Romance is one of the most scorned genres of fiction. Straight romances are loaded with cultural baggage regarding gender, so many of these stories are attacked on one side by misogynists and on the other by feminists. The fans who write and love these romances, mostly women, are left feeling embattled. They strike back, and soon the sky is dark with arrows.
If we’re not careful, this can become a fight between critics who stigmatize women’s stories and women who defend rape culture to justify their tastes. In such a battle, only patriarchy triumphs.
We can avoid this trap. Being a feminist and enjoying questionable tropes isn’t mutually exclusive, and reconciling these interests is the most effective way to make both our stories and the world better.
How Misogyny Affects Our Stories and Us
It’s easy for feminists to find toxic tropes, and it’s easy for fans to spot feminist criticism. That makes it easier for us to fight each other instead of fighting the casual misogyny that permeates our society. But the strong association between romance and women makes the genre a popular target for misogynist attacks.
At about 1.5 billion dollars in sales a year, romance is the most lucrative fiction genre. In surveys, it takes second place for the number of readers who say they read it. Yet, only five minutes into my internet research, I found an infographic comparing the most popular genres that somehow omits romance while including much smaller genres. There’s no comment about that from anyone who’s posted it, as though this isn’t worth mentioning.
Along with the romance category, young adult (YA) fiction is associated with women and frequently contains romance. YA fantasy romance is the category that Twilight falls in, and this niche overlap between two genres associated with women is a frequent target of scathing critiques. Since almost 70% of YA titles are purchased by adults from ages 18 to 64, what we should probably be asking is why YA is still treated like it’s only for teenagers. Its popularity among adults also helps explain why YA speculative fiction often sells much better than adult speculative fiction.
While popularity doesn’t mean excellence, it is a sign of a genre’s cultural footprint. A genre that does that well is impacting a lot of people. But by the way that people talk about influential books, you would never know these genres were so big. People consistently talk about books in other genres as though they are more important.
The popular consensus seems to be that Twilight is badly written, but it’s not. Sure, it has lots of room for improvement, but so does almost every other bestseller I’ve ever read. Eragon is far worse, but it hasn’t faced the widespread ridicule that Twilight has. Other books by men demonstrate the double standard we have when evaluating whether a work is brilliant or trashy wish fulfillment.
- The Wheel of Time is just as problematic as Twilight and no better written. It caters to men’s fantasies just as Twilight caters to women’s. I did not want to know that Robert Jordan had a spanking fetish, but it’s too late now. The series was nominated for a Hugo.
- The first book in Steven King’s The Dark Tower series is the indulgent fantasy of a teenage boy, with a plot alternating between contrived sexual assault and excuses to murder people. Even Steven King pretty much admits it’s immature; he wrote it when he was 19. You’d never know from the conversation around it. I certainly didn’t expect that after hearing my friends rave about it.
- If the main character of The Name of the Wind were a woman, he would have been laughed off as a Mary Sue. He’s based on the author’s roleplaying character, and he’s the absolute best at everything. The book has several awards and is frequently spoken of with reverence.
Besides giving women’s books a bad reputation, the misogyny directed at romance also affects women at a personal level. At Mythcreants, we’ve noticed a pattern of women writers who tells us that they want to avoid writing something like Twilight while at the same time articulating goals for their story that would make it just like Twilight. It’s the stigma surrounding these books that these writers want to escape, not anything in them. That’s tragic. Writing is hard enough without making writers deal with public shaming.
What Casual Misogyny Looks Like
It’s okay to dislike something, and anything that’s popular is worth critiquing. But unfortunately, when it’s things associated with women that we dislike, it’s easy to slip into misogynistic rhetoric. So what’s the difference?
Let me illustrate with an item that’s controversial for no good reason: the pumpkin spice latte (PSL). Like romance, PSLs are popular and associated with women, which has turned a seasonal beverage into an object of scorn. If you don’t like PSLs, that’s perfectly fine, but the normal behavior for a person who doesn’t like a flavored latte is to not order one. Instead, you might easily find yourself…
- Ranting about how gross PSLs are
- Declaring your non-PSL drinking status on social media
- Reassuring others that you are not one of those PSL lovers
Once your dislike of the PSL becomes performative instead of something rarely worth mentioning, misogyny could be afoot. That’s why simply telling others that you don’t like something that is associated with women could merit a little personal reflection about why you were motivated to share that.
Of course, society might benefit from some criticism of this particular latte or anything else that’s popular. But if you are engaging in criticism, ask yourself…
- Are you a hot beverage critic in general, or have you decided to engage in critical analysis for this particular drink?
- Are you spending your energy tearing down the PSL as a whole rather than making specific arguments about its weak points?
- Have you mentioned these same weak points when reviewing similar drinks that aren’t associated with women?
- Are you making any jabs directed at PSL drinkers?
- Are you using gendered language in your criticisms?
It can take some self-awareness to realize when you’ve crossed the line.
How We Can Resist It, Even When Criticizing
If you can, be out and proud about the romances you like
Not everyone has the ability to take on the extra burden of publicly embracing things society stigmatizes. But if you like romance in general or stigmatized novels like Twilight, being open about that will force the people who know you to put a face to a group they might otherwise be shaming. Even mentioning that you like a romance from a popular movie or TV show could make a difference.
For instance, Stacey Abrams, a popular politician and voting rights advocate, has let it be known that she writes romance under the pen name Selena Montgomery. Also, she ships Buffy and Spike (Spuffy)* from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Thanks to Stacey, now all of us Spuffy fans know we don’t have to choose between Spuffy and running for office. I just don’t think running for office can compete.
Remember that women are a marginalized group
When straight men depict romance in problematic ways, they are targeting other people with less power than themselves. When women do it in stories for other women, we are usually just hurting ourselves. While that’s not great, it’s not as bad as punching down.
There is also some safety in knowing that a romance with a problematic male love interest won’t be read by many men who might emulate that. The stigma that keeps men away allows women to express fantasies that they wouldn’t want to become a reality.
So remember the context of who a story is by and for. Twilight is by a woman for women. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is by a megacorp and aimed not just at nostalgic women, but also little girls and their families. Twilight should not be immune to criticism, but it’s fair to hold Disney’s Beauty and the Beast to a higher standard.
Be cautious with gendered labels
Unfortunately, labels that are assigned to female characters by critics can easily be picked up by society at large and used outside their original purpose. One such example is the “manic pixie dream girl.” This was originally intended as a critique of the way men write female love interests. Since then, it has been used against any female character with high novelty, not just ones that are male-centric.
The term “Mary Sue” was meant for a specific type of candied protagonist that appeared in fan fiction. But the label has become a tool of misogyny that is wielded against any prominent female hero.
Be wary of using or coining labels that are derisive and gendered, even if their purpose is to critique sexism.
Raise the profile of romance
How we discuss books tells others what books we think are influential or have artistic merit. Even discussing a book means it is worth discussing. So if you’re covering the biggest fantasy franchises out there, Twilight has earned its place on your list. If you’re covering the most influential writers of speculative fiction, don’t forget Anne Rice.
If you like to put a variety of speculative fiction books on your reading list, add some romances in there. If you are part of a book club, submit popular or influential romances to your book club for consideration. Of course, keep in mind what’s comfortable for everyone in your group. A romance without sexual content may work better for some.
Point out the strong or positive aspects of romances
When you are critiquing something, how you approach the work makes a difference. You can declare a story is trash and then go into detail, or you can mention that the work has its strong points and weak points – as most works do – but that you’ll be focusing on its toxic tropes specifically.
Find some aspects of the work that are strong and include them up front. Twilight, for instance, has good characterization. If you can’t find anything you think is worthy of praise, you can look at what fans say about it and summarize the reasons people give for liking the story.
Gently call out misogynistic shaming
If a friend of yours is engaging in what appears to be casual misogyny online or in person,* how you respond will either encourage them to continue or signal that they could be going too far. You don’t have to be confrontational to do this.
Your friend: My coworkers are constantly nattering on about the new Twilight movie and it’s just BLECH.*
You: Well, I heard it added some cool action scenes that weren’t in the book, so I can understand why they’re so excited about it.
If your reaction shows empathy rather than scorn, a person with good social skills will pick up that their misogynistic bashing isn’t wanted. If they’re more socially oblivious, consider being more direct about how their words are harmful or how what they said made you uncomfortable. People who intend well can reflexively say misogynistic things, so they might even be grateful that you pointed it out.
Don’t dismiss an entire genre or its fans
It’s productive to critique the specific tropes you’ve seen in romances. It’s counterproductive to badmouth all monster romances or deride the fans of any work, including ones that are problematic. These kinds of attacks give fans every reason to dig in and fight back for all they’re worth. That’s because the logical conclusion of such arguments is to stigmatize them or take their favorite stories away.
If we want fans to acknowledge toxic tropes, we have to be specific about what should change and resist throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If you tell me that I shouldn’t ship Spuffy because it’s problematic, I’ll shrug you off as an asshole. If you point out that the attempted rape in Spuffy is incredibly problematic, I can only agree.
How We Can Address Toxic Tropes
The opposite of making women feel embattled and stigmatized is creating a culture where it’s okay to love something that’s problematic. Normalizing criticism, reminding others that every work is flawed, and validating fans will make it easier for them to acknowledge the flaws in their favorite works.
From there, new things are possible. One of the saddest aspects of the fight between feminists and fantasy romance fans is that there’s too little conversation about how both sides can win. For instance, how can a male love interest be sexy to fans of problematic romances without being controlling? To even consider this question, we have to recognize that many male love interests are too controlling and believe that someone who finds these characters sexy has tastes worth catering to.
And regardless of personal tastes, it is possible to cater to them while reducing a story’s toxicity. It’s not patriarchy itself that’s sexy or romantic; it’s the feeling of having a sexy guy aggressively pursue you, or the conflict of being drawn to someone despite your better judgement, or the wish fulfillment of having the most important man in the world obsess over you. Women have a huge variety of reasons for liking the romances they do, but those reasons rarely include wanting to spread harmful ideas.
Even when a writer wants a love interest to be outright toxic, what that means can change. When I was a teenager, Tom Paris from Voyager seemed like an attractive straight-talking rebel. When I rewatched it ten years later, I thought he was condescending and controlling. The more we recognize toxic behavior and educate ourselves, the better behaved an aggressive love interest can be while still feeling aggressive to fans who like that.
On top of taste, some romances are problematic simply because the storyteller encountered technical challenges they didn’t know how to solve. An attempt at antagonistic chemistry can create characters that are more abusive than the writer intended, and stalking might have been added because the writer struggled to find reasons for characters to meet. These problems have solutions; storytellers just need the right instruction.
In the end, the women who love these stories must want to reduce their problematic aspects. No one else can do it for them.
What We Should Aspire to as Fans
Getting defensive over the things we love is a near universal impulse. Unfortunately, it’s often a destructive one. To improve anything, we must first acknowledge that it can be improved. But even the most gentle critique is likely to raise a fan’s defenses, particularly when it’s covering a sensitive subject such as sexism or abuse.
It’s especially difficult to acknowledge the validity of criticisms when the critic is being mocking or vindictive. However, that doesn’t make the critic wrong. What’s more, a critic’s tone may be better than it seems. The more upset and defensive we feel, the more negative a critic’s tone will seem to us, creating an unfortunate feedback loop.
Anyone can get better at accepting criticism with time and effort. The biggest trick is believing that it’s okay to love something with serious flaws, and that any weaknesses you learn about do not erase the story’s strengths. No one can take away the positive experience you had with a story, and acknowledging flaws shouldn’t stop you from enjoying the story again.
Learning to listen to criticism without getting defensive doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything a critic says. In particular, people are perfectly capable of pretending they’re promoting social justice when they aren’t. When Fifty Shades of Gray was being made into a movie, I had a family member who shared negative articles claiming she wanted to protect young women from the film’s toxic messages. She was actually shaming people for participating in consensual BDSM.
However, if you’re mounting a defense against feminist criticism, please take a hard look at your argument and how it could be used. For instance, if you say that toxic romance tropes aren’t harmful because they’re fictional fantasies, that could be used to defend any fiction trope. Did the story glorify how the male hero raped his love interest? That’s also a fictional fantasy.
On the other hand, you might say that Edward isn’t too old for Bella because regardless of his technical age, he’s clearly been designed to resemble a teenager. That argument can only be applied to other stories with a specific trope, and you would probably be comfortable defending them as well.
All genres have room to innovate. By listening to people’s complaints about your favorite works, you’ll gain the opportunity to address them when you write stories of your own.
The opposite of engaging in toxic discussions isn’t focusing exclusively on praise. It’s discussing problems constructively. Unfortunately, as a culture we’re a long way from separating toxic and constructive arguments. But with time and self-awareness, we can get there.
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