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Anxieties of Influence

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As some of you already know, I lost my mom several weeks ago – suddenly and unexpectedly – right around the time of my last opinion post at Dear Author, Isn’t It Romantic?. I’m not telling you this for sympathy (and please reserve the comment space for discussion of the post itself), but by way of apology for not coming back to comments there. This post emerged from my thoughts about some of the comments in that discussion, and I figured at this point it would just be easiest to just write another piece.

If you’ve lost anyone with whom you were very close, you know what a disorienting and devastating experience this can be, and it’s also one that can get you thinking about relationships and connections in general. Relationships among women, especially, are complex and multi-layered. In families, there are also influences received and rejected, unconsciously inherited and intentionally transformed. Some things seem to pass through generations as clearly as physical features, while other characteristics don’t reveal an obvious point of origin or path of evolution.

I know I’m not saying anything new. Still, as women raised in societies that are still largely structured around male privilege, we seem to show anxiety around how genre Romance novels influence adult women readers, even, and perhaps especially, within our reading communities.

Remember that “Damsels in Distress” article, in which the male author opined,

But I must wonder why so many women – forty years after the women’s liberation movement, Roe vs. Wade and the pill have transformed the lives of women in the most dramatic of ways – continue to indulge in the fanciful tales of females so unlike them who live in fantasy worlds light years removed from their reality?

I’m not sure if the immense popularity of romance novels represents a kind of ‘repudiation’ of the women’s lib movement, but clearly something is missing in the lives and experiences of tens of millions (maybe even hundreds or millions) of contemporary ladies. An anonymous female reviewer at goodreads.com said of the genre: “Romance novels offer an escape from daily life with the belief that true love really exists.”

When these attitudes are expressed from outside the Romance reading community, there is usually a unified refutation, with authors and readers alike pointing out many of the diverse and progressive elements of the genre, noting that women do not engage the genre uncritically, monolithically, or literally – and pointing out that women have the intellectual and emotional ability to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

For example, Kate Worth responded that

Women wrote and sold $1.44 billion worth of romance novels in 2012. I’d say that empowers women. If some of us enjoy love stories, how is that any different from men who enjoy murder mysteries or zombie epics? All genre fiction has tropes.

Many pointed out the strength and independence of heroines in the genre, as well as the statistics that demonstrate that Romance readers are often happily married and even report a healthier sex life, on average, than those who do not enjoy the genre.

And yet, there is still articulated worry about the rape fantasy, about alleged “abusive heroes” (I use the word “alleged” here because there is never universal agreement about what books and what heroes qualify), and other genre tropes that some believe should not be included in the genre because of the perceived example or “message” they are sending to readers. Author Eileen Dreyer has been very outspoken about her belief that Romance sends messages to women about what they do and don’t deserve in relationships. She explicitly connects her beliefs about the genre to her work in trauma nursing and her treatment of battered women.

One of the problems with Dreyer’s argument is that years and years of research on domestic violence just don’t bear out many of the assumptions that I think underlie her logic. For example, there is no pattern to DV victims, beyond their gender (and even that is in controversy, since we are seeing more and more male victims); confident, successful women can and do just as easily become victims of DV as insecure women with low self-esteem. Female victims do, statistically speaking, leave abusive relationships. It’s interesting, in fact, because domestic violence researchers spent more than 25 years focusing on victims, believing that the key to understanding patterns among battered women would help with treatment and intervention. However, it wasn’t until research shifted to the batterer that all those helpful looked-for patterns began to emerge, and now we’re seeing some promising intervention strategies focused on the batterer.

That so many years went into researching the victim, however, may demonstrate the extent to which we place responsibility on women for their own victimization. I’m not talking about overt victim blaming here, but on a deeply ingrained belief that women are somehow being conditioned to abuse and can, consequently, be conditioned differently. This, despite the fact that many victims of domestic violence are emotionally stable, confident, successful, women who have no personal or family history of violence.

But let’s entertain the possibility that Romance novels message things to readers and directly condition them to tolerate abusive partners. Why, then, do we not devote the same worry to the idea that the genre can condition women to expect too much from their romantic relationships? Holding out for the billionaire hero who will give up his corporate empire for the “ordinary” heroine (Jo Leigh’s A Dash of Temptation); happily reuniting with the father of your secret baby, despite the fact that you’ve kept the child from him for more than a decade (Rachel Gibson’s Daisy’s Back in Town); meeting a famous bad-boy actor on vacation in Italy, and getting him to change his whole life for the love of a slightly OCD psychologist (Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Breathing Room); falling in love with the man who kidnaps you after you’ve recently left your service as a nun (Jo Goodman’s Only In My Arms – one of my favorite of her books, in fact) – the scenarios are endless.

Is it because we view certain scenarios as more realistic, and therefore, more dangerous? Along those lines, is it better to represent certain tropes within a historical context, because the removal from present time makes them somehow less realistic? Or, as a number of people responded to that piece questioning the feminist credentials of Romance readers, if we worry about Romance fiction’s influence on women readers, why don’t we similarly worry about the effect of certain tropes in male-oriented genres on either men or women? Should women not read true crime fiction? Murder mysteries? Literary fiction by authors like Joyce Carol Oates, who routinely portrays her female characters as victims of violent crimes? The only other group we tend to worry about in this way is children, because we see them as highly impressionable and incapable of making critical choices about what “messages” they receive from cartoons, music, video games, etc. And still there is controversy over the ways in which symbolic representations affect individuals, even young children.

Psychologists and literary critics have devoted centuries of thought and reams of research to the question of how individuals engage with and are influenced by internal and external phenomena. These relationships are so complex and multi-layered, no one theory has managed to capture them with any comprehensiveness or coherence. We see all the time within our own reading communities how individual readers can interpret the same words on the same page in completely divergent ways. For example, I remember articulating my frustration with the whole ‘deflower the virgin with the hero’s super-sexual prowess’ trope, when Sabrina Jeffries explained that for her it was a way of rescuing, empowering, and reinterpreting an experience that may have been personally disappointing. I know readers who find Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s It Had To Be You powerful and liberating, but the scene where Phoebe ‘reclaims her femininity’ by having sex with Dan struck me as hugely anti-feminist. We debate endlessly and (in my opinion) productively about the representation of characters, plots, tropes, devices, and other elements of the genre – how they’re used, why they’re used, how they’re interpreted, and how they’re intended.These discussions can lead to all sorts of great revelations about how we’re representing different perspectives in the genre. But representation is not the same thing as messaging — the first is concerned with how something is portrayed, the second with how that portrayal allegedly affects readers.

Without question, culture represents and reflects many things to us – myriad conflicting, competing ideas about how people look, live, think, and feel. Some of this representation is intended as overt messaging (advertising, for example). And yet, as the patternless range of domestic violence victims illustrates, there is tremendous complexity to the way in which we interact with the world and the people around us. Even the research process is incremental – one discovery leads to myriad questions, which in turn catalyze more research, which then hopefully leads to more discoveries, and so on. Decades of research in one direction can suddenly hit a wall, pushing us into another direction (e.g. domestic violence research on victims). Ideas combine in new and different ways, shedding new light on ideas previously believed settled.

In thinking about how many different kinds of books are written and read, how much trust do we have in women to read fiction critically and without personalizing every element? Given the symbolic nature of fiction, how much credit can we extend to readers that their engagement with these symbols is more complex than mere conditioning? More specifically, what consideration do we give to the idea that women can read tropes in Romance they don’t personally endorse? And how worried are we that men who read the genre will take it as permission to “abuse” women?  Sexual fantasy, for example, is highly symbolic, and for that reason, not fully or even well understood. We know more than half of women enjoy rape fantasy, and one study even found that the more sexual freedom women feel and the more sex positive views they have, the more they enjoy the rape fantasy. Would women have rape fantasies in a culture without rape? We cannot know, since we do not have the comparative control group there. Still, we know that women from all sorts of background enjoy rape fantasies, including those who have experienced real life violent rape.

So why, when talking about Romance, do we still seem to have a lingering anxiety that women are being messaged and influenced in potentially destructive ways? 

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isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

70 Comments

  1. Kate Sherwood
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 08:16:45

    Really interesting – thanks for this.

    I’m going to think about a lot of it, but I was most surprised (and then surprised at myself for being surprised) about the shift from looking at victims of domestic violent to perpetrators of domestic violence. It makes so much sense, it fits with society’s attitudes towards most other crimes, it fits with my attitudes towards victim-blaming… and it honestly never occurred to me. I’m finding the blinkers I was wearing to actually be more interesting than the point itself, since the point, once stated, is so damned obvious!

    Anyway, thanks for the whole post. I’m gonna be thinking about it for a while.

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  2. Lynne Connolly
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 08:29:19

    So sorry to hear about your mother, Janet.
    To the topic – I don’t think it’s a “type” that accepts domestic violence. It’s a way of thinking. And that way can be different in different cases. It also depends on the support network, and that includes the abuser, who may have created a network of economic and social dependence so he (or she) can keep the spouse/partner subjugated.
    Nothing in life is simple. But romance writers can help by reinforcing positive images. Not in a preachy way, but just by showing victims that they do have choices, that they can face what’s ahead and there are people waiting to help.

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  3. Nika
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 08:53:54

    Criticising the method and the motivation behind critical analysis of certain tropes is one thing, rejecting it out of hand because it is inherently misogynic because of the tropes themselves and their intended audience, is another. That’s the way I read this article at least. It reminded me a lot of gamers defending the representation of women in games because that didn’t influence how they saw women in real life so why all the nagging?

    The article also makes it hard to argue against because it pulls out the big guns: rape and billionaires. Virginity is the only thing missing to complete the trifecta.

    But to say Romance doesn’t influence its consumers and their world view as much as other forms of entertainment is simply wrong. It does so by reproducing and through that affirming certain world views. Take the lack of romantic agency in romance heroines. It’s the men’s task to storm the castle and the women can only let them in when they have proven themself worthy in some fashion. If the woman strike out the answer is slut shaming. How often do we hear a woman being shamed for taking the initiative by men and women alike in real life? In my case it was too often.
    Romance doesn’t have to produce world views to have positive as well as negative effects, it just has to affirm them.

    Also, I would argue that Romance, like other genres read for comfort, isn’t analyzed deeply by the average consumer – it’s just consumed. And loved. Think of the The Iron Duke discussion: one part of the readership claiming there was no rape, another that there was a rape and another part not noticing anything untoward until it was pointed out to them. For readers not to notice that there is potential ape and harrassment and other issues, because they have become so used to them is problematic in my eyes. Critical analysis and dicussion is needed to shake up the genre, to make readers think.

    Wraping Romance in a blanket, isolating it from critical analysis because it is a special snowflake (written by and for women, imagine that!) hurts it, in my opinion. Too long it was without because the genre was thought of as worthless. Now people are struggeling how to approach criticism. That mistakes get made along the way is part of the process.

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  4. cleo
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 09:12:43

    Wow, there’s a lot to think about here. One thing that occurred to me reading this is a bit of a tangent – I think there’s one area where we (as a culture) worry about men not being able to distinguish between fiction and reality, and the effect of their reading/viewing habits – and that’s p0rn.

    Will looking at airbrushed naked photos give straight/bi men unrealistic expectations about what “real” women should look like? Will watching porn “ruin” teenage boys? Will watching exploitive or violent p0rn make men more likely to act like that in real life? Etc. I’m not talking here about the ethics of p0rn, just some of the concerns I’ve read/heard over the years that strike me as kind of similar to some of the concerns about romance’s effect on women.

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  5. Isobel Carr
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 09:28:03

    @Nika: IMO, there’s an enormous difference between literary criticism (academic study) and random pot-shots of the kind in the referenced article. And I don’t really see people in the genre struggling with how to approach either one (though I do see a lot of people not being all that interested in applying literary theory to their reading material, but that’s true across the board in all the genres from what I’ve seen; it’s not like my friends who stick to SFF or mysteries are any more interested in critical analysis of their entertainment than most romance readers are).

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  6. Lindsay
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 09:59:28

    I absolutely get the feeling that Romance is dismissed as a “valid” genre because it’s the only genre written by, for, and about women (for the most part). The fact that I read other genres doesn’t stop people from making faces when romance comes up in the list, or having people act surprised that I would read it when I’m also reading business management and mountaineering books.

    I’m not going to go climb a mountain because I’m reading that book, although people would consider me inspired if I did — and yet the death rates on mountain-climbing are staggering, especially involving novices. I’m not going to start my own business because I’m reading that book, although I will likely use practices in it that I’m reading about if I find them applicable, but people would respond to that and say I’m improving myself and my management techniques, and the company overall.

    So why is that inspiring and improving, but reading a romance book and expecting the other person in the relationship to love, trust and respect me (and listen to me) is considered horrible, worthless and demeaning? Because those aren’t values I would have taken to heart growing up, or considered something to expect (want, yes, but the same way I wanted a unicorn).

    Everything I read could easily be vilified, but that’s not the conclusion people jump to for anything other than Romance.

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  7. Nika
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 10:19:32

    @Isobel
    I’m not talking about academics. Thinking critically about one’s media consumption is for more people than the elite few that is able to meet the formal requirements and recite the literary theories needed to participate on that level.

    And people who go on that journey of self reflection and media analysis without the help of formal education in that area do struggle a lot to formulate their experiences and ideas (for which they might not even have a name for), in my experience. That frustration might get expressed in pot-shots, as you called it. You see a problem, you target it, but you might not have considered the context.

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  8. Kate Sherwood
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 11:22:29

    @cleo:

    That’s an interesting connection, and it’s not hard to see a link between porn and romance/erotica.

    I wonder if we’re more willing to believe that our media consumption influences our attitudes when we’re looking at sexual/romantic desires. Maybe because the subtleties of our sexual desires are mysterious, even to us, we don’t trust ourselves to be critical thinkers in that area?

    I have no idea why so many women have rape fantasies. I have no idea why I find a certain amount of hair on a man’s body attractive, while less or more than my ideal is unattractive. I have no idea why other women have different standards, different kinks, different desires. Most of the rest of my psyche I can at least pretend to understand, but my sexual desires are a mystery to me. I think this applies to other people as well?

    So maybe, because it’s all so seemingly irrational and unknowable, we’re more concerned about any factors that might be an influence?

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  9. Rebecca Rogers Maher
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 11:33:20

    While individual romance stories vary widely – as do reader responses to these books — there ARE overall trends in romance literature. Most of these trends are fabulous and empowering, and they are the reason why I love this genre so much. Every woman deserves a man who loves her fiercely. We should all hold out for incredibly hot and meaningful sex. People can have big problems and work hard to overcome and resolve them. Happy endings are possible. These are beautiful trends. They most certainly influenced me as a reader by encouraging me to fight for a passionate, loving and balanced relationship and life.

    But there are also trends in romance novels that need examination. Narrow representations of masculinity that hyper-focus on stoicism and domination. Constrained versions of femininity that don’t allow heroines to be flawed, complicated, or difficult and still deserve love. Unintentional affirmations of rape culture. The underrepresentation of racial and class diversity. I have a problem with these trends.

    Social oppression in democratic countries is not a pill that the powerful make us swallow by force. It’s a series of tiny interactions, enacted every moment in our personal lives, in the art of popular culture, in our relationships, not just with the powerful but with each other. It’s not a direct cause and effect relationship where I read one book and then I’m blindly influenced to see gender relationships in one assigned way. But overall trends in thousands of books in my favorite genre are going to contribute to the network of messages I’m getting about men and women.

    While I do believe, for example, that the onus of responsibility for male-perpetrated rape and domestic violence lies with male perpetrators, I do believe women can have some impact on these dynamics by shining a critical light on how they play out at the micro level in our daily interactions with one another. We can look at how we internalize and reinforce oppression, and we can challenge that, sister to sister. We can have an impact on discussions about female agency and sexuality, what we look for in a relationship, what we expect of ourselves and our partners. Our books already challenge social oppression in many ways. Most books and art of all genres actually challenge and reinforce social oppression SIMULTANEOUSLY. That’s where it really gets interesting. But I believe we could stand to do more challenging.

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  10. Robin/Janet
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 11:59:40

    @Nika: Virginity is the only thing missing to complete the trifecta.

    Actually, virginity is in the article. It’s in the paragraph where I
    a) emphasize the importance of genre critique and discussion
    b) make a crucial distinction between *representation* and *messaging/influence*, and
    c) provide examples of representations I find problematic in the genre, one of which was the fetishization of virginity.

    Think of the The Iron Duke discussion: one part of the readership claiming there was no rape, another that there was a rape and another part not noticing anything untoward until it was pointed out to them. For readers not to notice that there is potential ape and harrassment and other issues, because they have become so used to them is problematic in my eyes. Critical analysis and dicussion is needed to shake up the genre, to make readers think.

    But critical analysis is *not* the same thing as drawing conclusions about how readers imbue what they read. And that’s the line I’m trying to draw and critically examine here.

    There is, for example, a legitimate debate around whether forced sex in Romance between the protagonists is, in fact, rape. There are some who will argue that it’s a case by case analysis (me included), understanding that we may not all agree on the cases; there are others who will argue that any force is rape; and there are those who will argue that the genre is providing a rape fantasy, which is actually the very opposite of rape, because the individual perceived to be submissive ultimately has the power. Although the last view is not my own, I think it’s a legitimate argument to make, and one that goes to the heart of what symbolic work the genre is doing.

    @Rebecca Rogers Maher: As someone with a reputation for challenging myriad representations in the genre, I don’t disagree with your assertion that we need to be viewing the genre critically.

    The bright line I want to draw here is that between talking about how the genre *represents* various tropes, character traits, plots, devices, motifs, etc., and how/whether those things *influence* readers. It’s this latter effect I find troubling, in part because it only seems to be in the arena of women’s fiction that we do this, and also because I think it oversimplifies and under-acknowledges the complexity with which readers approach fictional representations.

    For example, @Nika argues that “Romance, like other genres read for comfort, isn’t analyzed deeply by the average consumer – it’s just consumed.” I, on the other hand, would say that if we really believed that everything “consumed” became part of the consumer, we’d all run around buying every product we saw in an ad, applying every trend to our fashion, makeup, hair, and other personal routines, wait to marry a billionaire ex-cop who now runs an uber-successful publishing company by day and does deep cover work for a super-secret government organization by night, and who is currently pursuing a serial killer so he can exact vigilante justice in the name of the victims.

    Not all critical work is the product of deep intentionality, recognizable language (e.g. in lit crit terms), or lengthy inner debate and analysis. Which, as you say, is where shared critical engagement comes in. And as a part of that engagement, I’d like to bring into question the ease with which women seem to judge other women (because we rarely seem to worry about own own susceptibility in these scenarios) in regard to how they are or are not engaging with or being influenced properly by what they read.

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  11. Liz Mc2
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 13:09:10

    I totally agree that discussing influence in a simplistic cause/effect way is problematic (reading romance makes women do/think X), and because influence is a (very difficult) empirical question, speculation/assumptions about how what we read influences us are problematic.

    But I don’t really understand the logic of the “bright line” you’re trying to draw between discussing representations and discussing messages/influence. However complex and hard to discern it is, culture influences us in *some* way. Why bother discussing “the representation of characters, plots, tropes, devices, and other elements of the genre – how they’re used, why they’re used, how they’re interpreted, and how they’re intended” if they don’t have some meaning/effect on us? Why would it matter if a representation could be read as sexist if we didn’t think that such representations didn’t just reflect but also potentially helped perpetuate real-life sexism? I think “influence” is always lurking somewhere in these discussions.

    I guess I’m also wondering about the way references to rape fantasy often get deployed in these discussions (I’m not just referring to what you say here). Individual fantasies are essentially private. Publishing fiction is a public act, and I like to believe that there’s some amount of conscious reflection involved in writing it. I’m certainly not suggesting we can’t or shouldn’t express and explore sexual and other kinds of fantasies in fiction, but to criticize a fictional representation isn’t the same as criticizing an individual’s fantasy life. And sometimes it seems like those are being equated.

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  12. Evangeline H
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 13:10:09

    Fantastic post, Robin. I’ve long noticed the double-speak when it’s time to circle the wagon against outsiders vs discussions within the romance community (and I was particularly amused last year when comparing the rhetoric against FSoG from outsider and romland perspectives–it was shockingly similar). On a whole, I tend to tune out when Romancelandia conversation about a novel turns into pearl clutching, because it literally sounds like a bunch of people shouting to have their opinion taken as the right and only one.

    I grew up with a mother who hated romance novels because of her own dreamy desires, fueled by escapism from her abusive childhood. To her, the genre did foster unrealistic expectations and would lead an impressionable young woman astray. Even as an adult I would hide my books from her because her opinion was so firmly entrenched and I did not want to argue with her about the genre. The irony is that she was recently swept off her feet in a whirlwind romance…(and she loves romantic comedies and Jane Austen).

    I have abuse in my past–not from her–but I found romance novels inspiring and empowering when I discovered them. They were books that spoke openly about sex and desire, and mostly focused on the heroine’s personal and romantic aspirations. Is the genre perfect? No. But as a result of this upbringing, I can’t throw blanket statements over reading choices. I may complain about certain elements (perceived decrease in heroine’s journey compared to hero’s) or I may not care for certain tropes, but it’s my opinion based on what draws me to the genre. Also, as a writer, I like to keep myself open to elements that don’t draw me, because kicking them aside really seems like I’m contemptuous of my potential audience–and if I am, I might as well move to a genre whose audience I do “respect.”

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  13. Nemo
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 13:40:26

    So many feels I don’t know where to begin.

    We should totally look at Romance critically. That’s half the fun of reading for me. The difference is the ‘women must be protected from themselves/the world’ attitude that has held progress back for so long. If a woman can’t be trusted to realize the difference between reality and fiction, healthy and unhealthy, then her problem is not what books she’s reading.

    The Dreyer blog talked about how she saw a link between the kind of novels women buy and their lifestyles. The problem there is she assumes a cause and effect relationship. Why is buying a romance novel a cause while buying a self help book an effect? If the novel had that much influence, shouldn’t the self help book do the same? And why doesn’t she blame the self help book for the abuse? Perhaps it was badly written and led the woman to believe she wasn’t being abused. What about a self help book that only focuses on physical abuse, leaving a woman to assume that her mentally abusive partner is in the right? I would say that many women who are being abused and trying very hard to pretend they are not, would tend towards things that reinforce their world view. Their choice of book is the effect of an abusive relationship, not the cause. And what if she is not being passively influenced? What if she is engaging with the novel to deal with her relationships? Maybe she is identifying with the hero instead of the heroine and taking control of the fantasy by saying to herself “I would stop. If it were me I would stop and so should he.” Maybe the book is helping her realize that her abusive partner has passed a point of no return. I know a lot of books I’ve come across juxtaposed the hero, who may yell and even beat the heroine with the villain who tortures and rapes her. The fact is that we will never know why this woman picked up this particular romance novel.

    What’s more, implying that reading these books makes women easier to abuse is, once again, victim blaming. Abusers may look for women with low self esteem to abuse, but just as many of them are smart, successful women with good support groups. No action of a victim causes the action of the abuser.

    The best bit of advice my mom ever gave me was “If he hits you once, he’ll hit you again.” Girls and boys need to be taught about abusers the same way they’re taught about drug dealers and gangs, not sheltered from possibly harmful messages. Understanding abuse and getting out of it is not something instinctual where if we just trusted our guts we’d be fine.

    No one can be conditioned into being a victim of anything purely through books. Not even if all they read was sexist trash and romance novels are so wide and diverse that a woman would have to really try to read only books that reflected the ‘abuse is okay!’ mentality. Assuming that society needs to ‘police’ romance novels (but no other genres) for harmful messages to protect women is so insulting it defies belief. Which is really what so many of these articles are saying. It’s as if they think women exist in a vacuum. It disregards the influence of family, friends, television, news, internet, religion, teachers, mentors, and random people on the street.

    The choice of the word ‘police’ is really important to me here. Only this section of readers has people coming in from outside the genre so often and trying to decide what’s morally right and what isn’t. From my perspective at least.

    When teachers assign ‘The Hobbit’ in 9th grade they don’t worry that the lack of female characters will hurt the girls’ self esteem. We still read Shakespeare and The Odyssey without any worry that the sexism and idea that women are property will influence minds so unformed that they think pop music is life changing. In fact you’d get lucky to find a class room that remarks on the gender issues as all in these books. The teacher usually talks about the heroic journey instead of how Penelope is shamed for not marrying, but would have been shamed if she had and her husband returned. Not to mention all the murders of women at the end.

    But everyone wants to decide if Calypso raped Odysseus or not! That discussion usually lasts half a class period.

    No one worries about the sci-fi books teenage boys read. No one worries about grown men who love slasher movies and torture porn. How often do you get an article with the title “Are fantasy novels raising children’s hopes too much? How will they deal with reality?” or “Inspirational literature: Should miracles be stamped out and replaced with statistics?”

    I’m going to find something fluffy, warm, and full of kittens to read now.

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  14. Janet/Robin
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 13:41:19

    @Liz Mc2: I know it’s probably not the best idea to talk about bright lines in a discussion about the complexity of reader-text engagement, but one of the issues I keep seeing is this almost automatic conflation of representation and messaging/influence in discussions of the genre. And I feel like we at least need to pry these two things apart conceptually, even though in application there’s a lot of messiness. Still, I think it’s helpful to think about the difference between speaking generally about how a novel represents a certain trope and about how those tropes may shape the way readers think about things.

    For one thing, recognizing something as problematic to you already indicates an awareness of a conflict between cultural messaging and personal consciousness (and yes, I’m aware of all the unconscious, subconscious, shared consciousness issues here), a dissonance between those two things. And while someone else may not have made that same connection or noted that same point of dissonance, that does not, IMO, mean they are simply conditioned to that problematic thing and are perpetuating, reliving, replicating it. But I think that level of complexity gets lost in a lot of these concerns about how women are reading Romance, and as I’ve noted a couple of times, I find the way we’re doing it primarily to women worth questioning. In some ways it vaguely reminds me of some of those Victorian morality tracts about how women should only read things that enrich the mind and morality in specific ways.

    But even more importantly, I think there’s a certain sense of THOSE READERS have a problem, rather than WE HAVE A PROBLEM in the construction of many of these discussions of messaging/influence that, among other things, belies the fact that we’re all always already struggling with many of these issues on many different levels, reproducing certain elements of socialization in some areas, challenging them in others. I think talking more in terms of representation can be a way around what otherwise may look like divisive judgments.

    Re. rape fantasy, I think the reason it’s a lightning rod in these discussions is because there is some slippage between the public fictional representation of sexual force and private sexual fantasy. I’ve resolved this for myself through constructing a theory of reader consent, but it’s still very much an active question, in part because readers who enjoy the sexual fantasy may interpret some of those fictional representations in a different way from readers who don’t. For example, I’ve heard some readers say that they experience some of those fictional scenes as sexual fantasy (that is, the scenes become a kind of catalyst), so when someone comes along and says that said scene is rape and inappropriate in Romance, it can feel very personal. Add to that the general suspicion many women still have about the sexual fantasy itself (its legitimacy, its neutrality, the shame associated with it because of these suspicions, etc.), whatever crossover there already is becomes even more charged, I think.

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  15. Kelly
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 14:04:37

    @Evangeline H:

    The irony is that she was recently swept off her feet in a whirlwind romance…

    Apologies for veering completely off-topic, but please write us a book based on your mom’s whirlwind romance. It sounds kinda like Maureen O’Hara in Miracle on 34th Street :-)

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  16. hapax
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 14:20:31

    I think that the distinction between “representation” and “messaging/influence” can be more easily discussed by separating third-person and first-person is statements.

    It is easy — if sometimes uncomfortable — to talk about the representation of the Other in our reading and compare it to social construction of race and ethnicity, for example. It is appropriate — if infuriating — to look at sexual force in various genres popular with men and women, and compare it to statistics on rape fantasy on the one hand and underreported rapes on the other.

    This is, in many ways a discussion about correlation, and if understood as such, can be looked at without getting personal.

    Discussions about causation, though — especially in such a messy area as subjective emotions and unconscious attitudes — is almost impossible to divorce from the personal. Which is perfectly okay, if and only if it is couched in “I” statements: “I enjoy violent heroes only if they are kept firmly in a fantasy realm. Too much realism and they trigger memories of violence that I have experienced.” “I like Cinderella stories because I get tired of working so hard. It’s fun to pretend that a Prince Charming is going to swoop down and make my life easy, so long as I don’t expect it to happen.”

    But once they become “he/she” statements, they teeter perilously close to prescriptivive, not to mention simplistic to the point of insult: “Men prefer violent heros because they allow them to work out their aggressions.” “Women read Cinderella fantasie

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  17. hapax
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 14:27:47

    Gaah. Pushed the wrong button, and I can’t edit anymore.

    Anyways, I was going to go on to say (re third-perso.n statements) “Women read Cinderella fantasies because they are burdened by the demands of an equal society.” And while these statements might by true of any particular reader, they are obviously wrong, useless, and sometimes actively harmful to apply to EVERY (or even MOST) readers.

    Worst of all, they slide perilously close to second person “You” statements. “You, young man, should stop playing violent video games.” “You, young lady, should read this book about empowered women.” This can only end in censorship on the one hand and the other, the equally pernicious “bibliotherapy” referenced in the last news article.

    (Yeah, I was “trained” in that at library school. It struck me then and it strikes me now as almost always meddlesome, condescending, and completely out of touch with all research on how individual readers interact with specific texts.)

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  18. Moriah Jovan
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 14:36:36

    @Liz Mc2:

    But I don’t really understand the logic of the “bright line” you’re trying to draw between discussing representations and discussing messages/influence.

    This is what it looks like to me:

    The bright line is between looking at the representations and those who want to do away with those representations because they don’t approve of them, in part because they see them as messages and influences.

    Which, IMO, gives short shrift to a whole lot of women. The message is: You are weak and we want to protect you by taking your Feelz Reading away from you.

    The entire discussion of “romance can do without this” is rife with the assumption that other readers are not as smart as the right-thinking readers are. And, as someone who read her first forced seduction at 11 and liked it and never once expected that would happen in real life, I find that beyond insulting and I’m tired of seeing it/hearing it.

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  19. MaryK
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 14:38:59

    I just want to highlight this by @Nemo:

    romance novels are so wide and diverse that a woman would have to really try to read only books that reflected the ‘abuse is okay!’ mentality. Assuming that society needs to ‘police’ romance novels (but no other genres) for harmful messages to protect women is so insulting it defies belief. Which is really what so many of these articles are saying. It’s as if they think women exist in a vacuum. It disregards the influence of family, friends, television, news, internet, religion, teachers, mentors, and random people on the street.

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  20. Laura K Curtis
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 14:42:04

    So why, when talking about Romance, do we still seem to have a lingering anxiety that women are being messaged and influenced in potentially destructive ways?

    I always find this an interesting question because I think it assumes monolithic readership in many ways. I am susceptible to this myself (“No one could possibly think Dan Brown’s novels are true. Oh, wait, they do?”) but I think I tend to over-estimate readers’ intelligence whereas others I see assume all readers are idiots.

    I think one of the things we often shy away from in discussions like this is the question of craft: we like to pretend all books are equal, but they are not. A well-crafted book on BDSM, for example, gives a very different picture of the lifestyle than a poorly-crafted one. Likewise rape fantasy. Portraying a woman who has a rape fantasy living that fantasy out requires a skilled hand and a reader who understands what’s going on.

    I am not sure where I am going with this. I don’t read critically in terms of lit crit, though I read extremely critically in terms of grammar, story, realism, etc. In those respects, I am very picky. So often what happens to me is that I am reading along and I think “people don’t relate to each other that way.” And that’s the end of a book for me. But I know there are readers who will just continue with that same book happily going along and believing that the author knows what she’s talking about.

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  21. Robin/Janet
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 15:09:36

    @Laura K Curtis: You know, my first response to your craft statement was a kind of automatic agreement. Then I started thinking about how that can actually cut both ways for me. For example, I *hated* (I cannot emphasize this enough) the forced sex scene in Christina Dodd’s A Well-Pleasured Lady. And I can barely express my disgust for the sexual force in Brenda Joyce’s The Conqueror or Catherine Coulter’s Rosehaven. In fact, in Rosehaven, the women in the household tell the heroine that she basically deserved what she got, which felt so misogynistic to me in the way it was handled. Would those novels be considered well-crafted? Neither the Dodd nor the Joyce felt so well-crafted to me, and I had so very many issues with the Coulter book that I cannot even remember how well the book was written.

    But then there are some SEP books that enrage me, too. That scene in It Had To Be You that I mention in the post. Or Nobody’s Baby But Mine, which made my blood boil at the idea of a “brilliant” physicist thinking her idea to get pregnant was workable (and my hatred for Cal is still pretty epic, years after I read that damn book). And I think SEP is a fine craftsperson. In fact, that works against her in my mind, because I feel like she should have done better by her characters. Then I think about her book where the heroine basically rapes the hero (can’t remember the title) — although I’ve definitely seen critique of that scene among Romance readers, did it engender the same response that hero-heroine force has? And if not, is it because of a presumed reversal in the power dynamics or for some other reason?

    I don’t know – it’s a complicated issue, because I’ve read some books that are not really well-written, but handle some things better than books I’ve read that are really slickly constructed. I think some of that is the book and some of it is me, and the only thing I know for sure is that the recipe is likely to be different for different readers. I also am not sure it’s so much a function of reader intelligence — maybe some readers might be able to read past something, not because they aren’t smart enough to see it differently, but because not having it be realistic isn’t troublesome to them. That may be more an issue of different readers having different pockets of sensitivity to issues, but I’m not sure.

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  22. Annamal
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 16:09:08

    I suspect in a few years time the studies will find that the most successful anti-domestic violence campaigns focus not just on the perpetrator or resources for the victim (although both are obviously important and needed) but on society at large, on bystanders, on extended family members and workmates.

    It’s what local anti dv campaigns are focused on (and at least anecdotally it does seem to be working).
    http://www.areyouok.org.nz/

    The same way that some of the most successful anti-bullying campaigns focus on the majority who are neither bullied nor bullies but are bystanders.

    To that extent I think any media which treats abusive behaviour as normal is worthy of criticism not because it primes individual women for abuse but because it encourages bystanders to find excuses for behaviour that should not be excused.

    I don’t think romance novels are any more responsible for this than any other media but I don’t believe they are exempt from criticism either.

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  23. Stacey
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 16:28:45

    A fairly casual reader of romance novels, here. (I followed a link from Twitter.) For me, it’s like this: When I read romance, at the end of the day, it’s an escape, as one of the women quoted in the post above described it. Specifically, the relationships I read about are not in the least bit like any relationship I’ve ever had or have ever even seen. There is basically no truth about human relationships in these books as far as I’ve been able to see. I enjoy romance, but it’s in a special category for me from other genres, because even if aspects of a mystery, fantasy or sf novel are “unrealistic” (i.e., most murders are pretty simple and magic or intergalactic travel do not exist), they can nevertheless involved psychologically realistic characters and relationships. Not all of them do, but that’s what I like in other genres, people who seem believable even if the situation they’re in isn’t. I don’t believe in a mirror world with a mother who has buttons for eyes, as happens in the Neil Gaiman novel Coraline, but that story is still depicting something that feels realistic to me about the dynamics between parents and children. But with romance, psychology and relationships are the main (often only) subject, and — to be frank — that material isn’t depicted in a realistic way. That’s FINE though, that’s what I WANT, because it’s an escape into a fantasy for me, but it does change how I relate to the books. They have nothing to do with how I live my life. They aren’t a “deep” experience for me for that reason, which isn’t necessarily true of other genres. They’re fun and relaxing and sometimes arousing. A lot of that, though, is based on my feeling that we all benefit from understanding the difference between fantasy and reality, and that sometimes the line is very bright indeed.

    If I started to expect my own life to be anything like the lives of the heroines in the romances I like to read, though, there would a heap of trouble. If I tried to find the equivalent of a romance hero in real life, I’d almost certainly be disappointed again and again, but even if I *could* land such man, I wouldn’t want to have to live with him every day. In this, I do believe that romance works a lot like porn (and I know a lot of people don’t like to hear that, but I do believe it is the case for me). If the person who’s enjoying it is very clear on the fantasy nature of the material, then it’s a private enjoyment of no harm to anyone, including the user. I know there are some people who can come to feel addicted to porn, and possibly there are women who feel addicted to romance novels, but I’m talking about the average consumer. I do actually feel that romance novels give me an outlet for a lot of fantasies (being overpowered, etc.) that I would most definitely not want to experience in real life. That seems healthy to me.

    By the same token, I don’t really care about romance that scrupulously observes the kinds of standards I demand of the real world in terms of gender relations or consent — to the contrary. I like to fantasize about domineering heroes, even though I don’t like domineering men and believe in gender parity. Diversity is another issue, one that doesn’t really affect my fantasy life one way or the other, but it’s immaterial to my taste in romance because romance is my escape from the world of such concerns. Again, this would be a problem if I felt that romance ought to reflect real life (or vice versa) but for me the whole point is that it has nothing to do with real life. If someone were to diligently go in and fix all romance novels so that they conformed to a right-thinking vision of the world and dealt with all sorts of troubling issues in a forthright way, to be honest, I would probably lose interest in them. Even though I actually believe and work for changing the real world in just that way.

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  24. Ridley
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 17:49:24

    @Annamal:

    To that extent I think any media which treats abusive behaviour as normal is worthy of criticism not because it primes individual women for abuse but because it encourages bystanders to find excuses for behaviour that should not be excused.

    I don’t think romance novels are any more responsible for this than any other media but I don’t believe they are exempt from criticism either.

    +1

    I find this discussion frustrating. Are we upset with criticisms of problematic tropes in romance that are concerned with how they reinforce cultural norms, or are we upset with people who say that no sensible woman would/should read such a thing?

    Because the former is a pretty standard approach to all media criticism, and I’m beginning to think the latter is a strawman.

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  25. @mostlybree
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 18:34:02

    I have struggled a lot with the dissonance between “misogyny in fiction reinforces it in life” and “of course romance doesn’t give women unrealistic expectations” because I recognize that it looks contradictory. That we should have to pick one or the other–either it influences us, or it doesn’t. Either we’re grown-ups who aren’t at risk of internalizing this stuff, or we’re not.

    Except my gut says it’s not the same thing. Because the positive messages in romance feel like a lone voice in the wilderness. Because I’m not going to walk away from a romance novel and find much (if anything) else in my culture that says, “Yes. You deserve love, you deserve respect, you deserve hot sex and orgasms.”

    When I say, “Trust me, I’m not getting unrealistic expectations” it’s not just because I think they’re not realistic, or because I’m too mature to be influenced by my fiction. It’s because TRUST ME, I’m not in danger of forgetting how unreasonable my culture finds those expectations. Because they’re going to grind my face into it at every turn.

    When I pick up a romance novel and find sexism it’s not a lone voice in the wilderness. It’s confirmation that this is the status quo, this is business as usual, this is the absolute best case scenario my culture has to offer me. (And I’m saying sexism here, but it’s obviously much more than that–it’s all the negative messages everyone drowns in every day.)

    I still struggle with feeling like a hypocrite because I’m exasperated by the sexism and scornful of the idea that romance novels are giving me unrealistic expectations. I don’t know how to reconcile it beyond my gut feeling. No one promised me a genre that was safe. No author is obligated to write to my tastes. I don’t even know if this comment is coherent. LOL I just know that if I only stumbled across sexism in romance novels, I’d be way less concerned about what it’s doing to my mind and soul.

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  26. Robin/Janet
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 19:12:22

    @@mostlybree: Thank you so much for this comment. I understand the struggle you’re talking about, because I go through a variety of versions of it myself. There’s so much here to contemplate, and I love your articulation of the dilemma vis a vis the “lone voice in the wilderness.” But I’m going to be selfish and focus on this:

    I still struggle with feeling like a hypocrite because I’m exasperated by the sexism and scornful of the idea that romance novels are giving me unrealistic expectations.

    This really helped me understand (for myself) something I’ve been at a loss to articulate until now, which is that when we come at the genre from these general perspectives, everything seems like an either/or. I mean, you could argue that the very idea of the monogamous heterosexual HEA is patriarchal, right? And when we measure the level of dissonance or subversion in such broad strokes, it’s easy to see things in black and white, which, depending on how you roll, will be a comfort or a point of frustration (for me it’s the latter).

    I think it’s these snapshots that are often used as foregone conclusions (e.g. without attendant analysis and argument) in anticipation of a book (or a reader’s) dismissal, whereas I believe that they should merely be a starting point for actual analysis. As you said, sexism is everywhere in Romance, just as it is in society. That’s certainly a valid and helpful observation, but it doesn’t tell us a lot about how the genre is handling the complex dynamics that make up that sexism via individual books. And for me, that’s really where the work needs to start (and let’s face it – there’s some heavy lifting there, which may be part of what makes those broad strokes so appealing).

    In other words, rather than say, ” X is sexist,” let’s look at how that functions in the novel, how it’s constructed and portrayed, how the characters deal with it, how, if at all, they challenge it, how the text may or may not subvert it, and in what ways the text may perpetuate or echo certain patriarchal tenets. At this level, I think it’s much more difficult to hold on to a lot of these absolutes and to get into that zero sum, either/or, black and white corner, because you’re looking at individual issues and individual textual elements and how they work alone and in combination.

    For example, I was talking to a friend who pointed out that she read one book which had a pretty rigid patriarchal society for a backdrop, but the heroine is incredibly strong and rescues not only herself, but the hero, as well. While she read another book that on the surface seemed more progressive, except that the heroine seemed weak and ineffectual to her, dependent on the hero for a sense of power. So which of those books is more “feminist”? I suspect that the first book is more likely to be dismissed on the surface as sexist, and yet, isn’t the idea of the heroine rescuing herself a more defiantly powerful representation of a female character?

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  27. Robin/Janet
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 19:52:17

    @Ridley: Are we upset with criticisms of problematic tropes in romance that are concerned with how they reinforce cultural norms, or are we upset with people who say that no sensible woman would/should read such a thing?

    Speaking for myself, the answer is neither. In fact, this post isn’t about being “upset” about anything, It’s an inquiry into why a largely female community that is so often quick to defend the genre and its authors/readers against external accusations of “bad” reading choices persists in worrying internally about what women are reading. Even, and perhaps especially, when those concerns are couched in assumptions that fly in the face of actual research. At what point are these concerns (and I’m distinguishing this term from anything resembling a careful critique of a particular book or trope) themselves reactionary and prescriptive in ways that reinforce rather than challenge the very ideas that are perceived to be “bad” for readers.

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  28. Sunita
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 19:58:11

    @@mostlybree: Oh, what a great comment. Like Robin, it helped me codify ideas I’d been trying to make sense of. But different ones!

    I really like the way you distinguished the disparate impact of positive and negative messages. But it made me think of a reaction that is opposite to yours. I don’t mean that yours is wrong or unusual, quite the contrary. Instead, what it made me think about is how much our reactions are dependent on both the social environment and individual psychology. Two people can have the same upbringing but have different reactions because their psychological dispositions are different (this is why identical twin studies are so prized in the social sciences).

    If you are someone who finds romance to be a refuge from everyday sexism, it can be the case that a negative message in romance affects you *more*, because you don’t expect it here. It feels traitorous. For me, I expect romance to have sexist messages sometimes, but when I read POC romance I subconsciously expect all POC characters to be treated with respect and sympathy. That’s why the book I recently reviewed was so difficult for me; it reproduced ethnic stereotypes that I read POC romance to escape from.

    Analogously, if romance is a refuge where you *don’t* get called on your emotional reading preferences (unlike in the rest of the world), a discussion that says rape in romance reinforces rape culture is more likely to feel like an attack, even though you may know intellectually that the people making that argument aren’t specifically talking about you.

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  29. AQ
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 20:04:10

    Back in the 90s I loved Warrior Woman by Johanna Lindsey. Oh, what fun. A female warrior who was absolutely capable of killing the hero and a “female” computer sidekick who let him in a few telling truths aka you’d be dead if she wanted you dead and there’s nothing you could do to stop her.

    But, as “feminist” as it was, it had a lot of bad cultural messages like: slaves deserve to be slaves and they are lazy to boot; birth and might deserve to rule; good “rulers” are male, benevolent, wise, the bestest at just about everything; woman aren’t to be trusted because they have no honor. Well, except for the heroine but she’s an off-worlder and “special.” And, of course, the big one: the great white savior myth.

    It’s funny. I really thought it was feminist and on a certain level it was/is but looking back the female lead had what it took to be a female king and yet she ends up a female consort. She does changes the hero’s world (and he helps her save her own) but in the end it’s really through the hero’s actions, not her own. Of course they love each so she must stay and guide his planet to help him save his culture because the threat of the “more civilized” planets (aka hers) that his culture can’t possibly win without her help. Even so I remember vaguely questioning, then dropping, how can Tedra ever be happy on this ass backward world because she will never be more than a special female. In no circumstance would the men ever follow her or let her lead because she was a woman. And of course the question of whether or not her barbarian would live in her world was never even a true story possibility. [Yes, yes, she was a virgin too in case anyone was wondering]

    Does it matter? At the time, absolutely not. I had a great time. Fun, fun, fun. But in the last few years I’ve been thinking a lot about the romance genre and cultural messaging. I see some marvelous stuff and I’ve been given years of enjoyment but I also see an insidious dark side. Yes, Warrior’s Woman was a comfort read but it’s probably been a decade since I read it last and I remember the cultural messages originally crafted twenty odd years ago. Today I wonder how much books, tv, movies, etc. like this impacted my critical thinking about my culture and my life over the years without me knowing. Consider how relevant the cultural messages presented in that book still are today.

    Poor people are lazy and don’t work hard enough. (check) Wealthy leaders are exceptional, good, benevolent and smart. (check) Women don’t have rights to their own bodies. (check) The more civilized culture has the right to change/exploit the primitive culture because the primitive culture has something the civilized culture wanted/needed to exploit (check) Only someone from the more civilized culture could save the primitive culture (check). The woman should give up her life and remake herself into what her man wants / needs. (check) Woman aren’t fit to be president of the US because they are women and women can’t be trusted. (check) Women who dress provocatively are sexual objects. (check)

    Okay… so we can argue the validity of these messages, whether we passively accept, reject or actively counteract the cultural message.

    My starting point questions as it pertains to Robin’s thoughtful post:
    1. Which cultural messages are prevalent in today’s romance genre?
    2. Which ones, if any, are woven into today’s genre shortcuts, tropes, characterizations by default?
    3. Which ones are most likely to be accepted by readers without question as part of romance world-building? Which romance genre acceptable one would be unacceptable to the same reader if it were found in a different genre?
    4. Which ones will most likely kick a reader out of a romance? a different genre?
    5. When we look at sales records, do some cultural messages stand out? If so, what are they?

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  30. Sunny
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 20:21:21

    I’m not sure if this is shame talking or TMI but I wasn’t sure about posting this, and it is on a bit of a tangent.

    I do fantasize about rape… and it really, really bothers me. I think partly because I have so much time and thought invested in the dissolution of rape culture. I can’t read a romance that has rape in it, or see a movie with it depicted, and I am always grateful for warnings. Some days I’d rather scroll past than read an article about it because I’m so exhausted at being angry. The word is sometimes enough to make me flinch.

    I would never want to enact these fantasies unless in an incredibly secure position and relationship, and honestly even then I don’t know if I ever would. I don’t want to give consent to a book’s depictions of it — I don’t find someone else writing about it at all arousing or enjoyable. I’m a CSA survivor. It’s the only fantasy that I ever, ever question or feel shame or guilt about.

    So I really don’t know if it plays into things at all. I’m just speaking for me, but there it is.

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  31. Laura K Curtis
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 20:32:14

    @Robin/Janet and
    @@mostlybree:

    I have struggled a lot with the dissonance between “misogyny in fiction reinforces it in life” and “of course romance doesn’t give women unrealistic expectations” because I recognize that it looks contradictory. That we should have to pick one or the other–either it influences us, or it doesn’t. Either we’re grown-ups who aren’t at risk of internalizing this stuff, or we’re not.

    Except my gut says it’s not the same thing

    One of the things I think is “different” between the two, or that I find draws a distinction for me, even if it doesn’t for others, is that when I hear that romance gives women unrealistic expectations, it always seems to be about the trappings–a guy with six pack abs and a billion dollars–whereas when I find things in romance that give me hope they are never about the trappings. They are about emotional fulfillment.

    But here’s the thing: it’s not only romance that I get this kind of hope from but it’s only romance that I see getting that particular set of criticisms. For example, if you read Kathy Reichs’s forensics mysteries, her lead character is an intelligent, highly successful woman who is also a recovering alcoholic. She has an off-again, on-again romance, but these are mystery/thrillers and I never hear people say “no real man would put up with what she puts her lover through” or “no one could really manage their life so successfully with an addiction.” And yet, that’s precisely the kind of criticism I see leveled at romance.

    Nor do I hear the “trappings” argument in other genres. No one believes that men think they can be Jack Reacher. Because much as I love the adventures Reacher gets into, he’s basically ALL trappings. Size, shape, guns, guts. People don’t get criticized for reading those books because they might raise false expectations. They get criticized for other reasons, but not the “it gives you false hope or false ideas of what the world is really like.”

    Instead, what Reacher creatures get criticized for is continuing to read books with a main character who never grows/changes (yep, same criticism leveled at Evanovich readers).

    So, once again, I have yammered on too long. Maybe I should make a resolution to STFU. :D

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  32. Robin/Janet
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 20:44:22

    @Sunny: I really appreciate you making your comment; I’m sure it wasn’t easy to do.

    You might want to check out the link I have above to an article on rape fantasies. It references a study that found, among other things, that it’s the women with the most sex-positive views who enjoy rape fantasies the most. Which actually cuts against the reinforcement of rape culture argument, as rape culture tends to feed on women not feeling empowered to embrace and freely express their own sexual desires and fantasies.

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  33. Moriah Jovan
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 21:05:55

    I have no problems with calling out tropes that people find problematic, although these are going to vary by the individual. One woman’s stalker is another’s ardent suitor (see: Edward Cullen). Further, I have no problems with criticizing the genre as one would any other piece of pop culture and/or literature.

    What I DO have a problem with are the continued calls for the ERADICATION of books/themes/tropes some people find problematic. Such sentiments are rife with patronization and the sentiment “I’m going to protect you from yourself, so don’t worry your pretty little head about it. Bless yer heart.”

    Or, as Robin put it more far more diplomatically than I (emphasis mine):

    a largely female community that is so often quick to defend the genre and its authors/readers against external accusations of “bad” reading choices persists in worrying internally about what women are reading.

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  34. mari
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 21:33:15

    I must say that my first response to Robin’s original question was “oh my goodness no, no anxiety about influence at all, not here not me,” but then I got to thinking…. When I first started reading romance, (I was 11) my mother warned me away from “those books.” She said “its not like THAT at all, don’t you?” I nodded and then proceded to read every single one of them I could find. In a recent conversation with my sister, I mentioned this blog and then several romance books I reccomended. She said she couldn’t read romance books or blogs anymore because she started comparing her husband to the heros in the books and it was negatively impacting her marriage. In another blog I read, the author in all seriousness, discussed burning Fifty Shades in a symbolic ceremony because all the ladies at her church were reading it and she felt it was causing problems.
    Romance Reading Anxiety (RRA?) is real, it persists.Perhaps it is not unfounded. Just because I think romance reading is a positive force for good in my life and in my humble opinion, the culture at large, does not mean others feel very differently. If someone says a cultural trend is negativly impacting her reltionships/marriage/community, she may, in fact, be right. Or not. Darned if I know. Blogs like this, I feel, kind of exist in a bit of a vacuum. Its safe to say (I think anyway) most people here are passionate about the genre. There exist a whole lotta romance readers who like/love adore the genre, but don’t enjoy /are not interested in this kind of weighty academic analysis. They just know either something is good and they persist in doing it, or something is bad, and they stop doing it. And then there is the reader who believes romance is bad, yet they can’t stop reading thus developing a severe case of RRA. I was such a reader, but I’ve since been cured. No relspses on the horizon, either.

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  35. Ridley
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 21:35:37

    @Moriah Jovan: Can you offer any examples of this happening? I see it spoken about often, but I’ve never seen it happen.

    It reminds me of Christina Dodd’s comments on Twitter this weekend about how bodice rippers are “much beloved by women who don’t care what some think of reading choices” and how “judging adult women’s reading choice is politically incorrect.” When I asked her what that meant, she basically answered that it was wrong to pick up a “non-PC” romance then complain about the tropes it contains.

    So, what I see here is an insinuation that those of us who dislike rape/abuse themes have a self-righteous stick up our asses and expressing our dislike of these books is “judging adult women’s reading choice.”

    Who’s policing whom, really?

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  36. Sunita
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 21:38:15

    @Sunny: So glad you commented, especially given that this is a fraught issue for you.

    You have *no* reason to feel shame about your fantasies. That doesn’t mean you don’t, or that it’s not understandable, but there’s *nothing* you need to justify or defend. No matter what they look like.

    I think of fantasies as the conscious versions of dreams in a lot of ways. Dreams are a way we work out things that are going on in our brains and minds. So are fantasies, but they happen when we’re awake, so we can actively seek them out.

    I like lots of things in my cognitive and emotional lives that I don’t want to live out in my active life. I think all those experiences are important for my mental and physical health.

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  37. Moriah Jovan
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 21:41:37

    @Ridley:

    Can you offer any examples of this happening?

    Off the top of my head, I can think of three regular commenters on DA who do it every time rape and/or forced seduction is discussed, but I’m not going to namecheck them and I’m not going to drag up their posts.

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  38. Jill Sorenson
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 22:50:01

    Great topic and discussion! I especially appreciated the link to the rape fantasies study.

    Bree’s comment (among others) also resonates with me. The idea of women getting unrealistic expectations from romance novels is sort of laughable when you think of it in those terms. As if we aren’t bombarded with a thousand other messages about what women deserve. How we should look and behave and be treated. Only someone who hasn’t been touched by sexism could believe that reading a few happy endings might erase a lifetime of exposure to it.

    And yet, I think that reading romance *has* influenced me to want more from my relationship. It’s shaped my worldview in good and bad ways.

    Quoting @Stacey:

    “But with romance, psychology and relationships are the main (often only) subject, and — to be frank — that material isn’t depicted in a realistic way. That’s FINE though, that’s what I WANT, because it’s an escape into a fantasy for me, but it does change how I relate to the books. They have nothing to do with how I live my life. ”

    I’ve read a lot of romances with relationships that are depicted in a realistic way. It’s what I prefer. I often think about a post Erin Satie wrote about fantasy because it seems to apply to almost every discussion along these lines. She said that some people want to read about how the world IS, others want to read about how they WISH it was, and still more want different things not related to reality at all. I probably find it harder to excuse abusive or domineering behavior because I prefer stories about men I might actually *like* if I met them in real life.

    Not sure this is making sense, but going back to the “bad influence” part. I’ve mentioned before that reading romance (from a young age, admittedly) gave me the impression that true-love orgasms happen from penetration alone. I’m sure society helped teach me this, or failed to teach me otherwise. I actually thought something was wrong with me when I didn’t experience this vagical ecstasy. I can blame my age and ignorance for my unrealistic expectations, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect love and pleasure and happy endings of all kinds. I’ve always wanted a romance that reflects the best parts of reality, not one that fakes it.

    I know, that’s TMI, but

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  39. Jill Sorenson
    Dec 31, 2013 @ 22:54:04

    Oops, I meant to delete that last line. Now it’s TMI with typos.

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  40. Heidi Belleau
    Jan 01, 2014 @ 04:14:52

    @Sunny:

    Hey Sunny, I’m a survivor of CSA as well, and have had rape fantasies for as long as I can remember. It was a big part of my healing journey to come to terms with my fantasies and the fact that they don’t mean I’m “broken” or “tainted” or “damaged”, or that I (god forbid) wanted or deserved to be sexually abused. Have you ever read the book “The Survivor’s Guide to Sex”? (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/46624.The_Survivor_s_Guide_to_Sex). It has a section dedicated to rape fantasies in women but specifically for those of us who have suffered past abuse.

    I first found it in college and it absolutely Changed My Life. I don’t know if it’ll have the same effect on you since we’re all unique in what we need and when, but maybe look into it and see if it helps? I’ve gone on to embrace my fantasies, but that doesn’t mean you ever need to or even should. Hopefully you will find your own path to feeling comfortable with yourself. Thanks for bringing this up here, I think it’s SO important for survivors of sexual abuse to have a voice in these types of discussions.

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  41. AQ
    Jan 01, 2014 @ 08:07:59

    I was thinking about the post all night long. Here’s where my thoughts went.

    The Skirmish
    Romance Readers can’t tell reality from fantasy.

    The War?
    Woman are to be treated / protected like children because they can’t be trusted to know their own minds or what’s best for them.

    That particular cultural message is one found in romance. A lot. It’s also very relevant to our current society.

    I thought about warrior woman wondering how that message manifested itself in the story. Here’s the list off the top of my head. Note I’m not designating good or bad to cultural message or even saying that the woman should be treated like children because they can’t be trusted to know their own minds message is the biggest cultural message present in specific item I pulled out. And I’m not even saying that the author reinforced the cultural message or challenged it. I’m just saying that these story pieces are one that I think the cultural message is present in.

    Tedra’s culture
    The government decides which people may donate sperm and eggs to be used in the artificial wombs.
    The government decided that once you have sex, you must have a mandated number of sex sessions a week.

    Martha (Tedra’s mentor AI)
    Decides Tedra will only be satisfied IF she find the barbarian home world
    Decides Tedra needs to have her cherry taken by the barbarian
    Decides it’s okay for Tedra to be “taken” by said barbarian
    Decides to trick Tedra when she considers whether or not to terminate her pregnancy
    Decides to support Challen when he tells Tedra what she will eat during her prefnancy.

    Challan
    Marries Tedra without telling her.
    Impregnates her without telling her.
    Negotiates with the other barbarian leaders to get her the army she needs to retake her home world.
    Allows her to fight in battle only to have her die (she’s saved by the medi-tech) An argument could be made that he was right.

    Challan’s Culture
    Men are the oral history keepers.
    Men decide who marries.
    Men control birth control.
    Men control women’s attire.
    Men control government.
    Men control all forms of employment.
    Men control the households.

    All that said I still liked the book and the story. I thought of Tedra and Challen as ending up with a relatively equal relationship with each other. I hated the second book. Despised the heroine. It’s been a really long time since I read it but I remember thinking she was a child rather than a powerful, self-assured woman. But thinking about cultural messaging I have to wonder if that was only a symptom and not the cause.

    What bothered me last night when after thinking about Tedra & Challen was that Tedra basically saved Challen’s culture and his world’s environment from off-worlders. But to do so she gave up any right to address gender inequality. She maintains her special woman status but she’s also only a consort and not a queen. Challen’s oral history will remember her as his wife and the off-worlder. The men saved themselves if her future son-in-laws attitude is correct. She’s also not Challen’s equal in Challen mind because he organizes games to auction off their daughter without discussing it with her. He also commission an AI with a male personality and better equipment to counteract Martha’s influence without consultation. So even though Tedra brought down the big bad barbarian with love. She didn’t really impact his culture. Her daughter is a pale imitation of her. And she’ll be erased from history.

    Romance novels aren’t really about what’s reality and what’s fantasy, they are about myth making. The individual fantasy may not be dangerous but the myth can be.

    Thanks again for the thought exercise. Have a brilliant new year.

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  42. Janet
    Jan 01, 2014 @ 09:56:40

    @Ridley: I know you addressed your comment to Moriah, but I just wanted to point out that Eileen Dryer makes the argument that rape doesn’t belong in Romance. In fact, you can see from this post and its comments that I’ve been arguing with her about her opinion since 2007 (in other words, I’ve been at this issue for a long-ass time).

    All you have to do is Google something like “abusive relationships in Romance influence readers” and you’ll get a lot of hits that make that explicit connection. Here’s one on Gabaldon’s Outlander, which ends with this:

    Rape culture is one in which books-for-women-by-women feature strong, masculine heroes who are lovable, respectable and sexy, even though they beat and rape women. How many women will walk away from The Outlander under the impression that rape is what brings passion to a relationship? How many will go forth looking for a dashing hero just like Jaime? And even more upsetting, how many will find one?

    Then there’s this Huffington Post piece that articulates extensive concern that Fifty Shades will turn women on to unhealthy relationships in real life. Also, if you cruise through the comments to my last handful of posts here, you will see some comments that explicitly repeat these same concerns. One of the reasons I did not isolate those for this post, however, is because I think this is a widespread issue (and sometimes a conscious struggle) among women – it’s just become more obvious to me within the Romance community. In fact, when I first started reading Romance, more than a decade ago, I was extremely freaked out by all the depictions of sexual force in the genre, from non-con and dub-con to some of the old historical epics, and I struggled with questions around, as Hapax terms it, correlation. It took several years for me to really come to an understanding of why I thought the trope was so popular, which is how I came to write my own posts on reader consent.

    Last, but certainly not least, there’s this now-infamous 2012 post from AAR, called Romance and Cultural Expectations,(in which Sandy Coleman even invoked the “slippery slope” argument about women reading about sexual force in Romance), and one of the reasons I’m kind of confused by your response in this thread is that in the comments to that post, you seemed to be taking a very different position than the one you are articulating here. Not that people can’t change their mind, but I still have a pretty vivid memory of your frustration with the connections that piece and some of its comments were drawing. That whole discussion even catalyzed yet another post from me on the subject, because female readers were, again, being tagged as vulnerable to real life rape because they read forced sex in Romance.

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  43. Sunny
    Jan 01, 2014 @ 10:16:38

    @Heidi Belleau: (and Sunita and Janet), thank you so much, and Heidi I am absolutely going to get that book and read it. I swear this is something I haven’t even been able to tell my doctor (or generally wouldn’t think to), but I felt safe here, and feel so much better having finally said something about it. I really appreciate it.

    This is what reading romance has done — put me in touch with amazing supportive people!

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  44. Ridley
    Jan 01, 2014 @ 12:12:49

    @Janet: Well, not all arguments about fiction’s influence are created equal.

    Do I think reading rape/abuse themes in romance makes women into victims? No.

    Do I think that the prevalence of rape/abuse themes in media contributes to rape culture? Yes.

    Is this specific to romance? No.

    I mean, I’m sure lots of men who love the women in their lives enjoy the hero fantasy that the Girlfriend in a Refrigerator trope sets up, but are we worried about “shaming” those men when we roll our eyes at the trope and wish it would go away?

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  45. Robin/Janet
    Jan 01, 2014 @ 13:09:46

    @Ridley: I mean, I’m sure lots of men who love the women in their lives enjoy the hero fantasy that the Girlfriend in a Refrigerator trope sets up, but are we worried about “shaming” those men when we roll our eyes at the trope and wish it would go away?

    We don’t generally subject men to the influence argument, which is an enormous double standard that IMO simply reinforces the speciousness of the argument as it applies to women.

    Also, for me, at least, this isn’t just about “shaming,” but about a lingering perception that women are somehow more vulnerable to cultural representations and are therefore somehow responsible for things that they actually are not at all responsible for (e.g. the whole myth that domestic violence is perpetrated on women who fit a certain profile, which has been shown to be complete and utter bullshit).

    Thus my comment to Bree about how when we’re tempted to make these generalizations about certain tropes, that IMO should signal the start of an actual analysis, not a conclusion treated as a de facto rule. Because if we’re going to call for critical examination (a good call, IMO), we should be subjecting those assumptive conclusions to such examination, as well.

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  46. Robin/Janet
    Jan 01, 2014 @ 13:20:17

    @Sunny: I don’t have the solidarity of personal experience to offer you, only some of the resources I’ve come across in my own research on rape fantasies that I hope might be helpful to you in bringing you any measure of personal resolution and peace. Have you, for example, read Nancy Friday’s work on rape fantasy? One of her recent books, Beyond My Control, is pretty good, as if her original work on the subject, My Secret Garden (it looks like this title was recently released in digital for its 40th anniversary). Friday has interviewed hundreds (thousands?) of people in the course of her research, who have many stories to tell in her books, and Friday is very sex-positive.

    Thank you again for your courage and candor here.

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  47. Annamal
    Jan 01, 2014 @ 14:48:47

    We don’t generally subject men to the influence argument, which is an enormous double standard that IMO simply reinforces the speciousness of the argument as it applies to women.

    Where as IMO this just means that the influence of reinforced tropes needs to be more closely examined when it comes to men (and society in general).

    Again I don’t think romance novels should be singled out (but then again they’re really not…the sci fi community is currently in the middle of a huge upheaval regarding both tropes and actual physical safety for women and the gaming community is likewise changing) and I do think some of the criticism is over-simplified or aimed at dismissing an entire genre because it’s written by and for women but that doesn’t change the fact that a large number of romances treat harmful ideas as basic truths and that sucks for society at large.

    I repeat though, it’s not the behaviour of individual victims that I’m worried about, or even the behaviour of abusers (ok so I’m very worried about them) it’s the way society deals with abuse and rape. It’s the bystanders who have the most influence and the most power to either shut someone down (the way actions that amount to stalking are seen as romantic…the way any conversation about rape jumps to what the victim should have done differently) or call people out (our local anti-dv boils down to “it’s not ok” and it is effective).

    Society collectively decides on what is “normal” behaviour regarding human interactions and some of what society currently accepts as “normal” sucks, romance novels contribute to that normal as do video games, horror movies and every other media and they’re all worth calling out.

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  48. Jackie Barbosa
    Jan 01, 2014 @ 15:55:26

    @Robin/Janet: We don’t generally subject men to the influence argument, which is an enormous double standard that IMO simply reinforces the speciousness of the argument as it applies to women.

    I’m not sure I agree with this assertion. As cleo pointed out very early in the thread, there’s an awful lot of hand-wringing and pearl-clutching about pornography and violent video games, both of which are predominantly consumed by males. Plenty of people worry that these forms of entertainment influence those who consume them in negative and dangerous ways, so I don’t really see a double standard here.

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  49. Ridley
    Jan 01, 2014 @ 16:13:34

    @Robin/Janet:

    We don’t generally subject men to the influence argument, which is an enormous double standard that IMO simply reinforces the speciousness of the argument as it applies to women.

    Who’s “we?” When I’ve said we, I’ve had in mind the community of bloggers, readers, writers and who have you who comment on blogs and Twitter or contribute feature pieces to blogs and magazines. This “we” has talked extensively about what messages fiction sends to its readers, male and female. Lots has been said about the sexism in SFF and how it contributes to a fandom culture that facilitates the harassment of women. As a commenter says upthread, just about everyone frets about the messages porn sends to men. There’s even a Wikipedia article for the so-called “CSI Effect” where the fictional forensic science in police procedurals is widely believed to give jurors unrealistic expectations.

    I guess I find this discussion frustrating because I can’t figure out who you’re talking about and what you want to see happen. The article you reference in your original post is linkbait fluff written by someone uninterested in critical engagement. If you’re just condemning his thesis as completely flawed, ok then, I guess. If you’re arguing that his POV represents a current trend in romance criticism by people who’d ever read this post, I don’t agree.

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  50. Moriah Jovan
    Jan 01, 2014 @ 17:30:21

    This is how I distill the ongoing conversation:

    LET’S
    a) critique romance novels

    b) critique the tropes

    c) examine rape and forced seduction in romance novels and how they are/not empowering and to whom and why/not and do it within the context of the individual books.

    LET’S NOT
    a) mistake critical discourse about rape/forced seduction for an invitation to say, “Right-thinking women don’t read that shit.”

    b) assume that what is shit to some is shit to others and if it’s not, those people just aren’t right-thinking

    c) assume that everyone believes that liking the fantasy contributes to rape culture and/or they’re not right-thinking 

    AND

    d) mistake pushing for the eradication of texts that some personally find abhorrent for critical discourse.

    The question Janet posed was: Why are some women so invested in policing what other women read?

    I’d forgotten about the AAR post Janet linked, but it is an excellent illustration of what I object to.

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  51. Ridley
    Jan 01, 2014 @ 17:41:10

    @Moriah Jovan: Can you define when “critique” turns into “policing”?

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  52. Moriah Jovan
    Jan 01, 2014 @ 18:15:45

    Ridley, I was explicit and concise, but I’ll try again.

    Every time someone says, “Publishers need to stop publishing that stuff” and “That doesn’t belong in romance” and “Women are influenced/conditioned to make bad choices” and “When we don’t speak out against this trope, we contribute to rape culture” or some paraphrase of any of those, it’s policing.

    It is NOT critical discourse. It’s a blanket statement of disapproval that also stifles the actual criticism of the text.

    In short, it’s an attempt to take away what someone finds pleasurable and/or worthwhile.

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  53. Ridley
    Jan 01, 2014 @ 18:47:28

    @Moriah Jovan:

    “When we don’t speak out against this trope, we contribute to rape culture”

    That answers my question. Any criticism that makes people uncomfortable is “policing.”

    I’m done with this discussion. It’s unresolvable.

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  54. Anne
    Jan 02, 2014 @ 03:25:10

    I am a well educated professional with degrees in history and law and consider myself to be politically well informed with a social conscience. I enjoy reading romance (preferably historical romance and urban fantasy or paranormal romance) and other light fiction purely as an escape. I was introduced to Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey in my teens, and have continued to reread my favourites among their books, and to add books by other authors (current favourites are Ilona Andrews, Nalini Singh, Susanna Kearsley and Lindsay Buroker). I do demand that books be well written (I tend to edit them mentally otherwise). I do not expect the behaviour of the hero or the heroine to mirror reality, but I do not tolerate “heroes” who rape or abuse or “heroines” who are passive or, while ostensibly “headstrong” or “spirited”, are really TSTL. I also do not like historical anachronisms.
    It is insulting to suggest that female readers of romance are unable to distinguish between fiction and reality and will be unduly influenced by a socially unacceptable scene or attitude in a novel – especially if that attitude is in a novel set in a past era or alternate universe. There are far more pervasive and insidious forms of gender stereotyping, and far more harmful attitudes to women, in other media. The Disney princesses, for example, are almost all powerless creatures who can do nothing other than wait for a male to rescue them, and advertising is horrendously stereotypical – in everything from toys to household products to cars. One of my daughter’s favourite shows as a toddler was “Bob the Builder”, which had a very strong female character named Wendy, who was as skilled a carpenter as Bob and also cleaned up many of his messes. But all the ads, toys and even cards were directed to boys. And why do all the commercials for household products feature brainless women whose only concern is what type of cheese they’re putting in the dip THEY”RE SERVING TO THE MEN IN THE OTHER ROOM or whether the frig matches the stove? I don’t do all the cooking, cleaning or laundry in my household. And then we need to look at exposure to porn and violent video games, which sociological studies show do affect behaviour, by encouraging unacceptable attitudes to the opposite sex and reducing empathy generally.
    That’s my two cents’ worth

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  55. Rebecca Rogers Maher
    Jan 02, 2014 @ 07:38:44

    This conversation is so tense and uncomfortable! I think one aspect that makes it so heated is the sense, from both sides, that we’re not only being attacked/undermined by men, but by each other. On one side, we’re accused of not being intelligent enough to discern the difference between fantasy and reality—that we’re being led like sheep to a bad end because we’re not “right-thinking.” On the other side, we’re offended that other women are the ones writing and reading stories that contribute to women’s oppression, and we’re not even allowed to talk about that without being accused of being too PC. In both cases, it feels like a betrayal by our own community.

    Look, that sucks. But we have to be able to talk about this. I’ve used the example of Eminem before, and I’ll repeat it here because he’s a useful parallel. Eminem is a site of conflict for me, because I basically love that dude. He is hilarious, insightful, talented, fierce and emotional. He’s also a total prick to women and gay people. I’m allowed to love his music, and even to laugh at some of his totally offensive jokes, but I can be critical of the content of his music AT THE SAME TIME that I’m enjoying it. Alongside his regressive offensiveness, he’s saying incredibly interesting things about class, race, family, addiction and recovery. Those interesting elements coexist with the offensive ones. I’m not an idiot for liking him, and I’m not exempt from needing to critique the aspects of his work that are problematic. I can and should do both simultaneously.

    The next question, I guess, is whether I LIKE the problematic aspects. I have to admit that in some cases, I do. I like it when he says terrible things about women. It’s fun to me that he just puts it right out there – it’s not hidden, and I don’t have to wonder. That guy thinks women are awful (except for his daughters, which, as an aside, I have to wonder how he reconciles that with himself). But then I have to ask myself if I like this because in some secret way I think women are awful too (myself included). I can ask myself that without getting all freaked out by it, because I’m just curious – do I think that? Then I have to ask how other people are receiving this message. Are they just like, “Oh hell yeah! Down with women!” Some probably do, yes. Some probably take it in critically. Then I have to wonder, does Eminem have the RIGHT to depict women in this way if, in the worst-case scenario, he’s perpetuating a woman-hating culture? And do listeners have the right to enjoy that?

    The answer, to me, is yes, of course. He has the right to suggest whatever he wants about women, and listeners have the right to absorb that however they see fit. But then we also have the right to say things like, “That’s messed up,” and “That’s messed up, but I like it,” and even “I like it and so what?”

    But we do have to be able to talk about it. Maybe some people don’t want to talk about it, and that’s fine. They can excuse themselves from the conversation. But the conversation is going to happen, as it should. There are trends in music that are problematic. They contribute to social oppression because that’s what some art does. Some art also resists social oppression. Most art does both simultaneously, and romance is no exception.

    By the same token, listeners/viewers/readers of art are not empty vessels who are blindly manipulated. We engage in a complex process of digestion that ranges from pure enjoyment to pure critique, often within a single person in the space of a single minute.

    That needs to be acknowledged. Romance readers are not weak-minded, easily manipulated women who don’t know the difference between healthy and unhealthy. Some trends in romance are also problematic, and some do influence us in ways we should be conscious of and think about, because all art does that. Both of these things are true simultaneously. It’s not either/or. Even on a text by text basis, it will not be obvious what’s what, and we won’t agree in our interpretations, and that’s fine. We will often piss each other off in these discussions. But that’s exactly what art should do – piss people off and get us talking.

    I think we should attempt to be polite and respectful to each other, and avoid suggesting, for example, that female readers are unduly influenced by our romance reading. That’s insulting to our intelligence, truly. We also should avoid suggesting that other readers shouldn’t be critical of trends in the genre that might be damaging to women, because come on. Who are we kidding? I love romance, but there are trends in this genre that aren’t so great for the cause, ladies. We can admit that without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We should attempt to be respectful, but the fact is, we aren’t always going to succeed. Conversations are going to get prickly, like this one. I hope we’ll keep having them anyway.

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  56. Lynn Rae
    Jan 02, 2014 @ 09:19:26

    I must confess I’m pretty afraid to make a comment here considering the tension. For me this topic is one I think about a lot both in what I write and read.
    I have two teenaged nieces and I think about what they read, see on television, and other forms of media. I know they are influenced by it no matter how well-educated and intelligent they are. So are my nephew and son for that matter. It’s inevitable. It’s just as inevitable that I, a well-educated and intelligent adult, will be influenced by those same things. Depictions of sex, violence, injustice, and honor, all play a part in our entertainment and how we chose to behave in our society.
    If we accept that a romance book might enable a reader to have a more positive, empowered approach to her relationships and sex life, why is it so awful to admit another romance reader might become more accepting of poor treatment in her relationships based on what she reads in a different sort of romance?

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  57. wikkidsexycool
    Jan 02, 2014 @ 10:08:49

    “I have two teenaged nieces and I think about what they read, see on television, and other forms of media. I know they are influenced by it no matter how well-educated and intelligent they are.”

    I think Lynn Rae makes a very good point. Now that I’ve started writing and self publishing my own romance ebooks, I think about the ones I read when I was younger, and the ones my own offspring read secretly and not so secretly of mine. While Janet’s question stated “when talking about Romance, do we still seem to have a lingering anxiety that women are being messaged and influenced in potentially destructive ways?”

    I’d have to say that it’s the young girls with no one around to challenge them to think critically about portrayals they read in novels or others forms of media that I’m concerned about. And if concerned translates to policing for some, then so be it. I can only speak for myself, but I do think that speaking out it necessary on occasion, if only to give another viewpoint.

    For now, I’m attempting to be the change I’d like to see in romance. However, pointing out where there are issues is what I see this post about, and I feel Janet has brought up some food for thought.

    Also, let me give my condolences on your mom, Janet.

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  58. wikkidsexycool
    Jan 02, 2014 @ 10:17:11

    “However, pointing out where there are issues is what I see this post about”

    My apologies, I’d meant for that sentence to read “However, pointing out where there are issues and a difference of perception among readers is what I see this post is about.”

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  59. cleo
    Jan 02, 2014 @ 12:06:48

    I don ‘t know where to begin, so I’m going to highlight a few comments that resonated with me.

    Romance novels aren’t really about what’s reality and what’s fantasy, they are about myth making. The individual fantasy may not be dangerous but the myth can be.
    - AQ

    Society collectively decides on what is “normal” behaviour regarding human interactions and some of what society currently accepts as “normal” sucks, romance novels contribute to that normal as do video games, horror movies and every other media and they’re all worth calling out.
    - annamal

    @Rebecca Rogers Maher – thank you for your comment.

    @Mari – I’ve been thinking about your comment a lot. I think influence is so personal. I agree that reading romance is good for me as well as fun, but there was a time that I stopped reading super sexy erotic romance because it did make me feel bad for not having sex six times a week.

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  60. cleo
    Jan 02, 2014 @ 12:29:27

    I also want to say that I don’t think women in general need to be protected in terms of what they read, and I don’t think of myself as policing other readers, but I personally am very protective of my own reading. There are plenty of troubling things that I don’t want to read about in my pleasure reading. And I think talking about this in forums gets tricky, because sometimes “I don’t like this” or “I was offended by this” turns into or is taken to mean “this shouldn’t exist” or “there’s something wrong with people who aren’t also offended.” And it kind of goes downhill from there.

    I want to be able to talk about things that trouble me in romance and I don’t want the responsibility of controlling what others read and write.

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  61. Robin/Janet
    Jan 02, 2014 @ 16:12:53

    @Ridley: Who’s “we?”
    I specified in my post that we is the Romance community. But let’s broaden that to women in general and include your example of the SFF community and harassment at cons. I see a very different dynamic going on there (at least in the pieces I’ve read by Foz Meadows, at Scalzi’s blog, etc.). What I see happening in those conversations is more along these lines:

    1. Look at the sexist representations in these male-authored books. Given what these guys think about women, no wonder they’re harassing women. That isn’t a cause and effect relationship, but a use of the text as affirmation of an attitude that already exists.
    2. Which makes sense, given the fact that the power relationship is reversed. In the case of the harassment, you’re dealing with a group that’s already perceived to have power and privilege, which is perceived to be reflected in their books. In the woman-on-woman situation, it’s substantively different, because the “policing,” as some have called it, is aimed at the cohort who is perceived to have less power, with a fear that women who would otherwise not accept certain things eventually will because of the influence of books. In the case of the harassment, there is a perception that the men already think this is okay (status quo), so it’s not cause-effect/book-influence, it’s book simply reflects pre-existing power relationships. Very different.

    I guess I find this discussion frustrating because I can’t figure out who you’re talking about and what you want to see happen. The article you reference in your original post is linkbait fluff written by someone uninterested in critical engagement

    I’m specifically talking about the Romance community, and what I want to see happen is very simple: 1) discussion in response to the points I raised in the post, and specifically in response to the final question I asked, and 2) more specific critical analysis of individual books and tropes instead of generalized conclusions offered without evidence, especially when they suggest a cause and effect relationship between books and readers.

    As I said in my post, I used the Damsels in Distress post as a jumping off point, to note that Romance readers will often rally against outsiders making the ‘easily influenced woman reader’ argument, while still perpetuating some of that logic internally. I think Evangeline Holland referred to it as “double-speak” in her comment. However, I could just as easily have used Janice Radway’s work, because she’s been soundly rejected by Romance readers (sometimes unfairly, IMO), although some of the logic of influence actually echoes what people claim to hate in Radway.

    @Moriah Jovan: It is NOT critical discourse. It’s a blanket statement of disapproval that also stifles the actual criticism of the text.

    I just want to isolate and highlight this definition of policing, because I think it’s been kind of lost in the discussion.

    @Rebecca Rogers Maher: I think Eminem is a great example here, because his work emphasizes the need for thoughtful critical analysis — otherwise, you miss a huge chunk of what’s going on in his music. For example, if you’re uncritically accepting, you miss the misogyny, and if you’re uncritically dismissive, you miss the class and race critiques. This is one of the reasons I think critical engagement actually makes it harder to shift into policing mode, but that’s another discussion.

    We also should avoid suggesting that other readers shouldn’t be critical of trends in the genre that might be damaging to women, because come on.

    I haven’t seen any of that going on here, but it certainly does go on within the Romance community, especially when it’s couched in the “it’s only entertainment/fantasy” language. What I’d suggest is that when the “these books may cause women to seek out unhealthy relationships” comments start, even if they come from a progressive place, they become as meaningful and true as the statements about how “it’s only fantasy – let’s not look too closely.” That is to say, not at all.

    Moreover, I think there’s a certain mirror imaging going on, such that the ‘let’s not look too closely’ rhetoric and the ‘X needs to be gone from the genre because it’s a tool of patriarchy’ are *both* potentially serving patriarchy by denying the complexity of the genre and women’s responses to it, and thereby doubly disempowering female readers (e.g., women are both powerless against patriarchal attitudes AND against books that allegedly reflect them).

    @Lynn Rae and @wikkidsexycool: One of the points of concern I have is this casual linking of grown women and children/teens. I think there’s an inadvertent potential to infantalize women, especially since we don’t tend to do the same with men and boys. As I noted in my post, there is a legitimacy to worrying about how things affect children whose brains and still in developmental form; however, even there, I think we need to be careful.

    For example, look at this study from the University of Glasgow, which found NO EFFECT of video games on children in terms of later behavioral and emotional problems: http://www.gamesandlearning.org/2013/11/15/game-play-has-no-negative-impact-on-kids-uk-study-finds/. One of the reasons these influence arguments are so tricky is that they often fly in the face of actual research (note my domestic violence example above).

    This feeds into the positive v. negative influence issue, as well. For example, there’s an enormous difference between reading a book and feeling like love is possible (isn’t that something we should believe, anyway?), and reading a book and believing it’s okay to have a partner abuse you. It’s just not the same thing. Now, if the argument is that there are things in the genre that reflect a patriarchal status quo, that’s different. Although IMO it still requires specific examples and careful analysis of those examples to articulate how/why/in what way/whether there is subversion or resistance, etc.

    It’s like that exchange I had with Sabrina Jeffries about the hot virgin sex trope. Her perspective forced me to acknowledge that it’s possible to read that trope within an entirely different (and much more liberating) way. I’d still need to go book-by-book with her on it, but the possibility for a very different interpretation is now there for me.

    @cleo: I’m much more protective of my own reading now than I used to be. I have a really low threshold for elements like torture, sexual violence, violence against animals, and other related issues.

    In the area of rape in the genre, I’ve become extremely interested in the trope, even though I do not personally enjoy the rape fantasy. In fact, I think the fact that I don’t have a personal investment in that way makes it easier for me to think and talk about it, because I don’t feel personally attacked by suggestions that people shouldn’t be reading it. I know there are a lot of people who don’t speak up in defense of tropes they like, because they fear being judged. I know we should all be able to speak our minds, etc., but the reality is that doesn’t always happen, something else that can imperil more widespread critical engagement.

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  62. Lynn Rae
    Jan 02, 2014 @ 18:53:01

    Robin/Janet
    ‘One of the points of concern I have is this casual linking of grown women and children/teens. I think there’s an inadvertent potential to infantalize women, especially since we don’t tend to do the same with men and boys. As I noted in my post, there is a legitimacy to worrying about how things affect children whose brains and still in developmental form; however, even there, I think we need to be careful.’

    I feel I need to explain myself better here. In no way do I intend to ‘infantilize’ women by comparing the influences on a child’s developing mind with the influences on an adults mind. I’m speaking of influences at any stage of one’s life. I’m an adult and since I’m always learning and open to experience, I’m open to influence as well. I would hope most people would be. If this discussion centered on how men are/are not influenced by fiction, I’d be happy to include them.

    ‘This feeds into the positive v. negative influence issue, as well. For example, there’s an enormous difference between reading a book and feeling like love is possible (isn’t that something we should believe, anyway?), and reading a book and believing it’s okay to have a partner abuse you. It’s just not the same thing.’

    How is this not the same thing? How can anyone know exactly how or what influences someone’s subconscious? I was trying to point out the fallacy of claiming a book can have a beneficial impact on someone’s thinking, but deny the possibility another could be negative.

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  63. Robin/Janet
    Jan 02, 2014 @ 20:04:36

    @Lynn Rae: In no way do I intend to ‘infantilize’ women by comparing the influences on a child’s developing mind with the influences on an adults mind.

    I know you didn’t, and I tried to communicate that through my use of the word “inadvertent.” It’s just that I often see the bad influences argument on children referenced in discussions of negative messaging toward women, and I’d like to see them more consistently separated.

    How is this not the same thing? How can anyone know exactly how or what influences someone’s subconscious?

    I would actually use your second question to answer your first, but in this way: the science of influence is just so incredibly complex. I don’t disagree with you that everyone is subject to influence — where I’m urging caution is in the suggesting the kind of specific causation that tends to focus on women and on certain types of media.

    For example, our society still perpetuates this idea that there is a certain “type” of domestic violence victim, even though it’s not true. And that makes me think about the fact that despite the widespread belief that it is true, the belief hasn’t made it so in reality. So even the potential influence of that myth has not manifested the behavior it predicts. Or take the comment that many women make that they need happy books to relax and de-stress. If the influence of that happiness were truly effective, wouldn’t there come a point where their lives were sufficiently evolved into the happy that those books would not be necessary?

    As someone pointed out in an earlier comment, there’s an entire self-help industry that flourishes because our individual relationship to messaging and influences is so unpredictable and complex. as for the two examples I provided, in the first case, the idea that love is possible is something that I could feel after reading a book and not have it alter my life patterns in any way. In the second case, though, I’d have to go against a ton of cultural messaging (the prevalence of anti-DV campaigns is more recognizable than ever — even the nurses at my doctor’s office routinely ask about it), family conditioning, and life experience. Even when my self-esteem was at its lowest, and when my relationship patterns with men were not at their best, I was very aware of the difference between a bad relationship and an abusive one. Also, this belief is not a new one — back in the 19th C there was incredible concern about what women read and how if affected them. We’ve seen it with soap operas, romantic comedies, Disney stories. We see it with children and video games, even though we can’t get the research to cooperate on that, either.

    So, yes, I think it’s important to look at, think about, and discuss the way we each perceive things to be represented in fiction, etc.; I just want to stop the train before it jumps the tracks and barrels on to causation village (and I’m not saying that you’re doing that — I just feel the need to add it again).

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  64. Janet
    Jan 02, 2014 @ 21:56:56

    I just wanted to make one more general comment, namely that there is quite a range of things people within the Romance community don’t think belong there. In my last post (Isn’t It Romantic?), I referenced the campaign to make same sex and polyamorous Romances not Romance.

    In this post I’ve mentioned the rape fantasy, because that’s something I’ve been thinking about for literally years, but for some it’s the idea that heroines shouldn’t be having sex before marriage (and that erotic Romance may encourage so-called sexual promiscuity), for others it’s the belief that pregnant women should always go through with the pregnancy (even if they also keep them secret from the baby daddy).

    So one of the difficulties with policing, in my opinion, is that there really isn’t agreement on what should be included in the genre. Beyond all of the differences in how we interpret specific books, what some readers find to be an empowering trope (an unmarried and happily sexually active heroine, for example), others will find inappropriate and undesirable in the genre. It’s just another complicating element for me.

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  65. wikkidsexycool
    Jan 02, 2014 @ 22:39:15

    Hi Janet,

    “I often see the bad influences argument on children referenced in discussions of negative messaging toward women, and I’d like to see them more consistently separated.”

    My apologies, I thought I’d done that by stating “I’d have to say that it’s the young girls with no one around to challenge them to think critically about portrayals they read in novels or others forms of media that I’m concerned about.”

    I should have stated “it’s the young girls instead of the women you’ve referenced in your question” and my comment may have been clearer.

    I must confess, now you’ve got me a bit confused, and I believe it has to do with some of the terms being used. But how does your initial question in your piece regarding the use of the words “anxiety” and “worry” then jump to “policing” in your last comment?

    Or are you expanding on your original question? Thanks in advance. It’s late, I need sleep, so forgive me if I’m mis-reading this.

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  66. Janet/Robin
    Jan 02, 2014 @ 22:55:16

    @wikkidsexycool: But how does your initial question in your piece regarding the use of the words “anxiety” and “worry” then jump to “policing” in your last comment?

    Sorry, just expanding on it, given some of the discussion in the comments about how the anxiety can (and sometimes does) lead to policing. NOT that I’m suggesting that either you or Lynn Rae were doing that.

    Also, the title of my post is a riff on Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/11/01/specials/bloom-influence.html), so in my head I was toying with all sorts of thoughts about Bloom’s theory about how poets establish a certain creative autonomy through an intellectual rejection/subversion of those who have come before them. But I decided not to even talk about that directly, because, as you said, this discussion can get really confusing really quickly, lol.

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  67. Kaetrin
    Jan 03, 2014 @ 05:33:22

    Speaking for myself only, I’d have to say the influence romance has had on me, particularly since I have become involved in the romance community, has been positive.
    I’m more critical and thoughtful about what I read now than I ever was. I am more open to new ideas. I know more about feminism than I ever did (I have a long way to go). I am more tolerant of others. I am more inclined to speak out against abuse, misogyny and heteronormativity than ever before. (I am more able to *see* those things). I suspect the broader romance community plays a large part in that, but my own experience suggests that, at least for me, problematic tropes and romance in general leads me to question the status quo in ways I never did before and to challenge my thinking.

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  68. Lynn Rae
    Jan 03, 2014 @ 09:19:03

    I just want to say I have been so intellectually ‘fired-up’ by this post and I want to sincerely thank Janet for opening up such a fascinating topic. I’ve been thinking deep thoughts for over twenty four hours and it makes me feel like I’m back in college solving all the world’s problems.

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  69. Rei Hab
    Jan 03, 2014 @ 12:53:52

    This discussion is absolutely fascinating; thanks for this post, Janet, and I’m sorry to hear about your mother. (And apologies in advance for any incoherence in this comment; I’m a touch feverish.)

    I blog about romance novels over at a feminist pop culture site, and now that I’m starting to get a bit deeper into analysing certain tropes, I’m starting to question the limits of the “this stuff is harmful” argument alongside the “it’s just fantasy!” one.

    A couple of other commenters have pointed this out already, but I feel like the tropes that crop up in romance novels that I think are harmful and give harmful messages to readers aren’t really any different to the things I think give harmful messages to readers of any other genre. They might be easier to spot in a book where the relationship is the focus, but unrealistic depictions of relationships…kind of crop up everywhere, don’t they? Let’s take sex, for e.g. – it’s pretty rare that I see two characters tumble into bed for the first time and giggle and get awkward and maybe not both orgasm but still consider it a satisfying first time out in any kind of fiction. I said over on SBTB a month or so ago that I’ve never seen a hero in a romance novel with a small dick, but I’ve never seen one anywhere else either. Gender essentialism is one of my huge bugbears and I hate it, but I’m as likely to see it in Doctor Who as I am in the latest Harlequin title. This is not a romance problem. This is a culture problem.

    I do see a lot of people claiming that romance addresses these issues particularly well or particularly badly on the whole. To be honest, I wouldn’t say that either is true. There are some writers who write empowering books that I can relate to and some that don’t. I do think, though, that there needs to be some self-reflection done on both sides of this debate. There are people who will decry anything problematic in a romance novel as a symptom of What’s Wrong With Romance, but also people who resist critical readings of anything that’s not totally, stridently awful in the genre because they love it.

    I feel like I should leave the Tumblr post on how to be a fan of problematic things here, but I also feel like I’m rambling. In conclusion: I like this discussion. Thumbs up.

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  70. The not-so-fine lines between critiquing and policing
    Jan 07, 2014 @ 04:02:05

    […] was much discussion this past week about critiquing and policing in online communities. Robin’s post last week kicked off a lively discussion in the comments and on Twitter, and I started to see examples of the […]

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