Romance is not a feminist genre – and that’s okay
As a genre celebrating love and largely written by and for women, I think it’s easy to view Romance as an inherently feminist genre. I have felt this way myself at times, and I’ve seen many other readers and authors make similar assertions. But what I’m going to propose today is that Romance is not a feminist genre – and that it doesn’t have to be for us to enjoy, celebrate, appreciate, and feel empowered and liberated by it.
First let me back up for a minute and talk about the word “feminist.” As we all know, this word has gotten quite a workout this year, with women in the public eye both defending and distancing themselves from it, and with Gamergaters and others twisting it through some perverse, hateful logic. I happen to love the word feminist, because to me it encompasses advocating and supporting personal agency for women and the dissolution of systemic oppression, and I cringe every time I hear one of those sentences that starts with “I’m not a feminist, but…” or any of its variants.
At the same time, though, feminism is many things to many people, and purely for definitional reasons, I think it’s difficult to manage a single definition that will apply to a genre are large as Romance. It’s even more difficult when you consider that feminism as social activism is not the same thing as feminist theory, even if one is inspired by the other. Feminist theory is incredibly diverse, as well, and its history long and varied. (There’s another older site here that has some good older resources, but it hasn’t been updated in what looks like more than 15 years).
There are theorists like Judith Butler, who believe that gender is “performative;” that is, we enact gender roles differently within different social contexts (i.e. they are not “natural”), and there feminists like bell hooks who focus on society as an oppressive force and on women as differentially empowered depending on factors like race and socioeconomic status, and others like Catharine MacKinnon, who insists that pornography oppresses and dehumanizes women. Some feminists believe that men should be included in feminist activism, while others endorse separatist activism. Although much feminist theory is complementary, there are plenty of different and even conflicting presumptions and concepts within its schools of thought.
To make Romance fit under any umbrella definition would be to dilute that definition down to something pretty vague and weakly articulated, something like “Romance celebrates women.” Which it does. But so do chick lit and women’s fiction. So what if we try “Romance empowers women.” Empowers them in what way, though? Sexually, socially, emotionally, physically, economically, racially, religiously, politically? And what does that empowerment mean and entail? Does it mean that women can have as many sexual partners as they want without shame? Does it mean that women can control their reproductive choices in any way they want without shame or social censure? Does it mean that women are portrayed as equal across racial, economic, geographical, and religious lines? And where do men fit in –as authors, characters, and readers? What about same sex Romance, which often utilizes many of the same tropes as m/f Romance, but is sometimes classified as a separate genre (or genres, if we accept the findings of Jessica Freely, whose Goodreads survey suggests that m/m Romance largely has a market of straight women, while f/f Romance has a smaller and perhaps different market.)
So let’s entertain for a moment the idea that Romance is not a feminist genre. What is it, then, beyond a genre that celebrates love and is largely written by, for, and/or about women.
First, I think Romance does something very similar to its literary forebear, sentimental fiction, namely providing a shared space for women to contemplate and discuss the important issues that affect our lives, both on a general, societal level, and in terms of day-to-day reality. Just check out Americanist scholar Cathy Davidson’s description of post-revolutionary American women’s relationship with sentimental fiction:
But by portraying dashing roues, sentimental novelists still allowed women to vicariously participate in a range of relationships with diverse suitors and to imagine what the aftermath of marriage to different men might be like. . . .
Important social matters are reflected in sentimental plots, including the preoccupation with extramarital sex and the social and biological consequences of sexual transgressions. . . .
The concomitant unstated premise of sentimental fiction is that the woman must take greater control of her life and must make shrewd judgments of the men who come into her life. Implicitly and explicitly, the novels acknowledge that married life can be bitterly unhappy and encourage women to circumvent disaster by weighing any prospective suitors in the balance of good sense-society’s and her own. . . .
During their premarital years young women even of the middle classes often worked outside the home, especially as teachers, while those lower on the social scale could seek work as domestics or, increasingly, in the new factories or mills. . . .
Women often met together to engage jointly in such tasks as sewing or quilting; while the others worked, one member of the group would read aloud-typically from a sentimental novel. Such group reading was often followed by discussions on topics ranging from national politics to local gossip. Not only was the novel thus made a part of the daily life of republican women, but the discourse of fiction was itself made contiguous with or incorporated into their discourse. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America, 2004 edition
I’ve quoted an extensive amount of text to demonstrate how the roles that sentimental fiction played in the lives of late 18th C American women are not so different from the roles genre Romance fiction plays in the lives of contemporary women. The social context has changed some, and pre-marital sex is no longer taboo (although the presumption of marriage and family in the genre is still very strong), but the way in which both sentimental fiction and Romance contemplate issues in relationships that women can, do, and might face is important in thinking about what Romance offers women, if not a feminist manifesto.
For example, Romance elevates the domestic, both in terms of “taming” the rake/rogue hero and in terms of valuing marriage and family. Because domesticity has also been a source of social and personal oppression for women, I think readers who are interested in a more progressive agenda for the genre can look at this element with suspicion (I have often done this). However, for many women, a life of marriage and child-raising is something they desire, and because of the economic stressors on couples these days, it may not be realistic. Moreover, the domestic sphere does not need to be a place of limitation for women or freedom for men at the expense of women. It can be a space of transformation, perhaps through a sharing of household and child-raising duties. Or in the way we Eve Dallas and Roarke have refigured it in JD Robb’s In Death series, where Roarke is often more the “wife” and nurturer than Eve, whose career is first for both of them. In any case, though, domesticity is not the necessary equivalent of oppression, either externalized or internal, and to dismiss it as such is to undermine a valid aspiration or life choice for women.
And the domestic is clearly a very strong draw in the genre. Look at Shay Savage’s Transcendence, a book that has gotten very strong feedback and appreciation in the Romance community. Savage’s novel is very much focused on domesticity. In fact, one of Ehd’s very first thoughts about Beh is this:
She is so beautiful— her smooth hair and her deep eyes and her creamy, pale skin. I don’t like the noises she makes, but she looks to be able enough, even if she is small. I briefly wonder if she is fertile and if she would bear a child who looks like me.
I like this idea.
Finally, after all this time alone, I have a mate.
And in this focus on the family, Transcendence is true to its literary inspiration, Twilight, which includes different family models (none of which are wholly conventional) with some contemplation about which are good and sound and worthy of replication. Indeed, the trajectory of the series is soundly toward Bella and Edward’s marriage and the culmination of their sexual desire in the form of a child.
I think Davidson’s point about how sentimental fiction allowed women to vicariously experience different types of relationships is still relevant, too, although we might refer to it as part of the fantasy element of the genre (more on this next week). Within Romance, like real life, social structures often dictate the type of relationship the female protagonist will have. For example, she may start out compelled to marry, without choice, and then travel to a place where she chooses to love of her own free will. Then there are those relationships that begin with extreme power imbalances that some readers adore and others abhor. The forced seduction remains extremely popular within the genre, even as some readers see it as very unromantic.
Of course we also see Romance challenging gender and sexual norms, often through erotic narratives that allow for sexual engagement outside monogamy, heterosexuality, and other restrictive social norms. Emma Holly, Joey Hill, Kit Rocha, Alisha Rai, Victoria Dahl – and many more. Although with the Romance mainframe, there is often also a core of preservation when it comes to the love relationship and the possibility of long-term commitment. Megan Hart’s Dirty, for example, which seemed so groundbreaking in terms of Ella’s expressed sexuality, moves into a sequel of pretty mainstream, monogamous, domestic bliss for the couple. Then there are heroines like Shelly Laurenston’s Cella Malone, a hockey player nicknamed “Bare Knuckles Malone” who is also the single mother of a very lovely and much more conservative 18-year old daughter and, in her spare time, a paid assassin. She ends up with an incredibly straight-laced and much more domesticated cop, a relationship that challenges many gender role norms, while still maintaining a pro-marriage, pro-monogamy pattern.
Romance offers other things, as well: sexual fantasy without shame; romantic fantasy focused on different types of potential partners; a safe space to read and think about issues women are dealing with day to day, where they can be discussed and contemplated from a different perspective; commentary on the ways in which women and men are still expected to meet certain social norms, and the places we’ve made progress in challenging or transforming those norms; a working out of any number of conflicts or questions in an aspirational way, etc.
But we also still see those books where a heroine’s virtue is associated with her virginity, or where the hero seems much better developed than the heroine, or where the heroine gives up her own life goals to be with the more successful hero, or any other number of scenarios and circumstances that reflect common patterns of institutional patriarchy. And in large part the genre still reinforces white heteronormative values and social norms, which makes a full paradigm shift away from patriarchy and intersecting patterns of racial and socio-economic disenfranchisement more difficult to imagine or achieve.
So yes, there are many things Romance can do better in terms of inclusivity and conscientious representations that do not mindlessly repeat problematic tropes, themes, And the extent to which the genre is challenging institutional disempowerment will inevitably be re-assessed from book to book. I can think of many books that contain powerfully subversive elements, even if they don’t completely thwart the dominant social paradigm. And I know that every book one reader finds incredibly oppressive, another reader will find wildly liberating. So does that mean the genre is either wholly feminist or wholly oppressed in the vice of patriarchy?
I would argue it’s neither, and that it’s still okay, because in the end it’s the quality of our experience and engagement with the genre that matters, even more than the books themselves.