Out on the Border
Note: This is super-long, but I wanted to talk about the E.L. James and Kristen Ashley phenomena together. I will be doing the final summing-up post next week, so this one might appear to end abruptly. Sorry about that, but — surprisingly enough — even I run out of steam!
When I started writing this series, I was working toward this post, a speculative argument about the popularity of what I like to call Extreme Romance, from Linda Howard and JD Ward to Johanna Lindsey and Anna Campbell – well, you get the idea. Among the latest entries into this arena are E.L. James and Kristen Ashley, whose books are quite different but still, I think, characteristic of what makes this kind of Romance so compelling to such a diversity of readers, compelling enough, in fact, that readers will overlook writing and editing flaws to embrace the books.
As I’ve noted in the posts leading up to this one, genre Romance has itself evolved out of a literary ancestry that includes the North American Indian captivity narrative, amatory fiction, and sentimental and sensational novels – all genres that share similar tensions around social power and cultural identity. This is not a surprise when you consider that they are dominated by women – as authors, readers, and protagonists. And that these genres so often contemplate the experiences of women living in societies that empower whiteness, heterosexuality, patriarchy, and capitalism – all social institutions to which women have varying degrees of belonging, exclusion, submission, ambivalence, and rebellion.
Even readers of genre Romance have had long-standing curiosity about the popularity of novels that portray a relationship between the hero and heroine that seems so unbalanced in terms of power, and so fraught with tension, angst, and even force or violence. But when you consider the history of all of these other immensely popular literary genres that women wrote and read voraciously, I think the question begins to answer itself, and the answer is something like: how could these books NOT be so popular, precisely because they play out – often in the most extreme, melodramatic, close-to-the-line ways – these tensions and power negotiations, and they do so by pushing the most vexing dimensions into the starkest relief. So while readers are not watching their lives play out in fiction, these books are energized by an extreme fictional portrayal of conflicts and tensions that reverberate through the real lives of women.
I want to emphasize that last point, because so often fiction that portrays the emotional lives of women is conflated with the emotional responses women readers have to these texts. I think it’s extremely important to distinguish between having an emotional response to a text and the emotional journey of the characters in a text. Because we bring our own values, beliefs, ideals, and socialized identities to the process of reading, we may have certain predictable judgments, sympathies, and reactions to books; however, it is just as likely that we will respond to texts in ways that seem illogical or even contrary to what we consider our “taste” or real life beliefs. This is all part of the symbolic work of fiction and the multi-layered relationship between reader and text.
The recent popularity of authors like E.L. James and Kristen Ashley bears this out, I think, because the sheer number and diversity of readers drawn to books by these authors defies easy explanation of reader “type,” which is often where these discussions often seem to wander. However, I think there is something typical in the texts themselves – that is, something consistent to these Extreme Romances, despite the substantive differences among the books – that makes their popularity understandable, and that something is the way these books often push hard in opposing directions simultaneously.
Take James’s Fifty Shades trilogy, which I’m basically treating as one book for the purpose of this argument. The story is superficially derivative of Twilight, the jaded billionaire + innocent but plucky virgin pairing so often associated with Harlequin Presents, and that 91/2 Weeks-ish eroticism that slips back and forth between passion and punishment (I don’t like referring to the sex as BDSM, since Christian’s sexuality is clearly portrayed as the result of emotional trauma, and therefore as something that needs to be “fixed”). But the book hit way beyond Romance-reading and Twilight-loving circles, to readers who claimed they had never read anything like it, nor imagined themselves liking it.
So why did they unexpectedly enjoy the book so much (beyond the explicit taboo-busting sex)? I think Feministing’s Maya Dusenbery explains it succinctly: “The negotiating that happens in their relationship is what’s compelling about the story.” And she goes on to comment on the general popularity of the submission fantasy:
I am in no way surprised that many women, who have been socialized in a culture in which male sexuality is linked to domination and in which women are taught their sexual power comes from being wanted, have fantasies of submission.
I think there is a really fundamental way in which the idea that not only power, but also a sense of worth “from being wanted,” is something women simultaneously believe and reject, accept and resist, and that a book like Fifty Shades plays that dynamic out in ways that guarantee a happy romantic ending, the physical and emotional safety of the reader, and the ability to give or withhold consent for Ana and Christian’s relationship. All of that creates a safe and compelling space in which the reader can vicariously experience the submission and resistance of Ana in a way that pushes boundaries in both directions. How that plays out for each reader is not, I would argue, reducible to a neat verbal equation, which only makes the powerful effect of books like Fifty Shades more comprehensible. Because these conflicts and negotiations – when it is okay to submit, in what ways should one submit, for what reasons, what can one expect through submission, etc. – are so broadly and profoundly socialized.
Take the conflict between Christian and Ana that occurs when she decides to go topless at the beach in Monte Carlo on their honeymoon. Christian approvingly calls Ana “brazen” for her growing sexual confidence, telling her that he will “take [her] any way he can get [her],” but when he returns to their loungers and finds Ana topless, he completely loses his cool, dragging them back to the yacht they’ve arrived on, where he gives her an incredibly intense sexual experience and physically marks her with hickeys and cuff burns so obvious she will not be able to go anywhere in public for a while. “You drive me crazy,” he tells her, “So I am going to drive you crazy.” He tells her how beautiful she is and how much he loves her Ana’s sexual pleasure turns to horror when she views the marks on her body, telling him, “you have to stop unilaterally trying to bring me to heel,” reminding him that marks are a “hard limit” for her. Whereas he sees “taking off your clothes in public” a “hard limit,” and he also reminds her that paparazzi will likely revel in pictures of her, which will in turn embarrass her family. However, after they confront one another, Christian begs for forgiveness, which Ana extends, having been told by Christian’s therapist that he is an emotional adolescent and will act out as such when he feels out of control.
And control is Christian’s safety mechanism. Later in the story, when Christian knows Ana is not safe (prospective kidnapping), she changes going-out plans without telling him, which almost results in her kidnapping. Again, Christian’s impulse it to punish her, turning hot and cold emotionally and sexually. Ana is at once frustrated because she expects to be able to act independently, as a grown woman should, but she understands Christian’s anger as an extension of his fear for her safety. Just as with the bikini, she receives a powerful mixed message: Christian loves and wants her so much he cannot stand the idea of anything bad happening to her, but he also manages that love by attempting to “bring her to heel” as a supplicant.
This dynamic has, of course, defined their relationship and the trilogy: Ana is different from all the other women Christian has known, and he is willing to grow beyond his initial uncomplicated desire for control to have a more emotionally equitable relationship with her. However, the more emotionally bonded they become, and the more in love with Ana Christian falls, the more unsafe he feels, and the more control he wants over her, even as she feels more and more empowered to resist.
The intensity of their battles is reflected in the intensity of their sexual relationship, which reinforces the initial dynamic: the more wanted Ana feels, the more her confidence grows. But the more her confidence grows, the more independent she feels, and the more Christian wants to control her. But because his need to control grows out of his need and wanting for Ana, it creates a deep sense of ambivalence in Ana that seems virtually unresolvable, even as the story promises a happy ending for the couple. And whatever one might think about the craft, plot, and stereotypes in the trilogy, it does a lot of what we expect in Erotic Romance – negotiating power, developing the romantic relationship, and charting character growth through sex.
Within the James trilogy, the element of submission is, I think, a symbolic analogy to the captivity narrative, as Ana struggles with the extent to which her sexual submission both validates Christian’s control over her while empowering her to experience intense pleasure. Pushing past her previous boundaries contributes to Ana’s growing sense of independence, which stands in resistance of Christian’s control, something that pays off with his desire to grow and change, but also causes intense friction in their relationship, which cycles back into intensely pleasurable, boundary-pushing sex. Thus the text is always negotiating with the extent to which Ana is powerful, what kind of power she has and exercises, and how she can exercise that power in an intimate relationship with someone who ideally would like her power to be that of the submissive (surrender rather than autonomy). And because Christian and Ana both change, the power negotiation continues to evolve to meet different levels of sexual and emotional intensity and risk, a process which is played out for the reader.
The novels of Kristen Ashley – which are much more numerous and diverse than James’s to date – also overtly address these gendered power negotiations, albeit in somewhat different ways. Motorcycle Man seems to be the standout for readers among Ashley’s books, although her books do vary in subject matter, characters, and themes. They are also different from James’s trilogy in the way they are generically adventurous: she writes multicultural/interracial Romance; tackles class differences, suicide, PTSD, substance abuse, second marriages, losing a spouse, and disability; writes older heroes and heroines; provides her heroines with numerous, supportive female friendships (and not all the women get their own books); creates a relatively diverse world, inclusive of gay couples, people of color, veterans, etc.; writes heroines who out-earn the hero and/or who may have a secondary relationship during the book; and lots of other stuff I can’t remember right now. In other ways, though, her books are pretty traditional: the protagonists want marriage and children; there is some slut-shaming, including by the heroines toward themselves, and fetishization of virginity; the heroes tend to be protective, caretaking alphas comfortable with their authority (they are often cops, PI’s, bounty hunters, and the like), and other stuff I can’t remember right now.
All that is part of what I think makes her books so compelling for readers, but Motorcycle Man takes it to another level by creating a sub-universe within the book, the Chaos Motorcycle Club, with its own rules and customs. The story then brings the heroine into that world (and by extension, the reader), where she must submit to new rules and customs in order to be considered fully equal to the hero within the romantic relationship. And in the process of making this cultural transition, the heroine is actually encouraged to stand up to the hero, which creates an interesting power dynamic between them.
Within an hour of meeting Kane “Tack” Allen, Tyra Masters is in his bed, convinced, over the course of many orgasms, that he is The One. Until he slaps her on the ass, tells her it’s time for her to go home, and instructs her to leave her number. When she shows up a couple of days later to her new job, she has no idea how Tack is going to react, given the fact that he is now her boss.
This dynamic is repeated multiple times throughout the novel, and it pretty much sums up the structure of the relationship and Tyra and Kane’s character development: Tyra steps out of her comfort zone, Tack shocks her, Tyra wants to step back, but Tack provokes her into fighting back and remaining invested. Tack is an enormous risk for the woman who has lived a very safe, considered life, not only because he is unpredictable, but also because Tack expects Tyra to follow the rules of Chaos (and that’s a purposeful paradox, I think) without question:
“I’m thinkin’ you don’t get this but when you turn off Broadway into Ride, you drive into my world. My world is different than the world you live in. Unless I allow the parts of it I like, you don’t get to live like you live in your world when you’re in mine. And when I’m in yours but you’re with me, you live like you’re in mine.”
Because they’ve slept together, Tack initially does not want Tyra working for him. Until she stands up to him:
“Now, you listen to me, scary biker dude,” I snapped. “I need this job. I haven’t worked in two months and I need this job. I can’t wait two more months or longer to find another job. I need to work now.” His blue eyes burned into mine in a way that felt physical but I kept right on talking. “So you’re good-looking, have great tats and a cool goatee. So you caught my eye and I caught yours. We had sex. Lots of sex. It was good. So what? That was then, this is now. We’re not going to play, not again. We’re done playing. I’m going to come in at eight, leave at five, do my job and you’re going to be my scary biker dude boss, sign my paychecks, do my performance evaluations and maybe, if you’re nice, I’ll make you coffee. Other than that, you don’t exist for me and I don’t exist for you. What we had, we had. It’s over. I’m moving on and how I’m moving on is, I’m… working… this… job.”
So Tack changes his mind, warning Tyra that they will, indeed, play again, and that she wants that as much as he does:
“Red,” he said softly. “You entered the game, it’s my game, babe, you play it my way.” “I don’t want to play games,” I told him.
“Oh yeah, you do,” he told me and I shook my head.
“I want to do my job,” I stated.
“You get to do that too,” he returned.
This is really the crux of the conflict between Tyra and Tack. They come from different worlds – and much of that is about gender differences – and they don’t really know each other’s language. Tack shows up at Tyra’s unannounced with pizza and beer and talks her into letting him stay. He watches The Color Purple with her, because that’s her favorite movie. He’s a loving, devoted father to his teenaged children and an outstanding, practiced cook. He believes in marriage and fidelity. Other times they miscommunicate and provoke each other into a standoff, which often results in Tack trying to physically contain Tyra, which both infuriates and frightens her. But when she expresses her fear to Tack, he gets even angrier:
“Please,” it was barely audible, “you’re scaring me.”
That penetrated and it did it in a way that made him even angrier. I knew it because I saw it on his face, in his eyes and I felt it in the air around us.
“Do not be scared of me, Tyra. Don’t you ever fuckin’ be scared of me.”
“Tack, you just manhandled me onto my desk,” I pointed out carefully.
“Did I hurt you?”
“No,” I answered and it wasn’t a lie but that also wasn’t the point.
And the difficulty–for them and the reader–is that most often, both Tack and Tyra are right in the way they are looking at a particular situation, which both amplifies the drama and their continued exchanges deepen the connection between them. Tyra does not sit back and take what Tack dishes out; she fights him and tells him that he’s out of line. But Tack understands the intensity of their mutual attraction and the ways in which he basically has to dare her to take emotional risks with him.
Which is also the position of the reader, who is likely watching this all play out with fascinated horror. Tack can be obnoxious as hell, but Tyra pushes back. And it is truly an awkward, problematic position, because Tyra’s conflict is such that wanting her to walk away indicates a lack of confidence in her own initial happiness in Tack – her belief that Tack is her invitation to live life in color, as she puts it. But to side with Tack is to collude against Tyra’s completely sensible reactions, and to believe, as Tack does, that Tyra really does want what Tack wants, undermining her individual agency.
Complicating this further is the questions of trust that the text specifically works over: Tyra trusting Tack to take care of her and never hurt her; Tack trusting that Tyra wants the same thing he does; the reader trusting that this relationship is worth investing in and consenting to. In other words, the challenges that Tack and Tyra have, the conflicts they work through, and the risks they have to take are mirrored to some degree in the reader’s progress through the book.
Take, for example, the way Tack likes to wrap his hand around Tyra’s neck, something she initially perceives to be an aggressive gesture but is later revealed to be of a completely different nature. Like Tyra, the reader must trust that Tack is trustworthy, because the payoff is not immediate, even though the reader, like Tyra, is given small reassurances throughout the book. Like Tyra, we are being invited into Tack’s world, and entering it fully means that we have to be willing to play it his way. Which, from Tack’s perspective, means a submission to the world itself, not to his individual control — the difference specifically expressed through Tyra’s various acts of resistance, defiance, and, at one point, full-out rejection of a relationship with Tack.
Author Elyssa Patrick has compared this dynamic to one you often see in Paranormal Romance (or even Urban Fantasy):
Heroine who knows nothing about the “other world” (in this case, it would be Chaos as opposed to say Black Dagger Brotherhood) is brought into the world through forced circumstances in that Tyra needs a job. She is partly fascinated by these bikers, partly appalled. The bikers are a serious group of mostly Alpha men, like the Black Dagger Brotherhood. The men have tight, close bonds. Loyalty is valued, and the brotherhood is true and deep. Those who act against them soon feel their wrath. The women aren’t ever part of this group; they are claimed by the bikers and given protection once everyone knows this particular woman is his. On the same end, the woman is only his (if it’s meant to be). And there are some women (like the one who sleeps with Hopper) who are passed around to fulfill a man’s needs (much like how some women are offered to the vampires in Black Dagger Brotherhood for blood feedings). The heroine is put at peril; often at such circumstances that she is seriously harmed but brought back to life and fully integrated/accepts her new world. (There are two instances where this occurs for Tyra–the first when she goes after the guy who hit Tabby and is “fully” accepted by the other bikers because of that, and the next when she’s kidnapped, stabbed, and then wakes up and totally accepts this new world as hers.) The hero, Tack, much like paranormal heroes behaves in abhorrent ways toward the heroine at first but, at the same time, it’s clear he’s marking her—no one else can have her, no one else will do, and when she resists, he shows her how much she is for him.
Unlike Christian Grey with Ana, Tack doesn’t want to control Tyra; he wants her to accept his “claim” on her without her relinquishing her strength. Unlike with Tack, Christian’s control is characterized as a destructive force on the relationship that eventually evolves. So while both Fifty Shades and Motorcycle Man explore sex, power, and love, they do not replicate the same dynamics, nor do they resolve them in the same way. Yet both utilize the captivity theme as a means to effect a happy, equitable romantic relationship. What, for me, places them in this informal category I’m calling Extreme Romance is the fact that they perform these negotiations of power in ways that push a number of opposing boundaries simultaneously. Whether any given book will work for the reader depends on the particular ways in which the text engages the reader’s own imagination, a process as mysterious as it is capricious.