How I Learned to Let Go of Internalized Sexism and Embrace the Romance Novel
For most of my life, I have been anti-romance novels. Up until the last couple of months, I’d never picked one up without rolling my eyes and putting it right back down, and despite all of my feminist growth and stripping away he idea that hyper-feminine things are “lesser” on some level, traditional romance novels had remained something to look down upon. I have, thankfully, outgrown that in the past few months, but I really wanted to unpack how I—someone who loves smutty fanfiction, has shipped countless ships throughout my life, and enjoys classic romance movies—could hate romance novels.
As usual, all roads lead to Twilight.
The Twilight era is something that I believe will perpetually haunt my teenage development, because it consumed the last two years of my high school experience, and it was an utter nightmare—not only because I disliked the books deeply, but I had also internalized the idea that it was silly for teenage girls to be so excited over vampires, never mind that my usual mood was to be excited over vampires, just ones named Lestat and Alexander Sterling. Hating Twilight didn’t stop me from reading other YA series, like Vampire Kisses and Vampire Academy, but I also felt like those were better for not being as popular, and then I quickly jumped into the urban fantasy adult train with the Rachel Morgan/Hollows series, by Kim Harrison, and the Sookie Stackhouse books, which eventually became True Blood.
Yet in my rush to not be seen as “one of those girls,” I didn’t focus on the romance (even though I knew exactly what teams I was on). I cared about characters and plot, not stupid things like romance. I’d learned early on that romance when concerning novels was not respectable. If a story involved romance at all, there had to be something else driving the plot, or there was no point.
I’d work in bookstores and see older women buying stacks of romance novels, and it’d be a fulfillment of the stereotype. I’d allowed myself to subconsciously shame women for liking something I liked, as long as there was a Magic A plot on top of it to convince me that I was different. The next time I picked up a romance novel was Outlander, and once I realized that I hated the main couple and couldn’t be bothered to stay for the politics and low-key racism/biphobia, I’d put that as another notch against romance as a genre. It just wasn’t for me. It wasn’t realistic.
Then, on my first day at work at The Mary Sue, a copy of Too Wilde to Wed, by Eloisa James, landed on my desk. I put it away, eventually picking it up to look at the cover, read the back, and eye-roll, but I kept it nonetheless—and then, one day, I decided to give it a try.
To say it was a life-changing experience would sound hyperbolic, but it’s also true. Reading the book, falling in love with the characters, and learning how to read romance made me realize something about myself: I’d turned myself off to the idea that romance in literature had a point, a purpose, and a pleasure that was beyond the superficial.
There is something comforting about knowing romance novels must end in happily ever after. You don’t go through the book with an overwhelming sense of dread or concern about your leads; you just get to enjoy the experience seeing these two people fall for each other for the first time—the first touch, the first kiss, the first bone session. These are also not one-sided stories; the male love interests are just as interesting as the leading women, with their own problems, emotional hangups, and baggage. They aren’t accessories; they are part of the story, which is too rarely the case when the gender of the leads is reversed in other fiction.
It also has been shown to me, more and more, how diverse and progressive romance novels have become. Eloisa James’ heroines are all headstrong women who work, enjoy sex for their own pleasure, and have their own stories. The male leads are thoughtful, headstrong, and kind at heart. Both sides being drawn to each other by that red kinky string of destiny.
In her most recent novel in the Wildes of Lindow Castle series, Born to be Wilde, the lead is an Anglo-Indian man, who is a successful banker in the world of old money. The Reluctant Royals series, by Alyssa Cole, is made up of contemporary romances featuring black women falling in love with (or finding out they are) secret royalty. Contemporary romance is also getting fun and diverse: I’ve already talked about Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient having one of the best oral sex scenes ever (IMHO), and the fact that it features Asian leads and one with Asperger’s, but there is also Jasmine Guillory’s The Wedding Date and The Proposal.
The women writing these works are also super smart and often nerdy. Alyssa Cole is a science editor and pop culture nerd (so many HP/LOTR references), Eloisa James teaches English Literature, Jasmine Guillory graduated from Wellesley College and Stanford Law School.
Too often, books like Fifty Shades or Outlander get all the attention of the genre (and it’s honestly debatable if they even belong there), readers ignore that it’s a genre with hundreds of books being published. If you didn’t like Ready Player One, would you never pick up a science fiction novel again? No, you’d find a friend who’d recommend you Snow Crash, and everything would be okay.
Is there wish fulfillment? Yes, but no more wish fulfillment than the average guy discovering he is the Chosen One, and that’s a tale as old as romance.
We are a Team Miranda world, where believing in “true love” and “romance” is looked at with eye rolls, and to a degree, I get it. I may love romances, but I’m still cynical af—and that’s part of what makes the romance fun.
It’s nice to step into a reality where that it is real—where those tingles and connections that we tell ourselves don’t exist really do, and we can explore them safely, knowing that everything is going to be okay. It’s an emotional security we don’t often get in life, and just like a traditional fantasy novel allows you to explore different themes of history through the past or alternate realities, the romance offers you an alternative reality where love is not just possible, but it is tangible.
That’s a very nice thing in this very shitty world, and as a lifelong smut fanfiction reader, I feel like this new world of romance that I’ve found myself in is not only fun, but it’s pretty damn mentally healthy. So if you’ve been suspicious of romance for a long time, and you’re looking to try something out, I’d recommend any of the books I mentioned. If romance novels just aren’t for you, that’s fine; we all have genres that don’t click with us, but dismissing them out of hand doesn’t make your standards of literature any higher.
What are your favorite romance novels? Any recommendations for LGBTQIA+ romance titles?
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