Okay, I told myself I wasn't going to get into this debate, and I've kept my word for five whole days. But I can't stand it any more. I just need to say something.
Ever since RWA National ended, there has been a running argument in the romance blogosphere about--of all things--the miniskirts and thigh-high stockings worn by two authors promoting their books for Dorchester's new Shomi imprint.
You can see a photo of Marianne Mancusi and Liz Maverick wearing their costumes and posing with their books here.
I first became aware of the discussion on Kate Rothwell's blog here on Monday. Believe me, when I say the debate has been lively. By Tuesday, the action had shifted to The Smart Bitches, who have racked up 566 comments on their blog here. Dear Author racked up another 81 comments here.
The debate has been mostly civil although there's been a tendency to reduce the discussion into two camps: The first described as more traditional and concerned with maintaining the respect of the publishing industry.
Members of the second camp are perhaps a wee bit less concerned about image and more comfortable being associated with the frontiers of the romance genre, including sci-fi, manga and cosplay.
For those of you not familiar with cosplay, the term is a contraction for "costume play." Wikipedia says the word originated at the 1984 L.A. Worldcon to describe the Japanese trend for dressing up as characters from anime and manga. In the sci-fi world, it is very common for fans to wear costumes depicting their favorite characters or series.
Mancusi and Maverick (henceforth called M&M) wanted to attract attention and came up with their own cosplay. It certainly succeeded. Their picture was featured in the July 11 edition of Publishers Weekly.
Before venturing an opinion, let me make a disclaimer. I am not one of the writers who has been laboring in the romance trenches for twenty years. Far from it. Although I was an avid reader of romances in my early teens, by the time I graduated from college, I'd abandoned the genre completely.
I'd had it with that uneven power distribution between the heroine and hero. I was tired of all those virgins who had to be seduced/coerced/made drunk/tricked into sex. I was fed up with all the "pulsing, throbbing" euphemisms. I can remember thinking, "I wish--just once--one of these women would approach her lover without all the freaking angst."
So I wasn't among the writers who worked so hard to gain professional recognition both for themselves and for their genre. But I do remember all the jokes and sneers about romances. I know how difficult it must have been to be a "real" writer and yet not be respected as such.
What brought me back into the fold? Robin Schone's The Lady's Tutor. I read it while stuck in a hotel overnight. The newstand's book choices were very limited and Tutor's historical setting won out over yet another serial killer novel. I stayed up all night to read that book.
Okay, enough beating around the bush. I'm just going to come out and say it:
A miniskirt and a pair of thigh-highs are not going to pull down the walls of the romance temple.
What has attracted me to the romance industry in recent years is how much bigger the tent has become. I have writer friends who write inspirationals. They don't slam me for writing erotic romance, and I don't mock their choices. We each have a perspective and, more importantly, the right to hold that perspective.
I have been awed and inspired by how helpful the published authors I've met have been. They offered me free critiques, advice and lots of encouragement. I'm quite proud to call myself a romance writer.
When I first saw the photo, I'll confess, I laughed at all the fuss. I spend a lot of time on a university campus, and I see young people dressed like this all the time. It's not a look I'd recommend for women over forty but, if you have the hips and thighs to carry it off, more power to you. It's a little edgy, and while I wouldn't choose to dress that way, I certainly don't denigrate another woman for doing so.
On impulse, I showed the M&M thigh-high photo to a certain man I know, who looked, shrugged and said, "So?"
Frankly, I suspect most men would have the same reaction as my friend.
Why is it that so many women were exercised by this? I think a writer calling herself Poison Ivy may have come closest to expressing the concern I heard on Smart Bitches Tuesday:
How many of you attended the RT convention around 25 years ago . . . Nora was around at the time, and we would show up at conferences and find writers dressed as southern belles and worse. It was demeaning and depressing, and it made for patronizing, scathing commentary in the newspapers. [Barbara] Cartland was a genius at self-promotion, no doubt about it, but she also was shamelessly vulgar. Some people in the romance world do not want anybody to get the idea that romance writers are just girls being silly, or worse, tarts. This is a profession, and it’s not the oldest one.
Jennifer Crusie had something to say, too:
There’s a difference between having a great time at a costume party and showing up for a professional booksigning dressed as one of your characters . . . I believe I’m also part of a multi-billion dollar business, that I respect what I do and what I am, and I choose to present myself as a professional. Since the reason for dressing like that is to call attention to oneself, it’s pretty much making yourself a marketing ploy and it’s very low-rent marketing . . .
I have to admit that my first reaction to Sherrilyn Kenyon's swan hat was exactly the same as Jenny's. Gimmee a break. See it here courtesy of Dear Author.
If Kenyon wants to wear a big black bird on her head, that's her Constitutional right. Of course, since that picture ended up on the cover of the Dallas Morning News the next day, I can understand other writers' annoyance. It's a more obvious case of promoting yourself at the expense of your peers--many of whom were aggravated by the crazy-looking woman with bad makeup suddenly serving as a representative for THEM. While it certainly got SK the attention she wanted, I wonder at what expense.
The one good thing that came out of this for me is a better understanding of the RWA Board's seeming hypervigilance about maintaining the (admittedly hard won) respect for the organization's professionalism. I think I have a bit better understanding of what a long way they've come and how hard they are trying to keep from backsliding.
When women can finally relax and stop being apologetic or defensive of our choices, then we'll know we have reached full equality with our male brethren. There's lots of room in that big tent called romance for everyone who wants a place.