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….