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Why Popular Romance Novels Aren’t Made Into Movies

Why not more of this?

Why aren’t romance novels adapted into movies or TV shows more often? Aside from Hallmark channel movies, Fifty Shades of Grey, and the relatively recent Starz hit Outlander, a big-screen romance based on a book is a rare breed. But if romance is the biggest-selling book genre, and best-selling books are hot Hollywood commodities due to their built-in audiences, then why aren’t there more of them?

Your first instinct may be to claim sexism, but I don’t think that’s the case – at least not the main reason. Most cinematic joints have a romance element of some kind, so it doesn’t make sense to conclude Hollywood execs always shy away from “chick stuff.” I think the real deciding factor comes down to how cinematically adaptable a story is, meaning how well it follows a standard story structure.

I’ve read a lot of craft books, and though they all focus on different aspects of writing, they’re all surprisingly consistent on how a story should be generally structured for maximum effect. I go into this structure in detail in my Night Owl Reviews articles. A story basically flows like this from start to finish: hook (happens immediately) -> inciting incident (anytime before plot point 1) -> plot point 1 (~25%) -> midpoint (50%) -> plot point 2 (75%) -> climax/denoument (90%). Some craft books break this flow into Acts, but the beats are the same. Nearly every professionally-made book or movie follows it…

…Except romance novels.

Now I’m sure this isn’t the case with all romance novels – I’ll admit I have not in fact read every romance novel, so my sample size is limited in that respect – but I’ve read enough to notice a pattern. Romance novels often break the narrative formula in favor of deep-diving into their character’s psyches or the minutiae of their relationships.

For instance, the last romance I read was supposed to be a suspense, though by Chapter 4 I still hadn’t figured out what the hook or inciting incident was supposed to be (meaning I wasn’t given a reason why I should care about the characters, other than they seemed to be decent if painfully bland people). In the one before that, an erotic contemporary, the story seemed to kick off right at plot point 1, leaving me scrambling to figure out who the characters were as they boned (and boned and boned…). And the one before that, another romantic suspense, the main mystery was established in the first thirty pages as plot point 1, and then…nothing happened. The plot did not move one inch forward for nearly 100 more pages, instead focusing on the hero and heroine making googly eyes at each other.

This is a big reason why I don’t finish many romance novels – the story structure just isn’t sound. However, I’ll admit I care a lot about plot, probably more than the average romance writer, and my stories tend to be plot-heavy with intricate storylines. I’m sure this colors my opinion. But without the plot, the characters are just kind of floating in a nebulous cloud of a world, thinking and feeling things for no particular reason other than the author wants them to.

And yet romance novels are still hugely successful despite bucking the formula. Why? I suspect it’s because readers are looking for a feeling more than a story. They want to capture the essence of love and sex and everything in between; the rest is secondary. I’ve noticed my monthly Romance Writer’s Report, published by the RWA, features lots of advice on characters (and marketing), and very little on story structure.

Eschewing the traditional story structure doesn’t mean romance novels are “wrong;” it just means they’re not inherently cinematic. I think it’s also a big reason why romance novels get a lot of crap for being “bad.” They’re not bad, they’re just different.

It all comes down to what the audience wants – a feeling or a story.

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Are You a Romance or Love Stories Girl?

(This post was first published on the Long and Short Reviews blog as part of my RECKONING blog tour)

Do you believe there’s a difference between a romance and a love story? I do – but do you? And, more importantly, are you a romance girl or a love story girl (or dude…I use the term interchangeably)?

The Romance Writers of America can help us out here! Their definition of a romance is a story with “a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” It follows that any story which doesn’t conform to these two elements is not a romance. “Love story” implies the primary plot is focused on love, so the difference is the HEA.

So: central love story plus HEA = romance; central love story with no HEA = love story.

Or does it?

What about the first 50 Shades of Grey? That one doesn’t have an HEA. It follows the same couple, Christian and Ana, through two more books of their romantic misadventures. In fact, some would argue there’s no love story, either, as Christian displays what many consider stalking and abusive behavior throughout the series. Is it a romance, a love story, or neither?

What about Out of Africa, a movie adaption of a book starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep as two ill-fated lovers in the early 1900s and described on Wikipedia as an “epic romantic drama?” That story doesn’t have an HEA, either. You could also argue it’s more about a woman’s voyage of self-discovery than a love story.

How about Me before You? Romeo and Juliet? Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Casablanca? Gone with the Wind? All centered on love, but none of them fit the definition of romance.

The first novel in my Valentine Shepherd series, Vengeance, ends with a major plot twist that pushes the two main characters apart after they fought so hard for love. It was hard to write! But like the 50 Shades series, it follows the same couple through two more books, and (spoiler?) they eventually get their HEA in the final story, Reckoning. Does this mean Vengeance isn’t technically a romance, but the whole series is?

In the end, it comes down to what you, the reader, believe a “romance” should be. I think the RWA’s definition of romance says more about the people making the definition than it does about the actual genre.

Personally, I don’t like the idea of being characterized as “not romantic” because I can be satisfied with ambiguous endings more complicated than “And then they lived happily ever after.” I think if a couple is blissfully married for fifty years, and then one of them gets hit by a car and dies, that shouldn’t discount the previous romance they experienced together. Everybody dies. Everything ends. Hell, one day the sun will swell into a red giant and swallow the earth. Why should these facts of life mean that romance isn’t possible for any of us in the real world?

I guess this means I’m a love story girl – it’s more about the journey than the HEA for me. Which is it for you?

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Situations Where the Word P*ssy Should Never Be Used In Romance

(This post was first published on the I Smell Sheep blog as part of my RECKONING blog tour)

I love cats! When I was stationed in Afghanistan, I kept a literal pile of snacks behind my desk that I could dip into and think about home. Despite this horde of food lying on the floor of a building in a third-world country, no vermin ever touched it, thanks to the community of cats which roamed the camp.

We called him Toonces, despite the fact we never saw him drive a car. We just assumed that he could, because he kicked so much ass. This war-cat had our backs.
My epic food horde. Every soldier has one, though mine was especially impressive. Back, vermin! It’s MINE!

So it’s really a travesty to me how the name if this fine animal has been coopted by the forces of sexism and misogyny. The fact I need to put an asterisk in the word to keep this post PG-13 gives proof to its negative connotation, and yet for some weird reason it’s a staple in contemporary romance literature.

Not that the word can never be used; rather, there are situations where it should definitely not be used. Here are those situations:

  1. A man referring to a woman’s vagina

With the exception of purposely smutty talk, how many men do you know who respectfully refer to a woman’s groin as her “p*ssy”? The key word here is respectfully. It’s hard to root for a hero who uses such a crass term to describe his lady love, even if it’s only in his mind, or to describe how “tight” he thinks she is down there.

Dude can fart and tell you it’s a compliment, but it still smells.

  1. A woman referring to her own vagina

How many women, who are not porn stars or not engaged in dirty talk, refer to their own vaginas as their “p*ssy”? None, that’s how many. “Hi, I’m calling to schedule an appointment with my gynecologist to get a mammogram and p*ssy check-up.” NOBODY SAYS THAT. Yet I don’t know how many books I’ve read where a woman internally monologues about how her p*ssy is clenching or is wet or whatever at the sight or thought of some hot piece of beefcake. The fact that the female is using a derogatory term to describe to herself how she feels puts her experience squarely in the male gaze, which is a jarring disconnect that pulls me right out of the story.

Internalized sexism is not sexy.

  1. A man (who is not the villain) describing himself or others as “p*ssies” to connote weakness

Cats aren’t weak. They are stone-cold killers who will dutifully keep rodentia off your precious snacks. They have sharp teeth and claws, and will viciously attack you if you pet them wrong! So why would someone use the word “p*ssy” to mean weakness? …Ah, because they actually mean “female.” In other words, something that is “lesser” and not worthy of respect. If a character uses this term in disdain, we’d better not be expected to sympathize with that jackhole.

Get your kicks with kitten puzzles! That’s right – we glued them together and hung them up, because that’s how we do in a warzone. Respect.

So if the goal is to establish a character as a sexist asshat douchcanoe, then go ahead and use the word p*ssy. Or perhaps if you’re referring to a feline who will protect your valuable-as-gold supply of Oreos with their lives, then sure.

Otherwise…don’t.

Damn right.
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The Biology Debate about Gender Roles: Why It Matters to Romancelandia

A couple months ago, a fellow romance author posted a funny comic about motherhood on her Facebook page. She included words to go along with it to this effect: “This comic about the frustrations of being a mother is hilarious! I had to skip over the feminist stuff tho, cuz men and women are biologically different and there’s no getting around that, but if you ignore that stuff then it’s so true!”

I was gobsmacked that a fellow romance author, of all people, could forsake feminism as a lie women tell themselves in order to deny nature’s truth. Then James Damore, aka “Google Bro,” released his “Women Are Biologically Inferior” manifesto and it got me wondering: setting aside the loaded question of whether women are inferior to men in general, how biologically different are men and women to begin with, and how do those differences affect our behavior?

Romance is filled with tropes that assume certain stereotypes about how men and women should act, from the virginal, chaste heroine (who is pure and beautiful and therefore worthy of love) to the aggressive, alpha male hero (who is brave and strong and therefore worthy of love). Of course we recognize these tropes as fantasies with only a passing resemblance to reality, but the aforementioned author’s Facebook comment suggests there are a significant number of romance readers and authors—maybe even a majority—who believe these tropes are based on real-life hardwired differences between the sexes.

But if you’re going to make a claim supposedly based on science—hence the term “biologically” rather than “according to the MRA subreddit I frequent”—what does actual scientific literature have to say about it?

Well, I happen to be a big-time science nerd. I have college degrees in technical fields (engineering and physics) and subscribe to lots of scientific journals and blogs where articles about this topic sometimes pop up. In fact, this month’s issue of Scientific American just happens to be all about gender—how convenient! As any good scientist will tell you, no complicated issue is ever black or white, especially when it comes to human behavior. You’ll find “evidence” for any crazy-ass thing you want to believe if you fish around long enough. But if you’re a critical thinker, open to having your beliefs contradicted by reality, and then changing your beliefs as a result (which is a lot harder than it sounds—cognitive bias is very powerful), you look at the preponderance of evidence and come to an educated conclusion about what is probably true.

(Note that in this case “truth” = reality, not “my own truth,” which is psyching yourself into believing bullshit.)

So are women and men biologically different in ways which affect our behavior and validate the tropes?

TLDR Answer: No. Gender-specific behavior is based on cultural standards, not biology.

Long Answer:

(Get ready for some citations!)

The “biology made me do it” line of thinking comes from the assumption that you can observe an animal’s behavior and directly extrapolate a reason for it based on the animal’s biology. For instance, if you’ve read a science book or two you may assume people love babies because animals are hardwired to take special care of their offspring to maximize the survival of their species. However, there are clearly people who don’t like kids or babies, and many parents who don’t love their children. This is because humans aren’t normal animals, and our reasons for doing things are more complicated than a cursory reading of biology and psychology can explain. The key difference between us and the rest of the animal kingdom is that our prehistoric biological hardwiring is easily overridden by cultural forces.

Take another example: racism. It’s tempting to strike a superficially objective pose and say that racism is “natural” as a product of our innate dislike for anything that is not like us, in order to protect our genes (it all comes down to survival of the species, right?) [1]. However, this explanation ignores the fact that humans have extremely low genetic diversity. Every human being on the planet shares about 99.9 percent of their DNA with every other human [2]. In fact, two separate chimpanzee populations (our closest non-human relatives) living in geographic proximity to one another are still more genetically diverse than the entire human race [3]. We are basically clones of one another, and yet we seize on differences that are literally skin deep in order to justify one cultural population’s “superiority”—and therefore right to hold power—over another. While our dislike of things and people that are different may have been a hardwired instinct we acted on millions of years ago, we’ve since coopted this hardwiring for purely cultural reasons; the biological differences between races, which white nationalists often cite, do not actually exist.

This distinction is what tripped up the Facebook author and Google Bro: you can’t make generalizations about human behavior based on our biology because cultural forces trump nearly everything. If you’re going to make the case that gender-specific biology accounts for behavioral differences between men and women, you first need to prove that the null hypothesis is false—that the differences are not due to something else, like cultural factors.

It’s easy to look at the male and female body and assume that we are completely different (hotdogs vs tacos! Heaving bosoms vs washboard abs! Flowing locks vs flowing mullets!), and that these differences extend to our brains as well. It’s also easy to look at sex differences in the animal kingdom and assume that the clear differences in male and female behaviors within many species also extend to humans. But gender research doesn’t support this assumption. There is no such thing as a “male” and “female” brain [4]. To the extent which the brain controls sex traits, such as the amount of testosterone or estrogen produced, they vary wildly between individuals [5]. Everybody’s brain is made up of a mosaic of male and female traits which can’t be mapped back to a specific gender demographic [6]. Put another way—if you asked a neurosurgeon to map your brain simply based on your gender, they wouldn’t be able to do it. There is no universal brain structure which makes somebody with two X-chromosomes naturally “neurotic,” “emotional,” or “indecisive,” just as having a Y-chromosome doesn’t mean you’re naturally “assertive,” “aggressive,” or “brave.”

There are, of course, biological factors that do affect a person’s behavior, such as sexual preference (I always find it amusing when someone refers to homosexuality as a lifestyle choice, as if being vilified and alienated by large swaths of society is a fun choice). Mental illness such as psychopathy, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder will also affect a person’s behavior. But these biological factors affect people on an individual basis, not whole demographics. The stereotypical differences between male and female behavior disappear when environmental circumstances change. For instance, the “sexual revolution,” which marked a significant uptick in single women’s sexual activity, coincided not with the introduction of the birth control pill—a biological factor—but with the women’s liberation movement—a cultural shift (the pill had been available since the early 1960s, while the sexual revolution took off in the late 1960s and early 1970s) [7]. The belief that women are hardwired to prefer monogamy while men want to spread their seed around ignores the fact that both genders report similar sexual habits and generally prefer monogamy in equal measure [8]. There’s also no difference in men and women’s appetite for risk, despite the “men take more risks to attract females” stereotype [9].

So why are women considered inferior to men in a wide majority of cultures if it isn’t nature’s truth? One clue to the rise of the patriarchy comes from the Bronze Age in human history, when countries started establishing themselves on the backs of their armies. During the Warring States Period of Chinese history, samples of ancient human remains showed a significant drop in female nutrition from previous historical periods, likely the result of resources being diverted to males who could fight for their country/warlord [10]. Societies took advantage of the physical differences between men and women to achieve cultural objectives, and the “men are fighters/women are nurturers” myth was born. It’s not a coincidence that women are finally regaining some gender parity now that we live in a technological age where size and strength are no longer critical to success.

The point of this article isn’t to argue that it’s wrong to swoon for alpha males or that housewives should be ashamed of themselves. It’s not wrong to adhere to gender norms; rather, it’s wrong to label somebody who doesn’t adhere to those norms as “unnatural.” Human gender behavior doesn’t follow a natural order. It’s wrong—ethically and scientifically—to attribute cognitive traits to an entire demographic. Our love for the romance genre tropes isn’t hardwired into us; we love them because we have learned to love them. What makes a man a manly man and a woman a good woman are things we were taught by society at large and by our smaller personal spheres of influence.

So go ahead and love your preferred Romancelandia tropes and stereotypes! But recognize them for what they are—cultural preferences, with no biological foundation.

 

  1. Rob Brooks. “The Origins of Racism.” The Conversation, 23 July 2012. http://theconversation.com/the-origins-of-racism-8321.
  2. Roger Highfield. “DNA survey finds all humans are 99.9pc the same.” The Telegraph, 20 December 2002. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/1416706/DNA-survey-finds-all-humans-are-99.9pc-the-same.html.
  3. R. Bowden, T.S. MacFie, S. Myers, G. Hellenthal, E. Nerrienet, et al. “Genomic Tools for Evolution and Conservation in the Chimpanzee: Pan troglodytes ellioti Is a Genetically Distinct Population.” PLoS Genet, 2012. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1002504
  4. Lydia Denworth. “Is There a ‘Female’ Brain?” Scientific American, September 2017.
  5. Ibid, 40.
  6. Ibid, 41.
  7. Brenda Frink. “The pill and the marriage revolution.” The Clayman Institute for Gender Research, 29 Sep 2011. http://gender.stanford.edu/news/2011/pill-and-marriage-revolution
  8. Cordelia Fine and Mark A. Elgar. “Promiscuous Men, Chaste Women, and Other Gender Myths.” Scientific American, September 2017.
  9. Ibid, 36.
  10. Angus Chen. “Of Meat and Men.” Scientific American, May 2017.
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Finished The Red Election!

Greetings, all my fans who read these posts but never comment! (I’m sure there are hundreds of you, silently enjoying everything I write)

Sorry I’ve been silent for a few weeks. I fell down a hidey-hole for a couple reasons: marketing fatigue, and finishing up the Red Election!

Ever since I returned from the RWA conference in late July, I’ve felt drained and unenthusiastic about this whole author branding thing. Specifically, I’ve HAD IT with marketing and publicity advice and don’t want to do it anymore, dammit.

Here’s the MINIMUM of what you’re supposed to do: ask for reviews from dozens of bloggers, give ARCs to anyone who will take one, guest blog on sites your potential readers frequent, leave “bread crumbs” to your website to entice people to sign up for your newsletter, have giveaways and a release party, and be active on social media.

Suffice it to say I did all those things and haven’t seen a corresponding spike in sales, to the point where I wonder if I would have gotten the same result if I’d done nothing. So now I’m taking a “SCREW IT” attitude to pumping up my marketing jam, and I’m going to get giggy with doing whatever I feel like – at least until I have another release on the way…

…Which I’m happy to say is hopefully imminent! I’ve finally finished The Red Election! My Original Gangsta fans might recall reading parts of this YA sci-fi novel as a work in progress a couple years ago. Now it is complete and awesome! I made a blurb and book cover for it and everything (see below)!

Anyway, now that I’m between projects I’ll start posting more often…and make some movies like I threatened to do a while ago.

High school’s a bitch, and then you die…

In the year 2045, Major Cora Johnson and Captain Quentin Rose are members of an elite US Army squad in a dying world, where mysterious time-altering weapons have started a second Civil War and pushed humanity to the brink of extinction.

When a bomb goes off during their attack on a temporal weapons facility, Cora and Quentin die…and then wake up in their teenaged bodies in our present day.

As they navigate the take-no-prisoners world of high school—and grapple with their growing attraction to each other—things get even stranger when they begin receiving orders to kill. Should they obey like the good soldiers they’re supposed to be, or resist and risk destroying the future?

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Make Your Own Romantic Suspense Mad Libs!

(This post was first published on the Just Romantic Suspense blog as part of my RECKONING blog tour)

Have you always dreamed about writing your own romantic suspense story? Well now you can!

In fact, it’s really not that hard. Here’s a plot line generator that any aspiring author can use to write their own bestseller:

Step 1 – Fill in the following info:

  1. Precious stone
  2. Profession
  3. Number greater than 1
  4. Animal
  5. Relative
  6. Verb ending in -ing
  7. Ominous-sounding name
  8. Manly name that can be shortened to something even manlier
  9. Pick one: Navy Seal/Marine/Special Forces Soldier
  10. Profession
  11. Liquid
  12. Vice ending in -ing
  13. Noun
  14. Shortened version of [8]
  15. Body part
  16. Display of affection
  17. Body part
  18. City
  19. Body part
  20. Pick one: been burned by/not ready for/not deserving of
  21. Verb ending in -ing
  22. Noun
  23. Body part
  24. Meat item
  25. Flower
  26. Body part
  27. Famous person
  28. Relative
  29. Reasons
  30. Noun

Step 2 – Insert answers into this plotline:

TRIGGER WARNING for [4]s, [12], and [27]

[1] is a [2] taking care of [3] [4]s by herself after her [5] died in a tragic [6] accident. Though she’s lonely, she’s accepted her sad life as an unavoidable price she must pay in order to stay safe from [7], who she’s sure is responsible for her [5]’s death even if the police don’t believe her…

[8], an ex-[9], is a [10] battling inner demons after his partner died on a botched raid on [7]’s hideout three years ago. One day, he wakes up in a pool of his own [11] after another hard night of [12] to discover a mysterious message on his [13] from one of his old squadmates: “[7] is coming for [1]. Protect her!” What could it mean?? [14] has no idea who [1] is, but he can’t pass up the opportunity to face his old nemesis, so he tracks her down.

When [14] shows up on [1]’s doorstep with the most spectacular [15] she’s ever seen, as well as a warning that [7] is coming for her, she doesn’t know whether to run from him or [16] him. Despite how he makes her [17] tingle, she can take care of herself, thank you very much! However, when her house mysteriously catches fire, and she and her [4]s barely make it out alive, she admits she has no choice but to go into hiding with [14] while he figures out how to stop [7].

On the run together, [14] forms a plan to confront [7] at his secret hideout in [18]. Despite being constantly distracted by [1]’s luscious [19], he knows he needs to keep his mind on the mission. Besides, why would anyone want him? He’s [20] love.

After teaching [1]’s [4]s the deadly art of [21] to protect [1] while he’s gone, [14] goes to [18] to confront [7]. But it’s a trap! [14] is badly hurt by a vicious [22], but manages to escape.

When [14] returns to [1], she patches up his [23] with such care that [14] cannot deny his attraction to her any longer. [1] admits she feels the same, and since her [4]s are conveniently somewhere else at the moment, he unsheathes his [24], and makes sweet, sweet love to her perfect [25].

Suddenly, [7] shows up! He put a homing beacon in [14]’s [26], knowing [14] would lead him to [1]. [7] then rips off an amazingly life-like mask to reveal he’s really [27], who is also [1]’s [28]. He’s always hated [1] for [29], and wants her dead. No one can stand in his way now – except [14]!

Unfortunately for [27], [14] is now filled with the vigor and energy only sexual healing can provide, and he uses his [30] to defeat [27] and save the day!

Now that [1] is safe and [14] has learned how to love again, they live happily ever after with [1]’s now-deadly [4]s, who [14] loves as his own. The end!

***

See? It’s just that simple. Change the pronouns for an LGBTQ angle, throw in some kinky sex scenes for an erotic edge if you want, or add some animal shape-shifting/vampires/werewolves/etc. for a paranormal twist. The possibilities are endless!

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When a Facebook Friend Dies, What Do You Post?

I don’t post on Facebook much, even though the marketing gods have decreed that you’re supposed to post at least once a day to keep your theoretical readership engaged. I’ll admit I don’t post very often for two main reasons: most of the things I’m thinking at any given moment are either so mundane I assume no one will care, or I’m thinking things I don’t want anyone to know I’m thinking.

An example of the latter:

Today, I learned via Facebook that one of my Facebook friends died in a mountain climbing accident yesterday. The initial post was in Spanish, so at first I thought I’d translated it wrong because I’m not very good at Spanish yet (I’m in the process of learning). Then I thought it was a morbid, unfunny joke because literally the day before he posted a picture of his mountain climbing equipment with the caption, “Wish me luck!” I went to his Facebook page, and sure enough there were dozens of RIP posts, so damn, he really did die. Jesus, poor guy.

I was going to post my own condolences when I realized that I could not for the life me remember how I knew him in real life.

I know we served in the military together, and I recall congratulating him on his move to Washington State for an Air Force-sponsored internship with Boeing (I think) and the shadows of other conversations we had, but I can’t remember which base we were stationed at together, what program we worked on, or how we knew each other.

So what would I have posted? “RIP – You looked like a really awesome, stand-up guy on Facebook, full of life based on the pics you posted, and caring and considerate in the way you often liked my posts. You will be missed (on Facebook).”

Is this how we live now? Do all these shallow connections we now have with people make us shallow ourselves? Does the act of writing this blog post mean that I’m making his death all about me by reducing him to an abstract catalyst for self-reflection rather than the flesh-and-blood person with real family and real friends that he actually was? Kinda feels like it.

And that’s why I don’t post much on Facebook.

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Three Reasons Why Sexism is Still a Problem in Romancelandia

(This post was first published on the Romance Junkie blog as part of my RECKONING blog tour)

Wow, look at those heartthrobs demanding that crying woman decide which man she belongs to! How romantic…

For a genre by and large written by women for women, romance uses a lot of sexist tropes in its storytelling. You can’t swing a pink dildo around the romance section of your favorite bookstore without hitting a paperback that denigrates women in some way, and I’m not just talking about the Old Skool stuff.

I get where the impulse comes from. The genre’s purpose is to sell a romantic fantasy, and often that fantasy entails willowy women being swept away by alpha males as a metaphor for losing oneself in sexual and/or romantic pleasure in a way many of us can’t do in real life.

If the basic definition of feminism is treating men and women as equals, then the woman-swept-off-her-feet-by-a-manly-man naturally caters to the opposite impulse by playing into our desires to abdicate our mundane responsibilities and let somebody else take charge—without the negative consequences that often follow in real life, of course.

Not to say it’s an unreasonable desire to build a fantasy around. Who doesn’t want a Greek billionaire to worship them? But as the late Roger Ebert said about movies—“It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it”—it’s not what a romance novel is about, but how it goes about it. By dipping a toe into the pool of anti-feminism in service of a romance storyline, some books trip headfirst into it and send up a maelstrom of cringe-worthy sexist stereotypes, and sometimes outright misogyny.

(Note: “sexism” is a prejudice or stereotype based on gender; “misogyny” is a dislike or hatred of females. Not surprisingly, the two often go hand-in-hand)

Here are the three biggest offenders that need to follow shirtless-mullet-heroes and he-raped-me-until-I-loved-him-heroines into the Romance Pit of No Return:

–          Slut-shaming

God forbid a woman should be sexually experienced…or, even worse, if she enjoyed that experience…or—the worst—if she dares to have sex with a man other than her intended during the story, no matter the circumstances! Virginal heroines are a trope all their own, along with the idea that the state of a woman’s hymen is somehow directly proportional to her worth. Of course men aren’t held to this standard. Dudes can ho around all they want, it don’t mean a thang! But a lady, especially the heroine, must save herself for The One. And if she doesn’t…for shame.

*A woman’s value = what her vagina’s been up to.

 

–          All other women in the story are evil and/or sluts

Basic decency is a zero-sum game, and other women are the enemy. What better way to make the heroine look good than by bringing down all the other ladies around her? Her true love will only want her if she’s not like other women, i.e. a not a slut (see above).

*A woman’s value = how she compares to other women.

–          Stalking/abusive behavior portrayed as romantic

He shows up at her work unannounced and demands she go places with him. He makes proclamations about how “she will be his,” orders her around (especially in the bedroom), won’t take no for an answer, won’t let her deal with her own problems, and won’t let her make her own life decisions…because he loves her so much! She may tell him no, but her heart says yes. It’s okay, though, because he knows what she wants. If he keeps telling her she’s beautiful and assures her that he’s never felt this way about anyone else before, she’ll just keep swooning no matter what he does.

* A woman’s value = what a man tells her it is

Obviously not all romance novels contain sexist elements; in fact, many are happily, proudly feminist! And you could argue to each their own—these books are fiction after all. A lot of women like the anti-feminism fantasy, so what’s the harm? The problem is that fiction is a reflection of reality as the author sees it, if only in subtext. If a certain genre of fiction contained, for instance, regular allusions to anti-Semitism, what assumptions would you make about the people who read it? If we tolerate a consistent thread of sexism and misogyny in our beloved genre, what does that say about us?

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