I sometimes feel like there’s a contradiction in me being both a critical, feminist consumer of culture and an occasional reader of escapist romantic literature. This post attempts to tackle some of the issues I have encountered in romance literature in relation to my feminism and how I try to reconcile these identities.
I’m in a habit of reading a romance book or two when life gets to be just a little bit too much: when I can’t get my essays written and going to lectures is almost painful, meeting up with friends feels exhausting, or one shift at work taps out all my energy. I decided to give romance literature a chance a little less than a year ago when going through this sort of phase. My exchange year in Germany was drawing to a close, and I was swamped with deadlines, overcome by stress about moving back home and not having a job or apartment waiting for me there. I generally did not feel like doing anything at all though I had everything to do. It was a pretty horrifying state to be in, a sort of a shutting down of the brain. I was pretty desperate, and it was then that I decided to give my sister’s number one escape method, romance literature, a go. While she had been a true connoisseur of the genre for years, I’d always regarded myself as too un-romantic and cynical a person to really get into it. And then I read Tessa Dare’s Romancing the Duke (2014) in one night. I may have another book the next day, and after a few days, all the stress and the deadlines started to feel less overwhelming. I had not read high art that elevated my being to higher plane, I had just been entertained in a way that had very little to do with my actual life. Escapism is relief from unpleasant realities. And for me, romance literature was just that when I needed it.
Since then I’ve gone back to romance a few times and read my fair share of historical romance fiction. I’ve noticed that my initial, positive reaction was in part luck of choosing a fun novel to start with and in part not yet knowing the genre in general. I’ve become much more critical about it since. I exist in a fun yet exhausting place where I can hardly ever turn analysis-mode off anymore, and romance literature, it turns out, is full of stuff to criticise. Even when reading the lightest, fluffiest romance, I find myself analysing the genre’s tropes and clichés. Having accumulated a wider knowledge of them, I have began seeing both the positive and the problematic in the genre as a whole. For the sake of brevity and because I know it best, I’ll limit the topic of this text to historical, heterosexual romance novels. Let’s dive in.
The Romance Writers of America define a book in the romance genre as comprising of two basic elements: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. The typical historical, heterosexual romance novel is told alternately through the point of view of the main couple, a man and a woman, and most often takes place in 19th century England. The man is likely to be some sort of a rake or at least experienced in the ways of women, and is usually cast in the role of the pursuer in the relationship. (Oh, and he’s probably a duke, or at least a marquess. Historical romance happens in a reality where there are dozens of dukes and marquesses.) The woman is mostly a virtuous young lady, an inexperienced virgin, who, through the course of the novel, gets a perfect introduction to the world of sensuality from the man. They have troubles, internal and external forces that try to keep them apart, but in the end, the couple lives happily ever after. Interspersed there may be subplots, but as the Romance Writers of America say, the main focus must be on the love story. The ending is usually the wedding or the wedding night, followed sometimes by an epilogue showing just how perfect and happy the main couple’s happily ever after is.
When it comes to diversity in character, men usually get the short end of the stick. While women get a wide range of personalities, the heros are most often incorrigible rakes or maybe just mysterious rich guys with pasts of varying degrees of tragedy who end up reforming or getting over their past problems because of the love of the heroine. They are tall, handsome, and mostly brooding and quite uniformly rich. The women, though the delicate flowers that they are, can be anything from tall to short, blonde to brunette, ugly to beautiful, outspoken to shy, smart to ditzy, and poor to rich. The men are very much prisoners of conventional masculinity: they need to be in charge, attractive, and virile. There is rarely room for a man unsure of his sexuality (a book that breaks this trope is The Duchess War, 2012, by Courtney Milan), just as there is just as rarely room for the woman to be experienced.
With that, it’s time to talk about sex. Romance novels often revolve around sexual as well as romantic love. The connection between these two is natural, expected, and obvious: in most historical romance, romantic love does not exist without sex and vice versa. They are natural by-products of each other. Often the main characters have immediate sexual chemistry without even exchanging a word. It might not be love at first sight, but it can be is lust at first sight, and love follows. Because the main plot revolves around a love story, even characters who hate each other at first don’t really have that much time for loathing before they need to get together for the plot to advance.
Sometimes the man has to chase the woman for a while before she succumbs to the undeniable sexual tension between them. The man has enjoyed sex with other women, but with this particular woman, it is a revelation. The connection of one true love and sex cannot be denied. The inexperienced woman, on the other hand, does not know how amazing sex can be, but the man gives her the perfect, blissful, devoted erstwhile experience. Obviously, there will be no need for her to seek similar experiences elsewhere. In the rare case that a woman in a historical romance novel has had previous sexual experiences, they are mostly unsatisfying, dull, or even traumatic. The man is there to fix it. And the man will fix it, goddammit. He is there to fill the woman’s every need even though she cannot articulate what they are, being innocent as she is. Only after the woman is satisfied (and sometimes not even then) will the man think of his own desire.
And this is the point where I want to emphasise that this is in no way a negative thing. Being inexperienced and innocent is great and one would wish for an unselfish lover to be one’s introduction to sex. And it is amazing, I might even say vital, to think of and care about the other person’s pleasure, whatever gender you are. Based on the portrayal of women and female sexuality, which are celebrated in romance novels, romance literature can even be viewed as true feminist literature. Maya Rodale writes how romance novels always put women and their romantic and sexual pleasure in starring roles: “These are the books where women can lean in, fall in love and live happily ever after.” They are not punished for breaking the strict rules on premarital sex for women that are ingrained in their19th society. The men that have sex with them are noble, honourable (which is sometimes goes against their introduction as libertine rakes, but oh well), very much in love with them, and immediately offer marriage after sex to save the woman from ruin.
This hasn’t always been the case: the “forced seduction” of simpering heroines by alpha heroes was an earlier trope (Rodale) of the genre and still repeats in pulp romance like Harlequin books. The modern historical romance heroines, though inexperienced in the ways of love, are often feisty, smart, and interesting, and have goals and desires outside or even instead of the desire for husbands, like opening a brewery (Tessa Dare’s Say Yes to the Marquess, 2014). Some even distinctly don’t want a husband (Courtney Milan’s Suffragette Scandal, 2014, and The Heiress Effect, 2013), but end up getting one anyway after falling in love.
My problem is not with this particular portrayal of sex and sexual roles in historical romance. It is the prevalence of it. As I said, there is nothing wrong with being innocent or experienced, but these features should not be tied to the genders they so often seem to inhabit. For me, there is something distinctly un-feminist in the way both women and men are portrayed in historical romance novels, even in the more progressive ones. The almost uniform inexperience of female characters emphasises the traditional, passive role of a woman in a sexual setting and as a sexual being. The inexperience is, granted, well justified in a world where a highborn woman’s most priced possession was her virginity, but is it so feminist to repeatedly cast a woman in a passive role, however empowered the situation surrounding it might be? Also, there is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with wanting to please your partner if it comes from a place of love, respect, and desire (or, just to put it out there, simply respect and desire), so why is this sort of agency given to women but almost always given to the men. I would love a female character who takes charge of a sexual encounter in her own terms.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with an active, giving male lover or a passive, happy female one: it’s amazing that these books have men who care about the pleasure of their significant others and that the women are treated as the most important thing in the room. Like Maya Rodale puts it: “The modern romance heroine is feisty and independent and the modern hero makes sure the heroine always comes first after she says ‘yes.'” However, the prevalence of this type of sexual encounter paints a rosy but ultimately narrow picture of what sexuality can actually be, and repeats age-old gender roles of passivity and active agency in the bedroom. Especially in novels that feature more than one sex scene, the customary roles becomes apparent. Towards the end, the female characters sometimes gain more autonomy or even the occasional role of the initiative-maker, but this is regrettably rare.
And I know, there might be a situation of supply and demand going on here, that most readers (most of whom are women) like to read about experienced men and inexperienced women. And, of course, this is something that plagues the historical romance genre especially because of previously mentioned societal norms of the time. But why in the world do all the men have to be suave, handsome rakes? And women dewy-eyed maidens? Even writers like the previously mentioned Courtney Milan, who is by far one of the most feminist historical romance writers I’ve discovered, fall back on these tropes from time to time, as well as the traumatised female protagonist trope. The idea that true love will fix all traumas or that sex simply can’t be as enjoyable with a person you don’t love, is obviously a romantic fantasy which is what romance literature is built on, but it paints such a narrow picture of what both sex and love can be, and ignores the fact that women too can enjoy sex without love.
The power relations in historical romance novels are almost always the same: the man is the seducer, and the woman holds the power to say yes or no to said seduction. This definitely is power, and the women should have it, but as it happens, sometimes the men pursue them even after a few clear nos have been uttered. This sort of romance is based on the cultural and societal idea that women who say no don’t actually mean it, and just want you to try harder. In the novels that employ this trope, the women are just fighting a losing battle against the primal lust they feel and eventually fall in love with the men anyway, and give the much awaited yes. This is hardly James Bond and Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, but I’ve always been a fan of eager consent in all steps of a relationship from its very beginning to end, and not romanticising anything that isn’t consensual.
If readers take something out of these novels, it would be good to give them a range of options on how female protagonists react to romantic pursuit or act in the bedroom, as well as offer them diverse male characters and their multitude of reactions to romance and sex. Satisfying sex and a happily ever after are achievable even in a world that breaks gender roles, norms, and genre clichés. There are a handful of examples of happy experienced women, but they are most often fallen women, courtesans or mistresses. Even widows rarely are happy or fulfilled in their first marriages. And if happy, experienced ladies are rare, inexperienced or unsure men are even more difficult to find.
Romance literature is fantasy: it isn’t supposed to be realistic. It is a genre, where the reader knows the ending to each book before even turning the first page. The predictability and safety is a part of the allure of many genre fictions. For example, in detective fiction we know there will be a crime and at the end of the book the crime will be solved. However, romance is primarily a story of a romantic relationship, something that most stories relegate into a subplot. To hold a reader’s attention by simply having two characters meet and work out a relationship with some sexy times here and there is a huge accomplishment. It takes a lot from characters to inspire such a wide and devoted readership for a specific genre. As a genre, it should not be belittled or relegated into the category of guilty pleasure, though it often is, but that is still regrettably the lot of many things that are by, for, and about women. (Also, the covers. THE COVERS.) If we want historical romance literature to become feminist literature, we need to start bringing variety to it. The rakes and the delicate flowers are all well and good, but romance is hardly a thing just for people fitting into traditional gender roles anymore (if it ever was).Just like people are diverse, so are romance readers. The world is changing, and so are we, the readers, so maybe it’s time historical romance did too.
As some may have noticed, the two authors I kept mentioning were Courtney Milan and Tessa Dare. I assure you I’ve read works from other authors as well, but these two are my favourites. Dare, because she was my first, and Milan because her characters, especially in her Brother Sinister series have some of that diversity that I’m calling for in this text. I’m always happy to get suggestions of both hetero and queer romance novels. I’m on a mission to find the perfect feminist, historical romance.
Pictures from tessadare.com.