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Professors study stigma and sneers of romance novels

Bringing in over a billion dollars each year, the romance novel is the most successful genre for publishing houses, but despite their success, many romance authors face stigmas for their work. Western Sociology Professor Jennifer Lois and Pacific Lutheran University Sociology Professor Joanna Gregson studied these stigmas, and published their findings in 2015 in their article “Sneers and Leers, Romance Writers and Gendered Sexual Stigma.” Students will be able to get a closer look as Western will host a showing of Love Between the Covers, a feature-length documentary on the history of the romance genre and those who read them, on Feb. 10, at 7 p.m. in Academic West 204. Lois and Gregson’s interests in the romance genre started in 2009 with the popularity of Twilight. “I had never read romance novels and I sort of carried the same preconceived notions that other people do which is: ‘they are easy’ or ‘they are formulaic’ or ‘they are not real literature,’” Lois said. The two professors interviewed 53 authors about their interactions with the public and found two themes that were consistent throughout. The first is the sneer, when outsiders say “Oh you write romance? I don’t read that trash,” or “That’s for slutty people,” Lois said. The second is the leer, when outsiders say “Oh, romance novels, how do you do your research,” with a wink and a nudge, or “I bet your husband loves that.” “One of the things writers say is, ‘No one asked Stephen King how many fires he started with his telekinetic powers,’” Lois said. Many of the romance writers involved in the study said people assume that they lived lives similar to what they write about and stigmatized them for it, Lois said.

They are often like, “It’s fiction, you make it up. It doesn’t mean you have to have lived it,” Lois said.
In order for a book to be a romance, it must have a central love story and it must have a happy ending, according to the Romance Writers of America. The stigmas attached to romance hasn’t changed that is because the genre is written by women, for women and about women, Lois said. ”When a medium form is targeted towards women it is kind of looked down upon, it was there at the start of this genre of the novel and it is there now,” said Julie Dugger, a Western English Professor who teaches a class on Women and Literature in North America and Europe. “We also thought that romance must not be feminist,” Lois said. “A lot of the older storylines are about heroes abducting heroines and then forcing themselves on them and then they fall in love in the end and live happily ever after.” This style of romance was most prevalent in the mid-70s and particularly influenced by the book “The Flame and the Flower” by Kathleen Woodiwiss, a story about a pirate who kidnaps the heroine, rapes her, falls in love and lives happily ever after, Lois said. An author Lois interviewed said readers back then wanted the women to have sex and enjoy it but they did not want her to make her own decision about sexuality; if they did, readers would have thought she was a slut. “In romance they call it a forced seduction,” Lois said. “Which is a euphemism for rape, so having this forced seduction story lines means that she can have sex, she can enjoy it but she was still a ‘good girl’ because it was done against her will.” Third Wave feminism, a collection of feminist movements working towards the goal of women’s rights, is attempting to change the idea that because something is feminine it doesn’t mean it can’t be feminist. “It’s been more accepting of ‘look, you get to do what you want, that’s the point.’ We are not trying to replace one set of restrictions with another,” Dugger said. “So I think that’s good and that’s ongoing and that makes people more receptive to looking at the literature and it doing something important.”  

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