I don’t see why not. Just as lipstick and high heels – once seen as emblems of a male oppressive society – don’t make women unequal to men today, neither does our choice of literature. After all, such things come down to personal tastes and should have nothing to do with politics.
Romantic fiction has been accused of givingwomen unrealistic expectations about real-life relationships. This debate was further fuelled last year when a Salt Lake City newspaper likened reading romantic fiction to an addiction which needed to be “cured”. Okay, aside from the fact that this newspaper article was aimed at a specific audience, it’s not the first time we’ve heard that romance is “bad” for us. But why?
Do they seriously think that women can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality? That seems rather patronising to me! It’s not romantic novels that tell women what to expect from relationships, but our own sense of self-worth.
Today’s woman knows that a good relationship is about sharing the responsibilities as well as all the fun bits. It’s about equal support, being each other’s best friends. About tolerance and understanding. Giving as well as receiving. About feeling secure enough to sometimes be moody and unreasonable, not perfect, without worrying that it’s all going to be taken away because You’re Not A Good Girl all the time.
So what if we dip into a work of escapist fiction now and again – and here I’d like to add other genres as well, such as sci-fi, crime, and even some of the classics – books that transport us from our everyday lives to different worlds? Surely this is nothing more than the literary equivalent of champagne and chocolates. We might not need it, but we certainly like it.
One could even argue that romantic fiction, as it is written today (here I emphatically do NOT include the so-called “bodice-ripper” with its ugly gender stereotyping, which was popular in the 70s and 80s), can be regarded as the ultimate feminist novel. True, it’s about getting the man, but on the female protagonist’s own terms after she’s been on a journey of self-discovery and realises she deserves a hero who’s devoted to her and attentive to her emotional and sexual needs.
The late Penny Jordan, one of Mills & Boon’s most popular authors, always said ”that a thoughtful cup of tea brought to your bedside each morning means more to me than the huge bouquet of flowers bought once a year.” (Quote: The Guardian Online, 15/1/2012). She wrote over 200 romantic novels in a career spanning 30 years, but always kept a very firm grip on reality.
So yes, I definitely think women can want equality and still read romantic fiction – one is a way of life, the other is how we choose to entertain ourselves.