Difficult Dukes, Book #2
Review of Difficult Dukes, Book 1
Heat Factor: It’s your medium-low-level histrom sexytimes, and it works well in context
Character Chemistry: The way these two processed their relationship – separately and together – was awesomesauce
Plot: Ten Things I Hate About You but more grown up
Overall: I waited a loooooooooooong time for this book, and it was better than I’d hoped for
It’s that time again. The end of another month. Which means it’s time for us to pick our favorite reads. This month, we’ve got a little something for a variety of tastes.
Holly’s Choice: His Grumpy Childhood Friend by Jackie Lau
Sometimes you just need something low-key and charming without a lot of drama, and this hit the spot. (And pulled Holly out of a massive reading rut.)
Ingrid’s Choice: Thief of my Heart by Karla Kratovil
Maybe you need a bit of suspense with your historical romance? With bonus sexytimes.
Erin’s Choice: The Tourist Attraction by Sarah Morgenthaler
There was no shagging, but this rom-com was actually a rom-com, not an angst fest pretending to be a rom-com.
And here’s a sneak peek at some of the stuff we’ll be reading and talking about in December…
I do not think I have pulled my punches as I’ve discussed various aspects of MC romance during the course of this series. In fact, I could see how people who don’t know me personally would think that I don’t like or don’t approve of it based on what I’ve written so far. I’d certainly argue that the market for this type of story is niche and best suited to readers who, at a minimum, are willing to embrace some problematic content in their romance. And I don’t mean “problematic content” as in, “I don’t like to read about heroines who have been in abusive relationships.” I mean content that embraces or appears to embrace (depending on how the story rolls out) concepts and behaviors that we know to be problematic, either because they’re unhealthy or because they’re big picture harmful in a cultural context.
So here’s where we get into a space that I struggle with in romance. Because be it billionaires or criminals with hearts of gold or mafiosos or aristocrats or bikers, there are things we know to be, in their proper context, not good, but about whom we also enjoy gobbling up dramatic romances. It’s not hard to find someone in Romancelandia shaming just about every kind of content with problematic elements. And yet I can be hugely entertained by consuming this media while at the same time being able to identify situations and behaviors that are problematic. Is that a problem? I could go on a diatribe about how certain characterizations and situations are decried in, say, contemporary romance, but are lauded in paranormal romance. And not because we’re talking about different readerships.
So today we’re going to discuss the politics of MC romance, which is to say, we’re going to pull back the curtain from the fantasy world that these authors build and examine the reality foundation upon which these worlds have been constructed. I’ll break this into three components.
1. “Live Free” lifestyle
Every single MC romance – more or less explicitly – aligns with a libertarian political philosophy. More than one hero, while educating his heroine, discussed the importance of private citizens being left to themselves and/or allowing the free market to exist in some kind of Capitalist utopia. Beyond that, there’s no question that the entire representation of the outlaw biker lifestyle exists in a space that often ignores laws that don’t suit it. The first time I read Reaper’s Property, my first thought was that the MC sounded like one of those isolated Montana militias who kind of pretend governments don’t exist. (So it was amusing when the protagonist of Reaper’s Legacy made a comment about how stupid the militia people were, paying through the nose for his guns, but that’s neither here nor there.)
But the United States is a built on a notoriously 2-party system, so libertarianism doesn’t tell us much. We can get into a whole discourse on where political parties fall with respect to their political philosophies on the political spectrum, but that sounds like one of those political science courses I opted not to take in college, so let’s talk imagery.
Every single bike that is described as owned by a Club member in one of these books (not all books include branding) is a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. (Dynas are the most popular, in case you were curious.) If there are other bikes mentioned, they are owned by people who are definitely not bikers (like: Can you imagine that guy in a Club!? lolol.). This is not just a book thing, either. In real life, there are clubs that only allow members to own Harleys.
This is one of those places where we can let the book stand on its own or take a look at where the rubber meets the road. Harley-Davidson has embraced a marketing strategy that embraces rugged individualism and an “American-made” image (even though Harleys are no longer exclusively made in the US).
I found sources that describe Harley-Davidson’s internal positioning statement as follows:
“The only motorcycle manufacturer
That makes big, loud motorcycles
For macho guys (and “macho wannabes”)
Mostly in the United States
Who want to join a gang of cowboys
In an era of decreasing personal freedom.”
So what does that sound like? (Hint: Read Settings) And since it’s an internal positioning statement and I can’t verify it externally, just look at the company’s mission statement, which is emblazoned on its website:
Our Mission: More than building machines, we stand for the timeless pursuit of adventure. Freedom for the soul.
Okay, but this post is talking politics, not just imaging, so what are the politics associated with Harley-Davidson? Well, for starters, branding and image draw a desired demographic that will buy the product in question, so the brand is speaking to those people. Now, no individual is any one thing, but we can look at this demographic from a bird’s-eye view.
In the US, political contributions need to include employer information, so we can’t necessarily see the political affiliation of every Harley owner, but we can glean some political leanings from the contributions of the PACs associated with the company itself and from personal political contributions associated with the company. And overwhelmingly, looking at election contribution statistics from 1990, Republicans are the party of choice. Elections in 2014 and 2020 were exceptions to this, but they also did not swing overwhelmingly Democrat. I mean, without much work at all, I found a 2017 investor disclosure that indicates where Harley-Davidson PACs contributed, and Mitch McConnell is the first name listed.
I won’t even get into the gun ownership conversations, because I feel I’ve already gone on long enough in this section, but these heroes do not shy away from disquisitions on gun ownership and why it’s important. Even if they don’t get all specific about the 2nd Amendment, it’s still right there, in your face.
It becomes difficult to argue, between the ideology described in these books and the real-life politics of elements that are used in characterization, that there is not a decidedly conservative bent here.
2. Racism and white supremacy
Unlike Sons of Anarchy, which was WHOA racist, among other things, most of these books don’t include overtly racist language, slurs, etc. But that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty to talk about. In addition, this is another space where looking at real-life Club culture paints a (pretty disturbing) picture.
I did not go through these books pulling quotes (for which we should all be thankful, because I know I can go on and on), so we’re not going to get into specific language that’s problematic, but, looking from a bird’s-eye view again, these books are super duper white. In most of them, BIPOC just straight up don’t exist. When they do, it’s usually something like, “There was a big, black bouncer outside the strip club.”
Or, in books with clubs that aren’t exclusively white (which is almost zero of them) the bikers who aren’t white are Indigenous American. Guess how most of them are characterized. I’ll tell you, long hair and alcoholism play a big part in those stories.
Kristen Ashley makes the greatest effort to include diversity in the Chaos books, which are a part of her bigger Denver worldbuilding, but even there we’re dealing with some problematic content because the primary character of color, Elvira, is essentially your stereotypical sassy Black woman (think Donna on Parks and Recreation).
Which would be less of an issue if she weren’t pretty much the only character of color included (the pretty much being that any other COCs, like Elvira’s boyfriend, or random women who go out for drinks with the girls, are flat and don’t contribute a ton), and that characterization was only one of many.
My point is that much of this content falls in the bottom portion of the white supremacy pyramid, in the “socially acceptable” forms of casual racism. It’s still racist.
But because we’re talking about how reality mixes with fantasy today, I also want to take a moment to discuss the politics of real outlaw MCs (or Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs / OMGs from a, um, citizen perspective).
It’s not great.
As I’ve mentioned before (I’m pretty sure), even if they don’t outright say that these Clubs are outlaw, they’re all basically characterized as outlaw MCs. But some books do specifically discuss the 1%er patch that appears on many OMG cuts. So let’s talk about that.
The “1%er” reference means that the club is an outlaw club, which sounds like something criminal or possibly exciting (and there’s disagreement about where the term originated exactly), but it really just means that the club isn’t sanctioned by the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) or doesn’t adhere to its policies and bylaws. That’s not to say that the AMA is all sunshine and roses. From its inception until the 1950s, the AMA was whites-only, and its racist history still results in very few members of color in the present. So it’s possible that an outlaw MC may have been one that included Black members at that time.
But in the present, in reality, it includes MCs that engage in criminal activities, which are typically understood to include vigilantism, running drugs or guns, or engaging in prostituion. And many OMGs are overtly and unapologetically white supremacist, including racist symbols or going by overtly racist names.
Here’s a lengthy paper on the intersection of white nationalism and biker gangs by the Anti-Defamation League if you’d like a more academic discussion of this subject matter. Or, if you don’t believe me or the ADL, hop on over to the biker land as curated by itself and check out some of their message boards.
So that’s super yikes, and even if these books don’t overtly go as far as some of these OMGs, this is the foundation that we’re dealing with when we build these biker worlds in books.
Finally, we come to point the third!
I’ve already discussed some of the misogynistic aspects of these books when I talked about The Brotherhood, The Heroes, The Heroines, and The Romance. But for the sake of completion, let’s just put this whole misogyny thing right out there, yeah?
For starters, with one exception – that exception being the psychic Russian assassins who grew up together – every one of these clubs is men only. Because the culture of the club permeates the whole lives of these men, this means that women are second-class citizens in these worlds, even in situations where the relationship is more or less written as equal. Though, for the record, the hero cooking does not make the relationship equal, in fact. So I guess at least when the heroine is definitely a house mouse, at least there’s no pretending there?
Beyond the romantic relationship between the protagonists, there’s also the component of heroines being second-class when the heroes keep information from them because it’s “club business” and they shouldn’t need to worry their pretty heads about it. Granted, some of it probably legitimately is club business, and I probably wouldn’t fully disclose the extent of my criminal enterprises to an outsider either, but it does become problematic when the information withheld is pertinent to the heroine’s safety because there’s always some kind of something going down, and she always gets caught in the crossfire.
And property patches and other overt misogyny are only the beginning. Most of these books include at least one interaction in which the heroine is, like, wearing clothes, and the hero goes all caveman like, “You can’t wear that tube top in public when I’m not around. There are men out there.” Or, like, there’s the whole deal of having a prospect or another club member following old ladies around when they’re in public “so they don’t get bothered while they’re having fun.” I guess this is supposed to create a sense of “Ooo, alpha man is jealous and it’s so hot!” Which really just reinforces the idea that jealousy and mistrust are desirable and/or attractive and that men can’t be trusted to control themselves around women, because they’re animals.
This culture is focused on traditional views of hyper-masculinity, is derisive of any kind of gender-fluidity, and women fall where they traditionally have fallen when that’s the culture. I mean, read this whole mess. This guy pretty much makes my whole case for me. So while these books might fall into the “women having HEAs and positive sexual experiences” category of “look at that romance werk!”, it’s not a great look from a feminism standpoint.
I’m not about reader shaming, because I don’t like to be shamed, but I do think that it’s good to be conscious of problematic content while reading, and for readers who have never tried this romance, it’s important to understand what you might be getting into and whether or not you’ll be comfortable with it. So, um, there you go.
Want more MC content? Erin’s whole Motorcycle Monday series can be found here.
The Third Rule of Scoundrels
Heat Factor: Simmering
Character Chemistry: Sizzling
Plot: You ruined my life, and now I will have my revenge!
Overall: Well executed, but I couldn’t get over the initial premise
It’s time for a poll!
Given the title of this post, you might have already guessed that I am FIRMLY in the category of “Thanks, I hate it.” In fact, a shopping trip in the middle of the story sometimes goes so far as to ruin a book for me. Is this completely irrational? Probably. But since this is my hot take, let’s break it down.
I’ll start with a caveat. I thought Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic books were friggin’ hilarious. So I am not opposed to characters shopping – as long as it has already been established that this shopping spree is part of their character or important to the plot in some way.
What I really oppose here is the “suddenly.” Imagine a bunch of characters with a wide range of traits – but who all identify as female. They are having all kinds of adventures and sexytimes and what have you, but give them an AmEx black card and the internet / special access to a fancy boutique / an appointment at Tiffany’s and they all, to a one, turn into a blibbering mass of consumerist spending.
Here are some questions that immediately pop into my head when this happens:
- Do NONE of the women in the room hate shopping? Maybe she finds trying on pants stressful because they never fit right!
- Why aren’t the male characters getting excited about buying video games / guns / whiskey?
- Are these women really so easily distracted by *shiny* things that they ignore bad behavior when there is stuff to acquire?
- Excuse me, ma’am, but do you really need another scarf?
My beef with comes down to two realms of criticism: gender essentialism and capitalism.
I am tired of the idea that women, no matter what other interests we might have, can be easily mollified by the new and shiny.
I am tired of the emphasis in our culture on buying more stuff. The amount of stuff I already have stresses me out. If there’s nothing the current pandemic has taught us, I hope that we have learned that we can’t shop our way out of economic insecurity (we haven’t).
Don’t get me started on the intersection of gender and capitalism, and the real economic insecurity experienced by many women in the United States, and the fantasy of being able to go on that shopping spree and not worry about it because your royal billionaire vampire boyfriend is footing the bills. I guess I know why authors include this scene after all.
This Hot Take By Holly is brought to you by books that might have other things to recommend them, but were ruined by shopping scenes. I’m looking at you, Marrying Winterborne and A Hunger Like No Other.