Why, then, did the title of Robin Reader's recent Dear Author letter of opinion, "Romance is not a feminist genre‚ and that's okay," annoy me so much? It took me some time to figure out, hence this post here rather than in the comments section of the DA blog.
Perhaps I was annoyed, at least in part, because unlike Robin Reader once did, I've never bought into the argument that the genre of popular romance is, because it is primarily written by and read by women, inherently feminist. In fact, I'd argue that for much of its history, romance has leaned more toward enforcing than challenging patriarchal assumptions about women, about gender, and about the balance (or lack thereof) between the sexes. Defending the genre as a whole by pointing to its feminist underpinnings seems like setting yourself up for an all-too-painful, all-too-easily-justified intellectual smackdown.
|Feminists analyzing their own differences|
Most confusing to me was the turn RR's essay took when she asks readers to "entertain for a moment the idea that Romance is not a feminist genre. What is it, then, beyond a genre that celebrates love and is largely written by, for, and/or about women?" She gives two main answers, both of which, at least to me, seem decidedly feminist:
First, she argues that Romance "does something very similar to its literary forebear, sentimental fiction, namely, providing a shared space for women to contemplate and discuss the important issues that affect our lives, both on a general, societal level, in terms of day-to-day reality." And why is this not feminist? The phrase "the personal is political," after all, was originally coined by the editors of Notes from the Second Year: Women's Liberation (1970) for a reprinted speech given in 1969 by feminist Carol Hanisch, which argued that feminist consciousness-raising groups weren't apolitical, but were a way for women to recognize how "personal problems are political problems."
Robin Reader reaches a far more nuanced conclusion than the declarative statement of her letter's title suggests (did she title it? Or did a DA editor? I wonder...) She writes: "So does that mean the genre is either wholly feminist or wholly oppressed in the vice of patriarchy? I would argue it's neither." I completely agree that romance as a genre is either wholly feminist or wholly tied to patriarchal oppression, and it's well beyond time for proponents of the genre, as well as scholars who study it, to move beyond that limiting either/or paradigm.
I'm not sure I quite understand what RR is suggesting in the final line of her letter, though: "it's still okay, because in the end it's the quality of our experience and engagement with the genre that matters, even more than the books themselves." How does the "quality of our experience and engagement with the genre" relate to whether the genre as a whole, or individual titles within the genre, are feminist or not? Why should that engagement matter more than the books themselves?
Instead of "Romance is not a feminist genre," how about we agree that "Romance has the potential to be a feminist genre," and get on with the reading, writing, and analysis that proves it?
Domestic ≠ Submissive: Phoebe Wahl, via Pinterest