opiate of the mass-market

Today’s postcard is a bit of jump jump jump–from Hong Kong free traders to the rise of openly Nazi candidates in the 2018 midterm elections via a bodice-ripper or two. 

Here’s the question: Is E.J. Eitel’s Europe in Asia actually a Victorian-era pirate bromance before the fact? That’s the question that keeps bubbling up when I read his characterization of opium pushers free traders like William Jardine and James Matheson. Compare, for example, how smoothly the prologue from a popular historical romance links up with a passage from Eitel:

Both families are quite wealthy and grand now, but rumors are that the cow theft was only the beginning of the way the Everseas intended to build their fortune. They’re such a cheerful clan, you see, so ’tis difficult to countenance. But piracy has been implied. Smuggling intimated. Much darker things alleged. Kidnapping, larceny. Accusations have been leveled over the centuries, and accusations, as we all know, tend to originate somewhat in fact. But no one is certain where their considerable money originated, and no one has ever proved a thing (Julie Anne Long (2008) The Perils of Pleasure, which was the first book in an 11-book series that revolved around the pirate Lyon Redmond.)

Thus it happened that, even before the final expiration (A.D. 1834) of the Company’s Charter, free trade cheerily began to rear its head at Canton. A new impetus was thereby given to British trade, and in the year 1832 as many as seventy-four British ships arrived at Canton. The little band of high-spirited, highly-educated and influential private merchants, that gathered at Canton during the closing years of the East India Company’s monopoly, were, by their very position, ardent advocates of free trade and determined opponents of protection and monopoly in every shape or form. Some of them removed in later years to Hongkong and the spirit of free trade that filled them descended as a permanent heirloom to the future merchant princes of Hongkong. If the experiences of the East India Company negatively paved the way for the future Colony by demonstrating the irreconcilable antipathy of the Chinese against any equitable intercourse with Europeans, and the impossibility of conducting trade on a basis of international self-respect at Canton, this little band of free traders, the Jardines, the Mathesons, the Dents, the Gibbs, the Turners, the Hollidays, the Braines, the Innes, unconsciously did for the future Colony of Hongkong what subsequently Cobden did for Manchester, and prepared the public mind for future free trade in a free port on British soil in China (22-23).

See? Both the popular romance author Julie Anne Long and Eitel accept that during the 19th century piracy and setting up shop in the East were not simply means to acquiring wealth, but also that self-made wealth was the sign of manly virility; piracy, it would seem is cheerfully erotic. And indeed, the website goodreads has a list ranking the best mass-market romance novels with a pirate or a pirate theme, where readers’ responses rank the books on how swoon-worthy the hero. But.

And it’s a giant but. Most of the books on the list end up being about rape and how it transforms into love over the course of hundreds of tumultuous pages:

Highbrow this is not, but that didn’t stop me from buying it and enjoying it. A PIRATE’S LOVE is a 1970s bodice ripper, which you can usually take to mean that it contains a whopping dash of WTF and a hero who quaffs misogyny like he’s trying to get drunk on woman-hating. I don’t know why I like these books so much but I’m not going to apologize for it, and I’ll be the first to admit that they’re problematic, but something about them just calls to me. Maybe because they seem fearless of causing offense in a way that many modern-day romances don’t, and I admire their ballsiness.

Is followed by:

I have seen all the negative reviews because of the rape scenes, but this book was written back in 1978. Back then, in the romance writer’s world it was called forced seduction, not rape. Forced seduction was the norm for books back then. Kathleen E. Woodiwiss who will always be the Grand Dame of historical romances, also wrote a forced seduction book “The Flame and the Flower” and Laurie McBain also had the forced seduction scene as well. I could go on for a long time naming all the great authors of the 1970s who wrote these “forced seduction” scenes.

Why am I worried today? Less than half a century ago, forced seductions on the high seas was pleasurable, but rather that our continued (guilty?) pleasure in these fantasies means that pirate romances are still a mainstay in mass-market romance, raising uncomfortable questions about why white US American women not only vote for fascist and nazi “heroes,” but also aren’t concerned by what these heroes have done in their professional lives. In the pirate books and reviews there of, rape gets kinda-but-not-really questioned. However, piracy as a historic institution that enabled colonialism does not even get a raised eyebrow. In fact, one of childhood traumas the heroes have to overcome is the fact that the aristocracy looks down on trade and traders. In this world, piracy is a way of reclaiming one’s masculinity, much like Jardine and Matheson redeemed their self-respect by free trade in opium.

In the romanceverse, love is a kind of alchemy that transforms the beloved from an asshole into a misunderstood alpha, whose crimes are then reframed as expressions of some childhood trauma, which could be poverty or an ex-lover’s betrayal and usually some convoluted mix of the two. Indeed, the problem for those of us continually shocked by the voting habits of white women is that we aren’t really taking seriously how important restoring white masculinity is to many of us. In these romances, what the beloved does in his professional life doesn’t matter once he has professed his love for the heroine. Her role is to forgive and not to judge, a role which restores white masculinity, even as it preempts action in the public sphere.

And lest you think these fantasies are limited to republicans, so popular are romance novels among white women that npr (and yes I contribute) makes sex-positive, body-positive, and diverse romance recommendations for summer romance reading. In 2017, a pirate topped the list.





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