It’s not that I hate romance. I know it probably looks and sounds like I do, but I don’t. Truly. Like everyone, I have my preferences. Maybe it’s because I am literally the least romantic person I know, but romance just doesn’t make my list of favorites. This is not to be confused with me actively hating the entire genre.
That being said, there are some conventions trending within romance that unsettle me. Before you tell me that “It’s just a story,” or, “It doesn’t mean anything,” I disagree. There’s this thing called cultural narrative and, in a nutshell, it refers to the stories communities tell that help assign meaning to things. There’s more to it than that but for our purposes the simple explanation will do. Fairy tales and fables are popular examples of cultural narratives. Let’s for a moment ignore the watered down happily-ever-after versions of fairy tales that Disney tells and remind ourselves that the original versions of the same stories had a very different mood and significance. Generally, the purpose of the stories was to reinforce social norms, teach children what characteristics are valued or considered taboo, and often to teach moral lessons. You could argue that Disney is doing the same thing, but the norms, values, and lessons have shifted. What it all boils down to is that the stories we tell at the individual and societal level mean something.
You want to know what a society values, hopes for, dreams of? Look to the stories being told. Click & Tweet! What are the underlying themes? What message(s) are being transmitted? Why are particular stories being told? It’s not just entertainment, everyone has an agenda. True objectivity doesn’t exist. Our experiences, and the stories we tell about our experiences, inform our perceptions. In a very literal way our perception is our reality, which means that the way we think about things has a profound impact on our feelings, behaviors, and interactions with the greater world.
At this point I have to issue a very stern warning: if you’ve read Fallen, think of what follows as mandatory because Fallen probably isn’t what you think it is; if you haven’t read Fallen, continue at your own peril. I’ll be keeping them as vague and minimal as I can within the context of this post, but there will be spoilers. Waiting… Waiting… This is your opportunity to opt out if you want to remain surprised. Waiting… If you opt to wait, I strongly urge you to come back to this post after you’ve finished Fallen. Waiting… I am so serious. Waiting… Okay, last chance. Waiting…
Alright, you asked for it.
There are and will continue to be numerous themes and sub-themes throughout the Fallen Series. One that is particularly relevant in Fallen, book one of the series, is a de-romanticizing of the captured princess trope. The trope itself isn’t new, even the romanticizing of it isn’t new. Take, for example, Helen of Troy. Depending on who was telling the story, the relationship between Helen and Paris might be depicted as an epic love story or branded “the rape of Helen.” It’s all a matter of perspective. What disturbs me about current trends is the inundation of this concept of romantic kidnap. Last I checked developing empathy for one’s captors was called Stockholm Syndrome, not love.
Is it possible for two people positioned on opposing sides to develop genuine feelings for one another? Sure. Anything is possible. I’m not discrediting the possibility. But I think we need to remember that those situations are the exception, not the rule, and I’ve read a lot of stories that ended with happily-ever-after when there was very little to redeem the relationship between the characters. When we tell stories for the entertainment value alone, without thinking of the implications or consequences, or– worse– when we don’t fully understand the things we’re talking about (think 50 Shades and the outcry it elicited in the BDSM community for the gross misrepresentations), the result is mass propagation of misinformation, which is dangerous. It’s so fucking dangerous.
I’m going to step off that soapbox, so I can step onto another one. First, a little background if you’re not caught up on the Fallen world. Fallen picks up with one kingdom invading and covertly taking the palace and royal family of a rival kingdom hostage. I’m not ruining much, this happens in chapter one. If you haven’t read it and decided to forego my warning, I promise you, it’s very dramatic. Anyway, everything that follows has to do with the subsequent power struggle between the invading army and the royal family. The core of the action is centered around the two main characters: the invading general and the eldest captured princess. Light bulb! Do you see where I’m going with this?
Spoiler alert: they fuck.
Now that we’ve gotten that revelation out of the way, let me make one thing extremely clear: the role of sex in the story is not to bring these two characters closer together, but to highlight some of the disturbing facets of romanticizing a situation that is in no way, shape, or form romantic. If you’ve read Fallen and the relationship between Persephone and Augustine doesn’t make you even a little bit uncomfortable, then you’ve missed the point. Don’t tell me they just have a very passionate relationship. It’s not passion, it’s abuse. And don’t tell me that it’s just rough sex. It’s not kink, it’s rape. There I said it. It’s rape.
Does the relationship between these two characters suddenly read a lot less sexy and a whole lot of icky? It should.
It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable. It’s supposed to stir up conflicting feelings, because when we feel conflicted, we start to ask “Why?”
Why do we want to read this as romance?
Because the characters are perfect for each other, obviously. Why can everyone but them see it? Am I right? Am I right? Alright.
I admit that Fallen certainly mirrors particular conventions within romance and that was deliberate. Unlike actual romance, though, the point was not to create conflict between the characters. The conflict was already there. It was there from the start. The point was to create conflict within the reader.
Why, if it’s not romance, do the characters seem so perfect for one another?
I mean, come on, if they would just get their shit together, they could be a total power house; a love story for the ages.
Well, yeah, but that’s part of the tragedy of their story, isn’t it? This idea that had they met under different circumstances, they could have had an epic romance.
But they didn’t.
They didn’t meet under different circumstances. They met under these circumstances and that changes everything.
Then, why is there so much chemistry between them?
It would have been a whole lot simpler if they’d just hated each other.
True. True. But it’s easy to see the line between black and white; it’s much harder to see the line when we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s gray. Click & Tweet! PSA: there is no blurred line of consent. Either there is consent or there isn’t. There is no in between. No means fucking no.
Does the fact that chemistry exists between Persephone and Augustine really make their relationship okay or somehow less abusive? No. Do we really believe that in situations where domestic violence is a reality that there is NEVER chemistry between the two partners? The fact that there is real chemistry is one of the things that frequently makes it difficult for the abused partner to leave, especially early on: they’re holding onto hope for what could be.
Now, Persephone isn’t holding onto hope for a future with Augustine, but the chemistry that exists between them confuses and distresses her, probably more than anything else. If I had to guess, it’s also what confuses the reader more than anything else too. Which logistically brings up some questions that are really uncomfortable, but need to be addressed. Hang with me, you might feel a pinch.
She agrees, why is it rape?
Because no matter what words leave a person’s mouth, consent cannot exist in the presence of a power difference that leaves one person feeling like they don’t have the option to say no. Force and the threat of force are present throughout the entirety of the book. There’s a lot riding on Persephone not saying no, and she’s aware of it, so she uses sex as a bargaining chip. As Augustine reminds her, she doesn’t really have any cards to play because, “I don’t need your permission.” His words. Verbatim. That’s not even a veiled threat, it’s right there in the open.
Yes, he does play the game, but let’s not delude ourselves that it evens the field; it’s a manipulation tactic. Side note: manipulation and coercion are not ingredients in a stable, healthy relationship. They’re– say it with me now– abuse.
Fine, but if it’s not consensual, then why does she enjoy it? The body can’t lie, right?
First of all, does she enjoy it? She’s very clear with herself that she does not want to be with him. Secondly, our bodies do lie. Constantly. Or maybe it’s our brains, but the result is the same. Through things like the placebo effect, we can trick our bodies into feeling well and, inversely, our brains can trick our bodies into behaving like they’re sick (hypochondria). Additionally, in men, there’s this recognized thing called an adrenaline erection. Adrenaline causes blood vessels to dilate, which– guess what– can cause an erection. It’s really not that different in women. In both men and women, activation of the endocrine system (our fight or flight system) in response to a trigger activates specific parts of our body, particularly the Sympathetic Nervous System. Among other things, the Sympathetic Nervous System is responsible for– you got it– sexual arousal. So I ask you, is the shit that goes down really more palatable because she cums? We’re talking about a physiologic response to certain kinds of stimulation. It’s biology, not consent. The two terms are not synonymous
Before I have a pitchfork carrying mob kicking down my door, this post is not about romance shaming, or kink shaming, or any kind of shaming. Books are interactive. There’s a relationship between books and readers that is beautiful and meaningful and impactful. Fallen, as an individual book and as part of a greater series, was always about starting a conversation. There are whole areas of study devoted to interpreting what authors meant by making the dress blue versus red, or for making the hero go left in stead of right. Maybe the author just fucking liked the color blue and maybe the right fork was under construction. There’s no way of truly knowing what the author intended, unless they tell us. Instead of waiting for the conversation to happen, and allowing the misinformation to roll, this is me telling you what I always intended for Fallen. So, I say again, this is not about shaming, it’s about questioning. It’s about asking ourselves, both as individuals and as a society, what stories are we telling? And to what end?
What happens when we change the story?
If you or someone you know has been a victim of rape or abuse, help is available:
Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network // https://centers.rainn.org // 1-800-656-4673
The National Domestic Violence Hotline // http://www.thehotline.org // 1-800-799-7233
Rape Myths // http://rapecrisis.org.uk/mythsvsrealities.php
The UK Explains Consent in the Most British Way Possible // https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JjPMsjphCUU
BDSM Basics (since I specifically mentioned kink) // https://www.buzzfeed.com/caseygueren/ultimate-guide-to-bdsm?utm_term=.dp1N4GLv1#.yh1Rw1K5G