Less than two years ago, in my first piece on Medium, I asked why we, as women, continue to produce and consume books that reinforce the very stereotypes which place women into submission and argued for the need to write a better a story, one that elevates the status of women and portrays them as strong and equal. I was (and continue to be) tired of seeing books that demean female characters and make them subservient to powerful men continue to top the bestseller lists out of a sense of pride that, as women, we can do better. In fact, I believe we owe it to ourselves and to women around the world who find themselves in the reality of servitude — rather than the fantasy of it — to write a better and brighter story for women.
With the upcoming release of the Fifty Shades movie sequel (Fifty Shades Darker), I ask myself if anything has changed in Romance books over the past couple of years since the release of the first film based on the bestselling series. Sadly, one look at the Romance bestseller list and the answer would be, you guessed it, no. The clichéd and lamentable story lines remain the same from dominant billionaires to insta-love to the “I-swore-I’d-never-love-again-after-my-cheating-husband-but . . .” and the “all-she-wanted-was-a-summer-fling-but-fate-had-another-idea” stories. Worse yet, these romantic tropes have spread to “New Adult” books that have flooded the market since the popularity of Twilight (Fifty Shades’ predecessor), thereby indoctrinating the minds of new generations of women at an earlier age.
At some level, I get it. Romance is a billion-dollar business for a reason, and the fact that it is so lucrative is why nothing has changed. Readers cling to the familiar, and Romance writers continue to churn out their stories through this money-printing machine.
Regrettably, while it makes perfect economic sense to look at demand and deliver a product that seeks to satisfy that demand, continuing to follow trends set by sexually-biased books laden with inherent misogyny is never going to be ground-breaking and will probably lose women the right to vote. Of course, the latter is not true, but as women, we should really consider how much these stories and Hollywood films hurt the perception of women and female readers’ own views of themselves — whether consciously or subconsciously. It doesn’t take more than a look at the past year in the U.S. to see how this very theme of misogyny played out in the political sphere.
In a majority of these Romance books, the predominant trait of the female protagonist is low self-esteem. This typically stems from some sort of trauma caused by a terrible relationship or a family member or perhaps just the character’s overall view of her own self-worth. She doesn’t realize that she’s pretty until a man tells her so. She doesn’t realize she’s a sexual being until it’s awakened by a virile man who has a lot more experience than she does. And she doesn’t realize how intelligent or smart or capable she is until the man brings it out in her.
How these storylines came to be embraced and expected continues to be a mystery to me. I thought we were the generation of strong, educated women who are capable of anything. We’ve been encouraged to break molds, shatter glass ceilings and make our own rules. Yet, these stories, devoured by an enormous female readership, don’t encourage or exemplify it. On the contrary, they end up a stark reminder that, despite how far we’ve come, we seem more interested in reading about all the stereotypes we’ve sought to destroy.
Ironically, if you take a close look at the books in the genre that purport to have an “empowered” female character, it typically only means she’s gone to college and has some sort of professional job; but actually she’s just waiting for the “right” man to fulfill her — or make her subservient to his needs, which she will inevitably allow because she just loves him so much.
And love, as many of these books like to portray, is really about sacrifice. You must give to get, and the price for the woman is at the very least her body, and at most, her self-respect.
Of course, this seems perfectly acceptable because that “love” (and I use the word loosely) — and the person who is the object of such love — is how the female character will find her greatest happiness. The so-called “empowered” woman in those stories is, in reality, a one-dimensional character whose interaction with a man is sadly what makes her complex.
And yet, we wonder why, as women, we struggle with finding satisfying relationships or justifying why we stay in mediocre ones. By the same token, a lot of men struggle to live up to or satisfy perceived expectations based on the male characters in these stories.
While these narratives are not necessarily setting the standards for all relationships, they reinforce the gendered roles that have become embedded in our subconscious and thereby limit how we regard each other. It’s always the same story: man saves woman who, in turn, saves him back by restoring what he lost because he didn’t feel loved by his mother or was treated poorly by an ex.
These narratives remove the individuals’ responsibility for improving themselves and place it on others to “better” them. It should be no wonder why relationships can feel so dissatisfying when our expectations are this skewed.
Much of the appeal of Romance fiction comes from its emotional persuasion. Romance writers’ ability to draw a tear or turn someone on or deliver the immense satisfaction that comes with a happy storyline is a skill that keeps fans coming back for more. Because of this emotional appeal — the tugging at heartstrings — and the legions of fans, Romance fiction can be a powerful medium for influencing thought and bringing about a conscious change in how we view relationships not only to others but also to ourselves.
It’s time for Romance writers to take some responsibility for what they’re producing and how their stories continue to impact adversely the perception of women as well as gender roles. It’s time we see female characters who take charge of their lives and aren’t afraid of their power, women who can make their own rules and live by them with confidence. It’s also time for male characters who do not seek to subvert this power and have the strength to support strong women. As female Romance authors, it’s especially up to us to write these stories, and as female consumers to exercise our purchasing power to encourage such stories and to empower one another.