Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Romance Genre and Second and Third Wave Feminism

Elizabeth Bevarly posted yesterday about what it was like to be a girl coming of age in America in the 1970s. Particularly relevant to the romance genre was the message she, and many of her peers, received,
that if we wanted to reach our fullest potential, if we wanted to be strong, independent women, we had to do it ALONE. Movies like “An Unmarried Woman” and “My Brilliant Career” (both of which I loved) told us in no uncertain terms that we had to make a choice: Either fall in love and remain personally unfulfilled forever, or live a solitary life and find complete personal satisfaction.
She adds (in a comment attached to the original post) that: 'I’ve identified myself as a feminist since I learned what the word meant. I still consider myself such. But I think that’s the one place where the women’s movement went wrong. They should have told us, “Hey, we’re all equals now, so let’s work together to achieve great things.”'

Jenny Crusie's written about what it was like to grow up in an earlier decade:
I graduated from high school in the sixties. [...] The madness that defined women's lives back then was based on four Big Lies:

1. A woman wasn't a real woman until she was married.
2. A woman had to distort herself and deny her own identity in order to catch a man to marry. (Remember girdles, spike heels, inane laughter, playing dumb, and flunking math?)
3. Any husband was better than no husband.
4. Staying in a bad marriage was better than divorce because God forbid a woman should be unmarried again once she'd finally achieved the goal.
In many ways, the attitude that Elizabeth Bevarly describes was part of the backlash against the assumptions about women and marriage that Crusie describes. So what happened next? Well, I think that's where Third Wave feminism comes in. It's impossible to give a strict definition of Third Wave feminism, just as it's not possible to give a single definition of Second Wave feminism. Each is complex and comes in many different varieties, because as Jane Freedman, in her introduction to feminism makes clear, there is a huge diversity of thought covered by the term ‘feminism’:
as soon as you attempt to analyse all that has been spoken and written in the name of feminism, it becomes clear that this is not one unitary concept, but instead a diverse and multifaceted grouping of ideas, and indeed actions. [...] Any attempt to provide a baseline definition of a common basis of all feminisms may start with the assertion that feminisms concern themselves with women’s inferior position in society and with discrimination encountered by women because of their sex. Furthermore, one could argue that all feminists call for changes in the social, economic, political or cultural order, to reduce and eventually overcome this discrimination against women. Beyond these general assertions, however, it is difficult to come up with any other ‘common ground’ between the different strands of feminism. (2001: 1)
Broadly speaking,
If the First Wave comprised women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and the Second Wave gave us Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Shirley Chisholm, then the Third Wave includes young women who've grown up with the ideas of feminism but who are trying to define what it means for them now.(Baumgardner and Richards)
If you're looking for a quick (and therefore not very nuanced) breakdown of some of the differences between the Second and Third Waves you could look at this article by Alana Wingfoot. Third Wave feminists are often, I think, more concerned with sexism than they are with 'women's rights'. It's not that Third Wavers don't care about the rights gained by the struggles of Second Wave feminists, more that many Third Wavers take them as a given. My own favourite definition of feminism is by bell hooks: ‘Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression’ (2000: viii). As she makes clear, this includes the sexist stereotypes which tell men what is ‘manly’, just as much as the sexist stereotypes which tell women what they must be and do in order to be considered ‘womanly’. Such stereotypes ignore, or seek to disguise, the huge diversity of interests and abilities among men and women. [In earlier posts I've discussed gender and 'stereotype threat' as well as gender and male authors of romance novels.]

These changes within society and within feminism have affected both the contents of romance novels (many romance novelists, for example, consider themselves feminists) and the way that the romance genre is perceived by academics. As Kay Mussell observed in 1997,
Twenty or so years ago, when academic feminists first became interested in the romance genre, there was wider agreement among feminists themselves on what the feminist agenda should be - and conventional romantic relationships, widely assumed to be discriminatory toward women, were not part of it. Thus romances were seen as threatening to female autonomy. But as feminism has matured - and as feminist scholars have come to recognize a broader range of female experience - some scholars have challenged those earlier notions in productive ways.
Mussell pinpoints unease with and suspicion of 'conventional romantic relationships' as the source of much of the feminist criticism of the romance genre. As I mentioned in an earlier post, many (particularly First and Second Wave) feminists have believed that marriage is inherently patriarchal and oppressive to women, and in the romance genre, the Happy Ever After ending usually involves marriage. However, as I also mentioned in that earlier post, not all feminists believe that marriage and feminism are incompatible and, as one Third Waver says about her wedding:
the second wave of feminism is bedrock to us. Wedding traditions carry the vestiges of male dominance, but they also have beauty and power that I feel entitled to. Two rings are better than none. The white dress signifies new life, not virginity. Sexual commitment enriches our pleasure in each other. We both kept our names. Two glasses broke under two heels at the ceremony's conclusion, claiming our cultural tradition but discarding the asymmetry. We took what we wanted from tradition and left the rest.
The feminist critique wasn't just about the institution of marriage, though, it was also about the power imbalances and gender expectations which shaped heterosexual relationships:
Romantic love as most people understand it in patriarchal culture [...] supported the notion that one could do anything in the name of love: beat people, restrict their movements, even kill them and call it a “crime of passion”, plead “I loved her so much I had to kill her.” Love in patriarchal culture was linked to notions of possession [...] Within patriarchy heterosexist bonds were formed on the basis that women being the gender in touch with caring emotions would give men love, and in return men, being in touch with power and aggression, would provide and protect. Yet in so many cases in heterosexual families men did not respond to care: instead they were tyrants who used their power unjustly to coerce and control. (hooks, 2000: 101)

Romance authors and readers were forcibly confronted with these issues in 1999 when:
The close-knit romance writers' community was devastated by the news of Richards-Akers' murder. It was the third such death by domestic violence among romance writers in the past three years (novelists Pamela Macaluso and Ann Wassall were also shot by their husbands in 1997 and 1996) (Salon, 1999)
When, in 1992, Mary Jo Putney described the appeal of the romance genre, her description contained many of the words which hooks used to criticise heterosexual relationships under patriarchy, and these are aspects of the genre which came under intense scrutiny in the aftermath of Richards-Akers’ murder, as discussed in the Salon article. This, though, is what Putney had to say in 1992:
Often the dark hero is obsessed with the heroine, driven by a primitive passion to possess her in every sense of the word. An aura of potential – and sometimes actual – violence hovers over such books. As Jayne Ann Krentz says, the male protagonist of a romance is often both hero and villain, and the heroine’s task and triumph is to civilize him (1992: 100)
She adds that:
The theme of the man who is “saved by the love of a good woman” is common in both life and romance. In reality savior complexes are dangerous because they encourage women to stay with abusive mates, but that is another story [...]. What matters in a romantic context is that healing the wounded hero is a fantasy of incredible potency. (1992: 101)
Unfortunately not all readers make this distinction between fantasy and reality. One feminist reader of romances wrote that:
I knew from the time I was 11 and got my hands on Victoria Holt's House of a Thousand Lanterns exactly what I wanted in a man: he had to be a rake, but not just any rake-oh no. He had to be a rake ready to settle down, a rake I could reform. He would meet me and all the many women he'd known before would fade into the past as he became swept away by my purity and goodness.

I didn't explicitly understand that romance novels were shaping me, but looking back the pattern is clear. I tried to be pure; I tried really hard. To little avail, but still I tried. And I found the worst men I could possibly find. Gorgeous and horrible, men who treated women like objects or angels of mercy but who never, as I learned only too late, had any intention of reforming.

[...] I could not break free from the stories about gender and romance those novels had embedded in my mind. Even when I knew they were unrealistic and sexist, still they stayed with me, as part of me, shaping who I looked to as attractive and who I looked past as unattractive.
One 2001 study of women in violent relationships, conducted by Dr Julia Wood found that:
People commonly use stories to make sense of their lives, placing themselves within those stories, said Wood: "Some of the images of men and women in these romance novels are entirely consistent with the dynamics of violent relationships."

Even if Prince Charming doesn’t hit, he often shares plenty of characteristics with the real-life man who does, Wood wrote: "Prince Charming is strong, powerful, sure of himself and commanding … control, domination and even violence fit equally well with Prince Charming and the Prince of Darkness. Women who seek to sustain a relationship that is fraught with chaos have available to them culturally legitimated narratives that reconcile what is irreconcilable, make sense of what is not sensible. These narratives … simultaneously license women's oppression."
A recently published book on rape law in Australia compares and contrasts these laws with the situations described in romance novels and, according to one reviewer :
For Larcombe, the critical link between rape scripts in law and romance fiction is the way romance fiction reproduces ‘gender hierarchy and a fiction of vulnerable feminine subjectivity’ (6). Larcombe explores the writing, production, distribution and content of Harlequin Mills and Boon fiction in Australia, arguing that love is the critical element that allows for the modification of ‘the hero’s desires’ the renegotiation of the ‘terms of heterosexual exchange’ (34). Despite responsiveness ‘to readers’ desires and preferences and to changes in women’s social and familial roles’ (138), these fictions continue to represent the negotiation of that heterosexual exchange as ‘the ultimate guarantor of feminine satisfaction’ (138). (Maher 2005)

Clearly there are many, many romance readers who do not find their romance reading problematic in the ways described above, and, in addition, it could be argued that romance has changed significantly over the past few decades. There are huge numbers of romances which do not feature abusive/possessive heroes. It nonetheless seems that some romances do tell stories which justify, or can be used to justify, the oppression of women, and which may be damaging for readers who see these novels as recipes for how to find a successful mate. Perhaps the way the alpha male has become more frequent in paranormal romances, where he not infrequently makes an appearance as a werewolf or vampire will help to signal more clearly the difference between the fantasy and reality.

In my next post I'm planning to take a look at Elizabeth Bevarly's The Thing About Men, to see what it has to tell us about gender and relationships.

  • Freedman, Jane, 2001. Feminism (Buckingham: Open University Press). Sample chapter available as a pdf document here.
  • hooks, bell, 2000. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (Cambridge, MA: South End Press)
  • Maher, JaneMaree, 2005. ‘Scripts of Rape’, review of Wendy Larcombe’s Compelling Engagements: Feminism, Rape Law and Romance Fiction (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2005). Hecate’s Australian Women’s Book Review, 17.2.
  • Putney, Mary Jo, 1992: ‘Welcome to the Dark Side’, in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, ed. Jayne Ann Krentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), pp. 99-105.


  1. Interesting post. I think the ebook romance genre is more reflective of the effects of third wave feminism than what is currently available in print, especially in the ones with more speculative fiction elements. There, I can more easily find people of color, as well as heroines who go beyond the more traditional expectations of feminine behavior.

    **shameless plug
    I don't know if you saw this but you might be interested in the Seventh Blog Carnival of Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy Fans which includes a few links of discussion of the romance genre on science fiction.

  2. Thanks for the link, Li. I was a teenager when I read sci-fi (mostly Asimov) and fantasy (or is that not what the Pern books would be classified as?) and I didn't really know about the genre distinctions. I'm still not all that clear on them with these genres. Would 'fantasy' include most stories with magic in them? I didn't really distinguish between them and children's books with magic. The Wizard of Earthsea books started out at the right level for children, but the last one, written much later, was different in tone. It was still in the same world though, with the same characters. Diana Wynne Jones writes children's books as well as ones with more grown-up themes (probably YA level) and she's got an item about heroes, why she used to only write male heroes and feminism which ties in with some of the issues discussed as part of the Seventh Blog Carnival. She says that:

    About ten years ago, boys started being prepared to read books with a female hero. I found everything had gone much easier without, then, being able to say how or why. Females weren’t expected to behave like wimps and you could make them the centre of the story.

    I wonder if some of that is going to feed through into adult fiction, so that male readers feel more comfortable reading books with central female protagonists.

  3. . . . and fantasy (or is that not what the Pern books would be classified as?)

    I'd say The Dragonriders of Pern is a blend of fantasy and (soft) SF, same as Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover series.

    Would 'fantasy' include most stories with magic in them? I didn't really distinguish between them and children's books with magic.

    I'd label those as fantasy for children, e.g. Diana Wynne Jones' Crestomanci series. :)

    Re: Genderroles in romance & in real life: Of course, there are always people who confuse fiction with reality. Heck, there are even people who believe they are vampires! Should we blame Anne Rice for that? I find the studies you've quoted rather problematic because it seems to me it's always romance which is referred to in these instances and never any of the other genres. If our reading material influences our outlook on life to such an extent, then nobody should read the classics because it would be downright dangerous! (Tennyson? The horror, the horror! Dead maidens en masse!)

  4. Thanks for the clarification about the genre classifications, Sandra.

    I find the studies you've quoted rather problematic because it seems to me it's always romance which is referred to in these instances and never any of the other genres.

    I think other genres/other novels have come in for criticism, but the criticisms levelled at them will be somewhat different. You probably know far more than I do, for example, about the critiques there have been of fairy-tales. Or, to take rather different works, Kate Millett demonstrated the depth of misogyny there was in the novels of some male, 20th-century authors:

    Millett opens her famous polemic with some forensic analysis of sex scenes from novels by Henry Miller and Norman Mailer. The Mailer scene details the anal rape of a maid by a man who has just murdered his wife - with the maid loving it. Blimey, you think, by the end of it: these guys really don't like women much. [...]

    The final part of the book is given over to further critique of the writings of three "counterrevolutionary sexual politicians" - Miller, Mailer and DH Lawrence. (Blimey, you think, by the end of it: these guys really really don't like women much.)
    (Emily Wilson, writing in The Guardian)

    When romance is criticised it seems to me it's because

    (a) the genre is seen as written by women, for women, and is very popular. So, given that popularity, it's possibly more influential on a broad cultural level, particularly among women, than works which have relatively few readers. And because they have mostly women readers, I suppose they would tend to get invoked when studies are being done about where women might have got some of their attitudes from re love and relationships.

    (b) romance is about relationships. It's generally thought of as being about ideal relationships (not all romances are, of course). They're about people finding 'the love of their life', a love which will last forever, their soul-mate etc. So they might be considered to embody the 'ideal' of romantic relationships.

    (c) romance is about happy endings. Some of these may seem less than convincing if looked at objectively (e.g. brutal hero or rakish hero suddenly realises the error of his ways, because of the near-magical effect of the heroine's beauty/gentleness). Lots of people say that romances give them hope that love exists. But it's problematic if it gives them hope that the love of a 'good woman' can change an unsuitable man.

    There are other books that might send some of the same messages as some of the more problematic romances, but probably (with the exception of some stories like that of Patient Griselda) not all of them at once, and few others would be directed at this target audience and also have this level of popularity.

    If our reading material influences our outlook on life to such an extent, then nobody should read the classics because it would be downright dangerous!

    Some of the classics are dangerous, I think, especially if one's forced to read a lot of them together. Crusie says, for example,

    I had to read Madame Bovary, I had to read Anna Karenina, I had to read “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” I had to read Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Lawrence. I had to see Hester Prynne as the great American heroine who triumphs by remaining celibate for the rest of her endless life. (Romancing Reality).

    She then refers to this gloomy reading list in an another essay, where she writes that:

    I spent years reading about miserable women like the one who pursued the life she wanted, had great sex, and then ate arsenic; or the one who pursued the life she wanted, had great sex, and then threw herself under a train; or my personal fave, the one who pursued the life she wanted, had lousy sex with a masochistic dweeb, and spent the rest of her endless life atoning by doing good works in a letter sweater. What a great literary education gets a woman is depressed.Very, very depressed. Not to mention very reluctant to have sex. (Glee and Sympathy).

    Even if a person knows what they're reading isn't real, it can still have an emotional effect, and those effects can be quite subtle/insidious.

  5. I'm in my early 30s and definately a third-wave feminist, although it's not a term I'd heard of before reading this. I think chick-lit addresses some third-wave feminist issues. And romance reflects the 'want it all' expectation of my generation. The HEA can include fulfilment in the heroine's career, or the beginnings of family, but we are also happy to read romances which contain a narrow HEA based on romantic fulfilment only. My generation was brought up to believe that it was most important to get a good education and career, and to decide about marriage and family later. But what many women of my age want more than anything is to be stay-at-home Mums - if the economics will allow it.

  6. But what many women of my age want more than anything is to be stay-at-home Mums - if the economics will allow it.

    I'm pretty much the same age as you, Kate, and I'm a stay-at-home parent. I think there are different reasons why women choose to be stay-at-home (if, as you say, the finances permit). Maybe for some people it's because they like the idea of being a 'home-maker' but I suspect there are plenty who make the choice more because they worry about the effects of putting very small babies into childcare. We seem to get so many conflicting studies reported in the news, all of which tell us different ways in which we can potentially be damaging our children. And as there's still more maternity leave than paternity leave, and it's easier to breastfeed if one doesn't have to express at work, there can be practical reasons why it ends up being the female parent who ends up at home. In my case I didn't have a job (had just finished my Ph.D.) so it wasn't much of a choice at all.

    It does seem to be an issue which can lead to raging stay-at-home v working mother debates on parenting boards. And it's not usually acknowledged how boring it can be to stay at home, because no-one wants to admit to being a 'bad mother'. And even in the UK, which is better than the US in terms of statutory maternity and paternity leave, there still isn't the flexibility that there is in, say, France, where 'At the end of maternity leave, the mother or father can take parental leave until the child reaches the age of three, with entitlement to re-integration into the previous or a similar job' (BBC website).