Mon
Jan 18 2016 3:00pm

Is Feminist Romance an Oxymoron?

It sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? To talk about feminists writing and reading romance, or of romance novels having the potential to be feminist texts.

But it only sounds that way if you have a certain view of both feminism and romance writing.

True, some feminists have decried romance (usually along with pornography) as the kind of moral yarn that produces the evil socks worn beneath the jack-boots of patriarchy. But feminism is continually changing, and third-wave feminists don’t share the views of second-wave feminists who saw readers as easily brainwashed by books telling them to ‘catch’ a man and have babies.

But surely any feminist who reads or writes romance must surely deserve a demerit badge for being a ‘bad’ feminist, right?

Nope, not even close, but you could be forgiven for thinking so given the way both feminists and romance writing (and readers) are frequently misrepresented in the media. Feminists are supposedly all bitter and twisted, ball-busting man-haters while all romance writers and readers are vapid twits hungry for endless books all telling the same story (that a woman needs a man to be happy, and that women have to act and be a certain way to get a man).

Hah!

Like underwear, romance writers, readers and feminists come in all shapes, sizes and flavors.

Aside from differing in approaches to sexual consent, romance novels vary wildly in their approach to sex, marriage, parenting and relationships. Some authors love to throw babies into the romance mix, others avoid the very mention of them; some romances end with engagements or wedding bells, some with just the promise of more hot sex to be had; some romances are between a man and a woman, some are between same sex couples or three people or more—or even with a were-cuttlefish and a bear shifter. Thus, there is a lot more diversity among romance writers—and within the genre—than is commonly assumed. And many romance writers are happy to write happy-ever-after endings for non-traditional relationships (those not based on monogamy, marriage or heterosexuality) where the characters work out for themselves whatever lifestyle arrangements work for them. The message? Screw convention and do what works for you.

Whatever the sexual preference (kinky, vanilla or fetish), sexual status (celibate, swinging, pregnant or virgin) or challenge (mental or physical) generally there’s a romance writer out there willing to write about it. This adds up to quite a bit of diversity in romance novels in terms of what satisfying relationships look like, and more and more writers are throwing gender equality into the mix, playing with power dynamics, or directly raising issues of structural inequality (the glass ceiling, access to education) and discrimination. Australian author Ainslie Paton, who addresses workplace inequity in several of her romance novels, says, “Romance fiction has always challenged fixed beliefs; the contemporary workplace is the latest frontier. As a writer of romance fiction, I’m in love with creating amazing lives for my characters. I’m only interested in the limits I give them to watch them break out. That means writing with a broad worldview and going all out for inspired storytelling. Damn right that’s going to be a feminist viewpoint.”

A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant

The diversity of heroines is also changing: we’re seeing more plus-sized heroines, heroines of different faiths, ethnicity and race (although certain ones still predominate) and a shift in who is portrayed as ‘deserving’ of love. It’s no longer the classically beautiful virgin martyr who wins the hero over, more commonly it’s the heroine who won’t settle for anything less than being treated as an equal and being appreciated for exactly who and what she is. And in feminist romance not only do heroines demand that men treat them as equals (rather than helpless or dependent creatures) but they are also often in charge of setting right whatever problem they face at the beginning of a novel, rather than depending on the hero to do so. They seek therapy, they make life changes, or they face the hard/unpleasant/scary thing that they resisted earlier. They force themselves to have difficult conversations, to do difficult things, in order to improve their situation. They do, in essence, whatever it takes to fix shit and grow. Thus, in an interview with The Atlantic, Victoria Dahl states that “my characters are always, always feminists. Not in the declarative sense, but in the living-that-life-every-day sense… (They) aren't about selfless women who are just trying to do what's right for others. They want to do what's right for themselves.”

In addition, non-traditional gender roles now also abound, even in historical romance. In Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened, the pragmatic heroine uses the hero to get pregnant (in order to hold onto her late husband’s estate) and it’s the hero who is left feeling used. Others have written about the submissive desires of men (see Audra North’s Giving it Up) and the dominant desires of women (think Violet in Natural Law) or tough-as-nails heroines paired with nurturing heroes (like Dee-Ann Smith in Big Bad Beast). On the subject of romance novels and feminism Audra North argues, “Romance novels are a perfect vehicle for feminist rhetoric because a significant part of romantic relationships is about the balance of power. That's not to say love isn’t important; of course love is critical in a romance. But the idea that women can not only have equal power in a relationship, in the first place, but also have a right to determine how to wield that power, is something that romance novels are well-suited to demonstrate. And I think that these stories can help women to grow in areas beyond romantic relationships. The sort of power dynamic within an extremely close, long-lasting relationship like the kind one reads about in romances is a foundation—it becomes the model for power exchange and power entitlement for so many other relationships in life.”

Asking For It  by Lilah Pace

Many writers of romance have also addressed the issue of female desire and written sex-positive stories that celebrate women seeking out sex and enjoying it while rejecting slut-shaming narratives. One great example is The Shameless Hour in which the author de-stigmatizes a sexually transmitted disease (chlamydia) and writes positively about a heroine who has enjoyed multiple sexual partners. Charlotte Stein, well known for her erotic romance which celebrates female desire says, “Personally, I see romance as a way to centre women and the idea that their pleasure is really important, in a world that tells us constantly that we should just make do with what we're given. It's why I started reading romance, and it's a big reason why I write it.”

In addition, explicit sexual consent is now more common in romance (as are trigger warnings where it’s absent). And many writers have also challenged sexual norms around what is constructed and promoted as ‘normal’ sex and the problems it causes for individuals or couples when they try to step outside those boundaries. For example, Lilah Pace’s Asking For It and Cara McKenna’s Willing Victim both raise questions about rape fantasies. Are they really deviant? Are they even surprising given our culture of violence and construction of masculinity? And both authors highlight the way in which consensual role play involving such fantasies is about as different from the real thing as day is from night. Some authors have also playfully subverted traditional tropes. Thus, in Charlotte Stein’s Taken, the capture fantasy gets turned on its head because rather than being a rape-tastic alpha-hole, the hero is so terrified of doing anything to hurt the heroine that he’s almost paralysed. 

Unsuitable by Ainslie Paton

And while romance heroines were once mainly secretaries, nurses and governesses, now you’ll find heroines in every job, as physicists, NASCAR drivers, mechanics, tattooists, mud doctors, MMA trainers and fire fighters. Some authors are now also writing about men working in traditionally female jobs, for example Ainslie Paton writes about a hero who is a manny in Unsuitable. “Unsuitable is set to a backdrop of gender and work, and tears open the straightjacket used to define women’s and men’s occupations,” she says.

Not surprisingly, women who have conquered tough professions know how to speak their minds, and some of my favorite heroines are those who are vocal about criticizing misogyny or sexism when they see it. For example, in Bronwyn Green's Drawn That Way, Tris Weaver, an accountant for a successful video game company, gives her honest opinion in an employee survey:

I haven’t seen a single female character come out of this company that wasn’t drawn like the average uni boy’s wank fantasy. Giant gravity-defying boobs, waists so small they couldn’t possibly hold up those chests and giant bubble arses—all I’m suggesting is a little diversity. A more realistic view of women in video games. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

And—joy, oh, joy—the male owner of the company agrees.

So while some may dismiss romance novels as mere fantasy, always remember that an important step in creating change is to first envision it—and that’s just what many romance writers do, and help other women to do.

***

Learn more about the books mentioned in this post:

Asking For It by Lilah Pace  
A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant  
Giving it Up by Audra North  
Taken by Charlotte Stein  
Unsuitable by Ainslie Paton  
Drawn That Way by Bronwyn Green  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Rhyll Biest is an Australian author writing erotic romance hot enough to melt your e-reader. She's also one of the naughtiest ninjas at the Naughty Ninjas group author site and is one of the tarts on the Bookish Tarts podcast where she and fellow author Georgina Penney discuss romance novels in a high-brow yet potty-mouthed way.

 

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18 comments
JennB24
1. JennB24
It's a great time to be a romance reader. Finally the wider public is starting to see romance isn't the archaic, second-wave feminist's nightmare it's been constructed to be.

The final book mentioned, Drawn That Way, is by author Bronwyn Green and part of the smart, quirky Bound series.

http://www.amazon.com/Drawn-That-Bound-Bronwyn-Green-ebook/dp/B00VWIQGQG
RHYLL
2. RHYLL
Thanks for providing those details, Jenn :)
RHYLL
4. RHYLL
You're welcome, Kareni, and thanks for commenting!
RHYLL
5. kahintenn
I've been reading romance for about four years. Romance novels have taught me that I deserve to get what I want, in bed and out. I just turned 59. I wish I had understood that 40 years ago. Is that feminist? You bet your ass.
RHYLL
6. Yuri
I timing the very fact that romance is by women and for women is an inherently feminist concept, however far from feminist some individual texts may be.

But http://romancenovelsforfeminists.blogspot.com.au is a great resource for anyone who is specifically interested in romance from and for feminist perspective.
RHYLL
7. laurasf
A very good historical romance with a feminist slant is The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan.
RHYLL
8. rnff65
For readers interested in more feminist romance recommendations, check out my blog, ROMANCE NOVELS FOR FEMINISTS:
http://www.romancenovelsforfeminists.blogspot.com
Adria Reyes
9. adria03
I LOVE this post! Seriously, it's one of the best things I've seen so far. I'm so glad that romance is heading in a better direction than it was before. I started reading romance back in the 90's and I have to say that part of the reason I stopped for about five years is because I grew and the genre didn't.

I started to despise the "traditional" roles of women in romance, the weak, brainless, damsel in distress type character who never solved her own problems, never contributed to a fight, never stood her ground with the hero and never went for what made HER happy.

Fast forward to today and I avoid those types of romances. Now there are so many other options out there. Historical romances with *gasp* forward thinking women because guess what? We didn't get where we are today without a handful of women in the dark ages going "Hmm, wait, I think this is wrong, I think I want to live my life on my terms."

I may not classify myself as a feminist because I have yet to understand and learn more about feminism but that doesn't mean I don't have feminist ideas or beliefs. I want to read about women who get their happy ending by being themselves. I want them to be sexually experienced, I want them to know what they want and go out and get it and not wait for a man to save them or solve their problems. But I also want to read and fall in love with confident men who love strong women. Men can be feminists too and that is sexy. A man who sees a woman and treats her as an equal can still open doors, pay for dinner and bring flowers so long as he's okay with the woman opening her own door, paying for their dinner and bringing HIM flowers. Partnerships are a beautiful thing to me and so terribly romantic.

And I'm not a bitter man hater either. I love men. I just don't love the stupid ones.

I do have to ask though because I did recently write and plan on posting this week, a bit on one theme I have yet to see in romance (Or maybe I'm just missing them): Childfree women and men.

You mentioned the different approaches to romance and sex and I was wondering, where are the ones for people who actively choose to NOT have children? I enjoy a good "And we had lots of babies and lived happily ever after" story because nowadays it's the woman's choice and decision TO go that route but what about represent those like myself who opt out of having children and are vocal about it? Are there romances out there for us?

Totally looking to recommendations in case it wasn't shamelessly clear. Wow, that's the longest comment I've ever left anywhere.
RHYLL
10. RHYLL
Hey, Adria, would love to see a post on child-free by choice romance! I have to admit it's something I haven't seen in my reading (not that I recall, anyway) and would really like to.
RHYLL
11. RHYLL
ROMANCE NOVELS FOR FEMINISTS is one of my favourite blogs, and an excellent source for finding feminist romance. I should have mentioned it, duh! Thank you to those who did.
Jennifer Proffitt
12. JenniferProffitt
Stay tuned for "childless by choice" post, I'm sure we'll get someone on it now--you're right, would love to have that!
Adria Reyes
13. adria03
Jennifer Proffitt - I will be here with bells on to read and comment on that post!
Adria Reyes
14. adria03
Rhyll - I've wondered about it for three years but have only now begun to ask that question. I only encountered ONE childfree couple in romance and I want to see more!
RHYLL
15. Ainslie Paton
Tiffany Reisz' Original Sinners heroine, Nora is childless by choice. I'd like to read more heroines who choose that path too.
RHYLL
16. Liz Joyce
I am a feminist and I love reading romance. Grant, Dahl and Stein are three of my favourite authors.
RHYLL
17. Antoinettemm
Thinking all romances are the same is like thinking all hot dogs are the same. Romances are as diverse as people and you would have to have never ventured into the romance isle at the book store to realize that. No matter who you are or what you like there is a romance for you. Romance heroines were rescuing their hero's long before it was popular, long before Disney tried it.
RHYLL
18. MS-Birdlady (Mary Smith)
Gang, check out my new Chick-lit Book Review blog, www.ms-birdlady.com! And specifically this post on 10 Top Chick-lit authors you should be reading in 2016 (bit.ly/msbAR2016).

After reading this post, I realize I love feminist romance. All the books I've recommended (except Jay Walking) have working women trying to find romance in/in spite of/and with their careers. My blog's focus is unique, high quality stories. I will be showcasing all ages, genders, ethnicities, and disabilities. Check it out! :)
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