Friday, September 28, 2012

What can a feminist get from reading romance?

Earlier this year, out of the blue, a man named “Ken from NY” sent me an email via Goodreads. He wrote that he was primarily an adventure novel reader, explaining in detail what he loved about that genre. But he added that he was thinking expanding his horizons by giving romance fiction a try. He’d heard that Nora Roberts was one of the most popular romance writers out there, and since I had reviewed some of her books on Goodreads, he wondered if I might write back to him, to explain what I get out of reading romance.

Those familiar with the arguments of early feminist critics of the romance genre might be forgiven for doubting that a feminist reader could gain much of anything positive from reading a romance novel. Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (1982) and Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Culture (1984) set the stage for such an assumption, arguing that in the battle between feminism and patriarchy, romance novels clearly side with the enemy. 

Contemporary scholars of romance have taken issue with many of Modeleski’s and Radway’s conclusions. But conventional wisdom has yet to be persuaded; most non-romance readers still take it for granted that romance as a genre is bad for women. How, then, could I explain my reading tastes to Ken from NY, even while justifying to myself that said tastes should not automatically disqualify me from claiming an identity as a feminist?

I ended up sending Ken in NY a brief list of 5 benefits I get from reading romance. None of them are at odds with feminism; several of them stem directly from feminist beliefs. In future posts, I’ll be discussing romance scholars’ ideas about romance’s potential benefits, but today I share my own list (with a bit extra expounding to highlight the connections I see between romance and feminism). I also invite you to offer your own thoughts about ways in which romance as a genre is, or has the potential to be, feminist.

Pleasure in reading good writing 

This isn’t a benefit of reading all, or even most, romance, much to this literary critic’s chagrin. But good writing is there to be found in the romance genre, and as a literary scholar, I take particular pleasure in reading stylistically interesting writing. Georgette Heyer, Judith Ivory, Laura Kinsale, Mary Balogh—all in very different ways—offer the pleasures of language, as well as the pleasures of story. I don’t think such pleasure is feminist per se, but I don’t see it as negating feminism in any way.

A better understanding of how people relate to one another in romantic relationships

At its core, feminism is committed to the equality of men and women. Central to that commitment is feminism’s call for us to explore and understand the differences in power between men and women, differences that often stand in the way of achieving such equality. While much early feminist activism focused on equality and power in the workplace, power dynamics are often as much, if not more, at play within personal relationships, particularly within one’s relationships with a sexual partner.

Romance novels, by definition, are all about such relationships; at the heart of the romance novel’s central conflict is a struggle between two individuals intent on negotiating how power will be divided and/or shared between them.
The romance genre provides not just one, but a multiplicity, of models of the ways in which two people might undertake such a negotiation. Some offer examples of feminine submission to a dominant man; others explicitly reject such submissiveness while implicitly endorsing it; still others marry action and ideology, presenting protagonists who share power equally and/or equitably.

Since we often tend to surround ourselves with people similar to ourselves, such a variety of examples might not always be available to us in our everyday lives. It can be a welcome relief to discover that the way your parents, or your siblings, or your friends came to understand power and its use within their love relationships are not the only models out there. Though the covers of romance novels tend to look the same, the power dynamics between romantic partners that lie behind them can differ radically. By comparing and contrasting how different books portray what a successful negotiation of power in a romantic relationship looks like, a discerning, feminist reader can learn not only about equitable models, but also about the tricks our culture uses to convince women to accept inequitable ones.

Romantic yearning via proxy

Traditionally, romance as a genre has been characterized by a strict heteronormativity (i.e., a belief that the only proper ending is one in which a male and female protagonist end up in a committed relationship, most often marriage or engagement). The publishing of romance novels featuring gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual protagonists during the past decade suggests that the genre itself is not inherently heterosexist. But with the exception of erotic romance, the genre still does take monogamy as its norm (Ann Herendeen’s historical romance Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander a charming exception—more about this book in a future post). 

As someone who has been married for 15+ years, and who was with that same partner for 8+ years before marrying, yearning after an unattainable love object isn’t really something I get to experience much any more—my love object is right here beside me in bed every night. But by identifying with the characters in romance novels, I get to re-live these feelings second hand. Such identification often reminds me of the early days of my relationship, which helps me to renew my commitment to that relationship, and to monogamy. While monogamy may not be the only feminist choice for how to participate in a romantic relationship, I don’t believe that monogamy in itself is inherently anti-feminist—do you?

Pleasure in knowing what to expect—there will always be a happy ending waiting at the book’s conclusion

This one is a bit tricky, and I’m still working it out for myself, so let me know if it doesn’t make sense yet. It starts with the idea that literary critics tend to value the original, the unique, and the special over the generic. “Genre fiction,” defined as books intentionally created with the conventions of a particular literary genre in mind, so that readers already familiar with the genre will know what to expect and will be pleased by the familiar, is commonly set up in binary opposition to “literary fiction,” with literary fiction clearly viewed as the superior of the pair. Not surprisingly, since romance is the most commercially popular form of genre fiction, romance is often seen as the wormiest apple in the genre fiction barrel.

In the past decade, literary critics have begun to take issue with the idea that genre conventions are inherently limiting (see for example Mary Bly’s essay, “On Popular Romance, J.R. Ward, and the Limits of Genre Study”*). But I’d like to make a slightly different argument, one that doesn’t urge us to look for the original, the special, within the generic, but instead holds up for admiration the very repetition that is the central characteristic of genre fiction.

In our everyday lives, we have to continually renegotiate our relationships, particularly those with our romantic partner, if we are to maintain them. Reading a single romance, which often gives the impression that a couple’s problems are largely over once they have cleared the hurdles placed in the way of their relationship, could be seen as the opposite: holding up a false model, denying the necessity of the constant dance of love, hurt, anger, and forgiveness that make up the day-to-day workings of most real-life relationships.

But if you read romances on a regular basis, you actually find an echo of the relationship work you have to slog through each and every day. Though each individual novel presents different characters undertaking this relationship work, the repetition of the pattern across multiple romances more closely resembles the repetitive pattern of work you do in real-life relationships. I’m continually hurting the ones I love, especially my partner; I’m continually being forgiven. And I’m continually being hurt, being disappointed, and forgiving in my turn. Repetitively encountering the pattern through my reading of many romance novels heartens me for the work of enduring the same repetition in my day-to-day life.

Pleasure in reading the sex scenes

If you want to make a romance reader mad, just toss the label “pornography for women” in her (or, more rarely, his) direction. Sometimes the insult is meant to suggest that romance novels are somehow harmful or denigrating to their readers, just as reading or viewing pornography is thought by many to be degrading to its consumers. More often, though, the accusation seems to suggest a belief that unlike men, women are more likely to find sexual pleasure when emotional connection is also present; in order to become consumers of pornography, they need it to be encased within the protective shell of a romantic storyline. Romance novels are really just wolves in sheep’s clothing, such people seem to claim, pornography made palatable by the addition of narrative gloss.

The “pornography for women” label also suggests that women in particular should be ashamed about being interested in, and reading about, sex. As a feminist, I take exception to such a belief. I openly acknowledge that I find the reading of sex scenes in romance novels fascinating. More than that, I often find reading them a turn-on. Returning to reading romance novels in middle age, after leaving them behind after adolescence, helped me to get through a time in my marriage when stress and personal problems had made me feel like sex was the last thing I should, or even could, give a damn about. But getting turned on by a romance novel made me want to search out actual sexual pleasure again for myself, and share it with my partner.

Though feminists have long been at odds with one another about whether pornography is denigrating to women or a positive celebration of their sexuality, if pornography is defined simply as sexually-related subject matter that sexually stimulates its reader/viewer, then calling romance novels “pornography for women” is no insult in this feminist’s book.

What do you think of the above list? And what other aspects of the romance genre do you think are, or could be, feminist?

* Mary Bly, "On Popular Romance, J.R. Ward, and the Limits of Genre Study." Sarah S.G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Seelinger, New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012: 60-72.

Photo/Illustration credits
Gender equality:
• Monogamy wine: Sara Golzari and Sali Golzari Hoover
• Happily Ever After ticket: afavoritedesign
• True Horse Romance cartoon: Rubes © by Leigh Rubin
Next time: Behind Every Good Rake...
An RNFF Review of Courtney Milan's UNCLAIMED


  1. I do a whole talk on romance novels and feminism. What, after all, is more empowering than the message that we can be true to who we are and still be loved? That men and women can come together in ways that empower BOTH of them?

  2. Replies
    1. Jackie,

      To whomever asks me. Mostly I've given it at libraries, a couple of college classrooms (where I was an invited speaker) or mentioned it talking one on one with people. The good thing is that it tends to be so unexpected that on the rare occasion a reporter has been present, they have always done a story from that angle afterwards.

      When I've spoken on college campuses I always begin by asking how many people in the room read romances. Very few hands go up. By the time I'm done, a lot more are admitting they do.

  3. April:

    Do they know your topic before they ask you? Or are they asking you to speak in your capacity as a published author, without knowing feminism and romance will be your focus?

    And what do you talk to them about, that gets students to admit to being romance readers?

    1. Jackie,

      I was asked as a published author. I can't remember if I ever told them in advance what I was going to say. In at least one case I did because that's why a reporter showed up. In another, the first time the English professor had me speak to her class she had no idea what I would say. The second time she was prepared and I think rather enjoyed the reaction of the students.

      I get them to admit they read romance by making it okay to like romance. I talk about the value of romance novels--including the feminist aspect and the way romance novels showed strong women during the 70s and 80s before other types of novels did so. I talk about the amount of research I do for my Regencies--and how hard I work to get the history right.

      I talk about my background in math--thus establishing I'm on par with them when it comes to brains. And I make sure I tell them I'm not unique--that many romance authors have backgrounds in all kinds of intellectually rigorous fields.

      I talk about how romance novels let us explore possibilities about how things could be--rather than just how they are. I talk about how we encourage people to see themselves as able to rise above the challenges in their lives--rather than just reacting and livng as victims. I talk about how romance novels embody hope and love and being true to oneself while dealing with the issues of what we owe those to whom we are tied, as well as to ourselves.

      I'm going on way too long, but that gives you an indication of the kinds of things I talk about.

    2. Thanks, April, for sharing your talking points. It would be fun to be a fly on the wall at one of your talks, and see how students' views change in reaction to what you have to say!

  4. When my friend and I began our blog Books with Benefits our main goal was to share our enjoyment of romance fiction with others--and the reason we did so was because we believed that romance reading had benefits. Your list for Ken is really wonderful. Thanks for finding a way to say what we have been struggling to say.

  5. Glad you found the list of interest, J.W.

  6. I'm so excited to have run across this blog. You eloquently expressed ideas friends and I have bounced around in discussion and made a great case that romance novels are not necessarily anti-feminist.

  7. Welcome, Lola! Looking forward to hearing from you and your friends about why you think romance is (or has the potential to be) feminist.

  8. Some great ideas here! Your point about romantic yearning fits in with the studies that have shown that a majority of romance readers are happily married. Sorry, no actual stats. And I really like your point about the echoes of long-term relationships... the hurting each other, having to work things out, etc.

    1. Thanks!

      I'll have to look up those studies you mention -- they sound intriguing...

    2. I haven't been able to track down all the RWA market research reports, but according to the one from 2005 which can be downloaded from here, 50% of readers are married, 37% single, 8% widowed, 4% divorced and 1% separated. It also reports that "22% of romance readers are male — a significant increase from the 2002 survey that showed only 7% of readers were male."

      On the RWA's website it currently says that "According to RWA's 2011 Romance Book Consumer survey, slightly more than half of survey respondents live with a spouse or significant other." Also, "Women make up 91 percent of romance book buyers, and men make up 9 percent."

    3. Yes, Laura, I went to the RWA web site, too, after reading Willaful's figures, and saw the 91%/9% figure. Is the difference between 2005 and 2012 due to the "readers" vs. "buyers" language used? Or is the percentage of male readers of romance really that volatile, do you think?

    4. As you say, it does seem very difficult to believe that male readers could really have been 7% in 2002, 22% in 2005 and 9% in 2011. I don't know how the surveys were conducted, so perhaps one year they asked things like "have you read any novels by J. D. Robb," which made it more likely to get a "yes" because they're not marketed as romance? Or maybe some years they were more specific about how romance was defined and that brought the numbers down, maybe because in other years some men said they read romance because they'd read something by Nicholas Sparks, which was romantic but not a romance according to the RWA definition?

      Whatever the reason, it does make me feel a bit cautious about their statistics.

  9. I actually thought we were well beyond this type of discussion. Feminist is a label to me that's been slapped onto folks to invalidate the real discussion, and to me that's only one thing: equal pay for equal work. End of discussion right there.

    As for romance, it pays well for a lot of writers, most of whom are women. And the women in the books generally have their own money, careers, issues, relationship problems -- people are people. The women in romances usually end up saving the guy, too.

    But then we're well past bodice rippers, too. That's a stereotype that persists because it's a catchy phrase.

    1. Shannon:

      Should we be beyond this type of discussion? I guess it depends on whether you believe we are truly "well past" bodice rippers, or see instead that many of the tropes established in the bodice ripper still can be found, on an explicit or an implicit level, in today's romances. And whether you see "feminist" as a negative label, something that's been "slapped onto folks to invalidate the real discussion," or whether you're proud of the label, and claim it as part of your identity.

      I hope we'll be able to talk about what constitutes a feminist romance, and what doesn't, by opening up the discussion, rather than ending it.

  10. Hi, Jackie:

    I looked in on this first post after being so excited by your discussion of my novel Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander.

    Just want to thank you for these reasons for enjoying romance novels, for expressing these original ideas so clearly, or perhaps expressing not-so-original ideas in an original way, and thus allowing us to think about them differently. I'm particlarly pleased at your being one of very few (from what I've seen) women to endorse the "pornography for women" idea, to not seeing it as a negative. "Pornography made palatable by the addition of narrative gloss" accurately describes how I feel about erotic and romantic fiction. That is, I fit the stereotype, if it indeed is one, of the woman who is uninterested and unmoved by visual and narrative depictions of sex if there is no story. I don't dislike the pictures or prose if the actors or characters are pretty, and if the sex isn't too violent. But if there's no story, if it's not about characters made real by good writing, I can't get it up, so to speak, to be interested.

    When I wrote my novel Pride/Prejudice, a "bisexual" version of Austen's novel, I turned myself on by imagining--and then writing--graphic sex scenes between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, within the context of the story Austen tells. Those same sex scenes between two anonymous men, situated in no particular place or time, would have been meaningless to me. I could not have written such scenes, because I wouldn't have been able to muster the necessary mental energy to imagine them.

    I'm not sure why so many women are annoyed by this belief or theory, that we need a story to be interested in sex. Of course, there are always exceptions, women who like porn or erotica in the same visually-oriented way that men are supposed to like it, and no doubt there are men who prefer a story with their porn.

    And on a separate issue, I love that old graphic of the new equality, in which the woman's broom and bucket from the bad old unequal days have mysteriously vanished in the good new days of equality. How I wish equality between the sexes would make housework disappear!

    1. "'Pornography made palatable by the addition of narrative gloss' accurately describes how I feel about erotic and romantic fiction."

      I don't want to deny any one else's right to enjoy romances in whatever manner they like and with the level of sexual content they like, but at the same time I don't feel happy with the term "pornography for women" being used to describe all romances because (a) not all romances contain sexually explicit and/or arousing scenes and (b) there are many female romance readers who are not reading romances for the purpose of becoming aroused. In fact, many romance readers report that, at least sometimes, they skim through sex scenes because they seem repetitive/boring. And there are others who specially seek out romances which are "kisses only." In fact, Harlequin recently launched a line specifically for the kind of reader who wants romances without sex scenes but doesn't want to read inspirational romances. According to the guidelines for the line in these novels:

      * Plots unfold in a wholesome style and voice that excludes explicit sex or nudity, pre-marital sex, profanity, or graphic depictions of violence: references to violent incidents in the past are acceptable if they contribute to character development

      * Physical interactions (i.e. kissing/hugging) should emphasize emotional tenderness rather than sexual desire or sensuality: low level of sexual tension; characters should not make love unless they are married
      * No explicit religious or Christian content

    2. The differences between your takes on "pornography for women," Laura and Ann, point to the need to move the critical conversation beyond broad claims about "romance," and toward a discussion of sub-genres and specific authors/books. Ann and I might read (or write) romance as a sexual turn-on; others might read it more for its depiction of emotional tenderness. Some might like take pleasure from nearly all types of romance, while others will dislike certain sub-genres and embrace others. It's an exciting time to be a scholar, or a writer, of romance...

    3. Ann: I, too, have difficulty finding traditional pornography anything but dull, and need the "narrative gloss" in order for sexual scenes to be of interest. Because of my gender? My sex? My socialization? My training as a literary scholar? All of the above? No answers, just curiosity...

    4. I just wanted to clarify that I don't consider all romance novels to be "pornography" (for women or anybody else), and that I too find lots of sex scenes to be repetitive and boring.

      But the idea that women, when we do want to enjoy some arousing erotica, or a sexy romance, require narrative really resonates with me. That's all.

      I don't worry too much over why women may respond differently to erotic images and stories than men do. I happen to believe there are differences of physiology or brain chemistry between the sexes, and I know that's not a fashionable opinion. I don't believe that any such differences, if they do exist, justify sexism or discrimination, any more than I believe I should not have rights because I'm short or have dark hair.

      Anyway, the original discussion was more about whether calling romance fiction "pornography" is an insult, and I have to weigh in and say I don't see it as an insult.

      As a writer, the negative aspect of the term "pornography" for me is the implication that I write my stories only to "satisfy" readers' demands, and not based on my own ideas of what is right for the story I'm telling. For example, if my novels were truly pornographic in this sense, I would have given Phyllida a lesbian girlfriend to provide that false "balance" that some readers want, even though it feels wrong for the story. And I would have written explicit sex scenes between Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas in Pride/Prejudice to "balance" the explicit scenes between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, as many readers wanted. I wrote P/P the way I did because I was making a point about the different ways male and female sexuality were perceived and valued at the time, but if I had been writing pornography my only concern would be to provide a turn-on for as many different types of readers as possible. Not that there's anything wrong with that (to quote Seinfeld), but I don't consider it creative writing.