FANTASY, ACTION, ROMANCE & SEX: Not Mortal Combatants
Updated: Sep 20
--A YIN-YANG RABBIT HOLE - If you haven't read this sex, language & violence content warning with its (non)binary discussion of the Feminine & Masculine polarity, I suggest you do before reading this next series. If you skip it...well...you've been warned.
--THE INCONCEIVABLE - ASSumptions About the Gladiatrix
--"WRITE WHAT YOU WANT TO READ" THEY SAID - So I Do
Warning: Game of Thrones spoilers, ahoy!
Why is Fantasy/Sci-Fi so often hailed as incompatible with romance and sex? I don't mean having a love interest subplot in the action, epic, or superhero story. Ohhhhh no, that’s often encouraged, whether or not the damsel/wife/girlfriend/gorgeous stranger rides off into the sunset on the back of the hero's horse, or she tragically dies and spurs him into even greater heroic feats. (Thus leaving him available to woo a new love interest in the sequel. And yes. I did say "she" and "him" purposely.)
We see that all the time. It's one of the expected things, even to the point of being done awkwardly or half-assedly when a plot could actually be better without it.
No, I’m talking about the kind of sex scenes and plot arcs that the Romance genre doesn't shy away from.
If you hear "Romance genre" and only picture Fabio covers, questionable Scotsmen snatching dairymaids off grassy hillsides, slick debonaire pricks slicing open corsets with their rapiers, and 50 Shades of--
I mean, yeah. There's that, too, if that's what you're into. But it's not the only thing overstuffing all those Romance bookshelves like Gretta's overstuffed bodice. (1, 5)
Romance now has a boatload of wonderful crossover books that combine action, mystery, crime drama, or speculative fiction with the Happily Ever After Love Story, and those do make me happy, especially when they're pockmarked with character-developing and connection-deepening steam.
I like steam. Tsssssss...
Sex is a natural aspect of life. It's also a really important aspect of life for many people. It influences and even drives so many decisions, so I've never understood why my culture is so repulsed and afraid of sex, the human body, touch, intimacy and--
I am aware of the historical ways in which this happened. I've never understood it.
As such, I'm an enthusiastic supporter of exploring fantastical characters and cultures through a myriad types of lens, including sex. If you're going to give me intricate details of politics, cuisine, clothing, magical systems, wartime acts and their aftermath, non-Terran physics, historical events, intrigue, tavern conversations, and outrageous creatures, why the bleep would you not give me details about this act you just spent 173 pages building up in roadside chemistry between characters I'm hoping-hoping-hoping will get together? How does showing them interact intimately "slow down the story" any more than giving me three pages of description while first exploring an alien landscape or learning how the feud developed between our protagonist's household and that of their sworn enemy?
We wants it allllll, Precious. We needs it all.
Maybe it slows down the story for you. That doesn't mean it's a Law of Great Writing that sex scenes automatically derail any plotline that is not Romance or Erotica. Romance seems to be far more willing to consider that its genre is not incompatible with the others, whereas the reverse?
This is a really polarizing topic. (3) That's not to say that people who are uncomfortable encountering sex scenes in a book--or plain uninterested--are automatically prudes or that there's something wrong with them. There's not. Just like there is nothing wrong with people who do write it and enjoy reading it.
In defense of the Hells No Crowd, perhaps it's because of how terribly romance is too often handled, no matter which genre we're talking about. Although I'm a swooning sap who adores a good romantic subplot in my non-Romance stories, and I enjoy straight up Romance when it has a thick, juicy plot, I also find myself too often disappointed, unconvinced, or outright 🤢🤮🤨 by so many portrayals of this aspect of life.
Remember that "Han & Leia NOT getting together in my Book 1" issue? Whether it be teaming up as allies or sucking face, it's the same thing. I do not write shallow Big Kiss moments any more than I write beach reads or craft Orc Battle Endings for every single book. Blahhhhh.
Let's gnash some teeth over this with one of my favorite myth/history/storytelling YouTubers (13) who self-admittedly hails from Camp Meh when it comes to romantic subplots:
And before anybody starts jumping up and down with fingers pointing while shoving books into my hands (I mean, I won't complain if you shove awesome books into my hands), let me just point to this quote:
"And just to specify, this isn't universal. Counter-examples exist...tropes aren't like mathematical principles. The existence of individual counter-examples doesn't invalidate the existence or prevalence of the trope itself. Proof by contradiction doesn't work on literature. Good? Good. Moving on.
~Overly Sarcastic Productions
It should also be noted that I have been trying to edit this confounded blog series for almost two years now, from when I first drafted these posts along with all the original tales of creating my Gladiatrix world. I finally got around to posting the first ones after my massive college dance series, and then I paused the fiction writing topic. Why?
Because of these posts I'm putting up right now.
And because of the constantly fluctuating social upheaval and the reactionary trends in movies, TV shows, and books that resulted. I just needed to put the topic away for awhile and let it bake. It's good that these subjects are in motion, but it makes editing harder.
So please remember that what I'm mostly talking about are the storytelling tropes and trends I grew up under in the 1970s and 80s, the influences of all the 30s-60s stories I was routinely exposed to on TV and in The Classics of reading, and the atmosphere of the 90s to early 2000s, which is when I wrote my Gladiatrix series.
Unfortunately, so many of the things I've always been frustrated with are still way too active today, if only in the subconscious of vast numbers of us, in spite of inclusivity trends, social explosions, and attempts to rectify the situations.
Yeah, sure. It's better.
In some places.
In many other place of the world, females are still chattel and people still enslave other people, no matter the laws on the books. Oh! And the most recent edit: In some places, we're actually going backwards in women's rights. Like...you know...my own back yard. Looking at you, SCOTUS. (10)
So this blog series has been really frustrating for me to write. Some of these old issues might be losing traction in our popular culture but are still the primary modes of operation in my family/social group/region/age group/whatever. Some of these old-school bastions of prejudice are currently stirred up into volatile reactionary attempts to cling to The Old Ways. And some are blessedly outdated and pretty much a non-issue in some of my environments, but not for other people.
As such, I just need to puke this series out right now, as it is, instead of trying to keep updating it for the current moment.
So can you just go with me? Mostly I'm referring to the atmosphere from the 1970's to 2002 when I finished typing "The End" on my gladiator series, and of the ridiculous longevity of too many of those mindsets even into the past two decades.
Blahhhhhhhhhh. Pant pant pant.
Now we're moving on.
I'll ask the question again. "Does art reflect culture or is culture formed by what it sees in art?"
Which came first? Our culture being so gawky and unhealthy about sex and romance, thus creating awkward and unhealthy romantic plotlines? (This includes plots that cut off the connection the moment The Big Kiss occurs because too few have any idea how to portray healthy, passionate, and enjoyable relationships from solid life examples.)
Or have stories told us unhealthy things about sex, romance, bodies, and relationships, thereby leaving we lusty, romantic fuckers with too few modeling examples in how to nurture and develop a vibrant, healthy romantic relationship? As such, we cluelessly write more stories.
That reinforce the bad habits in our lives.
Which create more stories about these bad habits and their craptastic or unsatisfying consequences.
Which teach the next generation how NOT to have healthy sex and romance...
Alas. For those Fantasy/Sci-Fi authors who have written these elements into their books--even those who write well-developed romantic subplots and great sex scenes that contribute far more than a moment of out-of-place, distracting wank fodder--it never fails. They get horrifically attacked as perverts and even pedophiles, reaping all sorts of ASSumptions about their personal proclivities because of the kinds of sex they portrayed in fictional characters who may or may not be anything like the author.
That's like accusing an actor of being just like the character they portray simply because they're a phenomenal actor. Some authors receive hate mail and terrible reviews for simply including sex scenes at all.
Who says sex = dirty? Sex = bad? Sex = perverted-except-for-procreation? And for that matter, who is the authority on what kind of sex constitutes perversion? Who says that even something like sadomasochism can't be a soul-searching, enlightening, healing, or even sacred act? I know people for whom it is exactly that. Just because it's not part of one particular religious sect doesn't automatically make it evil. No single institution has the patent on sacredness for this planet.
Also. You do remember that plenty of devotees throughout history have wreaked flagellation and other agonizing torments upon themselves in the name of their religion, right? (Ahem, not mentioning any names.) Other practices have included receiving pain from other people. Still other religions or spiritual practices do not quarantine sexual pleasure from their most sacred practices--yes, including pleasure for the female and her Devil's Teat, too. (11)
Oh. And her right to decide if she'd like to prevent becoming pregnant from that pleasure.
One Way does not Wule Them All. If the act takes place between wholeheartedly consenting people of an age where everybody's old enough and of sound mind to give consent, what's the problem?
As for putting it in fiction, we now have this thing called the internet where people are only too happy to pound on their keyboards with their opinions on a book. Despise sex scenes and don't even want to hold a book that includes them? That's cool. It's an easy thing to research and avoid.
But calling an author down, trashing their personal and professional reputations, and sending them threats because they wrote about fictional characters enjoying an intimate moment of touch and connection?
That's just crappy.
Yet how many of those same readers will gobble up page after page of explicit gore, terrorization, outrageous body counts, and damaging head-fuckery, while saying nothing about the psychological state of the author who wrote it? (3)
“I can describe in exquisite detail an axe entering a man's skull and splattering blood and brains...not a peep. I describe a penis entering a vagina in equivalent detail? The world has ended!"
"...I get letters about it and people swearing off. To my mind this is kind of frustrating, it’s madness. Ultimately, in the history of the world, penises entering vaginas have given a lot of people a lot of pleasure; axes entering skulls, well, not so much.”
~George R.R. Martin (3)
This was actually one of the most detailed suggestions made amidst my flirtation with traditionally publishing my Gladiatrix novels with a Big Five house: that the climax of my Book 1 needed to be "something like a battle of three-hundred-on-two."
In the open space of an arena.
With characters who possess no supernatural stamina or powers to wipe out fifty people in one seismic blast.
And yet the plausibility of a female gladiatorial champion is what's called into question?
I really wonder how skilled of a writer I would be by now if people had spent more energy on helping me become a better writer instead of trying to convince me that This Stuff Isn't For Girls. Not trying to write a protagonist who's a champion gladiatrix. Not writing about gladiators, period. Not writing fantasy. (9, 12)
There are many scenarios in which I wonder the same thing about my martial training...
Well, we got what we got, and I poured it all into those books in scathing, steaming, gory glory.
Lemme tell ya, those books are a mess from all those shenanigans of trying to navigate the Female Author Issue (9) and The Inconceivable as a young, barely--or badly--mentored writer. They also paint the landscape of my psyche as a girl and a young woman trying to navigate the "boy stuff" worlds of sports and academia, the entertainment industry, corporate employment, and sex/romance.
Being the only female in armor, in the office, at fighter practice, on the hockey floor, on the martial arts mat. Or finally finding the other female fighter-jocks, only to have a bunch of them swing their dicks at me harder than any male ever did because I was too much of a dancer and a "pretty girl." (Wuss.) Or being the only fighter-chick among the flock of glam-dancers. Then throw dating in there. Gak.
These things make for plenty of fictional conflict: dog-piling, smear campaigns, set-ups and betrayals. Threats, coercion and violence. It gave me awesome fodder for writing an adverse fantasy world and throwing hurdles at my Gladiatrix.
But I don't know that I will ever show this story to anyone else. I might just keep it for myself. For meeeeee! I mean us.
When I first wrote it, telling such a tale was considered inflammatory, outrageous, stupid (and super inspiring by a few desperately needed cheerleaders). These days, telling a "woman-in-a-man's-world" tale is considered as trite, outdated, and annoying as writing Happily Ever After.
Foolish me, I decided to write both of these things in the same damn book series, plus fantastical world-building and sex. What was I thinking?
Because another trend has sprung up since the advent of a certain Stark losing his head in Season 1 and the “don’t get attached to anybody” phenomenon that followed. Now there has arisen a certain kind of pressure in storytelling. I've found it runs rampant in writer communities, particularly where there are a lot of Thriller and Fantasy/Sci-Fi writers.
Happy endings are now considered “Stupid. Weak. Sappy. Immature and bad writing.” Heck, I keep hearing that opinion touted about tales that don't end with a massive body count of the characters we love most. For sure about the love interest, if she was more than a prize to be brought back home alive. (Yes, I keep saying "she" purposely, because we're talking about ye olde stereotypes.)
Some of that is the above-mentioned inability to know what to do with her once the Sparks of Acquiring have faded into an actual relationship after The Big Kiss.
Ummmm...I know! Off her. Big fight. She's history. Now the sequel can have Sparks of Acquiring with a new love interest until that next Big Kiss. Or--oooh! Love-triangle drama! That'll keep things sparkalicious and give New Relationship Energy to Our Hero while letting him keep his steady-eddy, ride-or-die ball-n-chain without having to (flounder around as the writer wonders how to) develop true intimacy with her, yeah!
Then there's this other thing. This assumption that happy = sappy and tragic = deep. (Or at least dramatic--read: interest-holding.) There is a lot of self-righteous condescension hurled down from on high when someone brags about how many beloved characters they snuffed, how widespread the genocide, how miserable they left their protagonist at the end, and how close to a Shakespearean tragedy they came.
That's great, if that's what you like to write.
But it doesn't automatically mean that a Happily Ever After, a healthy intact romantic relationship, or a protagonist who hasn't had their love interest and/or all their friends and family slaughtered are automatically "trivial tripe."
Happily Ever After (or Happy For Now) pretty much IS the bread-and-butter for the Romance genre.
And Romance IS Fantasy, no matter what kind of world or time period it’s set in. Fantasy is simply a story that imagines "what if?" It's a break from the mundanity, the disappointments, or the cold fish-slap of reality. With Fantasy and its sibling, Sci-Fi, we want a friggin’ break from reality, thank you very much. We save real-world stuff for the details that make a fantastical world feel lived in and a character feel fully-fleshed.
Otherwise the deviation is, "What if we had superpowers to deal with the reality of oppression and evil?" Or "What if evil could be annihilated by dumping a ring in a volcano?" Or "What if magic was real? Elves? Dwarves? Cities on Mars? Faster-than-light travel? What if evil was as obvious to spot as an orc or a cave troll, and we didn't have to have any conscience about wiping out as many as possible?"
Romance is just a different facet of the deviation from reality that Speculative Fiction gives us. It's the fantasy of, "What if the shitshow of sex and romance didn't have to end in divorce, heartbreak, violence, or misery?” It’s the fantasy of "What if my ideal romance could be real? How would they treat each other? What would they do together, create together? How would they best impact the world together? What kind of mind-blowing and mutually satisfying sex would they have? What kind of connection would they forge and how would that better their lives, not swing wrecking balls through it?"
Look at the stats of rabid novel-devouring in the Romance genre. It's a consistent chart-topper. That should tell you a little something about how many people resonate with this most trivialized and laughed-at genre. (1, 4)
And no, not all of them are women. We're the main demographic at 82% (1), but that only highlights this larger problem of mindset to me. "Ohhhh, Romance is nothing but love-triangle angst for teenage girls and bodice-ripping for bored, white housewives."
Not so anymore. Even Esquire Magazine has suggested that reading Romance novels would do men a world of good. (5) At long last, not all of the love interests are corralled into the cis-het binary or reserved for white people, and shows like Bridgerton and Hollywood have begun imagining historical "what ifs" regarding marginalized demographics. (6) I hope we'll be seeing more of that as time goes on, and that the stats will start evening out across the board of gender, sexual preference, and race/color in Romance's readership.
I wish I had recent personal examples beyond onscreen shows to say "woo-hoo" over, but I only got back the ability to pleasure-read a few months ago after more than a decade of difficulty in the wake of my 2nd-4th brain traumas. I'm currently on a binge of catching up with a few Fantasy series I was into when I lost reading comprehension for the second time.
But I've been following the conversations about these topics for years, because they affect my dastardly fiction just a little. These ground-breaking stories and characters have finally been allowed to step into the spotlight, and they're gaining momentum. I look forward to being able to read them now, instead of only watch them. MUAhahahaha...
And maybe...just possibly...when people now write tales like the kind I was trying to write in the 90s, "what if" those stories and the kinds of people who would love to read them could finally stop being separated by the walls of shame, silencing, censoring, stereotyped disbelief, and societal exclusion of anything but the old outdated "norms"?
The lens I'm primarily focused on with this blog series is that which has most adversely affected my Gladiatrix story and the aspects of my life that inspired it: gender equality/expectations and their relationship to gender identity and sexual preference.
For a really long time, these "norms" have dominated the Romance genre, just like the classic Hero Saves the Girl trope dominated the action, thriller, superhero, fantasy, and sci-fi genres until super recently. But that's the deal. The hero SAVES the damsel. The hero GETS the girl.
What about when the hero IS the girl?
Well...that's when everything starts to come apart at the seams like too many storytime romantic relationships do after The Big Kiss.
“But nuh-uh! Badass female protagonists are on the rise!”
Yes. They are. Finally.
To me, too many of them just look like females shoved into classic cookie-cutter Hero roles. And ooooh, lookie! There's also a fast & furious video about this whole topic. So rather than reiterating the whole thing (we're doing enough of that as it is), I'll just let you watch it. It even covers (spoily) one of the characters we're going to be diving into with the She-Ro's Journey: Rey from Star Wars. And yes. I, too, loved that scene for these very reasons:
So...yeah. Exactly, because my Gladiatrix was modeled after so many of the experiences I and my female friends have had in martial arts, employment, leadership, and of my experiences being a tomboy in the United States--first as an "ugly" one, later as a "pretty" one.
In the '90s, males kept telling me that Ishavanni wasn't big, tall, and burly enough to take out a guy. After I experimented with making her over six feet tall, at least that stopped being called into question quite so often. But then, a completely different set of problems rose to the forefront, some of which were contradictory.
"Whoa! She is way too muscular! She needs to be more feminine." (Read: sexy.)
"Gawwwwd, why do fighter chicks always have to cry after they slaughter somebody? They don't belong in combat if they can't suck it up and raise a mug of beer afterwards while laughing triumphantly about their kills."
"No! She has to have big boobs!"
"She is way too emotional." (Read: only guys get to be pissed off and be vocal about it. Vocal females are just "shrill, annoying, hysterical/loud-mouth bitches.") (9)
"Um...are you sure you don't wanna give her superpowers?
I tried that. Hated it.
Just as much as I hated having her over six feet tall, because then people wanted to typecast her like some kind of non-sexual Brienne--a butch badass nobody would ever want to fuck (or if they did, shhhh, they'd never admit it, or they'd only do it as a joke on a dare, and certainly never fall in love with her unless they were some kind of weak, cowardly "pussy"). But eventually the guys would come to adore her and claim her as their freaky-deaky pet once she proves several times--and twice more--that she can kick their asses.
Well, it would sure cut down on the risk of me writing sex scenes in there, wouldn't it?
"When I was a girl, my father held a ball. I was only a child so he wanted to make a good match for me. He invited dozens of young lords to Tarth, and it was wonderful. They whispered in my ear that they wanted to marry me and take me back to their castles. My father smiled at me and I smiled at him. I'd never been so happy. Then I saw a few of the boys sniggering. And then they all started to laugh--they couldn't keep the game going any longer. They were toying with me. 'Brienne the Beauty,' they called me. A great joke. And I realized I was the ugliest girl alive. A great, lumbering beast..."
~Brienne of Tarth, HBO's Game of Thrones (7)
Can I tell you just how thrilled I was to see Brienne handled as a love interest and unconventionally sexy woman I sooooooo wanted to see get laid and lurved more than any other on the show? We got to swoon over her through Tormund's doting eyes, and then through the slow evolution to romance with Jaime.
Jaime is an idiot. But we knew that. Then again, so is Brienne. (Although I loved the Jaime arc, I was always Team Tor.)
Anywaaaaay...around 2010, my Gladiatrix officially informed me, once and for all, that she is 5'10.
"And a half," Isha growls, because her height is an issue she constantly has to deal with. So is her musculature. So is her bone frame. So are her boobs. So are her scars and her punch-crooked nose. So is her lack of a penis. So is the shape of her curves--and yes. She is constantly caught between being a (lowly, despised) female and not being feminine (sexy) enough.
We don't know anybody around here who's had firsthand experience with that. Not in martial arts. Not in belly dancing. Not in sex and romance, nope! *innocent whistle*
One of the greatest gifts I received from my pan-flash of working with a legit editor was confirmation that my fantasy gladiatorial world did not need elves, orcs, wizards or people who can blow fireballs out their asses. Really, my world just needed more of itself--including my Gladiatrix. Upon being told by a prominent Someone in the biz--a male Someone, no less!--that I finally, at long last, no longer need to endow this woman with supernatural powers to make her fight scenes believable, I raised a hallelujah and cut a boatload of the elements I had hated putting in there.
For too many decades, I had tried shift after shift to get past the innumerable stereotypes of The Inconceivable. But so many people could either see my Gladiatrix as a competent female combatant OR a desirable love interest. She simply didn't register as what a Glamazon fighter-chick "should" be.
Probably because I wrote her too much from life and my "what if" imagination, rather than from copying familiar fantastical characters like Red Sonja or my beloved Xena (8). I've actually never watched all of Sonja, and I'd written great swaths of these books before Xena ever hit the screen. Heck, I'd never caught more than a glimpse of the Warrior Princess until 2014, long after I'd shelved my gladiators, putting them to ferment while I created my third fantastical world. Neither did I mimic all those movie portrayals of historical warrior women with their overabundance of ridiculous, cumbersome, and unprotective sexy armor bullshit.
I find it really funny when some of things people find the most unbelievable are things directly out of lesser-known history or my personal experiences, rather than what they've seen onscreen or read in other Fantasy novels.
These issues people have had with my Gladiatrix, as well as her story arc that includes love, sex, babies AND badassery are the main reason I eventually considered switching genre.
My kind of fantasy: OM-nom-nom-nom-nom...
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: ROMANCE *IS* FANTASY - Childish Dreams vs. Heroic Aspirations
--OR: All my writing about My Obsession With the Gladiatrix
--OR: My Gladiatrix: "Is this a femi-nazi novel?"
--OR: Sex, Love & Violence - all my writing about this topic combo
--OR: My own adventures as a weapon-wielding female
SOME MORE LINKS
--Romance is a billion dollar industry. So why is still so overlooked?
2) A Reddit discussion that sums up my (and many others') frustration that there aren't any in-depth Fantasy-Sci-Fi reader demographics polls on par with the stats of the Romance genre for...many reasons. Polls can't even agree if more males or females read this genre these days.
3) Another lonnnng discussion of the polarizing topic: to write a sex scene in Fantasy novels or Fade to Black?
--"What's wrong with sex?" - Five pages of character-development through erotic content get a three hundred page Sci-Fi novel condemned as "porn." Yet horrific violence is okay.
5) Esquire Magazine discusses why men should read Romance novels - "Better for you than porn."
6) What If...
--Bridgerton - what if the Queen of England had been celebrated as Black, and how might that have affected the whole of inclusive society?
--Bridgerton S2 - placing Indian women at the forefront of the action and romance.
--Hollywood - what if Hollywood, onscreen and off, had not come to existence under the domination of the cis-het white monopoly?
7) Ser Brienne of Tarth - Knight Extraordinaire
9) Female Author & Women's Voices Bullshit
--The Fantasy genre's "I don't read female authors" nonsense - including publishers' and marketing prejudices, and readers’ subconscious bias to consider male authors “better” or “more authoritative” even if they don’t consciously have a gender preference.
--My Novel Wasn't the Problem, It Was Me - a female author pitches the same manuscript under a male pen name and receives abominably (but unsurprisingly) different results.
-- "Women Write Family, Men Write War" - The gender-loaded words reviewers STILL in this century subconsciously assume that female and male authors write about.
--Manterruption: Women are interrupted more, talk less, yet are perceived to be talking more than they actually are. They're perceived as less competent than males, and less confident--or else "too aggressive." They also interrupt less and are negatively viewed when they do.
--"SHRILL" - The technological science behind making female voices so grating that listeners want to tune them out. “…the word “shrill” is not about the off-putting volume, pitch, or timbre of a woman’s voice--it’s an attempt to silence a voice.”
10) Modern Slavery & Gender Inequality
--Think slavery is one of those outdated practices of the past? Think again.
--No matter what it says on the law books, the practices of slavery aren't actually criminalized in many places, including forced labor and forced marriage.
--Women's Inequality: when we think we have it bad here in the US. The site also has pages for the rights of children, the elderly, disabled and LGBTQ+
11) Religion, Spirituality, Sex, Pain
12) My Favorite Female Fantasy Authors
--Karen Marie Moning - and yes, she's technically a Romance author but the fantastical and adventure elements are incredible!