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Love is, indeed, a battlefield

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When I first started reading Romance, I tended to avoid contemporaries, because the sexual politics were so blindingly overt. Even in books that did not purport to be about power, it was just so there. Over time, however, I realized that all Romance was essentially about power, because, well, the way human beings relate in our gendered bodies to the world is, in part, a power negotiation. Whether we experience that within the relationship, or between the couple and society, or in a combination thereof, our most intimate relationships also serve as battlefields on which we struggle to delineate roles, shares of responsibility/labor, and the evenness of giving and taking. And within a post-Enlightenment Western social context, we do this within a patriarchal social structure that has, traditionally and historically, assigned men to the so-called public sphere, and women to the so-called private sphere. In other words, men go to work and have careers and earn money, while women stay home and have children and serve as “domestic engineers.” While boundaries are more easily crossed now, there is still a perception that men and women have “natural” roles in separate spheres. A “separate but equal” logic has been promoted, as have various theories about “feminine power” and the “essential nature” of feminine and masculine energies. Even some strains of feminism have stood on the belief that men and women are essentially different.

Not surprisingly, with the rise of these gendered spaces, women’s writing became particularly preoccupied with the ways in which women function within social strictures. Much fiction of the 19th century produced by Western women – of both the sentimental and sensational variety – contemplates the proper role of women in love, marriage, and society. Women read many of these books together, discussing what would be one of the most important choices a woman could make in her life: what kind of man would be suitable to marry and how to choose him. Pride and Prejudice, the book that so many identify as the preeminent romance novel, contemplates the importance of making a good marriage from its first to its last sentence. What power women had could be minimized or enlarged through marriage, depending on many interdependent, circumstantial factors.

While we routinely associate this delineation of spheres with an obvious privileging of the public sphere over the private, the reality is a bit more complex. For one thing, men were expected to work outside the home, a tradition that to this day leaves stay at home dads often feeling emasculated, not only in the presence of other men, but also by women who are uncomfortable with or unaccustomed to the reversal of traditional roles. One of the most influential minds behind the delineation of “spheres,” Catherine Beecher (sister to Harriet), believed emphatically in broad-based education for women, because of the influence women had over the development of their children and the social welfare of the family unit.

In other words, it’s never been purely about keeping women barefoot and pregnant while men freely roam the world outside the home. It’s more about types and dimensions of power and how those are exercised within the family and between the family and society. Inter-class or inter-racial relationships compound these dynamics, as do same sex relationships or those of drastic age difference (especially when the woman is older).  So is it any surprise that so much of women’s writing belongs to the tradition of “domestic fiction” – that is, so much women’s fiction substantively contemplates gendered and sexualized power dynamics?

Last week I attended a reading by Pam Rosenthal of the re-release of her BDSM classic, Carrie’s Story (published initially under the name Molly Weatherfield in 1995). Rosenthal opened the reading with an anecdote about seeing a copy of The Story of O under “Women’s Fiction” at a very liberal bookstore in San Francisco (Modern Times). When she asked why in the world a book that features the utter submission of its heroine would be shelved among so many more obviously feminist books, the answer was both simple and provocative: The Story of O is a book about power (as is Carrie’s Story), and feminists need to think about power, too. I would say the same about Romance writers and readers.

Or, more to the point, power is what we’re always thinking about, even when we’re not consciously doing so. I would argue that sexual politics – aka how power flows and is negotiated between romantic partners – fuels the popularity of series like Fifty Shades of Gray and books like Kristen Ashley’s Motorcycle Man (at least in the ten or so of her books I have read thus far). These are books that take the power issue and push it right to the edge, often by appearing to place the heroine in a position of sexual, physical, or emotional powerlessness relative to the hero. Whether that’s what’s really going on will be the subject of my next post (or two), but for now I want to focus on the more general issue of perceived power imbalances in Romance and on the ways in which I think these negotiations underlie the genre’s compelling popularity.

Think about it: women are generally physically weaker than men. We are more routinely attacked, abused, and raped. Our economic welfare is still often both enhanced and threatened by marriage, especially if a relationship fails and the responsibility for raising children remains with a mother receiving inadequate  child support or alimony. Wages are not equitable between genders, nor is representation at the highest corporate, academic, or professional levels. Women often have more community responsibility than social power, which can make us feel over-burdened and under-compensated. Our lives, even if we don’t marry and/or have children, are still socially contextualized by the economic, political, and social influence of the nuclear family. Almost every aspect of our lives is measured relative to our gender and our expected duties, responsibilities, and roles. Women who break traditional gender barriers are still seen as mavericks, demonstrating the power of the traditional norms. How could fiction that takes as its central subject romantic love not be about who has power and how it’s distributed, enjoyed, and delegated?

Let’s start with the obvious example, Fifty Shades. Within that series is a pretty unsubtle example of sexual control of the hero over the heroine. And yet its popularity encompasses women who identify as feminists, women who prefer more traditional gender roles, and even heterosexual men who might not have thought nearly as much about these issues as women have likely done. Women are discussing the allure of the fantasy of sexual powerlessness, echoing the work of Nancy Friday, whose thirty-plus years of research have focused on a central thesis that women often fantasize about being denied sexual control as a way to find temporary relief from a life of over-committed responsibility. But whatever the issues that people have with the writing, the editing, the faux BDSM, and the rest, perhaps the fact that the series is overtly about a couple negotiating power in the relationship – and doing it largely in the bedroom, explicitly so – has amplified its success.

In how many heterosexual Romance novels do you see the heroine begin in a somewhat disempowered place, and, through the course of her relationship with the hero, gain a measure of power, generally through love, but also often through financial security (this is often the subtext of historicals), motherhood, and/or defeat of a villainous presence (ex-husband, evil parents, jealous ex-girlfriend/wife, etc.)? Jo Goodman’s novels immediately come to mind, as do authors like Patricia Gaffney and Julia Quinn. Paranormals often contemplate heroines with otherworldly talents or strengths, which shifts the playing field between hero and heroine to accommodate those powers. What happens, for example, when you have a heroine who has super human physical strength? Maybe she is cursed, or perhaps she has other limitations that inhibit her romantic happiness. Power differentials have to be accounted for in different ways, obstacles adapted, and equality defined in a different context.

I cannot even count the number of contemporaries I have read that begin with a heroine coming out of a bad relationship or a bad family situation, either seeking sanctuary in or returning to a small town, where she puts her life back together and finds her perfect partner. These two tasks are often inextricably linked, and depending on the book and the reader, the resulting romantic happiness can feel empowering or disempowering. I’d argue that it is less important which of these responses prevails for the reader, because the response is itself testament to the way love, happiness, and power are intrinsically enmeshed. As Liz McCausland pointed out in her recent post on sex + power, Erotic Romance “seems to be full of a formula whose sexual power dynamics map onto sexist power dynamics,” because how could it be otherwise within a social structure that still conceptualizes gender relative to a patriarchal norm?

It’s easy to get caught up in the questions about whether there is a “good” or “bad” resolution for the heroine – whether she is being circumscribed by traditional gender roles, and what that means, or whether she is breaking past the social norms and what that means. I get caught up in this all the time myself (and believe me, I will continue to do so, often in op-ed form). However, I also think we sometimes need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, specifically the one that illustrates the sexual politics at the center of Romance fiction. I think this may be especially important when we circle around those questions about why certain books are popular. How often are those the books that most dramatically think about power, even if those thoughts offend and repulse? I think the more interesting questions than why is such and such a book popular are what kinds of power is this book contemplating and how is it negotiating those fields (e.g. gender roles, sexual identity, domination, submission, fertility, marriage, etc.)? How are heroines negotiating their social limitations? To what extent is their happiness wound up in the power of the hero (or, by contrast, how does same-sex romance change or not change the rules and the issues)? How does a series like Nora Roberts’s In Death, where Eve Dallas has many of the male social privileges within her marriage to billionaire Roarke, compare to E.L. James’s Fifty Shades, where Ana struggles to find and assert herself against a man who seeks to control virtually every aspect of her life and body? To what degree are these books asking some of the same questions and coming up with dramatically different answers (or vice versa)?

These answers will inevitably shift, adapt, and change, not only from reader to reader, but also from book to book for each reader. How we respond to a book is a reflection not only of our own conditioning, but also of our ideals, our conflicts, our fantasies, and even those things within ourselves we have not yet identified and worked through at any given moment. Sometimes it may feel good to relinquish control as a reader and allow a story to take you over, even if it’s something with which you consciously would not want to be part of in your own life. Sometimes there is a vicarious sense of empowerment in witnessing a heroine respond in a very different way than you would. Sometimes there is a sense of anger at situations you may feel unfairly constricted or conflicted by. There is so much complexity in the subject of power, especially sexual politics, that we cannot begin to identify all of our responses simplistically.

Which is not to say that we should not be debating these issues. I think we should, for the same reason feminists need to think about The Story of O as a book about feminine power: because our experience of living in this social reality is one circumscribed by expectations related to our gender and our sexuality (which are themselves socially intertwined within a patriarchal norm). Sure, Romance is about love. But it’s also about power, and about how power shapes our ideas about and experiences of love. And we need to keep thinking and talking about that, because until and unless our social paradigm changes, we’re always going to be living and loving on that battlefield.

 

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

31 Comments

  1. Julia Broadbooks
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 07:07:45

    Thanks for the great – and for me timely – post. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about power within the romance. I’ve enjoyed some books that surprised me and DNF’d other popular reads because the power dynamic was such a turn off. It’s fascinating to me why one book works for some people but not others. All readers who share more or less the same feminist outlook but they relate to the story differently.

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  2. Jen
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 07:13:53

    Excellent discussion. It has really got me thinking about what I personally like reading, and I can see now that there are certain types of power explorations I like and certain types I don’t. I think examining power in romance is definitely an important part of understanding the genre!

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  3. Darlynne
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 07:57:36

    Yes, it’s all about power, isn’t it? And it’s inescapable. I’m not sure that we will ever leave the battlefield, although perhaps the battles may evolve into minor skirmishes or simple negotiation over time.

    Whenever you have one person involved–through romantic attachment, business, service–with another, power is always going to be on the table. Between family members, friends, co-workers, the barista at your favorite coffee stand: how is even the smallest interaction not about power? Most of the time, the lines that connect us run smoothly and open, until they don’t.

    Eve Dallas is a good example. She and Roarke will be negotiating with each other for the rest of their lives. Even when all things are equal in a relationship, two strong personalities aren’t going to naturally acquiesce. How about Kate Daniels and Curran Lennart (heavens, I never knew Curran had a last name until I googled him just now)? Swords and teeth.

    I don’t generally think about power in the Romance I read, at the same time I completely agree that it’s present in every facet. I think the battlefield can change, however, not that we’ll move off it.

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  4. DB Cooper
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 08:34:35

    @Janet

    Thank you for another wonderful, well thought-out article. It’s been a pleasure to read it. Early on, I found myself smiling at this little bit in particular:

    For one thing, men were expected to work outside the home, a tradition that to this day leaves stay at home dads often feeling emasculated, not only in the presence of other men, but also by women who are uncomfortable with or unaccustomed to the reversal of traditional roles.

    And while I know you wrote that to make a good point (or a couple of good points), I must admit I find myself more relaxed when I come across tidbits like that. Not are you acknowledging ongoing changes and the “flip side” of an often gendered-focus push towards equality, but you even give light to how some women feel uncomfortable with men taking on non-traditional roles. Such a nuanced view is refreshing to read and I find I’m much more inclined to take this piece and its message at face value.

    And I suppose nuance is a wonderful thing about “individualism” and “worth” even if it sometimes complicates (or gets steamrolled by) gender politics. After all, I don’t think it’s so rare that an individual feminist finds herself (or himself) enjoying a pursuit that her closest feminist friends find abhorrent. In that light, I’m very glad as a whole that DA has taken a very sex positive, kink positive, your-taste-in-reading-positive approach while not shying away from raising issues.

    (I suppose my thoughts on O will have to be a second post)

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  5. Ros
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 09:16:58

    I suppose it’s just the other side of the coin, but I tend to think of romance in terms vulnerability. That is to say that falling in love inevitably makes you vulnerable to the person you love, by gives them power to hurt you. Having to be open about your desires and needs puts you in an extremely vulnerable position, but is absolutely necessary for a deep and satisfying romance. I like to read romances where this power/vulnerability dynamic challenges and conflicts with the external power dynamics. If one partner is physically/financially/socially more vulnerable, the other partner can be made emotionally more vulnerable and a balance of power can be found. For me that is much more interesting and appealing than a relationship where one partner dominates the other in all spheres.

    The book that best exemplifies that balance, in my opinion, is Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Peter appears to have all the power – the wealth, the status, and so on, but in the face of Harriet (who owes Peter her life for getting her acquitted on a murder charge), he is rendered vulnerable. In the end they battle to find their ‘balance of two opposing forces’, equal partners in a relationship that began in extreme inequality.

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  6. Julia Broadbooks
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 10:35:49

    @Ros: I absolutely think that emotional vulnerability is part of the equation. Often the most interesting part.

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  7. Tessa Dare
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 10:46:28

    While I certainly don’t disagree with the point that many romances have a theme of female empowerment, I wouldn’t say that “power” as a recurring romance theme is necessarily a reflection of gender dynamics.

    To my mind, all romances involve power issues – even the ones that aren’t m/f pairings. To love someone is to grant them power over you, in some measure. Depending on their life experience and personality, individuals might find this terrifying, thrilling, comforting, or just plain difficult to negotiate. A romance that doesn’t explore that process wouldn’t feel very realistic or satisfying to me.

    And sex is an ideal physical mirror for all those internal negotiations. The perfect “show, don’t tell.” Someone has to be on top.

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  8. Ros
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 11:01:47

    @Tessa Dare:

    And sex is an ideal physical mirror for all those internal negotiations. The perfect “show, don’t tell.” Someone has to be on top.

    Yes. But also, I’m not sure it’s quite that straightforward. Sometimes sex is a mirror for the negotiations, but sometimes it’s part of what is being negotiated, or a tool for negotiation. It can be ‘I’ll do x and y and z for you in the bedroom so that I get a, b and c in some other aspect of life’. Or it can be ‘I’ll let you be in charge of everything else, but in the bedroom I’m always the one in control’. Or a multiplicity of variations of that sort of thing.

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  9. Tessa Dare
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 11:13:44

    @Ros: Oh, absolutely. All of that and more. There are lots of ways authors use love scenes to reflect, subvert, enhance what’s going on outside the bedroom.

    My only point was that it’s not unique to m/f romance. Sexual power struggles have a lot to do with the characters’ emotional journeys and the romance progression. Perhaps in m/f romance that whole process is shaded by society’s gender expectations, but I think “power” is an important theme regardless.

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  10. ReadingPenguin
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 11:25:51

    This is a brilliant article.

    One of the things I find interesting about paranormal romance is the number of books in which a heroine gains her power (or has existing power enhanced) only through her relationship with the hero. She becomes an angel, becomes a vampire, becomes a werewolf, and so forth, as part of her happy ending. He has the ability to grant her power. Sometimes she wants that power, sometimes she doesn’t, but she can only be happy once she accepts those changes to her core self, just as she accepts him.

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  11. Robin/Janet
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 12:09:45

    @DB Cooper: I read somewhere that women are often more uncomfortable with the role reversal. Not only do women often feel guilty for not being the primary SAHP, but there’s still a stigma attached to not having the man be the primary wage earner, even (and perhaps especially) for women.

    @Ros: I do think it’s the other side of the coin. For example, there are different kinds of vulnerability — there’s the kind that emerges when one person gives power to the other (which necessitates that you have power to give), and there’s a sense of powerlessness, which can come from having your power taken away or having someone else use their power over you in a way that you may or may not trust. I think all of that swirls around Romance, and often times it’s those books where there’s serious debate over whether one of the protags (often the heroine) has the privilege to relinquish power (i.e. that she has enough power in the first place to give some up).

    @Tessa Dare: I agree that there are many different kinds of power operative in the genre, and different ways in which sexual power operates. Although I am actually pretty wary of the “female empowerment” argument re. Romance (or rather I think it’s being contemplated but not in ways that would ever make me label the genre feminist). But I’ve yet to read a Romance (including the same sex books I’ve read) that did not centrally contemplate gendered, sexualized power dynamics.

    I realize that’s sort of a “duh” observation, but I don’t think it’s one we often contemplate full on. We talk about the “power of love” and the “power of healing,” etc. and we look at how sexual connections can be healing in the genre, etc. But I think we tend to shy away from the extent to which gender dynamics continue to inform, especially, fiction produced by women (well beyond Romance, as I noted in my post). I do think Romance is a special case, though, precisely because the genre contemplates romantic intimacy within a white, hetero-normative context. I’m not saying there aren’t other issues, or other dimensions of power. But when I started thinking about why certain books — what I’m informally calling “extreme Romance novels” — are so popular right now, they really seem to have feature this hyperbolically gendered, sexualized power struggle, which I think is incredibly interesting, especially when you place those over the genre as a whole, like an ideological stencil or blueprint. I was just reading something this morning that referenced the hero “tearing a new one” re. another guy. And I started thinking about that imagery and how it was so distinctly sexualized, and how it was sexualized in a way that feminized the tearee and also served as a sexual slur. I think, given our social context and the reality of living in a paradigm that constructs these values that it’s basically impossible to avoid these dynamics when writing about love and sex. But I also think it can feel unromantic to talk about it, because we’d like to see the emotional journey the protags take as pure or transcendent on some basic level. I’m not suggesting that you’re arguing this, just adding it to my thoughts on this topic.

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  12. Estara
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 12:46:44

    I find this essay a fascinating exploration of thoughts, especially in the wake of a sf&f genre essayist also exploring the thoughts about the popularity of romance and its power play – he’s turning it into a series
    http://amazingstoriesmag.com/2013/02/crossroads-romance-more-powerful-than-you-could-possibly-imagine/
    http://amazingstoriesmag.com/2013/02/crossroads-the-power-in-paranormal-romance/
    I’m really glad to follow you people and your ideas and because of that start to think about what works in these genres for me and why with a more in-depth look.

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  13. Tessa Dare
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 13:11:18

    @Robin/Janet:

    I am willing to follow you so far as
    a) Romances are about power
    b) Romances are inextricably tied to gender issues and our society in general

    I don’t agree with what seemed to be the thesis of your essay–that all power struggles in romance are reflections or explorations of gender dynamics.

    I do believe that there is an essentially human (and therefore non-gendered) component to love. One could argue that our attempts to explain, define, describe it are inseparable from the gendered world we inhabit, and that romance as a genre is partly (or even mostly) an ongoing discussion about gender roles. Okay, I get that.

    But I still believe that on some level, love is an essentially human experience, not a gendered one, and I believe the romance genre reflects that, too. If you want to argue that belief is either intellectually dishonest or willfully delusional… I guess we disagree.

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  14. Robin/Janet
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 13:57:21

    @Tessa Dare:

    I don’t agree with what seemed to be the thesis of your essay–that all power struggles in romance are reflections or explorations of gender dynamics.

    But that’s not what I’m arguing. What I’m arguing is that all Romance contemplates — in a central way — gendered and sexualized power dynamics.

    Maybe that’s just kind of a “duh” observation for you, which I can totally understand. I just thought it was worth exploring, because IMO we are so often steeped in our own cultural paradigm that we can forget the extent to which it informs our experience and our conceptualization/representation of that experience. It doesn’t mean there aren’t other types of power struggles, or that love is illusory, or that it’s not a universal human emotion/experience (I’ve argued that point previously, in fact). Nor am I trying to argue that the power dynamics are always the same or are easily identified as leaning in a certain direction (in fact, I ultimately want to push in the opposite direction in terms of how certain books are dismissed as “old skool,” aka women-hating, abusive hero, etc.). It’s just about framing and context.

    I remember some class in grad school where a comparison was made between societies that have never seen snow and therefore have no linguistic representation for it, as opposed to those that live in a snowy climate and have literally hundreds of linguistic references to it. I don’t want to argue that our social context completely overdetermines our experience and our freedom of thought and ability to ultimately change the paradigm, but I don’t want to underestimate the extent to which we’re working within that paradigm, either.

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  15. robin/Janet
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 14:06:32

    @Estara: Thank you so much for linking to those articles. I had not seen them before, but they are very helpful (and I will likely be referencing them in my next installment of this series).

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  16. Estara
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 14:52:45

    @robin/Janet: Glad to contribute in a small way^^. Main credit goes to Cora Buhlert who also reads and writes in both romance and sf&f – short stories, though. http://corabuhlert.com/2013/02/15/controversy-romance-translation-its-a-valentines-day-linkdump/

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  17. Tessa Dare
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 15:23:59

    @Robin/Janet: Thank you. I think I am understanding your point better now, but I think I still disagree. :)

    I may still have it wrong, but I hear you saying, “Romance uses love stories to contemplate gender roles.” Whereas I would say it’s mostly the other away around: “Romance uses gender roles (among other things) to contemplate love.” I would keep the boxes on your flowchart, but rearrange some arrows.

    The give and take of power is one core aspect of love, as a human experience. Themes and language of domination, submission, surrender are all over literary works that deal with love — all kinds of love, from romantic to erotic to divine. This isn’t new. The romance genre uses social and cultural trends to explore that theme–whether it’s workplace gender politics, BDSM, or paranormal worldbuilding.

    I am not saying there’s no patriarchy in romance. I do think it’s important to discuss. But even if patriarchy were to go away, power struggle in love stories would not. It’s a reflection of human nature, not just our social constructs.

    ETA: I don’t mean to label BDSM itself a trend, just that it’s become more popular in mainstream romance lately.

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  18. Andrea
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 16:12:37

    @Ros:

    “Gaudy Night” is an interesting example because Harriet very much wants/needs/desires a relationship of equals (on some level), and needs a man with sufficient give and take to allow her the space to retain her Self even as she becomes his wife – but at the same time the book constantly and completely demonstrates Peter’s superiority over her in every aspect (social, financial, intellectual, physical, emotional). Peter is vulnerable to her, yes, but he is also far better able to analyse and be detatched from his own emotions, and yet at the same time embrace them.

    She’s something of a Lois to his Superman.

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  19. Isobel Carr
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 16:36:47

    I was just part of a panel at the San Francisco Writers Conference about writing erotic romance and my part was entirely devoted to talking about the role power plays in relationships. It can be obvious in BDSM stories where the negotiations are actually spelled out (which is why I think BDSM stories lend themselves to erotic romance so nicely), but it’s there all the same even if it’s mostly unspoken. The shifting of who has “hand” in a story (regardless of gender, because this happens in m/m and f/f relationships too) is a vital part of the plot (and IMO is a major key to tapping into the erotic).

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  20. Ros
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 18:34:03

    @Andrea: I agree with one exception. I think the reason why Gaudy Night has to happen in Oxford is because, as scholars, they are equals. There’s a bit where Harriet wears Peter’s gown and is surprised to find they are much of a muchness. They are both Senior Members of the University, and in that context they are equal (even though, as you say, Peter is Harriet’s intellectual superior). I think it is very significant that they are wearing cap and gown at the final proposal, and that Peter doffs his cap and asks her in the language of the university, ‘Placetna magistra?’ There is the space where they stand on an equal footing.

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  21. Ann Somerville
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 22:14:49

    @Andrea:

    “She’s something of a Lois to his Superman. ”

    I see Peter more like Batman, as he’s a damaged, all too human man fighting for justice in an unjust world – he even has his ‘Alfred’ in the form of the dependable Bunter.

    His pursuit of Harriet sits firmly in the courtly love tradition, and in Gaudy Night, he even has a mini ‘quest’ to follow, searching for the perfect gift for her. Harriet is more a Jane Eyre type of heroine, independent, proud, and no man’s puppet. I agree with Ros that placing the resolution of their long and erratic wooing in Oxford was Sayers’ way of saying that she would not countenance a relationship or a resolution which required either of them to surrender their ‘power’ or intellectual independence.

    I do love that book :)

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  22. Power exchanges, gender, bullying, and random thoughts thereupon » Ann Somerville's Blog
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 22:57:39

    [...] has written an excellent post over at Dear Author about power dynamics in Romance. It got me thinking about the vexed and [...]

  23. Fiona McGier
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 23:18:36

    Another fascinating exploration of the human psyche in love. This is why I look forward to your topics of discussion!

    In terms of power in romance, I detest books with virginal, inexperienced heroines. To me that means he has all of the power, including telling her what she should like in bed. So I avoid historical and regencies. As you say, we all have our preferences.

    I think your exploration of the power battles needs to bring up the current popularity of male/male romance , where the dynamics are different. That this is written and read by hetero women seemed odd to me at first. The popularity seems to be partly due to the avoidance of the whole male/female dichotomy, which allows for a different dimension to the romance. Do you agree?

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  24. John
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 23:38:42

    I find this highly interesting, as I often love reading heterosexual romances because of the way it analyzes power dynamics and fantasy.

    M/M romances fit my sexuality, but I haven’t had the time, experience, or luck to be involved in one or more healthy, long-term relationships, and I’m not entirely sure which end of the spectrum I fall into power-dynamic wise. Sometimes it’s different with each person, but m/m romance, as a gay man, is such an obvious trip into the male psyche of emotional – as well as physical and sexual – power that it can be very emotionally overwhelming to read a story about two gay men struggling with their power dynamic.

    I find heterosexual romances easier to stomach because the power dynamic is delineated by gender. As someone who may not be entirely ready to accept the nature of his hopeful power dynamic in a relationship, I can lose myself in the fantasy of being a woman being courted by a rakish Duke or a vampire that wants a little more than my blood. My mentality works better with the female perspective, and the nature of the romance lately has really been about playing with the initial gender roles in relationships, having the heroine either confirm her stance on them or discover a new stance – and it also discusses a lot about women who learn to be comfortable with their power role in relationships regardless of whether it’s a submissive or a dominant one.

    I loved this post because I can’t help but read romance with a power dynamic. Whether it’s BDSM or even a young adult romance, there’s something extremely sexy about a power dynamic at play because of the reality of the power in a relationship. When authors explore it, they give readers like me the chance to fantasize, explore, and not only understand people of different power-preferences but understand what mine may be.

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  25. SonomaLass
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 23:49:18

    @Fiona McGier: An excellent look at gender politics in m/m romance is Sunita’s, here: http://vacuousminx.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/gendered-power-relationships-and-mm/

    I think one reason romance is so gendered, aside from the obvious sexual aspects of love, is that it is essentially about two individuals, rather than a larger group of characters. Gender is such a fundamental aspect of individual identity that it gets foregrounded in a story that focuses primarily on two people’s relationship with each other. Sayers’ Lord Peter mysteries provide an example: the books that feature his love story with Harriet are much more about gender and the negotiation of gender roles and gender politics than the other books — he’s still Peter, and there are both men and women in the books, and often there are secondary themes of love, marriage, or sex, but in the books about Harriet, particularly Gaudy Night, those gender themes are central. Because it is pretty darn close to being a romance, although I know some purists wouldn’t put it there.

    Like Robin, I think there’s a lot of “Duh” here, but it is important to articulate these things so that we don’t overlook the obvious.

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  26. Meoskop
    Feb 19, 2013 @ 23:56:35

    I have a knee jerk reaction to any discussion of O. I don’t think O can be properly considered without including the sister or sequel book Return To The Chateau. By taking the rose colored glasses off O’s view of initial events and revealing how she has (in essence) fallen victim to sex traffickers the power dynamics are more clearly displayed. O has has been groomed and used to groom others.

    That said, I pretty much universally agree with this post. Power dynamics are apparently something keenly on my mind when I read romance. It’s been mentioned to me by others and is the area of a book most likely to inspire a rant. I get frustrated when issues of power are dismissed in book conversation.

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  27. Ros
    Feb 20, 2013 @ 05:00:17

    @SonomaLass: I’d totally classify Gaudy Night as romance. Romantic suspense, sure, but definitely romance. Without Peter/Harriet’s relationship, the book falls apart.

    ReplyReply

  28. Carrie G
    Feb 20, 2013 @ 11:28:11

    @John: I enjoyed reading your perspective. It’s interesting also that my daughter, burned in her marriage, reads m/m almost exclusively so she can get away from the gender defined power dynamics. The male-male power dynamic doesn’t push her buttons, so she can relax and enjoy the growing relationship.

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