Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Feminism and Popular Culture Conference

The Feminist and Women’s Studies Association (UK & Ireland) 20th Annual Conference, to be held at the University of Newcastle (June 29th-July 1st, 2007), will have as its theme feminism and popular culture.

Among the suggested possible topics are 'Rereading the Romance', 'Romantic Comedy' and 'Genre Fiction'. The deadline for proposals for papers and panels is 1 December 2006 (more details here).

It looks as though some of us on the RomanceScholar listserv may be able to attend, and I thought I'd post a note here too, to notify others who are not on the listserv. I'm still busy trying to think of a possible angle to take on the topic of the romance genre and feminism (though I have a few ideas).

There are plenty of scholars of the romance genre who think it's feminist. Kay Mussell certainly thinks so:
I don't know how you can read many romances today as anything but feminist. To take just one issue: Heroes and heroines meet each other on a much more equal playing field. Heroes don't always dominate and heroines are frequently right. Heroines have expertise and aren't afraid to show it. Heroes aren't the fount of all wisdom and they actually have things to learn from heroines. This is true of both contemporary and historical romances. I'm not trying to argue that all romances before the 1990s featured unequal relationships or that all romances today are based on equality. That's clearly not the case. But in general heroines today have a lot more independence and authority than their counterparts did in earlier romances. I think that's clear evidence of the influence of feminism on romances and of the ability of romance novels to address contemporary concerns that women share.
There are also plenty of romance authors who would consider themselves to be feminists, prominent among whom is Jennifer Crusie, who writes that:
If romance novels are a guilty pleasure, then romantic comedies are the designer chocolates of literature, rich, fun and seemingly without nutritional value. But underneath that sugar coating is one of the most feminist forms of literature ever devised. Jane Austen knew it two hundred years ago and writers like Susan Elizabeth Phillips know it today: romantic comedy empowers women and makes their world a better place.(Crusie: Romantic Comedy)
She does qualify this somewhat elsewhere, noting that 'not all romance novels are feminist' (Crusie: You Go, Romance Writer). [For an interesting short discussion of romance and feminism, see this blog post which includes a link to a discussion specifically on Crusie, Bet Me and feminism).

What do you think? Are all romances feminist? Or are only some of them feminist? And what sort of feminism are we measuring the novels against anyway? Do you want them to be feminist or would you rather they weren't? One of the arguments against romance being feminist is that it's heterosexist (though there are some gay and lesbian romances) and suggests that what women need is marriage. But is this actually true? Does the genre tell readers that all women will find their ultimate fulfillment in a monogamous romantic relationship, or does it simply focus on those who do, leaving open the possibility that other women (whose stories might be told in other types of book, including women's fiction and chick lit) may not want it?

4 comments:

  1. j as in jennifer17 November, 2006 22:44

    It seemed to me, reading romances back in the 70s that they were trying to have it both ways. The heroine of the Harlequins was always trying to prove to the man that she wasn't just out to get a husband, not materialistic and that she could take care of herself. But then she'd end up safe in his arms at the end of the book, with his ring on her finger and his children in her future. Since then, heroines have pushed the boundaries in every way. In contemporaries, they are cops and doctors, instead of schoolteachers and nurses. But no matter how much times have changed, how much liberating sex the heroine is allowed to have, there is no other outcome, no other happy ending.

    I recently read Connie Brockaway's "My Dearest Enemy" in which the heroine is a Victorian-era suffragette who is determined not to marry until the laws governing women and children are liberalized. The story's tone made her seem pig-headed for resisting her HEA on this account, but don't worry, Gentle Reader. Because she's a woman and she loves so much, even deepest principles cannot keep her from submitting to her nurturing destiny.

    It wasn't a bad novel, but it leads you to expect one thing, then delivers something else. One expects a heroine who is strong-willed, tough, acerbic with a determination to make her own way in the world. But because it is a romance novel and must follow certain conventions, she turns out to be very young and beautiful with a soft creamy center -- a weakness for children and animals. The hero was attracted to her before he even met her, through her letters, but it was like it was *WE*, the woman readers, who wouldn't have been able to accept this heroine unless she was beautiful, exotic, desirable. So, you see, this novel preached feminism, but didn't really practice it. Which is how I feel about most romances. A woman can be anything she wants to be... As long as she fits the uniform, comes from the same clay, etc. It reminds me of the subtle messages women are given by society: don't deviate from the script, don't be different or bad things will happen to you.

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  2. she'd end up safe in his arms at the end of the book, with his ring on her finger and his children in her future. [...] no matter how much times have changed, how much liberating sex the heroine is allowed to have, there is no other outcome, no other happy ending.

    What sort of alternative happy ending would you prefer? I think one could dispense with the children, the ring, and the safety (up to a point). One wouldn't want the hero to be a physical threat to the heroine, I think, as that was something that did feature more heavily in earlier romances, and is still there in some, but you can only take that threat so far before it makes a HEA untenable. If the hero is liable to kill the heroine not long after the end of the novel, that wouldn't be a happy ending. And if the hero and heroine don't end up together then it wouldn't be a romance, would it? It might be a romantic novel though, and/or women's fiction and/or chick lit. You could dispense with the arms literally (for example the hero of Heyer's An Infamous Army loses one as a result of fighting at the Battle of Waterloo). But I don't think a novel could end without the hero and heroine at least metaphorically in each others' arms.

    the heroine is a Victorian-era suffragette who is determined not to marry until the laws governing women and children are liberalized

    I've not read that book, so I don't know how the heroine's change of opinion was handled by the author. Mary Wollstonecraft, who in her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) said that

    men, in their youth, are prepared for professions, and marriage is not considered as the grand feature in their lives; whilst women, on the contrary, have no other scheme to sharpen their faculties. It is not business, extensive plans, or any of the excursive flights of ambition, that engross their attention; no, their thoughts are not employed in rearing such noble structures. To rise in the world, and have the liberty of running from pleasure to pleasure, they must marry advantageously, and to this object their time is sacrificed, and their persons often legally prostituted.

    did nonetheless choose to marry William Godwin when pregnant with her second child (an earlier love affair having failed, leaving her an unmarried mother). Mary died in childbirth though, so her life wouldn't make for a good romance novel, but it does suggest that even an individual deeply opposed to marriage as an institution might change her mind about whether or not she herself wanted to marry.

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  3. j as in jennifer18 November, 2006 05:02

    even an individual deeply opposed to marriage as an institution might change her mind about whether or not she herself wanted to marry.

    True, and one of the themes of the novel was the longing for a place to belong, on both the part of the hero and heroine (they were competing over the ownership of a house and farm). Home is where the heart is, you know, and it turned out to be the same home for both of them. In order to have a home of her own, a woman of that time generally had to marry (though technically it was her husband's home). So in order to get THIS home (with Heart therein) she had to marry. I don't really quibble with this ending, as you are right, what else is there for two lovers in a romance novel to do? Love demands sacrifice, not selfishness, after all, which was probably the position Mary Wollstonecraft was in when she decided to marry.

    But, to terribly misinterpret Ms. W, I sometimes think that what appears to be the nature of heroines is actually a construct of the Romance novelist, imposed on them by the expectations of the romance reader. Because once the heroine got a look at our handsome hero, she didn't try very hard to win the contest of wills (oh, his shoulders, his muscular arms!) And once he got a look at her, she didn't seem like such an intellectually formidable foe. She was illegitimate herself and a suffragette of notoriety, shunned by polite society, but you wouldn't have thought these were problems at all, as easily as these things were glossed over.

    The novel really wasn't as bad as I'm making it seem -- I've just had time to think about it. But to answer the question you first posed, the romance genre only seems to embrace feminism up to the point that women are comfortable that the heroine can still be desirable, loved, cherished, by a man. As you know, in real life, most women are the real power in the home. (William Godwin probably couldn't find a matching pair of stockings in the morning, yet he is the one to write Mary Wollstonecraft's biography.) But in romance there tends to be a language of submitting, giving up control of one's body, one's self to the man, while the man gives up control of his heart/emotions and his sizeable bank account, of course.

    Perhaps the fantasy of romance novels means they can never be too feminist because readers just don't want them to be. Mary W. and her daughter Mary Shelley seemed to live very interesting, romantic lives, but by not conforming to the conventional moralities and virtuousness of romance heroines, did they doom themselves to tragedy instead of HEA? If so, I suppose the world is better for it. (If I seem to have lost the point I was trying to make, bear with me. :)

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  4. As you know, in real life, most women are the real power in the home. (William Godwin probably couldn't find a matching pair of stockings in the morning, yet he is the one to write Mary Wollstonecraft's biography.)

    I'm not sure about that. It seems to me that it's a reverse form of sexism to assume that men are all useless when it comes to household chores. Even if you look at Regency romances, the valets, butlers, sailors and soldiers are all male (unless the heroine adopts one of these jobs and a male persona as a disguise), and they manage to keep a home and/or clothing neat and tidy. And to be fair to William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft couldn't write her own autobiography because she was dead.

    But in romance there tends to be a language of submitting, giving up control of one's body, one's self to the man, while the man gives up control of his heart/emotions and his sizeable bank account, of course.

    I get the impression that ultimately each surrenders to the other. It's true that the hero generally has more property than the heroine and if the heroine is less sexually experienced, then, at least to start with, she's often described as experiencing sex as a surrender. That said, things often turn around once the virgin heroine starts to use her not inconsiderable (and sometimes rather implausible) ingenuity to return the favour.

    Perhaps the fantasy of romance novels means they can never be too feminist because readers just don't want them to be.

    That does depend a lot on how you define 'feminist', though, doesn't it?

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