Monday, January 30, 2017

How romance is political

Spiegeltent, Sheffield Festival of the Mind (credit: A Burge)
I was alerted to a thread by Camille Hadley-Jones (@camillehjones) on Twitter yesterday that called bullshit on “Romancelandia declaring itself politics-free, created for escapism, only supposed to be about happy things”. Hadley-Jones rightly says that “Romance has always been political. Not the bland "it's feminist bc it's the only genre for women by women [but also] the erasure of servants, the poor, POC, LGBTQ, etc AND the emergence of those voices.”

She writes, "Romance writers and readers make political acts every day. It's political to write. It's political to read. What you choose to read or write […] Derives from your personal politics. Deciding to write/read smalltown romance with zero diversity is political.”

It’s true that in straightforward representation terms, there is a lack of diversity in popular romance publishing. I was on a panel at the Sheffield Festival of the Mind in September 2016 with authors and editors from Harlequin Mills & Boon. Following a question from the audience about diversity in romance novels, I pointed out an imbalance in how different races and cultures are depicted. A Senior Editor for Harlequin Mills & Boon who was on the panel highlighted some examples of diversity in the publisher’s output, but ultimately concluded that the diversity of the company’s output depended on 1) what readers wanted to read, and 2) what authors sent them. The argument was that Harlequin Mills & Boon would love to publish more diversity, but authors are not writing diverse characters, and readers don’t want to have them in their books (although this seems a little self-perpetuating). Laura Vivanco has written more about the panel discussion on her blog.

All this is essentially to say the same thing as Hadley-Jones; romance, like almost everything else in popular culture, is political.

I think romance is political in three core ways. First of all, writing a romance is a political act on the part of the author. Hadley-Jones points out that it’s not just what you write, but it’s what you don’t write that reveals your politics. So, only writing white protagonists, or having heroes and heroines drawn from an oddly narrow vision of the world (where are the Chinese or Ghanaian heroes?) is a (deliberate or unconscious) political act. In others words, romance reflects the political world and views of its authors.

This isn’t a new thing. Medieval romance, the precursor of today’s modern romance novels, had a similar role reflecting contemporary politics. In fact, this is one of the many reasons historians and literature scholars read medieval romance today – to find out what people thought about what was going on at the time. For example, it’s commonly been argued that the fourteenth-century growth in romances with characters who gain social status through marriage is indicative of shifting social boundaries with a growing gentry class, to whom status was vital. There are also large numbers of crusade-inspired romances with characters and settings either in the Holy Land or with Saracen (Muslim) characters – these continued to be popular long after the actual Crusade wars ended, reflecting the long legacy of the conflict.

Romance is political because of its settings. I’ve written in my book, Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance, about how the places mentioned in romances changes over time in accordance with shifting geopolitics. Later versions of the medieval romance Bevis of Hampton contain far more geographic references to sites associated with Crusade, trade, and pilgrimage, as well as detail of travel between these places, reflecting new ways of mapping, and understanding medieval Europe. Modern romance novels too, have changed; while romance novels in the first half of the twentieth-century were set in real North African countries, such as Egypt, or Morocco, from the 1980s onward, most sheikh romances were situated in fictionalised Emirates located on or near the Arabian Peninsula. As British and American politics shifted, so too did the settings of romance novels.

Reading a romance novel can also be a political act on the part of the reader. While it is true that readers might be more likely to read romances with diverse characters if such stories were more prevalant, there is still an extent to which we as readers are political in our choices of what to read. As the Senior Editor said on the panel in Sheffield, publishers make choices about what to publish based on what readers buy. By extension, then, if we buy romance novels with diverse characters, publishers like Harlequin Mills & Boon will be more likely to publish them.

But what’s more reading about different places and people is a really good way to broaden our minds and become more diverse in our thinking. Indeed, before Harlequin purchased the British company Mills & Boon in 1971, almost all romance novels published in North America were set outside of North America. While readers were eager to read ‘home-grown’ stories, they also appreciated the ‘armchair’ travel they were able to do by reading novels set in, for instance, the Netherlands (Betty Neels was a popular author at the time who set many of her novels in Holland).

In letters to Harlequin magazine, a subscription magazine run by the publishing company, it is clear that readers gain much from reading about other places. C. Hotzinger from Placentia, CA, writes:

“I too have found them full of information about other countries. For instance, it was Harlequin books that taught me the people of Scotland are Scots, not Scotch, and (for Mrs. Downs, who wondered in her letter what court shoes are) I have decided that they are what we Americans would call ‘pumps’ or ‘heels.’ Harlequin magazine vol. 1. no. 4.
Mrs C. M. Rinehard, of Pacifica, CA comments:


“I especially enjoy Betty Neels’ stories as I have traveled a good bit in Holland visiting relatives and I get out my Road Map and follow the story and I can even picture some of the roads. Now I see you have an Atlas out, and I will order that soon and learn some more geography as I read.” Harlequin magazine, vol. 2. no. 12.  

The catch, of course, is that these readers are reliant on the depictions of authors, who are themselves affected by political and cultural tides.

Finally, researching romance is political. In the most obvious way, simply defining oneself as a romance researcher is a relatively significant statement from which (some) people will make all kinds of assumptions (I’ve written about my experiences as a #seriousacademic researching romance elsewhere on this blog). Time and again, myself and my colleagues have to justify, defend, and uphold the importance of researching romance and taking it seriously. This is a political act.
But beyond this, it matters what we research when we research romance. Choosing to focus on questions about race, sexuality, disability (as several fellow researchers do) is deliberate and important in changing the way we, as researchers, authors, and readers, think about romance as political. In other words, as researchers, we have a responsibility through our research to show the ways romance is political.  

So, when I compared the way medieval and modern Orientalist romance represent romantic relationships between Christians and Muslims, I was able to conclude that, despite claims to contrary, romance novels are not necessarily more open-minded in the way they deal with cross-cultural, cross-religious relationships. Looking more closely at the cultural identities of Harlequin Mills & Boon romance heroes, I have collected data that shows the narrow cultures from which they are drawn (spoilers: they are never African or East Asian) (you can read more about my research on cultural masculinity here). And, extrapolating from fictional romance slightly, I’ve looked at the way medieval and modern advice literature for young women exploits cultural understanding of romance to control their behaviour (an article on this will be published in the Journal of Gender Studies in February 2017).

As I see it, romance is deeply political, and it’s up to us, as readers, authors, and researchers, to say so.