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Heteronormativity and the white picket fence

Heteronormativity and the white picket fence

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Heteronormativity is a word that is getting an increasing workout in romance discussions, and most people use it to indicate a monogamous relationship and (especially) a family as defined by a married couple with children. But it’s also about the white picket fence. The idea of the family is about a particular societal structure, but that structure is supported (or not) by institutions and laws.

We’ve talked same-sex marriages. Let talk same-sex mortgages. Owning a home is part of the American Dream, and increasingly part of other nation’s dreams too. In 1918 less than 25 percent of British people owned their own homes, and the rest rented; this number slowly increased, but it took until 1971 for the population to be 50-50 between owning and renting. A lease could be for as long as 99 years, but it was still a tenancy relationship. So while a man’s home might be his castle, he didn’t own it. Now many Britons take for granted that they can own homes, but it’s a recent development. Nevertheless, they’ve embraced the “a man’s semi-detached is a man’s castle” just as vigorously as Americans always have.

In the US, mortgages are really important in a couple of ways. First, houses are most people’s major assets. They are the only form of wealth the vast majority of Americans have, and usually the biggest chunk even when a family has other assets. And these assets are most protected within marriage, because regardless of changes to estate and inheritance laws, surviving spouses pay no federal taxes when they inherit, even when the assets are held solely by the other spouse. It’s no coincidence that the DOMA case was about this tax provision.

Second, mortgages offer enormous tax benefits. You get to write off the interest as a tax deduction. The longer you own, the less your monthly payment goes toward interest, but for a good decade or two, you’re getting a sizable tax offset from your white picket fence. But two people only benefit jointly from that when they file as a married couple (again, why same-sex marriage matters). Two people can contractually buy a house as a partnership, but they won’t get the tax and inheritance benefits.

That’s government-sponsored heteronormativity. Heteronormativity is built into the tax code as surely as it’s built into the marriage license rules.

So to say that marriage is heteronormative but pride in home ownership is not is to fail to understand the extent to which home ownership and many of our other institutions reflect and strengthen certain types of intimate relationships.

Fifty years ago it was much more difficult for two men to live together, and if they did find a way to do so, they had incentives to keep their finances separated. It was somewhat easier for women to live together in a Boston marriage, but until the 1970s women were unlikely to secure loans and had even had difficulty holding financial assets in their own names. Knowing that, homeownership as the ne plus ultra of a creating a sense of home wouldn’t have been something same-sex couples automatically looked to as a goal, at least not the way heterosexual couples could treat it as an integral part of their life together.

[I'm focusing on the gendered aspects of access to home ownership, but it's worth noting that every minority group had less legal and practical ability to finance and purchase homes than white men did. The Alien Land Laws barred Asians from owning property in California until well after the end of World War II. Racial and religious covenants were included in real estate contracts to prevent blacks and Jews (and sometimes other groups) from buying houses. And if blacks did find a house to buy, banks practiced redlining, which automatically denied loans to blacks who lived in majority-minority communities. Even today, when redlining is illegal, black homebuyers are less likely, all other things being equal, to be approved for loans than are white applicants.]

Being a homeowner buys into heteronormative structures in the same way that taking out a marriage license does, it just doesn’t do so as obviously.

What does this have to do with romance novels, you’re asking yourself? Well, stop and think of all the books in which the need to secure property plays a role. Historical romance is chock-full of them, but contemporary romance has its share of couples fixing up their house, a rancher or farmer worrying about losing the family property, etc. etc. What Janet W. calls the “domestic life [that] plays an integral part in the development of the characters and the plot” is characterized, in her post, by home as much as by family.

Think about Pride and Prejudice: many readers argue that it is not a romance, and some maintain, only partially tongue-in-cheek, that Elizabeth fell in love with Darcy for good only after she saw Pemberley. But even in books we all agree are genre romance, tangible assets are the markers of success. And if you can best accumulate assets through families and pass those assets down across generations through procreation (as the historical romance genre continually reminds us), families and procreation are going to be seen as superior choices.

Within the LGBT community there are debates over the same-sex marriage focus of the gay rights movement. There are concerns that some of the gains people in same-sex relationships have made in terms of equality and social justice will be harder to sustain when those relationships are folded into the current cultural framework that shapes our ideas of “good” monogamous committed relationships. We don’t see those debates much in romance because heterosexual romance’s focus on the monogamous, child-filled HEA has been transferred to a surprising extent to m/m romance. It’s commonplace now to see monogamous, committed-relationship HEAs and increasingly frequent discussions about children.

This may be because so much m/m is written by women, who are culturally judged by their ability to fulfill home and family expectations, or it may be because many people do want that “married with a nice home and children” future. But not everyone, man or woman, wants a white picket fence anymore than everyone wants children.

We judge people by their houses. People are expected to live in houses that befit their station and their incomes. McMansions are the most obvious sign of this: square footage correlates with success, whether you need it or not. And we rarely stop and think about what the consequences of this unconscious evaluation are. Not everyone can afford a house of their own, and not everyone wants a house of their own. Yet we don’t question that outcome, in romance or elsewhere, the way we’re learning to question the married with children outcome as perfect, or even possible, for everyone.

Dear Author

Why I Now Hate Erotic Romance

Note from Jane:  The following is a post from Lazaraspaste, a former reviewer at Dear Author.   This was an interesting and thoughtprovoking post she put on her personal blog and I asked permission to repost it here at Dear Author.

In the history of American Arts and Letters there have been many persons convinced of their own ability to write. Since they speak the language, they are certain that they can wield a pen and produce a story, transferring the errant imagination into a book. Writing, in this view, is considered an extension—albeit a skilled extension—of the human capacity for speech and not, as with music or painting, an art which requires such paltry and mythical substances such as genius. Talent is reduced to a mere function of the desire to write with no pause to consider whether or not one should write. Thus, thwarted liberal arts majors have often dreamt of the day (retirement, perhaps?) when they would be able to finally sit down and write the Great American Novel, only to discover that such a novel neither exists (at least in the singular) nor is so easy to produce as they once thought.

But at least these men and women, for all their naiveté, understand that writing is a craft, something one must work at and something one must have time to do. Their dream of writing the Great American Novel stems from a desire to produce art. It is a worthwhile and lofty desire. Those who wish to write literature at least value the English language in all its unruly glory and recognize that it takes time to craft a novel. One would not suppose this to be the case for certain writers of erotic romance who seem to be under the mistaken impression that merely putting periods after words constitutes narrative progression and that the development of a love story can be totally reduced to declarations of “I love you” around a mouthful of cock. Based upon this sloppy and ugly use of language, I can only suspect their desire is less about art and more about cashing in on a lucrative publishing trend.

I did not always loathe erotic romance with this level of contempt or even at all, but persistent crimes against narrative have taught me not just cynicism, but hatred. There are, of course, exceptions. There are always exceptions. But if the ability to speak the English language has convinced some that it is easy to write it, then erotic romance is a genre that suffers the additional handicap of people thinking that just because they have fucked, that they can write convincingly about fucking. Let me be very clear: It Does Not. The overwhelming amount of badly written, narratively perfunctory, ethically problematic drivel being produced under the heading of “erotic romance” is as numberless as the sands of the Sahara. If I were a writer of erotic romance, I would be enraged by the crapulence daily glutting my genre and obscuring my own work.

In case you are wondering, the book that inspired this post was Food for the Gods by Camille Anthony. There is nothing exceptionally wrong with this book. I mean, there weren’t bull-shifters in it (Loving Scarlett which Jane did for a rom fail a long while back) or anything. No. The book was generic and that was precisely its problem. It exhibited tendencies (negligently deployed) I keep coming across whenever I try to explore the erotic romance genre. Tendencies that I find both troubling and persistent. It is true that there are other authors who use these tendencies with a higher level of skill, but the tendencies themselves are what I find problematic. However, I think these tendencies are the result of some unexamined premises upon which many erotic romance novels are founded. I will outline them as follows:

The Premises of Erotic Romance

 

  • Pleasure is good.
  • Repulsion or disgust is bad because it is not pleasure.
  • That which is good, is also moral. Pleasure is good, therefore pleasure indicates the moral.
  • That which is bad, is also immoral. Repulsion or disgust is bad, therefore it indicates the immoral
  • To find pleasure is to consent.
  • To find repulsion is to not consent.
  • Consent is to have pleasure.
  • Non-consent is to have repulsion or disgust.
  • Non-consent is bad because it is not pleasure
  • Good people have good sex, i.e. moral sex, because their pleasure is consensual (pleasurable to all parties) which is good.
  • Bad people have bad sex, i.e. immoral sex because their pleasure is non-consensual (repulsive to one or more party, this can be the reader) which is bad.
  • All sexual pleasure is good because it is pleasurable.
  • Love is good. Sex is good. Therefore, love is sex.
  • Sex is also love. Unless it is bad, i.e. not pleasurable which is to be repulsive. Then it is not love.

 

If these sound like the psychotic ramblings of a sociopathic philosopher to you, then you’ve probably spotted something troubling in this list.

The problem is that erotic romance often asserts itself as something other than pornography. It claims not to just be erotic, but romantic. The romance part ought to indicate that it is doing more with sex and sexuality than merely recounting various bits of fucking for the reader’s titillation. Otherwise, why call it romance? Why not just be pornography? So often there is neither an explanation nor a distinction of the differences between sex and love. The name of the genre itself points to the idea that such a distinction between sex (erotic) and love (romance) exists, and offers itself up as a genre that—unlike pure erotica or pure romance—will focus on both sex (erotic!) and love (romance!). But again and again I see erotic romance translating the romance part into premature ejaculations of love, usually right after some gang bang, or into the protagonists marrying. Love, then, is merely reduced to a byproduct of sex much like santorum or babies.

The elision between sex and love is further made problematic when erotic romance introduces a villain. Villains in erotic romance are also having sex, but they are having bad sex. We know this because they are the villains. Bad people have bad sex. Yet, the sex the villains have is rendered in the same titillating language as the sex the heroes have. We only know it is bad sex because it structured around some taboo that we are meant to find repulsive, whether it be incest or non-consent or torture. The good sex and the bad sex are determined neither by the quality of the sex nor by the ethics of the sex, but merely by who is having it, the villain or the hero. This is how we get such fine and beloved characters as Ye Olde Homosexual Villain and Ye Olde BDSM Villain. By equating the lack of sexual attraction or the presence of sexual repulsion with immorality, erotic romance defines the good with that which gives pleasure and the bad with that which give disgust regardless of the particulars. As such, when readers (like myself) encounter a scene in which a father and daughter are having sex we are repulsed by the violation of the incest taboo but then confused by the fact that other than that taboo being present and the participants being the villains there is no other indication that this sex is wrong because it is written in the same tonality and mood as every other sex scene. As in the axioms above, non-consent is only bad when it produces repulsion. When it produces attraction, then it is not bad. No means no only when it is uttered to the villain. If it is uttered to the hero, it means yes.

Let me be clear: what I find troubling is the shallowness of these depictions, the sheer uncompromising superficiality of the sexual ethics displayed by stultifying bad prose. I so often find that erotic romance is reductive to the point of total erasure, and sex positive to the point of naive positivism. It imagines a fantasy world in which distinctions between ethical sexual conduct and unethical sexual conduct are no more complex than whether or not arousal results.

I’m not suggesting that these problems are not present in romance as a whole or erotica as a whole, because they are. But erotic romance spotlights these problems in a way neither romance nor erotica does because of its hybridity. Because it is hybrid, it is easier to see where the genre fails as a romance and as a piece of erotica. The concentration on sex, like sex itself, exposes things that might otherwise remain hidden by a plot development or a characterization whose focus is not solely on sex. If what propels the story forward is a mystery plot, and not the next sex scene, then it is easier to hide the problematic equations between heroism and pleasure, and villainy and repulsion. Because erotic romance makes claims on the romance genre, I expect it to ask some question about the nature of love. What is love? What is sex? How are they distinct concepts? But it does not do this. More and more, it merely equates them. It has done this to such a degree, that romance now also posits the same idea. That intense sexual pleasure is the sign and the only sign for love. That love is sex.

Allowing me to break it down using the examples from Food for the Gods.

The plot of Food for the Gods is a bit like Hamlet in that there is an evil uncle who has poisoned his brother in order to become king. The similarities between the two end in the haphazard violence of the rest of the story which is basically: displaced Greek princess gets sacrificed to Poseidon in order to appease the angry god for the crimes of her people which include incest but more upsetting to the god, failing to worship him. The Kraken to which she is sacrificed turn out to be the triplet godling sons of Poseidon, who are both hot and hung and want to make Daphne their consort after they eat her, if you know what I mean.

Leaving aside the multitude of absurdities (Daphne keeps a journal whose entries comprise most of the exposition), the stilted, twitching prose, the incoherent plot arc, and the troubling insertion of a token POC character for no apparent reason whatsoever (Terena, the maid servant is black. A big deal is made of her skin color and her kinky hair in an appallingly fetishistic digression in one of Daphne’s journal entries), I will merely focus on the erotic aspects of the novel—if I may be so bold as to accord the term novel to this rambling mess of an erotic romance.

The triplet godlings who Daphne ends up falling in love with after a hand-job or three, are brothers. A statement so obvious and redundant that you are probably wondering why I am bothering to make it. But wait, all will be revealed. They are the heroes. The villains of the piece are the Princess Ordana and her father, King Meneos. Princess Ordana and the King are having a sexual relationship. Ordana is also a lesbian. So she is both incestuous and a lesbian, which is bad on account of the fact that she is the villain. How do I know this? Because the godlings, Porimus, Playdor, and Polyphemus are also involved in an incestuous relationship in which they all simultaneously fuck the same woman, but their incest is “good” incest. Possibly because they aren’t lesbians or possibly because we aren’t supposed to see it as incestuous since they are three from one egg?

To play the devil’s advocate for a moment, perhaps the reason that Ordana and her father are eeeeevil is because they are selfish, cruel and murderous. Except why isn’t that enough? Why then make them incestuous lovers? Moreover, why is their incest wrong but the incest of the Kraken brothers a-okay? Is it because the brothers are gods? Though I highly doubt that this book is positing some essential difference between divine morality and human morality which it is trying to explore through the theme of incest. I assume that this could not possibly be the case based on what I’ve read.

My only conclusion is that the incest between father and daughter (for which the daughter is blamed, by the way) is meant to titillate us as much as the incest between the brothers. I come to this conclusion based upon the fact that a sex scene between father and daughter breaks up the first and last half of the book. That means, as far a narrative progression goes, we get three major sex scenes before the denouement. The first between Daphne and the godlings, the second between Ordana and her father, and the last again with Daphne and the godlings. That means that they are narratively equal. The only clue that we have that the scene between Ordana and her father is wrong is that it they are villainous.

While I am using this example, similar plots abound. I’m sure you can think of one. Unethical sex is defined by the fact that it is the villains having the sex in both The Seduction of Miranda Prosper as well as in Elizabeth Amber’s Satyr series. I’ve seen it in other erotic romances as well. Alas, my memory does not serve. I cannot remember the titles and I haven’t got access to my ereader.

To equate “bad” sex with villainy without examining the actions, relations, and power structures involved is a disservice especially if you are asserting yourself as something other than porn. I’m defining pornography pretty basically as that whose primary purpose or only purpose is to cause sexual arousal. If you are only attempting to get people’s rocks off, then I suppose it doesn’t matter. It can be just a fantasy. But if you are asserting that you are a romance—a genre which has labored greatly under the misperception that it is merely “porn for women”—then you’d better have some other narrative purpose than masturbatory material.

Even when erotic romances don’t have the problem of defining unethical sex as that sex had by the villains, they still have the problem of positivism. By which I mean, the notion that knowledge can only be gleaned from empirical evidence, like the wetness of the vagina as proof of desire and desire as proof of love. In erotic romances where no villains exist, the conception of sexuality still proves troubling because it not only rarely bothers to explore interiority, but it asserts through the same concept of attraction and repulsion that it does not exist. Moreover, it asserts that the essential identity is only sexual identity rather than sexual identity making up a part of an individual’s total identity. Again, this proves troubling because it erases contradictions, smooths out complexities, and relies on a narrative in which the proof of love is sexual pleasure, and that sexual pleasure is proof of love.

My problem is not that erotic romance dramatizes interior experiences or emotional abstractions through physical bodies and encounters, but rather that over and over I seem to find novels and novellas that do this with little to no awareness as to the problems this presents both ethically and narratively. I have determined that they lack this awareness based upon the atrocious and bland prose styles; the ridiculous plots; the failure to distinguish in any meaningful way the sexual titillation of “bad” sex and “good” sex; the persistent failure to develop any interior landscape for the characters; superficial declarations of love; the refusal to deal in any meaningful way with what consent and non-consent actually mean; the failure to actually distinguish between love and sex; and more often than not, the failure to achieve even the most basic coherency and comprehensibility.

Erotic romance, you have become what romance is so often accused of being: the shallow outpourings of adolescent sexualities grafted onto the bodies of middle aged women who churn out the most asinine of prose. At best you are mediocre and pass away unremembered and un-mourned. At worst you are, quite literally, unreadable. But most often you are blindly offensive, naively asserting a concept of sex so simple, so sentimental, that it is positively sticky.

A fact that brings new meaning to the phrase, “sowing the seeds of their own destruction.”