Nancy: The Subversively Feminist Genre

poldarkOh, the internet. Sometimes it leads us to deep, dark places we didn’t intend to go. Sometimes it lulls us into the false sense that we are reading something thoughtful and informative, only to lower the boom on our unsuspecting heads. Even when we do find something engaging and helpful, there is always the risk of falling into the pit of despair that is the comments section. And so it happened that I stumbled upon a nest of romance genre haters buried deep in a comment thread of an article that had nothing to do with the romance genre.

It all started innocently enough. I’d had a conversation with a friend about the Poldark series on PBS. I’d wanted to love this series, but after watching the first episode, I was left cold and abandoned it. After the conversation with my friend, I decided to do a little research about the series and see if there was something I’d missed or maybe some shift in future episodes that would make it worth another try. In my online quest for knowledge, I came upon an article that announced the shows creators and writers had decided to remove a controversial storyline in the books from the TV series, a storyline in which the protagonist rapes his former love interest. Yikes.

While not all protagonists are heroes, watchers had apparently latched onto Ross Poldark as an heroic lead, and keeping the rape scene would no doubt outrage and alienate viewers. I, for one, applaud that decision. ‘Heroes’ can be tortured, dark, and troubled yet still redeemable. But rapists? In 2016, probably not redeemable in the reading or viewing audience’s eyes.

That was all fine and good and gave me food for thought as I considered whether this series was worth my limited time and attention. Then I made a crucial mistake. (We’ve all done it.) I scrolled to the bottom of the article and started reading the comments. There were opinions about the show, overall praise for the showmakers’ decision to cut the rape scene, and a thread that pointed out that of course Poldark was rapey because romances are thinly-veiled rape fantasies and at least the TV series would clean up the mess created in the romance book series. WTFingF???More commenters piled on to show their vast and informed knowledge of the romance genre by pointing out that the successful books-turned screen narratives Outlander and Fifty Shades of Grey were also rape fantasies and were, you know, completely representative of all romance books everywhere. My rage made me see spots and nearly lose consciousness.

As has too often happened in the past, a group of readers who pride themselves on the very fact that they do not read stories in the romance genre felt the need to judge said genre that they do not read and paint it with a broad and disparaging brush. With all the back-patting and high-fiving their superiority complexes about their reading choices, these commenters showed their ignorance of the genre, its writers, and its messages.

I thought about commenting. Considered setting them straight. Spent all of about thirty seconds considering whether it was my duty as a romance reader and writer to enlighten these misinformed internet strangers. I could have explained how the Poldark book series, while it spends a lot of time on love stories, would not have been classified as romance by genre standards. Also, the first books were written in the 1940’s, which was 70 years ago! so judging the current romance genre by what a man (who would be 108 years old if he were still alive today) who was not intentionally writing romance thought about love and relationships decades ago might not be the wisest or fairest thing to do.

I could have written that Outlander, written in the ’90’s, was not considered by its author, Diana Gabaldon, to be romance (although her publishers wisely classified it as such and romance readers did a great deal to make it the success it became). But genre classifications aside, Outlander does not, in any way, shape, or form, promote rape fantasies. Neither the hero nor heroine of the book is a rapist. When the author did deal with attempted rape and eventually actual rape, these were crimes perpetrated by the big bad. It’s also no small consideration that Gabaldon did two pretty amazing things in this book for the time period. She made the woman in the relationship the sexually experienced one and the man the virgin. She also made the man the rape victim. The way she dealt with Jaime’s physical and psychological recovery from that ordeal showed that rape is not a crime of sex or passion; it’s a crime of violence and brutality that leaves deep emotional scars.

While I haven’t read or seen the movie Fifty Shades of Grey, I could have explained that to my knowledge, having spoken to really smart readers who have read the series, the story centers around two consenting adults participating in BDSM sex. While some in the BDSM community have come out to say they thought the book did not accurately portray the rules of ‘safe’ participation, this is not a story built around a woman who is raped by her partner.

I could have pointed out that one book that does have the ‘hero’ rape a woman who, after all, ‘really wanted it but was worried she’d be a bad girl if she consented’, is Atlas Shrugged (not a romance!) by Ayn Rand. This is an author whom many Republican lawmakers in this country revere and idolize. That should truly terrify people.

But after thirty seconds of pondering, I decided life it too short, internet rabbit holes are often booby-trapped, and for many reasons, these internet commenters are not our readers. They could someday be our readers, but not because of any counter-arguments I present in the comments section of an internet article.

If any of these misinformed commenters come to the romance genre, it will probably be the way many former naysayers have: their mother, sister, aunt, friend or co-worker will tell them about a really great book s/he has read. Maybe this person will add that the book made them laugh and cry, made them think deeply, and stayed with them for weeks or months after they read ‘The End’. Maybe this informed reader will even explain to our internet naysayer that a book saved her life, made her mother’s last days joyful, or consoled her in a time of great loss and grief. All of these are true stories romance writers have heard from their readers, because that beacon of hope is the beautiful superpower of the romance genre. I hope for their own reading pleasure that these negative commenters someday experience this truth about the romance genre.

And with that, I said ‘bless their little misguided hearts’, shut down my internet browser, and got back to work.

A few days later, I read a lovely article that captures my own experience with the romance genre, one which I’ve proudly read for decades. It was an interview with our friend and mentor Jennifer Crusie. You really should read the whole interview, but here’s the passage that restored my faith in humanity:

…I’d read 100 [romance genre] narratives where the female protagonist fought for what she needed and won. She owned her story, she wasn’t propping up some guy. She had great sex and lived. And I realized why romance was so wildly popular: It told the truth that the culture denied: Women are the centers of their stories. My head pretty much exploded because this reviled genre was the most subversively feminist thing I’d ever read. So I decided to write it. – Jennifer Crusie

That probably sums it up for most if not all of us here at 8LW. We want to write (and read!) stories that allow women to be true protagonists with goals and agency and the power to create their own happy endings. No ‘fridging of women to motivate male characters to feel feelings. No damsels in distress waiting passively to be rescued. No rape fantasies masquerading as love stories.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to continue working on my own subversively feminist story wherein my protagonist Emmeline – who lives in 1870’s England – owns her story, does not prop up her romantic interest, and (gasp!) has great consensual sex and lives to see another day. Oh, and SPOILER ALERT: Emmeline also gets her HEA.

9 thoughts on “Nancy: The Subversively Feminist Genre

  1. Oh no! I fridged my heroine in Demons Don’t! On the upside, I didn’t leave her that way….

    I’ve never heard about this before (although Dara would probably have still wound up on ice because it was the only way to get through to Belial). In the extremely sexist world of comic books, it doesn’t surprise me, though.

    • Since Dara is a fully formed character with her own goals and agency, and you didn’t leave her on ice, I think it’s still a story with a feminist POV ;-).

  2. Congratulations, Nancy, no not falling down the internet rabbit-hole. Life is to short to attempt to inform people that are unlikely to listen. It does baffle me that, in this day and age, with romance being such a profitable genre, there are still so many naysayers out there. Often, as you’ve pointed out, individuals who have never picked up a romance novel.

    • When it’s young women, which I think at least some of these commenters were based on other comments/cultural references, it’s particularly discouraging to me. Like I said, I hope they’ll someday realize the truth one way or another. They might not like romance once they read it, but at least they should understand the ‘subversive feminism’ of it before they dismiss it out of hand.

  3. When I was a teenager, I read a lot of rapey romances that stayed with me quite a long time. I think even in the 80s, there were a lot of women who had been raped, and had to learn to deal with it somehow. Some of them were married to their rapists, or related to their rapists, and had to cope with the fact because economically, they were almost nothing without the guy. Perhaps at that time, rapey romances provided a way to process rape. And I do remember that in most rapey romances, the woman always came out on top in the power sweepstakes (unlike real life, I might add). Thank goodness in this day and age, a woman can leave an abuser and make a decent economic wage (although often, leaving isn’t always the best economic choice . . . and abused children will find leaving as a minor to be an extremely hard option even to this day).

    But there are several problems with comments like the ones that you saw. First of all, it’s not right to say “All chocolate is nutty” — because even though there are some rapey romances, not all of them are. Romance is a whole, giant genre, just like chocolate is a huge, diverse food group.

    Second, people have too many definitions of “romance” to choose from. In Japanese, there’s phrase called “roman” which comes from romance. The phrase I hear most is “otoko no roman” and it’s usually about the lone wolf who goes out to find his way in the world, and is abused and battered by the assumptions of other people. It’s part adventure, part wistful longing for belonging — and knowing one can never achieve it. I think in English, we use it for stuff like “the romance of the road”. I think there’s a useful distinction between “romance elements” and “romantic genre”. Unfortunately, if there’s a sexual relationship (particularly male/female), then it seems the book is slotted into the “romance” genre. Well, I say “unfortunately”. If it’s a great book, and it accidentally gets slotted into the romance genre, then that can be a wonderful thing. Romance readers, in my experience, love good story, and they’ll tell their friends. Even if a story doesn’t officially meet the Romance Genre Definition.

    Anyway, I loved that quote from Jenny. Best thing I’ve read all week. I highly recommend everyone who hasn’t read the article to click on Nancy’s link. Why are we writing? To be strong, to help others be strong. Maybe that’s not everyone’s goal, but I think it’s a great motivation. I’m a big fan in the moral dimension of books; by which I mean, how they help us learn to deal with other people in a kind and useful fashion. I’m not sure I can actually write that way, but I hope my books accidentally turn out that way.

    • While I was aware of ‘bodice rippers’, I didn’t read any. Maybe that’s because I got my romance fix from my oldest sister, so my TBR pile was curated. I do remember that pirates were a thing for a while in the 80s :-).

      • My mom was a voracious reader of romance and probably what would be termed women’s fiction these days. And anything on the bookshelves were fair game. I remember reading some somewhat horrifying pirate books . . . . And lots of rather sweet doctor/nurse stories, and a lot (A LOT) of immigrant girl makes good in America books. I have to say, they were all rather formative in their own ways . . . .

        The ones I got from the Library, especially the historicals, seemed to be a lot more rapey. I remember one about a Scottish lady with laryngitis who was wandering the moors (or whatever they were) by herself early one morning, and got mistaken for a strumpet, and was brought back for the Lord of the Manor (not her relative . . . that even more ick) and . . . . Well. Lesson learned. If you’ve got laryngitis, stay in bed. Although, she wound up with the Lord, forgave him, and made him her slave. Lemonade.

  4. My congratulations on not going down the reader-comment rabbit hole. I think publishers should turn off the comments. They *never* add anything to the discussion.

    I used to be a snob about romance, but one day I went to a book festival in San Francisco, and while I was waiting for one panel to start, I wandered into the romance panel just to see what it was all about. Jenny was on the panel, plus a lot of other really smart, funny, interesting women. I loved it. I went to the library and read all their books and then a whole of of other romance novels, too. And none of the other speakers at the other panels at that book festival matched the wit and insight I heard at that romance panel. So I was hooked.

  5. I read the rapey stuff when I was younger, but now it’s just out of vogue (for me, anyway). In fact, I read a contest entry a year or so ago and the entire first chapter was a rape (modern contemporary romance). Very vivid and incredibly distasteful. Can’t we learn that about the heroine via dreams or flashbacks or something? It was so graphic!

    Speaking of historicals, I just read Kathleen Woodiwiss’ “The Flame and the Flower” (I know it was one of the Eight Ladies’ “first books,” but I can’t remember which one…that book came out the year before I was born). In many ways, it’s so formulaic (for the “old formula” — sort of like “original Coke,” except not as good, IMHO). Surprisingly, I read it through to the end, although I don’t really have a desire to read any of the other books in the series. I will say, though, that Woodiwiss handled the rape part pretty well. Lots of innuendo and “fade to black.”

    As for the rabbit hole, kudos, Nancy. I just shake my head. As my grandfather was fond of saying, “It takes all kinds.” Even dumb, uneducated ones.

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