Romance novels and feminism are not words you might expect to hear in the same sentence. Romance novels can be seen as providing women with unrealistic expectations of romantic relationships, often with procuring a man as the only goal in life. Some of the relationships these novels portray can be problematic, with the male leads being domineering, take-charge types, particularly in the bedroom. At the same time women can be portrayed as passive creatures who need a man to rescue them, either physically or emotionally. Can feminism exist within the genre of romance novels? And can you enjoy romance novels as a feminist?
While the romance novel can be seen to have its origins in the 1700s moral tales with a virginal heroine being seduced by a rakish older man, and the heroine’s fall from grace, the romance novel as we think of it today really took off in the ‘bodice-rippers’ of the 1970s. However, in recent times there has been a move away from the stereotypical romance novel themes of domineering men and the submissive women who pined after them and the sex scenes which verged on rape.
Sarah Wendell, writer and founder of the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, website says she believes that ‘…a genre that is written by women, for women, about women, about the female experience…is inherently feminist’. She argues that romance novels provide the opportunity to portray women enjoying sex as normal and healthy. ‘With romance, you are placing a centrepiece, a focus, on women’s sexuality as a healthy and important thing.’
There are others who regard romance as a genre to enjoyed, but do not believe that it is feminist. Janet from the Dear Author review website says , ‘As a genre celebrating love and largely written by and for women, I think it’s easy to view Romance as an inherently feminist genre… But what I’m going to propose … is that Romance is not a feminist genre – and that it doesn’t have to be for us to enjoy, celebrate, appreciate, and feel empowered and liberated by it.’
Janet sees the romance genre as offering certain benefits, such as a place to explore female issues or fantasies, but regards many novels from the genre as problematic. ‘We also still see those books where a heroine’s virtue is associated with her virginity, or where the hero seems much better developed than the heroine, or where the heroine gives up her own life goals to be with the more successful hero’.
And there are those who argue that while the content of the novels may not be feminist, feminism can coexist alongside romance novels because of the space women occupy within this particular genre. Batya Ungar-Sargon writes, ‘Unlike other spheres where female consumers are ignored, here women are everything. .. they are catered to by an industry that recognises their value and by authors grateful for their interest. Unlike other genres, which treat women as accessories or plot devices to motivate a male hero, here women are the plot. The very contradiction at the heart of romance fiction is a lesson: within feminism lies the permission, even the imperative, to enjoy, even if the fantasies you enjoy are not very feminist.’
There are still particular tropes which exist within the romance genre and which do not sit well alongside feminist ideals. Many of these tropes were particularly common in the ‘bodice-rippers’ of the 1970s. Heroines were often innocent virginal creatures, and the depictions of sex often involved rape or ‘forced seduction’. As Catherine Kovach writes, ‘Back in the ’70s, rape was used in romance novels as a way to give the heroine what she truly wants without her having to ask for it.’
Of course, there are still examples where the old power-relationships can be seen, with the Fifty Shades series being a prime example. However, these days many romance novels have moved away from these tropes, with heroines depicted as independent decision-makers, and where sex is an equal and consensual partnership involving pleasure on both sides. The historical romance writer Courtney Milan says, ‘I don’t think I have fantasies that stem from disempowerment. I think I have fantasies that stem from empowerment. But in many ways, that empowerment only has meaning if you can show its lack, and so I think I write about overcoming disempowerment. ’
And then there is the guarantee of a ‘happily ever after’ ending in romance novels. The promise of a future between the heroine and the hero, often in the form of marriage or a proposal. ‘Happily ever after’ is a goal which will be an unreachable for most since real life continues past the last page, but it can be argued that sometimes people need a dose hope and happiness, if only on the page. After all, don’t many action/adventure novels (which tend to have a male focus) often end with their own version of the ‘happily-ever-after’ with the ‘good guys’ defeating the ‘bad guys’? It could well be argued that neither genre is ‘realistic’ but both provide spaces to explore fantasies. While they may be different kinds of wish fulfilment romance novels should not be derided for this more than any other genre.
Perhaps the issue with romance novels lies not only in the content of the books, but the fact that it is an industry dominated by women, something which has a tendency to lead to a devaluing of how an industry is perceived by society (like in childcare and nursing, for example). Is the romance industry devalued precisely because the majority of its readers and writers are women? If it is the case then this judgement is not actually based around issues of feminism but is instead a judgement of women’s reading and writing habits.
It is unfair to devalue a genre based – at least in part – on its primary authorship or audience. While certainly not every book published in the romance genre would be seen as feminist (and no other genre would meet this ideal), there are examples of feminist characters and feminism at work within many romance novels. For example, the female protagonist in Courtney Milan’s The Suffragette Scandal, not only attended Cambridge but is also the editor of a suffragette paper, and she refuses to blindly trust the male protagonist or let him take control. In Joanna Bourne’s Spymasters series her female protagonists are spies as well as the males. In contemporary romance we see protagonists like Raina Harper in Cara McKenna’s romance-suspense Give It All who often calls the shots and is more rescuer than rescued. In Rachael Treasure’s rural romance Jillaroo the protagonist leaves her family property after challenging her father’s gender stereotypes, for life as a jillaroo.
Romance novels have shown examples of women who are not only passionate about the men in their lives, but about their careers, friends, family and goals. They can be women who go through problems outside of their romantic life and deal with issues of not conforming to society’s conventions, being used by former partners, or the deaths of loved ones.
While it may be a stretch to claim that if something is written by women for a primarily female audience that it is automatically feminist, the romance genre allows women writers and readers the chance to explore romantic relationships and physical pleasure from a woman’s viewpoint and to show what many women actually enjoy. It provides an important space for both readers and writers to explore female desires as well as many of the issues that women face throughout their lives.
Image: Tamara Menzi
Jessica Sheather-Neumann is the organiser of a writers group in Canberra with over 50 members. She reads and writes young adult novels and has been published in First, the University of Canberra’s creative writing magazine. She has a Graduate Certificate in Editing and Publishing. You can find her on Twitter @ReadingJessica.