Where women win
Romance novels are often thought of as straightforward, where the heroine gets her happy ending. But Catherine Roach argues that, for a novel to be about a woman having a rounded and fulfilling life, it’s a transgressive act.
Is romance fiction conservative or progressive?
I think there are possibilities out there that are both sort of conservative and containing, restricting. And possibilities that are transgressive and liberative. I see both at work there.
So they’re—there has been a body of critique or concern, one might say, that the romance narrative can limit people, women, maybe in particular as the main readers of romance fiction in certain ways. One thing that I’m concerned about there is the imperative of “coupling up.” That the romance narrative ends—I mean, sometimes, it’s a menage a trois, you could be tripled up, but still you’re in some sort of, generally speaking, monogamous pair-bonding for life. And I think there’s a restrictive possibility there that worries me, particularly in terms of my young women students who are just under so much pressure to find Mr. Right early on and hold on tight as a mark of success as a woman.
And that worries me about romance fiction, the notion that a woman needs a man in order to be complete and that this has got to last forever—you know, life is generally speaking more complicated than that. So I worry about that pressure, how it plays out. Not that I blame the romance novel for that, I think the romance novel’s a place where we sort of work with that anxiety.
So there’s concerns like that that I have about romance fiction. But I think that there’s also a very transgressive, liberatory potential of the romance genre. Again, until you think about women in particular as the main audience, it’s like the romance heroine is the Dudley Do-Right of the popular fiction universe, in that she always gets her man. And it’s a narrative, it’s a space, where women win, consistently, always, by definition. By the end, the woman, the heroine, is happy. And she has a full, rounded life which does involve her having some sort of partner—a man, in heterosexual romances—she’s coupled up, tripled up, there’s a werewolf, there’s a vampire, something is completing her in that way, but she’s got other things going on in her life, too. So by the end, the arc of the romance novels have her with family and community, successful work and financial security. So it’s this vision of women winning, and I think that that, in our culture, is transgressive in and of itself.
And also that she’s sexually satisfied, and I think that’s very important. That these are stories in which women are allowed to be sexually desirous beings, and they’re sexually satisfied consistently, throughout—certainly by the end of the novels. So as a space that says “it’s okay for women to be sexually desirous and to expect sexual satisfaction,” I think that’s rather transgressive and has real potential there.
And for that to all work out in the favor of women, consistently, as an insistence of the genre, and then for it to be, just in terms of the publishing, the industry side of it, a place where women authors and generally women editors and agents also dominate this publishing subfield, I think that that’s a real space of possibility for women in the culture.