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

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sex Roles in and out of Bed: Victoria Dahl's START ME UP


"Baby, that is one fine ass..."

So opens Victoria Dahl's provocative contemporary romance, Start Me Up. Hardly an auspicious beginning for a reader in search of feminism in her romance reading, a reader might be forgiven for assuming. But Dahl, sneaky writer that she is, has baited her readers only to switch the linguistic rug out from underneath them. For if you read past that offensive opening line, you discover that the  sexist language comes not from the mouth of an overbearing male, but from the raunchy lips of Molly, the best friend of the novel's protagonist, Lori. As the opeing scene progresses, and Molly's comments grow increasingly lewd, car mechanic Lori joins in, adding her own sexual double entendres to the mix. Molly and Lori thus use a technique common to traditionally oppressed groups: re-appropriating the language of the oppressor to undermine its power. Molly and Lori subvert the restrictions of sexist languge by making it an object of humor.

With her novel's opening scene, then, Dahl signals her book's feminist concerns: not just to laugh at, but to explore the limits and powers of conventional gender roles. In the novel that follows, Dahl proceeds to give readers not only a laugh-out-loud funny story, but also a thoughtful model of ways to undermine the power differentials that mark out "feminine" and "masculine" roles.

Estrogen, major contributor to female sex drive
One model Dahl provides is an acknowledgement that women have sexual desires separate from, and prior to, any particular male object. Conventional wisdom takes it for granted that heterosexual men desire sex, regardless of whether or not there is a particular woman to whom they are attracted. But it simultaneously implies that a woman's sexual desire appears only after a man steps onto the stage: not "I want," but "I want you." Romance novels all too often buy into this false belief about the differences between male and female desire. Women do not want sex, we're supposed to believe; they want a man. The man turns them on, makes them feel sexy, makes them want to engage in sexual activity, rather than some drive or desire inside them that exists separate from any particular partner.

Dahl openly questions such assumptions about female sexuality by having her protagonist, Lori, openly discuss her wish to "do someone" (42). When friend Molly eagerly asks which man Lori has in mind, Lori answers, "I don't know who I want to do. Just someone. Someone tall and strong and cute" (43). Lori's elaboration—"The point is I'm not looking for a relationship. I just want to use someone for sex" (52)—humorously turns traditional gender stereotypes on their ear. But it also makes it crystal clear that her sexual desire exists prior to, and separate form, any specific male object.

Dahl acknowledges, though, that the sexual double standard often makes it difficult for a woman to be so straightforward in discussing, never mind acting upon, her own sexual desires. After she mistakenly believes that Molly has told her brother, Quinn, about Lori's desire for a sexual fling, Lori backs off, claiming it was only a joke. Even after Quinn, a former nerd who has always been too absorbed in his work to be a good boyfriend, tells her he'd like to have meaningless sex with her, Lori, embarrassed, initially refuses. Finally, realizing that she's tired of being so passive, Lori takes the plunge and asks Quinn to be her friend with benefits.

During their subsequent affair, Lori often has difficulty telling Quinn just what she wants sexually, too shy or self-conscious to speak of her own desires:

     If this were one of her books, she'd put a stop to this dinner business. She'd unzip the back of her dress and strip down to her brand-new underwear and matching bra. Tell him all she wanted to eat was him. Tell him she wanted it hard and fast and now.
     But she was just Lori Love, girl mechanic, and she didn't have the guts to put what she wanted into words even if it was the whole point of this date. Pitiful. (95)

I, for one, somehow bought into the idea that because my desire had been created by a man, he should also be able to satisfy that desire without any direction from me. Such assumptions set me, and all women, up for disappointment, Dahl's novel argues. Dahl uses Lori's character development to move Lori, and through Lori, her readers, beyond the fear of speaking about what turns us on. Lori learns it is more than worth it to take an active role in expressing one's sexual desires, rather than passively waiting for a partner to magically intuit them. Like Lori, women need to grab the courage to tell their partners what they like in bed:

     Lori clenched her eyes shut. She couldn't possibly ask him [to speak Spanish during sex].
     "Please," he murmured.
     This was supposed to be her fantasy. If she couldn't ask for what she wanted from Quinn, right here, right now, she'd miss her chance to live a dream. Lori held her breath and gathered up her courage and whispered into his shirt. (182)

The most surprising lesson Dahl's book taught me is that the role one prefers in bed may be radically different than the role one prefers to take on in day-to-day life. Quinn reads Lori's book of short story erotica, taking special note of the ones she's marked as her favorites: "There'd been a clear common thread in the two stories she'd liked. Both heroes had been aggressive. Not rough, per se, but not the least bit tentative in getting what they wanted" (133). In fact, Quinn discovers, Lori fantasizes about being tied up during sex. Though Quinn, who's been a polite, considerate sexual partner in the past, is a bit nervous about taking on a more dominant role, he gamely gives it a try, and the resultant sex is explosive for them both.

But whenever Quinn tries to take on the "saving the damsel in distress" role in real life—acting overly protective of Lori, wanting to pay for her to travel as she's always dreamed of, asking her to give up her life to move in with him—Lori immediately takes offense. She may like a decisive, take-charge sexual partner, but that doesn't mean she's eager, or even the least bit willing, to cede her control over everyday decisions to him. Lori and Quinn's relationship can only move beyond being friends with benefits when Quinn can see that "there weren't any wussy heroes" in the erotic stories Lori likes, but "there weren't any damsels in distress," either. "Lori didn't need saving any more," Quinn realizes, "but maybe it wouldn't hurt to ride up on a stallion and ask if she wanted a ride" (251-52).

Many women believe that being a feminist means never being weak, always being in control, even in their fantasy lives. This is a message I for one internalized, even if it wasn't ever directly stated in any feminist theory I'd read. But Dahl's novel shook up my belief, arguing that while feminism may insist that women be given the opportunity to take on a role of power in their sexual and romantic relationships, it doesn't demand that every opportunity be taken. Particularly when it comes to the roles we choose to play in bed.

Victoria Dahl, Start Me Up. HQN 2009.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Estrogen t-shirt: chemicalshirts
• Sexual Double Standard cartoon: Cartoons by Sheila © Sheila Hollingworth
• Heart book: Miss Erika

Next time: What can a feminist get from reading romance?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Who am I to be writing about romance novels and feminism?

As an early adolescent in the late 1970s, I was an avid Harlequin Romance reader. Haunting the bookshelves in my local Caldors and Bradlees stores, I set aside a certain amount of my allowance (and later, my babysitting money) to purchasing those slim, colorful volumes, though their garishly-illustrated covers, blatantly shouting “this book is about sex,” or, at least in the books I chose, “this book is about a woman who has to keep saying no to sex, even though she’d rather say yes” made me slink in furtive guilt through the checkout line.

Though I read widely in other genres, no other type of book held such a hold over me as genre romance did. Pleasure and guilt, both to be kept hidden, compelled me to keep adding to my romance novel collection, which took up more and more shelves in my hidden closet bookshelf as my teen years progressed. My 12-year-old self didn’t understand the compulsion, or the guilt these books evoked; I only knew that something about them kept me coming back for more.

Only after taking Women’s Studies classes at college did I begin to understand why I had found such novels so utterly compelling, and so guilt-inducing—and why I should steer far away from them. They were part of the patriarchy, the social system that deemed men and boys the primary authority figures, and left women subordinate to their rules and restrictions. The patriarchy, where “you throw like a girl” was an insult, where the patently unfair sexual double standard held sexually active boys to be the height of cool, sexually active girls the skankiest of whores. The patriarchy, which feminists in the 1980s were eager to identify, protest against, and dismantle.

By persuading their characters, and their female readers alongside them, to believe that heterosexual romance was the most important thing in their lives—in many cases, the only important thing in their lives—romance novels could only stand in the way of women who wished to gain parity with men in the workplace, in the household, in life. If I wished to be a feminist, then, those Harlequins hiding in the back of my closet would have to go.

Flash forward twenty-five years, to an M.A. and Ph.D.-wielding scholar of children’s literature writing an article about Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. The planned article would focus on the genre conventions of fantasy, not romance. But I began to wonder how fantasy conventions might differ from (or perhaps overlap) the conventions of romance. Little academic attention had been paid to romance when I was reading it back in the 1980s. But had scholars in recent years begun to analyze the genre? I began to wonder…

A few trips to the library, and an essay by Dawn Heinecken later, and my original question, and my reading habits, took off in an entirely different direction. Heinecken’s article, “Changing Ideologies in Romance Fiction,”* argued that romance as a genre had been transformed since the days when passive Harlequin heroines waited to be rescued and made whole by dominant, often violent, alpha male heroes. Romance novels being written in the late 1990s, Heinecken argued, had begun to incorporate feminist discourses, running “counter to the traditionally ‘masculine’ ideology of competition, hierarchy, and autonomy…. romance novels embrace a sense of social justice and the necessity for a cooperative relationship that is in direct opposition to masculine modes of thought” (150).

Could Heinecken’s claim be true? I certainly had my doubts.

But after I finished writing my article, I had some free time, and was willing to put her claim to the test. Off I hied to the local library, where a copy of Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels awaited. Candy Tan and Sarah Wendell, authors of Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, had recommended Scoundrels during an interview broadcast on NPR in 2009.

First Heinecken, then NPR? Could romance novels have changed so radically since I had banished them from my bookshelves back in the 1980s?

One Loretta Chase novel later, and I was once again hooked on romance. I haunted the local library’s romance section, ordered novels via interlibrary loan, and purchased the ones I found particularly compelling. Between that fateful day in April of 2009 and today, the fall of 2012, I read more than five hundred romance novels.

And I’m still reading them.

Heinecken, then, was right—romance novels had changed. Or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to say, some romance novels had changed. You can still find plenty of conventional patriarchal romances, with alpha heroes all too ready to dominate sweet but passive heroines who can only find their worth if they are loved by/stalked by an overwhelmingly virile man. But some novelists experimented with other visions of masculinity, visions more appealing to readers with feminist sensibilities than the traditional alpha male. And still others gestured towards feminist truisms while simultaneously embracing traditional patriarchal tropes.

Few review journals, though, had the space for, or the interest in, vetting individual romance novels’ feminist credentials. Individual bloggers might devote a line or two to such questions. But no blog seemed to focus specifically on the feminist aspects of contemporary romance fiction, books that meet the Romance Writers of America’s definition of a romance as “as a work that contains a central love story, and the resolution of the romance is emotionally satisfying and optimistic.”**

Hence this blog, Romance Novels for Feminists (RNFF), was born…

What paths have led you to becoming a romance reader? And if you consider yourself a feminist, do you find yourself conflicted or guilty about your romance reading?

* Heinecken, Dawn. “Changing Ideologies in Romance Fiction.” Romantic Conventions. Ed. Anne K. Kaler and Rosemary E. Johnson-Kurek. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State U Popular P, 1999. 149-172.

** Hot Sheet. RWA Board Meeting. July 22-23, 2012.

Next time: The romance novel that made me seriously think about the possibility of feminist romance fiction

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Feminist Romance Novel—A Contradiction in Terms?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an intelligent woman in possession of a feminist sensibility must not be in want of a romance novel. So says conventional wisdom, which takes it for granted that romance fiction is not just predictable, formulaic, and trivial, but also, by its very nature, oppressive to women. And so says much academic criticism, arguing that the genre’s conventions may appear to grant women power, but in truth work to limit women’s power within patriarchy, and resist any messages that might teach women how to subvert its restrictions. What feminist worth her salt wants to read about, never mind take pleasure from, female characters whose dignity and self-worth are ignominiously ripped away right along with their bodices?

Corseted book
But romance novels are not completely without their defenders. Some readers, writers, and literary critics, even ones who self-identify as feminist, insist that the romance novel is less about imprisoning its readers in a symbolic patriarchal corset and more about shining a light on female empowerment. Literary critic Pamela Regis speaks for many when she argues that romance novels are best read as feminist fantasies of empowerment: “The genre is not about women’s bondage…. The romance novel is, to the contrary, about women’s freedom. The genre is popular because it conveys the pain, uplift, and joy that freedom brings.”*

Both sides in this debate undermine their arguments by focusing on the romance genre as a whole, rather than looking at individual books, or even trends or patterns over historical time in the field. Yes, a genre’s conventions may, in general, lean toward one ideological position over another. Many romance novels are as anti-feminist as critics of the genre as a whole believe.

But not all.

Because genre conventions change over time. Conventions also, in the hands of individual writers, can be played with, protested, laughed at, even subverted. Some romance novels are as freedom-espousing as Pamela Regis and other pro-romance readers and critics argue.

Corset as Book (or advertising...)

But again, not all.

Only when we look at historical trends, individual writers, and even individual books can we begin to see which books can truly claim the feminist label, and which unreservedly embrace anti-feminist beliefs. Or, perhaps most common of all, which books contain elements of both, simultaneously resisting and embracing conventional patriarchal wisdom, in varying degrees.

This blog, then, will attempt to strain the wheat of feminist romance novels from the chaff of more conventional romance fare. By reading and writing about feminist romance, I hope to come to a better understanding of my own views of feminism, of writing, and of love relationships as a whole. I hope to hear your thoughts about romance novels that you consider feminist, and why you do. Finally, I hope to begin a broader conversation about what a feminist romance novel might look like, because I firmly believe that such a creature is not just a mythical possibility, but a thriving, if still far too rare, actuality.

Book as corset (but not romance novels!

The Plan

Each week, Romance Novels for Feminists (or RNFF for short) will feature a review of one book that, in the mind of this reader, can credibly be deemed feminist. I'm an intuitive thinker, so rather than beginning with a definition of feminism and applying it to novels, I plan to write about novels that strike me as feminist, and blog about why. A second weekly posting will focus not on individual books, but on larger-scale issues related to feminism and romance writing:

• Discussing common anti-feminist romance patterns and tropes

• Examining books that might have be deemed feminist at the time when they were published, and thinking about whether said books can still be considered feminist today

• Exploring the ideas of contemporary scholars who study the intersections of feminism and romance

• Pursuing other topics related to romance fiction and feminism that this writer, and you, the readers of this blog, find relevant

I plan to post on Tuesday and Friday mornings, around 9 am East Coast United States time.

Won’t you join me in this exploration of the connections and contentions between feminism and romance fiction?

* Pamela Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003. p. xiii.

Photo credits
• Handmade Corset Book by Sharmz
• Corset as Book: from The Corset Book, via Versatile Corsets.
• Book Corset by Dicepuddin

Next time: Who am I, to be writing about feminism and romance fiction?