The strong reaction to Dean Ellison’s recent letter to incoming first years informing them that the university will not “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’” nor “support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’” tells me that we’ve reached a crescendo in expectations around political correctness, and it deeply concerns me that universities having to be sensitive to students’ feelings and life experiences are beginning to frustrate the important purpose that universities are supposed to serve.1
Some have argued that there’s more to Dean Ellison’s message than meets the eye, that it’s a move to mask the fundamental issues students claim should be at the forefront, namely greater transparency with regard to the private police force, support for students (e.g., mental health), and basic accountability toward student interests.2 Another former student (class of ’09) argues, “The publicized outcries of politically demanding students and the drastic administrative actions that can result from them are not the cause, but rather the symptom, of a corporate university system more concerned about ratings, money, and reputation than the effective conduct of student education.”3
The corporatization of universities and colleges across the country is a very real and alarming issue that deserves greater scrutiny. And, while there’s probably some validity to these arguments, as an alumna, I believe that something even bigger is at play, which is that universities such as Chicago are struggling to preserve the intellectual freedom that has allowed students to recognize differences in thought, experience and opinion and to transcend them.
The demand for safe spaces recognizes that these differences exist; however, safe spaces do not allow or push for a transcendence in thought, which requires examining and understanding the roots of discord. Only when that point is reached can any individual develop the kind of discernment necessary to be able to reach true objectivity, that is to see a problem, any problem, for what it really is.
In a speech to freshmen back in August, Yale President Peter Salovey also warned of the “false narratives” that so many people, both young and old, cling to in order to make sense of their worlds.4 Universities do not exist to support any kind of narrative but to dispel them in order for students to reach that kernel of truth that resides at the core of any thought or experience. The truth is that there are many ways to view one’s reality. We live in a very subjective world that tends to adhere to the prevailing belief of the time, which we may conveniently choose to adopt if it suits our personal cause. When we study history, we untangle these perspectives and can see the event — whether it’s colonialism, slavery, or war — and objectively examine the motivations and consequences. Of course, it’s much more difficult to be objective when we are standing so close to the precipice with regard to what’s going on around us today.
As a writer, I reject the idea that any restrictions should be placed on my words. People may not like my use of the word “cunt” because it makes them uncomfortable, but I use it precisely because it does so. I want to challenge the status quo of Romance writing just as I want to challenge people’s narrow ideas about love and relationship, which I believe are limiting us as a society.
Making readers uncomfortable is exactly the point. It’s the only real way in which they can achieve any kind of breakthrough by being forced to self-examine and self-assess, to seek and understand the reason something doesn’t feel right to them. Only then are they either able to dismiss the idea as no longer their truth or to strengthen their own truth because they can resolutely affirm that it is truly what they think and feel.
The University of Chicago understands it’s performing a disservice if its students do not manage to transcend their discomfort. I can certainly appreciate a demand for safe space where one feels physically threatened. However, the reality is that many of those who are doing the intellectual bullying and the threatening are doing so because they themselves are unable to make sense of the constantly shifting world of ideas and thought as their own personal beliefs and the narratives they ascribe to are crumbling around them. It’s much too difficult and challenging for many of them to even synthesize and see the truth, so they hide behind their hateful words and threats to find comfort from a world they fear is leaving them behind.
As I’ve written before, the way to deal with a bully isn’t to ostracize him or her, but to embrace the person who is unable to intellectualize or conceptualize their own fear, which blinds them from the truth. (To be clear, embracing the person does not mean embracing his or her ideas.)
If we keep demarcating safe spaces, we risk missing the opportunity to challenge these bullies and to force them to be accountable for their thoughts and words. By stifling dialogue, interaction, and debate, we contribute to a more polarized society.
As the pendulum continues to swing more to the sensitive and politically-correct end of the spectrum, I caution against criticizing an institution like The University of Chicago that wants to stand above the fray regarding safe spaces. It doesn’t take more than looking at news outlets (talk about false and often one-sided narratives) to see the many ways in which our society is allowing a hostile environment to exist with regard to self-expression.
Condemning individual statements and words isn’t the problem. It’s when the goal of such expression is to harm and destroy that we enter a danger zone. Yet few are making these distinctions because they are too busy reacting.And these reactions are distracting us from seeing the truth, which is that we are only scratching at the surface of what can be an incredible breakthrough if we stop demanding safe spaces and ask ourselves what are we doing wrong as a society that we feel we need them. That, I believe, is what we must address first, instead of continually flinging half-hearted solutions toward the symptoms. Like I learned at Chicago, deeply rooted beneath our human existence is a truth, and we must be able to wade through our questions, doubts, and fears in order to reach it. Only once we do can we truly be free. It is that freedom of thought that will release us from the cycle of reactivity and violence that’s beginning to grip and choke our nation.
1 For a copy of the letter, see http://www.uchicagonyc.org/article.html?aid=863.
2 Sophie Downes, “Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces and Free Speech, Too,” The New York Times, September 10, 2016 (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/opinion/trigger-warnings-safe-spaces-and-free-speech-too.html).
3 Maximillian Alvarez, “Cashing in on the Culture Wars,” The Baffler, September 9, 2016 (http://thebaffler.com/blog/cashing-in-on-culture-wars-alvarez).
4 Scott Jaschik, “The Chicago Letter and Its Aftermath,” Inside Higher Ed, August 29, 2016 (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/08/29/u-chicago-letter-new-students-safe-spaces-sets-intense-debate).
After one rather hideous encounter on a recent flight from San Diego to New York, I had to write about it.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” He asks in a less-than friendly tone into the narrow gap between the seats in front of me.
“Not really,” I whisper back, hoping not to wake the sleeping passenger next to me. I turn off the flashlight on my phone and grope around to find what I’m looking for, the power outlet for my iPad, to no avail.
I briefly try again, stubbornly refusing to be beat by the plug, only to receive yet another sarcastic comment about my lack of night vision. Rather than risk another between-the-seats confrontation, I surrender and sip my wine.
“You know, I’m really not a dick,” he says to me. “It’s just . . . your flashlight was bouncing off my window and created glare.”
Never mind that he could’ve closed his shade for a minute so I could find the stupid outlet that seemed to elude me. Or that the inconvenience of my flashlight coming from the seat behind him, not next to him, mind you, was hindering his enjoyment of that incredibly riveting movie, London Has Fallen. (I watched that one day because it was free on demand. When a movie is free and stars Gerard Butler, you know it’s not going to be good).
Alas, I decided it wasn’t worth my effort or the prospect of a third attempt on his part to shame me for bothering him. I convinced myself it was better that I give up rather than wake most of the passengers who appeared asleep. I settled for the movie being played on the overhead screen, which ended up being a very delightful and touching movie about a woman coming to terms with widowhood and being on her own.
Unfortunately, the fact that I didn’t smile or validate his dickless statement only furthered his cause. When he returned from the lavatory, after his second vodka-whatever, he looked at me and motioned with his finger to listen to him. Clearly he didn’t seem to mind interrupting my movie.
“I swear I wasn’t being a dick. You understand that, right?”
I stare back at him, incredulous that this is really happening. In my experience when someone says, “I don’t mean to be a bitch but . . .” or “I don’t mean to be a dick but . . .”, they’re expressing on a subconscious level that their behavior actually is entirely bitchy or dick-ish, however you want to describe it. My mental conversation with this man went something like, “While you’re saying you don’t mean to be a dick, you’re acknowledging that your behavior is entirely dickish but you’re trying to sound self-deprecating enough so I don’t call you out for it. It’s the guise of the weak, the one who lacks self-respect, and I see through it all.”
I get it. Deep down this man is that insecure that he can’t deal with the fact that someone out there recognizes what a dick he is. So he points it out first, but it’s far from an apology. His statement was a mere validation of what was obvious to me when he was telling the man across from him about his house in Southampton and his numerous accomplishments and homes and retirement fund—oh and not to mention slipping into his elementary Italian just to impress this other guy before the plane even took off.
Had he actually apologized for his rudeness or condescending manner I would’ve accepted it. But he never offered it. Not once in his selfish need to take up my time did he actually say he was “sorry.” Rather his statement about not being any of the things he knew his behavior and words would lead to me to think about him was merely an effort to get me to excuse it all. In that moment, I realized I was being mansplained. And the hideous converse of this was that I understood so clearly in that moment that not only did he expect me to believe him, and in him, but also to doubt my perception of him. It was a clear and obvious attempt to manipulate the situation: “oh gee, I didn’t mean it that way” and therefore any reaction on my part to the contrary would be wrong. I would be wrong.
And really, how gross is that? Had my husband been sitting in my seat or next to me, the man wouldn’t have addressed me or my husband in the same way. Hell, he probably would’ve offered to help him while bragging about his enormous IRA or 401(k). Nevertheless he was speaking to me that way, and while I wanted to reply, I didn’t. I looked at him, hoping my silence would indicate how his attempt to garner some empathy wasn’t working.
“Do you hear me?’
I couldn’t believe he said that. “I’m not a dick” was bad enough. The condescending “Do you hear me?” was enough to make me want to throw my wine at him, but I didn’t want to waste it. Eventually I nodded and said, “I hear you.” Because I do hear him. I hear his words, his stupid excuse for intolerance, for believing that he’s entitled to his comfort at my expense and for attempting to elicit my acceptance of his non-apology and feeling he deserved it.
This brief exchange crystallized why I consider myself a feminist. So long as men like him feel entitled to excuse their dickish behavior and flip it to make the problem ours and not theirs, we need to uphold feminism as a platform for equality. Because it’s precisely about how important all lives are, and it is unacceptable for anyone to shame a person for seeing the truth. That’s the lie, and has been this whole time—that the truth we know at the core of our beings is wrong. We’ve been taught by twisted words and the power of those who hold it, who exercise it—often men in this case—that they know better. That’s called patriarchy, and as a feminist and someone who is so over it, all that needs to be said in response is: “I hear you, but I do not accept you and your non-apologies and weak explanations that are meant to cast me in a bad light. Your need to convince me of how right you are is not appropriate, and I reject your attempt to shame me.”
But you’re right, your behavior was dick-ish, but you’re not a dick. The reality is that you are just a subject of patriarchy as we all are, and being a white male of a certain age and economic bracket makes you think you’re entitled to the takedown of one petite Asian woman seated behind you if you so choose. That’s how patriarchy works. It divides us by economic class, by race, by gender and makes us fall into roles, where you get to assert some socially perceived significance over me and I’m supposed to be okay with that. The reality is that patriarchy isn’t here anymore. It only exists when we buy into those divisions. But like love, it cannot exist where it is not allowed. And in my reality, there is no divide, no patriarchy. We just are.
So I’m the petite Asian woman seated behind you, and you are the truly unpleasant person who’s had his way a lot in this lifetime. It’s time you show me the same respect you expect from me. Maybe then you will no longer be locked into your role in this patriarchy. Although since you’ve probably had a good run of it, it may be difficult for you. In the end, it’s your call. But just realize that you will find more of my kind, those women who see through your façade, who will no longer buy the lie we’ve been fed, so it will probably make your role more difficult and your “I’m not a dick” excuse will be ignored and fail miserably. You will be rendered obsolete. In the end, you can choose to be a dick or not, and I will choose to accept you or not. It will make me no better or worse than you. We’ll just be different.
Does a half-naked man make you curious?
While feminists have long decried the negative effects of the male gaze, whereby literature, film, television and other artistic media are singularly produced to appeal to a heterosexual male demographic, I’m starting to see a trend toward its hazardous converse, the female gaze. In the recent Ghostbusters reboot (whose girl power message I totally appreciate), it made me uncomfortable to see how Kristen Wiig’s character, Erin Gilbert, drools over and objectifies the hot and sexy but truly moronic receptionist, Kevin, played by Chris Hemsworth. Even though his dumb but cute parts in the movie garnered a few laughs, I couldn’t help but think that if the roles had been reversed and the receptionist had been cast as a woman, many women would have found the role highly offensive.
It concerns me that as Hollywood and the media seek to pander more and more to the female audience, they will end up promoting the female gaze as an antidote to the male gaze, but this swing of the pendulum won’t ultimately serve our interests as women.
The female gaze has long persisted in the Romance genre. This myopic lens through which many female Romance writers create their MCs (Romance speak for male characters) serves to objectify the opposite sex and establishes in female readers false notions about what the ideal man should be, whether hot, wealthy, brooding, military, rogue or tattooed. I call this phenomenon “Recreating Adam”.
Sadly, by Recreating Adam, Romance writers are guilty of doing exactly what the male-dominated media does, that is to objectify, thereby reinforcing the patriarchal standards that distort both male and female roles and keep them locked in a sexist game.
You don’t need to look far to find evidence of this. Half-naked (or mostly naked) men grace the covers of a substantial majority of Romance novels, both in traditional print and ebook format. Placing a hot guy on the cover is designed to invite the female reader in with his bedroom eyes or feral scowl, if she even sees his face since a six-pack is usually enough to grab her attention. However, these covers also have the perhaps subconscious effect of placing the man at the center of the romantic relationship where the reader is inclined to care more about him than the female character. In fact, I often find in reviews that what predominantly determines the female reader’s opinion about the Romance story is the likability or desirability of the MC who rarely, if ever, reflects any kind of normal or even realistic person.
By Recreating Adam, Romance writers are shaping the perception of what it means to embody masculine energy. At the extreme, masculinity is exclusive, violent, domineering, and emotionally stunted — think Christian Grey, although look at pretty much any Romance book and you’ll see that the majority of MC’s all posses at least one or more of these attributes. Upholding these types of characters as an ideal man puts men in a difficult position of either living up to or defying a set of expectations.
The standards set by these largely one-dimensional, unrealistically gorgeous, ripped, wealthy, strong and virile men are not true ideals that make for a well-rounded being or life partner.
These characters fail to come even close to realizing the potential of what it means to be self-actualized individuals. And while this may be acceptable to those who deem Romance fluff or escapist trash, I truly believe that such depictions of men and women are hurting the potential for real relationships. Dating sites, millennial blogs, and magazine articles continue the endless cycle of What’s Wrong with Me or What’s Wrong With Him?,which doesn’t lead to any real self-assessment. But for all the back and forth, few, if any, are taking a critical look at the stories we’re consuming as a society and questioning how they influence, however subconsciously, the way in which men and women perceive one another.
Feminism is fundamentally about equality. Therefore, placing men in objectified roles as a way to show women in power is not ultimately going to empower women. Instead, if we want women to be elevated within societies around the world, we must also elevate men. By this, I don’t mean putting them above women in terms of stature, but rather giving them the space to be more than what they’ve been allowed to under patriarchy. This means subjecting men to a different standard, one where their emotional and psychological maturity matters more than whether or not they can maintain a six-pack, play hero or make a seven figure salary.
We must destroy the view that men are somehow superior, but we cannot do this simply by asserting our superiority.
What we need is a new Recreation of Adam in which men are actually portrayed equal to their counterparts (whether male or female) and where the power dynamics are more balanced. We need fewer MC’s who are Navy SEALS or Alpha assholes and to have more fictional “book boyfriends” (as many Romance readers like to call them) who reflect the attributes of men that we most need in our society, namely men who are present, supportive, gentle and encouraging and most of all men who respect themselves.
As much as we must fight to change the male gaze, we must be equally committed to stop perpetuating the female gaze, which can be just as insidious.
Narrowly defining what it means to be male in this world based on superficial qualities sets us back. We need to allow our fictional male characters, as well as men in the real world, to inhabit those internal, caretaking spaces we’ve been expected to fill under patriarchy just as we aim to inhabit the external, public spaces of leadership and social revolution. Men must be encouraged to cultivate these sensibilities with our support because, as women, we understand what it means to have been pigeon-holed into societal roles.
This begins with writing a new story for both men and women, one in which both are whole and complete, where their existence does not depend on the other but is entirely interdependent. Radical transformation of this world that does little to truly honor women or men is well overdue. As authors, one way to effect positive change is for us to write it.
Fiction takes us to those deep places that reside in our subconscious where we find our deepest fantasies, as well as those core beliefs that form the foundation of our perception of reality. Romance writers have incredible power to influence change because Romance books capitalize on emotion. Regrettably, far too many have only managed to do the opposite by playing off stereotypes of male and female roles, thus supporting repressive, and sexist patriarchal beliefs. It’s time to see beyond the bare chests, ripped muscles, and wavy hair and to stop imbuing men with our narrow ideas of them but instead allow them to express themselves in a balanced way. If it’s what we want for ourselves as women, we must allow them to do the same in these fictional stories as well as in reality.
Disney’s Broken Record: Sexism and the Marginalization of Women of Color in Disney’s Latest Remake of Beauty and the Beast
Disney’s new trailer for Beauty and the Beast recently broke the record for the most views within the first twenty-four hours of its release. This latest fairy tale remake has me shaking my head once more. At the risk of sounding like a broken record myself, I ask again: When is Hollywood going to stop “retelling” these stories that — in this case, by its very name — smack of patriarchal sexism?
As The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri tweeted, Beauty and the Beast “is just another story about a hairy guy with a bad personality whose friends think he deserves a beautiful smart woman.” Ain’t that the truth. What’s also upsetting, however, is that in selecting the fair Emma Watson to play the role of Belle in this live-action remake, Disney chose yet again to define beauty as a white woman.
From the feminist perspective, the message behind Beauty and the Beast, like its fairy tale brethren, is insidious. Nonetheless, a recent article by a female journalist on Time’s Motto.com lauded six positive things girls can learn from the story, including that “[i]t’s not always the man that does the rescuing”.1 To me, the very notion that a person needs “saving” is one of the most insidious aspects of these stories, as well as much of today’s romantic fiction. Fundamentally, the fact that even the male protagonist needs to be saved is just as sexist as the man coming to the woman’s rescue. That is, the act of saving itself puts the rescuer in a position of self-sacrifice, which does not allow her to evolve to a greater state of being beyond martyrdom.
Moreover, when a man saves the woman in a story, he’s branded as the hero. Yet, when a woman saves the man, she’s generally portrayed as exhibiting her good and virtuous self. This subliminal theme, which equates goodness with sacrifice, is detrimental to women. In fact, from a young age, girls are conditioned to be “good girls” while it’s acceptable for boys to be “bad”. The underlying message to young girls is that in order to be “good” they must ultimately sacrifice themselves for another, in this case a beast who manages to prove he isn’t just a sad, insecure, pathetic creature.
The very title of the film, Beauty and the Beast, is objectification at its worst and reminds us that no matter what the story preaches about looking beyond the surface to know someone, beauty is still everything with regard to women while men can be beastly and hairy or even have a “dad-bod”. Part of the problem with this objectification of beauty is its abject subjectivity, which serves to marginalize those who don’t fit within certain prescribed parameters, especially women of color. We’ve been socialized, not only by these stories but also through images in the media, to regard a very particular type of body, hair and skin color as the paragon of such beauty.
The obsessive focus on being beautiful has kept women from remembering that they already are beautiful. They were born beautiful and a profound and ageless beauty resides within each of us. And yet, that sense of their own beauty is squashed by the dangerous storytelling to which young girls are exposed during their formative years, inculcating in them that they’re not pretty unless they’re a Princess who looks a certain way.
Disney’s latest remake is just another incarnation of the same story that continues to hurt women who face patriarchal values of beauty every day, as well as minorities who are faceless and underrepresented in these insipid princess movies as well as Romance stories.
As a Romance writer, it’s clear to me that our distorted notion of beauty has also warped our view of love, keeping it superficial and void of anything truly real. In our world, beauty is measured, literally and figuratively, by how others perceive us. If our view of beauty expands so too will our capacity to understand holistic love because it would be inclusive rather than exclusive.
The Beauty and the Beast retelling is just one of many examples of what is sorely lacking in the story-telling arena. Minority women, misperceptions of beauty, misogyny and sexism continue to prevail. The challenge remains for people to begin to expand their limited perceptions to see beauty in every being, to reverse the damage that has been done and is being done to girls and women with dark skin, with layers of fat, or with less-than-proportioned features. It’s time to recognize that the only way in which we can lift up the next generation of women is to give them a new story in which they can see themselves portrayed as they are — perfect — not because of their external beauty, but for their ability to see and express their internal beauty. Enough with the broken record, I say.
For all the success of the Twilight and 50 Shades series, in terms of their central romantic theme, there was nothing novel about either. In fact, they merely mirror the sexism and misogyny long contained in the Romance genre. What’s worse is that the plethora of fanfiction and erotic romance books spawned by the commercial success of these two series merely continues to perpetuate the same antiquated stereotypes surrounding virginity, patriarchy, and the imbalance of power between men and women in relationships.
These books and others like them serve to brainwash women into thinking that a wealthy man will save them, or that love in the form of sacrifice will redeem them, all the while reinforcing notions of their own lack of self-worth and inequality.
A recent study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior surveyed 715 women between the ages of 18 and 24 and found that those who had read some or all of the books in the 50 Shades series held more sexist views than those who hadn’t. The study found that women who had read 50 Shades and described it as “hot” and “romantic” were more likely to exhibit “hostile sexism”, or the belief that women are inferior to men, while those who described it as “romantic” were more likely to exhibit “benevolent sexism”, or the belief that men should provide for women.*
What I also find upsetting is that the women in this group ranged from 18-24 years old, which indicates that yet another generation has already been brainwashed into believing that unequal partnerships are a good thing if the man has money and can take care of you or that if he’s abusive and controlling, all the better, because that’s how you know he loves you.
It’s this same group of young women who came of age during the Twilight phenom and were influenced by the misogynistic and patriarchal aspects of this male vampire-human girl story, which was the basis for E L James’ 50 Shades. For some reason, however, Twilight gets a pass. Perhaps the story seems more innocent because the main characters are teenagers (or in a teenage body) or perhaps it’s because the vampire didn’t really hurt his woman except in the throes of passion. She can’t say he didn’t warn her. Edward, like Christian, continually warned Bella about how dangerous he was, but she just couldn’t help herself and stay away. Her “love” for Edward was too strong.
In fact, Bella wasn’t in a position to help herself, which is why she needed a guy, be it the sexy vampire Edward or the very human werewolf Jacob. Without either, she probably would have fumbled her way through life because of her clumsiness and never realized her “special” gift. However, it was ostensibly love, not her low self-esteem or sad, empty teenage life, that drove Bella to Edward. According to Stephenie Meyer, “true love is that you would hurt yourself before you would hurt your partner, you would do anything to make them happy, even at your own expense, there’s nothing selfish about true love. It’s not about what you want. It’s about what makes them happy.”*
And that’s where I think the self-proclaimed feminist Meyer is plain wrong. Love, at its core, is equal. It must be. Real love cannot reside where equality—and importantly, self-respect—does not exist. It’s not possible. The only thing that can exist in that circumstance is lust or like, but those are poor substitutes for what real love is.
Meyer’s sappy and self-sacrificing notion about love is how we women have landed ourselves in this place, one where a significant percentage of us ascribe to some forms of sexist beliefs and stories like 50 Shades and Twilight (and thousands of other similar Romance books) continue to be published and voraciously consumed.
Bella and Anastasia are empty, vapid characters that reflect what women living under patriarchy experience every day, having little to no agency if they do not have a man and lacking any true sense of self-respect or self-worth. And not just any man, but one who is immortal, wealthy, and virile. If this doesn’t smack of anti-feminist patriarchy, I don’t know what does. We will be better off when we recognize the way in which these stories continually set back feminism and women’s notions about relationship and equality. We will also be better served when Romance writers deliver real stories about empowered women who want the most human and beautiful thing of all, namely Love, instead of continuing to write these insipid stories about billionaires, virgins and immortals.
* Alison Flood, “Fifty Shades of Grey readers show higher levels of sexism, study finds”, The Guardian, May 10, 2016
** Kira Cochrane, “Stephenie Meyer on Twilight, feminism and true love”, The Guardian, March 11, 2013.
I can vividly remember watching Top Gun with my family. I was only ten years old, and the moment Take My Breath Away started playing and the on-screen kissing began, my mother quickly covered my eyes. The memory makes me laugh as much as it makes me cringe. I had been curious about sex from an early age, and her attempts to suppress my exposure to it only made me more so. Regrettably, by leading young people to think that sex is forbidden or shameful, they’re effectively being taught that there’s something inherently wrong, not only with the act itself but also the natural desires that come with adolescence. Yet sex is life force. Next to love itself, sex is one of the greatest connectors between people. We don’t just have sex to have babies. Sex can remind us of what’s good in life, regenerating that life force which becomes dulled by the daily demands of our lives.
A very large part of the problem with children’s understanding of sex and sexuality today, as Peggy Orenstein recently noted, is that the visual imagery of sex, especially porn, which is now more prevalent and accessible than ever, leads girls as well as boys to view sex as purely performance. On the contrary, the more we enable sex to figure in the pages of fictional stories, the more we can potentially see it in a greater, more holistic context, and the more we can aid young women’s and men’s understanding of true and meaningful sex. I’m not advocating using fiction to teach sex, but rather to inspire a greater version of it. The more open we can be about sex in literature, including young adult books (think Judy Blume’s Forever), the more able we will be to push the conversation further so that sex doesn’t have to be something that is “taboo” or makes us laugh nervously or worse, something that puts women, including young women, in a position of pure subservience to their male counterparts.
What we really need is a portrayal of sex in literature that is consensual, respectful and equal. And yet, the very stories that feature the most sex, namely those in the Contemporary Romance genre, depict it in a misogynistic and almost always one-sided way, singularly focused on male pleasure and need. Take for example two bestselling Romance books. In one, the Alpha-Male Gazillionaire extorts sex from a woman who can’t afford her brother’s healthcare, only to wind-up falling in love with her because she’s so amazing and giving (ahem). In the other, the male character (MC in Romance speak) treats his ex dismissively and engages in forcible revenge sex because she lied to him about her age.
Like porn leading girls to view sex as performance, the mainstream “mommy porn” that has long been pervasive—even before the huge commercial success of Fifty Shades of Grey—has an extremely negative effect on women of all ages who consume these books. These Romance writers, nearly all of whom are women, continue to reinforce the patriarchal fantasy that sex means love and love means marriage and marriage means babies. Or even worse, that sex means sacrifice.
But the truth is that sex doesn’t have to make a person fall in love. Sex for the sake of sex and pleasure can be great and is an essential step in coming into what I call True Sexual Openness, which to me is complete sexual communion with another. Yet there’s no way we will be able to get there if we cannot own that which is most natural and vital to ourselves as a whole—the sexual being that resides in all of us, male and female. So long as there are efforts to censor and repress this natural element that makes us human in a fun, beautiful way, the interpretations of sex and how they are acted out in the world will be both dark and insidious.
The power of literature lies in the fact that, unlike the static visual imagery of pictures from the magazine pages to billboards, or the often awkward on-screen portrayal of sex in TV and film to the highly aggressive portrayal in porn, words have the ability to communicate perspective, sensation and emotion—words that can describe in beautiful detail the arousal, the intimacy, the experience, and the intensity of sex. Words that can evoke the sensuous climb to orgasm of a woman, with a focus on her distinct joy and pleasure.
What is needed now more than ever, as we confront yet another generation of young women being objectified and sexualized in media, is an honest, open, and frank discussion about sex. We cannot allow today’s young women to follow in the footsteps of the older generation of women who cling to the fantasies in Romance stories because these stories reflect their own experiences of suppression. The sooner we mainstream an honest, realistic, healthy and balanced portrayal of sex in literature, the better off future generations will be with regard to how they view and approach sex.
“One broken girl” reads the first line of a Romance novel teaser I recently came across. Beneath it appears “Two hearts, which one will she choose?” Sadly, taglines like this are all too common. In fact, scroll through Twitter or Facebook on Teaser Tuesday, the day on which Romance authors and their street teams post teasers all over social media, and you will see numerous taglines like the one above or even worse, ones like “She doesn’t know what pain is,” or “A woman who’s been living half a life. And the only man capable of bringing her back from the edge,” or my absolute favorite of late, “One kiss can ruin a girl or make her whole again.” Such teasers and the Romance stories they are promoting deeply trouble me because they continue to portray women as broken, weak and in need of rescuing by some guy. And what’s worse, nearly all of the writers serving up these story lines are women.
These teasers serve as constant reminders of how women are continually being fed the notion that we are broken, that we need to be perfect and that the only path toward redemption is the love of someone other than ourselves.
It has become so ingrained in us women to see ourselves as inherently imperfect that we spend a good portion of our lives and money addressing perceived flaws, whether through make-up, Spanx, or even surgery. Imagine how much more productive we could be if we stopped wasting so much time, effort, and money trying to fix something that is not actually broken — if we made the world suit our needs instead of sacrificing ourselves and changing those parts of our bodies or personalities deemed unworthy, all in an effort to try to fit into it?
When I see these teasers or even articles that critique appearances or tell me how to better apply my eyeliner or why I should justify spending $50 on the “perfect” mascara, I want to scream. Why have we allowed ourselves to be reduced to this? I want to be angry with the women writing these stories and the female editors for selecting them and putting them into the marketplace, but then I remind myself that I too grew up in this patriarchal society and, for a long time, did not find my voice to confront it.
Don’t get me wrong, I occasionally wear make-up, and I firmly believe our external beauty should reflect our internal. However, I don’t believe that external beauty should be defined by anyone else. I used to read Cosmowhen I was a teenager. I digested all the articles about getting toned abs and arms and how to give a blowjob (treat it like an ice cream cone! Where was the article for guys on how to give cunnilingus?), as well as all of the images of skinny actresses on T.V. and in print before the Internet and social media ever existed. I cannot even imagine what it’s like to be a girl in this world today with all the commentaries and images being served up on a constant basis. The cycle continues with so few women standing up and saying “Enough!”
I call this the Snow White syndrome. In the Disney version, the beautiful, yet wicked queen is told by the brutally honest mirror that Snow White, her stepdaughter, is the fairest in all the kingdom. Snow is a naturally beautiful, kind and caring figure in the story. The queen banishes Snow and sends a huntsman to kill her, but he finds himself too taken with her charms and beauty to hurt her, so he hides her in the forest. There, she resides with seven dwarves (hello, patriarchy!) who tolerate her and eventually come to love her because she cooks and cleans for them and becomes a de factomother and wife. When the evil queen realizes Snow White is still alive, she dresses as an old hag and feeds the fair Snow a poisoned apple, sending her into a deep slumber from which she can only be awakened by a true love’s kiss. And so sets the stage for the predictable Happily-Ever-After (or HEA) ending where the prince discovers Snow, thinking she’s dead, kisses her and awakens her. (Don’t get me started on why he felt compelled to kiss a presumably dead woman’s lips).
Like Snow White, many of the female characters in Romance are blissfully ignorant of the world around them. They’ve been hurt and treated badly, but that’s inconsequential because they will push on and be someone’s doormat. Also like Snow White, these characters are not agents in their own destinies. Instead, each is like a pinball, trying to find safe harbor by merely bouncing off different and often painful experiences and men until she finally finds the “One”. It’s that happily-ever-after that becomes the endgame for her because little else in her life matters after that. No one asks what happens to Snow White after she meets her Prince because we’re supposed to assume that being with him ensures a life of contentment. She ceases to exist as an individual because she’s with a Prince, and we can only assume that means getting married and having children. Maybe she starts up a non-profit for little angry men, or supports free healthcare for miners, but we can’t know that because the HEA negates her individuality.
What’s really hard to stomach is how much women end up perpetuating this. Like the evil stepmother, many have bought into this idea that ensuring a happy story for us means pursuing the dream of the HEA to the point where we burden younger generations with our issues. We have been made to think that we’re broken and imperfect, and we feed that poisoned apple to the younger generation who are lead to believe the same thing. As women, I firmly believe we have an obligation to not only support one other, but to elevate each other to more meaningful values and goals than the ones we’ve allowed ourselves for generations. It’s time to stop selling young women on the notion that there is one ideal body image and on the fantasy of the HEA. It’s time to stop making them feel they are not whole. We can no longer allow their minds to be poisoned into believing that they are not good enough and that they need to be saved and fixed. Not only does this limit the woman’s role in relationships, it does the same for men because they are forced to occupy the role of the savior, thereby leading to an unbalanced and unharmonious relationship. This is not an HEA, but rather a recipe for misery.
Once we are able to overcome the Snow White syndrome and accept that life isn’t about pursuing perfection or an HEA, but rather living the fullest life possible, then we can finally embrace the essence of ourselves as women.
We are not creatures to be rescued, or Princesses waiting for our Prince Charmings, or bungling idiots who need to be saved from our own stupidity. Rather we are whole individuals who have tolerated misogyny and fear far too long. We no longer have to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good, or for love. We know that true love can only be attained when we love ourselves, and showing that love means creating new stories where women are equal to the men that honor them. Now how’s that for a storyline?
 See my article To Hell With Happily-Ever-After’s
As I approach my two-year anniversary as a romance author, I thought I'd share the best piece of writing advice I've ever been given. Before taking that leap and self-publishing Gilded Lily in May 2014, I had been focused on my spiritual healing practice while working on a commercial women's fiction manuscript. Ironically, it was a former client, who has now become an empowering figure through her own coaching practice, that gave me a piece of advice which I’ll never forget: You are what you do.
When I first started out writing romance, I was self-conscious about the potential stigma of being a romance writer, not to mention an erotic romance writer who writes extremely hot scenes like the ones in my latest novel, Forbidden Rose. Her advice made me realize that not being open about my work was in effect negating my identity and purpose. This was a huge realization. In fact, for all the lessons I’d learned spiritually and professionally, this was one of the biggest. I understood then that so long as I couldn’t really be open about writing romance or continued to fear that my books (featuring diverse female-driven stories as opposed to the misogynistic male-driven stories that dominate the market) would be judged for being too different, my books would languish. If I couldn’t fully embrace my purpose, it wouldn’t be completely reflected in my work.
This is also reinforced for me that I had to stay true to the key themes that I believe need to be addressed in women’s stories: female empowerment, education, balanced love relationships, diversity, and integrity. The advice, you are what you do, made me ask myself, are the themes in the books in line with my goals to honor women as well as men? And, most of all, is love at the core of each story? By love, I don’t mean the clingy, desperate infatuation that’s passed off as love in most contemporary romance books out there. Rather, by love, I mean the profound connection between two individuals that allows them to recognize something larger than themselves.1
Even after I had followed her advice and embraced my work, it took some deep soul-searching to understand why I feared potential judgment so much that I felt a need to not talk about it openly, except with my closest friends. If it weren’t for my husband and friends prodding me, I probably wouldn’t have put myself out there as much as I had. It made me understand how I had hidden that sexual side of myself because of my conservative Asian mother. That’s right, it was my hard-core, God-fearing Filipina mother that made me afraid of owning the fact that I write about sex. My mother had always been the face of judgment in my mind, and it was time to let it go. And upon hearing, You are what you do, I knew it was time to release the fear that was holding me back. Accepting my work was, in essence, accepting the part of myself that’s reflected in it. To my surprise, when I came out to my mother about my books, she couldn’t have been prouder.
You are what you do contains indelible truth. It tells us that how we live, the choices we make, and the relationships we have are reflections of our deepest desires and knowing. To embrace You are what you do means examining whether you’re living your purpose. Is it fear that’s holding you back, much like it was for me? If it is, then it’s time to understand why and let it go. There is no reason to live a life that isn’t a reflection of your whole self. This doesn’t mean quitting your day job if it means keeping a roof over your family’s head and food on the table. Rather, it means looking at the core of how you live your life and asking yourself is everything that I do and engage in a reflection of how I love myself? If you can answer yes, then you’re living your dream.
I’m truly grateful to my former client for teaching me such an incredible lesson and for reminding me that sometimes the best advice we receive doesn’t come from professionals in our own fields but from the most unexpected places.
1 See my article, Romance Must Die
On the heels of this Valentine’s Day, with the flowers beginning to wilt and half-eaten chocolates congealing and hangovers still being felt from the champagne, I feel like something needs to be said that pretty much no other Romance writer would, or perhaps should ever, say. It’s time to let romance die.
By romance, I mean the constructed artifice that surrounds our pursuit of love—that thing we perceive to be a necessary precursor to relationship, the one that presupposes a co-dependent relationship between two people, namely one of the giver and the other the receiver, in which the giver follows a scripted set of behaviors intended to elicit a favorable response from the other. This kind of romance needs to go. No, really, it needs to die. Not a slow death, either. More like a quick beheading.
It sounds cynical, I know. As a Romance writer, I also realize that I’m sounding hypocritical, or like a traitor to my own kind, but the reality is that I don’t actually write about romance. There are no games, flowers, or grandiose acts of romance, or the back and forth between two would be lovers because of a made-up problem that’s more fitting of middle school children than adults. Rather, I write about love and the myriad possibilities for personal growth and understanding that arise from experiencing love.
To me, love is life force. It’s what connects us to others, drives us to want to be with another person. It’s the one genuine emotion that can inspire us to want to be better than we are and elevates our awareness to something beyond ourselves. Love is family, love is sex, love is commitment, which means, at the root, its very source is connection. But there’s no genre of fiction called Love.
Typical Romance stories have little to offer when it comes time to show what love actually is or can be. When Anastasia Steele declares, “I want hearts and flowers” to her hot alpha billionaire/CEO/sorta-BDSM lover Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s because she needs to know that he wants more from her than just her body as an objectified outlet for his mommy issues. And what does he give her when he realizes she’s the only one he wants to smack into eternity? A room full of flowers and a large ring. While many readers out there were swooning, I couldn’t help but bite my lip. No, not because my inner goddess was wishing my husband would do the same for me, but rather because I had to wonder and worry just how many more times we were expected to buy into these vapid gestures that do not speak to a higher love, but rather to the insecurities that plague many new lovers who ask themselves the larger question—Am I worthy?
If we cannot answer that question ourselves, no one else can answer it for us. No amount of flowers, chocolates, expensive dinners or money spent on us can give us the reassurance we need that we are lovable people. If it does, it’s false, mere fuel for the ego and nothing more. The very notion that love can be expressed through objects simply leads to the objectification of the receiver and by extension the giver. And the moment that a person becomes objectified in a relationship, it becomes transactional. Therein lies the frustration and the misunderstandings that often occur as a result, forcing both men and women to wonder, what’s the point of any of it, and contributing, in part, to the hook-up culture that is so prevalent today.
This is where romance and love can become confused. Relying on acts of romance to express one’s interest or feelings is merely a way of hiding a fear of intimacy and vulnerability. Following a set of rules or conventions allows people to feel safe by not having to risk too much and face potential rejection. The kind of heart-wrenching rejection that makes us stand on the precipice of that cliff asking ourselves “Is it worth it?” when the real question is “Am I worth it?” To me the answer is yes, always. But if you cannot recognize your true worth or value, no one else will be able to see it in you. The fear of rejection strikes me as the reason that people hold onto the idea that romance is a fundamental part of any relationship. Romance reduces the risk of being disappointed or hurt. Much like a chess match, one move presupposes a limited and predictable countermove and so forth. But in the end, it becomes a game.
Facing this fear of rejection is essential to be able to love and be loved back fully. At the core of this fear is our own internal dissonance, the voice that tells us we’re not good enough physically, mentally or emotionally. Perhaps a not-so-compassionate parent or caretaker made us question our value, or a bad break-up led us to believe it, or perhaps it was an unrequited crush. Somewhere along the way we were led to think “I am not good enough”, which became “I have nothing to give”, which became “I cannot be loved”. So we dance the dance of the flirt, the sex goddess, the player, the predator, the prey, the virgin submissive, the impenetrable lover, all to cover up the fact that we don’t ever want to feel that badly again.
Acts of love are not the same as romance. They are not intended to impress or curry sexual favor, but to convey genuine feeling. When a gift is given (even flowers), or a kiss is stolen, or even a brief conversation over coffee is had (especially when any of these happens spontaneously), these are acts of love. During graduate school, I worked in a shop on Madison Avenue on New York City’s Upper East Side. When I’d walk by the old Payard Patisserie on Lexington Avenue, sometimes I would buy my now husband a dessert and stop by his office to share it with him. I didn’t do this because I needed an excuse to see him; rather, I knew he liked them and wanted to brighten his otherwise long, sad day. (He’s a lawyer so it’s always kind of sad for him). While this could be taken for a “romantic” gesture, it wasn’t because I sought nothing back from him, not his love or attention. There was no quid pro quo. It was an act with absolutely no expectation attached (except several hundred calories).
How I knew my husband would be pretty much the right partner for me only took a matter of weeks after meeting him because there was no romance. We met on a Thursday night, and I called him the next day to have drinks. (I took his number). After a couple of really awkward dates (he had made the mistake of reading Mars and Venus on a Date and barely spoke because the book argued that men talk about themselves too much), we managed to break the proverbial ice over ice cream in the middle of January. After that, we saw each other almost every day for two weeks. There were no rules about how much time was too much, no fear that he would stop wanting to see me if I made myself available. I was even the first to say, “I love you.” By then, I had had my heart broken enough times that I didn’t care. I was young, but old enough to have accepted that with the risk of love comes the risk of pain and that I was big girl enough to weather it. To me, finding someone to share my adventures and interests with was worth it. And this was before Internet dating and Elite Daily.
The Tinder/Hinge/OkCupid/Bumble generation faces a greater challenge of navigating the pitfalls of romance than previous generations because they don’t have a paradigm other than what’s being portrayed in the media. Nicholas Sparks, Sex in the City, and Rom-Coms do not provide a mold for those craving real love connection. They merely provide the fantasy that love comes with a hot guy who writes numerous letters and gives you flowers, or is willing to play the clown and humiliate himself in order to endear himself to you, or even better, foregoes his whoring ways because you’re the only one for him. Love isn’t about sacrifice or turning yourself inside-out for someone. It’s complete acceptance.
The longer we hold onto romance, the more we risk teaching another generation of young women they must sublimate their needs if they want to be in a relationship. I recently attended a talent show at my children’s school where two ten-year old girls sang the Meghan Trainor song, Dear Future Husband. It was incredibly disconcerting to hear young girls sing, “Take me on a date/I deserve it, babe/And don’t forget the flowers every anniversary/’Cause if you’ll treat me right/I’ll be the perfect wife/Buying groceries/Buy-buying what you need.”
It’s time to create a new paradigm for love and relationship that establishes a foundation based on honesty, equality, respect and a soulful connection, whether you choose to be monogamous or poly or whatever. Once that understanding takes hold, the kind of transcendent love that John Keats refers to when he wrote, “I love you the more in that I believe you had liked me for my own sake and for nothing else,” can then be possible.
In my Dahlia Trilogy, I created an all-around fantastic guy who would make most Romance readers cream their pants. He was a good guy. A really hot guy as a matter of fact. A self-made millionaire who was humble and down-to-earth. A surfer too. Then, I killed him off. Some days I’m sorry I did, but most days I’m not.
After killing him, I went into mourning and experienced one of my first real episodes of writer’s block. A friend told me that if it went on any longer, I was going to have to rewrite the story and keep him alive. That’s what got me going again. Because no matter how I felt about killing Shane Walker (Shaaaane!), he was going to have to stay dead or my heroine was never going to have the story she deserved. And, in the end, the story was about Dahlia not Shane. She was going to have her HEA (Romance code for “happily-ever-after”), but it couldn’t be Shane. The only way to allow her to grow organically, to do the deep work required to evolve and develop as a person, was to have her heart broken in the worst way imaginable. Breaking up with Shane would not have been enough.
Shane had to die, and some of my readers were not happy about it. HEA’s are one of the hallmarks of the Romance genre. Many readers of Romance won’t read a book that doesn’t promise an HEA. In fact, when I first solicited reviews for my books, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the first questions that bloggers would ask is if the story has an HEA. They just need to know. But, in my view, it’s not the responsibility of the author to give the reader what she wants instead of the ending the character deserves.
While literary fiction is often expected to have some sort of unhappy or “realistic” ending, Romance is a different beast. We don’t watch Rom-Coms expecting the hero or heroine to die in the last scene. Romance is the same. The happy ending presupposes a particular storyline, which more often than not makes Romance plots too predictable. Even if twists and surprises are promised in the book blurb, they often have little to do with the central relationship and more about the conflicts or back stories of the characters. By already anticipating the happy ending of the central characters, very little can happen in a story that yields that much surprise, especially when most Romance stories involve so few characters.
My goal in writing Romance is not to fulfill expectations, but to challenge them. Of course I thought about giving my characters an HEA or at least a “happily-for-now,” which is a concession some readers are okay with (although it’s like going out for your favorite ice cream and discovering they’re out of your flavor so you have no choice but to settle for your second choice). I liked the idea of my characters finding someone they want to be with. I wasn’t about to put them on a roller coaster ride of ups and downs without giving them—or myself—some kind of satisfying ending.
This is when I learned to appreciate the genius of George R.R. Martin. Game of Thrones has made a sport of killing off beloved characters (the list is too long, just think Red Wedding) and not so beloved ones (SPOILER ALERT: King Joffrey took too long to die). My appreciation lies in the fact that it’s not about the element of surprise and shock in allowing a character to die but the exercise of one’s freedom as an author to work without a character and to recognize when it’s best for the story—even if your character is a hot surfer named Shane. In the end, the author has a greater responsibility to the story than to the character. At least in my case I had a larger story to tell and manipulating the story in order to preserve the hot surfer would’ve stunted the rest of Trilogy.
Unfortunately, many readers like a character so much that they will judge a story based solely on that particular character’s fate. This presents the author’s dilemma (at least for one trying to build a fan base) of being true to your reader or to your story. I remain steadfast that the latter is more important. Ultimately, those readers who like and are committed to your stories will understand why you choose to do what you do, even if it’s unpleasant and horrible (again think Red Wedding).
I still believe that Romance novels have the potential to give readers happy endings while mirroring realistic experiences. George R.R. Martin does a brilliant job of reminding us that no matter how important a character may seem, he or she can still be thrown out of a tower or die brutally at the hands of an enemy. No matter how hot or sexy or rich or beautiful you are the same fate awaits us all. Death is change, which means death is possibility. When something as final as death occurs, then we are forced to consider options we wouldn’t have otherwise. No it isn’t pretty, nor is it ideal, but it’s life.