By Charlie Beauvoir
October 29, 2021
I was 16 years old, and I had a stash of romance novels hidden under my bed. My mother was furious when she found out I was reading them. “They aren’t real, they give a false idea of what relationships look like.” Setting aside the infantilizing nature of the statement that I was incapable of telling the difference between real life and fiction, essentially, she was telling me something. Her experience with relationships differed greatly from what she knew to be true. She wasn’t wrong.
Still, I read, seeking that heart clenching conflict. The tension was palpable in my passionate heart. I was conflicted simultaneously as I had to overlook the dismissive, patriarchal themes. Reading romance became my hidden secret. A secret I struggled with as my feminist ideals grew. The conflict between romance and feminism caused dissonance that lasted for years.
Second wave feminists pointed out the inherent trap in romantic love. “It starts by falling into his arms and ends with your arms in his sink.” Love was seen as a tool to get women to participate in their own submission, and marriage was the trap.
This still holds true today, but these traps have begun to shift. Women have gained more independence and divorce is initiated 80% by women. The trappings of ownership through marriage are fading and women are taking back their power. Yet, feminists were still seen as man hating. For so long feminism has been an f word.
Then I watched a documentary on Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She showed that the patriarchy serves no one. After representing a single father who was denied to access to benefits traditionally given to women, it was clear. Under the patriarchy, no one benefited. Men have been forced to hide their emotions. Vulnerability and connection, the tools for creating connection and intimacy, are touted as female characteristics. Many men only feel value through their careers. The high rates of suicide after their ‘usefulness’ has gone illustrates this.
Was my mother saying that the genre wasn’t fair to men as well? I know my own father showed emotion freely, he even took a lower paying job so he could be home with his family more. He was unflappably supportive of my mother’s goals.
Romance is Feminist
Reviews on Amazon further drive this point. Romance from the 80’s receives harsh reviews from new readers. They challenge the emotionally distant and almost cruel male leads, the hypocrisy in purity culture, and the simpering protagonists.
And, it seems, there's a niche that might need filling. New readers are craving romance that fits the times. When I dove more deeply into my own struggles with this, I remembered something important.
Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Little Women, classics in their own rights, have the foundation of feminism. Elizabeth refused to marry out of convenience and when offered a safe marriage, refused because she felt respect was lacking. Emma was a wealthy woman in no need of marriage. Jo from Little Women, fell in love with the man who lifted her up, challenged her. He was honest, vulnerable. These titles have endured through the ages and the theme seems to be feminism.
What was I seeking that I wasn’t getting from my books? To have female characters that possessed the abilities I wish I had. A voice, confidence, independence. I wanted love interests that supported and held up the lead. I wanted kind men, who weren’t threatened by a strong woman. I wanted women who weren’t healed through sex or marriage, that found their own truths through acceptance and love of a good man.
The romance genre account for 18% of all book sales. Those who buy from this genre are voracious readers constantly seeking new content. It’s possible that women fly through romance novels because they are seeking the shreds of these qualities. A teasing of what life could be what love could be.
Dirty Little Secrets
I suspect that the lack of these themes may be a hesitance to own this new shift, a fear of losing readers. But I propose that theme changes are desperately needed, women hiding their ‘dirty’ secret need a voice to own their love of romance with pride. Romance is not the betrayal of feminist ideals, it can support these concepts, and shape the future.
Kennedy, M., Lubelska, C., Taylor, V. M., & Francis, Aug 4, 2005. Making Connections: Women's studies, women's movements, women's lives. Taylor and Francis. London, Washington D.C.
King, Rachel. August 21, 2021 The Romance Novel Sales Boom Continues. Fortune