It depends on how you measure them. There are two “tests” out there by which romance novels fail miserably.
The Smurfette Principle
The “Smurfette” Principle is an interesting measure aimed at television shows, originating (surprise!) from The Smurfs. It’s the tendency for stories to have only one token female amongst an ensemble of male characters.
When I first read this, my heart sank, because a) this is just about every romance novel out there, and b) this is just about every romance novel I’ve written, especially, the MMF romances.
However, when I researched the principle further, and went back to the source, I found an interesting phrase that had been left out of the principle as it had first been explained to me. Here’s the principle in full, from TV Tropes.org, who are the originators of the principal:
For any series not aimed solely at females, odds are high that only one female will be in the regular cast.
The emphasis is mine.
I guess this lets romance off the hook. Or does it? Just because romanceis aimed solely at females, does that mean we’re allowed to get away with a token female, just because she’s the lead?
I’ll get back to this point.
The Bechdel Test
This one is even more swoon-making than the last.
Created by feminist Allison Bechdel, the Bechdel Test first appeared in the comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, in 1985. It’s used as a measure of the strength of female characters in movies. You can find a copy of the original comic strip here, but I can’t reproduce it on the blog because of copyright restrictions. The basic test has three criteria. The story:
- has to have at least two women in it,
- who talk to each other,
- about something besides a man.
There is a refinement on (1) that adds that the two women must have names (not “Ambassador’s wife” or Blonde #2 — as you sometimes see characters named in scripts)
Oh. My. God.
Applying the Bechdel Test to romance novels pretty much rules out the entire genre as non-feminist.
Including, I am sorry to add, my novels.
Of my latest novels, I think only Byzantine Heartbreak passes. And that’s because it’s got a cast of thousands.
While these are interesting tests in and of themselves, and while militant feminists tend to criticize the romance genre as a whole for promoting old-fashioned and out-of-date values, you have to ask yourself if the tests can be appropriately applied to the romance genre in the first place. Are they a fair measure?
1) A romance storyline is focusing in on a love story which features one man, one woman, or a small variation of that tight-knit dynamic. Large ensemble casts with their non-romantic interactions (that is, conversations about anything other than men) would be pulling away from the romance story-line, and tend to get left on the editing sidelines. So do unnecessary characters, like secondary females.
2) Romance storylines and heroines have come a long way in the last ten years or so. Consider romantic suspense, for instance. The swing of power, where now the heroine is kicking butt just as often as the hero — Gennitta Low novels are a perfect example — and urban fantasy romance where the entire storyline focuses around the heroine’s power and what she is going to do to save the universe. These are not wimpy bimbos clinging to Indiana Jones style heroes in the slightest.
3) The sexual evolution of females where they have as much freedom of choice in the bedroom as men — especially in romance novels. Heroines are as sexually active as heroes are these days. The old standard of the virginal heroine and the stud hero are long gone.
Are Romances Feminist Or Not?
But romance novels are still focused upon the age old dance of the hormones and heart, where the man (men) wins the woman, and they live happily ever after (for now). That’s not feminist at all. That’s biology. That’s tradition. We’re celebrating something very unequal indeed. The woman isn’t winning her independance, freedom and financial security. She’s throwing her lot in with (an)other(s) and declaring she prefers it so, which can be argued is antithetical to the feminist creedo.
Do you care?
Romances currently make up 54% of the popular fiction sales in north America. That’s a huge amount of influence that could be softly used. Do you think romances should continue to be escapist, or should they be building stronger messages for the upcoming generations of women that are starting to read them?
Or do you think they’re already doing it well enough via the kick-butt heroines starting to emerge?