If you've never read a historical romance novel — sometimes called "bodice rippers" — you might think they are full of retro and regressive tropes: The woman is almost always a young, delicate, virginal flower; the man is almost always older, experienced, a scoundrel and dominant brute. If you have delved into the genre lately, then you know that the petticoats and bustles may not have changed, but the characters have: The women are stronger, less passive, more pro-active and, sometimes, straight-up bluestockings.
Writing for The Atlantic, Jessica Luther explains:
Despite a major shift in the genre in the late 1980s and early 1990s that saw the near-disappearance of rape and the emergence of much stronger, more modern heroines, the idea remains that feminists and romance readers exist on opposite ends of the spectrum. This is not the case.
How can you create a feminist character when your story is set in a patriarchal past? What's especially feminist about a love story? It's a a challenge, that's for sure. Author Cecilia Grant puts it this way:
"A romance novel, by definition, privileges the romantic relationship above other aspects of the characters' lives," Grant says. "And in a culture that already bombards women with the message that finding and keeping a man is their most important goal in life," she argues that "it can be difficult to make a case for romance as a feminist-friendly medium."
Still, there are strong female characters and feminist points of view. Victoria Dahl — bestselling author of A Rake's Guide to Pleasure — tells Luther that her characters are "always" feminist. Olivia Waite — author of Hearts and Harbingers — points out that the romance genre has a feminist bent in that it "routinely foregrounds women's sexual desire." Luther points out:
As often as one is likely to see a romance trope that feels old and regressive, one will read a scene where the hero cannot wait to pleasure the heroine with oral sex. Looking around at pop culture at large, there is no other space where such scenes happen, especially not regularly.
It is important, romance novels — from Twilight and Fifty Shades to the hundreds of books in which the "hero" rapes or forces seduction on the heroine — are meant as entertainment, and don't always necessarily reflect what women want to happen to them in real life.
The critical space between what one reads and likes and what one actually does is something that critics of the genre must remember, especially because their own policing of women's desires is the product of the patriarchal system they are trying to criticize. [Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake author Sarah MacLean] argues that "we have to give ourselves permission as women to have fantasies. We aren't saying that men should threaten sexual dominance or harassment or abuse. But it's okay if we, at some point, find the idea of that threat hot."
It's also important not to be dismissive of the romance genre, whether it be historical fiction or not: Deeming them silly smut or fluff drains these books of their potency. As Luther puts it, "A genre centered on women, written primarily by women, and consumed mainly by women cannot be ignored because it can teach us about what women want."