Stigma and surprise

Photo, Sociology Papers, Nov. 11 2013, Lettawren
Lettawren, "Sociology Papers," Flickr, 2013.

We should have known better.

We should have known that romance authors aren’t bored housewives who sit around eating bonbons while they write formulaic tropes to fulfill their unachievable fantasies.

Yet before we began our participant-observation research with romance writers four years ago, we bought into the same stereotypes so many outside the genre do. And we didn’t realize we held these views until we found ourselves surprised.

Surprised to find authors were professional and really, really smart.

Surprised by the seriousness with which authors approach their craft and their profession.

Surprised by how well written and entertaining romance fiction can be.

These surprises tell us we expected less, a realization that simultaneously humbles and embarrasses us.

As sociologists, we study and teach about women’s devalued place in society. But the stigma against the romance genre is so strong that even our background as scholars in the sociology of gender wasn’t enough to inoculate us against the stigma. If anyone was going to know better, it should have been us.

Photo, Jen Lois and Joanna Gregson, courtesy of Jen Lois

Jen Lois and Joanna Gregson, courtesy of Jen Lois.

We began to question our assumptions when we read a Suzanne Brockmann book—because wow, can she write. But what really disabused us of our preconceived notions was meeting authors in person. At the national and local level, we’ve met authors who speak of character development, emotional arcs, and publishing industry trends with precision and expertise. The authors we’ve met are accomplished in their “day jobs” (we joke that every time we turn around we meet another author with a PhD). We’ve marveled at the poignant acceptance speeches at the RITA Awards (realizing “Of course! These people are writers. They know their way around WORDS.”). And we’ve tried writing romance fiction ourselves, quickly realizing it is very, very difficult to do well.

The stigma, the main focus of our work to date, interests us not only because it’s been our most salient disconfirming experience, and not only because it’s so clearly gendered, but for two other reasons as well.

First, the closer we become to romance authors and the more appreciative of their work we become, the angrier we feel about the unfounded stigmatization. The sexism, the hostility, and the condescension are not leveled against some abstract other. They’re leveled against people we like whose work we respect.

The second reason is that the stigma is so powerful it is actually rubbing off on us, a phenomenon sociologists refer to as the “contagion of stigma.” We are guilty by association for studying the people who produce the genre. Just as their work is trivialized, so is our examination of their work. While most sociologists we’ve spoken to understand why our research is important, and while our close colleagues have shown nothing but support, we’ve been surprised by how often we have to defend our work. When we tell people what we’re studying and hear a burst of laughter, when we’re passed over for a grant because the project is “of dubious scientific merit” (true story), or when the parent of a prospective student to one of our universities remarked that this research “is just smut” (the research is smutty? what does that even mean?), we know that the depths of the romance stigma must be fully explored.

We’re optimistic that deconstructing and problematizing the stigma associated with the genre by calling out the sexism and heterosexism implicit in the critique will uncover some of the ways stigma operates on multiple gendered dimensions in this genre. And while it’s probably unrealistic to think we can eradicate the stigma, we’re confident that every time we write or speak about our research, we might inspire someone to rethink their assumptions… and they just might give romance a chance.

Joanna Gregson

Jen Lois

Professors Joanna Gregson (Pacific Lutheran University) and Jen Lois (Western Washington University) have been studying the romance author culture since 2010. In 2011, they received an Academic Research Grant from the Romance Writers of America. You can follow their research on Facebook (Romance Sociology) and Twitter (@RomanceSoc).

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