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.
Kathleen Gilles Seidel, Again
It was hard for some soap actors to maintain their self-respect when so many others thought they were talentless hacks. Jenny thought it was probably like being a housewife during the early days of the feminist movement. Everything such a woman read said that what she was doing was easy, mind-numbing, and pointless.
My first feeling was “this is just wrong.” But it’s not, exactly. Some feminists (and not just in the early days) are critical of women who choose to stay home, and I think the media is even more likely to represent feminism as saying this. So why did this analogy trouble me so much?
For one thing, I think it over-simplifies the feminist point, which is that housework is often hard and some of it is mind-numbing; why, then, should only women be stuck with it? Throughout recorded history, after all, most people who can pay someone else to clean their toilets have done so. (That the Someone Else is usually a poorer woman is something mainstream feminism has largely failed to grapple with).
Again emphasizes that “feminine” concerns like family and love are at the heart of soap stories. A feminist analysis might point out that both housework and soaps are devalued because they are associated with women. This moment in the novel frustrated me in part because Jenny saw feminism in negative terms when it might have had something empowering to offer her.
But the oddest thing, as Jessica says, is that though this is a novel about a working woman whose job gives her a lot of power, including power over her male romantic partners–something that causes conflict in her relationship with Brian–the only time feminism comes up is in this critical, throwaway analogy. A feminist analysis of Jenny’s situation is left to the reader, but that throwaway line seems to discourage her from offering it.
Ruthie Knox, Big Boy
This exchange between Tyler and Mandy occurs after he vents his frustrations by having rough, condom-free sex with her, the kind that makes her think of herself as “rode hard and put away wet.”
“I’m sorry I did that.” [Tyler says]
All the answers that come to mind are so grotesque, I keep them to myself. You can do that whenever you want. I didn’t mind. I want to make you feel better.
I’m supposed to be a feminist.
I actually kind of loved this bit. What I hated was the “undigested” part–there is no follow-up. Mandy never answers for herself the question of whether she can be a feminist and still be OK with wanting a man to use her body to feel better sometimes.
I liked it because these are the kinds of questions I asked myself in my younger days. I suspect they aren’t uncommon for women like Mandy and me: PhDs in the humanities who identify as feminist and have read a lot of feminist theory. Even if you don’t identify with these specific issues, many people think about how their sex lives fit with their religious and other values–or whether they need to fit. (Note: this is a totally different issue from judging other people’s sex lives as “not X enough.” It’s about how we fit together our own sometimes disparate beliefs and desires, how we choose to live out our personal values).
But I think if you’re the kind of woman who asks yourself these questions, who is bothered that your sexual desires might not be feminist, like you’re “supposed” to be, you don’t just throw out that line and then forget it. You worry at it until you’ve reconciled yourself to it in some way. Because the line is essentially treated as a throwaway, I was left feeling that it wasn’t a serious issue to either Mandy or the narrative, not a question worth considering. And that annoyed me so much that it’s more vivid in my mind months later than all the things I loved about the novella.
So What’s Up With That?
I’ve wrestled so much with writing this post; it’s the two glass of wine, pace the room kind. And I still haven’t begun to answer the question I started with: why these undigested kernels, these rocks in the stream, these odd throwaway lines? I’d love to hear from you on this, but here’s my stab at an answer.
When I was reading Again, I thought a lot about the implicit parallel between soaps and romance fiction–I thought Seidel’s (or Jenny and Alec’s) defense of soaps made an effective defense of her own oft-denigrated genre. And feminist criticism of romance, especially in its early days, has often been critical in the sense of negative, painting the genre as a kind of opiate of the mass of female readers, talking us into happily submitting to patriarchy. This is, in my opinion, bad, un-nuanced criticism, and I think at least some feminist romance criticism is starting to do much better. But I wonder if there is not a strain of resistance to feminism in the genre, partly because of that. (And I don’t mean here that “romance is not feminist or is anti-feminist”).
I wonder, too, about the strain of, I guess, anti-intellectualism I sometimes see in the romance community, authors and readers alike, the sense that asking hard questions, or certain kinds of questions, will kill our fun. And our lady-boners. Is that why Mandy doesn’t want to look too hard at her feelings about what happened with Tyler? Is she afraid of talking herself out of her pleasure? Are we afraid of talking ourselves out of ours?