7 Reasons It’s Actually Totally Feminist To Read (And Write) Romance Novels, Thank You Very Much
My inner feminist resisted reading romance novels because I thought these trashy books were somehow bad for women by filling their heads with unrealistic ideas about life and love. But the more I read them (and eventually wrote them), the more I realized that these books are totally fairytales for feminists.
Though romance novels are often dismissed as trashy, unrealistic mommy porn, these books have long championed ideals that empowered women and threatened a patriarchal status quo, as I write in my new book, Dangerous Books For Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained . Unlike any other literature, romance novels champion women who defy expectations, they validate their interests and experiences, they declare women deserve love, respect and pleasure, and they reward them for refusing to settle for second best. What's more feminist than that?
Even the business of romance — which is largely powered by female authors, editors, bloggers, and readers — is considered a great example of how successful an industry can be when women work together. Today, half of mass-market paperbacks sold are romance novels and the genre outsells other fiction categories, like sci-fi, fantasy and the classics.
So, fear not, feminists, there’s no reason to feel guilty about enjoying romance novels. Here's exactly why:
Romance Novels Are Stories BY Women
Men were bemoaning the fact that “the supply of the fiction market has mainly fallen into their [women's] hands” as early as 1859. In the 19th century, as many as a third of all novels were “By a Lady.” From the beginning, romance novels have been the domain of women writers, allowing them to earn an income from their brain, not their bodies — all while working from home and maintaining their respectability. Now romance is a billion dollar industry predominantly powered by women.
“Look back at what Jane Austen started,” points out bestselling romance novelist Eloisa James. “What she did with Pride and Prejudice was start something that allowed hundreds of thousands of women after her to make a living, to run families, to make more than their husbands, to not have a husband. She provided a road for all these women to become entrepreneurs in their own right.”
Romance Novels Are Stories ABOUT Women
Romance novels are by women, for women, about women — in a world where boys usually dominate the stories, from Odysseus to Spiderman. Even today, only 31 percent of speaking roles in movies go to women but every romance novel features the heroine’s journey, her adventure, her quest, and her transformation (obvious exception: m/m romances, although the genre is predominately focused on women). Yes, these are stories about falling in love... often with herself.
Romance Novels Are Not All About Men
There’s this idea that romance novels are all about men. In fact, I’ve even heard them described—by a nonromance reader, mind you — as “insipid male focused nonsense that puts women down.” Even though romances are focused on a romantic relationship, a significant portion is about the heroine coming to a deeper understanding of herself, finding great sexual pleasure, and discovery what makes her happy. It’s not just the hero who guides her — often there are sisters and mothers, female friendships or mentors to help the heroine on journey.
Romance Novels Are FOR Women
People cite entertainment, escape, and relaxation as the main reason they read romance. Many women spend a ridiculous amount of time caring for others — whether it’s a stay at home mom or a high-powered executive or any other hellishly busy woman. When the modern woman is exhausted, she often turns to a romance novel for respite. These books often feature a hero taking care of the heroine — from dinner and the dishes and nefarious villains to her orgasms (Plural. Definitely Plural.). And it's all while still letting her be her own woman.
Romance Novels Are More Than Just Bodice-Rippers
We have this idea that a romance novel is a story of a powerful hero demonstrating his power over a submissive heroine by ripping off her corset and having his way with her. While that may have been true from some early novels in the genre, “these days, however, a romance heroine is likely to toss her own bra, and if buttons are skittering on the floor, they're quite possibly shirt studs,” writes bestselling romance novelist Eloisa James in a New York Times opinion piece. But these are really stories of liberation for both women and men by showing men whose masculinity isn’t compromised by respecting women and women who can explore their sexuality and still be respected in the morning (and the next chapter).
Romance Novels Celebrate Female Pleasure
Romance novels might be some of the only books and movies where women have sex and don’t die. Time and again we’re served stories where sexually adventurous women die a horrible death (Madame Bovary) or are massively slut shamed (The Scarlet Letter). But in a romance novel, the heroine will have fantastic, multi-orgasmic sex featuring... consent! And a heroine who is thoroughly enjoying herself! And a hero who is thoroughly enjoying pleasing her! And then she’ll live happily ever after. Where else do you find such female positive portrayals of sex?
Romance Novels Reward Women
The happy ever after (HEA) ending is the primary reason that romance novels are not considered feminist — there’s a misconception that they’re all about the boy and all about the wedding. But really, the HEA is the heroine’s reward for embarking on an adventure, defying expectations for herself, creating her own story, discovering what makes her happy and learning to live and love on her own terms. And the real reward isn’t the ring or the guy, it’s getting to be happy.