Trigger Warning: this discussion and comments may contain triggers for sensitive readers, as it addresses feminist issues including sexual assault, sexual themes, etc.
In the first part of this series on Feminist Romance, I discussed why I want to both read and write romantic stories that contain erotic sex scenes within a framework of feminist values. In this post, I want to focus on defining Feminist Romance as a sub-genre. I can only define it in terms of how it’d suit my desires and tastes, so while I will attempt to be open and inclusive, it’s inevitable that other people will have different opinions on what they’d like to see. Some will say I’m being too general or lenient, and others will say the opposite. But hopefully many of us can come together to create a fair list of what we believe Feminist Romance should and should not include.
To that end, if you create your own blog posts on the topic, please share and I’ll update as needed with a list at the bottom of this post. My goal isn’t to tell people what they should or should not want, but to foster a community of like-minded women and men who want to read great love stories without being put off by the typical anti-feminist tropes and clichés that unfortunately tend to typify the romance genre.
First of all, it’s important to declare some firm rules to which I believe most feminists would agree:
Feminist Romance must never contain any of the following:
- Positive portrayals of rape, sexual assault, any non-consensual sexual act, or physical abuse.
- Glorification or lauding of any perpetrator of rape, sexual assault, any non-consensual sexual act, or physical abuse.
- Positive portrayals of empty objectification of anyone as a sexual object alone.
- Positive use of any sort of hate speech (not limited to feminism: I believe most feminists would be equally appalled at racism, homophobism, etc.)
I’m not saying the above concepts can’t exist in the story; in fact, clearly some of them are prime motivators to feminist action. It’d be quite the fantastic world where rape or bigotry do not exist. The key is they must not be presented in any way that even implies that they are acceptable. A rape survivor can reclaim her inner strength and move on, but at no time should a rapist be shown in a sympathetic light. A suitor can tell a lady she’s beautiful in a lovely romantic scene, but at no time should a woman’s fuckability be held up as a defining characteristic. Characters who objectify in that regard must be portrayed negatively.
As far as I’m personally concerned, any sex scene in which any party is cajoled into it through false, manipulative means or by being incapacitated constitutes non-consent. I’m not interested in reading about sleazy seductions unless they’re framed as wholly negative acts from which the heroine rises later as a newly defined, wiser, stronger self. I don’t want to see her go back to the seducer at all. I don’t want him forgiven later just because he’s ostensibly changed his ways. I don’t find such story lines romantic: I find them nauseating.
The same goes for abuse: if one partner beats the other, they’re a villain and there can be no redemption for that in an equitable love story.
Next are things I’d like Feminist Romance to avoid, but I concede that others may disagree with some elements, so further discussion is warranted.
Feminist Romances should avoid the following:
- Positive depictions of sexual humiliation – I personally don’t want to read BDSM even though others might be into that. If it is included, it needs to be 100% consensual, and even then, I don’t believe that humiliating aspects of some sexual kinks are conducive to a romantic love story between equal partners. That falls more into erotica, which is a separate genre. Further, any of this sort of thing would need to have trigger warnings, which in and of themselves aren’t very romantic.
- Strong female protagonists giving up their strength or independence in order to pursue the romance – Don’t set up a character as having a wonderful trait only to make her abandon it so the guy will love her. Don’t make her give up her bow in order to be a proper princess. Don’t make her sacrifice her independence to find true love (because true love is two independent people sharing their lives, not taking each others’).
- Glorification of patriarchy, of male dominion over women, or of willing female submission – Again, it’s one thing for the story to take place against a patriarchal backdrop, since that will include most known societies, but I don’t consider it the least bit romantic for a woman to give herself over to a male power figure. If the story has the male protagonist in a higher position of power than the female protagonist – which again will inevitably be common because life works that way more often than not – both sides should be aware of the power difference and be actively working to mitigate it. A man boffing his secretary on his desk is neither romantic nor sexy to me, but a boss who falls in love with someone in his employ and wrestles with that as a moral and philosophical dilemma does interest me, as long as when they come together it’s done in such a way that she’s clearly not being subjugated by the process.
- Positive use of misogynistic slurs – I don’t find it the least bit sexy for a woman to be called a bitch, whore, slut, or any similar term. Again, others may not mind so much, but I don’t want to see those words used in any positive context in Feminist Romance. That’d put me off a character quickly, especially if used during sex scenes.
- Pandering – Don’t stick a traditionally male trait or role on a woman (“Look! She’s a mechanic!”), tack on a conversation between two women about some feminist concept you dug out of a Wikipedia article (“Patriarchy bad!”), have a lady-on-top sex scene, and say, “There! Feminist enough for ya?” Because no, it’s not. Just like those of us who are geeks to any other topic can tell when we’re being pandered too, so too can feminists, and nobody likes it. Don’t even bother.
Those are the things that occur to me off the top of my head that I’ve seen in romance novels that put me off the genre. There are no doubt other unpleasant elements, so I’ll add to the list with an Update note as necessary.
In terms of what I do want to see, there are no absolutes beyond the obvious things I expect of any story such as good writing, professional editing, solid characters, rich plots without gaping holes, etc. I want good love stories with fun sexy scenes without the nonsense listed in the points above, but I’m not looking for formulaic feminist polemics. I definitely don’t require any particular percentage of the book be dedicated to feminist principles. I don’t believe authors should be restricted to specific themes or elements, so long as they leave the nasty stuff listed above out. However, below is a list of things that would please me if I did see them, be they small parts of sub-plots or dominant themes.
Positive things a Feminist Romance could include:
- Redefined traits without gender attachment – It’s easy to cast a female protagonist as being tough or having a particular skill usually attributed to men. Fine. But feminism isn’t about taking on traditionally male tropes and reshaping them to fit women: it’s about redefining what being female is without sexist constraints in the first place. Give the princess a sword and let her fight, but don’t prevent her from crying when her friend falls in battle. Likewise, when the prince’s friend falls, he should cry too. I’d love to see more juxtapositions of both supposedly male and supposedly female attributes, casting them all as part of the human condition and not limited to a particular gender.
- Self-Rescuing Princesses – Or generally speaking, women that solve their own problems, at least partially. A good partnership love story will obviously have room for both parties to assist and rely on each other throughout the plot – be it as part of grand adventure or more inward, personal struggles – but empowering female protagonists to lift themselves out of pain and danger is likewise empowering to the female reader.
- Survivor strength – Regardless of how a female protagonist managed to survive an ordeal, her recovery should show at least some level of self-determination and empowerment. That doesn’t mean she has to go it entirely alone without support from those who care about her. Again, a romance with a balanced partnership ought to include a loving shoulder to cry on should she need it, and there’s nothing wrong with needing that from time to time. But I – and I’m sure other feminist readers – appreciate heroines who overcome trauma by using love as a foundation from which they can grow in their own way, on their own terms, and using their own inner strength. This is particularly true for misogynistic trauma such as rape; a female protagonist who has gone through that horror is more compelling if she’s active and powerful in her healing process in a way that doesn’t dismiss the trauma as inconsequential.
- Discussion and contemplation of gender roles – I don’t require protagonists to be perfect feminists (if there even was such a thing), as long as they recognize problems and work to correct them. I personally have a thing for heroic men who struggle with what their role is in a relationship with a woman who routinely saves herself from danger. I don’t want to see the man being positively portrayed for resenting that, but I find it very compelling for him to have to reconsider social norms in that context. Likewise, I enjoy seeing women discuss gender issues from opposing yet sometimes equally feminist viewpoints, bringing classic debates down into the microcosm of individual lives. Having characters question themselves and each other on specific plot points and how they each deal with them is fertile ground for feminist discussions, and I’d like to see more of that.
- A version of The Bechdel Test – That test was made for movies, but I see no reason why it shouldn’t at least be loosely applied to Feminist Romance. I say “loosely” because any heterosexual romance is going to necessitate a lot of conversations about the male protagonist. But since I prefer rich plots in which the love story is a central aspect – as opposed to stories that are solely about the relationship and sex – I’d love to see a lot of Feminist Romances that pass the Bechdel Test. That could mean something as basic as two women talking about something tangentially related to the love story, or perhaps about wider feminist ideals as noted above.
- LGBT normalization – I’m mostly straight so I’m personally looking for heterosexual sex scenes, but that doesn’t mean LGBT themes should be absent. I appreciate inclusion of LGBT characters not out of tokenism but out of casual, normal, daily life, particularly in cultures that are permissive of openness. Obviously, there will be a certain segment of the Feminist Romance audience that specifically want lesbian love scenes, so that will no doubt come up on many lists of requests for this genre.
- Shared child-rearing – Few things make my heart beat for a male protagonist more than if he has good fathering skills beyond being willing to throw a football on Saturdays or occasional diaper changes. Give me stories of men who perform heroic acts for children not merely out of duty and certainly not to impress the ladies, but because they have big hearts and can’t bear to see a child suffer. Tell me about a man weeping in joy when he first holds his newborn child and I’ll be crying along with him. It’s fair to expect any male protagonist in a Feminist Romance that includes children to be a decent dad, but I’d appreciate it if authors went beyond the typical to really delve into fatherly love and gladly taken responsibility. Clearly not all Feminist Romance would even include children at all and some would argue that motherhood in a feminist context is a whole separate discussion, but if the love story does include children, I expect them to be raised in an equitable partnership. Dumb-Dad Syndrome is equally offensive to women and men and doesn’t belong in a Feminist Romance at all.
Again, those are elements I’d personally enjoy and there are no doubt more so as with the negative points above, I’ll add update notes as necessary.
What about you? What does Feminist Romance mean to you? What elements do you crave? What’s lacking in the love stories you’ve been reading? What typical tropes make you angry or otherwise ruin the mood? What would make your heart pound in delight, and what turns your stomach?
Please share in comments or point me to your own posts on the subject. I sincerely hope to start a wider dialogue in this area. I believe if more writers know we want this stuff, more will endeavour to create it!
And if you have book recommendations that fit these criteria and suggestions, please share those as well. Authors are welcome to do so, but please be honest. I believe my novels fall within these guidelines, but if fellow feminists have concerns about anything I’ve written, I’m open to constructive criticism.
This is the second part of my musings on a potential sub-genre in the romance field. Part 1 is here.
Why Aren’t Romance Novels Feminist? Ask David Wong. by April Line Writing
Feminist Friday: Kimberly Chapman and Feminist Romance by Allyson Whipple at How can the poet be called unlucky?
Feminist Romance Group on Goodreads – Come join the conversation!
Do you have a blog post, article, or other relevant item to share? Please let me know and I’ll list it here.
Please note that while conversation is encouraged, no comments attempting to hijack this discussion away from feminist topics will be approved.