Tue, May. 30th, 2006, 02:57 pm || WisCon - Feminist Romance panel

add to memories

Moderator: Jennifer Stevenson
Panelists: Emma Bull, Stephanie Burgis, Cynthia Gonsalves, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Lyda A. Morehouse

I think the panel was entertaining, largely due to the presence of Lyda A. Morehouse. I went to buy her books later because she was so cool, though I didn't get her romance as Tate Hallaway, largely because I was running out of money and figured it was still in print.

Other than that, it felt a lot like the panel had set up a large number of strawmen involving romance and feminism. I heard many arguments, from the argument that all romance is feminist because the heroine always wins, to the standard argument that the hero grovels if he mistreats the heroine, that both hero and heroine must learn to be worthy of each other, that the heroine wins not just by getting the hero, but by turning her entire life around, that the heroine always gets to orgasm multiple times, and that female fantasies, particularly sexual ones, are empowering, etc. etc. etc.

Someone in the audience raised the question that if the happily-ever-after of a romance always includes a man (or two, or another woman or women, depending on what the romance is), if that's unfeminist. I don't particularly think that anyone on the panel had a good answer for that one, although several people mentioned that the books nowadays try to portray the heroine as not needing a man, but getting one anyway. But I think it is a valid question, because it places so much focus on the romantic relationship. And I wanted to know how the dynamic changed if it were a lesbian or gay romance, or a polyamorous one, in which the knowledge that the non-heteronormative (I like using fancy words) got their happily-ever-after, if that made it more feminist because traditionally, those love stories have ended so tragically in fiction.

One of the men in the audience asked something like, "What's the place of men in romance?" Not in a "Why are all you women talking about women things?" that is so common in feminist discussions, but really respectfully, so I was irritated when Stevenson snapped out a response that the focus was all on the woman. I have no problem with the focus being all on the woman, but as other panelists point out, the point of view of the hero is very important in romance and that the reader gets to head hop from the hero to the heroine and experience both sides of the courtship. I don't think anyone referenced Laura Kinsale's notion of the androgynous reader, though coffeeandink definitely mentioned it.

Emma Bull protested over the head hopping, saying that it was sloppy style and removed all suspense from the scene. In a later discussion, Mely mentioned that the main point of romance isn't suspense, and so the head hopping is perfectly fine in romance the way it wouldn't be in mystery or SF/fantasy, which so often does rely on reader ignorance.

Stevenson mentioned that romances often include the femininst values of the generation before, which I agree with -- no contemporary heroine can really be non-self-sufficient. Or if she is, then part of her struggle in the book will be self-sufficiency. I thought that was interesting, that romances perhaps are a little conservative for each generation but not the previous one.

Lyda Morehouse (besides being hilarious) also brought up the fact that a lot of the groundbreaking things are actually being done in category romances. She mentioned that there's the Spice line of Harlequin, which features BDSM lifestyles and possibly polyamorous ones, that there's a lot more straight erotica sans plot for women. Also, she said that she saw several gay clinch covers while leafing through the Romantic Times, which rocks and I want them. Clearly I should be reading more categories. She also mentioned that there were a lot more interracial and multiracial romances featuring multiracial characters, yay! I really wanted to know more about these things and stats and how they were selling and how the formula applied and etc.

And in the summation, Jennifer Stevenson made a remark that I think is the underlying problem of the panel, that romance shows women that "soccer mom values" of niceness and kindness can win. I mean, yes, this is true, but on the other hand, this is why romances (and much shoujo manga) irritates me. It says that women can win, yes, but that women can win only by conforming to specific ideals of femininity that are Tools of the Patriarchy and etc. I mean, I'm all for reclaiming traditionally feminine values and activities and raising them up as important and worthwhile, particularly when the entrance of a large group of women into a specific career tends to lower the overall pay, but on the other hand, I don't feel that that's what many romances do.

So that's my own spiel, because despite reading romances, I am still deeply ambivalent toward romance as a genre, largely because many times when I have seen interesting gender bending or gender role switches or etc., it seems as though the authors tend to get fairly argumentative feedback. And this makes me sad, because that's my favorite type of thing.

In conclusion, there should be a Tiptree award for romances. And for manga, for that matter, which should totally be called the Sapphire award for Ribon no kishi.