Literature

Sexy Rakes and Delicate Flowers: Thoughts on Historical Romance Literature

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I sometimes feel like there’s a contradiction in me being both a critical, feminist consumer of culture and an occasional reader of escapist romantic literature. This post attempts to tackle some of the issues I have encountered in romance literature in relation to my feminism and how I try to reconcile these identities.

I’m in a habit of reading a romance book or two when life gets to be just a little bit too much: when I can’t get my essays written and going to lectures is almost painful, meeting up with friends feels exhausting, or one shift at work taps out all my energy. I decided to give romance literature a chance a little less than a year ago when going through this sort of phase. My exchange year in Germany was drawing to a close, and I was swamped with deadlines, overcome by stress about moving back home and not having a job or apartment waiting for me there. I generally did not feel like doing anything at all though I had everything to do. It was a pretty horrifying state to be in, a sort of a shutting down of the brain. I was pretty desperate, and it was then that I decided to give my sister’s number one escape method, romance literature, a go. While she had been a true connoisseur of the genre for years, I’d always regarded myself as too un-romantic and cynical a person to really get into it. And then I read Tessa Dare’s Romancing the Duke (2014) in one night. I may have another book the next day, and after a few days, all the stress and the deadlines started to feel less overwhelming. I had not read high art that elevated my being to higher plane, I had just been entertained in a way that had very little to do with my actual life. Escapism is relief from unpleasant realities. And for me, romance literature was just that when I needed it.

Since then I’ve gone back to romance a few times and read my fair share of historical romance fiction. I’ve noticed that my initial, positive reaction was in part luck of choosing a fun novel to start with and in part not yet knowing the genre in general. I’ve become much more critical about it since. I exist in a fun yet exhausting place where I can hardly ever turn analysis-mode off anymore, and romance literature, it turns out, is full of stuff to criticise. Even when reading the lightest, fluffiest romance, I find myself analysing the genre’s tropes and clichés. Having accumulated a wider knowledge of them, I have began seeing both the positive and the problematic in the genre as a whole. For the sake of brevity and because I know it best, I’ll limit the topic of this text to historical, heterosexual romance novels. Let’s dive in.

The Romance Writers of America define a book in the romance genre as comprising of two basic elements: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. The typical historical, heterosexual romance novel is told alternately through the point of view of the main couple, a man and a woman, and most often takes place in 19th century England. The man is likely to be some sort of a rake or at least experienced in the ways of women, and is usually cast in the role of the pursuer in the relationship. (Oh, and he’s probably a duke, or at least a marquess. Historical romance happens in a reality where there are dozens of dukes and marquesses.) The woman is mostly a virtuous young lady, an inexperienced virgin, who, through the course of the novel, gets a perfect introduction to the world of sensuality from the man. They have troubles, internal and external forces that try to keep them apart, but in the end, the couple lives happily ever after. Interspersed there may be subplots, but as the Romance Writers of America say, the main focus must be on the love story. The ending is usually the wedding or the wedding night, followed sometimes by an epilogue showing just how perfect and happy the main couple’s happily ever after is.

When it comes to diversity in character, men usually get the short end of the stick. While women get a wide range of personalities, the heros are most often incorrigible rakes or maybe just mysterious rich guys with pasts of varying degrees of tragedy who end up reforming or getting over their past problems because of the love of the heroine. They are tall, handsome, and mostly brooding and quite uniformly rich. The women, though the delicate flowers that they are, can be anything from tall to short, blonde to brunette, ugly to beautiful, outspoken to shy, smart to ditzy, and poor to rich. The men are very much prisoners of conventional masculinity: they need to be in charge, attractive, and virile. There is rarely room for a man unsure of his sexuality (a book that breaks this trope is The Duchess War, 2012, by Courtney Milan), just as there is just as rarely room for the woman to be experienced.

With that, it’s time to talk about sex. Romance novels often revolve around sexual as well as romantic love. The connection between these two is natural, expected, and obvious: in most historical romance, romantic love does not exist without sex and vice versa. They are natural by-products of each other. Often the main characters have immediate sexual chemistry without even exchanging a word. It might not be love at first sight, but it can be is lust at first sight, and love follows. Because the main plot revolves around a love story, even characters who hate each other at first don’t really have that much time for loathing before they need to get together for the plot to advance.

Sometimes the man has to chase the woman for a while before she succumbs to the undeniable sexual tension between them. The man has enjoyed sex with other women, but with this particular woman, it is a revelation. The connection of one true love and sex cannot be denied. The inexperienced woman, on the other hand, does not know how amazing sex can be, but the man gives her the perfect, blissful, devoted erstwhile experience. Obviously, there will be no need for her to seek similar experiences elsewhere. In the rare case that a woman in a historical romance novel has had previous sexual experiences, they are mostly unsatisfying, dull, or even traumatic. The man is there to fix it. And the man will fix it, goddammit. He is there to fill the woman’s every need even though she cannot articulate what they are, being innocent as she is. Only after the woman is satisfied (and sometimes not even then) will the man think of his own desire.

And this is the point where I want to emphasise that this is in no way a negative thing. Being inexperienced and innocent is great and one would wish for an unselfish lover to be one’s introduction to sex. And it is amazing, I might even say vital, to think of and care about the other person’s pleasure, whatever gender you are. Based on the portrayal of women and female sexuality, which are celebrated in romance novels, romance literature can even be viewed as true feminist literature. Maya Rodale writes how romance novels always put women and their romantic and sexual pleasure in starring roles: “These are the books where women can lean in, fall in love and live happily ever after.” They are not punished for breaking the strict rules on premarital sex for women that are ingrained in their19th society. The men that have sex with them are noble, honourable (which is sometimes goes against their introduction as libertine rakes, but oh well), very much in love with them, and immediately offer marriage after sex to save the woman from ruin.

This hasn’t always been the case: the “forced seduction” of simpering heroines by alpha heroes was an earlier trope (Rodale) of the genre and still repeats in pulp romance like Harlequin books. The modern historical romance heroines, though inexperienced in the ways of love, are often feisty, smart, and interesting, and have goals and desires outside or even instead of the desire for husbands, like opening a brewery (Tessa Dare’s Say Yes to the Marquess, 2014). Some even distinctly don’t want a husband (Courtney Milan’s Suffragette Scandal, 2014, and The Heiress Effect, 2013), but end up getting one anyway after falling in love.

My problem is not with this particular portrayal of sex and sexual roles in historical romance. It is the prevalence of it. As I said, there is nothing wrong with being innocent or experienced, but these features should not be tied to the genders they so often seem to inhabit. For me, there is something distinctly un-feminist in the way both women and men are portrayed in historical romance novels, even in the more progressive ones. The almost uniform inexperience of female characters emphasises the traditional, passive role of a woman in a sexual setting and as a sexual being. The inexperience is, granted, well justified in a world where a highborn woman’s most priced possession was her virginity, but is it so feminist to repeatedly cast a woman in a passive role, however empowered the situation surrounding it might be? Also, there is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with wanting to please your partner if it comes from a place of love, respect, and desire (or, just to put it out there, simply respect and desire), so why is this sort of agency given to women but almost always given to the men. I would love a female character who takes charge of a sexual encounter in her own terms.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with an active, giving male lover or a passive, happy female one: it’s amazing that these books have men who care about the pleasure of their significant others and that the women are treated as the most important thing in the room. Like Maya Rodale puts it: “The modern romance heroine is feisty and independent and the modern hero makes sure the heroine always comes first after she says ‘yes.'” However, the prevalence of this type of sexual encounter paints a rosy but ultimately narrow picture of what sexuality can actually be, and repeats age-old gender roles of passivity and active agency in the bedroom. Especially in novels that feature more than one sex scene, the customary roles becomes apparent. Towards the end, the female characters sometimes gain more autonomy or even the occasional role of the initiative-maker, but this is regrettably rare.

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And I know, there might be a situation of supply and demand going on here, that most readers (most of whom are women) like to read about experienced men and inexperienced women. And, of course, this is something that plagues the historical romance genre especially because of previously mentioned societal norms of the time. But why in the world do all the men have to be suave, handsome rakes? And women dewy-eyed maidens? Even writers like the previously mentioned Courtney Milan, who is by far one of the most feminist historical romance writers I’ve discovered, fall back on these tropes from time to time, as well as the traumatised female protagonist trope. The idea that true love will fix all traumas or that sex simply can’t be as enjoyable with a person you don’t love, is obviously a romantic fantasy which is what romance literature is built on, but it paints such a narrow picture of what both sex and love can be, and ignores the fact that women too can enjoy sex without love.

The power relations in historical romance novels are almost always the same: the man is the seducer, and the woman holds the power to say yes or no to said seduction. This definitely is power, and the women should have it, but as it happens, sometimes the men pursue them even after a few clear nos have been uttered. This sort of romance is based on the cultural and societal idea that women who say no don’t actually mean it, and just want you to try harder. In the novels that employ this trope, the women are just fighting a losing battle against the primal lust they feel and eventually fall in love with the men anyway, and give the much awaited yes. This is hardly James Bond and Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, but I’ve always been a fan of eager consent in all steps of a relationship from its very beginning to end, and not romanticising anything that isn’t consensual.

If readers take something out of these novels, it would be good to give them a range of options on how female protagonists react to romantic pursuit or act in the bedroom, as well as offer them diverse male characters and their multitude of reactions to romance and sex. Satisfying sex and a happily ever after are achievable even in a world that breaks gender roles, norms, and genre clichés. There are a handful of examples of happy experienced women, but they are most often fallen women, courtesans or mistresses. Even widows rarely are happy or fulfilled in their first marriages. And if happy, experienced ladies are rare, inexperienced or unsure men are even more difficult to find.

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Romance literature is fantasy: it isn’t supposed to be realistic. It is a genre, where the reader knows the ending to each book before even turning the first page. The predictability and safety is a part of the allure of many genre fictions. For example, in detective fiction we know there will be a crime and at the end of the book the crime will be solved. However, romance is primarily a story of a romantic relationship, something that most stories relegate into a subplot. To hold a reader’s attention by simply having two characters meet and work out a relationship with some sexy times here and there is a huge accomplishment. It takes a lot from characters to inspire such a wide and devoted readership for a specific genre. As a genre, it should not be belittled or relegated into the category of guilty pleasure, though it often is, but that is still regrettably the lot of many things that are by, for, and about women. (Also, the covers. THE COVERS.) If we want historical romance literature to become feminist literature, we need to start bringing variety to it. The rakes and the delicate flowers are all well and good, but romance is hardly a thing just for people fitting into traditional gender roles anymore (if it ever was).Just like people are diverse, so are romance readers. The world is changing, and so are we, the readers, so maybe it’s time historical romance did too.

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As some may have noticed, the two authors I kept mentioning were Courtney Milan and Tessa Dare. I assure you I’ve read works from other authors as well, but these two are my favourites. Dare, because she was my first, and Milan because her characters, especially in her Brother Sinister series have some of that diversity that I’m calling for in this text. I’m always happy to get suggestions of both hetero and queer romance novels. I’m on a mission to find the perfect feminist, historical romance.

Pictures from tessadare.com.

Literature · Web Series

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and the Conundrum of the Literary Web Series

I want to look back, all the way to the year 2012. In the land of YouTube, great things were happening. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries came out and brought into the larger general knowledge a new form of storytelling: the transmedia narrative. To the uninitiated, Lizzie Bennet Diaries is based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a public domain classic of literature, and was one of the first works of fiction to combine adaptation and transmedia storytelling.

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I may have become slightly obsessed with these literary web series at some point. I watched Welcome to Sanditon and Emma Approved, obviously, but also much less well known ones like The Jane Games and Elinor and Marianne Take Barton. I have a particular place in my heart for the New Zealand creator collective Candle Wasters’ Shakespeare adaptations.

I was so obsessed the production of any given web series had to be pretty bad to turn me away. At the beginning of 2015, I had watched or at least was aware of almost all literary series that had come out. That was when I wrote my Bachelor’s thesis on The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Jane Austen adaptations and chick flicks, and probably needed a break from it all. In hindsight, my choice of topic is actually pretty weird, because I’ve always seen myself as a person more obsessed with scifi than Jane Austen, but apparently at that time of my life I did not remember that. I really went off the deep end with literary web series. (Not that I mind that much though: I got the top grade for that thesis. (I’ll stop bragging now.))

After The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, the transmedia literary web series blew up. New series were popping up left and right – (relatively) big budget stuff like Carmilla, and zero-budget ones like Nothing Much to Do. An overwhelming majority, over 25 of the series came out in 2014, and the rate has significantly slowed down to less than 15 web series in 2016. So is the genre slowly fading into obscurity, or will it still resurface? Did we use up all the good novels to adapt?

In my opinion, Jane Austen makes the perfect source material for a web series adaptation. Austen novels are light, yet insightful, fun, yet have a lot of emotion and character growth as well. They have sympathetic characters that many if not most potential viewers are familiar with, even if they have not read the novels (because of all those adaptations). During my web series phase, I personally found that melancholy, dark stories seemed to be more difficult to adapt into five-minute videos dispersed over a long period of time. One example of this was a Jane Eyre adaptation which came out some time after The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which had a lot of good stuff going for it, including but not limited to a very well cast and believable lead. The source material was definitely known to its audience, but in the end, the themes of mental illness, loneliness, and sexuality need more more than a web series designed for 21st century, four-minute attention spans to truly have an immersive effect on the audience.

But Austen is hardly the only writer whose works are both public domain and generally on the lighter side. There have been web adaptations of Shakespeare’s comedies (a couple of examples: Much Ado about a WebseriesLovely Little Losers), Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (In Earnest), and the Anne of the Green Gables Series (Green Gables Fables). None of these have reached the same sort of hype or even half of the audience of Lizzie Bennet Diaries. We could argue budget or production value, but then again, amazing things are done with love and respect for the source material despite a practically non-existent budget, as Nothing Much to Do proves us. Mediocre things can come out of big budgets and professional crews and casts, which was what happened with Pemberley Digital’s Frankenstein M.D. Even Emma Approved, though great, was much more calculated and polished than its predecessor(s). A lot of variables make a good literary web series: the motivation behind making the show, the creators’ skill, the source material and whether it’s truly understood and appreciated, casting, budget, script, visibility, and so on. In every web series, the combination is different, and the results even more so..

My theory is, that somehow this subgenre of web series, the transmedia literary adaptation, managed to peak at its beginning. Even after all that followed, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is still the best combination of the previously mentioned variables. It has an excellent cast, it is both superbly written and well directed, and despite having a larger budget than your average literary web series, it has a heart and a genuine quality. And I’d be lying, if I left out one of the most obvious reasons it was so successful: the source material. Pride and Prejudice is (with good reason) regarded as one of Austen’s best novels or if not the best one altogether, in addition to being the most widely read or at least known.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries set the tone for the literary web series. It combined story, character, the different platforms, humour, heartbreak, and romance so well, that it seems to have set a golden standard from the beginning. It balanced freedom of adaptation, faithfulness to source material, and transmedia storytelling extremely well.

Also, on this Literary Web Series Master List where there are fourteen Austen adaptations, more than on on most of her novels, there is only one of Pride and Prejudice. I can’t imagine it’s because no one was inspired by the novel. I’d wager it was because no one really felt like trying to fix something that was already pretty close to perfect already.

Maybe we’ll have a resurgence of literary transmedia web series some day. Or maybe it was just a passing trend that is now slowly dwindling down. Whatever the case, I’ll always keep going back to the stories I love. Pride and Prejudice is among them, so I guess it was about time an adaptation of it ended up there too.

TV-shows

First Post on Buffy

So I went on a Buffy-binge. For approximately the seventh time.

Not that I feel sorry. Ever since I discovered Buffy five years ago after I ran out of Firefly and decided to give Joss Whedon’s other works a chance, it has made me feel better in almost any situation. I’m not alone in this. Just search “Buffy saved me” on Google, and you’ll find numerous blog posts and articles that tell stories in varying degrees of seriousness chronicling how the show has been a source of empowerment, mental health, and simple joy to many. They might be new acquaintances, like this woman, who finally gave in to Buffy in the late 2016 after the US presidential election result put her in a bad place. The Guardian has an article about Buffy-watchers who tell what the show has meant or taught to them. Jonathan McAloon wrote in the Spectator, how Buffy was vitally important to him growing up, teaching the 8-year-old boy feminist perspectives without him even noticing. So I’m definitely not alone, and definitely not the only one writing about Buffy now, as it is officially 20 years since the show premiered.

My Great Buffy the Vampire Slayer Binge of 2017 started with watching a couple of my favourite episodes on the 10th of March, the actual anniversary of Buffy’s premiere, which kind of escalated into “Oh, I haven’t watched the pilot in ages” and “I think I should watch all the first season episodes I usually skip, too” to “These are actually really good, why on earth did I not remember that” and “What the hell, I finished the first season, might as well watch the second one too.” Incidentally, now I’m on season three, episode four. Didn’t watch Go Fish though. That everyone can skip.

As a proud member of the Harry Potter generation, I too grew up with a story of heroism, friendship, and love. I did not watch Buffy as a 7-year-old, and I can’t help but wonder, would I be different if instead of Hermione, my childhood hero and role model had been the ass-kicking, world-saving, badass girly girl Buffy. In a way I’m glad I’ll never know. Hermione helped me through school, into university, to become a person who wants to know everything about everything. When I found Buffy as a 22-year-old, I could watch it with my feminist heart bursting with pride (and occasional criticism on, for example, representation), and the things that I got out of it were completely different. I’m still looking at Harry Potter through such thick nostalgia goggles, I find it hard to be critical about it. Buffy and me, however, have reached this perfect balance of escapism, empowerment, and critical analysis.

I’ll briefly talk about what makes Buffy escapist and empowering for me. I’ll get to the analysis in later posts, of which there will probably be many.

I love to escape, and most of the time, any book, movie or TV-show works. It’s like a holiday from yourself, a mild state of hypnosis, a trip to a faraway land (or the West Coast of the United States). In these worlds different from ours, I can feel feelings that are not exactly mine, but not at all less real. They don’t hurt in the same way, but give a sense of catharsis nonetheless. They leave you feeling happy or destroyed but at the same time you know that once you climb out of or descend from that world you were visiting, you’ll feel better, cleansed, even motivated (if you’re not on a 12 episodes a day binge, which I must admit I often am – that’s wallowing, and I will probably talk about that in a later post).

In the heart of why I always want to return to Buffy, especially when I’m feeling down, is an underlying feeling that everything will be alright. Not many other works of fiction make me feel safe like Buffy does. Sure, the show wrecks you, makes you cry your heart out, and sometimes leaves you with an empty feeling of “Where do we go from here?” but those cathartic moments are at the heart of Buffy when it’s at its buffyest. Even when everything else is gone, you are still left.

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I haven’t had the greatest time inside my own head recently, and I think needed to be reminded of that.

You will always have you.

(Also, if there is one thing that always cheers me up, it’s a watching a teenage girl kick ass.)

Uncategorized

The Blog

I feel this weird obligation to write an introductory post to the blog, which might be thing or not (I haven’t really read that many blogs from the beginning to know, to be honest). This blog is very much for me at this point though. I have a lot of thoughts and ideas that I usually dump on friends who I imagine might like to talk to me about something else for change than that TV show that I just binged in two days, or that writer who speaks straight into my soul at this moment, or that politician that made me really angry about that thing yesterday. So I’m going to gush and rant about those things here. I don’t really think this blog is going to make my real-life lectures any less frequent, but at least my thoughts might be a bit more organised when I get to them.

I love stories. That’s basically the beginning of everything for me. Possibly the end too. In the real world, I study literature, watch too many TV-series, and have to force myself to have moments of silence from constantly listening to true crime podcasts. I also cannot turn off the analysis anymore and I’m starting to be afraid that might make me exhausting company sometimes.

Though I love to escape this world into others, I also care about it deeply, so naturally I tend to tie those imaginary places I visit into the here and now (or there and then). That will probably be most of the blog’s content: literary, film, and television analysis. The other parts will most likely be ideas and thoughts on subjects ranging from language to food, from politics to space travel. I try not to limit myself. Also, coffee is life. But then again so is cheese. And wine. And many other foods. The name of the blog was a difficult decision, since my thoughts are fuelled by a lot of things, actually. Mostly other thoughts.