I’ve been writing romance novels for a long time and reading them for even longer, and for many of those joyous years of dukes and pirates and seductive billionaires, I didn’t ask questions of the genre. Admittedly, it took awhile before I broke away from the widely-circulated idea that romance novels were trash and shouldn’t be held to any sort of standard of “real writing”. Of course, I know better now. And in knowing better, and understanding that romance is both subversive and aggressively feminist and forward thinking, I now hold it to a much higher standard than I ever did in the past.
But with that, came disappointments too, and I discovered that I am no longer as accepting of some of the tropes and themes that are so pervasive in our genre. Feel free to share you own requirements–or rather, the things you won’t read, below.
Bodice Rippers – The obvious one. From the regency romances of Jane Austen to the modern day bookstores and success across the publishing industry, romance has gone through many a rise and fall. And while we’ve become quite known for the bodice ripper, it actually speaks to an era of romance most of us would like to forget. For me, the number one, most important element of romance is consent. And, while forced sex as an excuse for justifiable female pleasure is a tangled knot of history and female sexuality, it no longer stands. Period. No forced sex. Nothing even resembling forced sex. We wipe our hands of it.
Slut-Shaming – On a similar, but arguably far more pervasive note, I’ll drop a book like a hot potato if I get the sense that the characters are being shamed or ridiculed for their sexual desires. Of course, that includes male characters, but it’s so incredibly important for heroines to have a safe space to explore their physical wants. Slut-shaming is an archaic and misogynistic practice and it’s well and truly out of date. Unless the tact is being used to prove a point, I’m not there for it.
Girl-On-Girl-Bashing – Perhaps I should find another title for that, given the genre we’re discussing…But I digress. Women have antagonists in their lives. We do. There will always be people who push and prod and hurt. It’s a fact of life, and many of those antagonists will be women. That’s not exactly what I’m referring to. The point here is that I’m sick and tired of the mean girl trope, the gossipy trope, the bitch trope. In real life, women support, prop each other up and give love and kindness. That’s the kind of writing we deserve.
Books That Don’t Pass the Bechdel Test – For those of you unfamiliar with the Bechdel Test, it goes a little like this – 1) Does the movie (or book, etc) have two women in it? 2) Do they talk to each other? 3) Do they talk to each other about something other than a man? The Bechdel Test is far from perfect, even with the occasional hanger-on like do the characters both have names, but I’m mostly focused on the third point. While romance is so fundamentally focused on burgeoning or rekindling love, I try to go out of my way to make my female characters discuss career goals, life plans, or even movies and books. So much of the real world revolves around men, our fictional lives don’t need to also.
Hyper-Masculinity and the Macho He-Man – I’ve actually discovered that this is one of those things that we’re still struggling with, perhaps more so than the others. And, obviously, it makes sense as to why. Romance is built on the foundation of the macho He-Man hero and we’re allowed to like it. But not only do those characters fail to ring true to real life, it also goes against an often overlooked element of feminist ideology. Just as we wince at the perfect heroine, creating an all masculine, testosterone driven hulk lowers the hero down to their basic biology and strengthens the socially constructed binary divide between the sexes.
Showing male characters at their vulnerable, displaying emotions other than lust or love (since love is a necessity in these books), is important for creating well-rounded male characters that actually represent reality. Oppressing those emotions just feeds into the way men have been taught to feel forever.
The Stereotype Diversity – This issue occurs a lot in queer fiction, but obviously happens across the board. While the romance genre is pushing toward diversity and inclusivity, we seem to struggle with the concept that one gay man/black woman/gender variant, etc. must speak for their entire community’s past, present and future. While they do represent to a certain degree, this often lends itself to stereotypes and inadvertently offensive writing.
For instance, many queer novels fall into the trap of writing a book where the heroes have faced family rejection, questioning of faith, gay-bashing, coming out, rape, unrequited love from a straight friend and too much glitter all in one novel. That sort of writing and smushing down of real, devastating life experiences, undermines their importance and cheapens the diversity. Instead, the best way to write inclusive romance novels is to write people falling in love, that happen to be [blank].
Unprotected sex – I feel physically uncomfortable until someone mentions a condom. I’ll settle for I haven’t been with anyone since my past lover, even though I would never, ever do that in real life, because, hey, it’s a fantasy after all. But if there’s no acknowledgement of protection, against both pregnancy and STDs, I get that gross-icky feeling that makes me put a book down and never pick it up again. It’s the 21st century, ya’ll, if you haven’t figured out that unprotected sex is a real bad idea, you have to go back to health class.
I love this genre. I believe we continue to make great strides in supporting women’s lives at both the macro and micro level. We push for female sexual agency, healthy female friendships and female success in all things. But for that reason, for the progressive think and desire to push forward, the genre has to be questioned. It has to change with the times. Because, just as our heroines deserve great lovers and career jobs they’re passionate about, we deserve the very best from the romance genre. We shouldn’t settle for anything less. ♥