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on topics such as race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and consent evolve, a contemporary romance risks becoming outdated to its readership in the span of its author’s career.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.