Recently my forthcoming novel Hidden Magic was reviewed by the Romantic Times (I will link it when it goes live). It was given three stars, and I am actually 100% fine with that. The review comes from the traditional stance of romance readers, and I don’t write for them. I write for the Joss Whedon girls. I accept the review and some criticism I think is completely fair, but one line in the review gave me absolute chills:

This fantasy reverses the traditional gender roles and places women at the top of the social hierarchy. The concept is interesting, but the imbalance of power feels wrong in fiction as it does in life; -Anna Dougherty for Romantic Times

What. The. Fuck? Imbalance of power? Actual balance would be a straight split 50/50 of men and women. This doesn’t exist in fiction nor in real life in almost all corners of the world. So, to her, if women leading the society is an imbalance, what could she mean by imbalance? Oh, holy fuck, she means a natural balance is primarily men in power. 

I am a feminist. Like or hate it, that’s me. I see men and women as equal in standing. Yes we have different abilities. But there is no grand difference in our abilities to reason, negotiate, or govern. Study after study shows women do not negotiate for things such as car prices because we’re taught as young’ns to not argue. We are taught not to strive for power because it’s not genteel. We’re taught to be passive in language and conversation and so we’re wedded out in competitive arenas. We only fall behind in math and science because teachers push girls more for penmanship than math skills in school. THAT is unnatural, and that anyone thinks its normal scares me to death.

The underpinnings of misogyny exist in fiction and create sexist expectations in readers, and this must stop. Fiction is both a reflection of the real world and part of the framework in our young minds in how we shape the world. And romances are one of the guiltiest genres out there. It’s a dirty little secret, but we can fix it. We can overcome it if we understand it, and it seems Ms. Dougherty doesn’t understand why her statement is as insane to me as if she had said “My head is made of cheesecake.” Let’s take a look at the truth and find out what is wrong, and how we all, reader, writer, publisher, and critic, can fix it.

Female run societies are oppressed, not unnatural. Most of the world doesn’t know it, but through history there have been many matriarchal societies. And in the modern world there are six societies in at current that are female run or matrilineal. Sure, these are smaller countries, but when you’re free of the world spotlight and international relationships the natural human condition is allowed to flourish, and these societies prove that matriarchal societies are not unnatural in the least. There are also twenty-three companies within the Fortune 500 in America run by women. These companies may not have the entire managerial staff as female, but at the very top is a woman, proving once more there is nothing biological that prevents women in power. Just sexism that oppresses it.

We partly get there because of our world view. We don’t expect things to change from what we see of the world in our youth, and part of our world view comes from fiction, movies, and TV. And fiction woefully presents sexist tropes. The Bechdel test shows movies are extremely sexist by rating if movies have not a single scene where two women are talking about anything other than a man. Most movies do not pass. Applying the Bechdel test to books shows very few pass, even when written by women. The Harry Potter films and books barely pass, most containing only one or two (at most!)  conversations between two female characters about anything other than a man.

Romance is a particularly sexist genre o?yola-link-is-coming=trueverall. The structure of novels seems locked into sexist tropes. And yes, historical romances never happen in matriarchal societies, so you can’t avoid patriarchal worlds in them. But why do modern stories still show women as inferior? Why is the female boss always the pseudo-mother or the ballbuster? Why do historical romances never show matrilineal primogeniture or neutral (a system where a woman could carry a title such as Countess in her own right by birth simply because she is female, or because there is no other heir, or as the eldest it falls to her)?

Part of the problem is patterning. The modern romance novel (guy and girl meet, clash, have adventures while fighting attraction, have hot sex, overcome challenges, fall in love, live happily ever after) came about in the 1970’s. This was when Nancy Friday’s work into female sexual fantasies erroneously identified ravishment fantasies as rape fantasies, and so most romances of the 70’s and 80’s follow a “he rapes her until she loves him” pattern. Read an old Catherine Coulter and you’ll see what I mean, and probably tear your hair out.

The tropes of romance are written by women overwhelmingly, yet are deeply misogynistic on average. Women are simply following the pattern set by their foremothers and though we’ve made some progress (way less rape, thank the goddess!) we’re still stuck in the mode that we have to follow the established tropes. 

Unfortunately, many authors just trying to write a story don’t seem to understand sexism in books can carry over into beliefs and attitudes in real life. We know, for example, that romance books can make adult women lose touch with realistic expectations of intimacy. There’s nothing wrong with reading a book to escape, but more and more many women are forgetting that the sex in romance novels is as fantastical and made up as pornography. Neither of these things reflect real life. In real sex there is laughter, uncomfortable moments, awkward moments, and queefs. Just imagine a queef in porn or a romance novel. Doesn’t exist, but happens in real life all the time. Yet more women think it should or can never happen because it doesn’t in romances.

We also know that romance novels can warp the expectations of young adults who have yet to experience mature adult sexual relationships, but there is hope. Luckily these young ladies share my distaste for 70’s and 80’s rape-romances because they see how that clashes with real life. But more and more they are extrapolating things from these novels that are bad. Take Twilight’s “I broke in to watch you sleep, ain’t that romantic?” It’s not a romance, but a good example of how girls thinking that is romantic helps them turn off natural instincts that can warn of an impending abusive relationship. And if a girl reads a lot of romances, what can she take away when the heroine is a spy but always has to be a damsel-in-distress? Take a clue from Gamergate: that is BAD juju

All books can shape the expectation of the real world, but the fictional world of female led societies is most often warped and twisted. Romances stand alone in having an almost universally all-female audience. Think of what we find in other genres: Jane Austen teaches us that the best goal for a woman is not marry for money or looks, but to marry for love. JUST GET MARRIED ALREADY is the plot of most of her books, charming as they might be. In science fiction- oh, goddess, let’s not dwell, but just quickly mention that strong non-traditionally female characters always die while the pretty woman gets to live. In horror a woman with carnal knowledge is punished by death, but the “pure” virgin gets to live. And in fantasy, for every Mists of Avalon there are ten million Conan the Barbarians.

Sadly, when a matriarchal society appears, more often than not most representations in books show the imagined evils of a matriarchal society, or a sexual fantasy of submissive men. So for most girls, the only real hope of seeing strong female characters in a world of strong women is in romance, and yet time after time, we are let down.

Romance novels are woefully out of step with the world…due to misogyny. As earlier discussed, most of what comes from inside is a legacy of the books that came before. But romances have unique pressures that other genres do not have. For example, romance has never really been called upon to evaluate itself because critics outside of the romance world do not want to review or discuss it. When no one shines a light on it, romance novels operate in the dark, and we all know it's hard for good things to flourish in the dark. And because of this romance novels are stuck in an endless loop of misogyny, both the subtle and the direct where we never question why our heroines always end up damsels in distress, or why when they want to start a business on their own it’s disproportionately opening a bakery, or why almost always their call to adventure/impetus for plot is the action of a man (how many begin with seeking sexual adventure after a breakup rather than the female secretary of state requesting her best agent seduce a spy, for example?).

We can at least say that romance is getting better…at least with lead female characters. More and more female heroines are game designers, COOs, or black belt karate masters. That is one place where we are getting better. More female protagonists are college educated, independent, and driven. The problem often comes when they turn into slavering idiots at the entrance of a big bad man. Video gamers will relate better to this example, but I think it’s a great encapsulation: remember Lara Croft, the badass videogame vixen who spawned two films that were basically a female James Bond into extreme sports? And now in the latest game she cries. She waits to be rescued. Try to imagine James Bond crying (Damn you Daniel Craig, you ruined James Bond for me!) and always waiting to be rescued. It. Sucks. In romance novels we often start with Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, but as soon as she locks horns a few times with the hero she becomes a passive character in her own story crying and waiting to be rescued. It’s really time for the background world, the secondary characters, and even the heroine’s arc to catch up.

It can get better. But first and foremost writers need to change. Writers need to realize how much they affect their audience. An important lesson of writing is to envision your audience. Not just a huge anonymous crowd, but a specific group. For me it’s the Joss Whedon girls, the gamers, the geeks, the nerds who would rather be Jane Bond than be a Bond girl. For every girl who, like me, wanted to be Luke Skywalker, who wished Red Sonja didn’t have an annoying kid/motherhood angle, who wishes she had Arya Stark around when she was a kid, who dreams of riding dragons and waging battles and never ever being the damsel in distress. The women who only like men who respect their intelligence and independence. 

Writers need to crystallize a vision of stronger women which will lead to more rewarding characters and plots. If your character is a doctor, who are her heroes? If she doesn’t know who Elizabeth Blackwell is, fix that! She should have grown up idolizing America’s first female doctor as well as Florence Nightingale. If she’s a scientist she better damn well love Marie Curies and know that Watson and Crick fucking ripped off Rosalind Franklin. If she’s a writer she better damn well love Sylvia Plath, Anais Nin, and Virginia Woolf- mostly because the latter once said “Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”

Writers need to be aware of a protagonist’s heroes, and the legacy she follows. If she’s a spy, CEO, or Nobel laureate physicist, is she the first? If so, how does she deal with the sexism? Wouldn’t a great way to show the male protagonist is an alpha be that he stands against sexism himself? But if she is not the first, in her world who paved the way? Does she know that predecessor’s struggle? If not, make sure part of the plot is discovering it.  And no matter what her path is DO NOT EVER MAKE HER A PASSENGER ON THE JOURNEY BUT THE LEADER, THE TRAILBLAZER. Never ever let her become a woman in the fridge or let a modern Snidley Whiplash tie her to the tracks for Dudley Doright to rescue. Take a page from the 90’s feminist film Ever After. When Prince Henry, aka Charming, comes to rescue Danielle, aka Cinderella, from the lascivious creep imprisoning her, as he walks up she walks out, having won her freedom with a very brief sword fight. Does he care he didn’t rescue her?  No, he’s just relieved he still has the chance to marry the woman of his dreams (and by the way, a large part of his admiration comes from her intelligence, independence, and passion for life).

Most of all, writers need to be aware romance readers are some of the best read readers in the world…and few other genres offer female empowerment outside of BDSM fantasies. You don’t have to write a story like mine where women rule a country or the world, but if you do try to give it a good reason. (In Hidden Magic it’s a matrilineal society based on their history, and women rule the government because of a sexist belief men are too aggressive, and if left in power war would be constant.). If you go that route, please give your readers something other than a world where a matriarchy is rife with problems due to over emotion or a world of Amazons that hunger for male sex slaves (actually, if you write that second one well send me a link, I’ll buy it, I just have yet to find one written well). Give female readers a world of strong women they can believe in.

We do not need to lose the romance or our beloved Alpha males! This is NOT what I am saying at all. Just as in Ever After the strongest men are not threatened by liberated women. Did James Bond run screaming from Jinx in Die Another Day? NO!  Strong women do not lack for love or passion. In my own life I am a strong, independent woman and an open feminist. My last serious relationship was with a man who sword fights for a living, an actor who does permanent work in a comedy sword fighting duo (they also do gun fighting). Gorgeous, intelligent, built like a brick shithouse, and could easily be a cover model in romances. An alpha male himself, my strength was probably his favorite thing about me. I share this because I want to make it clear we don’t have to emasculate men to empower ourselves. And, since I understand human curiosity, we ended our relationship because he’s on the road nine months a year and that was too much for either of us to handle.

Books can reflect that. Romance is not about power struggles or filling holes in one another but blending lives, visions, and sharing passion, trust, and commitment. Neither party needs to be dominant in real life or fiction, and in both it works better when they are equal partners. The problem in romance often stems from the writer asking why do they love each other? If the answer is “because he/she NEEDS him/her” STOP WRITING. First off, in real life why we love someone is a complex unreasoning thing that often is influenced by our mood, outside events, and who-the-fuck-knows. But since fiction has to make sense, the reason they love one another should be a mix of shared beliefs, attitudes, values, physical passion, and a challenge one presents the other (the ol’ “she makes me want to be a better man” chestnut). That leaves so much room for each and every love story to be different and compelling, and that is all you need.

We can fix this, and we must! Each and every step of the publishing process has a role to play. Readers must look for stronger females and women in powerful roles. Don’t settle for weak arcs, characters, or worlds. Nothing on earth speaks louder to writers and publishers than the money you spend and the books you chose. Start thinking about what you want in your books and demand it. 

Writers must think about their footprint on the world, the legacy of their words, and help empower their readers. Realize that when you write that the curtains are blue, you just mean the fucking curtains are blue, but readers will always assume it signifies depression. The lesson there is they will take away more than you give. That is beautiful, wonderful, and dangerous. Just imagine, take a step back and really imagine, what will a fifteen year old girl take away when you write a romance with a strong female character and a world that kicks misogyny in the face? Can you imagine anything better than knowing you were instrumental in guiding the next Ada Lovelace? The next Sara Silverman? The next Beyonce? The next Meryl Streep? The next Sandra Day O’Connor? Can you imagine anything worse than inspiring the next Sarah Palin or Elisabeth Hasslebeck?

Publishers should realize that this is a branding opportunity that can reach a new audience and secure a long-term fan base. In the twenty-first century it’s all about branding. You want your name associated with a concept easily grasped that translates into a lifestyle people feel they can have if they buy your product. Feminism is not a dirty word, but if we’re afraid it could alienate readers…well, fuck you. Go see Frozen and remember up until the day it came out asshole misogynists said a movie with two princesses could never work, and now it is the ruler, the biggest moneymaker of animated films. The publishing world is being flooded by the self-published, and the only hope publishers have for the future is to promote standards and offer consistent quality and vision. Strong women can be a standard you embrace that makes you stand out from the pack.
Critics should begin to look at romance to help weed out misogyny. When the publishers, writers, and readers step up their game, it’s time for you to as well. Start looking at romance, separate the wheat from the chaff. Look for the romances that have something new, the writers with strong voices and strong characters and the brave publishers willing to take a chance. Call out those being left behind in a quagmire of sexism. Shine the light on romance and bring it out of the dark!

Everyone should realize women in power exist, we will grow, and if we don’t strive for this the world loses out. It’s not too late to open our eyes and move forward. We need this. Our daughters need this. Our sisters, mothers, and grandchildren. Our brothers, sons, fathers, lovers, and friends all need this. We can make our books stronger, our readers more loyal, the critics respect us, and improve the world.

And we can create a world where no woman ever, EVER, questions the reasonability of women in power. Because when women and men truly share power, and the world finally holds us equal, we will all be better for it. Since the underpinnings of misogyny in fiction create sexist expectations in readers, if we change that, we can change the world.