Feminism and Romance

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 25 September, 2012

ChickWriting 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.

I grew up reading romances... In third grade, after racking up a $90 fine at the public library, I couldn't convince my mom to take me back there, so I read what she read: Amanda Quick, Catherine Coulter, etc. That's how it went for years. Then university. Then grad school. Places that taught me how bad romances were for you, for the world, and all that. In my graduate program, studying George Gissing, I started to believe as he did that novels were a social problem, that stories--with their ability to shape people and culture--had done people a great diservice: middle-class hegemony, compulsory coupling, gendered spheres... Yet how can we make any change? How, without fiction? So I decided to write a novel of my own. It's a romance. It's published (or at least it will be in four weeks), but I am constantly wonder: is good or bad in the ethical sense? Is it feminist or not? When I set out to right it, my goal was a sort of literary pharmakon that would take a world structured on gnder as far as it would go. Instead of a Darcy-like character that has trouble expresses emotions, I created an uber-Darcy, who felt no emtions at all, etc. As I wrote, I kept hearing Radway in my head, her criticism that romances solved all problems by reducing them to problems of gender. I hope I have not done that. But I am still not sure. Yet, it seems to me there are two kinds of romance writers: those that recognize the role of fiction in creating ideology and who actively use their fictions to shape the world progressively and those that don't... those that revel in saying things like "He was such a guy" or "She was a real woman" without irony or qualification. I think there are great deal more of the latter. Still, though, like you, I am encouraged.

I came to romance via a different route. My mother introduced me to Georgette Heyer and I tended to look for a romance plot in the other books I read (e.g. Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope) but she put Heyer in a different class from other authors of popular romance so I didn't start reading Mills & Boons till quite a lot later.

Re the different kinds of romance writers, I suspect it's probably more complex than that. Unlike you I'm not a writer of fiction, so I'm not sure how different people are thinking as they write their novels, but I suspect that not everything which comes out onto the page is placed there consciously. Also, people can be sexist in some areas (or in some ways) and not in others. For example, as Jennifer Kloester writes in her Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller:

Georgette gradually became completely conservative - even reactionary - in her views, and ambivalent about the role and place of women in society. She consistently criticised the feminist stance, and could be vehement in her condemnation of women in business, despite the fact that for most of her life she would be the main bread-winner. While Georgette was never a feminist in ideology, she was in many ways a feminist by temperament: a strong woman who never questioned her ability or her right to succeed in a patriarchal world. (134)

And so we get a heroine like Sophy, in Heyer's The Grand Sophy (which includes a secondary character who's a blatent anti-Semitic stereotype) who is quick-witted, determined, able to ride and shoot better than most men, and has been placed on a list of "Bluestockings, Independent Misses, & Feminists" by All About Romance.

Also (but this is getting away from the issue of authorial intent) when it comes to fiction, readers are likely to come up with different interpretations of the characters, their actions, and their circumstances, because (a) readers will approach the text through the lens of their own values and experiences and (b) there are always things which are open to interpretation.