The Apex of Televised Love

So I’ve been watching The Bachelorette this summer, in a red wine and sponge cake-fueled frenzy, and here’s the thing:

I kinda feel bad for the guys.

Not because there’s something wrong with Desiree, the eponymous unmarried star.

see? she’s mostly harmless.

She’s pretty, she has great skill at enacting enthusiasm, she seems truly invested in some of the dudes.

No, my sympathy for the men–there are four of them left, after last night’s roses and tears–lies in the weird emotional churn in which they seem to be embroiled.

It’s reality TV, I know; so take it with a grain of salt, you say. But still. Nonetheless. It’s strange to watch these dudes push themselves to feel, damn it, on someone else’s timeline.

The show–if you’ve never seen it, and don’t pat yourself on the back too hard there, tiger–is pretty straight: 1 woman, 25 dudes, a slow/painfully accelerated series of ridiculous “dates” designed to help Des determine which of the guys might be her future husband.

And now they’re down to four. Next week, she meets their families, and their families meet her. Zounds!

What I’ve found interesting is the pressure that several of the boys seem to be putting on themselves to fall in love with Des already, like they’re sure all the other dudes have.

Continue reading “The Apex of Televised Love”

And Sometimes, It’s Beautiful.

Maybe it really is all about the emotions.

So as an academic, as somebody that studies slash fic, I’ve been pretty committed to the idea that our attraction to slash, as women, goes beyond the traditional understanding: that we like the emotional attachment we have with the characters, that they have for each other, and we feed off of that, use it to construct our narratives of [emotional] desire. That we read and write sex for the intimacy, for the connection between these male partners whom we adore, whom we construct as adoring each other.

As a reader, as a writer, that always felt like bullshit to me.

I mean, yeah, I want to read stories where the characterizations are right on, where Sam and Dean or Kirk and Spock act like themselves. And part of that characterization for me is each man’s great love for the other, their incredible affection and devotion that goes beyond the bedroom, yes–but almost always ends up there, too.

But yeah: I also read it for the sex. Well-constructed, physically plausible, scorching hot and loving (sometimes) or not (sometimes), hard and quick or slow and gentle: but yeah, sex is a big part [heh] of why I love slash fiction.

Exactly.

And in reading all of this academic commentary–much of it grounded in feminist theory, at least in part–I kept running into this notion that slash is girly, that’s teenage girl emotional, that we read for intimacy and not (most explicitly not) for Sam fucking Dean into oblivion. No no. Sex may happen, these theories often go, but, as women, we’re reading for the connection, just as we do when we read traditional, happily-ever-after heterosexual romance novels.

Again: bullshit. Because we read, we write, at least in part, to get off. To get each other off, yes? As Anna Feigenbaum argues in her brilliant and hilarious essay, “If Adorno Could Hear Us Now: Female Fans [Re]writing the Romance/Porn Divide in ‘Boy Band’ Slash Fiction”:

For every [slash] story that maps out a fairly conventional conflict-resoution, there are others that bare little resemblance to the ‘romance novel’ trajectory…For example, in Mel’s story Going Up?, *NSYNC members Chris and Justin share an X-rated ride in a hotel elevator…I doubt the reader is meant to interpret Chris’ demand, ‘I want your fucking mouth sucking my cock,’ as an eroticization of nuturance. Given the explicit depictions of sex and the lack of a developed emotional relationship in this story, I am inclined to argue that it in no way resembles a conventional, heterosexual romance.

Exactly. We read slash, we write it at least in part because the sex, the bodies within it, are fucking hot.

Yeah.

But I’ve read a couple of stories lately that reminded me that it’s not a simple choice of A-or-B, that there’s a sliding scale of sex and romance and emotion, a Kinsey scale of erotic/pornographic fiction. Sometimes, these stories whispered– even as I turned my head and tried to pull away–it’s the emotion, the angst behind it, that make the sex so hot.

And here’s the really fucked up part: both of these stories are Real Person Fiction. One AU [alternative universe], the other straight-up J2. Maybe that’s how they got me: I didn’t expect to find gut-wrenching, heart-breaking angst in the middle of an AU J2. Much less two.

The first story is Ygrawn’s “Private,” a J2 inspired by this incident at an SPN convention. Misha gets a little handsy with Jared onstage and damn, does Jensen not like that. But here’s the thing: Jared’s not his, not really. Not anymore. He should be with Danni. He knows this. But there’s something that reminds him of how it used to be, with him and Jared, gets the jealousy and the grief and the lust all mixed up in one, and, well.

What I love about this fic–what surprised me–is the emotion in it. The genuine sadness mixed in with the scorching, toppy!Jensen sex.  Yeah, the sex is great, but it’s great because it stings; everybody’s hurting in this one, especially Jensen, but it’s that angst which makes the brief respite of sex, the momentary return to what was and what will never be, all the sweeter.

The second is an AU J2 called “Half of Your Heart” by jojothecr. This one broke my heart with a hammer and came back for the scraps. Jensen should be with her. Jared knows this. And this time, every time, it’s supposed to be the last. But they keep coming back to each other, a few times a year, and she knows. She tolerates. And Jared will, too. Because even a few hours with Jensen are better than none. That’s good enough, for now.

I’ve never cried over fan fic before–any fan fic, much less RPF–but “Heart” had me weeping. Again, what makes it extraordinary in my book is the emotion: the pain and unhappiness that’s so tightly intertwined with the sex that the two feed each other, thrive off one another. And I didn’t know quite what to do with that, as a reader, except let myself get lost in the story and cry like an idiot when it was over.

So.

Maybe it is all about the emotion, sometimes. Maybe what I need to remember as a reader, as a writer of this stuff, is to embrace the Kinsey of it all, to avoid the easy, critical binary of it’s either porn or romance, A or B. It’s human. It’s messy. And sometimes, it’s beautiful.

Fantasy and Ivory

In general, I’ve tried to stay out of the Fifty Shades of Gray debate, in part because I think others have covered the territory quite well (see the Smart Bitches’ awesome take, for example). And, well, after perusing three free chapters of the first book on Amazon, I have zero desire to read the damn things. Not my kind of (hot, same-sex, well-written) porn. Which is cool.

However, I have [and do] laud the books for starting a long-overdue (if often juvenile) conversation in the US about women, erotica, and desire.

That said, Ruth Marcus’ column in today’s Washington Post brought out what is, for me, a new and unpleasant wrinkle in this debate: women telling women what we, as good feminists, should REALLY be fantasizing about.

After blushing for several paragraphs over talking about BDSM sex (tee hee! she’s so naughty!), Marcus actually does a nice job of kicking down Katie Roiphe’s ridiculous claims in Newsweek that feminists want to be subs in the bedroom because they’re tired of being in charge, because they’re threatened by what Roiphe claims is the “shaky” nature of “male dominance” in contemporary society.

Marcus cuts Roiphe to the quick (hurray!) and observes that Gray may be difficult to discuss, in part, because to do so

requires acknowledging gender differences that we’ve been conditioned to deny.

That is: that women’s fantasies be different than men’s.

Okey dokey.

But then–alas–here’s Marcus’ kicker:

Ultimately, Leonard [EL James’ real name] makes the key distinction: between women’s fantasies and their realities. “In real life, I think it’s something very, very different,” she told NBC. “You want someone who does the dishes.”

Now that’s one hot fantasy.

See, women of America (who read the Post)! Here’s what you SHOULD lust after:

And not this:

And DEFINITELY not this:

Gay porn stars of the 1970s? Out of bounds!

Now, I’m all for acknowledging all kinds of desires, especially those that transcend the binary of male and female. If everyone’s legal and consenting, then hop to it.

But, damn it, I’m ANNOYED by Marcus’ choice here. It feels to me as though, with that kicker, she’s distancing herself from those naughty ladies who read Gray, who read erotica/porn so they can fantasize about fucking beautiful men (or women!).

In essence, Marcus’ closing statement feels like an act of imaginative policing, of telling us feminists what we should really want is not a hot sex partner(s) but a man who’ll happily soldier 50% of the housework. That we should get turned on not by this–

–but by the sight of our (presumably male) partner doing the goddamn dishes.

You know, to each her own. That’s cool. But please, middle-aged woman who writes op-ed columns for the Post: please do not presume to tell me, as a feminist (who writes porn) what my fantasies may or may not include. Thank you.

You can have the dishwashing husbands of America all to yourself, darlin. I’ll take the boy with the stupid hat and the stuffed bird.

Go Easy On Her, Tiger.

Another of my Goodwill romance finds. This one warrented a dollar just on the title alone–and then I saw the cover, which. Wow.

Backcover summary:

“The news clip from Thailand lasted only a moment. But what Meg Devlin saw was enough to convince her that her father–missing in action for nineteen years–was alive. Meg’s best hope…lay with Conor Tremayne, the reporter who had shot the film. But could she trust Tremayne–a man who would sell his soul for a story?”

Rupert Murdock IS Connor Tremayne IN a Fox News production OF…Ghost Tiger!

Random sample sentence:

“She [Meg] curled into the warm body at her side, giving in to the memory of Conor’s hands and lips at the irrigation pond.”

Because nothing says romance like an irrigation pond. I hope it’s not the one where the fish lives.

What I love about this cover:

  1. The look on Conor’s face! Wow. Maybe they’re standing next to the irrigation pond. Or an open sewer. Also, his left arm seems to missing. And he’s a dead-ringer for that dude from The Nanny.
  2. The gold leaf border and the cheesed-off tiger in the background. I think both are meant to be visual cues to the “exotic,” to the Southeast Asian location of the story. It’s interesting to compare these choices to the background imagery in “Suffer a Sea Change,” which is much more literal in its interpretation. I don’t know that I’d have made the “exotic” connection here if I hadn’t read the back cover. Indeed, when I first picked it up, the cover read to me as an exemplar of 80s bad taste. But the book was actually published…in 1994!
  3. Meg’s physical positioning. Her arm on Conor’s shoulder makes it apparent that she’s *gasp* leaning on him for strength in this difficult time–though I’m not sure how him groping her ass is gonna help with that, exactly. She looks almost two-dimentional here, which is not, I hope, indicative of her character development within the text.
  4. The tagline. You had me at the Phil Collins reference. Though draping it over Conor’s crotch is an…innovative choice.

Saturday Night Beauty

I picked this romance novel up at Goodwill today simply because of the cover. Its beauty struck me among the sea of Danielle Steele novels in which it was encased.

Backcover summary:

“For Jessica Banbridge, it begins with a heartbreaking tragedy and a new friend…No sooner have her eyes adapted to the shimmering island sun, [sic] than two men block the light from view–forceful, charming Kyle Tarkington and volatile, mysterious Winston St. James.”

So, an NFL quarterback and an heir to a cigarette fortune? Sure.

Random sample sentence
:

“The dress was worth it; the fear was worth it; everything was worth the look on his face.”

Huh. I kind of like that one, despite the weird use of semi-colons.

What I love about this cover:

  1. It features the only the heroine. Period. It doesn’t rely on an image of a Beef McLarge Huge hero to pull you, dear reader, in;
  2. The heroine is lovely [and proportional!] without being over-the-top “sexy.” Her dress is simple, appropriate to the setting, and actually kind of pretty, especially with the accompanying purple wrap;
  3. In fact, she kind of looks like Olivia Wilde. Win.; and
  4. The image manages to highlight the title without hitting you over the head with it. “Suffer a Sea Change” is kind of an ethereal idea, a little more abstract than “His Majesty’s Harlot,” or whatever. The combination of the grey skies, the coming dusk [or dawn–it’s hard to tell], the beach/boat scene, and our heroine next to a blue-toned sea both sets the scene for the story’s action (a tropical paradise; specifically, Bermuda) and is suggestive of a more literal interpretation of the title. I assume, not having yet read the text, that Jessica herself will not undergo a “sea change,” but, her love life will follow this metaphor nicely before docking happily in a happily ever after.

Now, will its text live up to its packaging? We shall see.

Love! Frat Boys! and Visualizing [Female] Desire

One of my projects of late has taken me into the world of romance novel covers. I went into the work thinking I’d talk about the covers of het romances—and then I stumbled across Anne Tenino’s Frat Boy and Toppy. And that discovery led to the presentation below.

You can see a slide show of the images that I reference here and learn more about the book from the publisher here–which you should because this novel? Is awesome.

Covering Up to Strip Down:
Remixing Anne Tenino’s Frat Boy and Toppy

I began this project with a general interest in the covers of romance novels (slide 1), in these too-familiar renderings [rendings] (slide 2) of female garments by well-muscled, occasionally well-meaning masculine overlords.

And then I came across this (slide 3): Anne Tenino’s terribly titled but oh so very excellent novel Frat Boy and Toppy—a male/male erotic romance.

Now on the one hand, this cover is stereotypical, a close cousin of the now-familiar images plastered on heterosexual romance novels—featuring two naked male torsos for the price of one. But on the other, the cover is just bizarre. Its assemblage-like quality comes off as an artist’s fever dream: over-thought, over-designed, and, worst of all [to my mind] a poor representation of the content [and the pleasures] the text presents. My goal, then, has been to redesign Toppy’s cover so that it might more effectively reflect both the book’s content and the current cultural conversation surrounding women and the consumption of popular [erotic] romance, a discussion sparked by the runaway success of this novel, (slide 4) Fifty Shades of Grey.

Perhaps the busy nature of Toppy’s cover (slide 5) is due, in part, to the many different kinds of stories that the novel manages to tell within the generic constraints of an erotic romance; that is, a romance in which sexual encounters are used as the building blocks of a mutually satisfying and emotionally supportive love match and one which concludes with the characters living “happily ever after.” Toppy manages to do this while performing several other kinds of stories within the same text. First, the novel is a coming-out story in which Brad [the titular frat boy] recognizes that he’s gay, that he’s attracted to other men: specifically, to Sebastian, the TA for Brad’s “Classical Greece” history course.

Early in the book, Brad comes out to his family, who are relaxed and groovy about the whole thing, as, it seems, is Brad himself. Indeed, he is pretty angst free about the whole thing: he accepts who he is—and who he is wants Sebastian. That said, Brad is reluctant to come out to his frat, many of whom aren’t homophobic, per say, but are pretty happily ensconced in their belief that Brad’s straight [given that he’s been dating—but not sleeping with—women] and show little interest in discussing the potential fluidities of male sexual desire.

But this is also a romance, a story about two people falling in love and using hot sex as a means by which to discover that their attraction goes beyond the physical. After getting Sebastian’s attention by turning in a paper he purchased online as his own [like you do], Brad confesses his desire. The two men immediately sleep together [in that Yankee Candle- infested living room on the front cover] and it’s all happily uphill from there. Continue reading “Love! Frat Boys! and Visualizing [Female] Desire”