History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

13 October 2008

The Feminine Mystique of Romance Novels

"Romance novels can't be feminist. They're all about women who change themselves to get a man." The woman who said this would never, she assured me, actually read a romance novel. But she felt secure in her criticism.

Many feminist critics of the past would have agreed with her. Take this comment from Kay Mussell of American University:

"I saw romances back then [the 1970's] as a kind of backlash against the more aggressive and controversial aspects of feminism -- something that reaffirmed traditional values and made women who hadn't bought into the feminist critique feel validated about their own choices. I also expected romances to fade away as more and more women entered the labor force and became practical feminists if not theoretical or political feminists."

We can all chuckle about her theory that romance would die out. But as to the rest of it --

Although her assertion that romance novels were a conservative backlash against the women's movement was definitely the accepted feminist position on romance in the 1970's, I've never seen romance novels in that way, not even when I was reading the old "nurse/doctor" romances, or the category romances featuring poor heroines and wealthy Greek men. Even in those books, the needs of the woman were paramount. Her challenge was to not lose her own sense of self in the face of her overwhelming love for this man who was stronger, wealthier, and more knowledgeable about the world. In the end, she always reclaimed her self-esteem and her personhood, as well as getting a really rich, handsome guy to top it off. The man was the icing on the cake; the real story, or so it seems to me, was her journey to not lose herself while in the grasp of love.

Where does the "rape her until she loves you" story fit in all of this? In the 1970's, such plotlines were common. But although they were blatantly anti-feminist, they were also a harbinger of good times to come. The sexual revolution was in its infancy, and women who admitted they enjoyed sex were still seen as sluts or whores. In order to make a heroine having sex somewhat palatable to the masses (or perhaps to make her motivation more palatable), the hero had to force her into it. Only after they had declared their love was it acceptable for the heroine to willingly go to bed with the hero; up until that point, she could have no justification for having consensual sex. Modern romances, with heroines seeking sex for its own sake, are a refreshing change. It's not that writers are more brave now; it's simply that society has caught up with where romance novels were always headed.

I thought the "overpowering hero" flavor of romance had died out in the mid-1970's, but they seem to be making a comeback. It's troubling to me that we are reverting to stories where bold men take women against their wills, only to have those women end up in love with the men who have de-humanized them. I'll be honest and admit that I never read such stories. I have a low tolerance for non-consensual sex, unless the lack of consent is clearly what the heroine prefers and the hero is well aware that she does, in fact, want to screw him. A little BDSM never did any harm.

But here we are in the not-so-new millennium, with romance novels that run the gamut from inspirational to traditional to no-holds-barred erotica. Across all these genres, I think romance is more a feminist genre than ever.

If you look at the surface of romance novels, they seem to be saying that women aren't complete without men. I think the opposite is true -- it's the MEN in romance novels who aren't complete without a woman. The hero is usually flawed in some way: He's damaged emotionally, or he's a rake who refuses to marry. In some way, he is not a full participant in society. He's on the outside looking in, and he may be perfectly happy that way. Or if not perfectly happy, he's content. Along comes the heroine, a woman who, by her unique qualities, catches his interest and engages him despite himself. Rodin's ETERNAL IDOLOften the hero resists her pull, or gives it another name (lust) to make his emotional need for her more palatable. Eventually he's brought to his knees by his love for her, and after (only after!) he demonstrates his deservability, does she accept him fully and bring him into the wider world of society. She isn't waiting to be rescued by him; she chooses him, and chooses a committed relationship with him, because she sees that he will add to all that she already has.

This was true even of the majority of the older romance novels. The hero might have seemed to have all the power, but the heroine had the power of her own acceptance of him. Only after he proved he was worthy did she accept the relationship.

I'd love to hear other thoughts on this subject. Do you think romance novels have feminist underpinnings? Does the political message matter when reading an escapist fantasy, or not? Why do you think society in general frowns on romance as a genre?


Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I think that a good romance novel can be empowering in that it's a woman's journey story (and equally as often, the hero makes the journey as well). There's nothing either feminist or retrogressive about falling in love. We all want to do it; it's a basic human need. As Benedick exclaims in Much Ado About Nothing when he believes Beatrice loves him and decides to make his ardor known to her, "The world must be peopled!"

Romance novel plots tend to be about two specific people who need each other--who "complete" each other, to borrow a Jerry Maguire line. No other person will do for them, even if they toy with the idea of a relationship with someone else.

Even our dear old Jane Austen played with this trope: witness Lizzy Bennet and Wickham or Marianne Dashwood and Willoughby.

Romances are fantasy lit that allow the reader to inject herself into the story, to identify with the heroine and to vicariously enjoy her happy ending and her journey to it.

And I think that romance as a genre has gotten a bad rap for two main reasons, one of which so turns off the genre's detractors that they're in the "I've never read a romance but feel qualified to criticize the entire genre" camp.

That's the clinch cover, folks, the tacky, schmaltzy image of half-dressed Barbie and Ken types in pseudo-period garments that the publishers' illustrators usually screw up (blue jeans, anyone? Or the absence of corsets so those half-exposed pneumatic boobs can just pop out into the hero's hands).

I admit that those cheesy covers have always turned me off. To me they send the message that what's under those covers is equally cheesy and therefore not for me.

Yet that novel might be very well crafted and not cheesy at all. As a potential reader I'd never get that far, though. The cover would have permanently put me off.

The second reason I feel that romance as a genre has attracted such derision is that too often the writing IS weak and therefore that stereotype of literary pablum plays right into the critics' hands. There is such a demand for product (because these novels are devoured so quickly by readers) that "more" becomes "better." So many are the equivalent of literary fast food -- McNovels -- rather than carefully prepared meals. And detractors find it so much more fun to point to the mass of crap rather than to the shelves of well-written romance literature.

6:21 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

I agree with Amanda. And sadly, I think the damage done in the late 1970's and the '80s continues to affect the biz. While the quality of the writing has improved over the years, and so have the heroes and heroines, we stil have those ridiculous covers that tell the world it hasn't...

But, that's what marketing says sells, and until readers stop buying them (hard to when such covers account for at least 1/3 of what's on the shelves), that won't change.

What I'd love to see--a Pride and Prejudice with a clutch cover...maybe more people would read the classics if the covers looked like what romance marketers say what sells!

8:40 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

In a sense, ANY happy-ever-story is a fantasy -- while life hurtles, lurches, and staggers on. That said, I prefer fantasies that remain between covers (even clinch ones), to some of the macho swaggering that too often overwhelms matters of huge national -- even international -- import.

It's entirely possible that women are more to be trusted than men, for knowing their limits when it comes to private indulgence, comfort, consolation, and fun.

Or have we been catching up with men lately?

I know you addressed this post to more specific issues, Doreen. But I wanted to make the general point before digging deeper.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

To add to Kathrynn's remark, I would bet anything that an edition of P&P with a clinch cover might get romance readers to purchase the novel but would be a quicker-than-you-can-blink way to steer it straight out of English classrooms as the clinch cover fairly shrieks "Don't take me seriously as literature!" And of course no male reader would dare to pick it up.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Fabulous post, Doreen! I agree with many of the excellent points Amanda, Kathrynn, and Pam have made, particularly Amanda's point about "There's nothing either feminist or retrogressive about falling in love." What messages the novel carries are all in choices the author makes, consciously or unconsciously.

12:27 PM  
Blogger Evangeline Holland said...

I don't find the romance genre "feminist" in part because it doesn't express to the lifestyles and views of all women. The genre, despite the varying backgrounds and life experiences of both writers and readers, largely conforms to a typically "Middle America, WASP" viewpoint.

I also don't find the overwhelmingly hero-centricness of this genre to be "feminist" as most heroines become mere cyphers for readers. I find that romance novels tend to reaffirm gender roles, what with tough heroines being seen as bitches, while tough heroes are "alphas" (and even then, I rarely see real alpha males and females).

There's also the ubiquitous heroine giving up her high-powered job in the big city (big city=bad) for that down-home, simple small town guy from the past who has brought her down a peg. Heroes get to run the gamut of emotions and experiences, where a book with a heroine that was, say, an alcoholic, would be shunned.

Despite the success of erotic romance, I find many of them rather similar to non-erotic romances in their continued reliance on virginal/inexperienced heroines put into situations with experienced "alpha" heroes who push them out of their shell with sex and masculinity.

One of my frustrations with the romance genre at present is that the only genre-busting that is done is through sex. Rarely do we see plots and characters in situations that are "risky" and emotional, that belong solely to that particular h/h instead of being some romance genre trope that writers have to make "new" each time. In the end, the genre does become formulaic in its worst form, and falls far from "feminism."

2:01 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I agree with you, belle, paritcularly your comment: The genre, despite the varying backgrounds and life experiences of both writers and readers, largely conforms to a typically "Middle America, WASP" viewpoint.

I'm sick of hearing that "what sells" is what conforms to this rather generic level. And I think that's why so many historical romances in particular are set in Britain--because the ancestors of the Middle America WASP market may have come from there. I would be really interested to know how many Wonderbread Women routinely read multicultural romances.

But it still boils down to formula. Romance is a genre and all genres have their own set of formulas and reader expectations. And I'm not a reader who tends to crave versions of the same meal over and over, so I'm a lousy barometer for genre fiction in general.

Perhaps that's why I write (and tend to read) historical fiction rather than historical romance. In my subgenre, the expectations are less formulaic and the author is free to write about real people, warts and all, because the critics can't damn a writer for employing the facts.

Well, yeah, they can and do ... but that sort of critique is rather lame.

2:18 PM  
Blogger Linda Banche said...

I've always liked romances because I like a story where a woman counts and there is a happy ending.

But I never was a fan of traditional gender roles. I'm finally starting to see the kinds of books I like with Andrea Pickens's Merlin's Maidens series. Her women and men are non-traditional. Her women are just as capable as the men. Her heroes are alpha males, but they respect and partner the heroines, rather than dominating them the way traditional alpha males do.

But from the types of books I see out there, with all those obnoxious, rich Greek tycoons and submissive women who protest they're independent, I'm in the minority.

4:07 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Since I started out in a genre even more despised than romance -- erotica -- I've tried very hard to think this through.

But in truth I've never gotten any further than my initial impulse to write BDSM fiction, which was to explore the maddeningly complex interrelationships of desire, intellect, autonomy, and surrender to pleasure. And to have fun while I was doing it.

These are big subjects -- how could anybody diss them, and why would anybody think it's "feminist" to try?

And when I've been successful in connecting, in getting a particular idea and sensation and not just any old thing across -- when I've felt the spark, that moment of contact, in something a reader tells me or writes to me -- I find it profoundly empowering. Humanizing -- which is the goal of feminism.

Every reader has her preferences, and every writer her abilities and limitations, but it makes absolutely no sense to me that romance isn't a possible ground for the sort of connection-making that (first as a reader and now, sometimes, when I'm lucky, as a writer) has been one of my life's premier pleasures.

5:26 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Sorry to disappear on all of you after making my initial post. I've had a rough couple of weeks with a family crisis going on.

Books both inform and reflect our cultural attitudes. Any genre as popular as romance is deserving of critical analysis, I believe, and not easily dismissed as "mere fantasies."

One of the reasons I think the majority of romances involve WASP settings and characters is simply because the majority of readers -- and writers -- do come from that stock. It's hard to argue with sales. Other types of books, ground breaking works within the genre, have been out there and not sold in huge numbers. I don't like it any better than anyother non-WASP, but is it the job of the publishers to release material that they know will serve only a niche market? Is diversity of product at the expense of profit ever the aim of a for-profit company?

As to why romance is maligned, I think it's deeper than the tacky covers or the sometimes poor writing. Writing is always subjective, and taste in covers even more so. Why should we have to adopt a male standard of what constitutes "good" writing to be taken seriously? I think the problem is the misogyny that's endemic in our culture. Any genre written by and for women will never be taken seriously. All IMHO, of course.

1:59 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Doreen, what do you consider a "male standard" for literature? Are you referring to literary fiction? There's a lot of non-genre or literary fiction out there that is written by women (and, as I read the NY Times Book Review cover to cover every Sunday, is reviewed by women); and my agent is the first to remind me that the bulk of book buyers/readers are women.

I don't believe there's a male or female standard applied to literature. When we all refer to "what sells," I know firsthand that this can apply to books that are not very well crafted, from being in the room with several agents who represent those genre (and particularly romance) authors; in unguarded moments these agents have admitted that they aren't crazy about the writing themselves, but know that publishers are eager to buy them because they can sell them. The business end of the business secretly pokes fun at romance even as they rake in the dollars on them.

I still maintain that Romance as a genre takes a hit because it's so easy to mock the purple prose that some authors employ, as opposed to poking fun of glaringly obvious mystery plots, or sci-fi (how does one poke fun of the sci-fi genre?). But place the spotlight on one or two sentences from a less-than-well-crafted romance plus a luridly passionate and anachronistic cover image, and it induces blushes, giggles, and sneers.

But who are these detractors? I think they're mostly women. The men I know don't give the genre a thought (unless it's one of my books and those tend to fall between the cracks of genre and literary fiction, being kinda sorta neither). And, as my agent loves to say, "Men don't read."

She also loves to say--for those who wish to apply a difference or standard to genre vs. literary fiction, "literary fiction is what doesn't sell."

Although it's a great red-meat topic, maybe we should worry less about Romance's reputation and just get down to writing books that sell.

5:43 AM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Doreen, I think your discourse on Romance is spot-on. I think you should adapt this blog for an article in RWR!

Regarding the Feminist vs Non-Feminist issue, perhaps it is fairest to say that Romance is not Anti-Feminism. A woman's needs are always equal to a man's. At the end of the book, the woman gets what she wants, doesn't she?

I would guess that for every romance that reinforces traditional male-female roles there is one that explores a more feminist viewpoint.
It is what I love about the romance genre. It is so diverse.

The genre is based on the primal need men and women have for each other, isn't it? Not everyone has that need; not everyone wants a man in her life, but I'd guess most of us do, because of the biology of it all and the need for the species to procreate. To me it is no surprise that romance is so popular.

Regarding the romances of the 70s. Doreen, I've heard that same explanation about the forced-sex aspect of those early years. I don't regret those books because they did reflect what women were going through at the time. It is hard to believe that there was a time when enjoying sex would brand even a married woman as a slut. We've come a long way, but its been a progression. The romances of the 70s helped bring us along.

Diane Gaston
Scandalizing the Ton, in bookstores Oct 2008

9:18 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm with Diane about the rape-fantasy books. Having written and studied (yeah, studied) BDSM, the best thing I can offer is from a quote by a now out-of-print book by Sallie Tisdale, Talk Dirty to Me:

There is one specific element to many fantasies that might be called a kind of dominance but isn’t dominance as we usually define it. I mean the dream of being dominated by sex itself –- being forced, as it were, by the intensity of the sex to submit to and accept sex, be bound by sex, mastered by sex.

The Tisdale book, btw, is an intelligent and wide-ranging critical study of what people actually get from various forms of erotica, written or otherwise.

Romance at its best, I believe, is an extended conversation between women about the ongoing struggle between satisfying your desires and creating a viable life. Very often an individual book might not seem to me to be technically up to the task of addressing the subject as I might want to see it addressed, but I do respect the conversation. Actually, I think it's one of the most important conversations that any civilization can have (which is why I'm sometimes driven to tears of rage and frustration by it).

10:00 AM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:14 PM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Removed my last comment due to some wacky formating issues.

Thanks everyone for the insightful posts.

I'm all too aware that the industry ridicules the genre that feeds them. That was, after all, one of the reasons I decided to write this blog entry in the first place. And at the risk of sounding like a bra-burning 1970's feminist (which is nearer the truth of my history than not), I think our society is still overwhelmingly patriarchal and that the predominant standards for evaluating any form of art, be it literature, TV, music or film, are still largely male standards.

I'm not saying I hate men. "Some of my best friends are..." and all that. But it seems obvious that male standards have driven much of the way women think of themselves and the way we think of "female culture" such as romance.

I recently attended a recovery workshop (ahem -- for one of those "anonymous" programs) titled "Getting what we want in bed as women in recovery". During the course of the workshop, it became painfully clear to all the women in the room that we didn't even have words to describe our sexual experiences from our own point of view. Too many of our private experiences have been driven by male perspectives down the years. Something as simple as "I like it when you do xyz" is turned into a man saying "I love it when you talk dirty."

Diane, thanks for your insightful comments. I don't think I'm up to an RWR article, though. I don't have the teflon underwear and kevlar suit required. But I'm flattered that you enjoyed the blog post. I've been thinking about this issue for many years, and after a conversation Pam and I had last week, she suggested I blog about it. I think you're absolutely right when you commented that the best we can say is that in general, romances are not precisely anti-feminist.

Next time we get together, Pam, let's talk about cooking. ;-) Or perhaps we can talk about sex and submission fantasies as played out in genre fiction, which is another topic of interest to me.

6:19 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

For me, it's very clear where feminism comes into Romance: regardless of the content of individual stories, women earn money writing these novels -- books that are spun from their own imaginations. With the aid of our editors and agents (who are often women as well), in the act of writing, selling, producing, and marketing the fruits of our labor and creativity we call the shots.

The income we derive gives us the power of the purse and enables us to do things we might not have been able to do without it.

To earn a living (or at least an income) doing what you love to do? How empowering is that? (she asks rhetorically)

5:34 AM  

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