Why Aren’t Romance Novels Feminist? Ask David Wong.

This is what the world wants from women: impossible, physical feats & taut guts & perky breasts. public domain image from http://www.burningwell.org

This past week has been full of feminist significance for me.

First, Adrienne Rich died.  I case you don’t know, Adrienne Rich was a brilliant poet and the author of a lot of really smart feminist criticism.  I encountered her criticism before her poetry, but both are illuminating.  I encourage you to look them up.

Second, I read David Wong‘s Article, “Five Ways Modern Men Are Trained to Hate Women”  on Cracked.com, which is one of my new favorite places to get lost on the internet.

Third, I am continually floored by the ways in which the women whose romance fiction I read reinforce these long-held, more than mildly ridiculous, perceptions of women as so vividly described in Wong’s piece.

I have been thinking lately about seriously studying the anti-feminist and misogynistic rhetoric in romance novels.  The thing that turns me off on the idea is that I’d have to read even more romance novels than I do right now, because even though most of them are a re-telling of the same story, scholarship demands that I be thorough.  And diligent.  I like to be thorough and diligent.

But every time I read a romance novel, I die a little more inside.

The thing that troubles me about Rich’s death specifically, is that she was so very “out” about being a feminist writer.

I hope it’s a function of the portion of the literary world I most often inhabit professionally (and that is a decidedly un-literary bit) more than a reality of our current cultural position, but it seems to me that being a smart, feminist woman is becoming less–instead of more–fashionable.

Why does this matter in the case of Wong?

In case you didn’t read his article, he starts off strong.  Really strong.  He cites Rush Limbaugh’s slander of the college woman, Sandra Fluke, who testified about the discomfort of ovarian cysts in support of Obama’s birth control plan.  He calls it “soul-killing.”

He points out that in films and books and on television, women are awarded as trophies.  He writes, “compatibility doesn’t matter, prior relationships don’t matter, nothing else factors in.  If the hero accomplishes his goals, he is awarded his favorite female.”

And he’s right.  His observances are spot on.  Even in fiction that is by and for women.

In the latter part of the article, Wong loses me a bit.  I think what’s happened is that he fails to connect the dots of his observances and their implications, because the article leaves me feeling like Wong’s apologizing for the social contract, but offering as an excuse that men can’t help it, it’s all because of their penises, and even if women get paid less and get treated like shit at work, they still have all the power, because men are doing it all for women; and while it’s wrong, we’re just going to have to deal.

Trouble is, while I want to be annoyed with Wong’s half-baked argument, I can’t.  Because the truth is, women writers do it too.

I’ve written before about how absurd I find some romance sex tropes to be, but even more absurd is how women writers continue to depict themselves in ways that affirm the more perverse aspects of what Wong notes about the social contract.

Here are Wong’s Five Ways:

  • We were told that society owed us a hot girl.

He says that the hero always gets the girl, no matter what, even when the union is completely absurd or unlikely.

  • We were trained from birth to see you as decoration.

He says that even when women do have social or cultural or professional power, the men under them, and any man who’s within earth’s distance any time she does anything really, will not comment on the content of her speech, or on her myriad other qualities or ideas, but on her suitability as a sex partner.  Her looks.    

  • We think you’re conspiring with our boners to ruin us.

This one is my favorite one.  I have heard lots of men say this very thing, though not in these words.  Here’s  a perfect, illustrative quotation: “…when we get that boner at the funeral, we get mad at the girl showing the cleavage. Because we, ourselves, our own rational personality that knows right from wrong and appropriate from inappropriate, knows this is a bad place to get a boner. So it comes off like cleavage girl is conspiring with our penis to screw us over”

  • We feel like Manhood was stolen from us at some point.

Though I can still see Wong’s argument here, this is where he starts to lose me.  He says, essentially, that men are taught along the way that all of the base urges they feel–like the ones that would lead a guy to konk a woman over the head with a club and drag her off by her hair in order to forcibly have his way with her–were once socially sanctioned, and that feminism, or women (somehow), robbed them of these privileges.

  • We feel powerless.

This was the part where he said that seriously, even though men are spewing hate speak and objectifying women pretty constantly, it’s all because they’re pursuing things that will make women happy or proud or more inclined to get naked with them.  ” Sorry, ladies.” He says.

All of this makes sense to me.  But his reasoning does not work as excuses, which is kind of where he leaves it, and kind of how he has to leave it, I think, because there’s no real motion to the contrary in pop culture, even in the most pervasive genre of women’s fiction, by and for women: romance novels.

Romance Novels are Complicit.

For example, in one of the romance novels I recently proofread, the heroine is a self-possessed, incredibly competent, fit, sassy, feisty, beautiful (of course, she has to be beautiful) wannabe soccer player.

Of course, these are not accurate details or accurate plot points, because I am bound by non-disclosure.  So much so that I’m not even going to tell you the name of the company I proofread for.

This is a skewed caricature of the novel, but it explains my point accurately, and accurately enough reflects the novel’s ideology, without giving anything or anyone away.

And I suppose it could be posited that the woman wanting the traditionally male career of athlete is a step in the right direction.  And okay, maybe, but not if the woman is depicted as coming to her senses over it after she learns how hard it really is and how much better her life will be once she has a bunch of babies that she stays home with because nobody in novels is ever worried about money.

The thing that’s standing between her and her dream career (of soccer player) is a man.

That man is also

1. Alpha–large for a soccer player, which is oft mentioned in the book.

2. Not beautiful–missing half his face due to an accident in his youth.

3. Holds social power over her by having obtained a high level of honor as an an athlete and by being her love interest.

This situation illustrates Wong’s suggestions that men believe they are socially owed a hot girl, that men are allowed to be unattractive without it defining their character, that matters of compatibility are incidental, and that at some point, all of the penis-inspired behaviors that are now deemed to be unseemly, were even more than acceptable, they were badges of special manliness.

Along the way, the hero is fueled by copious desire, he’s constantly springing boners, even with his leg half cut off, which happened while he was rescuing his girl from a situation she was able to rescue herself from earlier in the novel, and his sense that he’ll never have her because she’s too beautiful and lives too far away.  He is depicted as being powerless against his desire & ruled by his feelings for her, which put him in crappy situations.

But in the end, what happens?  The woman abandons her desire to play soccer, realizing that she’s not actually cut out for it (because she does not have a penis).  She devotes herself fully to the alpha dude; tells him how beautiful she thinks he is, even though he’s only got half a face; and immediately starts thinking about babies and stops using condoms.

I get it, but why bring Rich into it?

Here’s the thing.  We women could choose to start dismantling these assumptions about ourselves, and challenging men’s perceptions of us, by starting with something elemental: the stories we tell.  Cultures have defined themselves with stories since the dawn of time.  See cave drawings, pagan mythology, the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, the Declaration of Independence, etc.

Certainly, it wouldn’t happen overnight, and certainly women have been lobbying for themselves through literature since at least the 1850s.

But what’s stopping a woman from writing a romance novel about a female executive who chooses to balance her work and love lives, who does not spend most of her time on a quest for a man to rescue her from her tedious, feminist principles?

Here’s a bit from a piece honoring Rich in the New York Times:

Ms. Rich was far too seasoned a campaigner to think that verse alone could change entrenched social institutions. “Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy,” she said in an acceptance speech to the National Book Foundation in 2006, on receiving its medal for distinguished contribution to American letters. “Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard.”

But at the same time, as she made resoundingly clear in interviews, in public lectures and in her work, Ms. Rich saw poetry as a keen-edged beacon by which women’s lives — and women’s consciousness — could be illuminated.

Why can’t women’s consciousness be illuminated via mainstream prose, too?  Why is it that women have to agree with each other and society about us all being a bunch of ninnies who’re just killing time till we meet our Prince Charmings at which point we may abandon everything we previously invented as ourselves in service of our shiny new husband/lover/family?


Author: April Line Writing

Writing about whatever the f*ck I want.

13 thoughts on “Why Aren’t Romance Novels Feminist? Ask David Wong.”

  1. I really enjoyed that Cracked article myself, and as a writer it left me lingering a bit on the subject. There is really something strange about romance novels that appears to cater to stereotypes, to sensibilities that are so deeply rooted in modern culture that going against means going against what the romance readership wants.

    Maybe that’s all there is to it. It’s the money game. Even Twilight, the book phenomenon that has all the girls going crazy, goes down this route, having the protagonist leave her education, her family and her friends for her new vampire boyfriend. The worst part is that there is no real motivation or explanation for this, except that “she loves him”.

    1. Hi Joe & Maggie,

      I think there are a lot of things that contribute to the whys of what-makes-romance-what-it-is. And I think it is partially about money. And partially, as Maggie posits, about escape.

      But having read hundreds of thousands of words worth of romance novels over the past several years, I will disagree that the heroines are weak–or that they are weak from the get go. They become weak in the face of “love,” and most often are persuaded to abandon everything about their independence and self after hero rescues them from something. They are often shown to sort of reciprocate the rescue, but it’s always in the terms that Wong suggests, and that is, rescuing hero from himself by providing unlimited sex & a porn fantasy with whom they get to live.

      It’s like they’ve missed the feminist boat (a lot of people do) insofar as they’ve got some good ideas, but horrible execution. There’s nothing that bucks gender relations stereotypes, only affirms them harder because they happen regardless of how the heroine is set up to be, or how, for lack of a better term, sensitive/evolved the hero is…

      I mean, yes. It’s fiction. But fiction has large social and cultural implications, as Wong’s piece also points out.

      Is it productive to feel like we can’t fix it, so just let it go; or is there an occasion here to challenge feminism to do something else? Is it even possible to write a feminist romance novel. Seems like both of you hint that it’s not. I don’t know. I don’t want to put those limitations on the human/writerly imagination. But I also think there are some other pretty awful realities of the romance fiction game, and that is that a lot of it is penned by folks who should write and read for at least another 3 years before trying to publish a novel of any type.

      Gatekeepers my ass.

      Thanks for weighing in, stopping by, etc. So nice to see such thoughtful people so early in the day. 🙂


  2. I think romance novels take us back to the days when women were “subservient” to men; they’re even more fantastical than fantasy novels, since they’re so unrealistic today. Most heroines of romance novels are fairly weak and are nothing like women today. I think women read romances as an escape… not because they’re looking for anything like fictional romance in real life… because it’s simply not realistic.

  3. I’ve noticed the same thing from reading romance novels, but I’ve found one writer who avoids it. Jennifer Crusie is one of my favourite authors, because she writes with a feminist awareness. She always making sure her female leads have agency in their relationships, and her novels realistically sex-positive, focusing on female pleasure. Crusie’s career stared from her writing her dissertation for her masters on romance novels, which ended with her entering the field herself.

    Her novel “Bet Me” is especially great because it shows four different type of women in different relationships — one who wants to be a mother, and a stay at home mom, and that’s okay. One who’s okay without a long term relationship, or a love term career. And one who balances her relationship and her career. And as a cherry on top — there’s a lesbian side-character who finds her women along the way, which counter-acts how heteronormative most romance novels are. Usually, the whole world is straight, or if there is a token gay character, they’re usually male, there to be the “gay best friend” and never in their own relationship.

    The main character in the novel is overweight, and snarky, which makes her one of the most relatable protagonist I’ve found. The novel deals with the external pressures she experiences through her mom trying to make her skinnier, a guy who expects her to sleep with him after three dates.

    So yeah, I really love Crusie’s books because there’s a lot going in them, and they don’t leave a bad taste in my mouth like most typical romance novels do.

  4. A friend suggested that my recent novel (which I will not name here because I’m honestly not trying to be spammy) is “feminist romance”. My first reaction was to laugh, because I didn’t imagine that could be a real thing. My second reaction was to say, “Wait a minute…why isn’t that a thing? I want that thing!” My third reaction was to google the phrase, and that’s how I stumbled across this cool blog post.

    Honestly, I think having a feminist element to my love story is probably going to hurt me in the long run in terms of sales. I’m already having a problem that most review sites I find are clearly delineated for normal romances with the normal story progression and the normal tropes. I inevitably have some tropes in there, but not all of them are the typical romance ones. One of my favourite elements is how the two leading female characters argue about various approaches to things that happen in the story, exploring the assumed “correct” way for a woman to react across various centuries and cultures.

    But I would probably sell more books if I had more of teh hawt sexxxy sex and fewer debates between passive vs aggressive methodologies of dealing with the world.

    So there is feminist romance out there. It’s just that those of us writing it don’t easily fit into the established marketing channels.

    1. You’ve hit on some points about which i have tons to say! I will not bore you now, except to say, i find myself wondering why books have to fit into tidy little categories to enjoy sales success. I am hoping that will change in coming years as publishing becomes increasingly de-centralized.

      I agree re: “why isn’t that a thing? I want that thing!”

      Thanks for the comment and for stopping by and for resisting the urge to blatantly self-promote!!

      1. Far from being bored, I definitely want to read your (and others’) thoughts on this going forward. If this isn’t a thing, maybe more of us need to make it so. I want to be told about books with good sex scenes and feminist values. I know I’m not alone in that.

        I just searched the Goodreads groups for feminist romance and came up with zero. There are, however, several feminist groups, but I’d worry in many of them that if I asked for recommendations of books with good sex scenes, I’d be thumped on the head in one way or the other.

        Perhaps we should start a group. Hrm. I’m going to go sound out that possibility on G+ and see if anyone’s interested.

      2. So, the thing we’re encountering here is, perhaps, the fact that what counts as something sexy with feminist elements is customarily called “erotica” which is a misleading and not always entirely accurate term. Any “literary” (another dubious term) writing with a sex element can be called erotica.

        I can think of one feminist sex writer off the top of my head, Susie Bright, whose book *How to Write a Dirty Story *I’ve enjoyed and referenced often!

        But Steve Almond’s stories are also sometimes sexy and certainly respectful to women. I’ve read a lot more unmemorable sexy writing than memorable. Valerie Vogrin’s book, *Shebang* has sexy elements. And Another one by Darcey Steinke called *Jesus Saves* is sorta sexy and feminist and also pretty antagonistic toward religion which I enjoy.

        Best American Erotica series would be a good place to start. I’m sure there are some novels of that ilk, but certainly nothing like the trade paperback romance market.

        But I definitely think that feminist TP or MM Romance does not exist. At least not that is feminist in any real, penetrating, relevant say. Sorry to say it, it’s just true. I think that what passes for feminist in that genre is if it’s got a “strong” female lead/heroine/protagonist. and “strong” can be signified by anything–even something as goofy as having a “male” job, like being a manager. UGH.

        Let me know how it goes on starting a group!!

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