You Are What You Read
The dueling essays featured at The Guardian about Mills & Boons books sparked some significant debate here and here and some name calling. Julie Bindel took to calling the genre trash and argued that it was anti-female propoganda perpetrated by Mills & Boons.
Some readers suggested that she needed to get laid more often (the type of diatribe leveled by Lisa Valdez on readers at AAR for which she was excoriated).
Blah, blah, blah…Barf and give me a great big-ass break. She needs to get laid worse than I do. Thrown on the floor and good, proper dirty done hard. If not, then for god's sake, stop the whining, go read some Plath, and leave the rest of us alone with our Anais Nin kindred souls.
The essay by Bindle was articulate and well formulated albeit lacking in substance and reliability. The romance genre is an easy target, in part because of its questionable marketing techniques such as the embarrassing male torso covers and the even more cringe-worthy titles. (At least anectodal account places the male torso covers on male marketers in the 70s possibly lending some credence to Brindle’s theories of patriarchal propaganda). As commenter Meriam noted:
I don't agree with what she wrote, but I think Mills & Boon in particular lends itself to this kind of critique in the way it brands itself. You can't peddle books like "The sheikh's captive wife" or "Virgin Slave, Barbarian King" and then express outrage when unflattering conclusions are drawn.
Given the fact that these titles are given with a purpose, it must be because they sell. Whether they sell because they have brand recognition as I argue the male torsos do in the genre or whether the readers are avidly looking for the forced seduction book, it’s hard to say. I hardly need to repeat the mantra that generalizations as a basis for any argument is specious: Not all books within the Mills & Boon imprint romanticize rape or forcible seductions. Not all books within the romance genre represent this particular fantasy.
It’s true that the fantasy exists, both in paper and in the hearts and minds of women, but I’m not sure that Brindle was even suggesting that the rape fantasy wasn’t appropriate for women. Rather I saw her arguing that this type of fiction served to provide eroticize and romanticize possibly the worst fate a woman could endure – the violation of her person without consent. And truly, when is that ever sexy?
It seemed that the arguments distilled down to a question of whether we are what we read. Do the books reflect our social values (i.e., a romanticization of rape) or do books set our social values. What is normatizing whom?
I spent the weekend reading three books: Johanna Lindsey’s Secret Fire and two Harlequin Presents: The Virgin’s Wedding Night by Sara Craven and The Frenchman’s Marriage Demand by Chantelle Shaw. All three represented, to some degree, the forcible seduction trope. These books, on their face, represented the “no means yes” stanza.
I was chatting with a couple of readers, one new to the genre and one a long time reader of the genre, about older authors who have seemed to have jumped the shark. (This was presaged by a short worried contemplation of the impending release of Julie Garwood’s return to historicals in late December and how there was been virtually no buzz about the book and no reviews). One of these authors, Johanna Lindsey, was an old favorite of both myself and long time romance reader. Long Time Romance Reader, though, claimed that recent re-readings of Lindsey’s books haven’t evoked the same positive emotional feelings.
In discussing these books, we tried to explain to New to Romance, the allure of a Lindsey novel. Secret Fire is one of my favorites yet it contains, as I explained to New to Romance, sex scenes that are almost always under the influence of cantharides. The plot of Secret Fire is this: Heroine is kidnapped, drugged, loses her virginity while drugged, stuck in a trunk, taken to Russia, drugged again, abandoned, beaten, becomes pregnant, falls in love, succumbs to jealousy that leads to Big Mis, is wooed, has HEA.
When I type it all out, it sounds horrible. How could I admit to liking a book wherein the hero drugs the heroine so she will have sex with him? I’m not a fan of the rape fantasy. I’ll defend an author’s right to write it and have it included in the romance genre, but I don’t really care to read it. I don’t find anything about rape romantic.
I then read The Virgin’s Wedding Night by Sara Craven and The Frenchman’s Marriage Demand by Chantelle Shaw. These books were mirror images of each other in terms of plot and emotional character arcs, yet, one was pulled off so much better than the other. Both featured scenes in which the hero knew what the heroine wanted in terms of sexual intimacy but because the heroines were afraid to admit to their lust, the heroes had to seduce the women into bed. In The Frenchman’s Marriage Demand, I couldn’t stand the mealy mouthed heroine and I hated the hero. I wished the heroine would have grown some backbone and thrown the hero out on his ass. My notes from reading the book were “Freya’s a door mat. Zac is an ass. They belong together.”
In contrast, the heroine in The Virgin’s Wedding Night despised herself because she saw submission in the sexual sense as a self betrayal. She did not love the man she was with and he appeared to despise her as well. She was playing a role to obtain a material object and everything about the masquerade, including her own body’s betrayal, made her ill.
In all three books there was some subjugation of a woman’s will; whether it was done with seduction or with drugs. These three books would only serve to strengthen Brindle’s argument that the themes in romance serve to oppress women, rather that uplift them. I know that I am personally, morally, and ethically opposed to the oppression of women. But I’ve kept Secret Fire for years and I enjoyed The Virgin’s Wedding Night enough that I want to read more by Sara Craven.
I’ve come to the conclusion, after examining the books that I read, that it isn’t so much that we are what we read, but that we can be made to accept things that we don’t ordinarily find appealing by the strength of author’s writing.
Lindsey, in her heyday, could make me love the totally un-PC, bodice ripping themes. Rather than that book being normative of my social and ethical values, it stands outside of them and it takes Lindsey’s writing to bring them back in. I have read rape fantasy books where I felt that there wasn’t enough fantasy, where the stories were distasteful and I did feel that it worked to objectify women rather than uplift them.
I would much rather read a hundred books about women who are confident, sexually secure, whose sex scenes are ones of mutual consent rather than forced seduction but I am willing to acknowledge that a gifted writer can make me accept, for the space of a book, idea, mores, and tropes that are not to my taste.
I remember reading American Psycho. I was appalled at the subject matter, the seemingly non stop fetisization of violence toward women and the careless, unpunished psychosis displayed by the main character. But I couldn’t stop reading it.
Just because there exists a certain amount of literature that romanticizes a fantasy, albeit a fantasy that objectifies and subjects women, the mere existence of it doesn’t mean that women stand for it in real life. And simply because women read it, doesn’t mean that they condone it.
Perhaps Brindle should be asking a different question and that is whether we, as women, have a social obligation to turn away from literature that projects, affirms, ratifies negative stereotypes even if the end result of that piece of literature of life affirming. That’s probably a better call to arms than excoriating an entire genre on the basis of books read 15 years ago and cover quotes written by the marketing department with no input from the author.