Thursday, September 12, 2019

Taken Out of Context or Taking Responsibility: Rape, Abortion and the Romance Writer

The Guardian has reported quotes made at the Melbourne Writers' Festival, in a panel session about Romance as Resistance, by Melanie Milburne, who writes for Harlequin Mills & Boon:
“Women have lots of options if they fall pregnant after a one-night stand, and marrying a perfect stranger is not one of them, in my opinion,” Milburne said.

Her discomfort is part of a tension being felt in some areas of the romance community in the wake of #MeToo, and in the context of debates around consent and reproductive rights.

“It takes a village to rape a woman and romance writers are part of that village,” Milburne said.

It’s a tension inherent in a genre – filled with women many of whom consider themselves feminist – that is regularly painted as both challenging and upholding patriarchal ideas.
Naturally, this reporting raised concern in the romance community.

Secret Babies, Pregnancy and Abortion

As far as the pregnancy quote is concerned, it's probably worth noting that Milburne's latest novel, Cinderella's Scandalous Secret, involves a pregnant heroine and when the hero "learns about her pregnancy, he's intent on sweeping her away to Sicily ... and marrying her!"

Unfortunately this novel has not yet been released, so it's not possible to examine it yet to assess how Milburne tackles the heroine's decision-making process with respect to her pregnancy. However, Kat at BookThingo has pointed to editor Kate Cuthbert's address to the 2018 Romance Writers of Australia conference, in which Cuthbert praised
one of the bravest acts I’ve ever seen. Earlier this year I attended the Australian Romance Reader Awards, where Melanie Milburne was the guest speaker. At the table beforehand, she told me that she wasn’t sure how her speech would be received, that she was nervous because what she had to say was controversial. And then she got up and said that after a stellar career and nearly 80 titles to her name, not only were there some books that she wished she could go back and rewrite, but that there were some of which she was actively ashamed.
Cuthbert exhorted the gathered authors to (among other things)
Write options. Secret babies are a treasured part of our genre, but unwanted pregnancies have serious financial, emotional, and professional repercussions for women without a support system around them. Use this plot point, by all means, but be deliberate in your choices and don’t romanticise it. You don’t know who’s reading. 
This is part of the context to Milburne's comments at the Writers' Festival. Moreover, as reported in The Guardian, in May, other authors have been discussing this type of storyline and stating that in such circumstances abortion should be seriously considered as an option and sometimes one which is taken:
The unexpected pregnancy that forces a couple into a marriage of convenience – only for them to soon fall in love – is a common trope in romantic fiction. But in the days after Alabama’s state senate passed a near-total ban on abortion, writers are asking themselves why none of these heroines ever considers termination. According to the Guttmacher Institute, an organisation promoting sexual and reproductive health and rights, it’s a common experience for women in the US, with nearly one in four having had an abortion by the age of 45.

“We need to start putting abortion in our books,” the novelist Liz Lincoln tweeted on Wednesday. “As an alternative to marrying virtual strangers after a surprise pregnancy. As a part of character backstory. As a thing lots of people experience.”
Rape, MeToo, and Romance's Responsibilities

Dr Jodi McAlister, who was chair of the panel, has clarified that "Melanie was explaining that romance has occasionally been complicit in the past with some narratives which are harmful to women, & she doesn't want to perpetuate that in the future. Out of context, it sounds way more dramatic than that!"

Kate Cuthbert, who was "the curator and co-programmer of a day-long discussion on the romance genre at a major Australian literary festival this past weekend" confirmed that Milburne had been "quoted accurately"

but argued that the quotes needed to be understood in their context:
the quote that is causing the most concern came as part of an incredibly broad & wide-ranging discussion on the genre, and its place in a #metoo world. [...] First, she said it as part of a discussion on the history of romance and how romance has changed as a genre from its past iterations to present day. Second, she was speaking to her own past, her own backlist and things she would like to have done differently if she had her time over. Melanie has over 80 books to her name, so she had some perspective to this. Finally, she was speaking to her own beliefs as a writer to the responsibility of romance genre writers, in the context of her own feminism and experience.
This kind of conversation is something Cuthbert supported in her speech last year:
I keep coming back to this idea of potential and obligation. Because I think this is why romance has been so important to so many women for so long: it shows the potential within all of us, and it honours its obligations.

Now, obligations are slippery. And in a genre as big as ours, they’re hard to pin down. The romance readership contains multitudes, and it’s impossible to be everything to everyone. And, as one cogent argument goes, we’re not the only genre. Why is romance being held accountable in a way that other genres are not? Why must we answer to this ingrained malice in a way that no one else is expected to?

Because it’s obligation. If we want to call ourselves a feminist genre, if we want to hold ourselves up as an example of women being centred, of representing the female gaze, of creating women heroes who not only survive but thrive, then we have to lead. We can’t deflect and we can’t dissemble. We need to look to the future and create the books that women need to read now. We’ve been shown our potential. To rise to it is our obligation.
Edited to add responses made to this post/after it was written:

Nicola Davidson: "I've seen the context, and agree that robust discussions on consent and culture are important and worthwhile. Doesn't change my opinion that the phrase used was an extremely poor choice of words, and as a rape and sexual assault survivor, I hope to never see it again."

Beverly Jenkins: "But consent is at the center now and has been for years. We’re basically leading the charge on that. I had a heroine who had an abortion."
Tasha L. Harrison:  "I get that it was part of a larger conversation. However, this kind of language about romance from a romance author creates this mentality that romance has a greater influence on women than the constant and consistent narrative from ALL genres and ALL media pre-me too."

Bree: "I still think she said something dumb, I guess. She just didn't throw us under the bus to a reporter."

Zoe Archer: "It's an ongoing dialogue and process to which so many are contributing. The positioning of an author as the lone voice of change troubles me and doesn't negate the shock value of that last quote about villages."

Jodi McAlister: "I want to emphasise that while it wasn't the best wording ever, in context, it made much more sense. It was part of a claim that, essentially, rape culture exists, and that in the past, romance (including the works of the author in question - it was a self-interrogative claim) has sometimes upheld or played into narratives which uphold this culture. It was also an expression of desire from this author that her future works don't perpetuate narratives which are harmful to women, and we moved into a discussion of some of the radical potentials of the romance genre. Taken in isolation, the quote in question seems quite shocking, but in context, it was part of a very thoughtful and nuanced discussion of the romance genre (something which was a great privilege to be part of, given the track record of mainstream lit festivals in this regard)."

An exchange between Elizabeth Bright and Elizabeth Kingston
EB: It takes a village to rape a woman.
It takes a village to tell her she deserved it.
It takes a village to raise boys who say no means yes.
It takes a village to look the other way.
And when romance writers call a raping love interest a hero, well…we are part of that village.
I have a lot to say on the raping years of romance novels, and where we came from and where I hope we're going. I also think it takes guts to look back on your own body of work and express regrets about things you got wrong. I wasn't there. I don't know what she said, or what she meant. I'm just taking the words at face value, and I don't think the words are entirely wrong. Feel free to disagree. If someone could explain why they're mad about it, that would help because I just don't get it.

EK:  Speaking as someone who has had to say hard truths about what this genre promotes (innocently or not), I can say I think she was just careless about her word choice. She made it accusatory, and crudely so, which is wildly hurtful to many people who are already hurt.

EB: I think that’s probably true. But we’ve all had things to say about old school rom and even some very recent ones. The response from Romancelandia caught me by surprise. Her choice of words might be awful, but I’ve heard similar things from many of the people shrieking about it.

EK: I don't think I've ever heard someone oversimplify it so drastically, though. It's very different than saying "we are complicit" or "we have contributed." It's a pretty complex subject and there are pitfalls to being pithy, I guess.

EB: Absolutely. Her wording wasn’t good at all, not even for the sake of symmetry of language. I think what bothers me is that it seemed like people weren’t angry about the phrasing; they were angry at the implication that we are complicit. But maybe I misunderstood their anger, too.

EK: No, I think you're right that the anger is about that too - that's where the lack of nuance is a big problem. Women who wrote those things were often doing so in an attempt to find a way to process their own oppression and abuse, not to excuse or justify or perpetuate it. So to take that tangled and painful history and turn it into something that reads like "you're basically a rapist too" is anger-making

EB: Now that makes sense. Thanks for taking the time!

EK: Thanks for raising the question. This is just my take on it, who knows if I'm right. And fwiw, I think there's definitely an element of "don't air our dirty laundry so carelessly to outsiders" involved

Dr Sandra Schwab: I don't know about you, but I've read a large amount of category romance from the late 1990s and 2000s, and yes, from today's POV, many of these books contain massively problematic stuff. The hero blackmailing the heroine to have sex with him or to marry him was such a common motif. The hero kidnapping the heroine because of some stuff she did or did not do, whisking her away to a remote island, keeping her there against her will and threatening her a bit until she has sex with him? Yeah, that happened pretty often. Punishing kisses? Yep. The hero thinking of the heroine as a slut because she had sex with him? Yep. (Of course, he later realizes his mistake, blah, blah.) In many of these books abortion was vilified as was the morning-after pill. And a woman wanting to have a career? The horror! She must be an evil bitch. Moreover, a lot of these novels were massively homophobic: The hero's cold fiancée turns out to be a lesbian (which makes the hero blackmail the wedding planner into marrying him...); the heroine's manipulative fiancé who makes her feel all unwomanly turns out to be gay. Perhaps the language Melanie Milburne used to make her point was extreme, but she is not exactly wrong: These tropes were repeated over and over again by many authors, and readers gobbled these books up.

Kate Cuthbert: As an addendum to my earlier thread, please see below from Calla Wahlquist, the writer of the article and a romance advocate in her own right. Calla was a moderator at the event as well as an attendee.

Calla Wahlquist: Apologies - I wrote this brief and it was intended to be a brief, a quick what we learned note from a few panels. I included that quote because it snagged in my brain and because I found Melanie so impressive. I agree that context is important and will update that bit.

The Guardian article has been updated to include a note saying "This piece was updated on 13 September to contextualise a conversation about consent in the Romance as Resistance panel" . The relevant part now reads:
In earlier days of the genre, she said, consent was not always handled well because of societal restrictions on women agreeing to and enjoying pre-marital sex. That made coercion, a kind of not-quite-rape, a bodice ripper trope. Romance now is clear about consent, but there is a legacy.

“It takes a village to rape a woman and romance writers are part of that village,” Milburne said.

It’s a tension inherent in a genre – filled with women many of whom consider themselves feminist – that is regularly painted as both challenging and upholding patriarchal ideas.
For comparative purposes, the earlier version of the article can still be viewed here, via the Internet Archive.

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