Friday, May 13, 2016

The Stars (and bars): race and racism in Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Chicago Stars series

Last week I reread a book that reminded me quite forcefully that a major pitfall of the contemporary subgenre is its susceptibility to aging badly. As society’s attitudes and understanding on topics such as race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and consent evolve, a contemporary romance risks becoming outdated to its readership in the span of its author’s career.

The book I was rereading is Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s It Had To Be You (1994), the iconic opening installment of her bestselling Chicago Stars series. Phillips pioneered the sports romance subgenre with this novel about a woman who unexpectedly inherits a pro football team and must negotiate her professional and personal relationship with its macho coach. It Had To Be You won the prestigious RITA award for Best Romance of 1994. It has been reprinted multiple times, and Phillips has penned six more novels in the Stars series, with an eighth installment due out later this year.

When I first read It Had To Be You, I got caught up in its sexual politics; its workplace battle-of-the-sexes certainly reflects the period in which it was written. On this reading, however, I was struck by the novel’s pervasive touches of racism. I suspect that many of them went unnoticed by its white readership at the time (and a number of details I will mention below do indicate Phillips was writing for a white audience), but they are unmistakable today and merit some attention.

It Had To Be You does not contain the brand of racism I’m accustomed to encountering in escapist historical romances that portray the inscrutable, exciting Other—the desert sheik, the Native American warrior, the Russian aristocrat. Novels in this vein are nearly always predicated upon racial, ethnic, or cultural stereotyping and playing up differences; a savvy reader choosing such a work will be unsurprised to encounter racist language or ideas in it.[1]

Unlike escapist historicals, however, It Had To Be You is set in a recognizable ’90s Chicago. While its protagonists are wealthy and move in elite circles, they ostensibly share the reader’s reality, reference points, and anchoring in (American) history. Their fictional world is intended to approximate real-life ’90s America. Because of this mimetic quality, which is so much stronger in contemporary romance than in historicals or paranormals, it is harder to dissociate the story from real-life political concerns, harder to brush off problematic content as “just an escapist story.”

By the same token, a contemporary romance’s blind spots on an important issue may reveal something useful about real-world attitudes and shortcomings. And the more time passes after a book is published, the more those blind spots become discernible. That’s why I think it makes sense to look at It Had To Be You more than two decades after its initial publication to scrutinize its engagement with issues of race, erasure, and American heritage. Details that may have seemed normal—even progressive and inclusive—when the book first appeared now feel problematic and insensitive in 2016.

The first thing that caught my attention was the repeated use of the word “exotic” in the first chapter to characterize the white heroine, Phoebe Somerville. The most striking instance is a description of her eyes: “Those who had seen them before she’d slipped on her rhinestones had noted the way they tilted upwards at the corners, too exotic, somehow, to fit with the rest of her face” (Kindle edition p. 2). A few pages later, the same phrasing is used as Phoebe reveals “her exotically tilted amber eyes” (p. 8). The word is also used in the same scene to describe the “exotic good looks” of Phoebe’s Hungarian friend Viktor. And finally, as Phoebe is addressing the hero, Dan Calebow, her voice takes on an “exotic cadence” (p. 7).

Many readers would likely not deem this usage offensive, but it has the subtle effect of centering white American experience and marginalizing anything that doesn’t fall neatly within its bounds. “Exotic” connotes foreignness, strangeness, and a lack of belonging. When applied to people without a clear frame of reference to establish its meaning as relative, it sets up standards of normality and reinforces the line between in-groups and the Other.

The book’s reliance on “exotic” is a relatively minor problem compared to some of its other passages, however.

The first chapter contains a remarkable sentence that betrays a lack of insight into how its readership might receive the work. The setting is the funeral for the owner of the pro football team; the players and staff are in attendance: “Like plantation slaves, the National Football League’s Chicago Stars had come to pay homage to the man who owned them” (p. 5). The analogy is deeply troubling for several reasons. The evocation of American slavery comes seemingly out of nowhere. It is prefaced only by the detail that the team members’ “skin […] ranged in color from a glistening blue-black to a suntanned white” (p. 5). There is no transition between the mention of the team’s racial diversity and the allusion to slavery; their juxtaposition seems to imply that slavery is a natural segue from the evocation of race.

The simile is also spatially dissonant. The funeral scene takes place in Chicago, a city with little or no history of plantation culture, and is told from the perspective of Phoebe, who has lived in Chicago, Western Europe, and New York, but not the South.[2] The comparison of the team and slaves is entirely incidental to the story and relies on the false premise that football team ownership and slave ownership are commensurate. It creates a dual image: the team members lined up to pay their respects at the coffin, and Antebellum slaves similarly “pay[ing] homage” to their enslaver. 

In the same vein, later in the book the hero Dan’s voice “[shoots] through the quiet of the bar like a Confederate cannon over a smoldering battlefield” (p. 156). The analogy conveys force and power, but that the cannon is specifically Confederate stands out. Most historians agree that the Confederacy seceded from the Union largely (if not entirely) to preserve the institution of slavery. Likening the hero’s voice to a Confederate cannon aligns him with the Confederacy, and by extension its racist cause. The hero is a southerner but never expresses secessionist or white-supremacist sentiment. Why tie him to the Confederacy in this way?

The lines about plantations, slaves, and Confederate cannons are jarring in a story set in (then) present-day Chicago, rather than the Confederate South. They seem to be intended for reception by a white, Southern readership and don’t take into account how other groups might interpret them.

There is one black character who gets significant space in the book: Darnell Pruitt, an offensive tackle for the Stars. He and Phoebe have an extended interaction on a plane en route from a football game. In the scene, Darnell is described as “the most intimidating” member of the team (p. 220). What follows is a laundry list of physical attributes intended to support this claim: “A gold tooth with a half-carat diamond glistened in the front of his mouth, and heavy gold chains draped his black leather vest. He was shirtless beneath the vest, revealing a huge chest and heavily muscled forearms displayed in all their ebony glory. His eyes were hidden behind menacing sunglasses, his nose was broad and flat, and a heavy scar puckered one shoulder” (p. 220).

Let’s unpack this loaded physical description. It begins not with any of the usual facial features—eyes, mouth, hair—but by zooming in on a diamond-studded gold tooth, a gaudy signifier of new money that, along with the chains, evokes hip-hop flashiness. Darnell’s powerful body, on display to both Phoebe and the reader through his shirtlessness, is scarred, bearing the mark of violence, but still a study in “ebony glory.” His broad, flat nose, the only facial feature described, recalls the racial stereotyping associated with nineteenth-century ethnography and perhaps even the pseudo-science of physiognomy, which tied an individual’s facial features to his moral character and ethnicity. We don’t even see Darnell’s eyes, but rather the “menacing” sunglasses that he apparently wears during the flight. (How can sunglasses be menacing? Phoebe’s sunglasses are not menacing when she wears them to her father’s funeral in the first chapter.) The combined effect of all these details is a ludicrous caricature of black masculinity.

Phoebe finds Darnell frightening. She recalls a quote Darnell gave in an interview: “What I like most about football […] is seeing my man being carried off the field” (p. 221). Even Phoebe’s dog is nervous around Darnell. The text implies that Phoebe is taking a risk sitting next to him on the team’s private plane, playing up the myth that large black men are dangerous, particularly to white women. The next pages continue in this vein; Darnell “barks” orders to the dog; he speaks to Phoebe “belligerently,” and the heroine “wait[s] for catastrophe” as the man and the dog stare at each other in a seeming contest of wills (p. 221).

Then the dog licks Darnell, the football player is won over, and the text loses no time trying to dispel all of the stereotypes it has just deployed. Darnell, it transpires, still lives with his mother and would like to get married but is afraid to court “Miss Charmaine Dodd,” the organist at his church, because she is an educated librarian while he eked out a minimum of college before being drafted to the NFL. He assumes she’s out of his league because “[w]hat good does money do when a lady like Charmaine Dodd starts talkin’ to you ’bout some white dude who wrote this poem she loves, and her eyes get all lit up, but you don’t know jack about poetry, or literature, or anything else she thinks is important?” (p. 223) The novel pivots from the black thug stereotype and straight into a different stereotype: the uneducated black athlete. The text’s treatment of Darnell from Phoebe’s perspective becomes more sympathetic (Darnell is quite eloquent in explaining how institutional pressure has set him up to succeed in sports rather than academics), but it still plays into a well-worn racist stereotype.

This is where the novel enters “white savior” territory. Phoebe convinces Darnell that the solution to his problem is to pursue further education during the off-season and to approach Charmaine for private tutoring to create propinquity. Based on the narrative, it takes a white woman—one who has known Darnell for about five minutes—to swoop in, instill him with confidence, and set him on the course for success. She recommends a reading list, and a subsequent scene has the two discussing Moby Dick as part of his “quest for self-improvement” (p. 310). Here the white savior narrative becomes even more explicit as it moralizes: “It hadn’t taken her long to realize that football might have made Darnell rich in material things, but the game had robbed him of the opportunity to use his intellect. Because Darnell was big, black, and strong, no one had bothered to discover that he also had a fine brain” (p. 310). No one except the white heroine, that is. Moreover, in a turn of benevolent racism, the text seems to present Darnell as the exception to the rule: he is bright in spite of assumptions others have made about him based on his race. Nowhere does the text attempt to seriously undermine those racist assumptions; if anything, the earlier descriptions of Darnell reinforce them.

There is one more scene in the book that I want to address. Phoebe and Dan escape Chicago to a wealthy suburban community and attend a craft fair. This is the description of the fair’s attendees: “It was an affluent crowd. Young couples pushed expensive strollers or carried well-fed babies in sturdy backpacks, while older adults in the brightly colored clothes they’d worn to the golf course that morning strolled between the exhibits. The teenagers’ faces had been treated by expensive dermatologists, and thousands of dollars’ worth of orthodontics straightened their teeth. A sprinkling of African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians, all well-dressed and prosperous looking, mingled with the crowd” (p. 206). The awkward wording of the last sentence makes it clear that the people of color are an afterthought in the scene. All of the young couples, older adults, and teenagers at the beginning of the passage can be assumed to be white as theirs is the unmarked race in suburban America. The other attendees are mingling with the crowd rather than simply an integral part of it—reinforcing that they are outsiders, exceptions to the rule of white hegemony, their presence permissible only because they are “well dressed and prosperous-looking”—a subtle endorsement of respectability politics, perhaps, or just a ham-handed way of acknowledging that not all people of color are poor.

The text upholds the fair scene as a locus amoenus in the eyes of the heroine: “Phoebe felt as if she’d stumbled into the center of the American dream, a place where poverty and ethnic strife had been held at bay” (p. 206). The passage allows slippage between the real space of the fair and a post-racial vision that is troubling in part because it seems predicated upon insularity: within the space all is peaceful and orderly, while “poverty and ethnic strife” may exist elsewhere on the outside but are “kept at bay.” This narrative envisions racial harmony through assimilation without any recognition of the reality of systemic racism pervading ‘90s America, nor any celebration of cultural difference. The vision Phoebe pines for is predicated on centering “unmarked” white experience and erasing or eliding everything else.

The vision culminates with Phoebe wistfully wondering, “Was it wrong […] to wish every community in America clean streets, unarmed citizens, families with 2.4 children, and a flotilla of Chevy Broncos filling its parking lots?” (p. 207) It is a strange wish for a woman who has lived in Manhattan for the past seven years and in Europe before that—what New Yorker fantasizes about parking lots filled with Chevys? More importantly, however, it is a reductive vision for America that the text seems to embrace: a society in which all differences are completely obliterated, in which even family size becomes uniform.

In a novel that makes off-hand allusions to the Old South plantation culture and Confederacy, what should we make of this call for a post-racial America if not a whitewashing of the nation’s bloody, exploitative history?

In this novel, Phillips attempts to portray an America that will be recognizable to its readers. The narrative is dotted with cultural icons of the day, including OJ Simpson (then still a sportscaster) and Christian Slater. And yet she is doing so only in a way that will resonate primarily with her white readership (and not all of it at that). The text erases and marginalizes people of color and engages in racism that should be no less troubling than the orientalist tropes in desert sheik romances.

It has been twenty-two years since It Had To Be You was published, and I suspect that many readers encountering it for the first time today would find the above-mentioned passages (and probably others) off-putting at best. To illustrate the difference two decades can make, I would point to a key contract negotiation scene late in the book, when Phoebe pretends to plan to move the football team to New York. Her bluff is made possible with some help from her personal friend, Manhattan real estate developer Donald Trump. The fictional version of Trump is entertained by Phoebe’s antics and is happy to lend her a hand; his role in the text is benign and takes place mostly off-stage. In 1994, no reader could have read into that scene the cultural and political baggage associated with the real-world Trump of 2016. While his cameo in a novel marked by erasure, post-racial aspiration, and racist stereotypes would have felt incidental when it was published, today it reads as all too apt. This is a risk that comes with hewing closely to the real world; today’s pop culture icons may be tomorrow’s nativist demagogues.

As I was preparing this post I noticed Phillips make several social media posts advertising It Had To Be You on sale. She has clear commercial incentive to continue to market her book to a new generation of readers. But I wonder whether she has seriously interrogated whether they will fall in love with Phoebe and Dan as many of their mothers did, or whether they will get hung up on representations of race that feel very out of place in the twenty-first century.

[1] That does not make the racism in these books acceptable or mitigate their harm, of course. It is merely easier to anticipate and (for many readers) to identify.
[2] Illinois does have a history of slavery, although it entered the union as a free state in the nineteenth century. However, plantation culture was never entrenched in the state’s ethos as it was throughout the South.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this insightful analysis, Anne. Most of SEP's books leave me feeling frustrated over their sexual politics, but you show here how her racial politics, too, are deeply problematic.