Should romance be feminist? (Is romance inherently feminist III)

(Need to import images to WP)

This is the third in a series of AWW discussions about feminism and the romance genre. Louise Cusack kicked off with her post, In defence of books written by women for women. Kat Mayo followed it up with her discussion. Today, blogger Kate Cuthbert adds her thoughts. 

Note: References to Australian women romance authors and their books are given in footnotes.

Sydney Harbor Hospital: Lily's Scandal by Marion Lennox

Kate Cuthbert writes:
This is in response to both Kat Mayo’s excellent thought-piece and a twitter discussion that came up after I posted a review of Robyn Carr’s Redwood Bend over at the New York Journal of Books.

In the review, I mentioned a level of frustration that the heroine – a widowed, unemployed, new-to-town mother of five-year-old twins – falls unexpectedly pregnant to a man she never expects to see again. I’d like to say that the heroine decides to keep and raise the baby, but in reality, there is no evidence of a decision-making process at all. No exploration of the heroine’s choices, her faith, her experience, her situation, her own belief system. There is nothing but an automatic assumption that she will increase her family by one.

Of course this review was written of a piece of fiction. And, being a piece of romance fiction, there is never any doubt in the reader’s mind that the hero will come riding back (on a motorcycle – contemporary heroes very rarely have gallant steeds), he and the heroine will declare their mutual love, and the baby will be born into a loving, solid family with few economic hardships, societal judgments, awkward questions re: parentage, or any of the other trappings of being in a single-parent family in today’s society.

One Perfect Night by Rachael JohnsBut life is not romance fiction. And perhaps more importantly, romance readers do not live in romance fiction. There is no guaranteed happy-ever-after ending, no twist waiting around the bend to make everything turn out okay. This becomes more important when it’s reiterated that the vast majority of romance readers are women – as are the authors, publishers, editors, and agents. Romance may be the last great feminine space where men may sometimes enter, but rarely have the influence to alter.

So, how are we using it?

While reading Robyn Carr, I was incensed that she – as a contemporary author writing about contemporary people – should ignore the many options available to women in the circumstances that Katie finds herself. The issue is not in the final decision that Katie makes – feminism is, after all, about the right to choose – but the fact that Katie doesn’t make a decision. However, Carr is hardly the only one. It is only in the past two decades that contraception has become common place in romance novels – and even now it isn’t pervasive. Unexpected pregnancies are as common as, well, sex in romance novels [1], but informed discussions on a woman’s options in this situation are decidedly not. I’m aware I’m speaking in generalities here, and there are examples [2], of course, but those examples are not the norm [3].

Romance has long positioned itself as a feminist literature: in the 50s women had jobs, in the 60s careers. The 70s saw them have sex, and then the 80s saw them in charge. But the 90s heralded the arrival of the alpha male and the millennium a surge of inspirational (ie. Christian-faith) romances. Instead of continuing to forge a path, is it possible that romances have taken a step backwards, hidden behind immortal men on the one hand and traditionalist  elationships on the other? I’d argue no – certainly for every alpha male, there’s a counterpoint kick-ass female [4]. And feminism and Christianity are not dichotomous states of being [5]. And, again, feminism is the inherent power to  choose the way you live – and knowing that your choice will be respected.

But when it comes to women’s options and control over her sexuality and her body, I’m just not seeing the light. Women in romance novels can have sex now, but what is that freedom if they are not doing so in a responsible, controlled manner that protects themselves, emotionally and physically? Does the hero really respect her if he’s not protecting them both? Is the heroine intelligent and self-respecting if she doesn’t protect them both? If contraception isn’t mentioned, can a reader assume that it’s being used? Should a reader assume? Or is this another lesson in what assuming means?

Romance occupies a unique position within the literary world. It has already proven itself a subversive genre in many ways, and as the world watches in horror as members of power in the US wage a war on women’s rights over their own bodies, maybe it’s time to step up again. It’s not fair to hold one genre of literature to a standard that is not inflicted on others. But life isn’t fair. Certainly the war of the sexes has never been fair. Maybe this is an argument that goes beyond fairness.

Should romance be a feminist genre? I think the answer is too murky to define, and I’m certainly in no position to dictate. But the bottom line is this: if a genre by women, produced by women, edited by women, published by women with an express purpose of being read by women doesn’t deliver frank, honest, and open debate about women’s health, their bodies, their sexuality, and their choices…in short, if romance doesn’t step up into the vacuum that currently exists, who will?

Darkness Devours (Dark Angels Series #3) by Keri ArthurRogue Gadda: Dream of Asarlai Book Three By Nicole MurphyLove's Rhythm by Lexxie Couper


Note 1
A good recent example of this situation is in Rachel JohnsOne Perfect Night where the heroine finds herself unexpectedly pregnant from a casual relationship, but a solid, developing back story creates a believable framework for her decision.

Note 2
Marion Lennox, in particular, is careful about contraception. In a workshop in 2007, she shared a story wherein she was writing a love scene in a novel and happened to look up and see her two young children. It was with their future in mind that she had her hero quietly leave the room to put on contraception.

Note 3
Paranormal and historical romances often get a by here: in historical romance, contraception is a novelty at best (much as we’d like to have all those rakes scanned for disease!), whereas paranormals often have an inbuilt barrier: vampires can hardly produce children, werewolves are immune to disease, etc. Keri Arthur handled this in an interesting manner in her Riley Jenson novels, where vampires can reproduce, but only within the first 24 hours after being ‘turned’. In Nicole Murphy’s Gadda trilogy, the magic-using characters were able to say a post-coital spell to prevent pregnancy.

Note 4
See Keri Arthur, Tracey O’Hara, and Lexxie Couper for examples

Note 5
Furthermore, sexuality within inspirational romances is muted, something to be explored after marriage, thus negating some (but not all) of the concerns. For an Australian inspirational author, try Mary Hawkins.

Kate Cuthbert describes herself on Twitter as “reader, writer, reviewer, Canadian-Australian and opinionated”. She tweets as @katydidinoz.

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  1. 2012 AWW Challenge Wrap-up: Romance, erotica and romantic suspense « Australian Women Writers Challenge
  2. Feminism and Romance Novels: Link Roundup | scATX Reads

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