Smut Reporting

Impotent Ministers

Back in the spring of 2013, when I was still a starry-eyed graduate student who thought I’d be a superstar academic (ie, before I discovered that I loved school but didn’t love research), I presented a conference paper called “Impotent Ministers and Harem Girls: Reading Religion in Romance Novels.” 

My original plan was to dust it off and throw it up on the blog, since we’re talking about Men of God this week, but, uh, there are a couple of bits in there that I find cringeworthy, now that I’m fully immersed in Romancelandia. Like, I was convinced that my very unscientific survey of traditionally published regency romances in the past five years was indicative of trends across the genre as a whole, which really points to how myopic I was about what the world of romance entailed. I also referenced Fabio. [cue the pitchforks]

I also decided that, for the purposes of the blogosphere, I’d stick with a narrow focus, and just talk about impotent ministers here. Maybe I’ll bring out the harem girls another time. 

So here’s a marginally revised excerpt from that conference talk. Even with the caveat that my data is outdated and my sample unrepresentative, I still think there’s some interesting stuff going on with the way romance novels depict religion (religious people, actions, and spaces). Note that most of the characters I discuss are secondary characters; I’m, for the most part, not analyzing the heroes, but the characters around the margins. 

Continue reading “Impotent Ministers”
Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Men of God

This week, we’re reading books featuring Men of God, coinciding with the release of Andie J. Christopher’s Hot Under His Collar, which we buddy-read and had a LOT of thoughts about. (Review coming tomorrow!) To get us started, we had a chat about the Man of God archetype in romance, and the kind of work is does.

Book covers for:
Hot Under His Collar by Andie J. Christopher
The Lord I Left by Scarlett Peckham
The Wicked Lady by Mary Lancaster
Hot Rabbi by Aviva Blakeman
The books we’ll be reading this week.

Bottom line: Do you like the Man of God archetype?

Holly: I don’t not like it. 

Erin: You know, I really don’t. Which is not something I expected to say, actually. 

Ingrid: I do not, generally. No.

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as a Man of God archetype?

Holly: One of the main characters is a professional religious person. Usually, it’s a male main character. (I can think of one single book where the Man of God was a female nun.)

That’s it.

But that’s actually a huge category of people with really different types of relationships to the divine—and different views on and rules about interpersonal relationships. So should we really count Catholic Priest/Nun books, where the archetype is about the taboo and stealing the person away from God, as within the same archetype as Protestant Minister / Jewish Rabbi books, where the main character has a job that’s also a calling, but where relationships are not a big deal? I’m not sure. 

Erin: Holly makes a good point that there’s a slight difference between what’s going on with a protagonist who’s celibate and supposed to be married to God, as it were, and the protagonist who is expected to be more pure than mere mortals but not full blown forbidden fruit. However, for me, it all boils down to the protagonist is fully committed to a religion and there are morality expectations that come into play as part of the conflict. 

I also argue that these characters are usually portrayed as gentle shepherds, not fire and brimstone preachers, with the job being “Man of God” but not really completely tied to the hierarchy and tenets of the religion or denomination in question. 

Ingrid: It’s definitely an Eve with the apple situation…usually.

What do you think is fun about the archetype?

Holly: If you like angst, there is a lot of space for angst in these books. Even in non-Catholic ones, there is usually some dynamic of “I have to behave a certain way because my career is really intrinsically tied to my identity as a good person”—and when the relationship happens, it often pushes against the man of god’s preconceived notion of what his good life would look like. If that’s not angst-inducing, I don’t know what is. 

Erin: I like it when authors push against the commonly held perceptions of who these characters are and what they represent in their greater social circles. (But if I’m being totally honest, they don’t usually go far enough for me to really get excited about them.)

Ingrid: There have absolutely been books where the developing relationship really pushes the characters to examine who they are and strip all the nonsense bare, and that is always more satisfying for me, personally.

What do you find problematic about the archetype?

Holly: I don’t love the dynamic of “I will steal him away from God.” I get it, that makes the love interest extra special, but, like, if you really believe that God is omnipresent, then maybe there’s space in the Man of God’s life for both of you? 

Erin: So… the entirety of this archetype seems to be centered on shame. It’s a good (boy) falling rather than a bad (boy) rising. The archetype is based on the notion that there is something intrinsically morally upright about the MoG character, and the conflict is that what is happening to the MoG character is directly oppositional to the expectation of what should be happening. Maybe it’s straight up sex shaming: “I should not be having these sex feelings because I am a MoG and it is wrong.” Or maybe we’re talking about some super progressive, cool, sunglasses wearing, motorcycle riding MoG man of the people who is still expected to be a pillar of the community leading by example who is thrown off course by a love interest. 

I recently read a book where the MoG had feelings for the owner of the sex shop, and part of the conflict was that she felt like he couldn’t be seen with her because what would the parishoners think. Props to the author for making him be true to himself the whole time, but also 1. this book was absolutely playing to the idea that a pastor could never be into absolutely filthy premarital sex (gasp!) and 2. it ignored the fact that MoG are called to serve and if the leadership of the parish or whatever don’t agree with how the MoG is presenting himself, they can oust him. Bottom line, the archetype is very much centered on external social expectations and the protagonist’s ability or lack thereof to meet them.

Ingrid: I mean, all of the above, really–but I bring it back to the pervasive and constant refrain that women who don’t conform will tempt men away from righteousness, and no matter how you spin it, that seems to be the bubble these books live in. 

Regarding priest and/or nun books specifically, would you say the appeal is centered on the taboo or on the thoughtful transformation of the protagonist’s changing relationship to God / religion? Does it matter if the book is thoughtfully constructed if the desire to read it is centered on the taboo?

Ingrid: Well, it’s impossible to lump all of them into one or the other category I think. And I can say what I prefer here, but ultimately the romance genre is meant to be inclusive and so while I prefer the books to thoughtfully examine the transformation of a protagonist’s relationship with God and faith, I certainly think there’s a readership for people who are really into pushing that taboo or kink, and in that case it really only matters what that reader thinks. We don’t yuck other people’s yums, man.

Erin: This question primarily came up because we buddy read Hot Under His Collar for this week, but I think it might actually be really reader dependent. A few months ago, we three were discussing how our understanding of the genre shifted when we all started reading more romance because when we read so much romance, it’s possible to see what ideas authors are trying to play with more readily than when one only sometimes reads romance. So I feel like an occasional reader might feel it’s super taboo and OMG!!!, and books like Priest tap into that, but also for someone who is more immersed in the content and thinking about it from a more literary standpoint, the taboo might be entirely secondary. 

Would you say that all Men of God protagonists are inhabiting some level of taboo space, or is the taboo aspect limited to priests/nuns or others who have taken a vow of celibacy as part of a religious calling?

Holly: This is an interesting question. I think, given Erin’s point about moral expectations that the MoG shoulders, that I’m going to go with yes, all MoG inhabit some level of taboo space. 

Ingrid: They certainly dribble their toes in water of taboo, I think. At a minimum.

Erin: Maybe it depends on angst level. I can think of some kind of historical (or maybe Amish or something? Heartwarming Harlequin line?, but I’ll be honest, I’ve never actually read one of those) in which the gentle preacher has tender and tame interactions with the shy village maiden, and it’s all very sweet until (WHOOPS!) they’re naked in the field or whatever, and that wouldn’t have the same level of taboo as, like, Fleabag (which is very fun, BTW). Unless you just think sex is taboo in general. Which some people do, I guess.

Is this archetype always paired with a foil? Is one protagonist the Man of God and the other is some level of non-believer?

Holly: Not always! That is absolutely a dynamic that plays out frequently—but in every Catholic priest book I’ve read, the love interest has also been a devout Catholic. That way there’s double the guilt! A non-believer wouldn’t care about pulling the priest away from his vocation. 

Ingrid: Nope, not always. And I will say that I’m waiting to see what rolls out post Priest  because I bet there are some romance authors who read Priest and immediately thought, “hold my beer”, and these authors will be putting out some fresh and interesting takes on this trope in the near future.

Erin: I guess this is also a little bit context dependent. I think the temporal and geographic setting would impact the read. Not that we can’t have historical atheists, but definitely the mental framing caused by the setting changes the expectations for the protagonists’ cultures. But I do feel that, while Holly makes a good point that Catholic/Catholic pairings are double the angst, I have read a few books recently in which the more religious protagonist is somewhat challenged by a love interest who does not hold the same beliefs. I guess it adds to the drama.

What’s one book you loved that features this archetype? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the archetype?

Holly: I know Ingrid is expecting me to recommend Priest (again), just to tweak her, but I’m going to go with A Notorious Countess Confesses by Julie Anne Long. It was the first romance I remember reading that starred a minister (in this case, a proper English vicar), and his moral uprightness was such a breath of fresh air after years of reading nothing but degenerate rakes, as I did from approximately 2000–2012. But also, this is a book about kindness and acceptance and finding the moral high ground not through moralism but through actual morality. 

Erin: I think the best I can do is The Jezebel Files series by Deborah Wilde, which begins with Blood and Ash. Levi isn’t really a Man of God as such, but he’s the leader of the magical community, and that’s directly tied Judiasm, so religion is a focus of the narrative, though Levi’s position is more political than overtly religious. Wilde’s largely secular society was extremely grounded in religious roots, and shifting from a Christian-centric worldview to a Jewish-centric worldview makes religion’s influences on secular life more obvious.

Slash I like The Sound of Music

Holly: Then you should read It Takes Two to Tumble by Cat Sebastian! It’s just like The Sound of Music, but queer.

Ingrid: I love a good Mary Lancaster and she has a very classic historical take on it with The Wicked Lady. 


Books we mentioned in this discussion:

Smut Reporting

Regarding Mr. Wickham: Reflections on Pride and Prejudice Retellings

So, I’ve read a fair number of Pride and Prejudice retellings. Historical retellings. Contemporary retellings. Queer retellings. Retellings with dragons. Literary retellings. And while I have enjoyed many of these retellings, there’s one place where they frequently misstep: how they interpret the Wickham plotline.* 

For those who need a refresher, if there’s a villain in P&P, it’s Wickham. He’s charming—and uses that charm to hurt others. He flirts with Lizzie, while filling her ears with rumors about how terribly Darcy treated him. Later, in what one could argue is the climatic moment of the story, he convinces Lydia (Lizzie’s youngest, silliest sister) to run away with him; he has no intention of marrying her, but is, um, convinced to do the right thing when Darcy intervenes. 

So there are two sides to the Wickham plotline. The first is shame—specifically, Lydia’s shame. Her status as a kept woman will ruin the social standing of her entire family, and therefore ruin her sister’s chances at getting married. Wickham’s elopement with Lydia is the culmination of a novel about a family in crisis, as they face a future of economic instability and lost status. 

The second, which Courtney Milan’s excellent recent article in the Michigan Law Review highlights, is that Wickham is a serial sexual predator, and that his inclusion highlights a major theme of the novel: to wit, that civility and character are not the same, and that judging someone based on their external charm may mean misjuding their actual character. Wickham and Darcy stand in contrast on the civility/character scale. Wickham’s charming lies, and Lizzie’s slow discovery of the depths of his selfishness are essential to her learning to value Darcy as a desirable partner. (Well, Pemberly helps.) 

Some retellings do successfully include the full Wickham plotline as a counterpoint to Lizzie and Darcy’s love story. I’m thinking here of Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, where Wickham’s interests in Lizzie’s family are about money and power and the public exploitation of personal trauma, rather than simply sex. 

Unfortunately, many P&P retellings really lean into the first aspect of the Wickham plotline, and focus on the shame Lydia brings on her family. Even more unfortunately, many of these retellings are caught up in the idea of Wickham as a sexual predator, which, combined with the shame that Lydia must bring on her family for reasons of plot, really falls flat in many contemporary settings. 

Let me parse this out a bit, and give a few examples. So, most retellings don’t go with the “she ran off with him and is living in sin” angle, because there your younger sister living with her boyfriend is no longer complete and utter social ruination for most people. Instead, we have to up the ante. 

  • In The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, Wickham convinces Lydia to make a sex tape (which Darcy scrubs from the internet). The way this is handled is still pretty slut-shamey, because will a sex tape really ruin Lydia’s life, much less her sisters’ lives? Maybe I’m naïve, but that seems a bit over the top. 
  • In Ayesha at Last, Wickham is running a sexy-hijab porn site, and tries (unsuccessfully) to get Lydia to pose for some pictures. In this case, Wickham was certainly sketchy, but I wouldn’t call him predatory, so the fear and shame of the family feels overblown—and he certainly didn’t deserve his fate. (Darcy doxes all the men who have used the site, and then doxes Wickham to those men, which is so far beyond ok.) 
  • In both Pride and Most Ardently, the authors address the Wickham ick-factor by making Lydia very much underage (12–14). In Pride, Wickham stops at bringing Lydia to a party, but in Most Ardently, he does run off with 14-year-old Lydia. This is one of the more successful versions of this side of the Wickham story, not because the family is worried about the family status, but because they are worried about Lydia herself. 
  • And finally, Eligible, in one of the most troubling versions of Wickham I’ve seen, the whole Darcy/Wickham conflict is removed, to focus only on the Lydia-shame story. An the shame she brings on her family? She marries a transman. (To be clear: I am not troubled that Wickham is trans; I am troubled that the very fact of Lydia finding a happy loving relationship with a transman is framed as a potential source of family dishonor.)

None of these Wickham–Lydia moments, however (with the possible exception of Most Ardently) are really realistic as a moment of a family facing an existential crisis. The moment doesn’t seem to have high stakes, and therefore feels shoehorned into the story because “it’s Pride and Prejudice, and this plot point must occur,” not because the story was actually building up to this moment, both thematically and in terms of character development. 

My takeaway? Maybe we shouldn’t focus so much of Wickham’s sexy side, but rather on his insidious charm. In reading a P&P retelling, I am generally more impressed and intrigued by what an author changes than by what they keep the same. There are so many ways you can bring a family to crisis; rehashings of Wickham as solely a sexual threat feel tired. 

*As I talk about different retellings, I will refer to the characters by the names of their analogs in the original. First, for the sake of clarity, and second, because do you think I actually remember the names of the characters in the all books I read?

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Austen Retellings

Bottom line: Do you like Austen retellings?

Holly: For some mysterious reason, I became the go-to person for Austen retellings here at TSR, so I’ve read a fair number. (This is ironic to me because Erin and Ingrid introduced me to the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, which was my very first Austen experience.) When they’re good, they’re really fun…but oh boy, are there some bad ones out there. So this one really hinges on the execution.

Erin: I tend to prefer my Austen retellings in A/V format. I think I might have been most delighted to find those Pemberley Digital serialized versions of Emma and P&P on YouTube back in the day. In books, I definitely tend to enjoy the Austen retellings more if they’re not completely invested in the original because a lot of aspects of the period don’t translate well or simply take up space in retellings.

Ingrid: I’m warming up to them. To be honest, I have historically had a bit of a snooty attitude about them? I guess in my head I thought, hey, the original was just fine and messing with it isn’t necessary…but just because it isn’t necessary doesn’t mean it isn’t a lot of fun. (This is what I’m discovering.)

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as an Austen retelling? What makes for a really successful retelling of Austen’s stories?

Holly: So first, the story has to follow the basic beats of the original. It helps if some of the names are similar, so the reader can easily orient herself. (Note: I personally do not count postscript stories—you know, the continued love of Lizzie and Darcy after the wedding, such as in Death Comes to Pemberley—as strict retellings.)

However, there’s a fine line here. The story should be close enough to be recognizable, but not so close as to be a complete retread, only in a different time period or with dragons or whatever. The worst one I’ve read (which I DNFed and didn’t review) lifted whole passages of dialogue from the original, even though we were in the 1950s American South instead of 1800s England, which just didn’t work for me. 

What I think makes for a really successful Austen retelling is a deep understanding of the source material, and then a willingness to throw it away a bit, so we can really get in to these new characters and believe their path to true love is inevitable because of who they are, and not because of who they are based on. 

Erin: I’d say Holly summed it up nicely. (That’s why she’s the Austen retellings person, obvi.)

Ingrid: Holly shoots, Holly scores.

Why do you think Austen retellings are so popular (both as genre romance as literary fiction)?

Erin: Austen is literary women’s fiction romance, right? So the source material is smart and hopeful and not by men. It feels like it belongs to Romancelandia more than the sources of other retellings. Plus she created some great tension in the originals that doesn’t need to be totally reconsidered because the foibles of people are universal. (I’d say let’s just ignore the social commentary aspect of her writing (which is probably more relevant than the romance), but I don’t think we need to because there’s plenty of romance that also engages in social commentary.)

Holly: Speaking to the romance side of things, her books draw on some hugely popular ideas that have become central tropes in genre romance. Enemies to lovers? Check. Friends to lovers? Check. Second chance romance? Check. Uh…I can’t tell you if there’s a trope in Mansfield Park, so let’s stop while I’m ahead. 

Ingrid: I would also suggest that almost everyone I know stumbled across Jane Austen at about the same age or phase of maturity…so there’s this really kind of visceral Austen response people have when they connect with her at just the right time in their lives. I feel like there’s a thread of connection Austen fans share that is really kind of unique.

What do you think is fun about Austen retellings?

Erin: She’s using some really great tropes and characterizations, and those can be tinkered with and played on in ways that are still delightful.

Holly: What Erin said. Plus! Part of the fun of reading a retelling—any retelling—is recognizing the source material, and therefore knowing what to expect, but then still being surprised, and hopefully delighted, by the way the author plays with the story. 

I’ve also been thinking a lot about this thread by Bianca Hernandez-Knight—mostly her point that romance is a way to Austen for some readers. Because also, Austen is a way to romance. Genre romance is in conversation with Austen, and reading them together can open the door to different ways of thinking about love and society and how books can reflect these ideas. 

Ingrid: Austen has just layers upon layers of juicy characters, I absolutely agree. Each supporting character is just BURSTING with potential and backstory, and Austen manages to really pull these characters along for their own just desserts as well, so it’s ripe with possibilities for retellings.

What do you find problematic about Austen retellings?

Holly: Some of the tensions in the originals don’t translate well to contemporary settings—so when authors try to shoehorn a desperate “I must marry off my daughters or face penury” plot into a modern setting, I generally find it a little bit cringeworthy. 

Erin: You know I love me a Darcy, but honestly there might be too many Pride and Prejudice retellings. Collins and Wickham get shoehorned in whether they’re warranted or not, and it’s just boring. 

I think a lot of Austen retellings also want to play with the storytelling but don’t make the effort to interrogate social issues like Austen was doing. 

Ingrid: Any time you take something that just works really well as it is and you try to morph it into something fresh you’re going to be taking a big risk. So there’s that, and there’s also missing all those subtleties that are in the originals. Darcy is iconic because he’s Darcy–which means he’s one way on the surface and then through the cracks of his shell the light kind of comes streaming in until he’s just radiantly dreamy. You can’t just take him and repackage him, you have to really see it and let it unfold. So I think it’s probably really easy to love Austen’s characters but it’s very difficult to take the time to unfold them the way they deserve to be unfolded.

Do you have a favorite Austen story you like to see retold?

Erin: My favorite Austen is Persuasion, which is weird because I don’t love second chance romance, but I think it’s the most romantic of her books. But I’ve never read a Persuasion retelling. So I guess in practice, with my limited options, I’ll have to choose Emma. Knightly is totally my speed.

Holly: Emma is my favorite Austen because it’s so stinking hilarious and I love me a difficult heroine. But I’ve never read an Emma retelling. Does that mean I should pick Persuasion as my favorite, for symmetry? My real answer is: please send me all the recs for Emma retellings, thanks. 

Ingrid: Emma. Second choice would actually be Pride and Prejudice, but only if it’s done RIGHT.

What’s one Austen retelling you loved? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles repackaging the source material in a new and exciting way?

Erin: Holly picked a movie for one of our prior LTT discussions, so that opened the gates and I’m going to pick Clueless. It’s so 90s and really, really ridiculous, but aww. And you can watch it and realize that yes, it is true that Paul Rudd does not appear to age at all. 

Slash also after reading Wulfric Bedwin for 5 books, Slightly Dangerous by Mary Balogh totally hit the spot.

Holly: Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev. Dev just absolutely nails the balance between telling a recognizable story and making it her own. 

Ingrid: What is the matter with you guys?? You’re completely ignoring the classic, Bridget Jones’s Diary. It is both a stellar book and a phenomenal movie and it has Colin Firth in it. Colin FIRTH. And he COOKS and he SMIRKS. And if you recall, he likes her just the way she is after throwing Hugh Grant across the street. We clearly need to discuss this further.

Smut Reporting

Paw Patrol and Daniel Tiger meet Romance

For today’s topic, we will be discussing Paw Patrol and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood

Yeah, I know those are shows for littles, but I’ve got littles, and a big conversation when you’re a parent of littles is what’s appropriate for them to watch. But also, since I’ve been swirling in the declarative-statement-ridden world of Twitter Romancelandia for the past few years, I think the lessons I’ve learned from thinking about the media my littles consume is helping me to process my feelings about what romance “should” be. 

You see, I do not expect my leisure reading always to be totally checked in. I don’t expect authors to have superior knowledge and training such that they are responsible for exclusively creating socially responsible content. Some people want that reading, and I can be supportive of that. Sometimes I also want that reading. But I can at times also have a load of fun reading books with various problematic elements. I process the problematic content however it appears and move on with my life however that goes. 

I am also a high-strung person who likes to do things right, so being awash in some social media conversations that make me feel wrong is extremely stressful. Bottom line: this has been on my mind a lot

Back to the littles. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the show, Paw Patrol is about a 10-year-old kid, Ryder, who has six very well-trained talking dogs, and together they rescue the town from a variety of troubles. 

Ryder lives alone in a high-tech tower, he and his dogs have a variety of vehicles (including flying and aquatic vehicles) and tools (like excavators and projectiles) that should really only be used with the supervision of an adult, and he—the child who is ten—solves the problems of every adult in town. I have never seen an episode of this show in which Ryder consults with any kind of guardian figure. This kid functions as an independent adult, and all of the real adults are pretty incompetent at life. 

I resisted for a long time, but eventually I gave in, and my kids loved this show for a couple of years. There’s action! There’s adventure! There’s silliness, there’s teamwork, and there’s problem-solving. Ryder and his dogs can get the job done. They are independent, confident, and successful. It makes sense that kids would enjoy the content (it is also bright and somewhat frenetic), and it also makes sense (even if they aren’t quite processing this) that they like to see a fictitious kid who is getting things done and doing those things well when there is very little in their own lives that they are able to control. 

At the same time, I’m aware that I do not want my 10yo to be driving all around town on an ATV thinking he can or should be solving problems for grown-ass adults. If we’re looking for life lessons, Paw Patrol is probably not the place to be doing it. 

Bring in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which is commonly held up as amazeballs children’s programming that teaches great life lessons. 

We started our childhood TV journey with DT, and I probably liked it more than my kids did. Oh well. I, too, like action movies better than dramas, so I can’t blame them. 

If you are not a DT aficionado, it’s an animated spin-off from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, with characters that Mr. Rogers originated (remember the puppets?). Daniel deals with all the things that come up in life, from going to the dentist to playing nice with friends to coping with things that aren’t going right. (I really felt for him when his birthday cake got messed up. That’s the pits.) So DT is pretty much exactly what you want from a show for your littles who need their minds to be molded with good things, right?

Here’s the thing: a Texas Tech University study from 2018 showed that watching DT did develop the desired (expected? hoped for?) emotional skills in a group of littles, but the watching had to be accompanied by regular parent-child conversations about the content of the show. Now, I haven’t seen this study replicated yet, and we must take studies with a grain of salt. BUT here’s my takeaway: 

It’s more important to be educated about healthy social and emotional things than it is simply to ensure we’re solely ingesting healthy social and emotional things. 

I mean, the first problem with that latter idea is that it pretty much relies on other people having the knowledge and doing the work so that the ingester doesn’t have to worry about what they’re ingesting. I sure as hell don’t know everything about everything, but at least I know I don’t know everything about everything, and I can work on learning more about the things that are important, healthy, and inclusive. Having the knowledge is useful in a variety of settings, and my active rather than passive acquisition of that knowledge means I’m emotionally invested. 

The second problem is that we don’t always need to have our intake be perfect. Life is messy, people are messy, people like what they like, and not everyone is reading through a social justice lens. Rather than implying that readers should desire a certain kind of content (or, more to the point, that they shouldn’t enjoy certain content), it’s probably better to ask: what is the goal of the reader who is consuming the content? If the goal is pure escapism, then I would argue that, by definition, the reader is aware that there might be things going on in the background that are possibly undesirable, but the fantasy—letting go of the reality—allows for the escapism. I’m thinking of someone enjoying a billionaire or royal archetype, knowing that real life versions are pretty terrible, but also enjoying the idea that someone with a lot of money and a lot of power could sweep in and take care of the problems and the struggle that our everyday selves deal with. (Plus the bestest orgasms EVER.)

There’s the argument that what we read influences us (“OMG, reading all these alphas makes me want such bad boys!!!”) and the counter argument that we should be presumed to be self-aware enough to understand that fiction is fiction (“Beauty and the Beast did not, in fact, make me feel like it’s okay to stay with an abusive partner”). These ideas are not mutually exclusive. We are influenced by media that we consume (there’s, like, this whole industry devoted specifically to doing that), but when we are educated, we are also able to think critically about that media. This of course becomes more challenging as we negotiate content that touches our personal pressure points (and yes, while I have the privilege of having very few pressure points, I do have my own). Or really challenging when we consume content with an extremely limited education about that content. But I’m not sure that it’s the responsibility of others to do that emotional or educational heavy lifting for us, though of course we can appreciate content creators who support us by creating safe content as we do that heavy lifting. It’s Daniel Tiger teaching us our life lessons, but it’s also us needing to go over those life lessons with our parents in order to really understand them. 

There’s a recurring conversation that we have on our TSR chat, and it goes something like this:

Erin: Why do people have these expectations of romance? I don’t see anybody asking why <fill in the blank> isn’t better.

Holly: Well maybe they should be.

And there probably should be these conversations occurring in every sphere where reality meets fantasy in maybe not the best ways. The status quo is not always good, and thinking critically and understanding the pitfalls of our media or our desires is important. (I would argue it’s especially important where marginalized identities are concerned.) But also maybe it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes, be it good or bad, it’s just really fun to watch a 10yo and a bulldog rescue the distraught mayor and her pet chicken.