Reading the Romance [Book Review(s) + ruminations on women's literature]

A few years back I read this interesting academic book by Janice Radway, called Reading the Romance (published in 1984). The romance in question is the romance novel. The readers are a small community of women.

Radway’s book has its issues, to be certain. Her sample of romance readers is small, and you can really feel that she looks down on the whole matter. This would be a deal breaker for me, but Radway went through with her study in a professional manner, asking questions rather than making assumptions, and drawing conclusions based on evidence rather than prejudice. I am uncertain whether I agree with all her conclusions, but that’s another story.

The romance genre is, from Radway’s point of view, a female response to patriarchy. Women living in traditional homes use it as a way to come to terms with their society-defined roles. Let me explain: they had to be mothers and respond to all the demands of their children; they had to be wives and respond to all the demands of their husbands; and they had to smile and be kind and meek and loving during all of it, while none of it was really appreciated. (“As a mother, I have run ’em to the orthodontist. I have run ’em to the swimming pool. I have run ’em to baton twirling lessons. I have run up to school because they forgot their lunch. You know, I mean, really! And you do it. And it isn’t that you begrudge it. That isn’t it. Then my husband would walk in the door and he’d say, “Well, what did you do today?” You know, it was like, “Well, tell me how you spent the last eight hours, because I’ve been out working.”” – p. 92)

They don’t want out, mind you. Radway’s women aren’t feminists. They don’t complain that they have a right to work, to be independent, to lead their own lives, to be less than perfect, to not be nurturing. They feel guilty about reading romance novels because it’s a pleasant, hedonistic activity. They hide their books from their husbands because they would object to them. And they want to come to terms with their roles, to feel loved for what they do, to be happy in their positions. Romances show them women who end up experiencing appreciation and love for being nurturing and satisfying the traditional stereotypes; the male character’s sexual desire for the woman is deeply connected to love (perhaps to explain away the reader’s husband’s sexual urges as meaning more).

One of the books mentioned over and over as a good romance is The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss. I looked it up, found out that it revolutionized the romance genre and that it sold in a few million copies, that it was ‘sensual’ and ‘described erotic fantasies of female subjugation’. Not bad, for a 1974 historical romance novel. Naturally, I decided to read it if I ever came across it and felt like reading something light. And guess what? I did come across it.

Ooooh, boy. Let me put it this way: the heroine, Heather, has some misadventures and ends up on the docks late at night. She’s confused for a prostitute and brought to a sea captain, Brandon, who rapes her. He mistakes her ‘no’ for play, her struggles for acting. After realizing she was a virgin and therefore no prostitute at all, he decides to show her that ‘it doesn’t hurt’ and rapes her again, because ‘she will learn to like it’. She eventually runs off, but when it turns out that she’s pregnant, a family friend finds Brandon and makes him marry her.

I am not kidding about it being a rape. She’s traumatized, for fuck’s sake and she’s scared of his every move. What she needs at first is hot tea, a blanket and support from either a professional or some really damned good friends who know what to do. And to never see that person again. Instead, she gets married to him – I mean it in the passive tense, because marriage happens to her imposed by someone else. She is dragged there and told to get married, so she does.

Later on, this grows into romance. He realizes he’s in love with her because she’s an innocent, beautiful creature and she falls in love with him because… he’s… handsome? Dunno. And she just can’t stop working: making clothes, cleaning things etc.

There are so many things which are wrong here that Linda, who reads romance the way other people (*cough* me *cough*) read Cosmopolitan (for the giggles), told me to give it up and read Nora Roberts, or some other big-named romance writer. Fluffier stuff, where rape does not equal love, where characters forced to marry don’t have a horrible past together.

I’d be tempted to say that the horrid stuff mistaken for love is a fluke of The Flame and the Flower itself, but it somehow manages to remind me of the less overt horrid situations in Twilight or 50 Shades. The man imposing leadership of the man is ever-present, the abusive gestures justified because male: Brandon in The Flame… sleeps with a lot of women and rapes Heather; Edward in Twilight is a stalker who makes all the important decisions about Bella’s life, safety and body; Grey in 50 Shades is a perverted playboy who considers it perfectly normal to throw a sexual slavery contract at a woman he barely met. Their counterparts are no better: Heather lets the rape thing slide; Bella finds it romantic to be spied upon in her intimacy; and Anastasia makes me want to poke her eyes out for accepting Grey’s complete control of her life.

And these are all popular novels. One was popular in the ’70s. The other two are popular today, nearly 40 years on.

I am, as you may have deduced, not a fan of this sort of literature. But I acknowledge that other people are. Which begs the question of ‘why’.

I suppose I could go two ways with this:

1. (Some/A large number of) Women still feel disempowered and have the same fantasies as their mothers and/or grandmothers, which serve them to better fit in the patriarchal system. If you fancy the less feminist, more traditional view, this is where you can stick the ‘women are submissive and want to be conquered by men’ argument.

2. There are a lot of naive readers out there and women’s naivety comes in this shape and form.

I don’t like either of those options overly much.

1. I don’t like saying that women are still disempowered – it would suggest that nothing changed, when it did. The fans of today’s Twilight/50 Shades are far from Radaway’s Smithton readers, who were mostly wives in patriarchal families. Twilight fans appear to be teenaged girls drooling over a sexy vampire and 50 Shades has fans from all over.

There’s still some pressure to conform to the standards of femininity: look at the number of movies and shows in which the girls are given a makeover to bring out their beauty and make them confident (it backfires in Glee, where Rachel’s attempt to become more slutty a la Grease is a Bad Idea, but still). If you don’t like that example, think of a woman who doesn’t shave her armpits and of the disapproval she gets if this fact is found out. The assumption that women are by nature sweet, kind and motherly and Can Take Care of Things. Advice for women that they oughtn’t call a guy after a date, that they shouldn’t sleep with someone until the xth date.
But aside from all that jazz, women can move a lot more freely in the world, admit to their likes and dislikes, build their own lives.

Why do we still have the fantasy of the controlling, abusive, yet protective male? (by ‘we’, I mean ‘we’ as a society)

I can only speculate, since I like none of the threesome of dirty books. Maybe it’s a guilty pleasure thing – you want to feel really good, but that would make you feel guilty, so you have someone obsessively push you into what you want. Heather ends up rich and happily married to a desirable man, which her modesty wouldn’t have allowed her to even consider if she hadn’t been forced into the situation. Anastasia gets the likewise rich and handsome man because he forces his way into her life, seeing her potential when she didn’t (neither did I, really; I still don’t). And Bella gets… erm. Bella gets the emo vampire (not sure why that’s a good thing). Oh, yes! Wait! She gets the rich and supposedly handsome emo vampire and immortality, yes. Who stalks his way into her life because he thinks she’s special and he falls in love and possessiveness instantly. It has to be the man who wants it and forces it on her, because otherwise the female protagonist, a paragon of virtues and modest aspirations (probably) and virginal innocence (usually), will be indistinguishable from the sexy, wily bounty chaser.

So why the hell is the protagonist a paragon of virtues and modest aspirations anyway? Maybe girls still dream of themselves as princesses, which isn’t the female equivalent of princes: princes fight, struggle, win, get rewarded. Princesses look pretty and are admired for some talent or another – mostly, they need to sit still and wait.

Even if you don’t believe that, you know the trope. You’ve heard countless stories like that, watched enough Disney, read enough Victorian literature, have been faced with enough Female Stuff to know how it goes.

2. But I do believe that people have read and read these books because, partly at least, they don’t know better. They haven’t come across the good stuff yet – or the older stuff. This explains why there are people out there who didn’t realize that Twilight and 50 Shades are basically romance novels, with very slight differences from the traditional schema of the genre. This explains why the abusive things go over people’s heads, why they don’t stop to think that certain ideas in these books are cringe-worthy.

It can be poor writing on one side: wanting to throw in conflict and getting a rape and a forced marriage which makes feminists draw back in horror. Wanting to prove that the man is in love and making him a stalker. Wanting to see the main character react to BDSM and making the man throw a sexual slavery contract at her, regardless of how stupid that is on his side. And readers taking actions at face value, being convinced because the author tells them to be.

And when you run into something new – sexy scenes for The Flame…, the romance genre for Twilight, steaming perversions for 50 Shades (at least in theory), you’re more likely to see that one thing and ignore bad writing, unfortunate implications, all sorts of things which would detract from the enjoyment of that one new, shiny feature.

I’m really not sure about everything I’ve written here. Just ruminating on things. I might be wrong, but it looks right from where I’m standing right now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *