Romance, Race, and Invisibility

We are currently living through a romance novel renaissance. Not only are new subgenres appearing and old ones expanding — steampunk romances, no joke! — but romance authors and readers are getting more vocal, resisting the stigma of romance readers as sex-starved bonbon-devouring housewives. There is now a course on romance novels at Yale, and an academic journal that deals with the subject. Just this week the rising tide of romance ebook sales — by far the most-sold genre in digital form — was featured in an article on the front page of the New York Times.

Which brings me to China.

This morning, my Google reader feed threw me an article about the international romance market — including a pair of links from a few years back about Harlequin’s presence in China that question the social value of romance reading for young Chinese women. This is not the first time romance novels in other countries have been described as a vehicle for Western culture and mores — for instance, Jyoti Puri’s stellar article on romance reading in postcolonial India, abstract here — but in contrast to Puri’s rigorous and academic study, in these links women are invisible and silent as both romance readers and as women of color. It’s a facepalming combination.

The original RT article — and the NYT article cited above — are unusual in coverage of romance novels because they contain actual words from actual romance readers, not merely from publishers and distributors. This is rare, and worth celebrating: there are a lot of women speaking on their own behalf in these pieces. But the links describing romances in China hit every square on the romance-novels-in-the-news fail bingo card, as well as a few squicky “exotic east” moments.

Let’s play!

First up: a 2008 iLook China post from photographer Tom Carter. He describes how Harlequin romances helped his Chinese fiancée learn English in the 1990s. Does he describe the “enticing cover art – usually, nay, always featuring shirtless, square-jawed men hovering millimeters away from the glistening-red lips of a damsel in distress”? Yes he does. Does he hat-tip the “formulaic flirt/fight/fall-in-love storylines” that “mercilessly targeted housewives and secretaries longing for a 200-page escape from the dirty diapers and pot-bellied husbands of their mid-life realities”? Absolutely.

He then explains that she used these books to learn English — I know a classics professor who learned Italian the same way, actually — and jokingly mentions that this “explains her tendency to throw her head back dramatically whenever we kiss”.

Does he ever, at any point, ask the fiancée herself — his unnamed fiancée — to describe why she likes these stories or what she gets out of them, besides English fluency? No, he does not. She gets neither a name nor a quote. She’s just “my Chinese fiancée” throughout, only accessed through his depiction of her thoughts and experiences.

A brief history of romance novel covers: all those heaving bosoms were originally designed to appeal not to female readers, but to male buyers for large chains and distributors. Over time, they became an understood code for “romance novel,” and only now are publishers starting to move away into more abstract or less cliché images. That said, it’s still far from likely that an author has any say in designing her book cover, or that the book cover has anything whatsoever to do with the text inside. Yet every article on romance novels insists on conflating the book with the cover in a way that would be unthinkable in a review of literary fiction or even sci-fi, fantasy, or mystery.

Having now compared his future bride to an anonymous, hypersexualized, two-dimensional depiction of a woman, Tom Carter deigns to quote our second link (a post on about how romances are growing more popular among young Chinese women, so that they increasingly want an ideal Prince Charming — at which point Tom Carter concludes: “No wonder China has become home to the world’s highest surplus of single men!”

That’s right: China has a lot of single men because of romance novels. Not because it has the world’s largest population period, or on account of the one-child policy, or preference for sons over daughters. Romance novels — there’s your culprit.

And now, the second link: a 2007 post on (in Google’s webcache here). This is actual reportage rather than one dudely post, but there is still a world of fail here.

Representative quote:

Some Chinese experts are worried about the new reading trend. They feel anxious due to the submissive psychology in these romances and they wonder how such plots will affect young girls with no exposure to any feminist principals. These experts feel that the stories might addict readers to scenarios urging them to act obsequiously, thus mirroring the yielding concubine heroine who eagerly seeks the protection and favor of a powerful man. Psychologists wonder if reading these books could create dependent personalities and negatively impact on contemporary Chinese female characters.

I may be wrong, but it sure looks to me like these experts are not worried about young women finding strong feminist role models. It looks like they are much more worried about young women finding role models of which these experts disapprove. Because nothing says “feminist principles” like only reading things other people choose for you. As if no woman can differentiate between the book she’s reading and the life she’s living. As if romance novels are substantively different from, say, mysteries or sci-fi or action flicks with explosions.

The article goes on to quote a (male) publisher of romance fiction and a (male) professor of literature. None of this illuminates anything the readers themselves think or feel about romance novels. There aren’t even excerpts or examples given from the texts in question — which mirrors a conversation I’ve had more than once: a lot of the people who tell you that romance novels are trash and pulp and “porn for women” have never actually gone and read one.

And then, in a truly jaw-dropping move, the professor closes with this analogy: “The current phenomenon can be summed up like this: when a child is eating mud, you should give him chocolate instead of slapping the mud off his hands. But at present we have no chocolate for our children.” I really wasn’t expecting the romance-and-chocolate-are-both-girly-things connection to be so crosscultural. Or for him to so blatantly equate women with children.

The things I don’t know about China would fill — well, China. But I know a silencing maneuver when I see one. And I recognize that this is not — it can’t be — a story about how the enlightened West embraces romance novels (it doesn’t) and the backwards East rejects them (it doesn’t either). Rather, this is about a balance of power, and how those who have it wield it to silence and shame those who don’t.

Romance as a genre is bad not for any textual reason — it’s bad because it’s coded feminine. Like the East, if you buy Said and his Orientalism. Like women. And like women, romances must be constantly criticized and policed and reprimanded not for what they are, but for what they are not. They are Othered in the way that women are, particularly women of color in Western tradition: depicted as both inferior and dangerous, hypersexualized, and never allowed to speak for themselves.

Which means I take great pleasure in pointing out that one of the up-and-coming stars of the romance industry is Jeannie Lin. She writes romances about kickass swordswomen of the Tang Dynasty, for Harlequin.

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