Feminism and Romance Novels


Is reading and writing romance novels selling out as a feminist? This was the nagging fear I had hammering away at intervals in the back of my mind when I first started writing romance. I ignored it for quite some time, but when the hammering got loud enough  – not when I was reading or writing romance because then I was enjoying myself too much to care, but later, in the quiet moments I had to consider it. Then, when there was nothing better to do than indulge in some personal philosophical angst, I had to face my anxiety about whether or not I might be letting the side down.

Looking at the romance literature industry, however, it’s difficult to see how being involved with it could possibly be anti-feminist. It’s a massive multimillion dollar industry that is almost entirely (although not totally) peopled by women. Women write, edit, act as agents, read the books, review them and blog about it. Women have established romance writers and readers groups  around the world, and have created a supportive network for readers,  aspiring and published writers alike.

So far so good. Nothing to be concerned about there. But what about the underlying messages and themes in the books? Do they thumb their noses at the massive advances the sisterhood has made in redefining and improving women’s place in society in the last forty years? Do they, even if  ever so subtly, represent women as victims or passive actors whose worth is entirely contingent on meeting Mr Right and getting him to the altar? Do they depict women as being attracted to hopelessly emotionally unavailable types, who blow hot and cold until the end of the book when Mr Right undergoes a spectacular and unrealistic transformation?

Answer – rarely these days and certainly not in the good ones, not even in the historicals when attitudes were different and it might be potentially more acceptable to write in that vein.

The buzzword for the modern heroine is actually ‘sassy’ – not a word you hear used Down Under much in general everyday conversation, but we get it (some of us like to pretend we invented it)  – feisty – ballsy – a woman who is not afraid to go after what she wants, who is prepared to say how she feels and what she thinks – to be daring – and if the occasion calls for it a little, or a lot flirtatious. The sassy woman is not a total innocent either, she has a past with some experience of her own. In other words, just your typical twenty first century woman to a greater or lesser degree.

So if the way romance authors are depicting women is realistic, then what about the overriding focus on the romance itself – finding ‘the one’, and a happy-ever-after ending? Doesn’t this present a problem for the dedicated feminist? Surely getting all starry eyed and loved-up with the right person isn’t the only path to true happiness…

Well, no of course it’s not, but it sure is lovely when it happens, isn’t it?


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