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?