Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Activism and the Romance Genre

One of the panels at the Mid-Atlantic Popular/American Culture Association's Annual Conference will be on "Popular Culture and Activism":
Popular Culture and Activism welcomes papers or presentations that explore the sphere of activism in the production of popular culture. Whether historical or contemporary, investigations into the role of activism in shaping popular culture or the role of popular culture in shaping activism are encouraged. Possible topics might include the way individual activists or groups have utilized popular media or sought to influence popular media. Other issues to consider are: how have activist groups been portrayed in popular culture? What forms of activism are being employed on college campuses or in local communities, and how does this tie in with or shape popular culture? What are the political or ideological implications of popular culture as reflected in television shows, films, music videos, the internet, magazines, fiction, etc.
Submissions are due by the 30th of June.

Just recently it was mentioned at Dear Author that
Donna Hayes, Harlequin’s Publisher and CEO is the recipient of this year’s “W Award” presented by the YWCA of the City of New York. Ms. Hayes is being recognized not only as a business woman at the top of her field, but also for supporting the YWCA’s mission to empower women and eliminate discrimination through the books she and Harlequin Enterprises publishes each month.
According to Shelf Awareness
Created in 2005, the YWCA-NYC’s W Award honors women and companies that embody the YW’s mission to empower women and eliminate racism. [...] In a statement, Anne Winters-Bishop, the YWCA-NYC’s CEO noted that Hayes is the first woman to run the company since Harlequin was founded in Winnipeg in 1949, and added: "Above all, [Hayes] stresses Harlequin’s mission to entertain, enrich and inspire women."
Just a few of the other instances of romance-related activism I can think of are
  • the Romance Writers of America's
  • "Readers for Life" Literacy Autographing [which] has become one of the most popular events at RWA's annual conference. More than 500 romance authors participate in this two-hour autographing event, and each year we raise thousands of dollars, which are donated to ProLiteracy Worldwide. Since 1990, RWA has donated more than $600,000 to literacy charities.
  • Brenda Novak's annual online auction in aid of research into diabetes
  • Suzanne Brockmann's decision
  • to continue Jules and Robin's story and do what I'd originally intended -- make them the hero and hero of a mainstream romance novel. I also decided to turn the concept of the holiday romance novella onto its ear by writing a story centered around Jules and Robin's wedding, set in Boston.

    And I decided that every single penny I earned from this book, from now until the end of time -- all advances, royalties, subrights, the whole enchilada -- would go to MassEquality, an organization whose sole purpose is to preserve equal marriage rights in Massachusetts . Because enough is enough.
  • and Nora Roberts' offer to
  • match up to $5,000.00 USD any donations made by Smart Bitches readers to Defenders of Wildlife, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that works to preserve not just ferrets but endangered wildlife across the US, most particularly that species much loved by paranormal romance writers: the wolf.
Romance protagonists may also engage in activism: Sir Waldo Hawkridge in Georgette Heyer's The Nonesuch supports orphanages; Rita B. Dandridge has explored "black women's activism in African American women's popular historical romances" (1); the protagonists of Karin Kallmaker's In Every Port march in response to the assassination of Harvey Milk; and Margaret Ann Jensen has noted that in
Season of Storm by Alexandra Sellars [sic], a 1983 SuperRomance [...] The hero [...] is a Native who is fighting the Canadian government and a logging company for the restoration of his tribe's land rights. The book refers to ruthless corporate policies that place profits before people, to the short life span of Native people, to the police state mentality of the RCMP and to the pervasive racism that even the heroine is forced to acknowledge is part of her and her society. (81-82)
While I wouldn't want to overstate the amount of activism that is undertaken by romance authors and readers, or which occurs in romances, the above examples demonstrate that despite being considered "escapist" fiction, romance protagonists, their authors, and readers are not infrequently involved in far from escapist activities.
  • Dandridge, Rita B. Black Women's Activism: Reading African American Women's Historical Romances. African American Literature and Culture 5. New York: Peter Lang, 2004. [Two of the novels analysed in that book, Beverly Jenkins’ Indigo (1996) and Shirley Hailstock’s Clara’s Promise (1995), are the subject of an earlier essay, "African American Women's Historical Romances: Race and Gender Revisited," which can be found on pages 42-56 of The 2000-2003 Proceedings of the SW/Texas PCA/ACA Conference. This essay is available online.]
  • Jensen, Margaret Ann. Love's $weet Return: The Harlequin Story. Toronto, Ontario: The Women's Educational Press, 1984. [Excerpts available via Google Books.]


  1. I'm just wondering whether Kathleen Eagle's work on the annual Wounded Knee trek counts.

  2. Is it activism if it is just representation in a story eg. someone with disabilities? In Flowers from the Storm, the hero's stroke and initial treratment is representative of the worst possibilities of the time and how he is treated by the heroine suggests a preferred way of treating people with stroke. I am not sure that I would call that 'activism' for improved conditions of health care though.

    I would call Suzanne Brockman's Jules and Robin stories activism but not a story where a character who was other, just was... if that makes sense? I am also not sure if it is activism if we are being preached at. Eg. what does Robyn Carr's focus on women's health and access for poor women to health services in the Virgin River books count as?

    Is it about how we construct and de-construct 'norms' through representation in stories? A book review program on Australia's ABC recently looked at Pride and Prejudice (1st June).

    The usual suspects were not moved by the story at all but the novelist Colm Toiban talked about how in focussing on women and their lives, P&P shoed women as having moral value this book set the scene for the focus on women's rights in the 19th century because it changed perceptions of women. So the author didn't write P&P as an activist work but in hindsight it is part of an activist cannon?

    Also, I was thinking of online blogging activism by genre blogs eg. around the 'whitewashing' of characters on bloomsbury covers, the discussions of rape and forced seduction on various blogs. How this activisim (for want of a word) seems in discussion to be trying to establish or define agreed or at least not too disputed norms. Does that count as activism. I mean what is activism? Only something that intends or results in change or something that names a situation....?

  3. "I'm just wondering whether Kathleen Eagle's work on the annual Wounded Knee trek counts."

    Kate, are you thinking of her Reason to Believe? I haven't read it, so I can't answer your question. In any case, as Merrian's comment makes clear, it's not always a simple matter to decide what is or isn't "activism."

    Merrian, thanks very much for your comment. I'm still trying to think things through, but what follows is a summary of my thoughts so far.

    Merriam-Webster defines activism as "a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue."

    The Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "the use of vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change."

    According to Wikipedia, activism "can be described as intentional action to bring about social, political, economic, or environmental change."

    None of those definitions really focus on literature, but I think authors can make a deliberate decision to write their books "vigorously" in ways which they hope will bring about some kind of social/political/economic/environmental change.

    As for "online blogging activism" I think it can also work by raising consciousness of issues, which is often a first stage along the way to making political/economic/social changes.

    The Brockmann example I gave seems to me to involve two different kinds of activism: it's a form of fund-raising for an organisation involved in activism, and it's literary activism, which is direct act on the part of the author (i.e. the author acts by writing) but may only effect change via the readers.

    I have the impression that Brockman's novel is a work of literary activism because it seems to have been intended to challenge the institutionalised prejudices which generally prevent certain types of relationships appearing in "mainstream" romance and, by doing so, she sought to challenge some of her readers' prejudices which help to perpetuate a social context in which certain relationships are not considered to be "mainstream." So I think there can be a direct link between making something seem "mainstream" in fiction, and hoping that that will help it to become more "mainstream" outside fiction.

    I have no idea if that's what Kinsale intended any of her novels to do with regards to people with disabilities/disabled people. I haven't read the Robyn Carr novels you mention, and I don't know what her intentions were in writing them.

    However, as you suggest, the author's intent does not determine the uses to which a novel is put, so I suppose Flowers from the Storm could, like P&P, end up as part of an "activist canon" if someone wanted to use it that way as part of their activism.

    Re being "preached at," I think one can feel preached at by novels which were not intended as activism, but which simply convey the author's assumptions/beliefs so strongly that they jar particular readers, and some novels intended as works of activism may not feel at all "preachy." It probably depends on (a) the author's style of writing/their talent and (b) the opinions, preferences and reactions of individual readers.