Friday, December 11, 2015

Romance Novels as Progressive Pop Culture?

I recently attended a fascinating panel discussion at the MIT Communications Forum, on the representation of women in politics in popular culture. One of the speakers, Ellen Emerson White, noted that 1984 book The President's Daughter, was one of the first to feature a woman in the role of U. S. Commander in Chief. She also noted that since that book's publication in 1984, other authors featured women presidents, but that most often those women had come to political power not by running for office, but as a result of the death of a spouse, death of the elected president, or some other catastrophic situation. The Atlantic notes the same trend in television depictions: while there have been six American TV shows to feature female presidents, all have either been VPs who got the job after the death of a President, or women who gained the role largely by dint of being part of a political family dynasty.

During the discussion that followed, an audience member made the offhand comment that popular culture tends to lead, rather than simply mirror reality, hence it has far more female presidents than the actual United States has. This statement didn't strike me as entirely true, not only because of the caveats White and The Atlantic note regarding presidential depictions, but because I've read so much lit crit on romance that points out the conservative, rather than the progressive, aspects of the genre.

But recently I read two different hetero romances with mother as president subplots. And this week, a lesbian romance with a Formula One race car driver protagonist, breaking new records for her sex. And it made me wonder—have I been selling romance too short? I've seen many a romance novel that encourages women to think of romance and family before career, but have I overlooked ones that depict women doing more, professionally, than they have in real life?

What other romances have you read that depict women breaking professional glass ceilings?


  1. A place where I see romance novels explicitly grappling with professional success through a feminist lens is in historicals. It's interesting to me. Obviously, when someone is writing about a time when married women might not be able to hold property, let alone vote, the degree to which a woman can be liberated by our contemporary standards is limited, but I think those limitations somehow free (some) authors to very explicitly explore women and work, women and ambition, women and feeling trapped, women and domesticity, women wanting more than their culture allows, etc. It's more common in historicals, IME, to see a character grappling with what women are allowed to be/do/want than it is in contemporaries, where many female characters are professionally successful in a glossy, unexamined way that only very rarely acknowledges the way women are still held down in the workplace. Vs in historicals, it comes up all the time, characters wrestle with ideas of femininity and ambition and cultural norms - I assume that the distance allows the author to explore things that, if they were explored in a contemporary setting, would often make the romance too painful for the contemporary reader to really enjoy.

    1. My experience has been similar to yours, Anonymous. In what historical titles in particular do you see this happening? I'd say those by Courtney Milan, Sherry Thomas, Rose Lerner, and Cecilia Grant...

  2. Oh! Julie James's heroines always have fancy and high-powered jobs! Those count, right?

  3. Yes, I've read a lot of SFR with military heroines in combat roles.