The Romance Stigma

Romance novels. You say the word, and some people give you a thumbs up in that “Oh yeeeah that’s my thing!” manner, while others cringe and slink into the nearest shadow as if it’s a force field that repels radioactive waves.

That may be an exaggeration, but it’s definitely a proper depiction of the split mentality held by the majority of readers in our society. Sure, there are a few who don’t mind reading romance once in a while, but at least 7 times out of 10, someone has to be a big fan of romance before they’ll even admit their enjoyment of reading it. Otherwise, it’s “noooo, I don’t read romances! How unseemly!”

Yet romance is one of, if not the biggest, bestselling genres of fiction there is. It has a ton of subgenres, various stories have been made into movies (we can argue their quality and worth some other time), and a plethora of conventions are available for readers to attend in the USA alone. So what is it that gives the genre such a wide range of reactions whenever it’s mentioned?

That’s actually not an easy question to answer as there’s no single underlying cause for this critical reception. But there are several reasons we can examine, some more notable than others, yet the single biggest instigator is a word most people won’t like. So prepare thyself, because it’s coming and may be like a swift fist to the gut; misogyny.

I can hear the collective sigh now. But yes, this article is all about the impact society’s views on women has had on the romance genre, and the stigma this impact has created. After all, romance is a genre that’s predominantly written by women, for women, a fact that even comes into play for a number of M/M fictions available. There are male authors of the genre, and successful ones, too. But for as many women who’ve adopted male pen names to sale their mystery/thriller/drama/whatnot books, male romance authors have adopted female pseudonyms to do the same with their love stories.

Examples include Leigh Greenwood (Harold Lowry), Jessica Blair (Bill Spence), and Jennifer Wilde (Thomas Elmer Huff). (Here’s an article about a few others if you’re interested :) )

The point is that romance is viewed by society as being a woman’s domain, and any time you find something that’s largely considered more feminine in nature, it typically gets a mixed reception. For instance, how many times have you heard something that’s weak or generally unlikable being referred to as ‘girly‘? If you told someone to ‘run like a girl’, they’d adopt a delicate stance and go sprinting with their arms fearfully flailing.

The same thing applies to romance novels. Ask anyone to tell you the first thing they think of when they hear the words ‘romance novel’, and you’ll get mentions of clincher covers, flowery prose, damsels in distress, and sickly sweet happily ever afters—in other words, girly stuff—and this view of romance novels has persisted throughout the years even though all of the stories I’ve read in recent times have plots that could rip your guts out with its teeth.

Something else I’ve noticed is that it’s almost as if society thinks it’s everyone’s job to police women in a way that determines what’s best for them, and if it doesn’t hold up to standard? Suddenly, we’re arguing over just how good/wholesome/healthy it actually is.

So here’s a theoretical concept to ponder; Romance novels are notorious for giving women unrealistic expectations when it comes to relationships. The way male protagonists are displayed in them is completely alien to the real world, and there’s no way in this life a reader would ever find the same type of gratification in connecting with a significant other.

Seems like a bleak outlook to me! Not that this concept isn’t partly true—relationships are hard to form and need to be worked at. So the chances of falling in love at first sight and having a long lasting HEA? Unlikely. However, there are plenty of romance novels out here that reflect this truth to some degree, and thinking every single one is simply a story about star crossed lovers who merely took a gander at their significant other and knew they’d found heaven does the overall genre of romance a serious disservice in terms of description.

So let’s examine these unrealistic expectations for a moment. One of my favorite genres of romance is (of course) paranormal, and I know before going into the book or even reading the blurb that whatever adventure I’m about to witness is never going to happen in real life. Why? Simple; Unless someone can prove that werewolves, vampires, fairies, and other such creatures exist, well … need I say more?

But what about books with a contemporary setting based in a world that more closely mirrors reality? There’s more of a chance that the story you’re reading might come to fruition, but do readers truly start reading with the expectation that it’s actually going to happen? Do they put their books down and attempt to recreate some situation in the story with the hopes of garnering the same results?

No one I know ever has, anyway. I mean, that’s like saying “I read an epic fantasy book, and now I’m going to go hunting for a dragon I can ride to the moon in order to unlock the Chest of Ultimate Good and use it to eradicate all evil in the world.

If only things were so easy. =|

So basically, the point is this; reading fictional stories isn’t motivated by the need to search out ways to make something similar happen in real life. Instead, the point of reading romance stories, or any form of fiction, is to experience a fantasy world and escape the realities of day to day life; i.e., to be entertained.

Yet there’s a section on the wikipedia article about romance novels that states, “The romance genre has over the years generated significant derision, skepticism and criticism. Some critics point to a lack of suspense, as it is obvious that the hero and heroine will eventually resolve their issues, and wonder whether it is beneficial “for women to be whiling away so many hours reading impossibly glamorized love stories.”

As I read this, I have to admit I wonder if the same person who’s so concerned about women whiling away hours reading about impossibly glamorized romance is also worried about men who spend so much time watching pornography about impossibly glamorized sex. But I’ve never heard anyone say a word despite the fact that it’s just as easy to harbor under the misconception that what happens in porn videos also happens in real life every single time you have sex.

Here’s a secret; it doesn’t. =\

Still, a man might figure out what he likes by watching pornography, or what doesn’t work for him, and the same can be said about women reading romance stories (and I do mean this beyond a purely sexual implication). They may learn what traits they appreciate in a man, or how they’d like to be treated, and that type of self discovery is empowering. By knowing herself, a woman knows how to set higher expectations for her relationships.

More importantly, she also learns that she can actually set these expectations and have them met. In other words, being given the same type of consideration and respect is not too high a price to demand from her partner despite the blurred lines painted over what women should want vs. what they can realistically attain from their relationships.

So there’s definitely a stigma placed on romance fiction stemming from the misogynistic values of general society. Another point that comes to mind is the numerous times I’ve heard a woman stating she’d turn down a romance novel that might otherwise be enjoyable all because it has a “risque cover”, and if anyone were to catch her reading such a book, she’d feel ashamed.

But why should she feel ashamed? What’s so wrong with reading a freaking love story?

Simple answer; Girlishness and slut shaming.

Longer answer; What women enjoy is largely viewed as girly, hence weak or undesirable, and additionally, women aren’t supposed to want or enjoy the same things a man does. So if she desires to have sex, shows any interest in having sex, or just an interest in men generally, she’s obviously a slut/whore/tramp/harlot/hooker/a long list of shameful names that have been applied to women over the years for basically, well, having human needs.

Sadly, most women today have been ingrained with these values since birth, taught to think that there’s something wrong with them for wanting to enjoy themselves in such a manner, and many believe it. This is known as internalized misogyny, and it’s a large instigator of female erasure in that many authors are either afraid to write female characters due to unfair criticism, ashamed of their own needs as women, or simply can’t empathize with female characters and so prefer not to write them (or villianize them when they do).

In addition, this type of erasure has led to there being a much larger number of M/M fictions on the market than F/F fictions. I’ve seen groups on goodreads that have entire forums dedicated to the topic of M/M romance novels, but not a single thread even mentioning F/F romance in sight. I can scroll down my facebook feed and be met with post after post of M/M stories, but never once see anything F/F.

In fact, some would even try to tell you that there is no market for F/F romantic/erotic fiction whatsoever. I mean because you know, lesbians don’t actually exist. Or well, wait, they do, but only as enjoyment for men. So yeah, their relationships aren’t serious at all (and yes, that was all sarcasm).

Yet I’m honestly only touching the surface of this particular topic, and it really deserves it’s own article altogether (preferably written by someone much more knowledgeable about the LGBTA spectrum of fiction available than myself), so I’ll digress there, and get back to my original point.

That point? Romance is just as serious a genre of fiction as any other, and much of the stigma that’s been placed upon it is largely due to the mentality society has regarding women. A reader, whether male or female, can invest themselves in these stories as much or as little as they like, and hopefully, this notion will come to pass more and more as time goes on, breaking down the silly barriers of needless shame keeping us from enjoying the things we love.

As a last thought, I’d like to suggest a book for anyone who reads this post and would really like to learn more about the notorious reputation romance novels have garnered over the years. I’m not affiliated with the author or publishers of this book, nor have I been asked to share it. I simply think it’s an excellent read, and really drives home a lot of relevant points: Dangerous Books For Girls – The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained by Maya Rodale.

Thanks so much for reading this guys, and I hope you’re having an awesome day! Cheers! :D

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2 thoughts on “The Romance Stigma

  1. Oh, how I agree. When you tell people “I write stuff”, they get excited and ask “what do you write?” Then the answer comes, “romance”, and you can feel the pity draining their earlier enthusiasm. Poor woman, writing romance. She’s not even an author, is she, because anyone can pen a love story. Now, if she was writing a thriller, or a fantasy novel, that would be a proof of proper talent…
    I blame the corny success of early Harlequin novels. They are so ingrained in people’s perception, that non readers of the genre assume all modern romance follows the same template. They don’t know that romance has evolved since, and that novels can feature as many twists and turns, complex plots and unforgettable characters as the next
    book.
    Yet romance novelists aren’t seen as news worthy unless they’re called E L James (an Indie author, by the way). I believe the industry is still too full of crusty old men who dictate what the public supposedly want and don’t want. I might dislike 50 shades of Grey, but I have no qualm in putting my hands up and admitting that it changed the trends and has opened the road to acceptance of women reading love stories out in the open.
    Baby steps, baby steps lol.

    • Hear, hear! I’m NEVER keen to tell someone I majorly write romance because I know they’ll think it’s just something amateurs do to pass the time or try to pass themselves off as legit writers. Thankfully, because I dabble in other areas of fiction, I can honestly say “this and that” whenever I’m worried about judgment, and if the conversation goes from there, I can work my way up to my main focus.
      I also have to agree about E L James opening the door despite how much I cannot stand the 50 Shades series. Still, I couldn’t ignore the fact that if she could do it, so could I, as bad as that may sound lol! In any case, romance novels have come a long way, just like any genre of fiction, and honestly, the older stories people scoff at so often actually contain more misogynistic tropes than those today. I’ve read stories before where the hero would nearly rape the heroine as some kind of testament to her irresistibility, and I just can’t deal with that. Just no. NO. BAD STORY. NO.

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