Is reading romance novels a feminist activity?

Monday night, Summer Kinard and I went to the first in a lecture series at Duke University about Women, Fiction & Popular Perception. It was a thought provoking evening full of excellent scholarship. If you are in the central NC area, I highly recommend you check the series out and attend.

In her comments, Maya Rodale spoke about how as a young academic, she read “serious” books and thought of romance novels as “unsuitable” or less than appropriate for an educated feminist until her mom pushed her to read a few romances before declaring she didn’t like them. Apparently, that suggestion changed Maya’s academic path because she now studies the genre and writes romance.

Which brings me to what I wanted to talk to you all about today – Is reading romance novels a feminist activity?

I have to admit, until I attended this lecture, I would not have put those two concepts together. I definitely was trained to consider romance novels as fluffy and somehow unimportant. During the lecture, several of the women talked about how their mothers would keep their romance collections hidden away in the bedroom or, now with the advent of ereaders, locked away in a device. That was not my experience. There were no romance novels in my home growing up. I once took a few Harlequins out of the library and my mom teased me so mercilessly about reading fluff, I took them back. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good romantic yarn but I have experienced a sense of shame for “wasting” my valuable time reading them. Until I attended this lecture, I never questioned my perception of this whole genre.

Within the conversation, several of the panelists spoke about how historically romance novels, and the novel in general, were frowned upon because their plots are counterproductive for the patriarchy. That took me a few minutes to get my head around. I never really thought about romance novels as being dangerous to the cultural status quo, but I see what they were talking about. In a traditional romance, the heroine has the power to choose who she is going to love and marry, her sexuality is acknowledged and encouraged, and she lives happily ever after with the man she loves. That is pretty dangerous.

So … I think I need to start reading more romances. What should I read?  Who are your favorite authors? Should I read historical romance or contemporary? What would be a good entry point into the genre for a cynic that rolls her eyes at the kissing scenes in movies?

14 thoughts on “Is reading romance novels a feminist activity?

  1. I don’t read romance fiction for the same reasons you mention. The word silly comes to mind. I will TRY to rethink my position, but only after I have read the endless pile of titles that often are about love, but offer many layers of richness and story. I dare say this is the problem for the romance writer, to be taken seriously by a larger readership. Lucky you to have heard this lecture. Wish I could have joined you now knowing the time you spent wasn’t SILLY….and to be in the company of you and Summer….. Two of the smartest women I know.

  2. It’s funny that the “silly” came to your mind. I think we, as serious women, worry about appearing silly to others. I am not saying that I would feel completely comfortable reading a bodice ripper in front of my grandmother (because she is the arbiter of decorum) but I am determined to expand my horizons and not turn my nose up at a whole genre.

    Also, this was only the first in a series of lectures. I will try to post something either here or on Facebook before the next lecture.

  3. Katharine Ashe and Jennifer Lohmann are two smart, sassy romance authors. And they both live and work in Durham! One is even a history professor at Duke by day.

    1. Katherine is exactly what you would want in a professor – super duper smart, funny, and able to dispute your argument without making you feel stupid. All of the speakers were impressive people that I would have loved to hang out with longer. I left the campus the other night feeling optimistic about academia and jealous of my kids.

  4. Well I’m biased because I’m a romance novelist 🙂 but I encourage you to read romance novels to see how well they SUPPORT feminist ideals! There are so many strong female characters in romance novels. Fiction reflects our world and women have so many choices today, just like the romantic heroines have countless choices. And as a romance reader, you also have so many choices–it’s unfair to label all romance as sexist just because there are some stories that highlight patriarchal power. I’m partial to sports romance (I love Catching Jordan by Miranda Kenneally) and romantic suspense (like the I-Team series by Pamela Clare) but there are so many sub-genres of romance that might float your boat. Even popular dystopian books/movies like The Hunger Games and Divergent feature strong heroines and romance. For me, romance adds compelling emotion to the story, which makes me care more about the characters.

    1. That romance novels support feminist ideals is exactly what the lecturers were saying. A heroine that chooses her love and lives to enjoy her life IS against the patriarchal status quo. That is why I am want to get to know the genre. I want to see what I’ve been missing all this time.

  5. Does the problem lie with women or with men? The two men who read and reviewed my romance made sure to preface their remarks with, “I’m not a fan of this genre, but….” If men could own up to reading and enjoying romance, the genre would probably be more acceptable amongst women. And my answer to your question is that romance novels differ from each other, and some of them could be regarded as feminist.

    1. I think it would be a struggle to get the majority of men to embrace romance novels. Obviously, there are a minority of men that love and write romance (I immediately think of my dear friend, Bob, who is the most romantic person I know) but they are a quiet minority of readers. What I am interested in exploring is why, as women, we feel romance is unacceptable or silly. What does that say about us that we would negate our need for a good woman-affirming story out of fear of appearing less-than-serious? I’m having a bit of an existential crisis about my library this week.

      1. It’s not like we’re constantly bombarded every day with all the ways in which women’s lives and feelings are considered unacceptable and silly. OH WAIT.

        Seriously, I can’t think of a reason besides misogyny why a billion-dollar industry is so routinely put down and ignored!

  6. I had a very similar trajectory. I never read romance, was only about “serious” lit (got a PhD, etc.), and then actually wound up engaging with romance through my dissertation… and the rest, as they say, is history. When I started reading Anne Calhoun, Victoria Dahl, etc. I realized that if I wanted to write feminist lit, romance was seriously the genre to do it in. Not all romance novels are feminist and not all feminist romances are perfect but there’s so, so much potential.

    “I read widely, but I’m tired of contemporary literary novels about middle-aged men lamenting their lost erections of yore. In our testosterone-saturated culture, romance is a radical reprieve. It’s by women, about women, and focused on sexuality and satisfaction. It’s started to feel like an incredibly feminist thing to do, to push against the prejudices of a male-dominated industry as part of a powerful and vocal community of readers and writers who know what they want and aren’t afraid to get it.”

  7. I see their point but I still think most of it is fluff based on the majority of the plots, Romance to me is a fantasy to get away from the reality of dull life. and the majority of the plots seem very similar… i need more meat! and no offense to romance writers- they have a huge following & know what sells!

  8. What an interesting question!

    I think the answer though probably depends on the novel, doesn’t it? I mean, if the female protagonist is portrayed as truly empowered and either gains or retains control of her destiny by the end, then yes, I think it could be regarded as feminist. If however, she is painted as beautiful but shallow, only finding happiness in the arms of a stronger, more competent man, then clearly not.

    As a man, I admit to enjoying the former, but would likely dismiss the latter as ‘fluff’. Having said that, I’ve probably never read one of these ‘fluffy’ ones right to the end and so might be falling victim to the very prejudices you are warning us against.

    I’m also interested in why it is that women read so much more than men. At the beginning, my own book site, Readers in the Know, was quite evenly split, but now, 5 months since launch, 66.4% of our membership is female as you can see here:
    I was thinking I might write a blog post about this for the site and if I do, I’d love to reference this post of yours, Elizabeth.

    1. Thanks for dropping by, Simon. I think it is an interesting question to ponder. I’ve brought up the topic to many of my women friends since I wrote the post and have gotten a mix of opinions. Interestingly, the strongest negative responses have come from my friends in their 60’s and 70’s. They were the gals that dismissed romance novels as fluff and were not open to even discussing them as being remotely feminist. These women are highly educated and worked for decades as usually the only woman in their departments, so I wonder if their life experiences prompted them to shun anything that could be considered “fluffy” or “silly.” The younger women wanted to engage the topic and had all read a good amount of romance novels.
      As to why women read so much more than men, I don’t fully understand that dynamic. I can’t remember the last time my husband read a book. I will have to do some research on that. Watch this space for my results.

  9. Depends on the novel’s tone and viewpoint. And what is “traditional romance,” anyway?
    I’m preparing to write a post on the topic of feminism and romance but I thought that before I do, I should troll the Net and see what’s out there. That’s how I found this site.

    Enjoy your romance reading journey.

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