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  • Writer's pictureJulia Hass

Nothing Says Chick-lit Like Filmy Nightgowns and Rape Jokes

Once a year I engage in what I like to refer to as Charlie Bucket-ism.

For those of you not familiar with Charlie Bucket because you’re all a bunch of heathens, he is the intrepid and plucky hero of childhood literature staple Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Wee Charlie lives in extreme poverty, but once a year he splurges an entire dollar (maybe a quarter? I don’t know. I remember it’s some ridiculously small amount of money, but Roald Dahl wasn’t even American, so it’s all very confusing) on a Willy Wonka chocolate bar. This is of course before he (spoiler alert!) wins a golden ticket to visit Willy Wonka’s factory and then inadvertently ends up inheriting the whole thing by proving his purity of spirit or some such childishly wonderful nonsense.

The point is, once a year I, like Charlie, buy my proverbial chocolate bar in the form of a trashy romance novel that I read on my vacation to family camp. The only difference is that while these books are, like Charlie’s chocolate bars, delicious, they also cause my brain to have minor seizures and actually atrophy my smarty-parts. So really it’s like the Charlie Bucket analogy, if Charlie only had one chocolate bar a year because otherwise he’d go into a diabetic coma. (I’m not sure how this works, exactly. Maybe he can only afford one insulin shot a year? Clearly, I have never had diabetes.)

This all started one year when my friends and I found a trashy romance novel lying around and had far too much fun reading aloud portions of it aloud in our best salacious movie announcer voice. (I believe that year it was about a plucky virgin cowgirl who gets seduced by a wandering vagrant.) The next year we found another (this time, taffeta and high-society longing!) and decided to make it a tradition. And by we, I mean that I had so much fun reading these affronts to the English language that I decided I should make a point to engage in reading them yearly. I think my favorite is still the one about a time-traveling Viking who ends up in present-day California, where he meets and falls in love with a plucky (they’re always plucky), exotic beauty helplessly trying to keep her family’s winery afloat. (The neighbors, are, of course, an evil rich corporation engaged in shenanigans. There are always shenanigans.) This was made even better when I realized halfway through, upon paging back to the beginning to wonder at what else this “author” had written – that this was an installment series of time-traveling Vikings in modern California falling for plucky ladies. It’s an epidemic! Who knew!

This year, I selected from the library Untouched by Anna Campbell. This turned out to be a mistake, but I simply could not say no to the description, with its Stephanie Meyers-esque use of ellipses, promises of compromised virtue in a virtuous woman (referred to as, I kid you not, “no common trollop”). Of course, I was sure that inevitably she would surrender to the mysteriously dashing Lord Sheene, who’s a crazy shut in that’s not really crazy. Except for how he probably would be crazy by any normal standards. It’s like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, if the Hunchback had sex! It was as if there was a Willy Wonka bar that had marshmallows in it, and those marshmallows were on steroids.

But oh, how far this story fell in my estimation.

Sure, everything that was promised to happen happened. Grace Paget, the heroine (who is not so much “plucky” as “wilted”), gets kidnapped by some no-good-very-bad men who mistake her for a whore. She is brought to a far-away manor where she awakens to find herself bound on a table like a pig at a feast and a mega-hottie gazing at her with his dreamy golden eyes. That should have been my first clue that this book would suck. Look, for the last fucking time, there is no such thing as golden eyes. You can have amber eyes. Flecks of amber can look gold. But there is no such thing as actual golden eyes unless you are some sort of bird of prey or cat.

Anyways, genetically impossible dreamboat Lord Sheene is gazing down at our heroine, and he is obsessed with her breasts. Obsessed. Which is actually the least creepy thing about him. See, Lord Sheene has been trapped in his house since his psychotic break (which the author constantly assures us he is totally recovered from), and is now being held there as a helpless pawn so his one-dimensionally evil uncle can continue to control his considerable wealth. And since he’s getting restless, his uncle and his henchmen decide the one way to keep him happy is to kidnap him a whore to rape any time he feels the urge. Now that is what I call a birthday present!

Despite the author’s obsessive reminding us that Lord Sheene is totally the picture of manly health, the guy’s nuts. He’s constantly prowling places, his golden eyes flashing, having paranoid delusions, obsessive thoughts about Grace’s breasts (though that seems to be her only redeeming feature, so maybe not so crazy?) and bouts of explosive temper. Grace is righteous, sniffy, cries more than a leaky faucet, and has this insane complex over the fact that she ran away from her life of luxury to be with a political revolutionary who failed to rev any of her engines.

The book goes like this: Lord Sheene sees Grace. He wants her, but can’t have her, and is convinced his uncle planted her to gain information from him. (Why his uncle would need information is never explained. Apparently, he’s just that much of a douchebag.) Thereby, he swears never to fall sway to her hypontic boob powers, lest she take advantage of him. Grace spends a lot of time running around in filmy nightgowns and dresses that put the ta-tas on display (since, of course, they planned only on outfitting a whore), whining that there’s been a dreadful mistake and she’s not a whore! Only to be told to shut the hell up or the uncle and his goons will rape and kill her. So she’s shut in with her dreamboat, Lord Crazypants. There are a lot of scenes that are like a really low quality production of the Something’s There sequence from Beauty and the Beast, only without any of the good music, animated household objects, or pure Disney-fied joy. Grace (it’s always Grace, you know women and their passions) decides she simply must sleep with Lord Sheene, so she goes down in her see-through nightgown and seduces him, and they have amazing, orgasmic, life-altering sex.

This takes about fifty pages.

By around the fiftieth page, Lord Sheene wakes up and decides the sex was only good because the woman he slept with was a dirty, good-for nothing whore. Grace doesn’t understand why What’s-His-Face is ignoring her after he introduced her to what orgasms are, so she goes around flaunting her boobies righteously, and the whole cycle continues for another thirty pages. After thirty pages, Lord Sheene says “fuck it!”, sleeps with her, only to have he spirited away by his uncle who reminds her of his avowal to rape and kill her unless she performs her whore duties. The fact that she even talked to his uncle is enough to make the clearly genius, completely mentally balanced, and not at all paranoid Lord Sheene decide that he can’t trust her or her breasts. At least not until he sleeps with her twenty pages later.

Honestly, I’m pretty sure this vein continues for the rest of the book, but by about halfway through I got so fed up I decided that I couldn’t bear to continue. This is not the Wonka bar I signed up for! Luckily, the island has a little “library” which is basically just a tiny cabin designated as a silent adult area, and people leave their old paperbacks there when they’re too lazy to bring them back. Perfect breeding ground for trashy romance novels, right? That is, after all, where the first two came from. After combing through way too many non-fictions or Chicken Soup for the Souls, I found a classic Danielle Steel, Season of Passion. Can’t go wrong with a Danielle Steel, I thought!

Hah. Hah hah. Hah hah hah.

To be fair, this book was written in 1980. I’m aware that a few things have changed since then. We've decided, for example, that feathered hair was a really bad idea.

Also, since 1980 authors have discovered how to write sex scenes which, let me tell you, is a huge narrative improvement. Nothing kills the emotional impact of a romantically charged moment faster than a blunt “and then they got down and did the nasty”. As uncomfortable as I, as a reader, tend to be with sex scenes (there's never a good way to describe nipples), they tend to be good at showing rather than telling the emotional state of two characters, especially in regards to each other.. Plus, without them, how would phrases like “his throbbing manhood”, “his quivering sex”, and “the core of her womanhood” have ever entered into our collective consciousness?  Thank you, trashy romance novels.

Now, if this book had just been lacking in sex, I’d go “how quaint!” and move on with it, but no, I’m pretty convinced that even by the standards of thirty years ago, this book was pretty reprehensible from a social and moral responsibility point of view.

Because whenever I started whining about this, people looked at me like an idiot, I’m going to clarify – I’m not expecting startling insights into intersectional feminism or positive portrayals of LGBTQ+ characters or other minority groups. I know what I’m getting into. I know what I’m about to embark upon has the psychological insight of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and are so whitebread and heteronormative it makes Disney films look like multinational gay orgies. But I have some standards that I try not to play with, namely, don’t play around with rape, and try not to be overtly insulting or getting down with the hate speech.

So when, a good while into the book, a fashionable older woman in a fur coat is described as being “followed by her faggots”, my eyes nearly popped out of my face. I went back and re-read it. And re-read it again. Nope, not a typo, they’re really describing a woman as being followed by her faggots. And this was not a once-off thing! Later in the book when the hero Nick is explaining to the heroine, Kate, why he’s gone so long without a girlfriend, he helpfully brings up that some people have thought he was a faggot, but don’t worry, honey, he isn’t really! Oh, thank god. What a mensch, am I right?

And then, as if to prove how totally un-faggy he is, Nick starts with the rape jokes. You read that right, rape jokes. Because nothing makes me fall into a guy’s arms faster than him saying something along the lines of “You look so hot I’m tempted to rape you right here”. I’m not kidding, he says stuff like that. Multiple times.

This book, I finished. I figured it was just an antiquated standards thing, but when I was telling my mom about it, she assured me that no, that was equally as repulsive thirty years ago as it was today, and why on earth did I waste my time reading this tripe?

After this year, I’m not sure. All I know is this – Charlie Bucket never had to deal with this shit.

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