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|Readers Rif on Political Correctness|
August 15, 1998
Now we all know that the multitude of sexual encounters in romance novels begin with the heroine murmuring breathlessly the telltale words "We shouldn't!" in some form or other, only to be overcome by her own desire and her lover's persistence. When it comes right down to it, I can count the novels I've read that don't have that particular scenario somewhere in the plot on one hand. By the technical, legal definition of rape, each and every single one of those "we shouldn't" sexual incounters is a rape. Because "No means no," and that's all there is to it.
I personally think that definition is fairly harsh for the romance world, where so much love generally follows those telltale words. Consent does not equal rape. However, I have read quite a few novels that deal with sexual incounters where the line of consent is not so finely drawn. (Off the top of my head Gypsy Lady by Busbee.) A good story, but very little genuine consensual sex between the hero and heroine. He was intent on breaking her, while he was equally intent on loving her. As a result, there are two sexual encounters in the entire book where the heroine is consensual from the beginning, and more than I care to recall that are truly forced and unconsensual.
The book is memorable to me for the exact reason that it disturbed me greatly when I read it, and disturbs me to this day. As with most women, rape is an issue close to my attention. Rape is about domination and control. It is not about love, it is not about pleasure, it is not about giving, it is not about, or mutual respect. All of which are prominent factors that have brought romance fiction the large audiance it enjoys. For that principle alone, I dislike rape in romance novels.
But perhaps it isn't the rape so much that bothers readers, but the fact that the heroines ignore, disregard, and otherwise forgive the behavior in the end, because love is stronger than all mistreatment at the hands of the beloved. That kind of capitulation bothers me more than the act itself. "I can forget everything you did because I love you" is a noble sentiment...but if I had a girlfriend in some of the situations described in those novels, I would waste no time in telling her to ditch Romeo and spend some concerted time single. I realize I'm falling into the eternal trap of making fiction into reality, but it is a comparison I must make because while romance fiction is fantasy, the appreciation and conception of fantasy is based on reality.
As to Judy Cuevas's comment, "..to discuss the subject matter as if it had something to do with the quality of the writing only ties an albatrose around romance writer's necks - an albatross no other genre is expected to wear." The quality of the writing is not the issue. The subject matter is. And if an author is going to deal with subject matter that includes sex and rape, the author had better be prepared for the backlash those sensitive topics carry inherently.
Romance authors, by their very subject matter, open themselves to the kind of criticism that has occured. The "albatross" Judy speaks of comes with the territory. And yes, it is an albatross that no other genre is expected to wear. Erotica and erotic fiction is much less main stream than Romance fiction, and in many cases expected to have a domination/submission theme. Pornography isn't even applicable in this conversation. Romance fiction, by its mainstream acceptance and respectability opens itself to the albatrose. In short, if you don't like the heat, get out of the fire.
Stella Kapakos (email@example.com):
Political correctness is completely unneccessary in romance because most of us or at least I already know about inequality and don't need it shoved down my throat in unbelievable characters and forced dialogue. Now if some of you need to be reminded and have it reinforced by romance novels then never mind.
On the subject of forced seduction and rape the answer is, yeah they are different but neither of them are nice. Then again who reads romance to feel comfortable? Forced seduction occurs when the hero even in the face of the heroine's "no" continues to bombard her senses until she is acquiescent. Whereas rape is the brutal penetration of a woman's body. In cases like this my mind has a hard time staying in suspended disbelief because the reality is these acts leave their mark in the woman's mind long after the physical pain has gone away. IMHO I like to see characters that not only I like, but like each other. With a rape or forced seduction, I don't see how that can end up being forgotten and forgiven at least as quickly as it is in the romances. I know the power of love is strong but this is too much. I have not read A Well Pleasured Lady so I can't really say if it's appropriate. I think if you as a writer really feel the need to write a f.s. or rape scene why not take the time to use the healing process as a way to bring them closer together. I understand that most of the heroines are bathed in purity and light but even that is too much for an angel to handle. Am I right or what?
Beverly Medos (who wrote Beverly's Book Basket for AAR from of mid-1998 through late 1999):
I've been hesitant to even comment on this one because I was afraid that if I got started on it, I wouldn't be able to stop and would end up writing a full article instead of simple a response. This is because the topic is one that I feel is deeply intrinsic to what the romance genre is all about in the first place AND the public misunderstanding of what it's about. Romance as a genre is about exploring the very basic relationship in human experience - the one-on-one male-to-female drive to both find a partner and to create new life. We can sugar coat a lot of things, but at it's very basic foundations that experience is driven by hormonal chemistry and is the most fundamental power struggle known to humans. Neither of those two things, portrayed compellingly by a good writer, are always going to end up sounding politically correct in all aspects. How can they?
OTOH, on both sides, the chemistry and the struggle are very seductive images in and of themselves. The dividing line for me in whether I can tolerate true rape, forced seduction or even simple seduction isn't what happens but why. Personally, I cannot and will not tolerate true rape by the hero. There's just no way I would even want to be convinced that someone for whom it is acceptable to rape anyone at the beginning of the book is hero material. Doesn't matter what they actually do physically. Forced seduction is a very different thing, however, and I find it interesting that as romance readers and writers we so adamantly make the distinction between it and rape. I agree with that the distinction is valid and can make all the difference in the world between a developing romance being acceptable to me or not but the interesting thing is that until the discussion kept coming up, I wasn't completely sure why I do agree with it.
And I'm still mulling that one over.
Ellen Micheletti (AAR Reviewer and editor of the Historical Cheat Sheet):
I once worked with a woman who got very huffy with me because I used such words as mankind, fisherman, fireman, and policemen. Ever since then, I have been very impatient with politically correct people (and I still use those words).
I don't think a writer could portray the past in all its harshness in an historical romance. It would be too painful, but I don't think she could ignore the painful aspects of the past completely. One of my favorite regencies is Reforming Lord Ragsdale where Emma is an Irish woman and Lord Ragsdale is an Englishman who has seen his father killed and himself wounded by an Irish mob. He hated the Irish, but gradually came to love Emma. To ignore the anti-Irish sentiment in England at the time the story was set would have trivialized it.
Ann Klein (firstname.lastname@example.org):
Seems like whenever anyone mentions the term 'politially correct' or PC, people just grimace, groan or roll their eyes and dismiss whatever comes next. Personally, I feel this is a mistake. While I definitely think it has often been carried too far, I believe that rethinking some of our old habits can be beneficial and enlightening (you can tell I work for the government, huh?).
One phase that bothers me now is 'rule of thumb'. Ever since I learned that the origin of this phrase was the size of a stick you could beat your wife with, I will not use it, and I cringe a little when when I hear it. For years, my family and others I knew called chocolate sprinkles 'jimmies'. One day I was thinking about this and realized that it probably started way back somewhere as a derogatory term. I decided that I really didn't need to be passing that type of legacy on to my children, no matter how innocently done, and now I always call them chocolate sprinkles.
Are these types of small changes really too much of a burden for people? Isn't it really a small step in improving the harmony of the world we live in? What's wrong with picking one word, say 'fireman', and start trying to say 'fire fighter' instead? The next time a 3-year-old girl hears you she won't assume only Daddies do this job (and don't try to tell me she won't think that - I have a 3-year-old daughter). I'm not saying people have to buy into everything that comes down the pike. Just pick a few that seem reasonable and try to adjust your habits.
OTOH, in historical books, PC often bothers me. It just jars with what I've been taught of history. 'Modern' heroines is historicals just don't fit, IMHO. Not long ago I read a review of Anita Mills' Bittersweet. It complained that the Chinese characters worked on the railroad or at a laundry, and the black woman character was a nanny - said it was stereotyping. What did the reviewer think these characters should have been doing - working on Wall Street? I felt that the story was true to history, with all its warts and blemishes. Don't try to re-write history just because it makes you uncomfortable.
Kathy Pulver (email@example.com):
Ann's right, rethinking old habits can be beneficial and enlightening but a lot of times politically correct language seeks to hide the 'uglier' sides of life. Used incorrectly, it can be used as a weapon to remove thinking that is considered 'inappropriate.' That, to my mind, is the biggest danger of politically correct language and thought.
Earlier this week I was in an on-line discussion and someone mentioned a lot of Mexicans moving into their area. A couple other people immediately jumped on this person for using 'Mexican' rather than 'Hispanic.' They assumed, without bothering to ask, that the person was refering to Spanish-speaking people in general rather than specifically refering to Spanish-speaking people who're actually *from* Mexico. (I asked, he was talking about the latter.) This person was basically bullied for not using 'appropriate' language that was inappropriate for the situation even though all he did was make an observation that there were a lot of Mexicans moving into his area of the country.
Ann also asks if making small changes in language is really too much of a burden. In some cases, no. I don't see any real problem in changing the general term from 'fireman' to 'firefighter' or from 'stewardess' to 'flight attendent'. What bothers me the most about political correctness has to do with what I mentioned earlier in the Mexican/Hispanic confusion. Too many times, politically correct language wipes out all distinction in its drive to equalize and ruins the diversity it purports to defend.
Example: referring to the aboriginal population of North America as 'Native Americans' when what would be truly correct and fair and just would be to refer to them by their tribal names, the names they gave themselves and to stop refering to them as though they were some sort of homogenous group. Yes, Native American is easier to say, but no one is refering to Germans or the Irish as Native Europeans or the Chinese and the Japanese as Native Asians.
If it was a matter of me being allowed to choose what words I will and will not use, I wouldn't have a problem with politically correct language at all. What really angers me is that *other* people are trying to decide what words I will and will not use. Especially when those words are supposed to be about me. Another example: if you really want to see me go balistic use words like 'womyn' 'wimmin' 'wymyn' or 'herstory' when refering to 'women' and 'history'. Creating newer, sloppier, and (in my opinion) stupider looking spellings for perfectly good existing words doesn't do anything but create more and more confusion especially since you're not really changing the meaning of the term. (I'm guessing that a 'womyn' is the same thing as a 'woman'....least I hope so...8)
I wish I could tie this all back to a romance novel that I've read, but I don't read romance novels...I started checking out AAR because I was looking for romance writing sites to add to my page of writers' links. I do read fantasy and science fiction and I can say that PC thought has reared its head in the fantasy genre as well. There is a tendancy, among some writers, for extremely politcally correct thought and action among characters who are supposed to be living in an alternate, psuedo-medieval world. When done correctly, these societies work very well but when they're done wrong, it can be extremely cloying and obnoxious.
I guess what it boils down to is that political correctness can exist even in historical fiction, but the characters who engage in that sort of behavior should seem odd or even down right insane to the people around them because of it.
You asked about our feelings regarding forced seduction and rape in romance novels. I am a relatively new reader to the romance genre (about a year). I believe I have read only a few books that have dealt with that. One of them was Jo Beverley's Arranged Marriage which opened with a rape and that was fine. I would like to see more authors try some behavior with their characters that has some dark edges to it and that is what I consider rape and forced seduction to be. However, if we're suddenly going to see 100 new romance novels on the market featuring a rape or forced seduction, it is going to be too much. I suppose that is my biggest complaint: Too many authors are using the same plot and character devices when they should be 'pushing the envelope' and trying something different. Two of the best authors of the genre recently did this when they borrowed from the films The Return of Martin Guerre and Sommersby. I refer to Lisa Kleypas' Stranger in my Arms and Brenda Joyce's The Rival. Joyce's at least gave a new twist to this plot device but I have reached the point where I will not read one more book with a plotline involving whether someone is the real earl who vanished x years ago or someone else instead. I was aghast that 2 such bright talents would waste their efforts on something so overdone. I wish one or both of them had tried to deal with a rape instead. Joyce almost did so in her The Conquerer but then backed away from it. Laura Kinsale, are you game or must we rely on Jo Beverley once again?!
Jo Beverley responds: I'm pleased Carol feels that I push the envelope and do it successfully. I don't actually set out to do that. My sole purpose when writing a book is to try to tell a gripping, satisfying romance story. However, I try hard not to let the romance boundaries stifle a good romance story. They are IMO very flexible boundaries if we lean on them just right.
However, I do want to stress for those who haven't read An Arranged Marriage that the rape in question is not by the hero. I've never had a hero rape a heroine because I can think of only a few situations where it wouldn't destroy his soul if he had one. And in those few situations, I'd hope any heroine I created would realize why and not put the burden of it on him,
Carol hit on something that has been bugging me for quite some time. Not being a newbie in the world of romance novels, I've noted that there are many established, respected authors who are rehashing old movies and novels for their own. Have you ever noticed that that classic romance, Shanna, by Kathleen Woodiwiss, is in actuality a rewrite of Captain Blood which starred Errol Flynn? Or that Jude Devereux's 'masked man' novel The Raider is really The Mask of Zorro with Tyrone Power? There are others, but these two started a trend that has been years in the making. I realize that both these movies are wonderful, romance-adventure classics, but I think that many romance writers could use a big dose of creativity. Maybe Pepsi could add some to their latest soft drink. But all kidding aside, are some of our favorite writers under the gun from their publishers to produce, produce, produce?
Carol has mentioned rape. Those of us who have been reading romances since the late 70s realize that there was once a time when rape was the only way a hero made the heroine fall in love with him (can you imagine such a thing in real life?). I for one am thankful that those books are long gone. The Conquerer, by Brenda Joyce, was originally written and published in the 80s and republished last year (check the copyright date). It is really one of the few rape books that hold up. Try reading Rosemary Rogers now and see what I mean. While most medievals must deal with the violence of the times (which is what Joyce was portraying in Conquerer), that kind of violence is really not called for in a Regency, for example (Whitney, My Love is a major example of hero-as-rapist).
Maybe what we would really like is a little realism thrown in with the froth. Which is why Laura Kinsale is so good. Does anyone know when she'll be coming out with her next?
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