Romantic fiction is feminist

Now there’s a large claim for you. I had a five minute spot at the local book fair on Sunday, and I chose that as my topic, and my blog post today repeats the main points I made.

Walking into sunset

Romantic fiction is feminist almost by definition

Romantic fiction is that genre of fiction where one of the major plot lines is the growing romantic attachment between two of the main protagonists, ending in the hope of a happy future together.

And I’m defining feminism as the belief that women should have the right to the same social, economic, educational, and other opportunities as men, and should be as free as men to make choices about them.

When a genre is written largely by women (80% of romantic fiction authors are women), largely for women (90% of readers), and almost always about women, it has to be about the choices of women.

In other other genres, women are plot devices. In all romantic novels (except in the subgenre of gay fiction with two male protagonists) a women is one of the key protagonists, if not the main protagonist.

And even in the books we all love to hate, when the heroine is TDTL (genre initialism meaning ‘too dumb to live’) and the hero is a creep with a particularly fine set of abs, the plot hinges on the choices made by women. However constrained her rights may be, however constrained her opportunities, the novel exists because of the choices of the heroine. And the novel isn’t over until the heroine gets what she wants.

Today’s romantic heroines are often strong women

Twenty-first century writers create stories for twenty-first century women. While not all readers want to read about strong-minded independent women, I like to write them. I think they’re more interesting, and I think the men who can appreciate them are more interesting, too.

My first book, Candle’s Christmas Chair, features a tradesman’s daughter who is put out that she cannot inherit her father’s business, but who has grown her own, making invalid chairs, and has no intention of giving that up for marriage.

“Papa, have you thought about where you and Mama will go when you retire?”

“After Christmas we will decide a place and a date. Do you have a place you would like, daughter?”

“I do not mind, Papa. As long as it has a workshop big enough for me to make my chairs.”

“You should be making babies, not chairs,” Papa grumbled. “Marry your viscount or choose another man, and give me and Mama grand-babies.”

“I would marry a man who would let me make my chairs,” Min said.

“Ah Min. Your Mama was right. She told me that if I encouraged you I would end up breaking your heart. Min. Little Owl. Face facts. Women aren’t meant to make carriages, even your little ones. I’ve let you make your chairs and sell them, and a very good job you have done of it too. I’ve been very proud of you. But a man doesn’t want his wife to go out to work.”

“You let Mama work in the harness shop,” Min protested.

“Remember that, do you? I had no choice, Min. We didn’t have the money, when we started out, to hire a good harness maker. Mama was the best. But as soon as I could, I replaced her so she could stay home. A man doesn’t want his wife to go out to work. Looking after the home, visiting her friends. That’s enough.”

Not for me, Min wanted to say.

In Farewell to Kindness, the heroine is more traditional in her dreams (and that, too, is a choice). But she is also a champion archer, and uses that ability to save those she loves.

“Who are you? What do you want?” The drink thickened his voice. “If I shout, I’ll wake the whole household.”

“The household are all either below stairs or well above. And you will have, at most, one shout before I put this arrow between your eyes. I have demonstrated I can.” It was a woman’s voice, low and determined.

George glanced back at the arrow, and swallowed.

“You won’t shoot me. You’re a woman.”

“I will shoot you with pleasure, if I must,” the woman said. “But shooting you is not my first choice.”

He pulled himself straight, glaring. “You won’t get away with this. Don’t you know who I am?”

“Do you not know who I am? I am the woman you owe a future to. And I mean to collect. You will give me either my future or my revenge.”

The heroine of A Baron for Becky may be the toughest of the lot. Most of her choices were taken from her a few days after her 15th birthday. She has chosen to endure, and the main plot hinge of the book is the choice she makes about the best path for her and her children

“What do you want for your daughter, Mrs Darling?”

“A better life,” Rose said immediately, suddenly fierce. “A chance to be respectable. A life that does not depend on the whims of a man.”

“The first two may be achievable,” the duchess said, dryly. “The third is highly unlikely for any woman of any station. You expect my son to help you to these goals, I take it.”

Rose was suddenly tired of polite circling. “I was saving so that I could leave this life, start again in another place under another name. But my last protector cheated me and stole from me.

“I do what I must, Your Grace. Should I have killed myself when I was disgraced? I had no skills anyone wanted to buy. I could play the piano, a little; sew, but others were faster and better; paint, but indifferently; parse a Latin sentence, but of what use was that in my circumstances? Should I have starved in the gutter where they threw me?

“Well, I was not given that choice. Those who took me from the gutter knew precisely what I had that others would pay for. As soon as I could, I began selling it for myself, and I. Will. Not. Be. Ashamed.”

Romantic fiction is feminist because it is about choice.

Romantic fiction is also romantic by definition

I’ve heard one feminist critique of romantic fiction that flabbergasts me. Romantic fiction, they say, is anti-feminist because it teaches women to believe that happiness lies in a successful love affair.

Um. Excuse me? Read the label on the box, people. This. Is. Romance. A fictional account of a love affair with a happy ending. Criticising it for having a happy ending is like criticising a cornflakes packet for containing cornflakes.

Different genres have different conventions. In murder mysteries, the killer is always caught and brought to justice. Science fiction novels are predicated on technology that does not exist yet. Neither reflect reality, and readers do not believe that they do.

Do we stop reading thrillers because they teach people not to fight against injustice until the lone hero strolls into town, emotionally scarred and weather-beaten, to throw his exceptional skills into the cause and win against all the odds? Do we stop reading literary novels because they almost universally end unhappily, thus teaching people that happiness is not achievable?

That said, I see many plots that include secondary characters who are successfully single, and I’d like to see more. I have a personal ambition to write a book with a strong secondary plot where the heroine’s best friend decides against marriage because something else brings her more satisfaction. (Of course, in the time period I’m writing about, that means she decides against sex, and yes, people, it is possible.)

Reading romantic fiction is an affirmative action

 No other genre attracts the same level of scorn as romantic fiction. Every writer has heard the derogatory names. Mommie-porn. Chick-lit. Bodice-ripper. Or The Sneer. And boy do we know The Sneer! So you write Mills and Boon? Sneer. Oh, like Fifty Shades of Grey? Sneer. Like Barbara Cartland? Sneer. Why three of the most financially successful brands in the history of publishing should attract a sneer is an interesting question.

Those particular brands are used as a dismissal, I suggest, because the speaker believes them to be of poor quality. I’m not going to comment on that, beyond saying that the genre is much much broader than the brands mentioned. Science fiction includes Star Wars rip-off fiction as well as the wonderful The Word for World is Forest. Romantic fiction includes pulp as well as the marvellous The Captive.

A genre is not a description of quality. It is just a convenient way of sorting books so that book sellers and libraries can give readers the type of story they want. Genre and literary novels come in good, bad, and indifferent—as most readers and writers nowadays know, with the exception of a few unregenerate literary snobs.

But somehow, it is still open season on romance. Why? When you look at the insulting labels, all of which call attention to the gender of the writers and readers, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that this unthinking dismissal of romance is an anti-feminist act, and challenging such bigotry is an affirmative action.

So read romantic fiction proudly. By doing so, you are supporting a writer who believes that women should have the same freedom as men to make choices.


8 thoughts on “Romantic fiction is feminist

  1. “I have a personal ambition to write a book with a strong secondary plot where the heroine’s best friend decides against marriage because something else brings her more satisfaction. (Of course, in the time period I’m writing about, that means she decides against sex, and yes, people, it is possible.)”
    -I’d love to see this, maybe a nun? That was a path to public service before there were professional teachers and nurses.

    Barbara Cartland gets slammed a bit too much. Yeah I think writing over 20 books a year for years diluted the brand and left them bland later, but her kind of clean romances seem to be making a slight comeback in the listings now that small pub and self-pub promotes more variety. Her early ones were comparable to Heyer, and that they got so assembly line is the sad thing.

    I admit I use a lot of those terms used as slams, but more as descriptives as I see bodice rippers a subgenre different than chick-lit and different than paranormal, though all are still romances. There’s also a stronger romance themes in other genres, and less apologetically. Bujold’s Civil Campaign is about 75% regency romance (but depends on previous books to increase the fun) Cross genre stories are usually better on one side of the line. Romance writers are better at including thriller aspects than thriller writers are at including a good romance, for example. But a lot of the earlier romances with SF stories were repeating SF plots that were hokey in the 60’s. But whatever critics and pessimists and nihilist VG designers say, it’s the romances and characters that people come back for. There’s a romance element in most every story in every genre.

    Agency and autonomy are STILL thin on the ground in too many stories, including hot shows. As life and art keep reflecting each other, that says we still need to make sure that choice is the default.

  2. And don’t forget that early novels were a way a young woman could empower herself in having the hope of happy ever after, even though her own choices were usually trammelled by convention and financial concerns. And those constraints meant that reading, or writing, novels was one way to feel in control for a while. The very constraints in place meant that we have the wonderful fiction of Jane Austen, who could not marry the man she loved, since he had no money and no real prospects, and she had no dowry to speak of. Her romantic soul instead gave us some wonderful books, because she chose not to become bitter and acidulated as a maiden aunt subliminating her feelings for others, but to go ahead with her writing and to believe in happy endings.

  3. Yes! Have never really thought about it in those terms, but you’re absolutely right – particularly about women playing a much more pivotal role than in some other genres. But it definitely also depends, I think, on the gender of the author – in my To Be a Queen, Alfred the great’s daughter is the central character and she is, through necessity, a strong figure. In other portrayals, such as Bernard Cornwell’s series, she is a bit-part player and little more than a political pawn, a victim almost. Viewpoint is everything! I really enjoyed reading this post, thanks – I expected it to be controversial, but actually it’s just common sense!

    • In most genres, I find I get more satisfaction reading women authors. Some men do female characters very well, but most don’t give them a lot of autonomy or page space.

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