Thursday, July 7, 2022

Consent in Romantic Fiction

Romance is ultimately about two people finding love against all odds and living happily ever after. That has been consistently true throughout the evolution of the genre.

What has changed is the idea of what is sexy. I'm going to go out on a limb here and make a blanket statement that assault is not sexy.

The alpha male was the ideal romantic character. Add the Byronic, emotionally-damaged element and he was the man a reader could fantasize about healing. He was physically powerful, sexually more-than-proficient, and unreachable... until that one special woman healed him with love. One problem with this is the fantasy that a good woman could change a man. Another problem is that he usually was so sexually overwhelming that the woman couldn't help herself.

One theory for this standard in romance (60-70s) was the idea that a woman was not empowered to say yes. If she wanted a sexual experience, that made her dirty. The pseudo-rape by the alpha male took her accountability away. She said no, but her body said yes. Wait, did I say pseudo-rape? How understated of me.

Another theory for the alpha-male fantasy was, as women became expected to be the super-executive+super mom in the 80s-90s, they fantasized about not having to be in control of everything. The idea of being taken, of ceding control, was a fantasy for a different reason than worrying about being considered immoral; it was backlash about being asked to be too much all at once. These books are borderline rape-fantasy books. The first explicit romance novel I read, when I think back on it, removed all sexual agency from the heroine. It's sad that this is what started my own evolution and is still there, hovering in my subconscious, tainting my understanding of self with guilt and shame. Good times.

My point:

Romance norms have changed drastically in the last ten years. The alpha is still there, but he's more emotionally available and has respect for women. He listens when she says no, or wait. He doesn't bully his way through. It is a relationship of equals and of equal choice. It's awesome. 

I recently have been going through a well-known author's backlog of books (I do that, find an author I like and read everything by them). I'm back about ten years and came across a seduction scene that made me cringe. It was the alpha male asserting himself and seducing the unwilling heroine with a searing kiss. Unwilling. The minute she said stop, don't touch me, that should have ENDED THE SCENE. The fact that he continued made me instantly hate him. She. Said. No. No means no, m*th*rf*ck*r. The book did not get worse along those lines, but he was already ruined. He was probably intended to be an alpha-male, but I saw a bully and could not get past that. He punished her with pleasure. Yuck.

The 2nd book in that series involved the man's twin brother.  He was confident and funny. He was in no way a pushover, but when said enough, he stopped with no questions asked. That was respect. Super sexy respect. He may be my new book boyfriend.

I felt like these books represented the shift in expectations within the community of romance readers. Book 2 was published in 2010.

After looking into this I checked on another author  I like (I had done much the same thing as I went through all of her romantic suspense and then backtracked into her historical series). All her current books have respectful relationships with give and take instead of just taking. However, her historical novels meet the standard of the alpha male. When did this change? 2009.

I did not start this blog post as a treatise on the evolution of romance. I wanted to point out the changing values when it comes to a woman's sexuality. Romance mirrors the reader's romantic fantasies and is a reasonable way to look at how generations of readers view their own role in sexual interactions. The changing dynamic of seduction in romantic fiction tells me that readers respond to consensual interactions. The beta-man used to be the alpha's side-kick, but now he's the more desirable partner. He listens.

All of the romantic heroes I write would have, 20 years ago, been considered the beta side-kick to a more dominant alpha. I write about a couple finding each other. She is not his property. He does not belong to her... they belong together. You cannot get that partnership without equality and there can be no equality without consent in the relationship. That said, I just wrote a scene where he tells her to wait, that he's not ready... and I vacillated on whether or not she would listen or power through, seducing him. OF COURSE she waited. She listened. They couldn't be equals if she didn't. No double standards.

Have you noticed a change in the way relationships are written in romantic fiction? What do you think spurred this change? I am interested in your answers.

Note: I do not "cancel" authors who do not meet my ethical standards. If I don't want to read them, I don't. Easy. Standards have changed over the years. The first book I mentioned  that had the alpha-male, I know that to be a product of the system and the era. Had I read it when it was first published, I may not have even noticed the problem. I did not mention author names because I do not want to contribute to any do-not-read lists. They are good authors who continue to produce good books. When I read scenes in older books, I may think to myself that it wouldn't be published today... but neither would many books and movies we think of as classics.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Hello Out There

 I'm out of practice here. I also have nothing meaningful to wax poetic about.

You'd be surprised how often I lay awake and compose blog posts for that one day when I blog again. But no, I have nothing.

Right now my recently graduated daughter is playing Sound of Silence on the piano while my husband scrolls through his phone. I have some artichokes on the stove and expect my younger daughter home any moment from a date. My dog is staying behind the line of demarcation between the family room and dining room. I have increased my viewing size for all my writing to 150%.

If I don't finish and publish this post soon, it won't happen because my husband keeps talking to me (not a complaint, just an observation).

The main info I have to share is that I'm writing forward for the first time in a long time. I'm not piddling around with finished books or coming up with new idea... I'm writing and I WILL finish this WIP this month.

So there. Hello.

PS I was writing earlier while my eldest daughter played piano (it was ABBA). Later I shared that I had been writing a steamy scene. She said, "Oh, that makes sense." "Why?" I asked. "Oh, because you said 'straddled him' out of nowhere." Ah. Okay. At least she's old enough now for that not to be too weird.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

I'm Technologically Inept

Greetings. Yes, I'm still alive. And, yes, the last time I posted was in September. Why? I use a Chromebook for school and it won't let me sign out of my school account.

When my school year ended and I dug my ancient but beloved laptop out and tried to log in. For whatever reason it would not let me past the 18-or-older screen... Sigh. It turns out I had to clear my cache.

I'm not good at this stuff. Even as I write this, AVG is popping up left and right to tell me to clear things and pay for things and whatever. Clearly this laptop needs some attention. I prefer a laptop to the Chromebook any day. I dislike writing in Google Docs. I like to have my work saved both in my dropbox and on my computer and the Chromebook is not set up for that.

There is something soothing about the weight of this keyboard and the size of my screen. I'm glad to be back in my element, but it seems I have some work to do. So bear with me.

In the meantime I will start publishing some of the blogs I wrote in Google Docs over the course of the school year and during the quarantine (I live in Southern California and we were in a "Safe at Home" policy starting in March 2020). I taught my World History and Yearbook high school classes through distance learning. I learned that even though I am self-professed loaner, I do crave some human interaction. And, despite my vampire-like approach to sunshine, I need it from time to time. Vitamin D only does so much.

So hello again my friends. I look forward to posting more soon.

**fun fact - when I went to post this I had no internet. Everyone in my house had internet, but I couldn't connect. Bleh.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

A Journey Through My Mess

I woke up this morning inspired to write. I knew my direction but I also felt like I needed to find the notes I took at a session at the 2018 Romance Writers of America convention in Denver. I could not remember the name of the speaker, but it was about writing for your id. It was a great session and gave me permission not to try so hard to break out of the aspects of romance I enjoyed but worried were cliche. I shouldn't be different for the sake of being different. If it feels right to me, it will feel right to my readers.

The problem I have is that I have loads of spiral note books and I use them for all sorts of things. Which one I write in depends on which one I grab when I pack my bag. I do dress sketches for Irish dancing. I take notes on staff meetings. I write outlines and scenes for whatever is in my head that day, no matter what actual project I'm supposed to be writing. It's a mess. Most of the notebooks are half-full but not in any sort of sequential order. Some of them include ten pages at the back. Usually the very act of writing it down means I'll remember and then type it out later, but I don't do this with notes from events.

As I looked through my notes I found such stand alone, with no context at all, statements as:

  • 200+ years of rape.
  • Bags of seed save the day.
  • "I trust you" is the highest honor you can give someone.
  • Boob situation/solution?

I found World of Warcraft fan fiction that I'd forgotten about interspersed with teaching notes I never followed up on. The collection of notebooks went back to 2012 and one of the pages includes my attempt to turn the Batman image into Celtic knot work. I found pieces of a chapter based on the characters from Shakespeare and became inspired to work on the that project (something shelved four years ago so I could finish the manuscripts that needed it) then found notes for my actual work in progress that inspired this search through my notebooks in the first place. Thank goodness that got me back on track.

I did what I should have done in the first place and shoved all the book back onto my bookshelf to go through another time when I wasn't in the I NEED TO WRITE NOW mood. But first I took a picture.

The crazy thing is that I know there are more somewhere.

I did a search online after all of the fruitless digging through spiral notebooks and found the answers to all my questions -- but this puts a damper on the sense of urgency I had while looking through years of randomness. The speaker was author Dr. Jennifer Barnes. This post from Eight Ladies Writing summed it up well and gave me the basic list I was looking for. The blog post author, Jilly Wood, wrote that, "Stories or scenes depicting sex, touch, beauty, wealth, power, competition and danger push our pleasure buttons." Wonderful. Question answered. My journey through years of random notes/writing only served to let me know I needed to be more organized.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Historical Costuming

I had a wall of Rubbermaid containers in my room, four long, 3 high, for about two years.

My husband hated it.

Let it be known that it was his fault. He brought them in from the garage because he wanted me to sort through them and thought putting them there would inspire me to get it done. He was wrong--I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Besides the fact that going through them would lead serious allergies and require a good days commitment to having no bedroom, it also meant coming to terms with the fact I would never wear those costumes again. That's right, those bins were FULL of Elizabethan lower nobility costumes, early reign and the remnants of the fabrics I used in their construction. Each gown was the product of hundreds of hours of work, much of it by hand. Each gown was a reminder of the wonderful times spent at the Renaissance Faire* as a lady in the court of Queen Elizabeth. Each had been meticulously researched, designed, and constructed based on portraiture of the period, Patterns of Fashion 3 by Janet Arnold, and the guidance of costuming mentors within the guild. These gowns (I had a few men's suits too) represented some of the first times I let myself be proud of work I'd done. Yes, there were plenty of mistakes, but when I wore them I felt accomplished. No false humility--I'd made something from nothing and I felt great about it. (Note: not all of the costumes were 100% historically constructed. I made modifications for the ease of dressing since I don't have servants.)

This year I finally went through the boxes and, as I knew I would, gave almost all of them away. I donated them to a dear friend who will see they find good homes and, hopefully, be worn again. It's bittersweet, but it's okay. I keep telling myself that. At least my bedroom has a functional window again.

I may not be participating in living history events for the time being, but my love of costuming has an outlet in my historical romance. You would be amazed at how much I had to cut out of Courtly Pleasures to make it readable. The False Lady Beatrice, my current work in progress, has a mixture between courtly fashions and the functional clothes of the peasantry. I'm having fun with the dichotomy and what that says about Beatrice's identity.

Just for fun, here is a short video showing the steps to dressing Queen Elizabeth I.

Fun random facts about my costuming adventures:
  1. I once constructed a corset with a lace up front flap to accommodate nursing.
  2. I made my 18 month old a full dress (coral pink, pictured below) and, since it was so small, built it as a single unit. It worked out great so I decided to make one for myself (also pictured below). The dress weighed over forty pounds and was so unwieldly it was difficult to store and required three people to help me dress. Bad idea.
  3. I sewed pockets into my petticoat and could access them from the front split in my overskirt. 
  4. I used large zip ties as boning in my corsets and plastic coated laundry line wire on my farthingale. Super not period.
  5. My favorite bumroll was bright yellow and looked like a banana. I called it my butt banana.
  6. I kept one costume, the one that came in first place at my faire's costume competition. There's no way it will fit now, but it might someday. Maybe. 
  7. My computer doesn't recognize the word 'unwieldly.' Farthingale and bumroll make sense... but unwieldly? It's not an unusual word.

My daughters, ages two and three. I did not include oversleeves, corset, or farthingale because, you know, the age two and three thing. I wanted these to be light, breathable, and to be able to throw these in the wash

Circa 2009
I am in the gray dress (it's the awkward, one-piece dress mentioned above) dancing with an actress portraying Mistress Anne Vavasour.

*Faire: yes, I know it's spelled wrong, but that's how my Ren faire spelled it to make it olde English-y.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Courtly Scandals: Abortion

When I started Courtly Scandals, one of the defining parts of Mary's life was her abortion.

The story grew as she struggled with forgiving herself, not because of any philosophical discussion of right or wrong, but because she'd wanted that baby and hadn't been strong enough to defy her father. Opposite to today's definitions, she had no right to chose what to do with her own body because she another person demanded she have an abortion.

I changed the story at a well established author's advice: she said I would alienate readers over a controversial issue. It made sense to me, but I wanted to keep the meat of the problem. It was integral to the story. I changed it to have her lose the baby in a traumatic accident before going through with the abortion. The choice was taken away from her but she still blamed herself for not being strong enough to stand up for herself and mourns what might have been. In the scene where she shares her story with Blanche Parry,  Blanche doesn't bat an eye because it's not a unique situation, but that doesn't change how Mary felt about herself. Mary, that was her moment of no return. Rational or not, a feeling of guilt was true for her.

Whether a reader was pro-choice or pro-life I had hoped that they could accept the struggle to come to terms with trauma from the past. Mary's personal journey was to learn to love herself and realize she is worthy of love. Part of that involved her being able to forgive herself, right or wrong, and move forward with a sense of hope. Personally, I believe there are things in everyone's lives that they have to either ignore or to forgive themselves for everyday. They may have nothing to do with varying ideals of morality or law, just choices from the past that each of us have to live with.

I have had varying responses and ended up alienating readers anyway. The moral of this story is that you can't please everyone. All readers have their own filters and I can't control that. I can just tell stories and stand behind them. I don't regret putting Mary on this journey. As an author or historical romance I like to link the past with present and show that the people that paved the way for our society were not that different from ourselves, that nothing is new.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Back on the Grid

The last time I blogged was in March. That's also when I deleted my Twitter app.

March was when the RITA finalists were announced and none of them were black. Romancelandia in Twitterverse exploded in rage and accusations. As it seems to happen more and more each day, reasonable concerns lead to vitriol and extremist views. There was no gray area and I found that people I had respected in the writing community were truly toxic. I tried to continue to be active online and NOT engage. The problem was that both sides of the discussion triggered an anger response and I didn't need that in my life. I deleted Twitter. I stopped posting on Facebook. I backed away from the Romance Writers of America and did not go to chapter meetings. I just couldn't.

Since then I've been a serious reader. Yes, of course I always have been a reader but since I started taking publishing seriously I stopped reading for myself and read for research. That took the joy out of it and made it a chore. So I started reading non-romance so I could just read. I went through almost everything Neil Gaiman, Brandon Sanderson*, and Marie Brennan. I have an hour and half commute every day so many of these were on Audible and Neil Gaiman narrates many of his books so I got to feel like I knew him**.

I didn't read a romance until just recently when my preordered copy of Say No to the Duke by Eloisa James arrived. I'd forgotten I'd ordered it. I hadn't seen the newsletters or promotions. It was like a surprise gift in the mail and I read it in a day. I read for joy. It reminded me about why I loved romance. Everything about it spoke of healing and optimism. It made me laugh and cry. Yes, I knew there would be an emotionally satisfying happily-ever-after but I never rolled my eyes or yelled at the book on the journey there.

I write this blog post out of genuine optimism that romance is a place I can find escape and solace again. I am certain that Eloisa James does not need my support or any additional blips on her Google alerts. She's made it as a romance author and this book will be successful with or without my review. That is not the purpose of this post.  This is a celebration of the genre and the hope that is woven into the stories, the hope that was stolen by anger and bias in the industry. This book revived me and I am so grateful.

So I'm back on the grid again.

*Not including the Wheel of Time books. I read those as a young adult before I really understood the misogyny implicit in all of Robert Jordan's depictions of women. Maybe Sanderson elevated it, but I read those so long ago that I don't care to reacquaint myself. Though I do chuckle every time Sanderson has one of his characters blush furiously. I've used that one in my own books as a joke with myself that I wouldn't expect anyone but my brother to pick up on.
Addendum: Maybe I should give them a chance because, after all, Sanderson is awesome and his heroines are awesome.
**I think if you read enough of an author, you do get a peek inside their brain. Don't worry, I have no illusions that Mr. Gaiman and I are buddies. I was excited to learn, however, that he and Tori Amos are friends. It answered the question about who the Neil she referred to in her songs was. When I realized that I felt like I had learned some GREAT TRUTH but no one else was excited about it :(.
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