Marginalized People Are Not Blow-Up Dolls: On Power Differentials in Romance

If I were to make a list of books that profoundly changed my way of thinking, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man would be near the top.  In particular, there is a scene late in the novel in which a white woman tries to drag the narrator into an increasingly bizarre rape fantasy centered around the idea of a white woman being ravished by a black man. The woman sees her self-identification with the political left as overriding the racial tension of the scene; she sees herself as progressive and adventurous, even as she literally uses a black man as a prop in her sexual fantasy.  What makes this fantasy disturbing, instead of delightfully kinky, is that is exists in a context where the stereotype of black men as sexually aggressive had (and continues to have) lethal consequences.

Kayleigh Donaldson has written an excellent piece on how this trope— the middle-class able-bodied white woman paired with a racialized man– manifests in romance, specifically romance-focused media set in Scotland. Although her analysis is specific to a particular circumstance, she identifies some of the reason this trope tends to veer quickly into troubling territory.

First and foremost, this trope centers a particular subset of women as both the ‘everywoman’ and the feminine ideal, in spite of the fact that ‘middle class cishet able-bodied English/Anglo-American femme’ fails to describe most of the women on the planet.  It’s particularly uncomfortable when this template gets conflated with an ‘ideal’ woman. While romance requires an element of wish-fulfillment, the problem here is that the image of the white cishet able-bodied femme comes with a lot of cultural baggage.

Specifically, the idealized white woman sits at the center of a particularly pernicious stereotype, which posits that marginalized men (particularly nonwhite men) lust aggressively after innocent, fragile white women. This has been a rhetorical device used to justify everything from anti-Black terrorism in the United States to anti-Jewish policy in Europe.

There is, of course, an inversion of this trope, where the Generic White Dude romances an innocent, submissive, hyperfeminine ‘exotic’ woman, usually East Asian or Native American (Miss Saigon has been identified by my Asian-American friends as the barf-inducing apex of this trope). Once again, we see a disturbing spillover from these fictional archetypes into real life, including which women are seen as disposable sex toys.

While I’m not going to tell you not to write inter-cultural romances, I’m going to ask you to do so with a great deal of care, research, and self-reflection.

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