Kat Mayo from Book Thingo answered a call on Twitter to extend the discussion on feminism and romance. She writes:

I’m excited about this series of posts because—yay!—discussions around romance.

In Elizabeth’s introduction to Louise Cusack’s post, In defence of books written by women for women, she asks: In what sense, if any, can [romance books] be considered “feminist”?

Recently, I have leaned in favour of the ‘written for women, by women’ proof of romance’s feminist sensibilities. I particularly love author Jennifer Crusie’s passionate defence of the genre, where she points out that, among other things, ‘romance fiction says that women are primary not supporting characters, equal to men in power, intelligence, and ability.’

But Keziah Hills’s tweets (quoted by Elizabeth in the post above) have me re-examining my position that the genre is inherently feminist.

I’m looking forward to more posts—and your comments—on the subject to help me clarify my thinking.

At the moment, I think what I want to say is that the genre, as a whole, tends to be reflective rather than progressive. This is a factor of many things, not the least of which is a publishing model that requires books to have broad appeal.

At the same time, I believe that most romance books have a subversive element that speaks to feminism—usually but not always to do with women’s sexuality or the way in which the heroine negotiates power with the hero—but that genre conventions (such as page count), traditions (such as category lines) or assumptions about reader expectations don’t always allow for a full exploration of feminist values in every single book.

In some ways, this is part of the strength of romance books—that they can present stories familiar to many women and overlay them with questions about what we expect or should expect from our families, our partners and ourselves. A great romance book, for me, is familiar yet unpredictable.

I agree with Louise that there’s a problem around the perception of romance as a genre—the assumption that all romance writing has less literary worth than other genres or works. I also believe there is a lack of consideration for the reasons why women read in the genre so extensively.

In response to Louise’s post, Marilyn (Anonymous) commented that ‘romances…play into the narrative of a woman’s life is all about having the right man to depend on. They do not challenge this dangerous assumption either for individual women or for society as a whole.’

On the surface, this seems fair enough for those who don’t read romance books or who don’t understand why women read so widely and so passionately in the genre. But I challenge this assertion on two fronts.

Dead Heat by Bronwyn ParryFirst, this type of narrative does not define the genre. To me, the narrative described assumes something about the happy ending—that it’s a means by which the heroine’s problem is solved. I’d argue that in a well-crafted romance, a credible happy ending is only possible because the heroine and hero are now on an equal emotional footing. As Australian romantic suspense author Brownyn Parry writes, ‘[romance novels] recognise that a real love connects us with what is deepest within ourselves, and that a lasting relationship needs equal partners’. Getting this balance of power right is at the core of most of my favourite romance books.

The narrative described by the comment also assumes something about the reader—that the heroine represents us. Any feminist who has read and enjoyed Twilight would know this cannot be true, and this assumption leads to a profound misunderstanding of romance fiction (note 1). And besides, romance readers read other books, too.

The assumption also ignores the popularity among female readers of romance featuring two men (note 2)—so much so that m/m romance written for women seems to be evolving into a genre separate from gay romance written for men.

But where I think the comment truly missed the point was addressed by the next commenter, Shellyrae. Our emotional response is intrinsic to how readers of romance enjoy our Mills and Boons, our vampires and werewolves, and our reformed Regency rakes. Yes, the story must be written competently, but how the characters’ emotional turmoil speak to my own life is why I go back for more.

Power Unbound by Nicole MurphyYou see, romance books often do challenge assumptions about how women should feel or react or enjoy themselves in relationships—with men as well as with friends and family, who may feature as secondary characters with their own subplots and emotional conflicts. As Australian sff romance author Nicole Murphy writes, romance fiction provides ‘stories that speak to the truth of being a woman in this world and the specific struggles and issues that we deal with that men do not.’

And even if one argues that romance fiction is wholly escapist fiction—which, I should stress, is not a position that many romance readers take—I don’t believe that necessarily devalues the genre. Ye olde bodice rippers, some would argue, can provide an emotionally safe way for women to explore rape fantasy. We don’t assume that readers of crime fiction harbour murderous tendencies, so why would we assume that women who love The Flame and the Flower want to be mistaken for a prostitute and raped on a ship? (Note 3

Paranormal romance—those cruel, befanged undead or those ferociously aggressive and possessive half-animals —provide a palatable way to present ‘shameful’ fantasies, including rape, BDSM, multiple partners and even double-pronged heroes. (And yes, I have that book.)

Finally, I think it’s also very important to keep in mind that romance books—even those primarily written for a Western audience—are sold and bought across different cultures and generations of women. These subversive elements, mild though they might seem to some of us, may be incredibly empowering to women who have very few other channels by which to receive these ideas. The romance reader’s desire for emotional justice at the end of each story resonates, I think, with women who have felt that lack of justice and power through their own life experiences.

The virgin amnesiac mistress bride with a secret baby story can be escapism or an exploration of any number of themes around sexuality, gender politics and reproductive rights. It all depends on a combination of the author and their writing as well as the reader and their personal reflections on what they’re reading.

Do I think romance authors and readers need to challenge genre assumptions more? Yes, especially in areas of contraception and abortion. Romance as a genre is still fairly conservative here.

Do I think these issues make the genre inherently not feminist? I’m not sure.

Because I think where I’m up to is this: When we consider what romance fiction brings to feminism, it’s not enough to talk about what we as individuals get out of romance fiction or how we interpret this book or that. Knowing the genre’s popularity among female readers, we should also be asking: How do women read romance and why do they love these books so much? Only then, I think, will we have a better understanding of the genre’s importance and influence in women’s lives.

Kat Mayo -- bookthingo.com.auKat Mayo has been reading romance books since she was ten, when she discovered an abandoned Mills & Boon book in her grandmother’s garage. She runs Book Thingo, an Australian blog for readers of (mostly) romance fiction, and tweets as @BookThingo.

Additional notes
(A more comprehensive discussion of each of these references are available at Book Thingo: Feminism in romance – annotated notes.)

1. Reader point of view in romance
The Androgynous Reader: Point of View in the Romance (in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance, edited by Jayne Ann Krentz)by Laura Kinsale argues that passive heroines are placeholders and that romance readers identify with the hero as much as—or sometimes more than—with the heroine.

2. Popularity of m/m romance with female readers
Why do women read M/M romance/erotica? by J. Leigh Bailey
All m/m fiction is not created equal by Sunita
An angle on slash and the appropriation debate by Kivitasku
Yaoi: What makes the yaoi genre appealing to women? (Response by Erica Friedman)

3. Rape fantasy in romance fiction
This issue is much discussed in the romance reading community. Here are some excellent discussions, and in most cases the comments are just as thought-provoking as the original posts:
Sexual Force and Reader Consent in Romance by Robin Reader argues that consent to the rape fantasy is in the hands of the reader.
Rape and Romance Reader by Laura Vivanco, who was a guest poster here at Australian Women Writer’s Challenge in February
Talking about the R Word by Candy Tan
When is rape fantasy acceptable or at least  tolerable? by Mrs Giggles: ‘the rape fantasy is popular in fiction because it allows the heroine to have sex and experience pleasure without having to take any accountability for it’
Women’s Rape Fantasies: How Common? What Do They Mean? by Michael Castleman: ‘[rape fantasies] imply nothing about one’s mental health or real-life sexual inclinations’
Romance novels in The Journal of Sex Research by Jessica Tripler