I am so excited to host my friend Sarah Wendell from the fabulous Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog, who along with co-author/Smart Bitch Candy Tan has penned the perfectly titled Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels (Fireside, now available). Smart Bitches is my go-to spot when I’m looking for a good laugh, a healthy dose of smart-ass and some interesting discussion. With their just-released book, which has been selling gangbusters, Sarah and Candy take the iconic romance novel and turn it on its head, dissecting Old Skool and New Skool and all sorts of hilarious terminology that you probably never knew existed (and didn’t, until they coined it). Anybody who can successfully incorporate Angsty McAngsterson, Bastardy McBastard and man-titties into one book gets huge kudos from me.
Sarah has been kind enough to give us all a little lagniappe–a first peek at a coveted outtake from Beyond Heaving Bosoms–so you can see for yourself why these ladies really are two very Smart (and also quite literary) Bitches. So enjoy this little sampler of Sarah and Candy’s hilarious wit and then go get your very own copy of the book!
Are Romance Novels Inherently Feminist, Inherently Sexist, or Something Totally Different?
Why Does Everything Have to be Some Sort of Polemic, Anyway? Geez. Lighten Up.
Are romance novels feminist? I think so. And I’m not going to get into a discussion of how I or anyone else defines “feminist” – but since it’s such a loaded word along the lines of “racist,” “homophobic” or “baked potato,” I should perhaps use a different term. Or a different question. The word “feminist” sadly has become polluted to the point where one person hears the word and thinks “equal rights and status under the law for women and men,” and another person hears it and thinks, “butch women marrying other women while wearing giant shoes, not shaving their legs, and hating men with virulent shrieking fury.” So let’s leave “feminism” alone. That poor word is exhausted.
New question! Are romance novels examinations, celebrations, and subversive accounts of the society of women, written largely by and for other women, with female-centered narratives that develop a subculture and parallel world centered on and devoted to the female experience?
Yes, yes, oooooooh Goooooooooood, yes! YES YES YES!
In any good debate, one should acknowledge the points of the other side. So I acknowledge that romance novels have a disturbing history of rape narrative, overbearing alpha heroes, insipid stupid heroines who wander into dark alleys wearing impractical shoes, misunderstandings predicated on the idiocy of that heroine, and a sexual double standard that will make your head and your head’s head spin.
BUT! Despite and through those points, romance novels are more than merely female-centric, because they are written and consumed by women. Women exploring and creating a fictional narrative of the Most Sexist Asshole Hero On Earth is still a subversive act, because in my opinion, women authors creating anything, much less narratives that focus on sex and emotions, for a marketplace of women consumers is an act invested with layers of subversion, like a really diverse lasagna with meat and vegetables. Long, hard vegetables, like zucchini.
Narratives of the female experience, even if that female experience is happily and decisively following word-for-word the expectations of a patriarchal, repressive society, are also subversive in my opinion. So every romance novel, from The Millionaire’s Boardroom Mistress’ Secret Baby to She’s A Warrior Who Cut off His Balls and Sewed Them Back On, is a radical creation.
My short answer to the question, “How can you read those books and be a supporter of women? They are so sexist!” is, “Anything written by and for women is an assault on the subjugation of women.”
I don’t think that all women who read romance question the plots enough. Nor do they ask themselves why there’s certain combinations of heroes and heroines that really do it for them, and that questioning, aside from being the root purpose of our website (along with gleeful leaping at the sight of man-titty), is important. There are a number of old skool romances that end, as Candy says, with the heroine required by the narrative to adopt the hero’s worldview, acknowledging that her own is flawed and useless, while his and her position in it, are superior. These are the novels which might hold hands and skip with Germaine Greer’s criticism of romance novels of the time, which was in and around the 70s, that they were methods of “slavery for women”, teaching them to “cherish… the chains of their bondage”. These are not the romance novels of today.
The romance novels of today are powerful narratives created by women for women, and that is inherently powerful in and of itself, deserving of recognition, examination, and applause.