Any reader of romance novels can tell you the stereotypes of the books and their readers. If you're not a romance reader, there's a good chance you can come up with them anyway: Frumpy housewives engaged in heavy breathing over thoughts of Fabio (as pirate, as viking, in a kilt...) ripping bodices. Rape fantasies for the sexually repressed. Tales of weak women rescued by strong men. Clumsy prose and overheated yet laughably euphemistic sex scenes. Feminists don't read romance novels. Smart, educated people don't read romance novels.
A great deal could be said about how fiction by and for women is rated in relation to more masculinist fiction -- whether it be Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens or Henry James -- but in this case, by "romance novel," I mean genre romance. Romances are the books in the romance section of the bookstore, not the books in the "fiction" or "literature" section that have a love story but are given a pass on the stigma of being romance novels. (For further definition, see this from the Romance Writers of America.)
That said: Hi, my name is Laura and I'm a life-long feminist with an Ivy League PhD and nary a pink sweatsuit in the house. And I read romance novels.
Once upon a time I embraced the judgment. I was a reader of mysteries and sci-fi (you know, the genres that get their own sections even in serious independent bookstores) and on the eve of a spring break trip, I picked up a romance novel as a joke -- a joke I made out loud, more than once. Then I stayed up all night reading the book and started discovering that I'd been wrong. That book made me laugh. Its heroine fought back successfully against being victimized by men. Its villain was defined by his misogyny. And it was, it turns out, pretty typical in those broad strokes.
I don't want to go too far in my claims, because I think it's ok for novels (or movies, or tv shows) to be fun and escapist rather than serious and uplifting. Where it gets annoying is that romances take all this mockery when other genre fiction doesn't. You read a romance, you get judged. You read a mystery, or science fiction, or a suspense novel from the same airport bookstore, and you don't. Somehow, the genre that's written and read by women and is centered on female characters gets the grief. (The same goes, to some extent and for the same basic reason, for chick lit. But that's a distinct genre so the specific forms of mockery and dismissal are a little different.)
Myth: Romance novels glamorize rape. They used to. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Rosemary Rogers' noxious Sweet Savage Love set a trend for romances in which the heroine was apt to be raped by several men in the course of the book -- what set the hero apart was that somehow with him she liked it. Or something. It's not worth dwelling on, because that hasn't been a feature of mainstream romance novels for decades. Consensual, mutually pleasurable sex is the word of the day.
Myth: Romance novels are just porn for women. I should start off by asking, if they are, what would be wrong with it? It's really hard to come up with a coherent argument against "porn" featuring the aforementioned consensual, mutually pleasurable sex in which neither party is degraded or objectified. But once they've already been labeled as porn, why wouldn't people just read porn if that was all they were after?
No, romance has not become a $1.37 billion business on the basis of people too embarrassed to admit that they want porn buying 400-page books for the 3-4 sex scenes within. See, they also contain characters and stories, and some people like those. In fact, and I realize this is going to sound as ridiculous as claiming to smoke a lot of pot without inhaling, I mostly skip the sex scenes. I read the books for the stories, and I doubt I'm unique in that.
Maybe that's too reductive a reading of what might constitute porn. There's certainly an argument to be made that in some books, the hero acts as a caregiver to the heroine in ways that might be a powerful fantasy for a reader who spends far more time taking care of other people's needs than of her own. In some books, scenes of food and eating -- which are often also caregiving scenes -- can be powerful, either emotionally or erotically or both. But this is all probably going a little far afield of what most people mean when they talk about it as porn.
Myth: Romance heroines are weak. There's no question that romance heroes are almost always stronger by traditional measures than the heroines. These are not gender-bending narratives. But the heroines are strong characters. In contemporary settings, they are small business owners and teachers and artists and experts on esoteric subjects. In historical books, barred from working as anything but governesses and companions, they are nonetheless writers and researchers and artists. They ride horses suspiciously well for necessarily riding sidesaddle. In whatever setting, they fight back when attacked. They put themselves in danger to get justice for their friends who have been hurt, and they believe in helping others, women in particular.
In historical romances in particular, heroines are shown self-consciously violating the gender norms of their society and being all the more attractive for it. It's significant that this happens in historicals, of course, because those provide a setting in which the heroine's transgressive behavior comes across as non-transgressively feminine for today's reader. So there are certainly limits on the gender-role breakage allowed in the genre, but with those limits, bold, passionate, and strong women are the norm.
Myth: Romance heroines are just another version of the beauty myth. This myth would have it that they're another way of making women feel bad about their own inadequate looks next to the perfect woman of the fantasy. But really, many romance heroines are not conventionally beautiful -- we see their insecurity about their looks, we see other characters dismissing them as plain or unfashionable or just...meh, and we see the heroes finding them beautiful in their individuality and force of personality.
Different authors deal with this in different ways. In Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, a book of essays by romance authors, Kathleen Gilles Seidel writes:
The fantasy, I believe, is not to be beautiful but to have an identity for yourself that is not caught up in your appearance. Romance heroines rarely know how beautiful they are. This isn't because they are too stupid to look in a mirror or too low in self-esteem to understand what they see there, but because they are presenting the fantasy of being something other than body, of not having any of this cosmetic-advertisement stuff matter.
My editors at Harlequin used to joke that they could always tell when a man had written a manuscript. Somewhere in the first fifty pages the heroine undressed in front of a mirror...and liked what she saw. That sounds like a good idea, having a body that you can admire when you are buck-naked in your own bathroom. But what clearly seems a better idea, a more appealing fantasy, is to walk by that mirror and simply not care.
This is the route Seidel takes in Please Remember Me. That book's heroine, Tess, is described in a few scenes. She has a well-developed personal style about which she is assertive. But for the most part, she might as well not have a body or a face. In Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me, on the other hand, Minerva Dobbs is excruciatingly self-conscious about her weight -- and if she can forget for one minute that she is overweight, her mother reminds her. She doesn't know what to do with her hair and she dresses badly, like she hates her body, in the words of one character. And gorgeous, successful Calvin Morrisey is enthralled by her anyway. Instead of being the conventional sassy plump sidekick of filmed romantic comedies, Min is center stage while her more conventionally attractive sister and friends act as supporting characters to her.
Myth: Purple prose and other terrible writing. Sure, some romances are badly written. So are some very popular books in any genre you could find. So, for that matter, are some works of "literary fiction." As far as I'm concerned, it's yet to be demonstrated that once you strip away the hostility to romance and the mockery of a few of its specific conventions, romance novels are written at a different level than other popular fiction today.
One of the key issues in judgments of the average quality of writing is that the romance genre is never allowed to claim love stories from outside the genre. Really beautifully-written, "literary" books with mystery plots or with sci-fi elements are likely to be marketed at least loosely in association with those genres. They get to have the best of both worlds -- the marketing bump of the genre and the critical and social recognition due their quality. You don't see love stories allowed to strike that balance, which severs a world of possibility from the genre, and an introduction to a new audience for at least some deserving authors.
I'm sure there are a hundred other myths to be attacked, and none will die easily. But in the end, even if they were mostly true, the disgust for romance novels and their readers would still look more like disdain for women and feminized culture than anything else.