05 March 2013

Help! I'm... a feminist romance reader?

This post was written by guest writer Adrienne. She is attending Texas A&M for her Ph.D., where her specialty is detective fiction. She's also a reader of romance.

So so sorry for the long delay. I'm done with the move and have my life back!

Like many other women, I grew up reading romance novels. My family are all very heavy readers, and amidst all types of books, my mother read romances. One of my few fairly useless super powers is the ability to read way too quickly for my own good (my ability to resist mosquitoes is far far more useful). I never could check out enough books from the library, and so I started picking up my parent's books. Eventually my mother discovered and tried to stop my romance nabbing ways.

Now, I'm fairly sure that the reason my mother got upset that I was reading them was because of the *gasp* sexual content. And years later, I regret reading the novels and would never recommend most romances to young girls, but not for the same reason as my mother. These novels gave me a completely unrealistic and unhealthy outlook on sex, myself, and relationships. I do think that readers of romance have a far more complex relationship with the subject matter than previously imagined.1 Subject matter and ideology is not consumed uncritically. Women frequently twist and turn content to create a more realistic or more personal fantasy. I do not want to suggest that my experience was the same as all young girl's when reading romances, or that my experience was wholly naive, shallow, or one-leveled, and yet it was and probably still is a damaging experience. The romance novels reflect and create (in a nice circle as most literature does) cultural norms and expectations about love, relationships, and sex.

Let me summarize the romance: once upon a time, there was a very special woman who was going through some difficult problems, and she met a very special man who had something missing from his life. They met, gave each other what the other was lacking (for the woman- usually some type of fix to her problem, for the man- usually teaching him to love), they had sublime awesome sex, and lived happily ever after for the rest of their lives.

I'm being both mean and nice in my description, I think. I'm purposefully leaving out many of the most problematic and sexist aspects in order to describe as many types of romances as possible and in some delusional attempt to be fair. I'm also very aware that I'm leaving out many of the ways romance subvert or attempt to subvert gender roles, patriarchy, and traditional relationships.

The lessons that I learned from the hundreds of romances I read? 1) that an individual is incomplete, 2) I'm only important because I'm super special (a princess, a sad orphan abandoned by everyone and now chased by someone powerful and evil, a slave with super brain powers and the heart of gold, etc), 3) that sex is perfect and completely mind blowing (and man was I excited about this), 4) that love is only real if it's forever, and 5) that my future partner has to continually sweep me off my feet. If I wanted to be really and truly honest with myself, I would say that I still struggle with each and every one of these concepts even though my head understands that all of them are complete and utter bullshit. On the upside, I think contemporary romance novels (specifically certain types like chick lit and paranormal) are trying (keyword: trying) to combat a few of these: specifically 1, 2, and 4.

I'm going to use Sandra Booth's sub-genre summaries to explore movements from the 70s onward. The traditional romance prominent in the 1970s and frequently returned to through the decades has an amoral stock hero and a virginal and virtuous heroine.2 This reinforces gender stereotypes and promotes a culture in which un-angelic women (adventurous, sexual, etc) are bad women and therefore undeserving of protection from rape (frequently "asking for it").3

Romance frequently makes force, coercion, or men's lack of sexual control sexy and romantic. And that's so dangerous. Obvious, right? Apparently not. Yes, it is a fantasy. And as many critics have said- it's important to think of this as a fantasy and to accept that women don't uncritically consume this. But these are published and consumed in a rape culture. We don't usually fantasize about things completely related OR completely unrelated to us.

Romance in the 80s began to more frequently lessen gender stereotypes and weaken these rape myths. The hero moved from being amoral to "following the heroine's moral 'norm'" (96). Paranormal romance and humorous feminist romance began to emerge in large numbers during the 90s. Originally (as Sandra Booth contends) the paranormal was a regressive return to angel/monster dichotomy4 and humorous romance was the successful feminist and anti-patriarchal romance sub-genre.

I'm happy to say, that I think paranormal is slowly becoming a sub-genre in which some of the most exciting queer or feminist romances can currently be found. One of the reasons that paranormal is such a hopeful and interesting place for progressive work is the desire (and semi-ability) to create a social structure outside of normal (aka heteronormative patriarchal) structure. Society can have totally different rules- e.g. it can be matriarchal or androgynous.

Although Lynn Coddington wants us to believe that romances aren't "formulaic" and are wrongly assumed to be "universally badly written," I only partially agree with her (62). As with most popular culture, there is an erroneous assumption that romance isn't art and therefore isn't well written. That's utter crap. And crap a lot of us believe. Our dear blog mistress (and my dear friend) Courtney recently told me how surprised she was to enjoy Gail Carriger's parasol series because she assumed most of "that type" of fiction was badly written. There are many romance authors that are beautiful writers. But not formulaic? I just don't buy it. I've read thousands. And while yes... there are some surprises, some diversity... publishers still pay very close attention to what is in demand and what formula is currently popular. There are formulas. And when we read that formula over and over again, surely we start to believe and internalize the formula. For Coddington, "Romances are not all the same. They do not construct gender relations in uniform way, and they do not tell trivial stories. They represent a range of possible gender constructions," and I call bullshit (66). That range of possibilities only cover a few feet on a mile long continuum of gender constructions. And the idea that we've created some possibilities for women so we can stop is a very damaging and complacent place.

But there are some romance novels that I applaud. Because this is long already, I'm going to pick three from paranormal detective/romance that I'm excited about. I'd love readers to respond with other genres, sub-genres, and/or specific authors which respond to the issues I've raised in this post.
Laurell K.Hamilton. I found Guilty Pleasures in the young adult section of my library when I was in jr. high . I've been a fan ever since. Although problematic in many ways (writing, editing, etc), I applaud her for creating a powerful female who has frequently focused on her job. They're decidedly non-monogamous, they definitely challenge concepts about the monster/angel dichotomy, and they're sexy. Packed full of all different sorts of sex. I actually wish reader response wouldn't jump so frequently on the "OMG she's a slut" bandwagon. I wish the books were more glbtia friendly (although there seems to be a nice move that way). And I hold my breath because the baby discussion has come up a few times now. Child free by choice... please don't leave me now.
One of my favorites is Charlaine Harris's works- all of them not just the Sookie Stackhouse series. The trend to not have one relationship, not be happily ever after, is one of the most successful and prevalent in recent work. In the Sookie series, she dates, it doesn't work, they break up. She's single sometimes, and she's in different relationships other times. It's a nice pattern, a realistic pattern. The Grave series deals with issues of incest, questions social stigmas in relationships, and plays with the concept of female community and female victimhood. The Shakespeare series very purposefully focuses on abuse.

Kim Harrison's Rachel Morgan series. This series deals with questions of class, race, gender, sexual orientation galore. Talk about novels that question authority, structural patriarchy, and male power. They also have interesting sexual dynamics, and create not just a strong heroine but a strong community of characters. There is continuously more of a focus on peer and friend relationships over romantic relationships.
These definitely fight misconceptions about love and relationships that I raised earlier including that love is forever and that an individual is incomplete without a partner. Paranormal romances are definitely not good at addressing the "special" problem (paranormal heroines are usually the only vampire/werewolf hybrid or the long lost fairie or the alien queen), but other types of romances have more successfully addressed this. I would also like to see more novels that portrays sex as realistic - less "holy crap mindblowing can't think of anything during sex but that sex is awesome." We all know that sometimes in the middle of sex we think "Oh shit, is the oven on?", and that's okay.

As I've been thinking about and reading up on romance, I've discovered that romances also helped me learn that 1) I can be an empowered woman, 2) I can be sex-positive, 3) women can be subjects and women-focused, and 4) women's bodies are beautiful. I'm excited and hopeful for a positive progression that leans towards these lessons with less of the negativity that for so long has accompanied the romance.

I also applaud romance for being a genre written by women for women. And romance is a wonderfully give and take process.5 Indeed, the few blogs of romance authors that I check out occasionally, have a far more interactive author/fan base than the general literature/fiction author has.

I want more out of the romance genre. And I want other fans and authors to understand and want more as well. We deserve it.

Further reading on being a feminist romance reader:

There are a number of resources about being a feminist and a romance reader like Kay Mussell's interview: Are Feminism & Romance Novels Incompatible , Catherine Asaro's response to the same question, College Candy's Defense of Romance Novels, and of course Smart Bitches Trashy Books has taken up this issue a number of times including Feminism is a Dirty Word and their book Beyond Heaving Bosoms.


1 This has been suggested in work on the romance genre by scholars such as Lynn Coddington, Janice Radway, and Laura Kinsale.
2 Sandra Booth explains that the traditional romance "acts as a vehicle to display the heroine's virtue... The hero [amoral and unstoppable] acts as a foil to the heroine who is presented as the moral 'norm.' Because she must assert and protect her virtue, the heroine in the traditional romance is often presented as passive, self-sacrificing, and virginal" (94-95).
3 Also Tania Modelski points out that "The myth that men are unable to control their sexual drive beyond a point and that women lead men on- and so deserve what they get- by accepting romantic or sexual overtures from them is a myth that has all too often proved lethal to women" (17).
4 The construct where the heroine is angelic and perfect, and the hero is monstrous and violent. Very Beauty and the Beast esque. Only we know that the Beast really is a monster and doesn't have this shining heart of gold.
5 Lee Tabin-McClain points out that "Romance formulae differ from earlier generic patterns in that they change based on intensive publisher research into reader preference... other aspects of romance fiction give it a sense of a collective authorship" (296).


Booth, Sandra. "Paradox in Popular Romances of the 1990s: The Paranormal Versus Feminist Humor." Paradoxa 3 (1997): 94-106.

Coddington, Lynn. "Wavering Between Worlds: Feminist Influences in the Romance Genre." Paradoxa 3 (1997): 58-77.

Modleski, Tania. "My Life as a Romance Reader." Paradoxa 3 (1997): 15-28.

Modleski, Tania. "My Life as a Romance Writer." Paradoxa 4 (1998): 134-147.

Tobin-McClain, Lee. "Paranormal Romance: Secrets of the Female Fantastic." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 11 (2000): 294-306.