Reading Between the Throwaway Lines: Feminism and Romance, Again

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?

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38 Responses to Reading Between the Throwaway Lines: Feminism and Romance, Again

  1. Erin Satie says:

    I’m just going to throw out Jo Beverley’s An Unwilling Bride as being a novel that is really explicitly about feminism–it’s a historical, so she namechecks Wollstonecraft rather than more modern terminology–& the entire novel is straight-up structured to question the appeal of alpha men from the perspective of a feminist heroine who has to deal with the worst flaws of one.

    It’s not the most emotional romance novel, but it’s tight, well-structured, thoughtful. A romance writer at the top of her game grappling with a troubling aspect of her own work and profession.

    But maybe it’s no coincidence that the Beverley novel that addresses the topic most directly is also the least emotional that I recall reading from her–her other books are more intense, steamier, more immersive.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, thank you, because I do hope more–and that includes contradictory–examples will come out of this discussion. I certainly don’t mean to argue that 2 or 3 books can stand for how “all of Romance” deals with anything, because the genre is so vast.

      I also think it’s quite possible that I’ve read other romances that use the word “feminism” or “feminist” but I’ve forgotten because the use *didn’t* affect me as strongly as these did. It’s certainly possible that if the use felt positive or neutral to me I’d barely notice it.

      I have this book on audio but I haven’t gotten to it yet.

      • Miss Bates says:

        The only romance novels that never gave me even a momentary discomfort are Cecila Grant’s. When I’m reading them, I feel that they’re fully romantic, fully feminist, and unafraid to be intelligent.

    • pamela1740 says:

      I’m all stirred up by this, and excited to read more of the Comments, but want to pause here to thank Erin for bringing in Jo Beverley. I was away over the weekend and had the rare chance to read a novel straight through in one sitting, and it was her most recent “Malloren world” – SEDUCTION IN SILK. I had many stray thoughts similar to things you’ve so concisely articulated here — her historicals are unusual and compelling to me because she frequently manages to weave in a feminist interrogation of her heroines’ legal status and their “submission” to matrimony, without breaking character with her Georgian or Regency settings. Like AN UNWILLING BRIDE, SiS is the story of, well, an unwilling bride. The focus on property rights and the perils of childbirth are acutely authentic and sobering, and make the slow-growing attraction and romance that much more welcome. This one may be slightly more sentimental than UNWILLING BRIDE, but it shares other characteristics with the earlier novel, including the thoughtful and gradual character development and willingness to put the “hero knows best for heroine” romance convention itself on trial, as it were, or at least at the center of the story.

  2. Miss Bates says:

    Miss Bates, though not versed in feminist theory, certainly grew up leading her life as what she thought as feminist: never compromising her career, goals, aspirations, visions, etc. Hence, the spinsterhood. The most important moment of her elementary school years was a little book she read in her school library, GIRLS ARE EQUAL TOO by Dale Carlson. Never forgot that book. Wonder if anyone else remembers, or has read it? And that’s the extent of her feminist “theory.”

    And yet here I am reading romance fiction and yes, like you, struggling to reconcile my memories of an idea that enthralled me since childhood with reading romance fiction steadily, consistently and with great pleasure and satisfaction. And yes, I do come across moments which have me squirming with discomfort, as if I’ve betrayed, or neglected to defend, something. Even a book I loved: Miranda Neville’s The Ruin of a Rogue, and it’s not alone in this just uppermost in my mind, had the heroine’s “emptying out” of self for the hero’s renewal, comfort, healing, whatever you wish to call it. I overlook it, bypass it, forgive it, keep reading. On the other hand, maybe we need to keep in mind how to examine/think about how the hero changes as well, often vindicating the heroine’s perspective, even when that perspective is not feminist. Since JANE EYRE, there is something triumphal for the heroine of the romance novel, something she wins, or gains. (It’s like going to a friend’s wedding and you just can’t understand why she’s marrying that nincompoop, but said friend looks like she’s won the lottery of partners. Romance readers, and I agree about the disappointing anti-intellectualism, certainly have won something from the genre, some prize of emotional satisfaction.) Sorry for not really answering anything, just a great yea, I hear ya, to what you’re saying and in appreciation for voicing what I’ve only half-articulated to myself.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      One thing being part of the romance community has reinforced for me is that there are multiple ways to read and respond to *everything.* So I’ve lost interest in the “is romance feminist” or even “is this book feminist” question. I don’t think it’s possible to generalize about that. I *do* think it’s interesting to read romance(s) through a feminist lens, and when we do, we can often see both things to celebrate and things to criticize (and sometimes it’s the same things).

      There are books I can’t really enjoy because they are so out of tune with my feelings/values/whatever. There are books that I enjoy despite their being out of tune (e.g. some Susan Elizabeth Phillips)–either because the storyteller is so good I agree to go places where I’m surprised to find myself, or because sometimes my own pleasures and desires are not in tune with my conscious beliefs, something I’ve long reconciled myself to.

      The Knox scene is interesting–it wouldn’t have bothered me at all if feminism were never mentioned there, because I don’t think surrender or self-giving is necessarily “not feminist.” (A lot depends on whether there is some kind of reciprocity). Mandy wants to mean something to Tyler, wants their fantasy relationship to become real, and she feels powerful in that moment because he’s revealed something of himself and because he needs her. What bothered me was that it raised feminism in a way that suggested it is antithetical to what happened there, when I don’t think it is.

      • Miss Bates says:

        I agree, I don’t think it is either … but the moments niggle. And certainly literature does not have to have an agenda, whether that be feminist, or socialist, or otherwise. There’s no message to the medium necessarily, nor any obligation to carry one. But I like your point about there being moments that give us pause and to be open to discussion, consideration, and questioning of the genre.

  3. Sunita says:

    I would make a distinction between *texts* that are implicitly or explicitly supportive of feminism and female *characters* who explicitly support feminism. There are a lot of examples of the former, far fewer sympathetic examples of the latter. I think it’s for the same reason that female characters don’t express support for other issues that are controversial or at least up for debate within the romance readership: authors tend to lose more readers than they gain when they write that way. Obviously here I’m talking about authors who want to support feminist positions in their work; there are plenty of non-feminist writers and texts that don’t face this dilemma.

    I would also make a distinction between feminism as ideology and feminism as practice. Lots of people (men and women) do one more than the other, in both directions, and sometimes they have very good reasons for it (especially when it comes to feminist practice, which frequently cuts against other preferences and choices). The difficulty for women’s rights in the political and social sphere is that the more feminist ideology fails to be matched by equivalent practice, the harder it is to achieve structural change.

    On your examples: I’d argue that Seidel dropped the ball. First, which “early days” are we talking about here? The 19thC? The early 20thC? The mid- to late-20thC? Although it doesn’t really matter, because I can’t remember experiencing or reading in an era in which the discourse was controlled by a feminist message; there has been strong and sustained pushback at all times. As for the Knox, I remember the sentence well. It pissed me off, but it’s not at all unusual to read a sentiment like this in romance. Such multitudes are contained in “supposed to be.”

    • I think you’re probably right about authors wanting to avoid “issues that are controversial or at least up for debate within the romance readership: authors tend to lose more readers than they gain when they write that way.” That makes me wonder if explicitly feminist heroines are more common in historicals, because feminism is presumably far less controversial when it means advocating votes for women, or for women to have the right to own property after marriage.

      That said, I did find a few serious discussions of feminism/feminist issues and some explicitly feminist heroines in contemporary-set Harlequin/Mills & Boon romances published between 2000 and 2007 (the cut-off date is solely due to when I did my research).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I agree with all you’re saying here. This post was already way too long, but maybe I should have emphasized more that I think plenty of romance texts and characters *do* read feminist to me without ever explicitly mentioning the word, and that I was interested here in picking at examples that stood out to me, examples where the *word* is explicitly used in a strange throwaway moment. Maybe I made that point in too much of a throwaway line myself.

      I don’t mean to argue that romances should use the term “feminist” more or be more explicitly feminist, either. I am a feminist, but I think it is more theory than practice for me (or at least practice only in the sense of my personal choices–I’m not an activist). And I don’t use the word “feminist” much in my everyday conversations, even when my opinions on a subject being discussed are informed by my feminism. (I don’t say “as a feminist, I think blah blah blah”).

      Maybe it’s partly because so much of the time feminism is implicit and theoretical that these throwaway lines felt so weird to me. Almost . . . aggressive and in your face, but they were just an off-hand mention so I wasn’t really supposed to notice (and again, I don’t mean to say that the author intended that, but that was the effect for me reading).

      • Sunita says:

        I think the throwaway lines *are* aggressive and in-your-face, because (a) they’re not necessary; and (b) they work against the feminist-sympathetic depictions of the characters that dominate both the books. That’s why I made the distinction between the text and the characters. I think that those lines serve, however unintentionally, to reassure the reader that the character is not *that* kind of a feminist. In Seidel’s case, “that kind of feminist” is the one who tells women that home-centered work is mind-numbing and worthless, whereas in Knox’s it’s about the type of sexual desire and practice that supposedly conforms to feminist ideals. Like you, I didn’t see what was particularly anti-feminist about Mandy’s enjoyment and behavior, so that line annoyed me. But I found the depiction of Mandy’s character to be pretty muddled overall, so it didn’t stand out to me as much as it did to you, although once I read the quote I immediately remembered it.

        I don’t think these lines recur in books because of the history of feminist criticism of romance, I think they recur because these they reflect the extent to which feminism is contested terrain for women who read romance.

        And I think Laura is right, that historicals are easier contexts in which to place explicitly feminist heroines, because we agree more on the formal-legal inequalities and oppressions of those eras (and we have a retrospectively more black-and-white view of women’s circumstances).

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          In the comments on Laura’s post about a similar passage (the one I linked), a number of people said the heroine reminded them of young women who say “I’m not feminist, but…” and then go on to espouse feminist principles. I think the genre is like that in some way–maybe for the reasons you say.

          And I agree with you and Laura about historicals. “Everyone” thinks history is progress and we’re better off now than in the past, so a historical heroine with feminist views is typically not saying anything that makes anyone uncomfortable. Although if they really look at what Wollstonecraft is saying, it’s so antithetical to much of romance. One thing I enjoyed about Cecelia Grant’s latest is that the sister, not the heroine, is the bluestocking reader of Wollstonecraft, and the heroine finds her embarrassing and upsetting. It made for some interesting reflection on the tensions between feminist practice and conflicting goals/choices, as you mentioned above. I thought Kate sympathized to some extent with her sister’s views, but she still wanted to go ahead and capture a society husband.

    • Jessica says:

      Just want to clarify that this is my view. I wasn’t trying to say anything at all about whether romance is feminist, or any particular romance novel is feminist (whatever the hell that means, and I also share Liz’s skepticism about the fruitfulness of that line of inquiry) just that when the word “feminist” or variant is used in romance novels, it is often (not always) used in a kind of casual way.

      And despite the unclear way I worded my own comments, I think it would actually be kind of awkward, if, after a rape or other incident with clear implications for gender injustice, a character started giving an explicitly feminist analysis. It wouldn’t be psychologically true to most characters as they are written, even the feminist ones, to process such an event in a systematic, impersonal manner.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I agree about the awkwardness. I don’t expect feminism to be overtly invoked in such moments. But it’s interesting how it is invoked instead, and how often there are purely personal explanations for things that have structural ones also.

        E.g. Brian in again is the child of an alcoholic with a controlling mother, so that explains his issues with Jenny’s power at work. No sense that other men might share this.

  4. Kat says:

    First, thank you, Liz, for linking to Jodi and Jessica’s responses to the Quarterly Essay. You picked up on the part of Jessica’s post that intrigued me most but that I didn’t feel I understood — until now.

    Is that why Mandy doesn’t want to look to 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?

    As a reader, I tend to fill in the undigested parts with my own explanation, based on my own experiences — a case of the placeholder heroine. And I love that because it makes me pause and think about the story much more deeply that I otherwise would have.

    the sense that asking hard questions, or certain kinds of questions, will kill our fun</blockquote?
    I'm guessing now, but perhaps it's partly to do with the way romances are written/produced/consumed. There often aren't enough pages to explore these questions beyond the odd throwaway (and the use of the word 'feminist' is a kind of shorthand for feminist values relevant to a particular moment in the story). I've read a number of books that demonstrate great potential in examining hard or taboo (in romance) questions, but don't quite get there, and I suspect for most authors the publishing cycle is much too short to allow them the luxury of going through multiple drafts to create a more nuanced text. It's kind of frustrating to love a book yet feel some regret that it didn't quite come together completely.

    • Kat says:

      Argh. I forgot to close a tag. Sorry!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Kat, these are great points. (And thanks for organizing such an interesting series!)

      In general, I like when a text opens up questions and leaves us to figure out our own answers. So if Mandy hadn’t thought about feminism at all in relation to that sex scene, the reader still could have. What troubled me was that the question was opened *by the character* but then never resolved, and that made it feel “silly” to me. I am sure this hit me so hard in part because there were ways I really identified with Mandy, far more than I often do with romance heroines, because I too was once trying to balance starting an academic career with raising a toddler, and I felt at times that Knox had looked inside my head while writing.

      Your point about the speed of production is well taken. (I think Knox has said she wrote Big Boy in 4 days, and though I’m sure there was some editing after that, and there’s probably more than one thread that was never really resolved but that didn’t stick in my memory. Plus, shorter books mean things aren’t developed. When I think of the trend towards more and more short works, I don’t find this encouraging for complex themes and nuance in the genre). And I think considerations of the market and, as Sunita says, not alienating readers make a lot of romance writers pull their punches. I guess part of what is behind my ruminations in this post is the question of whether there are some things Romance just can’t–or at least WON’T–do because it is a commercial genre. Even just from following writers on Twitter, I get the sense that many shape or limit what they are writing because of how they perceive the market/reader demands. And while I get that, of course I do, they want to make money, I’m also disappointed, because I think it keeps the genre from being all it could be, and I wonder if it is selling readers short. Part of me is an idealist about art and thinks they should be shaping us more.

  5. 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.

    I would tend to agree with Sunita that “they recur because these they reflect the extent to which feminism is contested terrain for women who read romance.” That said, Stephanie Laurens’ anti-feminist speech did mention feminist romance criticism. Here’s an excerpt:

    at the end of the 60s, two independent changes occurred. The contraceptive Pill became widely available, and modern feminism was born. Those who were around at the time, and yes, I was, will remember that early feminism had a very clear message: that a woman didn’t need a man, marriage or children to be fulfilled. While no one would question the value of either the Pill or feminism, together they posed a potent biological threat if too many women followed the strict feminist path and gave up having children altogether.

    Biologically, societies would be doomed.

    The Pill and feminism hit at the end of the 60s. By the middle to late 70s, the birthrate of all western nations had fallen to 1.7. Governments took serious notice, but 1.7 for a short time isn’t reason for panic – the birthrate had been much higher in the previous decade – so most countries decided it was a case of a biological pendulum – if left alone, it would swing back.

    I’ll mention 7 western nations – Italy, France, Germany, Netherlands, UK, Australia and the US-chosen purely because I know what went on in those countries. Six of these countries decided to sit back and let Nature take its course, including Italy, which felt comfortable that its religion would save it.

    France, however, being France, decided it wasn’t going to risk reaching 2100 with no Frenchmen, so the government instituted a massive program – both of propaganda and direct assistance – pushing the message that getting married and having children was important. That program came out of the 70s and is still in place today.

    The only other relevant happening was: in response to the upsurge of feminism, 6 of those countries also suppressed romance novels.

    Feminists, of course, saw romance novels as an outrage, because the message was diametrically opposed to theirs, so in Italy, France, Germany, Netherlands, the UK and Australia, publishers bowed to pressure from the intellectual elites and suppressed romance. (via the Internet Archive

    I doubt her views are representative of those of a large proportion of romance authors. Admittedly I don’t know that many of them, but the Harlequin Presents authors with whom I corresponded identified as feminists, and <a href="http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/03/beyond-bodice-rippers-how-romance-novels-came-to-embrace-feminism/274094/Jessica Luther recently interviewed a number of feminist romance authors.

    • Sorry I messed up my formatting.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Well, I would hope most authors, and readers, are, um, more “reality-based” than Laurens is here. I don’t see how you can look at North American publishing and think that romance novels are being “suppressed” or that feminism prevented people who wanted to read them from reading them. I’d love to see data supporting the idea that reading romance leads to higher birth rates. But I doubt it exists.

    • Sunita says:

      Oh God, Laura, you made me look.

      Laurens has a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Not demography. Not sociology. As is painfully apparent.

      I could write a blog-post-length comment, but I’ll refrain; I think the only things she got right in that speech iares the actual birthrates of the countries (which are not the same thing as population replacement rates, but already we’re getting into nuance she ignored).

  6. it’s still nonsense

    Well, yes. For one thing, all the Mills & Boons edited and published in the UK (including some written by Laurens herself) would seem to provide ample evidence that the UK did not suppress romance. And when I read the bit about

    Australia, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy, facing the same threats, also did nothing, but specifically removed romance novels from the equation. These societies are facing social extinction.

    I couldn’t help but wonder if Laurens has a problem with the idea of immigration. After all, the UK’s population is rising and quite a bit of that has to do with net immigration and births to mothers who are immigrants. But as you say, Sunita, her argument isn’t nuanced, so maybe she was only looking at birth rates and not at population growth.

    • Sunita says:

      Yes, you’re right, I realize now she isn’t interested in population replacement but “species survival.” I find it very creepy to equate nation to species:

      Why is it that the US is biologically thriving, yet all these other nations are sinking into extinction?

      And at the end, she says that reading romance “will also insure that your country continues as a biologically stable nation.”

      These kind of anti-feminist remarks give anti-feminists a bad name. To put it mildly.

  7. Rosario says:

    The example from the Knox book made me think of Cara McKenna’s After Hours. The heroine in the latter also struggles to reconcile her (very explicitly stated) feminism and her sexual desire for a very dominant, even aggressive man. It’s not just a throwaway comment, but something the heroine spends a lot of time working through in her mind, and that was one of the reasons I absolutely loved that book. I’d be very interested in hearing what you make of it.

  8. I missed this post last week! I’ll just have to chime in late. Feminism is embedded in a lot of the romance I read, if not explicitly stated or discussed. Victoria Dahl’s books come to mind. I really loved Close Enough to Touch, which features a tough, sexually forward and emotionally distant heroine (the second two are classic Dahl). Her characters might not ruminate on feminism, but their words and actions (heroes also) support the cause.

    Another book I recently read was Burning by Elana K. Arnold. This is a bittersweet YA in which the gypsy heroine gains freedom though romance. The way virginity is handled struck me as particularly feminist. I don’t believe the word feminism appears in the text.

    I have other thoughts but soccer game calls. Great post & discussion.

  9. Okay I’m back. Another thing I was going to say is that most women believe in equality but there are also widespread negative perceptions of feminism as man-hate. I don’t think I called myself a feminist until I was at least 30. The issue can be polarizing or just jarring. In a recent project I actually had the heroine say the word feminist (“My mother was a feminist”). Then I changed it to “independent.” I don’t know using a more loaded term would benefit the story. Although I don’t feel that I dumb down my stories, I do consider the reactions of women from non-academic backgrounds like myself. I went to a dirt-cheap college and all of my family is blue collar. I’m not saying feminism is an issue for the wealthy, or that poor women are less feminist, but I try to be conscious of alienating readers. Using Knox as an example. I loved Big Boy and don’t remember noticing that line in a good or bad way. I’m usually annoyed by any suggestion that enjoying sex is non-feminist. What stood out more to me was the heroine’s attitude about organic foods and soy milk and her sort of post-grad, upper class ennui. The Story Guy struck me the same way. As in–a world I’m not familiar with.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Like you, I find that a lot of the romance I read seems perfectly in keeping with feminist beliefs and goals, and I don’t expect it (or desire, in fact) that fiction would explicitly mention that or contain overt feminist analysis–as Jessica said, that’s not really a realistic way for most characters to respond to most situations. So, again, I absolutely didn’t mean any kind of “romance is not feminist” sweeping statement.

      I think people are right that feminism is contested territory for romance readers and that the word itself is “loaded,” as you say. This makes me sad, certainly. And it would take more than a blog post–and more knowledge than I have–to discuss how much of this is the fault of feminists themselves (are prominent feminists focusing too much on elite “soy latte” issues and not speaking to the concerns of and in language welcoming or accessible to most women?) and how much of it is successful backlash from anti-equality forces (of which we see plenty every day).

      I guess when you come right down to it, I wrote this post because in those moments I highlighted, books I was loving alienated ME. Those passages felt kind of like a slap in the face. And, as Sunita said, they weren’t really necessary. Unless, in some way, it DID feel necessary to disclaim feminism, and that makes me even sadder. I wrote this because those alienated moments kept nagging at me. But in a way I wish I hadn’t, because somehow, pondering this, I’ve ended up feeling more alienated. Maybe because I’m more aware of how being perfectly comfortable calling myself a feminist might make me a minority among women, some kind of over-educated, organic-eating elitist weirdo (I know you didn’t mean it that way, Jill) and that just shouldn’t be. What went wrong and how do we fix it?

      • Sunita says:

        I was looking up bestsellers from the 1970s and discovered that Marabel Morgan’s The Total Woman was the bestselling nonfiction book of 1974. It sold more copies that year than All The President’s Men! If you’re not familiar with it, the book is an anti-feminist manifesto that emphasizes how wives can retain their husband’s interest, among other things. It’s famous for suggesting that a wife greet her husband at the door wearing nothing but Saran Wrap.

        So to me the question is less why is feminism a dirty word than why is feminism *still* a dirty word. I think there are a variety of factors that coincide to produce this outcome, with elite women’s dominance of the discourse being one of those factors. Look at what has eaten up media attention this year in books about women and work: how women can break through executive glass ceilings and how the increase in numbers of women earning more than their partners affects relationships and families. In a time of high un- and under-employment and a shrinking middle class, these are not issues a lot of women have the luxury of caring about.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Oh, that book. When my Dad went to seminary around 1980 a lot of the wives were into it.

          As I was saying to someone on Twitter, in so many ways it feels like we’re moving backwards. I’m sure it’s partly because I’m older and less optimistic, and because in college I was surrounded by women who strongly identified as feminist, but there are so many things we thought would be solved by now that are worse than ever (reproductive rights being one example).

      • Those passages felt kind of like a slap in the face.

        I certainly felt that way when I wrote that post at TMT. I also feel slapped in the face when, in the context of heroes who threaten/do violence to heroines, to quote Meoskop, “I am expressing my distress. If we prioritize the fetish above the fear we do both groups a disservice.” And, as you suggested in response to Meoskop’s post,

        1. there is a lot of “we” […], and I see this a lot in Romanceland (why do “we” love bad boys? “we” do find alpha males hot). Where does that leave the reader who doesn’t find herself in that “we”?

        Do these things feel more hurtful because there’s an expectation that the romance community will be welcoming and inclusive? Is it because the books and discussions often touch on issues which feel very personal? I’m not sure.

      • I don’t think the problem is within the movement, although radical views like “all hetero sex is rape” don’t help. I’d say I was reluctant to label myself a feminist in my 20s because of my upbringing and the desire to be desirable. Men who are threatened by feminism make fun of it, so the “cool girls” do too. And the concepts I learned in college didn’t seem to sink in until after they blended with life experience.

    • I try to be conscious of alienating readers.

      The authors who shared their views with me when I was writing about feminism and Harlequin/Mills & Boon romances said much the same thing: they identified as feminists but they were wary of using the word in their novels because they didn’t want to alienate readers and they were aware that “feminism” has negative connotations for many people (as well as often meaning different things even to people who do identify as feminists). So they wrote about feminist issues from a feminist perspective and created feminist heroines but they’d probably not use the word itself much, if at all. What I think may be more common is use of words like “chauvinist” and “sexist” but I’m not sure.

  10. Sunita says:

    @Liz: I don’t think we’re moving backward. We have made quantifiable progress in the last 30 years. The experiences those women in science blogging/writing had that we’ve been hearing about lately? I had most of those experiences in grad school and as junior faculty, and they weren’t things you could expect to get redress for. It’s different now; not always, but there is at least the possibility of the perpetrator getting punished. So I’d say it’s more your second point, that we haven’t moved forward as much as we’d expected, let alone hoped. And we keep fighting the same battles, which gets really discouraging the older you are.

    @Jill: That is the perfect example of the disconnect between what the majority of feminist ideological positions actually are and how feminism is perceived by many is society. The sex=rape comment was never made by Dworkin (or MacKinnon); the phrase was a distortion of a larger scholarly argument about gendered power that Dworkin was making. But it has been repeated over and over again, even in mainstream outlets like Time, and a surprising number of people believe it to be a feminist position.

    • Ah. Well, I’m pretty sure I read an article about how women are incapable of consenting to men because of gender inequality. It wasn’t an idea I’d encountered before, but I know nothing of the history of feminism.

  11. Pingback: Of Marriages and Mallorens: A Backhanded Look at Jo Beverley’s Feminist Brides (and still more violence) | Badass Romance

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