Evil Auntie Peril wrote one of the most fascinating series of articles I’ve read in a while about selective filtering in romances. Essentially, she points out that certain types of details or tropes make it into romance novels because they’d be “historically accurate” (e.g., heroes who rape the heroine), but others are decidedly excluded because, while they may (or may not) be historically accurate, they’re icky, and pull you out of the fantasy—and chief among them is the issue of cleanliness.
Go read the four-part post. READ IT. Go on. I’ll wait for you. It’s intelligent and thought-provoking, and it features some brilliantly awful puns. Also a link to my new favorite Muppet video of all time.
Done reading? Good.
So reading those posts was a nice coincidence, because I’ve been thinking a lot about the sorts of historical details and other tricks of worldbuilding that authors include in their stories, and the details they choose to omit. EAP is correct in that historicals tell us more about the times they’re written in than the times they supposedly depict. One of the most stark ways we can see that is the way authors create short-hand for villainy and otherness. As EAP pointed out, physical cleanliness is a proxy for spiritual purity or moral uprightness. If somebody in a romance novel has rotting teeth or smells weird, they’re not just going to bad, they’re going to be naaaaaaasty, and the hero and heroine are going to be distinguished from this nastiness, whatever the actual state of physical hygiene happened to be in Ye Olden Dayes of Yore for gently-bred people. Our hero and heroine, after all, are not ordinary people. They’re not part of the unwashed masses, regardless of which social stratum they inhabit within the universe of the book.
You can see this sort of thing with food: the depictions of food, and the way the protagonists react to food. I was recently re-reading a book set in late 19th-century San Francisco, and when the hero and heroine make a foray into Chinatown, one of the culture shock-y things that happens is that they’re both grossed-out at the sight of roast chickens and ducks hung up in restaurant windows with their heads intact. When they have lunch, the food’s delicious but filled with squidgy poultry bits that they’re both afraid to inquire into. I can maybe understand it coming from the hero, who’s more of a city boy (but given that he’s a poor Jewish Ukrainian immigrant, I have a feeling he’s probably seen and eaten his share of animal organs, too), but the heroine was raised on a farm. A farm. In 19th-century rural California. I mean, surely she’s seen a chicken or two beheaded in her time?
See, this whole eating-food-without-faces thing is a relatively recent development—industrial agriculture and improvements in transportation allowed meat to be produced, processed and packaged in ways they never had before, frozen and then shipped off to far locations. All of a sudden, if you wanted chicken (and you weren’t rich enough to employ people to do the dirty job for you), you didn’t have to kill and clean it yourself, or go to a market and get somebody to cut the neck for you while you waited—you could get the chicken, plucked, cleaned, cut into quarters and stuffed into tidy styrofoam packages. Similarly, meat was enough of a rarity and a treat that people in the not-so-distant past were more used to eating organ meat and using up all parts of the animal than we are today; relatively high-end restaurants and wealthy households in the aforementioned Ye Olden Dayes of Yore served items like heart, liver, kidney, tongue and other bits we’re used to seeing as rather oogy.
But this isn’t about the historical inaccuracy per se, though the hero and heroine’s squeamishness did stop me in my tracks for a few seconds. It’s about how that detail was used, and this detail was quite clearly used in a way to Show How Furrin the Chinese Are. It was a way to set up Chinatown and the Chinese as Other, as Exotic, as Not Who We Are, We Who Consume Mostly Muscle Meat and Turn Green When There’re Pink Bits In Our Roast Chicken. The details regarding the Chinese food and the roast ducks in the display window weren’t used to villainize the Chinese characters, in the way personal hygiene is used to villainize other people in historicals, but the hero and heroine’s squick reaction solicited a similar squick reaction in the reader, and hence encouraged her to empathize more with the characters. And I think this sort of thing says a lot about our current relationship with food: the ways we’ve removed ourselves from the immediacy of death that’s a necessity when we eat just about anything, but especially when we eat meat, and the way industrial agriculture, modern marketing and fast food culture (among other things) have taught us to see muscle meat as the only (or primarily) edible bits of an animal, with everything else being, y’know, gross. And squidgy. And not what entirely respectable people eat.
To make a sideways jump: Something that’s jumped to my attention recently was how authors use body weight, especially in male characters, as a way of indicating Super Duper Concentrated Villainy (Evil Nature Established in only 1/3 the Wordcount!). Obesity in women is treated with more sensitivity in romances, with overweight heroines getting their day in a few stories, but obesity in men? Oh dear. They’re signs of emasculation at best, and both emasculation and villainy at worst. Take, for example, the distant relative Evangeline Jenner was supposed to marry in Lisa Kleypas’ Devil in Winter. He’s fat. So fat, he has trouble getting out of carriages, and pretty much overwhelms Evie during a kidnapping attempt by squashing her. The book also makes it clear that he doesn’t lust after Evie; his appetite is reserved for food—and what’s implied is that this just ain’t natural. What kind of man doesn’t want a prime bit of flesh like Evie for her feminine charms? Only a fuh-reak who likes food far too much for his own good.
An even more recent example can be found in Loretta Chase’s Don’t Tempt Me. The heroine, Zoe Lexham, is kidnapped and sold into a pasha’s harem, and he gives her to his eldest son as a present. Zoe’s virginity is left intact, but only because Ali, the son, has some sort of erectile dysfunction—and is fat. Fat fat fat. Zoe likens kissing him to kissing a piece of furniture. Here, the body weight isn’t so much used as an element of villainy as it is a reinforcement of his emasculation: not only can’t Ali get the ol’ soldier to salute the general, his entire body is dehumanized via obesity.
And again, whether this reflects an accurate historical attitude is kind of beside the point, though history abounds with men who were both corpulent and horny, and with sexualized corpulence—I mean, Dionysos/Bacchus is often portrayed as chubby, depending on the era and the artist. What’s happening here has more to do with how contemporary culture desexualizes overweight people, and how overwhelmingly, we associate masculinity with muscularity. I particularly find the leap from emasculation to evil especially interesting, because it’s a theme you see quite a bit in literature in general and romance novels in particular. Oftentimes, I think the villainization is achieved via feminization, because emasculation often brings with it an identification/association with effeminacy, and that almost always leads to villainization of a character. You see it not only with men who are portrayed as fat and sexually impotent and are coded as womanish, but with men who are more explicitly coded as womanish, such as bisexuals, homosexuals or transvestites. (But then I’ve written quite a bit lately about gender portrayals in romance, and won’t rehash that particular topic in this article.)
I’m thinking back to other obese male villains I’ve encountered, and the ones that aren’t emasculated or desexualized tend to be portrayed as sexually perverse: they’re into extreme sadism, or pedophilia, or, I don’t know, clown-rape and gerbils, with an undertone that regular sex just isn’t good enough for them. Corpulent villainy is rarely garden-variety villainy. It’s Villainy Plus. The size of their bodies seems to represent the perversity of their souls, and this is a tried and true method in fiction in general: have the ugliness inside manifest itself outside.
I’m going to be lazy and cheat on the conclusion to this post, and lift from Part 4 of La Peril’s post:
And I could just leave it at that, and go away whistling songs from South Pacific except it doesn’t really deal with one question, and one thorny issue. The question is simply this: how do I know unless I’ve tried it? After all, I can accept all manner of grubbiness in other genres, so why not romance? And wouldn’t a reaaally good writer be able to make it work?
The thorny issue is more worrying to me, though, and it seems to take me right back to my starting point. Although historical dirt only shows up in ye olde Romancelande in controlled conditions, if at all; all manner of other historickiness* is either selectively included in, or selectively removed from the landscape. And what does this say about readers/perceptions of readers?