Despite its popularity and continued success, Romance has a bad rep, one that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Willow Sanders breaks down what makes people turn their noses up at romance books, why the stigma persists, and how the genre of love empowers women.
When someone asks me what I do for a living, I get many reactions when I tell them I am a romance writer. My favorite, of course, is when someone gets that twinkle in their eye that tells me we’re about to have the absolute best conversation about authors, stories we loved, or the tropes that get us every time.
More often than not though, I’m met with a host of reactions that quickly tell me I’m being silently—or outwardly—judged. I did a signing once at the Plainfield Library in Illinois, and an elderly lady approached my table and asked if it was the romance table. My table neighbors and I all enthusiastically told her it was, to which she replied. “Proper, well-raised ladies know to keep the barn door closed.” As a former leader, and current member, of a couple of chapters of Romance Writers of America, we have been the sponsors of a university writers conference for a few years now. However, the original reason we decided to become sponsors, and why I presented my research in the first place, was as a result of being told by an author of literary fiction presenting at the conference, that we, as genre fiction writers, had no place at an academic conference. She further reinforced what we hear all the time: Romance is trashy, formulaic, there’s no subtext. Romance tends to be broken down into three categories to non-romance readers: Bodice Rippers, Mommy Porn, and Harlequin.
In Maya Rodale’s Dangerous Books for Girls, she surveyed New York Times readers about romance and discovered that 85% of them believed romance had a bad reputation and was looked down upon. Those same readers believed that romance writers possessed only a high school education. In actuality, 66% possess a BA, 13% a master’s, and 3% some form of advanced degree such as a PhD, JD, ED, or MD. So what is it about the romance industry that draws so much ire? If romance books are responsible for 1/3 of all mass market sales and generate over 1.8 billion in book sales, what is it about the romance genre that has created open season on its readers and writers?
Romance gets no R-E-S-P-E-C-T because of the S-E-X you find within its pages.
In order to understand why people in general are so uncomfortable with sex and its appearance in books, we have to look at how we as a society have been influenced, historically. Obviously, the easy answer is the Patriarchy, however there are other more subtle influences that fly under the radar and drive our moralistic ideals. These include the Puritans, the Victorians, and even third and fourth wave feminism. For reference—third/fourth wave feminism occurred between 1990 and 2012. It sought to take back power from patriarchal ideals and believed the media was responsible for transmitting ideas about womanhood, gender, and gender roles, as well as beauty and sexuality. Presently, in 2021, we are in what is considered fifth wave feminism-or post-fifth wave depending on the source.
Let’s begin with the Puritans. As a country that was founded by small groups of fervently religious men that stuck to strict moral codes, these attitudes and beliefs deeply affected how women and their bodies were perceived. Religious earnestness aside, the Puritans’ escape from religious persecution in England meant they could create their covenanted ideal in the U.S. Colonies. Those ideals included strict rules against masturbation, adultery, homosexuality, and fornication (or, you know, getting breathless behind the barn with the stable boy before either of you were married). Books produced in this era, such as The Scarlett Letter and Young Goodman Brown—both by Nathaniel Hawthorne—belong to a canon of literary fiction that was required reading for many of us during our school years. They portray women as sinful, hypersexual, and proclaim that women should feel shame for being sexual beings. In The Scarlett Letter, Hester Prynne is subjected to public scorn and shamed for her affair—and is forced to wear the letter A for adulterer on her clothing. How do you think this kind of information gets stored subconsciously in the young women who read this book in school? We’ll come back to that.
The Victorian Era is a whole spaghetti bowl of issues—and I’m definitely not a historian. However, as part of literary studies, you do have to look at historical influences within literature, so I’ll keep my very basic overview restricted to this framework. The Victorian Era examines the time in England where Queen Victoria’s far reaching influence shaped culture. Not to overstate the obvious—but Queen Victoria, of course, was a woman. The Victorian Era followed the Regency era—known for the advent of the ‘rake’ and sexual expression. It’s also the era where so many of the “bodice ripper” tomes are set. There is a host of reasons for Queen Victoria striking down her mighty hammer (or gracefully issuing her decrees atop a throne with a crown and scepter); I’ll save those implications for the actual historians. However, the result was that sex was purely for procreation, female consent wasn’t necessary, and female pleasure was not even a consideration. Remember the old adage “Close your eyes and think of England?” It’s since been debunked, however it shows you what the women of the Victorian Era were up against—and it wasn’t a wall with a rakish lord whispering dirty things in their ear while slowly lifting their skirts. Whoops! I guess I just can’t help myself . . . caught romancing again!
The Victorians also, most notably, created a double standard of sexual morality. Prostitution was outlawed—the act of selling sex, not the act of purchasing said sex. Doctors were allowed to force females to submit for inspection of suspected venereal diseases. And the Matrimonial Clause of 1857 allowed men to divorce without needing to state a cause, while women could only divorce in cases of adultery, if other factors such as abuse or incest were present. Aside from being suffocated with religion and morality, the Victorians also cleansed literature of sexual content to make it appropriate for women. A man by the name of Thomas Bowdler is one of the more well-known to do this. His subject of sexual cleansing? William Shakespeare.
They also produced women-shaming works such as Tess of D’Urbervilles, Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights. This era is noteworthy for a myriad of reasons. The first being that women in books produced by the Victorians separate women into angels and whores. Tess being a perfect example of this scenario. If you’ve never read this book—it would probably be considered the “dark romance” of its time. It wrecked me. But Tess, the virginal angel, gets destroyed by a lord and suddenly, through no fault of her own, is recategorized as a whore with no hope of redemption. The other three titles I mentioned above are technically our first romance novels—however literary fiction has claimed them for their own, despite each having a central romance and an HEA. But I digress. They introduced the Byronic male trope which I will address momentarily.
What you may not know is that these books, while reinforcing patriarchal attitudes towards women, sexuality, and conventions of marriage, are also deliciously feminist. While the Patriarchy was nodding its head at all the ways that these books strictly adhered to convention, they didn’t realize that they were also quite subversive. In the late 1970’s, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar wrote The Madwoman in the Attic. It has since become the cornerstone of feminist literary criticism. It examined Victorian romance novels through the lens of patriarchal suppression. Gilbert and Gubar discovered that women in Victorian novels fit into two categories: Angels and Monsters. This has since been adapted to angels and whores, meaning those who are essentially pure and virginal, and everyone else. They penned a theory called the Anxiety of Authorship. Aside from needing to take masculine names in order to publish (the Brontë sisters published under Currer, Acton, and Ellis Bell), they hid within their novels subtext and literary devices such as Eyre’s The Madwoman in the Attic. For those who may not remember Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre—she was said to be “mad,” locked away in the attic. Gilbert and Gubar believed this madwoman was a literary representation of suppressed sexuality. They further believed these early feminist writers were urging others to strive for autonomous self-definition and to move beyond society’s “angel and whore” definitions of what it meant to be a woman.
Incidentally, there is a group of writers who wake up in the morning (or perhaps click away very late into the evening) who say, “my character is scatterbrained but has a good heart.” She may not be experienced sexually but is willing to learn, she might have hang-ups about her thighs rubbing together or her muffin top but that doesn’t inhibit her from self-expression and believing she is deserving of love and a healthy outlet to express that love physically. Who does this?
Oh, that’s right! It’s romance writers.
Back in the day, it was generally accepted that novels were supposed to reflect true life at the time. However, because they were still works of fiction, there was fear that us silly, cotton-headed women might not be able to distinguish reality from fantasy and get caught up by some dumb ideas. So, the lovely Patriarchy only promoted books portraying traditionalist ideals, and proper female roles that reinforced a woman’s genteel femininity.
You could write (and literally thousands have) an entire novel on the influence of the Patriarchy throughout history. The Stamp Act of 1712 put a tax on all printed materials. This is a pretty significant point in history because it was a measure specifically enacted to ensure that undesirables did not have access to literature. And by undesirables, I mean women and the poor. The Stamp Act was shored up by the Window Tax, which a person had to pay if they had more than six windows in their house (thus eliminating free natural light in which to read by).
Women in the 18th and 19th centuries had limited education and experience when compared to men. Therefore, how could their novels be realistic? They weren’t educated, men derided them as being simple and of having low value. Their novel writing was looked at as a hobby and regarded as a “necessity of doing”—i.e. something to keep their hands busy so as not to be corrupted by the devil. Idle hands and all.
However, when the Stamp Act was repealed in 1885, these stories written by women began to create income for their households. This meant that they had literally written themselves into positions of authority, shared financial responsibility, and could have the power to leave if they chose. Educated men, unhappy with sharing the limelight, diminished and degraded books written by women, forcing them into a “those books” category. Calling these books fantasy, trashy, or suggesting that a certain caliber of women shouldn’t be indulging in them made women ashamed to read them. Sound familiar?
The second important piece of patriarchal influence examines the position of women in books written by men which are considered “great pieces of fiction.” Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, James Joyce, so many writers of important contributions to the literary canon, feature women as secondary characters. In these books, they are not the ones having the adventures but in need of rescuing, being sought after for comfort, nourishment, or advice. They’re the mother, the sassy friend, the bar maid, the other.
THE 1970S AND THE BIRTH OF THE MODERN-DAY ROMANCE NOVEL
1972 is considered the year the modern-day romance novel was born. The first to be “delivered” was The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss. Why is 1972 significant? At the time this novel was published so was another book that was considered scandalous: The Joy of Sex. In response to a book that taught women how to actively seek their own pleasure, Cosmo (of the Five Tips to Tickle his Pickle fame) shot this book down on the basis that women didn’t fantasize and essentially were not sexual creatures. They must have had tea with Queen Victoria.
The 70s were an interesting time. It was the advent of change for women in this country, and the recent generations don’t realize how scandalous things actually were then which we take for granted every day. It’s possible then that, with these generations impacted by things like being Mrs. David Jones on their credit card and needing said Mr. Jones to sign a permission slip to get that secretarial job, of course those people would be aghast at what is displayed between the covers of a romance novel.
Here are two facts that should make anyone scratch their head. We’re in the 21st century. Supposedly the glass ceiling has been broken, yet only 38% of New York Times reviews were on women’s books. Do you know what happens when a publication as venerated as the New York Times chooses to actively prefer male writers to female? It makes a statement about who they think their audience is and assumes they know what their audience reads. The New York Times is too highbrow to review romance. We already know, based on Maya Rodale’s survey, the answer to the “why.” It’s because romance must be stupid books for stupid readers.
Why it is that Nora Roberts, who is considered one of the most successful romance writers out there, with a Lifetime Achievement Award named after her, has only had two mentions in the New York Times in forty years? If you (or anyone you know) has been on TikTok or Instagram in the last few months, you’d know that Jennifer Armentrout’s Blood and Ash series is easily one of the most talked about. Book three in the series released in April and hit the USA Today Best Seller list as well as the Wall Street Journal. Do you know which newspaper chose not to feature it on their best seller list? The New York Times. Because they no longer acknowledge the sales of indie and small press authors in consideration of their best seller list. Do you know which industry has the most independent authors? I’m sure you can guess, but, just in case, it’s romance.
Here’s another fun fact for you. Go to Merriam Webster or Dictionary.com and ask the site to define ‘romance novel’. Spoiler alert. It can’t. But it does have a definition for Mommy Porn: romance novels. Urban Dictionary defines romance novels as literary porn. It’s almost as if someone is trying to control the narrative on a billion-dollar industry by shaming and deriding it . . . but let’s talk feminism. Fun fact, do you know who coined the phrase “Mommy Porn?” The New York Times.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
You’ll hear from the modern-day feminists that romance novels are poorly constructed drivel, Mommy Porn, and abuse described as romance. They argue that romance novels focus on dating and relationships which echo too similarly patriarchal ideals that a woman isn’t complete without a man.
We can’t talk about romance, Mommy Porn, or romanticized abuse without addressing the largest elephant in the room, Fifty Shades of Grey. We all know what the critics and the feminists say. Not every romance novel is Fifty Shades of Grey, and not every romance novel has the level of explicit sex that this one does. Is it poorly written? Sure, but there are poorly written mysteries, thrillers, and political dramas.
You may or may not know that Fifty Shades of Grey started as Twilight fan fiction. These books are Twilight with badly executed BDSM. I’m not a part of the BDSM community, but I write romance, so I know some people who are. Anyone who is part of this lifestyle will tell you, loudly, just how far off the mark EL James is.
Is it Mommy Porn? Sure. My question is, what’s wrong with that? Are we offended because women chose to read these books and found something in them that also encouraged them to embrace their sexuality and examine their own desire? By calling it Mommy Porn, aren’t we essentially slut shaming other women because they like or find pleasure in something we may not? What Fifty Shades of Grey did for women was give them an opportunity to create dialogue with their partners about exploration in the bedroom.
Do you know which other book had a banner sales year in 2013? Not of Fifty Shades of Grey numbers mind you, but the next highest best seller? Lean In. The book written by the COO of Facebook about gender disparity and how women need to work together to achieve their goals.
Interesting that they were both the top sellers of 2013, don’t you think?
Maybe the reason Fifty Shades of Grey was so popular is because women spend all day “leaning in,” and all night taking care of everyone else; by the time they get a few minutes to themselves, a story about a woman who is swept away into the fairytale life of a billionaire is the perfect way to squirrel an hour to themselves. Who wouldn’t want the fantasy of a man who spares no expense to woo her and makes never ending efforts to see to her pleasure every time they copulate? Plus, there’s another elephant in the room that you may not see. We as women have been groomed our entire lives to find men like Christian Grey: magnetic and attractive. Why you ask?
LORD BYRON AND THE BYRONIC HERO
Lord Byron was a British Romantic poet. His works were published just before the Victorian Era and influenced the literary tomes we previously discussed. Lord Byron is credited with the creation of the Romantic Hero, now named the Byronic hero in his honor. What is a Byronic hero? A Byronic hero is the extreme of the romantic heroes. They are defined by their rejection or questioning of standard social norm, their alienation from larger society, and their focus on self. They are not idealized heroes but rather imperfect and flawed ones who, despite their less than savory personalities, behave in a heroic manner.
Those of us who read Pride & Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights have been influenced to recognize these damaged heroes from around the eighth grade. But, where else in our society do we see examples of Byronic men? How about: James Dean, Edward Cullen, Iron Man, Beauty and the Beast (or scads of other Disney movies). Perhaps the reason that Fifty Shades of Grey resonated so strongly with women is because it was a trifecta, providing subconscious permission that it was okay to explore how they defined sexual expression, allowed them to escape into the adult version of a Princess for a Day mentality, and finally, because those women recognized the same type of tortured hero that we collectively have been exposed to our entire lives.
Those who throw shade at the romance industry tend to spout the same arguments: romance novels are all the same, they’re formulaic, they use low-level vocabulary and are of a lower quality. They don’t address the larger issues of life and are dependent on sex to drive the action of the story. These are laughable.
ROMANCE NOVELS AND THEIR BAD RAP
Those who think all romance novels are the same clearly haven’t ever shopped for a romance novel. There are so many sub-genres of romance that it would probably take me all day to list them, but here’s a few: Young Adult / New Adult, Cozy Mystery, Contemporary, Romantic Suspense. There are novels that don’t contain anything more explicit than kissing, novels that fade to black, and novels that have tie me up, tie me down, do me seven ways to Sunday.
Is romance formulaic? Sure. Spoiler alert: every story, regardless of how it is told, is formulaic. Google Harry Potter Star Wars Heroes Journey Comparison then tell me romance is the only genre that is formulaic. Are there low-quality romance novels? Sure. Did the explosion of indie authorship shine a giant light on this, given so many people (especially during the pandemic) have rushed to hit publish? Absolutely. But there’s also a lot of poorly written plays, speculative fiction, and mysteries. You can’t, in one fell swoop, say the entire genre is poorly written or uses low level vocabulary. Hell, there were words in Fifty Shades of Grey I had to google, and I have two master’s degrees!
To those who say romance doesn’t address larger life issues—this simply isn’t true. There are novels that address sex trafficking, abuse, prejudice, sexual harassment, income disparity. What I find empowering is that when tackling all of these issues, women are painted as survivors, overcomers, as the phoenix who rises above the cards life dealt her. They whisper to people who are experiencing or have experienced similar issues, you aren’t alone, you have this, keep pushing through. One day you’ll find your HEA too.
THE BODICE RIPPER, FABIO, AND HARLEQUIN
The Bodice Ripper
Remember when I talked about the 1970s, Cosmo, and The Joy of Sex? Maybe the reason that bodice rippers were the first romance novels on the scene and had such a lasting impact is because the female sexual experience wasn’t talked about. If the story focused on a whorish man, who’d drawn experience from being with so many women and knew how to touch and please her, being so excited that he couldn’t control himself long enough to unlace the bodice before having his rakish way with her, while making sure she’s along for the ride? Of course, the idea of an experienced rake would be exciting. Maybe the reason they were popular was because they allowed a woman to escape and imagine that they didn’t need to communicate their needs or wants to someone who may not have the same know how as said bodice-ripping rake with the turgid rod. If women weren’t talking about sex, chances are men weren’t either.
Fabio: the man with the windswept hair, defined pectorals, and oiled and tanned skin. He’s pretty unmistakable. Talk about great marketing and branding. As a professional marketer, I wish that I could have a single item associated with an entire brand and have that much of a lasting impression. Of course, he has appeared on over 400 romance novel covers, but his flowing hair and hulky body has such deep and lasting connection to romance that even those who have never read the genre immediately think of Fabio when they hear the words romance novel. However, he is also a really easy target for snark and scorn.
Remember that the 70s were an interesting time. Curiosity in sex and books about sex was still stigmatized as something to be ashamed of. Harlequin had the idea to bypass selling their stories at bookstores and chose to put them in places where women frequented: the grocery store. They made their books affordable so that women could sneak a new book within their grocery store budget at a price that wouldn’t be noticed. Presumably because their husbands wouldn’t condone such frivolity.
When Harlequin began launching their romance lines, they would offer them for free inside KOTEX boxes and as an add-on to purchasing Ajax and laundry detergent. While this was great for marketing and spreading the word, it also unintentionally reinforced the idea that romance novels were “dirty” or something that needed to be hidden in shame. Furthermore, offering romance novels at the grocery and drugs stores created unflattering stereotypes of the romance reader. Specifically considering Harlequin sells the bulk of their books within Walmart, they too fall victim to being roped in to similar stereotypes as “people of Walmart.”
Additionally, offering books at affordable prices has lumped them into impulse purchases and likened them to “cheap crap,” instead of acknowledging one thing that romance writers have always known. That we meet women where they are. By making them accessible and affordable, any woman who wants to escape into a good story about love—and possibly some smooching—can find them at the places that they frequent.
WHY YES VIRGINIA, ROMANCE NOVELS ARE FEMINIST
We know the rally cries. The battle of the sexes, the struggle for equality, our bodies, our choices—and I’m not saying they are wrong or don’t have their place. But maybe the reason that romance novels get a bad rap is because rather than focus on what separates or divides us, we demonstrate over and again that love is important, is needed, is valued. By creating stories that focus on a woman and her pleasure, independence, and choices, and how her life benefits from those choices, romance novels make the radical suggestion that women are capable creatures. They decide what they can do with their lives and reinforce that they can make their dreams a reality. If you ask me, that sounds like a pretty feminist notion.
The act of reading a romance novel is a feminist act. Third and fourth wave feminists may have had the wrong idea about romance novels. Heroines in romance novels are taking an active role in shaping their lives. Society isn’t telling romance novel characters they aren’t going to be loved until they’re thinner, live on the Upper West Side, or decide to finally take the leap and buy that cupcake shop they’ve always wanted. No. Heroines in romance novels live their lives according to their terms and negotiate a love life that works for them where they are. Romance novels may be one of the few places in our culture where women are seen enjoying sex, desiring a partner, and are shown feeling sexually satisfied. Every time. More often than not, multiple times. Sometimes a few times in a day. I mean . . . there is still a bit of fantasy in romance.
The very fact that romance novels are written by women, for women, discussing female-centric topics that empower women to explore their pleasure, is feminist to its very core. Romance novels portray life as women want it to be: recognized for our worth, rewarded for our confidence, and supported for our choices. They show a variety of heroines, not just blonde and pretty. Romance novel heroines can run the gamut of ages, sexual identities, sizes, and shapes. Isn’t that something to be celebrated?
Here’s the issue when women divide based upon old “angel” and “whore” ideals they’ve been groomed into believing since childhood. When we don’t talk about romance novels, women are loudly proclaiming that we should be seen and not heard. Maya Rodale surveyed romance readers and discovered that many of us pick up our first romance novel between the ages of 13 and 18. Many of us read them illicitly, which perpetuates the culture of stigma and shame. Given that romance novels are so feminine, snark against the romance genre is snark towards our own nature and sexuality. If romance novels are about women having adventures, making choices, and being self-accepting of their bodies as loving and pleasurable, what does it say to the next generation if we dismiss those novels?
HOW ROMANCE BECAME A BILLION DOLLAR INDUSTRY
Perhaps it’s easier to talk about Fabio, Bodice Rippers, and Mommy Porn than it is to acknowledge that the romance industry is a bold example of how a sisterhood of women can become successful when they work together. Romance didn’t wait for someone to give them permission to be given a voice. These writers wrote life as they saw fit for the women in their lives and have continued to adapt and expand as times have changed. They were the first industry to find success in the emergence of the Kindle and dominated in the digital world while other industries were still trying to figure out how to make the leap. Romance writers support each other and local businesses. Editors, cover designers, book bloggers, social media, PR companies and many more are made up of a network of businesses by women for women. Lastly, romance novels set the bar and continue to remain accessible—meeting women where they are. If you look on Amazon, you’ll see countless romance novels are priced below $4.99 with many at $0.99.
You may be considering counterarguments to show me how society, television, movies have changed and made women the central focus. And I’m not denying that. However, how many messages in society are women fed, prior to marriage, about finding someone to settle down with? Then, after marriage, messages about getting that baby machine up to snuff to start popping them out. After women have the babies and become Mommy or Mom, they start to lose their identity past their responsibilities. Then, we kind of forget about them. It’s as if once women stop being useful, they become invisible. Enter the romance novel, stage left.
Romance novels meet women where they’re at. Twenty and single, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, and beyond. They say, you’re not stupid, we get you, we understand your needs, motivations, thoughts, and ideas. You have a right to whatever fulfillment you seek. These books declare that women are worthy, their thoughts are valid, and they have the power to pursue their own happiness.
Do you know what is great about romance novels? The heroine is the central character of the book. She stands in the spotlight, as do her desires, her dreams. She asserts that she is worthy of a reader’s interest and attention, and that she is equal to the male hero as they walk together on a transformative journey. Hopefully we can recognize that romance novels are not the enemy. The central tenet of romance novels is the same one I’m hoping to advocate for here. That together we can overcome adversity, no matter the issue. We’re all women. We all rise together.