Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Li.st Romance Panels: Is Romance Feminist?

Last week, eight romance authors, invited by the Li.st, gathered in a New York City work cooperative space to speak to an enthusiastic audience about romance, feminism, and sex. I was thrilled to be a part of the audience, and planned to write up a report for RNFF readers on the evening. Of course, now that I'm back home, unpacking after the RWA annual conference, which took place in the days following the Li.st panel, I can't for the life of me find the extensive notes I took as the authors talked and debated. Insert your favorite curse words here...

Luckily for me, fellow romance scholar Jayashree Kamble live-tweeted during the panels, and put her tweets together on Storify; you can find her tweets here.

"Feminism and Romance" panel: Alisha Rai, Sarah MacLean
Maya Rodale, and Carla Neggers. Photo from Alisha Rai's tweet
There are a few things that I'd like to add to Jayashree's thoughts. Maya Rodale, moderator of the first panel, "Romance Novels as a Feminist Trope Throughout the Centuries," opened the discussion by asking her fellow panelists "Are romance novels feminist?" Kamble suggests in her tweet that the response was "hell, yes" (or perhaps that was Kamble's answer?), but panelists' actual comments were more nuanced. There was a bit of silence at first, that funny pause that sometimes happens at the start of a panel talk when no one is quite sure who is meant to speak first, and Rodale interjected a few more questions "Are romances bad?" "Romances are written by women for women, about women, no?" MacLean and Rai then jumped in to note the difficulty of answering any of these questions with a simple "yes" or "no," especially given the breadth of the romance field at present. Carla Neggers, who has been publishing longer than any of the other panelists, added historical context, talking about many of the limits placed on romance authors when she was just beginning her career, and how many of those limits are no longer in place.

"How has the romance genre evolved over the past few decades?" was the next topic Rodale asked panelists to consider. The greater diversity of the genre, particularly in regards to the inclusion of romances featuring LGBTQ protagonists and protagonists of color. Rai had perhaps the best line of the night, though, when she noted that diversity still has a looooong way to go in the largely still-white world of romanceland: "We say evolution, but evolution is too slow. We need revolution." #weneeddiverseromance, indeed.

Sarah MacLean, who is white, did not disagree, but framed the issue somewhat differently, suggesting that the genre is on the edge of a huge shift, moving inexorably towards a more inclusive stance. Other panelists noted that diversity took hold first in the ranks of the self-published, and is only gradually (if at all) effecting the look of the pub lists of the big 5 romance publishers. It would be a cool research project, my academic self thinks, comparing the numbers of POC and LGBTQ characters in books by those publishers over the past 5, or perhaps 10, years...

Readers' often judgmental stance towards romance heroines formed another topic of discussion, but soon segued into thoughts about the prevalence of the billionaire hero in contemporary romance published in the past few years. MacLean put forth a theory that I've heard in other venues: that romance is a fantasy, and today, given the tough economic times and the dual role of worker and homemaker that the majority of American women have to play today, the fantasy of being swept away by a man who has so much money that you'll never need to worry about paying the bills again is vastly appealing.  Rodale concurred, focusing on the alpha male in billionaire romance not only being able to meet the heroine/reader's economic needs/worries, but also being able to address her other desires (sexual, emotional), desires that in everyday life often have to be pushed to the side. I get this argument, but I'm wondering why books in which the women are billionaires themselves, and fall in love with appreciative guys, aren't nearly as popular? Is there some gendered sense that a rich woman will be exploited? That a rich woman is somehow bad? That she must have had to do something not quite feminine in order to achieve wealth? That being a billionaire is hard work, but loving one is not? I'd love to hear readers' thoughts about this...

The question of happy endings—does romance require them, or can the genre take them or leave them?—concluded the first panel. Most audience members seemed to be in the former camp, despite Rodale's citing of many romance-writing and -reading friends who are happy to live without the HEA, or even the HFN. I wondered if there is anything inherently feminist, or anti-feminist, about the restrictiveness, of the HEA—what do you think?

"Erotic Writing and the Role of Women" panel. Photo from Alyssa Cole's tweet

The second panel, "Erotic Writing and the Role of the Woman," featured an entire panel of romance writers of color, a rarity at RWA or other meetings, unless the workshop/panel topic is about diversity (more about this in Friday's post). Feminista Jones, a sex-positive social worker, activist, blogger, and now BDSM romance novelist, moderated the discussion with fellow erotic romance writers Suleikha Snyder, Rebekkah Weatherspoon, and Jordan Silver.

I thought it was fascinating that all of the writers except for Jones began their writing careers penning fan fiction, then discovering through traditional or, more often, through self-publishing, that what they were giving away for free could be earning them money. Does the slash tradition of fan fiction make writers more comfortable with erotic romance publishing? Does the independence of fan fiction (no editors, no publishing houses) lead fan fiction writers more easily to self-publishing?

This panel, like the earlier one, talked about the changes in the romance genre over the past 20 years. The rise of self-publishing; the shift from heroines with no sexual agency to heroines whose sexual desires are affirmed; the rise of queer romance, and sex-positive romance—just a few of the changes the panelists noted.

A fascinating exchange occurred between Jordan Silver, who declared that she wasn't a feminist, that she liked alpha males and wanted to be taken care of, and Feminista Jones, who spoke about the often fraught relationship between black women and feminism (many black women feeling that feminism is a white girl thing, without any real relevance to their lives). Jones argued for a broader understanding of feminism and its focus on equality for women, no matter their race or ethnicity. The discussion highlighted a point made earlier in the evening, that there is no one black voice, no one black identity; the three women of African descent on the panel were all coming from different backgrounds and different cultures, and one's experience did not mirror that of the others'. Only when we have enough books with people of color will we be able to move beyond the assumption of a monolithic black identity.

Jones also spoke about the feminism she tried to portray in her BDSM romance, Push The Button, which she wrote partly in reaction against the misconceptions about the BDSM lifestyle she saw in the popular 50 Shades of Gray novels. A member of the BDSM community herself, Jones wrote Push to present the everyday life aspects of a s/D relationship. When I read Push, I didn't find it that feminist, to be honest. After hearing Jones speak, though, it's clear that she herself has a strong grounding in feminist ideas, and I'm curious to know more about how she sees those ideas playing out in her novel. I've emailed her to see if she might like to guest post here at RNFF; will keep you posted...

The panelists also discussed the difficulties in finding homes for their work with traditional publishers, in large part because of the paucity of agents and editors of color in the industry. I've seen far more younger editors in the business than there were when I worked in publishing (in the late 80s and the 90s), but until people of color hold positions of power within what are often very hierarchical publishing houses, the lack of real investment in the stories of writers of color is all too likely to continue.

Two other great comments from this portion of the evening: Feminista Jones took major issue with the idea that black women are not deserving of love; her goal in writing romance, she says, is to "show black women being adored." Suleikha Snyder mentioned that in one of her Bollywood novels, she had great fun writing one white character in her otherwise all Indian cast, ironically turning the tables on all of the token (insert minority identity here) portrayals found in the majority of American-published romance.

During the Q & A period, two questions white readers often ask of authors of color came to the fore: how do I find more books by writers of color, and how do I, as a white writer, include characters of color in my work without stereotyping/being offensive? The panel turned the first question back on the audience—rather than giving them places to find POC romance, the panelists challenged audience members to help create a publishing and consumer environment in which such romances will not be hard to find. Buy books by writers of color; use social media to promote writers of color; tell publishers that you want romances by writers of color. Don't let publishers off the hook by letting them continue to say that such romances do not sell.

The panelists were gracious in offering advice in response to the second question. Ask questions with thoughtfulness and respect, do research, run your stories by beta readers of color, even just make friends with people from cultures and ethnicities to which you yourself do not belong. What they did not say, but what I would like to add, is that it is not the responsibility of writers of color to make us white writers feel safe when writing about people outside our own cultures. We have to take a risk, be willing to make mistakes, be willing to be called out on them, learn from them, and keep going.

Just as writers of color have been doing all along.

More on Friday about the RWA National conference, and topics of interest there to feminist romance readers.


  1. My understanding of the "billionaire hero 'rescues' downtrodden heroine" trope is that it is, as you said, based on the financial climate, and I think this extends to the reason a "billionaire heroine" wouldn't be as popular, in a couple of ways.

    Most of our billionaire heroes are shown working fairly hard to earn/keep/manage their money, and if I'm going to have a fantasy of extreme wealth, I want it to come without work! Oh, sure, I'd still do something productive with my time, as most of the 'rescued' heroines do, but it would be completely based on personal satisfaction; fantasy me doesn't even THINK about money, post rescue. So a heroine who's a billionaire from the start would likely seem flaky or as if she didn't appreciate her money if she ignored it as thoroughly as I think the fantasy suggests 'rescued' women could.

    The other (and possibly more coherent) reason I think the billionaire hero is more popular than the billionaire heroine is that the women reading these books are dreaming about how their own lives could be different, and they don't really want to change EVERYTHING. It's too much to go back to the start and say "what would be different if I'd born a billionaire" or "if I'd really liked computers and developed a software company" or whatever. Too much of a change - it might be an interesting book, but it wouldn't be a satisfying escape fantasy. But we can say "what would be different if I, as I am today (possibly minus my pesky husband/boyfriend) fell in love with a billionaire?" and keep all the good things in our lives (other than our current partners) and also have the freedom of unlimited money AND the glory of hot-man love.

    Hmmm... as I'm typing, I'm getting an idea for a story where the heroine wins the lottery. Huge money, freedom, etc., but no love. Not until... whatever. I guess it could go in a few different directions. Hey, maybe it could be a series, a bunch of different women winning the lottery AND finding love...

    But back to the topic at hand - I think a woman billionaire might be an interesting story (well, I just read A Gentleman in the Street and it WAS an interesting story, so I guess that "might" isn't needed). But it isn't a rescue fantasy, not in the same way a working-class woman and a billionaire man is.

    1. Kate:

      I'm wondering about your comment "most of our billionaire heroes are shown working really hard" -- in my admittedly somewhat limited reading of the billionaire books, it's more that people TALK about the hero working hard. We're not SHOWN him working hard. Because if he's working, he's not wooing the heroine, right?

      And I don't think the working-class heroine is as common as she once was. I far more often see a middle class woman as the heroine of the billionaire books. So it's not a total rescue, financially-speaking, is it? A "rescue" into luxury, perhaps...

      A heroine winning the lottery definitely plays more into the "rescue" trope than a billionaire heroine who worked for her $s.

      I guess what I'm asking is, why don't more women dream about financial success? Is there a way to portray such a fantasy in the context of a romance novel? Or would one desire get in the way of portraying the other?

  2. Answering your question- I've always thought that the romance genre is not feminist in itself, BUT the majority of the books in the genre assume a feminist POV.
    I mean, the majority of romance novels pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours, whereas that does not happen in other genres, from mysteries to literary fiction. At least that's true with contemporary or historical novels published in the last twenty years. I'm not so sure about romance novels older than that and, certainly, not in the paranormal genre. Perhaps it's because I'm not very fond of that subgenre, but the few paranormals that I've read sounded like 'bodice rippers redux' to me.

    About billionaires - I've asked myself the same question many many times. It's the same thing as the dukes and all that noble titles. I haven't got the answer, because I don't understand why that type of character works so well.
    My personal tastes are different, so my fellow romance readers never cease to surprise me.

    I was thinking about diversity in romances. It looks like an obsession in American romance blogs this past year, and my European POV is a little bit different. I've tried to explain it many times and I'm tired so I'm not going to explain it again. To sum it up -yes, I want diversity in my romance novels, but diversity has more to do with different countries, and cultures and languages and less with the colour of one's skin which doesn't look so important -to me.