Pop Culture Detective is easily in my Top 5 of online video essayists. Not only are his videos well made and informative, but he has been really good about calling out sexist and misogynistic tropes in media. However, whenever you have stories that address misogyny it is not only a good opportunity to call it out in men, but also to self-reflect on how we have internalized things. Subconsciously or consciously.
The video is hard to watch at times, because it shows how common these abuse and abduction tropes are in media. Just thinking about it while watching the video, I remembered multiple examples where a man grabs a woman or forces himself on her in an aggressive manner.
When I was watching Gone with the Wind for the first time, I remember being so shocked by Clark Gable’s character, Rhett, raping Scarlett O’Hara and having it seem like their fighting was foreplay. Even in A Streetcar Named Desire Stanley’s sexual energy is all wrapped up in his abusive nature; it doesn’t help that in the movie adaptation Marlon Brando is wet or covered in oil in almost every other scene.
We have been taught to excuse certain kinds of abduction behaviors, especially if there is a “strong female protagonist” at play, because we see her spunkiness and strength as an indicator of her personal strength. Therefore her decision to love the abusive man is treated as shorthand for him being “not that bad” because if he was really a bad guy, she wouldn’t care for him.
Yet, as McIntosh states, that sort of behavior puts all the responsibility for moral conduct on the women and none of the men who are committing the harsh acts.
This insightful comment was left on YouTube. Sharing it here because it’s an important addendum to my video essay on the Abduction as Romance trope. pic.twitter.com/a4TXoa3O7D
— Jonathan McIntosh (@radicalbytes) June 21, 2018
It is tropes like these, and many others, that for a long time kept me from reading romance or enjoying romance as a genre beyond the culturally accepted classics. Which is wrong because I’ve been reading so much wonderful romance (contemporary, historical, fantasy, YA, etc.), and the reality is that most romance authors, especially recent ones, have been having these conversations for years.
The Proposal, The Kissing Quotient, and Too Wilde to Wed have been such great experiences to me because I’d allowed myself to act as though romance can’t be cathartic to read. A great love story is a powerful thing, that’s why I love Jane Austen so much. Modern romance authors are now finding ways make consent sexy.
I am aghast at the people trolling me with BUT CONSENT WILL MAKE LIFE UNSEXY.
If you’re so stumped on how affirmative, verbal consent can make sex sexy, here is like, one of a billion examples I can think of. pic.twitter.com/YJO1G5UvZD
— Alisha Rai (@AlishaRai) January 15, 2018
Which isn’t to say the hyper-masculine, abusive type is gone from romance and I can also recognize how that character is, in many ways, a turn on for some people. We all have problematic ships we enjoy. I recently went to a wedding where a fellow guest and I shared a delighted squee at the fact we shipped the same Game of Thrones couple. We understood, without words, that we had already spent the time processing what was “problematic” about it, so we could just enjoy talking about the reasons we do like it.
Romance authors are aware, more aware than most, about the issues of consent:
“One of the things I teach in my books is how men should treat women, because most people don’t have a fucking clue,” said Lindsay McKenna in Publisher’s Weekly. “Back in the 1980s it was about a man being dominant and a woman was second best, and calling it love. That’s not love, I’m sorry. That sucks.”
According to PW, the LGBTQ publisher Riptide, for example, has changed a lot of their policies to make their content more consent-forward. Editorial director Sarah Lyons said: “We didn’t want a reputation as the publishing house that would publish the weird, dark, scary, problematic stories. Our guidelines for editors are very, very specific about consent.”
Yet, there is still space to explore “fantasy” and thrills within romance, which many romance authors argue the genre allows because of the medium. The article mentions a book called Asking For It in which a young woman explores her rape fantasies through roleplay, with a safe word and the book apparently takes great pains to make it clear that there is a line between a fantasy and fearing an actual threat.
It’s something the protagonist wishes to live out, and she is looking for a man who could fulfill that fantasy,” Cindy Hwang says of Asking for It’s role-playing story line. “But the entire point of the book is consent.”
The reality is that romance novels, which are predominantly written and read by women, for all the good and bad within them, women are front in center. We spend most of the story in their head, learning their desires and sympathizing with them. So even when we are dealing with some problematic relationships, we are at least aware of their frame of mind (even if we don’t understand it).
Also, we are sometimes just way, way too hard on what women enjoy. I may have my bones to pick with Outlander, but it more has to do with how they use history and the fact that they have a great female lead like Claire, to sort of handwave all their messier moments. It’s important not to shame women for liking romance. We can critique the tropes and elements that are bad without making moral judgments.
Romance novels guarantee a happily ever after, and in a world where there are so many horrible things, it is good to pick up a book and know something good is going to happen in the end.
While abduction as romance in films is still happening, it’s important to note that in other female-led genres, not only are these discussions happening, but those tropes are dying. So maybe it’s time to put your bias to the side and pick up a romance novel. Happy ending guaranteed.
(via Youtube, image: MGM)
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