Romance Novels Part Two: Are They Anti-Feminist?

[Click Here to read Part 1 of this series]

To the claim that romance novels are anti-feminist, well, it’s hard to argue this point. Not because romance novels are, in fact, anti-feminist. In fact, I would consider many of them to be extremely pro-female. No, it’s difficult because so many people have their minds set on what is considered under the umbrella of “feminist” and what isn’t, and those opinions are usually formed through one’s own life experiences.

So I will only say that I find a book like Jenny Crusie’s Bet Me more feminist, than, say, (Pitchforks at the ready?) Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. I applaud Chopin and, indeed, I even empathize greatly with her heroine, who is trying to establish herself as a woman as opposed to a mother or a wife amidst all that patriarchy. But I enjoy literature in which women are rewarded or at least not denigrated for their bold and brave decisions. Isn’t it more feminist appreciate a happy woman than to accept that the only way that she can be free is to die? I recall poor Anna Karenina, who threw herself under a g*ddamn train. What kind of a message is that?

It’s also patently untrue that all heroines featured in romance novels are unrealistically perfect looking with no problems (thus perpetuating unhealthy self-images in readers) . I would go as far as to say that most of the main female characters do have flaws in appearance or nature. The heroine in Bet Me is overweight and has low self esteem but her love interest sees her weight and interest in food as a good thing. She doesn’t have to lose weight to be loved, she is accepted for who she is. The novels in which women are loved instantly on sight because of their heart-stopping beauty or unerring kindness and generosity of spirit are almost always the least interesting ones, just like in real life.

I also see romance novels as feminist literature not only in subject matter but in the fact that 98% of them are actually written by women and have women as the main characters. Smart, funny, articulate women who assert themselves in a highly competitive field.

Most importantly, I enjoy romance novels and see them as feminist because they answer to a power structure that seems to want to govern a woman’s sexuality. In movies, literature, and even in real life, a woman going after her own pleasure is lewd or even unlawful. Romance novels portray women in the full blush of their sexuality, enjoying the act as much if not more so than men. These novels don’t shrink away from the good parts, they lay them out in all their glory and force the reader to confront his or her own sexual nature. It opens a dialogue that should be confronted by everyone, regardless of gender and regardless of whoever’s delicate sensibilities may be offended.

At the end of the day, what you read and enjoy should depend on your own personal taste. If you don’t like romance novels, that’s great, but I don’t think the genre should be out rightly dismissed based on years and years of unfair (and, indeed, untrue) characterizations. Just like I read Fahrenheit 451 before I decided I didn’t like it, so should the world at large save their condemnations until after they have read a romance novel and consider it in its appropriate context. And even then, the condemnation should be for the book itself if the reader didn’t like it, and not for the genre as a whole.

I could literally write about this subject all day, but instead I’ll end with a quote from Dave Pollard from Salon.Com,

“Romances are, in fact, subversive literature: They encourage women to be dissatisfied with inequality, and to set higher expectations for themselves, and they show them ways to achieve those expectations, largely by taming men and, in a way, usurping their power. Romances are arguably the only art form of any kind that portrays women as equal partners with men.”

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