I am very partial to a love story, and happy to find love in a story as part of some other narrative, but I hate romance. It is a genre written for women by women, and I recognise that many women love it, but I think there’s much to be uneasy about. I’ve read a lot of romance, one way and another, trying to get to grips with it, and how it has changed meaning over time.
The end point of a romance novel is that the woman gets her man. Either in marriage or in something that looks like a settled and dedicated relationship. It is a story shape that tells us we are to aspire to this. It is the big moment for any woman. Your wedding day will be the most important day of your life. That’s a really dodgy message. It was dodgy when Jane Austin was doing it. It remains dodgy.
It’s not unusual for the man to start out hostile, unpleasant, dangerous, threatening, or something else of that ilk. We are to take from this the good old message that he’s horrible to you because he fancies you, just like the way we were told at school that boys hit us because they liked us. We are told that the heroine will magically turn the beastly man into a good man. This keeps us trying to tame abusive men and imagining that we can change them. This is not helpful.
Romance is a hetro-normative genre. My experience of writing in it is that readers and reviewers get really cranky if you write lesbian, or gay romance. It has to be labelled clearly as such, and then they can avoid it. You can’t have polyamoury in the romance genre, either. Its one man and one woman for the happily ever after. So, whole swathes of ways of being are excluded. Romance is on the whole a straight genre. LGBTQ people are expected, too often, to call their love stories something else. I’m not cool with that.
On the whole romance is a genre where being young and beautiful matters. Winning the man tends not to involve saving him from burning buildings, or any kind of adventure. This is a genre of the domestic sphere, more often than not. Because that’s where we are to understand that women belong. If there is any drama, it is usually the woman must be helped, rescued and so forth.
Medieval romance gives us forced marriage. I have a lot of trouble with ‘medieval romance’ as a concept knowing it was an era when women’s bodies were political game pieces and children could be married off to be raped by men they’d never even seen before. By finding ways to make these setups seem romantic, I think we’re trying to normalise some pretty appalling things.
Captive romances take this a bit further – and there’s too many of them out there. Women are captured, taken prisoner (usually in a historical context) and fall in love with their abuser so that makes it ok. That doesn’t make it ok. Not ever. I do not think these are good stories to tell each other.
I wonder how much of the genre is about trying to make inexcusable male behaviour palatable to women who aren’t encouraged to think they can have anything else. We do it to ourselves. I think we need better stories – stories about love that don’t just focus on the start of a relationship but which explore what it means to lover over a longer time frame. I want romance to be a genre that does not assume the preferences of the main characters, and I want there to be room for people who can be romantically attached to more than one person. Most of all, I want women to stop telling other women that shitty, domineering, controlling and even violent men are in some way sexy.