Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Feminist Romance Novel—A Contradiction in Terms?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an intelligent woman in possession of a feminist sensibility must not be in want of a romance novel. So says conventional wisdom, which takes it for granted that romance fiction is not just predictable, formulaic, and trivial, but also, by its very nature, oppressive to women. And so says much academic criticism, arguing that the genre’s conventions may appear to grant women power, but in truth work to limit women’s power within patriarchy, and resist any messages that might teach women how to subvert its restrictions. What feminist worth her salt wants to read about, never mind take pleasure from, female characters whose dignity and self-worth are ignominiously ripped away right along with their bodices?

Corseted book
But romance novels are not completely without their defenders. Some readers, writers, and literary critics, even ones who self-identify as feminist, insist that the romance novel is less about imprisoning its readers in a symbolic patriarchal corset and more about shining a light on female empowerment. Literary critic Pamela Regis speaks for many when she argues that romance novels are best read as feminist fantasies of empowerment: “The genre is not about women’s bondage…. The romance novel is, to the contrary, about women’s freedom. The genre is popular because it conveys the pain, uplift, and joy that freedom brings.”*

Both sides in this debate undermine their arguments by focusing on the romance genre as a whole, rather than looking at individual books, or even trends or patterns over historical time in the field. Yes, a genre’s conventions may, in general, lean toward one ideological position over another. Many romance novels are as anti-feminist as critics of the genre as a whole believe.

But not all.

Because genre conventions change over time. Conventions also, in the hands of individual writers, can be played with, protested, laughed at, even subverted. Some romance novels are as freedom-espousing as Pamela Regis and other pro-romance readers and critics argue.

Corset as Book (or advertising...)

But again, not all.

Only when we look at historical trends, individual writers, and even individual books can we begin to see which books can truly claim the feminist label, and which unreservedly embrace anti-feminist beliefs. Or, perhaps most common of all, which books contain elements of both, simultaneously resisting and embracing conventional patriarchal wisdom, in varying degrees.

This blog, then, will attempt to strain the wheat of feminist romance novels from the chaff of more conventional romance fare. By reading and writing about feminist romance, I hope to come to a better understanding of my own views of feminism, of writing, and of love relationships as a whole. I hope to hear your thoughts about romance novels that you consider feminist, and why you do. Finally, I hope to begin a broader conversation about what a feminist romance novel might look like, because I firmly believe that such a creature is not just a mythical possibility, but a thriving, if still far too rare, actuality.

Book as corset (but not romance novels!

The Plan

Each week, Romance Novels for Feminists (or RNFF for short) will feature a review of one book that, in the mind of this reader, can credibly be deemed feminist. I'm an intuitive thinker, so rather than beginning with a definition of feminism and applying it to novels, I plan to write about novels that strike me as feminist, and blog about why. A second weekly posting will focus not on individual books, but on larger-scale issues related to feminism and romance writing:

• Discussing common anti-feminist romance patterns and tropes

• Examining books that might have be deemed feminist at the time when they were published, and thinking about whether said books can still be considered feminist today

• Exploring the ideas of contemporary scholars who study the intersections of feminism and romance

• Pursuing other topics related to romance fiction and feminism that this writer, and you, the readers of this blog, find relevant

I plan to post on Tuesday and Friday mornings, around 9 am East Coast United States time.

Won’t you join me in this exploration of the connections and contentions between feminism and romance fiction?

* Pamela Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003. p. xiii.

Photo credits
• Handmade Corset Book by Sharmz http://sharmz.deviantart.com/art/Handmade-Corset-Book-151494467
• Corset as Book: from The Corset Book, via Versatile Corsets. http://blog.versatilecorsets.com/2011/01/14/anatomy-of-a-corset/
• Book Corset by Dicepuddin http://dicepuddin.deviantart.com/art/Book-Corset-306972227

Next time: Who am I, to be writing about feminism and romance fiction?


  1. deborahSeptember 18, 2012 9:33 AM

    when I saw the e-mail was from you I gave it a second look, but when I saw

    "by focusing on the romance genre as a whole, rather than looking at individual books, or even trends or patterns over historical time in the field"

    I knew I was going to be interested in what you have to say here. Looking forward to this blog!

    (I can see where Regis was coming from; as we in childlit are well aware, it's hard not to be knee-jerk when people are constantly attacking your entire field, and romance have gotten it much worse than children's literature. When Radway is the closest thing to defense anyone had pointed to in your field for decades, then yeah, I can see why you would make broad claims for the genre as a whole. But especially now that romance criticism is getting more mature, we can definitely move away from that.)


    Jackie C. HorneSeptember 18, 2012 9:39 AM
    Thanks, Deborah, for checking this out. Yes, I see a lot of parallels between children's lit scholarship and romance novel scholarship, and think romance is at a similar place that child lit was about ten years ago -- ready to move beyond the defensive and forward into more close reading, more historically-grounded analysis.

    P.S. Just got a copy of NEW APPROACHES TO POPULAR ROMANCE FICTION, and am looking forward to reading your essay on genre romance and slash fiction.

    Kristine MoruziSeptember 18, 2012 8:14 PM
    This looks very exciting! I can't wait to read more of your thoughts about feminism and romance fiction.

  2. I'll be reading along as well, Jackie, and hope you'll include young adult romance for consideration as well as adult romance.

    1. Marissa:

      I will definitely be including YA romance in my reviews. I'm looking forward to discussing specific books, as well as thinking about the connections (and disconnections) with RWA-defined romance and romance as it has generally appeared in YA lit over the past 80 years.

  3. I'm adding this to my blog roll, as a long-time reader of both romances and children's books. It will be fascinating to see what you discover. Yes, there's a lot of feminism in romances. Speaking as a reader of romances from Harlequin/Silhouette days to the present, i.e. from 1974 to the present, I've seen writers use romances to present the "new" woman, working, being assertive, and working out relationships as equals with men. It's changed over the years as times have changed but the question always is how to relate to the world not just men as independent women.

    1. Thanks, Jenny. I'm looking forward to hearing your insights.

  4. The blog looks great! Good luck with making it a success. :)

  5. I typically avoid blogs because of dull subjects and poor writing, but having read your delightful introduction, I'll be back to follow along. All the very best. Shayne

    1. Thanks, Shayne. I'll do my best to live up to your high expectations!

  6. I'm in. Your plan sounds like an interesting and thoughtful assessment of writing and reading of romances.

    1. Thanks, Betty. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on reading and writing romance, too.

  7. Oh, please.

    Not this again. The romance novel does not need to be defended, or explained to the masses, or parsed for the intelligentsia.

  8. I like the premise - will definitely be reading!