Blogger, I Cannot Countenance Your Patriarchy — The Triumph of the Feminine in Romance
Congratulations, Romancelandia. If you’re reading this, you’ve survived another hack piece on romance by someone who hasn’t read it and yet uses us for a foil for whatever nonsense has flown up their backside.
Bloggers and journalists outside our community have an inexplicable, psychotic compulsion to write dismissively and authoritatively about romance while at the same time proudly declaring they know nothing about it, except for these handful of random books they assembled as straw men to support their thesis. They might be academics, they might be mainstream journalists, they might be science fiction or fantasy bloggers. Sometimes they’re even industry blogs who should know better. We will likely never fully understand why this phenomenon persists, and we’ll likely never escape it entirely.
The first sin is often a conflagration of the current, defined romance genre, whose spearhead and focal point is the Romance Writers of America, with any book, movie, play, or matchbook including people falling in love and/or having romantic relationships. Sometimes within the same sentence the 1.4 billion dollar industry of novels featuring romantic storylines and a satisfying, positive ending are shoehorned with mystery/horror/fantasy/suspense/crime books, movies, and television shows where characters also have romantic relationships, all which is to somehow prove romance novels are ridiculous/injurious/insulting/whatever flavor of smackdown they wanted to embrace that day.
Another related fallacy is to treat the last forty-five years of publication (ninety if you want to begin with Mills & Boon, not Flame and the Flower) of romance novels as utterly static and homologous. At the center of their argument lies, somehow, the ironclad (or perhaps simply ignorant and lazy) belief that authors of romance in 2016 are writing exactly the same as their ancestral authors in 1930 and 1970. This results in incoherent treatises which make reveals about modern romance tropes by referencing fifty-year-old works, often which don’t meet the agreed-upon definition of romance by the actual romance community.
These lapses in cogent dissertation, however, are but the barest scraping of the surface, for what often lies beneath this laziness and willful illiteracy are darker and far more complex issues of institutional and individual misogyny, and often parallel issues of racism, homophobia, and cisgendered priority. They fear and/or fail to understand how a genre of books can so fail to meet the patriarchal standard of superiority and yet utterly dominate the market. It’s not uncommon for the midlist royalties of a romance author to meet or surpass all but the superstars of other genres. And where most genres are only a handful of laps behind the middle-to-lower range of romance earners, the crown jewel of the patriarchy, the literary fiction genre, can barely compete om terms of dollars even as a collective.
These accusations, if posited to authors of specific instances of insensitive and incorrect articles, are generally met with shock, rage, and self-righteous and/or institution/genre-collective indignation. Many, if not most, of the authors of these poorly-constructed “think pieces” believe they are unfettered by patriarchy or have mastered its influence over their lives. The allegation that they have unwittingly been one of its pawns threatens to unlace so much of their worldview that they either recoil or lash out with a zealotry that treats each factual assertion as fuel for its righteous fire of conceptualized truth.
Romance authors and readers, in stark contrast, must acknowledge the patriarchy’s influence in their lives. Whether the stories they share or savor feature heterosexual, homosexual, cis or transgender, white, Black, Brown, North or South Asian, African, historical, paranormal or contemporary—subliminally or mindfully, each romance genre story will not pretend the patriarchy is anything but the dominant, overwhelming power in almost the entirety of cultures on Earth. Romance novels will either submit (while generally also subliminally undermining to a small or large degree) to the patriarchy or directly challenge it. Even cisgendered lesbian romances are influenced by patriarchy.
By acknowledging the existence and domination of the patriarchy at the core of their genre collective, romance novelists speak with power and persuasion to those who wish to escape, understand, or overcome this sociological pressure. As a simple matter of dichotomy, women are often the frequent marketing target and core consumers and producers of romance novels. Their work can (and does) speak, however, to anyone feeling overwhelmed by the patriarchy.
It speaks additionally to the white patriarchy, and also the white, heteronormative, cisgendered patriarchy. The white, heteronormative, cisgendered Big 5 publishing machine deals with this less in romance, but smaller, independent publishers and self-published or hybrid authors have, especially in the last fifteen years, become more dominant, meaning romance novels are increasingly non-white, homosexual, pansexual, bisexual, asexual, transgendered, queer, polyamorous—there are more diversions from the patriarchal-defined norm than I can name or know, because some are emerging at this moment and more will be revealed every single day.
Many will read romances with little to no comprehension they are in fact participating in patriarchal subversion, and yes, many romances’ patriarchal subversion is weak at best. Yet even those examples are stories glorifying and celebrating what patriarchy defines as a feminine and therefore lesser ideal: romance as the center of a story.
Not every human, even those disadvantaged by the patriarchy, will be interested in reading romance as a means to wrestle with the presence of patriarchy in their lives. It isn’t a sin, flaw, or defect to not enjoy romances on any narrative level. Romance novelists and readers are celebrants of the feminine ideal of inclusion and community over dominance and destruction. True, we contain the darker shades of feminine impulse as well; we can be guilty of tipping that community and inclusion into homogeneity and groupthink. We are not saints; we are human. But few will find evidence on
even minimal scale of the romance genre actively seeking out and destroying genre competitors, only responding angrily (or exasperatedly) to attacks. In fact, we’re more likely to welcome other genres into our tent, even if only to flirt at the fringes.
Those who either submit to or imagine they can rise above patriarchy itch on molecular levels when a feminine, inclusive, subversive and celebratory aspect of patriarchal’s lower caste not only thrives but overwhelms the power center of culture: how we tell ourselves stories. All fiction underwrites our human narrative, and when feminine-influenced fiction threatens the patriarchy, it lashes out, because the patriarchy cannot bear to be threatened. It will not accept challenge from anyone, men, women, or agendered persons.
Which leaves romance novelists and readers in a quandary; do we ignore the swipes at our joys, our creations, or do we rebut the patriarchal attacks, be they direct or accidental? We are not immune to the patriarchy either. When challenged, our patriarchy-trained instincts urge us to counter, to mock, to destroy. What is better, to ignore insults and carry on with our creations, or to engage and instruct (or even deconstruct)?
I have littered this post with images from the 2015 film Mad Mad:Fury Road because it is quite simply the most stunning, articulate, and subversive takedown of the patriarchy I have yet witnessed in story…and as a bonus, it happens to not be a romance, further destroying the dichotomy of us vs. them. I love that film because of its powerful women, its conscious and subliminal acknowledgement of patriarchy vs. the feminine. I love how it takes a masculine genre through a patriarchal production machine and weaves a narrative of women taking power from a dying, controlling patriarchy and redistributing it to the greater community. I know it has its flaws as well, but I love so much the way it shakes up what was expected and gives us instead at least a small vision of what might be a better way to be.
I began this post wanting to take down the most recent stray arrow in the side of Romancelandia. I was angry at the site which hosted it and the normally articulate and intelligent individuals who dug in their heels and turned militant and reactionary in the face of assertions that this piece was disjointed, unsupported, and insulting. I was exhausted and saddened to see the same insults against romance brought forth yet again, joining examples so numerous as to be ridiculous.
But I come to the end of this piece more saddened than angry, more disappointed than disgusted. Unlike the blogger who spurred this post from me, I am sorry. Sorry the patriarchy still holds so much power over us as a culture that almost everyone must be constantly reminded it isn’t clever, it’s cruel to demean the feminine and the discourses it chooses to explore. I’m sorry because every time I raise my head it seems so much of the humanity I share my time on earth with feels it isn’t only permissible, it’s good to decry or even destroy those the white, heterosexual, cisgendered patriarchy says are less.
We may not live in a post-apocalyptic desert hellscape, but there are days it feels like we are but a thin veneer from that reality. We may not have a decaying megalomaniac patriarch enslaving us and distracting us with thin pleasures and withheld necessities, with imagined rivalries and impossible, ephemeral promises of security and power…yet we have more shades of those elements than is pleasant to comprehend.
Romancelandia, we have joy and success in abundance. We are a large, diverse, powerful community. We have the money, the membership, and the readership. Yes, we have the disdain of the patriarchy and all who fall victim to its influences. But at the end of the day, we have so much, and we’re gleaning more every day. We’ve changed the industry so many times and we’ll change it more in the future, and we do this not because we want to crush anyone but because it was a natural consequence of our own explorations of story, of power, of agency, of community.
I will never scold a member of my tribe for standing up to fight, but I’ve come to a point where I would rather celebrate us instead and return to creating more stories as offerings to our community. I wrote this post today instead of writing story, because it was a rough pain day and I couldn’t focus on fiction, every little knife of the world further irritating and undoing my thoughts. The exorcise has done its job, because in writing this post I found my peace, my understanding, and my acceptance. And my joy.
I love you, Romancelandia. I love your power and your weakness, your quarrels and your celebrations. I love that I can pick up a book from any one of you and know I will be uplifted, acknowledged, and affirmed. Oh, yes, there are those among us with whom I disagree. There are those who would look down at me and exclude me for what I write, for who I am. I’ll admit I’m guilty of doing the same more than I would like. I’m sorry about that as much as I am the scathing articles, but I believe as only a member of Romancelandia can, that if we only sat at a table together and got to know one another, we would find we were indeed more united than divided.
Romances are the stories of love and unity carrying humanity out of struggle and into communal victory. Sometimes our vehicles of story cause distaste in others. But at the end of the day, we are all of us telling tales of happily ever after.
Patriarchy and its power-sodden squabbles be damned.