Why romance novels are the perfect stories for our times.
I expected a lot of things to change after the last election, but one thing I didn’t expect to change was my reading habit. I had been a mystery and science fiction reader my whole adult life, and I thought I’d continue to escape into the genres I loved.
Instead, I found myself picking through my TBR pile, unhappy with the books I’d chosen. Even the “big idea” science fiction books seemed outdated, out of touch, and not what my heart needed.
So I switched to reading romance novels. It’s been almost two years and I haven’t looked back. My favorite romances are the light ones, filled with laughter and fun. When I open my kindle, this is what greets me.
At first, I assumed I was simply seeking comfort reads. When the real world is full of bad news and it seems to be getting worse by the day, who wouldn’t want a guaranteed happy ever after? Romance novels offer stories of humans changing for the better, becoming their best selves for the sake of another person. Love always wins.
The other day, I tiptoed back to my old pile of books in genres I stopped reading, and I thumbed through a few of them, wondering if it was time to give them another chance.
It soooo wasn’t. But not for the reason I assumed. It had nothing to do with the dystopian settings or dire predictions of the future or crimes and evil in everyday life. It had to do with violence. Specifically, violence against women and minorities and queer folks. Over and over, if there was violence in the book, a marginalized person would be the victim of it.
I realize that this is true to life. It’s so realistic that it’s not shocking to most of us. But it took me over a year—a year of reading something else—to realize how lovingly that violence is portrayed on the page, especially when it’s violence against women.
I always assumed I’d go back to my old reading habits someday. Later. When I could handle it. But now I’m realizing I may never be able to handle it. And why should I have to?
Am I saying that that books with violence against women and minorities shouldn’t exist? Absolutely not. I’ve read those books. I’ve written those books. I’m saying that right now, my money won’t be spent on those books. I’m reading for fun, and therefore, I’m reading other things.
Today, I want to read books where good things happen to women. Lots and lots of good things. Modern romance heroines don’t just find love. If they’re having career troubles, those get fixed too. Family issues? Done. Problems with friends? Solved.
It’s powerful. We have an entire genre where a woman’s concerns are front and center. Where her voice matters. Where what she wants is the important thing, and her happiness is literally the only way the book can end.
This is not news to women who have been reading romance novels for years, but it’s new to me. Until now, I thought romance novels were about women’s desires and women’s pleasure. Now I know they are about women’s triumph.
Those are the novels I need in my life.
Getting away with it in plain sight.
(There are mild spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk.)
I went to see Ocean’s 8 last weekend and it was a delight. It had everything I love in a movie: a tricky plot, fun dialogue, genuine female friendships, characters who are great at their jobs, and an underlying theme that makes you think.
And the men? Eh, they were there, and yeah, they added a thing or two, I guess. They were more plot devices than actual characters.
Oh, wait… Could that, maybe, have been the point?
The women of Ocean’s 8 aren’t love interests or motivating factors for men. They are the heroes. And they are so, so good at what they do. The heist at the center of the movie—set in the world of high fashion and a fancy ball—is specifically female coded. Men literally could not do it.
What I love most about Ocean’s 8 was the way the gang uses society’s assumptions about women as one of their weapons. When one of them asks why there are no men involved, Sandra Bullock’s character says, “A him is noticed, a her is ignored.” Middle-aged women, especially women of color, are invisible, allowing the gang to pull off the heist in plain sight. Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, and Awkwafina play the janitor, the dishwasher and the waitress. Time after time, people look right through them. Sandra Bullock gets to play the entitled, middle-aged white woman—another easily-dismissed stereotype. Even in the film’s final act, they use old women as fences. And they get away with it, of course. If middle-aged women are invisible, then old ones might as well not exist.
The only women who are ever noticed—ever seen—are the young and pretty, so why not use that fact as well? Anne Hathaway’s character becomes a magnificent distraction. Every eye in the room is on her while the brown and black and over-the-hill women get on with the job at hand.
And what do these women buy with all their ill-gotten millions? Surprisingly modest things. A business, a production company, a solo motorcycle trip, an apartment. But they all represent the same thing—a woman who is the boss of herself, where she’s in charge.
And maybe, for once, even seen.
[Photo credits: Warner Brothers/Village Roadshow pictures]
So much of where we are today is because of where she was in the 1970s.
On Mother’s Day, we went to see the movie “RBG.” It seems that everyone else in Ann Arbor had the same idea, because the theater was sold out and every seat was full. RBG is a hit. It broke into the top 10 for the weekend, which is almost impossible for a documentary to do, especially when it’s showing on limited screens. But, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself, this film is small and unassuming and also amazingly powerful.
I knew Ginsburg was awesome. I’d seen the memes about the “Notorious RBG” and watched the way the internet blew up whenever she wrote one of her dissenting opinions. But until I saw the movie, I never knew quite how awesome she was.
As the movie showed her early life, I saw many older women in the theater nod knowingly at the details of the sexism Ginsburg endured. She navigated college and law school by keeping her head down and being better than her classmates. She made Law Review in her second year at Harvard while caring for a toddler and a husband with cancer. Just one of those three things would have overwhelmed most of us, but RBG did it all.
Ginsburg spent the 70s and 80s working with the ACLU to fight discrimination. She successfully argued six landmark cases before the Supreme Court, changing the law for everyone. She chose those cases the way she does everything—carefully, systematically, always with one eye on the long-term benefits.
In the theater, there were several gasps from the younger crowd as a list of laws rolled by on the screen—laws that explicitly discriminated against women. It felt like the best history lesson ever as we watched Ginsburg’s work help overturn them one by one. But this is history that is still alive, still with us, still working for our benefit today. Thanks to one remarkable woman, women everywhere can almost take our rights for granted…. Almost.
We still need Ruth Bader Ginsburg and people like her. We’re grateful she’s still alive, still working for us, still notorious as ever. Which is probably why that packed theater burst into applause when the movie ended.
“RGB” has been rolled out into even more theaters this weekend, but who knows how long it will be showing? You should go see it while you can.
And you should bring your mom.
There’s a right way and a wrong way.
Last week, I suffered a computer crash. All my files were backed up, so it wasn’t a disaster, just a bummer. But it could have been an even bigger bummer without my new friends Jason, Brandon and Joel.
After trying to reset the machine myself, I headed to the Apple store. When they check you in, you don’t take a number. The greeter uses an iPad to check you in, jotting down some details of your appearance so the clerks can find you in the crowded store. I didn’t see what the greeter wrote down, but it was probably something like, “Middle-aged mom hugging her mac like a baby. Looks clueless.” I braced myself for a guy half my age to mansplain my computer to me.
It never happened.
A tech named Jason was working on several computers at once at the “genius bar.” He listened patiently when I told him what was wrong with my mac, never interrupting me. His body language was relaxed, interested, even though I’m sure he hears the same thing all day long. He tried, unsuccessfully, to reinstall my operating system. He couldn’t figure out why it didn’t install, but he never acted like that was my fault or my problem to solve. (I’ve had that experience before. Yuck.) I peppered him with questions and he answered all of them, talking me through the problem without talking down to me.
He ultimately had to give up and turn my machine over to an even younger guy named Brandon. Brandon had a solution. I could either go to the earlier version of the OS, which would work fine, or get a new hard drive and use the current OS. We discussed price and time to service, and I decided to go to Best Buy for a new hard drive, since it would be cheaper and faster than going through Apple. Brandon thought that was a great idea and sent me on my way. He didn’t try to talk me into staying in the Apple family. He didn’t try to scare me into using their higher-priced services. He knew I could be trusted to do what was best for my own computer.
The next day, I went to Best Buy. I haven’t visited the Geek Squad in several years and my last experience wasn’t a great one. So my hackles were already up when I approached the counter. I was sure the Jack Black lookalike was going to treat me like an idiot.
It never happened.
Jack Black’s real name turned out to be Joel, and not only did he not talk down to me, he did the opposite. He empowered me. He said he couldn’t install a hard drive on my mac, but I could certainly do it myself. When I looked doubtful he said, “There are videos on YouTube. You’ll just need a phillips screwdriver and a star-shaped one. You have those, right?” (Bonus points to Joel for assuming I have tools.) He gave me his number to call if I had any trouble, but he assured me I wouldn’t. “You can do this!”
Swapping out the hard drive was as easy as Joel said it was and so was reinstalling my OS and my backed-up files. (Always back up your files, kids!) And even though it was so easy a cat could do it, I’m still super proud of myself for accomplishing it.
And I’m proud of my new pals Jason, Brandon, and Joel for treating me as though I could.
Now, I’m not saying that sexism is solved simply because I had one good experience. In fact, a different man called me “sweetie” the day before and someone else talked over me the day after. And of course, there was the weird guy at the con last month. But I have hope. Somewhere along the line, these three young men were taught a better way. A mom, a wife, or (or more likely) a female boss clued them in.
Now let’s hope they clue in others.
A pretty ring, quick thinking, and the best moment of my weekend.
I went to a great science fiction convention last weekend. I learned new things, got inspired, and hung out with friends old and new.
At one point, I wandered into the dealer’s room, which was filled with geeky things for sale. I admired the Firefly and Star Trek t-shirts, flipped through some awesome-looking books, and ended up at my favorite jeweler’s table, which was my ultimate destination all along. I was pretty sure I’d be bringing a new ring home with me.
As I tried on rings and chatted with the jeweler, a man sidled up to me and inserted himself into the conversation. This would usually be an okay thing to do. People are very friendly at cons and we enjoy the small talk. But this guy was interrupting a nice conversation between two women, and he was critiquing my choice of jewelry.
I ignored him. I ignored him hard. No eye contact. Shoulders turned away. I was going to buy myself something pretty, and I didn’t need him to tell me what that was.
Then the “conversation” took a weird turn, and my new “friend” told me that he was surprised that a woman would buy a ring for herself. That’s when I quickly paid for my selection, slipped the ring on my finger, and got out of there. I recognize negging when I hear it, and I didn’t want to give this guy the satisfaction of a response.
I sat on a nearby bench and took out my phone. A moment later, he was standing in front of me. “Well?” he said. “Let me see the ring you bought.”
I was wearing it on my middle finger and I should have flipped him the bird. But I held up my whole hand instead.
“Very nice!” he said. “I approve.”
And that’s when I had my best moment of the weekend.
Because usually things like this make me tongue-tied. I usually think of the right thing to say hours—or even days—later. Not this time. This time, the right words came immediately out of my mouth. I even nailed the tone of voice. Not mean, not defensive, just completely deadpan. Just telling it like it is.
I didn’t even look at him. I kept my eyes on my phone. “Don’t need your approval, buddy.”
There was a moment of surprised silence as he backed away a step. Then another. Then he turned tail and fled.
Honestly, I was not trying to be mean or put him in his place. I was simply stating a fact. But it got me thinking. Why do men do this?
Why do they assume their opinion is always welcomed and their approval always needed?
Why do they insert themselves into conversations and talk over women and mainsplain things to people who know more than they do?
Why do they think random women can be negged into interacting with them?
And could they just…you know…not?