April 21, 2014

The Privilege of a Woman's Pleasure

by Kiersten Hallie Krum

Our Sexy Saturday Round Up included a link to an article I’ve been retweeting the heck out of over the last few days: Dear Columnists: Romance Fiction Is Not Your Bitch. In it, Australian book professional Kat Mayo wonders why romantic fiction is the “laughing stock” of feminist commentators.

Why is romance fiction the punching bag of the literary world? Why are romance readers the laughing-stock of feminist commentators? Why can’t people just let women read sexy things without telling us we’re doing something wrong?

She goes on to highlight the general smarts and savvy of the average romance novel reader and the feminist-related conversations that spring up among and around the discussion of romance novels. “Feminist discussions not only occur within romance communities, but they thrive and spawn pages and pages of commentary as romance readers attempt to unpack a diverse range of ideas and problems, both within romance fiction and outside of it.”

One of the main reasons the romance genre is so often derided is due to its primary focus on women. Rather than being the girlfriend or the wife or the victim of the protagonist, it is the woman around whom the story is constructed. “Romance fiction puts the female experience at the center of the story,” Mayo writes. It can even be called an essential aspect of all genre fiction. Nearly all genres—fantasy, science-fiction, mystery, etc—include love stories between their pages. Even Peter Jackson recognized that his Tolkien opus had to include a romantic angle in order to appeal to more than just tried and true fans. This is why Aragon and Arwen’s love story was included in the original LOTR movie trilogy even though it exists only in Tolkien’s appendices, not the original text. Fan boys howled about the divergence from the sacred original, whinging that it was only to make girls buy tickets, but the fact of the matter is that love is the center of every story be it love for a country, a friend, an ideal, or a man or woman. LOTR includes each of these options and that’s before the overt romance is added in.

The problem isn’t just that women and love relationships are the center focus in romantic fiction. Mayo ascertains that when romantic fiction is constructed around the woman, it privileges female pleasure, sexual or otherwise.

Romance books privilege female pleasure, and they often do so in ways that are more nuanced and complex than flippant references to “mummy porn” would imply. No matter the kink, contract or calamity, romance heroes serve to make their heroines happy.

Yeah they do! This is where much of the disparagement is rooted. The woman’s happiness is not only as important as the hero’s to the story but often even more important. And not only that of the woman between the pages, but those women reading the pages too. Romance fiction guarantees a happy ending, be it HEA or HFN, which basically also guarantees the reader will feel warm fuzzies and find true pleasure in the ending. Mayo references a post written by romance scholar Jodi McAlister called Why The Romance Genre Is Interesting, Relevant, and Important—Even If You Think It’s Bad where McAlister expands on this idea of the privilege of pleasure. 

I’m not just talking about the sexual pleasure of the heroine here, though romance is exceptional for the way that it privileges female pleasure and that is something we should absolutely be talking about way more than we do. No, I’m talking about the pleasure of the reader here. I doubt that there is another genre so concerned with the emotional journey not just of the characters, but of the reader. Put simply, romance wants to be pleasurable—and the way it does this is incredibly intriguing and more complex than it might seem on the surface.

I love this idea of the privilege of a woman’s pleasure and it’s something romance fiction exclusively prioritizes and expresses be it sexual pleasure, the pleasure of emotional fulfillment, or a reader being satisfied by the emotional journey she’s taken while reading a well-written book with a happy ending. Indeed, such pleasure should not have to be anyone’s privilege but rather every woman’s de rigueur.


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  • Post authorC. Margery Kempe

    Yeah, as a feminist scholar *and* genre writer (in several genres) I get so tired of arguing with people: I argue with scholars that genre is worthwhile, I argue with genre folk that scholarship is worthwhile, I defend romance to horror and crime folks and horror to romance folks — and a lot of the time I really just want everybody to shut the fuck up and enjoy something instead of carping all the time.

    Seems like everybody wants to sneer at somebody else.

    Reply to C. Margery Kempe
    • Post authorKel

      People like sneering. It makes them feel like they’re special… although why they can’t feel special and warm-fuzzy by making other people feel happy and special has always been a bit of a mystery. (It’s right up there with the friend-zone thing for me. If you’re concerned about the friend-zone 1. You’re a sucky friend and 2. Who in the world would be romantically interested in someone who can’t even be a good friend? Congrats! You are the weakest link! Next contestant!)

      I like a lot of genres. I read whatever strikes my fancy at the time, although I prefer genre fiction or other things that are a far cry from my day-to-day life… or books that can teach me something.

  • Post authorLiz Everly

    I really like this one mystery writer. I like her series–one of the few I read. 😉 But I once saw her on a panel where she sneered about romance writers. That pissed me off. Maybe I’m a bit pie-in-the-sky, but dissing a genre you don’t write in is just not cool. So, I still enjoy her books from time to time and I’ve been on a few panels with her. I keep at her at arm’s length–never to be completely trusted, as far as I’m concerned.

    Reply to Liz Everly
    • Post authorBarbara Mikula

      Absolutely. The “Oh, I never read books like that” person makes me want to say: “SO what do you read, Shakespeare?” BS – their Kindles are probably packed with naughty books and they won’t admit it!

      Reply to Barbara Mikula
  • Post authorElizabeth Shore

    I find a lot of derision comes from people who’ve never actually read a romance and/or know very little about the genre. It’s easy enough to sit and sneer about romance and get some kind of weird superiority complex by deciding it’s beneath you, but criticism without factual basis is as worthless as snake oil. Let’s be honest, there are a lot of poorly written romances out there, and the purple prose of the 80’s made the genre an easy target to ridicule. But those books of 30 years ago bear little resemblance to the emotionally charged, well-written, multi-layered romances of today.

    Reply to Elizabeth Shore
  • Post authorBarbara Mikula

    I think men and certain feminists tend to marginalize romance fiction, be it sweet or erotic, because they might have to work harder to realize our expectations. Why are all these romance heroines getting so much pleasure out of their relationships (after the obligatory conflict)? Because the heroes work hard to make it so. You are right. The man is not first here. He’s here to serve the heroine and the story.

    It makes me angry when people look down on romance fiction and romance writers. Mommy Porn? Who is more entitled to a little porn than hard working Mommies! The percentage of the population that can do what we do is very small, and we deserve to be proud of it. If I can give a woman a thrill, an emotional reaction (tears or laughter) or make her heart beat a little faster, I have done my job as an author. More power to us- readers and authors. – Skye Michaels

    Reply to Barbara Mikula
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