Feminism in romance – annotated notes

Additional notes to accompany the feminism in romance debate at the Australian Women Writers blog.

My thoughts on the place of feminism in romance fiction is up at the Australian Women Writers blog—thanks to Elizabeth Lhuede for hosting the discussion. I invite you all to the AWW blog to weigh in on the debate!

I apologise in advance for the waffly tone, but I’m hoping the rest of you guys will provide the intellectual rigour missing from my opinions. (Yes, I’m lazy, and even with the waffling it took me over a week to finish that post!)

When I first sent her my draft, Elizabeth asked me to elaborate on my brief mentions of m/m romance and rape fantasy. What resulted was notes section that was almost longer as the post itself, so I cut it down to a list of links for AWW.

However, I’m posting the annotated references here for anyone interested in following the discussion or pursuing their own interests in the topics raised. I’d also like to point non-romance readers to Jennifer Crusie’s essays in defence of the genre, which I think provide a good overview, though her arguments are not without their critics.

Finally, I wanted to include something that I removed from my original post because it sounded so very melodramatic, and it’s this:

I’ll tell you what many of these books have in common—a hero who treats the heroine like she’s worth something. Worth changing his life for, worth dying for, worth denying himself for, worth losing his soul for. Whatever is most important to the hero—that’s what he offers in exchange for her love.

And sometimes, yes, it’s the heroine who offers the greater sacrifice. Because romance books are unpredictable like that.

Additional notes to Feminism in Romance

1. Reader point of view in romance

In The Androgynous Reader: Point of View in the Romance (in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance, edited by Jayne Ann Krentz), Laura Kinsale argues that romance readers identify with the hero as much as—or sometimes more than—with the heroine. In the introduction to her essay, Kinsale states:

It is a commonly accepted truism that when a woman reads a romance she is “identifying” with the heroine. Accusations directed at the genre…typically assume…that a female reader must identify with the female lead and so is in danger of modeling her own life after a character who might be submissive, passive, or obsessed only with romantic love and maintaining her virginity.

Kinsale argues that these kinds of heroines are placeholders for the reader, which is a distinctly different experience to identifying with the heroine. The reader does not wish to be the heroine but imagines what it would be like be in the heroine’s position:

Feminists need not tremble for the reader—she does not identify with, admire, or internalize the characteristics of either a stupidly submissive or an irksomely independent heroine…Placeholding is an objective involvement; the reader rides along with the character, having the same experiences but accepting or rejecting the character’s actions, words, and emotions on the basis of her personal yardstick.

Kinsale argues that romance readers often identify with the hero, and that:

During the height of the reading experience—the romantic climax—when the reader feels that wrench of emotion, the tingle in the spine, the full and authentic inner twist of reader identification with a character in an emotional cataclysm…the reader at that moment…[is] the hero.

2. Popularity of m/m romance with female readers

In Why do women read M/M romance/erotica?, J. Leigh Bailey identifies several reasons why m/m romance is so popular. There’s some discussion on the difference between m/m romance written for men and those written for women.

In All m/m fiction is not created equal, Sunita argues that we ought to distinguish between m/m romance and m/m erotica because the failure to do so is a disservice to readers, feeds into existing stereotypes of romance fiction, and fetishises gay men. The comments raise other interesting points, including the ability to avoid gender politics in an m/m romance.

Kivitasku makes a similar argument in An angle on slash and the appropriation debate:

It occurs to me that one of the chief attractions of m/m for women is that it offers a chance to write romance/porn where neither party is in a less privileged position than the other.

This is not usually possible with heterosexual ‘ships. I think this angle also goes some way towards explaining why the most popular pairings consist of two straight men.

Kivitasku also explores some of the tension between the gay community and slash, as well as what it might mean when a woman reader identifies with one of the male protagonists in the story.

In response to the question Yaoi: What makes the yaoi genre appealing to women?, Erica Friedman lists some reasons why the genre appeals to women. This is interesting not only for the original question, but also because it’s a reminder that female readers are not a homogenous group and that cultural concerns colour our reading experience. Friedman states that:

According to Akiko-san’s research, many women who enjoy BL, identify with the seme, the pursuer. And when the seme takes the uke sexually, they can feel as it they are putting it to their male partners. (To be blunt and rather crude.) BL gives control of the relationship to the woman, something they often don’t have in real life.

which, to me, partially echoes Kinsale’s argument of hero-identification and Kivitasku’s thoughts on women identifying with a man in slash fiction above, and some of the rape fantasy discussions below.

3. Rape fantasy in romance fiction

For an excellent essay on the differing opinions around this issue, see Sexual Force and Reader Consent in Romance by Robin Reader, including comments to the post. Robin argues that consent to the rape fantasy is in the hands of the reader, and in the comments summarises the key issue:

To me, the key is that the reader — particularly the female reader — has the power and the agency to choose. She is in charge and she decides whether to consent to what is going on or to withhold her consent. IMO no reader should ever feel the pressure to consent, because that is antithetical to the whole notion of female sexual freedom and agency. But by the same token, I would argue that those readers who do consent are not in any way consenting to violent criminal rape. I don’t know any other way to resolve the difference among readers for these scenarios without condemning either readers or the genre as a whole.

In Rape and the Romance Reader, Laura Vivanco, who was a guest poster at the Australian Women Writers’ blog in February, posted an overview of Robin’s post. One of the commenters to Vivanco’s article questions whether romance fiction can be feminist, to which Vivanco replies that ‘a lot of it comes down to (a) how one defines “feminism” (b)…which romances one selects and (c)…how one interprets the novels.’

Candy Tan’s Talking about the R Word is more critical and discusses the issue very much from a reader’s perspective. She identifies three powerful fantasies at work in books featuring rapist heroes, and provides arguments for and against. Again, the comments provide additional food for thought.

In When is rape fantasy acceptable or at least tolerable? Mrs Giggles argues that ‘the rape fantasy is popular in fiction because it allows the heroine to have sex and experience pleasure without having to take any accountability for it’ but that, for her, there’s an issue ‘when authors attempt to combine rape with romance.’ She provides a list of when rape in romance can and can’t work for her personally.

In Women’s Rape Fantasies: How Common? What Do They Mean? Michael Castleman focuses on the fantasy aspect of romance fiction (though I would stress that, despite Castleman’s assertion, rape fantasies are not central to all romance novels). Castleman asserts that rape fantasies ‘imply nothing about one’s mental health or real-life sexual inclinations.’ He categorises rape fantasies as either erotic or aversive:

In erotic fantasies, the woman thinks: “I’m being forced and I enjoy it.” In aversive fantasies, she thinks: “I’m being forced and I hate it.” Forty-five-percent of the women in the recent survey had fantasies that were entirely erotic. Nine percent were entirely aversive. And 46 percent were mixed.

I’m not sure where he got those statistics from, but Jessica Tripler’s post on Romance novels in The Journal of Sex Research quotes similar statistics and terminology, which leads me to believe it’s the same paper as Castleman quoted. Tripler summarises the journal article, then adds her own questions on the paper’s methods and conclusions. The comments are well worth reading.

One comment

  1. Interesting discussion. I would add that in real life numbers alone say that every woman is not going to end up in a relationship with a man. We outnumber them. But fiction doesn’t have to be real life. I read fiction to escape. If I wanted reality, I’d read non-fiction.
    So if I can read a genre where there is always an HEA or an HFN (happily for now) that includes a romantic couple, I’m going to. Not because I’m missing that in my life. I’m not. In fact, I don’t want it in reality. But I enjoy reading about it. 

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