The Magic Hoo Hoo
For complicated reasons that I won’t go into here, I was recently at my local library checking out a dozen Nora Roberts romance novels, a copy of the masterful BEYOND HEAVING BOSOMS (The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels) by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan, and a directory of romance comics titled LOVE ON THE RACKS by Michelle Nolan. The guy running them through the scanner cocked an eyebrow, looked over his shoulder and said, very softly, “I’ve got a copy of 50 SHADES OF GREY back here that just came in—there’s a wait list of about 1,500 people but if you want—I could slip it to you.”
Well what’s a girl to do but say yes. I think I even blushed.
This is the year’s Big Event, it’s mammoth seller. I just finished reading it, and I am a sad woman. I know I’m supposed to be turned on, outraged, or at least amused. I’m not. Any of these.
By now everybody knows it’s the story of a college graduating senior, virginal, beautiful, until the first pages of this story entirely uninterested in sex. Then she meets Him—Apollo-like, much older, the kind of guy who pilots his own helicopters and planes and has Faithful Servants. We’re supposed to believe he’s 26-or-so years old. When we overhear anything about his “business” we get snippets of words like “airdrop” and “Darfur” that make no sense whatsoever. But that’s not the point.
The point is that he has been unhappy, and hurt, and so now he likes sex in his “Playroom” where he hurts people. Or so he says—he produces contracts for her to sign designating her as his Submissive and him as her Dominant, and he explains that the Submissive controls everything because she determines where every line is drawn. Now there’s fantasy material for you. Or me. Or people logging on to this woman’s blog site. Given the sales figures, that appears to be a lot of people. Back to the Powerful Submissive Posture: Nothing is done that she does not agree to. He himself has limits—nothing leaving marks on skin, nothing involving small animals or children. . that kind of thing.
Then the parade of orgasms begins. He caresses her nipples—she comes. She has intercourse for the first time. She comes. Then she comes again.
Okay, let’s go with really. She proceeds to have statistically misleading sexual experiences that delight her so that she wonders what it would feel like to have the dominant man take her “further.” They go a little further– a little caressing with whips, a little spanking—all working from her point of view so far. Nothing unfamiliar to anyone who reads–think of the recent New Yorker cartoons making fun of S & M sex (the poodle waiting in bed for her mongrel lover, who approaches her with his collar and leash still on as the poodle growls softly, “Leave them on.”; the two headless Praying Mantis males walking down the street together, one saying, “So much for safe words.”)
If you turn to any text on the subject, you’ll find that Ms. E.J. James is following a genre matrix with distinctly New School plot variations—meaning that the man is as amazed by the woman’s sexuality as the woman is amazed by the man’s powers (Wendell and Tan refer to this as the Magic Hoo Hoo variation, and you know what a Hoo Hoo is, I presume). And the violence—nothing new, but in 50 Shades, there’s the Twilightish twist that the man, though he has powerful powerful drives and could hurt the woman if he did not control them, does not want to hurt her. He wants to please her. And she, of course, wants to be pleased Very Badly.
This is nothing new. The submissive’s cooperation and pleasure is new, though. Here’s HEAVING BOSOMS on the subject of violence in romance genre: “. . although rape scenes have largely disappeared form romance novels published orm the early 1990s onward, they were ubiquitous in romance novels form the early 70’s to the mid ‘80’s Hell, if the heroine only got raped by the hero in a romance novel, she was lucky. Rosemary Rogers and Catherine Coulter, among others, wrote infamous gang-rape scens, in which the heroine is completely and utterly brutalized.”
Historically, rape has always been a criminal act because it damages goods. “The definition of rape has changed in tandem with the conceptions of a woman’s personhood. The focus wasn’t always on consent. . the focus used to be on women as property and how the rape would affect their market value. Marital rape wasn’t recognized until a few decades ago, for example, ditto the rape of sexually experienced unmarried women.”
They continue: “Even if the heroine is excused from the taint of sexual promiscuity, she is still culpable for the hero’s sexual brutality. Whether it’s because she’s completely sexually irresistible, or whether it’s because he’s punishing her for some wrongdoing. . the focus is often on the heroine.”
So the twist of a cooperating woman–even if she’s got a dog collar on and is following orders–is fairly new. Note, however, the dog collar and orders. The laws that control Romancelandia are as rigid, really, as those that rule Folktale-Land. For more on this, see Vladimir Propp’s ETYMOLOGY OF THE FOLKTALE, whose 1928 directions looke like a guide to HARRY POTTER. But back to Romance: the Irresistible Woman’s Magic Hoo Hoo ultimately Tames the Untamable Mighty Wang.
Thus our heroine’s quest to bring out the warm, gentle loving man she knows her Dominant Mr. Gray really is–and his desire to be more like her. That’s a kind of taming, I guess. Ms. James has to be careful on this issue, however, since she’s got two more novels in the deal and the movie, with possible sequels. This kind of action can bend narrative rules a bit.
One unbent rule is the one that demands the heroine be inexperienced, sexually, at onset. Again, here are Wendell and Tan:
“Experience: Heroines Do Not Have It.
“If the heroine had sex before she met the hero, it had to have been bad. It was the Curse of the Bad Wang, and its blight affected both virgin and nonvirgin women in Romancelandia. Rapist Wang; Abusive Want; Overly Massive Wang TeenyTiny Wang; Evil Homosexual Wang (and its close relative, Evil Bsexual Wang); Drug-Addicted Wang; Wang That Died Before It Could Do Its Duty; Utter Lack of Wang Due to Overprotective Male Relatives. . .”
Of course in vampire books, from Anne Rice and her predecessors on, the descriptions of teeth puncturing skin, on to the virgin desiring to be punctured by the Alpha Vampire who wants to protect her from his own powers—it’s all code for sex.
“We understand the appeal of the Unawakened Woman. We do. There’s a lot of cultural significance attached to first times. . .however, part of the fantasy of romance novels is that the hero is equally floored when he encounters the heroine, and sexually unaware men are in extremely short supply in Romancelandia. . How do authors achieve this emotional intensity on the hero’s part? By capitalizing on the Magic Hoo Hoo, of course.” The chemistry is astounding to him as well as her. “That relatively few romance novels use this method of making the sexual experience special for he heroine is probably a testament to the tenacity of the idea that a woman who enjoys sex for ex itself is morally suspect.”
So the genre has always been friends with Vampires, Werewolves,. . .any force that can draw the heroine down its dark path where she encounters her own sexuality, which of course, as any reader of Sigmund Freud knows, is linked to her attraction to death. Thus Pain Rooms, S & M, Vampires. . .
I’m not saying I don’t take some of this very seriously. That’s why it troubles me. We’re still dancing this dance of the Wang and Hoo Hoo, of power inequity and the link between that inequity and the feeling of being alive—on one end of it or the other. That dramatic differences in power so often lead to one party’s suffering. . .. well what can we say?
Here’s Lilith Saintcrow, an accomplished writer in this genre:
“The heated descriptions of breaking the hymen can, with very little trouble, be transferred over to the male vampire/werewolf biting the female human to transform her. Through this agency of contamination the female human is initiated into the world of sex or ‘darkness’. .”
This is not to say that we now have alpha heroines who are smart, willful, action-oriented, moral. In fact, our 50 SHADES heroine, eager to see how far the excitement can go. But of course, she’s a Good Woman, and Good Women want to save their men from the male tendency to be Bad. Thus with our heroine, who tells us, “This is a man in need. His fear is naked and obvious, but he’s lost. . somewhere ein his darkness. . . . I can sooth him, join him briefly in the darkness and ring him into the light. ‘Show me,”
‘ I whisper. . . ‘Show me how much it can hurt. . . . ‘
Okay—plot spoiler, but amazing so please stay with me. He hits her, hard, with a belt. At this point the heroine, who has previously been sexually excited by being spanked, leaps to her feet: “’don’t ouch me! I hiss. . . ‘This is what you really like? Me, like this?’I use the sleeve of th bathrobe to wipe my nose.’
But then, most astoundingly, after five hundred pages of playing games with a man who has a Play Room, she declares, “Well, you are one fucked-up son of a bitch . . You need to sort your shit out Grey!”
And she flounces out of the room.
End of drama. The Good Girl has peeked over the wall, swung one leg over, tiptoed into the Garden, snuck a few ripe pieces of fruit, and jumped right back. The story’s very old, and women still read it to give themselves the experience, vicariously, of being protected, sexually dominated and therefore not responsible for sexual control over either themselves or the partner. So that hasn’t changed, but other things have.
The blogosphere has made the success of S & M play in Romancelandia break all monetizing hopes. It created its audience through social networking that are entirely new, and whose impact on the way we think, and the stories we share (or don’t) as a culture. The big engines that directed our attention and shared critical responses are no longer in the book review sections of newspapers.
From where I stand, this relegates novels that require more quiet, more concentration, to access to the outside edge of the public’s attention. It moves Romancelandia and its friends to the center.
Good luck to us.