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
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...