Romance Books Made Me a Feminist

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

This is the story of how I discovered my feminism through reading romance novels, and how that discovery ultimately led me to make writing them my career. 

I still remember when I read my first romance. The year I moved to Montreal, I got a job at a raw juice store in an industrial part of the city. Since the business was mostly based on deliveries rather than in-store purchases, I had a lot of spare time. Too much. My duties for the day took all of fifteen minutes, and the rest of the time I was only needed for the rare instances that someone wandered into the shop. As a result, I quickly slipped into mind-numbing boredom… Until I had the bright idea to read a book.

I was a voracious reader as a child, but with the various demands of life, I had forgotten that passion. I hadn’t read a book from cover to cover in almost a decade, because I hadn’t found anything that grabbed my attention. I’d spent a lot of the last years traveling and focusing on music—my first creative love—and it didn’t feel like I needed another hobby. I concluded that I just didn’t care for reading anymore, and that I’d left that particular pastime behind with my childhood.

In reality, I just hadn’t been reading the right books.

The real reason I had abandoned my reading pursuits became clear the day I stumbled upon my first romance novel as I sat behind the till at that juice bar. It was a paranormal romance—vampires, of course. My eyes were as big as saucers as I read the first spicy scene, and I remember thinking, “I didn’t know books could be like this!” From that day, an obsession was born.

As I sped through multitudinous series, I was amazed time and time again at how relatable the stories were, even those with fantastical settings and supernatural characters. The authors seemed to understand me and what I found exciting and sensual. The female protagonists had struggles I related to—fears, hopes, and desires I understood. The male protagonists were actually enticing to me, and the love stories were compelling.

I quickly found a new appreciation for my day job. Now, I resented when customers came in, because it meant I had to put my book down. (Though I was sure to paste on a smile and be polite, despite my voracious need to read.) I read on the train to and from work. I read when I got home at night, until it was time to go to bed. At which point, I stayed up too late reading some more. I hadn’t known it was even possible to be so obsessed with something.

Throughout this period of single-minded fixation, I thought deeply about why these books affected me the way they did. I had read plenty of fantasy and adventure in the past, even the occasional love story, but none had piqued my interest the way these had. They were exciting, they were binge-able, they were sexy…but it was more than that.

Then it came to me. These books were written by women, for women. All the subtle descriptions, references, humor, and scenarios were written from the female perspective. They told women’s stories—women’s desire, women’s fantasies, women’s pleasure. The simplicity of this realization shocked me as I considered the implications.

It was no wonder I hadn’t been interested in many books or movies in the past, because the entire media world is presented for the male gaze. We’re taught to regard things with a female focus to be silly, contrite, and embarrassing. If you like rom-com movies, you are subject to eye rolls and groaning. If your favorite color is pink or you played with Barbies as a child, you’ll be lumped in with “other girls” as if being “like a girl” is somehow a terrible fate to befall a…girl.

As for me, I’d been unable to enjoy most supposedly female-centered movies not because of some internal bias, but because those films are primarily written by men who don’t understand or care what it is to be a woman. It’s due to that unbalanced perspective that Hollywood is full of such blatant misogyny. Though I had stopped watching films with crude jokes at the expense of women long ago, I didn’t fully realize the magnitude of the imbalance until I found romance. 

Reading romance became more than just an escape for me; it became a rebellion. It became a place to gather with other like-minded, empowered women. It became a way to support women-owned businesses and women entrepreneurs. It became a place to explore the female perspective and expand my horizons without fear of judgment. It became a place to support others, and to feel supported. 

Did you know that romance novels are a 1.4 billion-dollar-a-year industry? Did you know the next best-selling genre, mystery, earns only 700 million? So why is it that most bookstores have a pitiful romance section in a dark and lonely corner in the back? Why is it that romance novels are considered “trashy” and women are often shamed for reading them? 

Based on those statistics, it seems to me that the patriarchy—and the need to disregard and ridicule women’s pleasure—is an even stronger force than capitalism itself. Which says a lot.

Let’s bust the myth that romance novels are trash. To write romance, not only do you need an interesting plot like any other novel, you need to have a deep understanding of human nature and dynamics. In another genre, you might be able to get away with writing a series of thrilling, suspenseful events being experienced by a fairly two-dimensional, static character, but in romance, character development is everything. It’s imperative to explore their deepest motivations, fears, and desires—otherwise the romance itself won’t feel believable.

. . . .

The deeper I get into the romance world, the more I realize the revolutionary nature of the genre. Romance is inherently feminist, not because it’s trying to be overtly loud and defiant, but simply because it exists. Women write these books for other women to read. Of course, men are welcome if they want to be part of the community, and we embrace them. But we don’t exist for them, and many men find that threatening.

But guess what? We don’t care! We’re too busy reading our spicy books to care. And damn, that’s liberating.

The income earned from book sales goes to women, the industry is primarily run by women—from publishers, agents, and editors, to cover designers, publicists, and of course, authors and readers themselves.

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

10 thoughts on “Romance Books Made Me a Feminist”

  1. I’m one of those people who have always liked women and men and appreciates their differences, speaking generally.

    Since my very happy marriage to Mrs. PG, I’ve adjusted the way I relate to women, but still enjoy conversations with intelligent women. For me, there is a difference between most women and most men, but I would struggle to describe exactly what the differences are.

    Perhaps it has something to do with pheromones. Or something.

  2. One of the things often forgotten in fiction talk is that most fiction includes relationship plots/sub plots. Even toughguy action stuff. And understanding the dynamics of relationships can only help writers of all genres.

    • Exactly. The old way to bring in both sexes to an story was to add romance to an action story, and action to a romance story. A comics YouTuber complained that action comics were “feminized” by degrading from action to overly talky slice-of-life. Boring! But then one day he read a comic that was all punching, all the time. No subplot at all, and he noted it was “hyper masculine.” And also boring. You need a mix of both, and most people prefer the mixes.

  3. I’ve read plenty of cardboard romance novel characters. No genre is inherently masculine, feminine (except women’s fiction specifically, I presume; never read it so unsure), good, or bad. Every genre has books that fall into all those subcategories. Yes, there are romance novels written by men for men too, even if they’re sometimes denied the genre label.

  4. “So why is it that most bookstores have a pitiful romance section in a dark and lonely corner in the back?”

    With all due respect, I am calling shenanigans on this one. I’m not going to say that any of the many, many bookstores I’ve been in over the years have had the romance novels front and center, but they’re almost always thrown in with the rest of the genre fiction and take up a lot of shelf space. They’re certainly not tucked away in a corner somewhere, and the selection is extensive.

    The author of the OP is either going to really snooty bookstores or has a persecution complex.

    • Agree on the shenanigans-calling. I don’t know where the OP is shopping, but it’s definitely not Barnes & Noble.

      Also, it doesn’t seem likely the OP ever read books at all. What perspective does she think Elizabeth George, Sue Grafton, or Agatha Christie wrote from? Yet she claims only paranormal romance (or perhaps romance in general) is written from a female perspective? I’m not going to bother with sci-fi / fantasy, because she definitely never read them, either, and probably thinks they’re only “just now” allowing girls into the all-boys’ tree house.

      This is her only valid point: If you like rom-com movies, you are subject to eye rolls and groaning. If your favorite color is pink or you played with Barbies as a child, you’ll be lumped in with “other girls” as if being “like a girl” is somehow a terrible fate to befall a…girl.

      You do see a definite insistence on defining a proper girl as “not-girly.” An example is how there’s only one way to be a Strong Female Character: a Mary Sue exhibiting martial prowess coupled with psychotic behavior and misandrist impulses. As a woman who only likes a specific type of rom-com (Romancing the Stone) — and because it has all the elements I like in a romantic comedy, I put “Wonder Woman” in that category 😀 — I won’t look down on anyone for liking the ones with Meg Ryan in them. Or whoever is the Next Generation Meg Ryan. But it wouldn’t surprise me if OP did get a few eye-rolls if she is into the Meg Ryan variety.

      And somehow, in the name of feminism — or certain mental illnesses — women are deliberately depicted depicted as more masculine in visual media. Pink is right out, as is beauty, because “impossible beauty standards” or some silliness. Oh, and to “avert the male gaze.”

      The thing about Barbies, though, is that feminists first came on my radar (as an adolescent) because they were getting on my nerves with their claim that ultra-feminine Barbie was somehow bad for me and other girls. Now they’re cool with her? Now not liking her is un-feminist? I wonder what changed? What hasn’t changed is they always find a way to insist upon victimhood, and I do wish they’d either focus on real problems that matter, or just shut up altogether.

      • Yep. Part of adolescence is seeing (and reading) enough of what people are like that you can create your own sub-classes by gender-preferences, intellectual-differences, status-markers, soundness of character, reliability, etc. — all the social cues that lead to adult competence with regard to others.

        I’ll grant the old claim that (some) women understand (women and) men better than lots of men understand women, as a general indicator of a gender distinction (observation? prudence? survival? child protection?), but it’s very far from absolute. And if one ends up a poorer-than-average player of the observe-understand-manipulate game, there are ways to improve that for either gender.

        But are her claims of victimhood to be paralleled by some man complaining that he never knew there were Westerns, or War Stories, or MilSciFi, etc., and that was someone else’s fault?

        Yes, the “only true girl is not girly” does linger as a preference, but I think that divides into distinctions:

        (1) Nobody likes an adult person who squeals or cringes or is easily disgusted, not because of gender, but because of general childishness. There’s a reason it’s called “girly”, not “womanly”, as we might say “boyish”. The reaction tends to be: “Grow Up”.

        (2) Nobody likes an adult person who takes undue advantage of a privileged status, such as women (and children and elders) enjoy as “needing/deserving to be protected”. That’s a gift, not a right.

        (3) There have always been recognized female strengths in trad cultures re: protection of the young, wisdom in age, cunning in relationships, support in survival, etc. These strengths may or may not be of interest to others, but they have nothing to do with being girly or not.

        The rejection of girlyness has little to do with the recognition of traditional female strengths or some monolithic desire to turn them into her version of a non-girly female. Famous atypical females (with specifically male virtues) are rare, but that very rareness prevents them from being realistic models for general use. If she doesn’t like the current fashion for those unrealistic models, then read other books where (3) above comes more into play. There were older fashions: femme fatale, devouring mother, etc. Fashions pass.

        If she read more, she might understand all this better. 🙂

        • Point taken re: your girliness distinctions. This is very much true; for myself I just meant “feminine” in general. Your point 3 is not recognized amongst the “Strong Female Character” purveyors. For instance, I was pleasantly surprised that Wonder Woman was allowed to coo over a baby, because a Strong Female Character has no maternal instincts and is “above all that.”

          I remember when The Avengers came out people were angry that Black Widow was terrified of the Hulk because a Strong Female Character should never be afraid, especially of a male, and if the male did make her afraid he must necessarily be evil. At another writer’s site we had a whole discussion about it; people are sick of this crap. In that discussion someone pointed out that people opposed Bella Swan becoming a wife and mother rather than going to college, because this made her “weak.” I have a strong allergy to all things “Twilight,” but that particular angle is what I was driving at. Swan shouldn’t be considered less of a woman based on her wanting to be a housewife. And in fairness I think that angle of attack on “girliness” is what the OP might be referring to.

          But points 1 and 2 are solid; I would consider it a special type of hell to hang out with Elle Woods’ sorority sisters in “Legally Blonde.” And you remind me of an excellent critique of “bad boys” in fiction: the problem with them is that they’re “boys” when they ought to be men. Similarly it’s a problem when women think or act like girls when they’re in adult situations.

      • I don’t think anybody does Meg Ryan style RomComs outside of Hallmark. And even there they’re rare. Doing goofy light comedy is harder than ever in the face of today’s cancel culture.

        As for Barbie, she became a feminist Icon when Mattel started to deemphasize Ken and focus on career girl Barbie.

        • It was probably the de-emphasis on Ken part, because I remember Barbie always having different jobs to do. Romance is not “for” Strong Women :/ It’s funny but in the 80s the Barbie commercials always said “we girls can do anything, like Barbie!” but feminists still hated her. They harped on her looks, and I honestly thought they were insanely envious of a pretty doll.

          But yeah, cancel culture and comedy don’t go together, so no more Meg Ryans. Nor the old school rom-coms I like with Doris Day & Rock Hudson. I do note they’re doing “The Fall Guy,” and since Emily Blunt has spoken out against Strong Female Characters, I hope it means she’s playing someone with a sense of humor.

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