Book Thingo is hosting a series featuring romance readers’ responses to Anna Goldsworthy’s essay “Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny.” The two posts so far, from Jodi McAlister and Jessica, are great reading. One line in particular, from Jessica’s post, has stuck with me:
The oddest thing about romance novels and feminism, it seems to me, is that feminism is more likely to be mentioned in a casual way, or during a light-hearted moment, than it is when a material manifestation of sexism [such as domestic violence, employment discrimination, or the tyranny of the body image] has occurred.
Of course, a novel doesn’t have to use the word feminism for its character(s) or narrative to have a sensibility in sympathy with feminism. I can’t say I’ve read much fiction of any kind where the word comes up. Still, Jessica’s point is a good one: the struggles of romance heroines are often depicted as purely personal and psychological, rather than “political, social, structural issue[s].”
When I have come across the term “feminism” in my romance reading, I’d describe it somewhat differently from “light-hearted.” Or if there’s a joke, it seems to be at feminism’s expense. The mentions are vaguely, or overtly, dismissive or critical. I can only think of two examples (there’s a fantastic, lengthy discussion of another one prompted by Laura Vivanco here). These both occurred in books I loved and I think they struck me in part because they were rare moments I didn’t love.
But they are also interesting because–as commenters on Laura’s post say–they are largely throwaway lines. (Or as Jessica says, “casual”). Why open political questions and then just walk away without engaging them? In asking that, I don’t mean to inquire into an individual writer’s intent. I don’t know it, and things get into texts that aren’t intended–in fact, I find these throwaway lines interesting in part because they seem not fully intended or fit in to the text. They are undigested kernels, rocks troubling the smooth flow of the narrative current and snagging my attention. “What’s up with that?” I wonder. It’s not quite a trope; it’s too rare for that. But there’s something in the way “feminism” comes up in romance fiction that seems to me more “generic” than specific to an author or text.