From the Yale Herald, In Defense of Romance: Proving the Stereotypes Wrong:
Others rebut feminist critiques of romance novels by saying that such criticism is, at best, beside the point. Even if you believe that the books perpetuate harmful stereotypes, romance is hardly be the only genre to systematically denigrate women. “In many genres—horror or spy fiction, for example,” said Willig, “Women are treated horribly by men, whereas in romance novels at least the women are the heroines.” The pervasive nature of sexism in media means that to expect romance novels to be paragons of gender equality is to hold them to a much higher standard than any other form of popular entertainment.Bold emphsis mine.
Furthermore, despite the fact that this sort of indictment of the genre was first raised by feminist critics, there are ways in which the critique itself can be seen as sexist. After all, doesn’t the argument that romances inculcate women with “patriarchal propaganda” deny women the ability to judge the books for themselves?
It is a symptom of the perversion of our society that we often justify sexism and gender inequality, regardless of the severity or context, by saying hey, it could be worse. If women are treated horribly by men in other genres, then not only is that not a cause for alarm, the stereotypical portrayal of women in romances--stereotypes with roots in sexism--is considered okay as long as they're the heroines. I can certainly appreciate the significance of romance novels, given that they're written by women for women and feature women leads, but that doesn't negate the the fact that they can still do so much better. There are more ways to end a HEA (Happily Ever After) than the heteronormative tropes of marriage and a baby. There are better ways to portray women's strength than to give them a gun or a paranormal boyfriend. Which isn't to say these things are inherently bad, but the consistency of how women are portrayed is the issue, and when these images repeatedly adhere to traditional heterosexual (not to mention able-bodied, white, thin) norms, the level of equality that romance novels possess becomes limited, and real people are impacted. Pretending that this isn't a problem is what is sexist.
I don't hold romance novels to a higher standard. I hold them to the same standard that I do for every other form of entertainment, precisely because my standards for every form of entertainment requires that they treat women with respect and include diversity. I don't see the media as demanding that romance novels stand on a stool of equality; when romance novels dominate the best seller list but don't appear even once in the reviews of the New York Times, I see the media as ignorant and dismissive. The issue of whether or not romance novels are decent examples of gender equality doesn't even enter their radar.
Lastly, because women are clever creatures, it is entirely possible for a woman to read a critique of a book and then judge the book herself. Criticizing a book, especially when that critique focuses on how the book perpetuates systemic male power through its portrayal of women, is not sexist. Denying others the ability to criticize books that contain sexist elements on the basis of women being unable to make objective decisions is sexist.