Take the Long Way Home
I had initially planned to jump right into late 20th century Romance novels and their reliance/reflection on captivity narratives, but since it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve posted, I realized that I needed to sit down and catch myself up. And that turned into this catching up post. I apologize in advance if this is repetitive.
In the meantime, too, I came across this post by Mala Bhattacharjee on the issue of reader responses to problematic tropes in the genre, specifically the impulse to conflate personal responses to a text with the larger political issues it may represent. While I don’t necessarily agree with Bhattacharjee’s characterization of some of the books and tropes she discusses, right now I want to focus on this part of her argument:
“It’s not anti-feminist if I like it” seems to be the subtext. “It’s not misogynist if it turns my crank. It’s not problematic if I pretend it’s a guilty pleasure.”
I think that shortchanges deeper explorations of women’s media and shuts down a lot of potentially interesting discussion of narrative tropes and kinks. It also creates an imbalance, a hierarchy, between pseudo-intellectual readers and those who just read for pleasure and don’t turn a critical eye to every book: “I can read and enjoy the Greek billionaire ordering the virgin around because I took three Women’s Studies classes in college and donate money to RAINN. I’m not That Reader.” Oh, yes, you are. Own it. And talk about it. Don’t pretend the modern-day romance reader is any more liberated/aware/superior than the first person who got tingly when a pirate ravished an unwilling maiden.
If it’s anti-feminist and you like it, talk about it. If it turns your crank, let’s examine why. If it’s problematic, don’t excuse it away.
One of the reasons I wanted to write this series is that I so often find myself struggling with my own responses to Romance novels. On the one hand, I know that the genre is built on one of the most socially traditional foundations: white, Western, heterosexual marriage. There is a legitimate argument to be made that even flipping the paradigm (m/m Romance, for example), does not actually subvert it, but merely makes the boundaries of social conservatism more inclusive. On the other hand, regardless of the broader institutional politics, there are specific textual moments that seem to contravene the more conservative leanings of the genre, even rupturing and reworking relative hierarchies and negotiations of social power. And rarely do I think it possible to reconcile these levels in a nice easy verbal equation. Instead, I think there is a basic tension that mirrors the constant tension we, as individuals, have with our social institutions (how they define us, how we resist, whether we can be/are successful, a certain level of conformity as the basis of coherent community, etc.). And frankly, that’s one of the things that makes this whole genre so interesting to me.
Novels like The Sheik provide a means to both idealize and critique romantic relationships and the social institutions created to sustain and reproduce them. Hull’s Diana finds her home society provincial and limiting. She seeks her freedom in the desert, only to find herself taken captive. Her physical captivity eventually gives way to a kind of emotional captivity as she finds herself falling in love with Ahmed, who is himself changed as he falls from lust into love with Diana. Together, Ahmed and Diana ideally create a new kind of home, a hybrid cultural space that must be distinguished from the concept of home each had before they fell in love.
For the traditional captivity narrative, an “ideal” HEA is one in which the captive is redeemed, returned to his or her culture, and resumes life unaffected. This rarely happened, of course, and the very existence of the narrative makes it impossible to erase or deny the experience of cultural disruption. No matter how overt the political agenda of the captivity narrative, the individual experience of the captive always brings into question that agenda (and vice versa).
One of my favorite aspects of the comments on my last post is the great recommendations people had for novels and novelists that might qualify as the venerated “first” genre Romance novel. Although some, including Pamela Regis, offer up Samuel Richardson’s 18th C Pamela as the first Romance novel, I would argue that genre Romance as we know it is essentially a 20th Century phenomenon, a reflection of literary modernism’s own preoccupation with the role of the individual within social institutions, and the simultaneous rejection of tradition and a clinging to the past. I also think genre Romance is the invention of the female imagination, and I do not mean that in an airy, dismissive, or essentialist way, but as a reflection of the way in which Romance privileges the female point of view, even, and perhaps especially, when it represents the masculinity of the hero. Again, this dynamic can be read as simultaneously liberating and subjugating, a celebration of the heroine’s individual happiness, which is in part secured through her relationship to a man (and this is not even touching the extent to which the couple still belongs to a ruling class and/or colonizing culture).
So why is all this important? Because, as Bhattacharjee points out, there is the constant tension between judgment of reader tastes and counter-judgment, between the question of whether Romance perpetuates our most reactionary social ideas or challenges them, and the extent to which the reader’s personal reaction determines them to be “acceptable” or “unacceptable.” Pam Rosenthal characterizes this tension in herself as one between “the reality-based commitments of a progressive and the fantasy-driven intuitions of a romantic.” But I would place this beyond the realm of politics; that is, it’s not simply about being a “good feminist,” because the genre reflects a wide diversity of social and political values, and people rarely, if ever, hold completely consistent values and ideas.
Regardless of one’s social politics, the same basic questions persist: what does it mean to enjoy rape fantasy? Is that a way of excusing real life rape? What does it mean to enjoy reading about imaginary sheiks and Indian braves? Does that mean one isn’t sensitive to racial hegemony and cultural imperialism/colonialism? What does it mean that the genre is primarily white, Western, and heterosexual? Are we segregating one’s right to romantic love and happiness? How do we reconcile some of our personal tastes with our political values?
I agree with Bhattacharjee about the need to “own” (I might say embrace) our personal tastes, but I think we have to do so without the guarantee of ever fully reconciling the individual and institutional levels. Pam Rosenthal explains this process of negotiation a little differently than Bhattacharjee, saying that the space between one’s politics and one’s personal fantasies is
Discursive in the sense of disavowing a straight line of evolving political correctness from “was blind” to “now I see.” Inclusive not so much to embrace the more violent fantasies, but to understand that their initial form might be a necessarily crude way to allow certain images onto the stage of the genre in the first place. And inclusive so as not to need to distance ourselves from them – as though we were never anything but horrified by them –; in a kind of panicked rush to pretend we’ve always known what we’ve learned yesterday and are only fully coming to understand today.
Variation upon variation of these fantasies, played out in different ways, different extremes, from different perspectives, and with different outcomes, creates a safe space in which we can vicariously experience what may be most horrific to us in real life, most antithetical to the social or political values we believe we possess, and puzzling in regard to conflicting impulses we may have about what we want and where we fit in the world (let alone how certain values are reproduced and how we may or may not contribute to that).
The questing aspect of courtship both promises the safety of home and disrupts its previous form, ideally offering a newer, “better” version of that construct. To read Romance is to be engaged in these journeys as an interested observer — emotionally engaged but physically removed (and therefore safe). It is a compelling and critical element of the relationship between reader and text, and one that I think explains the deep trust readers need to form with Romance novels to find them satisfying, even if they do not initially seem safe.
And yes, I realize that reading the genre is not always (or ever) a self-consciously intellectual exercise. But this does not mean that these dynamics aren’t relevant to every individual who reads in the genre, nor does it mean these issues aren’t being contemplated by every reader, even if that contemplation exists primarily on an experiential level of the text, which is itself the product of a somewhat dualistic perspective.
Romance, beyond its focus on a romantic relationship, is also very much preoccupied with the relationship between the individual and society, between freely chosen love and social obligation, between personal aspirations and social roles. For example, there’s the young couple who have to fight a despotic parent and imposed arranged marriage for their happiness. There’s the woman who defies society’s expectations of a proper lady, but who is able to have a greater share of happiness (and often wealth) than those who would ostracize and judge her. There’s the man who believes that he will never be “brought low” by love who ends up worshipping the very type of woman he believed was beneath or a threat to him. Even in the most traditional scenarios there is the possibility of subversion, just as even in the most progressive scenarios – the man who defies society’s expectation of heterosexual marriage to find lasting happiness and love with another man – there is a repetition of that fundamental genre conservatism (e.g. does marriage as an institution become more progressive when it’s extended to same sex couples?).
Marriage of convenience; amnesia; straight out captivity; road trip under duress; romantic suspense heroine in peril, etc. — whether it is the hero or the heroine or both, there is often some type of force exerted on the lovers in such a way that it ruptures an existing sense of reality, identity, or belonging, in just such a way that it allows two individuals to become a unit (whether through HEA marriage of HFN commitment). So as we talk about force, particularly about the uses of force in the genre, I think it’s important to note that there is often at least one element of violence in the romantic journey of the lovers, whether it’s the defiance of a social expectation (the heroine will marry the man her father dictates) or the restructuring of personal identity (the widowed heroine who believes that she will never love again), and in the most extreme cases, this force can be exerted in ways that we might recognize as dangerous, unwelcome, terrifying, abusive, or antithetical to the values of respectful romantic love. And yet, these are often the stories that become the most popular, the most re-written, the most remembered, the most loved, and the most hated.
Why? What I want to show next week is how it’s often these stories that push everything to the edge – the reactionary and progressive elements simultaneously – thereby reaching out to a very wide range of readers along the social and political spectrum, generating the greatest conflict and the most dynamic space between the romantic ideal and the social reality, and marrying (owning!) what we love and hate most in the genre in an unapologetically over the top (thus my term “Extreme Romance”) way.