How can one be a feminist and read and write romance novels? I believe that admiring strong, empowered women and seeking to portray them in one’s work is not contrary to the ideals of romantic love that we find in the most popular genre in the U.S. today, romance.
Of course, there are the “virgin-to-the-sacrifice” books. These are the ones where the unbelievably gorgeous nineteen or twenty year old ends up with the thirty-five year old multi-millionaire businessman or English lord with whom she achieves a perfect and immediate sexual and emotional union. This sort of formula is typical of many Regency and even some Contemporary Romances. Not to be judgmental or negative, but these books irritate me. In addition to the power balance inherent in such relationships, they don’t seem to give the readers any credit. I’ve heard many of the criticisms of romance readers, we want the “candy” or the “frosting” of life portrayed in our books, not the real meat and potatoes, the material of substance. I don’t buy that. While some readers may go for the “save me” sort of heroine who gets swept away by her Prince Charming, I prefer the kick some b–, Lara Croft type of leading lady. I’m thrilled to say that the romance genre is truly broadening its horizons these days. The type of heroines that we see portrayed are of a variety of ages, sizes and shapes, who are often definitely not virginal, and who have jobs, careers, and interests of their own. They aren’t just blank slates for their men to “write on.”
This gets me to Barbie. As the mother of a daughter, I care deeply that I write about spunky women who aren’t perpetual victims. I want them to have some “sass” to them, women who are on equal footing with their men. But our society constantly feeds our girls different messages. Look at the Disney princesses for example; almost all of them, with the possible exceptions of Mulan, who isn’t a princess, and Belle, are simpering weaklings who are waiting for their Prince to make their worlds all better. Barbie has been the most popular girls’ doll for decades. She is blond, statuesque, and has no nipples, though she does have huge breasts. My theory about this, and I’ll admit it may be paranoid, is that male manufacturers can sexualize her with large breasts, but nipples would make her more than just an object of fantasy. Nipples would conjure up images of motherhood. Now I’ll admit that Ken is also anatomically incorrect, but not in the same way. It’s not like he has part of something, as in the case of Barbie and the breast/nipple thing.
The media and toy industry try to sell our little girls very warped visions of what they should aspire to. There have been some improvements. The Bratz dolls, even though they always wear skimpy clothing, are ethnically diverse. I have also seen a pregnant Barbie and a veterinarian Barbie. But I guess my conclusion is that many romance authors actually promote female empowerment in a way that our society needs to. We write about the full spectrum of the feminine experience within the context of loving relationships, arguably the most important part of life. We write about young women and old women, professional women and stay-at-home moms, those at the beginning of relationships and those who rediscover love in a decades-old marriage.
Though our society seeks to limit and define romance in ways that are often harmful to women, romance writers sometimes empower our ladies and lead the charge to greater equality of the sexes. I hope many of you are with me on this one. Admire a heroine who challenges her mate, who asks tough questions, and stands with her man when the fates are against them. A dynamic relationship between a well matched pair between whom the sparks continue to fly until the last page is a far more meaningful happily-ever-after than simply riding off into a sunset.