Monday, July 30, 2007

AMC’s “Mad Men” and Gender Bias

AMC’s new series, “Mad Men,” concerns a Madison Avenue advertising agency in 1960. That year my own father was early in his career as a copywriter for a humbler but equally cutthroat agency in Milwaukee. I grew up overhearing my parents’ conversations about Life in the Old Ad Game, at least from a man’s point of view.

I’m sure my dad never pulled any of the sexual harassment that is daily fare at the agency on the show, and meanwhile my mom had a part-time but still respectable career as a medical technologist and was no mousy little housewife. As enlightened as my family was, I still grew up in a world with those 50’s-style sensibilities: the man was head of the house, the woman served him dinner whatever time he got home from the office and did all the other housework too. My Ken doll had a doctor outfit and my Barbie played nurse. Although I did work hard to become the first female president in history of Mr. Havlinek’s sixth grade class, I still felt my ultimate goal in life was to be a wife and mother.

But in the interim, four decades have gone by, and things have changed more than you know. It’s amazing to look back on all the stages of society’s transformation, particularly in terms of the workplace.

Eighteen years after 1960, I was out of college and starting my career. I got a job as a legal secretary to one of the most successful trial lawyers in Indiana. He was a mover-and-shaker and richer than God; I was pretty much nothing. When I asked to be moved out of the office I shared with a chain-smoking fellow secretary, my request was denied--even though I was pregnant! And I didn’t dare turn down my boss’s request that I administer eardrops to him. I shudder at the thought to this day...he had really hairy ears. While I was living on food pantry donations (putting my husband through seminary), my boss left stacks of gold Krugerrands on his desk and thought nothing of it. Still, things were better than in 1960; at least no lawyers hit on me as do the ad men in “Mad Men.”

A decade later, in 1990, I was still working as a legal secretary; it’s remarkable how slowly the advancement of women’s issues occurred in that world. The gulf in importance between inner and outer offices remained as broad as the River Styx. We secretaries were treated as little more than office equipment...we still had to call our bosses “Mr.” Though we slaved on closing big investment deals as hard as they did, when the deal was complete, they went out to drink champagne on the company dime and we took the bus home.

I decided I couldn’t take the world of law firms anymore and found a job in finance instead. Sadly, lot of the same problems happened there. Not a one of the vice presidents was female. All the men had offices with windows and doors and the women worked in an area quite like the steno pools of old. But at least we were all on a first name basis, and slowly I worked my way up till I was in charge of both marketing and the office’s computer network. Unfortunately, finance is another of the last bastions of gender bias. I just got tired of working my butt off to help a bunch of white guys get richer.

My current job is at a small, family-owned company in the suburbs that is made up of a lot more down-to-earth, blue collar types. I finally found a place where I could thrive and where my employer would reward me fairly with opportunity, pay, and perks. I have a big office with a window. Everyone respects me. And in 2007, you can’t get a guy to sexually harass you even if you offer to pay him! Only one little detail spoils the idyllic picture of gender equality: our company has only one female manager (it’s not me) and I haven’t been promoted after nine years. But hey, at least they make up for it in other ways.

So that’s my experience over the past four decades, and it’s had quite an impact on how I write romance and erotica.

I cut my teeth on Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals and will never shake the idea that “boy meets girl / boy loses girl / boy gets girl back again” is at the heart of all great stories. Part of me will always be that old fashioned girl who goes all mushy when a guy pulls out my chair for me. I definitely go for all the classic heroes: soldiers, pirates, cowboys, astronauts (just like the Ken doll outfits of my childhood). So my heroes are always pretty traditional guys, and my heroines feel about them in a pretty traditional way.

But at the same time, I’ve made the same journey as all my sisters since the sexual revolution of the late 60s. So my heroes are sensitive, respectful guys, and my heroines are spunky, daring, and capable.

Are these two aspects of me at odds? Sometimes. But one thing is sure, and watching “Mad Men” has really brought the point home to me: I’m mighty glad we’re no longer living in 1960.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

What Happened to Erotica with Soul?

Here’s an interesting development: last night I went through my website and took down the “Erotica with Soul” logo and many of the references.

Have I repudiated my past three years writing erotic romance? Is this blog next on the firing line?

Not to worry; I made my name with my “Soulful Sex” anthologies and their covers will continue to emblazon the header of this blog. I’m still committed to the cause of erotica with soul, and will press on trumpeting the wholesome and healthy exploration of the erotic in life.

So why the changes? Well, I’m anticipating the release of my new novel, Bloodchained, in September, and it’s not erotic romance. There’s some intense sex in it, don’t get me wrong, but not enough that I would want anyone to have the wrong expectation. And if the book is well received, I’ll write a sequel, meaning my next book won’t be erotic romance either. It was time to make an adjustment to my “brand,” so that in future no one is confused.

I must admit to other advantages of these tweaks to the website. The other day I was talking to one of my day-job-coworkers about my polymer clay gallery. His young daughter also works with clay and he wanted to show her pictures of some of my animal sculptures and such. I brought up the gallery on my site, completely forgetting (and not even noticing) the portion that mentions I write erotic romance. And the cover of Soulful Sex Volume I. My friend said he’d have to simply download the pages to show her.

I often completely forget that I’m NC-17 rated! As I’ve said before, I’m the most wholesome goody two-shoes in the erotic romance community. But at first blush (pardon the pun), site visitors will not guess that, even though there’s nothing scandalous on the site except for a few well-marked excerpts and some classic and tasteful nude paintings on the book covers. But seeing as now I get as many site visitors googling “polymer clay” as “erotic romance,” it was time for a change. I need to include the polymer clay crowd, the non-erotic-romance crowd, and their ilk under the umbrella of Diana Laurence fans, readers and friends.

I’m thinking this development was inevitable. As much as I love to read and write about sex, I’ve never been a real good fit with traditional erotic romance. So hopefully this will help me be more comfortable about how I present myself. Still, I’m always going to be this freaky hybrid: Erotic romance author, heavy metal fan, lover of Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, science fiction geek, survivalist wannabe, former Lutheran pastor’s wife, devotee of Carl Jung.

When you consider all that baffling complexity, it’s probably best I stick with no more specific label than this: Diana Laurence.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Me and Diana Laurence

"Diana Laurence" is my pen name. After three and a half years it still isn't my real name, but it's more than an alias. I could honestly say that Diana Laurence is one of my personae, a character with whom I share many personality traits...almost, but not quite, me.

For one thing, Diana is nicer than I am. A few people out there may scoff at that statement-- those who remember that semi-famous diatribe under her byline back in May 2004 about the state of erotica--but it's true. That's because Diana only deals with readers, fans, romance lovers, staffs of fiction-loving websites, and reviewers (who over the years have universally been kind). These people have been so encouraging and supportive, it's impossible not to be nice in their presence. They have truly brought out the best in my nature by being such generous, enthusiastic, kind people themselves.

Diana is also more humble than me. For while I have in my nearly 51 years become pretty good at being a wife, a mother, and a marketing babe (my day job which provides the bigger bucks and benefits), I still feel I have a lot of improving to do in the field of writing. In fact, that's what's great about being a writer: you can keep getting better and better at it right up to senility! You won't peak in your thirties like athletes. When you lose your good looks no one will know or care. Younger people won't arise who can do your job as good or better. No, you have nowhere to go but up, and if you give it your all, you see that improvement with each new book. You are never as good as you could be, and that keeps you humble. So does every great book you read along the way: those talented authors never fail to challenge and inspire.

Meanwhile, Diana is also the repository of all the lovely, romantic, erotic things I encounter in life. She's the guardian of that stuff, the priestess who maintains the temple. I'm a lot more cynical myself, since I'm the one who goes out in the real world every day to deal with things like the next presidential election, the cable company, and the screw-ups at the pharmacy. I do that so Diana can focus on ideals and higher concepts, on humanity's better nature, on love and the soul. I run the publishing company, she writes the books. That kind of illustrates the division of labor.

Is it hard to manage these alter egos? Only when I make public appearances, which is rare. While it's perfectly natural for me to speak in Diana's voice when I write emails to readers, post blog entries, and write my monthly columns, I feel really weird putting on a name tag that says "Diana Laurence." I want to tell the people who talk to me, "Hey, I know Diana, but I really can't claim to be her--I'd be an imposter." But as long as I'm communicating with others by writing, well then, that IS Diana Laurence they're talking to!

Weird, isn't it?

And so who exactly is speaking to you right now? Well, I can't think about that question too hard or my brain hemispheres may collide or something. Just call me Di and either way I'll answer to that!

Monday, July 09, 2007

Crab Boat Captains and Other Rare Heroes

Back in 2004 I had an essay published by The Romance Studio entitled “The Romance Hero vs. the 21st Century.” I wrote about the dearth of old fashioned alpha-male type heroes in real life. Here’s an excerpt:

It may be 2004, but we are still women, are we not? And regardless of what we think we want from the males in our lives, regardless of what society tells us to want, on some deep level we want males who exhibit the traits we look for in our romance heroes. Women have psychological and spiritual needs that transcend society and culture, which only the masculine can fulfill.

Today’s women have been well taught to want men who are sensitive, nurturant, and cooperative. There are practical reasons for this: in society today men and women share in each other’s traditional roles both at home and in the workplace. These demands have caused us more and more to consider males and females to be peers in every respect. We gain in mutual self-respect and other positives, but we lose in that neither gender is permitted to bring its strongest traits to the table, or allowed to appreciate those traits.

And consequently, both sides feel something is missing. Men will compensate by watching “The Man Show,” playing violent computer games, and hanging out with the guys, so that they might unfetter some of the inborn traits our culture forces them to stifle. Women will fantasize about Mafia hitmen, go to vampire movies, and read romances that feature the very sort of men we don’t tolerate in real life.

At the time I wondered if eventually there might be some sort of backlash in popular culture, and I’m starting to think it’s already underway. At the leading edge of the phenomenon are the new reality shows that showcase “real men,” including (of course) “Survivorman,” “Deadliest Catch,” and “Dirty Jobs.” More recently added to the mix have been “Man vs. Wild” and “Ice Road Truckers.” All of these shows have a common theme of showing a lot of guys employing their courage, physical strength, and daring in surviving danger and—how very masculine—making money.

TV has finally discovered a genre that can be enjoyed equally by males and females, for entirely different reasons of course. My husband is a huge fan of those first three shows, because he gets off on watching men be men, strong and uncompromising and for once unapologetic about being male. I get off on the shows because the guys flaunt their testosterone. They aren’t all hot, but even the unattractive ones have my respect.

And it’s just so dang refreshing.

Our world has truly gone crazy lately. How about that case of a grade schooler being made to remove a toy soldier from a mortarboard he made because of the school’s no-tolerance weapon policy? Or that judge suing for millions because a dry cleaners misplaced his pants? Be a man, dude, buy yourself some new pants. Soon playgrounds will require kids to wear helmets when playing hopscotch, I swear. Society is hell-bent on forcing or rewarding wussy, wimpish behavior at every turn, and making it a criminal offense to have balls.

But we’re fighting back! Men and women alike are saying, “I will pay $25 for a Cornelia Marie tee shirt so I can pretend (I am)(I am with) Captain Phil on his crab boat!” Chicks are mailing their underwear to Deckhand Edgar! Romance writers are penning tribute stories to Les Stroud featuring intergalactic survival guys! (Oh hey, that’s me!)

I’m backing this trend in every way I can. I’m even watching “Ice Road Truckers.”