Books to the Sky

why read romance

Posted on: July 29, 2009

Candy at Smart Bitches has a thought-provoking post up that gets into some interesting questions. I think a lot of romance readers probably have a love/hate relationship with some of the tropes of the genre, especially as pertains to gender roles. Candy certainly does, and she writes:

So, in romance novels, acceptable, masculine behavior for heroes that’s normally associated with the feminine include nursing a heroine through an illness, or confessing his emotional vulnerability, or being gentle and loving with animals and children. Other types of feminine behavior or traits outside the masculine, heteronormative norm are either seen as:

1. Transgressive and therefore villainized (homosexuality, bisexuality and general gender queerness used to be one of the most reliable earmarks, though that has changed somewhat in recent years. There are cross-dressing heroes and heroines, which is potentially queering, but they do it out of necessity and for purposes of disguise; there are not, to my knowledge, heroes or heroines who are true transvestites; anyone transgendered for a hero/heroine is still pretty much right out);

2. Signs of effeminacy, emasculation or mental illness and often portrayed comedically (slim physiques; preoccupation with fashion; dislike of violence or physical confrontation); or

3. Emasculating and therefore not portrayed very often at all (heroes who give up their successful careers to be with the heroine; stay-at-home dads). One big exception: if the hero’s job is one that substantially endangers his life, such as being an assassin, it’s perfectly acceptable for him to give up the job for love of the heroine, but then there’s usually the understanding that his super-secret Swiss bank account is every bit as turgid as his Staff of Pleasure and Wonderment. Or if the job is dangerous but either socially acceptable or not outside the law (he’s a Bow Street Runner, for example), he switches to a desk job, and it’s usually a sign of promotion.

I think my greatest beef with the genre is its strict adherence to traditional gender roles and to the characterization of things that fall out of these strict binaries as being bad or villainous. It’s why I hate virgin heroines; I want a woman who owns her sexuality, but many, many romances still seem to subscribe to the idea that it’s not okay for a woman to want to be sexual. Sexual women in romance novels tend to be evil ex-wives, you know?

Candy finds a silver lining:

One of the most powerful aspects of romance novels is the fact that they feature women who get to win. And it doesn’t matter if I agree with the terms of the heroine’s victory—I may think that her win was unrealistic, or unhealthy, or pyrrhic at best, or even a dead loss. What matters most is that the heroine triumphs, and that she ultimately gets what she wants. This doesn’t mean that I’ll stop critiquing the terms of that victory, and what those victories in aggregate say about readers and authors and society in general, but no other genre allows the women to win as consistently as romance novels do—and this is a valuable thing in and of itself.

I’ve been reading a lot of m/m romance lately, and had a discussion with a friend of mine about why we like it so much: it’s because there is no clearly defined gender category for the two protagonists to fall into. They start as equals. I, for one, would like to see (especially in contemporaries) a male and a female protagonist for whom there is a presupposition of equality. (Maybe this is why I like Suzanne Brockmann’s books so much. She knows how to write a strong woman, one who can triumph even playing with/against a big ol’ alpha male.)

Anyway, read the whole post. There’s some interesting discussion going on in the comments, too.

Sorta kinda tangentially related: Amanda at Pandagon has a post up entitled Why don’t men read more romance novels? The post is really about why women don’t watch porn (in reaction to an article by Violet Blue arguing that women say they don’t like porn because women aren’t supposed to like porn; see also some of what I said here about women and sexual agency). But Amanda says:

But even with the availability of stuff that you can kind of guess won’t be overtly misogynist, women still don’t consume as much. Why?

On one hand, that’s like asking why men don’t read more romance novels. You can usually tell when you’re in the intended audience, you know. Women aren’t stupid.

Which… hmm. I think she has a point about porn; so much of it is so obviously made with male (gay or straight or whatever) viewers in mind, misogynist or not. Same deal with romances (gay or straight or whatever, come to think of it). So many of them cater to (stereotypical) female fantasies: men as protectors, men who are strong but also sensitive, any of the things Candy listed that I quoted above, even, you know, two hot guys making out with each other. (Which is where I kind of differ from Amanda’s POV. She goes on to critique porn because female orgasms are so obviously fake and male orgasms are so obviously real, but I’ve read that a lot of male orgasms in porn are fake, too, created with prosthetics and, no joke, Ivory dishsoap. More to the point, Amanda dismisses Violet Blue’s point about women liking gay porn; at least the commenters are all, “Fanfic, hello?” And also, Exhibit B: the vast amounts of m/m romance and erotica written by women for other women. Just saying.)

I can’t deny that the fantasy is part of the appeal. The first time I picked up a Nora Roberts novel, I thought, “Oh, I get it.” Roberts tends to write men who strike me as realistically drawn and also immensely appealing. The heroes seem to be pushed out there with a sign saying, “This is your fantasy!” She sells all those books for a reason, you know?

I’ve run into plenty of men who read romance, though, even on the DL. There’s also this guy, who argues that, “I had always thought that the idea of coercing the fairer sex into abandonment stemmed more from the male than the female gray matter.” Which is kind of interesting: are we so steeped in old patriarchal assumptions that romance novels are really female fantasies based on male fantasies? Wacky, yeah? Is that why gender roles are so confining in romances?

Still, I think there are some authors out there who do really interesting things, who turn gender roles on their heads, or who are just really good writers. For me, the appeal lies mostly in the way the genre tackles human relationships, which is on-face what any romance is about. Throw in some fantasy about falling in love in a week and happily ever after, and it’s fun and escapist but can also make you think. Or this is what a good romance does.

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2 Responses to "why read romance"

I’ll read this post and comment later, but first – woah, site design! It looks very nice and shiny!

I absolutely hate virgin heroine and man whore combo. I now stop reading a book when I see this happening simply out of principle. Unfortunately, this ends up being a LOT of books that i just don’t finish. i find this sexist and and it gets on my nerves. I like the scales to be balanced when it comes to sexual experience. I don’t mind the hero being a virgin at all.

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