This is a summary of “Reading Romantic Fiction”, Chapter 4 of Joanne Hollows’ Feminism Femininity and Popular Culture.
I needed a short reading on romance fiction that required no background knowledge of cultural studies or feminist theory for my students in ethics and literature, and this fit the bill.
Cultural studies created a space in which romance fiction could be analyzed. Cites Tania Modleski’s Loving with a Vengeance” Mass Produced Fantasies for Women (first published in 1982, but revised edition out in 2007).
New cultural studies theories stopped equating culture with texts and started looking at relationship between texts and readers.
A difficulty with the study of romance fiction is the wide variety of texts that might be included.
Hollows uses a definition, from Jean Radford, a) the central narrative concerns a love relationship; b) the central relationship is between a hero and heroine; c) most romances have a female protagonist; and d) there is a close identification between reader and protagonist (Radford 1986,8).
Three problems with this definition:
1. Heterosexist, rules out m/m, f/f, trans, bi, etc.
2. Implies invidious distinction between romance fiction and literary fiction
3. Implies the question of whether something is “romantic” is defined purely by the text, leaving no room for readers’ interpretations — Hollows makes the interesting point that for readers highly sensitized to and knowledgeable about romance, fiction with romantic elements can be read as romance
Critiques of romance fiction:
It is “common sense” that romance is “escapist”, “formulaic”, “trivial”
One source of this is 19th century criticism of mass culture (Frankfurt School, for example)
Modes of industrial production applied to culture, producing standardized, formulaic mass culture which serves capitalism
Note how mass culture is figured as feminine in these critiques: it is emotional, passive, sentimental, easy addicting pleasure
And contrasted with modernist high art — masculine transcendent achievement, heroic, singular
From this Marxist perspective, mass culture transforms proletariat form a potentially potent force for revolution into docile apologists for capitalism
Very similar critique from feminists, but instead of capitalism, target is patriarchy
The “housewife” is a key figure in 1970s and 1980s feminist writing on romance fiction (and soap operas)
Stereotyped, cast as passive, dependent, childish, addicted
Must see feminist critique of romance fiction as part of wider critique of romantic love per se
Love as an ideology that perpetuates patriarchy. In the same way that capitalism makes the proletariat believe it serves their interests, patriarchy makes women believe it serves theirs. In the case of patriarchy, the ideology is romantic love.
Here’s a classic argument from Sulamith Firestone:
Romantic love is pathological, unequal:
1. love becomes a woman’s vocation, diverting her energies from other pursuits.
2. sense of identity and self-esteem depends on a man
3. makes women economically dependent on men, leaving women open to abuse.
4. centrally implicated in the reproduction of women’s oppression as a class, b/c of implication in reproducing the family structure
Problems with these feminist critiques of romance:
1. Treats romance fiction as a monolith
2. Assumes “hypodermic syringe” model of media effects: readers passively accept, cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality
3. Mistakes the thing on the page for the experience itself: need to know how women read it
4. Accepts critical double standard. that anything figured “feminine” (foe example, the emotions) is less valuable than what is figured as masculine. Another example is that in early feminist critiques, romance was associated with the feminine, but sexuality was associated with the masculine.
Foucault was the game changer, of course. After Foucault, we stopped seeing sexuality (or indeed the body itself) as a natural, pre-cultural force which can either be “expressed” or “repressed”
The idea that romance is a political ideology that distorts “natural” sexuality is abandoned, paving the way for more situated, historical, geographical, ethnographic critiques.
Tania Modleski: Hollows appreciates the way Modleski treats romance as worthy of serious analysis, as well as her focus on readers and why they read. She challenges the stereotype of the passive reader, recognizing that women read romance to cope with patriarchy (for example, by “bringing the hero to his knees”, romance is revenge fantasy).
However, Modeleski’s analysis suffers from its “one size fits all”, simplistic psychology, and tendency to obliterate differences between readers, and recreates a division between enlightened feminists and romance readers.
Janice Radway (Reading the Romance 1987): Radway also focused on readers, expanding her analysis to the practice of reading and what it means to romance readers. She did ethnographic research, (open ended interviews, for example) and explored the complex cultural relations and exchanges between the organization of the publishing industry, the texts produced, and the practices of readers.
Hollows points to an ambivalence throughout Radway’s book, in that on the one hand she wants to sympathetically reconstruct the readers’ interpretations based on their world-views, but at the same time subjugates their world view to her own, superior one, which shares many assumptions of the feminist views we’ve already looked at. For example, she constantly undercuts the pleasure that the readers gain from their reading by calling it ‘vicarious’, even though they experience it as ‘real’.
Radway ends up agreeing in the end with Modleski on the problematic “escapist” nature of romance fiction, although Radway does explore different meanings of escape (reading as a literal escape -”don’t bug Mommy, She’s reading”, and as a figurative meeting of desires which patriarchy invites but does not satisfy [for example, the idea that romantic love is a way of being taken care of, when in actuality, women bear unequal burdens of care in relationships])
For Radway, the texts reproduce patriarchy, but the practice of reading can be an act of rebellion. But she replicates the division between the “us-feminists” and the “them-readers”, blurs lines between readers, and infantilizes readers.
Hollows argues that romance critics have missed the importance of pleasure, sexual and otherwise, that romance readers enjoy. The moralizing of romance critics leads them to be suspicious of pleasure in the midst of injustice. But utopian dreams can be, not just escapist outs, but active imaginings of other possible worlds, dreams of change, and dreams of difference.
One LOL moment I had reading Hollows was her singling out lesbian readers’ relationship to traditional romance and the growth of lesbian romance as areas to be investigated. I guess nobody could predict in 2000 the growth of m/m.
Hollows concludes that:
Women and men are not passive recipients of an ideology of romance, instead romance narratives are a resource they draw upon in making sense of the emotional and social world. An acknowledgement of the importance of romance in everyday life makes it crucial to move beyond condemning romance narratives, to understand their diversity, their uses and how they might be subject to transformation.
We’ll read a romance novel next week, and I’ll use that time to update students a bit on where romance scholarship is today.
I hesitate to say much about my students’ reaction to this article without their express permission, but I’ll note that I teach at a state university in a rural, fairly poor state. There was, on the one hand, strong negative reaction to the perceived elitism of both kinds of leftist critiques of romance fiction, while at the same time almost complete agreement with the upshot of those critiques: that romance is dreck. Exploring the tension there made for a great discussion.