I was not allowed to read romance as a teenager. After having my Harlequin novels confiscated one too many times, I became adept at hiding books and my reading habits. However, I still lived in a conservative community that felt romantic fiction was too dangerous for women of all ages.
So it’s no surprise that, when I saw it at my local library, I had to pick up Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained.
In this critical text, romance author Maya Rodale asks questions such as, why is a female-driven billion-dollar industry always exemplified by Fabio. (Answer: It’s easier to talk/laugh about Fabio than to talk about topics found in romance novels such as feminism, women’s sexuality, masculinity, equality, etc.)
The main point of this book is why romance novels have historically been considered dangerous. Focusing on a woman’s pursuit of happiness, giving the heroine freedom of choice, and getting female characters out of the house are some of the common reasons—and not all that historical. I remember hearing similar arguments when I was punished for reading romance in the 1980s. And don’t get me started on the lectures about the romance heroine having sex. Not only did the heroine enjoy it, but she didn’t become a cautionary tale and die at the end of the story! Authority figures from my youth called that scandalous. Rodale calls it emotional justice.
The book touches on many points critics make about the genre. Why does the alpha hero appeal endure? Can a bodice ripper be considered feminist reading? Do romance readers understand the difference between fantasy and reality? Is an ending with marriage a happily-ever-after or is it trapping the heroine in a patriarchal society? These are just a few of the questions answered in Dangerous Books for Girls.
The author also looks into how non-romance readers view romance books and romance readers. She addresses the popular beliefs that romance readers are less educated, that the term romance novel is interchangeable with smut, and that romance books must be lowbrow literature because they are sold in grocery stores and drugstores.
Rodale also delves into why the romance fiction is disrespected in media and in the publishing industry. The bottom line is what makes romance successful is also why it’s criticized. Romance fiction relies on high volume and cheap production. It’s written by women, for women and about women. The romance genre is also willing to buck publishing tradition and take risks, such as going digital way before eBooks were considered an acceptable format.
In the end, Maya Rodale feels that the bad reputation of the romance novel is actually what allows the genre to thrive. The books are considered too frivolous for people to make a serious effort in banning or policing the content. Also, male authors aren’t trying to enter the genre and disrupt women’s voices. In other words, romance is successful because it’s subversive.
But if she could make one change, Rodale would like for romance readers to discuss the books with the younger generation. She argues that it’s important for girls to know that reading romance is not a shameful act. A woman’s story has value and that every female should expect to be heroine of their own lives.
I wish I had heard that radical message when I was younger.