When I first started reading romance novels as a teenager, I squirreled them away. I hid the covers behind book jackets or splayed my hands artfully across them so that no one would know what I was reading. I felt ashamed. But why?
Smart girls don't read romance novels, I heard.
Well, I grew up and discovered that someone lied. This stereotype may have resulted from the enduring misconceptions about romance novels thanks to tropes that went out of style nearly 30 years ago. In these "bodice-rippers," heroes captured heroines against their will. The women succumbed to heroes in barely-disguised rape scenes. But just as the role of women in society has changed over the past 30 years, so have romance novels. These types of romances went out of fashion along with leisure suits and acid-washed jeans. Now, I'll admit this trope sometimes creeps back in (ahem, 50 Shades of Grey), but most romances today feature strong, smart, savvy women. And smart romance characters attract smart romance readers.
Take The Cinderella Deal by one of my favorite authors, Jennifer Crusie. In this novel, based on the well-known marriage-of-convenience plot, Daisy initially conforms to Linc's rigid expectations; however, she breaks free and grows as an artist as the two resolve their problems. Meanwhile, Linc, too, opens up to the world around him and learns how to compromise. It pulls from the classic fairy tale, but Daisy acts as her own fairy godmother, transforming herself into someone more beautiful on the inside. And, like the glass slipper, the things she leaves behind (her paintings, her warmth, her neighborliness) make Linc realize her talent and how she has changed his life for the better. Ultimately, the love Daisy and Linc attain comes as a result of personal achievement and growth.
In Loretta Chase's Mr. Impossible, which takes place in 1821, hieroglyphics expert Daphne comes into her own and learns that female intelligence and sexual desire are, in fact, normal--not wrong. Daphne does not fall in love with Rupert because of his looks (that's why she lusts after him), but rather because of his acceptance of and enthusiasm for her prodigious intellect and healthy sexuality.
In JD Robb's futuristic In Death series, murder cop Eve Dallas and reformed criminal now owner of the world Roarke battle personal demons from the past; however, each helps the other heal the emotional scars of childhood (while teaming up to solve murders).
In my new book The Booby Trap, both Bambi Benson and Trip Whitley make rash assumptions about each other. Yet when forces compel them to spend time together, not only do they discover these first impressions were wrong, but they also advance professionally thanks to their growing love and respect for each other.
Rather than ignoring the existence of love in our lives, these romances celebrate how the best love helps us to grow. Modern romance novels (for the most part) insist that the love between two people be to both of their benefit. In my own relationships, I don't want to gain my power at the expense of my partner. Working together ought to enhance our power. I see this paradigm echoed back to me in high-profile relationships: celebrity couples like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith, seem to choose work schedules that balance family and career duties between partners. Bill Clinton, after his presidency, has vociferously supported his wife's run for the Senate, President, and her tenure as Secretary of State. Closer to home, friends have alternated years doing legal clerkships or pursuing advanced degrees. And I see that paradigm echoed back to me in the modern romance novels that I read and write. Another reason given to avoid the genre is that they don't challenge your brain. Romance novels feature archetypal characters, occasionally contrived plots, and predictable endings. But, wait...bookstores are full of sci-fi novels, fantasy novels, and mystery novels that check each one of these boxes. Yet other genre fiction readers, instead of being characterized as simpleminded or unwilling to challenge themselves, are often stereotyped as smart. So what gives?
Oh yeah! It's the sex.
A talk radio show host essentially called women who use birth control "sluts." State Legislatures suspended people for saying "vagina" on the floor. Current legislation proposes to deny expectant mothers access to testing that would help ensure their health and the health of their fetuses. Our society feels threatened by women having sex.
Romance novels present the opposite view. Authors use sex scenes to present a healthy activity shared by two consenting adults who (in the end, if not at the moment) fall in love with each other. Heroines are sexually satisfied during each encounter. There's a safe space to explore your fantasies and figure out what turns you on. Nothing dumb about that.
By the way, smart girls not only read romance novels, they write them! Two of my favorite authors, Jennifer Crusie and Lauren Willig, hold PhDs. Carly Phillips practiced law. They've attended the best schools in the world, including Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, and Duke (that's me!).
So go ahead. If you're still feeling a little embarrassed, download a romance onto your e-reader. Aside from your blushing, you might discover a passion for a whole new genre. As it turns out, smart women read romance, too.
Anne Browning Walker is the author of the upcoming romance novel, The Booby Trap [Pixel Entertainment, September 2012].