The hidden importance of STEM romance novels

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The phenomenon of STEM romance novels has surged over the past few years with the help of BookTok, the most notable writer in this controversial movement being Ali Hazelwood. After the success of her ‘STEMinist’ romances, for example The Love Hypothesis and Love, Theoretically, readers are caught in the literary crossfire of two seemingly incongruous worlds: stereotypically ‘womanly’ novel forms, and stereotypically ‘masculine’ fields. Does Hazelwood allow these two worlds to coexist, or can she not help but conform to the heteronormative separation of these two fields?

The overwhelming feeling after reading a Hazelwood romance is often one of dismissal: they shouldn’t be analysed at all, and rather should be taken as simple and indulgent narratives, in which readers can glut themselves on the happy-all-the-way-through romance with an unchartered side of STEM. Alternatively, for Hazelwood’s heroines and the women they represent, romance is instead housed in the smallest ramekin for garnish.

Research holds that “women in STEM may have difficulty establishing and maintaining long-term romantic relationships, as their career choices are incongruent with gender roles,”(1) due to their evasion of gender norms, and their dedication to ‘masculine’ fields which take their time away from familial roles. This is a common and unsurprising conclusion, yet it completely contradicts Hazelwood’s narratives. Her heroines continue to perpetuate stereotypically ‘feminine’ ideas — all except for their occupation with STEM. Her characters can be seen binging The Bachelor, making Taylor Swift references, growing an increasing dedication to their appearance, and desiring to be physically towered over by pretty much every man ever…

The very fact that her heroines fulfil these pervasively feminine motifs contrasts the flip side of their personality: their love of STEM. This strange conflict becomes the unlikely catalyst for long-term relationships.

This internal contradiction of STEM and romance is uncomfortably surrounded by formulaic literary tropes and stands against everything women are taught.

This internal contradiction of STEM and romance is surrounded by formulaic literary tropes and stands against everything women are taught

From birth, women are indoctrinated to be subconsciously averse to such fields as STEM due to the belief that this makes them less appealing to the stereotypical man, who traditionally takes the role of the breadwinner himself. We absorb the lack of female idols in STEM (I’m thinking of my youthful obsession with all-male astronauts); girls are gifted toy babies to raise, plastic groceries, play kitchens, and lurid make-up sets. 

The predisposition to these feminine roles which comes with this childhood indoctrination has women believe that romance/mate-finding cannot coexist with STEM fields since they directly contradict the feminine roles outlined in early girlhood. There is evidence that women in female-dominated fields have a higher likelihood of successful long-term relationships and approach romance more positively. In contrast, Hazelwood’s heroines are repeatedly averse to romantic relationships: for Elsie Hannaway (from Love, Theoretically), even relationships themselves have become a masculine vehicle for breadwinning rather than human connection. Elsie’s fake dating commodifies romance in order for her STEM dreams to prosper and flourish — her female identity is thus repressed to ensure the longevity of her masculine identity. This suggests that women in society struggle to accept the neat coexistence of these contradictory realms and are instead forced to choose one side or the other.

Can Ali Hazelwood’s novels really be ‘STEMinist’ if this subversive romantic trope prevents romance and STEM from comfortably coexisting? Arguably, the exact tropes that lead to this question simultaneously answer it. Yes, they’re still pretty STEMinist, but to what extent is Hazelwood aware of this?

More women are consuming non-stereotypical occupations (STEM) through the format of stereotypical media (the BookTok romance book). Her heroines are emblematic of unabashed self-expression and self-improvement since they search for independence in their field before resigning to the reliance which prescriptively comes along with finding love. In this way, Hazelwood confirms ‘findings indicate that a supportive romantic partner may be a positive determining factor for women’s success in STEM.’(2)

This statement can’t help but imply that to survive in academia, a woman must find a man to rely upon, to support her, and to fulfil household responsibilities which traditionally fall to the female. The very fact that Hazelwood mixed STEM with romance almost proves the research itself, suggesting that women realise their capabilities when no longer oppressed by men, but rather supported and loved by them through appealing to what makes women more stereotypically appealing mates. We particularly see this in the dynamic of Levi and Marie (Love On The Brain): Marie is stilted by the men in her field until she falls in love with one of them, then she relies on him for support, succeeding in her academic pursuits by the end of the novel. This suggests that for women to prosper in male-dominated fields, they must appeal to the male gaze: being an attractive colleague can increase your chance of being employed in a male-dominated field. 

Do the women in Ali’s novels require the male love interest to succeed? In Love, Theoretically, it’s hard to dismiss the initial scene in which Elsie dons a red dress and high heels to outshine her male opponent. This idea that women must physically compensate for their masculine interest leaves a sour taste. Does the romance in these novels that seems anti-feminist, then reveal itself to be the very essence of feminism due to its coexistence with STEM, disproving the idea that STEM women must choose between the two poles?

Hazelwood goes against a multitude of anti-feminist preconceptions of a woman’s place in the world of STEM

Hazelwood’s audience is reminded of the harsh truths of STEM: men can still be misogynistic, house-wife expectations still exist, women still rely on men for the prosperity of the cohabitation of a STEM career and domestic bliss, however Hazelwood also posits that long-term relationships are possible with the acceptance that STEM and romance should no longer jeopardise each other. Elsie Hannaway’s pursuit of fake dating threatened her academic reputation, yet she persisted with her fascination of Jack, her rival, due to the ineffable sense that both poles, science and romance, can coexist in spite of all abrasion. Her academic landscape became easier not when she found independence from one male (her adviser), but when she shifted this dependence to another male (Jack).

In this way, there is an inner conflict in Hazelwood’s novels whereby, despite layers of seemingly unfeminist narratives through confirming bitter-sweet female stereotypes, Hazelwood goes against a multitude of anti-feminist preconceptions of a woman’s place in the world of STEM, all neatly packaged in an easy-to-consume, accessible novel which teaches young girls on TikTok that romance and science can and should come together, rather than threaten each other. 

Quotation sources:

1 Gender Roles in the Romantic Relationships of Women in STEM and Female-Dominated Majors: A Study of Heterosexual Couples by Sarah T. Dunlap, Joan M. Barth & Kelsey Chappetta.

2 The Influence of Romantic Partners on Women in STEM Majors by Joan M. Barth, Sarah Dunlap & Kelsey Chappetta.

Image credits: Penguin Random House

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