We in Romancelandia make a lot of the idea our genre is somehow singular, special. ‘By women, for women’ (which has rightly been pointed out as excluding the men, non-binary and trans people who write and/or read romance but for now I’ll use the phrase to illustrate a point if you bear with me) is a term used as a badge of pride in a way. In a world run almost exclusively by men, where they set the rules and dole out reward and punishment according to their needs and desires, here is a place where we turn things around. A place where women get to decide what gets written and published. Where women can build a career writing books even if they are raising children and maintaining a home. Where female centric stories are the norm. Where female characters can have a career and love too. Where they can be detectives or spies, bakers or homemakers, witches or demons, lawyers, doctors or wedding planners, and where their story is the one that gets told. They aren’t relegated to the role of sidekick or love interest or worse, the bimbo, as they often are in pop culture. They get an interesting inner and outer life, and love too – often including awesome sex where their needs are prioritised.
I mean, this sounds (and is) terrific for women. Romance has long been a vital safe space where they can explore their fantasies, escape reality and reinforce their belief that love will conquer all. Let’s face it, without that belief, where would we be as a species? We’d all be nihilists. It’s hard not to be in the current climate, so any method by which people can hang onto their optimism, their hope, has got to be good, right?
Yes, it is good. Love is good, and romance novels centre love. Yet, we do not exist outside reality. Our world, our little bubble, sits smack bang in the middle of it. I think sometimes we are so deep in the bubble that we don’t see we are still surrounded by everything that drove us to seek safety in the first place.
For example, rape culture.
Everyone lives within rape culture, even romance novelists. Holding onto the idea that romance as a genre is somehow set apart from, hence immune to the influence of, rape culture is not only incorrect, it stops us from examining what is really going on. Everything we write, as hard as we might try to make it otherwise, is written under the influence of the world we live in, and as such it needs to be examined with as much critical focus as anything else. We cannot self-examine effectively if we are constantly in defensive mode, because defensiveness is a type of deflection. Instead of listening when someone has a criticism of our genre, we are so busy being offended and protective of our bubble that we don’t hear any value in that criticism. We refuse to.
I know, I know. How can we not be defensive? We’ve been defending our choice to read and write romance our entire careers – or our entire lives. The first time I had to defend my choice to read a romance I was fifteen, and the people sneering at my book were my closest friends. That hurt. And each subsequent attack hurts a little bit more, because it’s like opening the same wound, over and over again. We are wearing our armour at all times, ready to fight off these attacks. They come thick and fast, and most often from people outside the genre who don’t understand it and don’t make a modicum of effort to try. They shortcut to jokes and insults because something in the world has taught them that romance is ripe for ridicule. It is (largely) for women, by women, so it must be silly, because women are silly. It’s exhausting fighting this fight and many of us have zero fucks left to give what middle-aged men or sniping opportunists say about us. We’re all so ready (rightly in most cases) to shout FUCK YOU that we do it at the first sign someone isn’t one-hundred percent on board with what we’re all about.
The problem with that is sometimes there are nuggets of value to be found in a well thought out thoroughly researched critique from people with skin in the game, and in our defensiveness, we ignore that nugget. Or worse we attack the person delivering the critique. I’m not talking about blanket, ignorant criticism that comes from a place of misogyny. I’m talking about a writer or an editor or long time reader or blogger, who has something weighty and important to say about how our genre is not perfect.
Because it’s not, is it?
Do we think the popularity of stalker heroes just popped up outta nowhere? Don’t understand why anyone reads that stuff! #notmygenre
Can we ignore the fact that many rapey sex scenes have been written by romance novelists – by women? (and I’m not just talking about the Flame and the Flower, these are recent books that are SELLING WELL).
Can we not admit that some books, sometimes some of our own work, can be problematic?
Shouldn’t we try to understand why the alphahole still outsells the nice-guy beta hero?
Do we not see, that even in our bubble, we can unintentionally hurt each other with our own internalised misogyny?
Shouldn’t we talk about that? Shouldn’t we be talking about all of this?
I for one know there are things I’ve written that, looking back, were just ridiculous. The first menage I wrote was a book called Chasing Sunset, where the hero decides to surprise his girlfriend with a threeway for their anniversary.
I mean, what the fuck? Nobody wants to be surprised by that. It should have been discussed first, and carefully considered along with all the potential ramifications. So why did I write it like that? 1) I told myself “it’s fantasy, it doesn’t matter how they get to bed, readers are more interested in what happens when they get there” 2) There was dramatic effect to consider – long drawn out discussions about their relationship were better placed after the initial action, or people were going to fall asleep in chapter one 3) Internalised misogyny. Yep. I kinda wanted to make the menage Sidney’s (the heroine’s) idea, but I knew a woman engineering her own threesome with lusty premeditation would be considered by some readers, and maybe even myself, as hella slutty. And if you don’t think readers will slut shame your heroine and subsequently one star your book, you must never have visited amazon.com. In 2009, I was still afraid of people saying teeeerrrrible thiiiings about meeeee, so I made the menage her boyfriend’s idea and gave Sidney a pass on responsibility for it. She could be swept away by the moment – because she was surprised, as idiotic as that plot point is – and in so doing be excused for her (slutty) actions.
I’ve written scenes where the hero kisses the heroine without asking, where a response is ‘forced’ from her as though she is reluctant to admit to her own desire. Women are punished for feeling desire in the real world, so that translates over to what I write. It would be naive for me to deny it didn’t affect how I structure a story. I mean, I have far fewer problematic scenes in the books I wrote in the latter part of my career than in the first few years, because I changed as my understanding of my environment changed. As I understood internalised misogyny, I started to try harder to write in a way that didn’t give it oxygen. I’ve had to read a lot of feminist books and articles to get there, though, and I have to be vigilant about it. I’ve had an editor comment on a scene I wrote “wait a sec, this feels non-consensual” and I’ve had to go, WOAH. How does this shit still slip through? What if I hadn’t had this awesome editor who pointed out when I fucked up?
I’d have published more scenes that, in hindsight, would have made me squirm, not in the good way.
I know I’m not alone in looking back on my career and feeling a little chagrined to say the least at some of the lines I’ve had heroes utter – or cross. I and two fellow long-published romance authors spoke to this very thing at a writer’s festival last year. We should be able to speak about this discomfort openly with other writers and readers without fear of inciting outrage. We should be able to give our opinion, from our place of long experience and knowledge, in any form we see fit. We should be able to use the word ‘rape’ when we are trying to understand our place in rape culture. We should be able to name what we are dealing with, because skirting around it keeps us stuck in the same place.
Romance is a part of rape culture because we, the women who create, publish and read romance novels, are part of it. We may inadvertently prop it up in ways we do not yet understand. The goal should be to identify the ways in which we do this, not shame people for admitting to their own mistakes, and asking us to face up to our own.
If we don’t face up to our faults, we don’t grow. Let’s not get bogged down in the way things are said/quoted/misquoted/edited after the fact and consider the content of what is being said.
We are part of rape culture. Let’s talk about how we can dismantle it, rather than policing how others with a shared interest in achieving that aim should comport themselves.