The War on Love: Feminism and Romance Novels
Romance novels around the world elicit a fervent condescension that is unmatched by any other genre. Despite their faithful following and economic success, the genre has been unable to gain respect in the literary world. However, it is not just the literary critics who turn up their noses at a romance novel. Shockingly, the attacks have come from the gender that constitutes almost the entirety of its reader base; Women. Labeling the genre as an Anti feminist, Feminists throughout the history have condemned them for enforcing oppressive attitudes. The first gothic romances were seen by men as women’s fluff and fundamentally silly.
Not only have the books been targeted, their readers have also not been spared criticism.
Germaine Greer, the author of The Female Eunuch, a feminist treatise, was one of the firsts to assert that women who read the genre were ‘cherishing the chain of their bondage’. The readers argue that the genre is not about women’s bondage but rather their freedom as the women in these novels try to find their identity and dare to want ‘more’ in their lives. Today’s romance heroines are not whiling away in a locked tower waiting to be rescued. These characters are independent women working in every profession imaginable and leading fulfilling lives. The romantic relationship is not her destination but a catalyst for her journey.
A similar condemnation of romance is witnessed in the contemporary world. The romance genre is being decried as a tool of patriarchal propaganda promoting sexual submission of women to men. Disagreeing with this line of thought, Claire Zion, Editorial Director for Penguin US puts forth that romance novels brought the sexual revolution to the real women. These women don’t hear about the feminist debates in Ivy League Institutions but they read romance novels; novels in which the dashing heroine enjoyed the pleasures that life had to offer. Treating sex as a monopoly of men is sexist and against the very ideals that feminism stands for. Romance novels put female experience at the centre stage where their male counterparts serve to make them happy.
In the recent times, the critics of romance novels have gone so far as to question the intellect of the women who read them; slapping them with a warning label. Nobody bats an eye when a person reads a mystery or sci-fi novel but romance readers are perceived to be fanciful airheads. People are not judged when they enjoy a sitcom or reality TV, but their reading preferences suddenly become a measure of their intellect. The truth is that people from all educational backgrounds read these romantic tales written by lawyers, professors, and surgeons among others.
Kat Mayo, from ABC News, argues that judging the intellect of a person on the basis of the genre they enjoy is like judging a book by its cover; both of which are fallacious. She points out that women can be feminists who enjoy reading about emotionally unavailable vampire heroes; they can keep The Female Eunuch side-by-side with Flowers from the Storm in their bookshelves; that they can be a Shakespeare professor when not writing romance novels.
Modern romances narratives produce a mix of femininity, desire, and power. They acknowledge the complexities and paradoxes of women’s lives. The critique of the genre itself is sexist as it denies women the ability to judge the books for themselves. As has been eloquently put by Louise Allen, “Among the freedoms I insist upon as a women is the right to my own fantasies.”
Romance novels are not the harbinger of oppressive attitude; oppressive thought is. Freedom is created when people are liberated from this oppressive thought and romance genre is popular because it conveys the pain, joy, and upliftment that freedom brings. Romances are a fantasy of female empowerment which will become a reality when there is no shame or stigma in enjoying a book in which a woman’s happiness is the measure of its success.
Name: Shivangi Gupta
College: Amity Law School, Delhi
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