree wasn’t wasted, let me ask: What is feminine, anyway?

If the line goes unquestioned, “feminine” represents an amorphous thing that can be described by words like soft and rounded and gentle and giving. The default, traditional idea of feminine.

I gotta say, when I get ambushed by moments of feeling that sort of feminine it’s surprising and makes me feel a bit awkward and bashful and grateful. It’s an alien feeling – not something I experience myself as in a lived way.

Of course, romance is a kick-arse genre and many authors are exploring the different kinds of gendered relationships in their novels. Cecilia Grant comes to mind immediately, and I wish I had the book at hand so that I could quote it. In the climactic scene of A Gentleman Undone, when the hero is all tender and, well, undone, the heroine is a cold, implacable thing. Like a bird of prey. Something strong enough for him to break against.

I think this is part of why I love reading gay romance. Two gay men are allowed much more room to redefine their gender than a straight man and woman are allowed.

I recently asked Ruthie Knox whether she thought My Lady Untamed would have a chance in New York. I found her reply very interesting: “Definitely, the quality of your writing is there, but the hero is unusual enough (and here I’m thinking less of the cross-dressing than the gender dynamic of strong heroine, weaker hero) that it’s really hard to say.”

I’ve always known the cross-dressing would be a barrier, but it hadn’t even occurred to me that the gender dynamic could be more problematic. And even though this stuff is highly subjective, the many conversations I’ve had with industry professionals in the past week suggest that Ruthie’s comment was spot-on. (So not surprising.)

My problem is, I’m becoming more and more interested in the idea of androgyny. My KPop habit really isn’t helping, either. I mean, look at this guy:

 

I find G-Dragon’s androgyny incredible. It’s physically attractive, but it also seduces my intellect. There’s something about a man who is strongly, fully himself – and embraces a fluid aesthetic. He’s masculine, he’s feminine, he’s a man.

If my heroes are headed in this direction, I really don’t know what readers are going to make of it.

I really should have asked this question a long time ago

An old friend messaged me out of the blue on facebook the other day:

I have a question for you, it has been bothering me for a long time, but recently revived by watching new TV series.

Why does the classic structure of a romance novel and indeed of many many powerful stories & TV series (irresistible feelings for eachother, but misunderstanding, each thinks the other doesn’t want them, ultimately resolved in a great sense of relief and euphoria) appeal so much more to one gender than to the other?
OK maybe it only *seems* to appeal more to women than to men. And lots of men like Jane Austen and As You Like It. BUT. The relationship between Mal and Inara in firefly is in my head ALL DAY and keeps me all suspenseful and heart in my mouth each episode… doesn’t seem to have the same kind of itch or hold over Ben.
Would love your thoughts on this!!

My first reaction was: Wow. I really should have thought more about this before now. And my second reaction was to make up a bunch of science:

Not something I’ve thought a lot about, oddly enough, but my gut reaction is something like:

Women are powerfully interested in human relationships, and specifically in romantic relationships (and obviously this is massively simplifying/reductive). I assume this is part conditioning – we’re socialised to care about relationships, and until very recent history to judge our worth by our relationships – and part biology. There must be some biological urge to create safe, lasting environments for raising children, which means finding a partner with certain qualities. I.e. alone is bad, with man is good.

Men are stereotypically more drawn to action/adventure, which also has a classic story structure (similar to romance, but with a different end goal, more external rather than internal obstacles, etc.). So it’s really just what holds the interest of each gender.

Obviously personal relationships and love are super important to lots of men in real life.

My personal theory is that love/kissing/romance is private and personal it’s something you DO in real life, not something you externalise and obsess over. Action/adventure is completely fantastical and therefore an escapist form of entertainment you can get lost in. Whereas female fantasy is much more wrapped up in romance for the very non-scientific reasons I said above.

Hope that gives you some new thoughts to shed light on the matter!

So, seriously, why DOES romance grab women so much harder than it does men?

Puberty Blues

I feel a little bit smug. I’ve been watching a couple of bloody brilliant Aussie TV shows, and for once the rest of the world has to wait! (And here’s hoping other countries have the sense to buy these shows up.)

One of them finished last night, and the ending was so perfect I had that same glow-y feeling in my chest I get from a really great book.

Puberty Blues is about two best friends, Debbie and Sue, growing up in Cronulla in the 70s. Cronulla is an outer suburb of Sydney in an area famous in the 70s for its surfer tribal culture and more recently for the racist riots in 2005.

I tried to express, recently, the idea that a historical context allows us to explore female empowerment in a more emphatic way – but also lends itself to the kind of female empowerment that has nothing to do with finding love.

Puberty Blues is a subtle, impressive example of what I was trying to come to grips with.

Debbie and Sue are desperate to get in with the cool kids, and they eventually manage it by being a bit naughty and a bit mean, and mostly by catching the eye of the boys. Being someone’s girlfriend has nothing to do with liking or even knowing – it’s all about status and belonging.

Girlfriend duties include: sitting on the beach for hours watching the boys surf; buying meat pies and chiko rolls for the boys to eat when they come in, when you will also hand them their towel; and lying back to let him root you. Oh, and bringing the Vaseline – very important not to forget the Vaseline.

The casual rape culture depicted is absolutely chilling. It’s there subtly in the girls’ expectation of sex: it is not something you enjoy, it’s something you lie back and take. And it’s there overtly in the girl lying in the back of a panel van, a catatonic lack of expression on her face, while the boys climb in and out by turn.

Seeing that unsettles Debbie and Sue, but it doesn’t particularly stand out to them as wrong, or as having anything to do with them. The way they react to it – by not really reacting at all – is what makes it so chilling. They have no context to understand why it unsettles them.

They enjoy being the cool kids and having boyfriends. They also begin to experience the way a girl’s worth comes entirely from her boyfriend. The way a girl becomes a laughing-stock in a second if she goes against her boyfriend’s wishes – all ties of loyalty and friendship cut.

Again, they don’t consciously rail against this stuff. They don’t understand it, even while they don’t like it.

Sue starts to feel more and more restrained and angry inside her relationship. Finally, when her boyfriend’s a complete asshole to her in front of everyone, she says, “You’re dropped.” She doesn’t mean to – didn’t even know it was going to come out. It’s that part of her she doesn’t understand – the part that’s unsettled and angry – acting for her. But she doesn’t go all girlpower I’m-better-off-without-that-dickhead. She doesn’t understand herself or her actions and still craves the social belonging that comes with a boyfriend.

Debbie is dropped by her first boyfriend for being frigid (turns out all the Vaseline in the world can’t make up for really not wanting to have sex), then falls in love with the beautiful Gary. In heart-stopping, world-stopping first love. Sue asks Debbie over and over again to tell her the story of how she and Gary sat in her room and just talked all afternoon. Just talked.

But even the beautiful Gary is only a fucked-up kid, dealing with life outside of school.

Debbie and Sue have seen the reality of what it takes to be a cool kid, and they start, tentatively, to see the world on the other side of school – a world that’s bigger than just the cool kids and the outcasts.

They start to realise that the superpower they have is each other. In a world where all ties can be cut in a second if you act out of turn, they have the kind of loyalty that can get them through anything.

They see the girl in the back of the van again, the boys climbing in and out to take turns. They still watch her from a distance, and vow to each other that the world would have to go through one of them first, to get at the other. Then they realise: That girl doesn’t have anyone to stand between her and the world.

And then they realise: Maybe she has us.

It’s such a superhero moment when they decide to walk over. “We’ll just get up and walk,” they tell each other. They challenge those boys who are the gods of this small world, and they get the girl out of there.

They’re so high on what they’ve done – so disbelieving and amazed – that they want to do it all over again. So they do the next best thing. They go down to the beach, with a surfboard, and run into the water, where girls are not allowed to go.

The cool kids sitting on the beach call them every name they can think of, but Debbie and Sue just laugh back at them and say, “Get us a chiko roll!”

The girls, watching fully clothed from their “girlfriend” stations, watch with contempt but also with a kind of dawning confusion. And awe.

Debbie and Sue are a product of their culture. They don’t have the means to stand outside it and understand it. This made their eventual liberation so much more powerful than if they’d been on a crusade from the start.

Their liberation came from acknowledging that their own feelings about the world are the only compass they need. That they get to say what’s wrong and right.

This is how I want to use the historical context for my heroines. Not to have them understand right from the start: I am oppressed, and my fellow-women are oppressed! But to have their experience and their knowledge not match up. For that to be an unsettling thing, and for their anger and frustration to become more than they can keep inside. And when it comes out it’s not necessarily going to be comfortable, and they’ll probably want to take it all back.

In the kind of society Debbie and Sue are growing up in, the love of a teenage boy cannot empower or liberate them. But their friendship with each other can.