Writing about "chick flicks," Imelda Whelehan has commented that their
postfeminist discourse is characterised as deploying what might be regarded as broadly "feminist" sentiments in order to justify certain behaviours or choices, but these sentiments have become severed from their political or philosophical origins. Postfeminism in popular culture displays a certain schizophrenia in the way women are often portrayed as enormously successful at work and simultaneously hopelessly anxious about their intimate relationships, over which they often have little control or for which they seek continuous self-improvement. The world of work is generally portrayed as allowing female success, but there are glimpses of sexism which present enough problems that women have to solve for themselves or in consultation with their close girlfriends; beauty, fashion and adornment remain highly prized as part of the arsenal of the high-achieving woman, so that postfeminism equates with excessive consumption, while at the same time expressing sentiments of empowerment and female capability. The things that make women miserable are often covertly laid at the door of feminism and can be summarised thus: "feminism gave women social equality, choices and freedoms, but those choices have emotional costs which individual women are constantly trying to resolve and balance." It is feminism, then, that is positioned as creating the most significant challenges for postmodern women, even though all that feminism did was to foreground the reality that the traditional feminine sphere of the home remains painfully exclusive from the world of work and almost entirely the domain of women. (156)
Romances, by contrast, tend to focus on women's success in the field of "intimate relationships," though they may also show heroines achieving success at work. The differences don't end there, however: while I certainly don't think that all romances are feminist, there are many that are and I discuss some of them in "Feminism and Early Twenty-First Century Harlequin Mills & Boon Romances" which was published today in the Journal of Popular Culture.
I found that a "focus on female sexuality and a woman’s right to experience sexual gratification is something that the Modern romances share with Second Wave feminism" (1066). Since they also acknowledge that even highly gratifying sex cannot, on its own, provide a firm basis for a long-term "intimate relationship," these novels explore what more is required in order to achieve a successful marriage and, much as
Second Wave feminists “critiqued marriage as yet another form of sexual slavery” (hooks 78–79) [...] In Modern romances the damaging consequences of unequal marriages in which the woman is treated as a commodity, providing sexual and reproductive services in exchange for her upkeep, may be shown through the stories of secondary characters. (1069)
The stories of the protagonists themselves, in the feminist romances of both the Modern and Romance lines, seem to offer the reader an alternative model for relationships of the sort outlined by bell hooks:
When we accept that true love is rooted in recognition and acceptance, that love combines acknowledgment, care, responsibility, commitment, and knowledge, we understand there can be no love without justice. With that awareness comes the understanding that love has the power to transform us, giving us the strength to oppose domination. To choose feminist politics, then, is a choice to love. (104)
According to Whelehan,
earlier, more positive accounts of the meanings of postfeminism have waned as more and more critics identify the seductions of the term as comforting us with the assurance that feminism‘s work is over. Postfeminism depends upon notions of feminism and feminist politics for its existence, but it often resorts to parody to diminish the historical importance of Second Wave feminism. (158)
However, although some of the feminist romances I looked at did reject some of the more radical aspects of second wave feminism, they did not do so in order to position feminism as the source of "the most significant challenges for postmodern women." Furthermore, although HM&B author Ally Blake has declared that some of them contain "post-feminist twentysomething heroines,"
in a personal communication she elaborated that she thinks of “feminists as the women who openly fought for women’s rights, and post-feminist [women] as those of us who believe in those rights and enjoy having them.” (Vivanco 1084-85)
What is clear is that this is not the postfemism present in the films described by Whelehan, in which "The constant return to the theme that full empowerment and heterosexual romance are incompatible has meant that under mature postfeminism men increasingly are being put under erasure" (169). On the contrary, in these romances empowerment (albeit not full empowerment, given that the protagonists still inhabit a world in which sexism has not been eradicated) and heterosexual romance are compatible.
One may still critique romances for the support they offer to "compulsory coupledom" but, unlike Whelehan, who observes tiredly that
For many of us in the business of offering feminist critiques of popular culture in the twenty-first century, it can seem like we‘re simply tilting at windmills. This article touches on those sensations of boredom and ennui which trouble a feminist cultural critic attempting to make sense of the postfeminist distractions of popular culture. (159)
I feel encouraged by the feminist romances I've read: they demonstrate "that romance writers and readers are themselves struggling with gender definitions and sexual politics on their own terms" (Radway 18).
Blake, Ally. "The Changing Face of Romance."
hooks, bell. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge: South End, 2000.
Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 1984. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991.
Vivanco, Laura. "Feminism and Early Twenty-First Century Harlequin Mills & Boon Romances." Journal of Popular Culture 45.5 (2012): 1060–1089.
Whelehan, Imelda. "Remaking Feminism: Or Why is Postfeminism so Boring?" Nordic Journal of English Studies 9.3 (2010): 155-172.
The image of the 3-week-old Polish Bantam chick was created by Charles M. Sauer, who made it available under a Creative Commons licence at Wikimedia Commons.