I’ve been thinking a lot about the role romance novels play for its readers and authors ever since reading Teresa Medeiros’ inspiring and heart-wrenching post about why she writes romance novels. If you’ve been buried underneath some sort of Internet rock and haven’t read it yet, go have a look-see. That piece does more to allay doubts about the power of popular fiction to make a substantial, beautiful difference in people’s lives than anything I’ve read in recent memory.
A few things Medeiros wrote caught my eye, however, and started my brain spinning in all sorts of loops. Forgive me if this is somewhat incoherent; it’s still a thought-in-progress in many ways, and I’m hoping to have a conversation with you guys about it.
This is the first bit of the post that really snagged at my brain:
. . . “What the romance novel is really all about is the archetypal human struggle of integrating the masculine and feminine aspects of our psyches.”
My first reaction, which was really strong and immediate, was “Hell no it’s not.” Then I had to stop and ponder a) why my reaction was so strong, and b) whether I had any reasoned basis for that disagreement, rather than just a strong personal squick over the idea of masculine and feminine aspects to psyches, much less the idea that they need integration (more on that below). I agree that romance novels, more explicitly than many other genres, grapple with gender roles, gender identity and cultural expectations of gender. I don’t know that I’m convinced that they’re about integrating both aspects of our psyches. Some romances make an attempt, and a few succeed, but the vast majority of romances seem more comfortable enforcing gender norms as they are within the author’s cultural context. If romance novels truly were about integrating masculine and feminine aspects of our psyches, I’d expect them to be, I don’t know, more queer than they are—and they by and large aren’t. They’re incredibly heterosexual and heteronormative, and most gender stereotypes are adhered to quite faithfully; if there’s any kind of integration to be seen, it’s in the portrayal of the emotional growth and increased emotional vulnerability in heroes, and I think that can be largely explained by the fact these books portray female fantasies, and most women-who-like-men want their fantasy men to be dangerous yet nurturing and protective. And even then, the nurturing tends to occur in ways that are acceptable within the bounds of masculinity—and I’m talking about masculinity as defined by female fantasy, not necessarily masculinity defined by male fantasy. So, in romance novels, acceptable, masculine behavior for heroes that’s normally associated with the feminine include nursing a heroine through an illness, or confessing his emotional vulnerability, or being gentle and loving with animals and children. Other types of feminine behavior or traits outside the masculine, heteronormative norm are either seen as:
1. Transgressive and therefore villainized (homosexuality, bisexuality and general gender queerness used to be one of the most reliable earmarks, though that has changed somewhat in recent years. There are cross-dressing heroes and heroines, which is potentially queering, but they do it out of necessity and for purposes of disguise; there are not, to my knowledge, heroes or heroines who are true transvestites; anyone transgendered for a hero/heroine is still pretty much right out);
2. Signs of effeminacy, emasculation or mental illness and often portrayed comedically (slim physiques; preoccupation with fashion; dislike of violence or physical confrontation); or
3. Emasculating and therefore not portrayed very often at all (heroes who give up their successful careers to be with the heroine; stay-at-home dads). One big exception: if the hero’s job is one that substantially endangers his life, such as being an assassin, it’s perfectly acceptable for him to give up the job for love of the heroine, but then there’s usually the understanding that his super-secret Swiss bank account is every bit as turgid as his Staff of Pleasure and Wonderment. Or if the job is dangerous but either socially acceptable or not outside the law (he’s a Bow Street Runner, for example), he switches to a desk job, and it’s usually a sign of promotion.
These are generalizations—and not only that, they’re based on the sample of romance novels that I’ve read and can remember; I’m sure exceptions can be found to the rules. Nonetheless, these seem to be the patterns I’ve noticed in romance novels. More than the integration, I notice the gender separations in romance novels along fairly traditional masculine and feminine lines; I have yet to run across a genderqueer protagonist, for example, nor do I expect to any time soon. But gender presentation is tremendously important in romance novels, because gender presentation is culturally important. For example, Lynn Viehl has, in the past, ladled vitriol and contempt on “sheroes” (which I responded to with an entry entitled “In Defense of Girly Men”), and she is far from alone; I’ve seen similar expressions of contempt on blogs and forums for as long as I’ve been a part of the on-line romance community.
And to give you another idea of how important traditional gender presentation is: this year, the RWA National Conference featured not one, but two workshops on how to accurately portray men and women. One, called “He Said, She said: Doing the Other Sex and Doing Them Well” focused on “how to write the opposite sex, how to write them real, and how to leave readers wanting more”; the other was entitled “Body Language: Writing Compelling Characters of Both Sexes,” and it “examines the real differences between men and women and how writers can ensure their characters are true to their gender.” (Credit to Rose Fox for pointing out the fact that there were two workshops exploring gender differences—presumably among heterosexual specimens.)
This men from Mars, women from Venus outlook is just plain weird to me, because people are people. When I read my favorite authors, I don’t think “Wow, she certainly created a convincing masculine male in this one.” I think “She created a convincing character, with believable motivations, strengths and weaknesses.” Cultural expectations within the fictional world inform the behavior and gender presentation of hero and heroine, and if they openly transgress these boundaries, I expect to read about at least a little bit of fallout. But the cultural expectations of the author at the time she writes the book are what matter most (and I’m not only talking about culture-at-large and society-at-large, but about the microculture of romance novels and the romance community in particular, too). The hero and heroine won’t violate the author’s cultural expectations—and it doesn’t even necessarily matter whether the author subscribes to those expectations herself. If the author’s cultural expectations dictate that women deserving of a happy ending must be sexually pure, then the heroines are going to be virgins; if they’re not virgins, then they’re punished with either miserable or unfulfilling sex lives, or they’re not virgins because they’ve been sexually abused, and true fulfillment and happiness can be bestowed only by the hero’s magic wang. If the author’s cultural expectations dictate that women want to be mothers, or that abortion is in no case acceptable, then you’ll have heroines who have babies under the most improbable circumstances, or who think of abortion with disgust, and you’ll see women who do have abortions villainized. (Seriously, it’s even more heinous than having a good manicure and being vain. Women who have abortions in romance novels are Instant Evil, the way homosexuality used to be Instant Evil.)
Ultimately, I’m not sure that there’s a masculine or feminine aspect to our psyches. I’m not sure I subscribe to the ideas that psyches can be gendered in any kind of essentialist way. Gender and gender presentation (as distinct from biological sex, usually connoted with the terms “male” and “female” vs. “masculine” and “feminine”) aren’t just highly dependent on culture and cultural trappings, but on the individual, and where his or her particular gender boundaries are—and those boundaries can be fluid, changing with age and circumstance.
Another bit that Medeiros wrote sparked a train of rumination:
Probably the most subversive thing we dare to do is to make the woman the hero of her own story. And to realize exactly how subversive that is, I want each of you to honestly ask yourselves if the marvelous J.K. Rowling would have been such an international success if her first book had been titled, HARRIET POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE.
I think she’s absolutely right in this regard, and in my opinion, it’s why romance novels are stigmatized to the extent that they are. Generally speaking, when a book’s protagonist is a woman, or somebody not strictly heterosexual, or a racial minority, all of a sudden, it’s immediately tagged as A Book About the Other. Try all these other delicious variations: if Harry Potter were black, if Harry’s name had been Cheng Wei, or if he’d been gay.
One of the most powerful aspects of romance novels is the fact that they feature women who get to win. And it doesn’t matter if I agree with the terms of the heroine’s victory—I may think that her win was unrealistic, or unhealthy, or pyrrhic at best, or even a dead loss. What matters most is that the heroine triumphs, and that she ultimately gets what she wants. This doesn’t mean that I’ll stop critiquing the terms of that victory, and what those victories in aggregate say about readers and authors and society in general, but no other genre allows the women to win as consistently as romance novels do—and this is a valuable thing in and of itself.
This bit here sparked a train of thought so loopy and tangled, I’m still not sure I’m done unraveling the mess:
Our heroines don’t just “stand by their men”, they “stand up to them.” And guess what—their men love it! We celebrate both a woman’s softness and her strength and introduce her to a man capable of recognizing the value of both. Is it any wonder that both she and our readers fall in love with him?
When I think of romance novels, I don’t think of heroines standing up to the heroes, because it seems to me that when the heroine is pit against the hero, she will lose nine times out of ten if it’s related to anything involving careers, competency or ass-kicking. The message used to be much more stark in older romance novels, where the hero often talked about “taming” the heroine but not “changing” her; nowadays, the heroine’s power is undermined in more subtle ways. How many legions of heroines in contemporary romances make protestations that their career is their number one priority, that they are the best at their job, only to have the author show her to be incompetent over and over again, or to have her crumble like wet cake once the hero shows up? How many chic urban heroines discover that Twue Happiness lies in a small-town life with lots of babies and a white picket fence? Heroines tend to more consistently garner the emotional and moral victories, but most of the time, the heroes are the ones who win, and I can understand that—losing is strongly associated with emasculation. Heroines only get stand up to heroes in certain ways, and those acceptable modes of resistance have everything to do with our societal expectations of masculinity and femininity.
Romance novels, in my opinion, perform two major functions:
1. They’re about building stability and family—usually a fairly heternomative nuclear family, with the hero and heroine having lots of happy children and sidekicks who get their own books somewhere down the line and repeating this pattern.
2. They exorcise demons. I thought about this when I saw @redrobinreader‘s Tweet about how romance was filled to the brim with violence against women. And she’s right—the violence isn’t just visited on the heroine (rape being especially popular, with physical and emotional abuse from family members and former husbands being popular as well), but on villainesses and on supporting characters, too. I mean, if you thought comic books had problems with women in refrigerators….
There is a major difference here, of course: the heroines in romance novels aren’t used as disposable devices in and of themselves; however, their trauma certainly serves to move the plot along. (Are they indisposable devices, then? Hmmm!) (Also: I’ve long thought that readers and authors are simultaneously sadistic and masochistic when reading about these traumas; however, I still haven’t sorted this one out coherently yet, and I’ll hopefully address it in another piece.) In any case, women in real life are still disproportionately the targets of sexual violence and domestic abuse, and romance novels provide vehicles for exploring some truly scary shit, with happiness and hope for healing for both hero and heroine provided by the happiness and stability they find with each other.
I don’t really have a good way to wrap up all these messy thoughts—and as you can see, they’re pretty damn messy, with lots of gaps and skips and loops that turn in on themselves. I do want to ask all of you some questions, though: what purposes do you think romance novels serve? Do you see our psyches as gendered? Does it even matter? Do you think romance novels, more than other genres, attempt to bridge this gap?