What We Mean When We Talk About Responsibility: Romance, Pleasure, and Politics

 Today I want to talk about romance, that much-maligned literary genre that conjures up images of Fabio’s pecs and housewives with a password-protected kindle. As a genre explicitly dedicated to pleasure, women’s pleasure in particular, romance occupies a vexed position. It is both wildly popular and easily sneered at, impugned publicly, often, by the same people who consume it in private. Romance reading is thought to signal a certain lack of imagination and intellectual laziness which is rarely associated with the kinds of smut thought to be consumed by men. This probably has to do with the fact that romance is a literary genre and is therefore held to standards that don’t apply in the world of Brazzers, but it also has to do, I think, with the standards that women’s genres and pleasures are held to more generally.

Frequenters of Acro Collective know that we believe that political work and vital thinking cannot be sustained without a corrective measure of self-care and a diligent investment in our own pleasure. That, in fact, a fervent yet critical celebration of pleasure in many forms—both our own and that of others—is central to the type of intellectual space we’re interested in creating. We not only believe that the kinds of communities that form around a shared pleasure can be deeply affirming and potentially transformative, but we’re also aware that pleasure itself can get lost in the work of critique. We sometimes forget that ideology does not meet people on an intellectual level but is embedded in layers of aesthetic and affective experience which cannot be discarded indiscriminately simply because of their proximity to political content.

But precisely because so many of our most crucial pleasures are intersected by politics, we also know that we cannot responsibly affirm those pleasures without an equal measure of critical engagement with them. This is not to say that we cannot enjoy difficult or ideologically impure things, but simply that it’s important not to split the cultural landscape into the politically correct and the politically compromised because nothing would ever land on the correct side.

Yet the angst over this problem is real, especially in young politically-conscious circles. A quick Google search for “liking problematic things” returns almost half a million results, most aimed at social justice types, reassuring them that it is, indeed, possible to enjoy all sorts of representations which we would not be so complacent about in real life.

It’s depressingly common in social justice and academic discourse to accuse a piece of culture of being “problematic” with a fantasy ideal in our minds of a cultural artifact that is pure, purely responsible. But purely responsible culture does not exist, and if it did, it would feel hollow, sanitized, and deeply unsatisfying. Think of those midcentury anti-communist propaganda films. Their attempts to hit all the appropriate political talking-points make them feel farcical in a cult-film kind of way, but render them pretty uncompelling otherwise. I am not saying that we should not bring political critiques to our culture, but rather that it feels massively unproductive, not to mention exhausting and joyless, to speak in terms of enough—is Lena Dunham feminist enough? Is GOOP vegan enough?

Because culture is an aesthetic project as much as an ideological one it can never be purely responsible. The waters are muddied from the beginning by pleasure. Our experience of a painting as beautiful or ugly or a film as dazzling or dull bears on, indeed produces, our experience of its ideological content. I find myself deeply uncomfortable with artists like Quentin Tarantino for this very reason. I recognize the stunning, sensational, ravishing allure of his aesthetic project and I recognize the pleasure I feel at its hands, and I see how the brilliance of his experiments can obscure the ickiness of his politics while standing in for something more progressive.

Once more, I am not suggesting that aesthetics exist beyond or without the political, but just the opposite. I want to point to the ways in which the political is overlaid and infused by aesthetic experience—the ways that pleasure complicates and challenges our ideological commitments. Why do so many ostensibly politically responsible people feel the need to ask Google if they can like problematic things? It’s because, I think, they can recognize the dissonance between how they envision their politics and how they experience their pleasures.

The question I want to ask, then, is this: what does it mean for pleasure to be politically correct or not? Romance as a genre has historically been the subject of a lot of angst over this very question. Its investment in normative gender and sexual politics is right on the surface. Its sub-genre ghettoization of stories about POC and simultaneous exoticization of white women—heroines with exotic raven hair and milky skin are common staples—is well documented. And its fetishistic fascination with class performance and historical moments that were less than kind to non-white, non-rich people is nothing to dismiss. And, unlike Tarantino, romance doesn’t get the cover of an avant-garde aesthetic that can justify the pleasure romance readers get from the genre.

There is apparently nothing to redeem the romance reader. They are condemned from both sides as both politically naive and tasteless. The pleasure they take in the romance genre is bad pleasure not only because it is incited by ideologically compromised representations, but also because the generic aesthetic does not justify or forgive that pleasure like it might for something like prestige TV (which is definitely not immune from squicky politics).

It doesn’t help that romance readers are exclusively thought of as women. Women’s genres have always, since the high/low culture split at the end of the 19th century, been accused of bad aesthetics and facile thinking. Meanwhile Jonathan Franzen, noted curmudgeon, can write any number of hacky neoliberal novels and his readers can still be contributors for the New Yorker.

It’s much easier to disavow a pleasure in which one does not partake. I, for example, cannot affirm the kinds of pleasures that many people experience in patriotism. In fact, I find those pleasures altogether unsavory as simply an affective mask for the kinds of violence perpetrated in the name of (white, masculinist) nationalism. So, then, why do I insist that the pleasures offered by romance are different than those offered by patriotism when they can undoubtedly be symptomatic of racism and rape culture? Partly, it’s because women’s pleasures have historically been dismissed as unintellectual, backward and perverse. Partly because people tend to be able to recognize and compartmentalize sexual fantasy as fantasy in a way that they cannot for fantasies of nationalism.

This combination of taste and politics makes the romance reader an easy mark. She is simply too stupid to know what she’s doing. And this is why I am an unrepentant apologist for books like 50 Shades of Grey. The women who read books like that one aren’t idiots—or, at least, there are no more idiotic romance readers than there are Franzen fans. They didn’t accidentally stumble upon 50 Shades and decide to swallow the gender politics uncritically.

Look at this pesky New Woman soaking up scandal via her novel-reading! | Painting by Albert Ritzberger, image via jamesjoel (Flickr)

Look at this pesky New Woman soaking up scandal via her novel-reading! | Painting by Albert Ritzberger, image via jamesjoel (Flickr)

Romance is smut, and the women who read romance read it specifically because it scratches a particular itch. They are self-conscious consumers of the fantasies in these books even if the fantasies they consume are shaped by cultural forces that are less than politically correct. Just hit up the romance lists section of Goodreads, and you’ll find women and men who know exactly what their fantasies and desires are and discuss the mechanics of the smut they read in savvy and precise terms.

I’m willing to believe that the overwhelming majority of people who read 50 Shades of Grey are well aware that the kind of consent represented in those books is imperfect and acceptable only within the world of fantasy. And I propose that instead of talking about romance and other politically incorrect culture as a zero-sum game in which representations are either “good” or “bad,” feminist enough or not, we spend more time talking about how our pleasures are solicited and elicited, and how to mobilize our politically incorrect pleasures towards a more progressive cultural landscape.

This might mean making room in our politics for self-conscious experiences of pleasure as well as using our pleasure as a critical tool to examine our political commitments.

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There are 4 comments

  1. Shoshana

    I love this topic, and really enjoyed this foray into it. Great thoughts on the need to delve more into the links between pleasure and culture and the ways they interact. I would love to see more expansive writing on the romance genre – I was so excited to see a quintessential genre author like Kleypas as your title image and a little sad not to see it touched on more in the text. I bet you have more thoughts about the genre that I would love to read and engage with! I know I tend to be defensive of romances toward non-romance readers but really critical when talking with already-defensive romance reader circles, and I’m always so excited about the small but robust spaces that pop up for critical discussion from genre lovers.

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    1. EL

      Shoshana, I totally agree. It’s a strange position to be in, feeling both defensive and critical and having to negotiate those feelings depending on your audience. I hope to do some closer readings of specific romance books, so keep a look out!

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  2. mayahislop

    Excellent article. So excellent I read it too quickly the first time and only now am able to really dig into it. Great writing like this is great when you can see it playing out beautifully and interestingly in all kinds of other scenarios/texts. One genre of literature I’m interested in discussing with regard to pleasure is Young Adult. And here is where responsibility gets especially murky. What I’m wondering is whether the authors of Young Adult do have a different responsibility to their audience to be politically correct or to, at least, represent the world of youth that they are creating in ways that do not cause harm or injury to their audience. This kind of “responsibility politics”, of course, does the exact kind of condescension as you are suggesting judgers of romance-readers do (i.e. “women who read 50 shades aren’t thoughtful enough to criticize the problems around the relationship” etc.), but is it less misogynist and more sex empowerment-ist (not a word)? I’m thinking specifically about Twilight. I read that book with glee (I also read it in Spanish but wtv) because it brought me back to a time of extremely intense emotions. However, I would have discussions with other women my age about the potential dangers of Twilight for younger readers. What if 12 year-olds are reading it and buying into it? Uncritically? What if they think this is what a loving relationship should be like? Some would describe the Bella/Edward relationship as somewhat abusive, but that’s a whole other convo. I know that this kind of thinking robs these readers of their agency and power over their consumption. Of course it is impacting the 12 year-old, but who is to say it’s a negative impact? That 12 year-old is consuming many more things than Twilight and being informed as much by their friends, teachers, parents as the thousands of media that they enjoy. I don’t have any answers, but I’m just throwing it out as another splendid terrain in which to think about the strong critique that this article proffers.

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    1. EL

      Maya, totally. Responsibility is muddied by questions of agency, especially re. children. But just like I don’t think it’s useful or even practical to prevent, say, a 13 year old from watching R-rated movies not only because they will find a way to consume whatever they want anyway, but also because preventing access is not the best way to produce savvy, critically engaged young adults. I think, rather, it is on the adults (and educational institutions) in a child’s life to foster a critical stance toward that kind of culture. To say, “You’ve read Twilight. What did you think of the Edward/Bella relationship?” etc.

      At the same time, I don’t want to react too much the other way and say that authors somehow have no responsibility for their representations. I’d love to find a happy medium where we don’t wring our hands and accuse authors of perverting the innocents while also asking them to take responsibility for the very real effects they have in the world through their work. Mostly I want to say that if we want to believe in readerly agency (and I certainly do), we can’t also hold authors accountable for all of the things that happen in the name of their work.

      Liked by 1 person

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