Friday, December 8, 2017

SFR IN THE TIME OF #METOO


Okay, in case anyone needs a definition of sexual harassment/assault, I recommend we all start with author Chuck Wendig’s excellent (and hilarious) blog post on the subject here. I’ll wait.

Everybody got that? Good. I agree with Chuck’s base line: We all learned to keep our hands (and other parts) to ourselves in kindergarten, or we should have. It’s no longer cool to assume your sexual interests are automatically returned by everyone in sight, Austin Powers.  I would add that, as authors, if our heroes and heroines are having trouble following those rules in our stories, maybe we ought to rethink their actions. 


In this age of #metoo, there are at least a few outmoded science fiction romance tropes we might want to send back to spacedock for some radical reworking. 

--Fated Mates—It is undeniably romantic to think there is only one person out there for each of us. These stories speak to that yearning in all of us to mate for life, like swans or wolves. But perhaps we can agree that the time of the dogged, single-minded pursuit of the alpha male of his Fated Mate may be past (can we say “stalking?”). The heroine invariably knows nothing of this Fate; she isn’t “ready.” The hero must be steadfast in his courting and never give up! Acck!  I’ve read and enjoyed dozens of these, but I will probably never read them the same way again. Now they are just creepy.

--Abducted for (Whatever)—In the pulp-fiction past these stories were known as “Mars Needs Women” tales, but they’ve recently become more popular and “mainstream.” Earth women are abducted by aliens for use as sex slaves, mates, queens and similar biological fodder. The main point here is the lack of agency on the part of those Taken. The abducted rarely escape their fate; they must make the best of it somehow. Or worse, the abduction is portrayed as a good thing, with lots of fun sex and/or a rescue from a dull Earth life!

--Harems/Reverse Harems—According to Veronica Scott’s USA Today/HEA Blog, this is an up-and-coming sub-sub-genre of SFR, sometimes flipping the script to portray stables of sexy men-beasts owned by a lucky female. Is it any more humane to keep men as slaves for the sexual pleasure of women than the other way around? Doubtful.

--Coerced Sex and/or Violence—Do I even have to say it? Forget “safe words,” some things just go too far. Slaves forced to have sex, to breed, or to fight as gladiators may be historically correct and an idea that could be projected to alien planets, but when used as titillation in a romance, we approach sexual exploitation, ie. ick factor.

But even without wading in these murky pools, if we’re writing romance, by definition the issues of sexual dynamics underlie everything we write. We owe it to our readers to examine the relationships we portray on the page to make sure: Is the hero the kind of man he should be? Is the heroine his equal as they build a relationship? Alpha males are all well and good, but Neanderthal attitudes toward women should be the last thing a reader should expect in a genre primarily (though certainly not exclusively) written by women for women.

My first novel was a Star Trek fan fiction story titled Mindsweeper. In it, Captain James T. Kirk has been suspended from his post pending a hearing for sexual misconduct. (About time, you might say! Kirk is nothing if not an alpha male with a predilection for interaction with females that skirts the line of what is appropriate.). He meets a lone-wolf trader named Kate Logan, who asks him if the story is true.

“Does it matter?” he says.

“Does to me,” she says.

Right away, we know she is his equal, and not about to take any of his usual BS. (Turns out, he’s undercover trying to ferret out a Federation mole. The misconduct rap is part of his cover.)

The risk of sexual misconduct is part of the plot in Unchained Memory, Interstellar Rescue Series Book One, too. Psychiatrist Ethan Roberts is attracted to his patient Asia Burdette from the moment she steps into his office, but, as a professional, he dares not act on the feelings she stirs in him. She’s strong and independent, no longer in need of his professional help, and, most significantly, no longer his patient by the time circumstances drive the two of them into each other’s arms.

I even wrote a Fated Mates story in Trouble in Mind, Interstellar Rescue Series Book Two. But at the first sign of their mutual fate, the heroine reacts quite justifiably as if the hero violated her, and the hero is equally horrified at his own actions. It takes the couple almost another third of the book to reconcile.

The point is that I made sure in these cases to acknowledge the elephant in the room, and deal with it as part of the plot. My heroes and heroines struggle with their sexual dynamics before they earn their happily ever after.

As SFR authors, we have more freedom than do historical or contemporary romance authors to create the world we want for our characters. All the more reason for us to be conscious of the limits we place on the men and women of the futures we build.

Cheers, Donna


18 comments:

  1. My great-grandmother was forcibly abducted from her village by my great-grandfather. She was horribly depressed for most of her life, because she could never see her family again. So this trope has always freaked me out.

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    1. As your family's story so touchingly illustrates, Lee, the reality of these tropes is not nearly as "romantic" as we'd like to think.

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  2. Great post, Donna. I bumped right up against this in the book I just finished. A scene that I wrote and felt fine about two years ago, I read during revisions and realized the hero came off like a stalker and I had to do some retuning.

    I have to say when I woke up and saw that TIME cover, it made my entire year. I participated in #MeToo on Facebook, and around the same time watched 13 REASONS WHY, and this made me take a new, hard look at some of my own experiences and self judgments.

    It's a cultural shift for sure, and high time.


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  3. You bring up some good points, Donna, about the current shift in society's tolerance toward sexual abuse and misconduct. (And it's about high freakin' TIME, IMHO!) That said, Draxis smacks heavily of themes of both "fated mate" and "Mars needs women" tropes as well as questionable situations the heroine is put in by the hero and his society, UNTIL the reader gets deeper into the plot and begins to understand "the rest of the story" as Paul Harvey would have said. The heroine's own preconceptions are the real barrier to her understanding.

    I realize some readers may not give it a chance, and so be it. That's a risk I'm willing to take. I'm not willing to sacrifice the premise because some readers may read a couple of chapters and judge the whole book on the assumed scenario. (Sadly, it happens.)

    The hero's questionable nature and motives is what creates the conflict and the heroine's eventual willingness to trust him is what finally allows her eyes and heart to open to the truth. I won't be changing it because the theme is a current hot potato.

    Also, on the reverse harem theme. When I first read that, my thought was also that it was "male harem" type stories, but in reading further it seems to encompass any romance where multiple males are interested in one female. That definitely expands the trope.

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    1. I feel your pain, Laurie. My new one uses the fated mate trope too, AND the hero has a Jekyll/Hyde thing going on and sometimes behaves inappropriately. Perfect timing, ha! But I think it's all in the way it's managed in the story. I don't think romance will ever give up these popular tropes. I think key is that the heroine has agency, and doesn't fail to set boundaries, as she can, and stand up for herself. The key is that she doesn't come across like a victim.

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  4. I agree, Sharon, I don't think the trope is going away. And after all, this is fiction, not reality. :) And yes, my heroine certainly stands up for herself. Especially in that one scene...

    I think we need to tell the story as it needs to be told, as long as we're not glorifying or rationalizing abuse, and I honestly don't believe many romance writers would intentionally do that.

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    1. My question is, why do we have the desire to write or read stories that touch these tropes at all?

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    2. Hmm, well, I think that may be a many faceted question. Speaking as a writer, I think these themes--whether merely character perception or otherwise--often evolve organically as an element of conflict in the story. I think I'd be a little hard pressed to name a romance novel I've read that doesn't explore them in at least some form.

      I think Donna touched on the two most important aspects of how the story is told: "Is the hero the kind of man he should be? Is the heroine his equal as they build a relationship?"

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    3. I would add that I think these tropes are popular with readers because they add sexual tension and conflict to the story. In Diana Gabaldon's OUTLANDER, Claire is pressured to marry a man she barely knows. She doesn't want to do it, but she is presented with sound reasons, and she makes her own choice. If she had been forced, it would have been a different kind of story (and likely not nearly as popular). So the trope is implemented in a way that is reader-acceptable, and still manages to create very interesting hero/heroine dynamics. Of course "reader-acceptable" is subjective - I think many of us probably have at least one type of story that we're always going to avoid.

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  5. Conflict is one reason the tropes are used. Reader fantasy--however twisted--is another reason. And these kinds of stories have had a long tradition in romance--they don't call them "bodice-rippers" for nothing. But if we're advised to take an old idea and make it new in other ways as we write, then certainly reworking these exploitative tropes can be done, too. As you've pointed out, Sharon and Laurie, it is possible to start with a Fated Mates or another of the tropes I mention and use it in such a way that it doesn't fall into sexual harassment territory. The characters must rise above the premise in that case.

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  6. I don't in any way mean this as a genre attack, but just want to raise a point in this discussion. Regency Historical Romances often contain characters with rigid standards regarding social class and the expectations placed on women that would be considered gender repression if not outright sexual harassment. For the most part, they don't reflect the thinking of our modern society, and yet they're VERY popular with readers.

    Fiction gives us an opportunity to explore "what if" aspects of society and prevailing attitudes, whether historic or in some distance future or alternate timeline.

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  7. I think motive is pretty critical in this discussion as well. Sexual misconduct is typically about power. Fated mate stories (to continue with the same example from above), at least in the romance genre, are always about love. The tricky part is the fated male must not behave like such an ass no one can believe that the fated female wouldn't stab/shoot/strangle him -- and that's always going to be subjective for readers.

    Makes me wonder - would it work in a fated-mate romance for the woman to be the pursuer? Interesting challenge!

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    1. "The tricky part is the fated male must not behave like such an ass no one can believe that the fated female wouldn't stab/shoot/strangle him " Oh, yes! Amen to that. And alpha males in general who act like Neanderthal rejects.

      "Makes me wonder - would it work in a fated-mate romance for the woman to be the pursuer?" Um, Inherit the Stars? LOL Actually, the female heroines in my SFR tend to be pursuers. Draxis is the exception.

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    2. Ha ha, I did think of ItS! :) I think of that one as more star-crossed lovers than fated mates though.

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    3. LOL Well, yes, that too. But I think the "Yele" suggested they were fated to meet via the 'fate storm.' (If you remember Zjel's declaration from the story.)

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  8. I'd agree, Laurie, that the strictures of historical romance almost always mean the heroine's actions will be constrained and the hero's may be overbearing by modern standards. But then lovers of those romances are also lovers of the "Beauty and the Beast" trope, wherein the heroine tames that Neanderthal! So, I think you're good, Sharon! :)

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  9. I agree. I think Sharon's premise is totally sound. Sometimes a character is under the influence of factors he or she can't control (drugged, hypnotized, subliminally programmed, and supernaturally influenced to name a few) that drives the unacceptable behavior and a big part of their journey is in overcoming or defeating the negative control. I think that sort of struggle makes the read more intriguing, not less.

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  10. Aw, thanks for the vote of confidence, guys!

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