The fictional world, especially the romance one, can be a great escape from the harsh realities of the real world. It’s part of the reason why I chose the Henri Laborit quote in the blog’s banner: "In times like these, escape is the only way to stay alive and keep dreaming."
In times like these indeed. When the new leader of a nation sports rhetoric of hate, it makes the urge even stronger to turn to the pages of a book devoted to love. But simply being a fictional story doesn’t absolve it from having a greater purpose in the real world, a social consciousness, or a role in shaping reality.
“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.” —Virginia Woolf
Feel free to explore those words further and in greater context in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. It really should be required reading for every woman writer and reader. In the meantime, consider coming together in the romance community to make strides much like the 2.9 million women who came together yesterday to stand united in their devotion to keep moving forward with progress, equality, and so much more. 👏 (A big round of applause for everyone who participated in the Women's March and showed their support. Let's hope this is just the beginning!)
There are so many ways to evoke social change—marches, rallies, legislation, fund raisers, volunteer work, voting...the list could go on. But let’s also make sure to include the written word. Because literature (like art and music) also has the power to produce change.
As producers and consumers of the written word, we can make progress as well. We can focus on positive depictions of love and working together, emphasize strong female characters, and eliminate sexist heroes and restrictive gender roles.
Because these representations have not only the potential for subliminal effects on the reader, but they can also speak volumes about the writer and the literary legacy that women today leave for women of the future.
Take a moment to reflect or go to a book group and discuss the current depictions of women and men in romance. Choose your favorite book or your least favorite—analyze it, look at the characters, the dialogue, the tropes, the messages, and the themes.
If that’s still too broad or you've never dabbled in feminist literary theory before, then consider these examples as starting topics for reflection and discussion:
- Sibling’s best friend is a popular premise for romance novels. Hand up if you’ve read one. ✋ I’ve gravitated to this plot line myself. Now look deeper at the story. Why is the idea taboo? Who decides it’s taboo? Don’t misconstrue where I’m headed with this; I’m not knocking this type of story. Some of them do a great job exploring the pros and cons of dating someone close to your family but also someone you’ll have to continue to be around if the relationship doesn’t work out. Others simply give the brother character far too much power! If the literary conflict of the story revolves around his feelings above and beyond that of the two people who actually have a mutual attraction to each other, then ask yourself what that says about the limitations of women’s freedom to make their own decisions about their love life.
- Separations are a key ingredient in second chance romances. The building of the story requires not just the development of the couple’s past and present, but of the time they spent apart. Have they spent those days, months, or years longing for each other? Have they moved on in life only to come face to face with each other again? Now here comes the sometimes misogynist part…what if one of them has lived life to the fullest, raking up a plethora of new sexual and romantic experiences, while the other has been lonely and/or left largely unfulfilled? An imbalance indeed, but a decidedly sexist one when the majority of the instances it’s the heroine who’s been celibate while the hero was a manwhore.
Keep in mind these are just two examples where power is imbalanced, double standards come into play, and certain expectations are subtly inserted into the text. There are far more intricately woven ones out there as well as more blatant ones. While I'd love to hear from readers directly about the sexist elements that they find still prevalent in fiction, the main call to action of this post though is be more conscious when we encounter them as readers and not give them a pass, and to be more diligent as writers by avoiding perpetuating them. Like anything, it involves working tougher as a team and making this reading community a place to be proud of, leaving a new legacy for our “daughters” while honoring the late and great women writers of the past who worked so hard to make this both a better profession and pastime for women.
I’m closing this post with a quote from a speech made yesterday because I love the prospect of female empowerment alongside getting to know each other and striving for a better tomorrow.
“We're staying together. And we're taking over. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Make sure you introduce yourselves to each other and decide what we're gonna do tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and we're never turning back.” —Gloria Steinem