One of the reasons for my radio silence has been a historical analysis paper on white feminity and sexuality in early romance novels (1950s-70s). Have I mentioned that my women's studies/history professors are benevolent and wonderful and let me write about genre books?
I turned in that paper earlier this week, and now I have some time on my hands before finals to reflect on it. I think it was one of my better papers on romance novels; the process also introduced me to quite a bit of excellent research that I can use for other projects, including this journal.
I'm going to preface this by acknowledging that I can be very critical of romance novels. I'm also very critical of fantasy (I'm waiting to hear back on a presentation proposal regarding urban fantasy/paranormal romance) as well as young adult (re: YA & rape culture) but I tend to pick on romance in particular. I believe, and even more so now after writing my last paper, that romance novels have the potential to change how women think about ourselves and each other. They can be an outlet for dreams, desires, fears, and unexplored possibilities. Their influence as a pop culture phenomenon is frequently underestimated--something I'll delve into later on. Romance novels are written by women, for women, and are about women, a trend that's increasing in other genres but has strong roots in romance. There's power in that, and it's heady stuff.
What I've noticed is that there is a certain stigma against criticism within the romance community. I see it as backlash against two things. A lot of feminist criticism has taken gleeful aim at romance novels, most often in an unflattering fashion that condemns romance novels as a whole without acknowleding their positive aspects or diversity. Likewise, the general media and American culture also tends to portay romance novels as fluffy fantasies and romance readers as bored, uneducated housewives with nothing better to do. There's a lot of rage in response to these accusations and dismissals, and a lot of hurt. Further, the rage and the hurt stems from the way women have been and continue to be treated as lesser--a socio-cultural norm that rears its misogynistic head whenever women or emotional content become the focus of the story.
So this me saying that I acknowledge the hurt and the rage, and the history behind it. And this is also me saying that when I criticize romance novels, it is not because I think romance novels are purely wish-fulfillment fantasies or lesser-than. It is also not because I believe women are stupid.*
I bring up the issue of criticism of romance novels precisely because there is a connection between how women are treated and how romance novels are perceived. It isn't a coincidence that women just so happen to be systemically and institutionally oppressed, it isn't a coincidence that romance writers and readers just so happen to consist predominantly of women, and it isn't a coincidence that romance novels take the heat from both sides when one side sees them as a threat to women's empowerment and the other sides sees them as a threat to male privilege and thus, in the interest of self-preservation, both sides choose to condemn them.
The unconditional feminist criticism of romance novels is backlash against what some feminists see as the perpetuation of heterosexual, monogamous, frequently white gender roles. The empowering aspects of romance novels are eclipsed in the rush to generalize. Is this quality of unconditional criticism justified? No. Is it understandable that feminist critics have reacted out of a similar hurt and rage as romance writers and readers when they feel that women--because that is who and what it boils down to--are being threatened, dismissed, or silenced? Yes. There are very real feelings on either side, feelings that can lead to blanket statements and end up pitting women against women.
The media, on the other hand, dismisses romance novels as lacking in value because society dismisses women. American culture is riddled with double standards, and unless women conform to specific gender roles, they're either castigated or ignored, and if they do conform to specific gender roles, they might be acknowledged, but only in a context that subtly invalidates them in comparison to men. Because romance novels frequently do, in general, conform to the "feminine" gender role, it's easy for the media to dismiss them and thus by extension dismiss women.
The question of how the romance community can convince the rest of the world that romance novels aren't fluff has been bounced around for decades. The romance community wants respect; they want to be reviewed by major newspapers alongside the literary and crime novels; they want to be able to read their books on their lunch breaks at the office without being looked down upon or hiding the cover. They want respect for romance novels.* They want respect for women.
The feminist community views romance novels as tools used to perpetuate strict gender roles, heterosexuality, the virgin/whore dichotomy, and beyond. They want more egalitarian gender roles and more representation outside traditional identities. They want respect for women.
The two communities, at their core, want the same things. Both acknowledge that women are the bottom line and the ones being shafted by society. However, miscommunication and statements made out of fear and anger have resulted in creating the illusion that there's a boundary between the two, an utter incompatability. I don't subscribe to this illusion. Feminism and romance novels are not mutually exclusive.
Romance novels can be empowering for women. Women authors writing about women to an almost exclusively female audience in a genre that consists of half the paperback sales in the country--that's strength. Women characters featured as heroines who have the potential to chase after love, money, sex, AND world domination (still waiting on this one, but I'm sure it's forthcoming)--that's power.
But romance novels can also be disempowering. When what women have created as a tool for enjoyment, empowerment, and to a certain extent fantasy is appropriated in the name of patriarchal goals and values or are imbued with qualities that silence, confine, and narrowly define women, that hurts women. And it's time to stop pretending that everything's fine by shutting out any hint of criticism regarding these elements of internalized sexism and take back what's ours.
In Part 2 I'll be taking a more in-depth approach in dissecting how romance novels can both empower and disempower women through either the breaking down or the perpetuation of patriarchal social norms. Stay tuned.
*I linked to two very different statements by Carolyn Jewel, a romance novelist nominated for two RITAs this year, to illustrate how powerful the stigma against criticism is. The second link, her essay on romance novels and respect, demonstrates a strong knowledge of romance and how it's perceived by society. The first link is a dismissal of a feminist critique as patronizing. The points she made in her essay and the points I made in my critique of forced seduction scenarios are both in support of women's empowerment, but because my critique was interpreted as (paraphrasing) "women are stupid," any potential for compromise was dismissed. Further, I think that the internalized sexism inherent in some romance tropes is frequently ignored because of the assumption that if women wrote it, then it can't support patriarchal ideals (or if it does, who cares?). I'll talk about this more in the next post.