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?