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