Art and Poltics: A Response to “Romance as Resistance”

Note: This was written as an extended response to several commenters on a post to Julia Quinn’s Facebook page.

In our current political climate, it can be hard to escape the constant coverage, to the point where it has started to impact all facets of life. And while it is understandable to want an artist to focus primarily on their craft and not allow their political concerns to dominate their public persona, at the end of the day, they are people too, with concerns for our society.

While I find many of the celebrities throwing petty insults at a certain political figure tiresome, when an artist has something to say about an issue, I find that worthwhile to listen to. That is definitely the case with the writers featured in the recent article in Entertainment Weekly, “Romance as Resistance: How the happily-ever-after genre is taking on Trump.” Despite what the headline (and the art at the top of the article) suggest, this isn’t more entertainers disrespecting the President. The article instead highlights the fact that these books tackle social issues such as women’s rights, sexual agency, gay rights, and more. And while a reader might conceive these books as being somewhat escapist, they are only partially right: it is escapist in the sense that it imagines a more ideal world where good triumphs over evil, and the real world is not always so black-and-white. That in itself makes a very powerful statement, one of hope. Nowhere does it say that there will be no discussion of real-life issues, however.

And upon doing further reading into the history of romance, you will find that the genre itself is rooted in politics. Maya Rodale’s Dangerous Books for Girls traces the genre back to the early days of women’s writing, and the measures society took to control what women read, out of fear. And if one wants to look at a political movement that directly impacted the romance industry, one should look no further than the “bodice rippers” of the 1970s, which were influenced by the sexual revolution and women’s rights movement of the 1960s.

And even Jane Austen is not the prim spinster aunt one might expect, writing solely about courtship and marriage. As scholars like Helena Kelly (Jane Austen: The Secret Radical) discuss, much of Austen’s work had political undertones. A well-known example includes the discussion of the slave trade in Mansfield Park. Not to mention, Austen was well-known for her disapproval (and that is putting it lightly) of the Prince Regent, the future George IV. She generally wrote very satirical portraits of the aristocracy within her novels, and even was openly critical of him in Emma,  so it is incredibly ironic that Prinny loved them, inviting her to dedicate that particular work to him.

And the truth of the matter is everything is political, although it is not always political in the partisan sense. As Olive Senior wrote: “Every author has a world view which reflects a political stance and shapes what we do, even unconsciously. For example, as a child, I grew up in a world where I never saw myself or the people around me visually portrayed in the children’s books I read (though I took great pleasure in reading them). As a writer of children’s books now, I would say that I am simply concerned with telling a story that a child anywhere in the world that might want to read. But, I have to confess, I am very much concerned that the illustrations should reflect and express a multicultural world, for that is what I live in. Is that political? Can any of us escape the political? I would say no. Even romantic literature plunges us into the realm of political economy: does the potential suitor have a job?” Through this simple act of trying to diversify her own genre, she is making a political statement. And she makes a valid point about romance. Even while it may seem vapid at worst and pure escape at best, in writing a love story where people overcome their obstacles and find happiness.

Other suggested reading:

Kelly, Helena. Jane Austen: The Secret Radical. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.

Rodale, Maya. Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. New York: Maya Rodale, 2015,

 

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