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.
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.