Musing Musers: Women and Romance Novels

29 February, 2012 Musing Musers 22 comments

Vida has released the 2011 statistics for women’s representation in literary magazines and the results are both depressing and shameful.  Whilst browsing my twitter feed, I also came across a Writer’s Digest article on improving female protagonists.

In reaction to Vida’s post, some of the first comments were akin to, “It’s not the editor’s fault.  But men write good, worthy books and women write chic lit (the snicker is implied).  That’s just how it is.”

Leaving behind the fact that men also write and read romance novels, I want to pause to examine the claim that most female literature is romance.  If that’s true, why would that be?  For the purposes of this post, we’ll assume it is.

There have been plenty of articles about the fantasy of the rich, powerful alpha, and all that implies to women’s reading choices.  There may be something to that.  When M and James Bond discuss the statistics that women do 2/3 of the world’s work and earn 10% of the income and 1% of the property, that’s a pretty good reason for women to start fantasizing about no longer having to work.  When reports show that women in fulltime work still come home and do the lioness’ share of housework and childrearing, is it any wonder that they want easy books to read about a fantasy world in which a man with a sizeable wallet comes along and takes that work load away?

Yet, that can’t be the only factor or you’d have more fantasies in which women rule the earth and men are our perpetual sex and labour slaves.  But that’s not the case.  There are other, more varied components to the romance fantasy.  It’s the same case with music and movies.  All aimed at women, all judged to be bad quality, all readily available for easy mocking.  Women obviously just have terrible taste it would seem.

But I have another theory and it goes like this.  Women enjoy romance novels for all of the above reasons, but it’s more complicated than their natural proclivities towards crappiness.  I also think women enjoy romance novels because that is a genre in which they’re guaranteed to not only feature as a protagonist, but in which the good guys will treat the heroine with respect, and people who don’t respect her are bad guys.  The music that is most popular with women, funnily enough is the music that is ABOUT women and in a positive light.  How else does Your Body Is A Wonderland become popular?  What is young women’s appeal to Lady Gaga?  Well first of all, her music is about women.  I think that helps.

Don't get me started on Hollywood

And what about romantic movies?  Well, at least there is going to be one woman in it who is not just there for flashing her tits or her ass.  There’s actually going to be a woman involved in some critical part of the storyline, yey!  That song is about a woman and it’s not about how she’s a whore or a gold digger!  Score!  A woman is the central figure of this narrative?  Awesome.

Everything else is a landmine where it’s probable we’re either openly mocked, only a token representation, and a poor one at that, or reduced to something contemptible.  What is even worse is when we’re invisible for the bulk of the story.  Like we don’t even exist and are so unimportant that we’re peripheral to the entire narrative.

Is it any wonder women take refuge in a world that actually acknowledges their existence in a somewhat positive manner?  And one that provides a fantasy in which they will be loved and treated as important?  In which their partner is wealthy enough that they will be properly supported when they have children?

If this were a world free of sexism, I don’t doubt that romance novels would still be popular, but I do think they’d be a different creature.  Romance novels would be a fantasy for all people, not just women.  And they would be a lot more diverse in their formulas.  If this weren’t a sexist world then out of five tips, for a strong female protagonist, four of them wouldn’t involve making her weaker.  If this weren’t a sexist world then the fact that women are severely underrepresented in the literary world would be alarming to everyone. As it is, it’s just business as usual for us.

*For an excellent guide to creating protagonists.


Kat Kennedy

Kat Kennedy

Co-blogger at Cuddlebuggery
Kat Kennedy is a book reviewer and aspiring author in the Young Adult genre. She reviews critically but humorously and get super excited about great books. Find her on GoodReads.
Kat Kennedy

22 Responses to “Musing Musers: Women and Romance Novels”

  1. Talya

    Here, here!! (or is it hear, hear! ?) I am one of those women who work full time, is responsible for 95% of the labour around the house (my husband has been recently handicapped, so I get to shoulder his tasks too!), and have 2 little children. While I love my hubby and he is a decent man, there is no way he measures up to any of the men in the millions of romance novels I devouer (sp?). You have described the draw to romance PERFECTLY (as I would expect from another woman). I believe romantic fiction is an essential outlet for overwhelmed women today and intend to support the industry indefinitely! And in no way do I believe it is a negative reflection on women. Men and women have inherently different roles in society, and reading tastes would only natually reflect that, as you so eloquently expressed.

    • Kat Kennedy

      Whilst I agree that for many, many women Romance fiction is a necessary outlet – I don’t think our roles are inherent. Just that society has dictated them and it’s hard to break those cycles.

      But, I’m thinking of you, Tayla. Full time work and 95% of the labor. Excuse the language… but that is fucked. If you ever want to run away from your family to the bahamas – I’ll help your escape!

      Stephanie and I are already planning our exodus together!

  2. Heidi

    The first picture is spectacular. What a great article. I am not a fan of romance novels, I find them to be trashy, especially with the covers. I like smart, kick butt capable female protagonists. I happy to see thaf more authors are creating female leads along these lines as opposed to the demure, swooning characters with unrealistic romantic expectations, because lets face real life is not anything like a romance novel. Let me know when you get those laser beam sharks.
    Heidi recently posted…Partials (Partials #1) by Dan WellsMy Profile

    • Kat Kennedy

      I’m not the biggest fan of Romances but I also totally get their appeal and think they’re harmless. Actually, they’re better than harmless because I have read articles pointing out that women who read Romances have more sex. As another person said, I don’t think we should be judging people on reading them.

    • Kat Kennedy

      Unfortunately it is, though I’m very, very relieved that I’m not the only one who read it with bug-eyes wondering if it were a sick practical joke!

  3. Lady Jaye

    I love your opinion on this.

    One final thing to add. Women don’t need to justify their reading choices for anyone. We read it, it makes us happy – that’s all anyone needs to know. It does not make it more or less valid than what men read, and I feel sorry for anyone who’s so insecure that they feel the need to ‘elevate’ their reading choices by claiming it has more merit than romance because it’s ‘women’s fiction’
    Lady Jaye recently posted…BronzeLily: @crazybiogirl No. No they’re not.My Profile

    • Kat Kennedy

      It makes sense when you consider that young girls are conditioned from a very early age to believe that finding your true love is the best thing you could ever aspire to.

  4. Kaethe

    Great analysis. And now it occurs to me that YA is popular with adult women for the same reasons.

  5. Ebony

    This is so frustratingly true.

    I dont really read romance novels, but I completely understand why other women do. I dont like living in a world where I open my internet browser and a woman in her underwear is telling me ‘CHAT TO HOT 18 YEAR OLDS IN YOUR AREA!!’

    I dont think romance novels are much more escapist than some of the male-centric crime novels i’ve read – the ones where the renegade cop is beating the ladies away with a stick despite lacking the manners God gave a dog.
    Ebony recently posted…100bookproject: RT @ladylizard: Is Schembri missing something & the joke at the end? Straining to make sense of SlutWalk via @theageMy Profile

    • Kat Kennedy

      So true. Harry Dresden, anyone? Also, I’m sure men’s intellectual capabilities are adequately stretched while they watch porn.

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