TRR Forum:
Romance Fiction as a Feminist Issue
by Alison Hart & Barbara Keiler
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Among the many interesting sessions that I attended at last July’s Romance Writers of America conference, one that really got me thinking was a discussion of “Romance Fiction as a Feminist Issue.” Perhaps because I live in an academic environment where most of my colleagues - women as well as men - look down on romance, I was much taken by the remarks offered by two of the best known authors of category romances, Alison Hart (aka Jennifer Greene) and Barbara Keiler (aka Judith Arnold.)

Allison and Barbara were directing their remarks at an audience of fellow writers, but I thought that TRR’s readers would very much enjoy what they had to say. Both of them graciously consented to share their thoughts with us. I think you will find their insights most illuminating and thought-provoking. Jean Mason

Alison Hart’s Remarks:

My first goal is a shortie, and that's just to define 'feminism', so we're all comfortable that we mean the same things by the term. Then I'd like to get into why we should give a damn whether there are feminist issues in the romance genre or not. And for the bulk of my time, I want to give you some specific ideas about how feminist issues show up in romantic fiction. So in short, I want to give you a what, a why, and a how.

The "what" first. Like any other writer, when I first decided that I needed a definition, I reached for the obvious source-a dictionary. It took me a second before I realized how silly that was and (quickly) ((very quickly)) put the dictionary down. I mean, come on, the source of almost all the definitions in a dictionary come from dead white men - so it just seems tacky to look for a valid and meaningful definition for feminism in there.

So then I went to a variety of women-driven and women-written sources. Unfortunately I discovered that wasn't so easy, either, because definitions of feminism seem to vary enormously from source to source. However, what they all seem to agree on is a historical understanding: the feminist term originated from the 19th and 20th century movements for women's political, economic and social rights.

That not only sounds like a garbled mouthful; it seems awfully removed from what we do. On the surface, what does a love story have to do with women’s rights? It would seem that the two subjects are completely unrelated. Sure, some of us may be feminist in our beliefs - or not - but what does that have to do with a content in a love story?

Well... I hate to address those questions logically, because I'm one of those emotional creatures - a woman - and I don't want to relate to you like one of the guys. But let me just give you this short ounce of logic to chew on.

Any group who've had to fight for rights obviously didn't have them. And if a group was deprived of certain rights, then there is likely a reason for that. Possibly that group was perceived as weak or undeserving ... and to gain those rights, in ANY political, social or economic medium, the so-called weak group has a job to accomplish before they can achieve change - and that job is to convince the other side that they are strong. Deserving. Worthy.

Self worth. Self value. Strength. Amazing, isn't it - because that's exactly what romances are about. Our heroines struggle with that in every single book. Whether we're writing category or historicals or single titles or any other variation in women's fiction, the heroine begins with a problem that she can't solve. Something is standing in the way of her and fulfillment.

On the surface, that problematic 'something' can be anything, like maybe a tornado ... or a lost job ... or poverty ... or a pregnancy she wasn't expecting, or a man. But if you get down to a deeper level in a romance, those problems are just the track for the train. They're not the train. That critical 'something' standing between the heroine and fulfillment is always the same problem, and although it may seem to be an external conflict - it never is. The problem is always HER. Something in HER that has to grow, that she must overcome or conquer, for her to reach for love and however else she defines fulfillment.

That's what romances are, and that's why we have to care how feminist issues are handled in the genre. They're the essential key to selling. It's the feminist issues that enable the reader to identify with and relate to the heroine. The reader HAS those problems. She experiences those fears in her own life. She has struggled with self worth and self confidence, exactly as our heroines do.

The writer's relationship with the reader is unique in a romance. It's not something you find in any other kind of book .... and the appeal of romance and women's fiction can't be understood without looking at what the writer and readerbring to each other.

k+-et&fieid. We give the reader a promise that she's not alone - that someone else understands. That is an absolutely critical part of the escape that a romance gives a reader - NOT just the love story - but a talk fest, woman to woman, about sex and values and children.... about men who do us wrong .... about what we need in mates and don't always get... about what's wrong in our schools and our cities and our government - the things that really bug us, because we see the problems and how they affect our lives, but we feel so frustrated at trying to change them.

In a romance, there is an atmosphere of honesty between writer and reader which makes for a freedom to talk about the things that we're afraid of - so we do. We talk about the people who have hurt us, and we try to understand how that happened and how to protect ourselves from making the same mistakes again. . We talk about the things we're ashamed of and can't say in public -but our heroines can, in the privacy of a book--and because they've made those kinds of mistakes, we get ideas about how to heal and cope with some of the private, tough hurts in our lives.

I believe that the romances that work --- and by 'work' I mean the books that sell well, that we love, that end up on our keeper shelves - all have a feminist bent. Just saying that, of course, doesn't mean much, because there are so many schools of feminism. Ours, tho, follows a very specific philosophical track. For one thing, we're NOT anti-men. We're pro-women, and there's a huge difference in those two concepts. We're not of the feminist school where men are to blame for everything wrong that ever happened to womankind. We're of the feminist school that teaches Strength is Power - and that we're not seeking power on a man's terms, but on our own. Our goal for each other is to win - not to win a man or to win over a man-as if a guy in one way or another is an answer to everything--but to win fulfillment within ourselves, so that we can achieve those things we need.

Still, all that philosophical stuff is easy to say, but as we all know - talk is cheap. Now: what do we DO with this information? HOW do we convey these things in a story? How do we show a woman's brand of strength ... how do we empower our heroines?

Well ... part of those answers stem from simply understanding what our genre is and how it functions. There are lots of mediums communicating to women. The news. Movies. Song lyrics. Newspapers. But romance communicates to and reaches women in a completely different way than any other medium. For one thing, it's our break time - it's time we recognize as being 'for us'. Secondly, it's a medium that communicates in a no-stress, empathetic way. Add those 2 factors together and you have the really unusual key ingredient of a medium where the readership actually wants to hear what we have to say .... and they're willing to listen because we writers have a strong trust relationship with our readers.

When a reader picks up a romance, she has expectations and trust that we'll meet those expectations - she trusts that there'll be a happy ending ... she trusts that the book will be a true break, easy to read, enjoyable .... she trusts that there will be a level of language, of behavior, of values, and of action where we all agree on those rules ahead of time.

That trust business is a serious thing and it matters - in fact, I would suggest that romance is a medium that has power over us-and for us-for exactly that reason. Women hunger to share, in an environment where they feel safe - and that is especially true because these are such harsh times. I don't know why folks are so intolerant of each today, but you know what I'm talking about - it's everywhere. People are using religion like a machine gun. They excuse violence and anger and intolerance and cruelty and call it 'righteous'. We can't seem to find a solution for a little boy like Elian without fighting. People are rude. They're furious on the road. They push you in lines. You all know what I'm talking about.

Romances are not about a fairy tale - or ignoring those realities - but they ARE are about the kind of world we want to live in. The core difference between a fairy tale and a book that toots feminist values like romance is that we can HAVE this world.

Personally, I never wanted the prince. You can never trust those too-good looking guys - they always seemed self indulgent and spoiled to me. But I do want a good man. And I want a life where I have the emotional strength and the character skills to attain the things that are important to me ... whether those things are children or a house or a great job or all those things. That's what a love story is. Not a fairy tale, where the girl goes off to the prince's home and does his life. But a story where both the man and the woman respect each other, and seek to help each other achieve their goals.

One way to discover how feminist issues are handled in - romance is simply to study one of our classic story lines. The 'lost baby' plot is the easiest example I can think of. In the most common structure in the 'lost baby' story: the couple meet when they're young, have sex, the girl gets pregnant ... and a bunch of years later, the hero runs across her, not realizing she's had his child. You've all read this. In fact, you've all probably read it 3,492 times. If the 'lost baby' story is done in a way that celebrates pro-women values, it traditionally hits at least two major themes. One is: the heroine gets a chance to right an old wrong, and somehow we all seem to have an 'old wrong' in our hearts that we wish we could take back. And number two is: that story brings back the wonder and magic of our first love, which seems to be a memory we universally cherish. But... I believe there is a third reason why the 'lost baby' hung around as a hot trend for so long... and that's because we're in a period when we have the highest divorce rate in history - a time when more kids are getting raised by single parents than ever before. Essentially, the 'lost baby' story is a chance for women to talk to each other about a problem that we're all worried about today, our changing families, how single parents cope, all those issues.

However, I've seen the 'lost baby' plot done in some ways that made me want to whack the author-and the editor-upside the head, and I assume you have, too. In some of those stories, the hero feels obligated to marry the heroine just because she's pregnant - even if he doesn't love her, even if she doesn't love him. In other stories, there's the unspoken value that it's okay for the woman to never tell the man that he fathered a child. And in a few of these stories, the guy sleeps with the woman and it never once seems to occur to him that she could have gotten pregnant.

Don't get nervous if you've done some stories that way, because I've been stuck, too - I know how this can happen. Last year I had a book titled Prince Charming's Child. The back cover reads: "I AM A MAN OF HONOR. IF SHE'S CARRYING MY CHILD, SHE WILL BE MY WIFE!" I didn't ask for this copy. If I'd known what they had in mind-after I finished throwing up--I would have asked them to change it. Worse yet, where it's easy to argue when there's a problem; it's tough to argue against a point of view that's successful --- it's hard to change something like that, when sales are so great on a book. However, that kind of back cover copy - the unspoken values in that message - I really find disturbing. To me, a man who would talk that way, think that way, or a treat a woman that way is an arrogant, manipulative creep, not a hero.

You may not agree with me. In fact, I don't doubt there are a zillion areas where you and I might disagree on all kinds of values - birth control, abortion and religion between through obvious touchy ones for all of us. I think what matters, though, is NOT where we disagree, but where all of us are in accord.

The themes that show up in romances-the trends - all openly wave a banner about how we want our world to be. And to use the 'lost -baby' plot again for an example, I suspect you all believe with me that ideally every child is raised by a loving, two-parent family. No sweat there. But I can't believe any of us want to go back to the values in the 50's when a woman married a man because she had to ... when women felt trapped into being married and staying married because of needs they didn't believe they could fulfill on their own. Whether you're agnostic or believer, Jewish or Catholic or Buddhist, right wing or left, black or white or polka dot... I really do think everyone in this room is likely to have no difficulty agreeing on certain things.

We believe that love has power. We believe in family. In commitment. We believe that honor is important. And that people - a couple together-should behave with honor and respect toward each other. Take away all our differences, from race to religion to politics to anything else, and issues like that are still true. These core beliefs make up what romances are. And those core beliefs are also at the heart of feminism.

I sincerely believe the reason anti-feminist values sometimes show up in romances is not because we don't agree on this stuff .... it's just because we get careless and aren't paying attention. Unfortunately, though, we're not just responsible for the outward themes we write about, but also for the hidden values under the surface.

And before I quit, I'd just like to leave you with a short, specific list that I hope might start you thinking ... start you making your lists, about the feminist issues that matter to you and that need to be shouted about in romantic fiction.

--Let's agree that a hero who calls his heroine 'you little fool' deserves to have his face washed in grape Koolaid.

--Let's agree, that a man who pretends that he doesn't know a pregnancy can result if neither partner uses birth control is really too stupid to live.

--Let's agree that a woman who would knowingly sleep with a guy who would manipulate or use her is a lousy role model for a good woman or a heroine.

--Let's agree that for a man to use financial, emotional or physical power over a woman is a low-down skunk of a worm.

--Let's agree that for a woman to stay in a relationship - much less to call that relationship 'love'-when a man tries to use financial, emotional or physical power over her is a dumb jerk who is not worthy of the label of heroine.

--Let's agree that a man who can't comprehend a simple two letter word like 'no' is really far better suited to the role of villain than hero.

I was trying to make you smile a bit-but also to leave you with some examples of how easily we agree on certain values. Whether we've thought about it on those terms or not, we've all been writing feminist concepts into our romances for a long time. And that's wonderful - because our books have the huge potential to support women in a way no other medium can. In this extraordinary medium of a love story, we're able to talk together about the things that really matter to us ... about the problems we have, about how we might solve those problems, about what we want our world to be, about how to empower women to be able to meet their needs and life goals. No one can do it better than us. I know you. I read you. Let's just keep at it - do our best to keep our consciousness high on the messages we give our fellow sisters in romantic fiction - and to take care to give them the messages that we really mean to.

Barbara Keiler’s Remarks:

Alison has talked about the feminist messages that are inherent in our books. I’m going to talk about how writing and reading romances are inherently feminist acts.

Let me start with a little context: Back in the ’60’s and ’70’s, when the recent feminist movement was in full flower, we were all taught that women could have it all. Today, many of us do have it all: husbands, children and jobs. Somewhere along the way, unfortunately, we learned that having it all often equates to doing it all.

No matter how much progress we’ve made during the past few decades, no matter how much control we’ve gained over our bodies, our careers and the direction of our lives, we often find ourselves doing it all. Whether by choice or by default, we are caretakers. In the workplace, we still make up the majority in those professions geared toward serving others — secretary, nurse, administrative assistant, school teacher, the kind of work that’s all about enabling others to accomplish their goals or improving other people’s chances for success.

At home, we still bear primary responsibility for housekeeping and child care.

Women are conditioned at a young age to understand that our worth as human beings is measured by how well we are liked and how deeply we are loved. We’re taught that an effective way to earn affection is to do things for others.

Men are the frequent beneficiaries of women’s efforts. Women learn the value of doing things for men: socially, because the most common domestic unit in our world remains the male-female marriage; and professionally, because men still occupy the more powerful positions in the working world.

I’m not saying that men do nothing for women. However, because on average men earn more money than women, women end up doing things for them. We often learn that if we want to advance professionally or socially, the most effective way to achieve our goals is to do things for men.

Now what does all this have to do with romance fiction? Well, let me tell you about how I became a romance writer.

In 1974, I enrolled in a graduate program in creative writing which at that time had no women on the creative writing staff. The graduate program was small and competitive. To receive one of the few fellowships, students had to win the favor of faculty members — all of them men.

So, I learned how to write to please men.

And that was okay. I figured it was good training, because I knew this was the way to become a successful novelist: you have to please men with your writing. Books read only by women didn’t get reviewed, didn’t win the Pulitzer, didn’t get taken as seriously as books read by men. That was the reality.

But about fifteen years ago, I decided I’d had it. I no longer wanted to write to please men. As a wife and mother, I spend an awful lot of my life doing things for men — especially since both my kids are boys. But in my career, the intellectual heart of my life, I no longer do things for men. Writing romance fiction is something I do for women — and for myself.

I’m not saying I don’t want men to read my books. I’d be thrilled if they did. I think the world would be a better place if men read romances. But winning male approval isn’t the objective of romance writers. We are writing for an audience of women. If men don’t get it, who cares?

I think — and this is just my opinion, of course, but I’m tossing it out for your consideration — the main reason romance fiction gets ridiculed by literary critics is because we don’t care if men get it. We aren’t writing to please men, and this really bugs men. They feel threatened by anything that isn’t primarily devoted to pleasing them.

When it comes to romance fiction, men have two options: 1. They could just ignore it—except that it threatens them, and men can’t ignore anything that threatens them, so I guess that’s not a real option for most men. 2. They could try to learn about it, the way women make an effort to learn about, say football.

I was never interested in football until I met my husband, and it was a big interest of his, so I decided to learn about it. I’m still not a big fan, but at least I’ve got the gist of it.

Now, football games are kind of similar to romance novels, in a way. Men watch a game, enjoy it, get emotionally involved in the game to the point where they want to talk about it for days afterwards. They have some “keeper” games, which they will remember for the rest of their lives.

And yet, every game shares certain similarities with every other game: there are two teams, each one wants to score points, they have the same basic arsenal of strategies, and at the end of the game one team will have won and one will have lost. They even have “length restrictions"—sixty minutes of playing time (although, of course, in “football time,” sixty minutes equals three hours.)

Nobody ever says to a man, “You just watched a game. Why do you want to watch another one? They’re all the same.” Yet they say this about romance fiction all the time.

It’s true that romance novels, like football games, share certain features: a hero, a heroine, a romantic conflict, a happy ending. Sometimes a “length restriction” —a word count. But just as men will tell you that every football game is unique, some are boring but some are brilliant, we know that every romance novel is unique — some not so good, others brilliant.

Apparently, this “sameness” among football games is perfectly acceptable, but among romance novels it’s a mark of how silly and shallow the books are. I don’t think anyone would criticize romance novels as being silly and shallow unless they felt threatened by the novels.

It’s not just men who criticize romances, of course. Female literary critics also deride our books. But most of these female critics gained their stature in literary circles by pleasing men — by accepting and adopting their critical biases. Female literary critics — book reviewers and professors — know they won’t be taken seriously unless they think like men.

Yet our readers devour romance novels despite the ridicule and the lack of respect. They read romances because it is one activity—in some cases, perhaps, the only activity—they do for no one but themselves.

Romance fiction fans don’t care whether their husbands, their children, their bosses or the critics at the New York Times Book Review consider their choice of reading material worthwhile. They aren’t reading romances to please anyone but themselves.

Janice Radway, in one of her seminal studies in the ’80’s, came up with a theory that one reason women read romances rather than unwind in front of the TV is because with a book, they can create a physical barrier between themselves and the world. They hold up a romance in front of their faces, and it’s a way of signalling their families: “I’m not available to you right now. I am doing something for myself.”

If they were watching TV, or sitting in front of a fire, or playing with the dog in the family room, they’d have no shield against their families. They would still be accessible. By holding up the book, they remove themselves from the people they usually “serve.”

One of the most telling comments I’ve received from a reader was a letter she wrote after reading one of my books. She’d been going through some sort of crisis with her teenage grandson — she didn’t specify what the crisis was. But she wrote, “I would pick up your book after a black, depressing day and lose myself in it for hours at a time.” What she was saying was that after giving herself to her family all day, after doing things for everyone else during this crisis, she used my book to escape, to do something for herself. To lose herself — meaning, to remove herself from her oppressive duties to her family.

Most writers hear comments like this from our romance readers. Our books are a gift our readers give themselves after they’ve spent their days giving their time, energy and effort to others.

Okay. So the act of reading a novel is a feminist statement. It’s a woman’s way of saying, “I’m on my own time now. You can’t have me, you can’t make demands on me, you can’t expect me to take care of you right now. I’m doing something for me.”

But does it have to be a romance novel? Why can’t women do this with mystery novels, or thrillers, or science fiction?

Well, obviously, they can. But I think romance novels offer something more than simply an opportunity for a woman to do something for herself. The fact is, romance novels are in and of themselves feminist tracts.

As Alison has said, one essential ingredient in romances is a strong, proactive heroine. She is the energy center of the romance novel. She does things, she determines the course of her life, she makes decisions. She’s strong. She’s a warrior. She fights for what’s right.

One phrase you could never use to describe her is the “love interest.”

How often do you read a book blurb or a movie review that goes like this: “A soldier of fortune. A beautiful woman. A plot to assasinate the President.” Or: “He was a farmer determined to save his land. She was his neighbor, with dreams of her own.” Or: “A young artist seizes an opportunity for adventure by winning passage on a great ship. There he meets a beautiful woman engaged to marry a wealthy man.” Okay? The biggest movie of all time — Titanic. Jack Dawson (DiCaprio’s character) is an artist. What is Rose (Winslet’s character)? A beautiful woman. Someone’s fiancée.

What am I getting at here? In most popular fiction, the “heroines” are defined by who they are, rather than what they do. And often that definition has to do with (1) their appearance, or (2) their relationships to others. They’re a neighbor, a fiancée, a mother, a daughter. And heaven knows, they’re always beautiful.

The main female character in most popular fiction is passive. She is an object, a symbol. Or else she fits into some sort of stereotype: the whore with the heart of gold; or the virginal princess; or the long-suffering noble mother; or - in Titanic, the repressed young thing who needs the right man to release the real woman inside her. Let’s face it - how does Jack liberate Rose? By stripping her naked and drawing her! She lies there passive and naked — and decked out in priceless necklace—and Jack draws her picture.

Yikes!

In good romance fiction, the heroines usually don’t fall into these simplistic roles. They are defined not by who they are but by what they do. They have careers. Jobs. Ambitions. Missions. They are going to save someone. They are going to redeem the family name. They are going to avenge the death of their father. They are going to build a corporate empire--or they’re going to build a back porch.

It doesn’t matter. What matters is that they’re doing something. And because they’re doing something, they are powerful.

Women who read romances are all doing things, too. But frequently, what women do goes unnoticed. The mother who shuttles her son all over the state to violin teachers and master classes is doing things, but ultimately, when her son plays in Symphony Hall, how many people are going to be thinking, “Wow, that young man’s mother really worked hard to enable him to become a virtuoso”?

Much of what women do in their lives goes unnoticed and uncredited. It is their job to enable others to attain their goals, remember?

In romance novels, the heroine’s efforts get noticed. She gets credit. Even if what she’s doing is saving someone else, or helping someone else — hey, I’ve written plenty of heroines who were nurses and teachers!—she gets credit for what she’s done.

I had a book out a while back in which the heroine is a preschool teacher. What could be more nurturing? More traditionally female? More “doing for others”? Yet in the book, she was respected and appreciated for what she did.

So often in real life, the mothers of young children work like dogs and get little appreciation. They say: “The only reward I want is for my daughter to grow up into a smart, healthy contributing member of society.” Well, sure. But I’d bet that mother wouldn’t mind having her husband say, “Gee, you’ve worked so hard. Put your feet up while I get dinner. You’re not going near a greasy pot tonight.”

In a romance novel, that would happen. In a romance novel, the heroine — and what she does — matters.

Another feminist aspect of romance fiction is that in romance novels female sexuality is taken seriously and treated respectfully.

The sexuality in romance novels is one of the primary targets of ridicule. This ridicule is actually a put-down of women. It belittles our sexuality and our fantasies. Why? Because our sexual fantasies are different from those of men, so men feel threatened by them. And what do men do when they feel threatened? They sneer. They make fun of what threatens them.

The sex scenes in romance fiction are nothing like the sex scenes you get in most men’s fiction. The sex scenes in popular fiction written for men are usually something along the lines of what you might find in Playboy: the woman is like one of those centerfolds with the surgically enhanced bosoms and the collagen lips, and in the interview she says she’s working on her Ph.D in astrophysics. And the hero in men’s fiction can bring exquisite sexual satisfaction to the heroine by letting her perform oral sex on him in an elevator.

A typical example: About ten years ago, my agent called me to tell me about this phenomenal manuscript his agency was repping. A first novel, and it was going to be big. It was Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, and my agent told me he’d read it and thought it was fabulous — except, he added, “You write better sex scenes.”

Well, when the book came out, he sent me a copy, and I read it. And it was a terrific book, a real page turner. The big sex scene in this book involved the assistant D.A. — who just happened to be blond and gorgeous and stacked and was sleeping with several lawyers in the D.A.’s office, even though she was also a brilliant attorney — and she’s having anal sex with the hero, and in the middle of this anal sex scene, she says something along the lines of, “I bet your wife doesn’t do this for you.” And that realization—that she’s allowing the hero to do to her what his wife won’t allow—is what turns her on.

That’s a guy sex scene. And not a single critic made fun of it.

Men want to believe women are turned on by wearing black French maid uniforms and crotchless panties—this is what men buy for their lovers on Valentine’s Day, right? And if we don’t get turned on by what turns men on, they’d rather not think of us as having our own sexual agenda. That’s too threatening to them.

In a “Dear Reader” letter a couple of years ago, I wrote, “Romance novels are women talking to other women about the things that matter to us.” I should say that among the letters I got from readers after that book came out was one from a man who said he loved my book but wanted to take exception to that statement in the “Dear Reader” letter. “Men read romances too,” he said.

Well, of course, not enough men read romances. Whenever a man reads a romance, I’m thrilled, because I want men to know what matters to us. I want men to take our issues seriously. I want men to understand what women respond to in heroes and heroines. I want them to read books in which people overcome their problems by cooperating instead of crushing their opponents or going to war or anihilating the planet.

But when I write a romance novel, I’m not writing it hoping that men are going to read it. I’m writing it for other women. It’s girl talk.

If men want to listen in and learn, wonderful. But romance fiction is for us. It is one thing we do for ourselves. Pleasing men is not its purpose. Those of us who write romance write to please women, and those of us who read it read to please ourselves.

And that’s as feminist as it gets. Jan. 10, 2001


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