Any regular readers I have know that a call to action ripples through all of my blogs, more clearly in some like 'Art in Adversity' or the earlier 'Performance as Protest' series, more playfully through others (like In 'Praise of Pirates' and 'Zombies, and Why They are Good for Your NonProfit'). I try to remind us artists, educators, and activists that we have a special superpower to impact thinking, and I hope my blogs give us new reflections, resources, or tips.
This blog is about how popular novels can and do move the general public's assumption of What Is Okay forward in wonderful ways -- in other words, you can stop hatin' on chick books as an auto-response and look a little deeper to find the forces making slow but big changes in how women perceive themselves and are perceived by others. Yup, I am about say that romance novels are important.
The idea for this blog came to me the week of October 4. I had just finished narrating the wonderful romance by Joan Reeves, The Trouble with Love (shameless plug -- it's available at Audible Inc) and became aware that it was the anniversary of Edward L. Stratemeyer's birth. Now, my brain is filled with monkeys playing with Rubik's cubes, so these two events kept moving themselves around in my head, looking for connection, until it all clicked -- prime examples of progressing the idea of What Women are Allowed to Want.
In 1930, Edward Stratemeyer created Nancy Drew and her gang. Three high school girls, one a tomboy, were smart enough and brave enough to solve problems and mysteries on their own, and earn the respect of adult men. A man created this idea. A man who wrote under a woman's name and who had been slowly growing an empire-franchise with lots of writers working for him writing children's (including girls') adventures. He was the very first to throw the weight of his commercial power behind an idea that hadn't yet appeared in common American literature, and in 1930, no less. The Stratemeyer franchise created what became a cultural icon and, over time, a normalization of girls/women as smart and savvy adventurers/problem-solvers. How cool is that?
Many modern romance writers are doing the same thing. Using a seemingly innocuous literary form, they have female characters do and think and believe things that are just outside of what we, as women, are supposed to do and think and believe, and progress our sense of what we are allowed to expect. I have just finished recording a second novel by Joan Reeves, Old Enough to Know Better. The main female character is about to turn 50 (!!!) and believes that she has passed the point of finding someone who will love her for who she is. Her experience with men has led her to believe that none of them can really mean it when they say "I love you," and that once middle-age hits, the chances are nearly zero of them even wanting to lie about that. Sure, the book is about her finding love. More importantly, it's about women being allowed to be themselves and learning to love themselves for who they are and where they are in life, rejoicing in their sexiness and affirming that is is a good thing to want joy, tenderness, and pleasure and to reach for and require those things.
Men, this may sound like a no-brainer or a non-victory. Let me remind you that girls in middle school are under pressure to perform oral sex on boys and taught that the honor bestowed upon them by being chosen to perform this task is reward enough. It's not that different in college. Adult women are pressured to be prettier or dumber or both, and to not to demand too much from their relationships, especially if they are over 30 or have kids or are too pretty or or or... you name it.
I am not saying "all men, all women, all the time." I am saying that the impact of these social pressures is huge, and the wonderful, secret, slow spread of wanting and being more is propagated by these romance novels, and making "more" the norm.