Anthony recently completed his graduate education in English Literature. A New Mexico native, he currently resides and writes in Seattle, Washington. He writes primarily about education, travel, literature, and American culture.
Romance Novels and Contemporary Gender Roles
Just contemplate the terms “gender” and “romance novel” simultaneously, and countless insinuations immediately arise about this seemingly dubious combination. Books written for this much-maligned genre certainly provoke controversy and are often debated both in online masters programs as well as at more traditional brick-and-mortar graduate schools. Yet, changes that have occurred within the genre over time suggest that these novels may or may not be insidious.
Before deciding whether romance novels contribute to our ideas about gender, perhaps we should know a little more about them. According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), two basic elements comprise every romance novel, whether it appears as a sole entity or as part of a series: “a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending.” RWA further explains that each main plot centers around two individuals who fall in love and attempt to make their relationship work. In the end, the lovers (whose relationship may embody varying levels of sensuality, ranging from innocent to torrid) are rewarded with honesty and unconditional love. Despite these criteria, there are certainly romance novels that challenge ordinary expectations, including works that involve date rape and domestic violence.
While the romance novel is thought to date back to the mid-1700s, it was really in the following century that the romance genre blossomed. This is largely attributed to women taking up the genre. For instance, Jane Austen's novel “Pride and Prejudice” is widely considered a classic example of the genre. Though most popular in North America, Europe and Australia, romance novels now appear in 90 languages, and their sales currently outdo other literary genres such as mystery and science fiction/fantasy.
Women buyers are vital to the publishing industry. In fact, romance novels, often written by women for women, are sometimes considered erotica for women. The RWA claims that women make up roughly 90 percent of the romance readership and, of those women, most are 31-49 years old and are currently involved in a romantic relationship. Furthermore, most romance readers are more likely than the general population to be currently married or living with a partner. However it should be noted that, while most romance novels reflect heterosexual couples, there are also a substantial number that deal with same-sex relationships. Thus possibly making romance novels more progressive than anyone imagined.
The key to these romance novels is emotional intensity, and sensuality as well as sexuality. Harlequin, a longtime American publisher of romance novels, presents characters through their Kimani Romance series that are, by requirement, of good moral fiber, sympathetic and rather chaste. However, through their British Mills & Boon imprint, the publisher offers readers a wide range of excitement through self-explanatory categories such as “sexy romance”, “intrigue” and “desire.” Here, the characters are predominantly sophisticated, cosmopolitan, often appearing on glamorous international locations. The heroines are independent women who “know what they want” from relationships and their career. Their partners are physically attractive, “breathtakingly charismatic alpha-heroes.” Needless to say, explicit lovemaking is definitely permitted. In fact, the Blaze series “fully described love scenes along with a high level of fantasy, playfulness and eroticism.” Clearly, these books are meant to arouse.
An educational study by Huei-Hsia Wu of Bridgewater State University (MA) asserts that “most romance novels promote deeply constraining patriarchal values, [and] reading romance novels plays a role in shaping… behavior relative to this patriarchy.” The author goes on to say that female readers, in actuality, fulfill themselves through idealistic monogamy, while at the same time satisfying their sexual fantasies through fabricated characters.
An even more damning view suggested by Daniela Kramer and Michael Moore, found in these novels “a blatantly patriarchal value system” defined by traditional gender roles and spousal inequality, and went on to consider the “destructive messages the romantic fiction genre delivers to millions of readers regarding gender roles and marriage.”
Conversely in her study on women and popular culture, Mary Magoulick, of Georgia College & State University, lauds feminist Janice Radway. Radway looked not only at this genre of the literary industry and its women-focused marketing practices, but also at the ways women read with resistance “to find escape from their lives, but also for practice in imagining less oppressive possibilities.” Magoulick also notes that “feminists have long realized the subversive power of popular culture.” Maybe we should give patrons more credit for reading between the lines and knowing what they want.
By and large, it is true that contemporary romance novels reflect the social standards of the era. Indeed, there is evidence that heroines in romance novels published prior to 1970 usually quit working once they married or bore children, while heroines that appear after 1970 usually have, and keep, a career. In these volumes, women may appear cliché, their partners exceedingly ideal. Yet, perhaps a fantastic desire for societal change, currently reflected in diverse couplings and liberal sexuality, lies at the heart of the romance novel.