A Quickie with Catherine Asaro on Feminism & Romance

(December 1997)

Last month, feminist scholar Kay Mussell responded to the question: Are Feminism & Romance Novels Incompatible? Many readers responded, but today, SF author Catherine Asaro, who includes a very strong romantic component in her writing, responded to the same question.

As an author who writes romantic space adventure, a physicist with a PhD in atomic and molecular theory, a former ballet dancer, a wife, and a mother. I have never had the least doubt that romance is feminist. It is the only genre I know of where:

  • What the heroine values is given priority. It is, in fact, the driving force of the story. She is rewarded for what she values by achieving her goals, as well as winning the hero, who is usually a hunk, among other things (“I do too appreciate your mind,” she insisted. “Really. I do. I appreciate all of you.” ). Which comes to . . .
  • Romance acknowledges the “female gaze.” We hear a lot about the male gaze in literature. An author may extol the aesthetic value of the heroine to such length that female readers are tempted to say, “all right, already. Get on with the story.” Romance is the only genre I know where it is perfectly fine to extol male beauty. For a long time there was a “truism” that women didn’t notice men that way. Well, hogwash. Acknowleding that quality doesn’t mean women will then go attack every unsuspecting hunk and bring about the fall of civilization with their wild abandon. After all, in most romance novels the heroine supports traditional values. What romance does is acknowledge that women also experience sexual feelings.
  • This is far more significant than many critics of the genre realize. Romance says “hey, it’s okay for women to be sexual beings.” It doesn’t make heroines pay a price for that sexuality or condemn them for it. (Compare this to works such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles.) That romance novels often protray relationships along more traditional lines is, to my mind, congruent with feminism. It says that a woman can be sexual without having to be superwoman. Which comes to another aspect . . .
  • The main character of many romance novels is “everywoman.” She may be of noble birth, or have other qualities we don’t associate with our everyday lives, but she doesn’t have to be a male-identifed heroine to be considered interesting or worthwhile as a character. In so much fiction, female characters fade into the background unless they have qualities deemed “important,” where too often the definition of importance ignores aspects of life traditionally in the female sphere, for example, child rearing, homemaking, or simply a female outlook on the world. Stories that concentrate on those areas are often called fluff. Why fluff? It is a fundamental part of life.

I noticed this with my first and second novels, both of which are hard science fiction (that is, science oriented sf) that center around a romance. In the first book, Primary Inversion, the woman is a space-fighter pilot with a rank equivalent to admiral; she’s almost fifty years old, but biotech has kept her young. The hero is more than twenty years her junior and in the end she is the one who rescues him. In the second book, Catch the Lightning, the heroine is a seventeen year old Latina from the barrio in East L.A. and the hero is a space-fighter pilot.

I was told by several people who had been around the field for a long time that the second book wouldn’t sell because the female protagonist “wasn’t interesting,” just an ordinary girl whose concerns weren’t of interstellar import, and that the romance aspect should be played down. Yet the book does indeed seem to be selling, better perhaps even than the first. Why? For precisely the reasons I was told it wouldn’t sell. I get positive responses from both men and women, which makes me question the “common knowledge” that male readers won’t read a book written first person from the point of view of a seventeen year old woman. I found it particularly gratifying that the love story is what has received the most critical acclaim from reviewers.

This is not to say I have any objection to the fact that the heroine in the first book worked for readers! It’s great. It says a lot about how women’s roles have changed, that few readers even blinked at the role-reversal.

Romance is often described as having “become” feminist. I would argue that it has always been on the edge of what mainstream culture accepted, that the changes we’ve seen reflect how that edge has moved. Why was the “rapist-turned-hero” theme once much more common, for example, or other aspects of romances that are controversial now? It was the only way that the culture – at that time – allowed the expression of female sexuality. If a woman was forced, she wasn’t “loose” or a “slut.” To our modern view, this outlook is painfully sexist. Underneath it all, however, were seeds of the future.

Compare those romances to more traditional works, such as the above mentioned Tess of the D’Urbervilles, where after the sexy virgin is raped she pays a terrible price (over and over and over again) and ends up being executed. In the old romances, the hero learned from the heroine and ended up a reformed man due to her influence. Rather than paying a price for her sexuality, she changed the world to one more suited to what she valued. Those values may have been confined to what was considered appropriate at the time, but they were still what the heroine considered important. Just imagine how Tess would have set things up, had what she valued been given priority.

I agree that the emphasis now in romance on equality and consentual sex (of whatever style) reflects the progress made in the roles of women and men. The hero, however, still benefits from the heroine’s strength and wisdom. That is another aspect of romance; the hero learns from the heroine. Not only does the story reward her for what she values, it rewards the hero for appreciating that value.


Read Catherine Asaro’s entry in the 1998 Purple Prose Parody Contest

Kay Mussell on Feminism & Romance

Romance Readers Respond to Kay Mussell’s Quickie

Sociology Professor Elaine Wethington: Are Academic Opinions About Romance Novels All Negative?

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