Posted in: AA romance, Adventures with Blog people, Homophobia in Romance?, Racism in romance, romance is bad for women and it's just porn anyway
Tags:feminism, homophobia in romance, Racism in romance
I saw this post courtesy of RRRJessica this morning, and I have to say, it gave me food for thought, as well as pissed me off a tad. There’s nothing I hate more than people who bang on about feminism, whilst trying to minimise my right to choose.
The blogger writes:
…I’ve been reading Dear Author. This is my Big Chance granted to the romance genre: I wanted to see if my prejudices against it were unfounded. While I don’t have exact statistics to wave in anyone’s face, I think it’s no distortion of the truth to point out that most of the content discussed and reviewed on Dear Author is a matter strictly white and middle-class and western–American mostly, with a daub here and there of the Irish or Scottish to liven things with a little exotica; sometimes books about characters of color will be reviewed, but those are overwhelmingly books written by white people. A limited, vanishingly small quantity of lesbian material is reviewed once in a blue moon (the latest under this tag? May 2011). M/M is reviewed now and again, but only those with reality distortion fields on will insist M/M as a genre is about the advocacy of gay rights.
I imagine a lot of us grew up internalizing homophobia to hell and back. I imagine a lot of us didn’t even know we were in the closet, because it’s easy to believe you are straight when everyone is straight and tells you it’s the normal thing to be. Haruka and Michiru weren’t enough to combat everything else; neither were Anthy and Utena. I thought yuri manga was dirty (although, to be sure, I was also repulsed by yaoi) and I avoided it like the plague.
So, I don’t know about other queer women, but to me the prevalence of romance–not as a genre by itself, but romance as a pop-culture entity–fucked me up pretty severely. I didn’t grow up on romance exactly, but I did consume my share of shoujo manga. I consumed my share, later, of urban fantasy. You and I know this shit is everywhere. The heteronormative hegemony. The automatic recoiling at any mention of the gay. It’s not to be pinned onto any one genre, any one category, anyone form of media.
But if you’re telling me that romance is categorically feminist, you’re contributing to this large damage in an insidious, silencing way. The proponents of romance-is-feminist school of thought like to pass such fiction off as inherently progressive because it is written mostly by women and targets women as an audience: it pushes the idea that reading these books is liberating and sex-positive and, what’s more, reading them is good for you. Because feminism! Liberation from the yoke of repression and sexual dissatisfaction!
Tell me this and I’ll kick you in the fucking teeth.
Yes, romance presents possibilities: as long as those possibilities involve finding a man. Yes, romance explores and depicts female desire: as long as that is a desire to have a cock shoved into your orifices. Yes, romance is about the “everywoman” whom we can all identify with as long as you can identify with a straight white woman from the first world. It reinforces the hegemony of what is normal, and what’s normal is straight sex, straight female desire, centering your life around the fantasy man, and being culturally rooted in the west. Romance enforces the hegemony of ethnocentricism, heteronormativity, and cultural imperialism.
She wrote a lot more, and there was a lot to consider in her post, some things I even agreed with, but I do so hate people telling me that what I read is responsible for the way I feel about myself.
Anyway, I posted a comment over on her site, but it’s in moderation, so just in case, she chooses to not let it be seen, here’s my response in its entirety:
Firstly, let me talk about the parts of your post that I did agree with:
There aren’t enough mainstream sites that regularly review books with non-white protagonists, but Dear Author certainly isn’t alone in this. At least they sometimes throw a bone at the AA authored books, unlike, All About Romance, one of the oldest romance review sites in Blogland.
I’ve had an issue with the lack of representation and general discourse when it comes to such books. Once upon a time when I thought I could be the revolution that I seek, I tried to address the issues of racism in romance. Of course I’m aware that racism does exist within the romance genre – the only people who don’t know it, are the people who’s reason for not reading books with black protagonists range from ‘I don’t identify with the characters’ to ‘these books aren’t written for women like myself’. Of course these are probably the same women who gobble up books about a young white girl being fought over by a vampire and a werewolf.
I also agree that the face of fantasy is racist, homophobic and sexist, and fattist.
I was watching Glee the other day, and as progressive as I consider that show to be, its progressiveness almost highlights the fact that Hollywood powers that be, are still reluctant to show a plus-sized black girl kissing a white blonde-haired boy, or a guy fully kissing another guy. You could almost feel the discomfort levels when Mercedes puckered up for Sam, (and basically air-kissed him) from my tiny town in England.
Romance novels are very much the same. The books that are gobbled up by the masses, usually feature a conventionally pretty white woman in a clinch with a conventionally handsome white man. Even books featuring plus sized women are subject to fat-washing on the front cover. The book may describe the heroine as ‘rubenesque’, but the cover still screams ‘thin woman’.
So yes, I do agree with your assertion that western fantasy has a face that is generally exclusive, and very limited.
Now, let’s address your irritation with the claim that romance is categorically feminist. “Categorically feminist”? No, of course it isn’t, however the fact is, romance is a genre written by women for other women, and that’s a good thing I think. Funnily enough, it’s the one thing as women we can at least lay claim to in a world dominated by ‘the man’.
I understand that people see things through their own particular filters and their own prejudices, I know I do, and by the tone of the post, I know that you certainly do.
Is it unfair that mainstream sites don’t promote ‘black books’ enough? As a black woman, I definitely say yes, of course it is. Is it unfair that sites like Dear Author rarely review lesbian books? As a (presumably) gay woman, you would say the same as I. But the fact is, you and I are in the minority here. The books that we’d like to see more of are considered to be niche reading, which is ridiculously unfair, but unless a significant number of people start reading and talking about them, that status quo will remain for a while longer.
You rage against those who believe that romance is inherently progressive and liberating, and you assert that this is only true if you’re white and straight. My response to that would be, doesn’t it depend on the romance book that you choose to read? As a straight black woman, I’ve read plenty of books that I felt were progressive in the context of romance or at least my perception of what I believe romance to be.
For instance, I wouldn’t dream of picking up a romance book where the main protagonists were lesbians. I feel the same about MM romance, it’s just not my cuppa. Now does this make me a homophobe? I don’t particularly think so, but you may disagree.
I’m also generally allergic to books that feature women as submissives. The concept that women retain power by being flogged or whipped isn’t one that I can readily buy into. Does this mean that I’m anti people who live – for want of a better phrase – an alternative lifestyles? Not at all, but once again, you may disagree.
Funnily enough, you cite Dear Author, Smart Bitches and Nora Roberts as the face of romance. What about writing about how great authors like Brenda Jackson, Donna Hill, and Beverly Jenkins are? Personally I don’t consider any of the above to be the face of romance – an integral part perhaps, but not the face. But then again, I’m currently an avid romance reader, so my perspective may be a bit broader than yours.
I think you consider yourself a bastion of feminism, but actually I think that your rant is the opposite of feminist. To me, feminism is really about choice. It’s about being allowed to read and write whatever genre you want to, without recrimination and finger wagging from people screeching about how your mind should be more open.
You say that romance books have helped otherise you, because they basically told you that in order to live a happy life, you had to be white and straight. I have to call bullshit on that I’m afraid. At eleven years old, I read romance books, and recognised them for what they were, enjoyable works of fiction that helped me escape into other worlds for brief periods of time. I don’t hold them responsible for the way I think, or the way I see myself.
The majority of books that I read as an eleven year old featured people with a different skin colour to myself, but that didn’t mean that I considered myself unlovable because I was black. Luckily for me, my life education came from my parents, rather than my Mills & Boon books.
Just as reading Flowers In The Attic didn’t make me look at my brother in a sexual way, reading romance books didn’t make me hate the fact that I was black.
As for the suggestion (within the comments) that romance books promote the idea that in order to be a complete person, you have to have a man in your life, I must admit, I don’t know what you’re talking about. A romance book usually features a minimum of two people, and it’s usually about these people falling in love. That may be a little simplistic, but that doesn’t stop if from being the truth.
I don’t have an issue with people stating that they are as happy alone as they are with a partner, be it a man or woman, however my personal opinion is that I’m happier being with my husband, than I am being alone. Does this make me anti-feminist in your eyes? I watch enough animal kingdom programmes to know that seeking a life partner is a natural thing, and doesn’t demean me or lessen my worth as a woman. I think there’s a power in acknowledging that no woman is an island.
Of course it would be fantastic if the majority of romance readers and writers were prepared to step outside of their comfort zones for more than a millisecond, but unfortunately the ideal world that you speak of doesn’t exist. Not yet. And the fact is, it may never come to bear, however I know that the romance books that I read at the age of 11, and the books that are available to me now have progressed a huge amount. And yes, some of the books that I have read, I believe, very much contribute to a positive feminist agenda. No of course they aren’t “categorically feminist”, and anybody who says otherwise is in great denial, but they’re certainly not the anti-women cauldrons of misogyny and self-hate that you state they are, as if it were an inarguable fact.
There’s a certain smugness in your post and within the follow-up comments that I think taints the legitimacy of your beef. The obligatory ‘Look at me, I’m too intelligent to enjoy romance books’ comments aren’t new, but I’m always disappointed that the people who seem to espouse these views the most, are usually the women who shout about feminism the loudest.
In my opinion, true feminism isn’t about deriding heterosexual white women because their fantasies don’t include non-white heroes, gay men, or lesbian women. True feminism to me, is about acknowledging that actually women have the right to choose, and seeks to elevate the cause, rather than demonising the dominant population.
I think it’s important to have these discussions, and yes, I want to see change, however I understand that in order to engender change, I have to not just shout about it, but be proactive in my zeal to change the status quo.
Historically, minorities have always had to fight so much harder than the dominant population, this isn’t going to change any time soon, but history also tells us that some of these minorities have also been fundamental in starting the wheels of change a-rollin’. Wagging your fingers at the people who choose to embrace a particular facet of romance is counter-productive in my opinion. If you want more people to read and write the type of romance that you feel would be fully exclusive, then why don’t you proactively be the change that you seek?
Yes, food for thought indeed.