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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Bisexual Steve Rogers and the Heteronormative Default

Heteronormativity is the belief that people fall into a distinct gendered binary (man or woman) in all aspects of human behavior and relationships, enforcing rigid socially constructed ideas of gender and sexuality. It is based on the notion that heterosexuality is the only or default sexual orientation, thus all romantic and sexual relationships must fit into the rigid confines of heterosexuality. This ideas is false, incredibly damaging, and sadly extremely pervasive in many cultures. It even can influence how we view homosexuality, creating a kind of light-switch with only two settings, gay or straight. This “light-switch” idea is so common in our cultural consciousness, that almost every story functions on the default assumption that everyone is heterosexual unless explicitly labeled homosexual.

So, what does this have to do with the beloved alter ego of Captain America? Simple, Steve Rogers is bisexual. No, seriously. Let me explain.

If we are to dismantle heteronormativity we have to actively alter how we view relationships and sexuality. Ideally, we should already view everyone as fluid until they identify otherwise, but I find that breaking the binary all together is far more effective in demonstrating the pervasiveness of heteronormativity. So, for the sake of this experiment let’s shift our default assumption to bisexual.

Let’s start by looking at the movie Captain America: The First Avenger and assume Steve is bisexual, until proven otherwise. Right off the bat many people with point to Steve’s relationship with Peggy Carter and it’s obviously romantic connotations as proof of his heterosexuality. While I won't dispute that there is most definitely a romantic relationship between them, of which I'm a huge fan, but that doesn’t disproves Steve's bisexuality. After all, bisexuality is an attraction to people of any gender. Another important thing to note is there are no sex scenes or even implied sex in this film. Any assumptions we make will be based on platonic interactions and emotional intimacy.

Out of the gate Steve and Peggy’s interactions do not fit into standard romantic cliches. Steve is introduced to Peggy as a passive observer, and a subordinate. They do not directly interact until the cab ride before he is transformed, while they do have an intimate conversation, that has implied romantic subtext, it is clear they are not in a romantic relationship or even courting each other.

Even in later scenes that do have heavy romantic subtext, like when Peggy discovers Steve is kissing another woman and Steve assumes Peggy is involving in some sort of sex act called “fondue” with Howard Stark, it is still unclear if a romantic relationship has been established. These scenes are less about romance, and more about using gender coded behavior and sexist stereotypes as a narrative devices to show more about the characters, i.e. Steve’s insecurity and Peggy’s guarded nature. These are two coworkers and friends, who might have sexual or romantic interest in each other, but at no point in the film do they refer each other girlfriend/boyfriend. (I might also add that neither of them ever says “I am heterosexual” out loud. Which means Peggy Carter is bisexual too, but that’s a post for another day.)

Now, let’s compare Steve’s relationships with Peggy to his relationship with Bucky. They too are coworkers and friends, who have an established relationship and even share several emotionally intimate scenes. Bucky is the reason Steve goes behind enemy lines in his first real act as Captain America. When Bucky is presumed dead Steve is devastated.

Sure, at the start of the film Bucky and Steve go on a double date with two women, but again this doesn’t disprove bisexuality in either of them. The only notable difference between these two relationships is that Steve and Peggy kiss, but considering the lack of any sexual or romantic interaction up to that point it would be easy enough to assume it is their first/last kiss. Thus it doesn’t confirm an establish relationship, much less disprove Steve Rogers’ bisexuality.

Kissing aside, the only real difference in the narratives of both relationships are the genders of the individuals involved. If we are to look at them through our default bisexual lens, it is not only clear that Steve Rogers has romantic feelings for Peggy, but it shows a very real likelihood that he was also in love with Bucky. Based on this assumption and the lack of an established relationship with Peggy the narrative of Steve’s relationships takes on a whole new, and complex dimension.

Is Steve’s lack of self confidence fed by an unspoken love with his best friend? Was Peggy aware of it, and chose to not express her own feelings until after Bucky died? I’ll leave all these questions to fan fiction authors to answer.

Strong relationships are important part of the narrative of a good story, even comic book action films. Steve’s love for Bucky, be it platonic or romantic, is what drove him to become Captain America. Likewise, Peggy's affection and support helped Steve on that journey. We can also see that those relationships are important no matter the genders of those involved. Peggy and Bucky both have a profound impact on Steve’s life. Both character appear in person or at least are mentioned in every film Steve is in. Most relevant to the topic at hand though is that there is no way to disprove that Steve Rogers is bisexual, since both relationships are equality strong and emotionally intimate.

The point that I’m trying to make is that the writers of this film, and media in general, do not even try to differentiate the presentation of a friendship between two men and a romance between a man and woman. Why? Because it is assumed that the audience will automatically code the men as heterosexual, and thus know implicitly that their relationship is platonic. Likewise, they rely on the assumption that because Peggy is a woman, she will automatically be viewed as a sexal/romantic partner for Steve.

This is true of how all relationships are portrayed throughout the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Which explains why there is so much speculation about Black Widow’s romantic involvement with the other Avengers. She is a woman and they are men, and thus all her interactions with them are coded as sexual/romantic even when they are intended to be seen as platonic.

It would be lovely if we didn’t have to label people at all, but we are all taught from a very young age and reminded on a daily basis to default view our world through a heteronormative lens. These ideas harm everyone. Which is why it is important to be aware of and actively dismantle them.

Don’t forget, Steve Rogers is bisexual.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Anything but Broken by Joelle Knox

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Trigger Warning: This book touches on suicide and bipolar disorder. It deals directly with mental and emotional abuse, anxiety disorder, and alcoholism. The word "crazy" is also used a great deal.

A harsh reality of adolescence is not all of us make it out alive. Those of us who do survive often carry the weight of those lost lives with us, along with a fair amount of survivor’s guilt. This is one of the quintessential New Adult experiences that I rarely see explored in any genre of fiction, much less with this much care, thoughtfulness, and raw honesty.

Hannah Casey has come home to deal with the aftermath of a car accident that resulted in the death of her father and hospitalization of her mother. As the only living member of her family Hannah is forced to take on real adult responsibilities, and return to a town she hasn’t seen since she was fifteen. While she faces the ghosts of her past, she runs into Sean Witlow, her first crush, and her (dead) sister’s ex-boyfriend. Tragedy brings them together, but it’s love and the possibility of a second chance at happiness that draws them closer. If only those the secrets that have haunted Hannah will stay in the past.

I went into this book with the expectations of a well written, steamy romance intensified by a personal tragedy. While all of this elements are present, Anything But Broken elevates them far beyond my wildest expectations. From the opening scene of the book the skillful storytelling blew me away. In that scene, where Hannah returns to her childhood home, there was a tangible the sense of foreboding that gave it the feel of a contemporary gothic horror, only instead of ghost and castles it had memories and a home gym. That oppressive sense of impending dread that mirrors Hannah's own mental and emotional state felt like a living breathing entity that hung over me while I read. It’s made me tense and anxious to keep reading, in anticipation of the prevail shoe that was destined to drop. And when it did, though I thought I was ready for it, I wasn’t even remotely prepared for how realistic and how emotionally it was, for me.

The writing is flawless. It reads so smoothly, but also lavish in it's world building. I know, that seems like a strange things to say about a contemporary story, but in this case it fits. Hurricane Creek feels like a real place. You fell the humidity of a Georgia summer night, and almost taste the sweet smell of fresh peaches. More importantly,  I feel like I know all these characters. I’ve traveled with them through the backroads of Hurricane Creek, seen them at their highest and lowest. That kind of emotional investment doesn't just happen by accident.

On the surface Hannah looks like your typical romantic heroine. In reality, she is anything but. This girl is a very flawed and deeply damaged young woman. She makes a lot of mistakes, but she also learns from them and grows over the course of the story. Hannah is a beautifully complex young woman, a refreshing mixture of courage, recklessness, and vulnerability that feels so on the spot for being just shy of 21. It meant a lot to me personally to see a young woman allowed to come back from a big fall. I think we often forget how girls are pressured to be perfect to the point that they many fear being written off forever for being human.

As for the romantic leading man, Sean Witlow. WOW! He too seems to be all the classic Alpha male tropes wrapped in a hot mechanic/racer, but he is so much more. It is wonderful to see a young man understand and respect consent, who loves and forgives, but who is also goes through his own character arc. He is actually allowed to process guilt and grief, while growing and learning. He is still a delightfully sexy romantic fantasy, but also a very believable working class man who truly appreciates and respects women.

Hannah and Sean’s relationship is a perfect balance of sweet romantic fantasy and realistic depiction of how tragedy can intensify attraction. I was really impressed with how much time was give to the development of their relationship.  Trust is the foundation of their relationship that carries them into some of the hottest sex scenes I have ever read, even the ones that never involve penis-in-vagina sex. The slow building sexual tension never lets up even when the story reaches both its literal and thematic climaxes. This is top notch erotic romance, and some of the most subversively feminist I’ve ever read. Even within the throws of a sex act that is one of the most classic symbol of masculine dominance the focus is on Hannah’s pleasure and power, and this prioritization of Hannah’s pleasure is emphasized by Sean himself.

The story also has a strong ensemble cast of distinct and endearing characters, who I hope to see get their own spotlights in the rest of the Hurricane Creek series. Gibb and Evie being two of my personal favorites, both are just as complex as Hannah and Sean while having fascinating backstories of their own. I especially love how we watch Hannah’s own view of Gibb changed over the course of the story as she came to know him better. This double duty character development, that felt so organic while reading, is what I'm mean when I say the storytelling blew my mind.

As for the contents of the trigger warning, this story isn’t about suicide or mental illness, so much as it is about the devastation of alcoholism. It is really a story for families of addicts, exploring that painful awakening we all go through at some point in our lives when we realize just how much destruction addiction has done to us and those we love, but also how we could succumb to it someday too. It also unpacks the psychological damage that children of alcoholics deal with, in this case anxiety. Anything but Broken deals with each of these topics with unflinching honesty and understanding that resonated with me on a very personal level.

I cried a great deal while reading this book, both happy tears and very painfully personal ones. I share this not just to applaud the novel, but to further warn other readers who may share some of these traumas. I love this book, and will read it again. But it is very honest and raw, which might trigger reactions with readers who relate a great deal with Hannah's childhood/family dynamics.

I honestly could writing a hundred essays on every detail of this book, and I still might, but for the sake of this review I will just say it is a great, very steamy romance with an honest heart and realistic portrayal of some of the hardest parts of growing up.

Anything But Broken by Joelle Knox buy it on Amazon and Kobo now.

Note about the authors: Joelle Knox is the pen name of Donna Herren and Bree Bridges, the talented writing duo behind the dystopian erotic romance Beyond series as Kit Rocha and they’ve penned dozens of paranormal novels as Moira Rogers.