A couple years back I devoured every novel in Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series within a matter of weeks — far before I had any inkling a Netflix version was on the way. (You can only imagine how I responded when that news arrived!)
I’ll admit that I felt a flutter of shame (maybe “embarrassment” is a better word) for pouring through those books in record time, for enjoying them as much as I did, for getting sucked into a romantic trope that is (or at least was), in my opinion, completely unrealistic, nothing more than fantasy, and only enticing because of the steamy sex.
Harsh, I know.
(That inner dialogue and critique did not keep me from reading more — or from binging on both seasons.)
What is it about these stories that draws us in?
I have a few ideas…
So do others:
As early as 2013, an article in The Atlantic endeavored to show “how romance novels came to embrace feminism.” A few years later, the author of an article on the genre in the online women’s magazine Bustle characterized romance novels as some of the perhaps “most rebellious books you can read right now.” Romance novels, she affirmed, are “practically the only books in which women get exactly what they want, all of the time, and aren’t asked to feel bad about it.” (source.)
‘Might be worth reading that last sentence one more time…
Where do you get exactly what you want, all of the time, without being made to feel badly about it?
Where do you know this to be true for yourself? An even better question: DO you know this to be true for yourself?
Go ahead, think about it for a bit. I’ll wait for you. Where do you get exactly what you want, all of the time, without being made to feel badly about it?
This is foreign territory for most of us. And it uncovers a truth that we all-too-often dismiss.
We live our lives, in large part, without getting what we want, most of the time, and when we do, we are made to feel badly about it and/or we impose that shame ourselves.
So, what are we to do? Well, maybe read more Romance novels.
They let us imagine our own story, our own life in a much different way from “normal.” All obstacles are conquered. All misunderstanding healed. All betrayal (by self and others) disallowed. We are powerful, chosen, and the one who does the choosing! They allow us to feel into what we deserve and what we will NOT tolerate. They help us identify and name our desires. Yes, for love, but so much more (strength, wit, discernment, agency, courage, passion, voice…) And all of this without a hint of shame.
The story of a woman in a Romance novel invites us to look far more deeply at our own story; to admit and allow, even if only within those pages, that we want what she has. That we want, period.
For the skeptics in the crowd:
Believe me, I know. The tendency is strong to bucket every bit of this into “fantasy,” an escape from reality, a silly diversion. I mean…come on! It’s just a book! It’s a trope that is intentionally designed to make us feel this way. There’s a happy ending, for goodness sake! Come down from the clouds.
And…it always feels far safer to stay in skepticism, even contempt, than to hope. (Believe me, I know.) It’s what I wrote about a couple weeks back, yes? Me not practicing what I preach, resisting desire for fear of disappointment. I get it.
There’s some logic I’m following that I think (and hope) might just change your mind. It’s definitely changed mine.
We must take in as many stories of women as we possibly can — especially those who get what they want, all of the time, without being made to feel badly about it. They invite us to imagine — and then create — a story of our own, a world, in which we are our own protagonists, unashamed, strong, and full of desire — passionate, awake, alive.
We must take in as many stories of women as we possibly can — especially those who knew great harm, misunderstanding and malignment, silencing and shame. They compel us to imagine — and then create — a story of our own, a world, in which their losses are NOT ours, in which we lean on and learn from their wisdom and strength, and through which we are reminded that we are not alone; that we stand on the shoulders of an entire matrilineal line on which we can depend.
Entering into the stories of women don’t whisk us away from reality, they usher us into it — with fierce defiance, fiery passion, and an endless determination to get what we want.
And what is that? What do we want, ultimately?
We want a world in which every woman’s lived story is not imagined; it’s real, felt, experienced, and expressed. Strong and sovereign. Never made to feel badly about anything; instead, honored, acknowledged, and esteemed; heard, seen, and valued.
May it be so.