Sexism in Romance

I’ve written a few times about my relationship with romance and stories like Twilight… it’s complicated. But I saw this Tumblr thread the other day about John Green’s defense of Twilight and others who took issue with that defense, and it made me think about why I still feel bothered by some aspects of Twilight criticism when I simultaneously agree with and support the criticisms themselves (the criticism in this specific thread was more directed at the problematic elements rather than the author or fans, so I’m not necessarily directing this at the thread itself; the thread just made me think about why I agreed with it 100%, but also felt bad about that).

It’s absolutely vital that we examine problematic messages in our media, especially entertainment meant for young people who are just starting to form their ideas about the world and how to treat (and be treated by) other people.

And yet… I also like the fact that John Green defended Twilight… I mean, I sort of agree with what he’s trying to say, and I totally like his point in this post about other (mostly male-written) works that are also misogynistic and yet do not stir nearly the amount of hate that Twilight does.

In thinking about these seemingly contradictory feelings—agreeing with the criticisms of misogyny while also sort of enjoying the misogyny in romance at the same troubling time—I think I figured out what’s going on: Internalized sexism.

The idea of “internalized” sexism is that it’s a series of sexist beliefs (such as, “women are weaker than men,” or “physically aggressive men are attractive”) that is so ingrained into our ways of thinking that even when we know these beliefs are wrong or even when we are disgusted by them, a part of ourselves can still be entertained and even pleased by their portrayal. It isn’t necessarily conscious or intellectual or even wanted, and yet the enjoyment (and even desire) is there.

And the thing about it, and the reason why it makes the harsh criticism of Twilight that little bit troubling (and sexist in and of itself), is that it isn’t necessarily the person’s fault. See, I’m pretty positive Stephenie Meyer did NOT set out to write a misogynist and abusive love story; she just wrote what she liked, and what she found romantic. And all the women (and men) who fell in love with the story also found it romantic. Not because they’re all women-hating or pro-abuse or ignorant, but because they have had sexist romantic tropes ingrained into their psyche from birth.

Why do we find these problematic tropes romantic (and I realize not everyone does, or to the same degree, but stay with me here)? Because they’re in almost every love story we consume, even from childhood, though in different degrees of severity.

Beauty and the Beast teaches us to forgive and accept aggression while also perpetuating the idea of “saving” a damaged man. Almost every fairy tale and most romances (and even tiny subplots in action movies and such) build romance on the idea of being “rescued” or “protected” by a man, and that very protection being a demonstration of his affections. Affection can also be demonstrated through financial support, leading to the romanticizing of, basically, the “sugar daddy.”

Real life, or at least the dominant social narratives, also plays a role here. Women are often taught, directly or subliminally, that they may not be able to protect themselves from a threat, especially in combat—so a strong physical protector is appealing; it feels safe. And in earlier eras, most women could not provide for themselves financially, so once again, a financial provider (and the more the better) felt safe. And I think there’s a romantic idea that by “saving” a damaged man, you earn more of his loyalty and affection somehow—maybe some sort of guaranteed fidelity by way of gratitude or something?

So when you couple these romanticized tropes with dramatic exaggeration for a story, you end up with more problematic material. “Saving” Edward becomes accepting his murderous tendencies, which because of the underlying ‘romance’ of that trope, somehow becomes more romantic. This is just a furtherance of the initial trope which is still problematic but less troubling—because its roots don’t set off quite as many alarm bells, most women can find this exaggerated trope appealing.

And this is my point here—the women creating problematic material and the women consuming (and enjoying) problematic material aren’t necessarily to blame.

It’s not just Twilight; I just skimmed through a romance novel I really enjoyed several years ago only to realize that it romanticizes a violent rape as the heroine “saves” her rapist-slash-soulmate by accepting his violence and basically giving him the okay to kill her… wow. And again, several years ago, I obsessed over that “stuff,” and found it incredibly romantic as he heals her and worries about her afterwards even as she tells him to leave her alone… again, wow. I’ve learned a lot in the last few years about sexism and problematic media, so I’m able to recognize it in a way that I definitely wasn’t before—but does that mean the earlier me was somehow disgusting and misogynistic?

As I was thinking about this post, I thought about how the criticism of sexism in romance could be linked to the criticism of racist comments by public figures—basically, in suggesting that we modify or ‘lessen’ our criticism of sexism in romance, am I somehow suggesting we not criticize racism because it’s often indoctrinated and internalized?

While I think these are complex issues, the simple answer is no—because those issuing racist comments are rarely a part of the oppressed group… while these female creators and fans are. It’s “internalized” because we are supporting and perpetuating ideals which damage us, not others. While racist beliefs are often a source of maintaining one’s own power and privilege, internalized sexism is about maintaining the privilege and social dominance of others. And it can be so internalized that we are enjoying—even seeking—our own oppression!

We definitely need to examine and criticize problematic media—and we need to work on ways to create new romantic tropes that don’t glorify abusive and sexist behaviors. But I think we need to frame this discussion in a way that doesn’t blame or shame the women who are enjoying this media… Is there a way to more gently suggest improving the content of romances?

I do think John Green missed the point that misogynistic elements in a story exist whether or not we “read into them,” and that it doesn’t go away if you ignore it—it can still damage young women’s ideas about the world even if they don’t realize it. Yet I do agree that our criticism of problematic media should evolve in such a way that we can point out misogyny and troubling elements without shaming the female creators and fans… I think that last bit is also internalized sexism, as some women loudly tear down other women to distance themselves from each other.

Can we help each other create new romantic narratives that appeal to women without playing on internalized sexism and misogyny? Can we work to change the world so that women can own a powerful place in society and in their relationships—and then see this in our stories? Can we find ways to analyze Twilight and romances without heaping blame and shame on other women?

I like to think we can.

[A quick note: I don’t want this to read as “tone policing” to those who are angered by misogynistic tropes in popular media, or who have been personally affected by these issues and want to vent their rage that seemingly all of society supports these problematic narratives. I just think in some instances the criticism would be better directed at our patriarchal society and ingrained social mores rather than specific female creators and fans who have internalized that patriarchy, and are not even aware of it. Making them aware of it is important; making them feel like shit because of something they couldn’t even help… well, I don’t like it. But I also believe in expressing yourself however you want.]

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About J. Sevick

Just write.
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6 Responses to Sexism in Romance

  1. Sue Klein says:

    Wow–you analyses continue to amaze me–I never realized that so much thought went into novel writing. One could probably argue that our attraction to strong men dates back to the caveman days when we chose a mate based on his ability to drag home enough food for our family. Don’t men still subconsciously chose a mate that will produce healthy offspring? So much is hard wired into us. I’m stumped beyond that–I’ll leave all this heavy thinking to you. So glad you are closing in on your story–can’t wait!

    • J. Sevick says:

      There are a lot of theories in evolutionary psychology that follow those lines–but there are also people who disagree with the whole theory. But between a biological predisposition and the norms of our modern society, we definitely get a lot of thought patterns ingrained into us before we even have a chance. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting!

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