.@TheMarySue Casually Smears Romance: Twitter and I Respond
Today we’ll unpack an article from The Mary Sue. “Tropes of Love: Gender Roles in Romance.” Sounds like a wonderful topic. We need more discussion of romance, and gender roles, and tropes are the best! Let’s go.
“I’ve always felt a strange fascination with romance novels. There’s no genre that the general public will associate with bad books faster than romance, with their bawdy covers and superficial plotlines. Of course, that’s an enormous generalization.”
Yes. That’s quite a generalization. It’s also disrespectful, it’s perpetuating an insulting stereotype, and it’s demeaning. Wow. Awkward start. But do go on.
In truth, romance has its good and bad books just like any other genre. Some are brilliant and some will make you feel ill. But there is something special to be said about bad romance novels: they illustrate gender roles better than any other form of media. It’s the books where the authors aren’t trying to do anything special that really show the ideas about gender that are most engrained into our society.
More awkward–some are bad, some are good, and what’s the point exactly?–but setting this aside, you make an excellent point about gender roles in romances. We talk about this all the time! We’re always pushing the envelope. We write a lot about sexual liberation, though we aren’t pedantic about it. We write gay men and women, often in leading roles. There are more and more transgender romances, and bisexual. We’re all about agency.
I mean, I could write a whole article about this, but I love that I don’t have to! I can’t wait to see all the documentation about what roles in what books spoke to you. I know about thirty off the top of my head. Some are great because they’re still speaking to old tropes, but they’re revolutionary because of the way they lead us to new ways of thinking about women and their role in culture.
Though to be honest, a lot of the time romances are an escape. An oasis where people can’t make wild generalizations about who women are. We aren’t put on pedestals or slut-shamed or mocked for what we want to embrace and pursue. But I’m so psyched to see The Mary Sue take this on. I mean, a blog about women in culture? I know you really stepped in shit in the intro, but maybe you’re going to be ironic with that twenty-five year-old cover you slapped at the top with no context. LET’S GO. What’s your research? Your examples? What insights are you going to give us? How are you going to champion women and what millions of voracious male and female readers often marginalized and dismissed in popular culture want to read?
Men Have Power, Women have Spunk
Many romance novels draw their appeal from playing with power dynamics. It can make the starting premise more interesting when one person unexpectedly has power over another. Maybe it’s an unconventional boss, a new social or business rival, or just that one person who can somehow get under the stoic loner’s skin. One common setting with inherent power dynamics is in any books set in the past, often regency or Victorian England. There the women may have pretty dresses, but their social status is always limited and secondary to men.
Um…so, I don’t know if you noticed, but you don’t have any examples here. The first paragraph in this section is really thin, and snide, and then there’s no source. Literally nothing. Also, the whole bit makes no sense. You’re pointing out men are usually in positions of power. I’m not sure if you noticed, but this is the way the world is. Are you trying to say we should write the world differently? Okay. Except, we do sometimes. Try Alisha Rai’s A Gentleman in the Street. This one also gives you some diversity. See the list below (Appendix A) for more recommendations of women in positions of power in romance.
But the biggest problem here is that, to be blunt, you’re not very smart about how to show power. The real way to subvert those in power is to let them look like they’re in power and then quietly undo them. Women have been doing this for millennia. In The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, the oft-taught “human” fight-or-flight response is rebuffed as a male-only option from a primeval perspective. Men certainly had this luxury, but women rarely did. Our female ancestors were often impregnated when young, sometimes against their will. They then had children, and if they survived all this, they were older and less hale of body. They could never run, and even if they had the physical strength to fight, they usually had children to protect, who were not strong.
Women survived this reality by bonding with one another. Uniting with each other. They endured capture, rape, and indignity by learning how to subvert their male dominators. This led to the stereotype that women are wily and dangerous, especially when sexual. In “civilized” society, we were taught to be the weaker gender, to eschew sex except for getting children. While men could have sex with other women (those tossed aside socially), “good” women could not. This doesn’t even begin to speak to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons in a historical context, though sadly that one is easy. They had to be silent, or they would often be dead. They were viewed as deviants and dangerous to the culture. Threats to the rigid sexual code.
In the Victorian era, and Regency, and Georgian, and Edwardian, men were the dukes lords and viscounts. You complain about novels including this as if somehow we should do something about it. It’s true, we could all write alternate history where the men were subservient, and maybe someday we will. What you don’t understand is that this isn’t something that serves the zeitgeist right now. There’s not a lot of power in pretending female subversion never happened. What is immensely powerful is seeing that dynamic kept the same but showing stories which could have been.
Tessa Dare’s Romancing the Duke has a man as a duke (which is, again, historically accurate) and even gives him the power to further reduce the heroine’s minimal and hard-won independence. She has, in fact, spent her life struggling valiantly against men, some who love her, eroding her power and agency. The duke does not give her agency. In fact, what he does is surrender to her strength and fortitude, seeing her as an example of how to reclaim his own power. Dare is eloquent in her portrayal, but to be honest the duke is far weaker than the heroine. She is the star of the story. She succeeds against all odds and finds not only love but happily ever after. She has full agency and power in a time when in reality women rarely had any.
This is but one example. Please see Appendix B below for more examples of historical romances where women achieve agency and power despite patriarchal, historically accurate dynamics.
So the first section of your article was disappointing. Let’s proceed to “Men Are Stupid About Emotions, Women Are Stupid About Everything Else.” I’ll admit I’m nervous about your phrasing, but let’s give it a try.
Because of the commonly unbalanced power dynamics in romance novels, Female Hero obviously has to bring something else to the table to give the illusion of equality to her relationship with Male Hero. Once they’re close enough that she doesn’t have to be snarky anymore, she can start showing off how emotionally sensitive she is. Perhaps then, just maybe, she’ll be able to heal Male Hero’s hidden pain.
Okay, once again, you have no sources. Zero. You give a few quirky examples but no titles, no tangible research except little jokes frankly coming off as awkward flatulence. So, again, you’re a very bad journalist and a pretty mediocre writer. But you’ve written this, and you’re making a mess, so let’s go on.
You mock the idea that men have pain and that romances address male vulnerability. Once again, you illustrate dynamics between men and women which have not only occurred for ages and ages, but are more and more being seen as harmful influences on our society—and you want romance novels to magically make this go away.
I said this before, but clearly we need to hammer this in with a big stick: what you’re doing here is perpetuating the old and very damaging device of making women in charge of cultural change. This is the pedestal women are always put on. We are asked to be the angels of light who lead humanity (read: men) out of their darkness and chaos. We are divided between sluts and saints, mothers and whores. We are, in fact, asked to cure men all the time. We must dress nicely, behave nicely, and have every aspect of us meet a pre-set image.
Romance novels prioritize emotions in a way most other fiction does not. It also prioritizes men—the males who are ejected from the patriarchal vision of man and who are still in a horribly large chunk of the world and the US as deviants. I write primarily gay male romances, though I’m also often talking about women and always about gender roles, gender stereotypes, cultural expectations, and above all, male vulnerability. Gay romance, lesbian romance, transgender romance, and bisexual romance push the conversation beyond male-female binaries and into examinations of what our patriarchal culture asks of all of us. These stories also provide agency and visibility for a population who has traditionally been excluded from mainstream romance culture and is now fully integrated and seen as equal to its peers. We have won awards, placed on bestseller lists, and more importantly, affected readers.
There are of course scores of romances, LGBT and straight, which positively represent male vulnerability. Please explore them in Appendix C.
It’s at this point I’d like to stop reading and discussing this article, but because part of the point of this essay is to remind people we should always do our homework, all of it, I’ll continue.
Men Are Sex Psychics, Women are Unconscious Dick-Exploders.
A lot of people like to say that romance novels are porn for women. I’d disagree. We have actual porn for that. But there’s no denying that there are some very basic gender-based fantasies that romance novels seem to try to fulfill. Many women have mixed feelings about sex. We might want to enjoy it, but we’re also constantly faced with messages about how bad it is to be a slut. And, of course, ‘slut’ is a word with such a broad definition that a woman who even thinks about sex can be in danger of being labeled with it.
Yes! This is true. See everything I’ve said above. But after this paragraph, you are back to unsubstantiated generalizations and mockery. You are a tired old horse who cannot understand that romances present the world as it is and subvert it quietly while also giving women a good time.
Yes, in many books the men are well-sexed. If you’ve read romance lately, you’d notice the women are too. In older romances (which seem to be the only ones you’ve read, though who knows because again, you have no sources cited) women tended to be more virginal. This represented where our culture was at the time. Had you done research, you’d know most authors wanted more experienced heroines bue were quite often told by their publishers they weren’t allowed to present this. This, happily, has changed.
But in these books of thirty, even twenty years ago, women were still struggling with sexual agency in a very basic and baseline way, and the narrative which worked for them was the illusion of innocence removed without them having to descend into being a slut. This was the age where everything Madonna did or said was scandalous, but those same antics are yawn-worthy today. This was when women were only just reaching for real political power, and we still didn’t have very much. This was when an intern enjoyed a dalliance with the most powerful man in the world, and her life was ruined while the man barely had to dust off his shoulders.
Today, women in romances come in various shapes and sizes, various experiences in sex, various needs and wants. There are romance novels with men as virgins. There are romance novels where the woman is the aggressor. There are romance novels where women dominate men sexually as well as socially. There are so many flavors I cannot afford to give each one an appendix. But in Appendix D, you will find examples of all these mentioned above, and more.
In the last section of your article, I’m sorry, I must simply say you are ignorant, impossible, and insulting.
Men Are Terrifying and Women Have No Idea What A Healthy Relationship Looks Like
By far the worst part about bad romance novels is what they think is romantic. In these stories the couple-to-be usually starts off with some sort of conflict between them so that there’s tension to overcome before they get together. The trouble with these conflicts is that they lead to the men doing terrifying things to the women. I’ve seen the women in these books get kidnapped, held hostage, be psychologically manipulated, forced away from friends and family and even their whole culture, forced out of career opportunities, forced into sudden engagements, manipulated into sex, accused of attempted murder, and set on fire, all by the men they are destined to fall in love with. Most of the time the men never even apologize for these actions and it’s passed off as more silly shenanigans. By the end of the book Male Hero and Female Hero are still happily in love, joking about the odd circumstances that brought them together. You know, all that quirky abuse.
Goodness, I haven’t had to clarify this much since I taught seventh grade. ONCE AGAIN, you are reading thirty-year-old novels. I imagine there are still a few of these types of romances published today, but let’s lay things on the table. Oh yes, the 70s and 80s romances were full of rape and kidnapping. But AGAIN, this was reflective of the culture regarding females as a whole. Women were not able as a large community to have permission to seize sexual power and pleasure themselves. It had to be thrust upon them. Rape and abduction and even abuse was the only way we were culturally allowed to enjoy sex outside of quiet, married monogamy.
Even these novels, however, showed power. There are countless articles and discussions about both historical and contemporary romances novels using these tropes to show sexual and gender agency. (See Appendix E.) Because what you’re failing to note is even in the bad romances, as you so grossly put it, women win the day. They overcome rape and kidnapping and even abusive men. They enjoy the starring role and achieve power and happily ever after.
You’re also ignoring The Lord Won’t Mind and scores of other LGBT romances published decades ago, largely distributed underground within the LGBT community. But at this point I would hardly expect you to know or care about anything with depth or relevance. I’m convinced you wrote this article after waltzing by three grocery store paperback carousels in 1992, then leaned on stereotype and casual mashups to make an article.
You do not understand romances. At all. Romance novels are not flat, suburban dreck women use as drugs to stunt their brains. Romance novels are about hope. Whatever the era, no matter the cover, romances give hope to women and men (yes, men!) who do not feel they can have agency in our culture. They give power to people who cannot fight or flee. They give power to people hungry for community, an umbrella under which to escape a cruel culture. One which sends out ridiculous, presumptive, insulting tripe like this one.
Is this really our “porn for women”, our romantic fantasy fulfillment? I think it’s actually a regurgitation of some of the basest forms of sexism sugar-coated with the guise of romance.
Romance is neither.
Romancelandia is an incredibly strong community. We have and will continue to endure censure, derision, and dismissal. We will also continue to make billions of dollars. We make millions upon millions of readers blissfully happy. We give hope to women and men riding out dark times. We give voice to those popular and literary culture don’t deem worthy of notice—bad people, perhaps, Mary Sue?—and we don’t simply give them a starring role. We give them happiness. We give them hope. We give them power.
There is nothing wrong romance novels as a general concept. People deserve to read stories they enjoy, but also stories that make them grow. We deserve to read love stories without feeling guilty about reading something “trashy”. But what we deserve most of all is to have a romance genre that actually respects women.
We do respect women. And men too. But ah, Alex Townsend and The Mary Sue, you don’t. You have, clearly, a limited vision of who men and women can be. You don’t respect us enough to do research or think for a single second how insulting and reductive this article is. How incorrect. How outdated. How damaging not only to authors but to the readers.
Romance is, has ever been, and will remain for all time the only way publishing financially can continue to exist. We are the bankroll of ever other genre who loves to call us trash, who refuses to examine our strengths but only spins out stereotypes and misrepresentation. We are the ones who can never outlive clinch covers even though they have been dead for decades—even though they are not to be derided but to be studied as what kind of mountain women must overcome to be seen as full sexual beings with cultural agency.
We do allow growth. I have heaps and piles of emails, letters, and anecdotes of meeting readers who said my works and that of other romances have moved them, made them think, and helped them through hard times. Are you one of those awkward souls who thinks we can only grow through reading the literary fiction genre, prioritizing unhappy endings and erudite heroes? Or is this more sloppiness and insensitivity?
But yes, I know. You said you were only talking about “bad romance,” as if you were Lady Gaga. You were sloppy and ridiculous, but you did give that clumsy caveat. Fine. Shall we judge science fiction and fantasy by your ugly and horrifying debacle with your puppy problem? Shall we pick up three pieces of dreck in other genres and call them insipid? Shall we judge science fiction and fantasy for your horribly sexist portrayals of women on many covers and in many books? Shall we judge literary fiction by its pedantic and insulting assholes?
Shall we judge The Mary Sue for printing an article with zero research, insulting speech, and rude treatment of women and men who read romance? Shall we assume then The Mary Sue is no better than every other publication, small or large, who sees novels about women and power and sex and love and hope as things to be mocked, a genre and its legions of readers not worthy of respect?
I suppose we shall.
The following is a compendium of romance as supplied by a quick request on Twitter. Better research would supply more, but since Alex Townsend and The Mary Sue saw fit to do zero, please cast stones in their direction first. As it’s quite long and this article is already lengthy, I’ve placed the appendices after the cut.
Appendix A: Women in positions of power in romance
- Alisha Rai, A Gentleman in Street
- Julie James, It Happened One Wedding
- Megan Murly, Roulette
- Sierra Dean, Pitch Perfect
- Sarah M. Anderson, Rodeo Dreams
- Lila Dubois, Shadow & the Night, Protector & Guardian
- RG Alexander, Burn With Me
- Katie Porter, Hold ‘Em, Beauty Bites, Singe
- The Adrenaline series by Vivian Arend, in addition to too many other books to name.
- Marie Hart, What to Do With a Bad Boy
- Ainslie Paton, Unsuitable
Read more here.
Appendix B: Examples of historical romances and authors who feature women achieving agency and power despite patriarchal, historically accurate dynamics
- Everything by Courtney Milan
- Everything by Tessa Dare
- Everything by Theresa Romain
- Everything by Sarah Maclean
- Books by Jess Michaels, particularly Ladies Book of Pleasure series
- Jo Beverly, Devilish
- Adele Ashworth, My Darling Caroline
- Jordan L. Hawk, the Whyborne & Griffin series (gay romance, strong, empowered female secondary character)
- Elizabeth Gaskell, North & South
Read more here.
Appendix C: Romances and authors positively representing male vulnerability
- Everything by Damon Suede
- Marie Sexton, Promises
- Everything by Amy Lane
- Everything by K.A. Mitchell
- Everything by Jordan L Hawk
- Everything by Jordan Castillo Price
- Jayne Rylon, Wounded Hearts
- Ruby McNally, Turning Tides
- Vivi Andrews, Tangling With the Tiger
- Keira Andrews, A Forbidden Rumspringa
- Jackie Ashenden, Having Her
- Grace Burrowes
- Megan Erickson, Make It Right (I would say many of her books fit this)
- Alex Sanchez, Boyfriends with Girlfriends
- Sarah Granger, A Minor Inconvenience
- All books by Heidi Cullinan, particularly Love Lessons (full disclosure: this is me, but I’m reporting from Twitter.)
- “Almost every LGBT romance I’ve ever read.”
Read more here.
Appendix D: Books and Authors who feature virgin males in romance, women dominating men sexually, women as aggressors
- Sarah Maclean, particularly Nine Rules to Break While Romancing a Rake
- Eden Bradley
- Lauren Dane
- Victoria Dahl
- Jennifer Cruise
- Patricia Gaffney
- Penny Reid, Love Hacked
- Sarina Bowen, The Shameless Hour
- Iny Lorentz
- “most of the German historical romance genre”
- Shelly Ann Clark, Have Mercy
- The Original Sinners series by Tiffany Reisz
- The Virgin Hero tag at Samhain Publishing
- Heidi Cullinan, Love Lessons (me again)
- Jo Beverly, Devilish
Appendix E: Research and Scholars of Romance
- Duke University
- Teach Me Tonight
- Journal of Popular Romance Studies
- Dr. Laura Vivanco
- Sarah Frantz Lyons
- “Theorizing Male Virginity in Popular Romance Novels”
- Cabera, “She Exploded into a Million Pieces”: A Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis of Orgasims in Contemporary Romance Novels
- Themes of Female Sexuality and Masculinity in Paranormal Romance Novels for Young Adults
- The Relationship Between Reading Romance Novels and Safe Sex Behavior
Read more here.