The romance novel genre gets a bad rap. It always has. From the very beginning, stories about women, both in the domestic sphere and the professional world, that didn’t adhere to the strictures of a patriarchal status quo were rejected as lesser than, fluff literature, more recently, mommy porn. The epithets were intended, perhaps subconsciously by some, to undermine women’s literature and stories, and have, to a large extent, succeeded over the years.
In a very large part because of these antiquated ideals, we still hide our book covers and keep our love for romance a dirty secret, when in reality, romance is a forward thinking, progressive genre, with women’s lives at the fore. Here are just a few reasons why romance isn’t just a feminist genre, but the feminist genre.
Romance celebrates women’s professional successes:
This genre is all about the high powered jobs. You’ll find heroines in roles from lawyers to doctors to scientists, as well as more traditionally ‘female’ jobs. Much of romance is about following your dream path towards a career of your choosing, fighting for a chance at a promotion or advance.
A subset of this is that romance often highlights the injustices of gender dynamics in the boardroom, emphasises the way men succeed with far less effort and energy, and how women are routinely overlooked, in favor of their male counterparts. Romance is all about finding what drives you as a person, and making a life around it.
Romance celebrates the domestic sphere:
There are many various subgenres based around the single parent – both mother and father – theme, which includes fighting for your family, sacrificing and working hard to do what you feel is important. The choice many women have to make – work or family – is a common theme, and often ends up in conversation with the hero, where a progressive, forwarding thinking attitude is necessary to moving forward. While the question of having it all is complicated, romance addresses many of the issues around being a mother today, and how to balance. It celebrates motherhood – and the decision to not become a mother, leaving the choice up to the individual.
Now, the Bechdel test isn’t a perfect judge, but if you were to find a genre that passes it almost always, it’s romance. For those unfamiliar with the standard, the Bechdel test is a measure of how much female interaction exists within a story. It asks the following questions: Are there two female characters? Do they speak? Do they speak about something other than a boy or man? The addendum of are they named is often added as well. And romance does past this test – often. It has the relationships between female characters at the fore, emphasizing the importance of supporting and loving the women in your life as they achieve success and grapple with obstacles. And, as we know from real life, the women we can depend on are fundamental.
This is a pretty fundamental element of the romance world. To be fair, romance does a lot of perspective changes, so most novels aren’t exclusive from the female point of view, but that’s okay. The stories still circulate around women – the life of a female character going about her day and happening to fall in love. So many genres are guilty of using female characters as foils for the hero’s story, but romance doesn’t do that. Romance celebrates the woman’s story all on its own, whether that’s at work, at home or wherever. It validates our belief that our stories matter.
Women like sex:
Did I reveal something thus unbeknownst to you? Romance is the only genre that celebrates women’s sexuality, emphasizing the positivity of women enjoying sex on their terms. So much of the media – and for so long – had damned women who like sex, leading to a culture that thrives on slut shaming and victim blaming, rather than accepting that women are sexual creatures with their own desires and wants. Romance doesn’t shy away from this truth, instead embracing it at all levels, from the desire for a kiss in an inspirational romance novel to full blown BDSM relationships in more erotic romance.
Women like consensual and safe sex:
Now, romance definitely went through a phase in the 1980s – the bodice ripper era – where it didn’t do so hot on this point. But several decades later, we have learned from the non-consensual vibes of pirate captains and viking lords and moved quickly in the other direction. Modern romance is all about protection and consensual sex. Studies done have shown certain divides as to whether or not readers want to hear about the condom or the sexual history conversations, but more and more it’s become part of the status quo.
Younger readers especially, unmarried or married recently, have grown up in a world where the reality of HIV/AIDS and other STIs is undeniable, as well as the complicated question of pregnancy. This conversation has become a fairly reliable part of the romance world and, in my opinion, is fundamental to the feminist beliefs within the genre. And so has consent. There should never be even the shadow of a doubt that a sex scene between the hero and heroine is consensual. We’re far past the point of bodice rippers and dubious consent of times past. That doesn’t fly anymore. Even the BDSM – or rather, especially the BDSM, romance genres are all about communication and trust. (With the glaring exception of the Fifty Shades series.)
Women are allowed to have expectations of their partners:
Do you know what makes me nuts? Have you ever seen those articles with headlines like Ten Reasons You Should Be Helping Your Wife Clean the House or Guy Left Alone With the Kids for the Weekend, You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next! Oh my fucking God. In answer to article one – you live in this damned house and you’re damned well going to clean it. In answer to article two – they are your children. Romance says that women, whether career professionals or homemakers, are allowed to ask for what they want in a mate. We are well and truly past the point where we have to take the hand dealt to us by society.
It’s certainly far from perfect, but if I need my boyfriend to do the laundry, I will ask him to do the laundry. If I cook dinner, it’s because I’m home during the day and have the time, not because that is specifically my job. Romance tells us that our expectations of our partners are not too high – in fact, they could probably stand to be higher. This goes beyond chores, to communication, time spent together, conversations about the future and more.
The focus is on beautiful men:
For once. Now, I will give a full disclaimer to this point – we need body diversity for our heroes too. Most men will probably not be six foot four vikings with a dusting of reddish hair down their chiseled chest. Fine, I’ll cede that point. But romance is wonderful because for fucking once the lens of sexuality is not squarely oriented on women. Women are notoriously sexualized, not that that’s a point we need to get into, where as men’s sexual appeal is humorous – think male strip clubs and shows and, of course, the romance novel world. Romance turns the lens around and allows us to be the gaze for once, rather than the one under scrutiny.
We’re getting better with this. It’s come a long way from the pulp novels in the one gay bookstore in the state and it’s come a long way from the idea of gay sex as a kink for the female reader. The representation of LGBTIQ community members in romance has long been a way of finding a home, well before Internet forums and high school groups were mainstream, or even invented. It provides a sense of validity to those grappling with their sexuality that they are not alone in their desires and they, too, are worthy of finding love.
The largest element of this in contention today is the idea of gay or lesbian romance that doesn’t necessarily try to cram in all the challenges facing the community. Many books with queer characters include a history of gay bashing, sexual violence, unsupportive families, religious questioning, closeted characters, onward and upward. Moving past that, it’s important to write and read characters that are simply looking for or finding love in a same-sex relationships, not characters that are representative of their entire community. We’re getting there.
And we are moving forward on intersectionality:
This is a tough issue. At a panel, I heard an author refer to changing the direction of publishing as “trying to steer an iceberg.” Romance has diversity and representation issues. It just does. We still separate a lot of subgenres by race and then claim that it’s not a high selling genre. As it is facing all genres of media at the moment, diversity is something romance authors are now working to properly represent, at the risk of misrepresentation, cultural appropriation and tokenism. And romance is getting the message. The conversation is moving forward as to how more characters of color, sexuality, physical ability, religious background and more, can be properly represented in stories. It will take time, and it’s far from perfect, but at the very least, the question is on the table.
Feminism is an ever-changing ideology. In my mind, feminism today isn’t feminism without intersectionality and queer inclusion. We have a long way to go on many of those issues. But without a doubt, romance is trying – and succeeding. It is a far cry from the bodice rippers. It is about so much more than women in strictly the domestic sphere.
Romance is, at its very core, about women in whatever faction of their life they may be living. It is about what they had for breakfast, what meeting they went to for lunch and who they had for dinner. It celebrates successes and understands the challenges facing women in all factions of their life.
So the next time someone undermines romance, claiming it’s a woman’s genre, fluffy, escapist, set the record straight. It got those titles by being forward thinking, progressive, rebellious and a threat to the male-dominated media circuits through history. Romance is a quiet rebellion and, with the legion of readers from all walks of life, we are its very formidable army. ♥