Is reality beautiful, or is it just too real?

Y’all know how I feel about romance novels (unless you’re new to this blog and have no idea, in which case, let me tell you: when they are done well, I love them, and when they are done poorly, I hate them with the burning intensity of a thousand suns; in other words, I have a fitting passion for the romance genre), but there are some aspects common to most romance novels that just burn my butt.

In this post, I’m going to focus on the way breasts are handled (ahem) in romance novels.  I think it’s still accurate to say that most readers of romance novels are women.  Most women have breasts.  Why, then, do authors need to describe breasts in minute detail?  There is some variation of description, sure; sometimes the breasts in question are ‘coral tipped globes’ and sometimes they are ‘creamy orbs,’ but they are almost always “perfectly formed” or otherwise “perfect.”  Just once I would like to read a romance novel that describes the heroine’s breasts as “uneven” or “lopsided” or ” a bit droopy.”  Honestly, if we must describe breasts, can’t we at least be realistic about the business?  It’s not as though it actually matters what the breasts look like, anyway.  Men are going to look regardless.

An engraving by W. Ridgway (published in 1878) after Daniel Huntington’s 1868 painting ”Philosophy and Christian Art’,’ U.S. public domain

I went on a bit of a reading binge this week and plowed through Tessa Dare’s Twice Temped by a Rogue, Courtney Milan’s Unveiled, Unlocked, Unclaimed and Unraveled and Miranda Neville’s The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton.  5 of those 6 books use the word “perfect” or “perfection” in describing either the whole of the heroine’s bosom or some aspect of her bosom (her skin, her nipples, etc.).

I know… I’m being silly.  I enjoyed all six books immensely – those three authors represent some of the best talent in the romance genre today – but by the time I got to the sixth book (The Amorous Education), I found myself distracted by the heroine’s “well-shaped and pert, and practically perfect” breasts.  I longed for both variety and reality.

So this is my question: can reality be beautiful?  There’s the adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but that beholder’s eye is shaped by her culture.  Our culture celebrates artificial beauty: the shellac of makeup, the pastiche of Photoshop.  Women are bombarded with images of ideal beauty, most of which are manufactured in some way.

The romance novels that I enjoy are ones that celebrate women, that give commentary on some of the issues that are of import to women, that celebrate an active and confident sexuality, that break down double standards, that promote healthy relationships with an even balance of power, that are, at their core, rather feminist when you get right down to it.  Is it too pie-in-the-sky for me to hope to encounter, at some point, a book that, in addition to all of these traits, embraces a tad more realism in its physical descriptions (or, better: leaves off the detailed breasty descriptions altogether.  If I need to know what a breast looks like, I can just look down.)?  Does anyone have a good theory as to why there are so many detailed descriptions of lady parts (breasty and otherwise) in books primarily marketed to women?

Women and silence…and romance novels

I should start with a caveat or two:  (1) being long-overdue for an analysis, I am here introducing a somewhat difficult topic, and I do not reach any sort of conclusion about it, and (2) I wrote the second half of this post and edited it under the throes of a migraine…  I welcome all manner of comments, but I totally understand if this is a pond that no one wants to jump into.

There are a lot of things that women are told, whether by our mothers, through advertising, or through peer messages in school, that we should not talk about.  The results of this oppressive silence are never terribly pleasant.  We don’t have open, honest conversations with our daughters about sex or our bodies, so our daughters, flooded by confusing messages in the world (be thin, don’t be too thin, be sexy, don’t be too sexy, curves are good, fat is bad, be attractive so you don’t end up an old maid, don’t be too attractive or you’ll end up one of those girls), have no idea how to grow into their own sexuality or how to see that their sexuality is but a part of who and what they are.

And we don’t talk about it.

When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I was horrified by exactly how much occurs during pregnancy that we don’t talk about at all.  I got the What to Expect books, and they casually mention a few things that a pregnant woman might experience: embarrassing gas, constipation, bone pain (pregnancy hormones soften your skeletal system so your bones can move, did you know that?), discomfort, itchiness from stretching skin, more embarrassing gas, heartburn, belching, etc.  But the neutral words do not prepare one for the realities of pregnancy.  Having gone through all of that nonsense twice now, I have become an advocate for speaking out.  Sometimes it’s awkward, like when I regale an entire dinner party with the real story of afterbirth (ewwww), but I would rather inflict momentary awkwardness on all my friends than act as if pregnancy/childbirth/life is shameful.

Silence has a way of stifling women (perhaps men, too, but I don’t know; I’ve never been a man).  I am wholeheartedly in favor of any works of art or social campaigns that promote openness and dialogue about topics that have long been considered taboo.  It is, of course, uncomfortable to talk about such subjects (e.g. the unpleasant aspects of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting; rape; child abuse; etc.), but we are a better society when we openly acknowledge that such things happen (that, for example, June Cleaver is a fictional character, not a prescribed role model) and provide a space for a real dialogue to happen about what our expectations as a society are, what our reality is, what the difference between those two is, and why there is a difference.

But this is my blog, so, of course, there is a romance novel tie-in.  I don’t believe that literature (or nonfiction) holds the corner on the market of reading material that is thought-provoking.  In (many of) the romance novels that I read, I frequently encounter situations or treatments that make me stop and think about the world we actually live in and the kind of world I’d like to live in (balanced sometimes–since I mostly read historical romance–with the often stunning difference between the world that is presented in the novel and the world that one could reasonably imagine actually existed in the novel’s time period…).  The fact is, I like my romance novels to be modern and subversive even in a historical setting.

Cover image, The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan

Enter Courtney Milan and her novella The Governess Affair.  This book is historically subversive in the best possible way.

I mentioned earlier that I tend to stir up awkward conversations at dinner parties.  I wasn’t being hyperbolic.  A few weeks ago I stirred up a real whopper for all my guests to appreciate: rape, rape culture, and silence.  I suppose I exist as a cautionary tale of what not to do as a hostess…  Anyway, the conversation was fascinating, because we kept getting stuck on our own culture (in a conversation about how rape is rape regardless of what either party is wearing, it was still important to point out and consider that if one chooses to wear revealing clothing, one should not be surprised at the inevitable result.  That point seemed to me to be very strange: the very inevitability of rape, means, I think, something different to women than to men, as women are likely to be the inevitable victims whereas men are cast in the role of inevitable perpetrator.  Both bits of type-casting seem terrible to me…), and even when we tried to escape it, to listen to one another neutrally without the cultural dialogue of victim shaming, misogyny, and, failing anything else, quelling silence, it was overwhelming.  It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to have a casual or neutral conversation about rape.  (And ill-advised to have one about afterbirth. Just saying.)

As an aside, I am tempted to edit myself, to wonder why one would want to have a casual conversation about rape, but I don’t want to edit that word out.  This is a topic we should be able to talk about, and, as humans, we’ll never choose to have these conversations willingly if they are always fraught with difficulty, misunderstanding, sub-context, and emotional realities beyond comprehension.

Back to The Governess Affair: this book is all about breaking silence, and it is handled beautifully.  Once I caught on to what it was about, I was tempted to put it down, because I worried that it would be disturbing to me.  After all the political nonsense over the last few months, I have to admit that I’ve been having a difficult time dealing with my own sad story.  I am so glad that I continued to read this book.  It was comforting, healing, amusing, heart-warming, and relentlessly enjoyable.

This book takes a few modern ideals, including practicing openness and honesty towards one’s children and breaking silence, and applies them to a historical setting in which they are somewhat incongruous (but not jarringly so).  The story is set in London in 1835, and tells the compact tale of one Serena Barton, who is tired of the silence that has been forced on her by her gender and class, and one Hugo Marshall, who is tasked with ensuring Serena’s continued silence.  Both Serena and Hugo undergo significant but natural-seeming changes over the course of the short book, and the story ends with a teaser introduction to the new series.  The book provides a commentary on society–both the society of 1835 London and our modern society–but it’s like a commentary in negative space: in the absence of a narrator pointing out all the things that are wrong with both societies, the reader cannot help but jump in and reach a few conclusions.  It is brilliant and beautiful and bold.

I loved every single thing about this book, and I am so excited about the new series (the Brothers Sinister Series).