BREAKING NEWS: Media Still Sexist In Reporting of Romance Industry

I write gay romance novels.

That statement contains three concepts: I write fiction. I write romantic stories. I write gay male protagonists. It is often assumed by my readership and my heterosexual peers that the greatest “shocker” in that list is that I’m a married female in the Midwest writing gay fiction. But the sad truth is that’s merely an eyebrow-raiser, usually begging the inquisitor to ask me more about why, and how that works. In fact, the “gay” factor in my declaration of what I do for a living is a buffer. Because when I say I’m an author, everyone gets excited. When I say I write gay fiction, everyone is intrigued.

When I say that I write love stories, noses wrinkle, and disdain is rampant.

The year is 2014, and we’ve come a long way, baby, but much as Cliven Bundy can tell you all about “the negro,” the international media and everyone at peace with our two-faced, condescending patriarchal culture, those romance novels are trashy bodice rippers. The men and women who read them write them, produce them, promote them, maintain a billion-dollar industry via them—they’re all silly, and sex-crazed, and if they aren’t fat spinsters in curlers eating ice cream in the middle of too many cats, they’re definitely that type of ridiculous person at heart.

Because today when it was announced that Harlequin Enterprises, who advertise themselves as “We Are Romance,” was sold to News Corp, we didn’t receive reporting on what such an unexpected, potentially industry-changing merger would mean, or what this did to the outstanding lawsuit against Harlequin. We didn’t get gravity and insight, or attempts at insight into what this might mean—not often, not overall.

The media, largely, regarded this as a women’s issue. Instead of reporting, we received jokes, insulting satire, and an umbrella reminder that despite what this might mean for the money and power and influence to the culture of reading in the twenty-first century, romance novels are about women, and women are ridiculous.

CNN photoshopped News Corp’s Murdoch onto a romance novel and talked about Harlequin hooking up with a billionaire. “Along with cheesy covers of chiseled men seducing women, Harlequin is famed for publishing a huge number of books — more than 110 each month. It also prints novels in 34 languages, according to the publisher.” Wow. Golly. Who knew cheesy covers of chiseled men seducing women could be relevant in so many languages? Hey, did anybody at CNN go look at any Harlequin covers to note that actually they don’t do that much at all, if ever? Did they mention the different lines, or Mira, or any of the awards and sales figures? No? Just the 1970s and 80s bodice rippers, right? Because it’s just women. Why bother updating any research. None of this shit matters. Though hey, if they wanted to attract more readers they should put chocolate and shoes on the cover next to the naked chests. Amiright?

Canada’s Globe and Mail thought it would be funny to pretend Harlequin was a woman and News Corp was her…pimp? I have a hard time reading it through without blood pressure medication. Reuters couldn’t resist the lure of saying Harlequin got married (because they were what, just shaking up with Torstar?) and saying OH YES BODICE RIPPERS, THESE ARE BODICE RIPPERS WITH BOOBS AND RIPPING BODICES whenever they could squeak it in around a few facts and figures. Same goes for ABC, who wanted to talk about sexy soldiers and steaminess! Sexy! Steamy! Girly! Yay. The LA Times shoehorned in this incredibly awkward non sequitur of Murdoch’s love life, because that’s totally relevant with BODICE RIPPING publishers, billion dollar industry or not.

There are some silver linings. Forbes managed to avoid saying “bodice ripper” and talked about things like money and sales and markets. The Wall Street Journal was equally salient and restrained. The New York Times came so close, but like a fart at a party, BODICE RIPPER snuck out. Bloomberg gets snaps for actually mentioning the lawsuit—reporting! OMG—but mostly it’s BODICE RIPPER BODDICE RIPPER BODICE RIPPPPPPEERRRRRRRR SEXY GIRLY BOOKS SEX STEAMY HEE HEE HEE.

I’m not surprised by todays general lack of journalism, but I’m not happy. The Globe and Mail’s piece especially  disappointed me because several years ago they did what I thought was a great article on my work and also gay romance as a whole. But see, there’s the difference, right? Gay romance. I don’t want to believe the difference was because a dick was involved, but I think so.

Because it’s revolutionary, apparently, for me to write gay romance. Daring. Brave! Shocking. A woman is writing about a dick. Two dicks. At a time! Wow, there’s no bodice! Is this like, new feminism or something? Is this about equality? Is it just weird? Is this what women want?

The truth is a lot of why I began writing and reading gay romance is because our culture, our industries, our media is so polluted by insulting, patriarchal, sexist bullshit that I ran away. For almost a decade I didn’t read mainstream heterosexual romance at all. I do now: I read Lauren Dane, Vivian Arend, Tessa Dare, Kit Rocha—I keep branching out, slowly, carefully, and when I find authors of romance with females in I sip slowly, so I don’t run out. Even better are lesbian romances. I have Sarah Waters on a slow drip because her work makes me ache, frees my mind, heals my soul…and she’s not exactly whipping out a book every three months.

It isn’t that there were no good romances for ten years, either, don’t get me wrong. Definitely something happened when all the publishing houses ate each other and men in board rooms began to channel and package product. Definitely things got better when small press and self publishing gave authors more freedom again, more options, and those boardroom members weren’t in the driver’s seat anymore. Mostly, speaking for myself, writing and reading more than processed, restricted formulaic story designed to sit nicely next to the usual stuff in the usual way with another beach chair or big dress just in a different color—options and choices and challenges in my reading material and potential scenarios as an author freed things inside me. Through reading and writing I have always discovered much about myself and the world around me, but in the last five years especially? Wow. Every day is a revelation.

I write gay romance for a lot of complicated reasons, but one of the biggest and most important is it’s really hard to insert cultural norms onto a population the culture is still trying to figure how what to do with. The tide of popular opinion on gay marriage is shifting, and gay romances and LGBT romances in general feel like they’re part of a movement. No one wants to be on the wrong side of history about that.

But women? It’s still okay to mock them, apparently. It’s totally acceptable to knock off national stories about such a seismic industry shift with jokes about tits and ass and how silly and stupid romance authors and readers are. Writing gay romance, lesbian romance, or heterosexual romance, we are all little women, playing about with our laptops and dressing up at cons. We couldn’t possibly be making million and billion dollar deals, contributing significantly to the economy and the cultural conversation. We don’t have anything to say about sex and sexuality and orientation and gender roles and norms. If we have degrees, we’re wasting them. If we have intelligence, we’re draining it away with our silly little stories.

Like the ads lining this article show, women and the stories about them are jokes. We are stupid children. We are pieces of meat. We should spread our clean-shaven thighs, be beautiful and sexy and not wreck the car or stir up trouble—only dinner. We can read our little books, but they’re only bodice rippers. No matter how they change, no matter how many women’s lives are directly and indirectly affected by the lessons our novels contain, the economies they bolster, the careers and families they support—this is women’s work.

And apparently, we still have plenty to do.


17 Comments on “BREAKING NEWS: Media Still Sexist In Reporting of Romance Industry

  1. It’s a billion dollar industry, but of course the money comes from teh wimmens, so it’s not like *real* industry even if it spends the same.

    I’ve been gnashing my teeth over this all day. Thanks for articulating the issue far more eloquently than I could have.

  2. Bravo. Your post said everything I wanted too, only better. It falls into line with the news about the 200 Nigerian girls disappearing that no one talks about and the rapist who gets a light sentence because the girl “ask for it” because she was wearing what the judge deemed skimpy clothing. We are still second class citizens. Perhaps if men wrote more romance then perhaps it would validate it, Like everyone should become Nicholas Sparks.
    I started out with regular historical romance. There are wonderful authors with strong heroines and heroes who aren’t afraid to show emotion.

  3. In tech, look at how little time is spent reporting on Pinterest, which caters largely to women, vs. other tech companies that are much smaller but don’t primarily have women customers.

    It’s anything with “girl cooties,” not just romance literature.

  4. Like you, I would need blood pressure medication to read most of this drivel. And I have almost dangerously low blood pressure. I’ve been railing on this for years. Hey guys, wanna know what I am? I’m a woman (gasp right there that I can read, go ahead, guys), with fifteen years of marketing experience and an MBA. I think I must’ve blindly stumbled into both. Now I write romance novels. Het, gay, menage. I get bored. And I make money. Maybe not as much as Snookie’s no-doubt fascinating words in her biography, but I make people happy- men AND women. So, all you male reporters? Bite me and bite our 3.2 billion dollar industry.

    Okay, I think I’m done now. Maybe.

    Right on, as usual, Heidi.

  5. Pingback: Links: Saturday, May 3rd | Love in the Margins

  6. Incredibly eloquent Heidi. I get so worked up into a lather over things like this and I appreciate knowing that I’m not alone. However, I choked and almost fell out of my chair over the Van Heusen ad since I have a work history with them. Yikes!

  7. Sharing, sharing, sharing. Just did a panel on misygyny and homophobia in geek culture at OutlantaCon this past weekend and I think I can point to this problem right here and say “YEAH, THAT” to explain the whole ugly business. Thanks for a perfect summing up.

  8. I have been reading romantic fiction since the late 1960s early 70s and I cannot believe that in 2014 we are still fighting this stupid battle. I admit I used to use book covers to hide my dirty little secret….but, NO MORE! I read romance and gay romance right out in public….anyone who doesn’t like it can kiss my arse. Better yet just leave me alone! Thanks for summing up what is going on with this issue, still, today.

    thanks from your fan,

    • American Apparel is pretty notorious for having skeevy advertisements of waifish looking 14-year-old white girls looking extremely sexual. Google “American Apparel ads” if you want to see more really gross advertisements.

  9. Pingback: Running away. | The Wyrd

  10. I hate to say it, but I’m not really surprised at this and I don’t think it’s necessarily sexism to be writing off romance. I mean, not to say there isn’t good stuff out there, but the kind of formula romance that makes Harlequin the big bucks is… really trash. Like the Harlequin Presents line. All of the mainstream stuff, the stuff that creates the image of romance novels, is titled like “The Millionaire Playboy’s Mistress”, and this is what people see sold in grocery stores by the trashy celebrity magazines, and they’re all about wealthy assholes abusing their power and raping women until they like it. It’s no wonder that’s what the mass media thinks romance novels are all about.

    Quite frankly, the very fact that a “happy ending” is a requirement for romance novels hampers the genre as a whole. It turns it all into fluffy wish fulfillment and makes it hard to write any real conflict of character.

    Personally, I think that romance novels that break the mould are in the minority. It’s the niche stuff, the independent stuff that is interesting. You can’t blame the public for making assumptions.

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