LOVE MONTH: Romance Novels & Healthy Love

by - February 18, 2015

I love romance novels. Since the first time I picked up a Nora Roberts book when I was about 14 or 15, I’ve been a fan of the genre. It’s really not surprising to me that it’s a genre that doesn’t get a lot of respect. It’s a genre that is predominantly written by women, about women, and for women, and it focuses on love stories. I don’t think it’s surprising that people are quick to dismiss it as “lady porn”, no matter how absurd that assertion may be. Romance novels are not easy to write, at least not good ones. Many of the self published offerings in the Kindle Store can attest to this fact, because there is a lot of poorly written garbage out there. A romance novel has a lot of moving parts and they all have to work together smoothly and move at a pace that enhances the arc of the story in order for the book to be really good. Some authors understand these things and recognize that it all has to work together and those are the authors that endure, that become NYT Best Sellers, and that end up becoming recognizable just from their title font. Yes, romance novels are often discounted, but there are a lot of intelligent, accomplished women who would argue their merits until they run out of breath. I happen to be one of those women.

My Facebook feed has been inundated with posts about 50 Shades of Grey recently, due to the release of the film, and as a romance novel lover it kills me every time I see this book referred to as a romance. 50 Shades of Grey is not a romance novel. 50 Shades of Grey is not a love story. 50 Shades of Grey is a book about an unhealthy, codependent, abusive relationship which the author tries to sell as romantic and sexy. 50 Shades of Grey is neither romantic or sexy, no matter how many people got turned on by it. It also isn’t a book about BDSM – If you don’t believe me, just ask someone who is a part of the BDSM community. Some people will default to the argument that if you don’t like this book or find it abusive, you are obviously just a prude who can’t handle the BDSM element. I am not a prude and I have absolutely no problem with consensual adults engaging in whatever activities they enjoy. Consent and enjoyment are the two things missing from 50 Shades of Grey. The author may claim that these two characters love each other, but saying it’s so doesn’t make it true. These characters are fully entrenched in an abusive relationship that has been orchestrated and ensured by Christian Grey. Make no mistake, this is not a romance novel. I don’t want to talk too much about this, because that isn’t what I want this post to be about, even though it’s sort of what inspired it. If you’re curious about what I’ve said here, this blog post titled 50 Abusive Moments in 50 Shades of Grey is a great place to start. However, I will give a trigger warning right here, because it can be a rough read for some. In closing about 50 Shades of Grey – It’s garbage, it’s poorly written, it’s abusive, and it is absolutely not a romance novel. Done. 

One of the things that I’ve always loved about romance novels is that they take women’s wants and needs into account. For a long time, I think that this was really one of the only genres that was doing that consistently. Though early romance novels had serious problems when it came to consent, those are absolutely not the norm anymore. In the book Beyond Heaving Bosoms, which was written by the amazing women behind Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, they talk about the differences between Old School Romances (ie. Before the 80s and 90s, when the female characters were generally ravished virgins and the “heroes” were gross misogynist rapists…) and New School Romances. If you’re a romance fan or are just interested in an interesting look at the romance genre, I definitely recommend that book as one to look into. For the purposes of this post, however, we’re going to talk about New School Romances, since those are what I grew up on and what I absolutely love.

There were a few reasons that I always loved Nora Roberts books when I was younger. The first was that she always seemed to write books about intelligent, imperfect women who had hurdles in their lives to overcome. The second was that she always had really good representations of relationships between women, whether they were familial or friendly. And the third was that her love stories always felt real and sweeping, but they never consumed the characters. Also, whatever the hurdle the woman had to overcome, she was helped by the man she fell in love with rather than rescued by him - I feel like that’s a very important distinction. Now, I will say that a few years ago, me and Nora Roberts broke up after a book of hers seemed to forget all of those things I just mentioned, but that doesn’t erase my love for her older books. There are a few that I’ve reread many times and would happily reread again. The romance novels I love are the ones that check all of those boxes, and those books are the reason that I love the genre so much. 

In our society, particular in pop culture, there seems to be a significant representation of really unhealthy romantic relationships. Clearly, in television and movies it’s entirely for melodrama and entertainment, but I feel like these representations are really dangerous and damaging. Girls who are growing up with the CW as their main representation of what relationships are or should be like are getting a really bum deal, because as entertaining as those train wrecks may be, there’s nothing healthy about those relationships. Healthy love needs to have a place in pop culture and I think that one of the few places to find it is in romance novels. Sure, it’s not a perfect genre and you’re going to find examples of unhealthy relationships there as well, but there are some really good books there with strong, positive female role models having healthy, happy relationships with good men. (Admittedly, there is a shortage of LGBT options, like with most genres, but they exist and you can find them if you’re looking.) 

I feel like I learned a lot about love from romance novels and they have helped me to have healthier, more happy relationships. Sure, nothing is perfect and I’ve had to learn as many lessons as anyone through relationship trial and error, and there are some things that you have to experience to really understand it. Still, I think most of our initial ideas about romantic love come from what we see either in our families or in fiction, and having positive representations of that is important. I feel like I gained some really positive ideas about love from romance novels.

Here’s what I believe I know about healthy, romantic love….

Healthy love isn’t jealous and possessive, it isn’t demanding and it won’t ask you to change. Healthy love will allow you to be the best of yourself, give you the freedom to grow and figure out what it is you want. Healthy love will help you overcome struggles in your life and help to keep you grounded when things feel like they’re spinning out of control. Healthy love won’t be perfect, because nothing is, but there should absolutely be more smiles than tears, more good days that bad. Healthy love isn’t rooted in manipulation or insecurity. Your partner should be honest with you, to the best of their ability, and help you to feel safe and secure. They shouldn’t value their own needs at the expense of yours, and they certainly shouldn’t ignore your needs all together. Healthy love should be able to find balance and compromise, it should never be just about one when there are two people in the relationship. Healthy love should never, ever include rape or sexual coercion. Healthy love should include healthy, consensual sex with a partner who cares about your needs and wants. Healthy love should never include physical abuse or even just the threat of it. I say it again, healthy love should make you feel safe and secure.

Healthy love is an important message and it’s something that we all deserve when it comes to romantic relationships. Healthy representations of love are important and women need to stand up and demand them in our fiction, so that the girls who come up behind us will be able to have more positive ideas of what love means. If we know what healthy love is and are encouraged in our lives to believe that’s what we deserve, we’re less likely to settle for less. There are a lot of reasons that women end up in unhealthy and unhappy relationships and it’s no one’s place to judge them for it, but I sincerely believe that women would be less likely to end up in those situations if our culture really focused on positive, healthy, fulfilling relationships rather than the overdramatic, unhealthy ones, and particularly if we didn't romanticize abusive behavior and call it love.

I want to end this one on a note that I wasn’t entirely planning. The 50 Dollars Not 50 Shades Campaign was started in response to the release of the 50 Shades of Grey movie and encourages people to avoid spending their money to see the movie and instead to donate to local women’s shelters, whether it be money or things like feminine products, hygiene products, diapers, or things of that nature. You can contact shelters in your local area and see what they need. Also, for those of us who have beauty collections that we’ll never manage to use up, a lot of women’s shelters appreciate getting donations of makeup and cosmetic products for the women who use their facilities as well. 

If you've gotten this far in this post, thank you for reading

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