Romance and Feminism

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.)

6 thoughts on “Romance and Feminism

  1. If we take our definition of feminism as “belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes” then books can never be feminist. Only people can be feminist, since only people can hold beliefs and take action to put forward those beliefs. Books can espouse feminist beliefs, but they themselves can never be feminist.

    And I agree that romances don’t have any requirement to espouse feminist beliefs. Some books that have made me think most deeply about feminism are decidedly not feminist. (You’ll laugh, but Patience was one of those, especially about choosing to submit and the role faith might play in that.)

    Your second to last paragraph captures it completely though. It’s not that romances are feminist–it’s the reactions and discussions they spark within us as readers, specifically with regard to gender, that are feminist.

    Oh, and before I forget–you say that “it might not rise to the level of feminist because its solutions happen within the system (e.g., marriage)”–do you believe that no solutions can be found within the system? That is, you can never have, say, a truly feminist marriage since marriage itself is highly patriarchal? (I don’t mean to be combative, I’m just curious. :) )

    1. I take your point, but I think novels can make arguments for or against value systems. Have you read Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman? It’s a feminist novel (I think) because it imagines what a non-patriarchal–or properly matriarchal–society might look like and it argues that it would be better than what we have. It is advocating radical social change in order to achieve greater equality and that seems feminist.

      Most books aren’t that explicitly political, of course, but I think most books are political tools. And at the very least, novels’ depictions of gender (or race or sexuality or etc.) are never neutral. They are always either depicting the world as it is or how it could be and expressing an opinion about that.

      In terms of whether one could have a feminist marriage…I’m just not sure. I definitely don’t think all marriage is rape or anything, but more like the Audre Lorde essay “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” There are more and less equal marriages, but they’re still marriages. (And I say this as a happily married person.)

      I use this example a lot, but a friend from grad school and I always argue about the TV show The Simpsons. She think it’s subversive; that it critiques both the sitcom form and the American dream, etc. I just don’t think subversive is the right word for a show in which the nuclear family stays intact.

      Maybe what we need is a new vocabulary. Our old one isn’t descriptive enough, maybe? I’m not sure. But as much as I consider myself a feminist, I’m not sure the label is as illuminating in terms of literary analysis as we’d like it to be.

      1. I agree that books are political tools and that gender representations are never neutral. I guess what I’m arguing for here is a more muscular definition of “feminist.” A book can argue for feminism, but it is up to you, the feminist reader, to get up and act on those arguments. The book itself is inert and inertia never leads to change. We need an actor in order to effect change.

        (That got a little political there. ;) )

        And I agree with you on “feminist” marriage and the need for a new vocabulary. You should invent one. :)

  2. Books aren’t actors, but they do make their arguments permanently. In lit studies, we use the present tense when quoting from a book (“Woman in the Nineteenth-Century says that women should be accepted into any profession, including ‘ship captains.'”). Long after their author’s are dead, books live on.

    But yeah, I’m just being a smart ass now.

    I’ll get to work on that new feminist vocabulary for relationships and texts posthaste. ; )

  3. YES! THIS! Brilliant words, Emma. i agree with the idea of the master’s tools re: marriage and I say that as someone who wants to be married in a hetero, cis-gendered way. As for the new vocab, Mary Daly already started that task, so look to her. The older I get the more I’m inspired by and less uncomfortable with Daly and her invention of new terms.

    1. You know, I haven’t read Mary Daly since I was in intro to women’s studies. I remember thinking she was shockingly radical. Maybe it’s time for a second look? ; )

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