This week was my college’s reading break. I had a big list of Things I Will Do During Break. What I actually did was go to a bunch of meetings and mess around on the internet (plus a few of the things on the list). And on the internet this week, romance, feminism, and women’s bodies were inescapable.
There was Valentine’s Day of course, and with it articles about romance and romance fiction. There were the comments about embodiment on my last post, and Jessica’s wonderful post about embodiment (don’t miss the comments). And then there were all the outraged tweets and Facebook posts about the birth control hearings where no women spoke and Virginia’s new law requiring a woman seeking an abortion to submit to a trans-vaginal ultrasound.
I think my favorite link from all the political WTF-ery was to a blog post from The Daily Caller (which I’d never heard of before, and which I plan to forget ASAP) entitled “What are women for?” James Poulos’ piece is so poorly written and argued that if it were a student paper, it would be lucky to get a bare pass. (He was slightly less addled when writing the follow-up). The upshot, though, seems to be that since women can bear children, they don’t get to decide individually what to do with their bodies; society does (it’s telling that apparently when he first tweeted the article link, he @ alerted only men to it).
Poulos also suggests that women’s unique “natural bodies” give them a role in creating a more civilized society (I guess because we are nurturers by nature). There is, he claims, a broad consensus across the political spectrum that this is so. I had thought that consensus was left behind with the Victorian doctrine of separate spheres, the view that women must be protected from the contamination of the public world of business and politics so that they could function as the angel in the house, the moral guide of husbands and children. I guess I was deluded in thinking this an artifact of history.
This view of women’s moral superiority is a kind of benevolent sexism, “a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling tone.” Merrian linked to in a couple of comment threads, prompting a great post from Heather Massey on benevolent sexism in sci fi romance. Heather asks (and I think she’s posed similar questions before) why writers setting their stories in future worlds often don’t imagine gender and sexuality in ways that look much different from our own.
So the week’s reading brought to the front of my mind a number of issues: the extent to which women’s control over our bodies is under threat, the extent to which our culture defines women as bodies, the extent to which gender is biologically determined (less than a lot of people assume; a great book on this is Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender). That’s partly why, when I read Maria Bustillos’ much-linked piece in The Awl on “Romance Novels, the Last Great Bastion of Underground Writing,” I first tweeted the link and promptly followed up with “Just because something is by, for and about women does not make it a feminist document, FFS.”
This seems to have touched a nerve (see Magdalen’s post for an example). But “by, for and about women” is not the definition of feminist. Not any definition of feminist. Yes, there are lots of debates within feminism, but the definition isn’t content-free, just decide for yourself. Just because a woman chooses something does not make it a feminist choice or exempt from critique from a feminist perspective. Women’s choices can be constrained by society and sometimes by their own conventional views of gender. All-female enterprises can be both empowering in some ways and sexist in others, because they are not separate from the larger, still in some ways sexist culture. College sororities would be one example of this, I think. And I’m pretty sure Romance–individual books, the genre as a whole, and the industry itself–is another. How could it not be?
It’s no surprise that Romanceland is wary and conflicted about its relationship to feminism. There’s a strand of reader-shaming and genre-shaming in some feminist views of romance (“you’re contributing to your own oppression by reading this awful trash, and you’re too dumb to see it,” essentially). It can feel important, then, to celebrate romance as unquestionably feminist (at least now; sometimes this celebration involves a problematic disavowal of the rape-y past). Challenges to that view are often controversial. This post by Laura Vivanco on a Kelly Hunter book in which the heroine disclaims feminism, and the subsequent long discussion thread, gives a pretty good picture of the issues and positions at stake in any discussion of feminism and romance.
I don’t think all romance is entirely sexist. It’s much too big a genre to make such generalizations about (and equally too sweeping to say that every romance novel is a feminist document). I don’t think the whole romance publishing industry is sexist. I think there’s a lot to celebrate in them from a feminist point of view–and setting feminism aside, a lot to celebrate just because romance can be fun, moving, beautiful, and thought-provoking. And the pleasure romance novels have given me can make me reluctant to critique or question them.
But I do have questions. Here are a few:
- I’m curious about why I enjoy many books whose ideology I find on some level problematic (not every book, no, but plenty). These are hard questions, because they do ask me to consider whether I’ve internalized sexist views, and whether reading which has given me much pleasure has encouraged me to do so. I think these are questions each reader much choose to grapple with, or not, herself. I’m not interested in dictating to anyone else on this point.
- It’s risky, again, to generalize about such a big genre, but taken as a whole, it can seem fairly conservative. For instance, I’ve never read a romance heroine who considered abortion or even adoption when she had an unplanned pregnancy, though I’ve heard there are a few out there. Why not? Could the genre tolerate more stories that more closely reflect real women’s choices and struggles, not just in this area but in others? Does the focus on courtship which is defined as a key element of romance fiction preclude those stories?
- The market research of companies like Harlequin is often cited as a sign that the romance industry is giving female readers exactly what they want. I wonder about this, though. I hear a lot of gender-stereotypical assumptions from editors, writers and readers about what readers want: readers read to fall in love with the hero; readers want the hero to be at least a little stronger and more powerful than the heroine, so he has something to offer her. Well, not this reader, or at least not all the time. I realize my online circle is a very small subset of romance readers, but many of us are asking for something different. Are publishers asking questions in their market research that would allow people to ask for something different? (This doesn’t always happen. Today my employer asked me if I wanted to use their wifi to access the Internet. I expect Harlequin surveys are more sophisticated, but how much?) If publishers tried offering more variety, would they create demand for it? Could they broaden their readership?
- What about what I understand to be the RWA’s resistance to including smaller e-presses and self-publishers, typically female entrepreneurs, a practice which favors traditional publishing–now mostly multi-national conglomerates which are still male dominated at the top, no matter how female the editorial staff may be? I wonder whether the RWA is really doing all it could to empower female authors, or whether it is afraid to challenge the publishing status quo.