A Quickie with Kay Mussell
originally published in November, 1997
Kay Mussell is a scholar at American University. She is a long-time reader of my column, but first came to my attention when I read Jayne Ann Krentz’s Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women, which is a series of essays written by romance novelists about the genre. It is an excellent book and if you haven’t read it, I suggest you do so – it was reissued in paperback by Harper last year.
In DMAW Kay is footnoted several times, and the impression I had was that she was a critic of the genre, albeit less staunch than some other scholars. But based on some of our earlier discussions, I sensed her views had changed.
So when I read some posts to AARList requesting books to recommend to a feminist friend, I immediately thought of Kay.
I wrote her and asked:
“I am someone who is a lifelong feminist. I studied it in college, wrote papers on it, and when I worked outside the home, was a strident liver of feminist ideals.
“While I work at home now and read romance, I still consider myself a feminist. What I have a problem with is dealing with the fact that reading romance is considered not to be feminist. I have very mixed feelings about this. Number one, I read romance for the fantasy, and I doubt whether or not it is required that fantasies have to equate to social and political ideals. Number two, nearly all the romances I’ve read have female protagonists who, if not to start, are strong and intelligent women at the end. They may use other wiles in addition to their brains to achieve their ends, but these are not wall-flowers or dummies or doormats.
“Are romance novels and feminism mutually exclusive?”
Kay responded with some interesting comments, but I felt I had to push her further due to what I’d read of her in the DMAW. The book made clear that there was a disparity between feminists writing about romance and women authors (who may well be feminists) actually writing romance. Kay answered that she had changed in her thinking about romance during the past several years. She indicated that author Kathy Seidel helped convince her she was “far too judgmental about romance readers back then” (in the late 70’s and early 80’s).
Kay wrote an article for the journal Paradoxa last winter in which she referred to the “old triangle of romance writers writing for romance readers while feminist critics came along and tried to explain the other two for an audience of academics. That triangle, I said in the essay, is now blurred. Readers become romance authors every day. Romance writers have a lot to say about their own work (and I’m just finishing up editing an anthology that includes 30 romance writers doing just that). Some feminist critics are learning to admit their own pleasure in reading romances.”
With all this given as background, I’d like to re-state the basic question I asked Kay: “Are romance novels and feminism mutually exclusive?”
Here is what Kay had to say:
If feminism and romance are mutually exclusive, a lot of romance writers and readers haven’t heard the news yet. In my experience, the only people who think they are mutually exclusive are people who don’t know much about romances – or about women, or dare I add about feminism? That last point may be provocative and subject to real debate.
Twenty years ago, when romance novels were getting a lot of attention in the media, I thought that their increased popularity and changing content had something to do with the challenge mounted by feminism to more traditional women. I saw romances back then as a kind of backlash against the more aggressive and controversial aspects of feminism – something that reaffirmed traditional values and made women who hadn’t bought into the feminist critique feel validated about their own choices. I also expected romances to fade away as more and more women entered the labor force and became practical feminists if not theoretical or political feminists.
Was I ever wrong! Instead of quietly going the way of the Western (which is much less popular now than it was a few decades ago), romances have become one of the hottest areas of publishing. One reason, of course, is that romances have changed with the times. The newer romances incorporate feminist themes while still reaffirming more traditional notions about love and family. Moreover, many romance writers have openly claimed feminist values and, in the process, rejected easy stereotypes about themselves and their work. For example, see the essays by romance writers collected in Jayne Ann Krentz’s Dangerous Men & Adventurous Women.
More difficult to illustrate, but I think equally important, is change in feminist thinking itself. Twenty or so years ago, when academic feminists first became interested in the romance genre, there was wider agreement among feminists themselves on what the feminist agenda should be – and conventional romantic relationships, widely assumed to be discriminatory toward women, were not part of it. Thus romances were seen as threatening to female autonomy. But as feminism has matured – and as feminist scholars have come to recognize a broader range of female experience – some scholars have challenged those earlier notions in productive ways.
I don’t know how you can read many romances today as anything but feminist. To take just one issue: Heroes and heroines meet each other on a much more equal playing field. Heroes don’t always dominate and heroines are frequently right. Heroines have expertise and aren’t afraid to show it. Heroes aren’t the fount of all wisdom and they actually have things to learn from heroines. This is true of both contemporary and historical romances. I’m not trying to argue that all romances before the 1990s featured unequal relationships or that all romances today are based on equality. That’s clearly not the case. But in general heroines today have a lot more independence and authority than their counterparts did in earlier romances. I think that’s clear evidence of the influence of feminism on romances and of the ability of romance novels to address contemporary concerns that women share.