in article about romance novels, a woman holding up a romance novels
Illustration by Shannon Czerpak, University of the Arts
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in article about romance novels, a woman holding up a romance novels
Illustration by Shannon Czerpak, University of the Arts

The most empowering thing a woman can do is stay true to herself.

When a woman tells the world she’s a romance author, her value immediately plummets. Different than if she had chosen to write books about dragons or even about dogs, because she writes about something as “simple” and “easy” as love, she must be a lousy writer — right?

Romance authors are deprived of the respect they deserve simply for writing in a genre they enjoy. People will call them basic, misogynistic, anti-feminist, and for what? Writing a story about people in love? Love is an emotion undefined by the farce of gender. For a woman to write about the concept reveals only her desire to live the human experience, not some imagined shortcoming of her intelligence. Contrary to male misconceptions, writing romance novels is a feminist act.

Making Your Own Choices Is a Feminist Act 

Throughout modern history, feminism can be divided into three distinct waves, each with its own specific ideas and goals. To identify a permanent definition that could encompass the evolution of feminist theory is as impossible as it is inadvisable. On its most basic level, feminism advocates for improving the female experience, but it does much more.

Feminism seeks to provide equitable opportunities to people of all genders, identities and circumstances. It does not support one sex over the other, as some “masculinists” might suggest, but rather equality between the sexes. Feminists challenge our male-centric society to recognize its failings and overturn them, perhaps in the places least expected.

One would not assume modern literature, where over 75% of bestselling novelists are women, to be a field lacking in feminism. But such figures are based on numbers, not on perceptions. A number cannot represent the groan in the back of a high school classroom during the inevitable women writers unit. It cannot express the instant distrust a reader feels when he opens a book jacket to see a female headshot. The judgment of male readers does not define these numbers, but it does define the female authors.

John Boyne, a feminist (albeit male) author, wrote in an editorial for The Guardian, “A man is treated like a literary writer from the start, but a woman usually has to earn that commendation.” Although it is a matter of basic respect, female romance authors are treated as lesser than their male counterparts for no reason beyond their sex. Yet, women continue to write. They draft their stories and publish their novels not because others want to read them but because they want to write them. It is a choice to write for themselves and not for others. Women following their ambitions regardless of audience opinion demonstrates a genuine aversion to society that is inherently feminist.

Defying the Male Perspective Is a Feminist Act 

Most examples of literature take a male perspective. Written by men who know only the benefits of patriarchy, books too often stereotype women, confining them to a few basic categories. From John Green’s manic pixie dream girls to Ernest Hemingway’s glorified sex workers, women are too often catalysts for male characters. There only to prompt a man’s action, women written by men must sacrifice their humanity to become plot devices.

But romance authors lack this patriarchal impulse.

Women unconcerned with the opinion of their readers are not entrapped by literary precedents. Without the need to impress a male audience, female writers can create their stories in any way they choose. Taking a page from feminism, romance authors write the books they want to read. They prioritize their preferences, crafting characters that appeal to them. Rather than wasting time placating the male perspective, romance authors defy it outright.

Exploring Female Sexuality Is a Feminist Act 

But just because romance authors ignore the male perspective does not mean the male perspective will ignore them. Audiences are quick to denigrate romance novels. They will call them cheap page-turners or trashy chick-lit, often without opening the book. And their most common criticism? Romance novels’ inclusion of sex.

Though not every book a woman writes includes an X-rated encounter, romance novels are generally sex-positive. Depicting realistic characters in authentic relationships, they seek to normalize the presence of passion. Sex is a natural component of many fictional and real-life love stories, so why should it not be included in romance novels? To ignore female sexuality proclaims its shamefulness, a stance few female writers are willing to support. But male writers seem to take a different approach.

Readers diminish the quality of romance novels because they do not shy away from physical intimacy, yet this rule only applies to books written by women. Remember that in “1984,” a novel commonly taught in many high school curricula, George Orwell details the physique of his female character. And if that wasn’t enough, he then validates the description with his male protagonist’s desire to, as Winston tells Julia, “rape you and then murder you afterward.” Yet, audiences do not diminish Orwell. It is as if his misogyny disguises the sexual nature of his story.

When a reader insults a romance novel for its open discussion of sex, he is not criticizing the act itself but rather the power it gives women. In embracing female sexuality, romance authors give women a voice in the conversation. Books discuss pleasure and offer consent models to chip away at the stigma of sex, making room for female freedom. “If romance novels do nothing else,” said feminist and romance writer Jenny Cruise, “They should earn the respect of feminists for the way they re-vision women’s sexuality, making her a partner in her satisfaction instead of an object.”

Representing Women Is a Feminist Act

But romance novels do more than promote female sexuality. Led by solid characters confident in their minds and bodies, romance novels are ripe with female representation.

Most authors, regardless of genre, base aspects of their novels on their own lives. John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace” takes place at a boarding school like the one he attended as a teenager. Or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” mimics the elegant society he saw while attending parties on Long Island. Writers depend on real-life situations to inspire their stories, and romance authors are no different. An extension of themselves, romance authors’ protagonists often embody the perspectives of the women who write them.

Though female authors do not publish books to meet the expectations of others, when writing for themselves, they often appeal to female and feminist audiences alike. Unlike the caricatures so carelessly penned by their male peers, romance authors write about real women full of thoughts and opinions. Either in a world free of the male gaze or accurate in the depiction of it, heroines can lead lives that empower female readers. From their own experiences, romance authors craft authentic characters who represent the audience with whom they resonate.

Writing Romance Novels Is a Feminist Act

The male perspective assumes that romance novels and feminism sit at opposite ends of the spectrum. It claims that the genre and the women who write it are untalented and undeserving of respect. To attack their very existence in literature, male critics cite female independence as evidence of romance’s illegitimacy. But such claims are groundless.

To embrace female sexuality and defy the male perspective demonstrates a power far greater than many male authors could muster. As English professor Val Derbyshire called them, romance novels are the “literature of protest.” Unafraid of backlash, women write the world as they see it, often at the expense of the male gaze. Audiences degrade female writers because they fear them. And maybe they should.

 

Writer Profile

Aunna Beranek

Columbia College Chicago
English, Minor in Creative Writing (Fiction Concentration)

An aspiring writer and editor trying to figure out how to build a career out of crying in the dark over fictional characters.

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