This week saw yet another “what’s wrong with Romance” post. If those posts are written to a script, so is Romanceland’s response, and indeed the predictable cycle followed:
- tweetstorm erupts
- critical comments posted on article
- [optional for online only-publications: half-assed-apology/justification, invitation to Romanceland to write a romance-positive post–for nothing, of course]
- takedown posts written by one or more bloggers
- Romance-positive hashtag created; and
- (Romanceland’s solution to every problem) Books Recommended
It’s not my purpose to criticize these responses, exactly. I’ve done many of them myself (which is why I use the universal “we” in what follows. It might not include you). But I think that Romanceland finds these “what’s wrong” posts useful, so much so that if they didn’t exist, we would have to write them ourselves . . . under a pseudonym.
Because when a post gets some things very, very wrong (Fabio hasn’t been on a cover in decades, and actually it’s quite easy to find a romance novel without a rape in it, and it always was, even in the “bodice-ripper” days), we don’t have to ask ourselves what it might have gotten right. When it makes sweeping generalizations, we can reply with the same. We don’t have to think critically from within the genre about popular tropes or about how we construct the Romance community, because we’re oh-so-busy fending off wrong-headed attacks from outsiders.
Here are some questions we’re not asking:
1. When we circle the wagons, whom, and what, are we leaving outside? I wonder particularly about our response to the claim that romance is full of rape. “It’s not like that anymore!” we cry. “We wouldn’t read that stuff today!” Look, I’m sick of the term “reader-shaming,” but if this isn’t shaming women who enjoy these books and who might be exploring rape fantasies through them, I don’t know what it is. Sorry readers who haven’t “outgrown” your love of 70s and 80s bodice-rippers, or who enjoy the “dark romance” with kidnapper heroes that currently has a devoted fanbase, you’re outside the wagon circle. Romance is about celebrating women’s desires and fantasies! Except for yours, which are wrong. (If you don’t think these readers exist, drop by the Amazon romance forums. Is it any surprise they don’t hang out in the blogging and Twitter circles that condemn their tastes?)
2. If we’re so sure women are good at telling fantasy from reality, why do we have such a hard time having a meaningful discussion of how rape in romance can function as a fantasy? Why do we insist on sticking to realist readings of these scenes? We can rarely seem to get beyond this to ask what cultural work specific scenes of rape are doing.
3. In what ways are we letting ourselves off the hook by focusing on rape and its prevalence–or not–in the genre? Because rape fantasies are not about rape; they are, at least in part, about submission. And, um, in case you haven’t noticed, BDSM with a female submissive (almost always a female submissive) is a super-popular trope right now. But I guess we don’t have to talk about that, because it’s not rape! To be crystal clear, I am certainly not equating BDSM and rape in real life. But I am suggesting that the fantasies are related, and that BDSM might be doing some of the work in the genre that rape/forced seduction scenes once did. Consider, too, that many readers of BDSM romance are not kinky themselves and would not want to actually do most/all of what they are reading about.
Romance readers like to joke about Magic Doms who know from a single glance that the heroine–who isn’t aware of it herself–is a natural submissive. Given that, I’m not sure why we’re so pissed off at an article suggesting that men in romance are “sex psychics.” This trope is still really, really popular, just in a different form. Let’s not be so quick to throw the baby out with Fabio’s bathwater. (Instead, we might want to explore the representations of this fantasy and consider the ways in which it could be both problematic and empowering).
4. Why do we always seem to recommend the same 10 authors when we counter with examples of “romance that’s safe for feminists” or “actually good”? Do we really have confidence in so few of our authors/texts? Or is it because–back to that small wagon circle that leaves many out in the cold–we online readers exist in a little echo chamber where we recommend over and over a handful of books from authors who are very active online–who are one of us? Do they, and we, really represent the whole of the genre? Best-seller lists suggest otherwise. Do we know what else is out there and whether it reflects the criticisms?
5. Recommendations lists/”your view is outdated” comments don’t require us to defend the books we’re listing in any detail. We can just toss in a few key phrases like “agency” and “heroine-focused” and “female desire” we’re good to go. What if we tried to answer the criticisms in detail, by close reading particular books? (That is, what if we actually engaged in better critical practice than the “bad romance” authors we’re rebutting?) I think we’d find, a lot of the time, that individual books are more complicated than either we or Romance’s detractors like to think. And that they might, you know, be read in more than one way.
Frankly, I think we’re not at a point in Romanceland right now where we want to do the work of answering these questions. It’s easier, and gets lots more clicks, to make fun of Romance’s detractors and their bad, formulaic articles, and to recommend books we like. I feel sad about this. But I’m not sure I want to do the work either.