Wherein Auntie Emily puts away another pot of tea and discusses with you some of the issues of Romance and writing that have come up over the years, responding to a number of real-life genre thingie-things.
Have a cup, darling?
This Broken Man
As I mentioned in Part One, sometimes attempts to discuss issues in genre Romance and problems with normalizing red-flag behavior, even abuse, as “romantic” is met with some astonishing push-back.
Let’s continue with some more IRL reactions….
It’s just a fantasy! Fantasy is important.
For two decades, I’ve been talking to other women and other readers enough to know there are many, myself included, who want something different than what is common in mainstream Romance.
Not everyone reads (or reads Romance) for escapist fantasy. Some readers want to recognize someone like themselves in the story, someone they can relate to. Some want to learn new things. Some want to laugh, or cry, or feel empathy. Some readers want to be displaced. Some readers want comfort and familiarity.
Sometimes, that’s the same reader, at different times.
Fashion magazines are “a fantasy!” That doesn’t mean millions of people wouldn’t like to see more diversity than one Caucasian model clad in a size-6 dress, her size-0 body padded, to represent “plus size,” or affordable fashion suggestions, or someone not retouched so that they look alien. Reality TV is “a fantasy,” but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t acknowledge the mechanics of it, the irony that the “reality” is scripted, and that the supposed romances playing out on the Insta-Marriage contest shows are unrealistic and not ideal. Or shouldn’t think about what it might be like if there was a reality TV show that depicted… reality, just for a change.
No one is taking your fantasy away from you by saying they want something different, any more than I’m taking away your Cobb salad by saying I’m in the mood for Thai delivery.
One of my favorite romance bloggers brought up an amazing point once: if this is fantasy, and the whole contemporary billionaire MMC thing is a fantasy, and fantasy is important for women and all that, then…
Where are the FMC billionaires?
It’s a great question. If Romance is meant to be escapist fantasy, then why aren’t there powerful female company CEOs as heroines? Plenty of historicals have featured women in positions of political and economic power, after all. So where are the contemporary equivalents? Why aren’t we seeing a ton of heroines portraying the escapist fantasies of being independently wealthy, or in an amazingly glamorous job, or wheeling-and-dealing in high-stakes corporate situations? How many romances feature the FMCs as the oil-rich Texas billionaires, or the world-famous rock stars, or the global business dynamos? (Instead, many FMCs are small business owners, and a common plot involves their business, their livelihood, being first threatened and then saved by the MMC’s super-rich company.) There are plenty of historical duchesses and princesses; where are the contemporary ones?
Go on. Think about the possible answers to that. Because if you think the FMCs need to be in a weaker economic/social position than the MMCs, UR DOIN IT RONG.
I repeat: Not everyone has the same fantasy.
But the things I’m talking about aren’t necessarily the “fantasy” elements.
The problem with this argument—that an MMC who behaves like these Romance characters do is “what women fantasize about!”—is that it’s saying abusive behavior is the material of fantasy. It still frames it as something positive, desirable. That is reckless. And it’s crap.
There are plenty of fantasies that get women off. An all-biker gang-bang. The pirate abduction. Sex slave in a harem. But there is a clear demarcation that this is not at all the thing a woman might want IRL. It is successful as fantasy because it is clearly set apart from real life.
And this isn’t the unrealistic “fantasy” fairy tale stuff, either. Sure, we know “it’s unrealistic for a billionaire cowboy to fall for a mousy preschool teacher!” and “A hunky male model isn’t going to fall madly in love with the slightly older woman-next-door-with-a-kid.” That doesn’t usually happen in real life, and it’s pretty easy to recognize that, too, when we read a book that nevertheless makes us believe it actually might happen after all.
What this is about normalizing problematic behavior… and then going even further, and excusing it as not only “just a fantasy” but one that all women share and want in their everyday lives. This would be telling all the preschool teachers that unless it’s a billionaire cowboy, it’s not true love, and she should hold out for one, and even if that cowboy hits her, it’s hot and sexy because every woman wants a billionaire cowboy. This is like telling every geeky dork that he deserves a hot chick, since every nerd in every movie for the last forty years nails a hot chick, and he should look down on any woman who is not a supermodel as “not good enough.” This is like telling the 17-year-old girl that if her boyfriend breaks up with her (whether he’s a vampire or not), she should want to kill herself, because that means it’s really true love and she can’t imagine life without him.
These are terrible messages to send. This is dangerous shit.
You’re just being a hater! You’re such a killjoy! Don’t you believe in love? Don’t you believe redemption is possible? You know, people read these books because they need to believe in the power of love!
Hey. Did you forget? I read and write romance fiction, too. And for many of those same reasons. In fact, considering I came out of childhood abuse, had an emotionally abusive romantic relationship, and a whole ton of dysfunction in my early adulthood and still managed to meet and fall madly in love with an amazing partner is part of why I write romance.
Love does exist. It does last. And it isn’t all this sitcom laugh-track stuff about fart jokes and insults either. It’s still possible to be married for twenty years, and get actual goosebumps when your partner kisses you, or to sit up until three in the morning talking over a new album, or adventure with each other to different places, or belly-laugh together until you’re both teary-eyed. It’s still possible to have mind-blowing sex, and a sex life that continues to get better every year. This is one of the reasons I write love stories… to show that even after the initial rush of the first few weeks or months, what grows from that is a million times better. That longevity can be were the real romance and passion are found. I wish actual Romance novels could show some more of these kinds of “slow burn” plots instead of the “married to an Alpha boss in six weeks!” formulas.
But dude? If questioning certain messages in Romance novels is actually going to destroy your belief in the power of love? Then… maybe that wasn’t such a strong way of presenting that message.
Yes, I believe in love. But no, I generally do not believe redemption as it is portrayed in Romance and Rom Coms is possible. No, love cannot fix everything, and the fact that it can’t doesn’t mean it’s not “true love.” I actually find this one of the most harmful messages found in the genre, the “you can fix him, your love can heal him of his demons!” message that now seems to come with Romance as regularly as simultaneous orgasms.
No. You cannot heal that broken man. Not in real life. No. Please stop trying. Love does not fix or cure or rationalize abuse, yours or anyone else’s
Like many have said already, a ton of Romance tropes just flat out present harmful or abusive behavior, red flag behavior that IRL should trigger every “RUN!” instinct. The Redemption Plot in Romance is a huge culprit, because the FMC is meant to hang on through “tough times” and “show him” that she loves him… and it is the power of this true love and devotion that will save him. More times than not, it is the woman saving the man, which is a sexist problem in and of itself. And all of this has an effect on individuals AND society. FFS, we’re being gaslighted constantly by the books and movies that present this shit as romantic!
Know what happens? Women as a whole are saturated from early on with the message that it is our job to save our romantic partners, to make them better men. This shit even goes so far as to imply that nothing else in our lives—career plans, interests, autonomy, even our OWN health and well being, emotionally and physically—matters. Golly, no, our first priority is to be that loving, giving, generous woman to others… especially the man in our lives. We can love them “all better!” Don’t give up, he will love you more in the end for your devotion! So when we are in unhealthy, abusive, red-flag situations, hundreds of thousands of women end up going “But what if…? But maybe…?” when every fucking setting should be on SELF-PRESERVATION.
And when it all falls apart, we feel like we have done something wrong and bad, we were weak, we were selfish, we weren’t “strong enough” and our love “wasn’t enough” because it didn’t fix things.
Don’t believe me? First, just start combing through advice columns at random. That’s depressing enough. But then talk to pretty much every woman in my family… from the one who married the Navy man she met online after a month, to the ones who took their exes back because “baby, I’ve changed!”/“I can’t live without you!” to the one who reconnected with a high school sweetheart later in life and declared after a week that they were “soulmates” and got engaged and moved in together. Add to that the countless unplanned pregnancies that everyone “just [knew] will work out!” All of these men were “troubled,” from hot tempers to depression to addiction, and there were multiple red flags. But all of these “romances” were presented as “the power of love overcoming obstacles.” That guy was “really a sweetheart underneath it all” or “the love of my life, so I owe it to both of us to make this work.” “Aw! Look at how much better Jim-Bill-Bob is with Jenny-Cath-Rose in his life!” “But he just loves those kids!” “She handles him so well, she’s so good for him!”
Hell, I can list over a dozen women off the top of my head in my family alone who did this “power of love” crap, and that’s before we get to the women I knew in school, or in previous jobs, or friends of friends. (I started to make a list for this piece, realized when I got to Redemptive Romance Number 22 that the list was too long, but kept going for my own interest until I reached 47.)
Know how many women in real life, from my mom on down the line, actually managed to save and redeem their troubled men? Know how many men came to realize these amazing, good women were there for them, and were humbled and grateful and filled with more love than ever? Know how many of those kids grew up happily? Know how many of these relationships flourished?
Know how many children ended up in protective custody, or on drugs, or enacting the same cycle of abuse? Know how many of these women and the people they involved ended up in decades of chaos and trauma? Know how the third and fourth generations of these “redemptive” relationships continue to suffer? Know how many drunken car accidents, lawsuits, custody battles, break-ins, and domestic violence reports have resulted?
Hell, at least two of these women I know found dead bodies as a result of loving their troubled, tormented Alpha men, and that’s not counting deaths where women didn’t find the actual bodies firsthand.
Know what else? My childhood fucking sucked and I almost repeated the same patterns as an adult all because my mommy believed in the power of redemption. And I’m not the only one.
No. I don’t believe in the redemption plot because I’ve seen way too many women ruin their lives and the lives of their children for its sake. This is not hyperbole. I have never, ever seen a redemption story play out in real life. Ever. No. It always ends in disaster and pain. So if you expect me to cheer about the Romance where the dark, cruel, selfish or damaged MMC is saved by the innocent beauty of the FMC’s love (or sweet fucking Jesus, by “giving him a baby/family!”), then yes, call me a killjoy and a hater, because I fucking hate that shit, and I’m sick of it.
It’s not fantasy. It’s brutal, and it’s harmful.
Not only that, but the market is saturated with this redemption story arc. Start reading bookcover blurbs, and note how many of them are “He was dark/troubled/ tormented/in agony” and “can her love save him/bring him back to life/restore his faith/help him become the man he was meant to be?” Even when it’s not centered on an abusive situation, it’s still weighted in the man’s favor: the FMC is helping the PTSD military hunk recover, or showing the divorced/widowed MMC that not all women are whores and bitches like his former wife. It’s not mutual, and rarely is it gender-flipped to explore the trope from a different power dynamic.
It seems like it’s a positive and affirming thing for a woman to be, because look how important she is to him!
But that, again, is the problem.
She’s not important on her own, just in relation to how she saves the guy. She’s contextual, not individual. That’s the only way she can be loved the way she wants, can achieve, and, in many of these books, even the only way she can attain identity. She becomes an object. Or worse, property.
And that is not positive, nor affirming. It is not secretly empowering. That is not anything a healthy person, a healthy woman, should want. No. No, no, no.
Frankly, when something like Fifty Shades becomes such an international sensation, and millions of readers are not only unwilling to recognize, but are incensed at the suggestion, that the MMC is not a dashing man of passion, but rather, a cold, ruthless domestic abuser who does not actually change (and I can point to multiple sites with chapter-by-chapter textual breakdown that back this up), that means there is desperate need for real discussion about “romance,” rape culture, fiction, fantasy, agency, and gender roles.
This is one “fantasy” I cannot advocate, even in fiction. Because women are more than just the vehicle for men’s redemption. I believe women, and Romance readers, deserve to hear more than that kind of crap.
No man is perfect, so the redemption plot shows how you can compromise!
Does it REALLY show that? Is that what it does? Equal fulfilling compromise? Really?
Nine times out of ten- no, ninety-nine times out of one hundred, the redemption plot shows women settling. She doesn’t compromise with the dude, she compromises with herself and what she’s wanted and needed. And that’s a steaming pile.
How many FMCs say that they want something in particular at the beginning of the narrative? Sure, some of it is silly or unrealistic, like the heroines who have disparaged dating because the men in their lives can’t live up to that Romantic Novel Hero, or the bad boy they had a crush on in college. But more often, the women are hoping for just… genuine love and acceptance and happiness. Companionship. Some of the heroines want marriage, some want a family. Sure, there are things to interrogate about “the woman who wants desperately to fall in love, get married, and have babies” thing, but that isn’t what the Redemption Plot does. Instead, the women just don’t get what they wanted or dreamed of in a relationship. Or if they do, it’s all bent and manipulated and it comes with many more conditions.
They wanted long talks, good sex, and laughter. They want equality, to be treated respectfully. They want to be loved for who and what they are. They often contrast it directly with what they are getting from the Damaged MMC, too. He is so broken and dark and full of angst, and they feel unsettled, or afraid, or unhappy. But hey, they have a boyfriend, at least, right? And maybe all that shit they wanted was soooo unrealistic, and “maybe this is as good as it gets.”
But out of fear of loneliness and/or losing the MMC, they “compromise,” which usually means they give up all sorts of things and make sacrifices, ostensibly because they realize what they really want isn’t a two bedroom house and a dog, but… HIM! They give up jobs, ambitions, plans for the future, their own autonomy, self-respect. But hey, they get the guy, right? SO THEY WIN. It doesn’t matter at what cost!
On the other hand? The MMC’s “compromise” usually involves something like learning how to say “I love you,” or to let her help him with his big, dramatic problems, which reveals his vulnerability.
The FMCs end up settling for Mr. Massively Damaged, because he neeeeeds her, and isn’t it better to be needed like this, and hey, all that other stuff was unrealistic-
That. Is. Fucked. Up.
That is not how compromise works. That is not what healthy compromise is.
But redemption stories are so positive-!
Let’s pick up an element that I mentioned earlier, and play with it a bit.
Readers claim to love redemption stories because it’s all about the human capacity for healing and love. But when was the last time you read a book or saw a movie about a dark, tormented, abusive, cruel, broken woman who just needed the love of a sweet, gentle, kind, virginal (less-wealthy and less-powerful) man to bring her from the darkness to the light? Where are all the stories about the nasty CEO/heiress/Texas billionaire/duchess, and the inexperienced young man with the heart of gold? Would you believe a story about a woman who is a narcissistic, snarling, ruthless, power-hungry (I’ll use the gender-biased term) bitch who meets the wide-eyed and innocent male intern whose honesty disarms her, and he “heals” her of her demons? What about if that FMC was actually abusive: treating employees or servicepeople like shit, blowing up in a fury as a first response to everything, following/stalking the MMC, using their money and power to manipulate the MMC, coercing the MMC into sex? Would you believe that story? Would you root for that couple under those circumstances? (For that matter, where are the LGBTQ versions of this trope, if it’s supposedly soooo positive?)
If this redemption arc is so powerful, why is the overwhelming majority of these stories the MAN being redeemed by the WOMAN?
Keep going. Think of the few examples of redemption-of-a-woman story. She’s almost always a hooker or a “fallen woman,” isn’t she? She has no real power in the dynamic either way.
Is Miranda Priestly redeemed by the power of a good man’s love? No way. Hell, most of us would even be pissed if she was! You might see this “redemption of a tough broad” done through motherhood (which is also a problematic message). Frozen was considered groundbreaking because it emphasized sisterly love, not romantic, but still, Elsa wasn’t dark or abusive. Where are our successful mainstream gender-flipped Beauty-and-the-Beast stories, our Alpha superheroines redeemed by the mortal man? How many of those are there compared to the usual model?
Ask, too, how happy are the couples in the redemption books? How do they act? Are most of their interactions happy ones? Are they depicted as always crying or hurt or angry or battling it out over something? Are they happy together when they aren’t fucking or doing something involving wealth or special circumstances? If they are, is there the constant awareness or fear that this brief moment can be lost when the demons rear their ugly heads again?
And you still want to believe it’s “happy” even though all their interactions indicate otherwise?
God! It’s only a book. Readers are smart enough to figure out the difference between a book and real life. Only stupid people pretend to be/do something they’ve read about. You need to work out your own issues. If you take ___ from this, then that’s on you.
Reading is a complicated, subjective experience, and it has nothing to do with people being “smart” or not. Cognitive responses are not about intelligence; if you read ___ and think and feel ___, that does not make you “smart” or “dumb.”
It makes you a reader.
People often read the story they want to read, regardless of the text on the page. This is why some readers thought Twilight was a story of romance, passion, and strength, and others thought it was abuse, and still others thought it was stupid and boring.
This is why some writers are baffled and frustrated that they think they’ve written a feisty or vulnerable or appealing MC, and yet the readers hate the character.
Context affects things.
Hell, just the fact that you have expectations about what you’re reading or seeing based on its genre, because you anticipate reading or seeing or hearing a particular story, can affect how you actually perceive it… even if the text does not support that. Many readers will have a preconceived notion about something beforehand, and project that onto their reading experience (i.e. some had heard that Fifty Shades was an “erotic” and “kinky” story, therefore they were primed to read it as such. Or some heard that Mrs. Dalloway was weird and boring, therefore they were anticipating being bored by it).
In fact, I had this very discussion on a forum not too long ago. A couple readers/writers virulently disagreed with me about Alpha males, and about readers being influenced by texts. Unbeknownst to me at first, a couple OTHER writers took umbrage to these posters’ ignorant responses and hostility towards me, personally. So the writers started re-posting my questions and ideas (some that are here in this very blog). A few times they even cut-and-pasted my exact words from the same discussion thread.
The same thing these posters had flipped out and argued against if I posted it? They bent over backwards agreeing with it when it was presented by someone different. They literally read the exact same text as two completely opposing things more than once. These same people, btw, are the ones who argued that readers “are smart enough to figure out” the difference between fact and fiction.
But the takeaway is that there are all sorts of ways that narrative construction impacts the way you perceive a story or movie. And if you are a reader/writer, you should think about that.
So no, readers read things in a bunch of different ways, for different reasons, and it is an oversimplification to imply that a “smart” person will or won’t read something a certain way.
Also, consciously or unconsciously, readers model based on their reading. It is part of the cognitive process of reading, in fact, and even if you think you don’t do it, you do. A lot of it has to do with the empathetic bond created when a reader immerses in a text and, in particular, identifies with a character. This is one of the reasons why “blank slate” FMCs are so recently popular: ostensibly so the (female) reader can project herself more easily into the story, and identify with the character herself, see herself in the character’s situations. This is why characters like James Bond or certain superheros have such similar, simple backstories: because they are already familiar and more immersive to (male) readers. This doesn’t mean if you read about a MC who is a killer you will want to go out and kill someone, mind. But it DOES mean that identifying with a character, or becoming caught up in a character’s world, is a complicated, influential experience. Go on and Google studies on cognitive reading, behavior, modelling, and subconscious influence, and you’ll have weeks of material. It happens for children, teens, and adults alike.
Readers also respond in innumerable different ways to the same text. This is why some readers hate Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, and yet this is also a commonly-loved text and literary hero with mentally ill serial killers.
Also, it is never “just a book.” I’ve said this repeatedly, and this won’t be the last time. The Jungle. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Fountainhead. The Holy Bible. Charlie Hebdo. To Kill a Mockingbird. Mein Kempf. Harry Potter. The aforementioned The Catcher in the Rye. A Million Little Pieces. Gone With the Wind. The Satanic Verses. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
It is not just a book. There is no such thing as “just a book.”
If you are completely unwilling to think about what you’re reading, that’s on you.
I guess I’m just alone in my principles.
Which reminds me….
You can question That Thing You Do- erm, Love, and still love it.
One movie I have watched over and over again with great pleasure is That Thing You Do. It’s delightful, there are cute boys and catchy music, fun quotes, and a nice little message about pursuing passions and talents with hard work, and being who you really are. However, I can absolutely look at it and think “Wow, they just should’ve named Faye ‘Token Female,’ huh?” Because she is nothing but a point of interest for the men in the movie, woman-as-object. Even when Mr. White is describing everyone “the talent, the brains” etc, he does a meaningful pause and is all “Faye’s special, isn’t she?” And we’re all meant to coo and sigh. But it’s a huge problem that Faye is never given a single distinguishing, individual characteristic of her own. She loves Jimmy, therefore she loves the band. She has the one great, active moment when she dumps him. But after that, she loves Guy, and therefore she loves jazz music and moves with him to start a music conservatory. She’s flat. Lamar is also another problematic character, personifying the “magical negro” trope. Does this balance with Del Paxton? Is that another stereotype? Does the ”white Guy” co-opt black music-
And yet if That Thing You Do is on, I’ll still watch it over and over again and quote lines and double-clap along. And think. And come up with new questions and answers and ideas and possibilities for how a similar plot might be done differently. Because thinking about something doesn’t ruin it. Sometimes it makes you love it more.
It’s okay. I love dolls, and the Little House books, and Target, and the Sex Pistols and other things that require real critical scrutiny. You can question things—the Disney corporation, the ingredients in that chocolate bar, the recording industry or rapey lyrics to that pop song—and still go to Disneyland, eat a Snickers, sing along to Taylor Swift, and even enjoy them more for having engaged in real critical thought about them.
Don’t be scared to think.
People don’t get desensitized from reading! That’s stupid! I play video games, does that mean I want to go kill people?
No. This is not “desensitizing.” This is about normalizing behavior.
Usually, in video games, there is a level of awareness that even if you’re shooting bad guys, it is situational, it is cartoonish, it is not real, and it is not normal. (That doesn’t mean there aren’t a ton of questions to ask about gaming and who plays what why, and the benefits and the problems. But that ain’t my area.)
Romance novels can and do present problematic behavior with different connotations. They say it outright, all the time: This is what love looks like. This is sexy. This is what you should want. This is what all women fantasize about. They are marketed and advertised that way. (Fifty Shades was literally, actually, for real marketed as “give her what she really wants!”) No one markets a video game with “Kill all the people you totally wanted to!” or a crime novel as “You can learn to be the mob boss you’ve always fantasized about.” But Romance novels do.
So not only is the rapey stalky possessive boundary-shattering behavior I mentioned earlier normalized, it is presented as what all women do and should want, as something intrinsic to true, romantic love. And even more (as I have experienced firsthand, way too much), others imply there is something severely flawed in you if you don’t want it. You don’t believe in love. You must be frigid, a prude. You only like wimpy guys, not real men. You’re judgemental. You are sex-shaming. You just don’t get passion.
So Romance is totally an empowering genre by and for women, supporting women… but only the women who like A, B, and C, and don’t question F through J.
Sure, in some cases, the contexts of the book provide enough distancing factors that readers can recognize “Ah, yes, a Rapey Duke in the 1700s would probably grab the FMC and sling her over his shoulder and carry her off to his garden maze. But I recognize that grabbing a woman and removing her from her surroundings is not appropriate under any circumstances in real life.” Or “Under normal circumstances, even a hot guy licking a strange woman’s cheek like that would be a no-no, but these are shape-shifting werewolf mages, and this is part of their behavior, and is addressed as an issue in the story.”
But more often, those distinctions are blurred. Abusive behavior is not recognized as abuse in the texts, which means it’s less recognizable as abuse outside the texts, too.
It’s sometimes impossible to have a productive discussion about ideas in some formats, because a few people kept taking abstract discussions personally. Which leads to….
“But I met my husband because-” “But I never would have tried ___ if he hadn’t-” “I resent you implying/telling me that-” “So what you’re saying is that my boyfriend raped me if he-” “My mom and dad met when-”
This is inevitable whenever a person interrogates an element of Romance. One person points out: “You know, meeting, falling in love, and getting married all ‘happily ever after’ in three weeks isn’t realistic or healthy.” There’s always someone who gets defensive, and fires back, “Well, my best friend and her husband met and got married after three weeks, and they’re still together, so you’re wrong!”
That doesn’t make it right, ideal, or healthy. And for every one of those stories that worked out, there are how many more that didn’t? And how many of the ones that didn’t included someone thinking, against their own better judgement, “Well, I remember hearing that my co-worker’s sister’s best friend and her husband got married after three weeks, so-”
Come the fuck on.
It sucks, but it means you have to think about some of those things in new contexts. And it might not be fun. This is actually part of life, you know. Things change over time. Suddenly, the lyrics to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” or “My Sharona” don’t seem as cute and harmless, and you start to think that maybe Ferris Bueller was a rich asshole instead of a quirky anti-hero. Sure, you have great childhood memories of SeaWorld, but that doesn’t mean new information about orcas in captivity are irrelevant. It means words like “dame” and “faggot” and “colored person” and “tranny” become obsolete. New information and new context changes things. Nothing is static.
It means the supposedly-romantic story that Nana and Pop Pop have been telling for fifty-seven years about how she hated him and he tricked her into going on a date with him and “wore her down” until she “finally said she’d marry me to shut me up” might not be as cute and romantic as you wanted to think. It means it is no longer appropriate to ask out the server at a restaurant in front of everyone, or slip your phone number or a note saying “You’re hot!” to the cute cashier. It means that guys have to think about what they’ve told themselves is “just hitting on” a girl, and realize “I actually may have committed sexual assault.” It means, like the Sporkers pointed out, your sexy erotic hero actually maps onto 75+% of the qualities of a serial rapist and murderer, and that women saying saying they used to be awkward and innocent “… and then they met their Christian Grey” is fucking terrifying. Like Ket and Gehayi wrote:
Meanwhile, I’m wondering how many of these women, not knowing that date rape was even a possibility and believing that they’d been swept away by passion and love, married their rapists.
Not all, obviously. Not even most. People like things for many, many different reasons. You can’t make a definite statement and have it apply to all members of a group. But some, I think. The ones whose comments all sound disturbingly the same.
No, this doesn’t mean that you’re bad and he’s bad and everything is ruined. Things are different at different times, in different connotations. Yes, Grandpa, age 27, and Grandma, age 18, getting married was a very different thing in 1944 than it would be today.
But just because it was acceptable at a different time does not give something a free pass from being interrogated now.
You have to question things if you are going to live in the world, and sorry if you don’t like it. Change is scary and all that. But it is shocking how many people, how many women, not only fear change, but do not want to confront anything that might alter their existing conditions.
Even if those conditions are awful.
The known, no matter how bad, is better than the unknown to many. It’s another one of those things that I get, because I was there, too. You’re willing to believe anything, no matter what the evidence to the contrary, as long as you don’t have to confront sometimes-painful facts about your relationship, or belief system.
People must confront and question things, and acknowledge how they change, because the world is always changing. You’re going to question things over your lifetime, and things will look different with time and perspective. This is how life works. Hell, I’m in the middle of this right now, wondering about the emotionally abusive ex and his penchant for coercive sex. He coerced me more than once to do acts I didn’t want to, at times I didn’t want to. And yet my mind stops at the word “rape” because-
So I get it. Questioning things is sometimes hard, and it’s a real psychological and emotional process.
But interrogating things does not mean everything falls apart. It means it gets stronger. It means you get stronger.
Also, sometimes, no matter what story you want to read or even think you’ve read (or written), the words say something different on the page. And you have to be able to think about it. Sometimes what is actually happening is, if not outright abuse, then at the very least, grooming. It’s someone ignoring someone else’s boundaries. Be able to recognize it as such. Do not confuse it with healthy/SS&C sex or romance or kink in real life.
I don’t see how it’s bad/abuse/manipulation. It’s fucking SEXY. A hot, rich, powerful guy grabbing me and throwing me down for a fast, hard fuck? That’s not abuse, that’s hot!
A good hard fuck can be hot. But if you read “he took her by force, even though she screamed and struggled and begged him not to,” and just go “Wow, how hot!” without recognizing that it is abuse, that it is rape? You are dead wrong.
Rape and abuse do not become hot, or sexy, or consensual not-rape because the acts are committed by someone who is rich, or powerful, or good-looking. In fact, that makes them worse. Our society tells us repeatedly that if a celebrity does it, it’s okay, if a rich man does it, it’s okay, if a good looking affluent white guy does it, it’s okay, if he gives you expensive gifts after, it’s okay. It’s not rape or abuse or domestic violence or cheating or manipulation or bad.
[I was going to put a few pictures here as examples, but between the various wrist-slap rape cases, OJ Simpson, Johnny Depp, Kobe Bryant, Justin Bieber, Sean Connery, Chris Brown, Mel Gibson, and, JFC, Donald Trump, and so on, it became depressing as well as overwhelming.]
Some readers and fans are wilfully ignorant. They insist that obviously-abusive situations are not abuse, and are totally what women really want, because they don’t want their own hot, sexytimes MMC-inspired clit-twiddling ruined. For a variety of reasons (many that I understand, some that make me rage), some readers, some women, want to be that wilfully stupid and “just enjoy!” what is portrayed even if it is rape and violence. It’s “more fun” that way. How dare we ruin their fun fantasies by being “mean”?
So I understand the head-splitting fury of a number of bloggers railing against the selfishness of this kind of reader, the kind who are more comfortable in their ignorance and don’t give a shit about anything except their own shallow perceptions of what is sexy.
There is no pride in “not wanting to think about” what you’re reading. Especially not when we’re seeing over and over how fucking harmful it can be.
As Jenny Trout wrote:
No fucking wonder abused women and rape victims get blamed for the crimes perpetrated against them. It’s more fun if a privileged group (and yes, I’m blatantly stating that women who have not faced the realities of abuse and rape are a privileged group, if that’s a problem, oh fucking well) can cordone off a DMZ around their shallow, vapid little word view and shoot down any possible challenge to their outdated perceptions of the world before anything can get close enough to make them think for themselves for two seconds.
Bottom line? If you are going to write sex, you damned well better be able to identify what is rape, for fuck’s sake.
You don’t understand BDSM! You’re saying anyone who’s into BDSM isn’t a feminist?! Submissives aren’t being abused! You’re kink-shaming!
Probably one of the most disturbing realizations I had was when some “happily submissive” women Romance readers and writers in a particular community were berating me for not being on board with an unquestioning acceptance of all submissiveness in every situation and under all circumstances.
Even when what was being portrayed in a work of fiction wasn’t actually D/s.
Yes, I understand what BDSM is, and how safe, sane & consensual sex works. I have friends who are into the Lifestyle, and friends and family who are in nontraditional and/or poly relationships… including my mother at one time. I’ve seen healthy ones and fucked-up ones. And I have read enough by actual BDSM subs who hate the way their kink can be portrayed in incorrect and unhealthy ways. I’ve had enough interesting conversations with healthy subs to know when these-go-to-eleven levels of defensiveness come into play in a discussion about the way consent is portrayed in Romance in general, something else isn’t right.
Healthy persons in these situations welcome the opportunity to make sure that their kinks are not misrepresented, and that safety and consent are understood.
Questioning issues of feminism and consent and how it’s portrayed in Romance is not the same thing as “judging everyone who is into BDSM,” any more than questioning the fit of a pair of jeans or the production of a particular brand of jeans means you are against any and all garments made out of denim. But more and more, I’d encounter women who could not handle others interrogating any element regarding consent because they felt “personally attacked.”
Say I’d open a discussion on a particular issue regarding a novel: “So, my thing with The Winsome Virgin and the Poly with Three Hot Navy SEALs is that she is not in a position to give informed consent in the relationship. Sure, it sounds hot, and I get the appeal, but the ‘hot poly foursome’ isn’t set up effectively. She’s been taken to the guys’ mountain hideaway while she’s unconscious, with no means of escape or contact with anyone, which is red flag number one. In the big main scene when she finally agrees to fuck them, by everyone’s admission, she’s had too much to drink. In an earlier scene, all three men are taking turns going in and ‘explaining’ to her what they want from this relationship, and she has no time to process things. They never really leave her alone or give her space to think, even after she asks for it. One of them actually tells her, ‘Don’t overthink, baby.’ The text makes it clear that she’s constantly overwhelmed. This doesn’t present informed consent, and never addresses it. That’s a dangerous message-”
Cue several others dog-piling. “Giving up power to three hot guys is sexy!” “So you’re saying I haven’t consented because I’m in a poly relationship?” “So you think every woman who drinks has been raped?” “They’re just trying to make sure she’s informed by talking to her that way. That’s what all Doms do! My husband talked to me about what he wanted and explained things so I could understand.”
And I’d try again. “But the FMC in this book isn’t a submissive, and this is not in a D/s relationship, so using that terminology is pointless. Even so, she can’t give informed consent, because-”
“Well, you are kink-shaming! You’re judging everyone who is in a non-traditional relationship!”
No. I’m not. I’m questioning the way plot elements in a book are portrayed. And the fact that they either couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize the difference, and then escalated the defensive-mode attacks on me in such a way, was scary… to say nothing about the ironies of not being able to separate fiction from IRL…
Like they’d been arguing they could totally do.
These weren’t the insightful conversations we had with healthy BDSM/poly/kink practitioners.
Instead, these defensive subs used language like “If you would just try-” and “You need to-” and “Stop being so judgmental!” They were aggressive and angry when faced with even the most innocuous questions about general informed consent. They went on the attack. “Just because you’re frigid-” “No one vanilla can understand.” “What is so wrong with giving the man you love what he wants and enjoys?” They took things to ridiculous extremes. “Oh, so you expect us to stop and sign a consent form every time we have sex?!” “I guess any woman who enjoys this is a tool of the patriarchy.”
They actually sounded like abusive, coercive people themselves.
In fact, they sounded a lot like my ex trying to coerce me into sex acts I didn’t want to do, or that made me deeply unhappy or felt horrible, but I sometimes did just because I loved him and wanted to show him I trusted him, and I could not take the unending barrage of “If you would just-” and “It’s because-” and “You need to understand-,” pushing and pushing, unable to hear “no” or anything different, because his way was the only acceptable response. And he would not let up until he got what he wanted. I had no real choice: I could give him what he wanted, or I could lose him.
After a while, it clicked. Was that how some of them started doing these things, things that they possibly didn’t want to, in the first place? Calling it D/s and kink makes it seem like something it’s not. They can feel like it’s “empowering” even! They’re not being abused, their partners are not abusive, and their men are just encouraging them to reach full sexual potential, right?
Like me, they couldn’t question it while still in the middle, because the whole thing would come tumbling down. And from the place they’re in, that loss looks worse than whatever questionable shit they’re encountering in their relationships. You want to talk fear? If some people are resistant to question something like song lyrics or a movie and claim that’s “ruining” it, imagine how they freak out at the thought of questioning their relationships? Instead, anyone who interrogates the issue—who makes them think uncomfortable things, or scary things, or things they aren’t ready to consider—are judgemental haters.
What’s even more sad is that I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard these same women shame other women in abusive situations, or gloss problematic situations IRL. They say things like “Well, she should just leave!” “It’s her fault for being with him in the first place. She should have known.” “Psh. If any man ___, I’d just punch him in the balls!”
No. No, you wouldn’t. It’s a lot more complicated than that, especially when emotions are involved. Stop assuming. Stop assuming women who find themselves in tricky, weird, awkward, or bad situations were weak or dumb. The choices are not either “punch him in the balls” or “get raped.”
They believe, and they’ve told themselves, that abused women are weak, stupid. Abuse happens to grubby poor people or druggies or morons. Abuse happens to women who chose bad men. Therefore, since they themselves are strong, smart, tough women, and their partners are not “bad men,” they cannot possibly be experiencing abusive, coercive, manipulative, or non-consensual things. They are not victims, god dammit!
To them, suggesting or questioning their own potential abuse means suggesting they are weak and dumb and a victim, they are like those broken drug addicts or bimbos, and that is not acceptable.
To them, suggesting that their partner is abusive means that they are at fault for picking the wrong man. If they put the onus on the woman in the relationship to not get abused, then they are “wrong” for choosing this man.
And all that is downright offensive to them.
Again: These are the same people insisting that they are “smart enough” to be able to read ___ and know ___. These are the same women arguing with me about how real life has nothing to do with what they read. They believe that “strong women” cannot be abused. They believe THEY cannot be abused.
And this is part of the danger of portraying dub-con or non-con as something consensual, ideal romance, of normalizing abuse as the trappings of passion and romance. Women already have enough trouble recognizing that they are in an abusive situation. If they cannot recognize it in fiction, or get defensive about what it actually is, how can they question it in real life? Especially when a woman is “smart,” or “tough,” or “in charge,” or has friends and family telling her how strong she is or how wonderful her man is, how can she reveal that, hey, actually…?
And this is my point. This is how strong, tough women can be manipulated: by these constant messages from books, movies, TV, songs, commercials, normalizing red flag behavior, showing it as a positive and a sign of love.
Why, gosh, it isn’t abuse or coercion or a red flag. It’s Romance! The fact that he followed you to a work function shows that he cares about you, it’s not him being a control-freak stalker (and “control-freak stalker” is just a cute way of saying he’s very protective)! Those expensive gifts and fancy trips aren’t manipulative, it’s a sign that you’re valuable to him, and Jane at work is totally envious, too! Thinking “I have to show my man I love and trust him by doing this thing that I normally wouldn’t/that scares me/that makes me uncomfortable/that leaves me in tears/hurts” is totally a normal, healthy way to think, not a sign that there is something off in the relationship! Not only is it not a problem, it signals desirability and empowerment! Whee!
All of this crap muddies up ideas of consent and coercion, and makes it clearer than ever that, no, it’s not “just a book” and no, there is not a clear bifurcation between fiction and real life experiences.
But those books get conversations about ___ started, so stop demonizing them!
Oh. You mean conversations like all of these? The ones several of us keep trying to have? These conversations that you keep objecting to?
It’s popular and it sells a lot, so they must be doing something right!
McDonald’s sells the most hamburgers in the world. Does that mean they are automatically the best burgers for all people, everywhere? Does that mean everyone should only eat their burgers? Does that mean that there shouldn’t be other burger options?
Does that mean that no one ever just wants a ham and cheese sandwich instead?
Hell, there are even some vegetarians or people with gluten allergies to consider.
So you’re saying the whole Romance Industry is bad and has to change?!
Of course not.
(Why do certain people always have to jump to the most insane, ridiculous, extreme conclusions?!)
I’m saying that, while burgers are fine, people should at least be aware of what the ingredients are, and how they’re made and marketed, and that there are a few weird ingredients that need to be identified. People need to think about how they’re cooked and how they’re served.
And one particular kind of burgers shouldn’t be the only things on the menu, should they?
There are millions of readers who are looking for and will spend money on a burger made from ground ribeye or grass-fed Angus beef, with bacon, blue cheese, and homemade smoked mayonnaise, on a pretzel bun. Or corned beef and pastrami on rye. Or a veggie melt.
Or a bratwurst. 😉
Let’s go find ‘em.