Romance Novels and Subversion

Sarah: A little while ago, one of our commenters wrote: “I’m curious what it is that people find about the genre itself—as opposed to individual books—subversive.”

My reaction is, “Well, DUH they are subversive. Anything that treats women’s sexuality as anything positive and allows for sexual exploration from a female-centered viewpoint is inherently subversive. Locating romance within the history of fiction about women, and you find an inherent contrast from books that eagerly posited that any female who engaged in sexual acts and enjoyed it was destined for a painful, pox-ridden, hell-bound death.”

But then, as I am “She Who Asks Rhetorical Questions,” I wondered, “Is that too much of a reach? Is romance sexually subversive or is it a justification of sexual content that is more cerebral and therefore more attractive to women?”

What do you think?

Candy: I noticed that question myself, and have been mentally composing a reply in my head.

I think a genre that unabashedly focuses on women and what they want is pretty subversive, even though the values espoused within individual books may not be. Does that make any sort of sense? Women get to win. Women get to be the protagonists. Women often (though not always, especially in the older bodice rippers) get to be prime actors. Try to find any other genre in which this consistently happens.

That’s the short answer. I may have a more long-winded reply in a little bit.

Do you have any other thoughts on this?

Sarah: Other thoughts? *splutter* Fuck yeah!

I think there are two ways to create change (and for the record, I hate the corporate speak term ‘effect change.’ Or ‘affect change.’ Seen it both ways, despise both). One is to storm the castle from the outside and climb the walls and scare the crap out of everyone inside because change is coming in on a swinging rope through the window and it looks a lot like Kevin Costner and it’s coming whether you like it or not!

And then there’s working from within, subtly changing through concerted, repeated effort, bit by bit, gradually so that people don’t get all scared and entrenched in the old way, and are gently introduced to new ways of doing things.

Some things that need changing pronto right now move it, like, say, segregation, you can only storm the castle. But once the castle is stormed, the second way of change usually takes over, in that people let go of their old conceptions and learn (one would hope) to adjust to the new ones. This is, clearly, a big huge honking steaming pile of generalization but you get the drift.

That said, I think romance is mostly the second kind of change, and that change is reflective of the advancement of women’s movements at the time romance came into the market. Moreover, books written about women’s sexuality, and that describes (however often inaccurately) women’s sexual experiences, is inherently, as you said, subversive, and a direct assault on the virgin/whore motif that affects so many female characters in literature.

And also, I hate to get this party started, but when someone levels the accusation that romance is “porn for women,” there’s a part of me that agrees, but based on two points: one. There is nothing wrong with porn (between consenting individuals, obviously). Material designed to sexually arouse is not inherently bad. Two, women are turned on by different things than men, and most of us find the descriptions of emotionally-charged well-written sex scenes quite stimulating, and more than one commenter has remarked, “My husband has NO problem with the side effects of reading romance, wink wink nudge nudge!” Writing stories that sexually stimulate women and provide them intellectual and sexual arousal is also, inherently, subversive in a patriarchal, male-dominant culture.

However, we could also have a hootenany of a party discussing all the patriarchal and sexist subtext reinforced by romance, and how many of them are being spanked by erotica, paranormals, and other “newer” genres.

Candy: I do agree that there are two major modes of change, and it sometimes seems as if the “storm the castle approach” is sometimes necessary for kick-starting the more subtle, more pervasive changes.

I’m not sure I’d agree that most romance novels directly assault the madonna/whore dichotomy, since many of them buy into a modified form of the dichotomy.

Yes, most of the heroines give it up, and do so again, and again, and again, and again—but only to the hero. If she’s given it up in the past, the rule generally is that she didn’t enjoy it, and will only come her brains out once her grotto of lurve feels the sting of the hero’s orgasmatronic schwanstucker. And I’m not just talking about during the course of a book, since I don’t have any problems with a romance portraying a strictly monogamous relationship. I’m talking about the course of a heroine’s entire life, which is reflected in the genre’s obsession with virginity and/or sexually frigid women.

This isn’t too far removed from a message that says “only nasty girls do it with boys, and only the REALLY nasty girls love it.” But that first step, i.e. allowing women to have positive sex lives, and allowing readers into the bedroom—that’s huge. That’s pretty damn subversive, especially during the time when romance novels as we know them got their start.

I’m also thinking about a lot of feminist literature and literary fiction that deals with women’s issues, and I’m struck by how unhappy a lot of it is. Granted, a woman’s lot hasn’t historically been one of much choice or empowerment, and I have a soft spot for the beautiful, grim narratives that show us the struggles women have faced. But I enjoy variety in my literary diet, and there’s only so much grimness I can take.

Vonnegut has claimed that literature is the enterprise of showing how much life sucks (I’m paraphrasing wildly here), but I think there’s great value in showing the flip side of the coin, too. Because life isn’t always about how much your very existence sucks monkey balls, and about how happines is juuust within your grasp, but no, evil fate will intervene and turn you into an eccentric, lonely old lady musing over your grand lost love and squandered opportunities.

There’s a prejudice against the happy ending, and I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the snobbery isn’t entirely unjustified. I’ve read far too many books in which the endings were far too pat and far too easy. On the other hand, I’ve also read a great deal of books in which I could just tell the authors were gleefully rubbing their hands over the Portentious and Tragic Ending for Our Struggling Protagonists and *wrist on forehead* it’ll be so literary and ironic and heart-rendingly tragic.

Ultimately, I want the ending to be true to the tale, and sometimes, a happy ending makes sense. Romance novels help correct that imbalance in fiction about women, where so many bad things happen to the female protagonists that I sometimes wonder whether the authors are expressing some sort of deeply-seated punitive urge. The fact that women consistently get a happy ending in romance novels may not subvert a whole lot other than certain types of literary pretensions, but I think it’s still an important subversion.

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  1. 1
    Sarah F. says:

    See, I come at romance from the other direction and think it’s subversive and wonderful because of what it does to the hero.  It makes the hero admit that his love for the heroine and hers for him is the most important thing EVAR and that he’s going to chuck any and everything so that they can be together.  Wuv!  Twue Wuv! and all that.

    And it’s especially powerful and empowering and subversive when he’s a complete asshole and changes, not *for* the heroine, but because of his love and how it makes him a Better Person and he has to live up to her and her love.

    And that ability to change and soften and control the patriarch is why *I* read romance.  I couldn’t care less about the empowered heroine, TBH.  I just want to see the hero brought to his knees, and not just to propose marriage.

    But I think that’s still just the other side of the same coin, because yes, it’s empowering for the woman, and includes the slow slow creep of subversive change, because if everyone read the damn things and believed in them and valued their message and lived like that, we’d probably have fewer wars and suchlike terrible things.

  2. 2
    Kaite says:

    “I’m curious what it is that people find about the genre itself—as opposed to individual books—subversive.”

    All writing is subversive. It’s the writer making the world as s/he wants it. If they can convince lots of others that that’s the way the world should be, the writer has effectively started and finished a bloodless revolution. Women, writing stories and creating worlds wherein women are strong, successful, independent and yet still sexy beings inspire other women to actually attempt to live that way. If enough women choose to live this way, then society must go along with them simply by the force of their numbers—after all, these smart, sexy, empowered women shop and vote.

    Get a large enough demographic together, change their minds, change the world.

  3. 3

    I’m also thinking about a lot of feminist literature and literary fiction that deals with women’s issues, and I’m struck by how unhappy a lot of it is. Granted, a woman’s lot hasn’t historically been one of much choice or empowerment, and I have a soft spot for the beautiful, grim narratives that show us the struggles women have faced. But I enjoy variety in my literary diet, and there’s only so much grimness I can take.

    THANK YOU! So well said.

  4. 4

    >>The fact that women consistently get a happy ending in romance novels may not subvert a whole lot other than certain types of literary pretensions, but I think it’s still an important subversion.<

    <

    Yay, Candy! You’ve put your finger on one reason why I read romance

    and write romance.  I like a happy ending.  I want to feel good when I close the book.  Way too much of literature aimed at women, or about women, is about how we’re going to suffer, and suffer nobly, and in the end, we’re still suffering, but we’re better for the experience.

    Screw that.  I want roses, and dancing, and chocolate, and a guy who knows how to use his tongue. I never apologize for what I read or what I write.  Subvert the paradigm!  Bring on the hot books for hot babes!

  5. 5
    Holly says:

    I’m going to go out on a limb here. I think women are more layered than men because emotions are just as critical to decision making for women as are actions and/or reactions. Men want clear cut ‘he did this so I do that’. Without all the clutter of ‘what will little Johnny or my wife think’ I find it interesting that many romance readers read sci-fi/women’s fiction/mystery and romance. Whereas men stay well shy of all those pesty feelings that pop up in romance. Subversive? Maybe. I think it’s more likely that men just don’t get it, nor do they want to. It’s much easier to bluster and strut and make comments meant to increase their own stature and diminish ours. Let ‘em. The only person that can make me feel stupid, wicked or weak is me.
    Holly

  6. 6
    Katidid says:

    “{See, I come at romance from the other direction and think it’s subversive and wonderful because of what it does to the hero.”

    That’s really interesting to me, and I think it will probably be the topic of my next paper. Because, in this sense, I think romance has swung too far in the other direction. Romance has always been about subtly undermining the sexual dichotomy between the genders. Now, however, we’ve moved into a place where, for all extents and purposes, women and men are sexually equal. So what has romance done? Pushed the boundaries further. Now, romance has become about taming a hero, making a man change into something he wasn’t before. And, yes, for the most part, he changes into someone better…at least in the good ones. For a writer who has the control and talent, the hero becomes more of ‘himself’, more the man he always wanted to be but couldn’t because he had to be strong blah blah blah. But in many, too many, the hero just changes. Goes from grumpy to happy in 150 pages flat. And there are A LOT of hidden and not-so-hidden implications in consistently having a hero who has to change to fulfill the ending.

  7. 7
    Vivi Anna says:

    You see, and I write stories where both the heroine and hero change to find their true love, to make it work…

    Now if that isn’t escapism, I don’t know what is…LOL

    I love the way romances are going because they are empowering to woman.  Heroines in the stories no longer follow along timidly behind the hero waiting to be rescued, but are in the front lines kicking ass blowing shit up and telling the hero what to do.  She don’t need no rescuing any longer.  And I like that that is okay, and she is still a woman, and still can love, and maybe she has to change a bit for him…

    Subversive!  Absolutely!  Bring it on!

  8. 8
    lori says:

    Anything that treats women’s sexuality as anything positive and allows for sexual exploration from a female-centered viewpoint is inherently subversive.

    That makes Sex and the City inherently subversive, too. And, um, ew.

  9. 9
    meardaba says:

    I have to say that every time you guys open you mouths (so to speak) about women’s issues and feminism, I find myself nodding my head and agreeing.  I get so much flack from my friends for reading romance novels and professing (loudly) my feminism, and rarely have a good reply to their scorn.  Thank you for giving me something to use as a zinger!

  10. 10
    anu439 says:

    Woohoo! That’s my quote! That’s me with the subversive question! Too bad you didn’t take credit for it though; otherwise I could’ve sued you for internalizing my prose, and made bank for next semester’s tuition. Damn, so close.

    On topic:

    Subversive means going against the majority, right? In that case, Smart Bitches? Subversive. Sex and the City? Subversive. Alias? Subversive (early on anyway). Buffy? Subversive.

    The romance genre as a whole? Not so much.

    You guys are gonna hafta school me, because I’m not convinced of your arguements. Romance is subversive because it’s stories told from women’s POV, and women get an HEA? And that means women get to win? That happens in Disney fairy tales too, and I *do not* believe Snow White and Cinderella are subversive.

    It’s just not a good enough answer for me. I could buy that as legitimate if we were having this conversation even 20 years ago. But in 15 yrs of reading romance, I’ve never considered romance subversive (as opposed to individual books that are).

    I mean, I’d never seen Sex in the City til it went to late-night syndication. It’s self-absorbed Manolo Blahniked heroines seemed shallow and ridiculous and annoying. But it grew on me like a fungus until I got to the point where while I don’t completely love it, I’m at least interested in what it’s saying. And it says some pretty interesting things. I don’t see characters like unapologetically promiscous Samantha in romance, or VERY reluctant mothers like Miranda. Or how about Carrie having an affair?? That shit is subversive.

    Romance in this day and age to me is so not subversive. Anything that it does or says about romance, about sex, about gender roles, has been said. And some author saw a character or the germ of a story somewhere, and decided that it’s now safe to show her long-stashed crazy kick-ass heroine’s raunchy adventures to true love to her editor. And the publisher agrees to release it after watering it down sufficiently enough to get it shelved in Walmart.

    So, romance has always struck me as *reflective* of what society is willing to acknowledge or explore about women’s sexuality. It is not an agent of change, but possibly a signal of progress. It follows the tide.

    Now, some will take that as a negative judgement on romance. It’s (usually) not. In fact, I don’t mean any of it harshly. I just don’t get it. I get romance *because* of and it’s mainstream values and *despite* them. I love traditional shit and I LOVE the odd author who bucks the norm, who twists things around just a little from what it usually is. I mean, it is what it is. And sometimes it surprises by showing what it can be. And sometimes when that’s not enough, I go elsewhere.

  11. 11
    anu439 says:

    Sorry, that last paragraph was confusing. I meant:

    Now, some will take that as a negative judgement on romance. It’s (usually) not. In fact, I don’t mean any of it harshly. I just don’t get it the assertion that by its very nature, romance is subversive. I love romance *because* of traditional values and *despite* them. I love the traditional shit and I truly LOVE the odd author who bucks the norm, who twists things around just a little from what it usually is. I mean, romance is what it is. And sometimes it surprises by showing what it can be. And when that’s not enough, I go elsewhere. But I always come back.

  12. 12
    Candy says:

    EXCELLENT points, anu439! And you’re right—romance is reflective in a lot of ways, and not necessarily subversive. But I’d argue that some of its core messages, e.g., that it’s OK for us to want love, and for women to have sexual fantasies, is still pretty damn subversive, even as the specific expressions of sexuality are (by and large) still somewhat conservative and mainstream. In the comments to the virginity discussion not too long ago, “definitely anonymous” left the following comment:

    We’re all in our early 20s. And I’m the only virgin left in the group. (…) As far as how I feel about being a virgin…I go back and forth. I’ve only had one bf in my life, ever, and that was awhile ago and we didn’t go very far. Since then, I don’t know if it’s timing, if it’s a lot of guys my age are assholes, or if I’m just fundamentally undateable or something. I don’t know. Really, I don’t. But it’s nice to know I’m not the only person who has had to wait/is waiting awhile. Because there are times when I feel like such a freak, honestly. (…) I think part of this is why I read romances, because, pathetic as this may sound, it makes me realize it’s okay to want sex and to want passion and to enjoy things like that. I don’t expect my first time to consist of 18 orgasms or anything. But I expect it to be good in its own way, because I’ll be with a guy I care about who will want me to feel pleasure.

    This society has a very conflicted attitude towards romantic love and its sexual expressions. (HELLO, CAPTAIN OBVIOUS TO THE RESCUE!) On one hand, commercialized expressions of it are commonplace; this is evident every time Valentine’s Day rolls around, or when you pick up a bridal magazine, or look at jewelry ad. Love is all around, and it costs you about two months of your salary.

    Yet there’s also a deep-seated contempt towards romantic love and its expressions in the culture, and nowhere is this more evident than in certain types of of snobby lefty intellectuals (and I speak as a somewhat snobby, EXTREMELY lefty kind-of intellectual). It’s all about the Intellectual Rigor and No Mush Plz, ma’am, and for god’s sake, won’t you think of the subtext? In other words, there are layers to the culture. If you’re a feminist, or somebody with a decent university education, reading a romance is absolutely a subversive thing to do. If it weren’t, why the hell do I feel so goddamn defensive about my romance novels?

  13. 13
    Maili says:

    I love romance *because* of traditional values and *despite* them.

    But why? By whose traditional values, too? That’s two things I wondered about sometimes.

  14. 14
    Candy says:

    I find it interesting that many romance readers read sci-fi/women’s fiction/mystery and romance. Whereas men stay well shy of all those pesty feelings that pop up in romance.

    Actually, Holly, I’ve argued before that this disparity in reading habits lies not so much in

    inherent

    acculturated

    certain types of observed and stereotypical gender differences so much as the stigma attached to reading girly books, which is closely related to the stigma of being associated with teh feminine. It’s not unlike what’s happened to women’s clothing. Women wearing pants won’t raise any eyebrows nowadays, but a man coming to work in an ankle-length sheath would raise eyebrows.

  15. 15
    manogirl says:

    It’s subversive and feminist also because it’s written for women by women.  I said as much in a class (Reader’s Advisory) and got jumped on by most of the women in the class, who said romance could never be a feminist genre because….because….because it just couldn’t.  Romances are happy!  And…feminists are…not? 

    Anyway.  I found it interesting.

  16. 16
    Laura V says:

    Just because something’s done by women for women doesn’t necessarily make it feminist. The Women’s Institute may have some branches/some activities which are more feminist than others, but it was, as far as I know, more often about cooking and flower arranging. I know that could be feminist and subversive, but it could also be a way to get women to feel that cooking and making the house nice are what women are supposed to do. To take a very different example, is a brothel run by a madam more feminist than one run by a pimp? And if she trains the prostitutes to carry out new sexual acts, is that empowering for them because they’re learning about their sexuality, or are they being taught how to please men?

    I’m not drawing any conclusions about romance, just saying that something that teaches about/is open about sex and which is done for women by women is not necessarily feminist.

  17. 17
    anu439 says:

    Manogirl, Laura V beat me to it (very interesting scenarios btw), but yeah, I don’t agree that books written by women for women are inherently feminist. Women wrote “The Rules” for women. Also, “French Women Don’t Get Fat.” The days when a woman with a room of her own spelled empowerment are no longer.

    Maili, why do I both like and dislike traditional values? I guess because I love the idea of one true love for everyone, marriage, kids and an HEA. Now I don’t need all but the first to enjoy a romance (and actually, kids in romance usually make me cringe), but having it all, and having it work is pretty delicious. But, what I dislike is all the crap that surrounds, like the fact that romance heroines so damn generic, that they’re not allowed to be better than the heroes, that they inevitably need to be rescued—-I could go on. It’s kinda like my love/hate relationship with Bollywood movies. They suck so bad so often, yet I keep watching them! As far as whose traditional values…I think it’s a matter of what we individually grow up with, what we see around us, what we’re told is good and bad about love, and what we choose to emulate or aspire to. Everyone here knows what I mean when I say “traditional values,” yet we all prolly have slightly different ideas about what the phrase means. It’s an interesting question, blogworthy even (she says expectantly).

    Candy, I think you’re right about women’s sexual fantasies. Romance is likely the one place where they’re explored, celebrated, and validated. Women’s sexuality in general had either been feared, dismissed, or just ignored. So to have a whole genre in which women get to be sexual and unafraid of that side of themselves is subversive. To an extent.

    Especially today, there are places where women’s sexuality is acknowledged in its totality, in all its complexity. Whereas in romance, I don’t really see that. Heroine is virgin; or heroine doesn’t orgasm til hero; or no sex is as good as with the hero; or heroine is never attracted to anybody else, esp. once hero shows up; or hero never wants anyone once he sees heroine. It’s a one-dimensional perspective of sexuality for BOTH the hero and the heroine. Hell, even the “O.C.” isn’t so narrow. 

    So the sexual fantasy gets free rein only to the extent that it serves the romance fantasy (which really is very traditional). That’s prolly less true in erotic romance. But even there, I’m often surprised by just narrow the heroine’s characterization is. They do get to be raunchy tho, which is a plus.

    Related to that is another point in your post, the idea that a one true love for all time, that waiting for that special someone—that *that* stuff is now regarded as so quaint and passé to intellectual elites, to pop culture, hell to my own friends, that it’s subversive. So it’s their very traditional values that make romances subversive. There’s something very elegantly ironic about that. Inspirationals as the true provocateurs.

    And then others want those traditional values to embrace same-sex romance, or more-than-2-people, or how about something really cutting edge like non-white h/h who’re not exoticized or fetishized.

    But now I’m really getting into fantasy.

  18. 18
    Maili says:

    It’s an interesting question, blogworthy even (she says expectantly).

    Now would be good time for you to have a blog of your own, anu439. :D … Do I really have to grovel to get you to do it, dammit?

    Thanks for answering my question, anyhow. Much appreciated. :)

  19. 19
    Aquariscies says:

    Hmm, I find this question difficult to answer. I could come up with a long-winded and philosophical reason, I know I could, but sadly, I am lazy.

    But back to the question. To me it would be like asking “Why do you like chocolate?” or “Why do you feel the need to compulsively criticize stupid people at the grocery store?”.

    Because, Watson, I do. So stick that in your pipe and smoke it!!

     

    *coughcough* Therapy? What therapy? XP

  20. 20
    SB Sarah says:

    One thing that bothers me is the tone that anything that reinforces any established gender stereotype or role is therefore not feminist. Isn’t the root of feminism the idea that women should be able to choose to do whatever they want, if it embraces or rejects those stereotypes? If we want to arrange flowers or arrange global peace, the important part is that we get to choose, not what it is that we choose.

  21. 21
    Laura V says:

    “If we want to arrange flowers or arrange global peace, the important part is that we get to choose, not what it is that we choose.”

    Yes, but choice isn’t always unconstrained. People sometimes make ‘choices’ which are pretty much reflex responses to cultural conditioning, upbringing, the messages they get in the media etc. Not always, but quite often.

    Also, some strands of feminism have had strong ideas about things which are ‘unfeminist’. There are different types of feminism.

    And when I mentioned baking and flower-arranging it was in the context of an organisation which historically promoted a certain idea of what a woman should be/do. The organisation has changed a lot, and nowadays when they bake or flower-arrange it might well be feminist, but it probably wasn’t in the past when those activities took place in the context of a whole set of ideas about what constituted ‘femininity’.

  22. 22
    Katidid says:

    “Yes, but choice isn’t always unconstrained. People sometimes make ‘choices’ which are pretty much reflex responses to cultural conditioning, upbringing, the messages they get in the media etc. Not always, but quite often.”

    Now we’re getting into a hugely gray area of why we make the choices we make and whether it is really social conditioning or something less definable.

    I like cooking. Always have. It gives me pleasure to serve good food for my family, and a sense of satisfaction when a meal I’ve put together comes out nicely. Does this mean that I’m buying into traditional values? Well yes, in a sense, because women have been told for eons that they should take their pleasure and self-satisfaction in caring for others. But does it make it anti-feminist? Well no, because I like doing it. It’s something that I enjoy. I find it relaxing after a hard day, and, because I work in such a strange field, having instructions that will work out to a known end (ie recipes) is a great change of pace.

    Now, the question lies in whether I really do like it, or whether I tell myself I like it so as not to disvalue my feminist notions. And really, who can tell? Who ever really knows the real reasons why we do the things we do? What defines ‘gut instinct’ or ‘it just feels good’? Is it social conditioning? Or is it something more innate that cannot be labelled?

    Looking at *why* we make decisions, I think, is always going to be a source of debate. Always going to be a source of contention. But I think the fact that we are having this discussion proves more for feminism (in any area) than any of the individual comments made.

  23. 23
    Robin says:

    It’s questions like this—is Romance subversive—that make me wonder what it’s like to wholly embrace the genre and have absolutely no ambivalence about reading books that are viewed as anything from pink soft core (oh, I just got a whole new mental image of that descriptor) to dangerously anti-feminist.  And, of course, many of these judgments exist because of the sheer size of Romance and the existence of books that meet both extremes and everything in between.  I know it would be easier for me to read more Romance if I didn’t feel that the genre was so value-laden, that when I read Romance I’m reading more than a pleasant little tale of love and happy endings. 

    Personally, I think that Romance is subversive in the same way women are—that is, sometimes a lot, sometimes not so much, and always in a somewhat conflicted and non-uniform way (which is why I think the genre is so well suited to a deconstructionist approach, but that’s another topic and requires first figuring out what the hell deconstruction really is, says the Derrida fan-girl).  Mostly I see Romance as a cultural field on which we play out our various ambivalences about gender, sexuality, love, and numerous other issues, positing ideals, reflecting cultural norms, trying out variations on certain combinations thereof.  Sometimes that can be very interesting and compelling, sometimes it’s not, and sometimes it’s downright scary (and, I think, accounts for the way different readers respond to the same book so differently).

    As to whether the HEA is subversive, my original thought was yes, of course.  But the more I think about it, I’m not so sure.  I think happiness is subversive, to be sure; that is, real bonified, make a choice to be that way happy. But I don’t know if the HEA in Romance really embodies that, at least not as a rule.  I guess that for me, anyway, as long as the heroine gains her happiness from the hero—that is, as long as HE holds the power to make her happy or deprive her of her own HEA—I can’t see the HEA as subversive.  But the idea of women writing happy endings for other women—now THAT’s subversive, IMO, because on the flip side of the men giving women happiness dynamic is the women pouding other women into the ground and stomping on them dynamic that is, IMO, also very strong, both in the genre and in the culture.

  24. 24
    Anne says:

    Is romance, as a genre, subversive?  I think my answer is no.  I mean, the social role it fills is telling women what they should want out of love (and arguably out of life).  That’s not exactly revolutionary. 

    Individual romances may present subversive patterns for relationships, although perhaps fewer than it at first seems — a simple lesbian romance is probably not subversive if its audience is all lesbians and the romance is a bog-standard butch/femme arrangement. My favourite romance that I’d consider subversive is only arguably a romance — Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Shards of Honor”.  The heroine is the captain of a starship; the hero is an admiral of an enemy army.  The love is real, but the heroine does not swoon, her rescue is turned entirely on its head, and most importantly, her love has a cost for her — she chooses him over job and family, and it’s the right choice, but the cost isn’t magically swept away. She still feels it when she turns up in another book set thirty years later. 

    For contrast, I read a Nora Roberts story in which the hero was trapped as a ghost because he wouldn’t give up his magical powers. Then he falls for the girl (and acts like a total asshole, but that’s beside the point), and makes the tough decision to give up his powers for her — but whoops, the powers-that-be decide he gets to keep his magic anyway.  I nearly threw the book straight in the garbage.  It didn’t have the courage of its convictions; its message was “yes, you can have your cake and eat it too”.

    But what about the genre as a whole? It’s an industry as well as a genre, and for the most part it’s very good at producing exactly what its readers want.  It could still be subversive if its readers wanted something a bit outré, if they wanted to be shocked, but that does not seem to describe most romance readers.  There’s some sexually-explicit romance out there — but how many of the people who read it are having their horizons expanded? If people are reading romance for comfort, the romance industry will churn out comforting romances for them, which don’t challenge any preconceptions.

  25. 25

    Is romance a feminist genre?

    Short answer: it depends.

    Long answer. Dayum, guys, you sure don’t shy away from the tough questions. No fannying about with burning issues like: if you were a struggling frontier widow forced to buy a condemned man from the gallows to save your failing ranch and outwit a gang of rustlers, who would it be, Acheron, Roarke or DeSalvo?

    My instincts at this point are screaming, “define romance! define genre! define feminism! define define!” But doing this might cause the comments function to go into melt-down, so I’ll refrain.

    On the subject of the HEA, I don’t believe that a woman having an HEA is subversive per se. It’s more important to look at who she is and how the HEA comes about. There are a ton of romances out there where the heroine gets the man as a reward for her traditional (ooohh another word to define) behaviour. She endures and she waits. Then finally, through no action on her part, the hero realises his Big Mistake and the Brazen Hussy who’s been chasing him is either married off to some vile old man or pushed over the side of a cliff.

    Before feminism, most men didn’t run about the place like bad villains gleefully rubbing their hands as they chortled, “Mwahahaha! Today I shall use existing social conventions and pseudo-scientific rationale to oppress my wife’s heartfelt desire to read the newspaper! Ha! Ha! Haaaa!” The social structures and supporting ideology of the time weren’t a huge conspiracy to make women unhappy.

    Yes, they fundamentally served to keep power in the hands of a selected group, but one of their most persuasive notions of the time was that “acceptable” behaviour was what made women happy. Unwomanly dissatisfaction with their lot and “unnatural” behaviour was the cause of unhappiness. As well as weak minds, descending wombs and too much spicy food.

    Another thing to throw into the mix is that romance didn’t suddenly appear as a fully-fledged genre, with all its conventions and norms. The industry has a hand in defining it, but so do readers and writers. It’s this interaction that shapes the genre. Even the definition of an HEA has changed over time. We all have different expectations about what it entails. Look at all the discussions this sort of thing causes. Also, subversive attitudes are more often than not in the eye of the beholder.

    Romance itself isn’t monolithic, I’d argue that it has fuzzy bits, cracks and blurred edges. It’s in these places that it can become subversive. But so much of this is down to interpretation. Take a device like the hero’s pov. For years the hero was a distant figure with unknowable emotions until he declared himself on page 184. Then someone got the bright idea of providing his pov. Women writers putting words (and other things) in men’s mouths? (Possibly womanly) thoughts in their heads? These days, all this is pretty much standard. Instead we discuss how authentic his thoughts are, or whether we really want them to be quite so authentic. And so it goes on.

  26. 26
    Robin says:

    “Before feminism, most men didn’t run about the place like bad villains gleefully rubbing their hands as they chortled, “Mwahahaha! Today I shall use existing social conventions and pseudo-scientific rationale to oppress my wife’s heartfelt desire to read the newspaper! Ha! Ha! Haaaa!” The social structures and supporting ideology of the time weren’t a huge conspiracy to make women unhappy.”

    Has anyone read Ariel Levy’s book “Female Chauvanist Pigs:  Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture”?

    Apparently Levy argues that it´s now women who are controlling a lot of the industries and the media in which other women are exploited.  This thesis should be no surprise, of course, when you think about all the ways in which some of history´s greatest insults to women (foot binding, geisha and general concubine training) is often carried out by other women.  But still, it´s an interesting phenom and one that, IMO, has not gotten enough critical or popular attention.

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