Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Does "By Women, For Women, About Women" = Feminist?

Last week, I attended a Romance Fiction panel at the Boston Public Library, the first time the library had played host to talks by romance authors (although the librarian who introduced the panel said she hoped it would be not be the last). Eloisa James and Lauren Willig were the speakers (Sarah MacLean was scheduled, too, but had to cancel due to a family emergency), with Caroline Linden acting as moderator. In the audience were romance readers, writers, and reviewers, as well as a few folks who were there, as the woman sitting next to me explained, "to see what this romance thing is all about."

During the lively, entertaining panel that followed, one of the speakers (Willig, if memory serves), referred to the catchphrase that in the past three or four years has come to serve as a quick, easy justification to whip out whenever a romance lover meets one of those annoying people who assume that romance is stupid, laughable, or just plain embarrassing: "romance is the only fiction genre written by women, for women, and about women."

Implicit in this oft-repeated statement are two underlying assumptions. First, that in the past, value judgments made about of literature, including genre fiction, have been plagued by sexism, and thus romance, because it is by/for/about women, has been unfairly devalued because of its gender/genre connection. This is an assumption that I can get completely behind. But the second assumption—that because romance is written by/for/about women, that it must, by its nature, not be sexist—is one about which I have my doubts.

An anti-suffragist postcard c 1910
Even if all women shared the same biology (which, if we include trans women, they don't), they would not necessarily share the same beliefs. And since the dawn of feminism in the eighteenth century, feminism has seen its share of women who actively reject and crusade against its principles: Josephine Dodge and her fellow female members of the National Association Opposed to Women's Suffrage in the early 20th century; Phyllis Schafly campaigning against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s; and the current crop of #womenagainstfeminism tweeters, just to name a few.

Thus it seems mistaken, if not actively misleading, to imply that all romances, just because they are by/for/about women, must be feminist. I'd buy the argument that because they are by/for/about women, romances are more likely to be feminist than other types of genre fiction, perhaps even more than literary fiction. But each individual romance has the potential to be feminist, anti-feminist, or not interested in feminism at all. I've certainly read my share of actively anti-feminist romances, and not just those from the bodice-ripper era. Though they may be less common than in the 1970s and 80s, romances that reject the principles of feminism are still being written, and still being read. Especially books that take it for granted that men and women are, by nature, inherently different, and which portray that difference along a traditionally stereotypical masculine/feminine divide.

Of course, any romance can be read through a feminist lens. I can use the insights of feminism to explore/explain the gender power dynamics of any romance, including those that strike me as particularly anti-feminist. I can point to the ways that one book takes it for granted that men and women are inherently different, or another calls such assumptions into question. I can look at the ways that one romance is built around the idea that that social norms and institutions favor men, or the way another suggests that men and women have equal rights and opportunities. Or even how both ideas can exist, in tension with one another, in the same book. I can even suggest the ways that seemingly anti-feminist images or storylines might be read symbolically, as a protest against gender inequality, or a longing for gender parity (billionaire romances, anyone?).

But using feminism to analyze a romance is not the same as asserting that a particular romance, never mind the entire genre of romance, is feminist. And the assertion that romance, because it is by/for/about women, must always be feminist, is an argument that is only too easy to shoot down.

I know that the speakers at the Boston Public Library panel were talking to a general audience, not to scholars of the genre, and so did not get into the nitty gritty of romance and its critics. And the current level of conventional wisdom about the genre (i.e., romance = bad, silly, or stupid) might find an easy, unsubtle argument to counter stereotypes about the genre imminently useful.

Even so, I worry that romance authors who use the by/for/about women argument to justify romance may end up having those justifications backfire on them. For what will happen when an romance-doubting critic, rather than a romance-friendly one like myself, decides to challenge the assumptions that lie behind the argument?

What catchphrase would/do you use to justify romance, when you encounter a romance denigrator? Or have we moved beyond the need to justify romance's existence altogether?

Photo credits:
Anti-suffragist postcard: Atlas Obscura
Anti-feminist comic: Comically Vintage


  1. Thanks for this insightful post. I've tended to shy away from the by/for/about women argument because it's exclusionary, and to me, that seems to defeat MY feminist purpose (can't we all just get along?).
    And then an awful lot of romance is pretty hero-centric. Editors want series about "a group of guys who..." are Navy Seals, firefighters, billionaires, cowboys...
    And my tiny readership does include a few men. Granted, mostly friends and acquaintances who would otherwise never read romance (one who only reads for the titillation of a nice soccer mom who writes sex scenes, and assumed that therefore I couldn't possibly be offended by The Donald's mysogyny...).
    My argument--the reason I love and write romance is that it's about relationships..Love...About fighting through all the crap in ourselves and our lives and finding common ground, growing up, becoming better people.
    And jeez...We all need more of that, don't we?
    And I like writing sex scenes. 😉

    1. Thanks, Teri, Anne, for your comments. Interesting that the hero-centric nature of many contemporary romances, and editors demand for same, makes belies the slogan.

      Romance is about relationships: how to create and model equitable, caring relationships. I like that as an alternative slogan!

  2. Agreed heartily. I see so much outright or internalized sexism in romances. I also see exaggerated gender roles - or physicality - that can read as sexism. Plus, the fact that the vast majority of heroines match Hollywood norms of beauty (thin, under 30, white, able bodied, cis) is sexist overall.

    I also agree with Teri Anne above that men read romance. Men also write it. A past podcast from SBTB about romance in African nations was interesting because in some countries there (forgive me, don't recall which), men are close to equal consumers of it as it's not a gendered genre.

    Should we want men to read romance, probably but for their own fun and good, not for our validation. We are valid. I don't really care what they read, except their pulp adventure novels clutter my Little Free Library and no one ever wants to take them. :-)

    1. Ah, I'll have to check out the offerings in my own Little Free Library box down the corner—I've never paid attention to the mix of books there...

  3. I agree with you completely that a lot of romances reinforce gendered stereotypes and, not only that, but they suggest that Western stereotypes are just the "natural" way of things, which just suggests to me that they've never traveled because gender presents differently everywhere.

    However, I think when people say the genre is about women, etc. they don't mean the content is necessarily feminist. They may mean this is the only genre targeting a female audience, addressing women's concerns, and giving a voice foremost -and even a conversation, a canon- to women.

    1. Anonymous, thanks for chiming in. Your point that the "by women" slogan may not be meant as a feminist statement by everyone who uses it is well-taken.

      I'm all about celebrating women as creators and as readers of romance. So what is it about this slogan that bothers me so? Perhaps because it ends up feeling reductive? And because so many romances being published today don't speak to my vision of what it means to be a woman?

      Perhaps putting together an alternative canon to the traditional romance canon is a project worth pursuing? A feminist, inclusive romance canon? What would be on your list of canonical feminist romance?

  4. "if we include trans women"


    1. Thanks, Willaful; that "if" should have been a "when." Embarrassing, and frustrating, how often prejudice sneak into my writing, even when I'm actively trying to rid myself of them. My apologies for the transphobia that lies behind that "if."

    2. Thanks Jackie. I will aim to be as gracious the next time someone points out one of my screw-ups. :-)

  5. I think any statement that tries to be too broad is self-defeating. I mostly now read mm romance. And a certain portion of the books are written by men and I encounter male readers as fellow fans. I've read many sci-fi and fantasy novels written by men with significant romantic storylines. Shakespeare wrote romance. I think that someone slamming romance should be given a more nuanced response. Why shouldn't human fiction include themes that tie to our survival as a species? Anon-K

    1. Interesting idea, Anon-K. Romance is about the survival of our species? Or touches on themes that are central to that concern? How would you go about making that more nuanced argument/response?

  6. Think about one of those ratings-seeking pseudo-science tv specials talking about sex. The most purple-prosed romances mirror the descriptions: flushed faces and lips, exposed skin, pheromones, even features, healthy bodies, muscles. We're hardwired to find mates, maybe not on an absolute individual level but on a societal level. We may not procreate with our partners, but societies are based on units of people and pairbonds are one of the most basic. Women's influence over the domestic sphere, including her children's marriages, has been a source of power at many points in history. We like romance because we are expressing those basic urges through fiction. It isn't fair to compare romance to physics books but think about mysteries or westerns ... aren't they also about survival and placing order on interpersonal chaos? Anon-K

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