So…how do you find a happy ending when the world is on fire?
How can you justify falling in love when freedom is at risk, when rights are being threatened, when values are attacked and truth is treated with disregard?
How does anyone do this?
I’m not one to talk; I’m single, for one thing, and my constant struggle with mental illness means that I can’t engage myself in current events without descending into ultimate hopelessness. (Just look at my social media timeline from last year.) But now’s the right time to start talking about the happy endings that we do deserve, even when things crumble around our ears.
First and foremost, we should start talking about consent, and especially enthusiastic consent. I had to face my own moments of reckoning on consent when I realized that the kisses I’ve written into my books are on the rough side, and almost always a way to get the main character to shut up. In my line of work, kisses are part of a healthy expression of sexual attraction, and to force one on another without taking consent into consideration can leave a bad taste in one’s mouth (pun intended). Experience has taught me that a kiss is at its most magical when it’s wanted in the first place, and I would expect nothing less for my own characters to have that for themselves.
While we’re at it, can we please talk about alpha males in romance? Writers have acknowledged that the appeal of alpha males on paper depends on how they are written in the first place; as an author I know recently put it, the difference between book boyfriends and real-life men is that we can literally read our book boyfriends’ thoughts on the written page. Some men don’t get the memo on this (again, consent and everything) but there are men who read, and do, and use the words as a jumping point to becoming a better partner, even if it means growling in bed from time to time. If you want to ask me, however, I can say that some women do find happiness in awkward but kind men who are as mushy as marshmallows on the inside, so that’s that.
And if we’re talking about the men, we should also bring up positive female relationships as well. This is one of the toughest things for me to write about; most of time, the women in my stories talk about men, and when they don’t they talk about career issues and job anxiety. I’ll admit that this has been tough on me because of how I deal with my own real-life friendships, but I want to work on this, and I want to see more of this in other people’s books as well, because how are we going to achieve sisterhood if we can’t see the bond for ourselves?
Then there’s the elephant in the room: sex. In an article for cosmopolitan.com, Andie J. Christopher wrote about the reckoning that she faced as a romance author in the light of #MeToo and the full spectrum of piggish behavior from men. “I’m not letting women down with too-high expectations,” she writes. “I’m showing what I wish we, myself included, had been demanding all along.” And that’s true, because I think it’s about time we started cross-examining why we have sex with the people that we do. As cute as it is to have a scene with bad sex in any of our books—sometimes delivered tongue-in-cheek, as if to say, “Ha ha, they’re just like us!”—there’s also something condescending about it; there’s that implication that if these likable people can’t get it together, then you might as well take what you’ve given and accept it as the status quo. Don’t get me wrong: not everything can be cured by life-changing sex. But this is another case of not knowing what to ask for if we don’t see how it works for ourselves, and I think we should contribute to the conversation of why we want what we want.
But most of all, let’s write about joy—our joy. Exquisite suffering has its time and place, but for women like us in the Philippines, we don’t get to really think about how we don’t see ourselves falling in love and being happy. It doesn’t diminish the problems of the world to write something where your main characters fall in love and ride off into the sunset, but if it means seeing people with our faces and our experiences on the written page, then so be it.
All I’m saying is that everything we do is not “just writing.” We’re writing the books that we want to read ourselves, and we’re sharing it with people who think they’re not seeing themselves in other books. The world may be on fire right now, but we will not cower under our couches for too long. It’s about damn time.