I’ll post a version of this at Dear Author too, but I want to respond to Robin’s post from this morning about romance and feminism. Her thesis is, “Romance is not a feminist genre – and that it doesn’t have to be for us to enjoy, celebrate, appreciate, and feel empowered and liberated by it.” I agree that feminism isn’t the sine qua non of literary merit; it isn’t the only thing books can and should be and isn’t the only way women can be empowered and liberated by reading.
Hers is a definitional argument. Robin says that in order to consider romance feminist we’d have to use a definition like, “Romance celebrates women” or “empowers women.” I agree that’s weak sauce. Such definitions aren’t good for feminism or romance.
Here’s what I’d offer instead: feminism is “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (bell hooks, Feminism is For Everybody, viii). Or maybe a “belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes; the movement organized around this belief” (Jessica Valenti, Full Frontal Feminism, 13). To my view, feminist writers, scholars, practitioners would (should?) share a few assumptions about the world: that gender is a pervasive social construct; that systems of oppression are interlocking; and that equality will require the dismantling of those systems and the creation of new relationships, new ways of being in the world.
It’s important to emphasize that whatever else genre romance is doing, it intervenes in the literary tradition in order to put marginalized characters and narratives at the center of the text. I’ve written about this before, but I’m finishing a PhD in American studies (I have an MA in English). I love literary fiction; at some point I’m going to get a t-shirt proclaiming that Herman Melville is my book boyfriend. But the literary tradition certainly up to the nineteenth century but well into the present has often been focused on the experiences of (white, straight, middle and upper class, cis gendered) male protagonists to the exclusion of women’s choices, subjectivities, and even their lives.
Literary fiction by women writers (and their allies) assails this pattern, but I can’t even speak calmly about how many “feminist” texts end with the suicide of their female protagonists or otherwise with tragedy. I’d provide a list here, but I don’t want to spoil loads of classics. Suffice it to say it’s a very common theme particularly from 1850 to 1950. So romance not only puts women at the center of the text, but it imagines happy endings for them.
Robin considers Cathy Davidson’s work on the domestic, sentimental novels of the 18th and 19th centuries–novels that did focus on female characters and lives and which almost always end with marriage (think Austen or Gaskell). I love Davidson as a historian; I’m less convinced about her literary analysis in part because concerns similar to the ones Robin raises. In an excellent essay, Winfried Fluck argues that Davidson and others scholars conflate any “anti-bourgeois” material with subversion, thus rendering the term subversive (or in this case feminist) meaningless (257). The value of a novel like The Coquette (which Davidson reads at length and is essentially a tragic seduction novel) isn’t that it’s subversive per se but that it enters a conversation about what an ideal marriage might be and how norms around femininity and sexuality make it difficult to achieve.
Genre romance’s revision of the literary tradition–like that of the domestic novels from which it descends–is important, but it might not rise to the level of feminist because its solutions happen within the system (e.g., marriage).
I do think that many genre romances, both historical and contemporary, insist on an equal, companionate vision of marriage. We know that Dain in Lord of Scoundrels is properly matched with Jessica Trent because she is his equal in spirit, intellect, and so on. He must revise his life for her and their relationship works because of its equality and mutual respect. Even when women in romance fit into the social pattern and submit to their partners or traditional gender roles, romance makes the argument that great power comes from this act (e.g., the discussion of submission in many BDSM novels). This reminds me a lot about the conservative critique of feminism and is nicely explicated in R. Marie Griffith’s God’s Daughters. But I’m digressing.
What I’m saying is that romance makes a feminist move but then (often) blunts this by supporting a mildly more equal vision of the status quo. Robin calls this the “core of preservation”–and it isn’t very feminist.
But in response, I would say I’m not particularly interested in figuring out if any given novel (or genre) is feminist or not but rather in describing how a given novel (or genre) does gender. What does it say about masculinity? Femininity? How does the novel propose relationships should or do work? Etc. And I think that discussion is feminist.
So beyond its interest in women’s lives and choices, I think **reading** genre romance and considering critically its cultural work on questions of gender and sexuality is feminist praxis. And I think reading genre romance can make one a more resistant reader of the gender politics of the literary canon.
(ETA: The DA piece was by Robin, not Janet. I’ve changed the author’s name throughout.)