Misogyny, spice and the gender politics of romance novels

The Mudd Library houses many books with themes of romance and female sexuality. Photo by Adam Fleischer.

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For most people, the words “romance novel” come with an uncomfortably amusing stigma. They conjure up images of cheap paperbacks with covers featuring shirtless men or swooning Regency ladies and suggestive titles that barely scratch the surface of the guilty pleasures inside. Sitcoms portray them as a pastime of bored middle-aged housewives seeking a temporary escape from their passionless marriages. However, a new trend on TikTok has been destigmatizing the romance genre. 

“Booktok,” the colloquial name for a community of TikTokers who post mostly about books, has wholeheartedly embraced romance novels in all their raunchy glory. Many booktokers rate books based on their level of “spiciness,” a playful euphemism for the amount of sexual content. Spicy books often dominate recommendation lists, and there are even booktokers who refuse to post about any genre other than romance. 

The destigmatization of romance novels is a huge step forward for feminism. Throughout history, the romance genre has been an outlet for female empowerment because they allow women to take control of narratives surrounding interpersonal relationships, sexuality, and free will. For example, Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” lacks the bodice-ripping scenes you’ll find in a modern romance novel, but it is a powerful story of sexual liberation in a patriarchal society. When the fantastically wealthy but arrogant Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth Bennet, he assumes that she will accept because he can provide her with the economic security she desperately needs. However, Elizabeth rejects him because she refuses to marry a man who does not respect her as an equal, and Mr. Darcy only wins her heart after he realizes that he is not entitled to her affection and becomes a better man. Despite Mr. Darcy’s superior economic and social power, the novel’s happy ending occurs only when Elizabeth gives her enthusiastic consent to be his wife and sexual partner. Romance novels – especially those written by women – create a space where women could explore marriage and courtship with men without the trappings of the patriarchy. 

The romance genre continued to challenge social expectations for women. Romance novels grew increasingly raunchy, pushing back against the restrictions of purity culture. In a society where female sexuality was heavily stigmatized, romance literature gave women the opportunity to explore sex beyond the social stigma. 

However, the romance genre is not immune to critique. Recently, people on Booktok have been discussing the social issues surrounding romance novels that explore problematic relationship dynamics. For example, Sarah J. Maas’s “A Court of Thorns and Roses” series, which is loosely based on “Beauty and the Beast” and the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone, has drawn criticism for its portrayals of steamy romances between young mortal women and ancient immortal male fae. In addition to the power imbalance stemming from the extreme age gap, many of the male love interests are brutish and violent towards the female characters until they begin falling in love, and Maas has been accused of romanticizing abuse. 

Problematic dynamics in romance is nothing new. Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” features a predatory relationship between sheltered young Jane and her much older employer, the shifty Mr. Rochester. In real life, this would absolutely be considered sexual misconduct. It’s important to identify these problematic aspects in stories so we do not perpetuate them in real life; however, fiction gives us a medium to experiment with things that we don’t support in reality. I enjoy critical analysis in literature because I think books reflect humanity in exciting ways, but it’s important to remember that fiction is a parallel but separate world from reality. 

The Mudd Library houses many books with themes of romance and female sexuality. Photo by Adam Fleischer.

Also, while real-life predators hold the power in the dynamic, Mr. Rochester is merely a figment of Bronte’s imagination, and she controls his actions. Likewise, the powerful fae may hold power over the heroines, but they are merely Maas’s fictional puppets. There is a subversive power in reclaiming problematic narratives, and there must be space to explore these concepts. However, there is a fine line between depiction and romanticization, and these boundaries often become easily blurred. 

Many readers often fail to read romance books with a critical eye. For example, Leigh Bardugo’s “Shadow and Bone” features a predatory relationship between teenage protagonist Alina Starkov and the Darkling, an ancient immortal who wants to claim her power for his mission. The story ends with Alina killing the Darkling and marrying an age-appropriate childhood friend. However, many fans got swept up in the Darkling’s charm and began shipping Alina and the Darkling, even though the text explicitly depicts him as a villain. 

Furthermore, mismarketing contributes to the issues surrounding the romance genre. Books written by women are usually categorized as romance if they contain sexual content, even if romance is not the main plot. However, sexually explicit books written by men (for example, the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin) are rarely categorized as romance when the love story is not the main plot. This is because sex is normalized for men but stigmatized for women and genderqueer people. 

For example, “It Ends with Us” by Colleen Hoover often gets shelved in the romance section because it contains sex scenes, but it’s actually a story about domestic violence. Although the relationship between the protagonist Lily and her partner Ryle initially appears to be a romance, it quickly escalates into an abusive relationship, and the romantic aspects of the story are only present to show how abusers can appear likable and charming. Labeling it as a romance just because it contains spice is harmful because it perpetuates the idea that violence is romantic and sexy. 

Booktok’s obsession with “spice” also tends to squeeze out marginalized people. Many accounts are strictly dedicated to books featuring heterosexual romance – and that’s fine. However, queer romances are massively underrepresented on booktok. Likewise, the emphasis on spice and romance alienates people on the asexual and aromantic spectrums. Sex positivity exists to deconstruct the power structures surrounding sex, but by stigmatizing people who do not enjoy explicit literature, we are creating a new stigma around sexuality. Romance literature is supposed to be a celebration of consent, not another system in which people are unwillingly subjected to sexuality. The romance genre is a necessary and radical force in the literary world, but we also need to leave room for people who exist outside the boundaries of mainstream sexual norms. 

In conclusion, romance has the power to liberate our society, but we must take care to ensure that it is inclusive, stigma-free, and empowering for all.