Friday, November 3, 2017

Can You Define "Feminist Romance"?

At the Boston Book Festival last Saturday, I had the great pleasure of sharing a stage (or, rather, two chairs in the front of a conference room) with contemporary romance author Aya de León for a panel discussion of  "The Hows and Whys of Feminist Romance." We had a mixed audience—some romance writers, a lot of romance readers, and some Book Festival attendees who were simply intrigued by the seeming paradox of "feminism" and "romance" appearing in the same workshop title. Given that mixed audience, we thought it would be good to start by opening our panel by defining some terms: "romance," "feminism," and "feminist romance."

For me, the first two were fairly easy to define, but the third was a bit more fraught. Not just because I'm more of an intuitive reader and reviewer ("I recognize it when I see it—or don't see it"), but also because earlier discussions I've heard and participated in made me doubt whether a subgenre labeled  "Feminist Romance" is even possible (see this post on Cecilia Grant's blog for a sample of such conversations). The decision to name this blog "Romance Novels for Feminists," rather than "Feminist Romance Novels" was a deliberate one. Not just because I didn't want to give the appearance that I was the sole or ultimate arbiter of whether or not a book was feminist, but also because I wasn't sure that "Feminist Romance" could even exist as a category or subgenre. Sure, some romances can contain feminist elements and ideas, but since the romance genre focuses so tightly on romantic relationships, and often insist that those relationships are the most important aspect of their characters' lives, the very definition of "romance" seems to negate what feminism takes for granted: that other aspects of a woman's life are equally (and often more) important than with whom she falls in love.

But after looking at and thinking about different definitions of both "romance" and "feminism" with Aya, we each came up with definitions of "feminist romance." Here's a brief run-through of how we talked about definitions at the BFF:

What is a romance?

Aya and I wanted Boston Book Festival attendees to know that we were talking about mass market genre romance, not Romeo & Juliet, not literary fiction or women's fiction with romantic elements. Category romance published by Harlequin and other publishers; single-title romances from major New York and smaller independent publishers; and self-published books by authors who identify as romance writers or who tag their books as "romance" on publishing platforms.

For those who wanted a more specific definition, we pointed to the definition set forth by the Romance Writers of America. According to RWA, a romance must have two basic elements:

A central love story. "The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel"

An emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. "In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love."

We also pointed out that while the traditional definition of "romance" pointed to a story about one man and one woman, that definition had expanded dramatically in recent years to include queer romances as well as romances with more than two protagonists

What is feminism?

I always think of Rebecca West's famous quote when I'm asked to define feminism: “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what Feminism is: I only know that people call me a Feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute” (1913). Aya, whose romances feature sex workers, had some problems with the last part of West's quip, deservedly so.

For more specific definition, then, we turned to the Oxford English Dictionary:

Advocacy of equality of the sexes and the establishment of the political, social, and economic rights of the female sex; the movement associated with this

I personally love this definition's focus on advocacy. During our talk, I mentioned the survey I did several years ago of romance writers, asking them to define feminism, and how many of them described feminism as a belief, rather than as an act. "I'm a feminist," or "I believe in feminist principles" rather than "I advocate feminism" or "I do feminism." In contrast, the OED definition insists that feminism is an act: to advocate, to support, recommend, or speak in favor of feminist ideas, goals, and principles.

If we believe that a romance can influence its readers, can advocate on behalf of certain ideas, goals, and principles, then perhaps the idea that a subgenre we can label "feminist romance" has the possibility to exist becomes a bit easier to imagine.

What is a feminist romance?

Aya and I each presented our own thoughts about how to define "feminist romance." Aya's definition: a romance in which the male romantic lead decides to step away from the male privilege granted him by patriarchy and get behind the goals and beliefs of the woman he loves (Aya's more of a spontaneous speaker than I am, so this is paraphrase of what she said, rather than a direct quote of her words). Aya's novels to date have featured male/female pairings, although they do include queer secondary characters; we didn't have the chance to talk about how her definition might be applied/modified to speak to queer romances.

My definition was more literal. I wondered if combining the RWA definition of "romance" with the OED definition of "feminism" might yield a helpful definition, one that would move beyond just celebrating the fact that romances are primarily written by women, or pointing to a strong, outspoken, feisty female character in a romance and then labeling it as feminist. Here's what I came up with:

Two basic elements comprise every feminist romance novel:

• A central love story in which the characters and/or the author demonstrates a commitment to the political, social, and/or economic equality of the sexes. The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make their relationship work in a patriarchal society. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

• An emotional satisfying and optimistic ending. In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with social, political, or economic, as well as emotional justice and unconditional love

How would you/do you define "feminist romance"?

Photo/Illustration credits:
What is Romance?: Better than a Story blog
What does Feminism Really Mean?: Whim Magazine
Be My Equal: Radical Buttons


  1. Aya's remark about the male lead stepping out of his usual role and supporting the heroine really resonated with me. I am not a huge fan of those novels where the heroine decides that love is all and so she gives up her dreams and ambitions for the man. Compromise is OK as long as both are sacrificing something at some point in the relationship. A good example would be the Kate Daniels series (Kate and Curran).

    So more more mutual sacrifice would be a winner for me (and no the hero giving up his carefree ways and settling into monogamy should not be the only sacrifice a male is expected to make). Also a bit more realism when it comes to how the characters come to make those sacrifices and compromises. Fighting patriarchy means fighting expectations and there is I have found a lot of internal debate on the part of all concerned and hard discussions (fighting, in other words) as everyone's expectations are revealed and hard limits discovered. Love is worth fighting for, I am told, but so are dreams and ambitions.

    I've been married for 27 years and we are still having those discussion. :-)

    1. 22 years married and still having those discussions, too! Thanks for stopping by, Victoria.

  2. I have little to add, as I agree both with you and the comment above. I could only add the term 'respect', which is something important to me. When the hero treats the heroine with respect, as an equal, so he does not think and act as if his goals and feelings are more important than hers.
    I guess it's him stepping away from the male privilege granted him by patriarchy just with other words.
    In a non-heterosexual romance, I'm not sure if we can really talk about feminism, I have my doubts, I haven't got a clear idea.

    1. I think the way to talk about feminism in a non-heterosexual romance may be to think of Intersectional Feminism: to consider how other identity categories are also oppressed under patriarchy. Lesbians are doubly oppressed because of their gender and their sexual preference, for example; women of color are oppressed because of their race as well as their gender.

  3. Thanks so much for this essay! I like that you asked a question that made me think about how I would respond.

    So how would I define feminist romance? Drawing upon your definition, I'm modifying.

    A central story in which the characters and/or the author demonstrates a commitment to empowering women and men in their romantic relationships. The main plot centers around individuals falling in love under circumstances where women and men bring their best selves and become the best they can be. Patriarchy enables men to recognize and act upon their best strengths while enabling them to support women's strengths and protect women's needs in relationships.

    An emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. Lovers who dedicate themselves to building their relationship upon a foundation of love, care, and respect are rewarded with happiness and stable relationships that persist for the rest of their lives.

    Why no language of equality? Women define their personal goals and visions for feminism and their relationships in different ways. Some want equality, some want protection, and still even others are more dominant in their relationships.
    I write sweet romances. So my characters might be seen as anti-feminist. They are in college, but they want to graduate with their Mrs. Degree , work, and have their first children by their mid twenties. They would rather become stay at home moms, work from home, or work part time while their children are small.

    1. Thanks, Barbara, for stopping by. I'm intrigued by your post. Do you consider your sweet romances to be feminist? Or not?

      "Patriarchy enables men to recognize and act on their best strengths"—I'm curious as to what you mean by that. In my understanding of patriarchy, patriarchy LIMITS men. Men must adapt themselves to ONE model of what it means to be strong, to be their best. And that model insists that men are BETTER than women. In contrast, feminism would allow men to embody different strengths, different types of masculinity, rather than a one-size-fits-all model. And allows women to be EQUAL to men.

      If all your female protagonists choose the same thing—to "graduate with their Mrs. Degree, work, and have their children by their mid-twenties"—doesn't that suggest that sameness, rather than equality, is what you are promoting?

    2. Hi, Jackie, glad to see your reply.

      I don't think patriarchy limits men and I don't think it means men are better.

      I think my novels are feminist insofar as my characters adhere to a difference feminism that reinforces their interests in traditional femininity.

      I've always read sameness to be a hallmark of equality feminism. As for absolute equality, I question whether that is even possible, as long as biological differences persist.

      That is why I lean towards difference feminism.

    3. Hi, Barbara;

      Your comments make me wonder if we are working with the same definition of "patriarchy." As usual, I turn to the Oxford English Dictionary, which says:

      • a form of social organization in which the father or oldest male is the head of the family, and descent and relationship are reckoned through the male line

      • Government or rule by a man or men

      • The predominance of men in positions of power and influence in society, with cultural norms or values favoring men.

      What is your definition of "patriarchy"?

    4. What I see is a struggle to define patriarchy. James' view leans towards a direction that includes protections for women's biological differences, whereas your definition does not. Relying on a dictionary to illustrate what patriarchy isn't helpful, because it's an appeal to an authority that does not account for other elements such as time and place or even the changes that have modified patriarchy today and improved women's condition. The injustice occurs when liberal feminism does not account for the biological differences between men and women. Women have to be like men in order to be equal, but they are not men. It is because of those differences that women need protection

    5. Hi, anonymous, and thanks for adding to the conversation. I disagree that a dictionary definition is not helpful, especially when the definition comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, which cites the earliest print instance of a word, and then traces changes in how we understand the word over time.

      You emphasize injustices that women face because of "liberal feminism," which you argue ignores the biological differences between men and women. I (and most feminists) emphasize the injustices that women face because of discrimination women face in a male-ruled social organization.

      I would argue that far more injustices have been perpetrated against women by, and because of, male-ruled societies and their belief that women are not different, but inferior, than by liberal feminism. Hence my belief that a feminist romance cannot be one that espouses patriarchy, or focuses primarily on the differences between women and men.

  4. very nice article to show the true meaning of feminism...

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Medina. Glad you enjoyed the article.

  5. I attended a panel on feminism and romance at Strand Bookstore. After many years of denying myself the pleasure of reading romance novels, because I’d decided they weren’t sophisticated or feminist enough (ugh), I felt liberated. Of course I, as a feminist, can read romance!!! In the past few months I’ve read 100 (I’m also a writer trying my hand at a feminist romance novel) and I’ve thought a lot about what constitutes a feminist novel. Here are the criteria I use to review books as feminist: 1) Bechdel-Wallace test. Are there two named female characters? Do they discuss something other than romantic love? It’s surprisingly rare to find supportive female friendships in romance. 2) sexuality. Is the heroine the protagonist of her sexuality? This applies to virgins, BDSM, consensual rape fantasies, polyamory, etc. as a feminist I don’t think there’s good or bad sex, as long as it doesn’t come from a place of abuse or manipulation. 3) Comprehensive. Does the novel contemplate race or class or sexual orientation or ability or or mental health or gender? If not, it can still be an awesome book but it’s not addressing the real issues that make feminism necessary. 4) Character complexity. Do H/h move beyond stereotypes?
    I have a few pet peeves that automatically disqualify a book from being considered feminist - men who refer to themselves or others as “pussy” to indicate weakness or women that joke about being bi (and don’t challenge these notions).
    It may seem impossible to find a book that fulfills these criteria. It’s not! It’s rare, but they are out there. (Much much harder for historical romance tho). Some that I like:
    Taking the Heat by Victoria Dahl
    Indigo by Beverly Jenkins
    My Beautiful Enemy by Sherry Thomas
    Hating to Want You by Alisha Raí
    The Opposite of You by Rachel Higginson
    Her Best Worst Mistake by Sarah Mayberry
    The Bollywood Bride by Sonali Dev
    Far From Home by Lorelei Brown

    1. Thanks, MW, for stopping by! I'm glad you've taken up reading romance novels, and are working on writing your own feminist-inclined romance.

      And thanks for your book recommendations! I've read many of the books on your list, and have even written about several right here on the blog. The only author I haven't read is Rachel Higginson; I'm looking forward to finding a new feminist romance author to love!

      I hope you'll find other books here on the blog that will meet your definition of 'feminist romance." And that you'll consider sending in your own book, once it is out in the world!

  6. Thinking about your comment about how patriarchy limits men as well as women. Also thinking about "difference feminism." I've had the opportunity in my life to view these things in 3 different countries - the US which is my "home" country, France where I've lived for over 20 years and Japan where I was recently doing research for my dissertation.

    In Japan I saw a lot more "traditional" marriages (though there were many exceptions) and I also American men married to Japanese struggling with all the implications of that. Their wives worked or didn't work depending on the situation but the men didn't have that option. Their job was to have a job and support the family. If there wasn't enough, it was his responsibility to get out there and do better. That provoked a lot of stress and a sense of being stuck in the role of sole breadwinner since it's not the wife's job to contribute to the finances even if the family is in financial trouble. And I think patriarchy here does everyone a disservice. There are Japanese women who want to work and yet they will be criticized for doing so after they are married and when they do work their financial contributions to the family are not valued. And there are men who are very stressed because it's hard to be the one ultimately responsible for the family financial success or failure.

    As for "difference feminism" something along those lines is pretty much the prevailing view here in France. Men and women are different and that's to be celebrated. And women need different things from men. So, for example, that's why maternity leave is far more generous than paternity leave. You can work a four day week so you can be home with the children wednesday (day off from school) and the weekend. And there are all kinds of benefits that come when you have children and especially if you have 3 or more children. I have two daughters and I used to get a check every month from the state even though I worked. These policies are pro-natalist and pro-women in the sense that they allow women to have many more options: stay home, work full-time, work part-time.

    The only problem I have with this is that it can be more difficult for a young woman of childbearing age to find work (I know this firsthand). Mt career here only took off when the comapnies I worked for determined that I was not going to be out on maternity leave...

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Sorry. I deleted My comment while trying to push too many buttons. :) anyway, love this discussion. Jackie, may I use your definitions for my own uses? I love it! And I love Aya's and MW de Jesus's as well!

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