Hope. Escape. Fun. Happiness Something just for me. Taught me about respect. Joy. Taught me that I deserve a happily ever after, too.
I spent the spring and summer of 2016 listening to women about why they read romance novels. I ran a research project that was specifically interested in how women who see themselves as ‘religious’ interacted with the sex in romance novels, but my participants gave me so many gifts beyond that. Many I heard from weren’t even women of faith, they just wanted to tell me how important these books are to them, how vital they are to their lives. (1)
Because for so many women, they are just that: vital.
I talked to women whose entire sexual health education came from Harlequin, because their schools and families and religious spaces never talked about sex and the issues surrounding it. From the books, these women told me, they learned about consent and respect and orgasms. (2)
I heard from women in helping professions – teaching, social work, nursing – for whom reading romance is elemental to their self care regimens.
I talked to trans-women who told me that romance was one of the ways they ‘learned’ womanhood. One of my favorite interviews was with a lovely woman living in Illinois who talked at length about how she and her transition therapist read contemporary romances as part of her therapy. She was a plus-sized lady and was having some latent self-esteem problems post-transition. Her therapist told her to read Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie and sent her to Smart Bitches, Trashy Books to find other books like it. (She actually sent me an email a few months ago and begged me to read Alice Clayton’s Hudson Valley series and I immediately referred her to recent works by Kate Meader, Olivia Dade, and Amy Andrews. I love this wee world sometimes.)
I heard from women who read stacks of Nora Roberts, Julia Quinn, Beverly Jenkins, Georgette Heyer, Sonali Dev, Rebekah Weatherspoon, Julie Ann Long, Sarah MacLean, E.L James, Maya Banks, Maisey Yates, Sarah Mayberry (y’all, the list of authors these women name-checked is four pages long, so I’ll stop here) while sitting in chemotherapy chairs or next to bedsides of dying loved ones or in between therapy appointments for their special needs child. These women talked about romance novels as ‘lifelines’, reminders that there is still hope in our world and that happily ever afters do still exist.
I talked to women who just enjoyed it. No fuss, no frills, romance was just their favorite genre and they weren’t sure why people made so much fun of it.
I heard from women in ministry who told me they had no fellow women they could trust with talking about sex, and so romance characters became their ‘girlfriends’ in that way. An Anglican minister in the English midlands told me over Skype, with a eyebrow raised saucily, that she and her husband owe a lot to Mills & Boon.
I talked to women who were in abusive relationships and realized they were abusive after seeing ‘their’ relationship on the page. One woman I spoke to, who lived in Belgium, told me about reading a Kristan Higgins book and realizing that her boyfriend would never do the tender things the hero in that book did. That helped her re-examine her entire relationship, come to the conclusion that he was actually an (in her words) “unmitigated ass who gave zero shits about me as a human” and begin the long process of extricating herself from that situation.
Sit with that. A woman’s life changed because she read a book. And not just any book. A romance novel. A novel in a genre which the New York Times found it appropriate this past week to shame, deride, and write off as useless tripe that was only read by dumb women.
A lot of very smart people have had words about that stance, defending our beloved genre with the fiery righteousness that only comes from being on the side of truth and hope. Lauren Layne’s was a particular favorite, but Ron Hogan’s is also worth your time, as is SBTB’s.
Instead of parsing that particular article, I want to take a breath and be frank about why the article was written and why the NYT was, I believe, comfortable with running that piece after decades of ignoring the romance genre. This fact is why all romance is political, all moments of centering women and their stories is revolutionary, and why I will defend Romancelandia until my dying breath. The fact is that America is saturated in toxic masculinity through its patriarchal foundations. Our very culture is deeply sexist.
When social scientists (of which I am proudly one) talk about a cultural patriarchy, we’re highlighting a culture where straight white men – their voices, their bodies, their heterosexuality, their life choices, their opinions – are categorized as ‘normal’ and everyone else is ‘othered’. In terms of gender in particular, this means that women are always automatically less-than, unless there is an intentional and consistent restructuring.
This culture of toxic masculinity/sexism/patriarchy, whatever your word of choice, is why we’re stillalking about sexual assault in terms of what the girl was wearing, why we’re still talking about women in politics as aberrations and annoyances, why we’re still letting men decide reproductive health issues, why working mothers are forced to ‘lean in’ and stay at home moms are mocked. This culture is why Romancelandia is allowed to be mocked in the NYT – there’s no automatic power for men in this world and this deeply sexist culture cannot stand that. (3)
The 1200+ women in my project all talked about romance as some sort of escape, and what I believe they were articulating is that in reading romance, they could often take a temporary breath from a world in which they were not valued and come to one where they were. Romancelandia consistently centers women and their pleasure, their values, their decisions, and their lives. This runs counter to the messages of the culture, where women are often only permitted to be centered only when they fit certain molds or check certain stereotypes. (4)
In fact, it runs so counter to the message of the culture that the mighty Grey Lady herself decided to ask an octogenarian gentleman, who clearly had never heard of RWA before getting this assignment, to speak for us instead of inviting us to speak for ourselves.
Romancelandia is imperfect and messy and we have a lot of work to do to make sure that more stories are centered. We have got to be better about letting voices speak for themselves rather than speaking for them, better about getting holiday stories that don’t involve Christmas, better about making sure our celebration of women is intersectional. Do not read this article, I beg you, as me saying we have it all figured out because lawd jaysus do we not.
However, what we do have is an intentionally crafted space where we celebrate women and praise be we do, for if we don’t celebrate ourselves, the culture has once again reminded us that no one else will.
~ Kristen Donnelly
It would be really interesting, sociologically, to run this again post-2016 election. Anyone wanna collaborate?
Clearly, these women weren’t reading the more… problematic of HQs back catalogue. These were mostly younger women, who were raised in evangelical circles, and were reading things produced in the late 90s onwards. Lisa Kleypas’ Wallflowers quartet and a slew of Nora Roberts books were also mentioned in this conversation. For anyone particularly interested in abstinence education and its relationship to this conversation, I have about 25 pages of notes. Let’s get (virtual) coffee.
Male authors, for example, are not automatically granted deference the way they are in literary fiction. M/M stories are still centered around the values of consent, respect, and HEAs, for which the larger literary establishment gives limited craps, and which our genre prizes above all else.
Reese Weatherspoon’s comment at the end of her 2017 Emmy acceptance speech for Big LIttle Lies hit the nail on the head: let women be the center of their own stories. In romance, we are. Gloriously messy and diverse and powerful, we are.