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?