So I’m a feminist. Which I’m happy to say is a fact hardly worth remarking on in the romance community. (Probably one of the biggest misconceptions about the genre is that its readers and writers, overwhelmingly, are retrogressive types who wish we could all go back to the days when “men were men” and women dwelt idly on pedestals. Not so.)
I’m remarking on the fact anyway, though, because writer/blogger Jessica Luther recently interviewed a handful of us for an article she did for the Atlantic website on feminism and the romance novel. It forced me to be a little more precise about some things that are generally ambiguous for me, and also to recognize the areas where ambiguity feels like the truest statement of my position.
Only a little of what I hashed out in my emails with Jessica actually fit into the final article, though, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to re-hash some of it here. And probably the kernel of it all can be stated as:
I’m a feminist who writes romance. That doesn’t necessarily mean I write feminist romance.
In fact…at the risk of being booted from the romance community…I don’t know whether I believe there’s such a thing as feminist romance. Definitely I don’t believe the genre is inherently feminist. I think we need to observe a more rigorous definition of feminism than “written and read mostly by women,” which is an argument one occasionally hears in support of the genre as feminist.
Also, there are a lot of what I would call nonfeminist or even anti-feminist tropes and storylines in the genre, historically as well as today. I don’t think you can make a feminist case for the persistent emphasis on wealthy or otherwise super-powerful men (dukes, billionaires, alpha werewolves, Navy SEALs) as the only ones worth marrying, for example. (Which doesn’t mean those aren’t valid storylines; only that they’re not feminist ones, by my measure.)
So I’m not comfortable saying romance as a whole is feminist, but does that mean no single romance novel is?
Again, I don’t know. There are definitely romances behind which you can perceive a feminist sensibility. Courtney Milan’s books spring to mind. And as part of the interview, Jessica asked if there were romances I’d recommend to feminists who’d never read one, and I had no trouble coming up with a list. (It starts with Bettie Sharpe’s Ember, by the way.)
But “romance that might appeal to feminists” and “romance that actually is feminist” aren’t quite the same thing.
A big part of the issue for me is that our genre doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists alongside the wedding industry, traditional “women’s magazines,” and countless other forces that pelt a woman with the message that her most important work in life is to attract and retain a man. And in this context, I just don’t know if a genre that privileges the romantic relationship above other aspects of a person’s life – as the romance novel, by genre constraint, necessarily does – can ever really be seen as a feminist document.
Too, I have thoughts I can’t articulate to my satisfaction concerning the genre’s preoccupation with themes of repair and resolution. People heal, in romance. Estranged families reconcile. The wrongly outcast are restored to their proper place in society. Injustice is righted and whatever was out of balance is brought back into balance. At the end of the book, we know everything’s going to be basically okay and we don’t need to worry about those people anymore. I haven’t put my finger on why this doesn’t feel feminist to me (maybe I think feminism entails a bleaker outlook? maybe I want to see order assailed, and broken down, rather than restored? I’m not sure.) but the fact is it doesn’t.
On the other hand.
I think it’s true that the personal is political. And that part of the work of feminism involves asserting the worth and dignity of those things that have historically been discounted and trivialized as belonging to the women’s sphere.
Despite the fact that most all of us on the planet, men as well as women, sooner or later fall in love and generally hope to find someone to go through life with, the whole “falling in love” thing has somehow come to be seen as women’s business. With a lot of opportunities for shame attached, whether because a woman is a Bridezilla, or keeps falling for guys who are Just Not That Into Her, or is so pathetic and naive as to read stories about other people falling in love, complete with happy endings. I think we need to question our cultural belittlement of romantic love, and I think it might be feminist to do so.
Ultimately it’s a question on which I’m unresolved. For me that’s a good thing – from a creative standpoint, I’d rather start with questions than answers. If I had it all figured out, I don’t think the genre would be nearly as interesting or dynamic to me.
But that’s me. Feminism means different things to different people (as was brought home by the recent epic Last Name Debate), and I’m curious to hear other people’s opinions. Does the genre, or individual books within it, meet your definition of feminism? Why or why not? And is anyone else out there in the Undecided camp with me?