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That’s Not Very Feminist of You, Bella: Feminism and YA Romance Novels

by flickr user msmornington
by flickr user msmornington
The problem with writing about feminism is that first you have to know what it is. Ask a Men’s Rights Activist what feminism is and he’d probably say, “Feminism is the movement to kill all men and rule the world under matriarchy.” Ask an internet pop feminist what feminism is and she’d probably say, “Everything women do is feminist! Cupcakes are feminist! I can be a feminist and wear dresses!” I’m exaggerating these two perspectives, but only slightly.

You can certainly be a feminist and wear dresses, so please stop being so defensive about it (unless there is some sort of grumpy anti-dress feminist committee that I am unaware of). And I like a healthy dose of misandry as much as the next girl. But the problem with feminism is that every working definition of it is constantly undermined, criticized, or amended, for both good and bad reasons. “Feminism is about equality between men and women,” say third wave feminists, born of the 1990s and living in the wake of their 1970’s second-wave foremothers. “But equality is a nonsense word anyway, because binary concepts like male and female necessarily involve power dynamics. Feminism is about deconstructing these labels and liberating us once and for all,” say post modern/epistemological feminists. “Collaboration between women will never happen until most feminists realize how feminism has consistently ignored women of color, lesbians, disabled women, and other marginalized groups,” intersectional feminists rightly point out. And so on and so forth.

Why am I making your head spin when we’re here to talk about feminism and romance novels? Precisely because, no matter what the dictionary says, there is no real working definition for feminism. It is also hard to pin down what constitutes a romance novel versus just a novel with romance. Nonetheless, everybody has an opinion about romance novels and feminism, whether they realize it or not. For instance, I bet you think Twilight is very un-feminist, right? Because Bella gives up her life for a boyfriend and gets married as a teenager and there is lots of creepy patriarchal imagery surrounding the female body? You would be correct about these factors, and you are also reading an article written by a woman who once put “Bella Swan: The Biggest Setback in Feminism Since the Sandwich” on her facebook profile. So, I get it.

This was once my facebook profile picture.

But I think we’re wrong anyway. I think we’re wrong because I think teenage girls are smarter than we give them credit for, and because romance is a genre that is almost entirely for women and by women of all ages. I think we’re wrong because men really, really, really hate Twilight, way more than women do, and I think that anything written by women that makes men uncomfortable has a place in feminism. Feminism should not always make men comfortable and happy, just like anti-racism should not make me, as a white person, feel comfortable and happy. This is not to say men should not care about feminism, or that we must be mean to all men forever (this column is written by a woman who still texts her dad to say goodnight, every night), but it is to say that sometimes recognizing your male privilege comes with a bit of discomfort, just like recognizing my white privilege makes me deeply uncomfortable and angry at the world. So, what does this have to do with romance novels?

Well, in a world where Twilight was universally adored by teenage girls for a brief period of time and universally hated by their male counterparts, I want to celebrate the part of this culture that encourages women to fantasize and dream and write, just as I want to criticize the parts of Twilight that are bigoted or simply foolish. I want to give Delirium, The Vampire Diaries, and The Zombie Romances (I may have made this series up) their place in feminism, and I want to encourage us to critically engage with these texts at the same time.

I asked my friend Rachel if she had any thoughts about feminism and YA romance novels and she immediately pointed out that romance is the one genre that really truly celebrates women as both subject and in practice, since the vast majority of both readers and writers of romance novels are women, and that often YA romance novels are the only places where teenage girls can get frank discussions of sex, gender, and sexuality. She also points out that while it may be slow going, more queer and diverse romance is starting to pop up in YA. My own favorite author in that category is Malinda Lo, who has written lesbian fairy tale romances with nonwhite heroes as well as science fiction.

This column started out as a place where I was going to list the good and the bad of feminist romance novels, where I was going to pick your brain about what makes a romance novel feminist or not. But then I realized I was starting to sound like just another angry, authoritative voice telling teenage girls what they can and cannot like. Sure, there are YA romances that are more feminist and more well-written than others. I can suggest YA novels that feature both romance and feminist themes, if you want. My friend Rachel likes Graceling, Divergent, and the Fifth Wave, and for those who don’t love fantasy or dsystopian or science fiction romance, she suggests authors like Sarah Dessen and Gail Carson Levine.

But there are also the Twilights of the genre that may not necessarily be giving girls the patriarchy-destroying narratives we want, but they are giving them a place where it is safe to have girly emotions, safe to want to kiss a boy like Edward or even a girl like Bella. Teenage girls don’t need a lecture; they need every ounce of support we can give them in a world that tells them their emotions are stupid and their thoughts don’t matter. If you’re a teenage girl reading this, I want you to know that I support your right to read Twilight just as much as I support your right to read The Hunger Games, and I hope the rest of the world understands why.

— Chelsea Condren

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  1. Nadia Nadia

    Good article!

    I’d like to add that while Twilight is problematic in many aspects, it has feminist points in others. Not only in the ways you said, about how it was written by a women and how it is loved by many women out there and it describes what many women can be as teenagers, but also because Bella as a character was freaking awesome. Okay, that was not the point I wanted to make ha, but what I mean it’s that people usually go with the “oh she was boy crazy and everything she did and was revolved around that etc” but the thing is what I always loved about Bella was that she MADE HER OWN CHOICES AND FOUGHT FOR THEM. She was a teenager in love, she risked things for what she wanted and every time she heard a no she still went after it. And I think that the character of Bella represents many things we go through as teenagers: never feeling like they fit in and when they finally do grab the feeling as tight as they can, I mean c’mon she felt ordinary all of her life and she wanted to be more than that; being in love too, usually first loves are very intense; insecurity; etc.

    I don’t think I’m very good at explaining myself so I’ll just leave you with these links, the tags are perfect to explain why Bella Swan rocks so much:

  2. Romance novels are certainly among the most, um, critiqued type of books. Probably most everyone is going to experience love, and it’s good to be able to try that feeling on through reading.

  3. Jess J. Jess J.

    This gave me overwhelming feelings of love and adoration for you and your amazing brain. You are the best <3.

  4. Chelsea, I just want to be your best friend. That’s it.

    • Chelsea Condren Chelsea Condren

      It’s official, everyone. Hannah and I are best friends.

  5. Thank you so much for this. I do hope that in the future women can go pass the “She got married and have a baby at 18Th!” and see that if Bella would had been a weak woman only doing the things men wanted her she would had listened to Edward or Jacob or her dad and broke up with him, and go back to her ordinary human life instead of becoming the weapon the Volturi’s faced and feared.
    What if it was because of Edward? All of us men and women are in the world because of our father’s choices, pretending men don’t matter is just as unrealistic and retrograde as make them the only thing that matters, IMO.
    Great piece! :D

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