Why can’t we have nice things? Because the porn industry has media, that’s why.
I have read several of Julia Quinn’s fanciful romance novels. They contain entertaining and sympathetic stories about the economic and social pressures on gentlewomen of early 19th century Britain. The females are creative, courageous, intelligent, and honorable. The males are… well, they are somewhat sexist, of course, but no more sexist than most men I know. The books do a mediocre job of challenging gender roles or stereotypes (especially in their cookie cutter portrayals of male heroes), but they directly challenge overt sexism and misogyny. Quinn calls herself a.
Enter Chris Van Dusen, the male creator, producer, and showrunner of Netflix’s Bridgerton series, based on the Quinn novels. Van Dusen previously helped write the show Scandal, a series about sleazy misdeeds by politicians. He apparently decided the Bridgerton stories needed less clever humor and more sleaze, the “Game of Thrones” approach ofand calling it entertainment. Van Dusen’s men do not simply eye women “appreciatively” (ugh) or have mistresses before marriage. Instead, we watch them rutting anonymous females against trees in public parks, while checking their pocket watches (so original, Mr. Bond), engaging in threesomes with seemingly eager anonymous women at orgies (those women do not have lives or identities that matter), repeatedly painting anonymous nude female models (we actually started a drinking game for every time the show depicted bare female breasts), and speaking cruelly to sexual partners, mistresses, and family members. Van Dusen also makes the female characters less likable — far more selfish, catty, scheming, and shallow than they are in the books. Maybe that’s how he justifies abusing them.
Some shows depict good sex. Outlander does a great job portraying the sex between Claire and Frank, and between Claire and Jamie, as mutual and balanced, similar to the Outlander books. Five episodes into Bridgerton, I gave up, uninterested in trying to like these disgusting men enough to be somehow glad when they end up marrying these shallow women. I’m done watching Bridgerton, and I encourage anyone interested in Regency romance fun to read the novels instead (with the caveat that the novels are, as I said above, still sexist and problematic). I also recommend Courtney Milan, who is just as fun but more feminist and anti-racist; and and , who are not as humorous as Quinn but offer more emotional depth.
In stark contrast to the terrible, pornified sex in the Bridgerton TV series, which, consider this passage from a 1999 Julia Quinn :
“James’s fingers trembled as he brought them reverently to the smooth skin of her temples… ‘I’ll be gentle,’ he whispered, barely recognizing his own voice. ‘I will never hurt you. Never.’
She trusted him. It was a powerful, soul-changing gift.
<descriptions of intimacy>
…He looked up at her face, needing to see her expression, needing to know that she loved his touch…
<descriptions of intimacy>
…His hand traveled farther along her leg, moving to the softer skin of her inner thigh. She stiffened, sensing that she was nearing the edge of something, traveling to some secret place from which there was no return.
James lifted his head to look at her. She had to blink several times before she could even focus on his beloved features, and then, a rakish smile adorning his lips, he asked, ‘More?’”
Most of the book develops the relationship of the characters. This short scene showcases the way their love, trust, and mutual respect flow through every word and touch, after 274 pages of gradually building attraction, affection, and sexual tension. This first intimate episode involves James pleasuring Elizabeth with his fingers. That’s it. He places no importance or necessity on his own orgasm. He is grateful that the woman he loves is willing to grant him the privilege of pleasuring her. The only other intimate scene appears much later, ten pages before the end of the book, when the characters make love in an equally tender, consensual way.
Sure, the books are problematic, with several kinds of(such as overprotectiveness and idealized gender roles). But compared with most of what passes for media nowadays, what a relief to escape the degrading dehumanization of our , which encourages males to treat female bodies as Oh, have you not heard that disgustingly common term? Then you are blessedly sheltered from the in our world.
Men need to stop taking reasonably good female-authored stories and infecting them with the poison of porn culture. Men need to stop making shows in which female bodies are portrayed as commodities to be used and discarded by privileged males. Male directors need to stop trying to “fix” so-called “chick lit” and “chick flicks” to conform them to the norms and values of a violent male gaze. Men need to treat books written by females, for femalesto help them learn and understand how in our world. (Note: I have a separate post in mind about the internalized misogyny of females in the entertainment industry. Porn culture has successfully groomed females into normalizing misogynist violence, such that female producers/writers are complicit in the violence against us all.)
People sometimes compare romance novels to pornography. Utter nonsense. Pornography has become primarily a tool for rapists andto sell of , , and child abuse. There certainly are some romance novels that include dehumanizing, degrading sex (and ). But most popular romance authors are popular because they do the : they depict likable characters who grow and change in compelling ways, and whose sexual intimacy develops from their attraction to each other as whole beings: emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical. Their lovemaking often appears at the end of a long process of developing trust and affection. If people want to sneer at that pattern as formulaic, well, <shrug> ok, but why sneer at such a wholesome, healthy way to live? Why sneer at people who read sweet, stories?
People sneer for the simple reason thatin a misogynist culture such as ours. Heaven forbid anyone admit they like the wonderfully feminist movies Frozen, , , or . The song “The Next Right Thing” would be widely considered a had it been sung by and for men in some sort of about a male hero finding his courage in times of crippling grief and adversity. Instead, people seem eager to outdo each other in making sure everyone knows they don’t like “that sort of thing.” Romance novels. Disney movies with female heroes. Oh, the horror. If they can’t be made “edgy” by injecting violent misogyny, better never admit how good they are.
Frozen 2 is one of the best movies that has been made in my lifetime. Thank goodness Kathleen Kennedy seems to have Disney on a roll with these great films. So I am going to give all these hip, edgy, misogynist shows a miss, and look forward to more truly good quality content. Think I’ll grab a romance novel to read while I’m waiting. Recommend any?
Trelawney Grenfell-Muir teaches courses about Sex, Dating, Marriage, and Work in the Religion and Theological Studies Department at Merrimack College and about Cross Cultural Conflict in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A Senior Discussant at the Religion and the Practices of Peace Initiative at Harvard University, she holds an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology with a concentration in Religion and Conflict, and a Ph.D. in Conflict Studies and Religion with the University Professors Program at Boston University. She currently writes articles, book chapters, and liturgical resources about feminist, nature-based Christianity.