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"...romance as a pop-culture entity–fucked me up pretty severely." - Romance Is Damaging?

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.

29 Comments »


  • Shiloh
    June 7
    12:37 pm

    Kick us in the teeth? Oh, please. Try.

    Yes, she comes off as smug…and anti feminist. I’m sorry her life has been rough, sorry things screwed her up. But that’s not a genre’s fault.

    True feminism? Yes, to me, it’s about choice… Not just MY choices, but respecting the choices of my fellow women, too.

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  • Las
    June 7
    1:07 pm

    I haven’t read the original article yet, but this:

    “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.”

    If it took reading romance for her to feel othered, then she’s lived a very charmed life. I can guarantee that most minorities have gotten this message without ever having picked up a romance. I have no problems calling out romance on it’s lack of diversity, but that’s a problem that’s reflective of society overall.

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  • willaful
    June 7
    1:19 pm

    “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. ”

    Yes, the bit about romance being all about catching a man was very odd. Romance is about people finding each other, something the vast majority of us — female or male, gay or straight — want to do. So what, do those of us who enjoy m/m read it because it’s about catching two men?

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  • JoanneF
    June 7
    1:24 pm

    That column came from quite a blog. Seems they don’t like anything caucasian or hetero at all, and FU if you disagree. You don’t enjoy reading F/F? It’s because of your internalized homophobia. Not bigoted at all.

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  • Jeannie S.
    June 7
    1:44 pm

    You’re reply was spot on – you said everything I was feeling and thinking but soooo much better! (I guess that is why you have a blog and I just like to comment now and then).

    My own personal complaints of those left out of romance is those with disabilities. Yes, you can find them, and good ones too, but most h/h are as close to perfect as you can get. And God forbid they not be of amazing intelligence. You mention Glee (a show I love too) and one of the things that did bother me was one of the first episodes where Kirk tells Mercedes that they are “lower than the kids in Special Education”. That remark went right through me. Why is prejudiced remarks allowed about that segment of society? Anyone else (Asian, AA, etc.) substituted in that statement and there would have been a huge outcry. But it got a free pass….I still love the show and won’t stop watching anytime soon, but I have not forgotten that remark that was supposed to pass as comedy.

    You are not going to please everyone, and if she feels that segment of society is under-represented, then she could find a way to fill that niche. I am not going to justify the kind of romance I like, and I don’t want to read m/m or f/f romances. But if that’s what she wants to read, they are out there, and very accessible in this day and age.

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  • willaful
    June 7
    2:03 pm

    @Jeannie S.: I hear you. When you have a child with special needs, your day is filled with little stings

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  • Jeannie S.
    June 7
    2:38 pm

    @willaful – It’s been bugging me a lot lately. And there is always going to be someone who feels left out and not represented well. Reading is such a personal experience – I would never have my husband pick out my books because he will never get it right, I know what appeals to me. I am never going to read gay or lesbian romance, and I will also never read certain historicals or western romances. They just don’t interest me. But other people love them and they are out there. I’m just not going to be one of them.

    There are more options for everyone’s particular interest in reading than ever before. With online shopping, anything you want to read about is only a click away. Who would have though a book by an unknown author about romance and BDSM would ever have been popular even just a few years ago? Romance books have definitely evolved from the 70’s.

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  • @Jeannie S.: jeannie, she really wasn’t interested in any other point of view.

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  • Las
    June 7
    3:31 pm

    Okay, I read it. I actually agree with most of it. That last paragraph especially is right on.

    The whole “Is Romance feminist?” argument…I’m not crazy about it one way or another. Sure, the fact that it’s women writing for women is definitely feminist in and of itself (though the intersectionality concerns are legitimate), but to argue that for that reason Romance is always feminist because it’s about “choice” strikes me as disingenuous. I love Romance, it’s my favorite genre of fiction, but if I were to critic every book through a feminist perspective most of them would be highly problematic. And that’s okay! Our tastes in books (and other media) alone doesn’t say anything about our values and ethics, and I think that a lot of the insistence that Romance is always feminist and any claims to the contrary are invalid are often about people feeling the need to justify their reading preferences. “I’m a feminist. I like Romance. Therefore, Romance must be feminist.”

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  • @Las: I agreed with her on a lot of her points, including the bit about romance being categorically feminist, but she didn’t allow for any other point of view, and our subsequent Twitter debate cemented my feeling that she was just another Anne Somerville. At times making a lot of sense, but ultimately throwing out the baby with the bath water.

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  • willaful
    June 7
    3:51 pm

    @Las: Totally agree. What I don’t get is quoting all those fluff theories and then blaming them on websites who didn’t say them.

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  • Jenns
    June 7
    4:39 pm

    It’s odd, but I’ve recently noticed a few ‘reviews’ (read: rants) popping up on places like Goodreads pretty much summing up romance novels as The Enemy of Feminism and Bad for women, because they’re giving us Unrealistic Expectations and Wrong Ideas. Really? Are we back on this again? And just how much respect for our fellow woman does doubting our ability to separate fiction and reality show?

    Great response, Karen.

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  • Las
    June 7
    4:57 pm

    @Jenns: Don’t you just love the irony, though? People complaining about anti-feminist romance novels are insisting that grown women must be told what to read so they don’t get the wrong idea. Paternalistic much?

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  • Smart Las makes smart point. ;)

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  • Beverly
    June 7
    5:38 pm

    That woman is so far up her own ass she doesn’t see anything else anymore. Sadly, she is the perfect example of why many, many people see lesbians as man-hating and why young women say they aren’t feminists. She is a negative example if I’ve ever seen one, who wants to assert herself as a positive one.

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  • amousie
    June 7
    6:01 pm

    Karen, I liked your post even though I didn’t read the original rant because I just couldn’t get through the rant.

    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.

    Not to pick on Dear Author, but I really have to ask why Dear Author can’t find a reviewer whose voice fits in with theirs to review African American romances.

    I know you can’t answer that question, but it seems to me that they are reviewing fantasy, young adult, m/m, even non-romance, so why not add another reviewer who specializes in African American and maybe even one who specializes in finding that ‘different’ book many of their reviewers claim to want in their op-ed pieces/comments.

    Off the top of my head, I’d say Mrs. Giggles reviews the most African American romances for so-called ‘mainstream’ blogs or if you want professional site something like RT Book Reviews.

    Most reviews don’t have a lot of comments (and Mrs. Giggles has said in the past that her AA reviews are the least viewed) but if a site is going to promote diversity and wanting ‘different’ romances as part of their platform then maybe, just maybe, they should lead by example. (I notice more Asian leads reviewed there which is all to the good.)

    On the other hand, I read the reviews on this site and thoroughly enjoy them (miss yours immensely), but I can’t help but notice there’s not a lot of diversity here either.

    I know we read what we read but couldn’t a reviewer on this site make an effort to review at least one AA romance say once every 4-6 weeks or something? Or add someone like Rosalyn to the reviewer list? Or start a TBR challenge? Or something?

    Maybe instead of writing that rant, the original poster should done a direct challenge like SB Sarah did to Doc Turtle on his uninformed comments about romance. Doc Turtle rose to the challenge. His posts about the romance novels SB Sarah sent to him are really fun, insightful and he treated the challenge with respect.

    If we want to see more diversity, (perhaps that’s a big IF), then maybe we need to issue some challenges to ourselves and these mainstream sites.

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  • @amousie: Trust me, I’ve already tried to get someone in just to do AA romance but so far, nothing. And in all honesty, the last couple of AA books I’ve read have been meh, or just too bad to even bother reviewing.

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  • I’ve been looking for ‘em, but don’t see them much on nG and am a little hesitant about investing in a genre/authors I don’t know yet. And of course I’m white, and would feel weird taking on the mantle of AA reviewer. I do have an interracial romance review coming up shortly.

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  • I just went and had another look through netGalley. If there are any AA romance, they’re well hidden.

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  • Jane
    June 7
    11:16 pm

    @amousie: There is no question that DA can do a better job of seeking out diverse romances. Often we are a product of our own laziness. In other words, we get books delivered to us often enough that we don’t need to seek out books to read. In romance fiction, there is little diversity outside Kimani, Dafina, Genesis Press, with some smattering of interracial romances from small digital first publishers. Unfortunately other than Maureen Smith and Ann Christopher, my reading tastes aren’t well fed by Kimani. Dafina seems to be largely urban fiction, a trope that doesn’t interest me and isn’t particularly romance focused.

    Part of the problem of reviewing multicultural fiction is actually finding the content.

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  • Lynnd
    June 7
    11:55 pm

    @Beverly: It’s not only the young women – those of us in our mid to late 40s were inundated with this radical view of feminism when we were in university in the late 80s and early 90s. Among the theories being espoused by the feminist movement in the late 80s and early 90s was that all heterosexual sex was rape and that heterosexual women were hurting the cause because we wanted to have relationships with men. The women who espoused these views were completely rigid and closed-minded in their views and actively berated any women who did not agree with their positions. These radical and rigid view of feminism became the defining voice of the movement and it completely alienated many of us from the “feminist movement” even though we believed in and fought for freedom of choice (in all senses of “choice”) and equal opportunity for all. Ultimately, this radical feminism led to the demise of the organized (and funded) feminist movement because most heterosexual women were made to feel unwelcome. This has resulted in there being very little organized opposition to the attacks on women’s rights which are happening in the U.S. and Canada today. I am never going to say that all (or even most) romance novels are “feminist” (although some certainly do have feminist underpinnings); however, they do reflect the experiences and desires of many women to have a loving relationship with someone who enriches their lives. It saddens me that these radical voices are continuing to alienate younger women because it is today’s young women who will be the most adversely affected by the attacks on women’s rights today.

    I, for one, would like to see much more diversity in characters and cultures represented in romance, and that may happen as smaller presses and self-publishing becomes more prevalent (and more non-white English-speakers become a more important part of the market).

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  • Meri
    June 8
    6:14 am

    Your brand of feminism is the one I agree with: it’s about choices, not about restrictions; that those restrictions might come from other women doesn’t make them any more feminist, IMO.

    As for the blogger, it’s funny how many of the things she accuses others of are so obvious in her own writing and behavior.

    Somewhat OT, isn’t there always a comment about how Reading the Romance is super helpful in understanding how damaging romance is? Here, we have this winner: “It’s amazing just how formulaic and man-centric all romance novels are. No matter how much the superficial details vary, they’re all the same, and they’re basically fairy tales that teach the same lesson over and over again: submission to the patriarchy will be rewarded with happiness and fulfillment. Which, of course, is not true, and so reading one romance novel incites the desire to read another one as soon as you’ve finished, like an addiction.”

    Yes, a 30 year old analysis is 100% reflective of the romance genre and reader experiences today. :rolleyes: I believe Radway herself later cautioned against generalizing based on her small, unrepresentative sample.

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  • Mermarie
    June 9
    1:54 pm

    I found this site by accident, but brava. I liked your article and response.

    About your comments in reference to romance being detrimental and cancerous to women, and that it’s conveying the wrong message, etc—isn’t it ironic, that what they are saying, is what men said in history, who were intent on controlling women? It does not seem to make it less controlling, or misogynist, because a WOMAN is now determining what is best for us.

    This is why I took a major step back from the feminist movement, and shrugged myself from it entirely. It appears that feminism today, isn’t really about choice, it’s about control and power. I much rather prefer equality.

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  • Shay in NZ
    June 13
    5:54 am

    Karen, first time commenting although long time reader. Your response was so eloquent but clearly not welcome. Agree with everything Beverly said. Feel like I need to wipe my monitor clean after reading that nasty blast of negativity and rudeness from Requires Only That You Hate (the blog name kinda says it all I guess) .

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  • Anon 76
    June 13
    6:16 am

    I’ve mulled on this post for a while and here is my bottom line. A good romance to me involves exactly that, the Romance.

    I don’t give a rat’s butt whether the players are black/white/asian/latino on and on, nor their sexual prefercences as to hetero or any other term. Nor who saves who.

    Through all the trials and tribulations, convince me these two people have it going on and belong together, and I’m all there.

    Simple, really.

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  • Anon 76
    June 13
    6:19 am

    And I didn’t mean simple in that’s an easy thing to write. It’s difficult. Just simple in what I want from a Romance.

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  • @Shay in NZ: Hi Shay, RRRJessica drew my attention to the post, she didn’t write it:)

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  • Shay in NZ
    June 14
    12:05 am

    yeah sorry, I edited my comment after realising that. However, finding RRRJessica was a bonus to come out of this: )

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  • @Lynnd, i’m in my late forties and I remember that crap from my one, and only Women Studies class. It was like I’d been dropped off into Bizarro World. I ran from feminism as fast as my shaved legs and brightly painted toes could carry me. I didn’t come back until I started reading authors like bell hooks and her concept of “beloved community. ” Through her I found feminism that resonated with me.

    I hesitate to say this, but I think this whole notion of heteronormality being bad has gone too far. I stopped reading reading the Racialicious blog when someone posted an article pointing out the heteronormality of the movie, Wall-E. uh, what again? They’re robots. To me that was almost as crazy as Jerry Falwell’s “Tinky Winky is Gay,” rant. The majority of the people on this planet are hetero, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just as there’s nothing wrong with the fact that some of us are not.

    I’ve been reading romance since I was nine years old. I started out reading Barbara Cartland. I read those books as fast as I could pick them up at the UBS. Yet despite being deeply immersed in hose books, I never expected the Marquis of Hellhound to sweep me off my feet into his high-stepping phaeton. I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone wouldn’t know fiction from reality.

    Romance probably had more to do with my feminist leanings than anything I encountered in my small Alabama town. Through romance I met all kinds of smart savvy women who fought to overcome adversity. I met female pirates, and marine biologists and doctors and detectives. I met women gemologists and geologists who traveled to far off lands to do cool stuff.

    Romance also showed me relationships far outside what I saw in my small working class community. I lived with sexism and oppression every day. It wasn’t some esoteric theory to me, and certainly, to the degree that women were treated a damn sight better in the books I read, those books showed me that I could aspire to better than the women around me had.

    I write romance now and it is a career that has allowed me the flexibility of raising my children while still embracing a career I love. What could possibly be more feminist than that? Romance is filled with women doing the same. Women-owned businesses providing employment and support for other women. Romance is a thriving industry run by and mostly benefitting women. How many other industries can you say that about?

    I love romance, and as a black woman I definitely look forward to the day when it is more inclusive. I see cracks forming already, and believe strongly that it is getting better.

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