Is it really a “bad romance?”
As I mentioned earlier, I have a lot of feels about dismissal and derisive attitudes directed toward romance as a genre, or any romantic elements present in novels, particularly when those novels are written by women. Malinda Lo gave some important and insightful commentary about it in this post. I have some thoughts I wanted to share, as well.
Before I start, I just want to recognize that asexual and aromantic are legitimate ways for people to define their sexuality or attractions, and this post is not intended to crap on people who identify as such. I do not intend any belittling of those identities here, but if you feel like I’m screwing up in that regard, know that this blog is a safe space for you to call me on it.
On my long-form blog, I recently posted something about how people are often “embarrassed” that they’ve read certain books, and those “embarrassing” books are far-and-away romances or erotica written by ladies that became bestsellers. If you want to read the whole post, it’s here, but in a nutshell it’s just me saying “why are you embarrassed to read a romance novel, but not embarrassed to read pulp thrillers or crime or whatever?”
Over and over again, I feel like I have this argument with people where I’m saying that there are about a million (probably literally) books written by men that feature romantic entanglements and sex, but very few people ever complain about it. Now, a lot of people will argue with me that it’s because the romance doesn’t “take over” the story, whereas books written by ladies always put the romance first to the detriment of the plot. Or something.
And what’s weird about that is that no one ever makes the connection that… a lot of hetero-romantic subplots in male-centric stories don’t take up much room because the women themselves don’t take up much room in the story. The love interest is there to be a pretty prop before she’s stolen away (or raped/murdered/vanished) to forward the “action” of the story. And if by some chance she actually ends up NOT murdered/vanished, the male MC often doesn’t think of her much unless they’re in a direct romantic/sexual encounter.
When the tables are turned, we have women and girls who actually think about their male love interest when they’re not with him; who consider what he thinks; the context of their relationship; how he makes them feel. We have male characters who are actually present in the story. Because dudes take up space in women’s minds. They are more than props. And it feels like we blame women for that.
The point regarding the lack of stories without romantic elements compared to male-centered stories and how that relates to patriarchy isn’t lost on me. There’s certainly a hesitancy for people to create (or rather, people to publish/buy) female-centered stories with sisters, friends, family, confidants. We’ll watch a “bromance” about 2+ men being friends/brothers, but when it’s women, it becomes too niche (“niche” being half the population). But again, I feel like we blame women for that, rather than a system that pushes the idea that our stories are nothing without male involvement or approval. Who kick such tales into the “chick lit/women’s fiction” section and wrap them in pink lace and illustrated coffee cups.
It’s almost like we feed women a constant narrative of needing a man in their life to feel whole, and then we sneer at them when their stories reflect that. Huh. Sounds kind of familiar.
Now, I’m not arguing that I haven’t read many books where I felt a romantic storyline was poorly handled, or that it felt like someone added in the rest of the plot as an afterthought, or whatever. It happens. But it sure does feel like people are SUPER quick to roll their eyes and cry foul the second a romantic storyline starts to poke its head out of the water. After a while, it starts to feel very much like a kneejerk reaction to girl cooties.
Before people hop on the “SO ANY CRITICISM OF YA/ROMANCE BY LADIES IS AUTOMATIC MISOGYNY AND THEREFORE NOT ALLOWED, IS THAT IT?” bandwagon, the answer is “obviously not.” Women can be and often are complicit in misogyny, rape culture, racism, cissexism, et cetera, ad nauseum, and those elements should abso-fucking-lutely by criticized and explored. I can talk about the misogyny present in the blanket criticism of romance while ALSO agreeing that many romance novels are problematic. Such things are possible!
I am not saying that everybody should like romance novels/plots and that if you don’t, it makes you sexist or a bad feminist or whatever. That’s ridiculous, though it’s a counter-argument I hear so often that it blows my mind. I absolutely agree that there should be more stories about WOMEN DOING THINGS, rather than one woman doing a thing until she meets a guy.
But I do think that many of us have developed an automatic aversion to lady-written romantic anything, and we think of it as stupid or boring or shameful or empty entertainment. I think that we’re too quick to go UGH NO THERE’S A ROMANTIC SUBPLOT, THE STORY IS *RUINED*.
A lot of romance tropes have problems. This is true, and it’s not a secret. We should talk about them. I just think we also need to explore deeper into why we have such visceral reactions to anything with even a whiff of “romance,” and we blame women for its existence/stupidity.