Feminist Romance Novels?

Romance novels got me through adolescence and were my great burning shame. I covered my paperback obsession in brown grocery bags and hid those in the middle of musty smelling text books. After high school graduation I refused to indulge myself anymore. It was simply too embarrassing.

Fast forward twenty years and I found myself at Strand Book Store panel “feminists take on the romance genre” with four very well educated, thoughtful and successful authors…of romance. (Gloria Steinem was in the audience!) There I begin to challenge my assumptions and shame about reading romance.

Sales of romance constitute 29% of all fiction. A lot of woman (overwhelmingly white between the ages of 18-44) read a lot of romance ($1.08 billion in 2013). It is that evening at Strand that I realize that romance novels are written for woman (82% of readers are female), by women, about women (specifically their sexual pleasure!). And that is undoubtedly what accounts for the disparaging attitude towards the genre. Suddenly, I was inspired to indulge my love for reading the books and attempt to write one myself.

Since that night I’ve read over fifty romance novels. While most aren’t sexist, few are feminist. Here you’ll find reviews of the ones that I think qualify as feminist, to varying degrees.

Criteria

Bechdel-Wallace test: are there two named female characters? do they discuss something other than men? (I’m more lenient with historical romances than with contemporary).

Character Complexity: Are characteristics and personalities revealed through a series of consistent details? Does heroine and relationship have multiple layers (insecure and courageous, for example)? Is there emotional or intellectual growth not dependent on the love interest?

Comprehensive: does the novel address race-or-class-or-ethnicity-or-religion-or-sexual orientation-or-physical abilities-or-mental health AND gender? (My) feminism is the belief that there are intentional structural iniquities that burden, oppress and exclude women from all aspects of life (work, love, sports, leisure, health, etc) AND that those forms of oppression/burden/exclusion are profoundly tied to race, class, etc. I’m a white woman but I don’t promote or encourage white feminism. I’m also not okay with historical romances that ignore history.

Sexual Pleasure: is the heroine a protagonist of her sexuality? This can include BDSM, consensual rape fantasies (not my fav), alpha males (maybe), but can’t be manipulative, to “win” the guy or a result of shame.

Rating

Writing and publishing a book merits a minimum 3 stars.  If the book is poorly written, offensive, ignorant or implausible, it loses stars. If it meets/exceeds feminist criteria, inspires/challenges or is well written, up goes the number. I rarely write a synopsis (you can find that in the description on Amazon or the back of the book) and I try to avoid spoilers.