After a couple dozen, I stopped reading 60s and 70s romances because even teenage me was appalled by the rampant misogyny in them. These were books for woman, by women, starring women characters, and YET. The female protagonists were often caricatures: helpless creatures, with no ambitions beyond love, marriage, and children.
I was, in one way, fascinated by this, because I read much older books that portrayed women in a far more attractive light. Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte gave me independent, confident, interesting women. Why were 60s romances so bad at this?
While I recognized the shallowness of the characters early on, it took much, much longer for me to realize how unhealthy many of the relationships were. It wasn't uncommon to read a romance in which the male protagonist outright raped the female protagonist. I don't mean "this is kind of rapey because she's uncomfortable about having sex" but "woman is saying "no" over and over again while ineffectually trying to push him away, and man ignores her protests and rapes her".
The Flame and the Flower was a 1972 romance showcasing this trope on the lame excuse that the man thought she was a prostitute and I guess prostitutes don't get consent? And this was one of the romances I liked as a teen. I read my favorite parts over and over again.
By the 2000s, most romances had gone from "rape is a good way to get the protagonists in bed because it lets you have your pure female character and sex too" to "howabout we portray the kind of healthy relationships we'd like to be in, instead?"
I love healthy romances. I write about characters who are careful with one another, who consider issues of power and consent, who have an unselfish love for one another. They do not seek to gratify their own desires without regard for the object thereof. Even in Frost and Desire, I cling to that overall tone, despite having a scene of mind control and rape. This trend delights me.
But I feel as if romance is now held to a different standard from every other genre. We don't just say "Wow, that relationship in The Flame and the Flower is messed up": we say "This book is objectively bad because the relationship is unhealthy". When teens say they love TWILIGHT, we fret that they plan to get into abusive relationships.
People, I loved The Flame and the Flower and A Woman Without Lies and I've never been in anything close to an abusive relationship, or thought that abusive relationships were a good idea. I loved reading books about these warped relationships that somehow magically turned out for the best because they were fun, not because they were my role model.
We don't wonder if people who love horror are going to become serial killers, or expect that people who read mysteries will become either cops or murderers. We don't watch Game of Thrones because we long for a return to the War of the Roses.
But romances, ah, if they show unhealthy behaviors, it has to be because the author and the readers endorse those behaviors in the real world.
As I built my playlist of dysfunctional love songs for Frost, I found it freeing to realize just how much music glorified terrible relationships. Music is expected to cover the full spectrum of relationships, from happy to broken to dysfunctional. Music is cathartic, not a model of the ideal.
I came up with the plot for Frost in 2015, and I put off writing it for three years in part because "people will assume I think this is a romantic ideal".
And I finally decided to write my messy hurt/comfort problematic romance anyway.
Because yes, it's great that so many romance novels now model strong, healthy relationships.
But fantasies that would make for bad realities have their place, too. This entry was originally posted at https://rowyn.dreamwidth.org/636585.html. Please comment there using OpenID.