Thursday, March 15, 2012

Why We Need Romance Novels

I'm not new to defending the romance genre.  I have a number of friends and relatives who have expressed shock that I read (much less write!) "those books."  With the recent media attention over Fifty Shades of Grey (which I admittedly have not read), the conversation seems to be coming up more frequently.  Usually I just point folks to Smart Bitches, Trashy Books--Sarah Wendell is the reigning queen of romance apologia--but the current situation has made me so frustrated, I couldn't keep quiet.

We have a long-standing narrative tradition of punishing women who are promiscuous or adulterous.  Dido in the Aeneid, Emma Bovary in Madam Bovary, Myrtle Wilson in The Great Gatsby, Katherine Clifton in The English Patient, April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road, Elizabeth King in The Descendants: all of these women engage in affairs, and all of them die, often horribly.*  Many of them commit suicide—Dido impales herself on a sword (hello, symbolism!); Emma Bovary eats handfuls of arsenic. More commonly in modern narratives, women don’t kill themselves out of grief or guilt; they die in painful, gruesome accidents.  In other words, they are symbolically dealt with by the author.

One could argue that it’s unfair to use adultery and promiscuity as proxies for sexual pleasure, but the point I want to make is that our society handles male and female sexuality very differently.  Female sexuality—and more importantly, female sexual pleasure—is at best mysterious.  In The French Lieutenant’s Woman (John Fowles), Charles Smithson evinces shock that the woman he has just had sex with could experience pleasure from the act.  In the mid 1800s, doctors brought “hysterical” women to orgasm as a medical procedure, as though the female sexual climax is so divorced from the act of sex it requires the intervention of a physician (see here).  And at worst, female sexuality is not mysterious, but dangerous.  From Anne Boleyn to modern cases of women stoned to death for sex before or outside of marriage, women have always been disproportionately punished for revealing themselves as sexual beings.  I hardly need to bring up recent legislative actions in Arizona and Virginia or a certain radio commentator's vitriolic attacks on Sandra Fluke.  

Unfortunately, sex actually is more dangerous for women.  It’s always been more dangerous.  There are the obvious risks and burdens of pregnancy and child-rearing**, but women are also more likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases than men.  Women who are raped face all of the consequences of their attacker’s actions, but making a man feel the unintended consequences of even a consensual sexual encounter requires a court order.  If a heterosexual woman wishes to seek sexual pleasure with a partner, the safest way to do so is within a committed relationship, but men are not constrained by the societal or physical dangers that sex poses to women.  In trusting herself to a sexual relationship with a man, a woman makes herself inherently and unavoidable vulnerable.  That's the world we very unfortunately live in, as I have been repeatedly and unpleasantly reminded in recent weeks.  How can this ever work without subjugating the woman?  By uniting a sexually self-actualized woman with a trustworthy man.  This is the kind of relationship that the best romance novels depict.

Many romance novels feature a hero who is utterly trustworthy despite, say, a promiscuous past or an excess of masculine sexuality. (A Kiss at Midnight by Eloisa James, The Iron Duke, by Meljean Brook, How to Knit a Love Song by Rachael Herron).  This type of hero is often an easily-recognized dangerous/powerful masculine archetype—a soldier, a politician, a warrior, a prince.  He unquestionably has physical or social power over the heroine, and yet, through the course of the narrative, he will consistently fail to exercise that power.  The heroine has nothing to fear from him.  Another common romance narrative features a promiscuous heroine who finds love and total acceptance from the hero (Your Scandalous Ways by Loretta Chase, The Villa by Nora Roberts).  The hero would be socially permitted to dismiss the heroine as a whore or a slut (words that almost exclusively apply to women), but he does not do so.  Both possibilities share an essential core: the hero commits unconditionally and exclusively to the heroine.  He has the ability to subjugate or shame her, but he does not.***

The trustworthiness of the hero is a necessary condition for the second important theme of romance novels: the heroine’s journey to sexual freedom.  Romance novels often chronicle a heroine’s progression from a state of sexual uncertainty to one of sexual satisfaction.  In a way, this journey mirrors society’s slow acceptance of female sexual pleasure, with the often-maligned “virgin heroine” as the most powerful example of this arc.  Rather than a symbol of feminine purity, I think the virgin heroine is actually a symbol of safe vulnerability.  When a female heroine moves from a state of sexual inexperience (or a past in which sex was unpleasant or hurtful) to sexual pleasure, she is moving from a sexually constrained world to one in which she is free to experience sexual pleasure (Montana Sky by Nora Roberts, Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost).  In other words, she’s moving from a world in which her sexuality is ignored or punished to one in which her sexuality is celebrated.

Let me be clear:  Romance novels do not subvert our existing paradigm.  They don’t disproportionately punish men for their sexual crimes; they don’t create a world in which women may be sexually promiscuous without consequences.  Rather, they hold up a possible world within our paradigm, one in which women are able to seek sexual satisfaction with a trustworthy partner without fear.  The “happily ever after ending” is the most well-known “rule” of romance, but the heroine’s sexual satisfaction is even more critical.  This, I would argue, is why romance novels are described by their supporters as subversive.  The romance narrative is an unapproved narrative, but one that is, shockingly, very real and very attainable.  Relationships based on mutual trust and mutual pleasure are, in fact, possible.  Women can have sexually fulfilling relationships that don’t end with subjugation or gory death.  These relationships exist despite the horrors around us, and they should be acknowledged and celebrated, not ridiculed.  

Obviously, not all romance novels are subversive celebrations of female sexual freedom, just like not all novels in which promiscuous women die are examples of society symbolically punishing female sexual freedom.  Still, I think it’s worth noting that one of the most profitable genres in publishing is routinely ridiculed as formulaic and trashy, while genres like mystery and thriller—in which murder, rape and torture often feature prominently; see here—are seen as perfectly acceptable “escapist" or even "high-brow" fiction.  The ghettoization of romance fiction as “trash” is just one more way in which female sexuality is ignored and punished.

So, if you're enjoying Fifty Shades of Grey, or any of the other stories the modern romance genre has to offer, read on, and don't you dare hide it behind a newspaper on the subway.  

*Sometimes it’s the man who dies in the end (The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne).  But not nearly as often.

**These are also joys--I'm a mom, and I love my son.  But I've never heard of a man dying in childbirth or having trouble convincing his employer to give him time to pump breast milk.

***I fully acknowledge that there are other, less pro-woman romance narratives--not all romance is created equal.


  1. I loved this post. That is all. (I kind of feel guilty for having nothing more to add that this. But you've given me a lot to think about. I have nothing to say really, not yet.)

  2. Hey, don't feel guilty. Thanks for liking it! I'm really just indulging my thwarted inner English major.

  3. Going to agree with Jaimie, you've given me a lot to think about. Particularly in regards to sexual empowerment and female characters and how it can, and perhaps should, apply even outside of the romance genre.

  4. This was absolutely wonderful to read. To be honest, I don't have a terribly passionate interest either for or against the romance genre, though on an objective level I'm for it 100%. I like literacy, sensitivity, and emotional intelligence, all of which romance provides, and the world needs more of these things. Point is, I read this because I was bored. Glad I did!

    The ideas you presented were some of the most thought-provoking I've read in a while, particularly your points on sexual motivations, the inequality of the sexual risk between a man and a woman, and the limitations under which women can often find freedom of sexual expression. I think you stripped your argument down to its fundamental truths.

    So, thank you for the excellent post. I will pass it along as best I can to my meager twitter following.

  5. @Kristin: Thanks fellow romance scribe!

    @A.L.: Glad you enjoyed the post. Now that you bring up other genres, I'm realizing a lot of "women's fiction" (whatever that is) has some of these themes, too. I suppose romances always make the relationship the central plot arc, and you don't see that so often in other genres.

    @David: Thanks, and I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

  6. You make many valid points, and the books you mention as negative examples are all books I have read and detest. I didn't care for "The Scarlet Letter" either. The only romance novels I can endure are old ones--Jane Austen and the Brontës, that kind of thing. The newer ones I find very tedious, though of course I've only read a couple of dozen so have a relatively small sample to judge from. I think that one reason for the punishment motif is to warn young women, who like young men are enthralled by their new and greedy emotions, of the dangers that lie ahead. Once upon a time it was dangerous for young men too; at best a shotgun wedding, but earlier a cad would get a bellyful of steel for mistreating a daughter, sister, cousin or niece. Exceptions abound, but it remained the rule for a long time. Now of course, violence has been claimed by the state as its sole province, so women are far more vulnerable in one sense, and cads are freed from all restraints not imposed on them by female continence. In another way women are much less vulnerable; the invention of the small, concealable percussion-based pistol did more to liberate women than all the marches and protests in history.

    I write fantasy, and two of my novels are about female protagonists. In both cases I tried very hard to be realistic in their relationships. In one women are mostly equal to men, because the nation in question is under attack from all sides and simply requires the resources of both men and women as much as possible (Fortunes Rising: The other, which I'm revising for the 971st time, is a Hellenistic society where women are far less than equal, and the heroine and her friends have become thieves as almost all other doors not related to submission are closed. It remains to be seen whether the outsider perspective of a man writing a women's thought works in my own case; several women that have read these novels think I was dead on, but it's so subjective who can ever really know?

    I come from a religious tradition where sex is not the 'forbidden fruit,' but a natural and necessary, even a sacred part of life. I was never taught that sex was dirty, that women shouldn't enjoy sex, etc, but the opposite; the reason to keep sex within marriage is because it is holy. There is no different standard for men and women; they are exactly the same.

    I think you are dead on accurate that trust is the most important component of any successful relationship, sexual or otherwise. From you post I actually feel a little curious to read some of the books you describe positively. Remains to be seen if I'll actually read them, because I find descriptions of sex horrifically dull, and I'm not sure it's possible to be a successful romance novelist without them. I would be glad to discover I'm mistaken.

    1. Thanks for your very thoughtful & articulate comment. I think the idea that the punishment motif arose as a warning is intriguing. Did it start out well-meaning, and then morph into something more oppressive? I hadn't thought of it from this perspective. I also think you've hit on another (perhaps less liberating) reason romance novels are so popular: there's often a scene in which the hero defends the heroine, perhaps with violence. In historical and paranormal romances, even a violent defense can be socially acceptable. In a world where women suffer from, as you say, the vulnerability of trusting the not-always-effectual state to punish attackers, it can be relieving to enter a world in which justice (or maybe vengeance) will be done.

      I like your premise (in the fantasy novel you describe) that equality for men and women comes about because the country is under attack. Very believable, I think. And it *is* pretty difficult to publish a mainstream romance novel without sex scenes these days. Most of the "closed-door" romances I've read are older (Pride & Prejudice being my all-time favorite!) But I think modern ones exist. I just haven't read any, so I have none to recommend.

  7. AJ-- I'm so happy to stumble upon your blog. What a great post! I love to think about these questions myself and sometimes I feel a little lonely blogging about these ideas. Amen sister.

    1. Amber! How cool to see you here! Thanks for stopping by. I wandered over to your blog, and I think we share similar obsessions! ;) I love picking these things apart, and since this is my little corner of the Internet, I figure I can nerd out if I want to. Would you like to join my support group for overly analytical writers who enjoy treating every blog topic like a dissertation? ;)