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.


Comments 7 Responses

  1. Shannon McEwan

    “Feminist can sometimes feel restraining to desire, but that seems like a counter-productive statement to make, so I’m probably missing something”

    I think A.S.Byatt hit the nail on the head in Possession

    Byatt’s way out – http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/124054-they-took-to-silence-they-touched-each-other-without-comment

    Your question about where the conversation’s at immediately made me think Nancy Friday.

    You’ve probably seen this? -http://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/sexual-force-and-reader-consent-in-romance/comment-page-2/

    (excuse choppiness & brevity – typing with 3yo squirming on my lap, watching bananas in PJs…)

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I haven’t read Possession in ages, but those quotes really evoke what was amazing for me about the contemporary romance. From an email I wrote to my teacher about it: The thing I loved about the modern-day romance was how Byatt broke down – slowly, slowly – the way that critical thinking can get in the way of a felt experience. The way Maude and Roland had to become vulnerable to each other was subtle and slow and somehow terrifying, because they have to become consciously naive.

      It does really go to the heart of what I’m talking about, doesn’t it?

      I’ll have to go read that Dear Author essay – I don’t think I’ve read it.

      Thanks for the great comment! (I think Bananas in Pyjamas must be good for the brain.)

  2. bleu

    “I didn’t read it as a book about slavery – I read it as a book about (sexual) power dynamics.”
    -> True. It’s not about slavery. The slavery is part of the setting, not its centre. So I also saw it as a play with power dynamics.
    However, if you read the comments on the site named after that fricking huge river, you could easily get the impression that those reading the slavery as truly sexual power dynamics are those who were expecting BDSM and are severely disappointed that the violence in the book is really just that: violence.

    I am sorry that I am unable to contribute to your discussion besides this.

    On a side note, I was sooo happy to hear how soon the realise of your own book will be! Of course you simply *had* to pick an aweful time, but I’ll buy it right away nonetheless and then just use it as reward for some finished paper or another 🙂

    1. anna cowan Post author

      That’s really interesting, about the disappointed BDSM expectations. I suppose that’s the one mainstream context we really have for discussing erotic power dynamics.

      Sorry about the bad timing! 🙂 Hopefully Darlington will make all that hard study feel worth it.

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  4. Kaetrin

    Hi Anna, I loved Captive Prince – your blog was the first I’d heard about it so thank you for that 🙂

    I have nothing much to add – I’m a woefully inadequate feminist I fear – I need to watch and learn more than anything else LOL.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Gah- I thought I had replied to this days ago, but the site mustn’t have been responding. You are very welcome for the CP rec! It’s been so amazing seeing it discussed everywhere. It’s part of what started me thinking the thoughts in this post – seeing something I saw in a particular way suddenly discussed in really different contexts.

      I do sometimes think I should be reading a core backlist of feminist texts, just to make sure I actually have a handle on what I’m talking about. But I find it really, really hard to get through a whole non-fiction book, even when it’s interesting. I usually manage about two a year, which…doesn’t really bode well for self-education!

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