ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

July 11, 2010

You are allowed to look: Reading romance as a subversive act

When I read romance – particularly when I read contemporary categories about virgin heroines and playboy heroes, which is what I plan to write my doctoral thesis on – I am frequently (and vocally) horrified about the gender roles and the power dynamics. This is not exactly a secret. I’ve written post after post on this blog about various books, outlining all the reasons why they’re playing into harmful gender stereotypes that are completely incongruent with any kind of feminist agenda and in most case countermand it totally (see books like Sara Craven’s The Innocent’s Surrender or Trish Morey’s The Italian Boss’s Mistress of Revenge).

There are many similar problems with Kim Lawrence’s Under the Spaniard’s Lock and Key. I mean, come on, you can basically tell that there are problems with it from the title, can’t you? The hero, Rafael, essentially kidnaps the heroine, Maggie, on not one but a number of occasions to serve his own agenda (protecting his cousin’s wife Angelina, who also happens to be the adopted Maggie’s birth mother – he has some idea that she is going to publicly embarrass Angelina, who is a member of the Spanish aristocracy). There are moments like these, which make me cringe (though there is, unlike some romance novels, a clear level of meta-awareness going on here):

“On one level she recognised that her reliance on him was foolish. Hadn’t she always solved her own problems? She was no wilting flower. Yet here she was, leaning, and not just physically, on Rafael… It was actually just good to be able to let go and know that someone else would pick up the pieces… was that wrong?”

– Lawrence, K., 2010, Under the Spaniard’s Lock and Key [Mills & Boon] p. 139

“The need that rose up inside him, the need to remove the weight from her shoulders, to care for her, was totally outside his experience.”

– ibid., p.164

It’s odd, isn’t it, how it’s always the heroine and not the hero who lets go of responsibilities. I know this is very heavily linked to the fact that romance fiction is escapist for women and sure, it is nice to have someone to do stuff. But the gendering of this in romance fiction smacks heavily of the ‘little woman’ idea to me. The number of times heroines morph from Peggy Olson (or even Joan Holloway) into Betty Draper is a little disturbing. I cannot speak for women as a monolithic unit, but I find this – it’s not so pronounced in this book, but certainly is in others – basically infantilisation, and that is obviously extremely problematic.

It is also almost hilarious how closely Under the Spaniard’s Lock and Key comes to actually articulating my sweeping generalisation that, within category romance, women = love and men = sex. For example:

“‘I love you,’ he breathed against her mouth. ‘And I have been lost without you… It turns out that after a life of driven achievement, all I actually need is you.”

– ibid., pp.178-9

(I LOVE the awkward phrasing of ‘life of driven achievement’. I laughed for, like, five minutes. Couldn’t tell you why, but I thought it was hysterical.)

“Rafael represented rampant sexuality, dangerous excitement and misery because he couldn’t love her.”

– ibid., p.139

I don’t really want to expound on this too much here, because I’ve already written about 500 words and still not got to my actual point, but I am totally smug about how clearly this plays out what I hypothesised in this post. Don’t I feel clever and smug!

But now – drumroll please – my point.

The reason that I actually quite liked Under the Spaniard’s Lock and Key on some level – something I can rarely say about category romance, fascinating as I find them – is a moment. Just one moment. It takes place in the traditional playboy-hero-deflowers-the-virgin-heroine scene. Rafael has undressed Maggie and himself and it’s all about to happen when Maggie is suddenly essentially crippled by self consciousness. Rafael calms her down and says this to her:

“‘This is me, and you are allowed to look, and want, and touch. There is no shame, just sex. This is natural and good.'”

– ibid., p.90

That, right there, is exactly the reason why romance fiction cannot be written off as a backwards throwback to repressive patriarchal gender roles. That articulates perfectly why reading romance is subversive, and, I think, why people often try to conceal that they read it. Romance fiction is the literary embodiment of this idea – it is all right for women to express desire. There is nothing shameful about female sexuality. It is, instead, something to be celebrated.

Not that there aren’t problematic things about even this statement itself, given its context. The fact that Rafael delivers this line to Maggie in his role as her sexual teacher and initiator is a bit disturbing given the power dynamic going on there. But this idea is, at its core, transgressive. When you consider the stereotypical function (both literary and societal) of women as sexual gatekeepers, where men always desire sex and it is the woman’s role (and only real power) to dole it out like a reward, then this is extremely transgressive. At the heart of the idea of the woman as the sexual gatekeeper is the idea that women do not experience sexual desire, but that they tolerate and facilitate the sexual desire of men.

Romance fiction, no matter what crazy gender roles it might perpetuate, subverts this. Sure, it usually does so within a strict moral perimeter – in virgin/playboy books especially, there is a very problematic emphasis on her waiting to have sex with the right man in a sort of moral framework that is absent for the hero (which I have previously discussed here) – but in romance fiction, the heroine’s sexual desire is not framed as something shameful, something unnatural, something that makes her unwomanly or anything like that, but as something which is an essential part of her psyche.

The virgin heroine/playboy hero thing, if you revision it in a certain way, can be very interesting. I don’t really like using ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as monolithic entities, but if you consider that male sexual desire has always been permissible and legitimate, then the idea of The Man as the playboy hero makes sense. When you consider that female sexual desire (at least in relatively recent times – there have been times in history where women have been cast as voracious sexual temptresses out to lead good men astray from the path of righteousness or whatever) has been seen as something shameful, something unnatural and something unwomanly… then the virgin heroine makes sense. When you look at the virgin heroine’s journey, her progress is charted from asexual being to sexual creature as she realises that yes, she is allowed to look. Her nascent sexuality grows until it is an integral part of her being – a part, in fact, that she cannot live without.

Of course, romance fiction isn’t quite there yet. When there are more books that feature the heroine actually experiencing sexual desire for men other than the hero, then I think the playing field will be a little more level. (Maggie notes on p. 40 that she is not ‘the sort of girl who could separate sex from emotion’ – while there is nothing wrong with this, it would be nice to see a few heroines that could.) But there is no understating how subversive it is that heroines not only experience but embrace sexual pleasure in romance fiction, and it is not condemned, but celebrated. As Jennifer Crusie notes:

“They [romance novels] do this first by making it clear that, far from being helpless, asexual beings who must be seduced to respond, many women like sex. A lot. Romance novels spend pages describing women’s sexual pleasure including details that mama never told and patriarchy would be appalled at.”

– Crusie, J., 1997, ‘Romancing Reality: The power of romance fiction to reinforce and re-envision the real’ [originally published in Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres. Number 1-2, 1997: 81-93, accessed via, 21/12/2009]

Romance fiction is not there yet. But the figuring of female sexuality in these books totally subverts the patriarchal norm. The act of reading romance is often seen as something shameful. While at least part of this is because category romances are largely, let’s face it, of questionable literary merit at best, most of it is because female sexual desire is still seen as something essentially unnatural. Patriarchally speaking, women aren’t supposed to want sex. Sex is something that is done to women, not something they participate in.

But not in romance fiction.

Despite the fact that, in virgin/playboy novels, women are introduced to sex and initiated into it by a more experienced man, and that he completes her in a way which is totally problematic, as I have noted ad nauseam a hundred times and a hundred times again, women are allowed to enjoy sex in romance novels. Reading romance novels is, on one level, participating in a revision of female sexual desire, an intensely subversive act. Reading romance, despite all the problems with it, is a celebration of female sexuality and the female gaze – an admission that yes, women really are allowed to look, and want, and touch. There is no shame – just sex.



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Love And Romance. Love And Romance said: You are allowed to look: Reading romance as a subversive act … […]

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  2. “Romance fiction is not there yet.”

    I think some of it is, and some of it isn’t. It’s a big genre, and so it represents a range of views and preferences that exist among its authors and readers.

    “the figuring of female sexuality in these books totally subverts the patriarchal norm.”

    At the romance review sites/discussion fora I’ve visited, the consensus seems to be that women will be sexually active and you can find statements like this: “I’m not saying there aren’t any thirty-year-old virgins out there, but they’re unicorns, you know?”

    As for how that fits in with feminism, well, Ariel Levy‘s written about “raunch culture,” there’s Natasha Walter’s new book:

    Living Dolls is disturbing reading. Walter describes a recognisable, hyper-sexualised culture that swathes little girls in pink and encourages them to obsess about their looks from an early age. Many young women, she writes, “now seem to believe that sexual confidence is the only confidence worth having”. The ubiquity of pornography makes matters worse, convincing both sexes that the parameters for female beauty are narrow in the extreme.

    Attitudes meant to liberate us – such as sexual freedom – have trapped us instead. Objectification of women is on the rise, discovered Walter.

    and many mothers were angry about the sexualisation of young girls. So I think there’s been a big cultural shift, and although there are still some circles in which female virginity is highly valued, there are others in which women would probably be expected to feel shame if they were still virgins.

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — July 11, 2010 @ 8:00 am | Reply

  3. Romance fiction is the literary embodiment of this idea – it is all right for women to express desire. There is nothing shameful about female sexuality. It is, instead, something to be celebrated.


    Comment by Victoria Janssen — July 12, 2010 @ 7:10 pm | Reply

  4. The sentence Victoria quotes reminded me of Carol Thurston’s The Romance Revolution. As far as I can remember, she had a very similar opinion of the genre though she seemed to link this to a move away from virgin heroines. I could be wrong about that, but I did a quick search of the book via Google Books and found this: “Only three of the heroines in the titles included in the content analysis were virgins when the story opened (one was a former nun), […] heroines were sexually experienced in nearly 97 percent of the titles” (101). I think that refers just to a sample of contemporary romances. Some of the lines she thought were most promising, however, didn’t last long.

    I suspect the proportion of virgin heroines might still be lower in the genre nowadays than it was when Thurston was writing, but it probably depends on how one does one’s sampling. The HM&B Modern/Presents/Sexy line has a lot of virgins, and there are still lots in historicals (which makes sense, given the historical context) but I strongly suspect that other lines and sub-genres have far fewer.

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — July 12, 2010 @ 7:52 pm | Reply

  5. My latest entry apparently suggested this one…

    Well, that is interesting. I think I agree with you on almost everything, except I’ve chosen to hold the other end of the rope. Yes, there is still a lot of crap being written under the name of romance, but the times they are a-changing, and you don’t have to read that crap, either. I am myself surprised at how easily I’ve found my way around really intelligent, refreshing romance novels once I knew where to look.

    Then there’s another issue, which I haven’t yet got to address: does romance reflect the world, or does the world reflect romance? Of course there’s probably some dialectic going on there, but how about it was mainly the former? Since romance is given such a bad name and all but ignored by most people, since we can see it evolving together with society, I sometimes feel like reminding that romance is not a political programme… Like, there’s definitely a part of it which tells you how you should live (which clearly includes that you should have a sexually fulfilled life, for instance), but most of it remains fiction. And what I like most about fiction is when it shows us life as fucked up as it really is, and not just perfect as it should be.

    Common problems in romance are when these things (prescriptions vs descriptions) get mixed up, and the characters appear to be rewarded for something awful they did earlier. I’m going to say now that’s just plain bad writing, which could happen in any genre. Nothing specific to do with romance.

    Comment by Asia Morela — March 24, 2011 @ 4:57 am | Reply

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