Thursday, April 24, 2014

Le Sheikh C'est Chic? Not So Much!

Valentino and Agnes Ayres, The Sheik

Rudolph Valentino played The Sheik in 1921, based on a 1919 novel by Edith Maude Hull. Almost one hundred years later, swarthy men in flowing robes are still wooing the ladies and bending them to their lusty will in the pages of Harlequin and Mills & Boon category romances. Whodathunkit? As much a sexy captivity narrative as the noble savage Native American romances that authors like Cassie Edwards made bank on, sheikh romances have prevailed where other outdated, racist, colonial tropes have died. Neither rain nor snow nor 9/11 nor the Iraq war have killed this plot. Why?

Why aren’t sheikh romances tagged and shelved as interracial romances? Because, to a large extent, they aren’t. They are a white, largely Christian, woman’s fantasy as much as a sparkling vampire or an alphahole billionaire, largely written by and for that market. In essence, a sheikh is not real. Stripped of all true cultural markers — namely practicing Islam — pale on the book covers, bowled over by the first fiery western woman they see… this is the rhetoric. This is the narrative. And it serves only one audience — certainly not the pseudo-minority culture it portrays.

Yes, we are seeing more sheikh romances written by women of color — Olivia Gates and Tara Pammi* come to mind, and Brenda Jackson wrote Delaney's Desert Sheikh — with heroines who are also of color, but they are not the norm and they still fall into the stereotypical “Fakesheikhistan” (TM Solace Ames) paradigm. Rich, alpha male who speaks English, was educated in the west, etc. And, sure I get it: It’s a safely modern twist on the Viking raider, the Indian brave, the Highlander. You can have your sultan’s harem fantasy except with toilet paper and condoms. You’re taking that archetype and applying it to now, with the trappings of civility.

And therein lies one of the problems. Because the sheikh trope wants to be civil and savage all at once and, in doing so, erases the minority experience completely from the page.

This is where I’m sure the rebuttal comes in: So, you’re just jealous and bitter that these stories aren’t about you? And I’ll say, “You’re damn right.” I’ll own it. Of course I’m angry. People of color are not vampires or werewolves or lizard men. Real Muslim men and women fall in love every day, every hour. But those stories are not palatable, not marketable, unless they are fetishized and sanitized for majority market consumption.

Majority. That’s the thing to remember if you’re butt-hurt about this post, if you make your bread and butter on sheikh romances, if you think I’m being an angry, irrational brown girl. We are so outnumbered. Maybe not in sheer global volume, but in power and privilege. Is the U.S. ever going to have a Muslim president? When’s the last time a Middle Eastern actor or actress was nominated for an Oscar? Do most people even know where Pakistan and Afghanistan are on a map? Do you think the most popular occupation for Bangladeshis in America is “cab driver”? Can you tell the difference between a hijab, a niqab and a burqa? Do any of those things actually matter to most of the western world?   

Those of us who complain, who feel marginalized and Othered by what you write or put on a movie screen, are never going to impact your bottom line. We haven’t yet, so why would a little outcry now and then make a difference? You keep doing you, authors. You don’t need our approval.

Just don’t expect us to sparkle. 

*Tara Pammi let me know that her hero does practice Islam, and I'm sure there are other authors who can say the same. But I posit that they're the exception and not the rule.


  1. I do not now, nor have I ever, understood the popularity of the sheik romance. The ones I read in my youth confused me because I *knew* that wasn't what life was really like, and yet they weren't marketed as fantasy.

    To me, the sheik romance today seems to be the non-BDSM version of the billionaire. (Forgive me if not all billionaires in romance engage in BDSM, but that's how it seems to me at the moment.) Really, what is the difference between an American or British billionaire and the sheik as portrayed in category romance? Clothing and setting seem to be the only differences. Not, as you say, religion, not culture, not language or education.

    I read a lot of pure fantasy as a kid. Epic fantasy. And when I read my first sheik romances, I wanted that. I wanted the world-building, the sense of a life completely other to my own. But I didn't get it, so I gave up on them and never looked back.

  2. Hey Suleikha,

    Thanks so much for editing to add my little note.

    Firstly, I would like to say that yes, Presents is a huge fantasy portrayal of the billionaire hero. But I have to say there is a wide, wide scope to what the hero could be.

    And coming to your post about Shieks, I would like to say that in the Presents I have out now and the one I have out in November, both heroes, who are brothers and Princes of a fictional kingdom( :) yes FakeSheikistan) do practice Islam. Like you said, religion does inform culture but it's just not a huge part of the fantasy romance that I write for Presents.

    Also, there is no fetishizing, and the heroines are both of the same culture, are educated and are treated by the heroes as equals. (And I have to add that I have read Sheiks stories with a white heroine by many good Presents authors that don't cater to fetishizing either - Maisey Yates comes to mind)

    For me, an Arab Prince is the same as a Greek Billionaire in terms of what makes him a hero. Yes, the cultural context is different (And not always 'othering' necessarily) but I *hope* to always portray them as normal heroes (as normal as a billionaire hero can be :)) who strive to do the right thing by the woman they love in spite of the odds they face.

    Thanks so much for giving me a chance to say this..

    Sorry, i had to delete and repost from my Author Account

    1. Responding to this years later, because I DID read the prince books and adored them! And I think they felt different because you, Tara, wrote them from a different lens than the norm. It felt like Muslim romance, not sheikh romance. A lot closes to Own Voices work, even though you're South Asian and not Fakesheikhastani.

  3. I think the other kind of damage these books do is that they create a fantasy that people either 1) love because it speaks to something deep in the id or 2) hate because it's so obviously racist. They polarize. So hats off to people who want to write in the genre, but I couldn't look at any book with "sheikh" in the title without skepticism.

    I feel the same way with most books that mention Japan in any way. The media fantasy overwhelms the reality so much that trying to represent the reality becomes pointless and commercially nonviable. If you do something non-fetishy 1) the core fans won't like it because it's not their fantasy and 2) other people will avoid it because it's tainted by association.

  4. One more unpalatable bit of gristle in this stew. The Sheik of Edith Hull's novel is only a fake-POC.


    "He is not an Arab," replied Saint Hubert with sudden, impatient
    vehemence. "He is English."

    Diana looked up at him swiftly with utter bewilderment in her startled
    eyes. "I don't understand," she faltered. "He hates the English."

    "Quand-meme, he is the son of one of your English peers. His
    mother was a Spanish lady; many of the old noble Spanish families have
    Moorish blood in their veins, the characteristics crop up even after
    centuries. It is so with Ahmed, and his life in the desert has
    accentuated it. Has he never told you anything about himself?"

    She shook her head. "Sometimes I have wondered----" she said
    reflectively. "He seemed different from the others, and there has been
    so much that I could never understand. But then again there were times
    when he seemed pure Arab," she added in a lower voice and with an
    involuntary shiver.

    "You ought to know," said Saint Hubert. "Yes!" he went on firmly, as
    she tried to interrupt him. "It is due to you. It will explain so many
    things. I will take the responsibility. His father is the Earl of Glencaryll."


    Burroughs' 1915 'Son of Tarzan' uses the same fake-POC reveal at the end.

    Jack Clayton and his mother were summoned, and when the story had been told them they were only glad that little Meriem had found a father and
    a mother.

    "And really you didn't marry an Arab waif after all," said Meriem.
    "Isn't it fine!"

    You are fine," replied The Killer. "I married my little Meriem, and I
    don't care, for my part, whether she is an Arab, or just a little

    "She is neither, my son," said General Armand Jacot. "She is a
    princess in her own right."

  5. Wow! The stars must be in alignment because I just blogged about this. My angle had to do with book covers. Most covers with POC are rendered "color-neutral" by the Big Five pub houses or their covers do not depict the people at all and go for objects mentioned in the story. I think of Brenda Jackson's series of a Texas Black family. A number of the covers sinply have boots, a Stetson or a lasso on the cover. Can we say ERASURE! There is a new romance coming out in August by Laura Kaye. Its cover has a dark-skinned, half-nude, Black guy in the embrace of an obviously Caucasian female. Now, I know for a fact that books with a hint of any kind of POC sell poorly ('cuz I've seen the stats from various Big Five publishers) but I'm sure the sales of this one do well. The cover alone is a wet dream for the "mainstream." And Romancelandia and Harper Collins will pat themselves on the back about how they will have overcome. Please!

  6. @Solace Ames: Exactly! If you write a realistic "sheikh" hero who doesn't match the archetype, he'll lose his appeal! It's a fantasy for a certain audience. You won't find a Middle-easterner fantasizing about it.

    @Jo Bourne: Yep, if they're not white guys in disguise, then they're just white, period. Therefore, they're safe, not one of the local savages.

    Thanks for writing this, Suleikha! Glad to know I'm not the only baffled by this genre. But then, a fantasy is a fantasy, I guess...?


  7. I just saw a review at Smart Bitches for a book called Their Virgin Concubine, which takes the sheikh fantasy into menage crazytown. Setting is "Bezakistan." Three brothers or princes or something have to steal a virgin bride and share her, for tradition. Of course the bride is a white woman.

    I don't have a automatic negative reaction to HP sheikh romances, though I don't read them. I assume that most are inaccurate and at least mildly offensive. But this concubine book totally gave me a rage feeling. Like, really? Three sheikhs need a white woman to fulfill tradition? Three of them can't find a woman of their own culture to love? I guess the OTT ridiculousness of it erases the offense for some people, but not me. I consider it three times as offensive.

    It also rankles that no mention was made of race or MC in the review. Does the fantasy make it invisible? Is it only about race if it's not-fetishy? That seems to be the bar. White people are very comfortable to objectify other cultures. When the portrayal is authentic = uh oh! race alert! White people are uncomfortable and can't get off! But POC's comfort is not a concern. It's not on the radar.

  8. Although with all the kidnappings in the genre, maybe it's better that the hero's white...


  9. Great post and great discussion in the comments! Keep on thinking, writing & being you :)

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