Is Our Thirst for Kink Promoting Rape Culture?

Keep off the Grass_flickrI shouldn’t be writing this blog post right now. I have a story on a tight deadline that’s kicking my ass and if I don’t get it DONE then I might well conclude that I have no business being a writer. I’ve been going through some deeply upsetting things in my personal life which has left me with the emotional stability of a three-year-old coming down from a sugar rush. And I know this post will piss a lot of people off. Also, there is no way I can say these things without sounding like a disgruntled old woman yelling at the neighborhood kids to say off her lawn.

Well, there you have it. I confess: I am a grumpy old woman yelling at the kids. Stay off my lawn!

You might ask what prompted this need to vent. Well, it’s simple, really. A few days ago I came across two things in close sequence that made me scratch my head and go WTF? The combination of the two things kind of solidified some thoughts I’ve been having for a while now. Namely that I’m concerned that some women might inadvertently be prompting the very rape culture they claim to abhor. That the freedom we experience now to indulge in our kinky fantasies celebrates the very opposite of a healthy romantic relationship.

Mind you, the rape-trope has always been popular in romance fiction for reasons I don’t fully understand. Maybe some readers readers enjoy it because they like the idea having all control (and responsibility) for their actions taken from them. For someone else to call all the shots. Okay, it’s a fantasy. I get that. The notion that you could fall in love with this person and enter into a healthy, loving relationship with your rapist is ludicrous, but persistent. Yes, I’m looking at you, Luke and Laura from General Hospital. No. That never worked for me, sorry. Face it, these fantasies were developed in an industry that, at the time, demanded purity from their heroines. God forbid your lead female character *wanted* sex, that made her a slut! Certainly we’ve moved beyond that, right? Women are allowed to want sex, think about it, talk about it. Nothing wrong there.

And I’m not condemning BDSM stories out of hand by any means! In the right hands, the depiction of a dominant-submissive relationship is not only incredibly hot, but completely understandable as well. The dynamics of the D-S relationship help me better understand what makes the characters tick as people outside of their sexuality. I get the intensity that the fine edge of pain can bring to a sexual situation. I love seeing a different side of a character–how who they are in the bedroom can be entirely different from the face they show the rest of the world. It’s fascinating storytelling.

I believe that the reason 50 Shades of Grey smashed sales records had much to do with the fact that for the majority of readers, this was an entirely new-to-them genre. For readers tired of the usual pirate-capturing-the-heroine story, or the handsome boss/faithful secretary, or even the vampire-slayer and her undead boyfriend, 50 Shades was something new. Romance readers are some of the most voracious consumers of fiction, and for some jaded readers it had to be like finding another wing of their library that they didn’t know existed. Suddenly BDSM became wildly popular, reflected in the explosion of popularity of kink-memes in fandom as well. For those of you that are unfamiliar with kink-memes, these are story fests where people write fanfic about their favorite characters in a kinky sexual situation. The stories are frequently what is referred to as ‘PWP’, which stands for “plot, what plot?” as the only purpose for the story is the depiction of the kinky act.

Redhead bondageI have nothing against any of that. I think it’s great that we as women can express ourselves and explore our sexual fantasies and desires. But the other day, I ran across a promo for a book that caught my attention. I don’t remember the title, but it apparently was doing *very* well on Amazon, better than anything I’d ever written, that’s for sure (so feel free to assign me the obligatory ‘sour grapes’ attitude now). In the blurb, however, someone was described as being in the position of finding subs for his Dom, and that he was ‘going to find out that this little sub came up swinging’. I read that and blinked. Okay, I know NOTHING about the bondage culture. What I know about the BDSM lifestyle comes entirely from stories that I’ve read. But correct me if I’m wrong, here. Doesn’t finding ‘subs for his Dom’ and a sub that ‘comes up swinging’ sound a bit like the woman in question doesn’t have a choice in the matter? Or am I totally missing something here?

I’m willing to concede that I am. After all, I don’t read in the genre very much, and there are certainly subtleties to the lifestyle I might be completely clueless about. But it made me raise an eyebrow, that’s for sure. The fact that this story was selling like hotcakes also made me wonder if anyone reading those stories questioned the relationship between the main characters at all, or if they ate it up with a spoon and reached for the next one just like it. And if the latter were true, what did our fantasies say about our ability to choose healthy relationships for ourselves?

man in handcuffsThe second thing I ran across was less ambiguous as far as I’m concerned. I stumbled onto a conversation on Facebook that kind of shocked me. Again, don’t get me wrong, here. I think we’ve come a long way from the kinds of stories written in the 70s in which the only way a ‘good’ girl could have sex in a romance novel was if she was captured by pirates and raped–or got married. I frankly enjoy seeing pictures of attractive people in sexy situations. We’re a visual beast, after all, otherwise we wouldn’t have so many pictures of cats doing funny things on our timelines. I’ve posted sexy pictures, and have entered into conversations where my contribution is largely to wipe drool off my chin and ask if anyone else thought it was hot in here? I’ve fantasized about favorite characters in sexual situations that explore different dynamics of their relationship.

But in all of those scenarios, my two characters were in a consensual situation.

The conversation I ran across was about two adversarial characters in which one is at the mercy of the other. Again, I’ll be the first to admit I read Draco/Harry stories or any other such pairing that might make you scratch your head and wonder how anyone can picture the two characters together at all. A good writer can make me *believe* in an unlikely pairing–even between enemies. I’m also not above hurting my characters. I’m not against dark stories filled with angst, either. Granted, these days I like to know that there will eventually be a happy ending, but sometimes there is great solace in suffering along with your favorite character. I’m fond of the Hurt/Comfort trope myself, but you know what? Usually the hurting and the comforting take place by two different agencies.

So I was completely taken aback by the conversation about the bad guy hurting the good guy–the inherent hotness of this non-consensual attack on someone’s person and his powerlessness to stop it–as well as the statement that ‘you know you were thinking this, too’.

Um. No. I wasn’t thinking that. And I’m not sure why someone would find this titillating and sexually gratifying, either.

There’s a scene in the 2006 version of Casino Royale in which Bond has been captured by the baddies and is being tortured. Okay, talk about a series of movies that has a long history of objectifying women (and I’ll be the first to say I had some problems with scenes in Skyfall as a result). However, Casino Royale played with traditional Bond film treatment of women by making Bond himself the objectification in the film. Yes, most women I know remember well the scene in the beginning of the movie in which Daniel Craig rises out of the sea. I know I do! I noticed as well how mighty fine Chris Helmsworth was in that completely unnecessary half-naked scene in Thor: The Dark World.

In the torture scene in Casino Royale, Bond is stripped naked and tied to a chair in what appears to be the hot, damp hold of ship, the only illumination coming from a couple of lanterns. Bond’s chair has had the bottom cut out of it, and it isn’t long before we find out why. From the shadows The Big Baddie asks him questions, swinging a weighted piece of rope. When Bond doesn’t give him the desired answers, the Big Bad smashes him in the balls with this homemade kosh. Bond is scared. He is in agony. He screams with each strike. When he is asked for the password, he takes a moment before he can come up with the Bond quip that will invite another hit to his balls. It is a brutal scene. It is meant to be.

The Bond we see recovering from this attack is a changed man. He’s questioning why he is doing what he is doing and whether it is all worth it. He resigns his commission in order to live some semblance of a normal life with Vesper. He doesn’t get that chance.

Casino Royale is one of my favorite Bond movies. And this from a girl who typically demands that happily ever after! Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Bond made him a human being to me, something more than just the suave spy or the government’s assassin. For the first time, I got the appeal of the franchise.

blindfolded man in handcuffsBut here’s the thing. Even though we have the interaction between Bond and The Big Baddie, and we can see the respect that LeChiffre has for Bond’s integrity and strength of will, at no point would I want to see the two ‘together’. At no point can I imagine the two of them getting together for more of the same. There is a huge difference in my mind between what took place in that torture scene and what happens between consenting adults. That’s entering into a situation with someone you trust out of your own choice, and I think that’s worlds away from the kind of gleeful suggestion that it would be hot and entertaining to see Loki brutalize a helpless Thor, or Sherlock at the sexually abusive hands of Moriarty.

I’m all for women being comfortable enough with their sexuality to discuss their hot-button kinks. I’m aware that some hot-button kinks are other people’s ‘hell, no, would never go there!’ But I wonder sometimes whether we are now celebrating that which we would despise if the characters in question were female. If maybe after all these years of forced silence, we now don’t know where to stop?

Or maybe this is just one more thing that I am hopelessly old-fashioned about and I should just duck my head and go back to working on that damned story…

 

 

Why A Middle-Aged Woman Identifies with “Frozen”

I recently saw the movie Frozen. I am completely besotted.

I should point out that this sort of obsession with animated musicals is not unusual for me. When I was in grad school, I used to record Jem and the Holograms and watch it every afternoon when I got home from class. It was the one thing I looked forward to during a difficult time in my life. Before that, it was Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Long after it left the theaters, I was belting out “Part of Your World” as I did the dishes and dancing to “Under the Sea” as I did the laundry. That first year I was out on my own trying to make a living under dreadful circumstances, I used to go to the Wednesday morning matinee of Beauty and the Beast every week until it was no longer playing. It’s hard to explain why watching these animated shows brought me such peace during difficult times, but they were the best anti-depressant I know. How can you resist Lumiere when he sings “Be Our Guest”? How can you not empathize with Belle as she bemoaned her provincial life in a town where no one read books and she was expected to marry and put all her love of stories behind her?

Don’t let them in, don’t let them see. Be the good girl you always have to be

I love to sing. I was a member of chorus all through high school, and played Tzeitel in a local production of Fiddler on the Roof. I enjoyed most of the Disney films, but the ones that really made an impression on me were the ones with the fantastic songs and terrific lyrics. I confess, I never became enthralled with Tangled in part because the songs were so difficult for me to sing.

It’s actually been a while since I became totally and completely besotted with a Disney movie, but oh! Frozen captured my heart. It simply speaks to me on so many levels.

Conceal, don’t feel. Don’t let them know.

Watch Elsa sing “Let It Go.” See her come to life, to realize her full potential.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched this sequence. I know the minute the movie is available on DVD, I will be buying a copy.

There is so much I love about this story. I loved watching Elsa give in to her true self. I loved how determined Anna was, how she loved her sister unconditionally, despite years of being shunned by her. (Okay, the kingdom could use some better management–surely there were Regents acting on behalf of Elsa until she came of age? She couldn’t just hide in her room all the time could she?) I loved Kristoff and his reindeer, Sven. And how Hans, despite seeming like Prince Charming, turned out to be a real bad guy in the end. My BF told me that Disney actually sat on this particular fairy tale for quite some time because they just didn’t know how to tell it so that Elsa was a sympathetic character. Then some one suggested that they make the main characters sisters, and the rest of the story fell into place.

I’ve heard some of the negative things people have said about this movie. Lord knows, I’m no reviewer, either. I can only answer to how this movie spoke to me, and this song in particular. I have always been the Good Girl. The Good Daughter. I did everything I was told to do, everything I was taught to do. For the last couple of decades I’ve been burning up inside with resentment over the fact that despite doing everything that was asked of me, it still hasn’t been good enough. I’ve worked hard my entire life. I’ve made personal and professional sacrifices because they were the right thing to do. And now, as a middle-aged woman, I feel as though this hasn’t gotten me anywhere. That I have ‘nothing to show’ for my efforts.

Now, this isn’t true. I do have things that are incredibly valuable to me, intangible things that don’t count as success in other people’s eyes. I’m a published author–how many people can say that? I have the world’s most handsome dog. My horse is a champion in my eyes. The BF is compassionate, scary-smart, and believes in me as a writer. And lest you think I’m all about making it big and becoming famous, I’m not. I just don’t want to be terrified anymore. I don’t want to live in a constant state of fear: fear that I can’t pay my bills. Fear that my house will fall apart because I can’t fix things, or that I will come home and find a soot spot where my house–and my animals–used to be. Fear that I am irreparably damaging my health because I can’t afford recommended dental work. Fear that I will end up as the stereotypical old lady, living off cat food.

Funny how some distance, makes everything seem small. And the fears that once controlled me, can’t get to me at all.

I’ve been listening to this song over and over again. I hear it in my head at odd times. It’s the first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning.

It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through. No right no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free!

I think most of us, at some points in our lives, need some sort of talisman to hang on to. That’s why some people become fans: cosplay, write fanfic, spend hours making gifs for Tumblr. It’s why some people watch the same movie a hundred times. It’s why some people picture a character giving them courage, giving them strength to get through the rough times. It’s why we fall in love with characters, why we read, why we create.

Let it go, let it go. And I’ll rise like the dawn. Let it go, let it go. That perfect girl is gone. Here I stand in the light of day. Let the storm rage on! The cold never bothered me anyway.

So tonight, as I was listening to this song for the thousandth time, a question came to me.

What do you need to let go?

Wow. It took me by surprise, but only for a second. I found myself coming up with things to let go of faster than I could write them down.

I need to let go of the need for acceptance and approval. I need to let go of wanting other people to love my stories. I need to let go of expecting and demanding my stories to pay the bills. I need to let go of the ‘story’ that I’ve written for myself: the Girl with the Heart of Gold who lives like Cinderella in hopes of an invitation to a ball that is never coming. I need to stop resenting the fact that this invitation is never coming. I need to throw my own ball if I want one.

I think this is why this movie, and this song in particular, has resonated with me. I don’t think it is coincidental that Elsa’s power is to freeze things. I think most of us have a frozen bit of our lives, something we put away as being childish or foolish when we decided to grow up. Maybe we didn’t have faith in it or ourselves. There is no one to blame or resent but ourselves for encasing part of our lives in ice. After a lifetime of carefully sealing that door shut, I don’t think it is going to be easy to keep it open. But every time I hear this song, every time I hear Elsa sing, ‘the cold never bothered me anyway’, I do a little fist-pump for her–and for myself as well.

 

 

 

Did Remington Steele do us a disservice? The bias against women

Smith CoronaI was a huge Remington Steele fan back in the day. It was the one show I had to watch each week.

I loved the premise: a woman trying to make it as a private detective figures out that she’ll be more successful if she creates an imaginary boss–a decidedly masculine boss. She cobbles the name together out of things in her office and Remington Steele is born. In many ways, it’s a sheer stroke of genius. Young, pretty, and female, Laura Holt probably didn’t inspire confidence in the sort of people who needed an private investigator. By creating an imaginary boss, she could present herself as his representative, could defer unpleasant decisions until she could speak with the boss; she could even make the boss the bad guy if the situation warranted it. It was a great plan, right until the time a con artist walks into her life and takes Steele’s identity. Laura is in the uncomfortable situation of not being able to out him without outing herself as well–and the con man needs a place to cool his heels. As premises for romantic dramedies go, this one was more clever than most.

I wanted to be Laura Holt. I admired her gumption, her classic sense of style. I wanted her shoes. I had a crush on Remington Steele. I loved Brosnan’s accent, I loved the banter between the characters. In fact, I think it was this show that made me fall in love with banter. It was like watching Nick and Nora from The Thin Man movies, which was appropriate, given Steele’s ability to find similarities in each case to old movies that he loved to watch.

I enjoyed the show so much that I was delighted to run across it recently on DVD. But watching it again proved to be a big mistake. With hindsight, I remembered that Brosnan wanted out of his contract to play Bond (though really, he was far too young at the time–his is the attractiveness that gets better with age) and was upset when they wouldn’t let him go. Despite being good actors, this situation strained the working relationship between Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan, and it clearly shows in their romantic scenes together, at least to my more mature eyes. The banter feels more like bicker, and the plots, meant to reflect some of the screwball comedies of the 30’s and 40’s, seem dated and cheesy now.

And then there’s the premise itself. Laura Holt can’t be taken seriously in a man’s profession without pretending to have a male boss. Despite having trained and apprenticed for her career (as she said in the opening narrative each week), it was usually Steele who solved the case, by recalling an old movie with a similar set up. So not only does Steele move in lock, stock and barrel into the identity she created, he’s better at solving crimes than she is, too.

handwriting_flickrI’ve been thinking a lot about this kind of thing lately. Recently I came across a NYT post by Fay Weldon, titled “Writer of a Certain Age.” She spoke of her long experience in television and the theater, as well as that of a writer. It was an extremely well-written and eye-opening essay.

It was also bloody depressing. In it, Weldon spoke of truisms in the various entertainment industries in which she’s worked–and in nearly all cases, the only time a women was considered important and worth listening to–be it in television, theater, or novels–is when she is young, pretty, and the love interest for a male lead.

Worse, Weldon seems to imply in her post that if you are so unfortunate as to be ‘a writer of a certain age’ and female, that you should really take advantage of the internet to lie to your fans and create a false persona like Remington Steele. Take a gender neutral pen name. Or if you acknowledge that you are, in fact, a woman, take this opportunity to pretend to be younger, thinner, prettier than you really are. Ouch.

ink pen_wikipedia_orgDiscussion of this post among my friends lead to whether or not bias still existed against women writers in this day and age. I found a blog post titled Why James Chartrand Wears Women’s Underpants, which seemed to parallel Laura Holt’s dilemma: she couldn’t be taken seriously as a woman. It wasn’t until she took the pen name James Chartrand that her freelance writing business took off–and she was able to pay off her mortgage. The discussion among my friends turned inevitably to gender neutral pen names. In the thriller/mystery genre, a gender neutral pen name is almost mandatory–just look at J.D. Robb versus Nora Roberts. I argued that this was more about branding, about allowing your audience to know by your pen name what kind of story to expect. However, J. K. Rowling was born because her publisher thought a female name wouldn’t appeal to the primary audience for the Harry Potter series: adolescent boys.

The Boys of Summer400x600Then there is my own genre. I write primarily M/M romances. At the time I sold my first story and was selecting a pen name, there was a big brouhaha about an author who’d been discovered to be female instead of male. The anger readers felt, presumably for being deceived, was so great that I deliberately chose a feminine pen name because I didn’t want there to be any ambiguity about my gender.

Frequently, the question of whether or not women should even be writing books about gay men and their sexual adventures is raised within the genre. Time and again, the same arguments come back: Tolkien never met a hobbit. Mystery writers usually aren’t murders themselves. Rowling never went to Hogwarts (I KNOW. Say it isn’t so!!) and to my knowledge, all science fiction is just that. Fiction. And yet I never seem to hear a single person take a male author to task for creating a female protagonist. This particular complaint about women writers seems to get raised every few months among my various lists and groups, too.

You will hear people say as long as the story is written well, they don’t give a hoot about the gender of the author, and since I feel that way myself, I believe people when they say this. But I have to wonder, especially in light of Weldon’s post. Of her encouragement to be anything other than what I actually am. Believe me, that post made me wonder if I’d made a serious mistake by going with a feminine pen name, and whether I should delete all my previous posts on aging and sexuality. Whether I should be someone other than who I really am. Because writing isn’t just a little hobby for me. I need it to help pay the bills.

I pretty much thought these arguments were limited to my genre (with the possible exception of the mystery genre as well). Lord knows, romance writers in general are considered the lowest of the low when it comes to ‘real’ writing. Turns out sci-fi and mystery writers also come pretty low on the ‘respect’ list, compared to the literary giants of the fiction world, which is sad because on any given day I’ll take a good mystery or sci-fi story over any self-indulgent, introspective Grand Literature novel. But I digress.

One of my friends pointed out this article to me on Literary Sexism: Still Pervasive and Real. It bears reading. While the beginning is about a critical review and the author’s response to it (which may not make a ton of sense if you aren’t familiar with Mary Gaitskill‘s essays and fiction), read it all the way through. There are some links to some searing examples of ongoing bias toward women. It’s enlightening as well as disheartening. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at the pie chart graphs of the number of books reviewed by male versus female authors.

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image11166602I can’t change who Sarah Madison is now unless I want to start all over again building a platform and readership from scratch, but I can certainly give more thought to creating my new persona for my projected traditional romances. Ironically, Sarah Madison would be a good fit for that genre, better perhaps, that for writing about hot men in hot water. The jury is still out as to whether or not I will actually take another pen name to write traditional M/F romances. The polling has run about 50/50 either way. I myself think, like Nora Roberts, it will be easier for those readers who don’t care for gay romances to find what they like to read if I keep the names separate.

This is certainly not meant to be a ‘wah-wah, woe is me, I’m a woman and the world is out to get me’ post either. It’s just that it seems to me that we should have come farther than Remington Steele by now. I’d like to point to one of my favorite television heroines, Kate Beckett from Castle and say we have come a long way, baby. But then I recall how much Stana Katic’s appearance has changed over the six seasons of Castle and how little she resembles a NYPD homicide detective anymore and how much she looks like a fashion model instead. And Castle usually solves the crime, too.

So it is tempting here to say that Remington Steele was a bad, wrong message to send to impressionable young women. But that would be wrong. I recall not all that long ago getting very angry over some young person’s lambasting of Star Trek: The Original Series on Twitter–commenting on how sexist, nationalist, racist, etc the show was. I tried to point out that for its time, it was groundbreaking stuff. That yes, the women wore mini-skirts and go-go boots, but it was the first show that depicted a black woman in a role other than that of a maid or a cook. That it tackled big issues. That it envisioned a future in which we’d solved so many of our problems by working together instead of trying to kill each other. The Twitter Hater wouldn’t listen and I had to drop her from my feed. She couldn’t understand that it took those very baby steps taken in Star Trek to bring us forward to the kinds of diversity and equality we see in roles for characters today.

I have to give that same kind of credit to Remington Steele. It was groundbreaking in its way as well, giving us a strong unmarried female heroine who had an interesting career and did exciting things. Laura Holt was smart and independent and I wanted to be her. She was one of the first characters I can recall to influence me that way. That’s exactly the sort of baby step that was needed back then. Today we have Kate Beckett, and Brenda Leigh Johnson (The Closer), and Rizzoli and Isles, and Captain Sharon Raydor (Major Crimes), and Peggy Carter (Captain America) and I could go on. It’s getting better. We’re seeing better roles for women, more older women in good roles. But the numbers are still pretty small compared to the good parts for men.

The fact that men got all the best parts and best lines was one of the reasons I’ve been drawn to male characters my entire life. I very much want to try my hand at writing a female character I can like and respect. The thought terrifies me, to be honest, which is why I haven’t seriously attempted it so far. But I will. Some day I will. And I have Laura Holt to thank for it.