Love & Prejudice: Reading romance novels as a journey to self-empowerment

Love & Prejudice: Reading romance novels as a journey to self-empowerment

Even though romance novels generate over $1.44 billion in revenue, making romance the highest-earning genre of fiction .the romance novel is still considered the Bastard Child of Oprah’s bookclub.

Romance readers have been sneered at and romance writers themselves called illiterate housewives, yet the popularity of romance novels persist despite these negative stereotypes.

Romance was the fastest-growing genre of fiction over this period, contributing to 66% of adult fiction growth in 2022, so obviously a lot of people enjoy reading them despite the fact they are “formulaic” and have nothing to offer comparing to “real” literature.

But no one really questions why do women read romance despite the scorn and denigration we face from society in general? There are many theories, we are uneducated, we are silly, we are frivolous, we have trouble separating fact from fiction. Does this quiet defiance by women in the face of ridicule speak of a deeper need?

As with all literature, romance novels represent every type of contemporary theme, African-American romance novels, divorced hero and heroes, military personnel, and each of these meet a need within the reader. But the archetype of the traditional romance, the hard-eyed hero and the heroine who will bring him to heel, still persists.

Doreen Owens Malek, author of category romances with Silhouette, says, “My husband, ever the logical lawyer, is fond of saying that if he once behaved the way the heroes do in my books, I’d serve him with separation papers the same day. And he’s right.”

Critics of the genre hold up this archetype as proof of romance novels undermining feminism and promoting patriarchy, not understanding that the fantasy of a distant hero, and the heroine able to stop his emotional traffic, allows women to live out an empowerment fantasy of control that we might not have in our life.

The contract between romance reader and writer is that the writer portrays life exactly as it is not. In this fantasy world of the domineering male, and the heroine who will bring him to heel, the male serves not only as the hero of the novel, but also more subtly as its villain. In his dominance of the world around him, and therefore the heroine, he is a symbol of the obstacles life presents to women.

The readers turn the pages to see this domineering male crumple and admit the power the heroine has over him because as Malek says “in the romance novel the universe is always the heroine’s friend and always gives her exactly what she wants.”

But there is another type of romance offering a different type of fantasy and model of female empowerment. This is a novel in which the heroine’s journey is not only about discovering love and working through the conflict with the hero, but it is also about discovering herself.

What is required is that she be, as the novel starts, in some profound way unformed, immature, her “life” not having really begun. The novel is going to be about her journey to selfhood.

Suzanne Juhatz, author of Reading from the heart—Women, literature and the search for true love, states that women who read romance novels do so for the fantasy of true love as this meets a deeper need within them for self-realisation and self-development.

In this romance novel the heroine walks away with a stronger sense of identity and meets the world on her terms. Her story is one in which love and identity go together, in which the heroine experiences self-development in the context of learning how to love.

To illustrate this journey of selfhood, Juhatz explores the two different models of self-development that a male and female undergo.

A man’s identity is formed during the Oedipal crisis, the point in a young child’s growth in which he ceases to identify with his mother and models himself on his father. Maturity is achieved through separation, independence, and autonomy.

Studies have explored the theory that female psychology doesn’t follow this model of human development. Instead, these studies have found that healthy women reach maturity not by severing relationships, but by forging them.

This model is based on the bond between mother and child in the preodipal period. In this period, the mother and child see and recognise each other. In this environment of safety, recognition and loving support, a sense of self develops.

And this basis of self-development that underpins the fantasy about true love is what women love to read about. Women read romance novels to experience the heroine’s self-development and wait with bated breath for the moment when the hero sees the heroine, recognises her, and loves her.

Juhatz says: “Romance fiction equates true love and identity, following the path of a heroine whose relationship with her lover has all the elements of the preoedipal mother-child relationship.”

In this romance novel, love and identity are not two warring plots, but aspects of the same story. The end of the novel is the discovery and affirmation of true love, which goes hand in hand with arriving at a mature identity.

The romance novel is very much misunderstood and ridiculed by society in general, but the inescapable fact is that women love reading romance novels. We do not read them because we are silly, because we are uneducated or because we live in a fantasy world; we read them because they meet a hidden need within us.

They allow us to feel empowered, to escape for a few hours in a world that has none of the moral ambiguity of the real life around us, to read stories of other women and feel the connection in a shared experience.

Whilst the romance fiction market is gaining some footholds in respectability, this is always based on the fact that it’s a money maker. It is the one type of fiction that sells more than anything else written today.

Perhaps one day this will change and there will be recognition of the fact that romance novel is not equal to bad writing, cliched plots, and unrealistic stories. But rather as a genre that does have something to offer the world. After all is not a few hours of pleasure a worthwhile achievement.

In addition to being a romance lover, I am a romance writer and publish under my pen name Mae Archer. To check out my romance novels, click on the photos below.



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