Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Essence of Paranormal Romance?

In Issue 61 of CEMETERY DANCE, Michael Marano's "Mediadrome" column includes a diatribe against paranormal romance. In his view, this subgenre is "about sexual frustration" and represents "a screwed up rejection of one's own sexuality." Vampires, werewolves, etc., he says, "are presented as sexual ideals because of their *otherness*. Their sexiness comes from their inhumanity." Through these figures, "human sexuality is pushed into the inhuman" and "made alien and 'other' through that act of projection." Thereby, paranormal romances "present human sexuality as a thing not best-suited for humans. It's *other*. It's not of *us*."

As a devotee of relationships between the human and not-quite-human—going all the way back to my teenage ardor for vampires and, later, my fondness for Spock in STAR TREK—I feel there's something wrong with Marano's argument. For one thing, the allure of the Other surely goes beyond sexuality, or, rather, precedes it. The Other as an erotic object is a subset of the Other as fascinating for broader reasons. The friendship between the human riverboat captain and the vampire in George R. R. Martin's FEVRE DREAM, for instance, has no recognizably sexual component. When eroticism does enter the relationship, in the best-written of these stories the nonhuman character finds the otherness of the human character equally alluring. For the reader, moreover, I think a well-constructed werewolf, vampire, or demon embodies some aspect of humanity (whether erotic or otherwise) isolated and expanded upon in the image of the "monster."

Anyway, as illustrated in James Tiptree's classic story "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Pale Hill's Side," human beings instinctively tend to exogamy. The old adage "opposites attract" confirms the universality of Tiptree's premise that, among ourselves, the urge to mate with the exotic Other from the far side of the mountain (or from another race—there's a reason why Young Massa on the plantation spent so much time visiting the slave cabins) keeps the genes circulating and the species healthy. Why else does the "Romeo and Juliet" theme perennially attract audiences? (Not that Romeo and Juliet offer a prime example of the premise; aside from that silly feud, they would have made a perfectly matched couple, coming from the same social class, culture, and religion.) The currently dominant opinion among paleontologists seems to hold that our fully human ancestors never mated with Neanderthals, but I suspect they did, even if those encounters left no descendants. The fact that Neanderthals and Cro Magnons didn't look much like each other wouldn't have prevented a few illicit romances from occurring. Similar differences don't prevent cross-cultural and interracial romances nowadays. Would Marano categorize such matings as a sign of "rejection of one's own sexuality"?

For the record, I’m a big fan of human sexuality. :) (I’ve been married over 40 years and have four children.) However, I don’t see a need to write about it in exhaustive detail unless it’s the couple’s first sexual act or a turning point in their relationship. Human-nonhuman sexual encounters, though, are another matter. Aliens, ghosts, vampires, and werewolves presumably make love differently from the rest of us. I want to see what goes where and how those differences play out in the couple’s journey toward intimacy. In a love scene with the Other, if the details aren’t supplied I feel cheated.

So, as I said, Marano's argument feels wrong to me, but I'm having trouble pinning down my problem with it. Any suggestions?

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. I think the reason women like paranormal romance is that the "others" are often given uber-charged human attributes we'd like to find in our romantic ideals. Vampires don't have to worry about money and don't care who's playing what team on TV. Weres can give in to their inner beast, and hence so can their lovers. There's the option of being wanton hussies without being held socially responsible--after all, who can resist a sexy vampire? It's not a "screwed-up rejection of one's own sexuality" but a celebration of its potential. Off to find a sexy beast now...

  2. I suspect that he was feeling squeamish over the whole thing--I got the impression he thinks it's perverse. He's looking at the inhumanity of the Other characters, and sees it as people divorcing themselves from the realities of real, human relationships. He figures this is unhealthy. I, personally, think you're entirely right--there is nothing at all unnatural about a bit of xenophilia. It's a part of normal human sexuality to be attracted to people who look 'exotic'. Sometimes this is taken to extremes, yes (and with the werewolf romances, catlike aliens, etc, one has to acknowledge a bit of zoophilia), but there isn't anything there about avoiding one's own sexuality--it's about EXPLORING one's own sexuality. If someone was avoiding their sexuality, they wouldn't be reading about sex.

  3. I haven't read the original article, but it appears to be a peculiarly one-sided view of sex. It seems to me that sex is something that two (or more) do together, not something that one person does. It might help to use the old term intercourse, which had overtones of relationships, dialogue and similar social exchanges. At least that would remind us that there isn't just one person involved.

    In many ways, I think paranormal romance (or science-fiction romance or speculative romance or space opera romance) is all about accepting the "other" as one of us -- in the most intimate, involving, and trusting way possible. The notion that paranormal romance somehow rejects one's own sexuality or projects it somewhere -- it seems to me that paranormal romance is a recognition and celebration of sexuality that crosses borders and boundaries, species and races.

    I suppose my concern with the article as summarized is that it seems to cast paranormal romance as a form of rape, with one-sided sex as the norm. I don't think even the ordinary romance genre any longer accepts that characterization of sexual involvement, and I certainly hope that the various genre blends know that there are two sides to the story -- and that both need to be emotionally engaged.

  4. Gee, I wonder what PNR's he read? Certainly not the ones I read!