Elmore Leonard said: I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Rape embellished with meaningful looks?


Over at The Guardian, Daisy Cummins and Julie Bindel celebrate/ deride a hundred years of Mills & Boon. It's just another instalment in the regular love-hate tug-of-war between M&B writers and 'serious' feminists. And, of course, there are plenty of gaudy covers and choice snippets from back covers to besmirch the genre. Although, honestly, don't we shoot ourselves in the foot with the likes of "The Desert Sheikh's Captive Wife"?

Some pertinent points.
Cummins:
I consider myself a feminist. Not perhaps in the sense that my mother would have called herself a feminist. That fight was fought, and necessarily. For me, feminism means being economically independent; able to pursue the career of my choice without being thwarted; free to make decisions concerning my body, or my vote. I have never struggled with sexual discrimination.

Bindle:
My horror at the genre is not directed towards either the women who write or, indeed, read them. I do not believe in blaming women for our own oppression. Women are the only oppressed group required not only to submit to our oppressors, but to love and sexually desire them at the same time. This is what heterosexual romantic fiction promotes - the sexual submission of women to men. M&B novels are full of patriarchal propaganda.

Now, I am not a reader of M&B (though some of Tumperkin's reviews have tempted me to pick them up again) and I decidedly dislike the Presents line, but arguments like Bindle's patronising notion of women as willing participants of their own oppression drive me up the wall.

Misogynistic hate speech? Patriarchal propaganda? Er, not quite. A part of me finds it difficult to reconcile my love of romance with some pretty entrenched feminist principles (indeed, I have yet to 'come out' to my more strident friends), but there is a distinct line between reading escapist fiction and colluding with the forces of patriarchy. Right?

A recent post at Teach Me Tonight discusses the "inextricability of Harlequin romance from the ideology of democracy and capitalism." Laura Vivanco wonders if Harlequin Presents are "narratives of capitalist success." So if we can confidently point to a symbiotic relationship between Presents and the economic system underpinning Western civilisation, why not the social system that supports it? Of course, my perspective is one in which Patriarchy is still very much in force and will continue to be until women are earning as much as men, rape convictions go up and the leader of the free world is finally a woman (go Hilary!)

Capitalism, Democracy and Patriarchy? It doesn't sound too far fetched.

ETA: I take issue with Cummins "the fight was fought" and "I have never struggled with sexual discrimination." IMO, this is an extremely complaisant and short-sighted attitude, particularly since I believe the fight for equality between the sexes is far from over.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Meriam, I appreciate your comments on the article yesterday in the Guardian. Just to answer your own comments, when I said 'the fight was fought' that was in the context of my own mother's fight and my perspective on it. Certainly here in Ireland and among my own contempories, the anatomy of the struggle that women now face has changed beyond recognition. Thankfully I, and none of my female friends face anything like the battles my own mother faced as a young single parent in a not only patriarchal but very catholic society of an Ireland in the 70's.
And also, complacent as it may sound, I can truly say that thankfully I have never faced sexual discrimination, and that's coming from working in a very male dominated industry - the film industry. I have only ever been offered opportunities and chances to advance. I know that's not everyone's experience unfortunately. But I would like to think that today, if women, or men, are subjected to any kind of discrimination that there is legislation in place for it to be dealt with.
But thanks again for taking the time to read and comment on the article.
best, Daisy Cummins

Tumperkin said...

Nice post Meriam.

I largely agreed with Daisy Cummins' comments but it has to be admitted that there is formula that is used in M&Bs and some of the action and attitudes are genuinely hopelessly out of date. (I mean, this whole concept of 'mistresses' that they use all the time: no-one these days thinks of a woman who has sex with a man regularly as his 'mistress'. It's absurd).

But for Bindel to label these books as misogynistic hate speech is ridiculous. And for her to suggest that the readers of these books regard them as accurately representing the proper world order is positively insulting.

I know that I buy (not many - perhaps 3 or 4 a year) M&Bs. I know (via blogging, not in real life) lots of other intelligent professional women who buy them. And I know that we all read these books with a particular mind-set: the same mind-set that I have if I watch an over-the-top soap opera. I don't subscribe to the world-view (for want of a better term) put forward in them. I just read them for cheap, disposable entertainment.

I can't say that I am a typical M&B reader. I honestly don't know whether I am or not. But nor do I assume that everyone else is too lame-brained to make the same nice distinctions that I do.

ALL of that said, I've been disappointed by the quality of the M&Bs I've picked up recently. The Presents line seems to be trying to pick up on the celebrity-driven zeitgeist and I find that unappealing. Also, when Bam and I discussed me doing some reviews, we agreed that it would be fun to start with a few M&Bs because they are often ripe for snarkage. I decided to include a review of a favourite one (from 1980!) just to balance things up.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tumperkin, hope you don't mind me chipping into your discussion...like you I pick up some M&B's and don't like them. I have my favourites and not so favourites. I'm afraid I do write for Meriam's least favourite line - presents/modern, but I grew up on the books of the 80's and early 90's and loved them...
It is exactly as you say though, people pick them up to read 'knowing' what they're getting and they suspend their disbelief or whatever...as for the whole mistress thing. I think that largely is a marketing hook, they sell, it's that simple...
You could always review one of mine?! My email is abbygreen3@yahoo.co.uk if you want to send me an address...!
Daisy Cummins

Meriam said...

Daisy, thank you for taking the time to clarify. This is a bit of a hot button for me, so I tend to bristle up quite quickly. I've been lucky, too - I haven't personally experienced discrimination in the workplace, but I do see it and I think the system often works against us.

Tumperkin, I'm not a typical reader of M&B either; I've probably read about 10-15 in my life, and that's a generous estimate. Last year, I took advantage of the free content on the M&B website to see if there was anything there I liked. (Short answer: no. There was one Greek Tycoon who came across his old flame in a department store and hissed "Whore! Murdering Whore!" I was chilled.)

Having said that, I remember really enjoying Sophie Weston and Jessica Hart.

A lot of my dislike is admittedly steeped in ignorance, so I took advantage of the recent half price sale to buy a number of Presents - two Lynn Grahams, a Susan Napier and a Miranda Lee. My journey towards enlightenment starts tonight.

The Presents line seems to be trying to pick up on the celebrity-driven zeitgeist and I find that unappealing.

I'd like to read some examples of this. As I was looking through the on-line catalogue it seemed every story was either forced marriage/ forced mistress/ secret baby. And the hero was either a sheikh/ royal/ trillionaire. It seemed really dated and off-putting.

I can't stand allusions to mistresses/ harems/ captivity/ force, but I understand that they sell. There's a pay-off, though: no one outside the genre will take you seriously. Some like Bindle might even jump to the conclusion that this stuff peddles 'rape fantasies' and 'hate speech.'

I think that's bonkers, but I can appreciate where it comes from.

Anonymous said...

Hi Meriam, you're absolutely right, in many places discrimination is alive and well and very difficult to fight. And I have to agree that if I read about a man calling a woman a whore I'd automatically not want to read on, which is exactly what I did recently with one book. A man who thinks that of a woman for even a second is no hero - (of mine anyway!).
I think the plot parameters in the M&B books are there again as an easy hook to draw people in and also because in 55,000 words there's not a lot of time/space to set up a good conflict situation. The secret baby, wife of convenience etc are all sure fire ways to get right into a complicated scenario. And also readers have come to love and expect them...But one thing I do like about M&B is that I think if the demographic shows that they are going another direction, then they do follow. After all their very survival has to have had that canniness up to now...
As for Bindle's theory on rape etc, first of all I think it's far too serious a subject to be drawn into a debate with regards to M&B romances. I wonder does she seriously think that one of these books has led to a rape or contributed to one?! And also, if she'd ever read Nancy Friday's My Secret Garden (a book of women's sexual fantasies written in the 70's), there's a whole section in there about women's fanatasies around being raped. Or oppressed. Or held captive. Obviously in a situation within their control...
Thanks for hearing me out..!
Daisy Cummins

Robin said...

As for Bindle's theory on rape etc, first of all I think it's far too serious a subject to be drawn into a debate with regards to M&B romances.

Actually, I think a genre written largely by women for women that's all about sexual politics, romantic love, and social idealism via marriage and family is a fitting place to talk about something that's portrayed within it quite often. IMO, in the same way that some have demonized the depiction of the rape fantasy as something shameful, others have dismissed the presence of rape as "mere" fantasy and as not to be taken seriously beyond that. And IMO both positions are untenable because of their extremity.

American Romance author Eileen Dreyer was, as far as I know, the first Romance author to address the rape issue publicly in an RWR article, and while I disagree strongly with her recent assertions that rape shouldn't be part of genre Romance, I do think we need to be cognizant of the ways in which the genre is struggling with issues related to the historical victimization and oppression of women. Whether the genre is affirming or subverting that is going to be an ongoing debate that relies on the interpretation of specific books. But I think it's a valid and important discussion.

What really disturbs me, frankly, are some of the comments I've seen by folks who have responded to Bindle with the ugly "she just needs to get laid" retort -- or its many variations/derivations. OMG how that just seems to me to validate exactly the fear or patriarchy that characterizes first wave (and some second and third wave) feminist theory. Just as the casual dismissal of certain rape representations in Romance as "mere" fantasy inflames the kind of anger Bindle obviously feels.

IMO the meat and muscle of the issue is smack in the middle, where things get messy and difficult and much more ambiguous.

I'm frankly fascinated by the portrayal of rape in Romance, even though it's not my own personal turn-on. In some ways, I think it's very subversive (an attempt to make something that leaves women so vulnerable in RL powerful for them in fiction), and in others I think it's not (e.g. the use of historical settings to excuse a hero's rape of the heroine or to show how vulnerable the heroine is at the hands of the raping villain -- to rape-pimping villainness). In any case, I think it's an incredibly complex and important issue, one that encompasses much of what we argue over whenever these questions about the genre's sexual politics are raised.

Meriam said...

I do think we need to be cognizant of the ways in which the genre is struggling with issues related to the historical victimization and oppression of women. Whether the genre is affirming or subverting that is going to be an ongoing debate that relies on the interpretation of specific books. But I think it's a valid and important discussion.

Exactly. And frankly, some of the knee-jerk defensiveness I've witnessed in response to an opinion piece - albeit an inflammatory one -is a little depressing. It's a fascinating topic that warrants an honest and open-minded appraisal.

Daisy, thank you for taking the time to respond! I look forward to reading your work.

Robin said...

And frankly, some of the knee-jerk defensiveness I've witnessed in response to an opinion piece - albeit an inflammatory one -is a little depressing.

One thing that occurs to me is that there might be a bit of a misconception that when we talk about how literature reflects social values we mean that literally -- that what's portrayed in a book is supposed to be equatable to the same thing in RL.

Which, I think, is why we see those arguments that run like this: I don't want an alpha man in RL, but I like the Romance fantasy.

But when we look at these books to uncover particular ideological implications, it's not a surface level analysis like this. It involves some digging and a lot of comparison/testing/analysis of various elements of the texts. So in fact, what may appear to us on the surface of the text may be actually the opposite of what you see if you dig a little deeper into the book.

Of course we do that kind of analysis all the time without even realizing it, whether it's analyzing our life patterns, our relationships, or even our fellow-readers' arguments. But maybe it's not so obvious when we talk about novels that *appear* to have a certain correspondence to RL that the appearance can be deceiving?

Anonymous said...

Thanks again Meriam for letting me comment, and Robin thanks for your comments. The truth is that rape in all it's awful reality happens on a much more banal and regular basis than most people allow for - within marriage/relationsips/incest etc. Places where the lines are truly blurred. I suppose when people/women/men read a romance, and depending on the type of romance they're reading, they don't necessarily want to be reminded of the harsher realities of life. And certainly for M&B, their foray into any kind of 'rape' scenario is either with a heroine who has been raped in the past and it traumatised, in which case invariably the hero 'heals' her and restores her faith in men, or in that more subtle 'rape' fantasy aspect which is also very valid and not shameful. It's just another plot device for showing the woman's vulnerability as opposed to the hero's strength and domination...and many women seem to respond to it, or I don't think it would have survived.
Also I have to agree with you about this knee jerk reaction of Bindle just needing to get laid. It's lazy and extremely personal and defensive/aggressive. For all anyone knows she's quite happily being laid every night...!
Ladies it's been a pleasure, thanks again...
Daisy Cummins

Meriam said...

But when we look at these books to uncover particular ideological implications, it's not a surface level analysis like this. It involves some digging and a lot of comparison/testing/analysis of various elements of the texts. So in fact, what may appear to us on the surface of the text may be actually the opposite of what you see if you dig a little deeper into the book.

This kind of analysis is almost entirely missing at the moment (notwithstanding the excellent post and discussion over at teachmetonight). It tempts me to spend a year reading as many M&B as possible (as per Laura's academic guidelines) to draw my own conclusions.

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