Article of the Month

Paradox in Balance: Some Feminist Themes in Romance
                 Copyright 1999 by Alicia Rasley

(Originally published in North American Romance Writers, edited by Kay Mussell and Johanna Tunon, Scarecrow Press, 1999.)

    I am a feminist and I am a romance writer. While I agree there is some measure of paradox in that, it is indeed this very paradox that draws so many women to romance fiction.  Romance fiction celebrates the simultaneous danger and allure of love,
and through the traditional love story explores the tension between feminine power and masculine prerogative, gender and androgyny, identity and intimacy.  The paradox, the tension, will never be resolved, and yet the pleasure comes from somehow maintaining the balance between seeming opposites.

     The central issue in romance, I believe, is a central issue in most women's lives-- identity (self, work, creativity, freedom) vs. intimacy (family, home, caretaking, connection).  (This is also an issue for men, of course, but in my experience
they're not as likely to recognize it.)  Most of us long for both, even as we learn how dangerous intimacy is to identity, and vice versa.  We want to be ourselves, and yet be loved for ourselves, and yet not be tempted by love to change ourselves,
and yet not be so inflexibly ourselves we cannot love....

     In the better romance novels, while the obvious concern is the establishment of intimacy, the demands of the plot force a confrontation with the loss of identity that might result.  And since we romance novelists love our heroes, we end up
deconstructing that conflict for men as well as women.  Can you maintain selfhood and learn to love too?  I just don't think you'll find this explored anywhere as commonly, as concisely, and as consequentially as in romance novels.

        What is the power of the love myth for women? And why don't many men read romance?  I think the answer lies in women's greater willingness to seek intimacy. Women's novels (including family sagas and romantic suspense) are often about the establishment and maintenance of intimate relationships. Men's genre novels
(action/adventure, Western) are all about identity-- the sheriff fighting for Right, the fugitive in a crusade to clear his name.

      It's not that men don't need intimacy, rather that as long as women force it on them, men don't need to choose to pursue it. And it's not that women don't need to establish identity, rather that they often seek it through intimacy. As psychologist Harriet Lerner puts it, sometimes one partner (usually the woman) expresses all
the intimacy needs in the relationship, and the other (usually the man) expresses all the ambivalence about intimacy, and neither really has to deal with the more personally terrifying factor in the identity/intimacy dynamic.

      Hence the trend towards androgyny in the heroic journey in a good romance novel.  The hero and heroine must move towards developing the traditional strengths of the opposite sex while maintainiog those of their own sex.  So a heroine who is good at nurturing others might, during the course of the book, learn to stand up for her own needs.  And a hero who keeps his own counsel might learn to confide in his lover.  This strength-shift is in itself feminist, in that it recognizes traditionally feminine attitudes and actions as equal (or even superior to) the traditionally masculine.  It also shows that love, or more specifically the desire to love well, can serve as motivation for growth.  And finally it puts the woman's conflict and needs center stage.

     To do this well, the book needs a woman protagonist with a strong sense of self, or the threat to it posed by love won't be dramatic or meaningful. The allure of the lover and of love must also be strong, or there will be no conflict for her.  And the resolution is almost always that the heroine and hero find some way to maintain identity while creating intimacy. (What can I say? We're romantics, after all.)

      My own books accept as a given that love is for most people a transformational experience, and that transformation can both threaten and develop the lover's sense of self.  I like to explore the consequences of choosing to include love in our lives, so my heroines, and to some extent my heroes, deal with these three themes in almost every book:

1) Home. Women have usually been the primary makers of the home, and traditional womanly arts involve creating something of both function and beauty to be used and displayed in the house.  A woman like my heroine in MIDSUMMER'S DELIGHT, who feels restricted by her ties to home, must face the conflict of leaving behind or denying what has often been her life's work and art.  A woman who has experienced actual or spiritual homelessness, like my heroine in ROYAL ESCAPADE, might always feel like an outsider looking in, even when she finds a home.  The lover can force this
conflict to the surface by providing the heroine with a home, or by offering an alternative of adventure and independence.

2) Work. Women have always worked, even in the Regency period.  So all my heroines work in one capacity or another, from schoolteacher to straw-weaver.  Some work for pay, some are volunteers, but they all make the best of the jobs women have
historically been allowed to hold.  The one who aspires successfully to a non-traditional job (curator of a rare-books library) must face the skepticism and scorn of a society which dismisses her ability because of her gender. Falling in love can
only complicate matters, because the lover might pose a temptation-- "You need only love to be fulfilled."  Or the demands of love can interfere with her work.  At the same time, the lover can eventually affirm the value of her work even if society doesn't.

3) Caretaking. Many women equate being needed as being loved.  My heroines struggle with the desire to be good to others, even at the expense of their own well-being.  Charity, the heroine of MIDSUMMER DELIGHT, draws much of her identity from being the ultra-competent caretaker of an entire village, even though her
contribution is mostly taken for granted.  But when she falls in love, she is dismayed that the hero expects her to play the caretaker role for him too.  It is her greater expectation for love (i.e, it must be different from all those other relationships where she's loved because she's needed) which forces them both to grow and change-- he becomes more nurturing, and she becomes more assertive.

        I don't think I'm copping out by resolving the identity/intimacy issue in the end.  For better or for worse, most women will marry and form families, and it's certainly best to see this as an opportunity for individual growth rather than an excuse for stagnation. Indeed, sometimes it's only within love that we feel confident to develop our selves entirely.  But I don't deny the danger involved-- in fact, that danger provides
some of the conflict that a plot needs to work and a character needs to grow.

        Maintaining selfhood is difficult enough within the intimacy of friendship or parenthood.  It becomes much harder when the intimate partner is a member the opposite and historically oppressive sex.  And yet, "sleeping with the enemy" is the
experience (and sometimes the great delight) of the vast majority of women.  We choose this dangerous route even now that we have alternative choices.  And we continue to choose this even in when critics, some of them who call themselves feminists, say we're being stupid to lose ourselves in marriage and love.  It could be
that the danger of losing ourselves is part of the excitement-- and that finding ourselves, or changing ourselves, is part of the reward of loving.  It could be that negotiating the tricky dialectic of love and self (successfully or not) is an essential
education for most of us.  And reading about others who have made navigated these treacherous waters is not only exciting but instructive.

       Romance writers and readers aren't stupid. We're just gamblers. Risktakers on a life level.  Tightrope walkers. We know the hazards of loving men because we've experienced them in our own lives.  And we know the allure too, of sharing life with
someone who is both soulmate and alien.  We know how easy it is to identify with another person (that's why we're such good readers!) and how hard it is to take care of ourselves while taking care of others.  And we dread it and desire it and determine that there's a way to make it work.  And if we ever find out we're wrong, the future of whole human race is at risk.

    Pretty high stakes, right?  I told you we romantics were risktakers.

Alicia Rasley is a 14-year member of Romance Writers of America, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock Writers Colony.

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Go to previous articles:

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The Submission Journey

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The Publishing Journey

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Setting and Character Interactions

Developing the Dark Moment

The Promise of the Hot Premise

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Subtle and Sensual

Plotting Without Fears

Structuring the Story

End Thoughts

Details, Details

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