Are Romance Novels Bad for You?

By Poison Ivy,


And no, this is not a continuation of my previous story of my collection of supposed bad habits. It just so happens that immediately after I humorously called my romance novel reading a bad habit, one of the more irritatingly perennial, stupid putdowns of romances, lamely couched as a balanced discussion in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has been launched again (see “Harm in Reading Romance novels?”–and puke). Over at Smart Bitches the straw man debate got covered a couple days ago as “Romance is Bad for You! So is Pornography! And Sex! A Two-Bitch Rebuttal to the Age Old Question” and we’ve all made plenty of reasoned responses and derogatory comments and so forth. Not to mention the ones sent directly to the publisher of the original stupid phony debate. But then someone e-mailed me the link again today and I thought, “Oh, I am so tired of this. The stupidity just keeps coming.”

Did I mention that putting down romance novels is stupid?

Well, it is. Books are not good or bad for you. This so reminds me of my youth, when I started to read comic books and learned that a psychiatrist, Dr. Frederic Wertham, had written a bestselling, influential book called Seduction of the Innocent. In it, he “proved” that comics were bad for children. He claimed that there are all sorts of nasty hidden sexual messages and nasty openly sexual situations in comic books. And then he lost me when he cited the supposed homosexual situation in Batman Comics: Batman and Robin live together and in some stories even sleep in the same room. Bruce Wayne is Dick Grayson’s “guardian.” Ominous. Also absurd. To a little kid, it makes sense that they are in the same room when the adventure begins. To the writer and artist involved, it’s also more efficient to show just one panel of the heroes being awoken to catch some criminal. Big whoop.

I always thought that it was the dirty minds of sex-obsessed adults (that would include Dr. Wertham) that made them think comics were nasty. They probably thought the entire world was nasty. Adult implications flew right over my head, of course. I was just a kid. And that’s my point. You don’t see it unless you are looking for it. And sometimes when you think you see it, you are imagining it. Still, did people believe Wertham’s sex-obsessed, absurd argument? Yes. It was titillating, and sex sells.

Sadly, that’s the same reason this current mock debate was encouraged. Sex sells. Oh, sure, the right wing lady is denigrating the dreams and aspirations in romances and lecturing women to be submissive to their selfish husbands. And conflating romances with erotica, which, truly, is a different category of book. And the left wing lady is damning romances with faint praise by saying, well at least women are reading, and conflating romances with erotica, which as we know, is a Different Category of Book. She’s calling romances pornography, and then saying pornography isn’t bad for people.

Oh, give me a break!

Where do these people get off judging what other people read? What they read, for gosh sakes? Or judging the books themselves when clearly they have not read them? Just stop talking about what you do not know about. Just stop telling people what to learn, or think, or dream. And stop telling them that what they do is wrong, or trivial, and bad for them to boot.

It takes a whole lot of arrogance to tell other people what to read or not read, and to judge and condemn various categories of books either explicitly or with faint praise. Romances keep taking the hit because women like them. And women are easy to blame. And women just will not behave. The Stepford Wife movement is alive and well, but somehow, its leaders can’t quite reach those of us who do not want to become slavish robots. Why? We’re busy reading romances. Stories of hope, of joy, of pain, of optimism, of the entire scope of a woman’s life experience. Sometimes just a slice of it, the good part wherein we meet a person whom we admire, and settle in for a life of love and work. This is not bad for us. Maybe it’s even good, because if happiness can be visualized, it can be attained. (At least if you believe the self-help books, another category of book that is alternately flogged as overly miraculous or complete twaddle.)

Reading romance novels will not rot your brain, or use up time that you would have spent doing supposedly better or more important things. People do not sit down and ask themselves, “Shall I perform pro bono brain surgery on the indigent, OR shall I read a romance?” “Shall I comfort the dying, OR read a romance?” “Shall I start a nuclear war, OR read a romance?”

Romances will not lead women to look at their imperfect husbands and despise them. If we despise them, it is not because we are comparing them unfavorably to an unrealistic ideal, but because of concrete reasons based in reality. And plenty of us admire as well as love them very much, thank you.

Nor will romances lead women to subjugate themselves against their will to a societal order that feels wrong to them. I’ve heard that idea bruited about and I’ve thought about it a lot, because like most romance readers I have read many really bad books over the years. Books in which men abused women, and the women accepted it. The answer again is No. No matter how many romances I have read in which the man is a violent tyrant and the heroine is a lame, idiotic, helpless, immature fool-—who nevertheless GETS THE GUY–I have not been inspired by these books to become a whiny, helpless ninny. Or to look for a man who will beat me. I never said to myself, “Oh, that’s the secret to happiness. I’ll just pretend I am stupid, and a big, strong, rich man will love me. Maybe a prince.” Nor has anybody else. It’s just a book.

Now I must add a cautionary note. While attending a professional wrestling event years ago (do not ask me why), I listened in on some adults who seemed to believe that the bouts were completely spontaneous instead of scripted in advance. So, yes, it is possible for otherwise intelligent adults to believe in fairy tales. Still, as far as I know, neither wrestling nor romances actively cause their followers to believe. Nobody is handing out LSD with the price of admission.

So romance readers, do not listen to anyone who urges you to stop reading romance or anything else, or who disapproves of your choice of reading material. And the rest of you, stop telling people, especially women, what to read and what not to read. You are bad for people.