In which I wonder whether romantic fiction can be feminist

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The same question has come up recently in three different conversations – is romantic fiction feminist?

So I’ve been thinking about just that, and I’ve concluded Yes. At least it definitely can be.

So that was good. All cleared up. Unfortunately clearing up tricky questions speedily does not make for good blogging, so I shall muse a bit on the topic anyway.

I think the idea that romantic fiction is somehow anti-feminist comes from the idea that romance is about a woman being rescued by a man, or a woman needing a man and a relationship to, in some way, complete her and make her a proper member of society. Now, neither of those things are in any way necessary or desirable features of romantic fiction. You can just as easily write ‘Man who feels incomplete without woman’ (although that would probably be merely different rather than actually better). I try to write ‘man and woman who deal with their own issues and then decide to be together’, although I try to do that with jokes and ideally at least one comedy sword fight.

I actually have a heroine in one of my books who ends up deciding that maybe the available man isn’t going to be the right ending for her (and I’m not telling you which book – if you don’t know you’ll just have to read them all to find out).

Of course, that’s just the content of the books, and fiction is much more than that. Fiction is a whole industry, and actually, ‘is the romantic fiction industry feminist?’ is a more difficult question. In some ways very obviously yes – it’s massively dominated by female authors and editors. I’m proud to be part of the Romantic Novelists’ Association which is a UK professional association for writers of romantic fiction. It’s predominantly female and you’d have to go a long way to meet a more forthright, intelligent, capable group of women.

But.

We do still work in an industry where ‘women’s fiction’ is a thing, distinct from proper mainstream fiction, and where female authors write ‘chick lit’ and male authors just write comedy. We also have a publishing industry where certain sorts of women are far more likely to feature in the stories we see published – young(ish), white, straight women. There would certainly seem to be room on bookshelves for a bit more diversity.

And in terms of content of books, can erotic romances centring around domination of a female partner be seen as feminist? Projecting the idea that physical or psychological domination of women is normal, or even an ideal, seems really worrying, but if you’re writing for predominantly female readers who enjoy reading a fantasy of giving up control, then surely those women have the right to their fantasy, and telling them that they’re not fantasising right is also worrying territory.

So, can romantic fiction be feminist? Yes. Definitely.

Is romantic fiction feminist? Well, yes, sometimes. It’s complicated.

I’m genuinely just thinking aloud (or at least on screen) now. Would be fascinated to hear more thoughts in the comments…

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3 thoughts on “In which I wonder whether romantic fiction can be feminist

    S. Hunter Nisbet said:
    January 25, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    I think it’s really a book by book thing, rather than something we can answer to the genre as a whole. I love a good romantic story, but so many romances leave me irritated for their treatment of the heroines involved. We live in a sexist society, and I would say majority of books out there, knowingly or un, uphold that view. I can’t say how many books I’ve read where a woman character reviews the positive traits of a man and lists “He doesn’t hit me” among them–like that’s a virtue, and not an expectation for any human being. Talk about horrifying.

    More and more, though, I see us as a society becoming aware of these small details that make up the larger tapestry of sexism and beginning to pick out the stitches. It’ll take a long time before I can view the majority of the romance genre as feminist, but in the meantime, it would be unfair of me to expect perfection. I only can cheer its authors on as they continue to write the ideals as those ideals change over time for the better.

    (Though as for a certain color-coded series I believe you are alluding to, I have massive problems with it. Not because it depicts abuse and the domination of women as right and good, but because it is unaware that it does so. Rather than owning it and saying “Yes, that’s what this book is about,” it masques it under the title of “sexual liberation” when it does no such thing. To me, that deception is a problem.)

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    tammylovellTammy said:
    January 26, 2016 at 2:46 pm

    Really interesting subject! I’d say the genre as whole is no more feminist or sexist than any other – it just depends on the book. For example are thrillers or horror feminist? A lot of those books place women as victims or sex objects. There are definitely certain cliches which are not very empowering to women.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that male romance writers such as David Nichols, Tony Parsons and John Green seem to have more prestige. Even though they’re writing on similar themes they aren’t labelled ‘women’s romantic fiction’ but are seen as more suitable for either gender.

    As for the sexual domination of women – I see that as a sexual fantasy – nothing more It wouldn’t be very exciting if Christian Grey was an insurance salesman who earned an average income, took her to Pizza Express and liked doing it in the missionary position with the lights off!

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    Marilyn Rodwell said:
    January 29, 2016 at 12:09 pm

    Feminism is very blurred these days, and the perception varies because some inequalities have been evened up. Not all though, and not for everyone. The youngest adult generation of self aware, self confident women, age 18, who I’ve spoken to recently, don’t even think it’s a relevant word. They don’t identify with it and what it means. They’re not ignorant of it, they just perceive it to be old hat and irrelevant today. But maybe they are the ones who could be most vulnerable, never having experienced the social conditions that brought about feminist activism, and feel that their normality of relative equality is here to stay. Maybe it is. But like the war, maybe it should not be forgotten and why it started.

    That might or might not be so. But there is also another category of young women and girls under the age of 18, who do read romantic fiction. Authors do have a responsibility to their readers. And while that means that they are providing entertainment and endulgence of a few sexual fantasies to some who are their perceived target market, there are those in the middle who are the really vulnerable ones. Those who are not in that confident, self aware category, but whose households have caused them to fall into the vulnerable category. Those who actually suffer sexual abuse at worse, and other inequalities at best. Of course anything can be justified depending on how we look at the evidence, but someone else’s fantasy is another person’s reality. Just another side of the discussion.

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