Monday, March 5, 2012

Special Topics Paper - The feminist perspective on romance novels

“Six every second, 383 every minute, 23,006 every hour, 552,156 every day, 3,875,712 every week, 16,794,750 every month, 201, 537,000 for the year. That’s how romance books were selling in the United States in 1997” (Bouricius 1). In present day, that has not slowed down. With those kinds of numbers, you might think that every woman has read at least one romance novel, and that most women read them regularly.

While that may be true, there is also an always present argument amongst women when it comes to romance novels. What argument could that possibly be? Feminists argue that romance novels undermine women and set back their movement and that women should not be reading and writing these novels. However, as strong as that faction is, there is an equal faction of women who feel that romances are pro-feminist.

So what exactly qualifies as a romance novel? Joyce Saricks, in The Reader’s Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction explains that a romance novel has two key aspects:
First, the plot revolves around the love relationship and its happy ending; all else that happens is secondary. … Secondly, these stories are told in such a way that the reader is involved in the outcome of the Romance; the reader participates on an emotional level and experiences genuine satisfaction at the emotionally satisfying conclusion (Saricks 132).
While romance novels have changed over the years and with the times, one thing never changes: the happy ending. In a romance novel, as Saricks states, this means that the romantic relationship must end happily.

Even though modern romance novels are no longer restricted to a heterosexual relationship, when looking at the arguments of feminists who are against romance novels this is the type of relationship that is most concerning. For instance, “The idea of a lesbian romance becomes problematic: indeed, it is necessary to recognize ‘the heterosexism of ‘classic romance’” (Hollows 70).   The focus is on the dynamics between the female protagonist and the male “hero” in the story and the inevitable developing relationship between them.
With so many different kinds of romance novels out there, determining who wins the argument becomes much more difficult, as there are books that support each side’s claim. In her book, Feminism, femininity and popular culture, Joanne Hollows explains “It has become part of contemporary ‘common sense’ that romantic fiction is a ‘formulaic’ ‘trivial’ and ‘escapist’ form read by ‘addicted’ women” (Hollows 70). This view is shared by many feminists, as well as many people in general society of either sex.

In fact, this thought is so widespread that it has contributed to a significant amount of “shaming the reader”. Sarah Wendell, one of the co-founders of the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, explained the experience she has often heard about from her online community:
 They are embarrassed and ashamed by the reputation of the genre among those people who care about what it is you're reading. They feel awkward about the packaging, the covers and the descriptions, the bare chests and the o-face heroines depicted in lurid colors. They may not want to defend the genre to anyone, and thus hide it and keep it an intimate secret (Wendell).

I have personally been on the receiving end of this “shaming the reader” phenomenon. However, it was the fact that my staunch feminist stance was called into question in the process that really made an impact on me. Could a feminist not read romance novels without contradicting her beliefs?

One woman who believes that romance fiction is detrimental to women is Julie Bindel. In an article discussing the popular Mills & Boon romance novels, she discussed how rape features prominently in many of these novels. She also explains, “I do not believe in blaming women for our own oppression. Women are the only oppressed group required not only to submit to our oppressors, but to love and sexually desire them at the same time. This is what heterosexual romantic fiction promotes - the sexual submission of women to men” (Bindel). Bindel also quotes radical feminist Andrea Dworkin when she further explains, “This classic depiction of romance is simply ‘rape embellished with meaningful looks’” (Bindel).

It is indeed true that there are storylines in romance fiction, particularly older books or historical novels, which include the submission of the female protagonist to the male character, both sexually and emotionally. Addressing the argument defending Mills & Boon by saying that the female characters have changed with the times and become more sexually active outside of marriage and just in general, Bindel goes on to say that this new independent female character has caused the male character to become even more domineering and masculine to “keep the heroine in line” (Bindel).

Interestingly, author Louise Allen, whose books Bindel attacked in the article, wrote a rebuttal stating, “Sorry, Ms Bindel, but among the freedoms I insist upon as a woman is the right to my own fantasies. I do not read fiction I find distasteful, and I don’t write it either.” This rebuttal effectively brings up what I feel is the main contentious point in this battle, which is the right to have any fantasy, whether or not that fantasy has to do with submission to men. This same point also arises in the battle between certain factions of feminists in regards to pornography. However, that is a topic that would be worthy of another paper entirely.

Surprisingly, during this search for information pertaining to both sides of this argument, I found a rather large support of romance fiction by women, including feminists. In general, it seems that the negative connotation between feminists and romance novels is explored more in in-depth, scholarly articles, while much of the response from feminists who support romance fiction came from online sources such as author or reader blogs and news interviews. Now, this is not to say that there is not plenty of information in a scholarly article format from this point of view, as well, but an observation of where I found my particular sources. I was particularly interested in these blogs because it seemed to allow women to speak out about their true feelings, without as much worry about citing sources to back them up.

A great example of this is the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, founded by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan. These women, who consider themselves feminists, started this blog as a place for romance readers to discuss romance books, as they themselves are avid romance readers. This site is now quite large, and the co-founders have written books on the subject of romance novels that are being used in courses at Yale and Princeton. They have also been interviewed by major news networks.
In an interview with Bitch Magazine, in response to a question as to why feminists should read romance novels, Wendell explains:
It’s a 50-plus-year-old industry comprised mostly of women writers operating their own businesses and producing a genre about women’s self-actualization, pursuit of autonomy, and acquisition of sexual agency for an audience made mostly of women, who buy over $1.4 billion dollars worth of books a year. No, no, nothing feminist or even subversive about that (Van Deven).

It is important to acknowledge that romance fiction is a very in demand genre that is almost entirely written by and read by women. A major goal of feminism is to bring women together and to support women in achieving equality with men. In that sense, the romance genre allows female authors to meet, if not exceed, the sales of fellow male authors.

In terms of the actual content of romance novels being controversial to feminists, romance author Zoe Archer says, “What romance novels show, ultimately, is equality.  Men are vitally important.  So are women.  And together, they can slay dragons, or stop the espionage ring, or whatever it is that needs to be accomplished—by working side-by-side, the hero and heroine both save the day” (Archer). Bouricius agrees, stating “Heroines of today’s romance novels are women who survive, who grow and change, who go through the fire and come out on the other end stronger for the struggle” (Bouricius 9).

It seems that the argument against romance fiction really comes down to the way that a person reads and comprehends the material given to them. Feminists who are against romance fiction see the content as another way that women are taught that they must be submissive to men. They think it is harmful for women to read and fantasize about what would be considered rape or abuse in reality.

However, feminists who support romance fiction see it as a way for women to play out their fantasies in a safe environment, as well as giving the reader a strong female protagonist to relate to while she goes through struggles, including falling in love, but feel that she is equal in every way to the male character. Most importantly, these women see the romance fiction industry as a place that women can become successful and where other women can support them and bond with each other.

While I do find it understandable that feminists can see some romance novels as being destructive, with the obvious sexual submission to the alpha male character in many stories, I would argue that that is merely a portion of all romance novels, and that those novels may allow a woman with fantasies in that direction to play them out in a much safer way than falling into an actual relationship of that sort. Also, it is not simply in the romance genre that that type of relationship or interaction exists.

There are so many different kinds of romance novels, for so many different kinds of people. It is impossible to lump them all together as being damaging, or even on the other hand as untalented drivel. It is not fair to the authors or the people who read them. As with any other genre, there are great works and terrible ones. However, you cannot deny the bond that romance fiction has brought between many women, as evidenced recently by the large number of blogs and online communities brought together by it. I think it is best summed up by Carolyn Smalley, a feminist and a Mills & Boone copyeditor when she says, “In so far as the heroine always gets what she wants, on her terms, in a strange way, Mills & Boon’s are feminist” (Dixon 41).

Archer, Zoe. "Zoe Archer: Another Feminist For Romance Novels." 8 June 2011. Web. 03 Mar. 2012. <>.

Bindel, Julie. "Mills & Boon: 100 Years of Heaven or Hell?" The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 04 Dec. 2007. Web. 03 Mar. 2012. <>.

Dixon, Jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990s. London: Philadelphia, 1999. Print.

Van Deven, Mandy. "YOU Read Harlequin?! ME Too!" Bitch Media. 15 May 2009. Web. 03 Mar. 2012. <>.

Wendell, Sarah. "Smart Bitches, Trashy Books." Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Web. 03 Mar. 2012. <>.