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).
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.”
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.”
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.
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.