Tuesday, March 6, 2018

RNFF Romance Reading Pet Peeves

During RNFF's first year, a regular feature on the blog was the "RNFF Pet Peeve" post. Each pet peeve post pointed to a particular common feature of traditional romance novels, and explored why the particular plot line, trope, character type, or stock phrase, struck me as problematic when viewed through a feminist lens.

I thought it might be interesting to go back, several years later, and revisit some of these pet peeves. Are they still commonly found in heterosexual romances? Have newer feminist issues emerged, issues that might lead to different pet peeves? How many of these older pet peeves would still rank on my top 10 pet peeves list today? If I took some off, what would I replace them with?

(NOTE: the pet peeves listed below come from reading heterosexual romances. Discussing pet peeves about queer romance is certainly worth its own post...)


1. The "I'll follow you wherever you go; wherever you are is my home" declaration, or, the heroine moves to be with her hero with no sense that the hero would do the same for her (discussed at greater length in this post).

I've not seen this one as much in my reading of late as I did when I first started writing the blog. Have I become better at screening my reading to avoid this trend, or is it really becoming far less common?

2. "But what choice did she have?", otherwise known as the story that backs the heroine into an anti-feminist corner for plot purposes (discussed in this post).

I still come across this one quite often, even in romances purporting to be about strong women. She has to accept his gift/money/help because she has no other choice... She had to give in to stupid, sexist demands because she has no other choice...  She has to act in a way that makes her TSTL, because she has no other choice...

Ah, no. You can always choose not to take that gift/money/help, not to give in to sexist demands, not to act stupidly. Authors are always advised to make things harder for their characters, but that doesn't mean they must back their characters into sexist corners to do so. Try thinking outside the patriarchal box, instead!

3. "Baby, you're all that I need," otherwise known as "your romantic partner must and will fulfill all your emotional, physical, and psychological needs"

I'd say that this one is still pretty common (shades of Jerry Maguire). Many romance readers like believing that a heroine who finds her one true love is guaranteed to live happily ever after, because finding her one and only makes her life complete, whole. How many readers actually believe this, and how many know it's an aspect of the fantasy that the romance genre holds out to its readers? Janice Radway, where are you when we need you for some timely reader response exploration?

4. The overabundance of dukes as heroes in historical romances (discussed here).

Since I write historical romance (under my pen name of Bliss Bennet), I personally get annoyed by the completely historically inaccurate bounty of dukes who roam the current grounds of English-set historical romances. A quick glance at Debretts Peerage shows that only 25 non-royal dukedoms existed in 1818. Out of a population of 14.4 million people living in England, only 0.0001735%, or one in every 576,000 English people, held the title. A popular historical romance author today will  likely create more than 25 dukes in just her books alone!

Given the way that amazon search engines reward authors who include certain tropes (or aristocratic titles) in their books, arguing against this plethora of dukes seems like a losing battle. So this perhaps wouldn't make a general top 10 list of anti-feminist peeves, but I reserve the right to keep it on my own personal one.

5. When "feisty" is mistaken for "feminist" (see this post)

Acting feisty (or bratty, or snarky) is not the same as acting with feminist principles in mind. Yelling at a stupid guy, snipping at a sexist alpha, ignoring the advice of a potential love interest because he's a man—none of that grants you a feminist card. Working on behalf of other women, on behalf of women's rights, calling attention to sexist behavior, laws, assumptions: those are feminist actions. Books that assume that a feisty, or strong female is also a feminist female still seem distressingly common.

6. Romances that diss feminism (see this post)

I recently read one of the four books that won the first RITA Award (then named the Golden Medallion Award) back in 1982. I'll be blogging about that experience in a future post, but suffice it to say, references to feminism (or "women's lib") in the book are hardly flattering. It's a bit disheartening, if not surprising, to discover such comments in a book published in 1981. But even today, when a romance novel includes the words "feminism" or "feminist," it rarely regards those words as positive. But so few romance novels even use the words that I'm not sure this one deserves a place on a top 10 list anymore.

7. Heroines in historical romances who spout gender critiques that sound more like Ms. Magazine than anything Mary Wollstonecraft or her radical contemporaries ever wrote (mentioned in passing here)

I could write a treatise on this one. But again, this may be my own particular pet peeve. The historical romance market right now does not seem to care much about historical accuracy, at least when it comes to social mores that would rankle contemporary readers' morals or standards.

8. "It's a Guy Thing" (or "Women all do this...) (see this post)

Part of the spice of many romances depends on playing up the differences between male and female characters. Far too often, though, for a feminist's taste, playing up differences between particular characters shades over into definitive statements about what all men do/are/say/act like, and what all women do (or don't do). I don't know about you, but the variation in behavior between individual women seems just as wide as the variation between any particular man and any particular woman. Whenever a writer (either through a character, or in the voice of the narrator) states that "guys are like that" or "women always/never say/do this," I can't help but cringe. This may be the most common pet peeve I have with a lot of contemporary romances.

I've not written previous blog posts about the following, but I'd definitely include them on a top 10 heterosexual romance Pet Peeve list today:

• Heroes who don't take "no" for an answer. Harassment is not sexy

Heroines who say "no" but really mean "yes." Heroes are NOT mind readers, ladies

• No discussion of birth control before or during sexy times

• No portrayal of consent before or during sexy times

• Evil other women as foils for a virtuous heroine

• Slut shaming

When you put on your feminist reading glasses, what pet peeves annoy the heck out of you?


  1. The friends-to-lovers trope, where the heroine secretly loves her best friend. She lets the friend-zoning be his choice, which she has to suffer passively. Why aren't heroines ever shown as brave enough to reach out?

    1. Hey, Georgie, do you dislike this trope when the genders are reversed, too? When it is the hero who secretly loves his best friend?

      -- Jackie

    2. Not as much - the hero is generally allowed more agency than the heroine to make things happen, But yeah, if he's passive too and their coming together is happenstance / the result of outside influences, I get that it's not so much a feminist issue.

  2. I just finished The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende which is not a romance per say but it had a plot line I have seen in romance novels that just makes me crazy. Woman is broken because of previous sexual abuse and can only be fixed by the love of a good man. 1. Do all broken women have to be broken because of sexual abuse? Yes it happens but I think that's a cheater's way of breaking a female character (and you never see male characters who are broken because of sexual abuse). 2. The love of a good man does not fix everything nor do sexual abuse survives get over the brokenness by having loving sex. It takes a lot of therapy and personal work.
    I could go on because this one just makes me crazy.

    1. Yes, this one deserves a place on the pet peeve list. Although I had hoped it wasn't that common anymore. But perhaps I've just been careful to read around books that hint at this sort of plotline. Disappointing to hear that Allende has adopted the trope :-(

      Is there room in romance for female characters who have experienced sexual abuse, in your mind? How would their storylines have to play out differently to make them not crazy-making to you, Sara?

    2. I think there is a place for this because it's a reality many women face. In the case of Allende's story - the sexual abuse really felt like it was thrown in there to explain the character instead of being a platform to build up the character. I've read some stories where the female character had been subjected to some sort of sexual abuse or rape that were well done and I wish I could come up with examples.
      I guess what I'd really like to see is that her survival is a source of strength instead of what makes her broken (just to shake up the trope). She becomes a feminist because she knows what's at stake. She becomes an advocate or she decides to take back her power because she lost it that one time (and not in an evil sort of way). I would, also, like to see it realistic. Instead of becoming closed off from touch, she becomes sexually aggressive because if they are going to take it then she's going to give it away so she's in control.
      I think what I want most is variety because no experience is the same.

  3. I think you covered most of my biggest pet peeves. I think the "Hero won't take no for an answer" especially gets it, since that often includes some of the other ones, like lack of consent. And it ties into one of my other irritations, heroes who are constantly brushing off heroines' work or other obligations. I think this especially bothers me in conjunction with a "feisty" heroine; it seems like sometimes the more outspoken and combative a heroine is, the more a hero who ignores her choices is romanticized. Almost as though the only acceptable way for a heroine to be that single-minded/ambitious/insert-other-conventionally-masculine-attribute is if there's a man there to override it.

    I think some of my other ones run along the lines of inculsion/exclusion and intersectionality. While I love that romance novels are a genre focused on women, it seems like there's a lot of books that try to speak to women's issues, which on the whole is a good thing. But a lot of times when romance novels tackle women's issues, they seem to assume that the way one woman experiences sexism is true for the way that all women experience it. So I guess it ties into the "women always/never say/do this," peeve. So it's kind of a sub-pet peeve of that, when a heroine's feminism or relies upon the assumption that all women have the same experiences, without any thought to race, sexuality, gender identity, ability, size, age, or other intersecting identities.

    1. Thanks, Thea, for adding your thoughts. I like the way you see the "women always/never say/do this" peeve as a way to point to other stereotypes, beyond those of gender. Intersectionality (or rather, lack thereof) is definitely a peeve that should be mentioned on a romance reading pet peeve list.

  4. I agree with all of these, especially too many dukes and the hero who won't take no for an answer. Hopefully, when future historians of the genre look back, they'll be able to say that 2018 was the year that the alphahole trope died. I'd also add in the trope of "conflict that could have been solved by a five minute conversation."

    1. I agree, Bonnie, that the "conflict that could have been solved by a five-minute conversation" trope is a really annoying one. I think it's more due to bad writing than inherent sexism, though, which is why I didn't put it on my top 10 list...

  5. Oh, I have so many thoughts, but a lot of them can boil down to the prevalence of an overly restrictive idea of what makes a man sexy and desirable--not just body types (how many books have you read with a fat hero? I can think of exactly two), but personality and behavior. Strangely, although there's been a real expansion of possibilities for everything a heroine can be or do while still being desired just as she is, heroes have lagged behind in liberation and are less diverse (so it seems to me).

    I once read three books in a row by the same author and noticed that although the heroines were all different and interesting (that's why I kept reading them), the heroes of the books were nearly indistinguishable from each other: all tall, muscular, titled, broody, growly guys, and, well, insert the Cardboard Duke here.

    The Cardboard Duke is less of a character than a fantasy, and as such there are specific characteristics he must have: he must be powerful and must be manly (characeristics inseparable from each other, really). The more Male he is, the more sexy. If only some of the elements of Manliness weren't so toxic--the need to be in control, to dominate, to express feelings by lashing out at other people, so that if the hero lashes out at the heroine it's a sign that he's desirable because he's Male.

    Now, I'm not going to argue with that subgroup of readers who want a generic fantasy-object as a hero (it isn't why I read, but there are all different ways of reading). I just have problems with the codes defining a properly desirable man, because they reflect over on heroes who are less obviously cardboard. How far can a romance hero stray from "manliness," and how is his desirability to the herone depicted--are there standard ways of depicting female desire that focus on standard manliness? It seems to me that writers maybe have been devoting less thought to this than to widening the possibilites for women.

    1. Thanks, Vasha, for stopping by and adding your thoughts about how romance readers construct "desirable masculinity." I agree that in general, romance as a genre has spent less time re-imagining and expanding male protagonists than it has female protagonists.

      But there are romances, and romance writers, out there who are pushing the boundaries of both what it means to be desirably feminine, but also what it means to be desirable as a male. That's one of the reasons why I started this blog five years ago -- to call attention to those writers, and those books, that were pushing against those boundaries in interesting, and feminist, ways.