Reading Romance as a Political Act

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Daughters of a Nation anthology cover image from Washington Post.

A week after the Women’s March, I saw a lot of my American friends looking for means to balance their righteous anger with crucial self-care. Fury can fuel many productive activities but it can also exhaust you and leave you unable to properly function. Mirah Curzer’s piece for The Coffeelicious on staying focused without sacrificing your own mental well-being highlighted two means of doing so that resonated heavily with me: Focusing your energy on one or two major issues close to your heart, and taking care of yourself on a daily basis.

Tying back to my earlier piece on dissent and the power of art as a means of protest, I started thinking about one of my great cultural loves, romance novels, and the role they can play during these times. That most maligned of genres that seems to serve as an annual punching bag every Valentine’s Day for mainstream literary circles while making more money than anything else in publishing has a long history of being stripped of its power by those who dismiss its important role in the zeitgeist. I’ve lost count of the times my reading of romance has been sneered at or smeared as a treacherous act – betraying either womanhood or literature, depending on who’s whining. It’s a routine romance readers are accustomed to, to the point where I even have a series of prepared answers for the expected questions.

Yet lately, there’s been more on my mind regarding the genre. After the march, I saw a lot of fellow romance readers on Twitter seeking out stories with activist and resistance focused elements. Fortunately, author Alyssa Cole created a mini-list for prospective buyers, although she was too modest to list one of her own wonderful stories, so I’ll do so here. Her suggestions included Beverly Jenkins (featuring a hero and heroine working with the Underground Railroad), Piper Huguley (whose work frequently features black women activists and advocates), Courtney Milan (The Suffragette Scandal centres on a woman running a women’s rights newspaper) and a recent collection of novellas with the common theme of black suffragettes.

I’ve read all of these authors at some point and heartily recommend them. Their work is striking, empathetic, deeply romantic and rooted in impeccable research that evokes worlds seldom seen in any genre of historical fiction, much less romance. Their work is also radical in a way romance frequently is yet is never credited as such for accomplishing.

History is written by the victors, and it’s no surprise that they tend to be men. The times, people and conflicts taught in schools and featured in the non-fiction bestseller lists are well-trodden ground fertilized by Eurocentric white men. While progress has been made in filling in the gaps, the stories of women still lag far behind, a problem which becomes clearer when focused on women of colour. There’s also the problem of Shakespeare’s Sister – the theory put forward by Virginia Woolf hypothesizing that countless geniuses may have been lost to history because their era and circumstance dictated the educational and societal prioritizing of men (this can also be applied to people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, those with disabilities, and so on).

Something that historical romance does incredibly well is present an opportunity to fictionalize and contextualize the lives of those who have been smudged from the culture, all while presenting them within a creative context explicitly aimed at women. The stories that are so often denied their place in the canon of literary greatness are the ones offering a necessary change of perspective on the assumed norms of both fiction and non-fiction. The aforementioned romance novels recommended by Cole take the history of our ancestors and craft stories that previously did not exist or were not seen as fitting – why not find love to the backdrop of revolution? Romance is often criticized for glossing over the realities of life, yet depriving history of the very real emotions experienced by its participants leaves us with a bleached perspective of those lives. It dehumanizes humanity to dictate our past as a binary of suffering versus victory.

It’s no coincidence that the above authors are all women of colour, many of whom explore the intersections of race, gender and history through period contexts that are often ignored, willfully or otherwise, by white women. The romance genre is still overwhelmingly white, which makes these stories all the more crucial. Hamilton reclaimed the American history of the exclusively white founding fathers for more inclusive generations; women of colour driven historical romance reclaims the historical and fictional narratives dominated by whiteness as their own in a similar fashion.

Even outside of this burgeoning element of the genre, the act of reading and creating romance remains a potent act, and will continue to be so as women’s rights are put on the table to be bargained over by an American government that sees said issues as frivolous “identity politics”. After the tape of Donald Trump bragging about “grab[bing] her by the pussy”, the cockroaches of misogynistic defenders swarmed into my feed with a clearly rehearsed line they all thought was a rhetorical slam dunk: Why are women complaining about what Trump said when they all read Fifty Shades of Grey?

Cute.

I’ve made my feelings clear on James’s work countless times, as have many in the romance community. This discussion is hardly new to us, but the framing of that faulty argument struck me as particularly insidious because it was a tactic I’ve seen far too frequently executed towards progressive women whenever the topic of misogyny comes up: The idea that you can never complain about sexism if you like sexist things or things perceived to be sexist. Never mind that romance continues to be a billion dollar a year industry run almost exclusively by women for women; some think-piece said it was bodice-ripper chauvinism so they must be right. Clearly women don’t know what’s best for them because they like a book where a woman gets spanked. The opinions of women should be instantly dismissed because they enjoy forms of entertainment the status quo has deemed to be inferior.

The gaslighting at play when the culture of women is used against us in order to oppress us cannot be underplayed as mere trolling. Every act of womanhood seems to be under attack right now – healthcare, education, reproductive rights, family issues, political power, cultural cache, and opposition to rape culture. When the mere act of being a woman comes under fire, every act of womanhood you perform becomes political, something that is a much bigger struggle for women across intersections of gender, sexuality, race, health, geography, education, class and so on.

That’s why romance ends up being a political act. Creating art is democracy in action, and its own form of resistance. Focusing on work intended almost exclusively for women becomes all the more potent as a result, and when you use that genre to explore history untold by the status quo, you work to redefine the world. And what better way to redefine a broken system than with the genre that has a guaranteed happy ending?

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