Is Romance A Feminist Genre?

Despite the romance genre readership being 99% female, there’s room for argument that the romance storylines are anything but feminist.

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, 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:

  1. has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. 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.

Appropriate Tests?

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?


5 thoughts on “Is Romance A Feminist Genre?”

  1. I love the romance genre and all its sub-genres just the way they are but I’m also always looking for something new. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with the romance genre as it is but since it is always evolving, there is nothing wrong in introducing some feminist ideas like the examples in this post. Romance readers are very diverse and love many of the sub-genres in romance, this makes feminist romance an opportunity to add another one. This is an opening for creativity and business in the publishing industry.

    1. Hi Nina:

      Yours is a refreshing perspective. Nice!

      I think this is one advantage that indie authors have over legacy published authors — we can introduce these “new” ideas and new heroines, and we can experiment with our stories. We don’t have to get past gatekeepers like editors and agents to get our work in front of the readers, who can then vote with their wallets whether they like the ideas or not. And the readers are the ones whose votes really count.

      However, it’s also the indie authors who are taking the financial risk, too. If an experimental romance tanks, they take the hit financially. The upside is that an indie author can usually publish three, four or more novels in the time it takes a legacy publisher to get just one title out there, so one failed experiment can fade while four others take its place.

      I think you’ll see a lot more new, fresh ideas in among the indie shelves, Nina.



    1. Hi Beth:

      If you’re referring to real life romances, then I haven’t made that assumption at all. This post is dealing purely with fictional romances, and the average romance novel at that. The majority of romance novels out there (something like 90% of them, I suspect) are male-female relationships and that’s the assumption I made for the sake of simplicity in writing the post.

      I wasn’t ignoring non-straight romance novels — I think I’m one of the last authors that could be accused of doing that. I write MMF romance novels, and love and adore them, and those novels are heavy on the MM relationship aspects, too. I celebrate MMF romances in all their glory — I have a whole section on my blog devoted to MMF romance: check the MMF tab at the top of the blog.

      For THIS post I focused on MF relationships to make a point. The romance genre is primarily written for “straight” female readers and features, generally, heterosexual heroes and heroines, although on the whole I abhor the whole “straight” and “gay” and “bi” tagging thing altogether. I prefer to think of it all as a sliding scale of sexuality where if it feels good, go with it. Forget the labels and where you fit on the scale. Check my post here for more on my opinion about the “gay” thing. “The Heroes in MMF Romance Don’t Need Classification

      And thanks for pointing out the built-in prejudice in this post, Beth. It gives me a chance to point out the variations possible.


      1. If you want to be truly inclusive, you could mention lesbian romances as well. I’d also question your assumption that a romance can’t pass the Bechdel Test. Women talk to each other about any number of subjects, and limiting their dialog to Men-Only-Men seems the antithesis of feminism. (Not to mention it makes for rather flat characters.)

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top