“Romance, as a genre, has been ridiculed by larger society since its advent. Despite consistently being a best-selling genre and billion dollar industry, romance still receives little to no respect.”
–Lauren Cameron via “The Romance Publishing Industry and Its Reputation.”
I’ve noticed there are lots of double standards in regard to romance novels in society and I’ve wondered about this. I enjoy reading romance novels. They make me feel happy, and I often find myself giggling with delight when the characters in them finally declare their love for each other. And when I am feeling sad I sometimes find myself reading them, because they cheer me up.
But, reading romance novels is often something I used to hide a lot from others because there’s a perception that romance novels are silly and trashy. Lots of people are often sheepish or embarrassed to admit they like them and refer to them as their guilty pleasures.
Romance novels aren’t silly or trashy at all. In fact I think many of them are very well written and interesting. I really enjoyed The Matrimonial Advertisement by Mimi Matthews which is a historical romance about a young, high class lady Helena Reynolds who falls in love with a handsome ex-soldier named Justin Thornhill.
But, just because the book was primarily focused on the romance between the two characters doesn’t mean the book is automatically silly and trashy. In fact, the book dealt with many societal issues that were common in Victorian society at the time. One of those issues was how mental illness was used to control women, and how women had very little rights in this era.
However, even if the book didn’t deal with any societal issues such as the horrific practice of asylums that basically tortured women during the Victorian era, and only focused on the romance between the two characters, that still doesn’t mean romance novels should be dismissed as silly and trashy. Yet, many romance novels are still perceived that way.
But, despite the fact that romance novels are often perceived as embarrassing, they are one of the most popular genres in the book industry and generate a billion dollars a year. This means that despite all the shame surrounding them, lots of people enjoy reading them.
But, if so many people enjoy reading them, why is there still such a social stigma associated with them?
A paper “The Romance Publishing Industry and Its Reputation” by Lauren Cameron does an excellent job of analysing the reasons why there’s social stigma associated with romance novels. She points out in regards to romance novels, “romance is seen as less because it values and supports women.”(11)
Cameron’s paper mentions some studies that found there’s a general perception that romance novels are just porn, or that the type of women who read romance novels must be “unintelligent or lonely women.”(10)
It’s true that a large amount of people who read modern romance novels are women, but romance novels are pretty much universally loved. Women from all over the world and from many different backgrounds enjoy reading romance novels or other forms of romance story mediums such as movies, or manga or television shows. And just because they like to read romance novels doesn’t mean they are “unintelligent or lonely.” (10)
Even in the olden days people loved romance and love stories. After all, Romeo and Juliet is one of the most universally loved and known stories and it’s focused on two teenagers who fall in love and get married and then decide to die because they can’t bear to live without the other. Plus, books like Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights are stories focused on love and romance, and they are regarded as beautiful and intellectual.
Yet, it seems that despite the numerous variety of modern romance novels few of them are viewed as intellectual or beautiful by mainstream society. Lots of them are regarded as shallow and trashy. Some of that criticism is probably because the books often feature the same basic story of two people falling in love and the suspense that leads up to it.
In comparison, I have noticed that more masculine books that seem to be written more for a male audience don’t receive the same amount of social stigma and embarrassment. These are books such as Tom Clancy books, and many books by Clive Cussler. The main characters in these books are often super masculine men who excel at everything they do and will often have multiple beautiful women that they romance. Now, there’s nothing wrong with men who like reading these types of books. But, there’s also nothing wrong with women for liking to read romance novels with very feminine women characters who are often empowered, smart and beautiful and have handsome men falling in love with them. I’ve often heard the sentiment that romance novels are incredibly unrealistic and that’s why they’re trash, but many action books are also very unrealistic as well.
So, I just think it’s sort of a double standard that action books receive less social stigma than romance books, when both genres could be criticized for being too formulaic, one-dimensional and unrealistic.
I remember being in elementary school and seeing other girls get teased and myself being teased by other boys for reading books under the Candy Apple imprint (books with titles such as Miss Popularity and Totally Crushed.)
The books were marketed for young girls and dealt with issues that young girls would be presumably worried about such as friendship dramas, and crushes. Characters were also concerned about their physical appearance and social popularity.
I am not criticising these themes at all. In fact these are normal things to worry about. It’s normal to care about what’s going on with your friends, how you look and how other people (especially those who you are romantically interested in) perceive you socially. And I believe the majority of people -regardless of gender- care about these things. These are normal things to care and worry about.
But, the problem is that these issues are perceived as shallow and silly when it’s in regards to women and girls.
And I’ve often heard those Candy Apple books referred to as “stupid” and “girly” when I was a kid. Girly as if that is something to be embarrassed about and as if that word is synonymous with stupid. In contrast, I remember kids who were reading books like Captain Underpants, which can be argued aren’t “girly” didn’t receive the same amount of teasing as “girlier” books did. The Captain Underpants books aren’t stupid at all, but the fact that a book series about a principal who turns into a superhero who flies around in his underpants and has a “wedgie power” received less teasing than books that were declared girly is something I find interesting and very unfair.
It’s interesting too because when I was a child I often saw girls enjoying more “boyish” things without much bullying, but rarely did I ever see a boy enjoying girly things without getting bullied. Heck, I even remember in elementary school when a boy got teased for wearing a pink shirt because “pink is a girl’s colour.” So, I would often see other girls reading Captain Underpants (and I read those books myself.) But, I don’t think I ever saw a boy reading any of the Candy Apple books unless it was as a joke to make others laugh.
Anyways, I actually did like reading those Candy Apple books when I was a kid. They were interesting and I liked reading them. The friendship dramas and the romance introduced in them such as worrying about crushes was so suspenseful. But, it was something I tried to hide because I didn’t want to get teased for enjoying them.
And, it seems that that theme I experienced in childhood where I didn’t want to get caught enjoying “girly” books carried over into my adulthood where I mainly kept my love of “trashy” romance novels a secret. Millions of people have read and loved the romance books by Katherine Woodiwiss, and so did I. But, it wasn’t something I wanted to tell people. Because, I thought that liking those types of romance books was something to be embarrassed about.
But, I’ve come to realise there’s nothing embarrassing about romance novels. They aren’t silly or ridiculous, and women who read them aren’t automatically silly or ridiculous for enjoying them. Millions of people around the world read and love them. The fact that they make people feel happy when they read them is enough. So, I don’t think people should be ashamed or embarrassed for saying that reading romance novels makes them happy.
Deena is currently majoring in English. She is excited to be a blog writer since shes hopes to spread more awareness on topics she is passionate about and to also hopefully spotlight women who are doing amazing things in the local community.