Iconography: Romancing Women

Romance novels: generally not the sort of thing we might discuss as a vehicle for feminist literary icons. Many are the faces I have pulled at the quality of some of the novels supposedly aimed at me. I think, however, that writing romance novels off entirely is leaving a lot outside in the cold. Romance is, after all, the most popular literary genre in all the world. More than that, it's a genre dominated by women writers and readers, and you've got to put down some of the contempt for romance to misogyny. Accusations of silliness and inconsequentiality are, of course, some of the most insidious tools in the patriarchy's toolbox. Let's share some love for the love story, shall we?

I won't lie to you—I have been known to avoid romance novels. Between the tired formulae and the promotion of white lady innocence (and non-white exotic hypersexuality) so prevalent in the genre, I had just about sworn off it. But then, readers, I developed a secret passion for Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. It's a cool science fiction romance, from the perspectives of Henry and Clare, across their timelines. It's intricate and clever and really, well, romantic. I was made to think again: if my favorite novel is a romance, perhaps I had better take another look at the genre?

The thing is, everything that I'd found off-putting about romance novels still holds. Many of them are full of patriarchal plotting and heteronormative hardships. However, in part I think I had been put off because of gendered messages about which writing is valuable. Dramas with male characters are okay; novels focusing on the domestic and romantic realms to which women had been relegated supposedly are not. According to this logic, writing by women about women's experiences of searching out what they want from life, learning love and life and new worlds, is rubbish.

It's an attitude quite at odds with the popularity of romance novels; clearly the writers are doing something right if people keep buying and borrowing their books. I'm not one for arguing that the simple presence of women in a profession, or a woman's personal success, is a feminist win. Whether that's the case depends on precisely what is being contributed to women's (and everyone else's!) lives, and the world, and feminist ideas. And who precisely gets to do the contributing?

Danielle Steel was born in New York City in 1947, growing up in France. She finished her first novel at nineteen years of age, negotiating a tumultuous sort of life to become the eighth best selling author of all time, with sales of her 72 books numbering at over 500 million copies, and with 22 of her works having been adapted for television. She trundles out several novels a year, working on a few projects at a time. Born in Birmingham, Barbara Cartland wrote 723 books before her death at ninety-eight in 2000, an achievement which is almost past imagining. I mean, the lady wrote 23 novels in 1983 alone; how is that possible? Steel and Cartland lived very different lives, but they have some things in common besides huge success. They wrote about loss, and family crises, and provided little suggestions about how to handle these. Society asks us to isolate our emotional lives, and they acted as loving friends for many women.

The main question I have left for romance novels is, which women are being catered to here? As long as white women are primarily being represented as heroines, and as long as the objects (because we all know that feelings will resolve to focus on only one person, right?) of their affections are men of the tall, strapping and smoldering sort, lots of readers are going to find romance novels alienating. Romance novels are often a site of reassurance that oppressive dynamics are where it's at, but there is so much potential. I am dipping my toes into some Maeve Binchy and Belinda Alexandra, and this reader is not going to let the humble love story go as irredeemable without a good effort first.

by Chally Kacelnik
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15 Comments Have Been Posted


If you think Barbara Cartland and Danielle Steel represent romance today, you have a delightful surprise ahead of you. Check out paranormal romance, the single most popular genre in the WORLD right now and meet some hot shapeshifters and mythical creatures *and* kick ass women who are nobody's fool.

The big appeal of romance for many women is stories that revolve around women -- not stories that only revolve around the men (yes, sometimes plural) or women they love.

In addition to the mainstream of Harlequin/Mills & Boon, check out the smaller publishers who have a wide variety of offerings: Noble Romance, Freya's Bower, Ravenous, Samhain. All kinds of stories for all kinds of tastes!

I don't think that they do,

I don't think that they do, I'm just mentioning two of the bestselling authors of all time who are romance novelists, specifically talking about the established mainstream. I'm enjoying checking out the smaller publishers. :)

Way out of the loop

<p>I love ya, but, as C. Margery has pointed out, your ideas of "romance novels" in the 21st century are waaay out of date. Steele and Cartland and Binchy and Belinda Alexandra write/wrote what is typically referred to as "old-school" romance novels and represent a tiny segment of romance novels available today. Many of the most popular authors today - including Loretta Chase, Julia Quinn, and Jennifer Crusie, to name a few, write stories about women who find ways to make their own lives within the patriarchy through individual strength, initiative, or ability - which is what we all try to do every day. Although the ultimate goal in most romances is the happy conclusion to a relationship, that is not always the protagonist's focus and the drippy-eyed, devoted heroine of romance-novel stereotypes is not the norm today.
</p><p>I work at a B&amp;N in a University town and came in to your essay ready to be defensive for some of my favorite customers - assuming that you (as many of my cohort in Women's Studies regularly do) would take swipes at cat-lady, inhibited secretaries devouring pie-in-the-sky fantasies to get away from their lonely lives - I am pleased that you seem willing to accept that there may possibly, just maybe, be something appealing in romance novels. </p><p>I regularly sell romances of all stripes to University faculty and staff (including feminist role models on campus) with happy marriages or partnerships (yes, there are lesbians reading romance novels and straight women reading gay and lesbian romance) and active careers, as well as to non-academic wives, mothers, and single women who regularly discard authors whose work they find formulaic, poorly-written, or otherwise lacking - there is no random grabbing for "hunky" cover models. </p><p>
If you want a look at more modern romance readers and writers, take a peek at <em>Beyond Heaving Bosoms</em> by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan, two smart women with their own site that the spam filter on the blog won't let me post. </p>
<p> In print and e-book format, there is really something for everyone - whether you want to read stories featuring people of color, people from every conceivable background (rich, poor, middle-class, immigrant, white-collar, blue-collar, even extra-terrestrial), gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, submissive, top, virginal, whatever you might find appealing. Of course some of the writing is horrible (as is the case in <span style="text-decoration: underline;">all</span> publishing fields), but there are also multiple sites with reviews to help guide your choices; some review sites are fawning and deserve to be ignored, while others are frank and carefully dissect fiction for quality of writing, characterization, and place in the genre. </p>


Thanks for the suggestions Leslie, but to be fair, Chally pointed out that she only used Steel and and Cartland as high-profile examples of the romance genre, she didn't mean for them to stand in for all of the options out there.


But Steel & Cartland are no longer as popular or high-profile as they were 10 or 15 years ago. I have been working @ B&N more than 7 years and have never sold a single Cartland - EVER (including special orders) and would guess most of her stuff is out of print. Steel's demographic tends to be older - her early fans still buying her new books. I guess my issue is with such dated information guiding impressions of a genre that has changed dramatically in the last decade.

I understand what you're

I understand what you're saying, but I explicitly <em>wasn't</em> trying to guide impressions of the genre or to say that this is the hottest thing in romance right now.

Folks, the title of this

Folks, the title of this series is Iconography, it's explicitly about literature being shaped in terms of an "iconic" discourse. This piece is I think pretty evidently about impressions of the romance genre as it has been, and iconic romance writers, not romance as it stands or actually is.

I get it,

and I absolutely appreciate the fact that people here and elsewhere are more and more willing to talk about romance writing and the iconography of romance (Princeton even hosted an academic conference: http://www.princeton.edu/prcw/), but images and icons change over time. I guess if I think of Cartland as Jagger and Steel as Bowie I can get over the use of dated iconography in popular culture, but fans of Jagger and Bowie don't (now that they are icons) generally have to deal with the disdain of large segment of the population who see the fans of those icons as somehow pathetic. I doubt many of the women reading romance today have read either author specifically because they are part of an era when romance authors were seen as swathed in pink draperies with lots of little doggies.
Honestly, I do admire what you are doing here and have enjoyed interacting and was just trying to open up the idea of what romance is now to a wider discussion informed by my own experiences and observations. I think you will enjoy Tam and Wendell's book, as they address the history of the genre and the ways the "icons" of romance have developed.


I've read some of their stuff, and I'm sure the book is fab. :)

Lesbians relating to lesbian romance

As an out-and-proud writer of lesbian romance novels, one of the things I never forget is that even in 2010 they are the only types of novels where the reader will find an unabashed and unequivocal validation of her right to love and to give and receive intimacy with another woman.

After all, who and how we love each other is the entirety of why we're "abominations" and why we still can't legalize our relationships in most of the world. When people want you dead for who you love and how you have sex, I suggest that for lesbians, at least, reading romance is a subversive, self-preservational act that just happens to be entertaining and satisfying as well.

Janice Radway, in her "Reading the Romance" (http://uncpress.unc.edu/browse/book_detail?title_id=314) suggests that for many straight women reading romances is also a subversive activity, in part because she chooses to read about romance as a fantasy outlet in spite of the persistent labeling of the books as trash and a waste of time, money and intellect.

I really recommend Hard Love,

I really recommend Hard Love, by Ellen Wittlinger. It restored my faith in the genre of romance.

Some more suggestions

Depending on how you define "romance" and when the genre is considered to have begun, it's possible to argue that Anne Bronte's <i>The Tenant of Wildfell Hall</i>, Elizabeth Gaskell's <i>North and South</i> and George Eliot's <i>Middlemarch</i> are romances by iconic authors.

As far as the modern genre's concerned, Beverly Jenkins "is the twentieth century’s (and, so far, the twenty-first century’s) best-selling African American historical romance writer" (<a href="http://jprstudies.org/2010/08/interview-beverly-jenkins-by-rita-b-dandri...) so I think that gives her a good claim to being "iconic" in her sub-genre, even if she's not as widely known as Cartland or Steel. Some of Jenkins's novels have been analysed by Rita B. Dandridge in <i>Black Women's Activism: Reading African American Women's Historical Romances</i>.

One could also argue that Karin Kallmaker, who commented above, is "iconic" in her romance sub-genre. She's one of "three well-known lesbian romance writers" (138) discussed by Phyllis M. Betz in chapter five of her <i>Lesbian Romance Novels: A History and Critical Analysis</i>.

Reading the Romance

I can't say too much about Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature by Janice Radway because I've only read a few small excerpts, but it is definitely worth taking a look at. It looks at how for many women, romance novels can become a source of community with other women and although the novels themselves often just feed into the patriarchy, that for some women it is an escape from the day-to-day in which they live their lives to serve the men in their lives.

why a feminist would read romance novels....

Yes, I generally won't admit to or touch most romances, they do tend to reinforce stereotypes & patriarchial values (I esp. hate any that try to equate force with romance- the whole captured woman falls in love w/ captor is distrubing).

I agree that most romance novels are still for Caucasian women, but a trip to your local library (at least in SF) will show a large section of African-American romance (yes, they still only pair w/ their own race so there's that stereotype reinfoced) and a large gay romance section. The field seems to be growing and adding subgenres (mostly vampire novels from what I can tell)

And while I rail about the bad effects of romance novels & romantic movies on warping the minds of teen girls (and boys!), I am a bit of a hypocrite because I will occasionally pick one up- when I'm feeling the need for 'fluff".
I think others have cited Janice Radway's Reading the Romance novel and other that have talked about the need for escapism or the fact that even though in the end it's all tied up in a nice patriachial family, it often features, characters that buck the system (just a little).

Since my teenhood I have had a fondness for "romantic suspense". Some of them I got tired of (I found Mary Higgins Clark too repetitive and her heroines always seemed to need saving by a man) But I still love many of Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters romantic suspense because it's strong women solving a mystery & often finding a man. (I especially love her Vicky Bliss series - museum curator gets thrown into intern'l intrigue). I like that many modern writers will make their female characters intelligent, strong, but also human and also able to find someone they care for.

I am also hugely embarrased to admit this, but I often enjoy Regency romances. Somehow while I can't accept any stereotypical behavior in romances set in the present, I can accept a little bit of it in historical novels - where supposedly the characters grew up in pre-feminist times. The female characters are often rebellious against patriarchy (for their time), they read Wollscroft and are "bluestockings". Even the older writers like Georgette Heyer who wrote Regency novels from the '20's through the 50's are still (if you can overlook a characters occasional anti-semitism & racism) very good - she had strong, willful female characters that were very fleshed out. Some of the more modern writers like Mary Balogh, have made them more modern, older women ('on the shelf') who have interests outside of marriage or who chose to explore their sexuality outside of wedlock. The men are sometimes made to be more sensitive, supportive & feminist than I'm sure they were in real life in those times. (And yes, it does ALWAYS end with a marriage & usually kids -- but I knew that was a given before I picked up the book).

I think rejecting the entire genre is probably just as bad as people who think feminists completely reject men.
I like being a feminist and having a supportive boyfriend. I also like books that can support my desire to be intelligent & independent and also find a partner who I can love.

I think what we need to do is demand & support the kind of books that will convey this message.
Complain to publishers/the authors if your romance book has a 'rape' scene that's supposed to be "love", support the good authors who write empowered characters & a good story.

If you look at some of the reviews on Goodreads.com you'll see that there are some people reading romances who are critically thinking about these issues while reading the novel. They'll complain about 'wimpy stereotypical' characters & will give good ratings & reviews to books with stronger characters.

oops that should have read

oops that should have read "Mary Wollstonecraft " who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)

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