Hello hello! Continuing our discussion about BDSM and abuse romances, let's talk about a writer who gets it right. Let's talk about Edgeplay by Katie de Long.
Who's Katie? Katie de Long lives in the Pacific Northwest, realizing her dream of being a crazy cat-lady. As a kid, Katie flagged the fade-to-blacks in every adult book she encountered, and when she began writing, she vowed to use cutaways sparingly. After all, that's when the good stuff happens. And on a kindle, no one asks why there's so many bookmarks in her library.
Q: Describe yourself in 20 words or less.
A bad girl through and through. Sharp-edged, outspoken, exhibitionistic, and a little crazy. That about sum it up? Also, as will become evident in this conversation, a survivor and a submissive.
Q: Fifty Shades has had an incredible backlash, even bigger than the one Twilight faced. What do you think is behind that?
A: 50 Shades lies on a number of psychological and sociological fault lines. Twilight was on some of those faultlines, but not all. 50 Shades is on the goddamn Hellmouth of rape culture and patriarchy. Everything from its handling of gender, female friendships, slutshaming, arousal as consent, BDSM as a moral failing, is framed on a society that emphasizes toxic femininity.
Basically, we-- both women and men-- determine women's worth based upon their ability to suffer for everyone else. You see it in “my child's birth was more grueling than yours” one-upping, pornography that glorifies women's lack of pleasure or sometimes even outright pain in anal sex scenes. There's this sense that, the more you give up, the less you respond to aggression, the less you demand from those around you, the better you are, as a person, that isn't really there with men. Women need to be martyrs, giving up their happiness, their bodies, their hobbies, for anyone who asks-- be it a verbally abusive family member, a partner who coerces them into sex acts or kinks they aren't comfortable with (Ahem, 50 Shades), or a stranger on the street who demands they have a conversation, when they have places to be. It's a consistent framing of a woman's good boundaries being none, and any attempt to put down boundaries as being bitchy, irrational, unreasonable, frigid, chasing him away, overreacting, having misplaced priorities, etc. The list goes on and on.
Toxic masculinity is the idea that men are defined by the amount of pain they can give, or take, from other men, without showing pain. It has its own heavily harmful effects, too. But the stuff that lets readers identify with Ana, despite her many flaws, and her fairly bad judgment is entirely rooted in the fact that she plays to an idea of womanhood stemming from old-world morality-- that man's sexuality is something to be suffered and managed by virginal women with no sexuality of their own, for no pleasure of their own, because otherwise the men would become depraved and run the world to hell. If Ana actually seemed like she liked the kink, well, that would remove some of the weight of her journey, right?
Point is, Ana is polarizing, because any given reader's feelings on her are tied into their feelings on the way they fit in with the world. If they're someone who has already rebelled against toxic femininity, they'll think she's a doormat, an abuse victim, and that the whole work is playing into an incredibly harmful system. And they wouldn't be wrong. But if they're someone who holds those feminine ideals, or who has lived their entire life in that system believing it was the only way to be happy, you'll see her as a strong person for taking everything he dishes out, and you'll be rooting for that happy ending. And you still wouldn't be wrong.
To be honest, I don't like either of the poles on this one. “Fifty Shades glorifies violence against women!” “Fifty Shades is just a fantasy.” Both are true, and neither is the point. I do think it's important to look at what in our culture contributes to it being such a widespread fantasy, especially in light of its misrepresentation of some of the core tenets of the BDSM lifestyle. If only because that'll help us figure out what else taps into those fantasies, and maybe be able to promote some other fantasies, as well.
Q: What's the biggest difference between your book and Fifty Shades?
A: Consent is the big one. At every step, Nina consents, and at every step, her limits are respected, even when they're pushed. Edgeplay is also a little different in that the limits being pushed are rarely kinky ones; it's BDSM, but not BDSM of the kind that has serious kink (At least not pictured in the context of the story, though Nina and Daniel are experienced playmates, and certainly enjoy their kink. It just wasn't relevant to the arc in this particular story.) The BDSM power play is a tool in it for her to explore her power and her agency, since it's something that her experiences have told her can't be explored in a meaningful way with more vanilla encounters. Whether she's enacting a brutal rape fantasy, or pushing herself to stop freezing and going out of body when kissed, she's there because she wants to be, and she can walk away at any time.
And, too, her problems are different from Ana's. Ana's revolve around this “how much can she take” dynamic as more and more “kink” is heaped on her to show that she's good enough, strong enough, to deserve Christian's attentions, and take everything he can throw at her-- see the toxic femininity comment above. Nina's problems revolve around a “how much can she take” dynamic in regard to pushing past her trauma, but the stressful stuff being heaped on her, that nearly breaks her, is run of the mill affection. Ana fears being spanked-- or “hit,” as she often refers to it. Nina fears being touched gently-- you can beat ten shades of bruise into her, and she'll smile, say “Thank you, Sir,” and feel that the world makes sense. Pain isn't frightening.
As far as the Doms, well, Daniel, Nina's Dom, is careful to respect her limits, and is actively hurt when he thinks he's overstepped himself in play. He's got some flaws with overconfidence, and at times that does lead him to be manipulated, or to make decisions that hurt or undermine Nina, but he's very particular about boundaries, and his attention to detail means that he ends a scene too early, rather than pushing it too late, as Christian Grey does. To be honest, I see Nina as being far closer to Christian Grey, than Daniel is. Except that she's the submissive, so it's a completely different thing, even if on paper those two characters have some similar things-- traumatic histories, aversions to being touched, dislike of intimacy. Basically, the gender dynamics in Edgeplay are completely different than in 50 Shades of Grey.
Q: What is it about this kind of dark romance that seems to have struck a nerve?
A: A little more on this specific kind of romance in the question below, but I think people use dark romances similarly to horror, for catharsis in the fear. Indeed, the two genres often have a lot of overlap. Tweak a few wordings in 50 Shades of Grey, and you have a tragedy about a woman psychologically and physically abused until she gives up her very identity. Tweak the wording on a few of the scenes in a captivity fantasy romance and it becomes a harrowing fight to escape from imprisonment by a monster. Tweak the balance of elements in a revenge thriller about a girl getting close enough to avenge her dad, and you have a dark romantic thriller when her conflicting feelings toward her target and those around him become plain.
That gives it versatility; you can incorporate thriller elements, film-noir elements, suspense elements, dark supernatural or horror elements, and explore some of the most complex variants of human sexuality. And this isn't a new thing. Look to the movies, and you'll see an endless parade of concepts that would be lumped in with Dark Romance, worked in as romance subplots in action movies, self-destructive fighters redeemed by the love of the right woman, brightened up a la Pretty Woman, or explored through stalker narratives like Elijah Woods' rendition of the classic movie Maniac, which is in many many places just a few conversations and a sex scene away from an actual romance. We're honestly really familiar with these narratives: the hatefuck revenge one, the Beauty and the Beast capture fantasy, the girl in over her head with a Mafia Don, the nice guy turned stalker... They aren't always center stage, but they're still present in our vernacular, and so long as that's the case, we'll continue to see people draw to these blends.
Q: Are romances about abusive relationships a special, unusual category, or do these dynamics play a part in almost all relationships--real and fictional alike?
A: Every relationship. No matter how loving, you'll always have miscommunication, points of friction, that when repeated can form abusive patterns. It's one of the reasons why maintaining a close connection to people is such a labor-intensive endeavor. Even those who haven't survived abuse have the framework to empathize with a character in that situation, just based in their own experiences.
And this might be a somewhat controversial position to take, but I think people are drawn to abusive fantasies as a way of processing things that they think are off in their own relationships. See, there's a ton of different emotional cycles that go into living in an even minorly abusive or unsatisfying relationship, and a lot of conflicting feelings. Society expects one reaction-- universal revulsion and fear-- but ignores the multitude of others. Same as we gloss over date rape or incest in favor of stranger-danger narratives that are easy and linear. It's one of the reasons why most abuse narratives are framed around utterly unlovable abusers, and the central question is often “why did she stay?” or “how much will it take to get her to leave?”
But living in a less than happy situation, even if it's not outright abusive, it's an emotional mess. What can you do to make it get better? What are you doing wrong? Is this the best it'll ever get? Is this the worst it'll ever get? Could you forgive yourself for giving up on the good things in this relationship?Would you regret it in a decade if you did leave him? Do you even have the ability to leave, since you've been off the job market a decade, and your certification in whatever field you were in before has expired? He was so nice and cuddly this morning. He would be so hurt if he knew you weren't feeling fulfilled anymore. You're gonna spend time with his family today, and his sister is a great friend of yours. Think how hurt she'd be, to no longer have you around, for his feelings!
People deal with these types of pressures and doubts differently. Some people cheat on their spouse, find love, sex, excitement, or support outside the relationship, while keeping the relationship stable. Some people drown themselves in online RPGs, to feel they truly can become powerful with effort, and there's a tangible correlation between what they put in, and what they get out. Some people look at how much worse it could be, and drown themselves in dramas or tragedies, to say “At least I have what I have.”
And some people look at the possibility of changing an abusive man, or what unconditional love means in the context of an abusive romance, and take something uplifting from it about their own ability to persevere through whatever rough patch they're in. Not because they intend to stay with an abuser, or want to be in an abusive relationship, but because that “love conquers all” feeling makes it easier to forgive their partner for forgetting their anniversary again.
That's all for now, but part 2 is coming soon! Stay tuned.
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