Romance & Gender Roles

This book really caught my interest as I can remember some of my early reading memories, sneaking my grandmother’s Barbara Cartland’s book in the bathroom to read. It was forbidden for me as young girl to read these books as they contained “inappropriate” material, yet I would see the way my grandmother would devour them in one sitting.

In Reading the Romance Janice A. Radway applies the anthropological method of ethnographic research to attain a general (though not completely holistic) understanding of the complexity of reading romance books for women in the Midwest.  Radway conducts a series of interviews to provide a Geertzean approach to the study of the “native’s” point of view, and avoid speaking for the informant. Yet, I wonder if the limited scope of her ethnography can really grant her an understanding of this complexity (which I cannot know until I read the entire book). It seems as though her sample size is very small and relevant to just one region of the U.S., the community of Smithton. By this I don’t mean to discard her pooints, as the points raised in her book do apply to the various reasons the women in my family and I had for engaging in these readings. I felt that I could really relate to the “escape” of the monotony of housekeeping and childrearing duties as part of motherhood. I also understand the need for a romantic fantasy which is sometimes lost after being married for a long time (I’ve been married for sixteen years!).

This is a difficult topic to address in a general sense but Radway raises an important issue centering on “a recognition that romance writers and readers are themselves struggling with gender definitions and sexual politics on their own terms and that what they may need most from those of us struggling in other arenas is our support rather than our criticism or direction… Our segregation by class, occupation, and race, once again, works against us” (18).  Despite this book being written almost three decades ago, these issues of gender inequality and sexism still apply today.

The first chapter actually contained much statistcal data which seemed a bit irrelevant. It wasn’t until I got to chapter two that I felt drawn into the ethnography. I was interesting to learn about the women who participated in her research, particularly Dot. She seemed like a matriarch of her community. She seemed like a mixture of Gramsci’s organic intellectual and Carrie from Sex and the City, a critic of Romance literature who could extert consumerist power over a community of followers. One aspect I found interesting and a bit surprising was table 2.3 (74) where the responses were not what I would expect in regards to themes which should never be included in a romance. As I read it, I though rape would be the first one on my list, yet it was third. The first one was ‘Bed-hopping’ which I think was a reflection of religious beliefs and social values in the 80s from this community. The second one was actually a ‘Sad Ending’! I can’t believe that these women would prefer to read about rape over a sad ending. These statistics and the overall interviews are very important in understanding the values and attitudes of this community of women in the U.S. It would be interesting to conduct this research today and see how much things have or have not changed.

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