a stack of old, romantic-looking books with glasses on top

Feminism and Romance Writing

Last weekend at the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers’ Monthly Meeting, Katharine Ashe spoke about feminism and romance novels. Katharine presented a list of “tropes”—characters or situations commonly used in romance—that she proposed writers leave behind.

But she recognized that some tropes might be “old favorites” that would be hard to leave behind. She used an analogy of a favorite chocolate cake her mom made. As she got older, the cake gave her headaches. At first she thought she’d have to stop eating it, or suffer the headaches. But she researched and eventually learned certain types of chocolate caused the headache. She started making the cake with different chocolate, and was able to enjoy it again. She asserted that we can change what we write while still keeping what we love about writing romance.

Setting the Stage

a man "playfully' choking a woman, both wearing medieval costumes
Ugh, not so sexy in real life

Katharine discussed the statement that “readers know the difference between fantasy and reality,” which is often given to justify including something in a book that might not be acceptable in real life. She gave some examples of studies showing that fiction can affect the brain and behavior, even if the reader doesn’t think it has. (She didn’t need to convince me; when I returned to Disney World as an adult, I realized what a warped sense of relationships I’d developed, probably as a result of too many fairy tales.)

She also made the point that her call to remove certain tropes from romance isn’t about being politically correct. It’s about creating books that display good behaviors, to ultimately make the world better. Heroines in romance should leave readers feeling stronger.

Feminism 101

Katharine gave her definition of feminism, which is simply a belief in equality. The word has been disparaged to the point that some people are uncomfortable with it, even if they believe in gender equality.

a stack of old, romantic-looking books with glasses on top

Someone asked about the reality of history, when women often didn’t have many rights. Katharine pointed out that today, women have legal rights but still lack power. In past centuries, they might not have had legal rights, but they still could have power; often the instances of this are not recorded in mainstream history. For example, Katharine wrote a heroine who’s a pamphleteer (like an 1800s activist blogger) in the Regency period; this was a real thing, but no one knows about it.

Tropes to Retire

Finally Katharine presented the list of outdated tropes. Here are some that I liked best:

a smiling male cartoon doctor, and an overly sexy cartoon nurse holding a needle
No more of this!
  • The hero is a misogynist who hates all women, until he falls for the heroine; wouldn’t it be better if he LIKED women and still picked her?
  • The hero is a villain whom the heroine tames into domesticity; wouldn’t it be more exciting if they were allies, and if both of them were part domestic and part wild?
  • The hero’s behavior would, in real life, be creepy harassment.
  • The heroine is exceptional, the only woman like her in the world.
  • The hero has more power or authority than the heroine (he’s the doctor, she’s a nurse), or more money while the heroine struggles financially. Why not try making them equal or flipping the traditional roles? Note that “power” doesn’t have to equal money; it can also be about the characters’ personalities.
  • The hero physically rescues the heroine, while the heroine emotionally rescues him.
  • The heroine is pitted against an evil “other woman” and must best her to win; it would be better for the heroine to have female friends.

Katharine concluded that yes, these tropes still work to create an appealing story. But authors can choose not to use them, because it would be better if they went away. And readers might like new stories better: A large part of the reason the old tropes persist isn’t that readers like them, but that large publishing houses keep putting them out, and the marketing budgets are spent convincing people they want to read them. This situation is slowly improving with the rise of independent publishing. 

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