Despite issues with sexism, racism, lack of consent and other problematic elements of older romances, there’s something I like about them that I have been struggling to articulate. While reading this week’s 2U5S book, Brand of Possession by Carole Mortimer, I think I figured it out.
This is not Mortimer’s best book by any stretch of the imagination. The dialogue is stilted, the plot predictable, the hero verbally all in favor of allowing the heroine to say no, but when push comes to shove, he’s just as pushy and disrespectful as every other hero of this HP era. But what I noticed is that unlike in a current romance novel, none of these things actually bother me. One, I’ve read a lot of Mortimer’s books and I know they get better. Two, not worrying about judging it frees my brain to travel other paths. Specifically, what is the writer trying to accomplish when she writes certain things, is she successful and, if she is or if she isn’t, why is that and what does it mean? In other words, how and why does this author do what she does in this book?
Let’s take the first really pivotal scene in the book (spoilers ahead). Specifically, I want to talk about punishing kisses and how they function within a romance. Stacy Adams is a nineteen-year-old actress who has a bit part in a movie based on a book by Jake Weston, an enormously popular historical fiction author. In a move any lover of romantic comedy will see coming from 1,000 leagues away, he initially lies to her about his identity because he’s just so famous that he never knows whether people like him for him or just for his fame and riches. I know. But stick with me because this is great.
To this point, Jake has been 1) honest about his intentions (he finds her attractive and wants to sleep with her) 2) respectful of her boundaries (more or less, this is an early 80s HP after all) and 3) insistent that he will not force her to have intimate physical relations with him. Stacy, who has a delightfully wicked temper, has just found out his true identity and is hyper pissed off at him. So he locks her in his suite and proceeds to try to talk to her. She refuses to listen and when she finally relents and hears him out, she still isn’t convinced that he wasn’t playing a horrible prank on her. She’s young and grew up in an orphanage. We have to assume she’s never seen a romantic comedy despite the fact she’s an actress. It’s goofy and implausible, but it doesn’t matter because it’s what happens next that I find so interesting.
In the face of her stubbornness, Jake’s kisses turn from seductive to ruthless (twice on one page he is “ruthless”), “punishing”, “forcing” and “plundering”. All on page 68. Scenes like this are where a lot of modern romance readers nope out. There was a blog post recently on the Mills & Boon site where current editors read old M&B titles and tried to make sense of them. They basically couldn’t. The post was all about how the genre has grown and changed. But I’d argue that it hasn’t changed as much as we think. What was Mortimer trying to accomplish here, for instance? What’s the purpose of the “punishing” kiss, especially from a hero who says all the right things about respecting boundaries? Because he’s…uh…not respecting her boundaries here. Not at all.
There’s a popular theory that goes something like this: 1970s and 80s romances are precursors to the current interest in BDSM romance where rape (sex without consent) stands in for rape fantasy (with consent). That’s simplistic, though perhaps not entirely wrong. The purpose of both of these scenarios is to free a heroine (and by extension, a reader) from the constraints put on her by society, by herself, by others’ expectations. The entire set-up of the novel to this point has been to get this tempestuous heroine to the point where she is well and truly pissed off at the hero. Her anger makes him angry, talking isn’t getting through to her and thus he is forced to try another approach. While Jake is “ruthless”, he is also irresistible. He’s bigger, stronger and more experienced, and he can make a kiss pleasurable for Stacy whether she wants it to be or not. She has no choice but to feel desire, he has no choice but to make her.
Now I’d argue that the majority of society is just as conflicted about feminine desire and women enjoying sex as we were in 1981. And that’s far from the only thing that keeps women from abandoning themselves to any emotion: there are children, bosses, dinner to get on the table, the fear of being thought irrational, all the things that keep us locked into daily patterns. But today’s heroine isn’t allowed to get this angry. She has to be likeable. Stacy isn’t particularly likeable by the current definition: she is stubborn, obtuse, quick to lose her temper and rather immature. Today’s heroine can’t yell at her boss as Stacy does on the first page (for essentially pimping her out to the creepy lead actor–her ire is justified). She can’t be difficult or demanding (as Stacy is all the time). She can’t insist on bodily autonomy (as Stacy does) because within the conventions of romance society if not yet quite society at large, she is automatically granted it by readers who won’t accept anything less. So if the heroine isn’t allowed to get angry or be immature and the hero isn’t allowed to insist on her acceptance of his eventually deeply pleasurable kisses, how does he evoke the same freedom to feel–whether that feeling is desire or anger or fear or whatever? He ties her up of course; whether the writer knows anything about how kink works, what the emotional content of such scenes should be or how a person finds themselves desirous of tying up or being tied up. In some books, it becomes all about the sex, which is too bad. But in others, we also get the freedom; in this case, the freedom to want, but not always.
I think this is the reason some current romance falls flat for me. By way of analogy, in ballroom dancing, tight turns happen when partners lean away from each other. If heroines must be “likeable”, heroes must be over-the-top alpha emotional robots (or have a built-in push-pull like a D/s relationship) to create sufficient opposition. Cleverness with tropes and hot sex stand in for emotional connection forged by the interpersonal conflict caused by genuine character flaws. What it adds up to is romance that doesn’t function the same way older categories do, even when they’re not at their best.
So that’s my theory based on this very interesting punishing kiss from the hero who insists on consent and almost immediately violates his own rules. This character is in service to heroine, and the reader. His job is to be so compelling, so irresistible, so insistent, that he is “impossible to evade” and makes the heroine’s legs buckle beneath her. The punishing kiss and the BDSM fantasy aren’t about the sex. They’re about the freedom, the compulsion even, to feel without experiencing any judgment at all, even from ourselves.