the ask@AAR: What is a feminist romance?

Each day my inbox is full of emails about upcoming books romance readers might like to read. And, if publishers are right about romance readers–and who is to say they are or are not?–what we want to read are feminist romances. This week I received blurbs for an historical romance whose heroine works to smash the patriarchy, a classic romance reboot that challenges modern ideas of masculinity, femininity, and power, a feminist women’s fiction novel that features a woman challenging convention and boundaries, a thriller that showcases the burgeoning feminism of the early 1960s, an historical fiction for those who love feminist history, one billed as feminist twist on Sherlock Holmes, and an ardently feminist contemporary romance just to name a few. (The quotes in italics are from the actual blurbs.)

Feminism is clearly all the rage in our world which, yay! I’m all for feminism–I have described myself as such since I learned the word. That said, I’m not sure what feminism means here. Does it mean a disavowal of traditional cultural norms such as heteronormative relationships, marriage, kids, and articulated gender norms? About equal rights? It’s unclear to me–and, honestly, it really is–what a feminist romance/women-centric story needs to have in it to make it such.

I googled “What is feminism?” and screened for results from the past year. Masterclass says there are seven types of feminism. Britannica says we are in the fourth wave of feminism and that this wave focuses on sexual harassment, body shaming, and rape culture. Kim Cattrall, at Glamour’s Women of the Year Event 2022, says “Feminism to me is about equal rights, so I feel that no matter where I am, sticking up for my point of view as a woman, especially as a woman of my age….

For me, a feminist romance is one in which women get to choose the lives they want. They can choose to be CEOs, moms, wives, lovers, queer, monogamous, straight, asexual, or whatever else makes them replete. Feminist romances have men who support the vision and emotions of the women/men they love. I see feminism in Serena Bell’s contemporary romances, in Evie Dunmore’s historical romances, in Leigh Bardugo’s fantasies, and in pretty much all of Julie Anne Long’s novels.

How about you? What do you think makes a romance feminist? What are some examples of feminist stories you’ve loved? Any you’ve hated? Is this a trend you applaud? Is it even a trend or–let’s hope not–just a marketing tool?

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