by Madeline Iva
Hello lovely readers! Ever wanted to have your feminist romance cake and eat it too? You’re in luck today, because we have with us Jackie Horne who has the awesome-sauce blog ROMANCE NOVELS FOR FEMINISTS–a blog devoted to reviews and commentary from an enlightened perspective. Welcome, Jackie!
JACKIE HORNE: Thanks, Madeline, and the rest of the Ladies Smut for inviting me, and for asking me such provocative questions!
MADELINE IVA: Tell us about you and your blog. Why did you start it? Who reads it? (I do!)
JACKIE HORNE:During my early adolescence (in the late 1970s/early 1980s) I had been an avid, but uncomfortable, reader of Harlequin and Silhouette romances. After I took some Women’s Studies classes in college, I started to understand both my fascination with them (ohh, sex, we’re good girls, we’re not supposed to talk about that, isn’t this illicit fun!) and my discomfort with them (ohh, good girl heroines aren’t supposed to want sex, but pushy guys force it on them for their own good, cue the creepy music). So I stopped reading them.
Fast-forward about twenty years, and I’m a college professor, a scholar of children’s literature, preparing a conference talk about the appeal of the Twilight series. I wanted to better understand the connection between Twilight and the romance genre, so I started to do some academic reading about romance. During that research, I came across an article that basically argued that today’s romances “are not your mother’s romances,” that romance was no longer primarily the preserve of conservative, anti-feminist values.
I wondered, could this really be true? Around the same time, I came across an NPR interview that Smart Bitches, Trashy Books did, along with their recommendation to those unfamiliar with the field to give Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels a try. I decided to go to the library and pick up a copy. And I’ve been reading a steady stream of romance ever since.
MADELINE IVA: It’s addictive! Lord of Scoundrels is basically romance crack.
JACKIE HORNE: While I didn’t quite agree with the author of that article—there’s still a large number of romances out there that instill anti-feminist ideas and values—I did notice that there were some romance novels and novelists that took feminism, and feminist ideas, for granted, and incorporated feminist beliefs in their romance writing. No one seemed to be talking or writing much about this developing trend, and I wanted to talk to other people who were interested in it. So I started my blog, Romance Novels for Feminists, in the fall of 2012. I try to post twice a week: a review/discussion of a romance novel on Tuesdays, and a more general discussion of a topic related to romance and feminism on Fridays.
I’ve been amazed by the diversity of people who read and comment on the blog: romance readers, yes, but also romance writers, aspiring writers, scholars who study romance, and other romance bloggers and reviewers. I love being part of the larger, ongoing conversation about the feminist possibilities (and pitfalls) of romance.
MADELINE IVA: Let’s talk about BDSM. You’ve talked about it before on your blog HERE and it’s something that we at Lady Smut are divided over. I have a theory about BDSM I’d like to share with you, but let me go back a bit first:
In the 80’s (long before I was born, ;>) ‘rape-y’ romances contained forced consent when sex before marriage was still a bit of a conventional no-no. This allowed the female reader back then who identified with ‘good girls’ to still enjoy hot sex scenes. The forced consent provided a kind of arousal mechanism — something hot, but shameful and powerful.
Cut to today: Is BDSM just a more ‘evolved’ form of rapey 80’s sex? On one hand, we again have an arousal mechanism for something hot, shameful, and yet powerful. On the other hand, the basis of many a BDSM scene is all about informed consent and sexual negotiation. Please comment.
JACKIE HORNE: Before I re-started reading romance novels, I knew next to nothing about BDSM. I assumed that any woman who engaged in it in a submissive role must not be a feminist, must have been brainwashed into adopting the patriarchal belief that men must always be in charge and women must submit to their will. But after I encountered Victoria Dahl’s Start Me Up, the first romance I ever read with a heroine who wished a man to treat her one way during sex, and quite differently from he dealt with her in day-to-day life, I began to realize the limitations of my previous assumptions. In my blog post about that book, the first book I ever reviewed on RNFF, I wrote about how its protagonist, Lori, enjoys having an aggressive, dominant partner in bed, but how she hates it when her new boyfriend, Quinn, tries to talk on the “saving the damsel in distress” role in her everyday life. Dahl’s book doesn’t depict a BDSM relationship, but it did prepare me to encounter such relationships in erotic romance with a far more open mind.
Is BDSM just a more “evolved” form of rapey 80s sex? Not as far as the rape trope = permission to enjoy hot sex scenes. As you note, there’s so much about consent in the BDSM romance, which seems the opposite of the rapey 80s trope. But yes, perhaps, if you’re right that BDSM serves as a kind of arousal mechanism, one that combines shame and hotness and power.
These are some questions I ask myself when I’m reading a BDSM book: Is the female protagonist making an active choice to participate in BDSM sexuality? Is it something that gives her pleasure, or is she doing it only to appease a lover(s)? Does her lover(s) respect her, outside as well as inside the bedroom (or dungeon, or wherever the kinky times are taking place)? Does she respect herself? If the answer is “no,” then the book is not likely to feel feminist to me.
I’m intrigued by your comments about shame. Does shame amp up the tension, the pleasure? Who is feeling the shame? The character? Or the reader? And is that shame a pleasure, or a turn-off?
Can sexual shame be feminist?
MADELINE IVA: Does shame amp up the tension and pleasure? Hell yeah! Who is feeling the shame? Good question — in the best kind of BDSM, IMHO, we get the pov of the submissive experiencing it. Bonus points if she’s a very entitled person from the git go. I trust the author more and feel reassured about the consent if we experience the submissive feeling the shame, wanting it, riding it, and then craving more. I think sexual shame can definitely be hot. And if guys can get off on sexual shame then why shouldn’t women if they want to? But we should really be talking to Stephen King about shame–the man is a master manipulator of shame in his novels and readers gobble it up.
Meanwhile, Where do you stand on Bimboification? Is it feminist if the heroine is choosing it of her own free will — or are some things just bad for women because they’re unfeminist no matter what?
JACKIE HORNE: Hadn’t ever heard this term before! Since it’s not yet made it to the Oxford English Dictionary, my go-to for definitions, I had to do a bit of Googling to find it. And came across this by Melissa A. Fabello at Everyday Feminism: [LINK: http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/05/sex-positivity-critical-analysis/ ] “a fetish involving women playing up the bimbo stereotype—from her looks (long, blonde hair; large breasts) to her personality (ditzy, man-pleasing, sexually available).”
MADELINE IVA: Yup, that’s it.
JACKIE HORNE: Fabello notes that on the simplest level, if you’re turned on by “extensions, high heels, and an air of vapidness,” then more power to you. But our turn-ons don’t just emerge from a vacuum; it’s important, she argues, to look a bit deeper, to ask why such a thing would be a turn-on? Why should a bimbo be attractive? What culture messages tell us that a bimbo is attractive? And do you want to buy into the whys behind the act? So before saying “yea” or “nay” to a bimboification scene in an erotic romance, I’d want to read it, and analyze how it is functioning: as a camp gesture, one that is serving to call humorous attention to our restrictive gender roles? Or as something that is serving to reinforce anti-feminist gender roles?
MADELINE IVA: I’ve wondered if it’s possible for women writing bimboification scenes (not even saying scenes from romance novels–not sure any exist) to serve as a signal for fourth wave feminism. That “I’ll be whoever the hell I wanna be” kind of gesture which can often take on a certain perversity or uber-femme stance.
JACKIE HORNE: I’ve not read any erotic romances that include bimboification scenes. Are there any out there you’d recommend to a feminist reader?
MADELINE IVA: Nope. Just something I ran across as a kind of tag warning on some smutty stuff around the web. I’m sort of amused that we’re at the stage where what used to be a given in terms of smutty sex is now tagged with a warning label. I kind of love it, actually.
On to the next question: by and large women romance readers don’t like promiscuous women. Will we ever be free of the ‘shame’ of sex just for sex’s sake? Or will we eventually see the rise of the ‘boink buddy’ in romance?
JACKIE HORNE: Every romance ends with the creation of a stable, happy, committed romantic relationship. Having multiple sex partners is typically (although not always, in erotic romance) seen as the opposite of such a committed relationship, a threat to it. So I don’t think we’ll see the rise of the “boink buddy” in romance any time soon, unless it’s as a friend-with-benefits who will be set aside by book’s end in favor of a more committed love partner, or a boink buddy who gradually transforms into a committed partner (a la Friends with Benefits film).
MADELINE IVA: Both of those choices sound good to me.
JACKIE HORNE: I do think the stigma surrounding female sexual expression has diminished markedly since the 1980s, though, especially in books written by younger women who have grown up in communities where feminism is taken for granted. Virgins are far from the norm for romance heroines these days, and many, if not the majority, of romance heroines have had an active, pleasure-filled sex life before encountering the person with whom they will establish a long-term romantic relationship.
MADELINE IVA: Yet we still judge women far more harshly than men. It’s clear that while a male hero–say a vampire–can slay hundreds of men, a childless heroine who pursues her career and says what she thinks is just a selfish bitch–and must be unhappy. When-oh-when will we stop judging men and women by different sexual standards? Why are Urban Fantasy writers so ahead of the curve with kick-ass heroines, and why does this seem to go along with thwarted/incomplete romance arcs? Why Jackie, why?
JACKIE HORNE: That’s a lot of questions, Madeline! But they all stem back to the sexual double standard: that sexually experienced men are desirable, but sexually experienced women are flawed, tainted.
When will this change? When more people, women and men, start challenging people who espouse it. Why do you think she’s a slut, but think he’s a stud? Why is an aggressive woman pushy, but an aggressive man assertive? Why do you smile when you hear of a teen boy’s sexual escapades, but frown when you hear of a sexually active teen girl? Why did you just call that woman a bitch, rather than a jerk or an asshole? Why does female sexuality frighten you?
Romance authors have a fantastic platform from which to issue such challenges. A small but growing handful of romance authors are threading issues of male privilege, sexual double standards, and internalized sexism into the hearts of their stories. Ruthie Knox (Truly), Sarina Bowen (Blonde Date), Robin York (Deeper) all depict heroines who gradually recognize, and then actively challenge, the sexism that is placing limits on their lives. I’m hoping that many more romance authors will follow their lead.
And follow us at Lady Smut, before we threaten to crack our feminist whip over your heads. Whoocha!