The other weekend the Sunday New York Times Book Review had its annual summer reading issue. Now, it’s not like I need any more books to read, since I already have around 50 on my reading pile (almost all nonfiction, which is what I prefer reading these days), so I wasn’t looking for anything special, just checking things out. But then I noticed something disappointing. Disappointing, but not surprising. The issue had no “roundup” for Romance—Romantic fiction being the quintessential summer read for millions and millions of women around the world.
Other genres had their own “roundup” (I’m using quotes because that’s the term the magazine used and I think it’s ironic that it’s also the name of a horrible toxic chemical). Horror, Thrillers, and Science Fiction each had a “roundup.” But not Romance. Normally, I might shrug with defeat and perhaps roll my eyes alone in my room.
The urge to write a blog about this whole topic came and went, and I got busy and distracted.
But as the days and weeks went by and the news was filled with violence against women around the world, it just got me wondering: Could our intellectual disdain for Romance be a symptom of a bigger problem? Fear of woman’s sexuality is ancient and a well-documented, deeply rooted problem (and leads to millions of women suffering genital mutilation every year—even in America!). We live in a world that celebrates and fixates and focuses on violence and fear (in the news, at the movies, and even in the most elite intellectual literary circles) and then ridicules love and sexuality. It makes me feel like the literary world was and is, in its own intellectually oblivious way, shaming women (or humans, for that matter) for having the desire to read about love and sex and the transformative power of true romantic partnership and pleasure.
Most people I know who have never read a Romance novel before, or who have and don’t enjoy them, can’t even say the word “Romance” with a serious, non-judgmental tone of voice. “Bodice Ripper”—as outdated and irrelevant as that phrase truly is to the genre—is still most often said with disdain and mockery. Or at best, with nervous laughter. In every genre (even literary fiction and nonfiction) there are good, great, and terrible writers. There are “formulas” and expectations from readers. In this case, Romance is no different from any other genre. And the constant dismissal due to formulaic writing is both undeserved and unprofessional.
The real question is this: Why are we so uncomfortable with passion? Especially passion between two people who love each other?
When we surround ourselves with the thrill of violence and horror, we become inured to it, though it still has an impact on us. If it weren’t a thrill, people wouldn’t want to read about it or watch it. So of course, some people want to take that thrill to the next level—act it out, do something real with it. And we as a culture continue to feed that beast, celebrating the darkness of our humanity. Yet the very thing and perhaps the only thing that has the power to heal the wounds and stop the violence—love and healthy sexuality—we ridicule, mock, and submerge so that it, too, becomes dark and violent.
When it comes to women, feminism, women’s sexuality, and women’s rights, we still have a long road ahead. American women are participating in a fragile experiment that could regress at any moment (if some politicians have their way). And the clues that the universe is giving us on how to progress as a society have something to do with women’s sexuality, freedom, and love. Love and all the messy wonderful pleasure that goes with it.
What’s so terrifying about love and women’s sexuality? Now, that’s a thriller I’d love to read. Because after all these years, all our progress, all our efforts, it seems we feel that love is dangerous. Still.
Quite a few people will be upset with my opinion on why women, love, sexuality, etc. are looked on as “less then” or not as accepted by society as men’s sexual lives. Religion, the world over, and including the USA, has either taught outright or given the suggestion that women and their sexuality are not only less than men, but are even leading men astray! That men have the ‘right’ to be sexual beings, but women are just plain evil if they even give the hint of being passionate, alive and sexual human beings. I’ve read that Religion has caused more wars and killing than any other cause, but it has also caused more suffering and repression of women and women’s right to be whole, active, complete humans than any other cause in this world. We are supposed to be such an enlightened society today, but in the area of women’s rights and a woman’s right to be a healthy, happy sexual being, we are not in the least bit enlightened!
Touche Alice, touché! It has been said that religion is the “opiate of the masses”. Adding to what Alice already said, I was reading an article that was emailed to me yesterday where a rabbi said that young women should not receive a college education, that it was against the laws of Torah! How ridiculous is that statement?! This is only to keep women suppressed. Women would have no rights except to cook, clean and reproduce! They cannot, and will not be able to think for themselves, and be in charge of their own bodies. Just breed, breed, breed! People are so uptight about this subject. Too taboo around the world!
I believe that there is a fear of women having ANY power, especially where sex and sexuality is concerned. What? Are men afraid of the temptation factor? Are they reliving the Adam and Eve story? Are they afraid that they don’t have what it takes to resist that temptation, and fall into some drunken stupor where sex, passion, lust and maybe even love is concerned? I believe that there is a real fear there, which is why most men and some women the world over shy away from, and is so vehemently opposed to, a woman’s sexuality. Ladies and gentlemen, let go sometimes. Guys, women are not always trying to seduce you or make you fall from grace. Guys, contrary to what you may think and believe, it isn’t always about you, and what you want. It is about us, and what we want and desire. Get over yourselves!
I agree with you and Alice. There is also an element of romance novels or movies/television being “less intelligent”. I am now, without shame admitting to others, when asked, that I like books – including romance and the same goes for what I like to watch on t.v. or movie choices. Yes, I do like Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery and to a lesser degree, Thriller and some Horror (not as much as I used to). I like a wide variety for many reasons. I must not be in the minority because the Romance genre is still popular and love still makes the world go round;)
It could be argued that sex not religion is today’s opiate. We live in a world that pretty much has shut God out and ridicules the idea of morals and manners. Instead people worship sex and think it’s the end-all-be-all in life….and that’s why there are so many excesses and perversions out there. Books like 50 shades of gray and pornography has taught women that degregation is true love and the men are totally taking advantage of it. All these hookups and dumping and using which not only leads to STDs and broken hearts but making the genders distrust each other. That was never part of God’s plan. Christ came to Earth in order to liberate us from captivity from sin that leads to death. Disordered sexuality is wrong for both men and women. The true ‘romance’ and sexuality can be found within a marriage between a woman and a man who truly are soulmates as described in Genesis where they could be naked (physically and emotionally) and not feel shame.
Your whole premise is flawed. Yes, romance novels are disdained by many, but not because they empower women. Romance novels do nothing of the sort, not even romantic love is empowering. Everything romantic, from start to finish, is a tool of oppression for women. Love, romance, hell even religion. You can’t imagine the number of faithful women who evangelize or try to tell me what is wrong with the souls of humans today. A little part of me laughs and dies every time. All monotheistic religions and some polytheistic ones in practice today in some recognizable form from their original state are tools of oppression for all, but especially women.
Now, romance novels are generally disdained for a number of reasons. Typical reading snobs say the whole genre is formulaic, wildly unrelatable, and seta up horrible expectations. While they are mostly correct, what they forget is that more importantly than any of that, they are tools of oppression. You need to get this one man, get him to marry you, and ensure you are faithful to each other. Hell, it’s right there in the word: faithful. Love and religion intersect, weaving a net of oppression for women. Considering in ancient agrarian societies women had waaaaay more authority, autonomy, and could choose their own lovers at a whim, you can imagine ancient men got tired of fighting a war and coming home to see their women shacking up with someone else who happened to be around, thus giving birth to children that were not his and he would have to help raise.
This is a totally different world from today. Though their are societies like it today. Just imagine some of the horror stories we’ve seen in the last 40 years of religious cults whose male leaders have used “visions from god” to tell them they should take other men’s wives into their own house. Cults where the patriarch deflowers all the young women before their allowed to be wed…in public. That is what romantic pursuits like religion end up as, and romantic love is no different. Its simply a less violent form of oppression.