Romance novels are fun, escapist reads for most of us. Yet doesn’t the genre need to get with the times? Is feminist romance an oxymoron?
Some of the flaws of romance novels are inherent in the genre: romantic love exists and is important, if not the ‘most important thing to yearn for in life’. (After over ten years of marriage to a man I still love silly, I am still profoundly sceptical of the concept of being in love.) ‘The world is heteronormative’, or at least our protagonists are of opposite genders. I’m referring specifically to het romances (note to self: read more queer romances) but it’s rare to have a depiction of queer relationships in these books at all (even excluding the protagonist pair).
Feminist romances exist: I especially love Courtney Milan and her latest contemporary romance, Hold Me, where the hero is a bisexual man and the heroine is a trans woman. But even the best of these — the few I’ve read include ones by Tessa Dare, Elizabeth Hoyt, Grace Burrowes, and of course Milan) seem to use the same tropes, over and over again. And while I love reading romance novels as escapist fiction, I often wish they could be a little more feminist, reflect a little more the kind of relationships I and many of my friends seem to have. I wish they would let women expect more from the men in their lives, and from their lives themselves.
The good thing about romance novels is that they centre women’s attraction and lust. It’s good for women to acknowledge their needs and wants, and to go for more of what they want. Conflating lust with love, however, is a recipe for disaster. (If you’re looking for the steamy stuff, may I suggest erotica rather than romance?)
The greatest sex of your life could be a one night stand, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Great sex — or profound feelings of lust towards a guy — is not enough to guarantee domestic bliss. Sex can often be better with a long-term partner, just because you’re comfortable enough for there to be little awkwardness. But it’s by no means a given. What’s more, your sexual chemistry may not remain the same: it often changes over time, due to hormones, health, mood shifts, your level of respect and liking for your partner (and his for you). It seems a bit silly to marry the first guy you share a great kiss with, even if sex is extremely important to you.
On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with having or wanting sex. Even in the sex-positive romances, the ones where the heroines have lots of sex with the hero before they are married, the heroine is often less sexually experienced than the hero. If she’s not a virgin, even if she’s a widow, she’s had few, usually painful or at least joyless, sexual encounters. The hero on the other hand, has had lots of sexual partners and is proud of his sexual prowess and his role in ‘educating’ the heroine.
Give me a heroine who’s had lots of great sex and isn’t looking to get schooled by the hero about how to give herself an orgasm.
Violating boundaries is not attractive. In a very enjoyable romance I recently read, Wicked Intentions by Elizabeth Hoyt, the heroine’s first meeting with the hero is when he breaks into her house and sits in her living room because he wants to talk to her. There is no reason why he couldn’t have knocked on the door: this form of entry is apparently not merely criminal but also attractive (giving the term ‘criminally attractive’ a new meaning).
In real life, if you find a stalker or criminal around you, please do not sit down for a polite chat (unless that’s the best way to secure your safety), but holler for help or call the police immediately. Definitely do not proceed to fall in love with him.
Bigotry and arrogance are not attractive. The reason these heroes can get away with criminal behaviour is that they are full of privilege. They are rich, well educated, upper class or aristocratic with all the power and contacts that entails, and good-looking enough to seem both intimidating and harmless at the same time. Surely someone so handsome and well-spoken couldn’t be a threat!
Not only do our ‘heroes’ know that their privilege works in their favour and abuse the knowledge ruthlessly, they are full of prejudice against ‘lesser’ beings, especially women. The hero of a Hoyt romance thinks of women as replaceable playthings. The hero of the Milan romance I mentioned earlier is extremely prejudiced against women and feminine behaviour, and displays this to our heroine’s face, in spite of thinking of himself as a nice unprejudiced guy, as liberal dudes tend to do.
Real nice men, good men exist. I married one of them, and am friends with several others. Do not fall for these jerks (feel free to have ‘sexual dalliances’, as a character in one of these historical romances might say, but these dudes do not deserve your friendship or love.)
Wealth — or class — does not make a man worthy. Why are most romance heroes (especially heroes of historical romances) rich? More importantly, why do the authors think their richness (or being a duke) makes it okay for them to be assholes? Why does the heroine think the man is desirable (and why are we, as readers, meant to find him desirable) even though he is sitting on a pile of inherited wealth and privilege and does not use it to do good, let alone redistribute his unearned wealth to people who are working hard for little compensation?
It doesn’t help my enjoyment of these novels when I find myself wondering how the hero or his ancestors earned their wealth, how much they contributed to colonialism in India or elsewhere, and how much of their wealth is loot from these lands.
Some rare romances have a plus-sized (only a little plus-sized though, definitely not bigger than 18) or mixed race heroine. In general, the heroine wishes she were pretty (if only she had fashionably dark hair instead of her shiny gold curls!) while everyone around her (at least the men, and after all they are the ones who count) think she is extremely attractive.
What if you had a heroine who didn’t care she was fat or that she had unruly, greying hair? What if a heroine was actually ugly, by conventional standards? Who says you have to look gorgeous to find love? If everyone in these romances is so shallow, I’m glad I’m not friends with them.
That boorish guy who mocked you when on your first meeting or openly disdains your (gender, profession, surroundings, feminine pursuits: pick one) has realised his error and is now nicer to you. That doesn’t mean he deserves to have your love presented to him like a cookie. He’s learned to be less of an asshole: good for him.
He’s the first person in your life to recognise you as a person, unlike the rest of your family who abuse you (physically or emotionally) or don’t know you exist. Maybe the first person to point out that you are being abused, that you deserve better. Maybe you’re not being abused, but just taken for granted by your siblings and having to spend too much time and energy caring for them: and he is the first person who recognises this. Good, he’s not an asshole (maybe): no reason to reward him with your love either.
Romance heroines seem to be so grateful to the first (handsome, arrogant, rich) dude who is nice to them that they fall in love instantly and spend the rest of the novel worrying about how they do not deserve this dude.
We should all have better self-esteem than that.
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