Confessions of a feminist romance novelist

Tomorrow is the 100th International Women’s Day, and I’d like to talk about something that’s been on my mind for a while – the way novels written by, for, and about women are often dismissed as being harmful, demeaning or stupid.

The first female brain surgeon I ever came across was the heroine of a romance novel. I was twelve, and the idea of a woman being a brain surgeon was such a revelation that I remember it twenty years later.

Looking back, I have no idea why I thought women couldn’t be brain surgeons. I’d always had female pediatricians, dentists and orthodontists. I don’t recall my parents ever calling themselves feminists (the label being too tainted for them to feel comfortable with it), but they held the fundamental feminist beliefs in equality of treatment and opportunity. Likewise, my teachers never used the f-word, but when I was nine and George HW Bush ran for president the first time around, my teacher pointed out that only one classmate had used the phrase “he or she” in their essay “What would make a perfect President?”

It wasn’t me.

Whether I was lacking imagination or hard-wired by evolution to see myself in a certain role, I don’t know. What I do know is that the romance genre—which first introduced me to women smashing through glass ceilings—is often maligned as being anti-feminist, backward, and even harmful to women. The truth is much more complex.

Depending on who you ask, you’d probably get dozens of definitions of feminism. Similarly, there are many types of romance novel. To be clear from the beginning: there are many subgenres within the genre, so anyone who decides they understand romance because they’ve stood in line at a supermarket and flicked through one novel is gravely mistaken—just as much so as anyone who judges feminism solely by skimming The Feminine Mystique.

At their heart, each has a fundamental tenant. For feminism, it’s equality. For romance, it’s that love and commitment can be a source of happiness. For both, the way those goals are expressed varies widely.

So why do people accuse romance of being anti-feminist?

Romantic and sexual relationships are integral to most stories—whether literature, film, oral tradition, or popular fiction. While the portrayal of women in their relationship to men is often (validly) criticized in particular books and films, romance is routinely criticized as a genre, the warning label “harmful to women” painted across it with one wide-sweeping brushstroke. Is the problem with romance novels the fact that they end with a couple being happy they’ve found each other? Are disappointment and one-upmanship the only romantic outcomes a woman can hope for while maintaining her credibility as a feminist?

If not the ending, then perhaps it’s the way the couple gets there. When I first started reading romance in the early 90s, the genre was near the tail-end of what I consider the dark ages. My early reading experiences were filled with heroines who fell in love with their rapists and heroes who would’ve been diagnosed with Anti-social Personality Disorder in real life. A woman’s virginity was so highly prized that a heroine who started the novel with a broken hymen was as rare an occurrence as spotting a unicorn prancing through the streets of London.  By contrast, the plots were littered with the bastards of heroes whose sperm was so potent it could fertilize the walls of the most barren uterus.

Certainly a lot of fodder for anyone who values integrity in their characters.

Fortunately, the genre has caught up with the lives of the women who read it. Today, romance fans criticize books that feature characters they can’t relate to—whether it’s a heroine who could double as a doormat or a hero who has a complete personality transplant at the end of the novel. The variety of personalities and relationships also reflects the people you might know in real life—from men who are virgins to women who are soldiers. Throughout a novel, a heroine’s character arc often involves her struggling with the expectations society has for her as a woman, and it can be heartening to see how others (authors, not characters) confront the issues I face.

Of course, there are those “awful” titles and covers that some people think should make a woman feel shameful. Let’s face it—many who criticize the genre have never gotten farther than the title and the cover. Novels that use a possessive ‘s’ to describe the heroine’s relationship to the hero personally make me cringe. But a quick browse through the romance section of any big bookstore will reveal a great variety of titles and cover art—from cute to smutty and everything in between.

I’ll confess, there are romance novels that make me angry. They aren’t the ones you probably think they are. I generally don’t have a problem with novels where the heroine is submissive and the hero dominant, or where the hero is an alpha male and the heroine meek. They aren’t the characters I personally identify with so I tend to avoid them. But equally, I know women have different wants from their relationships and their fantasies.

No, the novels that anger me are the ones that pander to the stereotypes. The ones that feel churned out with cardboard cut-out characters and silly plots. It’s not so much that they offend me as a feminist or as a woman who has committed to loving the same person for the rest of my life. They offend me as an intelligent reader.

And that’s an unforgivable sin.

What do you think? Has the perception of romance struggled to catch up with how the genre has changed over the years? Or are there other issues I’ve left out?

19 thoughts on “Confessions of a feminist romance novelist

  1. A brilliant post, Kat. I think the public perception of “romance” has in no way recovered from its admittedly spotty beginnings. In fact, with the crossing of genres to include romantic elements in traditionally male-dominated genre domains like science fiction and epic fantasy, there is even an anti-romance backlash going on. You should hear the sci-fi “purists” shout in indignation when I include a sci-fi with romantic elements in my monthly SF column over on my publisher’s website. You’d think I kicked their puppy (or their spaceship). Eventually, I do think it will change. And publishers are going to have to do their part by putting less cheesy covers and titles on the books they publish!

    1. I hadn’t even considered the blending of genres, Suz, probably because I haven’t read many. It’ll be interesting to see how that blending affects traditionally male-dominated genres in years to come.

  2. I agree with Suzanne. really great and well thought out post.
    I think that a novel of any genre has to represent the social mores of that time. It is then important that readers are intelligent enough to recognize that is being done, not that the author is presenting those mores as “the way life should be.”

    For me feminism is about choice, to work, not to work, to have or not have kids, to go to college, get an advanced degree, or whatever.
    Since [free] men have had that freedom for centuries, then I guess it is about equality.

    1. I agree, Steph, and it’s about the ability to choose what I read. That’s one of the things I’m most grateful for, because reading is one of the most vital ways I exercise my brain and imagination. If I could only read things that others deemed appropriate for me, I’d be incredibly bored.

  3. What a great post, Kat! And I so totally agree with Suzanne about publishers needing to be less cheesy in covers and titles. But doesn’t every genre have it’s ridiculous moments? Lee Child’s best sellering Reacher novels feature a hero who prides himself on owning only one change of clothes (including skivvies) and a folding toothbrush (no toothpaste). Is that hero good for men? (Please say no.) Maybe what bothers those who put down romance is that it is the biggest selling genre. I read somewhere that 48% of books sold was romance. And I’ve yet to hear of someone going postal because a romance novel told him/her to. Bad writing and ridiculous covers come in all genres. It’s all make-believe, so get over it. But, I’m with you, Kat. Stupid writing is the ultimate insult.

    1. 🙂 I don’t think I can add anything to that. In fact, “It’s all make-believe. Get over it” just became my new mantra.

  4. And speaking of stoopid–sorry for all the typos and gramatical errors (see above). Can you tell I’m on deadline and haven’t slept in FOREVER? Your posts are a delightful break. (PS: I’m not a card-carrying feminist, but I do have a lot of resentment and several guns..does that count?)

    1. Wait…someone’s handing out CARDS?? Why didn’t I get one!

      And thanks for the gentle reminder to never, ever piss you off.

  5. Hey, I didn’t say I have bullets. I’m not insane. And the only live thing I’ve ever shot at (and missed) was a rattler in my garden. But there’s still time.

  6. This is a great topic, Kat, and well handled. The thing about being submissive or dominant is that it comes in both the male and female forms. It’s a personality thing, not a gender thing. I agree that novels of all genres have really grown to show both sides of that coin. And what a wonderful world we live in where we have the right to choose what we read. If you think a topic or character is harmful, you have every right not to read it.

    1. You’re right. I think personality is key to the diversity of the genre, Mallory. I admit, I’ve read whole series by a single author (mostly authors of the 80s and 90s) where it seemed like only the heroine’s hair color and the hero’s name had changed. But now, a character’s outlook and personality isn’t tied to their gender – it’s just who they are. I know it’s easy for people to think they can draw conclusions from one book, but then you miss out on how diverse the genre really is.

      Glad you liked the post!

  7. I think your posts on being a feminist writer and romance reader have been enlightening. I’ve read other articles recently flat out condemning romance books, and others flat out praising it with no blame allocated. From my (limited) experience I think the truth is nuanced, I think as suggested by your article and that of April Line http://aprillinewriting.com/2012/04/02/feminist-romance-novels-david-wong/, that the truth is more complex. Gone are the days when most of the editors take rape scenarios lightly , but there are still some people publishing stinkers, most of the “formulas” out there can be feminist or sexist depending on how a writer tackles them.

    The only thing I think is problematic in the formula itself is that they are always “true love last forever” , and while that isn’t a bad thing it can become one when this is the only message your receiving. I think there needs to be more room in the market for series that end with happy for now endings with different men, of course it would be nice if we all met the one, but it would be nice if there was more acknowledgement that a relationship that isn’t THE BIG ONE is still normal, healthy and a worthwhile thing to have along the way and there’s nothing to stop a series ending with the big one later. (This isn’t universally problematic, but it’s one of the things I think can still be an issue at times.)

    Of course I used to be one of the nay sayers, and I’m still getting to grips with the genre now I have enough money to buy the good stuff and not the 50 p old ones from the charity shop. I’m going to check out the ones in your “reader” post but as an agent you must know which publishers are better for the more feminist stuff and which ones produce the books you might not choose to read yourself. Any starters for ten?

  8. I agree that the genre has improved in its gender politics, but a couple of things still grate on me. One is that even though the hero doesn’t have to have a personality disorder or be a rapist to be well-matched with the heroine, I do think there is still a preponderance (in historical fiction) of members of the aristocracy or bringands/priates/warriors of some desccription, which tends to re-inforce the stereotype that the hero needs to be socio-economically well-off or physically active and “tough” in order to be attractive. This is obviously not without exception, but when did you last read a historical romance where the hero was a clergyman with a fairly middle-of-the-road income who likes reading? Emphasising income or physical attractiveness is okay (hey, Jane Austen did it), but it does seem to indicate that there are no other models of masculinity or male attractiveness.

    1. This is a great post and I’ve enjoyed the comments/discussion and agreed with all of it. I do want to pipe up here to say that A.Lady’s point about stereotypical heroes is extremely valid and the most important one so far. While heroines have changed a great deal and for the most part kept up with changes in society and mores, heroes definitely have not. I do think they have become more psychologically complex, and in that sense have improved. On the other hand, why can’t we read romance fiction with heroes who are not alpha? I try in my own novels to make sure that while the heroes have some traditionally attractive qualities, they are either “fringe” alpha or not alpha at all – exploring characters that are introverted, intellectual, spiritual, insecure or even socially awkward geeks, for example.(Could this be why I’m not published yet, I wonder?) These are more relevant to today’s society, both for women readers and for potential male readers who perhaps can’t relate to romance novels because they CAN’T SEE THEMSELVES ON THE PAGE. Perhaps some of the vocal critics of the genre secretly resent the fact that many women’s fantasies focus on rare or unrealistic stereotypes for men – ones they themselves don’t meet. I would also point out that in some ways the world has changed more for women than for men. They are still trapped in their own social stereotypes, with all the attendant expectations to BE alpha, be providers and protectors, keep their weaknesses and feelings closed up, and struggling with that. Unfortunately for men, they don’t have the same dialogue and peer support that women do as they work these things out. We need to give men permission to NOT be alpha, and send that message out to society that they are still valuable and attractive. All characters are more attractive if they are strong and self-sufficient and have spunk. They are also more attractive if they are sensitive, caring, expressive of their true feelings and well-groomed. DUH. But we don’t have to distort reality or exclude real human beings in order to satisfy our craving for love stories with happy endings.
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