Friday, October 24, 2014

Reporting from the "Unsuitable #1" Panel at Duke University

It was a honor to be asked to participate in the first of Duke University's Unsuitable panels, a series of "open, frank, and informed conversations about women and popular fiction historically and today." Professors (and romance authors) Laura Florand and Katharine Brophy DuBois (pen name Katharine Ashe) are coordinating this speaker series in conjunction with the course they will be teaching in the spring semester, "The Romance Novel." Here's a brief recap of this first panel, for those who did not have the good fortune to attend:

Laura Florand and Katharine Brophy DuBois opened the program by jointly welcoming attendees and participants, inviting all interested parties to join in the conversation about why books aimed primarily at a female audience are often either ignored or denigrated. Audience members included romance writers, undergrad and graduate students, scholars from related disciplines, and readers of popular romance, a mix that suggests the goal of the series—to get people from different backgrounds but a common interest talking about the most popular (and most financially lucrative) genre being published today—is well on its way to being met.

Rachel Seidman, a historian who specializes in the history of women's activism, opened the program by talking about the "Who Needs Feminism" project that students in her "Women and the Public Sphere" class at Duke created in response to her call for final projects that engaged in activism on behalf of women's issues. Her students, recognizing that if you "identify yourself as a feminist today... many people will immediately assume you are a  man-hating, bra-burning, whiny liberal," decided to create a PR campaign on behalf of feminism, a campaign focused on erasing the assumption that we "no longer need feminism." The project was originally intended to extend no further than the Duke campus, but when students posted the photos they had taken to Facebook, "Who Needs Feminism" went viral. Now, people around the world are writing down the reasons why they need feminism and posting them to the tumblr site the class created.

Seidman spoke about the backlash against the project, initially primarily by men but more recently by women, too. While much of the male backlash was simply offensive or abusive, Seidman found it fascinating that the anti-feminism pictures posted by women often included arguments similar to those made by nineteenth-century women who protested against women's suffrage. Patriarchy often allows women a small degree of power, and feminism has had a difficult time, Seidman suggested, convincing women invested in the power patriarchy has offered in giving up that power in the hopes of gaining agency of their own.

Seidman concluded by asking "How much of this matters? Is this a breakthrough moment for feminism, or an empty gesture?" Seidman suggested that shifting the feminist discourse from "I am a feminist" to "I need feminism because it allows me to do x" might be a positive step, suggesting that those wary of identity politics might come to regard feminism as a tool they can employ to meet their goals, rather than a label they have to wear.

Romance author and scholar Maya Rodale spoke next, recounting the research she had done for her Master's thesis on the history of romance, and the reasons why the genre, and women's reading in general, has so often been stigmatized. She recounted her own mocking attitude towards the genre when she was a college student, until she thought to ask herself how she knew to mock romance when she'd never even read a romance novel? Digging into the history of both romance and women's reading, she discovered that reading, especially reading by women and by the poor, was considered dangerous. Romances developed a bad reputation, a reputation intended to frighten women away from reading that might call patriarchal and class hierarchies into question. 

Rodale points to four reasons why romance novels might be considered dangerous:

• Romance celebrates a woman's right to choose

• Romance focuses on independent women, in the period after they've left the domesticity of their family home and before they've begun to create domestic homes of their own. The "Sex in the City" years of a woman's life, as Rodale terms them.

• Romance asserts women's sexuality is not worthy of punishment, but of celebration. In literary fiction, women who have sex often end up dead (think Anna Karenina, or myriad other 19th century cannonical works). But in romance, women get to have sex and enjoy it. A scary thought for many...

• Romance insists on a happily-ever-after. Literary critics tend to agree with the opening line of the above-mentioned Anna Karenina: "All happy families [or lovers] are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." If a book ends happily, they feel, it must be formulaic, and thus lacking in true literary merit. Romance takes issue with this belief.

Maya is currently at work on a longer nonfiction project about the reputation of popular romance, but if you'd like the details of her past work, check out this uTube video she made summarizing her thesis.

Florand and DuBois saw my work as a bridge between the two earlier speakers' work, and thus asked me to speak at the end of the program. I recounted the genesis of the RNFF blog in my own history of reading"unsuitable" romances (see this early post for details), and then talked about the pleasures of the blog, in particular the cross-section of commenters that have posted thoughts, ideas, questions, and challenges over the two years of the blog's existence.

Katharine Dubois, Jackie Horne, Laura Florand,
Maya Rodale, and Jessica Scott
A short but lively discussion followed our presentations, a discussion which touched upon the state of sex education in our country, how constructions of masculinity in romance have changed far more slowly than constructions of femininity have, speculation about the reasons for the current resurgence in alpha males, the role of sex and sexual pleasure in romance, the tensions between feminism and capitalism, and just how stigmatized romance really is today. I want to thank the audience members for their thoughtful questions and insights; their ideas have given me much food for thought, and for future posts here at RNFF.

One thing I did want to clear up. While the writer from Duke Today who reported on the event quoted me as asking "Why is it that we have to hide our romance novels in our nightstand drawers or under our beds?" (I believe it was actually Katharine DuBois who asked this, and as a rhetorical question), what I actually said was that while as an adolescent I had kept my Harlequin romances in a paper bag in the closet, I now had several shelves in my office devoted to my single-title romance keepers, below my children's literature scholarly books and above my fantasy and science fiction collections.

It's the erotica I keep in the nightstand table...


  1. You are getting some well-deserved recognition for your intellectual contribution to the field. I hope this will inspire you to write a book to update the study of romantic fiction.

    1. Thanks, Dan. Perhaps I'll try to pull together a book based on some RNFF columns...

  2. Ha! LOLd at your last line, Jackie. Thanks for a great summary of the event! I wish I could've been there--sounds like it was some great intellectual discussion of the genre.

    1. You're very welcome, Jen. Would have loved to have your sociological perspective as part of the mix. Maybe Laura and Katharine can sign you up for a future spot in the series...

  3. I know I am expected to applaud this, but it sounds so much like self-congratulatory preaching to the choir rather than a rigorous and searching scholarly evaluation of the genre's strengths and weaknesses.

    I am much more of a skeptic about the romance genre and how feminist it can be while remaining popular and marketable than you are. There are issues on which I agree with the critics of romance, albeit to less of an extent and with more nuance. Quite a lot of romance reads to me as sexist and socially regressive, and the fact that women write and read it only makes that worse, not better.

    I'm also not convinced reading romance is dangerous or is considered dangerous in the sense I would normally use the term. While writing erotica or erotic romance may be a danger to one's job, in what way is reading it dangerous? If the point is that female sexual agency is considered dangerous to society, that's something that is the case irrespective of whether women read romance or not. In fact, the conflation of sex with love and the related idea that sex is only okay if love is also present, which is what I get out of most of the sexual content of the romance genre, is something I think is a negative for women, not a positive.

    If romance is really all that its advocates say it is, what other people think doesn't matter. It will get whatever respect it deserves once those who read it stop caring what other people think about it.

    1. Hi, Lawless:

      Haven't heard much from you of late; glad to see you back in the conversation.

      The panel, and the discussion after, included BOTH intellectual discussion of the genre AND some self-congratulatory preaching to the choir. Not all the panelists agreed about the feminist potential of romance as a genre; as Dr. Seidman noted, just because something is produced by women doesn't automatically make it feminist. Women are just as able to promulgate patriarchal ideology as are men, and I would agree with many of the critics of romance that as a genre, it had largely been used to do so.

      You write: "I am much more of a skeptic about the romance genre and how feminist it can be while remaining popular and marketable than you are." We talked briefly about this during the Q&A section of the night—the fact that romance novels are consumer goods, and produced by companies to make a profit, companies largely still run by men (although a good many woman are now employed by said companies). Does popular culture created for the mass market have to be by its very nature anti-feminist? Is there no congenial ground that capitalism and feminism share? Definitely questions worth thinking about in more detail.

  4. Thank you for sharing a recap of these panels. I followed a few discussions on Twitter but quickly lost track of what was being said in a sea of hashtags and @ symbols.

    Although always a voracious reader, I didn't start reading romance novels until I was in my early 30s, which brought a much more critical eye to the genre than I think I would have had if I had started reading similar books at say, age 14.

    I think romance novels are a really effective vehicle for feminist ideology but I don't think that all romance authors feel this way or take advantage of this platform. I'll admit to reading romance in much the same way as I read high fantasy: as a means for escapist entertainment. That said, when a romance novel fully embraces and lives feminism it's a bonus! I know that certain authors (many of them on these panels) are very vocal about their feminist principles and incorporating them into their novels, but I still think there is room for improvement within the genre in general. I think I just have high expectations for the romance that I read.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Vernoica. Glad you enjoyed the recap of the panel.

      I agree that there's still a lot of room for more feminism in the genre. Keep up your high expectations!