Janice Radway, Reading the Romance
August 27, 2011 § 1 Comment
Now I don’t normally talk about my “life” on this here blog, but when I do, it’s usually in reference to KATO. Whose birthday was yesterday! My little girl’s growing up so fast, sniffle. But! Back in the day when men were men, grass was grass and women were somewhere in between, my dear Kato and I would wander around bookstores and lol at all the romance novels. One day –god this would have been what, ten years ago? sheezus– we stumbled upon the aforelinked book cover, and didn’t stop laughing until the following June. The fact that we immediately started humming this bittersweet symphony didn’t help, that poor shopkeep.
Re: what I’m actually here to blather about, Reading the Romance is one of those early feminist ethnographic dealies that gets cited so often and in such detail that people who travel in feminist circles have basically already read the damn thing whether or not they actually have. Until today, I fell into the osmosis camp. And I have to say, as much as I was like oh groooaaaan, I’m very busy all the time and there are shitstorms to track (more on that later), I actually appreciated Radway’s analysis more than I thought I would. She’s not a “fun” writer, she doesn’t play, there is nothing unserious about her treatment of readers in Smithfield (lol close enough). But the conclusion is pretty funny. Or maybe not funny, but something.
In a nutshell, romance novels are, to use the greatest quote in the history of ever, “kinda subversive, kinda hegemonic” (seriously, Eve Sedgwick deserves a medal for that shit). They’re kinda subversive because they provide women (in Radway’s admittedly limited study, white, middle-class stay-at-home mothers somewhere in the mid-80s midwest) an escape from the drudgery of constant familial vampirism, and in that sense can be understood as “compensatory.” On the other hand they’re also hegemonic because they reify a fundamentally conservative worldview (the books Radway examines are more “true” romance than bodice-ripper). Which ties directly into the aspect of Radway’s analysis I find so…I don’t know, amusing. Rascally even. The idea is that men are terrible, and marriage is terrible, and doublefuckpatriarchyforever.com — hence women’s attraction to distracting, non-depressing romance novels. The problem is that this particular form of escape reinscribes precisely the gender and social dynamic from which readers are trying to escape, oops!!
For the record I don’t think most men or all marriage is terrible, and actually have no investment whatsoever in these nice white ladies’ motivations. But the argument itself is twinkling and clever and appeals to me. I do take issue with the subsequent claim that the hero’s tough-on-the-outside-gentle-on-the-inside demeanor is indicative of some pre-oedipal desire to reconnect with the initial caregiver (thus making romance novels less about FUCK and more about MOMMY). But as Radway explains in her updated introduction, Reading the Romance originally emerged out of the THEORY WARZ what plagued the literary/humanities during the 70s and 80s. Radway was doing everything she could to shake off the stink of New Criticism, and went probably a bit too far in the other direction. But that kind of thing is cool! And contextualizes the book as a whole (i.e. its inception, its construction, the anticipated critical response), and not just its contents.
And now, Irene.