I recently did an interview with The Mamafesto for a project called “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like,” wherein a bunch of normal people talk about what feminism means to them. One of the major themes in my interview – and something I’ve been thinking about a lot of late – is the vague cognitive dissonance that comes with writing/enjoying romance novels and considering myself a feminist.
Romance novels have gotten a bad rap for ages, and I don’t think that will ever change, even if the genre has come a long way since the bodice-rippers of old. Like many forms of entertainment enjoyed primarily by women, they’re derided by men and by “serious” women alike, and sometimes with good reason. Alpha heroes and damsels in distress are still common tropes, and happily ever after always means getting the guy, not the doctorate. It’s telling that the erotic romance genre has taken off by leaps and bounds since the advent of eReaders, since we can now read our steamy novels without having to show anyone the cover.
So what’s a feminist to do with all that shame?
Personally, I try not to be ashamed in the first place, but it’s a tall order considering so much of that attitude is deeply sewn into us for our whole lives. I have a science background, and the idea of confessing that I write smutty romance novels to the guys I used to do physics experiments with gives me the shakes. Ditto for the ladies I took all those women’s studies classes with back in college.
But the thing is, as feminists who choose not work outside of the home have been saying for decades, the essence of feminism is about giving women choices, not taking them away. So I do my best to own my choice and the choices of so many women (and even some men) who enjoy these types of stories. I try not to dissemble or blush when I admit to what I do.
And I try to do my small part to make sure the genre is something I can be proud of. I try to write women who care about more than just their love-lives and I try to pack as much literary merit into those sex scenes as I can.
So what do you think? Is reading and writing romance compatible with feminism? And if not, then how can we make it more so?
Choice without discernment is just another way to paralyze people and take away their power. To be proud of writing smut because it is 'giving oneself and other women choices rather than taking them away' is an abdication of the faculty and responsibility of discernment.
The real question is not to write/read or not to write/read sexual fiction, but what KIND of sexual fiction to write or read. What are the dynamics – both explicit and hidden – that are driving the eroticism. Or to put it more bluntly, just what are we getting off on, and why?
Take as an example the short passage posted on "FuckMe Fridays" in which the woman masturbates to the fantasy of being tied down and contemptuously objectified and used by her lover. What is the basis of the erotic appeal of such a fantasy? Does it empower women to fantasize (actually or vicariously) about being called degrading names and treated like cattle? If so, how?
Not everything that one desires is good. If the origin of the desire is harmful, then the desire itself propagates that harm by occupying energy that could be directed toward one's good. I think it is important to discern the origins of the fantasies and consider their effects rather than to uncritically acclaim the genre as a whole as giving women the 'freedom' to accept and express all aspects of sexuality irregardless of its nature.
Similarly, consider the ingrained response of shame. Rather than reject it out of hand perhaps it merits examination. Is it really arising from restrictive indoctrination that one must overthrow in order to live as an authentic soul? Or is it the small still voice of that authentic soul speaking out against pandering to fetishes that keep women enslaved because even our sexual fantasies have been bent to revolve around subjugation, degradation and abuse?
Oh wow. Thanks for the strong response.
First, I think part of the derision around romantic/erotic fiction stems from the fact that primarily women like it. We talk about chick flicks and chick lit in a mocking manner, but we rarely talk about guy movie with the same kind of contempt. Is it any better to want to gun down everyone in sight / blow everything up than to want to have great sex?
Secondly, I'm offended by your across-the-board, knee-jerk condemnation of the non-consent fantasy. It's an incredibly common fantasy that I for one have spent years reconciling and feeling bad about, and I'm tired of it. The fact that being tied down and talked dirty to turns me on does not mean I want it to happen against my will or that I think somewhere in my subconscious that I'm lesser or worthy of degradation. It means it's a turn-on that I should be able to explore freely as part of my sexuality. End. Of. Story.
Yes, abuse and actual non-consensual sex need to stop. But shaming women (and men) about their fantasies doesn't help anyone.
Third, my ingrained embarrassment about my genre stems from not wanting to be perceived as too 'girly,' ie weak, not from subconscious rebelling against the inherent brutality and patriarchy of porn. I'm choosing to stop being embarrassed about it because I'm refusing to see girly as an insult anymore.
If we reject our own sexuality and our own desires/interests, we are enslaving ourselves all over again. We're subjugating ourselves in response to subjugation. I don't buy it. At all.
I, just…wow. This is so complicated. I consider myself a very strong feminist who as chosen to live my life in a very traditional role as a stay at home mom/wife. I also chose to go to college and earn my BA in Sociology, and then chose to drop of of Masters program. I also chose to write romance/erotic fiction. I agree that modern feminism has lost the core premise of women have the option to be what ever they want-astronaut, lawyer, homemaker. I believe that just because I don't work outside the home doesn't mean I am not an equal partner in my household. If anything, I'm the boss.. Of EVERYONE 🙂
Yet, I agree that our sexuality has very much been dictated to us. What is acceptable about women's sexuality, and what is not, is still rather rigid. The depiction of women in porn, the glaring lack of realism not only in physical appearance but in sexual behavior and response is detrimental at best. I am sad to say that the passion I had for arguing this topic went down hill after college. I believe what I believe and I'm too tired to argue my point these days. The passion I have for this topic goes into how I shape my female character, how the scenes play out, and how I pass my values on to my two daughters.
miaokuancha, I find it interesting that you assume a woman choosing to write/read romance is doing so "without discernment". Are you saying that, if only we believed just as you do, we would not get off on non-consent porn (which, as Jeanette mentioned, is an incredibly common fantasy, and can also be used theraputically, as in this case: http://www.good.is/post/how-violent-sex-helped-ease-my-ptsd/
In short, keep your judgment to yourself, and stop thinking people who like things you don't like are only doing so because they don't know any better.
Jeanette- hey, thank you for stopping by my blog! And what an interesting conundrum. I consider myself a feminist (you know… the radical idea that women are people…)–in fact I've been the wage earner and my husband the homemaker because that was what worked for us. and am darned picky about romance, though I beta for Stacy Gail and LOVE her stuff. Why? Because the women are all strong in their own right. Sounds like you've taken a similar approach. I guess I think the black hole potential is in books where women don't feel complete without a man, and stories where anybody (male or female) is too objectified [though I can see some appeal of a woman who objectifies because she feels it makes her strong, only to realize she's much happier with an equal]
Jeanette, after recently filling out the same set of questions for the This is What a Feminist Looks Like post on the Mamafesto I went looking for others who have participated. This brought me to your blog.
I can appreciate your attempts at reconciling your feminism with erotica/romance reading and writing. My interests lay with chick lit/women's literature and feminism and find it frustrating that chick lit is considered stupid, unimportant, or even harmful to women and that some might consider me a bad feminist for enjoying it. When I tell people about my blog they assume I am writing negatively about chick lit. They gleefully start ripping into it only to be shocked when I explain that in fact I am writing critically about chick lit which includes defending it.
I think we always have to be critical about what we are consuming or creating but this doesn't mean building more dichotomies of "This Good, That Bad." I have never found labeling people as good or bad feminists useful, only divisive and hurtful.
Anyway, thanks for the post! Also, I'll be adding your blog to my blog roll.
@Abigail – Completely agree about the trickiness of the whole matter. A lot of the porn that's targeted at men is degrading to women, which makes it hard to defend. But it certainly won't keep me from writing good female-friendly porn.
@Tanya – The discernment thing is definitely key.
@Hart – Definitely a danger to romance stories, and I agree that at their worst they can be pretty awful and demeaning. But at their best they can be awesome and empowering.
@Christine – I hate hate hate when ANY genre of fiction that's targeted mainly at women gets across-the-board dismissed. As I've ranted before, the whole title of Women's fiction drives me crazy because there is no genre for Men's fiction. That's just considered mainstream. So frustrating! Totally with you on labeling. So problematic.