I Am a Feminist, but I Love Romance Novels
by Dakshayani Shankar
This article is part of a new column series called, "I Am a Feminist, but...," which features stories about the various ways in which women (and men!) can and do embrace feminism.
In memory of Abi P, who told me I could be a feminist and romance novel lover at the same time.
I know romance novels tend to let the male protagonists walk all over their women, and end with happy-ever-afters. I also know that feminists usually dissociate romance novels from feminism. However, I am a feminist and a romance novel lover, and I can tell you that it’s completely human, and okay, to root for the female character’s relationship with hotheaded males.
In fact, it’s not as passive and chauvinistic as you would think it is.
Many of us feminists, including myself, tend to become disheartened and lose respect for fictional female characters once they forsake their careers (Jane Eyre), end up in marriage (Elizabeth Bennet) or accommodate the playboy’s growing infidelity issues (Ana from Fifty Shades of Grey). We view these as displays of weaknesses within female emotions: irrationality, stupidity and passivity – basically, all the things the patriarchy has used against us to undermine us throughout the centuries.
Worse, since we are trying to find ways to prove to the patriarchy that we deserve equal rights, these fictional female characters’ final actions tend to send out messages that we are not as independent as we think we are, and can be easily manipulated.
But there lies a stream of strength within all these female characters that only highlights the beauty of feminism and gender equality today.
Remember Elizabeth Bennet’s marriage to Mr. Darcy?
We didn’t like the fact that fiery Elizabeth tempered down for Mr. Darcy and accepted marriage. But, what I have realized through re-reads, and what you should too, is that Elizabeth married him because she loved him, and stopped berating him after realizing her misjudgment of character. Throughout their relationship, she never once diverted from her strong views on life and womanhood, and still possessed a fiery nature. The only difference was that she had to balance her views with Mr. Darcy’s during marriage.
Elizabeth’s attitude throughout the relationship can be compared to today’s feminists’ ones. Like her, we are witty, smart, ambitious and determined to attain the equal pay, equal rights and equal respect that we deserve. A relationship may alter some of our views but it never changes us or “tames us” completely. In a very Elizabeth-like manner, we are trying to find a way to balance our views and love someone without giving up one over the other. This doesn’t make us weak, but stronger. This makes us human and real.
Now, think about Ana’s infamous, haunted relationship with cold, chauvinistic billionaire Christian Grey from Fifty Shades of Grey. Not a very smart or feminist move on her part to enter this relationship, right?
Ana may seem weak every time she succumbs to Christian’s tantrums and experiences a whiplash of emotions in response to his cold attitude. We, as feminists, might feel ashamed or appalled that writers are still drawing up female characters like Ana who put up with sadistic male characters without leaving through the backdoor one day.
However, let’s not forget the amount of psychological strength that Ana must possess to actually stay in this dysfunctional relationship. She helps him through his dark past and discovers her sexuality whilst dealing with job issues. She may not exude feminism. Nevertheless, the fact that she is actually able to handle Christian Grey and eventually put him in place is a testament to the amount of determination, love and power that lies within her.
Other than the imminent sexism in Ana’s relationship, this is the other thing we should have noticed about her character. After all, hundreds of women are experiencing the same issues as her in real life.
As feminists, we often tend to criticize fictional women because they represent the current state of society’s perceptions on women. We want women to move on from playboys and choose a job over a man in romance novels to make us look “psychologically stronger” in today’s patriarchal world.
But let’s also celebrate the strength, love, determination, generosity and capability of the thousands of fictional female characters that have dealt with their partners’ issues and found a way to resolve them for a happy-ending. Whilst many of us may never be able to have the happy-endings Elizabeth and Ana do, we are just like them, in the way we choose to love, to honor and to respect one another.
I’m not saying that we should completely tie feminism to romance novels. That’s unrealistic. But I do believe that we should give female characters more credit for their actions, rather than merely chastise them for it. We should stop berating women who read these novels as well.
Because love is hard, and we are lucky enough that we are strong enough to love, feminists.
Dakshayani Shankar is currently a rising junior at NYU, majoring in Journalism and French, with a minor in German. She loves almost everything artistic or feminism-related, and can be found traveling all over the world. You can check her work out at Odyssey Online, WSN, The Culture Trip, Her Campus and Her Culture.