Friday, December 21, 2012

Sexual Communication in Romance Novels: The Great Silence

Back in the 1970s, when my early adolescent self was first beginning to become intrigued by all things sexual, I discovered a copy of psychiatrist David R. Reuben's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) in the midst of the other hardcovers on my parents' bookshelf. Written in 1969, Reuben's groundbreaking sex manual proved to be the first in what today has become a veritable deluge of informational/advice books on sex, and how to make it better. Its question-and-answer format covered topics few would feel comfortable discussing in public (hence the book's subtitle), yet millions, (including my 12-year-old self) felt drawn to read about in private. Scurrying away to the privacy of my bedroom, contraband in hand, I shut the door (no lock, alas) then rapidly leafed through its pages. Later, unwilling to get caught returning it, I hid the bright yellow book with the red letters shouting "SEX" under a chair in my room.

While vacuuming one day, my mother must have pushed aside the chair and discovered my secret shame. For when I later checked on my prize, I discovered it had vanished, replaced by the more age-appropriate Girls and Sex by Wardell B. Pomeroy. Mom never talked to me about it (when I asked her later, as an adult, she said that she tried, but I was always too embarrassed to listen), just quietly left that book for me to explore at my own pace.

It makes me pretty unhappy, looking back at both Reuben nor Pomeroy's books, realizing that they, as well as my dad's stash of Playboy magazines (hidden away in the basement), the almost-sex scenes in Harlequin romances, and the sexualized rape scenes in John Jakes' best-selling historical novels celebrating the Bicentennial (The Bastard and its sequels) formed the core of my early adolescent knowledge about sex. Reuben's work, though engaging and humorous, is rife with sexual misinformation (a 1972 Playboy magazine article pointed out 100 errors in the book), and insulting to lesbians and gays. Pomeroy's book is better, yet passages such as the following hardly make this feminist's heart sing:

Much as feminists may deplore it, appreciative whistles from strangers on the street or from passing truck drivers are trivial. The feminists argue that such behavior degrades women by making them sex objects, but this has been so through recorded history. But half-joking sexual advances from a girl friend's father may or may not be another matter. If he puts his arm around her from behind and presses on her breasts, or strokes her buttocks affectionately, or likes to put his arms around her, it may be a hardly concealed sexual advance, but since it's done in the presence of other people. it's not necessarily dangerous. If it's done when the two are alone, however, warning signals should, and probably will, flash in a girl's mind. (50-51)

Given the above, when I recently came across blogger Clarisse Thorn's post about the "five biggest problems" with the way she was taught about sexuality by her sex-positive parents growing up in the 1980s, you can understand why I felt as much jealousy as sympathy. More to the point of this blog, however, Thorn's post, Liberal, Sex-Positive Sex Education: What's Missing, also made me wonder if and how romance novels contribute to some of the distortions about sex that Thorn claims are inherent in much sex-positive discourse.

Each of her five points is worth discussing, but I'd like to talk here about the last one, because it particularly resonated with me in terms of reading romance. Everyone recommends that you communicate with your partner about sex, Thorn notes, but no one tells you how to do it. "God, it's so hard to talk about what we want. It's even hard to talk about talking about what we want. I mean, it's hard enough to figure out what we want in the first place—but communicating it... eeek!" Eeek, indeed. I've been wondering if romance novels, despite their overwhelmingly positive depiction of sex and sexuality, in some ways might be contributing to making such conversations so difficult.

You see, in most romance novels that I've read, when you find your true love, the sex is almost always terrific. No communication between partners seems to be required during foreplay, or during the sexual act itself; there is rarely a debriefing afterwards. A hero never politely counsels, "Hey, I'm really not that turned on when you bite my nipples"; a heroine never exclaims, "No, don't do that! A finger in my ass really ruins the mood for me." Occasionally one or the other thinks about finding and touching all of the places that turn his/her partner on, but he/she rarely asks said partner directly about where to find said spots.

Of course, perfect sexual compatibility is part of the fantasy aspect of romance novels. Fantasizing that a lover can and does know us so well, so perfectly, that he/she can meet our sexual needs without our having to explain them seems at the heart of many a romance. Yet I wonder how often this particular aspect of the fantasy seeps into everyday sexual relationships as an assumption of "how it's supposed to be." I know it took me a very long time to realize that if I didn't like something my partner was doing sexually, I didn't have the right to get frustrated at him for doing it, not if I never explained to him, verbally or by some other means, that I didn't like it. Protecting his ego, or shielding myself from potential embarrassment, were simply not good enough reasons for failing to communicate.

Use your words (or your Scrabble letters...)
In her sex education workshops, Thorn counsels sexual partners to ask each other questions about their sexual likes and dislikes; fill out a checklist of sexual acts and share it with one another (such as this one from the website Scarleteen); or write out their fantasies, or their previous sexual experiences, and email them to one another. I'm not asking romance writers to show their characters doing all, or any, of the above in the sex scenes they write. But it would be a refreshing change to see some romance novels that show partners in a developing romantic relationship having a simple conversation about their sexual likes and dislikes. Especially if they also showed just what a turn-on communicating with your partner about your sexual preferences can be.

Readers, can you think of romances that show the protagonists actually communicating about their sexual likes and dislikes?

Photo credits
• Bunkbed cartoon: Jen's Love Lessons
• Scrabble sex: Bilgrimage blog

Next time on RNFF:
On January 4th, a list of my favorite 2012 feminist romance titles, and a request for yours

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Foodie Feminism: Laura Florand's THE CHOCOLATE KISS

Hunger for food and hunger for sex are two of the most essential drives human beings can experience. Mix the two together in a novel, and you have the recipe for a tasty literary concoction known as the "foodie romance." Often set in a professional culinary setting (a restaurant, a bakery, a catering company), and featuring characters who work therein, the best foodie romances aren't just about a couple falling in love; they're about the way that a love of food contributes to, or serves as a symbol of, a newly developing romantic relationship.

The most enchanting books amongst the recent smorgasbord of foodie romances must certainly be those written by Laura Florand. The first novel in her Chocolate series, The Chocolate Thief, about an American chocolate heiress hoping to expand her mass-market company's reach by drawing on the talents of a world-renowned French chocolatier, was published to deserved acclaim last summer. Her follow-up, The Chocolate Kiss, proves an equally enticing treat—frothing with humor, taut with sexual tension, bubbling over with sophistication and charm. And, best of all, this bonbon of a book has a delicious core of feminist sensibility at its heart.

Since graduating from college, Magalie Chaudron has worked with her Aunt Geneviève and her aunt's lover, Aunt Aja, in their Paris tea shop, La Maison des Sorcières (The Witches' House). Her specialty is the pot of chocolat chaud, so seemingly simple to prepare, yet so delicious when it's made by Magalie. Perhaps it's that slow smile that grows in her when she stirs it. Or perhaps it's the wish she adds after observing what each patron most needs: May you realize your own freedom. May you love your life and seize it with both hands. May all your most wonderful dreams come true. 

But it's Magalie's worst nightmare, not her most wonderful dream, when Phillipe Lyonnais, Paris's Prince des Pâtissieres, decides to open a branch of his world-renowned pastry shop just down the street from La Maison des Sorcières. Despite her aunt's matchmaking schemes, Magalie is certain that "in the whole history of the known world, there had been no mention of a romantic attachment between a prince and a witch. Lots of battles, yes, lots of arrogant royals reduced to toads, but not much love lost." The fame of Lyonnais is certain to put her aunts' tiny tea-shop out of business, and Magalie, plagued by a perpetually peripatetic childhood, yet again out of a place to call her own.

When Magalie sets off to beard the lion in his den, to ask him to open his new shop elsewhere, Phillipe's arrogant confidence and unrecognized privilege (not to mention her own attraction to him) annoy her to the point of rage. She's no beggar, here to ask the lofty prince for a boon. Her cold, ego-puncturing remarks catch Phillipe's attention, but it's not until she refuses his peace offering—one of his own, hand-made macarons ("His Désir. Apricot kissed by pistachio, with the secret little square of pistachio praline hidden inside, like a G-spot")—that he realizes there's something different about this prickly young woman, something that for the first time in a long time fills him with dissatisfaction. He'd "been having a good day," Phillipe thinks, "until he got cursed by a witch."

In his turn, Phillipe refuses Magalie's offering of a cup of her chocolat chaud during the grand opening of his new shop, and the battle lines are drawn. Phillipe devises ever more delectable combinations of macaron ingredients, hoping to overwhelm Magalie's palate; Magalie adds wishes to her patrons' chocolat chaud, all of which, infuriatingly, seem to send them scurrying to the new Lyonnais shop down the street. Who will give in first? Magalie, who knows that a susceptibility to princes has led to many a fine woman's downfall, and refuses to accept the role of helpless princess? Philippe, whose "superiority complex" is so great that he chooses the site of his new shop as "a polite gesture," so "he could make it easier for weekend tourists and not force them to choose between himself and Notre-Dame"?

Is Magalie witch or princess? Is Philippe prince or beast? Can Rapunzel invite the prince into her tower without ceding him herself? Or with both of them starving, will the beast consume her whole?

Asking, not demanding; choosing, not being forced; trusting, not just the one you love, but above all yourself: these are the ingredients for a lasting, and feminist, love, Florand's novel argues, a love that doesn't diminish, but makes you ten times bigger, ten times more powerful. And one that satisfies the deepest hungers we'll ever know.

Photo/Illustration credits:
• Chocolat chaud: My French Country Home
• Macarons: Ladurée
• "She filled her home...": Bethany Barton, The Honesty Revolution

 ARC courtesy of netgalley

Laura Florand, The Chocolate Kiss. Kensington, December 2012.

Next time on RNFF:
Talking about sex in romance

Friday, December 14, 2012

Male Virgins in Popular Romance

A few posts ago, a commenter wondered if and how inverting the most common knowledge dynamic of romance—a dynamic in which the man has all the sexual experience, the woman all the innocence—would disrupt gender roles. In particular, the commenter wondered how books featuring male virgins fit into the romance genre.

Although I've read a few romances that feature male virgins, particularly historical romances and YAs, I was curious to see what scholars of the genre have written about this fairly uncommon trope. My research turned up Jonathan A. Allan's 2011 Journal of Popular Romance Studies article, "Theorising Male Virginity in Popular Romance Novels." I'd like to outline Allan's main arguments about how the trope of the sexually inexperienced man functions in romance, raise some questions in response to his ideas, then invite you to do the same.

Allan approaches his study by noting that while not all male virgins in romance are the same, they do tend to fall into one what he suggests are four distinct categories: the "sick virgin," the "student virgin," the "genius virgin," and finally, the "virgin as commodity."

Does the romance find male virgins fearful?
The first type is fairly self-explanatory: an adult male who, because of illness or accident, has been unable to begin sexual activity during the "correct" or "normal" developmental period, as all of his peers have. After describing this type, Allan veers off into a (intriguing) discussion about how male virgins must "speak," or announce their virgin status at some point during the course of a romance. I'm curious, though, to hear more about how the "sick virgin" functions—does his "abnormality" in regards to sexual experience disrupt our ideas of normal male sexuality? Or does it simply re-inscribe them? Does it evoke our pity? Does the "sick virgin" inevitably turn into the "healthy" i.e., dominant male? Or does his sickness temper him, making him a beta hero?

The "student" virgin type, in which the heroine becomes the sexual teacher to an inexperienced hero, seems to have more potential to disrupt gender roles by disrupting the power dynamic most often depicted in romance novel sex. Having less to do with who the hero is or what he lacks, the student virgin type focuses more on what the heroine has: sexual experience, and the power to wield it in the face of the hero's lack of same. As Allan notes, though, in the book he uses to illustrate this type, First and Forever by Katherine Kendall (1991), once sex begins, the sexual power dynamic flips, and the student becomes the master. Is this true of all student/teacher virgin male romances? Does the generic demand that one's true love always makes the sex fantabulous override the very real possibility that a sexually-inexperienced hero might not be able to satisfy his partner right from the get-go?

An example of the "genius virgin" romance
The "genius virgin" is a man either too caught up in his intellectual pursuits to give a moment's thought to sex, or one who openly rejects sex as belonging to the world of base emotions, not the higher rationality with which he identifies. Allan briefly mentions that the genius virgin nods to the "enduring dichotomy in patriarchy... the association of men with intellect and the mind, and women with emotion, sex, and the body," but claims that it also simultaneously deconstructs said dichotomy. He doesn't really explain how it does so, though. Is it simply by having the hero who once rejected the (feminine) body and its sexuality later embrace them? Or does it offer the heroine a chance at performing intellect and rationality as well? Or does it place body and mind in relationship together in some transformative way?

The final male virgin type is "virgin as commodity." Like the student virgin, this type has less to do with anything that inheres in the hero himself, and more to do with how he is perceived by others. Male virginity is seen as a prize, its owner an object, rather than a subject, a rarity to be desired and acquired. This type is often used in comedy, Allan notes, but I'm guessing that, at least in romance novels, the joke is on those who see the virgin in this way; I can't imagine that a romance would allow a male virgin to be won by a heroine who saw him only as a commodity. In books that feature the male virgin as commodity discourse, how often does the butt of the joke collude with or benefit from his own commodification? Does this trope function to point out the limits of commodity culture? Does the hero use his virginity to control others' reactions to his sexuality? To call into question sexual norms? Are readers invited to see him as commodity, too, or are they supposed to laugh at or look down upon those who do?

In the course of his article, Allan uses only a handful of books to map out the entire territory of virgin male romance hero-land. Allan thus seems to repeat a move that many of the earliest students of popular romance have been rightly criticized for: creating a topographical map without accurately surveying the wider genre. Would these categories still work if we tried to fit all of the books on All About Romance's "Virginal Heroes" list into them? What of the more recent list of "VIRGIN HEROES" on goodreads? Do the categories still hold if we include not just virgins, but also "Romance Novels with Celibate and/or Lesser Experienced Heroes", too?

Other questions that Professor Allan's article raised for me:

• Does it make sense to create a taxonomy of male virgins in romance when some of your categories are based on qualities of the hero himself, while others are based on how he is perceived by others? Or, in other words, does a taxonomy only make sense if its categories are based on the same metric?

• Must the hero always make a declaration of his virginity? If so, does this declaration function in different ways in different types of virgin hero novels? Or does it serve one particular purpose?

• Are certain types of male virgins more common in comedy than in works of realism? In historical romance than in contemporary? In erotic romance than in inspirational?

• How should we categorize heroes who have chosen for moral or personal reasons, rather than intellectual or health ones, to embrace virginity? For example, in Mary Balogh's No Man's Mistress, Ferdinand, having witnessed the poor relationship experienced by his parents, caused in part by their infidelities, cannot bring himself to pay a woman for sex, and thus chooses to abstain.

• Were virgin heroes more popular during specific historical periods of time? For example, less common in the 60's and 70's, more so in the 80's? To what specific cultural anxieties does the male virgin speak?

• How do heroines react/respond to the male virgin? Are they always teachers? Or do they play other roles?

• How are readers invited to view the virgin hero? Are readers aware of his virgin status before the heroine is? If so, what effect does such knowledge have on the reader?

Clearly, when it comes to the virgin hero in romance, there are still many, many roads yet to be mapped. What questions does the virgin romance hero raise for you? What are your favorite male virgin romances, and why do you like them?

Photo/Illustration credits:
• Oldest Male Virgin T-shirt: "Great Things About Being a Virgin Male"

Next time on RNFF
Foodie Feminism:
Laura Florand's The Chocolate Kiss

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Feminism of a Proper Lady: Mary Balogh's A SUMMER TO REMEMBER

In last week's pet peeve, I discussed romances that mistakenly equate feistiness and feminism. Yes, often, quite often, the two do go hand in hand. But must they always? Rereading Mary Balogh's historical romance A SUMMER TO REMEMBER reminded me that a feminist novel does not by definition require a feisty heroine. Though she might be far more difficult to depict than her more popular hoydenish sister, in the hands of a gifted author a gentle, quiet, even proper lady can embody feminist principles.

"I am adept at various kinds of needlework" says Lauren (162)
If one were to search for the epitome of proper, genteel womanhood in the Regency ton, no one could serve better than the Honorable Lauren Edgeworth.* As a friend counsels Kit Butler, Viscount Ravensberg, "She is very high in the instep, Ravensberg. Someone just last week, though I can't for the life of me remember who, likened her to a marble statue, except that she came out the colder of the two" (18). Lauren can converse on any topic, setting others at their ease; is adept at needlework, sketching, singing, playing the pianoforte and myriad other accomplishments "expected of a lady of good ton (162); knows how to run a household; and can put down the pretensions of any rude upstart with cool politeness. Kit needs such an accomplished bride, or at least the semblance of one, if he wishes to avoid an engagement being forced upon him by his family, an engagement to a woman who once chose his older (now dead) brother over him. After his friends tell him he'll never be able to win such a paragon, Kit wagers them he'll take the utterly proper Miss Edgeworth to the altar by June.

Lauren, however, is not so easy to woo. Raised at Newbury Abbey with cousins Neville and Gwen Wyatt after her mother married their father's brother and left on a wedding trip from which she never returned, Lauren has always felt the need to guarantee her tenuous place in the Wyatt family by behaving with all due decorum. "I shaped my life to the expectation that one day I would be [Neville's] countess," Lauren explains (96). Even after being left at the altar by Neville, Lauren has maintained her poise:

"She was indeed afraid, mortally so [to go out in company], but above all else she had been raised to be a lady. And ladies did not allow fear to master them. Ladies did not abjure society merely because they were embarrassed and unhappy, merely because they felt unattractive and unwanted. Ladies did not give in to self-pity" (21).

When Kit proposes after wooing Lauren for only a few short weeks, he tells her he is drawn to her because of her beauty, and because of her reputation "for unshakable dignity and gentility and respectability. For being the perfect lady, in fact" (90). But Lauren has been through too much to believe that Kit is telling the truth when he claims to be head over heels in love with her. Instead of growing angry, however, she asks him for the truth. Kit, ashamed of treating Lauren like an object rather than as a person, explains his predicament.

Vauxhall, the site of Kit's halfhearted proposal
To her surprise, the very proper Lauren makes Kit a very improper offer: she'll travel with him to his family seat, pretending to be his betrothed. Later, after the visit, she will throw him over. The resulting damage to her reputation (she'll be the jilt, now, rather than the jilted) will allow her to free herself from her well-meaning relatives and their wish that she marry. Instead, Lauren plans to live independently, for the first time in her life. Lauren frames her goal in terms of "rights": "I am not asking for your pity.... I need only to be accorded the privilege that men expect as a natural right—to  be allowed to live my life my way without having those who claim to love me forever knowing better than I what it is that will make me happy. I want to be alone and independent" (97).

When Kit presses her, Lauren reveals yet another reason for her unconventional offer. She recognizes that her quiet, decorous life, thought it may be dull, suits her, but

"... recently, I have felt a craving to know just once what it would be like to have some sort of adventure.... I just want to know what—what if feels like to throw off some of the shackles that bind me. Just fleetingly. I am not a person made for wild, passionate emotions. Or for vivid happiness. I just want a summer to remember. Can you give it to me?" (99, 100)

Kit, intrigued by the challenge she offers, agrees to Lauren's bargain. During the weeks that follow, Kit introduces Lauren not to the wilds of sexual abandon, but to far simpler pleasures: the joy of learning to swim in a lake; the wonder of climbing a tree and gazing at the world from above; the comfort of sharing ones feelings with a sympathetic listener; the delight in a gradually-awakening sexuality.

Watching, not playing, cricket, in 1822
Despite the makeover trope common to romance fiction, Lauren does not undergo a miraculous transformation as a result of her "adventures." The text does not force her to become a tomboy, or a feisty, outspoken woman, in order to be a worthy heroine. When Kit's former love, Lady Freyja Bedwyn, scorns her ladylike accomplishments, Lauren does not upbraid her directly, but in a way that embodies the very gentility that Freyja disdains: "Ah, and I have learned the difficult art of courtesy under all circumstances. In particular I always consider it my duty when at home to set my guests at their ease and to lead the conversation into topics that will neither embarrass them nor expose their ignorance" (162). Lauren offers a similarly polite set-down to Freyja's brother, as well. Lauren also refuses to race Kit on horseback, or join in a cricket match, despite Freyja's scornful challenges, secure enough in her own sense of self that she feels no need to prove herself to Freyja, or to Kit. As Kit increasingly comes to realize, "Lauren was made of stern stuff," and "strength did not always show itself in boldness and physical action alone" (158, 171). Lauren's dignified gentility may be just as strong as Freyja's, even though it refuses to call attention to itself as such.

Lauren's training in ladylike behavior, which calls on her to set others around her at their ease, also allows her to see the tension between Kit and his family, a tension stemming from far more than a simple disagreement over a betrothal. Lauren's skill at quietly managing people, and at listening to their concerns, allows her to gradually help Kit overcome his estrangement from his family. She even recognizes how deeply wounded Lady Freyja is by Kit's abandonment, and sympathizes with her, something Kit has not been able to see.

Though quiet, dutiful Lauren and Kit, a dashing, mischief-making charmer, seem to have little in common personality-wise, they gradually discover that their characters complement, rather than contradict. As cousin Gwen tells Lauren, Kit "is such a perfect foil for you.... His carefree, laughing manner balances your quiet good sense and makes for one pleasing whole" (181). Kit respects Lauren's intelligence, and battles for her rights with her grandfather, who has kept an important family secret from her. And he respects her need to make her own choices, even if that choice means leaving him.

Lauren's "summer to remember" does not demand that she abandon her proper self; instead, it allows  her to become more herself. She can speak her own truth without fear of being shut out from her family. And at long last she can "embark on the rest of her life. Not a passive observer any longer, but an active participant" (324). And a participant who can choose a life partner not out of fear, or dependence, or need, but out of the freedom of love.

Photo/Illustration credits:
• Rosewood pole screen needlework: 
• Vauxhall Gardens: Mr. Phoebus 
• Cricket Match 1822: Jane Austen Festival Australia

* Lauren's name evokes the writer Maria Edgeworth, a strong but quite proper lady who was one of the most respected and most popular authors of children's books during the Regency period.

Mary Balogh, A Summer To Remember. Dell, 2002.

Next time on RNFF
Theorizing the male virgin in romance fiction: Some thoughts in response to Jonathan A. Allan

Friday, December 7, 2012

RNFF Pet Peeve: Feisty Does Not Necessarily Mean Feminist

Run a Google search for "strong female protagonists," and you'll get more than 5 million hits. If you attempt to narrow the results by adding the words "in girls' reading," you might expect the number of hits to go down. But in fact, they increase, exponentially, to more than 40 million. In the early 1990s, books and reports such as Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (1994), Peggy Orenstein's SchoolGirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap (1994)  and the AAUW's How Schools Shortchange Girls (1993) argued that images of passive girls and women in popular culture were contributing to an American society of girls at risk. The AAUW (in Girls in the Middle: Working to Succeed in School [1996]) recommended that schools work to "expand the range of acceptable behaviors for girls, particularly 'nonconforming' behaviors such as argumentative and assertive actions," to combat the trend. Concerned librarians, teachers, and parents began compiling lists of books that might counter such negative images, thousands of which have proliferated on the web. And thus, the era of the "feisty" girl protagonist was born.

The feisty girl protagonist can often recognized by the way she talks. Not only does she like to argue; she speaks up for herself, and for other girls, even if her society would prefer she keep silent. She also likes to be in control, a decision-maker, actively determining her own fate. Often openly objecting to the social constructions of gender that would limit her agency and choice, the feisty girl refuses to conform, often earning opprobrium rather than praise from those around her, but forging ahead in spite of it. Above all, the feisty girl is not an object or a reward; she is not the gift given to the handsome prince who rescues her, nor does she live happily ever after, known only as his wife.

The feisty girl can be found not only in books for teens, but also in books for adults. As the kick-ass heroine of adult fantasies, the rebel of historicals, and the career woman of contemporary fiction, the feisty heroine has become a staple of the romance genre.

Yet when you look more closely at the feisty heroine of adult romance*, all too often you're likely to find that her feisty-ness is simply a reassuring cover papering over the same old disempowered heroine package. If you dare to look past her cheeky, argumentative banter, if you peek under her shiny pink superhero cape, you'll discover a girl without choice, without agency, a girl who gives it all up to gain the love of a good man.

The feisty but hardly feminist heroine is quite common in historical romances (ironically, as the word did not come into common usage until the very end of the 19th century, according to the OED). People around the heroine frequently talk about her non-conforming behavior, yet such behavior is rarely shown in the novel; she's a rebel in reputation, but not in practice. She's great at squabbling, especially with the hero of the piece; the two go at it early and often, arguing over every trifle imaginable, but rarely about anything of substance. If the heroine does protest the hero's gender-limiting assumptions, she does so only to implicitly accept them in the end by marrying him, for he certainly hasn't changed his mind. Readers get the surface features of feminism, but without any of its substance.

Feisty girl can also be met with in fantasy romance, particularly in the recent trend in books about shape-changers. Forced to transform into a vampire, werewolf, or other supernatural creature, typically against her will, feisty girl may protest her fate, but in the end has little say in the matter. Because she is "destined," not just to be transformed, but to be loved by the hero, she is given no choice, no agency over her own body, or over whom she'll share it with. Other men in the book often complain about feisty girl's mouthiness, allowing the hero to look good by comparison, because he enjoys it when she mouths off. But he rarely allows her to win a verbal or physical argument against him. One by one, her protests are cut down, or ignored. For example, at book's start, she may argue that wearing a thong is uncomfortable, stupid, done only to please a man, but by the end of the book, there she'll be, wearing said thong for her beastly lover's pleasure, the only explanation for her change of heart an implicit one: that her lust for said lover has overcome any principles she once espoused. Oh, the novel may allow her to make one or two life decisions, but in the end they are only token ones; far more decisions have been made for her, often in the face of her protest.

Interestingly, the words "aggressive, excitable, touchy" are the ones the OED chose to use in its definition of "feisty." No mention at all of "independent," "decisive," or above all "feminist." So be on the look-out for the mock-feminist feisty girl. Don't allow her to fool you; mouthing off is not the same as actively protesting gender restrictions, assuming equality between the sexes, or determining your own fate. Feisty is not always a synonym for feminist.

What books come to mind when you think of heroines whose feisty-ness is only skin-deep?

* And of purportedly strong girl romances for teens, as well, about which more in a future post...

Photo/Illustration credits:
• Feisty Girl: The Feisty Girl blog 
Love it when you're feisty: JackFreak1994 at Deviant Art 
• Feminist Fairy Godmother: Tom Gauld, Flickr

Next time on RNFF:
The "proper" woman as feminist historical heroine: Mary Balogh's A Summer to Remember

And check out my post on Feminism and Romance at the Popular Romance Project's "Talking About Romance" blog

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Can a stalker be a romantic heroine? The case of Sharon G. Flake's PINNED

In a recent post on the website of the Popular Romance Project, Deborah Kaplan muses on the different response readers in her graduate class on children's and YA fantasy have to the "stalker-ish" behavior of two different teenage paranormal heroes: Edward Cullen, the sparkly vampire of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books, and Sorry Carlisle, the more ambiguously constructed witch of Margaret Mahy's The Changeover: A Supernatural Romance (1984). The question with which Kaplan concludes her post—is the morality of the hero's actions determined by the heroine's reactions to them?—seemed to stalk me as I read a very different book: Sharon G. Flake's YA novel Pinned (2012). But it wasn't the hero's actions that caused Kaplan's question to haunt my mind, but rather the heroine's.

A work of realism, not fantasy, told in alternating first-person chapters, Pinned tells the story of two African-American ninth-graders who appear to have next to nothing in common. Ambitious, intellectual Adonis is one of the top scholars at Beacon Academy, and basks in his teachers' encourage to "let my light shine, and not to be so humble" (63). Born without knees, lower legs, or feet, Adonis may be confined to a wheelchair, but knows that "you do not need legs to dream big. You need to be determined; convinced that it is within you to accomplish great things" (27).  Adonis's academic successes and lofty self-confidence lend him an air of superiority that many students find annoying, but few can dispute.

The only student who seems to rile him is Autumn, the one girl on the school wrestling team that Adonis manages. Saying whatever she thinks and feels, instead of measuring her words; fighting fiercely to win each and every wrestling match; outspoken about her determination to be the perfect girlfriend for Adonis: Autumn is precisely the type of aggressive, muscle-bound girl Adonis dislikes. Besides, she has such trouble reading, she probably hasn't even read a book since last summer, Adonis thinks. So what if Autumn keeps invading his dreams; Adonis will simply NOT allow her or her problems to pin him down.

Frustratingly, though, Autumn can't seem to take a hint. Or repeated hints. Or even outright rejection:

     "Stop stalking me!" He puts up one finger. Then two. Then five when he say, "You show up at the van. Now you're at the elevator. Last week you were waiting for me after a morning meeting with Mr. Epperson. Plus you came to my AP psychology class. You forgot something, you told the teacher."
     It sound wrong when you hear it out loud.
     "I ain't like that. For real. It's just that—what if I texted you. Would that be better?" (35-36)

Autumn spends much of the remainder of the book dogging Adonis, sending him those text messages, asking him unnecessary questions about the wrestling team, even volunteering in the library just so she can be with him, though being surrounded by books literally makes her sick. Adonis uses the word "stalking" to describe her behavior, and vocally protests her pursuit at almost every turn. Yet I found myself resisting Adonis's label, and I'm guessing that most readers will, too. If we flip the players in Kaplan's question—is the morality of the heroine's actions determined by the hero's reactions to them—then the question in the case of Pinned clearly seems to be "no." Why should this be so?

I've come up with a few possible answers:

• By using alternating first-person chapters, Pinned gives us not just Adonis's take on the situation, but also Autumn's. While Stephenie Meyer gives us only Bella's point of view in Twilight, not Edward's, and Margaret Mahy gives us only Laura's, not Sorry's in The Changeover, Flake's dual narrative allows readers inside both characters' heads. We see Autumn not only through Adonis's eyes, but also through her own. Flake shows us the talents (she's an amazing cook, with dreams of one day opening her own restaurant) as well as the vulnerabilities, that Adonis never sees. And we are shown Adonis through Autumn's eyes, too. Flake's text asks readers to identify with, or empathize with, both Adonis and Autumn. How can you judge a character a stalker after accepting an author's invitation to identify with her?

• Though Adonis labels Autumn's behavior "stalking," no one else in the novel finds Autumn's behavior untoward. Adonis's mother, who finds out about his unacknowledged obsession with the girl wrestler because her son talks in his sleep, encourages Adonis to invite her on a date, and even attends a wrestling match just to watch Autumn compete. Autumn's best friend, Peaches, continually tells her not that her behavior is scary, but rather that Adonis isn't good enough for her. And other girls in the school behave as directly and aggressively as Autumn does. As a white, middle-class reader, I might be tempted to lean toward calling Autumn's behavior stalking, but I would be wrong. In the context of the urban, mixed working and middle class school that Flake portrays, her actions are not seen as problematic.

• In order for a stalker to be frightening, said stalker must have power, and be tempted to wield it over her victim. Edward Cullen can bite Bella and turn her into a vampire at will; Sorry Carlisle can use his greater knowledge of witchcraft to help or harm Laura. But Autumn has little power in the world of Beacon Academy, or in the world at large. The differences in the way they speak—Adonis in perfect standard English, Autumn in black vernacular—illustrates not only their differences in personality, but also the larger differences in social class that separate them. Adonis's mother is a head nurse, while for much of Autumn's childhood, her parents worked minimum wage jobs, the only jobs available for high-school dropouts. Only now that her parents have earned their GEDs has the family stopped moving in search of jobs with benefits (and to avoid landlords demanding the rent). But their peripatetic lifestyle has already done damage to Autumn's prospects; the constant disruptions in her schooling meant that Autumn's reading skills have never progressed as they should. While Adonis' future is all that is promising, Autumn's in danger of flunking out of school. As stalker material, Autumn may be annoying, but she's hardly a figure of fear.

• Toward the end of the novel, Autumn stops chasing Adonis, finally realizing that it's better to forget a boy who could let her down like Adonis has. Of course, it is when Autumn stops chasing that Adonis finally begins to realize her worth.

• Perhaps most importantly, Autumn is a girl, our romantic heroine. The typical female stalker in popular culture is constructed as a figure of terror, not as romantically charming: Glenn Close's spurned lover in Fatal Attraction; Kathy Bates' delusional fan in Misery. While a hero may be allowed to stalk a heroine and still have readers find him sexy and compelling, I can't think of a romance that gives the same leeway to its heroine. Can you?

Sharon G. Flake, Pinned. Scholastic, 2012.

Next time on RNFF: Mistaking feisty for feminist