As a former romance editor, one of the things that frustrated me was a lack of feminist aspects to the genre. Sexism, either explicit or implicit, ran through nearly every book I read. And what frustrated me most is that I felt that it didn’t have to be that way. Romantic love and feminism are not mutually exclusive.
Admittedly, romance is not my preferred genre of choice for reading. So since I have moved on to a different career path, I haven’t spent much time in that world. But I was thrilled to meet Austin author Kimberly Chapman on Google+ a few months ago, and learn that she was releasing a feminist romance novel entitled Finding Gaia (available at Smashwords, Gumroad, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble).
Kimberly also recently wrote a two-part blog series about feminist romance. Part 1, “It Can’t Be Only Me,” defines many of the problems she has (and that I have) with the romance genre, and why she chose to pursue feminist romance:
I don’t read a lot of romance because too often I end up finding parts that conflict with my values as an educated, independent-minded, political woman. The tropes that tend to be associated with romance heroes – the bad boy, the rebel, the pirate, the power-hungry alpha male – thrilled me when I was fifteen, but I’ve since outgrown them in favour of reading about more introspective, three-dimensional, and emotional men. I’m not interested in any fantasy in which clothing is torn from me by a lusty so-called hero. Bodices are expensive, uncomfortable, and tough: I don’t want one ripped off!
[. . .]
I want to read about heroes and heroines who do grand things amidst torturous self-doubt, as any of us would experience if we were cast into plots of intrigue and adventure. I want both sides to be human: flawed and frightened but also bold and exciting. I want to read about awesome people doing awesome things and then having awesome sex. I want both sides fulfilled in joy and love. I want them to respect each other and take each other to new orgasmic heights not in spite of that respect, but because of it.
There are niche markets for romance to satisfy various religious or cultural values, so why not a niche for feminist values? I want to see my ethics, morals, and philosophy reflected in a torrid love story. I accept that those values are sometimes contradictory to traditional romance, but I want more authors to embrace that challenge and work with it. After all, if plenty of feminist women and men can manage to get it on happily together in stable, mutually-nurturing relationships, why can’t that be a staple of fiction? Take those educated, liberal lifestyles and set them amidst great adventures!
Surely I cannot be the only suburban mom looking at the rise of the mama-porn genre thinking, “Is there anything in that for me?” I don’t want to read about Christian Grey flavoured popsicles. I don’t want stark erotica either. If that sort of thing works for others, they’re welcome to it, but I want – no, demand! – something more.
That’s what I want to write. That’s what I try to write. I know my audience exists at least in this desk chair here: where are the rest of you? Do you fear being seen to read romance will mark you as insufficiently feminist? I do. Are you longing for recommendations of books with great sex scenes that don’t demean the women involved? I am. Are you writing these stories but having trouble finding your niche in a market that seems to reward precisely those elements which conflict with your feminist and professional values? Me too.
Go read the whole post. I found it inspiring. I found it heartening. If there were more authors like her, I might have stayed a romance editor.
Part 2, “What Defines Feminist Romance?,” is pretty-self-explanatory. It’s Chapman’s definition of what feminist romance is as a sub-genre, and how it works.
First of all, it’s important to declare some firm rules to which I believe most feminists would agree:
Feminist Romance must never contain any of the following:
- Positive portrayals of rape, sexual assault, any non-consensual sexual act, or physical abuse.
- Glorification or lauding of any perpetrator of rape, sexual assault, any non-consensual sexual act, or physical abuse.
- Positive portrayals of empty objectification of anyone as a sexual object alone.
- Positive use of any sort of hate speech (not limited to feminism: I believe most feminists would be equally appalled at racism, homophobism, etc.)
I’m not saying the above concepts can’t exist in the story; in fact, clearly some of them are prime motivators to feminist action. It’d be quite the fantastic world where rape or bigotry do not exist. The key is they must not be presented in any way that even implies that they are acceptable. A rape survivor can reclaim her inner strength and move on, but at no time should a rapist be shown in a sympathetic light. A suitor can tell a lady she’s beautiful in a lovely romantic scene, but at no time should a woman’s fuckability be held up as a defining characteristic. Characters who objectify in that regard must be portrayed negatively.
Feminist Romances should avoid the following:
- Positive depictions of sexual humiliation – I personally don’t want to read BDSM even though others might be into that. If it is included, it needs to be 100% consensual, and even then, I don’t believe that humiliating aspects of some sexual kinks are conducive to a romantic love story between equal partners. That falls more into erotica, which is a separate genre. Further, any of this sort of thing would need to have trigger warnings, which in and of themselves aren’t very romantic.
- Strong female protagonists giving up their strength or independence in order to pursue the romance – Don’t set up a character as having a wonderful trait only to make her abandon it so the guy will love her. Don’t make her give up her bow in order to be a proper princess. Don’t make her sacrifice her independence to find true love (because true love is two independent people sharing their lives, not taking each others’).
- Glorification of patriarchy, of male dominion over women, or of willing female submission – Again, it’s one thing for the story to take place against a patriarchal backdrop, since that will include most known societies, but I don’t consider it the least bit romantic for a woman to give herself over to a male power figure. If the story has the male protagonist in a higher position of power than the female protagonist – which again will inevitably be common because life works that way more often than not – both sides should be aware of the power difference and be actively working to mitigate it. A man boffing his secretary on his desk is neither romantic nor sexy to me, but a boss who falls in love with someone in his employ and wrestles with that as a moral and philosophical dilemma does interest me, as long as when they come together it’s done in such a way that she’s clearly not being subjugated by the process.
- Positive use of misogynistic slurs – I don’t find it the least bit sexy for a woman to be called a bitch, whore, slut, or any similar term. Again, others may not mind so much, but I don’t want to see those words used in any positive context in Feminist Romance. That’d put me off a character quickly, especially if used during sex scenes.
- Pandering – Don’t stick a traditionally male trait or role on a woman (“Look! She’s a mechanic!”), tack on a conversation between two women about some feminist concept you dug out of a Wikipedia article (“Patriarchy bad!”), have a lady-on-top sex scene, and say, “There! Feminist enough for ya?” Because no, it’s not. Just like those of us who are geeks to any other topic can tell when we’re being pandered too, so too can feminists, and nobody likes it. Don’t even bother.
Positive things a Feminist Romance could include:
- Redefined traits without gender attachment – It’s easy to cast a female protagonist as being tough or having a particular skill usually attributed to men. Fine. But feminism isn’t about taking on traditionally male tropes and reshaping them to fit women: it’s about redefining what being female is without sexist constraints in the first place. Give the princess a sword and let her fight, but don’t prevent her from crying when her friend falls in battle. Likewise, when the prince’s friend falls, he should cry too. I’d love to see more juxtapositions of both supposedly male and supposedly female attributes, casting them all as part of the human condition and not limited to a particular gender.
- Self-Rescuing Princesses – Or generally speaking, women that solve their own problems, at least partially. A good partnership love story will obviously have room for both parties to assist and rely on each other throughout the plot – be it as part of grand adventure or more inward, personal struggles – but empowering female protagonists to lift themselves out of pain and danger is likewise empowering to the female reader.
- Survivor strength – Regardless of how a female protagonist managed to survive an ordeal, her recovery should show at least some level of self-determination and empowerment. That doesn’t mean she has to go it entirely alone without support from those who care about her. Again, a romance with a balanced partnership ought to include a loving shoulder to cry on should she need it, and there’s nothing wrong with needing that from time to time. But I – and I’m sure other feminist readers – appreciate heroines who overcome trauma by using love as a foundation from which they can grow in their own way, on their own terms, and using their own inner strength. This is particularly true for misogynistic trauma such as rape; a female protagonist who has gone through that horror is more compelling if she’s active and powerful in her healing process in a way that doesn’t dismiss the trauma as inconsequential.
- Discussion and contemplation of gender roles – I don’t require protagonists to be perfect feminists (if there even was such a thing), as long as they recognize problems and work to correct them. I personally have a thing for heroic men who struggle with what their role is in a relationship with a woman who routinely saves herself from danger. I don’t want to see the man being positively portrayed for resenting that, but I find it very compelling for him to have to reconsider social norms in that context. Likewise, I enjoy seeing women discuss gender issues from opposing yet sometimes equally feminist viewpoints, bringing classic debates down into the microcosm of individual lives. Having characters question themselves and each other on specific plot points and how they each deal with them is fertile ground for feminist discussions, and I’d like to see more of that.
- A version of The Bechdel Test – That test was made for movies, but I see no reason why it shouldn’t at least be loosely applied to Feminist Romance. I say “loosely” because any heterosexual romance is going to necessitate a lot of conversations about the male protagonist. But since I prefer rich plots in which the love story is a central aspect – as opposed to stories that are solely about the relationship and sex – I’d love to see a lot of Feminist Romances that pass the Bechdel Test. That could mean something as basic as two women talking about something tangentially related to the love story, or perhaps about wider feminist ideals as noted above.
- LGBT normalization – I’m mostly straight so I’m personally looking for heterosexual sex scenes, but that doesn’t mean LGBT themes should be absent. I appreciate inclusion of LGBT characters not out of tokenism but out of casual, normal, daily life, particularly in cultures that are permissive of openness. Obviously, there will be a certain segment of the Feminist Romance audience that specifically want lesbian love scenes, so that will no doubt come up on many lists of requests for this genre.
- Shared child-rearing – Few things make my heart beat for a male protagonist more than if he has good fathering skills beyond being willing to throw a football on Saturdays or occasional diaper changes. Give me stories of men who perform heroic acts for children not merely out of duty and certainly not to impress the ladies, but because they have big hearts and can’t bear to see a child suffer. Tell me about a man weeping in joy when he first holds his newborn child and I’ll be crying along with him. It’s fair to expect any male protagonist in a Feminist Romance that includes children to be a decent dad, but I’d appreciate it if authors went beyond the typical to really delve into fatherly love and gladly taken responsibility. Clearly not all Feminist Romance would even include children at all and some would argue that motherhood in a feminist context is a whole separate discussion, but if the love story does include children, I expect them to be raised in an equitable partnership. Dumb-Dad Syndrome is equally offensive to women and men and doesn’t belong in a Feminist Romance at all.
While I can’t say I agree with every single item on these lists, for the most part, it’s spot-on. Chapman welcomes discussion over at both posts, and I encourage you to read and comment. This is a worthwhile discussion for romance readers, for feminists who don’t read romance, and for writers and readers in general.