Romance Novels: What do women want?

Even though I don’t read romances anymore, I’ve always wanted to do an academic research on the gendered experience of reading romance novels but never had the opportunity. This semester in my Readers & Readership course at the University of Toronto I was FINALLY given the excuse to start researching! The following notes on the book I’ve shared focuses on Harlequin romance novels. I know there’s a difference between Harlequin and the “single-titled” romance novels (i.e. novels by Julia Quinn, Teresa Medeiros, Julia London, Mary Balogh,etc.,), buuuuut the romance genre is the romance genre at the end of the day (edit: the notes below are actually based on what seems to be an outdated theory — since the book was published in 1982! Just realized. Nevertheless, it’s interesting how the genre has shifted over time).  As I go deeper into the research,  I’ll continue to share my findings with you guys.

Loving with a Vengence: Mass-Produced fantasies for women
by Tania Modleski

 Rejecting the theory that mass art imposes “false needs” on its consumers and creates “false anxieties”, Modleski argues that these mass-produced feminine narratives are popular in part because they successfuly speak to desires which are all too real in today’s woman but which our culture has found no adequate way of satisfying…

  • In 1793, Susanna Rowson, a writer of the “sentimental novel” remarked I wonder that the novel readers are not tired of reading one story so many times, with only the variation of its being told different ways.” While Rowson’s observation could, with even more justice today, be applied to most popular novels, which are, of course, deeply conventional, it pertains most forcibly to Harlequin Romances, for the company which produces them requires its writers to follow a strict set of rules and even  dictates the point of view from which the narrative must be told. The peculiar result is that the reader who reads the story already knows the story, at least in all its essentials. It will show that this situation both reflects and contribbutes to a mild “hystical” state — using this term in its strict psychoanalytic sense…[A] kind of duality exists….at the very core of romances, particularly in the relation between an “informed” reader and a necessarily innocent heroine (32)
  • The element of fantasy in romance lies less in the character traits of the hero than in the interpretation readers are led to make of his behavior. For the reader, acquainted with the formula and hence in possession of what Wolfang Iser calls “advance retrospection,” is always able to interpret the hero’s actions as the result of his increasingly intense love for the heroine… (40)Male brutality [i.e. moody, cynical, scornful, and bullying] comes to be seen as a manifestation not of contempt, but of love.. (41)
  • Romantic literature performs a crucial function in assuring us that although some men may actually enjoy inflicting pain on women, there are also “bullies” whose meanness is nothing more than the overflow of their love or the measure of their resistance to our extraordinary charms (43)
  • Since in real life women are not often able to reinterpret male hostility in such a satisfactory way, the novels much somehow provide and outlet of female resentment (43)….A great deal of our satisfaction in reading these novels comes, I am convinced, from the elements of a revenge fantasy, from our conviction that the woman is bringing the man to his knees and that all the while he is being so hateful, he is internally grovelling, grovelling, grovelling…. In most of the novels, the hero finally becomes aware of the heroine’s “infinite preciousness” after she has run away, disappeared, fallen into a raging river, or otherwise shown by the threat of her annihilation of how important her life really is…. (45)

  • Romance novel’s “disappearing act”: On the one hand, as readers we identity with the heroine’s anger and frustration. On the other hand, due to our adherence to the rules of the formula and our desire for a happy ending, a part of us wants the man to see the heroine as a pert, adorable creature rather than as a true rebel. Our conflicting emotions as readers would seem to point up a dilemma: the heroine’s expression of resentment, which is the result of and only potential remedy for her belittlement, is felt to be the very means by which she encourages her own belittlement. This can only lead to self-hatred and to more anger against the man for putting her in such an impossible situation. But our awareness of these feeling is prevented because we are prepared for the termination of the process in its logical extension: the fulfillment of the fantasy of ultimate revenge through utter self-destruction (47).
  • An understanding of Harlequin Romance should lead one less to condemn the novels than the conditions which have made them necessary. Even though the novels can be said to intensify female tensions and conflicts, on balance the contradition in women’s lives are more responsible for the existence of Harlequins than Harlequins are for the contradictions…. (57)
  • The reader of romances, contrary to the arguments of many popular literature critics, is engaged in an intensely active psychological process. The energy of women now use to belittle and defeat themselves can be rechanelled into efforts to grow and to explore ways of affirming and asserting the self. Moreover, the very fact that the novels must go to such extremenes to neutralize women’s anger and to make masculine hostility bearable testifies to the depths of women’s discontent (58).

So this is what one scholar has to say about romance novels. I couldn’t help but smile when reading the observation about how the  threat of le heroine’s annihilation is a technique used (and a technique I’ve noticed in many romance novels…along with my own writing) to make the hero have his Ah-hah-I-Love-Her moment. Is this a technique you guys have used in writing and/or observed in this genre? What do you guys think about the revenge fantasy theory?

18 thoughts on “Romance Novels: What do women want?

  1. The revenge fantasy theory is a load of old cobblers which they’ve tried to stick onto Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester too…it goes something like he can only be tamed once he’s emasculated…

    Rabid feminists love that theory. Curiously, rabid feminists also deride romance novels, so maybe they’re not as in touch with what’s going on in them as they think they are.

    There’s a lot to be said for romance novels being a reinforcement of hope and of there being a future for civilisation/society. Shakespeare’s romances always ended happily and with the expectation (off-stage) of consummation–thus ensuring the continuance of the race. Call it biological drive if you will.


    • MM!!! you blow my mind away. It’s like you know everything. The whole Jane Eyre, Rochester scenerio was mentioned in the book too.

      I’m curious to see what other theories I’ll come across. Tomorrow I’m hitting the library to borrow a whole stack o’ books! yum!


  2. Hi June, welcome back to blogland!

    I actually had to read a similar essay by Tania Modleski on women and their portrayal in films for my American Cinema course. I confess, I’ve never actually read a Harlequin romance so I can’t really argue this from that standpoint. I’m curious to know when this essay was written, because I definitely think the power balance has shifted in single-title romances where the author has more power to convey their own agenda — especially in some of the paranormals I’ve read by Kresley Cole or Nalini Singh — than what was previously done. In historical romances, it makes sense to make the man more socially/politically significant since most authors want to remain true to the time period their righting about — although that is changing as well. In Cole’s para-romances, she usually emphasizes equality of power between the male and female leads, and in some cases the female even has more power than the male. Likewise, Singh explores a different dynamic, where the female may have more power than the male but is not entirely comfortable with that situation.

    Personally I’ve never done a heroine-annihilation scene, not because I was consciously thinking about what it would mean for the power dynamics of the relationship, but just becuase I’ve read the scenario too many times. (I actual went the opposite way and killed my hero, lol!) I’m also not sure what to make about the revenge-fantasy scenario. Yes, my heroine is self-destructive but that has more to do with what’s she’s lived through — losing her family, etc –than anything the hero has done.

    -Rika Ashton

    P.S: How’s the progress on Fall of the Sparrows?


    • You raise a very very good point. Romance as a genre has changed a whole lot over the years. I should have taken into consideration that the book was outdated. let’s check….WOW! 1982!!! That’s interesting how the genre has changed so much – while some things have stayed the same. Kinda. But definately the power balance has indeed shifted. Something I’d be interested in looking into.

      I’m not too sure what to make of the revenge-fantasy either. It seems to imply that a whole bunch of women are (or are subconsciously) very resentful against the male race.

      Fall of the Sparrows. haha. Well…ermm…. yah, that’s on indefinite hiatus. I decided to rewrite TRC again. FotS turned out to be a bit too much for me at the time.


  3. Yesss, welcome back!!

    I did not know this: “Harlequin Romances, for the company which produces them requires its writers to follow a strict set of rules and even dictates the point of view from which the narrative must be told.”

    But, interesting.

    Haha, oh annihilation..That does happen with Will and Sophia. But, I go a step further and makes him work for it instead of ending the book at that point.

    This is going to be a very interesting paper and I can’t wait to hear more!


    • I’ve been told by a former Harlequin romance editor about these strict set invisible not-really-written-in-ink rules. She was reading my story on Authonomy and told me i would have to do this and that and this and that in order to make my story publishable as a Harlequin. But of course, she didn’t know that Harlequin wasn’t the genre I was aiming for… but yah, interesting insight she gave me.

      I’ll keep posting up notes as I go on and research! I’ll have to research the outdated and current theories to get a better grasp. And I know you’ll be QUITE interested in future notes because I actually found academic works focusing on “historical” romances!!!!


  4. I did some editing for a Harlequin author, and she said she had a guidebook that helped her to write it. It basically outlined the story arc and how to make it all work. And if she got stuck, she went back to the book and figured out what she did wrong, and *poof* she was on her way again. So…the rules aren’t written by Harlequin, but….. They’re pretty hard and fast, from what I’ve been told.

    Anyway, I find the psychology behind modern media really interesting. I do think women are unsatisfied with men. I’d like to think it’s because there are no more gentlemen, no more chivalry, but then women wanted equality. Men, I believe, are equally as resentful of women. I think we’ve let them down in a way. I think we have an inherent idea of our value to society, which men have always been threatened by. I think we see a lot of violence and unnecessary conflict in our society, but we don’t know how to work around it. As women, I think we want to be protected without being dominated, and men need to be needed. I don’t know. These are just my own theories, but I’m interested to hear more about what you learn from all of this.


    • Ah, sorry for the late response.

      But I agree with you. I do think the psychology behind modern media is interesting and has something to do with the reality of women – they want to be protected and not dominated. These days, you even notice in the romance trends of women actually wanting to dominate too. I guess that’s why some critics call the romance novel a form of female empowerment. I’m curious though as to how the empowerment fantasy actually works out in real life. Does it actually ’empower’ the woman? Because at the end of the day, fantasy is fantasy, and it’s called ‘fantasy’ for a reason.


  5. I’m gonna get my hands on a (good) Harlequin novel once the time comes, hehe. This is all very fascinating even though I’ve never read one.

    “.A great deal of our satisfaction in reading these novels comes, I am convinced, from the elements of a revenge fantasy, from our conviction that the woman is bringing the man to his knees and that all the while he is being so hateful, he is internally grovelling, grovelling, grovelling…. ”
    I see the revenge-fantasy theory as more of a power-balance mechanism.To interpret masculine action in such terms – he always realizes and affirms how “precious” the woman is, and this act alone can justify his often asshole behaviour – actually gives a lot of power to the woman.

    She can inspire his passion, she can dictate/justify his action, and even dole out forgiveness (“you’re so dark and demonic but deep inside you’re suffering… because of ME! Aw, let me bring you up again.”)

    And when you translate the protagonists’ perspective into that of the reader,it’s a delicious subconscious control that (she) gains over the narrative.

    So I think, even when the female protagonist’s waiting around for the guy to save her, she’s actually playing with the dichotomy of power/subordination, giving salvation/receiving salvation that makes romance so addicting. 😀

    I’m also speaking from personal experience LOL I think this line of thinking extends to real-life relationships no matter how you explain it. It sounds awful because no one likes to hear about power/control and gaining pleasure out of power in relationships. But I believe it happens to a certain extent. It is a matter of whether or not you abuse your power and use it at the other’s expense.


    • I guess it really depends on the readers. Women who hold bitterness against men might read romance novels with a need to obtain revenge – making the man grovel at her feed, declaring his love for her, that it must be her and no other.

      But, overall, I agree with you that romance novels are a source of affirmation for women. They need that fantasy to be reaffirmed again and again, that they are ‘precious’. And I guess that’s a form of power balancing… though in a gender based way. Because you don’t see men feeling empowered because they feel ‘precious’. Or maybe?


  6. Oh my god. I can’t think of a single romance – indeed even romantic – novel that didn’t include the heroine in peril/disappearing act to give him his ah-hah moment. And I love it. I write it. And this is why romance gets its own section in bookstores and people make so much money on them. We want the explanation for man’s boorish behavior and it’s a double treat getting our own revenge when our behavior brings him to his knees. This post was like a light bulb eureka moment. Now I understand.


    • I write the disappearing act too hehe.

      Sometimes I wonder if it’s because of romance novels that women tend to read into men’s ‘boorish behaviour’. Or maybe it’s not something we learn… who knows. That’s why I’m doing this research 😀


  7. This was such an interesting read and I found myself smiling as well as thinking, ‘Ah! I know this one.’

    I have to say that the heroine annihilation bit is something I have written and love reading – Not a hundred percent sure on the revenge aspect though there were parts which rang a tiny little bell at the back of my mind!! I agree with what VR commented – I think women and men are both imperfect and both expect each other to measure up to perfection — When we don’t, women turn to Romance Novels and men to war movies, guns and man stuff to assert their masculinity.

    The sad fact is, that where women want men to be all gruff and stern with them (like in the novels), when it actually comes to fruition most women are often upset by the brusqueness and men don’t understand what went wrong = We are each others worst enemies and each others best allies all at the same time!

    Great post which I’m sure I’ll come back to again 🙂

    P x


    • “women turn to Romance Novels and men to war movies, guns and man stuff to assert their masculinity”

      that’s an interesting point!

      I guess that’s why so many women reader say that they love Mr. Rochestor but wouldn’t want to marry him in real life. You know what’s interest though? While researching I learned that the ‘ideal hero’ has actually changed over time. Earlier in history the ideal man was a gentleman. Now the ideal in romance novels is an arrogant, dark, cynical hunk


      • There is no way I can argue with that – mmmmm! But then again, would you want that in real life – is any woman really strong enough to be insulted and still remain fully confident and would I really put up with someone arrogant? I don’t know….I’m currently trying to write a different kind of hero but I tell you what, it’s very hard to create a character I like without falling into the trap of generic hero.

        Plus, (I shall end in a minute I promise, I just loved your post; it really got me thinking!) I think the idea of a rake as desirable in real life proves rather complicated – After all, would he be comparing you to all the others? Would you really want a man who cannot control himself and who you knew lots of other women knew him as intimately as you?

        I have no answers – Oh, the conundrums of characterisation in romance novels!

        Thanks so much for the comment back! I shall be pondering on this for days 😉


      • Your comment got *me* thinking haha. You’re right, what woman would be up to someone arrogant? I’m sure there are women strong enough out there. But it’s something they must “deal” with…not a trait one would desire in their partner. Desiring a rake in a novel but not in real life – it makes me wonder why this tension exists. I have a bunch on theories offered by critics that I’ll post up as soon as I have time. Thanks for replaying 😀


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