Content Warning: The following essay deals in detail with cisnormative notions of gender and gender roles, and the sexism that goes along with it. It is heavily critical of this content, but if this subject upsets you, I suggest you read something else. There’s also lighthearted mention of drugs.
When I was younger, I had trouble reading English, despite being a fluent speaker. I was raised in a bilingual household; these things happen. At seventh grade, I was reading at tenth grade level Hebrew, but only about fifth grade level English. The year previously, as a Bat Mitzvah gift, I’d been given the entirety of the Lord of the Rings (a family tradition), and I struggled through every page. It’s not only that I wasn’t a great reader in English, but also that I was just that much better in Hebrew – it frustrated me that I was so slow that it took me about four times longer to get through a page in English than it did for me to get through a page in Hebrew.
Then the first day of Eighth grade came along.
I had already made a deal with my friend to sit next to him on the first day, but of course, fate intervened. Our teacher decided she was going to give us assigned seating, and I was sat next to the new girl.
That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.
Now, here’s the thing. I’m sure that plenty of things happened in 2011. But one of the most important thing for me about 2011 is that it was still in the middle of the Twilight craze, which meant that the current publishing craze was paranormal romances. And the girl I was sat next to – let’s call her M. – was buying them. Pretty much, as far as I could tell at the time, all of them. And while both of us were so over Twilight itself, she – and by extension, I – turned out to still pretty much love the genre.
Now, when it comes to trashy romance, it’s simply not going to get any better than the paranormal shelf. Pretty much all of the plots went exactly like this: Girl moves to small town with her single mother/father/absent parents. She has an annoying younger sibling or an older brother who’s ridiculously overprotective to the point of misogyny or no siblings at all but she’s always wanted one. In the new school, she meets some combination of the following: 1. a queen bee who instantly hates her, 2. a shy, nerdy girl who she immediately bonds with, 3. a boy-next-door-type who’s still sort of cute who teases her and she sort of bonds with, probably a Nice Guy, 4. an über-popular guy who’s soooo hot, probably tall, dark, and handsome (but only in the sense that he has black hair, not, like, that he’s a person of color or anything like that) (this one is either dating the queen bee or really hates her), 5. his brother who’s even darker and handsomer and more dangerous, and 6. the class clown, who might or might not be über-popular’s best friend, and might or might not be also no. 3. She then finds out that she’s special somehow (she has powers, is a reincarnation of an immortal’s previous loved one, is just super sexy even though she doesn’t know it) and very often that one or more of the new guys in her life is crazy powerful. She falls into insta-love with at least two of the guys who are both super-territorial and possibly very creepy (if the two are brothers, they’ll both be love interests, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t also room for the boy next door), and inevitably she’ll have to be saved by one or more of them. At the end of a series that lasts anywhere between three to six books she’ll choose one of them, and it’s almost always the guy who’s the darkest and the handsomest, although one time, very memorably for me, she turned out to be a princess, had an arranged marriage, and fell in love with him because she had to have sex with him, even though he was the nice guy. Not a Nice Guy, if memory serves right; genuinely just a nice guy.
Anyway, I’m sure you can tell why this drove 13 year old me’s brand new hormones absolutely crazy. This was the sexiest thing I’d ever read. This was peak romance, Goddamn it. This was what I was made to read.
And M. started lending every book she owned to me. By the end of eighth grade, I could read just as fast in English as I could in Hebrew, and by the end of ninth grade, I read English faster.
In hindsight, a lot of the books I read at this point were just plain terrible. Story-wise, of course, they were extremely formulaic (see above), and they were chock-full of sexism, racism, homophobia, and at times antisemitism or islamophobia (although usually, casual Christianity or Christian-influenced atheism was the norm, and no deviation was mentioned). But also, they were just bad. The writing was simplistic and boring, or full of purple prose. Characterization was flat and/or irregular, serving the plot rather than having any consistency.
But would I have ever read Pride and Prejudice without them? No. Absolutely not.
Paranormal was my gateway drug, and it turns out that literature aimed at women was my heroine (pun intended).
Let’s talk feminism for a second here. I’m going to assume you already believe that sexism is a problem in today’s society, because I really don’t want to need to prove it. That’s not what this post is about. If you don’t believe that feminism is necessary, grow up, okay?
There’s an interesting double standard when it comes to the wish-fulfillment industry, and the so-called “Mary Sue”. There are plenty of article about this, but I’ll summarize it for you here, to save you from Googling.
- The First Principle: Wish-fulfillment literature is everywhere.
Have you ever read the Wheel of Time series? I got through 11 books of it before I got mentally exhausted from the sheer length of them. They’re good, but also, the main character is a guy who goes from being an average dude to being a literal sword master though he has little training, Jesus-figure destined to fight the devil-figure, having three wives (who are all super on board with it, and I have no idea what they see in him), being super-powered and one of the most powerful beings on the planet, etc. If you don’t think this is wish-fulfillment, you need to re-evaluate what you think constitutes wish-fulfillment. The best thing I can tell you about this (except for the fact that for the most part the series is actually really good) is that he’s not a Gary Stu. In fact, his biggest flaw, his ridiculously volatile temper, is repeatedly stated to be… a bad thing, to say the least, even dangerous (seriously, I don’t have a clue what those young women see in him).
Yet this series is praised as one of the best fantasy series of all time.
- The Second Principle: Mary Sues and Gary Stus
- The Third Principle: There’s a sexist double standard
This is probably no surprise to you if you already believe in sexism, but I might as well clarify exactly what I mean. When it comes to cultural norms of masculinity and femininity, while both are expected from people to unhealthy degrees, masculinity is celebrated, and femininity is mocked. A man who exercises, is “hot”, is protective, and is the main provider of his household is celebrated; a woman who dresses femininely, is interested in makeup, clothing, shopping, and lives off a man’s salary is shallow and lazy.
The same principle applies to products aimed at men and woman. War movies, Star Wars, actions films, all of which have men as their core audience (or so is commonly believed…) are considered, if not art, at least respectable things to enjoy. ‘Chick flicks’, on the other hand, are shameful. Romance is boring, or stupid.
Repeatedly society asks “How dare women be interested in things they are supposed to be interested in?” Repeatedly women are shamed for being interested in ‘manly’ things and shamed for being interested in ‘womanly’ things. Women, so it seems, shouldn’t do anything. Maybe they should just cease to exist?
This double standard applies just as much to literature as it does to feminine hobbies or female-targeted films. My mother’s fluff about middle-aged women finding themselves along with younger me’s paranormal novels are all considered shallow, boring, unreadable, shameful. Meanwhile, wish-fulfillment literature such as high fantasy and WWII historical novels are celebrated. Genuinely, it gets tiring.
For a few years I myself considered female-targeted literature shameful and tried, in vain, to stay away from them. All that happened was that I stopped reading as much. I was bored out of my mind with capital-L Literature. Sorry-not-sorry, Dickens, it’s cool we share a birthday, but A Tale of Two Cities is boring as f***. Pride and Prejudice is much more engaging, plus the social commentary and irony is On Point.
Eventually I decided to fully embrace the part of me that loves trashy romance, with all its tropey glory. Whether predictable or surprising, stupid or smart, light fluff or a tear-jerker, I realized that trashy romance is something I love reading. I’m not going to be ashamed of it just because society tells me I should be.
To summarize: Any form of reading should be celebrated. While one should read critically, and not consume blindly, that doesn’t mean that the very act of reading “lesser” forms of literature deserves the derision it gets.
Let women read, damn it.