Friday, November 2, 2012

RNFF Pet Peeve: Romances that Diss Feminism

Feminists don't have a sense of humor
Feminists just want to be alone (boo-hoo)
Feminists spread vicious lies and rumor
They have a tumor on their funny bone
Nellie McKay and her feminist "whine"
Feminists have long invoked negative stereotypes about themselves and their political causes and then used irony to turn them on their heads. Even the stereotype that feminists have no sense of humor, as in singer-songwriter Nellie McKay's "Mother of Pearl," quoted above. Though the song opens with a litany of insults, when it turns to listing just what it is feminists do not find funny (child abuse, rape, unequal pay for equal work), anti-feminists discover that the joke is really on them.

Something that this feminist has not been finding very funny is the way many romance novels use feminists or feminism as the butt of a joke. Often this is done in the name of humor; extremes of behavior are often funny, and those who devote themselves to a cause, even some feminists, can sometimes go to extremes. Yet humor can also function to cover over anxieties that feminism and feminists evoke, or to implicitly undermine feminist ideology, even when a book's explicit message is a feminist one.

I've noticed some common patterns in the dissing of feminism in romance novels. See if any of these sound familiar:

Feminist Mothers as Objects of Humor

The heroines of novels being published today often feature mothers who came of age during the 60s and 70s. Several recent romances give openly feminist mothers to their heroines, mothers who serve not only as a positive role model but also as painfully glaring source of embarrassment. In Julie James' Practice Makes Perfect, high-powered corporate lawyer Payton Kendall finds her mother's goal of raising a child to "live and think freely" simply a cover for feminist brainwashing.  Payton agrees with some of her mother's positions (as the novel makes obvious--see Tuesday's post), but "just not to the same degree" (66). Payton's feminism is personal (I don't think people should wear fur, so I won't wear it), in contrast to her mother's overtly political stance (protesting by throwing paint on fur-wearing patrons as they leave the Gucci store).

The mother in Pamela Clare's Extreme Exposure is also cast as a feminist, but one whose new age leanings make her daughter wish for "a normal mother like everyone else, someone who would bake cookies, wear an apron, and let her grandson call her Grandma instead of insisting he use her first name" (37). Lily McMillan, like Lex Kendall, is also a public protester, most recently going topless during a protest in favor of public breastfeeding. Lily's activism irritates daughter Kara as much as it gives her pride.

The extremity of both Lex Kendall's and Lily McMillan's public protests make them into objects of humor for the reader, and embarrassment for the novel's heroines. But such humor simultaneously makes a depoliticized feminism seem normal, in contrast to the "extremes" of Lex and Lily's behavior.

Heroes who Insult Feminism


Extreme Exposure also features several passages in which the hero, Reece Sheridan, jokingly references feminism to undermine his lover's strength. After Kara receives a death threat phone call, Reece offers to stop by on his way home from work:

   "Oh! Well... I don't think that's necessary. It's kind of you to offer, Reece, truly, but I don't need you to rescue me." She sounded... surprised, flustered, uncertain.
  Hadn't anyone tried to "rescue" her before? Even as the question occurred to him, he knew the answer. She'd never had a father or a husband. She was used to taking care of herself.
   "I don't mean to steal your feminist mojo, sweet heart, but what if I want to rescue you?" (84)

And late at night, when Kara and Reece are sleeping in her bedroom, Kara hears someone outside her house:

   The fear on her face sent tentacles of anger twining through his gut. Reece got out of bed and, still naked, strode toward the bedroom door. "Stay here. If anything happens, push the panic button."
  "But I should be the one to check! It's my house, and you shouldn't have to do it just because you're the man."
   He cast her a withering glance that was probably lost in the darkness. "Burn a bra if you want, but don't be ridiculous." (186)

Though both these scenes are written from Reece's point of view, leaving open the possibility that neither the novel nor Kara endorses Reece's insults to feminism, Kara does in each instance allow Reece to get his way. A romance that teaches a heroine to share her burdens with her partner is fine, but one that uses insults to feminism to undermine a heroine's independence and self-sufficiency? Not so much.

Feminism as the repressive mother

The most common feminist-dissing trope I've noticed is a scene in which feminism is set up as the voice of shame in the bedroom, in opposition to the pleasure-seeking desires of the female body. Such oppositions can occur even in the midst of a book that embraces feminism. Take for example, Victoria Dahl's Start Me Up (which I wrote about last month):

"Put your hands on the headboard." His voice had lost any amusement. The words seem to rumble through the room and trace over her skin.
   Lori put her hands on the headboard.
   The electric slide of his hand down the small of her back made her shiver. "Good girl."
   A jolt of lust swept through her belly, to her absolute mortification. You do not have daddy issues, she told her body in her best feminist voice. Her body responded by arching back in a blatant effort to please him. Hussy the stern voice hissed, but hussy was no insult to her greedy body. (150)

Feminism here has somehow come to stand in for the stereotypical bad mother, chastising young girls for their sexual feelings, specifically, for any sexual feelings that result when a woman obeys an aggressive, dominant man. The "stern" "hissing" voice of feminism chastises the female body that gets turned on by being submissive, labeling it "hussy." Such an elision of feminism and mothering seems particularly problematic given feminism's long history of championing of women's rights to freely express their sexuality.

Laughing at the anti-feminists


Despite often featuring far more jokes at the expense of feminism than one would hope for in a genre written primarily for women, by women, romance novels also contain more than their share of jokes at the expense of those who embrace more conservative constructions of femininity. Sometimes the two types of jokes appear in the very same book, suggesting that even those writers who openly embrace feminism can find it difficult to completely free themselves from the influences of our culture's disdain of it. To end this post with a laugh, I leave you once again with Julie James' Payton Kendall, and her thoughts on the ridiculous limitations that her conservative friend, Laney, places on herself and on other women by trying to meet the contradictory dictates of conventional femininity. Payton is about to go on a blind date set up by Laney:

   Thankfully, Laney had approved of her choice in locale, SushiSamba Rio, which was upscale ("no feminist BS, Payton—let him pay") although not overtly flashy ("but don't order anything over twenty-five dollars; you don't want to look like a materialist hussy"). (85)

Have you seen these feminist-dissing patterns, or others, in your own romance novel reading?
Photo/Illustration credits: 
Nellie McKay: Ted Talks
"When I Grow Up": Literary Legs
Protesting Mother: Tennessee Guerilla Women
"I need feminism because": Who Needs Feminism? 
"Feminism is Funny": Effervescent Ennui

Next time on RNFF: E. Lockhart's Ruby Oliver series



  1. Oh my yes. Thanks for writing this, since it's one of my worst pet peeves. Yes, I can enjoy a books with a literally rapist hero, but I can't stand jokes about feminist. Go figure.

    I don't have any examples off the tip of my brain, but I'll note them when I come across them. I have definitely read complaints from other readers about Pamela Clare's books before, though, so I don't think it's just that one character.

    1. I just ran across an oldie: . One of my status updates notes the hero is a "Women's lib" hater. Just the words "women's lib" make me cringe...

  2. Just picked up another Pamela Clare book from the library, hoping that the anti-feminist rhetoric was specific to that one character (who was pretty liberal in many other respects, interestingly enough). Will be on the lookout for more "funny" feminist put-downs...

  3. I rarely read contemporary romances (that is, novels set in the present), so I don't bump up against this particular issue so much in my reading. But I do agree that a "rapist" hero is more acceptable than an anti-feminist outlook. I can't say I really want a "rapist" hero, but I do enjoy the trope of "forced seduction" in some romance novels of the 1970s and 1980s (I think?) I played with this idea in the early sex scenes between Phyllida and her dominant husband, Andrew, in Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, and I noticed that some readers were quite disturbed by these scenes. One gay man said he was so "scared" by one scene he had to stop reading!

    What I have experienced are a couple of instances of women who claim to be anti-feminist because of being raised by independent or overtly feminist mothers.

    In one case, a woman my age (mid-fifties), reacted against her divorced, self-supporting, left-leaning attorney mother by becoming more traditional or conservative in outlook. I don't think this was really a feminist issue so much as the typical childhood necessity to set oneself up in opposition to whatever it is, good or bad, that defines one's parents.

    The other case is someone I know only through e-mail. I don't like to be too harsh here, as I obviously cannot know the whole story, but this woman, a bit younger than me, claims to have been raised by feminist parents, father and mother, and feels extremely angry and damaged as a result. She especially feels that anti-sex sentiment that you talk about, one that I also find so surprising. In my experience in the 1970s, feminism was a voice for empowerment of women's sexuality, against the centuries of shame and repression we had endured.

    So go figure; I just do not get it.

    I suspect that this woman's parents, like most parents, were not perfect. Their faults might not have anything to do with their "feminism," but the two issues were conflated in the daughter's perception of her upbringing and its inevitable psychic damage.

  4. As you well know, there's an awful lot of YA lit that features the feminist mother as an object of humor and embarrassment for her teenage daughter. (Then there's Saving Francesca, which turns that trope on its head, I think...) Anyway, interesting to know this is something else the genres have in common!

    Your section on "Feminism as the repressive mother" struck me because lately I've started encountering students who hold this attitude -- who believe feminism is actually about repressing female sexuality. By this point I'm (sadly) quite used to the derogatory insults towards feminism and the use of feminism as an object of humor that you describe here... but the association of "feminism" with anti-woman, shaming, victim-blaming attitudes was a new one for me and it really shocked me.

    On the plus side, I can't even express how excited I am that next up is Ruby Lockheart!!

    1. And yeah for SAVING FRANCESCA, of course!

  5. Amy Lee:

    Do you get a sense from your students why they think feminism = anti-sex? Do you think that the repressive mother thing is due to anti-pornography campaigns by prominent feminists? Or are there other reasons?

  6. As a phenomenon it's so new to me (just this semester) that I really have no idea. What you just said would make sense, but they're so young and generally without a sense of history that I would be surprised if they even know who Andrea Dworkin is. If I had to hazard a guess, I would blame Sarah Palin and her "femogyny" nonsense, since that is presumably accessible within these students' memories and has certainly served to muddy the waters when it comes to pop cultural understandings of feminism.

    BTW, I'm embarrassed by my errors above. Ruby Lockheart, indeed. Ruby *Oliver* (by E. Lockhart), I meant.