Do you play that mindgame where you tell yourself, “Once X is over, life will be so much easier?” And then X is over, and suddenly Y looms ahead, and you realize life is a series of mountains to climb?
I sure do. “Once grades are in, I’ll be freeeee!” I told myself. And then I realized that my worklife is pretty much non-stop meetings and policy-wonking until the end of June. After that, I might be sort of freeeee (and oh yeah, I’d better fill out my vacation form).
That’s why my hiatus lasted longer than planned, and why I’m returning with an off-the-cuff post that is basically a comment that’s too tl;dr and too off-topic to leave at Dear Author. I’m percolating reviews, though, and hope to get some up in the next couple of days.
Many of you probably read Janet/Robin’s most recent post on rape in Romance fiction, in which she suggests that readers will interpret these scenes in a variety of ways, adding:
This is not to say that we should not question portrayals of violence against women, that we should not be individually and collectively be discussing, debating, disagreeing, and generally digging deep into the complex dynamics of the stories we tell ourselves.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, the lengthy comment thread is largely a debate over whether Romance novels with rape or “forced seduction” scenes should be labeled or tagged. The labeling discussion is sometimes interesting, but Robin’s point that we can treat these scenes as “problematic,” complex and worthy of discussion, without shaming readers who enjoy them or implying that writers shouldn’t write them pretty much got lost. Very little discussion of specific scenes/books and how specific readers responded to them took place.
Given that conversation, I found today’s review (by long-time blogger and new Dear Author contributor KatiD) of Kristen Ashley’s Knight and the comments on it interesting. Knight appears to be an amped-up version of that Romance staple, the possessive, jealous, controlling, protective alpha hero. Most of the comments, though–and the main reason for KatiD’s low grade–are about the fact that he’s a pimp.
So here’s what I’m wondering: Why is it that when the issue of rape comes up, people argue for warning labels, suggest that reading this trope might lead people to be more tolerant of date rape, and argue about what is triggering? Why is rape in Romance fiction so quickly literalized?
Discussions of the controlling alpha typically proceed differently. There are certainly readers (like me) who express their dislike of this trope, and may do so in terms of their feminist beliefs. But almost always, there is acceptance on all sides that these representations of masculinity are an over-the-top fantasy, a symbolic way of exploring the desire to be passionately desired. Over and over, I’ve seen readers say things like, “Of course in real life these guys would be abusive stalkers and I’d be staying far away, but in fiction I love them.” I guess the need to say that suggests some shame is attached to this taste, but even readers who hate this kind of character pretty much accept that they are symbolic and don’t assume that readers who like them would be desensitized to real-life abusive behavior. There’s seldom the implication, as far as I can see, that “if you like that you’re sick,” and I’ve never seen a call for a “Warning: Caveman Alpha Hero” label (unless we’re talking young adult fiction, when people are more concerned that readers can’t distinguish reality and fantasy).
I guess I’m curious about what makes the difference. Because I thought some of the passages KatiD quotes in her review could be triggering for domestic abuse survivors (a big guy looming over you, yelling at you, dictating what you can and can’t wear, threatening to kill other men who so much as look at you and to punish you if you disobey?).
Is it because we live in a culture that often suggests rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman, but abuse is not? Because most “alpha heroes” don’t act and talk as much like real-life abusers as Knight does? Because such alphas are typically found in certain sub-genres, like paranormal, where readers can seek them out or avoid them? I really don’t know.
I’m not arguing for warning labels. I’m pretty conflicted about them even in the case of rape or forced seduction scenes, though I feel like that’s easy for me to say because I’m not a rape survivor.
I do think that both rape/forced seduction and the controlling alpha are similar “problem” areas in romance–by which I mean that they overtly problematize adn draw our attention to issues of gender and power; they provoke readers to respond strongly in a variety of ways; they reveal how women’s fantasies are often intertwined with real-life gendered power differences in complex ways; they allow readers and writers to rewrite, rethink, reinscribe, challenge, confirm cultural views of gender and power, sometimes all at the same time. So I’m curious about why Romancelandia seems to have such different responses to them.