Feminist romance

Kayla Sawyer, "Feminist Fist," Flickr, 2009.
Kayla Sawyer, "Feminist Fist," Flickr, 2009.

A professor of mine once said that all literary critics are either lumpers or splitters. Lumpers enjoy finding patterns in large groups of texts—an author’s entire oeuvre, a literary genre, a whole historical period—while splitters look closely at a handful of texts, or even just one, searching for the special, innovative, and unique.

The foundational texts on popular romance—Ann Snitow’s “Mass-Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different” (1979), Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (1982), and Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984)—took the lumper approach, making large-scale claims about the romance genre as a whole, often from a feminist perspective. Each presented nuanced, often sympathetic treatments of romance and its readers, but when their ideas became reduced to one or two-sentence media takeaways, the word on the street was that the intelligentsia had nothing but contempt for the genre. (Newspaper and magazine reporters are often lumpers, too.)

As feminism, criticism, and denigration of popular romance became lumped together in the public’s mind, romance writers took note. Look up “feminists and feminism” in the index of Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, the essay collection put together by Jayne Ann Krentz in 1992, and you’ll find this: “See also Critics and Criticism.”

The introduction to DMAW steps briefly back from a lumper approach, suggesting that while most of the volume’s contributors “consider themselves feminists,” they also “recognize that their definition of feminism may not coincide with that of all feminists” (3). Still, when most of the pieces that follow defend the genre as “feminist” or “empowering,” they do so in sweeping terms, without teasing out the differences between books or between definitions of feminism. Not until a 1997 issue of the academic journal Paradoxa did “splitters” really take the stage.

As Jennifer Crusie argues in that issue, most generalizations made about romance, both good and bad, draw conclusions based on a too-small sample size. Not all romances feature abysmal writing, or rely upon plot contrivance—but then, not all romances portray empowered women or equality between the sexes, either. Romances are different, one from the other, she and others argued, and the time had come for individual authors, individual publishers, and individual texts, rather than the genre as a whole, to become the subjects of literary analysis.

It’s taken 15 years, but the Age of the Splitter may finally have arrived.

Scholars, reviewers, and bloggers now identify and analyze popular romances with feminist leanings, as well as those without—and, most interestingly, books that contain both, in ambiguous tension. In a recent academic essay about Dark Lover and its sequels, for example, Mary Bly argues that J.R. Ward’s series “performs a delicate, strange dance,” simultaneously deifying hyper-masculine bodies and undermining the fixity of biologically-determined gender. The review website, Dear Author, can argue that “not all rape is created equal in the genre” and then play host to a public debate about how rape or “forced consent” functions in different romances. And on my own blog, Romance Novels for Feminists, I can write about the way Courtney Milan’s Unclaimed questions the sexual double standard; about Victoria Dahl’s Start Me Up and its insistence that the roles we play in bed don’t have to mirror those we play in our day-to-day lives; about how Eloisa James’s Your Wicked Ways plays with genre conventions for feminist ends.

It remains vitally important, I think, to ask feminist questions about romance novels—but not about “the romance novel” as a whole. “Can this particular book be considered feminist, and if so, in what ways?”: that’s the question that inspires me as a reader, scholar, and blogger. I derive great pleasure from reading the genre, but many romance novels still embrace ideologies of gender inequality that I’d much rather avoid. Splitting off the feminist romances from the undifferentiated lump of romance in general, and watching for the different sorts of feminism at play in the feminist ones—sometimes in the main plot, sometimes elsewhere—might go a long way toward teaching a world full of lumpers that some stories of romance can and do fit comfortably into a feminist world.

Jackie Horne

In addition to being an avid romance reader, Jackie C. Horne has worked as a children's book editor, a book reviewer, and a scholar of the history of children's literature. Setting aside her Harlequins after discovering feminism in college, she became interested again in romance while doing research for a scholarly article on the Twilight series. She began her blog, Romance Novels for Feminists, in order to get the word out that feminism and romance are not a contradiction in terms.

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