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Is it possible to be both a romance writer and a feminist? And if so, how might the romance genre contribute to the advancement of women’s rights?

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At the end of the film Romancing the Stone, protagonist Joan Wilder, a romance novelist, gazes out of the window as her literary agent reads the manuscript of her latest book.

Joan has just lost the love of her life (he went swimming off to catch an alligator and didn’t come back – long story, best see the film), and she is the picture of longing as she stares down at New York, fiddling with her necklace. Behind her, the literary agent sniffles into a tissue.

In Joan’s book, everything ends well, the hero catches the alligator, declares his undying love for the heroine, and they live happily ever after. The literary agent looks up from the manuscript, mopping her face. ‘You’re a hopeless romantic, Joanie.’

‘No,’ says Joan, looking startled. She returns to gazing wistfully out of the window. ‘Hopeful. I’m a hopeful romantic.’

I’m a hopeful romantic too. I’m also a feminist and an academic and a literary novelist. And a mother, and a partner, and someone who is frequently overwhelmed by the roles I perform and the culture I find myself in. I am dismayed by the mainstreaming of pornography, by the fact that we don’t have marriage equality, that there is still a gendered pay gap, that the 21st century has seen the rise of hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity, and, of course, the spike in violence against women amidst a pervasive rape culture. These are all things that concern me.

I am also a romance novelist.

I know people see romance as part of the problem of patriarchy. It has a reputation for being conservative and for reinforcing traditional gender roles. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked how I reconcile my feminism with my romance writing. Particularly historical romance, where the setting is a romanticised past and women are grossly disempowered. How is that romantic? And if that’s romance, why would you, as a feminist, want it?

I understand the confusion. I felt it myself for a while. But, as always, things aren’t as simple as they appear at first glance.

I’m a hopeful romantic too. I’m also a feminist and an academic and a literary novelist… I am also a romance novelist.

The word ‘reconcile’ immediately puts feminism and romance on opposite sides of the discussion; it tells us that there’s something that needs to be reconciled. There’s a clash, a rupture, a discord at the heart of things. You can have feminism, or you can have romance. If you want to have both, you need to build a bridge between them. Romance would need to overtly challenge the patriarchal status quo in some way, or, at the very least, put the problem of patriarchy on the page.

But the more I look into it, the more I ask: do romance and feminism necessarily occupy distant, opposing shores? Or are the problems of patriarchy already being worked through on the page?

*

Almost fifty per cent of all fiction sold is romance; it’s nearly a $1 billion industry worldwide. Romance is written primarily by women, for women, about women; its publishers and editors and publicists also tend to be women.

More frequently stocked in Big W, K-Mart and Target stores rather than in bookshops, it also leads the charge in ebook sales, partly, we suspect, because no one can tell what you’re reading (and judge you) when you read on a Kindle. But I believe it may also be because romance readers consume more books than any other kind of reader, and the immediacy of downloaded ebooks suits this voracity.

The more I look into it, the more I ask: do romance and feminism necessarily occupy distant, opposing shores?

Despite titanic sales, the genre tends to fly under the radar of mainstream culture. You would think that an industry of such significant proportions would be more visible than it is. Your local bricks-and-mortar bookshop may not even have a romance section. And you certainly won’t see it reviewed in newspapers, literary journals, or ‘respectable’ book blogs.

Romance has a dirty reputation. Often derided as ‘bodice rippers’, ‘trash’, ‘smut’, ‘dirty books’, ‘porn for women’, and formulaic pulp, romance is a genre that few people openly admit to reading.

In Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained, Maya Rodale talks about her discovery of romance when she was at college. Her mother (a professor) suggested that if she was going to do a Masters on women’s roles in fiction, she couldn’t possibly ignore romance. Rodale was reluctant, but asked her mother to send her a reading list. To her surprise, she found that she loved the genre (so much so she eventually became a romance novelist).

‘But through the years,’ Rodale says, ‘a question nagged at me: When my mom insisted that I read romances, how did I know to laugh when I had never read one?’

There’s a simple answer.

It is because we’re sexist. Romance is unrepentant women’s fiction and we’ve all internalised a dismissive response, most of the time without ever having read a romance novel. I teach a course for undergraduates on writing genre fiction and we spend four weeks on romance. In the first class I ask them to tell me what a romance reader looks like. Their answers include: middle-aged, overweight, lonely, unmarried, housewife, not very well educated, has too many cats, and (this one cuts to the quick) desperate.

Desperate for what?

A man. This is said with distaste.

Why is it distasteful? Doesn’t everyone in the room want to date and find partners? Why shouldn’t the women reading romance want that too?

It’s different.

The picture we build on the whiteboard of the romance reader is a woman they find repellent. She doesn’t deserve love and sex and romance. She’s a sad and lonely figure, daring to long for something she’s clearly never going to have. They are embarrassed for her.

She’s the face of our sexist assumptions. She bears the weight of our horror and revulsion of The Female.

This repulsion and embarrassment speaks volumes about our cultural misogyny. Firstly, our revulsion towards ageing women: the horror of a female body that might sag and have rolls of flesh, slack skin and wrinkles, body hair and unsightly blemishes. No one wants to see this woman naked, or watch her having sex. We don’t want to think she has desires, lusts. She is the rejected object. And it’s not only her physicality that is repulsive; her emotional neediness is too. The thought of her reading books about love and sex, of her having a rich sexual fantasy life, isn’t just gross to my students. It’s sad.

This is where things get really interesting, because this woman they describe is imagined. She’s the face of our sexist assumptions. She bears the weight of our horror and revulsion of The Female. Not The Female as we are used to seeing her in the media: thin as a whip, with pneumatic boobs and airbrushed skin, with thick make-up and fake eyelashes and stiletto heels and plastic nails, with a toned body and plumped-up lips, her body waxed from eyebrows to toes. Rather this is the horror of The Female as it is before we take to it with spackle and shellac: a body of excretions and eruptions, cellulite and sags. A working human body that doesn’t exist for the sexual gratification of the male gaze.

That’s the full horror this imagined ‘romance reader’ bears. That’s the being they describe. The unfuckable woman. And the unfuckable woman is, of course, the woman who reads romance. The poor, sad unfulfilled wretch.

This is always one of the most lively classes I teach all year. We spend two hours pulling apart these assumptions. And then we get to the stats. Which throw into sharp relief the misogyny of our assumptions.

*

According to Romance Writers of America and the data they have gathered from Nielsen Books and Consumer Tracker, 16 per cent of romance readers are men. Of the 84 per cent of romance readers who are women, the majority are aged between 30–54 and 59 per cent live with a spouse or partner. Sixty per cent identify as feminist. A vast number of them are educated and read widely in multiple genres. The sheer volume of book sales illustrates how widely the genre is read, by women of all classes.

Romance is read by teenagers and octogenarians, it is read by single women and partnered women, it is read by women who work in the home and women who work outside the home, by professionals and manual labourers, by people in secure employment and by casuals. In short, it is read by women (and not an insignificant number of men).

So, why do we persist in imagining an unattractive, socially-awkward desperate single woman as the face of romance?

Perhaps we need to reassess the books themselves and question why they appeal to such a broad cross-section of women. What do they do that works for women? Of course, we need to acknowledge that romance novels are not homogeneous. There are category books (by which I mean Harlequin Mills & Boon books, which are released in categories such as Sexy, Medical, and Romantic Suspense) and single title books (stand-alone novels).

Category novels bear the brunt of the prejudice. They can’t ‘pass’ on your bookshelf, masquerading as a crime or a thriller or a historical novel. They are the ones most frequently dismissed as formulaic.

One of the most pervasive myths when it comes to Harlequin Mills & Boon is that certain beats must be hit in certain chapters. This is often used as a way of dismissing the quality of the work. This is patently ridiculous. A sonnet is formulaic and no less artistic because of it. The shorter word length of the category romance (approximately 55,000 words) means that the focus is tightly on the hero and heroine, with little room for secondary characters, and each ‘line’ (Harlequin Mills & Boon Australia currently have fourteen lines, including Blaze, Cherish, Historical, and Intrigue) has a different voice and focus.

Some lines (Sexy, Blaze and Desire) have more explicit sexual content, while some (Cherish, for example) has no sex on the page at all. In no way are they as tightly structured as a sonnet (such-and-such does not have to happen in chapter three) but the readers do have expectations of each line.

These expectations might include whether it’s dark or humorous, the age and class of the heroine, the level of sexual content, the social values espoused (for example, whether the heroine is interested in the ‘happily ever after’ of a conventional marriage, or whether ‘happy for now’ is enough for her), and this is where the lines impose predictable generic structures.

Instead of this rendering the novels ‘uncreative’, it merely gives the authors parameters to work within, just as other genres do (such as horror or crime).

Single title romance novels are as diverse as all other fiction. There are Historicals in a range of periods (although the Regency has been dominant for decades), thrillers and mysteries, romantic comedies, and paranormal romances (featuring werewolves and vampires and all kinds of things that go bump in the night). There are same-sex romances, polyamorous romances, and romances that explore a range of fetishes.

But the difference between romance and erotica is that romance focuses on a relationship – a romantic relationship where the emotional connection is as important (actually, more important) than the sexual relationship. These books aren’t just about sex. And some feature no sex at all. These books are about a heroine who goes on a journey of self-discovery, and finds everlasting love when she is finally self-actualised. The love arrives after the self-actualisation; she is whole, and love is the icing on the cake, rather than love being that which makes her whole.

*

There are various reasons women read romance, not least of which is entertainment. But the kind of entertainment people consume can tell us a lot about the culture they live in. The rise of popular romance fiction can be tracked alongside second-wave and post-second-wave feminism.

The novel credited as the first modern romance was Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, which was published in 1972. It was the first to have explicit sexual content and was published in paperback rather than hardback, making it more affordable and accessible. Its readership proved enormous: 2.3 million copies were sold in the first few years after publication, and its success led to the creation of an entire industry.

Romance, both category and single titles like The Flame and the Flower, can be read as a cultural barometer for women’s issues. From the 1970s until now, romance heroines were often women who broke the mould: they were career women long before women with careers were ‘normal’ in mainstream culture; they were divorcees, single mothers, pregnant women, survivors of sexual abuse, survivors of domestic violence.

Many of these heroines (even the virgins) had known suffering, often at the hands of men. Johanna Lindsey’s bestselling historical romances from the 1980s often began with the heroine fighting off a rape attempt. Romance believed these women were heroines when the culture at large couldn’t move past them being victims.

Romance novels have dealt with infertility, adoption, step-parenting, the struggle to find the mythical work–life balance, and many other issues women face in their lives. Romance took these experiences and turned them into heroic journeys.  In these narratives, the everyday experiences of women weren’t only made visible, they were depicted as empowering.

Many of these heroines (even the virgins) had known suffering, often at the hands of men.

One of the reasons romance fiction is commonly ridiculed is because it commonly focuses on wifely and motherly love as the centre of life. Some see this as a betrayal of the aims of second-wave feminism, which fought to break women free of the home, and to liberate them from being merely wives and mothers (of course women have never been ‘merely’ any such thing, and working-class women have always been juggling home and work).

And yet, according to census results, women still do the lion’s share of household labour. The rising divorce rates have a significant impact on both the financial stability of women (they suffer financially post-divorce more than men do) and on their workloads and caring responsibilities. Many of us have lives that are still centred around the home, and we still perform the traditional roles of wife/partner, mother and caretaker, as well as engaging in paid work and forging careers. We still live within a patriarchal system, in a culture that exhibits violence against women.

Many commentators (such as Catherine Roach, Elizabeth Reid Boyd and Sarah Wendell, among others) see romance as doing deep work for the culture, mediating women’s place in a system that disempowers them. There is also the added complexity, for heterosexual women, of simultaneously desiring and fearing men (even if the fear is sublimated, it’s still there). These critics position romance as a form of activism, of engaging with complex issues in a ‘safe’ fantasy space. We act out our fears (for example, rape reoccurs in romance in many forms: as threat, trauma and fantasy) and, Catherine Roach claims, we seek reparation through the romance narrative.

The climax of the romance novel is the moment when the hero proclaims his love. He must say the words. He must expose his emotional vulnerability and admit that not only is the heroine important to him, she is everything to him. This is a particularly powerful moment when said by an alpha hero (as the plots involving alpha heroes are explicitly plots about power struggles between the genders). The man who has sought to dominate the heroine ends the book on his knees (metaphorically, if not literally), apologising for every wrong he has done to her, and promising to love and respect and protect her for the rest of his life.

What is this, if not a fantasy of bringing patriarchy to its knees?

But it’s not a hateful fantasy; it’s not a revenge fantasy. This is about love and righting wrongs.

*

In Romancing the Stone, Joan Wilder walks home from her agent’s office, no longer the mousy, nervous woman she was at the beginning of the film. She is a strong, confident, sexy, happy woman. When she reaches her apartment building she sees a yacht parked on the street. And there, waiting for her, is her hero, clad in alligator-skin boots. She climbs up to meet him. They kiss.

‘I love you, Joan Wilder,’ he says. He isn’t gazing at her with lust, but with gentleness, tenderness and wonder.

And that’s the moment the narrative reaches closure: she must be okay without him, but she is even better when he acknowledges her value. There are many ways to read this, none of them simple. You could argue that the film suggests women aren’t complete unless they have a man. You could argue that none of her successes equal the ‘success’ of belonging to him. Or you could argue that she conquers him at the end; that he has had to perform superhuman feats (literally wrestling an alligator to death) to win her love. The film climaxes with his declaration of love.

The thing about romance is, it’s not simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘feminist’ or ‘sexist’. It’s a complex reflection of our very complex culture. Romance fiction is deeply conservative, but it’s also progressive. It upholds traditional values, but it also challenges them. It’s still heteronormative, predominantly white, able-bodied, and for the most part it ignores class. It’s a genre that doesn’t often recognise privilege and disadvantage. We’re beginning to see challenges to this (with the rise in queer romance, and with authors like Beverly Jenkins challenging the white experience of history), and, I think, as our society becomes more progressive we will see romance become more progressive too.

You could argue that she conquers him at the end; that he has had to perform superhuman feats (literally wrestling an alligator to death) to win her love.

When we look at romance we can see our culture’s confusion about gender roles and relationships, power and sex and love. Romance is a mirror, rather than merely an aspiration. In it we can see what women fantasise about, what they fear and what they value. And what is valued in romance is women.

I am a woman who has always been interested in the female experience. I am fascinated by power struggles, taken aback by the rising misogyny I see in popular culture, and concerned for my daughter and her experience of womanhood. This is a genre that lets me focus on women, without being didactic. It lets me play in a fantasy space constructed primarily by women, about women, for women. That’s the bridge between my politics and my romance writing. It’s not always a stable bridge, but it’s a flexible one.