No, not that F word. Feminism. Jessica Luther considers the uneasy relationship between romance novels and feminism in a recent article. She’s asking specifically whether or not romance novels can be, or want to be, feminist. It looks like the answer is yes from lots of writers, including many writers of historical romance. The most interesting part may be how very differently authors consider feminism and what makes a romance novel feminist. The answers vary from making the sex mutually enjoyable to focusing on female characters behaving as active protagonists rather than passive objects or creating characters who prioritize their careers over their romantic relationships.
In this article appearing in The Atlantic, Luther includes some history of the romance genre presented alongside some historical considerations of feminism, but without getting bogged down in information overload. In some ways, this is presented as a story of progress from the 1970s to the present, highlighting a current generation of novelists who are writing as people who have grown up with many of the benefits of feminism. In addition to history, Luther gets into helpful levels of detail by including plot points and character sketches of numerous novels; the article creates quite the tantalizing shopping list.
But it also begins to approach the complexities of romance and feminism, which get much messier than the idea of advancement over the decades. One of the most interesting features of this complexity is how to deal with novels that include a level of power imbalance between protagonists as sexy or even a level of coercion as seduction. Instead of trying to answer this plaguing question on her own, Luther turns to several novelists and academics who have devoted considerable time to the ethics and appeal of dominating heroes or submissive protagonists. She includes possible angles of explanation including the nature of romance novels as sexual fantasy and escapes, and offers readers several books and sites to go to for more consideration of such issues, including the Beyond Heaving Bosoms by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan and Dr. Jackie C. Horne’s clearly titled website Romance Novels for Feminists.
In the end, Luther does an admirable job of opening up a topic that cannot be completely covered in one short article. She gives interested readers lots of read: both romance novels with elements their authors consider feminist and critical sources to extend the conversation. She manages the job of doing all this while keeping a friendly and likeable tone that shows genuine affection for both feminism and romance novels, and for those of us with an interest in both.
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