A million bosomy pieces
March 20, 2015 4:36 PM   Subscribe

And so, while romance is often treated as a static genre, I prefer to think of it as a sprawling, decades-long intergenerational discussion (sometimes polite, sometimes a bare-knuckle brawl) among women about what constitutes love, how one finds a partner that's worth putting up with the occasional tantrums and dirty socks. Scenes that disturb the modern reader nevertheless paved the way for the more sex-positive genre we enjoy today.
Lots of articles are discovering feminism in romance novels, a genre historically neglected as being for women and having such restrictive plot rules that it could never be more than paint-by-numbers.
posted by jeather (24 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
Silhouette debuted May 1980, according to The Globe and Mail, accompanied by $3 million in North American advertising including—I swear to God—television commercials featuring Ricardo Montalban. (If you have this on VHS somewhere, I am begging you to send it my way.)

Oh my god, how did I not know about this before. This sounds hilarious. Nice to know the strange video book trailers I started seeing on Youtube a few years ago have an antecedent somewhere!
posted by sciatrix at 4:49 PM on March 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


I had no idea that, until last August, Harlequin was Canadian. (Although I've read a bunch of their imprints -- Mira, Carina -- I don't read from their more traditional imprints.)
posted by jeather at 5:30 PM on March 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


Sometime in the early 90s, I remember reading a study that said that women who read Harlequins had more sex. If I recall, the study was funded by Harlequin. (I can't find it online, so I have no idea if it is just a weird random memory.)
posted by wenat at 6:58 PM on March 20, 2015


I'm digging the book recommendations. Right now I'm enjoying the hell out of Courtney Milan's Brothers Sinister series, which are super fun and as explicitly feminist as any historical romance I've read. (Note: it's not at all unusual for historical romances to be feminist -- half the time the entire plot's about dealing with oppressive societal gender expectations in some way -- but it's refreshing to see it so in-your-face.) Also, there is an alternate-universe Gregor Mendel among the characters. I started with The Duchess War and would suggest you do the same. (Then go back and read the accompanying novellas. I think those are both better if you've been introduced to the characters in the first novel.)
posted by asperity at 7:31 PM on March 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


Some great stuff here!

"There's a persistent tendency to assume that romance fans read only on a single level. Either we're housewives fluttering against the confinement of the patriarchy like moths at a kitchen window, or we're deluded foot soldiers in the backlash to the feminist movement, or we're dowds somehow simultaneously repressed and sex-crazed. What so many critics miss is that it's perfectly possible to roll your eyes at yet another hero with jet, an island and an overinflated sense of his own authority; arch your brow at the fucked-up gender politics of a particular scene; cheer when the heroine reads the hero the riot act; and swoon at the emotional climax."

I read tons of feminist blogs when I was a teenager figuring out relationships and sex, but also lots of romance novels. Both played an important in figuring out what I wanted and how to communicate in relationships - in and out of bed. I was enchanted by women in romance novels who expressed their desire openly, were unashamed of their sexuality, and communicated very directly. I loved when their partners were super into that. I decided that that's something I wanted to take into my relationships. It turned out pretty well!
posted by congen at 7:52 PM on March 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


I went to am academically rigorous top-25 research university for undergrad and these trashy romance novels were LIKE GOLD in my women's dorm. You come home from six hours in chemistry lab or a punishing seminar on state formation after World War II or three hours reading Proust in French and GODDAMNIT, you want some trashy, light, well-written fun where the hero gets the girl and you can read it in two hours and your brain gets a nice little vacation to fun-world.

We snatched them from the quarter sales at hometown libraries, based mainly on their covers, and kept boxes of them, and when you'd finished your own box you'd go dig through friend's boxes and in this way they circulated the floor and were understood as community property. Especially during finals week, frantic exhausted girls would show up at my door, like, "Jen said you have a lot of historicals" "I've got vikings and pirates and some Norman Invasion stuff ... I think Emma has Regencies and Victorians." "No, gimme Vikings, I'm in a viking mood."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:56 PM on March 20, 2015 [23 favorites]


I know a woman, actually she's dear to me, who recovered from divorce and personal bankruptcy (related to the divorce, or what preceded it) by taking a Danielle Steel character for a role model. I can't remember what/who she said it was - maybe a slightly bitchy heiress? Anyway, my friend said she asked herself, "What would SBH do?" before making the decisions that led to the growth of a successful business and later purchase of several income properties. She's doing all right.

No one who processes representations for a living, in whichever form, should question whether what they do matters. People weave that stuff into themselves in interesting ways.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:21 PM on March 20, 2015 [12 favorites]


There's a persistent tendency to assume that romance fans read only on a single level.

I definitely see myself in that sentence, even though many of the smartest and most feminist women I know read romance novels. This article (along with the comments here) is a good reminder for me to not make those kinds of wrong and biased assumptions.
posted by Dip Flash at 11:34 PM on March 20, 2015 [3 favorites]


Sometime in the early 90s, I remember reading a study that said that women who read Harlequins had more sex. If I recall, the study was funded by Harlequin. (I can't find it online, so I have no idea if it is just a weird random memory.)

This reminds me of the funniest exchange these two romance writers had on a This American Life episode. Basically the one woman said how disappointing sex with her husband was after having read so many romance novels because he couldn't last long enough and wasn't what she'd hoped for but loved him anyway, and her friend chimed in and said the whole time her husband was having sex with her on her wedding night, she said it took way too long because it wasn't what she'd hoped for romantically. And both found the heat they needed to enable them to have future relations with their otherwise beloved husbands by reading and writing erotic romance novels.
posted by discopolo at 12:18 AM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


The recommendations link is making me happy! Can't wait to read some of these.

Have been revisiting one of my favourites, Georgette Heyer, lately. Many of her books feature some very strong and likable female characters - Devil's Cub, Faro's Daughter, Bath Tangle, Sylvester. She's not perfect - she definitely has some problematic views on class and race, which I suppose were common for the time when she was writing - and some of her books feature heroines who seem more like children and heroes who are psychopaths (e.g. the aforementioned Devil's Cub. Dude's insane!). But at her best her writing is funny and heartfelt without being soppy. And you can read her books without switching your brain entirely into "Zzzz" mode.
posted by Ziggy500 at 5:01 AM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


> "I had no idea that, until last August, Harlequin was Canadian. (Although I've read a bunch of their imprints -- Mira, Carina -- I don't read from their more traditional imprints.)"

Mira published a wonderful first book of a fantasy trilogy by Sarah Beth Durst, and word on the street is that with Harlequin's change of ownership they're no longer intending to publish the next two.

I am incensed.
posted by kyrademon at 6:32 AM on March 21, 2015


The Lost, right? I am hoping the next two will get published somehow because the concept was so good.
posted by jeather at 8:37 AM on March 21, 2015


Yes. And me too.
posted by kyrademon at 8:53 AM on March 21, 2015


That reminds me of something I read somewhere - please don't ask me where! - which made the argument that soap operas have been a powerful force for feminism in a number of developing nations. Since they are "worthless women's fare" that men would never deign to watch, a whole lot of liberating ideas can be put forward in a way that's simultaneously out in the open and under the radar.

I don't think I even touched a romance novel until my mid-twenties, so strong was the "that's for girls!" stigma that I had learned to attach to them.
posted by clawsoon at 8:56 AM on March 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


Since they are "worthless women's fare" that men would never deign to watch, a whole lot of liberating ideas can be put forward in a way that's simultaneously out in the open and under the radar.

Heck, go back before soap operas and romance novels, and you have the novel itself being treated this way and having this effect.
posted by kewb at 9:21 AM on March 21, 2015 [7 favorites]


There's a lot of lousy romance novels out there, but there's also many that deal with things that are important to me, including but not limited to: featuring female characters with strong female friendships; delving into the politics, sexism and racism of an era; showing not just the limited options available to women in the era they portray, but also how women either found ways around those limited options or found ways to do something within those confines. And also, honestly, I'm starting to feel like it's the only novel category that allows a happy ending these days, and I'm really tired of grimdark everything. I'm glad that people are beginning to realize that romance novels have grown from their "bodice ripper" stereotype.
posted by rednikki at 10:50 AM on March 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


rednikki: "delving into the politics, sexism and racism of an era"

You just reminded me -- non-readers don't realize how historically exacting most major romance novel historical imprints are, and how much readers complain when details are incorrect; you can learn a LOT from these books -- when I was in college and taking a course on Christianity in Britain, our professor (who was exceeeeeeedingly British) got off on a point that had something to do with the English subduing the Welsh and people incorrectly answered like three of his questions in a row, and he was like, "Does ANYBODY in this classroom know when and in what circumstances the first English Prince of Wales was crowned? What do they TEACH in American schools these days?"

I timidly raised my hand and I was like, "I think it was like 1301, when Edward I made his son Edward Prince of Wales, as he'd been born in Wales, at Caernarvon?"

And he was like, "THANK you. SOMEONE paid attention. Where did you learn that?"

I was like, "Uhhh ... I read it in a book?"

And he said, "The rest of you need to start READING. BOOKS."

But I was pretty sure he didn't mean they should read the bodice-ripper I had just been reading the prior semester, in which the heroine was the Welsh lady-midwife who helped deliver the the young prince when the Queen was at Caernarfon, who is then forced into a marriage with an English knight who helped subdue Wales, and there was a lot of sex. I'm pretty sure if I told him WHICH book I learned it from, it would have totally wrecked my cred.

I have since decided that when you've learned your history of an era from reading two dozen romance novels all set during the reign of Reginald the Purple or whomever, it's best not to admit that but to just pretend you're really good at history and read lots of ponderous tomes.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:14 PM on March 21, 2015 [12 favorites]


If you love Courtney Milan, and you love feminism, it would be morally wrong for me not to leave a link here to her Ask A Man series. In one of her books, a suffragette publishes a by women for women newspaper, but has the token man running a column called Ask A Man. Too much hilarious material was generated for just one book, and so the amazing tumblr was born. An example:
Anonymous asked: Dear Man, I suppose you have convinced me--the male of the species is the superior sex. But don't you think there might be one thing that women can do better than men? --Wondering

Dear Wondering,

I hope I have not convinced you that men do all things better than women. We surely do not.

We do, however, do one thing better than women: We are far superior at claiming credit for things we did not do.

Therefore, it doesn’t behoove you to list all the things that women can do better than men. If you do, we’ll simply know that we have not yet done our duty in stealing your glory on that particular front, and we shall address the issue posthaste.

Yours,
Stephen Shaughnessy
Creditably Male
posted by corb at 1:29 PM on March 21, 2015 [4 favorites]


You just reminded me -- non-readers don't realize how historically exacting most major romance novel historical imprints are, and how much readers complain when details are incorrect; you can learn a LOT from these books

Seriously, romance isn't really my genre but if you want a well-written story that moves along nicely AND has comprehensive historical detail - go get yourself some recommended romance novels in that era and you will LEARN.

Much in the same way you can read the Aubrey–Maturin novels and come out the other side with really good grasp of what Ship Of The Line life was like.

(I read POISON to study up on Spanish court life around The Inquistion and holy hell I burned through that in a day)
posted by The Whelk at 1:32 PM on March 21, 2015


Oh yeah, historical romance novels come with Very Long Explanations for every tiny change they make to history. (Actually, that sleeve shape only appeared 6 months later when some royal from Russia visited but I needed to move it to blah blah blah.) Compare this to, eg, Neal Stephenson who wrote pages of history into his Baroque cycle, about half of which were made up entirely -- you can pretty much trust any major romance author or book from a big publisher. It's this very weird aspect of the genre.
posted by jeather at 4:49 PM on March 21, 2015 [5 favorites]


All that said, my limited experience with romance novels has suggested that, despite the increasing complexity of the female characters and situations, the male prizes remain as airbrushed as any pornstar. Is that still the case? Is the "Alphaman" who doesn't feel ill at parties still with us?
posted by clawsoon at 7:12 PM on March 21, 2015


This brings back memories of my college days when I consumed romance novels by the kilos. There was an one-room public library across the street from our campus called Gaylord. It was only open two days a week but was extremely well-stocked with romance novels. My favorite authors were all pretty explicitly feminist, like Connie Brockway and Jennifer Cruisie.

I sometimes play a game with myself called The Best Romance Book Title, but I've never come up with anything as good as a real one, 'Golden Rapture.'
posted by of strange foe at 10:41 PM on March 21, 2015


Is the "Alphaman" who doesn't feel ill at parties still with us?

The multiply aforementioned Jennifer Crusie writes heroes who are very three dimensional, especially in her solo efforts - I'm not such a big fan of the novels which she has coauthored alongside other writers. Bet Me and Faking It in particular have heroes with issues, who feel awkward about things and get things wrong, who are, you know, attractive but not in that alpha caveman style.
posted by Ziggy500 at 6:17 AM on March 22, 2015


rednikki: "And also, honestly, I'm starting to feel like it's the only novel category that allows a happy ending these days, and I'm really tired of grimdark everything."

This reminds me of a cartoon by Ursula Vernon: No one on earth will ever make me feel shame about reading children's books.
posted by Lexica at 11:27 AM on March 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


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