At the Back Fence Issue #166

Treat Yourself to the AAR Bookbag!

September 1, 2003

In an effort to keep this column fresh, we like to occasionally experiment. This column is fairly experimental. There’s a running theme throughout, but the exploration of romance novels is rather different than anything we’ve tried in the past; it’s almost as though we indulged in a word association game to write this column. Anne and I hope you enjoy it, and if the vocabulary used in the latter half of the column offends, we apologize up front.

Romance and Feminism (Anne Marble)

AARList found itself embroiled in a controversial discussion on feminism in August. The topics ranged from feminism and women’s issue to whether romance novels could give women the wrong ideas about abusive men and relationships. Oh, and spanking scenes.

The discussion occurred shortly after RWA’s national conference, perhaps the only time during the year when romance novels make it into the national spotlight. As this year’s conference was held in Manhattan, perhaps even more press were involved than usual. One article, published in the New York Press, generated a great deal of discussion because, although the article was better informed than many, it still managed to be condescending, and of course, much of its focus was still sex, sex, sex. While some were glad the reporter had some positive things to say, many were offended that the reporter referred to romance novels as “softcore pornography” for women.

Author Laura Mills Alcott was not as offended as some – for example, while many members labeled the author a sexist pig, she pointed out that his article was more fair than many articles written by women. However, many others thought his condescension and “nice nice” attitude were in fact veiled slams at not only romance readers, but women and sexuality. That by referring to romance writers at a convention as “down-home, caring nurturers all,” he was snidely reiterating the fears and misgivings many feminists (at least those who don’t read the books) have about romance novels. He even called Jennifer Crusie (a staunch feminist) “perky.” So by statements like that, he was not only saying that romance novels are softcore porn for women, he was saying that the feminist detractors of romance were right. Never mind the fact that other people who attended the same convention as the reporter said most of the women looked like professional businesswomen, not like grannies baking apple pies or frustrated spinsters.

Is there a tie between these misconceptions of romance? Maybe the major connection is ignorance on the part of the people with those misconceptions. After researching the web, author Alcott found numerous sites portraying romance novels as either women’s porn or anti-feminist, both viewpoints AAR has spent years trying to combat. She wrote, “After too much time to count, I discovered a few things: It’s mostly men who consider romance to be porn – and some religious sites. In most cases, they haven’t read the books – they just know they have graphic love scenes.” Pointing to a woman’s blog in which she blames her addiction to masturbation on reading romance, she asked, “How is it these books get blamed for everything? I daresay she had masturbation issues long before she ever read a romance.” As for the so-called anti-feminist views of romance, even though at least one major feminist scholar has long since changed her tune, it is the same 1987 study by Janice Radway that is continually trotted out to prove the point that romance and feminism are mutually exclusive. In many university-level courses that delve into the reading of romance novels, the idea remains that they are all about women submitting to men. Alcott decries that, where both these viewpoints are concerned, “most opinions were based not on reading romances, but from other sources.”

The ramifications for current viewpoints being based on outdated perceptions goes beyond the academic and literary. A best-selling romance author told Laurie that although she donates money and volunteers at a local woman’s shelter involved in assisting both abused and illiterate women, they will not accept donations of her books because they don’t believe romance novels are appropriate either for abused women to read or as a tool to teach reading skills to women. Yet this author’s books feature heroines who have fought back against abuse and heroes who are strong leaders yet learn much from the women in their lives.

This author’s experience is not unique. Bekah, another AARList member, mentioned that when Iris Johansen sent the feminist organization she works a donation of some of her books, “the attitude and feeling was they did not want it, and some even made the claim that this type of reading material does not help the victims in their situations.” Though most of AARList’s members don’t agree with the idea that romance novels are dangerous to male/female relationships, Bekah can see the other side, stating, “I can see where this is true,” then asking, “Does anyone else have some further insight into this subject?”

My response is to point to another woman’s shelter, one that actually used romance novels in classes designed to teach women about healthy relationships. Of course, I’m sure they picked the books carefully – I wouldn’t expect to see any Rosemary Rogers books used in such a class. It’s true, though, that sometimes organizations let prejudices color their reactions. Years ago, I read an article about a writer of young adult horror novels who sent a box of his novels to his own high school. The librarian sent the box back with a note that said they didn’t take that sort of “trash.” What a nasty attitude. That so-called “trash” is the type of book that gets reluctant readers reading. And it was the writer’s own high school! Talk about a slap in the face.

Even if we were to “buy into” the idea that a woman in an abusive relationship could read a romance novel with an alpha jerk hero and decide it’s okay if her husband or boyfriend treats her that way, there’s more to it than that. But those women are in special circumstances, and I don’t think we should expect writers to take all “objectionable” materials out of their writing just to suit those situations. It reminds me too much of those idiots who were taking “objectionable” material (such as references to race and gender) out of excerpted writing they used in their school tests.

After all, it’s also true that more than one serial killer had read and loved A Catcher in the Rye and John Fowles’ The Collector. Perhaps at least one of these killers was actually inspired by the Fowles novel, about a young man who goes from collecting butterflies to kidnapping a woman. Does that mean those books should no longer be on the market? Hell no! I read the book in college and loved it because of the wonderful insight into both characters, the use of dual points of view, the plot, although the ending was cringe-worthy. Even as the author made the villain sympathetic, I hated what he had done. This even though I was a mere freshman in college and what Judge Judy would call “Not fully cooked” yet. (Heck, I was still a freaking salad!).

Lynne responded to Bekah’s question as well, writing that editors today, particularly those involved with contemporary romance, won’t even touch a novel where a heroine is abused by the hero. She wrote:“In the early 80’s there was a regrettable spate of historical romances where women were ‘raped into love’, but an author nowadays would not dream of writing on such a subject, and if she did, it is unlikely that her work would be published. Romance only brings women down if you believe that it’s unnatural in some way, or that the male part of the romance is manipulating the woman. This does happen, but in modern romance it’s highly likely that the man is made to grovel before the end scene, i.e. he doesn’t get away with it.

And, as we often say here at AAR, fiction is not reality, and women are smart enough to know the difference. It is only in fiction, after all, that we can even use the term “forced seduction.” In reality there is no forced seduction; when a woman says no and a man forces sex upon her, it’s rape. Yet the forced seduction fantasy is rooted not in a wish to actually be raped, but in being forced to accept pleasure. In Nancy Friday’s pivotal My Secret Garden, she writes about this particular fantasy:

“Rape does for a woman’s sexual fantasy what the first martini does for her in reality: both relieve her of responsibility and guilt. By putting herself in the hands of her fantasy assailant — by making him an assailant — she gets him to do what she wants him to do, while seeming to be forced to do what he wants. Both ways she wins, and all the while she’s blameless, at the mercy of a force stronger than herself…. It’s worth repeating my conviction that fantasy need have nothing to do with reality, in terms of suppressed wish-fulfillment.”

While it’s not politically correct to say so, this remains a legitimate fantasy – even for the liberated. Dominatrixes for instances, have said that many of their clients are powerful men for whom the fantasy of being controlled lets them relax from their everyday lives. Granted, B&D is not in the mainstream, but as long as those involved realize they’re in a fantasy world, does it matter? After all, acceptable sex-play these days often includes a milder form of control or submission.As political correctness has invaded more and more of our daily lives, so too have romances become more and more politically correct. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but as with all things good or bad, the middle gets lost between both ends of the argument. I don’t look back with longing at the days when alpha heels ripped bodices of doormat virgins, but I don’t believe we need to hide or run away from such books. Sometimes I just want to read a crappy, big-misunderstanding book with a big grovel, and that should be okay. But some people want to point at such a book and shout, “Bad, bad! This is bad for you. Don’t touch!” My ultimate fear is that if this mindset takes too strong a hold, we’ll end up with bland, politically correct romances wherein the hero must ask, “I’d like to now touch your breast, may I?”

Ashleigh admits that when she first started reading romances, she felt guilty, as if she were betraying her feminist sensibilities. However, she later realized they are the “most woman-centered books written, and woman-centered IMO is always good.” She adds that in romance novels, “women are the most important people in the universe, and romance novels never question that what women value is important (relationships of all sorts, love, compassion, emotions). It’s all about us!! It’s great.” Ashleigh admits that not every romance she has read has pleased her feminist side – for example, she doesn’t like possessive heroes or heroines who wait to be rescued – but finds that “these books are increasingly rare.”

Like Ashleigh, I’ve also read my share of romance novels that scared the bejeebers out of my feminist side. Sometimes I even had to put the book down and give up. But not always. If the writing grabbed me, I kept going. Sometimes the only way I could get through the book was by reading the heroine’s response to the alpha heel and thinking “You doormat! Here’s how you should’ve solved that!” No, I wasn’t always reading books that showed the best view of relationships. But I knew that, and damn it, I had fun.

Lady Naava, another reader who got in on the discussion, believes that “labeling romance novels as porn is a further way of labeling and belittling the interests of women.” As far as she’s concerned, any book that “helps a person learn to read is a good thing,” adding that while some negative female stereotypes exist in romance novels, at times “the male roles are almost equally absurd.” And while we’re on the topic of stereotypes, she reminds us of action novels, written primarily for men that are often “graphic sexually, celebrate violence.” In these novels, she notes, “the heroes tend to use and treat women without any particular emotional feeling,” and wonders why there are no snickering journalists decrying these novels as unrealistic or stereotypical.

Naava has a good point. Critics of romance novels often point to the way romance novels portray heroines as beautiful, popular, and forced to rely on the hero for help. Setting aside for the moment the argument that this is not the case for many romances published today, how many of us have met a grandmotherly type of woman who solves mysteries? You never hear people criticize mysteries because they might make grandmothers think they can go out and solve crimes. Somehow, it’s a given that mystery readers know the difference between fiction and reality. All genres have unrealistic characters to some extent or another – the heroes in adventure and spy novels endure things no man could survive, but nobody makes fun of men for reading them. Nobody suggests that the men who read these books will begin to behave like James Bond. And nobody believes that the women who read cozy mysteries begin to assume the characteristics of Angela Lansbury. Yet they aren’t willing to give the same amount of credit to romance readers.

There are those, however, who wonder whether abuse has any place at all in a romance novel. Bekah explains that although we only take away good things from reading them, not everyone will interpret them in the same manner. Going back to the question of whether providing romance novels to women in shelters is or is not a good thing, she argues: “Just because we hand only certain books to women who are victims doesn’t mean they don’t get their hands on the others that may not be so good for them. I think I see where some women get the view they have about romance. I think that some of the women who have lived through abuse and come out stronger in the end, probably condemn themselves for their romance reading days, and I think it’s possible that that is where this viewpoint may stem from. Should abuse be in romance novels? I think that’s a fantasy where the price is not worth paying. In reality, abusers and their victims don’t have HEA.”

Bekah brings up an interesting question. Does abuse belong at all in a romance novel? It depends on how we define “abuse.” Maybe it even depends on how we define “at all.” The physically abusive alpha heel “heroes” are pretty much a thing of the past. Most readers will easily recognize them as abusive. But where do we draw the line? Emotional abuse is a huge problem in real life, too. Does that mean we should do away with jealous or manipulative heroes? They make a lot of people uncomfortable – but in the hands of a good writer, they can make for a great read… as long as they reform and grovel, of course!

On AARList and our message boards, some fans have complained that serious issues such as abuse and drug addiction don’t belong in romance novels because romance novels are light reading and can’t give these issues the in-depth treatment they deserve. I think that’s wrong, wrong, wrong. (Tell me what you really think, Anne.) There are plenty of mysteries and SF/Fantasy novels about topics such as child abuse. Mercedes Lackey, for example, has written a number of fantasy novels about abused children who endure and find a better life. No, those books aren’t as in-depth as a self-help book about recovery. But not everyone is ready (or needs) to pick up an in-depth book about recovery. Some people will find the help they need to get on the road to recovery in so-called “light” reading such as romance novels and Mercedes Lackey’s fantasy novels.

How often do we read about someone reading a romance novel and learning something? Karen mentioned reading Sheila Williams’ Dancing on the Edge of the Roof, a work of women’s fiction wherein the heroine is a 40-something grandmother who lives in the projects with her “layabout children.” She is given some romance novels by a patient at the hospital where she works and “they give her a new outlook on life.” As Karen describes it, “after reading about the romance heroines who go out and do things, she is encouraged to change her life.” While Karen had some other problems with the book, she “loved the way the heroine is inspired by romance” because it’s such a change, adding, “You hardly ever read about someone who reads romance, even in a romance novel.”

While we’re parsing definitions, let’s consider some of the following hot-button questions on AARList regarding how to define this term – feminism. Just what is a feminist, anyway?

  • Are women still being subjugated today?
  • What about equal pay for equal work?
  • Does calling yourself a feminist mean you have to believe certain things?
  • Can you believe in those ideas and yet not consider yourself a feminist?
  • Is there a difference in how feminism is defined between older readers (who faced a world with more barriers) and younger readers (who benefited from those hard-fought freedoms)?

Author Eileen Wilks answered many of these questions for a great many women in her response:

“I’m a feminist who writes romance. What’s to explain? Some romances don’t send the kind of message I want to send… but that doesn’t make the entire genre anti-feminist. Some science fiction could be said to send dubious messages about science or technology. That doesn’t make people claim the genre is anti-science …””I’ve never read Ms. magazine. Don’t belong to any feminist organizations. Yet I consider myself a feminist because I believe in the fundamentals that powered the original movement – the idea that woman should be treated as equal to men under the law, and within society in general. Not equivalent, not the same – equal. I believe feminism is all about women being free to choose, and that includes the choice to live a traditional life as a wife and homemaker, and I deplore those who make it seem that this choice isn’t as empowered and liberated as the choice to have a paid job or career. I also think that the feminist movement – and there is a movement; being part of the movement is not the same as being a feminist – took some wrong turns. To some extent, for awhile being a feminist was identified with possessing certain ‘desirable’ (i.e., traditionally masculine) traits and roles. This is why there’s confusion about whether romance can be feminist, IMO. Romances celebrate women’s concerns, and some feminists believe that placing a high value on relationships and family locks women into traditional roles. I think that’s bosh.”


Are Romances Bad for Women?

I agree with Ashleigh that it’s a “misconception that romance novels are bad for relationships, bad for women, bad, bad, bad.” Both of us think that to subscribe to this view implies that women aren’t smart enough to know what’s good for us, that women can’t tell fantasy from reality, that women shouldn’t have sexual fantasies, and that women don’t control our lives and choices intelligently. Ashleigh writes, “This smacks of misogyny of the worst sort to me.” As for the idea that women who read romance novels are doormats living in a fantasy, she adds, “I’ve heard that the opposite is actually true, that women who read romance novels on average have healthier relationships.”

No one thinks mystery fans are obsessed with death and corpses and that they expect to see bodies every time they walk into the parlor or the local pub. Fans of Westerns aren’t accused of hating Indians or glorifying gunfights. And though there are plenty of prejudices against science fiction and fantasy fans, most people realize those fans don’t expect to see frolicking spaceships and soaring unicorns (hmmm, that doesn’t sound right). Yet the expectation of a romance reader is that she will read about an abusive heroine and decide to stay in an abusive relationship. But is she really staying because of the book? Maybe she’s picking books about abusive heroes to justify her own choice of staying with an abusive jerk. Maybe she’s staying because she’s afraid to leave, and the book has nothing to do with it.

Bekah agrees that romance novels send good messages to women. But do they sometimes send bad messages? She used Linda Howard’s After the Night as an example.

“I love it. But the guy is without a doubt a horse’s ass. Treats her like sh_t. He demeans her emotionally, physically, and just plain drags her through dirt. He is the worst kind of alpha jerk. But of course, as a romance, they get their HEA. Now, does this give a woman who is in a similar situation hope that she too might get her HEA, when in fact her husband is a lazy ass bastard who really only has concerns for himself? Does she put up with more sh_t because she recognizes, or thinks she recognizes her husband is an alpha hero, and eventually they’ll have their HEA. He’ll grovel and treat her like the princess she deserves to be treated? Or even those few books where the hero in a fit of blinding rage slaps the heroine? Does a woman, having read a romance before where this happened and the outcome was wonderful, does she stay with a man who hits her? Maybe these are not things that we may think affect us, but subconsciously are they? I can’t tell you that they are not.”

But author Alcott thinks women can tell which heroes are jerks.

“There are some pr_ck bastards in romance novels who are the ‘heroes.’ Most women see them as pr_ck bastards, and unless the author does a lot of character growth for them, by the end of the story, we still see them as prick bastards… If I were to donate books to abused women, I would be careful about which books I donated, simply because the mind set of these women is so… out of whack. A woman who accepts abuse in any form already believes abuse is a form of love. So I’d want her to read books with heroes who were kind and gentle, and even when they lost their tempers, they might yell and break things like teacups, but never get physically or verbally abusive with a woman. These kind of books would show her that ‘love’ is never ‘abuse’.”


Am I Evil If I Want to See Someone Spank That Bratty Heroine?

As the Master in Betrice Small’s short story “Mastering Lady Lucinda” (in the Fascinated anthology) said, “Wake up Lucinda! It is time for your morning spanking.” Yup, it’s time to talk about spanking scenes and whether they give us bad ideas.

Author Alcott believes that, “If a ‘hero’ hit a heroine – for any reason – I, as a reader, would be quite upset (but the occasional spanking really doesn’t bother me – especially if the heroine is acting like a brat, and the hero takes her over his knee and makes her butt sting. In real life this would bother me, but not in fiction.” However, Laura admitted that if the hero spanked the heroine to control her or because she “disobeyed” him, then that was abuse. The types of heroines she had in mind are the childish, spoiled, bratty heroines who throw tantrums and hurt other people.

Ooh, ooh, ooh, can I nominate a couple of heroines to be spanked? Ahem – sorry, I got carried away for a moment there. Let’s face it, we’ve all read books with heroines who made us want to scream. Heroines who were TSTL or spoiled or even outright mean. Some of those heroines were so obnoxious that they turned the books into wallbangers. Maybe those books should be called “derriere bangers.”

For Ashleigh, if the setting is historical, the motivations involve diametric opposition between the hero and heroine, and the hero and heroine eventually end up in an equal partnership where there will be no more spankings (or tantrums), a “non-consensual spanking scene can work if it’s done well.” Most of us would probably agree that non-consensual spanking scenes don’t work in contemporary settings, but to those who might finding spanking more acceptable in an historical setting, let’s also not forget that in historical settings, a married couple would not truly end up in a totally equal partnership.

That said, the idea of a modern heroine being turned over the hero’s knees and spanked like Ricky once did to Lucy in their classic 50’s sit-com just doesn’t fit today’s sensibilities. Whatever a heroine may do, a hero doing the spanking will almost assuredly come across as childish. And yet, haven’t we all learned never to say “never?” Even Rosario, who hates those spanking scenes “with a passion, even if [it’s] not physically painful” and finds such scenes “terribly humiliating for the heroine,” remembers having a different reaction when she read the spanking scene in SEP’s Lady Be Good, possibly because she found it a kind of foreplay between the characters. (When SEP was asked about this scene in an interview at AAR some years ago, she responded that writing that scene “was pure devilment,” “so politically incorrect that [she] couldn’t resist,” and that she “giggled the entire time” she was writing it.) Rosario’s idea of a hero is “not someone who’d purposefully humiliate the heroine.” She added, “There’s something else that makes me uncomfortable, basically the feeling that the hero somehow sees the heroine as a child, and that’s why he feels a spanking is appropriate.”

JenniferL also hates those scenes. “Demeaning, humiliating, disrespectful. Of course, I also hate the way the authors write the women in a TSTL way that begets the spanking scene.” Jennifer’s comment reminded me of the infamous riding crop scene from Judith McNaught’s Whitney, My Love – this scene was modified in the revised version a few years ago. That scene would never have gotten off the ground if Whitney hadn’t acted like a brat and thrown a riding crop in the direction of a horse that reacted badly to the mere sight of riding crops. There are many scenes where I winced when the heroine did something equally stupid.

Bekah finds herself “torn” on spanking scenes. While she finds them “highly erotic,” they are also “terribly offensive. No man should ever feel he has the right to bend me over his knee in the heat of anger and spank me as if I am his errant child. No man. Sorry.”

Kay also sees those non-consensual spanking scenes as abusive and humiliating and states that in such situations the hero is often married to a younger woman. She writes, “Even if she acts childish, he usually expects her to accept adult situations. When she doesn’t, or acts independently, he corrects her as he would a child. This is counterproductive. Treat an adult as an adult….” And it angers Kay that a hero believes “he has the right to punish a heroine, physically or otherwise, for not doing as she is told.” She points out that there is a lack of respect inherent in this type of relationship, because “if he respects her at all, he won’t be telling her, he’ll be requesting and discussing. When he doesn’t, he has no right to get physically abusive because she rebels.”

I think the readers who dislike non-consensual spanking scenes have great points. Even the brattiest heroines usually deserve better than to be spanked. (I’ll admit there are some I wanted to spank myself…) Yet at the same time, I don’t think women are reading those scenes and then persuading themselves that it’s all right if the man they love spanks them or hits them because of those books. Most of AARList’s readers find non-consensual spanking scenes often terrible, humiliating, and so forth, and even if there is a particular book with such a scene that engaged them, they emphatically state that they would never allow a man to treat them similarly. A woman may enjoy romances featuring bad-boy heroes but that doesn’t mean this is the type of man she looks for in real life. This is the same for women who have read romances with abusive or manipulative heroes. Women are smart enough to realize books are fiction and don’t reflect real life.

But what about abused women whose fathers and boyfriends and husbands have perpetrated a cycle of abuse so that abuse and love are intertwined in their minds? This is clearly a shame; no woman should have to endure abuse of this sort. And yet, should publishers stop selling books with heroes who may be considered abusive? And for that matter, what about heroines who hit the heroes (every time a Nora Roberts heroine belts her man in the nose, the same argument is made)? Where do we draw the line? Many of the best books I’ve read have been about heroes and heroines who did something wrong. While I don’t want to read about alpha jerks, I don’t want to take away the right of readers to read what they want. I’m also reluctant to take away the freedom of authors. Because just when I think I could never read a romance about a particular topic, a great writer will come along and write a book that makes it work.

I am a woman with strong and independent thoughts. I know what I believe. If I read a novel with a viewpoint that disagrees with me, I may put it down in disgust – but only if the writer is preachy or if the characters, plot, or style suck. If the writing is good and I like the book, I will read it anyway. And guess what? I will still stick to my guns, I will still believe what I believe. I still have an opinion, the right to change that opinion, the right to keep my opinion, and the right to think, to choose, and of course, to read what I want, even if now and then I read something with a domineering sneering hero. Because I said so, what’s why.

I think that’s what this all comes down to. Some people want to preach to women and tell us we shouldn’t be reading about all those naughty naughty sex scenes. Clearly they don’t understand the thrust (sorry!) of what romance novels are really all about. Others are telling us not to read romance novels because they sublimate women or whatever. That, of course, also flies in the face of what romance novels are all about. Romance novels at their best are about strong women who make choices. And even if the heroine isn’t that strong, we have no way of “proving” that the woman who reads about her is weak. Some of the strongest women I know like to read about domineering heroes and submissive heroines. They realize it’s a fantasy, and they would never ever confuse the fantasy with reality.

Words, Words, They’re All Just Words (LLB and Anne Marble)

LLB: When I was in college I took a special drama course between semesters. One of my assignments was to act out a scene in which I had to ask, “How about a little Debussy for my pussy?” Even though I was nearly 21 years old at the time and this was not a sexual scene, every time I rehearsed by myself or amongst our little acting troupe, I burst out laughing. It reminded me of nothing so much as being in the 6th grade and having contests with my friends to see which of us could string together the most curse words in a sentence.

Anne: When I was in junior high, we discovered that the game “Gossip” was a lot of fun if you whispered something naughty about another student. Usually, we ended up laughing so much we could only whisper it to a few people before the whole line started giggling. I was a nerd and didn’t swear much – but that’s because I hadn’t been introduced to the world of !@#$ computers and !@#$ commuting yet.

LLB: To this day there are words guaranteed to make me laugh – my 16-year-old nephew referred to a “mangina” on our recent trip to Alaska and I couldn’t contain myself. The anatomically correct words for male and female genitalia are words that are funny to us as children; some of us apparently never grow out of that. Breasts can be boobs – or boobies for the underaged and somehow that’s alright – but tits somehow seems crude and only appropriate in the bedroom.

Anne: I can’t help it, whenever I see the words boobs or boobies, I think of The Match Game. That’s what kids in my school watched when their parents thought they were watching Speed Racer cartoons on Captain Chesapeake. I don’t care what the question was, someone on the celebrity panel would always fill in the blank with “boobies.” The show was naughty to us, but it was the perfect kind of naughtiness for kids our age, silly and kooky. For some of us, it was as if we were being “broken in to” naughty words. A far cry from today’s kids, who get to watch Jerry Springer instead.

LLB: Anne, I loved Match Game when I was growing up! This must be some sort of separated-at-birth thing. They show re-runs of it on the Game Show Network, and I tried to interest my daughter in it. Although she only watched Jerry Springer once (when I caught her, she got in major trouble!), sensibilities have changed incredibly over the past few decades.

Why it seems a worse insult to call someone the slang word for female genitals than it is to call someone the slang word for male genitals is beyond me, but it’s true. You can say “what a pr_ck” or “what a d_ck” and be less insulting than if you were to say “what a c_nt.” And it’s very insulting to a man to call him a “p_ssy” whereas no one would think of insulting a woman by calling her a “d_ck.”

When men are angry at women, women are whores, bitches, or sluts. Two of those terms hinge directly upon a woman’s sexual character. When a woman is angry at a man, she may call him a pr_ck, but doing so does not impugn his sexuality. On the other hand, it’s far more common to insult a man by calling him gay, a fag, or a homo than it is to call a woman a lesbian, although I’ve heard men refer to women as dykes in an insulting fashion, generally after they’re turned down for a date or have been “bested” by a woman in the workplace.

Anne: You have to wonder why some romance novel heroes insult the heroines by calling them whores or sluts – usually not bitches, though. These are books aimed at women, yet the alpha heel heroes are more likely to use this sort of insult than any other. Is it because the writers realize how this insult makes women feel, so she creates sympathy by making the heroine an innocent victim of this accusation? Because she realizes this is the insult an alpha man is more likely to use? Or is it because women themselves use the same insults (even if they don’t use the same words) when talking about some women?

It’s amazing how far back some traditions go. In the Viking age, it was the height of insult to call a man seidr. It was a reference to women’s magic. This insult implied that the man wasn’t manly – in fact, that he was the bottom in a homosexual relationship, that he was impotent, a coward, etc. Another big insult was “argr” – insinuating that the man was effeminate and used sexually like a woman. Saying either could get you killed. (The more things change…) Viking culture did look down on lesbian behavior. But generally, you insulted women by implying that they were whores, not by implying that they were manly.

There is a famous part of Norse mythology when the trickster god Loki insults the other gods and goddesses at a celebration – think of it as a dinner party gone horribly wrong. He generally insulted the gods by saying they were cowards or bad providers. And he generally insulted the goddesses by saying they slept around. For example (from the Auden translation):

“Enough, Freya! I know well
You have been as bad as the rest:
With all who sit here, elves and gods,
With each you have played the whore.”

Eek, Loki sounds like an alpha heel from the 1980s!

However, whatever the worst insults are, sometimes the subtle ones are more insidious. I used to work with a woman who felt more threatened when her boss made “Jewish mother” jokes about her than she was by hate groups. The hate groups, she realized, made their hate known, but the “cute” quips about Jewish mothers often hid deeper resentments. Subtle insults come in many forms. Even today, men still insult women by saying that they wear ‘comfortable shoes,’ thus implying that they are lesbians. This may come from being threatened by a woman who, even if not a lesbian, doesn’t follow the norm.

LLB: You’ve got something there. Not long ago we changed veterinarians, and one of the reasons we did – in addition to a missed diagnosis (that wasn’t life-threatening) – was because the vet always managed to refer to us being Jewish. We’d been with this vet for 20 years (since I was in college and had my first cat), but it bothered me enough that it played a part in our decision to switch.Last month, in our Pandora’s Box on the romance The Captain of All Pleasures, PB columnist (and AAR’s Managing Editor) Blythe Barnhill revealed that she’s never been much of a fan of another term for male genitals – c_ck. This engendered an interesting discussion on our Reviews Message Board in a thread entitled “The ‘C’ Word.”When Marlynn mentioned the “c” word on the message board, she wrote that she’s noticed it being used more and more and that, unlike Blythe, she finds she actually likes it because “it seems like real life” and she “imagines that would the word most men use to refer to themselves.”

Anne: I wonder if some readers dislike this term because it sounds like something most men use to refer to themselves. Some readers want to read romances about heroes who are manly but who aren’t like “typical” men, or at the very least, who aren’t crude.

LLB: The “c” word, unlike many other synonyms for the penis, is never used as an insult (unless it is modified by the addition of a verb transformed into a noun through the addition of the “er” suffix, which does, in fact, transform it into an insult – ie, “c_cksucker”). By itself, though, and to my ears, it sounds wholly masculine, and used only in a sexual manner, even if Catherine Coulter is fond of the colloquial “cocked up his toes.” A man may think about his c_ck, he may talk about his c_ock – as may a woman – but this is done in the confines of the bedroom. It’s a word that doesn’t bother me, but it is the most harsh-sounding of terms for the penis.

Anne: I wonder why the “d” word doesn’t have the same effect? We can call men d_cks or d_ckheads, but not c_cks or c_ckheads. You’re right, calling a man a c_cksucker is considered a huge insult – after all, it implies the same things as saying a Viking man practiced seidr!) Is it because the word doesn’t sound as harsh as c_ck, because it’s a nickname for men named Richard?

LLB: I think it must be the harsh sound of it; the “f” word has a similarly harsh sound. But none of the words for a penis are nearly as harsh as the “other” “c” word, the word for its female counterpart.

I think you may be right about why c_ck bothers some readers, but to me, in the context of a love scene, or in the context of a hero thinking about sex, it’s a turn-on. Sex is not prissy – it’s earthy and, as Mae, another reader, pointed out, it has a “naughtier” sound than other words for the same thing. I agree with her; use of c_ck does feel “earthier and dirtier,” which may explain why it works well in the context of a love scene in a quite sexual romance.

Anne: I once read an article on writing erotic that encouraged people to call a c_ck a c_ck. Penis was okay, but c_ck was better, stronger. But the author said that words like manhood – and even shaft – were silly. She implied that terms like manhood were for people who didn’t want to admit they were reading dirty stories. Yup, another writer ignorant about romance. I didn’t think her theory held water. For one thing, the word c_ock isn’t always historically accurate, and it’s often not accurate for that character or appropriate to that story. Can you imagine a writer known for poetic writing suddenly saying “c_ck this, c_ck that”? Blech!

LLB: No, I can’t. I think it only fits when a romance has an earthy quality. I would not, for instance, like to see it used in a scene during which the hero is deflowering his virginal wife.

But then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum, which has led to the usage of some ridiculous terminology. Many readers, myself included, are like Lady Naava, who doesn’t want to read “flowery words like honey-pot.” She’s not a fan of this type of prose, likely because it has little bearing to real life. Neither do the types of nicknames one reads about in romance novels. She added, “I don’t know many young people who call their loved-ones nicknames [like] ‘sweetie, dear, honey… this seems to occur so much more in romance than real life.”

Many of us have nicknames for our significant others; in our house they are quite unique and could not be shared without lengthy explanation. But a significant number of women object to being called “Babe” by their SO’s – some because it has a sexist connotation of equating women with children, but others because they don’t want to be thought of as a talking pig.

Anne: My parents do call each other nicknames, but I think they’re a special case. They rarely call each other by name. It took me a little longer to learn my parents’ names than it took most kids because they never called themselves by name.

LLB: My parents didn’t have nicknames, but my dad had a god-awful name – Marvin. My college roommate and I used to wonder which of our fathers had a worse name. Her dad was Melvin. I don’t think Mel Gibson would have been as successful if he were Melvin Gibson, you know?

How acceptable individual words are changes over time. Back in 1973 George Carlin delivered a now-infamous monologue entitled “Filthy Words,” which was later aired on a radio station in New York. After a complaint filed with the FCC, management for the radio station responded that in Carlin’s monologue, he is not “mouthing obscenities, he is merely using words to satirize as harmless and essentially silly our attitudes toward these words.” In 1978, the repetitious use of the seven dirty words became the FCC standard for indecency.

Anne: George Carlin also pointed out how some words have multiple meanings. He talked about being a boy in Catholic school and snickering along with the other boys when the priest or nun read “The cock crowed three times.” He also pointed out that on TV, “you can prick your finger, but you can’t finger your pr_ck.”

When I was in college, I saw a George Carlin special on HBO. He did the Filthy Words bit, which was funny. But then, he expanded it to a list of dozens and dozens of naughty words, many of them silly even if offensive. It stopped being funny after the first ten. To me, the whole point of the Filthy Words bit wasn’t the words, it was Carlin’s jokes about, as you say, pointing out our attitudes about that words. I don’t remember the seven words, but I still remember the image of the nun shushing adolescent boys who giggle when she reads “The cock crowed three times.”

LLB: I often wonder if teens in Europe crack up the way we did about things sexual given their often differing sexual sensibilities (I exclude Ireland from that query, though, given the whole Magdalene situation that continued until the mid-1990’s).

But I didn’t take that detour down legal lane to teach law. It was to illustrate how time affects our sensibilities. In 1999 Chicago Hope, a television drama on a broadcast network aired an episode in which a character said, “Sh_t happens.” Sh_t is one of the original seven dirty words. And in 2002, the FCC dismissed a complaint against the show Philly for allowing the word “d_ck” to be used. While d_ick” is not one of the original seven dirty words, it’s hard to imagine such a decision being made before, say, 1993, the year NYPD Blue premiered and was not shown in many southern markets, Dallas included, because it was considered too provocative. Interestingly enough, that was the same year David Letterman moved to CBS from NBC, and in the early years of Late Night, he would often gleefully insert the word “ass” into his monologues and bits simply because he wanted to be naughty and could get away with it. Now that use of the word is a staple on television, he doesn’t seem to say it with a twinkle in his eye anymore, although, for some reason “assh_le” is still considered verbotten.

With the anniversary of September 11th looming before us, I’m reminded of the wonderful documentary shot by the French Naudet brothers. It aired on CBS in March 2002 and is required viewing in our house each September 11th, even though another of the original seven dirty words – the biggie, the “f” word – is heard frequently throughout the two-hour horror show.

Anne: Documentaries may be a special case, especially earthshattering ones like that. Networks often relax standards for something important documentaries. For example, in the 1970s, when the program “Scared Straight” ran on TV, execs let the show run without censoring what the prisoners were telling the scared kids, because the message was so important. Allowing the use of swear words in a drama is another thing entirely, and that must come with time.

Language, Romance, Men, & Women

LLB: It would come as a surprise to no one that romance novels are not considered progressive in terms of reflecting modern culture; hence the endless discussions about Harlequin/Silhouette and their cussing guidelines, and the continuing use of often ridiculous purple prosey-euphemisms in far too many romance novels. That said, however, as there is more and more cross-over between romance, women’s fiction, chick-lit, and, if the rumors of the next big trend are true, mommy-lit, even this barrier will eventually break down, at least to some extent. The trouble is in the deciding – which words are now considered socially acceptable? You can turn on prime-time broadcast television and hear someone say they have to “pee,” but I believe “piss” is still one of the seven dirty words, unless it’s part of the phrase “pissed off.” Go figure.

Even without the concerns Harlequin/Silhouette has about the sensibilities of its readers, crude, “male” language has been slow to come to romance. Remember that it wasn’t always that romance novels even featured the male point of view. Like most teenagers, I watched certain soap operas religiously in junior high, high school, and even some of college, as did many of my friends (both female and male). Then, one day while listening to a male character on All My Children reveal his heart-felt emotion for his lady love, it struck me: no man I’d ever known would ever say anything remotely like what was coming out of this man’s mouth! You’d only hear such dialogue from a man if written for consumption by women, even though it’s true that the idea of “courtly love” originated with men.

Anne: I think you’re on to something here. This goes back to what I said about the reason some women may not want to read c_ck, etc in a romance. They don’t want to read gritty things a real man would say. They want to hear something poetic, something fantasy man would say. The other day in the bookstore, I overheard several teen-aged boys reading to each other from romances they plucked from the shelves. I think what made them laugh the most was that they couldn’t imagine real people talking like that. And a lot of other people make the same complaint about romance novels. Often, they don’t understand… That’s the point.

LLB: When soap operas were new to television, the vast majority of viewers were women – this was in the days before the women’s liberation movement, when most middle-class women were “housewives.” With melodramatic storylines, mushy dialogue, and male characters who passionately wear their hearts on their sleeves, the soap opera appealed to me as an adolescent. I imagine many a soap opera producer in the 1950’s believed a woman’s intellect had stalled during adolescence as well. Certainly the fantasy of being with a man who shares his emotions as openly as do those on soap operas continues to appeal; I know there have been many moments when I wished my own husband would be more emotional. But many romance novels and soap operas at one point had something in common; their depiction of men was way off the mark.

Anne: This ties in to the romance and porn discussion, too. Some (misinformed) men think women read romance novels because of the sex. There’s even the old “they’re reading it because they don’t get any” implication. But the emotional content is what’s important. Now, some men may understand that, and accept it, and they’re cool. Some men understand it but are more threatened by that, and they’re not cool. Maybe they’re not secure in their, uhm, manhood?

On the other hand, it’s nice to have women who can write something romantic and yet still have the men sound like real men. I know a lot of fans love Nora Roberts because her men sound like real guys, even if that means they are sometimes crude.

LLB: One of the essays from Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women talks about the type of language we read in romance novels, and how it serves to cue the reader. I agree – if I didn’t I would read romance, but I also think some of these cues could do with a little updating.

Which brings up a related question: Just as we’ve wondered whether a white author can realistically depict a black character, have you ever wondered whether women can “really” write men, or vice versa? Recently I read an hilarious vampire novel written by Christopher Moore. I was struck by how well he’d written the female protagonist; she sounded like a woman I might know. And that reminded me of my interview with SEP; I’d asked whether she’d ever read Dan Jenkins, author of Semi-Tough, because their voices sounded similar. In other words, her male characters sounded real to me.

Sex and the City is a show I never miss. Although many critics think it’s wonderful that four smart women from Manhattan are allowed to talk about sex and relationships “like a man,” I understand that many gay men think it sounds more like them than women, which makes sense to them since the show’s creator is a gay man. Oddly enough, another cable show – Queer as Folk – which mostly explores the relationships of several gay men, apparently has a tremendous following among straight women.

Anne: A lot of people think women can write about gay men comfortably. Not everyone accepts this, though. In a writing chat the other day, I met a new member, a gay male couple (they use the same login). When I said that I was writing about gay male characters, one of them said that women who write about gay males often write “women with dangly bits.” I’ve heard similar accusations leveled at this sort of writing before, but I think he had the most memorable phrasing.

LLB: LOL there, Anne! Let me try to bring this back to romance novels now, and the point I’ve been laying the groundwork for throughout this discussion. The fact is that there’s probably less separating the sexes than we’ve all been led to believe. When we try to explain why romance novels are denigrated by the mainstream, who among us hasn’t said, “It’s because romance novels are written for women, by women,” or, “romance novels put a premium on emotions and relationships, things which men have historically been taught to ignore.” Here’s a new one for you – romances are read primarily by women for no good reason.

A good movie is a good movie. A good television show is a good television show. And a good novel is a good novel. Instead of my trying to convince a male romance reader that he’s unusual in enjoying romance novels, I’d now rather say that he was unusual in deciding to read his first romance novel, that once he jumped that hurdle and discovered that romance novels are not bizarre creations but rather, normal books, that’s the act that distinguishes him from most men. After all, many women, including me, were once sure that romance novels were all alike, and written only for lumpy, dumpy, and frumpy women who had no “real lives” of their own and therefore had to fantasize about the beautiful women in such books. All it took to change that incorrect assumption was reading one, and I imagine it wouldn’t be different for many men. After all, if there’s a similarity between how SEP wrote Lady be Good and how Dan Jenkins wrote Semi-Tough, if Chris Moore can write a woman as well as Nora Roberts can write a group of men, why not? While publishers have created covers specific for genre novels in order to make them readily identifiable, in some ways I wish for the “old days” when a novel was a novel and both men and women simply went through the fiction section of the bookstore and picked out whatever intrigued them.

Anne: A lot of people – men and women – read romance novels without realizing it. If the cover doesn’t have a clinch, and the book isn’t what they thought romance novels were like, then they don’t realize they were reading a romance novel. Sometimes they even refuse to accept it. If they liked it, then it can’t really be a romance novel, can it? Some people are simply too stubborn for their own good.

LLB: I couldn’t agree more! I’m torn – on the one hand I like being able to pick up a book and know there will be an HEA, which is why I’m glad there’s a romance section at the bookstore, and books that say “romance” on their spines. And yet, look at the success of J.D. Robb’s In Death series, which is often shelved in the mystery/suspense section of the bookstore. These books are not straight suspense – they’re romantic suspense – but Robb’s publisher wisely understood that men would likely not read the series if shelved in romance. It’s clearly possible that men who enjoy suspense also enjoy romantic expense, that men who enjoy relationship stories – and there are plenty of men out there whose reading is not confined to thrillers – might enjoy a contemporary romance if packaged differently. I have less of a handle on how marketable historicals would be to a wide audience of men only because of the historical accuracy issue.

Anne: Historical novels would be a tougher sell to non-romance readers because most novels marketed as historical novels are big in scope and full of details. They may have an emphasis on relationships and friendships, but they have a bigger (or at least apparently bigger) emphasis on intrigue, action, history, and a tapestry of details. There are probably lots of people who’d love to read a historical novel that emphasizes characters and doesn’t have as much detail, but no one is really marketing that sort of book to anyone but romance fans.

LLB: I think you’re right; I read a fair amount of historical fiction, and the ones I enjoy are large in scope and full of details. Oddly enough, historical novels like Morgan Llywelyn’s Lion of Ireland and Pride of Lions appeal to me and are successful because they go into all sorts of detail about fighting wars and the politics involved in Medieval Ireland. And yet if that same level of detail exists in a romance, it doesn’t appeal to me at all.

Regardless, the whole idea of selling romance to the wider public has nothing to do with making romance “acceptable” so that individual readers won’t have to suffer being slammed for reading romance. It has to do with making romance acceptable so it can achieve the market it deserves.

Time to Post to the Message Board

histbut Do you think romances can be a good way to show examples of healthy relationships to abused women? Do you think romances often get unfairly blamed for everything, and if so, why?

histbut How about naming some romances with feminist heroines?

histbut Whether or not you consider yourself a feminist, have you ever read a romance that offended you because of a weak heroine or overly domineering hero?

histbut What do you think about heroines who hit the heroes? Why is that allowed when a hero can’t do the same?

histbut Do you think romances should avoid portraying abuse (even in a negative light)? Or should we allow writers (and readers) more freedom?

histbut Are there any bratty heroines you want to nominate for a spanking? For that matter, are there any heroes you think should have been spanked?

histbut What words are guaranteed to make you laugh, and why?

histbut At what age did you “discover” the power of dirty words, and which of these words, if any, do you always find offensive? Are there words you’ve never used, stopped using for some reason, and are there words you don’t find as offensive as other people find them to be?

histbut Why do you suppose certain words are insulting for one gender but not for the other? Why is it that many insults for women revolve around sex and many insults for men revolve around their heterosexuality? Is any of this changing over time?

histbut What do you think of the idea that most men don’t read romance for no good reason? Do you agree that if covers and labels were different, more men would buy them?

histbut Would you rather that the “romance reading club” be comprised mostly of women? If not, what strategies do you think would work to expand the readership?

histbut Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

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