Romantic novels continue to be extremely popular – making it important to avoid any dismissive analysis of romance readers as passive recipients of sexist ideology whilst maintaining a critical approach to the genre.

Scoundrels Captive

The Guardian has always enjoyed a bit of essentialism next to a picture of some hairy primates. The latest dose of evolutionary psychology to hit their pages is no exception. Alison Flood’s article uncritically lays out the conclusions of research conducted by Anthony Cox and Maryanne Fisher in Canada, who analysed the words of 15,019 Harlequin romance books and found that the novels were “congruent with women’s sex-specific mating strategies, which is surmised to be the reason for their continued international success”.

I’ll have to read the actual research, as the papers are fond of missing the nuance in research for a headline, but on the face of it the conclusions make my blood boil. They’ve taken romance novels as though they are separate from the social structures they developed in – the historical, social, economic factors that have lead to the well-worn tale that women want a big strong man’s arms to sink into (before their arms end up in his sink).*

Their conclusions read as though romance novels are somehow an organically developed window into the minds of ‘women’ who apparently all have identical desires, which we cannot escape as they are part of a natural evolutionary process.

I find the success of Harlequin novels fascinating, not because they hold the key to an evolutionary ‘female instinct’, but because they can tell us a lot about social norms, power and romantic ideology. The prevalence of certain characters and story lines is part of a conscious formula by publishers, which writers for the genre have to stick to.

Far more interesting to conduct textual research alongside research with the readers of the genre. Janice Radway was doing this in the 80s, and while I didn’t agree with everything she said, she at least pointed out the position of the romance novel as the product of an industry (a very profitable one at that) rather than holding them up as analogous to all women’s desires.

She also pointed to the pleasures that some readers found in the formula of the genre – judging novels to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ romances, much the same as readers of many cult genres revel in weighing up how different titles work with the conventions of sci-fi, detective fiction and so on.

Radway read the success of romance as a form of temporary escape from a life in which the predominantly female readership were (still are) laden down with housework.

As Ien Ang argues, an approach that gives voice to the readership of the romance genre complicates simple analyses of the readership as either passive dupes of romantic ideology, or, as the Canadian study suggests, of the novels as the lived evolutionary experience of all women. Radway argued, however, that while the romance narrative presents a form of escape, it can also distract women from changing the material circumstances of oppression.

I have grappled with the feminist arguments about romantic ideology for a long time. The romantic novel remains an extremely successful genre, as does its cinematic counterpart, the romantic comedy.

While I would caution against a dismissive analysis of romance readers/viewers as recipients of a hypodermic needle of sexist ideology into our brains, it is important to maintain a historically located, critical eye towards such a ubiquitous genre.

The central themes of the romance narrative are still the heterosexual acquisition of The One, the essential (‘natural’) differences between men and women and the ultimate goal – the wedding scene (credits roll). As Tanya Modelski has argued, much of the sex in the romance genre treads very close to a rape narrative, in which women’s cries of “no” invariably mean “yes”.

The Guardian’s reporting, as with most coverage of evolutionary psychology, ignores the power inherent in the constant reproduction of institutions such as marriage and compulsory heterosexuality, and ignores too the lengthy history of protest against the way that socially constructed ways of being and living are presented as a-historical, naturally occurring ‘common sense’.

For an analysis of the relationship with this kind of biological determinism and capitalism, see Eleanor Badcock’s excellent article on this site.

*I tried to find out where this excellent feminist slogan came from, but no joy. Answers on a postcard please.