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Let's Stop Making Excuses for Problematic Romances August 4, 2019

Since the dawn of the romance novel, readers and writers of the genre have been unfairly stereotyped as shallow, sex-obsessed, and worst of all, female.

People casually put down all stories about women finding significant others as "chick lit," "bodice rippers," or "easy beach reads." They harass romance authors online, threaten their livelihoods, and say to their faces, "My daughter isn't into that stuff, thank God!"

Under constant siege for their choice of entertainment, romance fans understandably get defensive. They fight back by pointing out how misogynist and sex-negative these comments are.

The problem is, not all criticisms of romances are unfair. And the urge to attack anyone who hints that romance novels are less than perfect can hurt the people trying to make the genre better.

Last year, when I was posting regularly on the Wattpad community forums, I made an offhand comment that Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre is not a good role model for heroes today. He's a middle-aged man who seduces his vulnerable and isolated 18-year-old employee; psychologically manipulates her to test her feelings for him; forcibly kisses her while saying, "Don't struggle so, like a wild frantic bird"; and attempts to commit bigamy with her while imprisoning his mentally ill wife in the attic. What a prize, eh?

In response, people vehemently defended Mr. Rochester. He's just flawed, and that's what makes him interesting! He's just Byronic, not a bad person! One lovely person wrote multiple diatribes to me over several days, going on and on about how Jane is a strong heroine, so how dare I degrade her by implying she was a victim; and Jane secretly liked Mr. Rochester so he wasn't taking advantage of her; and that forced kiss wasn't assault, it was a misunderstanding; and obviously I don't know how to read.

Last month, when I started to become more active on Twitter, I made another comment that 20th-century romances that portrayed rape as something glamorous and sexy set a bad precedent for the genre. Denizens of Romancelandia leapt to educate me on all the reasons the "romantic" rape scenes were not only okay, but revolutionary.

  • Back then women who consented were "slutty," so the authors had no choice but to glorify rape.
  • There weren't any other sex-positive books for women at the time, so those novelists were actually "very forward-thinking."
  • "Those books got me into romances when I was a teenager, and I'll always remember them fondly. I admit they didn't age well."

"Didn't age well" is a ubiquitous euphemism for, "This exalted creative work has terrible morals, but I'd prefer not to dwell on that because I want to keep my nostalgia intact."

These slave-owning protagonists are white supremacist as heck? The book "didn't age well."

The guy slaps the girl around, or vice versa, and the violence is played for laughs? Those jokes "didn't age well," that's all.

This hero murdered his first wife and dumped her body in the ocean, but his young new one helps him cover up the crime and they live happily ever after? Oh, the story might not have "aged well," but back then good wives supported their husbands no matter what. Also that first wife was mean and had affairs, so the murder was a kind of justice, and you can tell he was basically a decent guy because he felt bad about it.

(Side note: Daphne du Maurier was irritated that people called Rebecca romantic fiction, because it was supposed to be a suspense novel about jealousy. I'd love to see a new adaptation that doesn't try to make Maxim sympathetic, but makes it obvious he's a controlling murderer who justifies his actions by painting his victim as a slut who "asked for it." And the second Mrs. de Winter isn't really a naive innocent, but an unreliable narrator who chooses to believe Maxim's questionable version of events because of her jealousy towards Rebecca.)

Today another Twitter thread reminded me of all this. An author I follow posted that she's concerned for women today who think the puppy-strangling Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights is hot. She followed up one hour later to ask people to kindly stop messaging her to explain that Wuthering Heights is great literature.

It is possible for a landmark literary work like Wuthering Heights to have artistic significance, and also have bad morals. It is not an attack on all romance authors or readers to admit a beloved work has bad morals, and to commit to doing better in the future. Minimizing or outright denying the problems in the classics doesn't protect the genre, but hinders it.

Why are problematic romances a problem?

Inevitably, when somebody brings up problematic elements of a well-known novel or movie, somebody else claims they're making mountains out of molehills because "it's just fiction."

People learn from stories, even if they know conceptually it's "just fiction." Readers of historical romances know the love story is a rosy fantasy, but they think those are real period details in the background. Readers of thrillers know the gruesome murders came from a writer's imagination, but they think the details about forensics and law enforcement must be accurate.

Crucially, young people learn the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior from novels, movies, TV shows...and nowadays, pornography. Last year the New York Times Magazine ran a story called, "What Teenagers Are Learning from Online Porn." The boys interviewed said they knew they were watching paid actors pretend to enjoy themselves, but they believed the videos portrayed sex acts real women enjoy: slapping, hair-pulling, gagging, facials, etc. "Porn stars know what they're doing," one teenager proclaimed.

When I was growing up, I didn't have pornography popping up on my phone every day, but I did have Jane Eyre and The Fountainhead on the bookshelf in my bedroom. I had access to the VHS tapes of Gone with the Wind and Grease. From these and more I learned that strong men don't take no for an answer, that being sexually harassed is flattering, and that abuse equates to passion.

I didn't realize what lessons I'd internalized until I wrote some YA short stories in my early twenties. In one, a likeable young high school teacher fell for a senior student and punished her for it. In another, a cute girl kissed her study buddy without his consent. My husband read the stories and pointed out what I was doing.

I didn't take it well, of course. I denied the problems and made excuses. Everyone has a crush on a teacher at some point, so that story realistic. Plus I addressed the power imbalance as a primary source of internal conflict for the teacher, so I wasn't being irresponsible. As for the girl in the second story, it's not like she kissed her classmate on the mouth, just the cheek. Adults kissed me on the cheek without asking all the time when I was growing up, and nobody made a big deal about it. The very idea that I would have bad morals in my stories was insulting, because I was an enlightened egalitarian!

Then I quietly conceded those stories were a mistake, and I sheepishly unpublished the series from Amazon.

What can we do when we see problems in romances?

Just like I couldn't see the irresponsible messages I was passing on to readers with those YA stories, other people can't see the problems in popular novels if nobody points them out.

When we see sexism, racism, and other issues in novels—especially in popular ones—we need to acknowledge them. We need to say, "Okay, Wuthering Heights is a great artistic achievement, but hanging your wife's dog on your wedding day isn't sexy. Let's keep that in mind."

It takes courage to do this, because people will reflexively kick back in denial. They'll attack you for "trying to ruin a great book/movie." They'll say political correctness has run amok, artists have a right to creative freedom and morality isn't black and white, you're "reading too much into it" and you need to relax. "It's just fiction."

But we need to have courage and speak up, because these morals do real damage. Like me, thousands of other young writers emulate those harmful classics, posting countless #possessive #dominant #badboy stories on Wattpad and other websites. Every time I see one, I worry what will happen to the young people gushing over the "hot" scenes if they ever fall into the hands of a violent partner.

Every time we say, "That staircase scene in Gone with the Wind was just rough sex," we're teaching people that when partners physically threaten them and drag them to bed, it's not rape. We're also teaching those partners that people enjoy being "ravaged," and though they might be saying no right now, tomorrow morning they'll be smiling coyly in bed like the cat who got the cream.

Every time we see a "funny" scene of a man spanking his wife, or an actor in blackface/brownface/yellowface yucking it up, and we pontificate that "movies/books reflect the times when they were made," we're teaching people that bad behaviors are okay if they're common. And we're implying domestic violence and racism aren't real problems anymore, but mere relics of a grayscale past, and people today couldn't possibly be watching those old scenes and laughing along.

Let's stop making excuses.


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