Fiction, more than anything else, has changed my view on family, morality, and sexuality. Combine that with a university education and living abroad and I’ve spent the last eight years in demolition and reconstruction of my world view. It’s been great. One of the major areas that has been worked on is my conflicted history with female characters and love stories.
Women like Zoey from Firefly, Mara Jade from Star Wars the Expanded Universe and Amy Pond from Dcotor Who BBC are my heroes. Firefly and Doctor Who have to be up there in my Hall of Greats for the number of female characters in one place that I can root for without reservation. Amy Pond is married and running around the universe with the Doctor….and her husband. She’s married and missing out on nothing. In fact her love story with her husband and her and her husband’s story with the doctor is amazing. If more marriages looked like that, I wouldn’t be worried for the future of the institution. That’s another post though. For them, I doubt marriage was an institution, it was their life and it was beautiful. Gah! I want to go watch again, right now. Ok, Ciara, enough of being a fan girl, get on with it.
A while back I was struggling with a bit of a guilt problem when it came to romance and reading stories centered around women. Previously, I refused to read romance novels, especially of the Harlequin persuasion. Some of this still stands.
To start with, recent forays into paranormal romance left me feeling sorry for men. Honestly, unless the entire male population is ready to start popping steroids, how can you compare? The front covers look like my compatriots of the female persuasions are waiting for Zeus to drop down and run off with them! I know some of these books are fantasy but I wonder how our partners feel about it. If girls can be threatened by super models and adult actors, I’m fairly sure men are feeling something less than warm and wanted when it comes to their sexual attractiveness when they see those books. Any thoughts, guys? I’m not a man, so input is more than welcome!
My readings in other branches of genre romance also left me feeling conflicted. I tried Christian Romance as a teenager because is was acceptable. Er…how to put it nicely? Dee Henderson had me with her first two books that I read, then the formula started to get to me.
Imagine I’m reading. The woman turns around and sees a blistering hot god of a man. Suddenly, she is totally lost in his eyes. Then this is me, snapping the covers together and walking.
My problem with the romance I’ve read is that the love story is told as either the solution to all the rest of life’s problems or the antidote to all the character’s insecurities or as the sudden focus of the women’s being. The language is lacy and hazed in pink and purple and the women is always ready to go. The plot follows a formula that as a writer I can almost write out myself by chapter three. Cue initial tension, cue discovering how emotionally damaged the man is, cue outside threat, cue awesome friends pushing them towards what they need, cue hot scene, cue threat, cue make up post threat hotness, cue misunderstanding, cue showdown with major kickass by one or both romantic leads. Cue one soon to be destroyed hotel/castle-bedroom/apartment. The end. Happily Ever After.
Er….I don’t buy it.
There is no happily ever after.
Not so sorry to break it to you.
Relationships are messy. They are about whether or not you have anything to say to each other when the fucking is over. It’s about whether or not you could enjoy each other’s company before the clothes came off. The act of sex itself it remarkably short for how much we agonize over it. And then you have the other twenty-three and a half hours in a day to fill up and co-exist with our partner or partners.
This was the romance I found as a younger woman, except for the Christian version, which frankly left me wanting on so many levels. Dee Henderson was the best I read, to be fair. She had character development and I appreciated the spot light she put on those who work in public service. They deserve it.
With nearly every story though, I could never identify with the female lead. It drove me nuts.
I started feeling conflicted and a bit guilty about it. Did I hate my gender? Could I not identify with other women? I hadn’t had a boyfriend yet, either. What was wrong with me?
Discovering gay romance did not help the guilt at all, though it met an emotional need. Had I made no progress as a female in society? Did I rely on proxy men to experience romance because I didn’t see women as worthy of it? Was I like the Greeks writers of old who that that great love relationships of passion only happened between men? I studied relationships, the history of marriage and sexuality for hours, hidden in the bowls of the university library and scrambling around online, trying to understand my personal conflict with what I was suppose to like but close to hating.
I know the exact day my reading taste took a significant change. For the life of me, I cannot remember the name of the author. I picked up their book from the library because they were a lecturer at Princeton, a school recommended to me. Took the innocuous looking book home and started reading.
Somewhere in the middle of the night I found myself following a middle aged gay man into a a romantic encounter with a trucker after his long time partner who had AIDS and a horrible attitude kicked him out.
I was shocked.
And no, it wasn’t because of of the love scene between two men.
It was because the trucker saw his receiving partner, the novel’s protagonist, as an equal in the encounter. He reached down and pulled his partner up to lay beside him on the bed, told him not to think less of himself and proceeded to treat their relationship, short as it would be, as something both sides worked through and had responsibility to build. Like people, like normal, complicated, real people with jobs and lives and full selves outside of romantic encounters.
I was transfixed.
Bodice rippers and swooning princesses were out the door never to come back. I’d found a new kind of story. One where equals, hurt and damaged individuals came together as two distinct people and made something of it. Without the pink and purple language.
I stopped reading about romance with women almost completely, just like that. And while I was at it I stocked up on Tom Clancy, Michael Stackpole, Timothy Zahn, and Louis L’Amour. Soon after I ran into Judith Tarr and Tamora Pierce. That helped balance it a little. Anne Rice got me back to reading a female writer after a long dry spell in which I’d read all those other authors had available in my local library.
Then I moved to China, where the online newspapers and other sites were often blocked. During the winter months when it was too cold to go out and no university classes, I read m/m in lots of horrible online fiction and some amazing fiction like Xanthe and Lyn Gala, leaving the whole gender mess on the back burner. For some reason, those sites weren’t blocked. I identified with the men in these stories. It wasn’t just about them. It was also about me. Because many of these men had issues of control, breaking free, creating new lives, going to new places, walking away from old ideologies, choosing the forbidden partner, changing their society with their choices and caring for those around them. I was thrilled with this new kind of writing. It’s been wonderful to watch some of these authors go pro, publishing themselves or getting book contracts and know that they started out daring to do something different and write what they liked.
Lyn recently wrote a blog post “Strong Women Wanted…Maybe” that brought this all up for me, so she deserved the recognition today.
“But when it comes to women, I’m not as egalitarian. Human hybrid Da’shay completely takes charge of her man, and even uses him as bait for the bad guys. Paige would never do that, but as an experienced cop, she takes control of her partner, even when he showed up as a vampire. Even my secondary characters like Allie and Carmin are brassy, bold, and perfectly willing to piss off the world.
I don’t know. Maybe I see so many women making themselves smaller that I feel a need to write them larger and stronger.
I dislike most Disney heroines because they spend their lives trying to live up to a man or find a man or get out from under a man.”
Like Lyn, I realized a while back that all my female characters were being written out larger than life, with huge attitude issues and a need to kick ass, preferably male ass or monster ass. They were creating strong relationships with men and the other men in the stories had strong relationships with each other but there were no female friend relationships on the pages of my work that were strong and reliable. I’m happy to say that has changed, but for a while it was the truth.
The romantic stories I adore are woven into larger narratives, like my own romance is woven into my life, as part of a larger picture. The caste are full of fleshed out characters, with their own lives, struggles and issues beyond finding someone to sweep them off their feet.
I like my women the same way I like my men, complicated, driven, flawed, and alive with souls that belong to themselves and their goals. If their souls belong to someone else, they better be fighting to get it back or have given it up of their own will.
If their lives can be set to the sound track of World on Fire, even better.
Now, as I write, I notice a greater degree of balance between my male and female characters, reflecting the increased balance in my own life. Art truly is a mirror into the soul of its creator. Although I still I adore romance between men, I’ve also sincerely enjoyed romantic stories told between women and between men and women. For me it has ceased to be a gender based stereotype. If I can love or hate the characters and believe in the plot, I’ll read it, no matter the label on either side. And I’m happy that I no longer have to wonder if I’m self hating my own gender. I just had to find a space where I could be proud of rooting for both end of the romantic equation.
When it comes to relationships and defining social obligation and constructions, we live in an amazing time. As writers and readers, we have a chance to define how the future could be experienced. I truly believe that writing, especially that of speculative fiction has the ability to play with how society is ordered and how we could experience our lives, nto just when it comes to technology and discovering new worlds, but also when it comes to child rearing, education, occupational choice, government, gender roles and sexual identity.
Personally, I owe a debt of gratitude to a multitude of writers who showed me what it meant to be tolerant, to explore more my own morality and to be brave enough to own up to it and leave behind old prejudices. And though I may never enjoy another bodice ripper in my life, I can’t get enough of a good love story with teeth, plot and wonderfully conflicted and driven characters.