For someone who spent most of her life stringently avoiding romance novels for fear she would catch “the girliness”, I sure do seem to spend a lot of my time reading them these days.
My snark-soaked hashtag, #MandarayReads often features romance novels for two reasons: One, there are absolute shit tons of romance eBooks available for free on Amazon’s website, and since I’m broke that’s usually where I get most of my stuff. Two, romance is generally pretty easy to have a good time with. When it’s well written, you get characters you like being rewarded with something incredibly valuable: love. (As a bonus you may also get something that gets the heart pumping a little.) When it’s bad, you get to laugh so hard you cry over things like terrible dialogue, funny hats, and ridiculous purple prose.
Unfortunately, either because I’m trawling through digital bargain bins for my fiction or because romance authors don’t engage with their work very critically, most of the time what I end up reading falls in the bad category.
Yesterday, I talked a bit on Twitter about a recent Mary Sue article that discusses common tropes in the romance genre. I saw this article was getting a lot of heat on Twitter and decided to check it out for myself, and what I saw was basically a much more organized and eloquent mirroring of concerns I’ve had here before, both on the blog and during livereads. I’m sorry, folks, but no matter how angry this article makes you, a lot of this shit is true.
And hey, I get the frustration. We as a culture treat romance novels like literal trash. (Hence the term, “trashy romance novels” and everyone’s fascination with enjoying this “guilty” pleasure–have you ever stopped to think about the emotional and psychological baggage of those terms?) Like I said earlier, I spent many years of my life terrified that if I was ever discovered reading a romance novel, I would forever be labeled as “girly” and I would catch that disease of shallow, simpering obsession with falling in love. I still remember the contorted lengths I went to in order to hide my one and only romance novel that I accidentally picked up at a Half Price Books one year because I thought that if my dad ever found it, he’d disown me. The fact that I actually enjoyed that novel was shameful enough, but admitting it? A fate worse than death.
There is a very distinct aspect of othering when it comes to romance: It gets labeled as “porn for women”, as if porn is automatically for men and any deviation from this standard is shocking. You’d think that more folks would stop to think about why we feel this driving need to cordon off anything that captures the interests and passions of women: But nope, just another day at the supermarket snickering at the middle-aged women who peruse the latest romance releases. For example, I once got into a near shouting match with a guy I used to date because he thought any book involving a woman having a sexual relationship with someone was automatically a “romance” book, and therefore could no longer belong to any other genre. And yet somehow, James Bond movies are never considered “romance” movies; nor are any of the other thousands of books where a man can’t keep his Pantsfeelings to himself. Funny, that.
So I get the frustration. I really do. As I said in my Twitter rant yesterday, I will fight anyone who comes at me trying to say that romance is worthless, unintelligent, or sad. But folks, we have got to be honest about some of this shit! I have lost count of how many romance novels I have picked up which have, at best, regurgitated the same stale gender roles I could get from a 1950’s style guide, and at worst literally romanticize abusive relationships. For instance, on this blog alone, I have read romance novels which:
- Involve a man physically dragging a woman out of a car and throwing her at the grave of loved ones in order to “force” her to grieve so she’ll stop being emotional
- Men who lock women in their rooms or their house because the women “can’t be trusted” to stay put and realize that they love the man in question
- Emotional manipulation, usually in the form of going into rages, or ignoring/refusing to communicate with the woman when she does something the man deems “wrong”
- Heteronormativity out the WAZOO
- More rape that isn’t quite as obviously rape, but is still 100% rape
- Rape that happens to the woman at the hands of someone else which the male love interest tells the woman is her fault
- The threat of rape (“I could do what I please with you, were the whim to take me”)
- Isolating the female love interest from everyone she knows and everything she holds dear
- Making the woman give up her career — EVEN IN NOVELS SET DURING MODERN TIMES
- Calling women liars
- Mocking women’s hobbies, friends, and career
- Stalking, obsessive behavior, harassment
- Refusing to have sex with a woman in the way she explicitly asks for
- Did I mention rape?
- Implying gay men are all pedophiles and/or sexual predators
- Implying gay women are nymphomaniacs who can’t keep a healthy relationship together
And this is from someone who struggles to read 20-25 books a year and has only been specifically reading romance for about two years.
I want better than this from the romance genre. As someone who grew up being abused and isolated — let me tell you, there’s nothing romantic about it. Furthermore, in that isolation, as I was growing up I had to take my cues from somewhere, and books were one of those places. A lot of people like to shout that “It’s just fiction! Everyone understands not to take it seriously!” Well…that’s only half true, I’m afraid. We all consume different forms of media, and that media has an effect on us whether we realize it or not. While yes, as an adult, I am more capable of discerning between reality and fiction, that wasn’t always the case. I grew up on some of this stuff. It’s normalized and dismissed to a level you wouldn’t believe.
Furthermore, books often carry more weight with them, and not just because they’re made out of dead trees: As a society, we still regard books as more “intellectual” than other mediums. Stuff you read in a book simply must be more true than stuff you see on TV–because watching that stuff will rot your brain, you know? So even though romance novels rarely benefit from being considered “intellectual” like other forms of written media, you tend to hold that subconscious view in your head anyway while you read. There have been so many times in my life and my relationships that I’ve thought, “Well shit. Why can’t I just have ___, like they do in the books? What’s wrong with me?” Answer: Nothing.
Am I blaming the romance genre for every abusive relationship that’s out there? Of course not. There’s a lot of good romance out there, actually, and I have found several gems during my time with this blog. But goddamn, the quagmire I had to wade through to get here!
There may be folks who’re tempted to say: “Well of course you found bad stuff, because you looked in X place! You should be reading X author instead!” Honey, I’ve tried them all. Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts, Janet Evanovich…you name them, I’ve probably read something by them at some point. There is no guaranteed marker of quality, because this is shit that authors often don’t even realize they’re perpetuating. Or worse: They don’t care that they’re perpetuating it. I’ve had romance authors warp into my Twitter mentions specifically to tell me how it’s not a big deal they’re using outdated gender roles or abusive behavior in their books; and why should they? As long as there are people willing to accept this kind of stuff (or even support it outright), then they have little reason to deviate from their course.
The fact is, romance as a genre has some serious problems, and there’s nothing wrong with being honest about them. In fact, I would encourage folks to engage with their romance a little more critically, because maybe–fingers crossed–that will lead us to expecting better romance. Because we all know that it doesn’t get much better than true love.