Is Romantic Fiction A Guilty Pleasure?

Women who read romantic fiction frequently do so guiltily and secretly, as do those addicted to the romantic Netflix series, Bridgerton. It’s hardly surprising given the criticism of the genre. Does romantic fiction only reinforce women’s patriarchal oppression, or can it teach us something more valuable?

A Guilty Pleasure

Walking into a bookshop and heading straight for romantic fiction is something best done in a hat, mask, and large overcoat; at least, that’s what we are often led to believe.

We might love a good bodice-ripper, but it’s probably not something we disclose to anyone – not even our closest friends. We don’t want anyone knowing that we read romance novels.

Are we right to feel guilty about reading a romantic novel? Are such books bad for us, encouraging us to believe in fairy-tale notions of seductive alpha males, or can they teach us to be better people, women, and feminists?

Fact or Fantasy?

British psychologist Susan Quilliam caused a media storm in 2011 when she wrote an essay on the impact romantic fiction has on its readers.

“A huge number of the issues that we see in our clinics and therapy rooms are influenced by romantic fiction,” she argued, saying, “while romance may be the wonderful foundation for a novel, it’s not in itself a sufficiently strong foundation for running a lifelong relationship.”

The problem for Quilliam is the reader’s ability to distinguish fact from fantasy. “They say that they can distinguish fact from fantasy, but when it comes to making life decisions, are they not much more tempted to let heart dictate simply because they are romance fans?” Quilliam queries.

Even if we can distinguish fact from fantasy, how often do we choose romantic fantasy over the more mundane reality? How often are we disappointed when men fail to live up to the Prince Charming narratives perpetuated in movies, documentaries, and romantic novels?

There are certain difficulties with the romantic genre, especially given its “deep-seated roots” in “forced seduction” and “dubious consent.” Furthermore, romantic fiction has traditionally celebrated “stunningly beautiful but passive virgins whose sexual desire was awakened by their perfectly choreographed seduction at the hands of a highly-skilled alpha male.” That’s certainly not me, and I very much doubt it’s you either.

Is Romance Part of What Makes Us a Woman?

As feminists and women, most of us would prefer to read about strong, liberated women empowered by their sexuality rather than passive virgins who surrender to it, so is there a space on our bookshelves for romantic fiction?

Although romantic fiction tends to “perpetuate patriarchal attitudes and structures,” Professor Janice Radway argues that reading it may still have “positive functions.”

Women read romantic fiction to escape “from some situation in the real world which is either stifling or overwhelming.” Reading a romantic novel can even be seen as a “‘declaration of independence from the social roles of wife and mother.”

Jaime Green wrote a more up-to-date analysis of romantic fiction some 36 years after Radway’s was published and, in it, she asserts that “while women in romance are falling in love, they’re also coming more fully into themselves, discovering strength and independence, or vulnerability and honesty, or the bravery to stand up to their parents or fight a war or be proud of who they are.”

Not only that, but these women are also being loved for “being strong, independent, vulnerable, honest, brave, smart, funny, and stubborn.”

As a literary convention, romantic stories must contain certain key elements that make a romance a romance: “The central plot must be a love (or lust, or like) story, which is resolved by the book’s end, and the ending must be happy.” Beyond that, however, many things about romantic fiction have evolved over the years.

The heroines are now “as varied and nuanced as real women,” rather than just two-dimensional virgins. Furthermore, romance writing is at the “forefront of inclusivity,” with “books featuring queer and transgender couples, racially and culturally diverse heroes and heroines, and characters with disabilities… gaining steam”. These changes challenge us, readers, asking us to “see outside of our own experiences and find empathy.”

Not only that, “feminist romance offers models of consent and conversations about sex. seduction and sexuality are rarely seen elsewhere, alongside critical analysis of sexual power structures.”

Romance: Good or Bad?

Romantic fiction reinforces a positive sense of self, reinvents feminine sexual identities, and “puts women at the center of their own sexuality.”

They can teach us empathy, empower us by reinforcing the fact that, like the heroines we so eagerly read about, each one of us “has a right to control over her own life, to children, to vocational fulfillment, to great sex, to a faithful, loving partner.

It’s true that while some romantic fiction reinforces patriarchal perspectives and even glamourizes the concept of unprotected sex, the best romances give us the space to explore our sexuality.

Not only that, but they also allow us to escape the confines of our patriarchal society and prescribed gender roles of women and place ourselves at the center of our own stories. So, is romance reality? Well, although some romantic gestures are real, romance as a lifestyle is usually found in its purest form in books and movies.

We have to remember that few men are anything like Prince Charming or Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy, and we may have to restrict our search for such alpha males to the pages of romantic fiction and accept that, in real life, men are as varied and as flawed as we are.

But there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a good Bridgerton binge weekend, right? Go ahead and indulge.