Reconciling Misogyny in Romance Part 1: Sex Sex Sex

Lilith Saintcrow recently wrote a truly fascinating piece about the politics of appropriation and transformation in romance novels. She argues that elements in romance novels that initially read as being misogynistic may actually provide the means and framework for women to explore that which oppresses us the most. It’s good stuff, and you should read the whole thing.

Me, I think the idea has merit. I admit that as time goes by, I’m more and more ambivalent about the extent of the subversiveness and feminism demonstrated by romance novels as a genre, though individual novels can certainly be magnificently, delightfully empowering and subversive (most of Jennifer Crusie’s books, for example). Celebrating the more misogynistic cultural elements in female-centered fiction—especially fiction dealing with romantic love—may perhaps be a necessary first step towards discarding old, oppressive standards and fashioning a healthier space for female discourse.

When it comes to this sort of question, I like to examine the role sex plays in romances, because romance novels have such a complicated, ambivalent relationship with sex and sexual pleasure. On one hand, we have most romance novels portraying women enjoying sexual pleasure, and not being punished or killed for it. Given the rather grim fates met by most of the sexually active female protagonists in the Western canon, this is certainly progress of sorts. But the thing is, sexually active women are still punished, and punished severely, in Romancelandia. Think about the legions of villainous fiancées and mistresses that populate romance novels; odds are high that these women are sexually voracious or promiscuous, which is usually meant to contrast with the heroine’s dewy-eyed innocence. In the vast majority of romance novels in the past, the heroine is allowed to feel pleasure with the hero, and only the hero. It’s only very recently that we’ve started encountering heroines who’ve had pleasurable experiences with former lovers, or whose virginity wasn’t kept intact despite all odds and common sense.

The treatment of the hero within the sexual framework is somewhat interesting. He’s allowed quite a bit more sexual latitude than the heroine (he’s rarely expected to be a virgin, and he’s allowed to acknowledge that sex in and of itself feels good without all the woo-woo froofy folderol) but another convention that’s kept to quite strictly in Romancelandia is the hero’s absolute fidelity—one bordering on monomania—to the heroine once he meets her. In books past, this led to Inexplicable Dick Death on the part of the hero once he met our (usually virginal) heroine, an ailment that can only be cured by the heroine’s Magic Hoo Hoo. He Who Used to Fuck Twenty Cyprians in a Single Bound is suddenly struck impotent; only one woman can slake his desires. This realization usually makes the hero mad as hell and twice as scared; the resentment generated by the heroine’s irresistible charms would usually provide pages upon pages of conflict in older romance novels, and it gave the hero excuse to torment the heroine emotionally and sexually for his own emotional and sexual frustration. In the end, though, he’s usually tamed. If he’s not completely apologetic, he’s usually reformed and transformed by the power of the heroine’s Magic Hoo Hoo.

But I’m not entirely satisfied by this solution to the prickly problem of misogyny in romance. I think part of it’s my belief that if this were the case, we’d see romance novels pushing harder at the patriarchal structures that inform and shape them—more novels being in the vanguard, as it were, instead of being largely a reflection of current standards. I wish there were a serious way to collect a representative sample and study how much of the genre presents an uncritical acceptance and refashioning of old or current standards, and how much of it is truly pushing at boundaries, even in subtle, indirect ways. But really, such a study would be about impossible to conduct because if nothing else, we run into the problem of author intent vs. reader interpretation. When I read a romance in which the heroine is deprived of agency, either by accident (amnesia plotlines are great for this sort of thing) or by an especially overbearing hero, I find it difficult to believe that these books are somehow progressive or subversive, even in the ways Lilith describes.

Perhaps mores in romances evolve in a system resembling punctuated equilibrium: the books continue in a certain mode for a long time, and then some pioneer comes along and blows some doors wide open. “Hey, look, it’s OK to explicitly describe sex between the hero and heroine” eventually leads to “Look, the widow doesn’t need to be a virgin, and she doesn’t need to have hated her husband,” which in turn can eventually transform into “Hey guys, check this out: the hero’s not the only one allowed to have hot sex without love; the heroine can do it too, and it can be hot, and it doesn’t mean that she’s Teh Ebil.”

And I don’t even have time to go into the changing standards of careers for heroines and job competence right now. I think Lilith’s thoughts can be an interesting analytical lens for the ambivalence and mixed messages in Romancelandia regarding women who work and the genre’s obsession with the leisure class. Perhaps a musing for another day….

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Random Musings

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  1. 1
    Little Miss Spy says:
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    I think this and Lillith’s ideas are very intriguing. I have noticed sexism, and I admit I have never thought of it as revolutionary before. More of a thing to deal with in getting to the HAE. I never understood why the hero can have loveless sex, and the woman can’t but I never considered it a revolution that women were working against the grain of misogyny. I do see now, that the idea of a woman’s pleasure coming first within a setting that the reader recognizes as familiar is pretty interesting. Agh. I have lost the train of thougt. Distracted by the funniness of Magic Va jay jays. DEATH DICK. Hahaha

  2. 2
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    One of my favorite books in the past several years had a woman protagonist who dressed like a man, and had for years.  She also hired a male escort for sex, and there was a total reverse-role domination scene.  Lovely.  Some books are like a straight version of high-camp, but sadly they are usually written in the most earnest manner.  Which begs the question, can something be feminist or transgressive if the intent of the creator was not?

  3. 3
    Nora Roberts says:
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    It’s interesting. Whenever I’ve written a heroine who has what we’ll call a more traditionally (in Romance) sexual attitude and past, the reader feedback is very mixed. And the readers who dislike her, dislike her BIG time.

    It’s always been curious to me why it’s generally okay for a Romance hero to think—before he falls desperately in lurve with the heroine—yeah, let’s get a bang on, baby. But if she thinks the same—and has thought so in the past with other guys—she’s a slut.

    A magic hoo hoo can save the hero, but rarely can a magic ding dong save the heroine.

  4. 4
    Marianne McA says:
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    At Christmas, I read a 1930ish Mills and Boon romance.
    Now, I’ve no idea how typical it was, but I was surprised at what was allowed – while nothing graphic was described, the heroine had sex with her teenage crush, and a subsequent illegitimate baby. (She was told it had died, but it was stolen by monks with a grievance: a plot twist you almost never see nowadays). She then fell for an aristocratic wet blanket, but at the last minute left him for an ex-junkie doctor (co-incidentally the person who’d delivered the baby.) The book ended with the doctor deciding not to tell her the baby had lived, and a glimpse at the rather horrible life the child was now enduring.

    It did make me wonder about readers attitudes to what characteristics are acceptable in a hero and heroine. I’d have imagined that our attitudes now would be much more liberal than attitudes eighty years ago, but are we actually more puritanical? Or was the book just atypical?

  5. 5
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    It seems to me that the portrayal of genderroles differs from subgenre to subgenre. If you look at traditional category romance, the Harlequin Presents and especially the Harlequin Romance lines, you’ll find rather conservative genderroles (I still love them to pieces 🙂 ): yes, the heroine has got a job, but in many cases she gives up said job at the end of the book. Furthermore, she is often likened to a child; and almost always it’s the hero who is the more powerful in the relationship (there are exceptions, though, e.g. Lucy Gordon’s The Pregnancy Bond). He is the one who is experienced in worldy and sexual matters, and he’s usually the one who initiates sexual encounters.

    In contrast to this, historicals often tend to push the boundaries: e.g., in Stephanie Laurens’s A Rake’s Vow it’s the heroine who seduces the hero to seduce her. Or take the first meeting of hero and heroine in Gaelen Foley’s His Wicked Kiss: heroine sits in a tree, hero thinks he has to rescue her, she in turn has got no clue what he is talking about (because she’s absolutely comfortable up there in her tree), he’s somewhat miffed. The damsel in distress turns out to be something of an Amazonian queen. *g*

  6. 6
    Carrie Lofty says:
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    Yeah, Sandy, but Amazonian gal WANTED to be a primped and beautiful member of the Ton. And she didn’t enjoy her time in the wild by taking up with a dark and lovely native boy. By contrast, the hero shagged a girl within the first few pages and left her all misty-eyed when he departed. Native slut-girl’s hoo hoo was not magic enough for him!

  7. 7
    Kalen Hughes says:
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    Think about the legions of villainous fiancées and mistresses that populate romance novels; odds are high that these women are sexually voracious or promiscuous, which is usually meant to contrast with the heroine’s dewy-eyed innocence.

    God I hate these books. I write slut heroines and I’m damn proud of it. LOL!

  8. 8
    shaina says:
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    I wanna know what book spinsterwitch read!!
    so, i’m taking this class where we are talking about how our early years and the people and things around us influence our identities and stuff like that. and in my paper that i had to do about two or three events that influenced me, i talked about reading romance novels since the tender age of 11. because i’m sure that my views on gender roles and sex and such have been influenced like crazy by all these books. yeah. i dont know where i’m going with this. but it’s sure interesting to think about how what we read influences our sense of self…

  9. 9
    Teddy Pig says:
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    Being that I am a Dick… Dick D.

    “The treatment of the hero within the sexual framework is somewhat interesting. He’s allowed quite a bit more sexual latitude than the heroine (he’s rarely expected to be a virgin, and he’s allowed to acknowledge that sex in and of itself feels good without all the woo-woo froofy folderol) but another convention that’s kept to quite strictly in Romancelandia is the hero’s absolute fidelity—one bordering on monomania—to the heroine once he meets her.”

    I think you are going to see this change with the whole M/M and F/F romances coming out.

    Because eventually someone is gonna realize that M/M and F/F romances and relationships cannot rationally fit that structure.

    Serial monogamy sure but the whole virgin/pregnant thing nah.

    Once that changes to a more realistic setup maybe it might start crossing over.

  10. 10
    Vivi Anna says:
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    LOL…magic ding dong…LOL

    Great post.  And one I fully agree with.

  11. 11
    Jess says:
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    In recent books I’ve read, more in the paranormal/contemp group, it seems as if it’s more common that the females have had sexual partners in the past and it’s when the female is the virgin that the guys kind of freak out.  It’s almost as if it’s expected that when a woman is in her 20-30s she’s not a virgin and that’s treated as the norm.  I actually find that a good trend. 

    Now, as far as misogynistic attitudes…this reminds me of the glut of major alpha males in novels.  I have to wonder if at some level reading this isn’t about a vicarious thrill for the reader.  I know that I get a kick out of these super-strong male, loaded down with gobs of testosterone, who can only be tamed by ONE WOMAN. It’s totally out of touch with reality, but it’s entertaining.  In reality I’d never want to deal with one of these males on a regular basis. It’s a totaly guilty pleasure read for me.

    This also links with the theme I’ve seen of multiple men all falling for the same not-that-special woman.  Anita Blake, Merry Gentry, Riley in Keri Arthur’s series, Mercy in Patricia Briggs, Victoria in The Rest Falls Away… At some point I have to wonder if author’s are working out some inner desire to be the queen bee or women just love to read that a regular woman can be the source of many super-sexy men’s fantasy.

    At a certain point it stretches the bounds of credulity. And of course all these men are totally monogamous, even when they’re not getting any.

  12. 12
    snarkhunter says:
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    Jess said:

    It’s almost as if it’s expected that when a woman is in her 20-30s she’s not a virgin and that’s treated as the norm.  I actually find that a good trend.

    I agree…with a caveat. Having adult women who are not virgins is *essential* to the progression of romance as a genre (and women in fiction in general). But I find it equally disturbing if she is a virgin and is treated like a freak or like she’s too precious to deflower. A late-twenties virgin (yes, they do exist) usually knows what she wants, and who she wants it from, and I want to see more of *that* in fiction, thank you. (Despite my problems with the hero for being one of those ‘I daren’t deflower you’ guys, I did like the sexually aware virgin in Nora Roberts’s Irish Rebel.)

    Maybe that’s why I often prefer the more modern historicals—I really like the figure of the sexually empowered virgin. And if she’s not a virgin, she often enjoys sex. (I’m thinking of ‘Patricia’ (Meg) Cabot’s rather ahistorical “Kiss the Bride,” wherein the widowed heroine’s husband was a bit shocked by her love for sex, but his cousin, who loves her, is totally into it.)

    You know what I want now? Male virgins. Where are the virgin men?

  13. 13
    Zoe Archer says:
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    As someone who has been a reader, writer and scholar (?!) of romance novels, it’s been an interesting path for me to tread as I negotiate my own strongly feminist politics within the framework of genre.  Also, the older I get, the less tolerance I have for some of the more traditional romance elements that were so deeply embedded within the romances of the ‘70s and ‘80s.  I haven’t reread Whitney, My Love, but I have a strong feeling that I would likely throw the book into the compost heap now when our hero rapes the heroine.  But those manifestations of misogyny needn’t be so overt for the book to raise my red flags—I really do hate huge imbalances in the power dynamic, not only economic and social, but sexual, as well.

    When I write, I try and write a relationship that I find satisfying and balanced.  I’m honestly not a fan of the massively massive alpha hero, in all his grunting, dominating, sexually knowledgable and voracious splendor.  And I don’t care for the innocent virgin heroine who’s never even thought about her own vagina (sorry, hoo hoo), let alone *touched* it or discovered how she can give herself pleasure.

    I remember that there was some theory running around about the carnivalesque, and how, by inverting the dominant paradigm and satirizing it, the social structure was, in fact, reinforced, rather than subverted.  If this is the case, then perhaps the constant repitition of heterosexual monogamy is, to an extent, a subversion.  I think we can view the “taming” of the hero, in all his sexual dominance, as a means of female empowerment when everything around us in the “real” world indicates that, if anything, women are more disenfranchised than ever.  (Even Camille Paglia has come out against such celebutants as Britney and Paris, flashing their stubbled hoo hoos hither and yon.)

    What I loved about academia was that you could analyze a particular issue, and, after pages of analysis, ultimately determine that the phenomenon under discussion was “problematic,” and not readily solved through a few axiomatic phrases.  Seems to me that misogyny in romance is one of those problematic issues that cannot be dismissed one way or the other.  It both is and is not misogynist.  It does and does not reinforce societal strictures on women.  How’s that for decisive?
           
    It would be presumptuous of me to speak for what readers want, particularly since there seems to be a disparity between what publishers are offering and what the response has been on blogs and other public forums.  I can’t change the marketplace, but I can impose my own social agenda (for lack of a better word) on what I buy, and what I write.

  14. 14
    Kimber says:
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    I think Marianne’s experience is on the money. What looks like a “breaking of conventions” in romance may just be a slow digging out of the repression of the 1950s.

    You can’t look at a commercial genre like romance and not take into account the whims and dictates of the publishing industry. These are the people who decide (even now) that the hero must be older, rich, principled, etc. My impression is that while the sex may be getting more explicit and kinky these days, the stories and characters still don’t take many risks.

    Maybe it’s because our baseline is so low that any deviation from the formula (the heroine enjoys sex – gasp!) seems like a triumph of progress.

    And now that I’ve totally invited a flame war, I’ll speculate that there’s a probably a good case to be made that romances haven’t evolved at all. The overbearing lord gave way to the infallible doctor, who gave way to the autocratic sheik, who gave way to the corporate raider, who gave way to the Jimmy Choos and the eternal diet. It’s like the genre is always on the lookout for a new reason why we don’t have control over our lives.

  15. 15
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    lovelysalome, point taken. But at least there is a leeetle bit of subversion of gender roles going on, no? At least in regard to story motifs (is that a word? Gosh, I shouldn’t be writing blog posts in the evening…), if not in regard to sexual matters.

  16. 16
    Keziah Hill says:
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    wanna know what book spinsterwitch read!!
    Was it Almost a Gentleman by Pam Rosenthal?

    I tend to see romance like a lot of other fiction as existing on a continuum of woman hatred. Some of it will totally reflect oppressive sex role conventions and others transcend them. Because relationships with men are central to most romance (while acknowledging gay and lesbian romance) there’s bound to be misogyny at the heart of many because the structures of intimacy in most cultures constrain or limit women (and a lot of men). But I think romance also has the power to allow women to rewrite the heterosexual landscape in a way that’s closer to reflecting their own desire. That’s maybe through a lot of fantasy but there is the possibility of subversion through that.

  17. 17
    Nifty says:
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    a subsequent illegitimate baby. (She was told it had died, but it was stolen by monks with a grievance: a plot twist you almost never see nowadays).

    LOL.  No, you’re right—we almost never see the “baby-stealing monks with a grievance” plot twist these day.

  18. 18
    Jess says:
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    snarkhunter, I agree with you about the way older virgins are treated.  It’s not like it’s a disease. And for women who go a serious career path like MD/PhD’s romance and relationships are way off the radar.

    Although, I wonder what the response of a man would be to a 30 year old virgin.  Would he be a little freaked out?  Wouldn’t care?  I’m not sure what the male response would be, so I have a hard time deciding whether that reaction is unreasonable.

    As for virgin males…
    Sebastian in Eloisa James’s previous quartet of books.  I’m blanking on the names of those.
    Phury in JR Ward’s BDB series.  A 200 year old vampire virgin, which is probably a first in that genre.
    I’m sure I’ve stumbled upon them on occasion, but they are definitely a rarity.

  19. 19
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    LOL.  No, you’re right—we almost never see the “baby-stealing monks with a grievance” plot twist these day.

    Well, but we could make it a “baby-stealing aliens with a grievance” plot twist. *g*

  20. 20
    Jess says:
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    Okay, this theory might be a little out there, so bear with me.

    I’m thinking about how these men often seem to become monogamous to the point that they’re essentially impotent with everyone but the heroine.  They start out as domineering men, strong, and sometimes with a misogynistic streak, but at the end of the book they become totally devoted to the woman. Her hoo-hoo or no hoo-hoo.

    It makes me think about Dom/Sub relationships, where the true power lies with the sub because they are the one that can call a halt to the play at any time.  They might appear to be playing the weaker party, but in the end, they have the final say.

    It seems that a theme in these romance novel relationships is that while the male is strong and powerful, it’s the woman who ends up with the control.  He might appear domineering, but he’s really wiling to do anything for the woman.

    I’m not sure how generally this applies, or whether I’m thinking of two narrow a focus of books.

  21. 21
    eponymous says:
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    I wanna know what book spinsterwitch read!!

    For serious! I want to read that, too!

  22. 22
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    I wish I could remember the title of the book for you guys.  Honestly, I’m awful remember the names.  I’ve been known to buy the same book twice, even after reading the description.  I’m eternally grateful for liberal returns policies.

    Almost a Gentleman was a good book, but the one I’m thinking of the heroine was not quite so engaged in the ton, if I recall.

  23. 23
    Robin says:
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    A couple more virgin heroes:

    Michael from Gaffney’s Wild at Heart
    Hugh from Meljean Brook’s Demon Angel
    Lorraine Heath’s Always to Remember (can’t remember the hero’s name)

    As for the magic ding dong saving the heroine, I think that’s also a staple in Romance (Shannon McKenna, anyone??!)—think of all the shy, retiring virgins who become sex goddesses or the traumatized heroines who are magically healed by the hero’s 9 inches of luv (Linda Howard’s Dream Man, a book that pisses me off every time I even THINK about it).

    I’ve been thinking about Saintcrow’s post for the past two days, and I guess I feel this way:  no cultural hegemony exists without subversion.  No dominant ideology exists without ambivalence, and thus subversion.  How effective, transformative, revolutionary, recognizable that subversion is remains a stickier question, IMO.  Also, where Romance is concerned, I absolutely think there are elements of subversion in the genre—but whether they exist because we see them and talk about them (i.e. our discourse about the genre gives them life) or whether they exist independently of our interrogation of them is murkier.  I think it’s a bit of both, but I think where Saintcrow talks about a framework for naming the beast, so to speak, that framework is provided more by our interpretive work than by our individual responses to each book (or at least by a relationship and a conversation between these two things).

    Case in point:  When Adele Ashworth’s Duke of Sin came out, and the hoopla over the fact that Vivian was a virgin widow started on AAR, Ashworth (famously, now) protested that she didn’t feel she was making any kind of statement but rather simply making a character choice that made sense to her.  That such a choice came from an editor’s concern over sexually mature heroine didn’t, as far as Ashworth was concerned, amount to anything nefarious or culturally significant.  And many individual readers didn’t have a particuarly negative reaction to the device, because they were content to abide by the rules the book drew. 

    Now I think the change was very significant, but I can respect that Asworth didn’t (or at least accept her statement that she didn’t, whether she believe that herself or not).  And I think the significance has more to do with a collective discourse than individual readings of the book, although our individual reading dispositions are certainly affected by our collective cultural discourses.  Because had we not been interrogating women’s sexuality in Romance to begin with, most readers probably woulnd’t have thought twice about Ashworth’s character choice, and in the ideal world, it WOULDN’T be politically, sexually, or culturally significant (in the same way virgin heroines, even older virgin heroines, wouldn’t be seen as making a certain political statement about women’s sexuality). The key, of course, is for women to feel that we do own our own sexuality, as Saintcrow mentions, not so much the way we choose to exercise that power—and of course this is where we meet the whole question of how authentic those choices are when so many women don’t have the material luxury of multiple options (let alone the ideological barriers we all face to some degree—but then again, men face those, too, so . . .).  It would be interesting to compare these issues to the sexual identity/sensibility of women in matriarchal cultures.

    I find that there are some Romance authors whose work creates both a draw and a repulsion in me as a reader—most notably the work of SEP and Linda Howard.  I find some things in their work that feel very liberating to me, and other things that feel very reactionary.  For example, I want to SCREAM when SEP’s heroines “reclaim their womanhood” by having sex with the hero.  And yet I love that some of her heroines are bitches.  This ambivalence beguiles and frustrates me to no end.  Interestingly, these two authors have incredibly wide appeal, and, IMO, too little critical attention (and I don’t mean criticism), in part IMO because they are skilled writers and storytellers.  I’d love it if the Romance community paid more analytical attention to some of these books—the ones where it’s not so clear where all those lines are and where we’re more likely to let certain things slide for the sake of a good story. IMO that’s where a lot of really interesting action is, vis a vis these issues.

    Oh, and I’d love to see a great analysis of the popualarity of sheikh Romance in the context of the Middle East situation—that remains one of the greatest areas of fascination to me within the entire genre.

  24. 24
    Robin says:
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    It seems that a theme in these romance novel relationships is that while the male is strong and powerful, it’s the woman who ends up with the control.  He might appear domineering, but he’s really wiling to do anything for the woman.

    I think this is a fascinating point, because it creates a whole dilemma regarding who really IS in control.  Is it the woman because she tames the man?  Or is it the man because the woman’s entire world becomes circumscribed by her relationship with him?  And is the fact that such a fantasy doesn’t translate well into real life empowering or disempowering for women and for female sexuality in general?  Or for male sexuality?  Or is this simply the dynanmic of power in which it is naturally transferred from one party to another and back again?  In some ways, I think this image is not only central to Romance, but to male/female relationships more generally.

  25. 25
    Jess says:
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    Robin, I see your point about why is ultimatley in control in these relationships.  I think a healthy relationship should exist where neither party is the one with some sort of ultimate power.  And yet, in romance-land it appears as if what sells is the alpha male that becomes essentially subservient to the female. 

    I think what we’re seeing is the acting out of a female fantasy where a regular woman can take some macho-tough guy and make him her bitch. If the books of old were examples of the fictionilization of women’s rape fantasies, could this be the same idea, but instead of rape, it’s power-play fantasies?

  26. 26
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    If you look at traditional category romance, the Harlequin Presents and especially the Harlequin Romance lines, you’ll find rather conservative genderroles (I still love them to pieces smile ): yes, the heroine has got a job, but in many cases she gives up said job at the end of the book. Furthermore, she is often likened to a child; and almost always it’s the hero who is the more powerful in the relationship

    I’m a bit confused. Is the Harlequin Romance line very different from the Mills & Boon Tender/Romance line? Because the two have recently merged, and my impression of M&B Tenders (and so far of the rebranded M&B Romance line) is that it’s full of working women, including working mothers. Just to give some of the more recent examples, there’s Ally Blake’s Meant-To-Be-Mother, in which the heroine actually gets a better job at the end of the novel, Jackie Braun’s The Businessman’s Bride, where the heroine is an artist and doesn’t plan on stopping, and Liz Fielding’s The Valentine Bride in which the heroine is a PR consultant and isn’t going to give that up when she marries. I’m not saying there aren’t some heroines who decide to become stay-at-home mothers (and in fact, isn’t that a valid choice for a feminist to make? I’m a SAHM myself), but there are lots and lots who don’t. And the heroines are rarely if ever compared to children and power imbalances are far, far less often an issue than in the Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Moderns. And the Moderns are actually pretty diverse. There are quite a lot of heroines in Moderns who don’t give up their jobs and who most definitely aren’t compared to children.

    Umm. I’ll stop now before I do an impromptu summary of the essay I’m writing 😉 Just saying that I have seen some examples of the stereotype you describe, but not that often and very rarely in the Mills & Boon Tender/Romance line.

  27. 27
    Robin says:
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    I think what we’re seeing is the acting out of a female fantasy where a regular woman can take some macho-tough guy and make him her bitch. If the books of old were examples of the fictionilization of women’s rape fantasies, could this be the same idea, but instead of rape, it’s power-play fantasies?

    I think that’s part of what’s going on, definitely.  I tend to see the whole sexual power/consent issue as on a continuum, with the heroine in full consent on one end and the reader consenting for her on the other (this is where I locate a lot of “Romance rapes”), so I tend to see most of these sexual power games/fantasies/issues as all about permission, safety, consent, personal power, and authority.  And I think readers are comfortable at different points along the continuum, depending on the book, on their own experiences and views, and on the connections they form with the characters. 

    It’s interesting how we tend to focus on where the woman is in these equations and don’t look so much at where the man ends up—how “tamed” is he, and what’s the nature of the fantasy vis a vis his power?  I think that would be a fascinating place to look, especially as it’s often the female author giving voice to these male characters—how do these guys serve the fantasy beyond the so-called romantic ideal?  What do they offer the heroine beyond their turbo-powered sperm and their undiluted devotion?

  28. 28
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    I’m a bit confused. Is the Harlequin Romance line very different from the Mills & Boon Tender/Romance line?

    Ooops. Isn’t Harlequin Romance M&B Modern Romance? Okay, I checked my bookshelf again: M&B Modern and Tender (now Romance) are both published as Harlequin Presents. My bad. Sorry! (See? I really shouldn’t do blogposts in the evenings!)

    What I wanted to say before I got distracted by all these differently named lines: the books of the M&B Tender (Romance) and in particular books of the M&B Modern lines tend to portay more traditional genderroles. However, M&B Tender novels usually don’t feature those uber-Alpha males, but are much more muted down, so the power gap between the protagonists tends to be less pronounced. But it’s most definitely in the Moderns. The sample I looked at in detail for the diss mostly comprises books from 2000 and 2001, but I noticed similar things in more recent novels, too.

    The big exception seem to be the books of the Modern Romance Extra line, but since I’ve only read three novels by Julie Cohen, I can’t really say much about the line as such.

  29. 29
    Laura Vivanco says:
    1+

    M&B Modern and Tender (now Romance) are both published as Harlequin Presents.

    Oh, I’m getting so picky. The M&B Moderns are Harlequin Presents and the guidelines say that they have the ‘focus on strong, wealthy, breathtakingly charismatic alpha-heroes who are tamed by spirited, independent heroines’. Interesting how explict they are about the ‘taming’ aspect of this. Though in fact I’m not convinced that all the heroes do, in fact, need to be ‘tamed’. Some of them are arrogant and sexist, but certainly not all.

    The the guidelines for the Mills & Boon Tender line/Harlequin Romance line say that the ‘heroine is the vehicle through which the reader experiences the romance. The reader wants to be able to identify strongly with her, to like her, to want to be her, or want to be her friend. She must be a strong, convincing woman of the 21st century.’ and they add that these romances are ‘About a hero and heroine who are equal (they need each other; their strengths and weaknesses balance the other’s)’. That could still involve traditional gender roles, but like I said, there are plenty of career women in the line who don’t give up their careers when they marry/have babies and, as I also said, I’m not at all convinced that becoming a stay-at-home-mother is automatically an unfeminist thing to do. It depends on why and if a woman chooses to do it.

    The Modern Extras are rather different from Moderns. To quote again from the guidelines, they feature ‘an independent woman who knows what she wants from love and her career and a guy who’s confident, easygoing and gorgeously sexy’. And they apparently used to be Harlequin Temptations, which is the line Jenny Crusie wrote for, which maybe gives some indication of what they’re like. Obviously the lines keep being renamed, but on the equality issue I got a similar sense from them i.e. there’s a fairly equal power balance between the hero and heroine, both tend to have careers that matter to them, and neither are sexually inexperienced. In a way the M&B Modern Extras take the power dynamics of the Tenders and the sexuality levels of the Moderns.

  30. 30
    Lacy says:
    1+

    Sure you can do a study like that. With one degree in English lit and another in communication (where I studied romance fiction for the most part), I have even done similar things. As for author’s intent, it shouldn’t come into play here. What really matters is what is being put out there and if the author intends one thing but the readers get something else, then it’s the readers who matter in this scenario. They are the one’s making up today’s culture. This is no disrespect to authors; I have several friends were are employed as such. One can talk about author intentions all day, but in the end, what matters (in this case) is what the readers think of what they read. Not that author intentions don’t matter; but in literature the reader (and researcher, oftentimes) has no way of knowing said intentions and will have to make up her own mind about what she has just read.
    Having completed my thesis on a feminist view of romances, I will say that according to my findings, romance fiction is both subversive and progressive in varying ways.

  31. 31
    0

    Having completed my thesis on a feminist view of romances

    Lacy, would you consider adding details of your thesis to the bibliography at the Romance Wiki? The page for dissertation abstracts is here. Is it available to read online?

  32. 32
    DebL says:
    1+

    An earlier discussion here of sex in romances (older virgin heroines) gave me a brainwave, but the discussion was over by that time. Basically, a lot of readers were irritated by the older virgin, or the virgin widow because of its implausibility and the way it seems to promote a narrowing of women’s sexual options.

    But I wonder if the older virgin device (and a lot of other strange Romancelandia devices) exists because the sexual coming-of-age story is so poignant and interesting.

    A huge hero-heroine age gap used to be okay in romances—now it’s not. So instead of writing the sexual coming-of-age story of a 17 year-old girl with a man twice her age, it’s the 30 year-old virgin and a man about her own age (or younger. See Miss Wonderful by Loretta Chase). I’m relieved at least that the gender age gap is much narrower in romances. I can’t help thinking that’s some gender equity progress.

    And as for those virgin heroes and their comings-of age… bring it on!

  33. 33
    Dee Savoy says:
    1+

    (She was told it had died, but it was stolen by monks with a grievance: a plot twist you almost never see nowadays)

    This made me laugh so hard I spit out my non-smoking gum.  Exactly what kind of grievance could the monks have had?

    Anyhoo, I’ve long been of the opinion that certain types of stereotypes and unrealities (like thirty-five year old widow virgins—in contemporaries, mind you, do us all more harm than good.  What are we saying about femininity and womanhood if the only way we can be happy is in some otherwordly existence that more parodies reality than emulates it.  Is romance feminist fiction?  It could be, but not IMO, by and large, as it is currently practiced.

  34. 34
    Wry Hag says:
    1+

    Again (if you believe publishers, that is), it all comes down to what readers want and/or will accept.  E-publishing has made great strides in eliminating a lot of the foolishness that has pervaded traditional (and stereotypical) romance fiction.  But most have their limits, too.  In BDSM, femdoms are a no-no.  In same-sex scenes and menages, f/f is a no-no.  I suspect there are other leaps even the e-pubs won’t take…because, they claim, of reader preferences.

    I, for one, think romances—especially erotic ones—featuring older heroes and heroines are long fucking overdue.  Ageism in romance is a far worse plague than sexism.

  35. 35
    romaddict says:
    1+

    There seems to be a general assumption that the plotlines and characteritics of romance novels (e.g. heroine as virgin) reflect and are intended to reflect modern sexual mores.  Whilst that is undoubtedly the case for some authors, it seems to me (especially for example in M&B Modern romances) that the use of the virgin storyline is simply a handy plot device.  Romance novels may contain descriptions of sex but they are not erotica.  The purpose of the romance novel is not to sexually titillate but to emotionally titillate.  In many romance novels, the central conflict between the hero and the heroine is founded on a misunderstanding, often relating to the heroine’s perceived promiscuity.  The heroine’s virginity therefore becomes important as incontravertible physical proof that the hero was “wrong about her all along”.  It’s a cheap trick but evidently one that readers still find satisfying (and I include myself in their number).  I couldn’t care less whether the heroine has had sex before or not – but I’m punching the air and cackling when the hero has to admit he’s been wrong about her all along. 

    I’ve been reading these kind of books (amongst others, I hasten to add) since I was 12 and I’m now 34.  Have these representations of characters affected the way I live my life or my expectations of life?  Of course not.  I’m a practising lawyer, I expect and demand respect from the male gender and I was most certainly not a virgin when I met my husband.  I just enjoy a bit of escapism without having to worry about whether it reflects real life or not. I look on it as emotional pornography (and I must admit, I treat it like pornography, hiding these books out of sight. I can’t be the only one).

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