In which I wonder whether romantic fiction can be feminist

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…

In which I get my feminism on and feel a little bit weary

Today Elle magazine’s #MoreWomen campaign has been making headlines because of this rather pithy little video demonstrating how few women there are at the top in a range of different fields. It’s a neat visual way of making the points that most of us are already aware of – women are 50% (actually slightly more than 50%) of the UK population but less than 30% of Westminster MPs, only around 23% of major business board members, and are outnumbered my men 4 to 1 in news and current affairs programming.

And that should make me angry, but increasingly it just makes me sad, because I grew up genuinely believing that none of this stuff would be an issue for me. Yes – there was still sexism when I went to school. I remember my primary school reading books being big on sections where Peter helped Daddy do something fun and adventurous while Jane helped Mummy make the tea. I remember the maths teacher who accused me of cheating because a girl couldn’t be that good at maths. But what I also remember was being absolutely certain that all of those attitudes were a hangover of an era that was already gone.

I grew up as part of the first generation whose mothers routinely went out to work, whose grandmothers had been able to vote as soon they were old enough. I was born ten years after abortion was legalised, seven years after the Equal Pay Act was passed, three years after family planning clinics were allowed to prescribe the pill to single women. I grew up being taught to expect that my opportunities would not be defined by my gender. The big battles, it seemed, had been fought and won. I was part of the generation that would reap the benefits.

And we still find ourselves in a position where time and time again women’s representation gets to about a third and then stalls because somehow we’re visible enough by then. We have a cultural landscape where the idea that something might only be of interest to women is used as a belittling notion, whereas ideas that are mainly interesting to men are just ideas. And I simply don’t now how on earth we’re still here. I don’t know how it is that I’ve twice been in job interviews and been asked whether I thought a young woman could be taken seriously in the role. I don’t know how it is that ‘like a girl’ is a derogatory term. I don’t know how it is that I get introduced as a ‘lady author’ (Author. The term is author. Just author. Thank you).

Women went on hunger-strike, tied themselves to railings, burned their bras, so that their daughters and grand-daughters wouldn’t be in this position, and yet we are. And tomorrow I shall get back to being angry, and I shall get back on my special equal rights horse and charge back into the fray, but today I’m tired and feeling a little bit cheated, because I genuinely grew up thinking it wasn’t going to be like this.

(Song by Jules Gibb, sung at VIVA! concert November 2011 by combined cummunity choirs ‘Move On Up’ Pershore and Winchcombe, soloist Bev Harrell, musical director Alice Robin)

In which I wonder if we get too hung up on the f-word

I’m a feminist. I’ve described myself as such since I was about 14 and I’m not about to change now.

I think that girls across the world should have just as much right to go to school as boys. I think that women and men should be paid the same for comparable work. I think that on the three separate occasions during job interviews when I’ve been asked whether I felt I’d be taken seriously in the role I shouldn’t have just sucked it up and got on with the interview; I should have queried why the interviewers thought that might be an issue. I think that expecting the man to automatically pay on a first date is dumb. I think that a man holding a door open for a woman is fine, but I think a woman holding a door open for a man is fine too – generally letting doors slam in people’s faces is bad; that’s not actually a gender issue. I think that conviction rates for sexual violence against women are shockingly low. I think that the tendency in the media to describe women by their age and appearance first, and job or role second is depressing and damaging. For all those reasons I’m a feminist, but.

But, I also think that we need to accept that the term ‘feminist’ has become a bit tricksy of late. Various celebs have declared themselves ‘not a feminist’ and there was recently a spate of ‘I don’t need feminism’ selfies, where women held up signs explaining their reasons for rejecting feminism. This was followed, inevitably by a much bigger spate of ‘I need feminism’ selfies, which I absolutely support, but I worry that by simply responding with a chorus of ‘Oh yes, you do,’ we’re missing a point. If you do an images search for ‘I’m don’t need feminism because’ you’ll see that there are two repeated themes in the rejections of feminism. The first is that feminism is about supremacy over men, and the second is that feminism encourages a victim-mentality by defining a range of inconveniences as gender oppression.

The first of those perceptions is, in many ways, the easiest to reject. Feminism isn’t about saying that women are better than men. It is about rejecting the automatic reverse assumption. It is about rejecting the notion that an area of life/work has less value because it has historically been primarily undertaken by women. It is about rejecting the notion that gender should be a primary decider of your path in your life or career. And that works for men and women. Hurrah for the male nursery nurses, and dental nurses, and just plain nursing nurses.

The second problem is the perception that feminists see oppression everywhere and revel in the role of victim. Well, here’s the thing. Some people revel in the role of victim. Some of those people will be women. Some of those women will be feminists. Don’t confuse personality trait with wider philosophical message. Nonetheless, the perception that we are the girls who cry wolf, is damaging to the cause of equality. It legitimatizes the patting of women on their collective head, and the shuffling away of grievances onto the pile marked ‘women making a fuss.’

The saddest thing is that all those young women holding cards saying, ‘I don’t need feminism because… I’m not a victim’ or variations on that theme are making a feminist statement. They’re saying I’m not defined by oppression. They’re saying that they believe in their own ability to take life’s opportunities and make the most of them. But they’re rejecting the political and social force that got them to a place where posting a picture of themselves in a public forum making a political statement is permissible behaviour for a young lady.

Ultimately, ‘feminist’ is just a word, and maybe it’s a word that both sides of this argument need to be less hung up on. If you believe in equality of treatment, choice and opportunity for men and women, then what label you put on that should be secondary. Feminism has become a troublesome word because, at some point, the people who say ‘I am a feminist’, and the people who say they’re not, started using the same word to mean different things. If feminist meant man-hater, or eternal victim then I’d be lining up with the girls holding those ‘I don’t need feminism..’ cards myself, but to me it means something quite different. And that’s the problem. If we don’t agree about what it is that we’re embracing or rejecting how can we identify our disagreement and our common ground?

So a question for the comments section: Would you describe yourself as a feminist? And why or why not?

In which I wonder when showing one’s actual face became laudable

Now from that title you might be expecting me to weigh into the issue of Muslim women wearing a full face veil. Well, sorry if I disappoint but that ain’t going to happen around here.  Wear a veil if you want to; don’t if you don’t. I really have nothing more to say on the issue.

What I do have something to say about is this – the Children in Need Bearfaced Campaign. Not wearing make-up has, apparently, become so socially abhorrent, so embarrassing for women, that they can get sponsored to spend 24 hours without foundation. Hold the front page! There are pictures of some women showing the actual unadorned skin on their noses and foreheads. Try to control your inevitable feelings of horror at the sight.

What? I’m sorry. We’re all familiar with Children in Need sponsorship options – you can sit in a bath of beans; you can wear a duck costume to the office; you can undertake some form of physical task (sponsored walk, bike ride, swim, hop etc etc). Leaving the house without make-up on isn’t a sponsorable activity. In fact, at the risk of causing horror amongst whole sections of society, for a huge number of the women, and nearly all the men, it’s just normal. We get up and leave the house without painting on a better face than the one we’ve been lumbered with every single day. And here’s another shocker – nothing bad happens as a result. No children are scared. The police aren’t called. We aren’t carted back to our homes and required to mascara-up before we venture out again.

There’s nothing wrong with choosing to wear make-up. I personally only paint it on a couple of times a year – in the photo on this site, for example I believe I’m wearing lip gloss, but I think that’s it.  Wearing make-up every day just makes me feel sweaty and like my face is on too tight. There is, however, nowt unfeminist about an interest in sparkly pretty things. Some women enjoy wearing make-up, in the same way that I enjoy stroking shoes I can’t afford to buy (and would probably break an ankle in if I could). That’s fine and dandy. But wearing make-up shouldn’t be such a self-evident expectation of womankind, that not wearing it is viewed as hardship or faux pas. There shouldn’t be anything brave about not bothering with eyeliner.

To nick a thought from Caitlin Moran, a good basic starting point for rooting out sexism is to ask yourself, “Are the men worrying about this?” Are male office workers, or indeed male tv presenters, actors etc, getting up half an hour earlier every day to paint out their blemishes? Well on TV, to an extent they are, but we’re talking a brush of powder to take the shine off, rather than an intricate layering of primer, concealer, foundation, bronzer and more.

Your face is your face. If you like to paint bits of it pretty colours, then that’s fair enough, but as soon as we start applauding women for being prepared to show their faces make-up free, we accept that doing so is an act of courage, and it just shouldn’t be. A face is a face is a face. Some of them are a bit blotchy. Some of them are spotty. Some of them are wrinkly. Some of them have slightly hairy top lips. And none of those things matter, and all of them are entirely ok.

So, wear make-up if you want to; don’t if you don’t. Just don’t embrace the idea that not wearing make-up is brave or empowering, because as soon as you do, you also accept that it’s Not Normal, and the bigger, broader and more inclusive we make our notion of normal the more people we share common ground with and the happier we will all be.

And that ends this week’s sermon on the subject of lip gloss. Thanking you all muchly for your time.

In which I express extreme gratitude, on behalf of all the ladies, at being permitted to act on our own will once every four years.

Something has been bugging me this week. It’s not the fact that it’s February and the weather went all weird and beer-gardeny last weekend. It’s not the fact that lovely budget-conscious husband took this as a sign that it was spring and turned off the central heating, meaning that I’m typing this with my dressing gown on over my clothes because it all went winteresque again. It’s not even the revelation that wine is not my friend, which I noticed for the absolute first time this morning after going out last night and have never had any sort of prior experience of at all at all at all.

No. The thing that is bugging me is that every time I’ve turned on the tv, looked at a paper (or at least a news website, because, y’know, newspapers are so 2005), or fired up the interweb, people are talking about proposing. Well, not actually every time, obviously. That was an exaggeration for polemic effect. It has, however, happened at least twice, and that’s one more time than is needed to cause mild irritation.

The focus for the proposing frenzy was 29th February, the date on which women are allowed to propose to their partners, or indeed to any random male (or female – we’re pro-equality here) that passes their way. Much discussion has ensued in those corners of the media world where the understanding of what classes as news has been warped by too much time spent staring at shiny items and talking about slimming aids. I’ve heard actual grown-up people opine that a woman proposing doesn’t seem quite right, that it’s a bit desperate, that it’s really the Man’s Role.  All this discussion can be met with only one rational response…

What do you mean women are “allowed” to propose on 29th February? We’re allowed to propose anytime we like. We’re also allowed to go out to work, own property, open our own bank accounts, vote, wear trousers in public, paint our toe nails, not paint our toe nails, write great literature, read great literature, get an education, get a career, change our minds about said career and go back and get some different education, stand for Parliament, compete in the Olympics, take up country dancing, become naturists, become baristas, become barristers (which is different), become naturist barristers, drive cars, drive HGVs (like long-distance Clara), read the news, make the news, buy a trawler, buy a fashion magazine, get drunk, win a Grammy, win six Grammys, get angry, get happy, and, if we want to and we’ve found someone else who wants to too, get wed.

We’ve come a long way baby…