Frivolity, femininity and fresh perspective: gender and the romance novel

By Katerina Panayiotou

Novels are one of the most accessible, available and most frequently consumed forms of literature. Encompassing such an expansive list of genres, there’s easily something of interest for everyone. However, not all novels are created equal, and one such genre has a more restricted, shallow, and frivolous reputation — romance. Currently consigned to the side-lines of the literary world, romance is seen as feminine and thus superficial, of little value beyond light (and unintelligent) entertainment. But what has caused the genre to earn such a reputation, and should this be reversed? 

To understand romance’s association with femininity, we must first look back to previous cultural connotations of the novel form itself. When the novel began to rise in popularity during the nineteenth century, it wasn’t considered a prestigious art form as it is now. Instead, novels were perceived as somewhat trivial, and warned as morally dubious for women (a large part of the readership) to consume. At this time, many novels were classed as romances — however, in this sense a ‘romance’ was known as a short story with a shallow plot and some fantastical elements. From the outset we see the relationship between romance and the novel, even in its earliest forms, being linked to femininity. It is important to note that the second association of ‘moral dubiousness’ can be reflected in romance nowadays being seen as a ‘guilty pleasure’.

Cultural differences between men and women, as well as confusion over the female experience, have not helped the romance novel break into the mainstream

Prevailing cultural differences between men and women and confusion over the female experience have not helped the romance novel break into the mainstream. Historically, female experiences of love, sex and relationships have both been out of their own control, but also mostly taboo to discuss, especially in a male-dominated world. Much of the romance genre features female protagonists, and male love interests engaging with deeper emotional engagement, both of which are alien to the tenets of masculinity. Much of the narrative experiences of the protagonists are so far removed from the male perspective that romance has struggled to gain a significant foothold in academic discussion. Even in literary greats concerned with romance, such as Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’,  much of the analysis of love and matchmaking is explored through the lens of other themes. This analysis still bears merit, but often times exploration of romance in of itself is neglected because of its presentation through womanhood. 

Most recently, the female readership and engagement with romance has evolved through the advent of social media — female majority online spaces devoted to the discussion of romance literature (previously Tumblr, and more recently TikTok) have created a supportive and thriving community of discussion and creativity surrounding the genre. The TikTok community specifically (known as BookTok) has spawned several authors, made successful either through self-publishing or traditional book deals – in the last year, publishers have been using the community as their latest hunting-ground. These online communities have always been female-majority, and although they represent a worthy and enriching perspective on romance literature discussion. Here, the genre has been liberated, and with attention from the publishing world, both authors and readers are gaining a foothold in the current literary world.

The key issue with the lack of prestige provided to romance literature is that a male audience largely fails to identify with the genre, and its association with femininity means that the whole genre has been perceived as ‘less than’. However, romance literature is perceived societally, from a detached perspective, its worth is not damaged — the genre is generally accessible in that there is a variety of stories, settings and characters that many could identify with, and a predominant female audience should not be the reason to delegitimise an art form. Although a wider appeal to a male audience would allow for the genre to gain mainstream recognition, these female-led online communities are refreshing and light-hearted safe spaces for discussion, and are quickly gaining the respect they deserve. The overall community surrounding romance literature currently is self-validating – although to wider discussion, the romance genre is still perceived as feminine and somewhat unworthy, it doesn’t really matter. So-called ‘chick lit’ cannot be condemned to a female ineptitude if it inspires creativity, interest, and worthy analytical discussion.

Image: Brigitte Tohm via Unsplash

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