Problematic Things: The Romance Edition

Warning: this is going to talk some about sex, and kink, and so forth. If you don’t want to read about that, or have to see me at Christmas parties and thus do not need to connect me with this, you may not want to proceed further.

There’s been a lot of talk about being a fan of problematic things, and I cannot endorse this essay enough:

But one of the things that comes up a lot in romance (whether novels, movies, or subplots in other genres) is, well, what if you like the problematic elements themselves? Issues with consent, “alpha heroes,” fated mates, dramatic gestures in the face of rejection, high school romance actually working out long-term—there are a lot of valid objections to all of these, I’ve made most of ‘em at one point or another, and there are also people for whom they’re all major selling points. What if you’re one of them?

My take: you’ve got a kink. Admit it. Go from there.

One of the great things that comes out of the kink community (as I understand it as a mostly-observer) is the concept that what turns your crank doesn’t define you as a person. The cliché CEO who likes getting tied up on Saturday night is still just as much a CEO Monday through Friday; similarly, the feminist who likes dubious consent in her fiction or her roleplay can still advocate for enthusiastic, affirmative consent in real life.

When it comes to love and other indoor sports, you like what you like, and your conscious mind is only slightly involved. People on both sides of any particular trope, if we realize that, can help cut down on a lot of the really tedious conversations where someone feels they have to defend Lloyd Dobler or Edward Cullen. How?

On the simplest level:

People who have issues with a given trope, while still openly discussing those problems, should realize (and frame their arguments accordingly) that liking whatever it is doesn’t necessarily mean endorsing it in real life or agreeing with the more dubious attitudes behind it. More broadly, enjoying any given work doesn’t automatically equate to agreeing with its sketchier aspects: I dislike forced-seduction and think Phantom of the Opera’s romance dynamic is icky (he’s a creepy stalker, she’s a nonentity with flagrant daddy issues) but “Music of the Night” is still hot. Not everyone with Twilight on their bookshelves thinks stalking is great. We can like things and still know that they have problems, or even that they’re complete hot messes—insert joke about college parties here.

(Works where the ideology is the whole thing are another kettle of fish – like, I still recommend screening out anyone on OKC who lists Ayn Rand as a favorite author, though if anyone’s discovered a reason people like her books that doesn’t have to do with rape or Objectivism, I’m open to argument.)

On the other end, people who like dubcon or alpha guys or whatever shouldn’t try to argue that those tropes don’t come from and play with some seriously troubling concepts, or pull the “but it’s just a story lighten up” act when critical discussions are going on. You like what you like, and that’s cool—I like a wine cooler on occasion, and I’ve been known to enjoy frosting directly from the tube. But if I try to pretend that Pillsbury and Bartles & Jaymes are a nutritionally-complete breakfast, nobody is going to be happy an hour later. “It’s wrong, but it’s hot,” is a perfectly fine sentence, and neither part of it invalidates the other.

Optionally, if you want to go a little deeper, it might be good to consider what appeals to you about a particular trope. This isn’t necessarily “why you like it”—as Dan Savage observes, plenty of people like BDSM because they were spanked as kids, and plenty because they weren’t–but more like figuring out whether you like Rocky Road because of the chocolate, the marshmallow, or both.

For example: the pop eighties-romance explanation for why people enjoy dubious consent in fiction involves a belief that “good girls don’t want sex,” and yeah, if you legit believe *that*…get therapy and maybe don’t run for public office. But there are plenty of sex-positive feminists who still get off on the concept, and I don’t think they’re secretly all Phyllis Schafly about it—I think it’s a fantasy with multiple potential sources of appeal. The reason it works for you might be that trying not to respond is a break from real life, where having a good time with a partner and letting them know as much can actually be a source of pressure (especially if you’re tired or have had one too many drinks or the stars are just not aligning). A little reverse psychology can seem awfully appealing there.

It doesn’t just have to be sex, either. Maybe you like the deal where a guy’s persistent in the face of apparent indifference because that way, the woman you’re identifying with doesn’t have to actually make any advances. I get that: it’s a lot more dignified to get in some good rejection lines and eventually say yes than it is to actually put yourself out there.

Figuring out this sort of thing can help in two ways. One, it’s a lot easier to say “Oh, I know X is seriously not okay in real life, but it definitely hits me where I live because Y,” when you can articulate what Y is. Two, when you pinpoint the specific thing that appeals to you, you can then try and look for it in forms that get rid of the baggage, or you might realize that there’s some cross-narrative appeal for you in other constructs. (For instance, if “I can get someone I want without the risk of rejection,” is a thing, you might also enjoy historical fiction featuring arranged marriages.)

I will note that this is all from a consumer perspective. The responsibility of writers and marketers around these tropes, and the question of where and how they should be presented in mainstream media (as opposed to fiction specifically flagged as catering to a particular taste, as is the case with much fanfic and porn) is likely another post, for another day.

About isabelcooper

I'm Izzy. I write stuff: mostly vaguely fantasy stuff, and most notably the following books: Hickey of the Beast, published March 2011 by Candlemark and Gleam No Proper Lady, published September 2011 by Sourcebooks Lessons After Dark, forthcoming in April 2012 from Sourcebooks I also like video games, ballroom dancing, and various geeky hobbies like LARPing. I have been known to voluntarily purchase and eat circus peanuts. Like, a whole bag at once.
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2 Responses to Problematic Things: The Romance Edition

  1. Robert Mathiesen says:

    Also, you can think Moby Dick is a great novel and enjoy rereading it every so often, without wanting to support (much less, revive) the whaling industry.

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