Thursday, April 03, 2008

PCA 2008: Romance VI

Romance Fiction VI: Friday 4:30-6:00pm
Beyond the Straight and Narrow: Power Exchange and Gay/Lesbian Romance

Chair: Sarah Frantz, Fayetteville State University

“BDSM to Erotic Romance: Observations of a Shy Pornographer” Pam Rosenthal

It was wonderful to meet Pam. As Molly Weatherfield, she wrote the BDSM novel Carrie’s Story and its sequel. As Pam Rosenthal, she’s written Almost a Gentleman among others. She also obviously has a long history with the feminist establishment in San Francisco, which added fascinating little tidbits to her presentation. Her presentation discussed how she came to erotica and romance as a writer.

Pam got started in the genre through conversations she overheard in the lesbian communities in San Francisco, including an article by Pat/Patrick Califia satirizing the political correctness of feminist culture. She came to realize that the utopian dream of sexuality which obviated hierarchy and domination/submission play were, in their own way, as repressive as the patriarchal mindset that the lesbian and feminist communities were trying to overcome. She is very thankful, however, for the lesbian and feminist communities for raising these issues in the first place, however subsequently misguided they may have seemed. Pam argues that Ann Snitow shouldn’t get a bad rap in the romance community, because although she was arguing that romances are soft-core porn, she was also arguing that women can and should be able to have access to porn. Porn, after all, isn’t not good for women. When she was writing Carrie’s Story, she was having internal debates with Andrea Dworkin about whether she was a good person or not. She argues that the SM novel has a simplistic episodic structure that follows a simple escalation of sexual experimentation. But in some respects, SM novels are also pedagogy novels, initiation stories, bildungsromans. The interesting thing, though, is that they’re told by the bottom, by the student, which throws into question some of the critiques of SM novels as objectifying the bottom, because how can they be objectified when they’re so damn chatty? Pam relates that the sexual escalation was easy, but the closure for the novel was difficult. In Carrie’s Story, the top finally spoke from his heart, forced to face his own subjectivity and the power balance shifted because it shows the moment when the person holding the power recognizes his own limits.

“Lesbian Romance: Identity, Diversity, and Power” Len Barot
Unfortunately, Len was not able to join us.

“Fetishizing Patriotic Lesbian Masculinity: Valiant Butches, Wanton Terrorism, and the Homonational Imaginary” Shruthi Vissa, Emory University
Combining nervousness about my own paper and the complexity, layers, and theoretical nature of Shruthi's paper, I absorbed very little of what Shruthi was saying. But here goes:

The original title of the paper was “Queering the Marriage Plot? Love and Heteronormativity in the Queer Romance Novel” but it changed as Shruthi’s writing progressed. She is examining the spectacular masculinity of butch lesbians, in which the lovers union makes possible the beginning of nationhood. Lesbian romances have been rarely studied, and they have never been studied in light of female masculinity. Shruthi examines Radclyffe’s Honor series with a patriotic white, uber-butch lesbian hero who is in the Secret Service who guards the President’s daughter, and they end up falling in love….

And that’s all I got. I’m so sorry, Shruthi, but I doubt I could do justice to your ideas anyway, as layered as they were. I know I thoroughly enjoyed the paper, and if you want to add a summary in the comments or email it to me, I'd be more than happy to add it here.

“Polysexuality, Power Exchange, and the Construction of Gender in Popular Romance Fiction” Sarah S. G. Frantz
I presented this paper with severe laryngitis—I figured if Diane Rehm could run a syndicated radio show with her voice, I could talk for twenty minutes. So, I did! I am lucky, however, in that I get to cut-and-paste bits of my paper for your edification, rather than having to remember what my notes mean.

By analyzing popular romance fiction through the lens of BDSM identities and practices, it is possible to interrogate more broadly and more deeply the ways in which popular romance fiction constructs gender and the power dynamics and negotiations between hero and heroine. (BDSM, of course, is a combined acronym that stands for the main components of the sexual practices and orientations more commonly, but wrongly, known as S&M: Bondage/Discipline, Domination/ Submission, and Sadism/Masochism.) I argue with Ivo Dominguez that BDSM is a sexuality and a sexual identity as much as Kinsey’s homosexual/heterosexual continuum indicates a sexuality. So rather than one axis of sexuality, there are multiple axes of polysexuality, all affecting each other differently. In Charlotte Lamb’s otherwise vanilla romance, Vampire Lover, the heroine ties up and rapes the hero; it is only the rather kinky act of nonconsensual bondage that allows the characters to break out of the traditional male dominant/female submissive gender roles that so terrify the heroine, allowing them enough individual control over their fate to strive for their happy ending. I then turn to examining female dominant/male submissive BDSM romances. But while fem-dom romances overturn the traditional gender roles, they reinforce the construction of gender—the heroes are more male and more alpha than other heroes, the heroines more powerfully female and comfortable with being female than other heroines, and the Alpha male submissives thereby serve as an exaggeration of the value of the final submission to love of normal romance heroes. But fem-dom romances also present another problem in that they seem to try to naturalize the concept of a essential, even compulsory connection between the axes of dominance/submission and sadism/masochism where dominance and sadism map together and submission and masochism are inevitably joined. Finally, however, the relationship between the submissive but Alpha male hero and the female dominant heroine is—the best word I can come up with is—consummated in a reversal of the roles, an exception that proves the rule and serves to solidify the female dominant aspect of the relationship. So, while on the one hand fem-dom romances experiment with power structures of gender roles in the sexual relationship by making the heroines the sexual Alpha--and pretty kick-ass the rest of the time too--these novels reinscribe both construction of gender (men as "real" men, women as "real" women) and the connection between Domination and Sadism.


  1. "the heroines more powerfully females and comfortable with being female than other heroes"

    Do you mean "heroines," rather than "heroes"?

    So, while on the one hand fem-dom romances experiment with power structures of gender roles in the sexual relationship by making the heroines the sexual Alpha, they reinscribe both construction of gender

    Do you mean that in the sexual part of their relationship, the woman is Alpha, but not in the rest of the relationship? So whenever the couple aren't behaving sexually towards each other, the woman is submissive/more passive/feminine?

    How does that fit with what you and Ivo Dominguez are saying about "BDSM is a sexuality and a sexual identity"? Is it the case that someone can limit their identity so that the dominant part only manifests itself during sex but at no other time? If the answer is "no," do you think this is a problem with the romances, in that they're not being realistic about how such an identity would affect the whole of a relationship?

  2. Okay, thanks for pointing that out. I made a few cosmetic, but hopefully helpful changes.

    And no, the heroines are never "submissive" at any point. It's just that they exclusively run the show during sexual encounters, whereas they share the stage with the hero during non-sexual interaction.

    But in general, yes, someone can be very dominant non-sexually and a sexual submissive. Or quiet and retiring and a sexual dominant. In fact, the heroes are "Alpha" but sexually submissive. They are "real" men from a construction of gender POV, but then that is switched when it comes to sex.

    Damn, I'm confusing myself a little bit. I'm (obviously) still working on these ideas! ;)

  3. So if the heroes are "'real' men from a construction of gender POV, but then that is switched when it comes to sex," and if that's realistic, but you nonetheless seem to be finding something about these novels problematic with regards to their depiction of gender, is it less on the level of individual romances, and more to do with how they function en masse?

    I suppose one could make a comparison with the number of dukes in historical romances. Dukes do exist, but not in large numbers, so finding one duke in one romance isn't problematic, but when you find lots and lots and lots of romances with dukes in them, it begins to raise questions about why that is, and you begin to get a feeling that the genre as a whole isn't representing as full a spectrum of possibilities as it could.

    I recall Robin, I think it was, saying that she'd expected erotic romance in general to push more boundaries (other than the sexual ones) and yet she'd noticed that many were very traditional with regards to gender roles.

    Maybe there's a limit to how many societal norms you can challenge without seriously limiting your likelihood of getting published and having high sales?

  4. Laura's comment about the genre functioning en masse is provocative, and could lead to some interesting thought about how romance is read. Or how any genre is read? Or how different genres are read? (I remain convinced that there is interesting stuff there -- and remain, furthermore, convinced that how and why are different questions.)

    And it was great to meet you as well, Sarah, and Shruthi, and Eric, and Darcy... and all the other romance scholars I talked to in my brief time at the conference...

    ...though I can't help smiling at the thought of my feminist influences (like Gayle Rubin and Pat/Patrick Califia) constituting a "feminist establishment." Maybe now. Certainly not then.