Loving the Beast: Or What I Learned From Loving the Villain

Luke Evans as Gaston. I approve.im-such-a-bad-boy

Everyone thinks the story Beauty and the Beast is about Belle and the Beast, a cursed prince, but really it’s about Gaston’s ability to expectorate, decorate with antlers, and his slide into hell.

You can keep your pure-hearted heroines and heroes. I’ve always liked fairy tale villains best. Villains give a better example of what it means to be truly human. Villains face or ignore their own shortcomings. Villains illustrate the concept of free will. Villains demonstrate human frailty, human morality. Villains illuminate how to and how not to behave if one wants to be loved, accepted, and admired. We learn more about ourselves from the villain’s actions than we do from the heroine’s or hero’s actions.

Heroines and heroes can be kind of boring, particularly if they are all goody-goody, principled types. Why I think Cinderella is boring as dry grass is that I never learned anything from her, and I never learned anything from Sleeping Beauty, from The Little Mermaid, or Snow White either—other than if you’re pretty people hate you. But I learned plenty from the evil stepmother, nasty stepsisters, and The Evil Queens: If you do something mean it will, eventually, bite you on the ass and lead to your downfall.

Best to avoid being mean.

I love a well-fleshed out villain, but what I love even more is a character who has villainous traits. For me, what makes Mr Rochester far more interesting than Mr High Morals Darcy is that Rochester has a secret, a screaming wraith of a secret that makes him deceitful. The secret is in the attic and it very nearly ruins him. What do we learn from Rochester’s villainous behavior?

Polygamy is bad and don’t keep secrets from the woman you love.

queen2Naturally, my love for a bit o’ badness points to the usual discussion about ‘niceness,’ as in how the leads, particularly the female lead in a romance novel, must be ‘nice,’ never nasty or bitchy, which points to the double standard discussion about how women ‘ought to behave,’ and how older women have been maligned for centuries, which points to a discussion on social mores blah, blah…

I want more female leads in romance fiction to be villainous, to have villainous traits the way Scarlett O’Hara and Rochester do. While Scarlett’s behavior in Gone With The Wind would never be questioned if she had been a man, she is, like Rochester, a perfect example of how good people, men and women, do bad things to protect what they love.

Yes, that is what I learned from Scarlett O’Hara and Mr Rochester.

What I learned from fairy tales wasn’t be pretty, be tidy, kiss frogs because they may be princes. My education came from the villains. I learned to never pretend to be something I wasn’t because that would get me shut up in a cask stuck with nails and dragged through the streets. I leaned to never be wicked to others because that would get me shut up in a vat with poisonous snake and then boiled in oil. I learned to be happy and grateful for what I have because, like the materialistic fisherman’s wife, I could lose it all in a flash, and its only ‘stuff.’

In Beauty and the Beast, Gaston’s utter ruin teaches us how to be human far better than the Beast does when he is transformed by love. Gaston’s transformation from man into a real hellish beast shows us that the villains are the true teachers in fairy tales and in life.

When A Character is Born of the Fruit of Bubblegum Pop

All it took was one song from my music library and there he was, big, very fair, naked, standing in the shower shaving–and singing The Partridge Family’s I Woke Up in Love This Morning.

I saw him so clearly. Everything I needed to know about William Murphy was contained in two minutes and 38 seconds of a well-crafted but manufactured sugar-sweet bit of Bubblegum pop genius.

That moment doesn’t explain William’s albinism except that’s how I saw him and his very essence came down to a love of expensive suits and hook-driven, upbeat, teenybopper tunes from the 60s and 70s. And I knew I had to set him against the backdrop of a romance. That romance is Next to You and it comes out in July.

You might ask ‘What is Bubblegum pop, Sandra?’ or say, ‘Wait, I thought you said you were all about Powerpop, Sandra.

To answer the latter:  I am all about Powerpop, which isn’t as sweet (or saccharine) as Bubblegum pop, but William Murphy is all about Bubblegum pop.

Yeah, okay, great. But what is Bubblegum pop?William Murphy never sees It coming

Prepare for a music history lesson:

Intrinsically catchy, sunny, and targeted at a preteen audience –rather than middle aged men–Bubblegum Pop was simple and melodic, the music and lightweight lyrics often about happiness, love, and candy. With repetitive hooks, simple harmonies and simple chords, Bubblegum was often manufactured, created by record producers who hired session musicians—like Andy Kim and Ron Dante, to play and sing the songs.

Often considered to be contrived and production-driven, Bubblegum groups were often given fake names to present the illusion that they were a ‘real band’—The Partridge Family and the Archies, for example. Some groups like The Monkees were real musicians brought together by producers, but played as real band. Occasionally a single artist would provide vocals for several groups, such as Ron Dante’s lead vocals for The Archies (some of you might remember The Archies cartoon) and The Cuff Links. Other artists like David Cassidy (who went on to later solo fame) and Shirley Jones appeared on The Partridge Family television series, and provided vocals for the eponymous musical act, while supported by session musicians.

Most Bubblegum bands were one-hit wonders, however, Bubblegum has a left long legacy of songs reflect the upbeat, catchy simplicity of the music and memorable titles such as Sugar Sugar, Yummy Yummy Yummy, Hanky Panky, Dizzy, Mony Mony, I Think I love You, and memorable acts like The Ohio Express, Tommy James and the Shondells, The Partridge Family, The Monkees, The Osmonds, The Jackson 5, The Bay City Rollers, The Sweet and so many more.

William is simple, upbeat, sweet — naturally I have a playlist for Next to You–and it’s full of William Murphy’s beloved Bubblegum pop tunes.

I bet you’re dying to know what’s on it.

By the way, THIS is Ron Dante, who gave a marvellous voice to cartoon Archie Andrews’s lead vocals. And what a totally bitchin’ sunny and catchy song it is. I bet you’ll hum it all day.

Don’t Fall For the Brainwashing

Don’t believe anti-aging advertisements or the getting old is bad propaganda. Stop buying into the crap about 30 spelling the end to your youth, or that hitting forty sounds the death knell for your love life and sex life, or that 50 means frumpy.

Honestly, is that how you really feel?

I for one, get pretty cranky when someone tells me I’m supposed to dress or act, or think a certain way just because I’m well over 21. Don’t you? I like to colour with crayons. I get excited about new movies (Hello, Skyfall!)and new book releases. I squee and sing at the top of my lungs (Brag brag brag…I can carry a tune rather well), and dance in my seat when I drive as much now as when I was 17–well, actually maybe more now because it’s MY car and not my Dad’s.

Hi. I’m the champion for women who feel invisible. Trust me here. You’re not invisible. I see you.

Treat Her Like A Lady (Not A Hag)

Simon de Beauvoir suggested that few writers have championed age in women, and she's right. From evil stepmother to “cougar,” there are a number of not-so pretty representations of women as they age in romance fiction, which is odd considering that through its depiction of female protagonists, romance fiction has so often reflected the attitudes and concerns women face in society.

Think about it. In contemporary romance novels, issues such as divorce, being overweight, and the global financial crisis have made their way into the lives of a romance heroine. The one subject that hasn't been addressed, except in fearful terms, is women and ageing (or aging for you Americans).

You may not agree, but It's my theory that the portrayal of heroines in romance novels is bound by the constraints publishers place upon them. There are two no-no's a romance heroine can't be: a bitch or too old. The Too Old Rule is evident in the way female protagonists over 40 are pushed out of romance and into subgenres such as Hen Lit and Matron Lit. In these subgenres romance no longer exists, or romance is a marginal issue, rather than the main impetus that leads the story.

When a woman of a certain age does appear in romance she is seldom the protagonist. An older woman in romance (in print and on the screen) is more likely to be a secondary character in a stereotyped role such as a grandma, the menopausal friend, or worse–she's made into some kind of monstrous figure. She's turned into the bitch, an evil stepmother, the caricatured over-sexed cougar, the scared of getting older chick with the frozen-faced-collagen-trout-pout, or a smothering, no-one's-good-enough-for-my-boy-mother-of-all-mothers.

This shift from lead to, to villain, to background serves to highlight romance publishing's unwritten Too Old Rule. Some publishers (and some of you) may believe this progression from romantic lead to supporting player is because romance is all about the fantasy. To me, this forced progression suggests the fantasy has to fit certain criteria which exclude age. To me, this implies publishers (and perhaps some of you) think no romance reader is going to relate to an older romance heroine. We all know the fantasy of falling in love does not apply to anyone over 40 because people over 40 don't fall in love. Right?

That utter bullshit aside, let's take a poll. First, hands up. Can older women in romance be defended as romantic leads? Do they deserve love despite their age? Is age truly a monster to be feared? Or should women over 40 simply be nipped, tucked and slathered with vanishing cream? Now vote below!

Do you read romance fiction?

Is age a monster to be feared?

Can women 40+ be romantic leads?

Does a the heroine's age negate the romance fantasy for you?

Have you ever read a romance featuring a heroine over 40?

If you answered 'yes" to question 5, what novel did you read?

“research” With A Little ‘r’ (cross-posted from Oldbitey Bites tumblr)

I know  when you write about romance fiction romance is supposed to get a little r. The capital R is reserved for use when referring that literary genre of high culture with quests, brave knights, ladies, courtly love, and all that jazz.  I think the use of a small r for romance fiction (and pink and hearts and clinch covers) is a reason modern romance novels are denigrated. Well, here’s another. Some of us romance writers are up in arms today over this little story about how romance fiction poses a threat to women’s sexual health.

Read it and you might agree we’re our own worst enemy when it comes to romance novels and research. Annie, Aretha and Oldbitey are cheesed off because “research” like Susan Quilliam’s, says, women who read romance novels are getting life and love and sex all wrong. Romance readers are making a mess of their lives because romance novels are not good role models. Sisters are not doing it for themselves, they’re doing it to themselves.

Hang on. Didn’t I blog about something “to ourselves” yesterday (See What Do We Want)

Here’s an idea. Can we stand up for one another rather than knock down and reduce romance readers to little r’s again and again?  How about showing some respect for your fellow sex? If you can’t, at least wear a condom or a dental dam-like device when you undertake this sort of poorly investigated research. And crack open a 21st Century contemporary Romance novel before you start typing up your notes.

Ye Gods.

The One Where Olbitey Rants About Shitty Covers and Titles

Poor, darling, fairy-killing BookThingo had a horrendous bad coffee experience (BCE) the other day. I was much aggrieved for her. In this day and age there is no reason for a BCE. There is no reason for poorly made coffee or instant coffee, which is a blot on humanity. Period.I feel much the same way about romance fiction. In this day and age, with all the talented romance writers in the world, there is no reason for a romance novel to have a shitty cover and a shitty title.

Yeah, yeah, I know. I bitch here now and again about the lack of originality in films and books. I moan about a sameness that has infiltrated Hollywood and the publishing industry, and yes, it could just be me. People like Swell and katydidinoz will tell you I’m a picky romance reader and, all right, I am. I am ridiculously choosy when it comes to the romance I read.  I WILL judge a romance by it’s cover. To me, a clinch cover is a cliche and massive turn off. A pink cover is a turn off too. A cover with hearts on a pastel cover is a turn off and a insult. Anything that makes the cover shimmer is a turn off. Anything that has a hologram (big in the 90’s) is a turn off. I readily admit to having a few books guilty of these cover crimes on my shelf. Case in point is a Jo Goodman series I love. I mean I really, really LOVE the series, but I would never have read these books if not prodded and repeatedly poked in the eye with the shimmering turquoise hologram by Swell, who insisted I would love them.

My persnicketiness isn’t limited to shimmery aqua clinch covers.  Previously on Oldbitey, I bitched about the current trend for the bare back and bare legs cover shots. This time my beef with unoriginality stems from cover art used over and over and over for different novels by different authors. I’m sorry. I see copycat covers and It’s sure-fire way to make me judge the book as a a copycat, and I will NOT buy the book.

In addition to my cover prejudice, I WILL  judge a romance by its title as well. A title that contains any of the following words, Wicked, Sweet, Abandon, Forbidden, Passion, Wild, Sinful, Reckless, Seduction, Ecstasy, Duke, Mistress, Hot, and/or Rogue means an instant eye roll and muttered under my breath cuss word or three.

For some of you, my opinion on this constitutes fightin’ words, but to me the appearance of language like that perpetuates myths about romance fiction equaling purple-prosed non-literary cheese. It perpetuates the bodice ripper mentality and denigrates the genre. Meanwhile, the homogenization of and reuse of cover art says romance novels aren’t worthy of anything original because everyone knows romance stories aren’t original. I mean, come on, they all end the same way.

The Bite Lecture Series on Romance Fiction: Romance Heroines Are Not Sissies, So Man Up Part 2

Welcome back. We hope you enjoyed the brief, DeLorean-free trip to the past and apologise for today’s bumpy landing. To refresh your memory, we were discussing

Sleeping with someone other than the hero;Being a bitch; using foul language; and (my favourite) Having the cojones to be over 40.

Yep. You heard that right. It’s a taboo to be 45 and in love… in Contemporary romance.

I’m being specific about contemporary romance fiction for a reason. I’ve always loved interplay of real life with the fantasy part of falling in love. That’s why contemporary rom is what I most enjoy reading, it’s what I write, and what I’ve noticed is oddly age limited. It’s pretty freaky when you know the average age of a romance reader is 44.9 (see RWA www.rwa.org/cs/readership_stats) because despite that, a form of segregation creeps into Contemporary. After 40 a woman’s characterisation changes. She becomes what I’d like to suggest can be viewed as an additional incarnation of the ‘other‘ woman, where her age equates to a source of comedy, an unworthiness, or form of evil. ‘Other’ women have a place in romance fiction. I like a well-crafted female villain, but this isn’t about the purpose served by that sort of characterisation, or even about the way ‘other’ women are typically punished, although I can argue that the segregation I mentioned is a form of punishment.

Some of you have read my schtick before. You regular Biteyites know I research the phenomenon that moves a woman 40-plus out of contemporary romance fiction and ushers her, or for the sake of this entry, segregates her, into those genres that fall under the term of Women’s Fiction—the Hen, Matron, and Granny Lit type stuff where the story is driven by the female protagonist’s emotional growth. In contemporary romance, when a forty-plus woman makes an appearance it is often as a secondary character, sometimes with a subplot of her own (hello Susan Elizabeth Phillips!), but most of the time Ms. Forty is cast as a stereotype rather than as heroine.

Lately, there’s something I’ve noticed. A heroine’s age is treated differently across a few romance subgenres. In historical romance, most authors strive to be accurate with the context of their story’s place and time. Historical authors are aware that life spans were more limited in the Eighteenth Century than in the Twenty-first, which means middle age in Regency times (and this is a big fat guess here) was somewhere around, let’s say, 28-32. For the sake of historical accuracy, a 19 to 20-something old-maid heroine is not out of place in a Regency romance. In Paranormal and urban fantasy romance age exists in a magical world that has no bearing on a heroine’s part in the story if she’s a vampire, shape-shifting, alien witch-goddess. Indeed a woman can be all that she can be in these subgenres, but in contemporary romance it’s uncommon to find a woman of a certain age allowed that same agency.

Oooh. I threw you for a loop there, with that bit about ‘agency’ didn’t I? ‘Scuse me, my dissertation’s showing.

Think of all those forms of ‘other women’: the Stifler’s Mom cougar, evil stepmother, cranky old lady, mutton-dressed-as-lamb-whore, grandma, menopausal-wise-crackin’-best friend. None of these ladies are allowed to have centre stage. None of these women get to star in a book of their own.

OK, sometimes they do. The Age-Sinning Heroine is out there in Contemporarylandia. There are those who buck the trend. Julie, is in her sixties in Jeanne Ray’s Julie and Romeo. Nora Roberts has Roz in The Black Rose. Jennifer Crusie’s got Nell in Fast Women. But come on, we’re talking Nora and Jenny! They can do almost anything because they’re, you know, Roberts & Cruise!

Roberts & Crusie—sounds like a cop Buddy movie, dunnit? Maybe it should it be Crusie and Roberts…

Anyhow, I’m here to make a point, so let’s get back to the idea of the ‘other’ and look at one more Crusie offering. J.C. brought us Shar in Dogs and Goddesses. Shar’s 48 and, like Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander Claire, she appears in a world where magic is possible, where being 48 doesn’t matter, where age isn’t made an issue to the love story. This “other-worldliness” of paranormal fiction connotes an older woman can exist as a heroine, but only if she possesses some sort of extraordinariness that propels her further beyond the usual fantasy of romance, beyond the ordinary realities typically found in contemporary fiction. The heroines in paranormal romance are allowed to be much more subversive than their contemporary counterparts. They aren’t sissy girls. They can behave like ‘other women.’ They can sin. They can act like men. They can cuss. They can be bitchy. They can kill people. They can sleep with another man besides the hero. Oddly enough, if you leave out the vampires, changelings, magic, and telekinesis, when you get down to the actual fantasy of romance, the paranormal romance heroine is the most realistic warts-n-all representation of a real woman. And they aren’t punished for it.

What this says, and I’m talkin’ bottom line here, is that if you’re looking at the other side of forty, and you wanna be a real woman, you wanna be bad, you wanna get to fall in love, be confused by the trip, have wild chimp sex, a happily ever after, or happy for now, forget contemporary romance. Pick up a paranormal to find your ‘normal.’

Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing my contemporary romantic comedies with non-sissy 40+ women who man up and act like sinful paranormal heroines.

The Bite Lectures on Romance Fiction: Heroines are Not Sissies So Man Up and Get Real Part 1

The Bite Lectures on Romance Fiction:
Heroines are Not Sissies So Man Up and Get Real:

Say, Kids, when it comes to
No-no’s for heroines in contemporary romance fiction, what would you list as the Ultimate SIN? That’s what we’re discussing at today’s lecture and we’re gonna get right to it, but  audience participation is essential for this dialogue, so who’d like to go first? Raise you hand, please.

Ah, down in front. Thank you, Mary Ann. Yes, yes. That’s what I’m after. The heroine sleeping with a man other than the hero is a sin, and many here would agree with you on that one. That’s a start. We’ll come back to that in a bit. May I see some more hands?

Hi Mary Elizabeth. I see you’re a first timer here at Oldbitey. Welcome. What’s that, Mary Elizabeth? You say the heroine must never be a bitch? OK. OK. That’s something else, and I think we’ll come back to that in a little bit too. Anyone else?

You, down the back, Mary Kate, is it? Can you speak up, please? Yes…yes…Let me just repeat that for our Biteyites who didn’t hear you. Mary Kate said, “The heroine must never say fuck, shit, or…now Mary Alice pipe down. Come on, we’re all adults here and I’m certain we’ve all heard it before. The heroine must never say fuck, shit or cunt. Oh, we’re gonna come back to that little gem too.

I’m not surprised you mentioned those things as sins. But I’d like to point out a curious little fact. The one Mortal Sin no one mentioned is the heroine having the gall to be over forty.