Romance-Loving Feminists and Other Strange and Fanciful Creatures

January 10, 2014

Jackalope at home on the range.  Image from
Last month, International Business Times reporter Palash Ghosh wrote an opinion piece musing on the enduring popularity of romance novels.  He writes,
I have known many women who devour...romance novels -- smart, attractive, successful, 'liberated,' modern females who nonetheless find some kind of deep satisfaction and vicarious thrill from delving into hyper-romantic, contrived and extremely unrealistic tales of handsome, manly heroes falling in love with virginal women, enduring a series of adventures, then inexorably ending in a happy resolution.
Come again, Mr. Ghosh?
...I must wonder why so many women – forty years after the women’s liberation movement, Roe vs. Wade and the pill have transformed the lives of women in the most dramatic of ways – continue to indulge in the fanciful tales of females so unlike them who live in fantasy worlds light years removed from their reality?...I’m not sure if the immense popularity of romance novels represents a kind of ‘repudiation’ of the women’s lib movement, but clearly something is missing in the lives and experiences of tens of millions (maybe even hundreds or millions) of contemporary ladies.
I doubt romance readers would be surprised to learn that this article drew negative criticism like a lightning rod, leading to a half-hearted apology and addendum.
[T]he real point of my column -- and something that might have gotten lost in the shuffle -- was that the popularity of old-fashioned romance novels featuring conventional and traditional gender roles seems to defy the stances of the modern-day women's liberation movement. 
As a relatively new reader and writer of romance, I've considered three questions at length.
  1. Can a woman who purports to be a "liberated" woman, who adheres to the tenets of the feminist movement, justify being a fan of books that embrace traditional gender roles: Alpha males, submissive females, damsels in distress, and broad-chested heroes?  
  2. Doesn't this preference indicate at least a subliminal regressive desire to return to the days when gender roles and expectations were clearly defined?  
  3. Doesn't this preference indicate that women who enjoy romance novels are generally tired of living in a world that has been altered by feminism?
Answers?  Yes.  No.  No.

Mr. Ghosh's article is fundamentally flawed because it reveals not only a superficial understanding of the modern romance genre, but a flawed understanding of what feminism actually is.  This second point gets my feathers in a rufflier ruffle than anything he could write about ye olde bodice rippers, so I'd like to address this topic.

Let's talk about feminism, baby.  Let's talk about you and me.  Let's talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be.

So, the first romance novels I ever read were Scottish historicals.  In response, a friend sent me a link to this video making fun of the Scottish accent.  It stars Gavin McInnes, who is of Canadian-Scottish descent.

Charming, no?  Poor Siri.

Anyway, in October of last year, McInnes, who is a writer and the co-founder of Vice magazine, took part in a HuffPost Live conversation about the contemporary definition of masculinity.  Here's what he had to say about feminism.
Women are forced to pretend to be men. They're feigning this toughness. They're miserable. Study after study has shown that feminism has made women less happy. They're not happy in the work force, for the most part. I would guess 7 percent [of women] like not having kids, they want to be CEOs, they like staying at the office all night working on a proposal, and all power to them. But by enforcing that as the norm, you're pulling these women away from what they naturally want to do, and you're making them miserable.
Then, in the middle of the interview, McInnes completely lost his temper, calling panelist and law professor Mary Anne Franks a "fucking idiot."  Perhaps he wasn't really acting in the Siri parody video above.

What McInnes and Ghosh share is a misunderstanding of what feminism actually is.  On her blog Moving Targets, Franks writes,
First of all, feminism is not a person, and certainly not a person with a gun prodding blindfolded women into executive suites. It cannot force any woman to do anything. What feminism has helped achieve is the possibility for women to work outside the home if they so choose, which means that feminism is also what makes it possible to choose to stay at home and be a mother. There is no such thing as choice without other options. Feminism does not tell women that they must work outside the home. It also does not tell women that they cannot. The only people who police women’s behavior this way are people like Gavin McInnes.
Professor Frank's explanation articulates my understanding of feminism.  Feminism, as a result of generations of people pushing back on outdated laws and social misconceptions, gives today's women the choice to be whoever they want to be (and to read whatever they want to read).

If a woman wants to be an executive, a fire fighter, a teacher, a nurse, a stay-at-home mom, a naval officer, an engineering professor, a journalist, a stripper, a nun...hey, guess what?  If she has the chops, she has the freedom to be any of these things.  If she wants to be a wife or a single person, hey, guess what?  She can choose for herself.

Let's say that for generations before us, American women, whenever they walked into a restaurant, could only order one thing from the menu.  Let's say they could only order cherry pie.  Cherry pie.  For generations.  One, monolithic item that never changed.  If you didn't like cherry pie, tough shit.  Eat your cherry pie.

However, the men in the restaurant could order anything they wanted.  Caesar salad.  Steak.  Deviled eggs.  Foie gras.  Sushi.  Looking longingly at this smorgasbord of delights, a group of women decided to stand up to the owners of the restaurant and demand the freedom to order more than just cherry pie.  These women were jeered at, told to sit down, and ordered to shut up.  Still they fought back.  Slowly, the restaurant started to grant them more options.  Blueberry pie.  Coffee.  They kept fighting.  More time passed.  More items appeared for them to choose.  Eventually there was hardly anything on the menu that they could not order.  Eventually they were running restaurants of their own.

As a feminist, I feast at a table set by the feminists who came before me.  I have lots of choose from, but no one is force-feeding me.  And even though my plate is different from the woman's beside me, I don't begrudge her her choices, even if she has chosen cherry pie.  Even if she's tucking into a brontosaurus burger and says that she is not a feminist because it is "too strong" a word.

Nom.  Image from quarrylanefarms.
 What Ghosh and McInnes fail to acknowledge is that feminism is about choice.  If a woman works as the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation and chooses to read about Alpha males ripping the bodices off submissive females in medieval England, hey, guess what?  She has the freedom to do so.  If a stay-at-home mom who bakes cupcakes for her kids' pee wee soccer team chooses to read about stiletto-heeled dommes pegging eager young police cadets, hey, guess what?  She has the freedom to do so.  (She might want to keep her e-reader somewhere up high, but yes.)

When McInnes says that women are "feigning toughness," or when Ghosh writes that it's inconceivable that "smart, attractive, successful" women might be drawn to romantic stories, they are guilty of what Marks calls the "relentless, baseless policing of gender roles."  

What I choose to read and what I choose to do with my life do not cancel out my feminist beliefs, they reinforce them.  Feminism gave me the freedom to make those choices in the first place, just as it gives the women around me the freedom to choose, too. 

P.S. And yes, neckbeards.  Some women might choose to get up from the computer at this point to make you a sandwich.  Not me, though.

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