Gender matters

What makes the popular romance community so unique? Jen Lois and Joanna Gregson set out to study how writers construct their characters, but ended up finding a much more interesting story in how the romance community supports itself.


What did you expect to find while studying romance?

Joanna Gregson:When we started this research, we were interested in gender and sexuality. And we thought that was going to be the focus of our… of our work. Was going to be examining how and why authors construct their gender, their characters the way they do. How… and why they gender their characters. Why are their women characters like this, why are their male characters like this. And… Why are the sex scenes evolve the way they do. Why don’t they… Why do you use the language you use… Why do you use, you know, these terms but not those terms… And we really thought that that’s what we’re going to study.

Jen Lois:And what do you need to build romance. If this is a romance, how do you make it romantic? And how is that, you know, the heterosexual sort of bias in our definition of romance in our culture. How does that infuse your work or you know? All those kinds of questions.

Joanna Gregson:Yeah. And we learned quickly that those questions were not interesting to anybody but us. * laughter * Most importantly-

Jen Lois:One or two people-

Joanna Gregson:They were not interesting to those we were interviewing. Who were like, “Meh.”

Jen Lois:“I don’t know. They’re people. They’re characters.”

Joanna Gregson:“I don’t know. I’m telling a story!” is what people would tell us and we’d be like, “Oh. That’s right.” Because they’re storytellers.

Jen Lois:Right.

Joanna Gregson:They’re not gender scholars. Uh… so the questions about gender and consorting sexuality went nowhere. But the questions about identity and stigma and the feminine culture of romance authors took off. And so… We quickly found, as we often do in qualitative research, you know, don’t come in with your story. Find out what the story is of the people you’re studying.

Jen Lois:Right. Exactly

Joanna Gregson:This is the kind of classic example of this that our preconceived notion of what the story was going to be about here. But that wasn’t it at all.

Jen Lois:Because we did not think we would go in to study the “feminine culture” from main-

Joanna Gregson:Right. We didn’t know it existed.

Jen Lois:The things that we talk about uh… with writers are identity issues. I’m going to start out with that. Do you think of yourself as a writer, or a romance writer? How did you come to romance writing? What do you do in your day job, if you have one? How does that all work together? Uh… stigma, which is a huge piece of the romance subculture, is an identity issue. And so it’s people sort of casting a negative perception on you or your identity and that needs to be managed. And that’s something that sociologists talk about a lot. And so um… That’s something we’re looking at. Stigma’s such a big part of this community. So then um… Because of this stigma, what part of our findings, because of that stigma, because of all the pressures from outside, this community really bands together. And because it’s all women, that it… it manifests in a particular way. To sort of guard against the stigma, to make a welcoming environment.

Joanna Gregson:The feminine culture is the part that we were surprised by, which sometimes I feel like an idiot when we’re surprised by anything. *laughter * Because I… When we think back to our training and what we know about gender, uh… we know as sociologist, that single sex environments tend to take on and magnify the characteristics of the dominant sex. So… Male prisons are pretty masculine places. Uh… sororities tend to be pretty feminine places. Uh… Occupational groups do this. If an occupation becomes dominated by one sex more than the other, it tends to take on and magnify the characteristics of the sex that inhabits that role most commonly. So it shouldn’t be any surprise to us that this community that is largely comprised of women is pretty feminine.

Joanna Gregson:in terms of the spirit. The… The welcoming atmosphere. That you see at RWA. They don’t see in other professional meetings. What a wonderful attribute to have! To infuse this optimism. And like I said, this sort of supportive, “You can do it. And let me show you how. Let me connect you to people. Let me instruct you on my mistakes, so you don’t make the same mistakes.” So optimism, supportive.

Jen Lois:And the other thing that optimism relates to is the structure of the publishing industry, which is so critical and um… rejection oriented. And so every single writer, almost, has had a rejection and had many have had many rejections and it becomes almost of a joke, where you have your 400 rejection letters, and you frame them or frame the first one or start to count them as a badge of honor. And so that… The structure of the publishing industry is just demoralizing for many people, and so it’s all the more important to have that support.

Joanna Gregson:I think looking back to when we started this research, we started it for a reason. We knew that there was going to be a story there about gender. So… we were right. * laughter * We were wrong about what the story was going to be. But we knew… We knew gender mattered. We knew the fact that this group, this occupation, was primarily filled by women was going to matter somehow. And… we were right about that.

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