The Ninja Blog

Sarah Belle tells us why romance & women's fiction should be included in academic lists for study

Tom, the perfect example of a male feminist

Tom, the perfect example of a male feminist

I have returned to university to complete a BA in English Lit and Creative Writing this year. Therefore, you can imagine I have analysed/deconstructed a small truckload of books in the last ten months. Not surprisingly, none of the books I studied were from the romance or commercial women’s fiction genres. In fact, there was only one novel that was genre fiction, and while I was challenged on every level by the literary fiction, I wondered (silently) why more genre fiction was not studied.

We focused on feminist readings of the texts. This interested me, being a reader and writer of women’s fiction and single titles, and I was surprised that only two texts gave agency to the female protagonist and saw her in a light other than an obedient wife or something marginally above a chattel. Yes, I know that in many texts women were oppressed by the society of that era. And in some texts, the whole point of the chattel-woman character is to make us question a woman’s role. I get that.

However, it did prompt me to reconsider why I enjoy reading women’s fiction and single titles. After all, genre fiction, especially romance or women’s fiction, couldn’t possibly offer any insight into society or the constructs we create, could they? There’s no way that novels written by women for women could be thought provoking, right?

There is a huge misconception of feminism – the stigma attached to the word conjures imagery of bra burning and man-hating lesbians with penis envy. This is not the case. According to the Oxford Dictionary, feminism is ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.’ No need to burn bras or hate men.  Men can also be feminists, because it is the ideology of equality and has nothing to do with vaginas or penises. Just look at my lust-object, Tom – he’s a perfect example of a male feminist. Tom’s a perfect example of everything. Mmmmmmm, Tom. (Or that Cumberbatch fellow if you prefer him).

So, here’s my reasons why romance/single title and women’s fiction should be included in the study of literature (yes, I know it’s not strictly ‘literature’ in an academic sense, but rules were made to be broken).

  • Female protagonist – the leading characters, and usually the majority of secondary characters, in romance/women’s fiction are females. Whether written in first or third person, the perspective is focalised through the female lead. It is through her eyes that we experience the social constructs that bind her to conventionality. For example, her expected role within a traditional family –mother and wife – her inability to rise above the glass ceiling, and especially the exhibition of what is considered to be appropriate female behaviour -the double standard of a male stud compared to a female slut. What I like about our genre is that our protagonists are free to challenge these constructs. Our girls are not necessarily bound by traditional expectations, they are making their way in a modern world, or in a different era (past , present or future) where women are edging closer to equality, or are, at least, capable of having an educated opinion.
  • Our genre is usually written by women for women – could you imagine Pride and Prejudice written by a man? All females would be portrayed as overly emotional, flippant damsels in need of an afternoon nap so as not to endanger their already fragile constitution. Generally, just as your other writer friends understand the hurdles you face as a writer better than your non-writer friends, no one understands a woman like another woman.
  • Our genre allows women to explore what they really want, and to give a voice to women’s issues. I read my first women’s fiction novel only ten years ago. The long nights spent with my second baby were an opportunity for that itty bitty book light to illuminate a female lead that was remarkably similar to me. She was having an identity crisis after motherhood , the ‘who the hell am I now that I’m not a career woman, now that I’m dependent on my husband’s wage?’ confusion that is common to many women. It was such a relief to know that someone else – even a fictional character- was sharing my experience, that I was not alone in the world. Those books helped me through a physically and emotionally exhausting time in my life, and made me realise how important women’s fiction is to women. They allowed me to challenge the societal construct of Brady Bunch style motherhood and to find my own place and balance within my new existence.
  • Our genre allows a woman to experience sexual pleasure, it illustrates her as a desirable, sensual human being who knows what, and who, she wants, even when she’s over 40! The woman is allowed to not only instigate sex, but take control and teach her lover how to please her. Yee-fucking-har! Our genre has empowered women to either accept or decline the man on her own terms.
  • What I really love is the evolution of our male characters, from overbearing alphas to men sensitive to a woman’s needs. Our male heroes are more feminist in their outlook, and share in the journey of the protagonist, rather than dictating it.

There are so many other reasons why at least one women’s fiction/romance should be included on academic text lists. Our genre is a mimetic representation of the evolution of feminism as experienced not only by women, but by men as well. It empowers women, it is thought provoking, and it inspires women and men to challenge the societal constructs that bind them to conventionality. I know that universities have a tradition of literature to uphold, but to ignore genre fiction that empowers, challenges constructs and provokes thought is, in my humble opinion, only telling half the story of the written word.