Thursday, December 06, 2007

"Misogynistic Hate Speech": Feminism, Rape and the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance


Under the title "Here we go again ...." Natasha Oakley offers a warning to Mills & Boon readers. We're going to have to be prepared for extreme irritation next year:
As I've said here before, with Mills & Boon's centenary year just around the corner I'm braced for criticism as the media spotlight shines on us. What's so particularly annoying is that the negative swipes usually comes from people who haven't read a M&B for years, if ever.
Yesterday's criticism came from Julie Bindel, writing in the Guardian:
Fifteen years ago, I read 20 Mills & Boon novels as research for a dissertation on "romantic fiction and the rape myth". It was the easiest piece of research I have ever done. In every book, there was a scene where the heroine is "broken in", both emotionally and physically, by the hero. [...] My loathing of M&B novels has nothing to do with snobbery. I could not care less if the books are trashy, formulaic or pulp fiction [...]. But I do care about the type of propaganda perpetuated by M&B. I would go so far as to say it is misogynistic hate speech. [...] 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.

I can say it no better than the late, great Andrea Dworkin. This classic depiction of romance is simply "rape embellished with meaningful looks".
As might be expected, I have a few objections to make to this.

Bindel's sample is now out of date and was always rather small. Mills & Boon romances are varied, and nowadays there are a large number of different lines (Historical, Medical, Modern, Romance, etc), each with its own guidelines. Within each line there is also variation. It is certainly true that, as Bindel says, there have been some M&B romances which contained at least one "scene where the heroine is 'broken in', both emotionally and physically, by the hero." I'm planning on posting about a novel written by Rosalind Brett in 1951 in which, although the hero is very restrained physically (he barely kisses the heroine till the final pages), he "breaks" her emotionally. I've also come across some older M&B romances which include scenes of date rape. Sandra Field's Love in a Mist is from 1988 and in it, although the hero has promised the heroine that he "won't as much as lay a finger on you" (74), when she believes him and shares a bed with him, he makes a move on her. At first she doesn't object to his caresses but then
She felt helpless and horribly vulnerable, and the delicious haze of sensuality had retreated.
She had spent a lot of time with Luke the last few days and would have said she was beginning to know him. But she had not learned enough, she thought with a sickening lurch of fear as his thighs forced hers apart. She should have heeded the bitterness and cynicism she had seen him display, for they had not been fleeting emotions [...] Luke was making love without tenderness or patience. She shoved at his chest with the palms of her hands, trying to wriggle from under him, and gasped furiously, 'Luke, don't -' [...]
When he entered her, Sally felt again that lick of fire. But the fire was vanquished by a flood of other emotions: resistance and fear and guilt, so that while her body was instinctively in rhythm with his, her spirit was drowning in a vast and terrible loneliness. (91-92)
Luke apologises and reveals that his cynicism is due to having been married and found that his wife had been unfaithful: "For the first time in my life I really understood how murders get committed ... there'd have been a certain irony in that, wouldn't there? Parole Officer Receives Life Sentence. Anyway I didn't commit murder" (104) but the horrible irony is still there, because the parole officer has now committed a rape and the reason for it is that "in the darkness it was as though you were Althea [...] I'd been so angry with her, Sally. Angry and hurt and frustrated. And I took it out on you. [...] I had no idea that I was going to. I lost control - and you're the one who suffered for it" (102). Nonetheless, despite his remorse,
Last night was a catharsis [...] I took out on you all my anger against the woman who had made a mockery of my marriage bed. When I first woke up this morning I felt cleansed. Lighter. Free. As though a burden I'd been carrying for a year had been lifted from me. And then, of course, I remembered you. For me it might have been catharsis. But for you - I'd used you. I'd been rough and insensitive, totally selfish. (104)
Neither Luke nor Sally call what happened "rape" even though it was non-consensual. Yet
Date rape is when someone you know socially (but not family) makes you have sex when you don’t want to. It could be someone you meet at a party, or someone you love and trust, like your boyfriend. They might use physical and verbal threats, emotional blackmail, or alcohol and drugs to force or trick you into having sex. And it’s not just sexual intercourse − it can be oral sex or some other kind of sex. You may even agree to have sex with someone and then decide that you want to stop, but they force you to keep going. (Government of New South Wales)
And, to compound an already repellent situation, this is Luke's way of making amends:
'There is one way I can apologise,' he said in his deep voice. 'I know you're afraid of making love even though I don't know why. But we could go back to the hotel and make love again - and this time I swear would be different. For both of us.' (105)
Yes, he really does admit that he acted as he did despite the fact that he knew she was "afraid of" sex. Yes, he really does refer to what happens as "making love" not rape. And yes, he really does think he's doing her a favour by offering to have sex with her again. Sally accepts and discovers that, contrary to what she learned from her ex-husband, she's not "no good in bed" (106). There are no further consequences of the rape.

Yet one cannot assume that Field's Love in a Mist is representative of all other M&B romances published in the same period:
Susan Napier is one of the mid-1980s group of authors who never used violent sex in her novels, building on the earlier non-violent, though sexual, romances that were being published at the same time that sexually violent Mills & Boon romances were being issued. These non-violent Mills & Boon novels were written by such popular authors as Charlotte Lamb, Jane Donnelly, Carole Mortimer, Essie Summers, Betty Neels, Daphne Clair, Anne Weale and Anne Mather whose An All-consuming Passion (1986), has a hero who does not satisfy the heroine in their first sexual encounter because he ejaculates prematurely. (Dixon 148)
In addition
As Daphne Clair said [...], pointing out the historical specificity of this type of Mills & Boon [i.e. ones where the heroes are sexually violent towards the heroines]: "Since abusive men in real life have become exposed, writers have been more careful - what we and most readers thought of as fantasy in a more innocent era we now know is all too common in real life and we don't wish to encourage any notion that it is normal". (Dixon 193)
Awareness of the prevalence of date rape is now far greater than it was in the past, and while feminist academics and others working in the area were aware of it as a phenomenon earlier, knowledge about these issues took longer to filter through to the general public:
Acquaintance rape, which is also referred to as "date rape" and "hidden rape," has been increasingly recognized as a real and relatively common problem within society. Much of the attention that has been focused on this issue has emerged as part of the growing willingness to acknowledge and address issues associated with domestic violence and the rights of women in general in the past three decades. Although the early and mid 1970's saw the emergence of education and mobilization to combat rape, it was not until the early 1980's that acquaintance rape began to assume a more distinct form in the public consciousness. The scholarly research done by psychologist Mary Koss and her colleagues is widely recognized as the primary impetus for raising awareness to a new level.

The publication of Koss' findings in the popular Ms. magazine in 1985 informed millions of the scope and severity of the problem. By debunking the belief that unwanted sexual advances and intercourse were not rape if they occurred with an acquaintance or while on a date, Koss compelled women to reexamine their own experiences. Many women were thus able to reframe what had happened to them as acquaintance rape and became better able to legitimize their perceptions that they were indeed victims of a crime. (Curtis)
As Clair's comments reveal, the romance genre did gradually change in response to this increased knowledge about rape, and, as mentioned previously, the romances which included scenes of date rape and/or sexual aggression were not the only ones being published.

The texts Bindel read were, I think one can assume, from roughly 1992 since she says that she read them fifteen years ago, though perhaps she also read some from the 1980s, since she may have read some older romances as well as ones published at the time she did her research. I'd like to give a short list of romances published around 1992 which most certainly do not match the description given by Bindel. I've taken two from the historical line and included a Silhouette romance (published by Harlequin Mills & Boon) because this further illustrates the variety within M&B's output.
  • In Jo Ann Algermissen's Would You Marry Me Anyway? (1991) the hero is a carpenter and the construction supervisor who oversees his work is the heroine. That alone gives an indication that the power dynamics in this book do not involve a weak, powerless heroine and although "He'd said sex stood in the way of their being friends. By sunrise, she'd have that problem solved" (117). There's no domineering hero here:
    [Hank] "I've tried to be your friend."
    [Cat] "I know."
    "But I've wanted you. [...] I wanted you this morning when I kissed you. It took every ounce of my self-control not to kiss you the way I wanted."
    "The way I wanted," she repeated. In high heels, she hardly had to tilt her head back to invite his kiss. "Kiss me the way we both want."
    "Cat, sweetheart, I won't stop with kisses."
    She smiled. "I hope not." (123)
  • In Sheila Bishop's Fair Game (1992), a historical romance, one of the secondary characters is the victim of what we'd now term a "date rape." The man asked to "enjoy his rights" and Madeleine, the young woman, refused. However later, having drunk
    a good deal of champagne, [...] her apprehension melted. She was carried away on a tide of romantic fervour and promised to let him do what he asked.
    They climbed the spiral stairs to the room above and here everything went wrong. From the way she spoke it was clear to Olivia that Madeleine had not been nearly as drunk as she supposed. She had simply taken enough to unbalance her judgement and dull her fears. The unheated room and Lion's rough approach to lovemaking served to clear her brain. She said she did not want to go any further. He became extremely angry and said that if she changed her mind now she would be breaking her promise. She knew this was true and let herself be bullied into submission. He hurt her a good deal and it was hardly surprising that this first experience of love was a humiliating failure. (214)
    While Lion's behaviour is condemned, the novel takes a complex approach to sexual politics. The heroine, Olivia, realises that "In a literal sense she had come off lighly, but the anguish of other women acted as a commentary on her own unhappiness" (219). As a result of Lion's actions, Olivia judges the hero, Tom, much more harshly than he merits and:
    It was the old battle of the sexes, she supposed. The difficulty of men and women understanding each other's values. Men believed that when a pretty woman did not discourage them she was fair game, available for flirtation or dalliance. In revenge, women believed that when a man set out to charm them without serious intentions he was by definition a monster, capable of every other sort of villainy. (240)
    No excuses are made for Lion's behaviour, but without being anachronistic (this is, after all, a historical romance) the novel seeks to explore the effects on both men and women of a sexual market place (as described in my previous post) in which virginity is highly prized, there is a sexual double standard in place, and women must always be wary of rakes.
  • In Polly Forrester's Winter of the Wolf (1991), a romance set in the Middle Ages, the heroine is the victim of both physical aggression and marital rape by her husband (who is not the hero). The abuser's excuses may temporarily convince the heroine, but both she and the reader are soon shown how hollow such justifications truly are:
    'I would have been good to you ... It wasn't my fault, Rosalind ... I was always so busy, trying to make a living to support us - it's no wonder I got cross at times, but that's going to change - Rosalind, if only you could get me out of here I'd show you how much I really love you...'
    He might have changed. The shock might have made him realise the wickedness of his old ways ... (170)
    Not a page later, he's holding her hostage, with a knife to her back. After his death the heroine agrees to enter into a new marriage with the hero, who always treats her with great respect, even when he fears she may no longer love him. Hardly a novel which condones or romanticises the abuse of women.
So much for the mixed history of Mills & Boon romances in the past. Bindel illustrates her opinion of current romances, namely that "rather than becoming a "new man", it seems [the hero] has become even more masculine and domineering in order to keep the heroine in line. This is how the rape fantasies so integral to the plot have been able to persist," by reference to the back-cover copy of three romances published in 2007/2008. Yet if Bindel had read the back-cover copy of Love in a Mist, she'd certainly not have realised that it contained a rape scene:
A disastrous early marriage had brought Sally a small daughter she adored, but had left her wary about the whole idea of love and commitment. Luke Sheridan knew exactly how she felt: after all he'd been through the same minefield and the experience had taught him to steer clear of involvement with women who took everything and gave nothing. Could they forget the past and find happiness together?
The language of the back-cover copy, then, is not a particularly reliable source of information about the presence or absence of patriarchal values within the texts themselves.

I haven't yet read any of the romances mentioned by Bindel, so I admit that I too have less knowledge of them than is required to give a considered opinion of their contents, but Louise Allen's Virgin Slave, Barbarian King, which Bindel gives as an example, has been reviewed as follows:
Wulfric, a Visigoth, who takes her from the men who assaulted her in the streets of Rome. Saving her honor and virginity. As Wulfric's woman, or slave at fist, she's ordered to keep house er tent, for the marauders. Yet she quickly learns that as a slave in Wulfric's household she is far more free than she ever was as the protected, sheltered, obedient Roman virgin destined to be married off to further her families position in the great city.

Wulfric is a powerful, beautiful man who prizes honor above the ability to throw a woman to the floor and take her simply because she is his slave. He won't touch her against her wishes [...] Ms. Allen goes out of her way to be aware of the history of the time period, the way young women were used, and the way the lives of Roman children were planned out by their parents in many respects. (Pray)
In other words, far from raping or coercing the heroine, this is a hero who saves the heroine from rape and, rather than being "full of patriarchal propaganda" the plot of the novel gives the heroine the opportunity to understand, and reject, the patriarchal values of ancient Rome, a fact which is apparent even if one only reads the excerpt, in which Julia begins to question her former life: "Two hours ago she had obeyed without question—the men would know best what to do. Her father, Julius Livius Rufus, a man in his Emperor's confidence for many years; her betrothed, Antonius Justus Celsus."

It seems to me that even within the Mills & Boon Modern (Harlequin Presents) line, where the sort of language used to describe the novels does tend to emphasise the hero's power (common words in the titles and back-cover copy are "mistress," "virgin," "bought," "revenge"), it is extremely important to look at the outcomes of the novels, as well as the initial premises described in the back-cover copy. As I found in my analysis of this line, it is not unusual for the heroine to critique a dominant hero's behaviour in feminist terms (and even, occasionally, to be explicitly identified as a feminist herself). In addition, not all of the heroes are particularly dominant/aggressive and, as has been noted elsewhere, particularly in this line "authors are increasingly devoting swaths of their books to upfront discussions of such serious sexual issues. Last month, Annie West's For the Sheikh's Pleasure focused on a woman struggling to be physically and emotionally intimate after being drugged and raped during a night out."

Bindel's arguments should not be completely dismissed: there have certainly been some Mills & Boon novels which normalised unacceptable acts of male verbal and sexual aggression, but ignoring the huge variety in Mills & Boon's output throughout the years, judging all their novels on the basis of a tiny sample, assuming that novels written 15 or more years ago are still representative of those being written and published in the 21st century, and judging books on the basis of their titles and back-cover copy, is not an academically rigorous way to go about the analysis of such a large number of novels.
  • Algermissen, Jo Ann. Would You Marry Me Anyway? Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette, 1991.
  • Bishop, Sheila. Fair Game. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, 1992.
  • Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990s. London: UCL P, 1999.
  • Field, Sandra. Love in a Mist. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, 1988.
  • Forrester, Polly. Winter of the Wolf. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, 1991.
There has been quite a large response to the Guardian article, so I thought I'd pick out a few of the posts that have been written so far:
  • In the comments section at Meriam's blog Daisy Cummins (who offered a counterpoint to Bindel's part of the piece) clarifies her position.
  • Scribbles explains the difference between sexual fantasies and reality.
  • Michelle Styles references Teach Me Tonight and points out that Bindel "did not bother to properly research her piece."
  • Kate Walker provides some more comment on the age of Bindel's sources.
  • Secret Rebel, like Bindel, read some Mills & Boon a few years ago, so she feels qualified to state that "All M&B sex is euphemised rape, using the language of "possession", "ownership" and "dominance". There's no deviance or variation from this classic pattern. It's not that some M&B books are like this - they *all* are."
  • The Smart Bitches post and spark off a lively and varied debate.
  • A thread at All About Romance.
  • More commentary, this time from Jane at Dear Author, who asks "whether we are what we read. Do the books reflect our social values (i.e., a romanticization of rape) or do books set our social values."
  • In the light of the debate which is still continuing almost two weeks after Bindel's comments were first published, Robin takes another look at what it is that Bindel "identified in Romance, and the fact that it is a paradigm I think all Romance readers can recognize in the genre" and suggests that "we are trying to tell ourselves something in these novels. What that is, and why we feel so compelled to rehearse these scenarios over and over is not answerable from a single perspective, of course. But perhaps Bindel is reminding us that if we didn’t think this genre was important to begin with, we wouldn’t feel so passionate about defending it."

28 comments:

  1. As always, Laura, your blog is beautifully thought out and clearly presented. I feel as though I've read a thesis and am better educated because of it.

    Thanks for being so thorough and informative.

    Best,
    Lynne Marshall
    Proud to be a Mills and Boon Medical Romance author

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  2. Kay Webb Harrison06 December, 2007 20:40

    Great article, Laura.

    The research Bindel did 15 years ago was to illustrate her topic. Wouldn't she have chosen only those books that featured rape to support her premise? Would she have read any that didn't; and if she had read any M&B books that didn't feature rape, would she have cited them?
    Kay

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  3. Kay: proper academic research must take into account any evidence that counters the scholar's hypothesis as well as that which supports it, and the researcher must cite and discuss both, explaining how he/she weights the evidence and why.
    If a person reads, say, 200 novels (not 20) and 175 generally support her theory, while 25 seem to undermine it, there may well be virtue in that theory. It is, at least, something that can be argued. If she reads 200, and 100 support her interpretation and 100 counter it, then she needs to examine her parameters again.
    Academic research that is based on a very small sample of evidence and/or deliberately, or even unconsciously, selects only evidence that supports a particular hypothesis while excluding the rest is bad scholarship.
    :-)

    AgTigress

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  4. Thanks, Lynne. I'm glad you enjoyed reading the post.

    Wouldn't she have chosen only those books that featured rape to support her premise? Would she have read any that didn't; and if she had read any M&B books that didn't feature rape, would she have cited them?

    AgTigress has just answered this much more concisely than I'm about to, but as I've spent a while writing this all out, I'll post what I've written anyway.

    Bindel says that "I read 20 Mills & Boon novels as research for a dissertation on "romantic fiction and the rape myth". That sounds as though she read 20 in total. If she'd said she'd cited 20 novels, that would be different, but that's not what she said.

    She says that in "every book, there was a scene where the heroine is "broken in", both emotionally and physically, by the hero." I suppose it's just about possible that she randomly picked up 20 novels, all of which had both emotional and physical "breaking in" of the heroine, but there were plenty of romances, by the authors I mentioned in my post, who didn't include any "violent sex," so one might wonder why she didn't come across any of them.

    Whether it's valid to just mention books which support your premise really depends on what you're trying to prove. For example, if you're going to say that all Mills & Boon romances promote rape, then you need to be sure that this is true. You can really only do if you've read them all, or if someone reliable has read them all and says that it's the case. For example, even though I haven't read every single M&B romance, on the basis of everything I've read that's been written by historians of the firm, I think I can safely say that all M&B romances depict the development of heterosexual relationships. That would also be backed up by 100% of a very large sample. I might want to qualify that in various ways, just to make sure there's absolutely no confusion. For example, I might want to mention that in the course of its history M&B has published books which are not romances, (including other types of fiction, and non-fiction, including chemistry text-books), and that for obvious reasons these cannot be assumed to be about heterosexual relationships.

    That may sound rather pedantic, but it's accurate. If someone wants to write something sensational rather than academic, then they can ignore all this, but then they shouldn't invoke academic credentials to give their unfounded generalisations a patina of authority.

    Bindel may be able to truthfully say that all of the 20 novels she sampled portrayed the emotional and physical "breaking in" of the heroine. It would be inaccurate for her to say that this is true of all M&B romances.

    For comparative purposes, I can explain a bit more about what I did for my research. Please feel free to skip this if it's too boring ;-)

    I read over 60 Moderns and over 60 Tender/Romances and ended up citing 16 of the Modern/Presents and 15 of the Tender/Romances. I limited myself to novels published between 2000 and 2007. That still wasn't a huge sample, so I also read the guidelines for each line, and spoke to authors. I think that this broader set of source materials, together with the number of novels I read, did give me a fairly good grasp of the "feel" of each line.

    I wasn't selecting the novels entirely at random: some were novels that the authors mentioned to me. So, I didn't attempt to do a statistical analysis of the data. Instead I just pointed out that while some romances I'd read were anti-feminist (and yes, I cited a couple), and some weren't particularly pro- or anti-feminist (and I didn't cite any of those, because it would be tricky to find a key quote which demonstrates that a novel isn't easily identifiable either way), there were many which did have feminist themes.

    I didn't make any sweeping claims about entire lines, or the whole of M&B's output. Instead I said that I was only focussing on the romances which dealt explicitly with feminist issues (and did so in a feminist manner). My aim was to show that such novels did exist, and to give a bit more insight into how they dealt with the feminist issues. So that part was quite narrowly focussed.

    I also noted that there are parallels between the society in which Second Wave feminism developed and the social context in which many of the heroines of the Modern romances find themselves: these are novels in which there is frequently conflict between hero and heroine and in which the heroine’s sexual, social and economic freedoms are often limited. In the Romance line, by contrast, the heroines, like Third Wave feminists, tend to find themselves in a much more equal society.

    These broader conclusions were backed up by reference to the guidelines, and I felt it was generally true of the anti-feminist and the neither-femininst-nor-anti-feminist novels, as well as of the ones I chose to focus on. There were a few exceptions, so I was careful to say that this was "frequently" the case or that it "tended" to be so.

    If I'd wanted to draw broader conclusions, or make more sweeping statements, I'd have had to have read far, far more books in order to have the evidence to back up such claims.

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  5. I had always thought that the Mills & Boon and Harlequin lines were virtually identical, the latter being reprints of the former; but obviously there are many more, and more varied, M&B lines than I realized.

    I differ from most of you in that I read Harlequins back in the 60s and early 70s, when they practically never had sex in them, and if they did it was usually between people already in a marriage of convenience. I stopped reading them when the publication here first of Barbara Cartland and then of Georgette Heyer created a market for Regencies, which I much preferred. I really like only Regencies, romantic suspense, and a few favorite authors of contemporaries. My first experience was with an Essie Summers novel, which I picked up because there wasn't anything else on the rack that appealed to me, and it was set in Scotland. I read them for a while because they made a great break from grad school, but the only authors I really considered keepers were Jane Donnelly, Essie Summers, Betty Neels, Mary Burchell, and maybe one or two others that I can't recall. They were NOT typical of the line as a whole, which I found annoying, not only because the hero was domineering in every way, not just sexually; but because most of the heroines were NOT able to stand up for themselves; and, what is more, though they were supposed to be nurses or secretaries or some such, they never seemed to do any actual WORK. The heroines of the authors I liked were competent and courageous and often had real professions. The Summers heroines often found themselves rescuing small children lost in the New Zealand bush; I can remember one Neels heroine, a surgical Sister, calmly assisting the surgeon hero to complete a delicate and dangerous operation as the hospital burned to the ground around them; and Burchell's heroines often became operatic stars through talent and dedication.

    Jayne Ann Krentz often points out (including both times I've heard her speak) that romance novels and other genre fiction remain popular because they celebrate the core values of our culture: love, honor, loyalty, courage, and the like. And her vision of the alpha hero in romance, which I concur with, is not the domineering guy but the guy other people instinctively look to for leadership when there is trouble. Some of her 80s novels, written to category guidelines, do feature the domineering alphas, but I don't care for them, or that type in general. The type of alpha hero I like is the one who is PROTECTIVE of the heroine and others, not merely controlling, and best of all when not controlling at all. And of course Krentz's heroines have always been able to hold their own with them. In a few of the books they even control the heroes, in the sense that the heroes are employed by them.

    I think the whole domineering male/forced sex thing is related to the idea of "romance" described by Susan Forward in Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them
    (excerpt here: http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780553381412&view=excerpt)

    Her thesis is that women who have grown up in chaotic families, usually with at least one alcoholic/addicted parent, tend to think of the sturm und drang of such relationships as indicative of real love and passion, so that calm relationships with mature men don't seem "romantic" at all.

    I've only read two or three more recent Harlequins, and that was because I bought a batch of 20 assorted books for $5 on eBay because there was one in the lot that I actually wanted, and they were in the box. They were much better written than most of the ones from the vintage I usually read, but they didn't tempt me to take to Harlequins again. I did read a few by Emma Goldrick in the 80s, and quite liked them, but I just plain went off the categories.

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  6. Laura said: For example, I might want to mention that in the course of its history M&B has published books which are not romances, (including other types of fiction, and non-fiction, including chemistry text-books), and that for obvious reasons these cannot be assumed to be about heterosexual relationships.

    But wouldn't a biochemistry book narrate the tragic tale of the two corpuscles whose love was in vein?

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  7. I find it rather interesting that in that Sandra Field quotes, the heroine is shown to have the emotional response of someone raped, rather than being "swept away by passion," as seems to be more typical in category romances. (Actually kind of a pet peeve of mine, the heroine who can't resist the hero physically, no matter what a total jackass he's been.)

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  8. I had always thought that the Mills & Boon and Harlequin lines were virtually identical, the latter being reprints of the former; but obviously there are many more, and more varied, M&B lines than I realized.

    I think that at the time when you were reading them, there weren't very many lines (I don't know when historicals and medicals were first separated out from the non-medical contemporaries), and in the early days of the M&B and Harlequin relationship, Harlequin did just publish reprints of selected M&B romances.

    Nowadays M&B publish about 10 lines (I'm hedging there, but they come and go) and most of the books they publish are also published in US editions by Harlequin. Harlequin also publishes many other lines, including the Steeple Hill "inspirational romances", the Kimani African-American lines, the Spice line, Harlequin American Romance and the LUNA novels.

    Jayne Ann Krentz often points out (including both times I've heard her speak) that romance novels and other genre fiction remain popular because they celebrate the core values of our culture: love, honor, loyalty, courage, and the like.

    But can we really assume that there is such a thing as "our culture"? Harlequin Mills & Boon is a worldwide brand and although (as I discussed here) they may like to think that there are "universal emotional truths" or "core values of our culture," I'm not so sure. Certainly the way in which those values are interpreted and understood can vary from one culture (and time period) to another (and from one individual to another too, of course).

    The women whose stories are told in that excerpt from Forward's books seemed to be in love with the idea of love, and be so keen to be in love that they didn't look at the reality of the relationships they were entering into. Re the "sturm und drang," I think this ties in with Sternberg's ideas about how people have particular "stories" about love which then shape the relationships they end up in. In my post, I speculated that possibly the "stories" that shape each individual's attitudes to love might also affect that person's preferences in romance novels. That's not to say that everyone reads romances about the sort of relationship they'd like to have in real life, but it might be that some people choose romances that reflect some aspect of what they consider to be the ideal/appealing in a relationship.

    I've only read two or three more recent Harlequins, [...] They were much better written than most of the ones from the vintage I usually read

    Could you give some more details about the ways in which the modern ones are "better written"? I'm really curious to know more about the quality of older M&B romances, because I've mostly read books published in the 1990s onwards, and only a very few from earlier on, because they're not easy to find.

    wouldn't a biochemistry book narrate the tragic tale of the two corpuscles whose love was in vein?

    I can't think of a witty riposte to that. The pun receptor centres in my brain burned out ;-)

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  9. the heroine is shown to have the emotional response of someone raped, rather than being "swept away by passion," as seems to be more typical in category romances

    I agree that it read as a realistic depiction of how a date rape might occur and how someone might feel at the time it was happening to her. On the other hand, I'm not sure how realistic Field's portrayal is in terms of how a woman who'd been raped would behave afterwards. Difficult to tell, as different people can react in very different ways, but it didn't seem particularly realistic to me, because the heroine doesn't show any long-term distress at what happened, and in fact is cured of her fears about sex by having sex with him again.

    A temporary "shame"/upset response after the event, rather than a "swept away by passion" scenario might be there not so much because this is a realistic response (were it realistic I'd expect the heroine's distress to be more than temporary and to have some long-term consequences for her relationship with the "hero") but because of the reasons Dixon mentions:

    until the heroine knows, through words, that the hero loves her, she, while enjoying the sex, finds it a matter for shame afterwards. In other words, in this type of Mills & Boon novel, sex can be pleasurable - even orgasmic - without love, but it is only truly acceptable for the heroine when it is part of an expression of an already acknowledged love - whether mutually declared or the heroine's recognition of her own feelings. (144)

    I have a very nebulous feeling, unsubstantiated by any evidence, that fewer heroines feel "shame" about sex with the hero in more recent romances. I wonder if that could tie in with the idea we were discussing in relation to rakes, that passionate sex which neither partner can resist has in some romances come to be a sign that they really are in love (even if they don't yet know it). It could also reflect changes in social attitudes towards premarital sex.

    It's also possible that in the more modern category romances authors are keen to avoid writing about something which would be rape, so instead they've invented what romance readers term the "forced seduction," which is a purely fictional phenomenon in which the hero really can tell, perhaps via some mysterious physical signals her body is sending him, what the heroine is feeling, and so he really knows that she wants sex with him. This rather neatly gets around the problem of lack of consent.

    Anne Marble has written that:

    It is only in fiction, after all, that we can even use the term "forced seduction." In reality there is no forced seduction; when a woman says no and a man forces sex upon her, it's rape. Yet the forced seduction fantasy is rooted not in a wish to actually be raped, but in being forced to accept pleasure.

    I'll admit, though, that I haven't yet worked out when a seduction/they just find each other irresistible scenario shades into a "forced seduction" one. I suspect it's often quite a subtle distinction to do with how willing the heroine is, and different readers may interpret the same scene in different ways.

    Rape in the romance genre is a very, very complex topic, precisely because of the variations in interpretation from reader to reader, the ways that some aspects can be interpreted as being more about symbolism/fantasy fulfillment than realism and the fact that however much the "fantasy" angle is emphasised by some readers, it's impossible to dismiss them as just being fantasy, as though they have no relationship at all to what happens outside fiction.

    It's rather late here, so perhaps I'm getting a bit incoherent and not making sense, so I'll quote Robin, who had this to say about rape in romance:

    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. [...] 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.

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  10. Nowadays M&B publish about 10 lines

    Perhaps I'd be more aware of this if I'd been in a bookstore recently; but except for a couple of trips to B&N for signings/talks, all my bookbuying has been done online, as I've been a semi-invalid for about 10 years. I do remember about three or four lines of Harlequins (including a short-lived Regency line) and a couple of Silhouette lines, which I think were by then part of Harlequin.

    But can we really assume that there is such a thing as "our culture"?

    I think Krentz was referring to Western European values, as those countries (including Commonwealth countries) are the primary consumers of English-language romances. That is certainly what I meant, anyway--the cultural heirs of the Arthurian romances, Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Jane Austen, the rest of the nineteenth-century novelists, and so on.

    Could you give some more details about the ways in which the modern ones are "better written"?

    I may be a bit incoherent here, because I'm multitasking, and the other task is trying to keep a cat from eating the computer cables. The one recent Harlequin romance (from that $5 batch) that I can recall is one by Suzanne Brockmann; and her fans have told me it was probably her weakest book. I think the others were mostly romantic suspense. It's hard to make a straight comparison because I haven't read either group recently. I have recently been dipping into some of the older ones that have turned up in unpacking; but the Shelve Elves I hired to do it just took the books out of the cartons and shelved them without bothering to sort them, and of course they were packed by size, not subject. So far the ones I've looked at to decide whether or not they are keepers have not been; and I'd already, a couple of decades ago, made a grand sweep of most of the ones I knew I didn't like for a friend who was running a church book sale. I have yet to come across any of my favorites.

    One of the ways they are better written is that the heroines have more plausible lives. When they have jobs, they are shown actually doing them, and doing them well; as opposed to older books in which they are supposed to be working but somehow just accompany their bosses to various exotic locations. In several of them, the heroine is a cop or a P.I. and good at it. In others, they run their own businesses or have responsible executive positions. So many of the older Harlequins have heroines who are pretty much helpless and just swept along on the tide of events (which is usually orchestrated by the hero).

    Perhaps as a consequence of this, the dialogue is better, too; the heroines actually have something to say for themselves. (Mind you, this is still based on a VERY small sample.)

    (Cat has gone to sleep. Possible to concentrate.)

    I have made an exception for some of the older romances of Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz, and Elizabeth Lowell. I used not to read anything but Regencies and traditional romantic suspense like Mary Stewart and Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters, but a bookstore manager turned me on to Amanda Quick, although that wasn't my usual taste in Regencies. I then wound up once picking up one of her JAK contemporaries when there was nothing else interesting on the library shelf--and lo and behold! I loved it! So I went on to read her backlist and then, from recommendations on her website, I picked up Elizabeth Lowell and the same thing happened.

    I was once in a drugstore, making a brief stop on the way to a doctor's appointment, when I realized with horror that I HAD BROUGHT NOTHING TO READ!!! The only thing they had that was remotely interesting was an anthology containing a J.D. Robb novella, so I then went on to the rest of Robb and then Roberts.

    I still don't particularly care for the 80s Harlequins even by these authors, who are notably superior to the pack, as evidenced by the fact that they've broken out of it. Mainly because I really dislike the domineering hero (perhaps because I was raised by a father who said he'd rather be feared than loved, which tells you pretty much all you need to know about my background). I really like the heroine who stands up to him. In a recent JAK, All Night Long, the hero's half-brother says she's come up with a way to deal with the ex-Marine hero that works well: "He gives you orders. You ignore them."

    It may be that I've missed out on a lot of good recent Harlequins that do have strong heroines and non-domineering men; and it may be that that is simply what I mean by "better written:; but I am happy enough with my current reading habits and not inspired to re-investigate categories.

    I'm planning to get rid of all but a few of my old categories. Make me an offer I can't refuse.

    The "forced seduction" scenario often takes place in Linda Howard's novels, where the heroine doesn't want sex, even though she's already in a sexual relationship with him, because she feels (often correctly) that he has betrayed her in some way. In Dream Man, the heroine has psychic visions of the serial killer the cop hero is pursuing; her one concern is that her identity be concealed. He keeps on doubting her even after her clues have been proved accurate and he's checked out her bona fides; and eventually he does give up her name to the press. It's no wonder that her response to his next amorous advances is negative! The forced seduction is that he persists until she changes her mind--or rather is overwhelmed by her physical response.

    I remember reading an article years ago in TV GUIDE about the romantic protagonists, Luke and Laura, of some soap opera (GENERAL HOSPITAL?). In response to viewer complaints that they wound up having a hot love affair even though he raped her the first time they met, the producer/head writer said "it was just a get-acquainted rape."

    I believe Miss Manners frowns on this, and as for Emily Post....!

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  11. I forgot to mention that I've read quite a few of the Harlequin LUNA books, and they have been pretty much indistinguishable from SF fantasy with a strong romantic plot. I like the Lackey 500 Kingdoms series and C.E. Murphy's Urban Shaman series (in which the heroine and hero have yet to do more than exchange heated looks, and may never get any farther due to circumstances.)

    I think that a lot of the fantasy and SF with romance plots is better as romance than some of the paranormal romances: cf. Sharon Lee and Steve Miller's Liaden Universe books and Linnea Sinclair's space operas--both published as SF, not paranormal romance.

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  12. I would have liked Bindel to take the next step in her research. Let's say she did do a valid sample of M&B books in a certain period and found them to have patriarchical values or rape-like scenes of women being broken in. Even though Laura has already presented evidence that this is unlikely to be true, let's grant it for the sake of argument. The interesting question now is what this means or why this is the case.

    I only came into reading about the romance genre in the last 5 years, so things may have changed, but now romance novels are written (largely) by women and the readers are (largely) women. The agents and editors are mostly women. So why would women choose to publish books of women being broken (if this were to be the case) written by women for other women to read?

    The implicit assumption I get from Bindel is that romance readers are just indoctrinated into patriarchical culture or some such. They aren't enlightened enough to see what's happening to them and the system they are perpetuating. While it's possible this is the entire answer, I find it unlikely. Instead, I would guess that the female readers and writers of such books are exploring far more complicated issues of love, power, and desire, and the breaking, domineering type of "love" in such books is some sort of outward expression.

    If there's any snobbery in Bindel's article, I would guess that it's in a complete lack of interest in understanding why people would read these things that she so abhors. It's not because the readers are dumb, bored housewives. Bindel needs to give readers more credit and, once that is done, things would get a lot more interesting. One possibility that arises is that so many women endured date rape that they are looking for ways to find real love and restore their own power in such a world. In such a scenario, a M&B which features a date rape and then the heroine manages to find love despite it is as subversive as it is indoctrinating.

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  13. One of the ways they are better written is that the heroines have more plausible lives. [...] So many of the older Harlequins have heroines who are pretty much helpless and just swept along on the tide of events (which is usually orchestrated by the hero).

    OK, so they're "better" mostly in terms of greater realism and the characterisation of the heroines. But are they also better in terms of language use? Or are the writing styles just different? I get the impression that there are techniques that authors use today (e.g. including the hero's point of view) which weren't so common in the past.

    I'm planning to get rid of all but a few of my old categories. Make me an offer I can't refuse.

    I'd be tempted to, but shipping to the UK would be rather expensive.

    why would women choose to publish books of women being broken (if this were to be the case) written by women for other women to read?

    I think it would be described in feminist theory as "internalized oppression" (there's a description of how this might work in a sexual context here, and note that that author is wary of "romance" - the concept, not the genre). I think it's impossible to deny that some themes/figures in romance can have a negative aspect: for example, the "other woman" figure, who was usually more experienced sexually and contrasted with the younger, virginal heroine wasn't exactly affirming of older, sexually active women. I have the impression that she's maybe not quite so easy to find in romance these days, but she's still around. And in older romances you tended to find that the heroine was more isolated and, because of the "other woman" figure, tended not to have (m)any women friends. This meant that she was trying to get all her emotional needs met by the hero. Again, it wasn't necessarily the situation described in every romance, but it wasn't uncommon and didn't do much to promote the idea that having a wide network of friends of either gender is important.

    The implicit assumption I get from Bindel is that romance readers are just indoctrinated into patriarchical culture or some such. They aren't enlightened enough to see what's happening to them and the system they are perpetuating. While it's possible this is the entire answer, I find it unlikely.

    Why's it unlikely? People are affected by the culture which surrounds them. Austen was a woman and an author, but in Mansfield Park she depicts the sexual double standard in action and although she also blames the man for his actions, she doesn't dispute that Maria Bertram's adultery causes her to become a fallen woman. Mary Crawford, who isn't scandalized by what has happened, is thereby shown to be immoral.

    Instead, I would guess that the female readers and writers of such books are exploring far more complicated issues of love, power, and desire, and the breaking, domineering type of "love" in such books is some sort of outward expression.

    I don't think one can generalise about this. Some novels give the impression that their authors are exploring certain themes, while others seem to be involved in using (in a less questioning manner) existing archetypes and plots. Similarly some readers are just looking for "entertainment" and "fun" and aren't particularly interested in "exploring" the ideas underpinning that entertainment, while other readers might have a very different response to the texts.

    In fact, Cummins' argument is also problematic, though in a different way from Bindel's. Cummins writes of M&B romances that

    they have never been presented as contenders for literary prizes and therefore need not offend anyone who would denigrate them on this basis. These books started out as serials, novellas written to appeal to women who would pick them up for an exotic, escapist treat. And, as with any successful business venture, the original formula has stayed largely the same.

    In other words, she's saying that they're not to be treated as "literature" because they're just an "escapist treat."

    Bindel, on the other hand, isn't attacking the novels because they're badly written (which is pretty much what Cummins has admitted, and which I think is not true, certainly not of all M&Bs, because some are very well written). Bindel is the one taking the novels, and the ideas contained within them, seriously. I don't think she's going about her research in a systematic way, and I might dispute the conclusions she's drawing, but she isn't denying that romance is worth analysing. It's Cummins who does that when she implies that romances are just escapist treats and that "We can separate fantasy and reality". In literal terms, of course we can, but are we really going to accept that all fiction is value free? I don't think so, and in that sense, you can't deny that there's some connection between the values contained within books and the same values as they derive from and/or affect our understanding of our culture/society/reality.

    In addition, Bindel doesn't say that all women are affected the same way by their romance reading. She says that "there is no doubt that such novels feed directly into some women's sense of themselves as lesser beings, as creatures desperate to be dominated" (emphasis added). And this was certainly true of a reader whose words I copied into this post:

    I didn't explicitly understand that romance novels were shaping me, but looking back the pattern is clear. I tried to be pure; I tried really hard. To little avail, but still I tried. And I found the worst men I could possibly find. Gorgeous and horrible, men who treated women like objects or angels of mercy but who never, as I learned only too late, had any intention of reforming.

    [...] I could not break free from the stories about gender and romance those novels had embedded in my mind. Even when I knew they were unrealistic and sexist, still they stayed with me, as part of me, shaping who I looked to as attractive and who I looked past as unattractive.


    Her experiences would tie in with what Sternberg has to say about the importance of stories in shaping our attitudes towards relationships.

    One possibility that arises is that so many women endured date rape that they are looking for ways to find real love and restore their own power in such a world. In such a scenario, a M&B which features a date rape and then the heroine manages to find love despite it is as subversive as it is indoctrinating.

    That's possible, but I personally find stories where a woman ends up in a relationship with her rapist repellent. I find them very upsetting because I can't read them the way you're suggesting. But I know other people don't respond to the novels the same way I do.

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  14. ~I don't think one can generalise about this. Some novels give the impression that their authors are exploring certain themes, while others seem to be involved in using (in a less questioning manner) existing archetypes and plots.~

    Laura, could you give examples of authors who explore themes/ challenge the formula? I'd really like to know if you have any favourite books in the Mills&Boon lines.

    ~Bindel is the one taking the novels, and the ideas contained within them, seriously.~

    This is a great point. There have been numerous responses presenting the genre as a harmless bit of fun to counteract/ dismiss Bindel's critique, but what about those of us who find some of the underlying themes worth exploring? Not to prove Bindel's point (or disprove it), simply to explore and, in doing so, find out a little bit more about ourselves and what it is about these stories that draws us to them.

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  15. Laura, ITA with your last comment.

    That Bindel's serious attention to the genre has created such a stir (whether or not any of us agree or disagree with her argument) suggests, IMO, that she's hit a hot spot, perhaps one related to the "guilty pleasure" Romance reading paradigm. If all of us were completely comfortable with the genre, with gender roles, with social expectations, with issues related to sexuality, etc., would her comments provoke response the way they have?

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  16. Maybe, maybe not, Robin.

    I'm comfortable with most of what you list: the genre, gender roles, with social expectations, with issues related to sexuality. At least I feel comfortable with them.

    My unhappiness (even anger) has to do with someone attacking--calling "hate speech"--a kind of literature that I quite like. Not the specific novels or lines she mentions, but romance more generally. I take offense at her unprofessional, unscholarly approach, when there is better work being done. I'm annoyed by her lack of subtlety, especially psychological subtlety.

    Of course, I'm a man, so I stand on the periphery of this debate. And I find it fascinating that of all the comments, I'm most in agreement (in sync!) with Pacatrue's. Don't know what to make of that, but it's worth noting.

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  17. Laura, could you give examples of authors who explore themes/ challenge the formula? I'd really like to know if you have any favourite books in the Mills&Boon lines.

    It depends what you mean by "challenge the formula". If the formula involves a heterosexual couples who fall in love and end up living together/married, then none of them challenge the formula, but in terms of taking some of the sexual issues quite seriously there were some descriptions in this post of novels by Sandra Marton, Annie West, Lucy Monroe, who all write for the Modern/Presents line. In terms of reversing the balance of power between the couple, and in having a hero who downsizes his life, there's Anne McAllister's The Antonides Marriage Deal, which also has a heroine who had loved her now-dead fiance (he hadn't been evil, and she wasn't a virgin). She becomes CEO of the hero's company. He resents it, but not because she's a woman. And at the end they both decide to downsize: he wants to build boats rather than pay other people to make them, and she trains as a pastry chef because she's really always wanted to run her own bakery. Both ended up in big business because of their fathers. Again, that's a Modern/Presents.

    In the Medical line you can find lots of novels in which both hero and heroine are equally qualified medical professionals, which might surprise people who think they're all still doctor/nurse. And in any case, the nurses are portrayed as skilled professionals with an important role to play in providing care to the patients, while the doctors nowadays don't wander around in a distant, god-like manner. I remember one where the heroine was actually more senior than the hero, and he was going to be in charge of the childcare (she unexpectedly got pregnant). Unfortunately I read it before I started my research in earnest, so I don't have a note of the name of that one.

    In the Romance line, Melissa James has written about "the Stolen Generation, ‘half-caste’ children forcibly taken from their parents and either illegally adopted out or sent to orphanages to become Anglicized in culture." Jackie Braun's Their Very Special Gift is about a couple dealing with infertility and adoption and the heroine doesn't miraculously get pregnant at the end. Jessica Hart wrote a novel about a middle-aged mother of two and while she does marry her boss, in the conventional romance fashion, things don't work out in the conventional way.

    I've picked these out because they quite obviously deal with issues which make them stand out.

    Claire Thornton's Ten Guineas on Love is in the historical line and has a heroine who's highly capable and rather devious. She has to be, to manage her father's estate despite people assuming that because she's a woman she's not as capable. The hero has recently become an Earl, but his mother's family are goldsmiths/bankers and he matches the heroine very well.

    It's difficult, though, when there isn't an "issue" to use as a hook, to explain why some stories seem unusual. There are so many M&Bs that I like because they seem fresh and interesting to me, and I like the characters, but even if I had more than a few sentences to do so, I'm not sure I could explain what it was that made me think/feel that.

    Laura, ITA with your last comment.

    Well, so you should, because I think it was partly your comments at Meriam's blog which got me thinking along those lines ;-)

    If all of us were completely comfortable with the genre, with gender roles, with social expectations, with issues related to sexuality, etc., would her comments provoke response the way they have?

    It would be a sad day if we were all completely comfortable with everything in the genre! I mean, it's quite diverse, and so many romances are published each year that it would be surprising if there wasn't something there to critique. But yes, I take your point, that some of the responses seem to have a strong knee-jerk, defensive aspect to them, so they're not really engaging with the parts of Bindel's comments which might be worth considering, even if Bindel herself has massively overstated her case. It was the over-statement that provoked me. I was disappointed by Cummins's argument because it didn't defend the craft involved in writing these books (and it's not easy to write a novel, and particularly not one which engages the reader's emotions, has characters which feel alive, and has a plot which keeps the reader engaged. On top of that, some also engage with interesting issues or have nice tasty layers of imagery I can analyse). I also think that her "We can separate fantasy and reality" argument isn't nuanced enough: as you've said elsewhere, we can tell that advertising is trying to get us to buy something and that what we're seeing isn't necessarily the reality. But lots of people still buy the product despite that. So just because we know something's not real doesn't mean it can't have an effect on our behaviour and/or emotions.

    Of course, I'm a man, so I stand on the periphery of this debate.

    Eric, there's no way you're going to get off so easily. Why does being a man put you at the periphery of the debate? What about the way romance portrays men? How do you, as a man, feel about that? Could it sometimes be considered objectification? How do you feel when you read about a hero who rapes a heroine? Do you ever feel that the ideals of masculinity presented by the author are ones you don't agree with/or which make you feel inadequate and a failure? And what is it about Pacatrue's comment that makes you feel so in agreement with it?

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  18. My unhappiness (even anger) has to do with someone attacking--calling "hate speech"--a kind of literature that I quite like. Not the specific novels or lines she mentions, but romance more generally. I take offense at her unprofessional, unscholarly approach, when there is better work being done. I'm annoyed by her lack of subtlety, especially psychological subtlety.

    Well, I disagree with Bindel, but I also think she's been demonized far beyond what she said (sort of like Dworkin, heh). First, Bindel doesn't present herself as an academic or scholar; far as I can tell she's a justice activist who works in crimes against women. Here's her most recent article, which seems to characterize the kind of work she does:
    http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/julie_bindel/2007/11/first_change_the_culture.html

    I don't think I could ever do that kind of work without becoming a bit strident. I've always admired people who can work in those trenches and not develop a deep antipathy to all society.

    But beyond that, I think she's really aiming at one particular facet of M&B novels, the one she hooked on for her own "dissertation" (for what, though, I cannot tell, since she doesn't seem to do academic work at all): rape. Now I agree with you that her "research methods" as she represents them in this little piece are embarrassing, not only in the size of the sample and the time frame, but also because she uses blurbs. And her belief that all M&B books use the rape motif is off, too. But still, I think what she's saying about the presence of rape in the genre, and about how that relates to patriarchy and to violence against women is important to discuss. Fortunately or unfortunately, I found her piece more memorable than Cummins's. And one of the points she made is IMO quite interesting: that women fall in love with and marry those who are symbolic of historical patterns of oppression against their gender. Is that subversive or conforming to patriarchy? Again, I don't agree with the way Bindel frames the issue (and I always tend to look for subversion when given a choice), but when her arguments are met with stuff like "she just needs to get laid," I think some of her paranoia may be justified, lol.

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  19. when her arguments are met with stuff like "she just needs to get laid," I think some of her paranoia may be justified, lol.

    Yes, I found those comments (which were not made anywhere on this blog, I hasten to add, in case anyone was wondering) chilling and horribly ironic. She's critiquing the way in which heroines are subdued and silenced through sexual aggression and then some individuals seem to be suggest that that's what Bindel herself needs to have done to her.

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  20. Thanks, Laura. In your posts you remain -appropriately - neutral and I've always wondered where your personal preference might lie.

    I read the Jessica Hart you mentioned after reading one of your posts and really enjoyed it.

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  21. Yes, I found those comments (which were not made anywhere on this blog, I hasten to add, in case anyone was wondering) chilling and horribly ironic. She's critiquing the way in which heroines are subdued and silenced through sexual aggression and then some individuals seem to be suggest that that's what Bindel herself needs to have done to her.

    And I'd bet that those who made the comments would recoil at the insinuation that they were suggesting such a thing, which, IMO, goes back to the issue of unconscious ideological conformity.

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  22. In your posts you remain -appropriately - neutral and I've always wondered where your personal preference might lie.

    I'm not sure how neutral I really am - I think it's probably not that difficult to work out which end of the political spectrum I'm at, for example, and that affects my reading preferences. I also identify as a feminist.

    I was choosing the romances I listed primarily because of the issues they dealt with, not necessarily because they're my favourites.

    But for the record, my personal preference is for non-dominating heroes, I don't like it when the hero and heroine spend time hating each other, I recoil emotionally from descriptions of sexual and/or physical violence (towards main or secondary characters) because I find it upsetting, I prefer it if the characters aren't incredibly rich, I'm not really keen on romances where the heroine finds motherhood the most fulfilling thing in her life and I want to see the characters bonding emotionally and intellectually. They can have great sex, but that in itself does little to convince me of the strength of a relationship, and if I really believe in the characters I sometimes feel as though I should respect their privacy so I'd rather not read long descriptions about their sex life (I know, that might make some people wonder if I can tell the difference between fiction and reality). I could go on, but that's probably enough about me and my reading preferences ;-) Even so, I try to appreciate the good points of novels I don't enjoy, but I don't think I always succeed.

    I'd bet that those who made the comments would recoil at the insinuation that they were suggesting such a thing, which, IMO, goes back to the issue of unconscious ideological conformity.

    The full comment, as it appeared on the SBTB thread went considerably beyond just saying "she just needs to get laid."

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  23. Laura: "The texts Bindel read were, I think one can assume, from roughly 1992... though perhaps she also read some from the 1980s"

    I read Harlequin Presents in the early 1990s. I'm sure the line has changed since then--but by no means in a straight line from misogynist to feminist. I recall a fair amount of variety in Presents in the '90s. Many focused on the heroine's journey rather than the intense hero.

    Laura: we can tell that advertising is trying to get us to buy something and... what we're seeing isn't necessarily the reality

    Robin: her "research methods" as she represents them in this little piece are embarrassing, not only in the size of the sample and the time frame, but also because she uses blurbs

    One feature I think has not changed in Harlequin Presents is that the stylized marketing of the books (title, cover, back cover copy) rarely emphasizes the emotional substance of the story. It's hinted at, however, and readers learn to decode the covers. For example, here's the blurb for Lindsay Armstrong's An Unusual Affair (1993):

    "Rachel wondered if months of living among primitive tribes had left her somewhat unbalanced. Or was it just Mel Carlisle's sheer arrogance and devastating attractiveness that prompted her to assume this charade? Mel had mistaken her for another man's mistress, and she wasn't about to forgive or disabuse him of his hasty conclusion. But the touch-me-not technique she had perfected all of her life now seemed a poor fail-safe measure when challenged by Mel's and her own demanding desires."

    The interpretation of the blurb depends on which words you pick out. Looking for signs of an interesting heroine, it decodes to:
    - Rachel has an unusual history
    - her life is in transition
    - she questions herself
    - she has to change her thinking
    - she has demanding desires

    From my reading of the novel, it's mostly about Rachel's struggle to resolve her own identity: is she suited to the life she plans? (She has a PhD in agricultural economics and plans to spend much of her time in Africa, but comes to realize it could be a lonely existence.) Is she suited to marriage at all? (She thinks not.) Is she suited to this particular man? (She thinks she might be, if they can both stop playing games.) In the end both characters respect each other's work, both change their views on love, and Mel makes a huge effort to accommodate their relationship.

    Looking for warning signs of poor writing and/or patriarchal values, the cover copy sends up several red flags. Some of those are accurate, but some are not.

    E.g. critiquing based on the cover copy, the term "mistress" would get some scorn as patriarchal and outdated. In the book its usage proves not to be quite what it seems. The hero is not denigrating the heroine for being sexually active; he's appalled by what appears to be her acceptance of an outdated role, living off a married older man as a trophy mistress. (These days I'm afraid the book title might have been "Another Man's Mistress", emphasizing a pretty minor aspect of the story--whereas "An Unusual Affair" is reasonably accurate.)

    On the other hand, one could use the blurb to critique the external conflict in the book. The "apparent mistress" misunderstanding is better done than most, but still the weak point of the story.

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  24. I think [Bindel]'s really aiming at one particular facet of M&B novels... : rape. ... I think what she's saying about the presence of rape in the genre, and about how that relates to patriarchy and to violence against women is important to discuss.

    I agree, Bindel's reacting to some issues that are genuinely present in the genre, though anyone who reads M&B/Harlequin realizes there's a lot more variety than she described--and likely more nuance within each book, too (not only between books). The extreme reactions on some blogs confirm that those issues aren't confined to romance novels, they're big social issues readers are grappling with. But I was stymied as to where to take the conversation. If Bindel calling romance "misogynistic hate speech" provoked that kind of reaction, accusing the commenter of doing the same isn't going to enhance discussion.

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  25. Rats, I disappear for a day again and the discussion takes off. Of course, it's often good when this happens because I have little knowledge to add.

    To first tackle Laura's general questions to Eric about masculinity in romance, I will confess that I very much dislike most of the heroes in romance novels that I've started. I find this dashing arrogance completely annoying for lack of a better word, and I frequently get so frustrated with his behavior that I never finish the novel. And as far as I can tell these tropes in which the hero treats a woman really poorly and despite that she falls in love with him continue today.

    As an example, I frequent the Evil Editor humorous publishing blog in which people submit draft openings to their novels. One that just came through started with a woman touching a man and feeling muscle through his shirt and then a few sentences later, he's really rude and dismissive of her. I immediately knew love was intended to be on the way. Find the man who insults and yet is physically attractive and you've often found the hero. It drives me crazy. In short, I have big problems with the view of masculinity in the romance novels I've seen, as well as the odd view of the battle of the sexes.

    All that said, I am very wary of myself and Bindel noticing these sorts of trends and declaring the novels as having horrible effects on women. I want to have more trust in the readers. I'm not simply more enlightened than the millions of romance readers in the world who love these heroes. Instead, there must be something genuinely desirable about the role models being presented that I don't get.

    The problem I have with "internalized oppression" (thanks for the term) as the complete answer is that it just seems to give little credit to romance readers (and anyone whom the term is being applied to). They are all at best unwitting victims of a broken system. They are not acting, wanting, intelligent women, but come off as passive and duped. It's hard to be solidly fighting for people that you don't think of as one's equal.

    I'm overstating my case. In short, I want to understand why amazing smart healthy people want to read books with these themes that are, to me, on the surface so noxious. It must satisfy some natural need or desire. Maybe those desires have been warped by the system in which we live, but they are genuine desires, and we can't come to a deep understanding of the effects of romance fiction without exploring them.

    Actually, I was stewing on some of this at the bus stop a night or so ago. I knew "subversive" wasn't the word I wanted in my last comment. And I had the idea that much of the romance genre is conservative in the sense that it usually operates within the dominant cultural paradigms. People often are trying to find love within the current system, with whatever ideas of masculinity and femininity dominate. And so you have people fighting for love often within an assumed patriarchal mode. So, a romance can actually be giving power to the heroine and its readers, but it's only doing it from within.

    Of course, most people who criticize romance, I would guess, would rather that power be pursued by destroying the system, by going outside of it, changing it, making it what it should be. The appeal of the latter is obvious. But internal power should not be dismissed. Cultures do not change overnight. They may never change in the way we want in a single lifetime. That might even be the normal situation. If that is true, it's a fundamental practical skill to know how to find power within even a broken system.

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  26. I read Harlequin Presents in the early 1990s. I'm sure the line has changed since then--but by no means in a straight line from misogynist to feminist.

    I agree: as I said, when I did my research I found some novels which were explicitly anti-feminist (e.g. the heroine is horrified at the idea of being called a "woman's libber" - though in some ways the stories themselves were perhaps of the "I'm not a feminist but..." sort of kind, so were maybe more of a rejection of some kinds of feminism, rather than every aspect of feminism) and at least one which endorsed the "hero" behaving in an oppressive manner (he was blackmailing the heroine, controlling her freedom of movement and in the end there's no apology from him and in fact she thanks him for taking care of her).

    anyone who reads M&B/Harlequin realizes there's a lot more variety than she described--and likely more nuance within each book, too (not only between books).

    Yes, in what I just called the "I'm not a feminist but..." sort of books there were definitely nuances to be explored, and they're there in other novels too, because the characters are often working out which aspects of traditional roles they can accept/they want to accept/they'll be expected to accept, and especially if one of the couple is a member of royal family (I'm thinking of the sheiks and prince heroes), there can be certain pressures/expectations which neither of them can escape (unless there's an abdication or renunciation of a relationship with the royal family, which does happen in some novels).

    I also agree that you have to learn to interpret the blurbs, and they tend to describe some aspects of the novel better than others.

    I find this dashing arrogance completely annoying for lack of a better word, and I frequently get so frustrated with his behavior that I never finish the novel.

    Pacatrue, would at least part of that reaction be a tiny element of feeling insecure/not good enough? Maybe they don't have that effect on you, but I find that many of the aspects of romance which irritate me also, at some deep level, make me feel inadequate. Which brings me to this point:

    The problem I have with "internalized oppression" (thanks for the term) as the complete answer is that it just seems to give little credit to romance readers (and anyone whom the term is being applied to). They are all at best unwitting victims of a broken system. They are not acting, wanting, intelligent women, but come off as passive and duped. It's hard to be solidly fighting for people that you don't think of as one's equal.

    The fact that I feel inadequate when confronted with certain heroines (who would never think of going out without smooth legs, perfect make-up and a coordinated outfit, and who can smilingly and without resentment hold down a demanding job and then go home to bake cookies with the children, who they can always persuade to behave perfectly) suggests to me that I've internalised some of the attitudes which I think oppress me. That doesn't mean that I'm not a "acting, wanting, intelligent women," and that I am "passive and duped." Rather, it suggests that these beliefs can be very powerful ones which affect us on an emotional level, even if intellectually we might question them. And when we read romance, we are reading in an emotion-led way, which perhaps makes it more likely that the subconscious feelings we've internalised about women's roles etc will be more easily accessed. I know I'm not alone in this: Germaine Greer wrote about romance that she could recognise the appeal of the alpha hero, because at some level, emotionally, he was what she wanted, even though intellectually, he wasn't. [The quote from her is in the second half of this comment]

    So that's why I don't think it's a case of "solidly fighting for people that you don't think of as one's equal": at least for me, and I assume for Greer too, it's a case of struggling with our own responses, and what we recognise within ourselves, and trying to work out which aspects of the fantasies/cultural aspects are ones we can feel comfortable with intellectually as well as emotionally. It may be that if we think about them at greater length, we'll recognise that some things appeal for reasons which are not immediately obvious and which are not about oppression. As you say, some things may be written in a subversive way, or can be read in a subversive manner, even if it doesn't that way at a first reading or to a particular reader. But there may be some aspects we still want to reject even after considerable thought and discussion. And different readers will no doubt come to different conclusions about which bits they do and don't like emotionally and intellectually.

    People often are trying to find love within the current system, with whatever ideas of masculinity and femininity dominate. And so you have people fighting for love often within an assumed patriarchal mode. So, a romance can actually be giving power to the heroine and its readers, but it's only doing it from within.

    Yes, and that's something that LizE said on the AAR thread:

    Women were essentially powerless in the world for many years, with little or no access to the sort of wealth and power a man could earn. This story takes place within that context, which is far from the dead past. For many, many women, it's still the present. But times are changing, and now some women no longer see this as a valuable myth. They think it's a dangerous story, because sometimes the beast is a just beast [sic - I think Liz may have accidentally reversed the word order of those 2 words] no matter how much love you lavish on him. Like Nancy in Oliver Twist, who went on loving Bill Sykes because she was convinced that deep down he really needed her, blind love can be a recipe for disaster. And now that women have more options, many see this particular myth as obsolete. Others obviously don't.

    I think you're both right to point out that difference in perspective and how it affects a reading of the texts. There are those who feel they're within the system, though who'd like to smash most or all of the system, and there's also a third option, which is that some of us may feel that the parts of the system are already smashed.

    Personally, for me parts of the system are smashed, while others are not. The alpha hero has no appeal to me, and I suspect it could be something to do with the fact that my father was a house-husband who did almost all of the cooking and housework, and provided most of the childcare. I've never met anyone who's an alpha, so they don't exist within my emotional world. However, I have experienced fear of male sexual aggression (tricky not to, if you've a woman and you know about rape), so that aspect of some alpha males is one I find troubling, because for me that part of the system is still intact. I've also met "feminine" women, so they also exist within my emotional world, and the part of the system that's about femininity, motherhood, beauty and female "purity" has affected me. Daisy Cummins said that "I have never struggled with sexual discrimination." For her, that part of the system is already smashed, and that probably affects her attitudes.

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  27. LOL, Laura, I referenced that AAR post on the SB's this morning!

    I'm not sure how neutral I really am - I think it's probably not that difficult to work out which end of the political spectrum I'm at, for example, and that affects my reading preferences. I also identify as a feminist.

    I have been enjoying watching you express your POV more firmly during this discussion, actually. As an opinionated bitch, I am much more open about my personal opinions in these forums than I would in an academic setting.

    Looking for warning signs of poor writing and/or patriarchal values, the cover copy sends up several red flags. Some of those are accurate, but some are not.

    Good point. Actually, I think you could do a whole critique of blurbs and marketing of the genre, but I wouldn't use them as a cornerstone of any meaningful discussion about the books themselves, I don't think.

    I agree, Bindel's reacting to some issues that are genuinely present in the genre, though anyone who reads M&B/Harlequin realizes there's a lot more variety than she described--and likely more nuance within each book, too (not only between books). The extreme reactions on some blogs confirm that those issues aren't confined to romance novels, they're big social issues readers are grappling with. But I was stymied as to where to take the conversation. If Bindel calling romance "misogynistic hate speech" provoked that kind of reaction, accusing the commenter of doing the same isn't going to enhance discussion.

    I really dislike Bindel's term "misogynist hate speech" for more reasons than I care to enumerate (and I suspect that if she were on the SB thread I'd be arguing with her pretty intensely, lol). Nor am I certain that the 'she needs to get laid' comment wasn't intended as exasperated snark.

    What really struck me when I read it, though (and several others like it in different places), was that Bindel is basically expressing a sense of vulnerability that ends of being magnified rather than diminished in various answers to her own provocative position. And it's a vulnerability we all share to some degree when we decide to enter this discussion.

    If that sense of vulnerability didn't exist I think genre Romance would look very, very different. Not necessarily better, not necessarily worse, but definitely different.

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  28. Pacatrue: May not the payoff in the type of romance you're talking about be the ending in which the man is begging the heroine to marry him and telling her how much he adores her? It's the depiction of this complete "taming" of the worst sort of arrogant pseudo-alpha SOB that provides a glimpse of hope that the real-life versions are redeemable, too. Although, as no doubt you too often feel, he's often not worth the trouble and and instead of casting herself into his arms, she should cast HIM into the recycle bin.

    In my misspent youth, I read quite a few Barbara Cartlands. One of her typical plots involved a young, virginal heroine marrying a cynical, experienced older nobleman or Royal. After a few plot twists, they lived happily ever after. Didn't work out that well for Dame Barbara's step-granddaughter, Lady Diana Spencer, did it?

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