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.