In 2013, Anita Sarkeesian and Feminist Frequency ignited the ire of internet chauvinists with their so-called “incendiary” series, “Tropes v. Women in Video Games,” where Sarkeesian (armed with a team of writers, researchers, and feminist critics) dissected the tropes of video games and analyzed the harmful cultural associations or assumptions that the use of and interaction with those tropes in video games could have on players. During her critique and exploration of these tropes, Sarkeesian was always quick to begin her examination with the following quote:
“It’s both possible, and even necessary, to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects.”
And while I don’t think anything we’ll be discussing today is pernicious, it is worth remembering that when we talk about the thornier bits of the genre we love, it’s not like criticism coming from outsiders. When we discuss problematic elements of the romance genre, it’s because we love the genre, and want it to be better for all of its readers.
As a vast and complicated genre, romance is no one, singular thing. But there are consistencies across the genre that deserve discussion, and one of those consistencies has to do with tropes. Every so often, I check in on forums and websites where communities perform “catnip searches,” or crowd-sourced recommendations that they just can’t get anywhere else. Craving a virgin hero? A female dom? An overweight hero? A heroine who’s unlikable in the same way heroes are often allowed to be unlikable? A down-on-his-luck hero? A billionaire heroine? Childless and Happy Couples? These are just some of the most frequently sought-after story elements, ones that frequently get answered with the same handful books time and time again.
These crowd-sourced searches are often necessary because of the deeply embedded nature of tropes. A virgin hero is a rare find because the tropes and conventions of romance novels are that only heroines can (or “should”) be virgins. Same thing goes for a dominant heroine or an unlikable one. And In some ways, tropes can be good and useful, especially in a genre as vast as romance. If you know what you’re looking for, usually you can find a lot of it. But in other ways, these tropes have become reflections of patriarchal systems and beliefs.
In the research done by Stereotropes, a website dedicated to studying the wiki TV Tropes, they found that the vast majority of negative stereotypes on the site were associated with women. Negative tropes, when they were associated with masculinity, were far more likely to be associated with their morality, while women’s negative tropes were more likely to be tied up in their femininity itself or in their looks.
(Here, it’s worth noting that, though gender is not binary, the majority of romance novels depict people who are or perform stereotypical depictions of masculinity and femininity, or, people who occupy the roles of “male” and “female,” as laid out in western understandings of the concepts. Though gender is not a binary, for a long time romance at large has treated it like one, and thus the majority of this article will focus on this binary. For books by authors outside of this binary, please make sure to check out Mason Deaver and Chelsea M. Cameron, two of my favorites).
When writing my new book from Entangled, Society Girl, I took a hard look at my favorite tropes. Accidentally falling in love over the course of a bet–as in 10 Things I Hate About You and Guys and Dolls–is one of my favorites, but the more I looked at the commonalities of these stories, the more I realized that they were totally gendered. In these films, women and their emotional investment was used as a tool in the story of a man learning and growing. If I was going to write this story with a feminist lens, a body-positive one, a destroying-the-patriarchy one, then I realized I couldn’t write it the way I’d loved seeing it in the movies. I needed to allow my female character to be more than a catalyst for a man’s change.
I needed to let her make mistakes. To let her do the heartbreaking. To let her grow from it.
Tropes are the lifeblood of romance. I love them! Give me a fake relationship or a Cinderella story literally any minute of any day and I will plop myself down to devour every word of it. However if we, as a genre, are going to continue to hold up ourselves as a feminist genre of literature, then we must continue to do the work of breaking free of the constraints that society has put around depictions of masculinity and femininity. Let your handsome hero be fat! Let your billionaire be your heroine and your Cinderella be the hero! And read and support and celebrate the authors doing the work of pulling these tropes out of their gendered places and allowing all characters to experience the fullness of life. Further, if we’re to truly be an intersectionally feminist genre, then perhaps it’s also time to start looking at how our tropes are racially coded.
Breaking down these imaginary barriers and restrictions we have placed on our favorite books will we start activating the true potential of the romance genre. After all, if we really do believe that Romance means a Happy Ever After for Everyone, then we actually have to start giving everyone their Happy Ever Afters.