Folk tales, fairy tales, and romance are deeply entwined and perpetuate acceptance of misogyny. Yes, I’m a feminist, but I don’t make such as statement as a launch into a “man-bashing” tirade.
Folk tales and fairy tales arose in eras when women were chattel. That’s the long and short of it. If you buy it, own it, or sell it, it was chattel and women fit that description. So did children. These stories were told to reinforce societal values with the prizes for good behavior being rewarded. For men, that included acting with honor, courage, and clever resourcefulness. For women, that usually required beauty and a meek disposition. A hero’s reward was the idealized woman; a heroine’s reward was the strong, handsome, wealthy, powerful man.
If you take a look at the pulp romances being published in the 1970s and early 1980s, you’ll find a plethora of abduction romances and rape fantasies. I’ve written before on the trajectory of the romance genre over the past five decades and won’t go into it here. Suffice it to say, abduction romance and rape fantasy have not gone out of style.
Pretty much all romance today echoes those misogynistic values, especially so-called dark romances.
The misogyny inherent in romance makes the reader root for the heroine. We don’t necessarily want her to kick the hero’s ass, but we do want her to find happiness and security. The heroine must exhibit some virtue or trait that convinces the hero to keep her and spurn all others. Sometimes, the heroine’s obedient acceptance of what we’d normally call abuse serves that function. After all, she gets all those lovely orgasms, right? It doesn’t matter that she was taken into captivity and held against her will. It doesn’t matter that the hero does what he wants with her without considering her thoughts, feelings, or opinions, or consent. He has power and she doesn’t, but his love for her gives her power over him where it counts, right?
There’s some illicit, guilty pleasure we experience when we read of a hero who takes what he wants–like the heroine. We wouldn’t dare admit aloud that a woman’s lack of power in these relationships makes our spines tingle. Yet there’s a cognitive dissonance that assails us for that, because we certainly wouldn’t tolerate such treatment in our own lives. Perhaps that’s the beauty of these stories: they’re fantasies tapping into the dark, forbidden places of our minds and emotions that relieve us of responsibility. After all, a woman can’t be held responsible for her behavior when she controls nothing. There’s neither guilt nor shame to her pleasure. She deserves the luxury her whack-job of a hero gives her.
Even as I deliberate and worry over the inconsistency between the values I hold and the literature I both read and write, I cannot help but wonder if women don’t actually long for the days in which we held less responsibility. Of course, we women had much less opportunity to make the best of ourselves and determine the courses of our own lives. The Women’s Liberation Movement petered out in the 1970s, having made substantial and substantive changes to Western society and leaving much more to be accomplished. Women earned the right to pursue education and career paths traditionally reserved for men by finally convincing society at large that the presence of a uterus didn’t equate to the absence of a mind. Yet feminism took several turns that turned the concept into a dirty word full of negative connotations, much the same as looters and rioters are doing today for the concept of racial justice.
Was the trade-off worth it? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, enjoy the guilty pleasure of romance, but be mindful of what you’re reading. What we read frames our thoughts and opinions. If we allow the misogyny of our leisure reading to influence our words, beliefs, and actions, then what message are we sending to our husbands, sons, sisters, and daughters?