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Letters of Opinion

Dear Author

The Marketing of Slave Fantasy: A Bridge Too Far?

If you’ve been on Twitter the past couple of days, you may have seen the minor skirmish over Riptide’s Belongingverse, a website created in 2011 by Rachel Haimowitz and presented via Riptide Publishing, which straddled the line between book promotion and slave fantasy content like classified ads for the purchase of human slaves and stories written about slave-master relationships.

We’ve had a number of discussions here at Dear Author about hard limits and reader consent in Romance for fantasy scenarios. I may be the most expansive about boundaries when it comes to Dear Author reviewers, and even I was a little freaked out when I saw the original Belongingverse website up a couple of weeks ago.

At the time, I put the whole issue aside to think about and work through. In general, I absolutely believe that taboo fantasies are often those that need the most protection from censorship and moral condemnation for those who enjoy them. But my own lines tend to get bright and hard around the fetishization and eroticization of slavery – the erotic-exotic connotations, the US historical context, the common Orientalist implications, and myriad issues around subjugation and dehumanization.

And beyond all that, I was having difficulty with the ambiguity in the term Belongingverse, especially in trying to figure out whether I thought the whole thing was even intellectually coherent (e.g. using the concept of belonging in terms of ownership/property v. community membership and participation). I still haven’t fully unpacked my own thoughts and feelings about a world called Belonging, but clearly the concept and its execution have reached a flashpoint, providing a good opportunity to talk about some of the more controversial issues and implications, especially around how the books were being marketed via the website (which, as of yesterday, has been taken down).

To provide some background, author and co-owner of Riptide, Aleksandr Voinov, who also has a book in the mix, described Belongingverse as “the same as our world, just slavery was never abolished.” According to Voinov, Riptide co-owner and Managing Editor Rachel Haimowitz originally conceptualized this alternate world, which included books published by several houses, including Noble Romance. Among the fiction is what has been described as Anderson Cooper RPF/FF, including a website that provided backstory for news anchor and slave Daniel Halstrom. One book featuring Halstrom’s character, Anchored, by Rachel Haimowitz, was reviewed at Dear Author by now-Riptide Senior Editor Sarah Frantz and included the following commentary:

It’s not racially-based slavery; it’s just that there’s modern society…with slaves. And no one questions that. While the main character Daniel questions some things he’s told to do, he never questions that he should be punished for not doing them. I sometimes enjoy stories set in slave universes, but that’s when they’re obviously fantasies, and I still prefer for there to be some indication that the narrative disapproves of the slavery. This book was, honestly, an excuse for non-consensual torture porn — Daniel is viciously beaten and gang raped as punishment, two scenes which comprise the bulk of the narrative — with the implicit narrative understanding that readers are supposed to see that this is acceptable and can be overcome emotionally by a caring sexual partner (who was stupid enough in the first place to send you to be gang-raped because he didn’t seem to understand how his own damn world worked).

Additionally, there were “testimonials” from those in “voluntary conscription.” For example, 20-year-old Wendy Chen:

“I know I’m not the smartest girl in the world, but everyone’s always told me how pretty and talented I am. I dropped out of high school to look for work in New York, but in eighteen months, all I found was two modeling shoots and a short-run musical. I started getting high to get through the long days. I was nineteen and thought my life was over. But Brooklyn Beauties saw something in me, bought me out and cleaned me up. Now I’ve got more modeling offers than I can handle, and rich men take me to fancy parties every week. I’m six months clean, and I’ve never been happier. Thank you, Brooklyn Beauties!”

Another section, “Slaves for Sale,” was formatted as a classifieds page, and offered entries like this:

Perfect for Your Darker Desires

Male, age 24, 5’11, 170 lbs of lean muscle. Blond hair, blue eyes, fair skin that reddens well. Companion trained at Nevada Arts, w/same owner since graduation. Good w/men, women, couples, large groups. Specialties inc. dancing, tumbling, classical literature, art history, drawing/painting. Impeccably obedient. Suffers beautifully. Photos avail. w/credit check, inc. bondage nudes. Truly a gem among gems—don’t let him get away! Taking offers from $995K and up.

From ownership to voluntary and forced “service,” Belonging was clearly designed to be an ongoing project, with facets of the society to be explored through related books.

Because most of the pages have been removed, it’s difficult to experience the Belongingverse in the way it was originally imagined, but what makes it even more difficult is that in place of the main page, Riptide has provided an extensive explanation of the site’s intent to be an “immersive website . . . to heighten a reader’s experience of the oppression of slavery by showcasing the horrifying reality of it.”  The statement goes on to assert:

Regarding the books, it is of vital importance to note that they are not erotica. Anchored is not even a romance. Though the original release of Anchored through Noble Romance was irresponsible in several ways, the book has been heavily revised to reflect the depths of the problems with slavery. Anchored’s editor, Sarah Frantz, who reviewed the original release for Dear Author (and flunked it), would not allow the book to be published through Riptide without the narrative shining a very clear light on how ugly and broken the Belonging world is. Neither Riptide Publishing nor the authors of the Belonging universe romanticize slavery in any way. In fact, the narratives are highly critical of the institution and focus relentlessly on its ugliness.

So here’s the thing: if this entire world has been constructed as a critique of slavery, why a) publish any of its books under a Romance imprint, b) sexualize the slavery, or c) blur the lines between, say, BDSM (“Perfect for your Darker Desires”) and what Sarah Frantz referred to as “torture porn.” At an even more fundamental level, I have a difficult time reconciling Anderson Cooper RPF with a serious critique of slavery.

Riptide’s statement blames some of the backlash on a difference of familiarity with and context for the Belonging universe. And this may, indeed, be true. But one of the first things that struck me about the site when I first saw it a couple of weeks ago was how little there was (read: nothing) to even suggest that the books were meant to investigate or criticize slavery. In fact, one of the first things to strike me about the website was a strong erotic ethos, which was reinforced by the association with Riptide.

The marketing element was also very strong for me, which heightened, rather than diminished, the perception that these books were offering a sexual fantasy. Which makes Riptide’s statement confounding to me, because it takes me back to my original set of questions around why the authors and publisher(s) would endeavor to provide a staunch critique of slavery by employing tropes, language, imagery, and themes that cross over so readily and commonly to fetish fiction, erotic non-con and dub-con fantasy, and even Romance, despite the protestations otherwise (would anyone expect a book published by Noble Romance to be an intellectual critique of slavery?).

I can’t judge the books themselves, but if the site was part of the campaign to invite readers to buy the books, then that campaign seemed very deliberate in the way it was playing with erotic fantasy scenarios. And if I take at face value Riptide’s statement about showing the horrors of slavery, I guess I’m still trying to figure out which readers they were going for there. For example, the description for Voinov’s book Counterpunch, starts this way: “Brooklyn Marshall is just one example of how a criminal and convict can be redeemed through slavery and good ownership.” And, of course, Marshall’s nickname, “Mean Machine” is intended to reflect his “staying power” in and out of the bedroom.

Understanding the kind of reader a book is aimed at goes a long way to understanding the genre(s) in which it perceives its story to fit. There are several clues in that book description pointing to erotic fiction that I think undermine Riptide’s insistence that they were not trying to erotically or romantically charge the slavery in Belonging. Which doesn’t preclude a critique of slavery, but if that critique is couched in stories that will invite the reader who enjoys the slave fantasy, then those books are either critiquing the reader (which doesn’t seem like smart marketing) or serving two masters, so to speak.

And I think it’s that second option that I have the most difficulty with. Because even if I apply my own reader consent theory to the slave fantasy, I think we’re dealing with a lot of content that is beyond the text itself and endemic to the marketing. And there reside a lot of issues entwined with commercial fiction, publishing for commercial success, capitalizing on those niches where the money is, and the kind of economic manipulations that businesses make to maximize their profit. And for me, that’s where things get really sticky, because despite the amorality of many of these economic manipulations, the moral and ethical minefield of slavery within a fantasy context ultimately factors in. Especially when the publisher has attempted to distance itself from the project, even as its owners and executives are among the authors who created it.

I know that for some readers, the very concept of the slave fantasy is problematic, and maybe some who have read the books in question can comment. As I noted earlier, I have difficulties with this fantasy scenario myself, but within my own theoretical framework of reader consent, I don’t want to condemn taboo fantasies or the readers who enjoy them. Still, I’d love to hear what you all think about this, both in terms of the concept and its execution. Did you get the “horrors of slavery” angle, and if so, where did you see the cues? Does it matter more what the nature of a book is, who the publisher is (e.g. one that traffics primarily in Romance and/or erotica) or how it’s marketed? And what kind of responsibility — if any — does a publisher have to its readers when it publishes and markets its books?

Dear Author

Who gets the power when we’re rewriting myths?

Yesterday I posted a news story about the fact that Marvel Comics’ Thor: God of Thunder is now female. When I posted the story, I was elated at the idea that a woman had earned the power of the hammer that controls the very elements. This is a power that is based in both physical and mental strength. It is a power that has rested in a number of different beings over the course of its comic book existence (including a frog). The announcement has received quite a bit of backlash, which is to be expected when a male god is deemed unworthy and replaced by a more worthy female. And even some Romance readers have objected to the change.

After reading through the various objections and concerns, I’m still going to make a case for Thor: Goddess of Thunder, not as a feminist act, but as something we should welcome into the cultural norm as easily as we do the idea of a male Thor. I welcome disagreement and debate; I am simply in the mood to advocate for the widespread acceptance of a woman who holds the power of lightening and thunder in her hands, independent of her male predecessors and symbolic of power that can rest just as easily in the hands of a woman or a man.

Why not a woman?

While many have wondering why Thor should now be a woman, I want to know why Thor shouldn’t and hasn’t (for any significant time) been a woman? When new Thor’s creator, Jason Aaron is asked if he’s a feminist, he says: “I’m not one of those people that think feminist is a bad word. I don’t see why everyone shouldn’t be a feminist.”  Which is great, and all, but does Goddess Thor need to be considered a feminist act, and if so, what does that say about the way we conceptualize the kind of power Thor wields? That a frog can be perceived as worthy but a woman somehow ruins the concept? That Thor’s power is now bestowed on a woman has come as such a disruptive shock to so many people is indicative of how comfortable we are with certain conceptions of gender and power. The question has been raised – why not use another goddess in place of a female Thor? But any other goddess is not Thor, does not wield the power of Thor, and does not represent the powerful physicality of Thor.

It’s not enough, aka Marvel is simply exploiting its female fans.

In an article criticizing Marvel’s introduction of a black Captain America and the female Thor, Wired’s Graeme McMillan argues that

Not only are they, by definition, replacements—forced to live up to legacies established by white male characters both in the fictional worlds they inhabit and the minds of the fans reading the comics—but they both got the job because of the failings of their white predecessors rather than on their own merits. . . . From the press release about the new Thor: “No longer is the classic Thunder God able to hold the mighty hammer, Mjölnir, and a brand new female hero will emerge worthy of the name THOR.”

While I, too, am concerned about the longevity issues with these new superheroes, I have to take issue with the idea that one character becoming unworthy means that the character who is deemed worthy is somehow lesser than. Thor is, by definition, a merit-based position, because only someone deemed worthy of the hammer’s power can wield it. And as for the character’s longevity, Aaron, who insists that this turn was his idea and was planned from the beginning of his work on the series, has long-term plans for this Thor, precisely because female have been unfairly excluded from the definition of worthy:

When you look back over the history of Thor comics, a lot of different people have picked up the hammer at one point or another and hardly any of them female. The only women to wield the hammer are in brief moments here and there, or “What If?” stories, or future stories and stuff like that. So we’ve never seen a big story about a woman picking up the hammer and if you look at the inscription on the hammer it even says, “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” I’m going to flip that on its ear and for the first time see what it’s like to have a brand new version of Thor who is female; the Goddess of Thunder.

Would I prefer it if a female author gave that power to Thor: Goddess of Thunder? Hell, yes. Although for me it helps that Aaron also supervises the designation of the male Thor as unworthy of the same power. This isn’t Eve, made from Adam’s Rib, but the empowerment of a woman in defiance of the expectation that the power would transfer to another “he.” Beyond that, I think it’s more about the life Goddess Thor takes on for those who engage with her through her story, and about other stories she will hopefully inspire. Cosplayers are already trying the new Thor on for size.

Marvel is clearly pandering to female readers, hoping to get more of their money.

So. What. How many immensely popular and well-loved books do you think have been written because the author hoped to make some money off of them? Marvel can be pandering; it can be exploiting so-called “political correctness” in order to appear as if it cares about diversity.  All of that may be true. But none of it changes the fact that we now have a female Thor, and she has a substantial and lengthy storyline. Must there be an ever-after for her in order for her character to retain legitimacy? How many comic book characters evolve over time? Should women – who are a rapidly growing segment of the comics-buying readership – be inspired to pick up these comics, that’s a perfect convergence of culturally progressive superheroes and commercial profit. If Marvel makes money doing the right thing, then I’m okay with that, especially if it inspires more experimentation:

The importance of female readership — particularly its economic importance — is something Esther has experienced as a store manager. Fantom has a list of weekly subscribers and a quarter of them are women. And it’s the comics with female characters that are making money. According to their most recent data, Fantom’s bestselling superhero comic is Ms. Marvel, starring a teenage Pakistani-American from New Jersey, the first Muslim character to get her own series. The best-selling title overall is Saga, another series in which many of the main characters are female. And both Ms. Marvel and Saga have female creators — G. Willow Wilson writes Kamala Khan’s adventures as Ms. Marvel, and Fiona Stapes is behind Saga’s gorgeous art.

I love this trend, and what I think Thor adds is the idea of a woman who is worthy not because she is a woman, but simply as a woman.

But Thor is still a white woman from Norse (aka Scandinavian) mythology.

Yes, she is. She’s in an elite class. And yes, it would be even cooler if she were a goddess of color. Or if women, in general, were all empowered at the same time, and by the same social forces. Thor: Goddess of Thunder is aspirational in the same way that the growing population of female entrepreneurs is aspirational. She represents a level of power that the majority of women do not have access to, and will not likely have access to in their lifetimes. While it’s true that women are having certain aspects of their personal autonomy curbed (largely by men and by patriarchal thinking), it is also true that women are making progress in other arenas.

It’s no longer true that highly educated women are more likely to divorce, for example. Women with money to invest are doing so differently than their male counterparts, and they’re forcing change on the historically male-dominated investment-banking paradigm. The changes are small, and they’re much closer to the economic ceiling than the floor, but if anything, doesn’t that speak to the idea that we need more female superheroes? That we need to normalize the idea that women can and should be deemed worthy of controlling the elements and wielding the Mjölnir? Not that I’m suggesting for one second that Thor: Goddess of Thunder, will have any effect on the real lives of women. Simply that our ability to conceptualize and accept that such power can and should be in the purview of women — and not even stand out as newsworthy — is an independently worthy idea, and one that stands in opposition to patriarchal logic.

Et tu, Romance readers?

Romance is a genre that is built on other narratives – fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast, mythological characters like Helen of Troy, previous stories like Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and The Sheikh. How can the readers of a genre that is constantly reimagining and reinterpreting other stories not appreciate the new Thor? Are there hidden rules within the genre around what stories can be reinterpreted and how? Is there something about having a heroine step into a hero’s place that violates a Romance genre code?

Goddess Thor does not eradicate any of the Thor’s who have come before her, because they all live, simultaneously and eternally, in these other texts. Goddess Thor is simply another version of the divine being that holds the same power, and that she is worthy of that power is something I think Romance readers, especially, should celebrate.