Sunday, April 26, 2009

Back to the Classroom

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. ;)


Lise said...

Absolutely loved that post, riveting reading and of course its BDB based which makes it all the more yummy! Thanks! L x

Jessica P said...

Hi! I'm gonna try to answer your snuck in question real quick before headin' to class haha

Xhex is presented to the audience as either a lesbian or transgender - the way Butch thinks about her when they first meet (Xhex as "Sympathy") makes this very clear and Rehv has a moment ("she was fully female... at least that's what he had heard"). I may be paraphrasing, I don't have the books in front of me. But while Xhex embodies the stereotypes of "lesbian" she is "cured" of this possible identity when she has sex with Butch behind ZeroSum.

I hope that makes sense - I just woke up haha

I appreciate what you said, Nicola, about the difference between Fraternal Love and Romantic Love, but I believe the fraternal love is his relationship with his Brothers. I think that he learns how to interact with them, flighting, living, etc and part of that (like with the other Brothers, especially Z) is only after his relationship with his female. Butch, though, causes V to have the "Mine" reaction, which is only felt with the romantic love.

I don't doubt that romance novels have "grown" over the years (just as film and television have in certain ways), but the inclusion of something doesn't mean that there is no longer an issue or that the inclusion means representation has been made. One lesbian character on television doesn't mean we don't have a HUGE problem with LGBTQ representation in television, it just means we got ONE character compared to the hundreds on tv. V's sexuality is a nice plot point, but he can't even be identified as bisexual because he is not comfortable with the same-sex aspect of his emotions. WE could call him bisexual, but he would not.

As for the scene at Butch's induction - I talk about it a bit in my paper as well. Read back through that scene. While we do have the homoerotic moment of each Brother biting Butch on the neck, it is followed by them punching him on the chest. This is easily framed as a violent reaction to a homoerotic moment - reasserting the heterosexuality of the Brothers. And V's bite is framed as the MOST erotic (perhaps one of the most erotic moments in the series) but is followed by the hardest hit against his chest.

I hope all of that makes sense hahaha I'm happy to answer any other questions - and I'll talk about sex and gender any day. It's what I do! haha So if you'd like to chat about that, I'm more than willing. Thanks! :)

Chris said...

Thanks, Nicola and Jessica - this was really thought-provoking.

Phyl said...

This has all been so enlightening and interesting! Thanks for doing this!

Janine said...

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.I remember enjoying Linda Lael Miller's vampire romance series about fifteen years ago (the books were Forever and the Night, For All Eternity, Time Without End and Tonight and Always). The character the series focused on most was the vampire Valerian, the hero of the third book, and he was clearly bisexual. As in actually had sex with men, not just fantasized about it. And this series was published by a New York Publisher (Berkley) back in the early to mid 1990s.

I also recall that at least one of Rosemary Rogers' romances back in the 1980s had a bisexual hero. Not that I would consider Rogers' books socially progressive -- her heroines were prone to getting raped and sometimes even gang-raped. But I wanted to make the point that bisexual heroes are nothing that new.

Jessica P said...

I hear what you're saying and that makes total sense. I in no way have a handle on the history of romance novels, but I still see this as similar to the history of gay representation in film. Gay people have been represented in film for YEARS, but only recently found any sort of "normalization". I feel like queer sexualities are more common in vampire novels of late. I believe that Anne Rice was instrumental in this and it has grown from that to including an accepted gay couple in the young adult series "The House of Night". The representation of lesbians is still horrifically non-existent (outside of erotica), but gay men and, more so, bisexual men appear to be more acceptable as characters or as plot points in much of the same way I've observed the representation of queer identities in film.

I hope that made sense - once again I'm typing first thing in the morning haha

Nicola O. said...

Butch, though, causes V to have the "Mine" reaction, which is only felt with the romantic love.Really? I know V felt... I don't know, regret, jealousy? when Butch was with Marissa, but I don't recall that distinctive "MINE" moment between the two of them. Nor did the bonding scent get going, but that might be because they never actually got engaged in the act itself.

the inclusion of something doesn't mean that there is no longer an issue or that the inclusion means representation has been made.No argument here. I guess I'm just optimistic that things could get going that way. Not to say that we're already there.

What makes me happy is the work that you and Jenni Crusie and others are doing to "prove", or at least argue convincingly, that genre romance has more to offer women than cotton-candy fantasy, that our literature has validity and at least as much substance as say, Dan Brown or Tom Clancy. I think working toward *that* goal will almost inevitably cause progress for non-majority characters.

Jessica P said...

I never thought I would work with romance genre novels haha I find that studying sexuality and gender in the romance genre yields fascinating conversation and there's ALWAYS more to the character/plot/relationship than meets the eye and I love that! :D I hope to continue working on the romance genre (and vampire genre in general).

I thought V had had a "mine" moment, but really it's "mine"-like moments. In "Lover Revealed" and "Lover Unbound" there is much in the way of self hate regarding his sexual feelings towards Butch, not to mention the conversation the two of them have about their relationship. What stands out most to me is when V is watching Butch and Marissa in the hospital room and the narration is something like "what part of this senario did he want?" and then proceeds to have dreams of having sex with Butch. They may not have had that "moment" but they sure did have a lot of similar subtext pieces *shrug*

I'm interested in the bonding scent and whether or not it can come out between two males... I look forward to seeing how she plays out Blay's character.

I'm not far into Lover Avenged - but so far I love it and Ward is giving me a lot of great material *laughs*

Maria LL said...

Wow – this has been fun, following the discussions! Janine, you have a really good point about the ‘opening up’ of the romance genre, and just like Jessica I cannot really make any claims about the genre as such, only about certain conventions which I see at play in the BDB novels.

The two situations that Jessica and Nicola bring up (V watching Butch and Marissa and Butch’s induction ceremony) are scenes that I come back to as well. I know that the voyeuristic scene leads to V’s erotic dreams about Butch, but he ‘self-corrects’ towards the end of the scene: “So wrong of him to watch. So wrong of him to…want.” This is interesting to read in the context of his other self-hating comments as well, I think. (And in the way the scene is written V expresses an attraction for both Butch and Marissa. The ‘wrong’ could then be construed as directed to homoerotic desire, heterosexual desire and the invasion of privacy.) The induction scene on the other hand (taking place at the very end of LR) seems to put an end to desire altogether: it is “[a] path that would not be walked. Ever.” (This only to add to Jessica’s discussion about the hard punch that follows…)

Thanks’ Nicola, for the invitation to be a part of this!

Nicola O. said...

Now see, this comment: "what part of this senario did he want?" struck me not so much as a choice between Butch and Marissa. I believe it was the tenderness between B & M that was moving him, in addition to his love for Butch. I don't think he was ever attracted to Marissa -- but he was pulled in and confused by and made sad by the tenderness and intimacy, which is something he never experiences until he starts the healing sessions with Butch and then finds Jane.

The point (heh) about the violent punch in the induction ceremony is -- wow. Never thought of it that way! It just seemed like an amped up version of the pinning thing they do to recruits at the military academy.

Which, who knows, maybe has the same connotations.

Jessica said...

Which, who knows, maybe has the same connotations.Best comment ever *laughs*. I love it anytime we can connect "real world" stuff to the popular culture moments.

I hear what you're saying about the tenderness thing - and that is probably what she is going for. I have a tendency to "read into" everything, so when I see that, I immediately connect it to the homoerotic subtext of them... also because I WANT there to be a homoerotic subtext so that makes it easier for me to make that connection haha

Generic said...

For what it's worth, I have never perceived Xhex as a lesbian (not that there would be anything wriong with that).

I picture her as a fighter/enforcer who just happens to be female.

Jessica P said...

GenericI think a lot of people see her as the streetfighter she is, but my comments regarding the perceived lesbianism is based on narrative from the novels. The rhetoric surrounding the descriptions of Xhex match common rhetoric of lesbian stereotype gender expression... The comments of her being "butch" and "male-like" and the description of her hair, along with her job and the fact that her clothing matches the clothing of warriors (leathers) makes it easy to "read her" as lesbian. JR Ward clearly did not want the audience to read her that way, however, b/c when she is initially presented to the audience, her sexuality is "proven" by her having sex with Butch moments after his assumption that she is actually transgendered (or in some way queer).


Nicola O. said...

I think there's a whole post brewing on just the women of the BDB. Most of them are portrayed as sweet little things with a core of steel - like Steel Magnolias without the southern accent -- with the big antithetical exceptions of Xhex and Payne.

I wonder why there's no middle ground?

Jessica P said...

Oh definitely! Discussing the females of BDB is fascinating. There's very much a virgin/whore dichotomy present - although Payne and Xhex add an extra element to that. Also, the names of the shellans (particularly from the first 6 books) are soooo simplistic. Where we have male names like Wrath, Rhage, Zsadist, etc we have female names of Beth, Bella, Jane, Mary - even Marissa is quite simplistic when comparing names of other gylmera/vampire females (she has no silent "h" or "z" or anything).

There is sooooo much to unpack from this series, which makes it such an interesting series to write about. I'm almost finished with Rehv's book and throughout the whole thing I've been having little "hmmm" moments as things support or breakdown observations I've had on the first 6.


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