Maya Rodale, $9.99, ISBN 978-0-9906356-2-8
Popular Culture, 2015
Before I begin, I guess I should point out that I’ve been reading romance novels for so long that I no longer care about what people will think about my choice of reading materials. I don’t care whether people respect the genre or not, as it’s not like their disdain would kill off the genre. More importantly, I have come to recognize the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the genre, and I have learned to live with the more obnoxious aspects of romance novel tropes. That’s not to say that I would cheer and wave pom-poms at every book that comes my way – I leave that to the real professionals – but, rather, I can appreciate the finer parts of the genre without pretending that the warts are not there.
Therefore, if I read Maya Rodale’s Dangerous Books for Girls some twenty years ago, I may like it more. Right now, I roll up my eyes and wish that I’ve spent the money on something else. This is a defense of the genre, but there isn’t anything new here that is said and done at the end of the day. The same studies, the same arguments, the same defenses.
Worse, some of the defenses are for a genre that does not exist today. According to Maya Rodale, romance novels celebrate a woman’s freedom to make choices when it comes to her body and sexuality. Yes, let me list down all those romances that allow a heroine to get away with abortion… wait. How about heroines who have sex with a guy other than the hero without having to suffer? Yes, there are some, but one has to actively search high and low for them. Don’t even get me started about birth control and contraceptives – many romance authors today still refuse to believe that the condom is used for something else other than to prevent unwanted pregnancies. The last few books that I’ve read, in which condoms came up, had the couple happily ditching the condom once they decided that they were in love because we all know making babies comes after love. This kind of thing comes up so often, I even stop mentioning that in reviews or else I’d only end up like a broken record.
Ms Rodale insists that, “these days”, romance heroines enter sexual relationships with “both eyes open”. Oh, I almost died laughing.
As much as authors like Maya Rodale love to imagine that the genre is bursting with tales of women exercising all kinds of choices and sexual liberties, the reality of the genre is something else altogether.
Oh, and romance celebrates a woman’s independence, the ability to make her own way in the rat race! Quick, name me ten romance novels in which the heroine’s business is not failing, or that she manages to become a Vice-President not because her father owns the company. Okay, how about five?
Romance celebrates the ability of a heroine to move up the social ladder! Yes, because all those helpless heroines forced to do all kinds of absurd nonsense for their father, only to be rescued by a duke – that is not a rescue fantasy, oh no, just a heroine paying her dues to make her way up to the room at the top!
I can go on and on, but you get the idea, I’m sure. Like many books and studies of this nature, this one attempts to convince readers that the romance genre is bursting with progressive notions. I find this rather… fake. Also, given how traditional right-leaning values still hold firm in the genre, not to mention the prevalence of slut-shaming, beauty-shaming, thin-shaming, blonde-shaming, and other stuff, it doesn’t take anyone more than a few romance novels to puncture a few holes in these grand arguments. Also, some of the “empowering” quotes from books are taken from those that are anything but empowering – Rush by Maya Banks is one particularly notable example of this!
Furthermore, this book is bogged down by its narrow use of references and examples. The author approached a small pool of sources – Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Dear Author along with a handful of authors that she is buddy-buddy with for quotes and such – so I end up with bizarre moments such as Jane Litte of Dear Author explaining the appeal of BDSM. Yes, the same Ms Litte who went on record on that blog stating that she didn’t understand the appeal of “those” books – but I guess she edited that BDSM anthology one time and that counts as cred? Seriously, are folks who are more qualified to give that opinion, such as Selena Kitt or Joey W Hill or heck, even EL James too busy? Likewise, Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books is the voice of romance readers. I guess everyone else is busy washing her hair? I feel that the author could have approached other online community legends like Laurie Gold or Dede Anderson or even Lady Barrow herself for a more balanced round of opinion on the appeal of romance.
The history of the genre is represented in a manner that is not exactly balanced, or worse, is portrayed in a misleadingly progressive manner due to the absence of input from people who have been with the genre for a far longer time. History is important, because currently, the vocal minority of the community on Twitter and other places is largely ignorant or doesn’t care about the history of the genre, often dismissing the very traits that make the genre what it is. It’s like the current crop of trans activists that attempt to crucify drag queens when drag queens played a big role in the history of LGBT activism – the current romance genre Social Justice Warriors only care about getting outraged and having the last word in the game of keyboard activism. We need honesty when it comes to defining and defending the genre. We need to acknowledge and understand why the more “unpleasant” aspects of the genre, whether or not they jive with the SJW narrative, work for the readers. And, at the end of the day, we need to know when to draw the line on the sand and tell the critics to get lost, instead of making feel-good arguments that don’t hold under scrutiny.
Dangerous Books for Girls contain plenty of pretty rhetoric, but alas, the genre it is describing is not the real romance. Long-time readers would realize this right away, and the cynics or critics of the genre only have to read a couple of romance novels to find out that this book is probably a bit too idealistic in its defense of the genre. So who is this book for? People who want their narratives to be validated, I guess, whether or not such validation is based in reality.