How many times have you been scanning through the internet and come across yet another article bashing romance novels? It seems like all you have to do to make headlines these days is string some semi-understandable words together about how silly, trashy, unrealistic--insert more derogatory words here--romance novels are. Maybe you've even seen the newest trend of relating romance novels to the anti-feminist agenda. Great. Romance novels are constantly under attack and there seems to be no end in sight.
But why? What makes romance novels the ideal target? Why do people who've likely never even picked up a romance novel or whose only idea of romance novels comes from the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey feel the need to defend the world from a genre they don't understand? Who said the world needs to be protected from happily-ever-afters and who elected these writers the official judges of the book world?
Okay. In the interest of being fair, sure, not all romance novels are "feminist", but in a world where anyone can write a book and get it published can you really expect all books to meet the same criteria? And hell, do I always read "feminist" romance? No. Sometimes I'm in the mood for some wildly inappropriate erotica that crosses a shit ton of boundaries--but I also read fictional crime novels where people slaughter others in gruesome and terrible ways (and some of those victims are women). But are we calling all genres as a whole anti-feminist because of a small percentage of books in a genre? Of course not.
When the romance genre really took off in the 80's and 90's most romance novels featured women who could bring even the strongest man to their knees with love and desire, but still the women often found themselves having to give up their independence or choose between their careers and their love. People often bring up these romance novels as examples of the anti-feminism that is "so rampant in romance novels", but the truth is that those romance novels are, for the most part, a thing of the past.
Today, romance novels are exceptionally feminist. Female authors write books featuring strong, powerful, independent heroines. These female characters have careers they love, they have thoughts and opinions, they refuse to rearrange their lives for men, they--and their creators--are shining examples of feminism. So what's anti-feminist about all that? Is it that the women, despite all their successes, still want a man at the end of the rainbow? Does wanting love from the opposite sex make a woman any less of a feminist? Absolutely not-- or the only feminists allowed in the world would be single women.
Modern romance novels focus on issues of consent, work-life balance, gender roles, and societal expectations for women. In traditional hero/heroine romance novels the men treat their women as equals (or quickly learn the downfalls of not doing so) and accept their heroines for the powerful forces that they are. Romance novels help heroines--and female readers--explore their sexuality and encourage them to become partners in their own pleasure instead of bystanders waiting to be given an orgasm by their man.
More and more books featuring LGBTQ+ characters are coming to the forefront. Wonderfully, BDSM novelists, especially post-50, are working hard to correct the untruths of their hidden world. The genre is branching out and shows no signs of limiting itself to traditional relationships. They are exposing readers to new types of relationships and ways to connect with other humans.
One of the main criticisms of romance novels is that they give romance readers unrealistic expectations of relationships. I don't think any woman out there reads a romance novel and then refuses to settle for anything less than a buff man who just needs a woman in his life to turn his frown upside down. No. But they do teach us to seek out men who respect women, men who want a partnership, not ownership, and men who have no problem with independent women with brains. I can think of nothing more anti-feminist than accusing women of not knowing the difference between fiction and reality.
Romance novels are a (slightly over) one billion dollar industry, equaling more than one-third of all fiction book sales and readers of the genre read way more books per year than the average American. We are a powerful force and those wishing to pass judgement should think twice about taking us on.