For the second of this two-part foray into Literary Critique: Vampire-Style, I'd like to welcome Jessica Price, Graduate Assistant at the University of Cincinnati. Jessica also presented at the recent pop culture convention.
Nicola: Jessica, welcome! Sooooo-- any chance I could get my hands on that paper, virtually or otherwise?
Jessica: I'd be happy to offer up pieces of my paper, but not the entire thing because I am hoping to get it published - and it still requires a considerable amount of editing. *laughs*
Nicola: OK, fair enough. Let's start with the same questions I asked Maria: Why JR Ward? Are you a fan? What makes her work a candidate for academic and/or social critique?
Jessica: I began reading paranormal romances the summer of ‘08 after, I’m pained to admit, reading the Twilight series. I’ve been a fan of vampires for years - I’m a HUGE Joss Whedon fan and Buffy is a source of much of my academic/social critique. Ward was one of those authors everyone talked about, so after I began reading vampire romances, I picked up Dark Lover in August of 2008 and never looked back. Something people don’t seem to realize is that you can be a fan (a HUGE fan even) of someone’s work and critique it. The fact that there is so much to critique is a credit to the writer because they create a complex enough universe and character list to warrant academic critique and challenge. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the BDB series - and how eagerly I’m awaiting Tuesday’s release of Rehv’s book. Even if I find parts of the series to be sexist or heterosexist or racist or whatever, I still consider myself a fan and love to dissect the series with other fans who are willing to move beyond the “zomg” stage of fandom *laughs*
I see Ward’s work as critique-able based on the many layers and characters present. Anytime an author expects characters to fit within some sort of categorization there is room for critique. My academic focus is on sexuality (specifically representations of non-normative sexualities in popular culture) so my radar immediately starts going off when a series controls character sexualities in anyway (V “giving up” his life as a dom after he meets Jane, V’s erotic feelings towards Butch “disappearing” when Jane arrives, Xhex presented as stereotypically lesbian but then “pimped” out by Rehv for Butch, etc)
Nicola: OK, but hold on -- isn't expecting Xhex to be a lesbian based on her body type and "presentation" just as... uh, some kind of bad "-ist" goes here... as reeling V and Butch back away from a homosexual relationship based on their position as heroes in a genre romance? note: Jessica hasn't seen this question from me, I snuck it in. Hoping she replies in comments...
Nicola: Did you get a chance to look at what the Other Jessica posted about your paper? Do you think it fairly represents what you had to say?
Jessica: I wish it had been pointed out that I discussed my paper more than "read" my paper - I think that changes the presentation of the framework and such. My paper is much too long for a 15 minute presentation and I didn't want to keep repeating things the previous BDB writer (Nicola's note: that would be Maria) had spoken on as much as I could help it. Other than that, it's pretty good. I wouldn't mind expanding on the "specific ways of having sex" comment since she seemed to not understand my pointing that out.
Nicola: taking notes furiously Yum. Let’s totally expand on that. First though, maybe a little bit of background would be good?
Jessica: My actual title is "'She was not woman. She was female. She was vampire.': Challenging Sexuality and Gender in The Black Dagger Brotherhood Series" The beginning of that is a quote from Lover Revealed and it really illustrates the sex/gender difference Ward deals with in her series - the vampires are very clearly female or male and they are not gender specific. This is obviously rooted in the fact that vampires must feed from vampires of the opposite sex. Gender performance does not matter because if a male-bodied woman is walking around, a male would not receive subsistence from her blood, so there is a clear acknowledgment of a vampire’s sex, rooting their very existence in their most primal nature - feeding, which is connected to sex.
My three main focuses are Alternative Sexual Expressions (BDSM, challenging the sex/gender binary), homosexuality (specifically V/Butch) and identity, and female sexuality (specifically Xhex).
Nicola: OK, I don’t think I get what you mean. Are you saying that male vs. female is not gender-specific?
Jessica: A good way to talk about the sex/gender binary is by saying gender is between the ears and sex is between the legs. Gender is socially constructed. It is the way society expects us to act based on our gender identity (which is expected to match with our biological sex). Sex is the biological makeup of ones body. This has nothing to do with gender, although our society demands they match. “Man” and “Woman” are terms related to gender as are “Masculine“ and “Feminine“. “Male” and “Female” are terms related to sex. This is, of course, working within a binary system - if you ask people who work in the field of study relating to gender and/or sexuality, many of them will talk about the spectrum of sex and gender because there are more than two sexes and more than two genders - but that is beyond the scope of this interview. *grins*
Nicola: Hmmm. I agree with some of that, but not sure I agree with *all* of it. You're probably right about scope limitation, though. (Rats. Maybe next time.)
Jessica: In response to what [the other] Jessica said on her blog, I want to clear up what I was talking about with V. [The other] Jessica pointed out that we all have very specific ways of having sex, which is absolutely true and true within the Brotherhood. But the way the Brothers (minus V) have sex, is still considered normative in their society. They are expected to have non-kinky sex with their mates and stay monogamous (because even though males can take multiple shellans, none of the Brothers do, setting up a norm for us to expect). V, on the other hand, rejects this notion of “normative” sex. It goes beyond having sex with sex workers (which a few other Brothers are shown doing), but having a harem (if you’ll allow the word) of women at his beck and call. He participates in BDSM sex and he is framed as having non-heterosexual fantasies - all things that are set up as non-normative by the books that proceed it. That’s all I meant by saying he has very specific ways of having sex. Compared to the other Brothers (if we are analyzing the series, we cannot look beyond the scope Ward gives us), V has a very specific way of having sex.
O’Donovan: For the record, I love, love, loved the Vishous/Jane romance, but I felt (to a degree) that it was a cop-out, that V's long history of highly flexible sexuality was, in a way, reduced by the requirements of the genre. You can be kinky, sure, but only so far; just as the women are conventionally virginal/virtuous/sex-averse outside of a single relationship, so must the men hew to a conventional one-man/one-woman preference when the author's eye focuses on him. So, in the broader sense, I'm curious (a) whether you share that perspective and (b) at what point the conventions of romance break, so that a novel about love/sex/relationships is no longer a romance as the market defines it (becoming literary fiction or GLBT fiction, or whatever).
Nicola: I blathered on at great length about what I think about Butch and V in a previous post. My biggest beef with Ward’s treatment of V’s BDSM inclinations is that she made it pathological. Sex with Jane was completely different – either vanilla or with him as the bottom, and his sexual history up to that point was pretty much equated to that of a rapist: although his partners were willing, the act was always posed as one of control, not of affection or intimacy. In a sense, V was as much a virgin as Marissa or Phury.
Jessica: V/Butch’s relationship may be my very favorite, although I love Z/Bella. I fear that the fact that V and Butch don’t end up together is this fear of the gay hero - no matter the feelings between these two men, they must return to the safety of heterosexuality. I feel V’s BDSM sexual expression was the same way. While my study of gender is excited over the very clear flip of gender norms between V and Jane, the sexuality portion of my study is heartbroken over the fact that V continues to be restricted, in a way, based on his partner. With the women before Jane, he had to be dominant to them and in control. With Jane, it’s the exact opposite and while he may physically dominate her, she is the dominant one in the relationship and he has given up control. It seems that there is no balance for V - it’s one extreme or the other. I hate that he had to be “cured” of his homoerotic emotions towards Butch - that was probably one of my least favorite moments in the entire series.
Nicola: I can definitely see how you'd read it that way, but I guess I interpreted it differently. I felt like (and I'm repeating myself from the discussion with Maria) the point was that V had been so deprived of affection that it was difficult for him to tell the difference between a fraternal love and a romantic love.
Jessica: I feel as though the definition of the romance novel is something that demands restructuring. Paranormal romance authors (including Ward) are going in the direction of the Paranormal Fantasy and I can’t help but feeling as though that is tied, not only to the content, but to the way the romance genre tends to force/control the sexuality and gender of its characters. The dominant audience for the romance genre is heterosexual women and as much as they seem to enjoy the idea of two men being sexually involved, I feel that it is limited to the imagining of themselves as part of that sexual relationship. The heterosexual relationships are spotlighted because the (presumably) heterosexual women reading about them can place themselves easily into the shoes of the female character.
Nicola: I've been reading romance since the early 80s, and one of the things that makes me really happy is seeing the diversification of the genre - 25 years ago, you pretty much had your choice of medival historicals, regency historicals, American Western historicals, or American civil war historicals coffGWTWwannabeescoffcoff. I love that there's everything from futuristic sci-fi romance to werewolf romance to suspense romance -- but it's true that outside of the erotica section, genre romance is still pretty well-defined as having a relationship between a man and a woman that ends happily. You and Maria are probably right that current genre norms are restrictive, but I do see them becoming more open. There is a whole lot more variety now than there used to be-- twenty years ago, I'm QUITE sure that scene at Butch's induction would have been very different, for example.
Jessica: I talk in my paper about the virgin/whore binary and how all the females in Ward’s series fit within the two of these categories (the “virgin” title because women who are virgins or women who don’t enjoy sex before meeting their males) except Xhex. I’m excited about Rehv’s book because I can’t help but expect to see more Xhex and I believe she will continue to challenge the expectations of females in the series. As for V being a virgin, don’t forget that he referred to himself as a “vascular virgin” and feeding is very much tied to sexuality/erotica. Of course, he did give his blood to Butch (although not mouth-to-vein), so we could debate whether or not he “gave” his “virginity” to Jane or if he gave it to Butch.
I just want to say thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts about this series. I have had so much fun writing about the BDB and I look forward to seeing what challenges my paper throughout the rest of the series. It’s been fantastic having the opportunity to discuss these topics - and I am happy to continue to do so. Please do not take anything I say as disrespect toward Ward or the series. I am a huge fan of both and of vampire literature in general (although I am new to the genre) so I do all of this with the utmost respect.
Nicola: You're so very welcome! I hope you can stop back and check in with comments, and maybe we can compare notes on Rehv later this week. ;)