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The Eroticization of Equality and Social Justice

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To begin with, check out the romantic presidential couple at the bottom of the right-hand group of pictures (near the date) here. Isn't it wonderful that we elected someone who, among his many other virtues, is so loving? That's not a trivial thing, as psychologists Kathlyn and Gay Hendricks write in their article, The Obama Relationship: a Major Benefit Nobody's Talking About.

Okay, back to that first link. It's to the Love as the Practice of Freedom conference, the first national meeting devoted to romance fiction and American culture. I attended it a couple of weeks ago at Princeton University, and had a blast being surrounded by academics, authors, editors, and readers who were not only passionate about their emerging field and its importance in the larger culture, but passionate about passion and its role in our lives and in society.

Progressives should pay serious, and respectful, attention to romance fiction, for two reasons:

First, as I hope to convince you -- or seduce you into believing :-) -- below, romance itself is a fundamentally progressive activity. If you take romance seriously, and don't denigrate it just because patriarchy says you should (more on that, later, too), then you've got to take romance fiction seriously, since it's a major expression is of romance -- not to mention, romance's usual wonderful destinations, love and sex -- in our culture. More than a quarter of all books sold in the U.S. are romance fiction, and more than 64 million Americans read at least one romance novel each year (source: Romance Writers of America, RWA). Romance fiction is an enormous part of American culture, and an important transmitter of values.

According to RWA, romance fiction is built around a central love story that culminates in an "emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending." The "bodice ripper" cliche is not just discredited (implying, as it does, lack of consent), but woefully out of date: the genre has burgeoned way beyond historical romances and now includes romantic suspense, erotica, crime, Christian, African American, teen, paranormal (all those sexy vampires won't just categorize themselves, people!), science fiction, and lesbian / gay / bisexual / transgender (LGBT) subgenres, among many others.

And it's not just the books that are changing: RWA research says that in 2008 22% of romance readers were men, versus just 7% in 2002.

Romance: a Progressive Thing

In 2007, the arch-conservative website HumanEvents.com asked a group of "scholars and public policy leaders" to list the ten "most harmful" books of the 19th and 20th Centuries. The first three listed, unsurprisingly, were The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf and Quotations from Chairman Mao.

The fourth was Dr. Alfred Kinsey's book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, a.k.a. The Kinsey Report.

Wow -- just wow.

What do conservatives -- and repressive regimes and ideologies the world over -- have against romance, love and sex? Why do they need to control them so much? (Pace to our libertarian friends, who, though economically conservative, tend to be cool on the whole relationships thing.)

Perhaps it's because romance, love and sex are among our most potent avenues for self-knowledge, self-expression, self-liberation, and societal liberation. Done right, these activities erode barriers and boundaries, both within us and between ourselves and others, and therefore pose a direct threat to the fear-based, control-obsessed "strict father" model that cognitive linguist George Lakoff, in his best-selling Don't Think of an Elephant!, says lies at the heart of conservative thinking:

"The world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. The world is also difficult because it is competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad, in the sense that they just want to do what feels good, not what is right. Therefore, they have to be made good...a good person -- a moral person -- is someone who is disciplined enough to be obedient..."


Not exactly the most romantic world view, is it? Moreover, Lakoff points out that the types of sex that despots most seek to control -- gay, unmarried and young sex -- are those most likely to subvert the strict father model.

This isn't new stuff, by the way. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, one of the foundational works of modern romance fiction, was reviled by social conservatives upon its publication in 1847:

"Jane Eyre is throughout the personification of an unregenerate and undisciplined spirit," wrote Elizabeth Rigby in The Quarterly Review in 1848, and her "autobiography..is preeminently an anti-Christian composition...The tone of mind and thought which has fostered Chartism and rebellion is the same which has also written Jane Eyre." Anne Mozley, in 1853, recalled for the Christian Rememberer that 'Currer Bell' [Charlotte Bronte's pseudonym] had seemed on her first appearance as an author "an alien...from society and amenable to none of its laws." And Mrs. Oliphant related in 1855 that..."the most alarming revolution of modern times has followed the invasion of Jane Eyre." Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, 2d ed. (Yale University Press, 2000) [emphasis mine - HR]

Jane's "crime?" Merely the insistence that she had a right to her own feelings and needs, and to work to have those needs met. (Chartism, by the way, was a movement for universal male suffrage and other hideous democratic reforms.)

Let's contrast all that with Lakoff's description of the "nurturer parent" model underlying progressiveness:

"...the world, despite its dangers and difficulties, is basically good, can be made better, and it is one's responsibility to work toward that...Nurturing has two aspects: empathy (feeling and caring how others feel) and responsibility (for taking care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible). These two aspects of nurturing imply family values that we can recognize as progressive political values: from empathy, we want for others protection from harm, fulfillment in life, fairness, freedom (consistent with responsibility), and open two-way communication. From responsibility follows competence, trust, commitment, community building, and so on."

Nurturing, empathy, communication, trust, commitment: pretty much the definition of love. Progressiveness is, at its heart, a call to love not just yourself and your family and friends, but strangers (including those you disagree with, or who happen to live a long distance away), and the other beings who share our planet. Note also the fundamentally optimistic viewpoint, which is shared by romance fiction.

Lakoff says we all have aspects of both nurturing parent and strict father in our psyches, which we express to greater or lesser degrees depending on our psychological makeup and circumstances. Fear activates strict father-based thinking, while a sense of safety and security activates the nurturer parent. So, when in 2003/2004 the Department of Homeland Security issued bogus terror alerts at politically opportune times for the Bush administration, that promoted a state of fear that, in turn, promoted conservative thinking and behavior. And whenever anyone romances, loves or has sex, that promotes a state of nurturing and other qualities that, in turn, promote progressive thinking and behavior.

Romance = Rights

Which brings us back to the Princeton conference. The title, Love as the Practice of Freedom, is from an essay by cultural critic bell hooks:

"The absence of a sustained focus on love in progressive circles arises from a collective failure to acknowledge the needs of the spirit and an overdetermined emphasis on material concerns. Without love, our efforts to liberate ourselves and our world community from oppression and exploitation are doomed. The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move toward freedom, to act in ways to liberate ourselves and others. That action is the testimony of love as the practice of freedom."

As author of a book on progressive activism and member of the New England chapter of RWA -- stop laughing: New England happens to be a hotbed of romance writing -- I know that most romance writers are super cool and aware of the political implications of their work. But I was not prepared for the deep level of political awareness I found at the Princeton conference, much less the deep level of political vision. These are people who see romance fiction as fundamentally feminist in its emphasis on, and celebration of, women's concerns, values and struggles. (Yes, yes -- I know romance shouldn't be solely a woman's concern -- and that it often isn't -- but bear with me: I'll address not only that, but the anti-feminist elements of some romance fiction shortly.)

Happily, the ongoing political evolution of romance fiction isn't stopping with feminism: just last week, after a multi-year struggle by GLBT romance writers and allies, the RWA formally recognized the Rainbow Romance Writers chapter for writers specializing in GLBT-themed romance fiction. Tearing down that wall in a genre that accounts for a quarter of all book sales, and appeals to an incredibly vast and diverse global audience, is a HUGE social advance.

One of the Princeton meeting's stars was Ann Herendeen, a Brooklyn librarian who last year published her first novel, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, a witty and entertaining Regency romance (think Jane Austen) with a helluva twist: the heroine winds up living happily ever after with her hero AND his boyfriend. (That wasn't a spoiler, by the way: it says so on the back cover.) Not surprisingly, Herendeen had trouble finding a publisher for her revolutionary book and so initially published it herself. After a couple of years, HarperCollins not only picked it up, but (said with pure authorial envy) blessed it with some of the best cover art I've seen.

It's not just about GLBT liberation, either. Another star was author Beverly Jenkins, a pioneer of the African American romance. Many of her novels, including the classic Indigo, are set in the 19th century post-Civil War reconstruction period and provide historically-grounded narratives of happy marriages, fulfilled individuals, and hope and optimism retained during one of our country's most awful and oppressive eras. Perhaps more than any romance author, Jenkins' work embodies not just an activist spirit, but the healing nature of both romance and activism.

Prejudice and Pride

There are three main reasons why romance fiction is reviled. The first, and most easily rebutted, is that the genre contains a lot of formulaic, badly written works. But the best romance novels are equal to the best in any genre, while the worst are no worse than the worst spy novels, crime novels, westerns, etc., and those latter categories are not nearly so reviled. This brings us straight to reason #2: patriarchy, which splits the entire human experience into male and female categories and aggrandizes the former and deprecates the latter. The split occurs differently in different cultures and historical periods, but in recent eras in the West sexual aggressiveness has been the purview of men, and romance and intimacy that of women. Most of us are familiar with how this dynamic hurts women; for insight on how it hurts men by causing isolation and depression, among other maladies, read psychologist Terrence Real's books.

Partly because of the liberatory nature of love, and partly because our culture is so hostile to romance and romance fiction, pretty much everyone in the field places a high premium on freedom and authenticity. The conference's most poignant moment came when a speaker mentioned telling someone that she edits romance novels, and that person replied, "They're edited?" The experience of being mocked for having an interest in, or building a career around romance seems universal, and so sooner or later everyone in the field makes the decision to follow their heart (literally!) in the face of public disdain or ridicule -- a decision many progressives, not to mention Jane Eyre herself, should identify with and support.

Mega-best-selling novelist Jenny Crusie, author of Bet Me and Anyone But You did everyone a favor by modeling proper pride. "I'm Jenny Crusie and I have no shame," she began her opening night speech. "I tell people I write romance and they just have to deal with it." She said she always found those who tried to shame her "odd," exhorted everyone to, "not give away so much of our power just to belong," and ended with Martin Luther King's famous dictum, "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." Her speech, with minor adjustments, could have been given at any progressive activist conference.

It was Sarah Wendell, co-founder of the hugely popular (225K page views/day) Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog, and coauthor of Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels (Simon and Schuster, 2009), who wrapped up the whole personal/political/romance/love/sex/liberation thing and tied it neatly with a bow when she said, to laughter and thunderous applause, "I will always come down on -- or go down on -- the side of freedom."

The Eroticization of Equality

Reason #3 why romance is reviled (this time from the Left!) is the traditional huge power imbalance between the heroine and hero. There are still plenty of these sexist -- or old skool, as Wendell calls them in Beyond Heaving Bosoms - novels being published. (The paranormals are particularly sneaky about it, with the vampire / werewolf / shapeshifter hero being much more powerful than the heroine not due to institutionalized sexism, but simply the fact that, duh, he's not human.) But people who condemn the whole genre for this are both painting with an over-broad brush and failing to acknowledge the genre's rapid expansion and moral evolution. These days, you'll often find an alpha male and alpha female romancing each other (see novels by Crusie and Jenkins), or, if an initial power imbalance exists, it is redressed during the course of the story by having the heroine grow stronger. (By the way, it's also commonly acknowledged in the field that if you were ever to meet one of those Byronic alpha-male romance heroes in real life, he would likely be a real jerk.)

This, however, raises another problem -- one of life, rather than literature. According to historian Stephanie Coontz, a leading historian of marriage and family relationships who also spoke at the conference, egalitarian partnerships tend to be the happiest, but also tend to lack sexual spark. The question," she said, "is how to eroticize equality." Conference speakers wrestled with that toughie, with mixed results, until Guy Mark Foster, an assistant professor of African American studies at Bowdoin College who studies biracial romances, took the point: "What we need to eroticize is the pursuit of equality."

Ah.

More and more, romance fiction is incorporating the ideals and values of progressivism, not just by becoming more diverse in its characterizations and relationship constructions, but by replacing a one-up, competitive model of power, in which I derive my power from your relative weakness, with a between-equals, cooperative model in which power is shared and distributed to the benefit of all. The more it does this, the closer it will come to providing models of ecstatic, loving, romantic, sexual relationships that work in real life - a huge public benefit and (as Charlotte Bronte AND her critics would no doubt agree, albeit with opposing reactions) radical act.

Now, if progressives and radicals would only incorporate more of the ideals and values of romance in their lives and work. It shouldn't be that hard: after all, the romantic revolutionary meme is ancient and powerful. We even have a precedent: the way recent technological romantic revolutionaries (i.e., geeks and hackers) took the ideals and values of the marginalized science fiction stories I read as a child and propagated them throughout our culture, resulting in a huge amount of technology-based liberation.

We can do the same with the ideals and values of romance -- and, when we do, we will all live Happily (or, at least, More Happily) Ever After.

UPDATE: I've since learned that although GLBT authors have indeed experienced discrimination within the genre for years, there was no years-long struggle to start a GLBT chapter of Romance Writers of America, as I stated above. The chapter was proposed and formalized within the usual several-months period. My apologies for the error. - Hillary

Hillary Rettig is author of The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way (Lantern Books, 2006) and will be teaching romance fiction writing at Emerson College's Professional Studies department starting this summer. Learn more about Hillary's work at www.lifelongactivist.com