Her Central Question: Are romance novels anti-feminist or pro-feminist? She says that there is no clear answer. It depends on what aspect of the novels as media you are looking at. viz.
The Act of Reading as it is Understood by the Women Themselves.
It is feminist. It allows women to refuse momentarily their self-denying social role.
The Meaning of the Text.
It is anti-feminist because it merely repeats and recommends patriarchy and the social practices and ideologies that make it work.
The Act of Reading:
What is feminist about the act of reading?
Combative - involves a conflict with husbands in which women refuse the social role of always putting their husband and children first - they spend money on the novels and take time out to read them. (interview p 87)
Compensatory - Compensates for a life of serving others by allowing women to focus on themselves and carve out a private space. (interview pp. 92-93)
Supplements - avenues open to women for emotional gratification - providing vicarious attention and nurturance. (interview p. 83)
Counter-valuates - In the ideal romance the female values of love and personal interaction triumph over the male values of competition and public achievement - (i.e. the hero turns away from his public role to meet the heroine's personal needs, and focus all his attention on her needs).
What is not feminist about the act of reading?
Reader's domestic role intact - Reading the novels serves as a form of escapism - it does not lead to women changing their domestic role or giving it up.
Reading is a private act - it does not involve contacts between women in which they work out collective solutions to women's problems.
[Does Radway's own data provide evidence against these claims. See e.g. interview on p. 101 - do the students' know of women who talk about these novels with each other?]
The Meaning of the Text:
Radway acknowledges that the readers see the text as feminist - why?
Reading is an exercize of skill. The reader understands the described world, guesses the next moves in the plot and demonstrates her capacity as a reader.
The Plot is a Triumph of the Heroine's Will. The hero is transformed from an inadequate suitor (cruel, arrogant, insensitive) into a perfect lover-protector. The heroine achieves sexual emotional maturity and secures the hero's devotion.
Radway herself sees it as anti-feminist - why?
- First part of the plot. The hero is arrogant and the reader enjoys the critique of usual male behaviour that this part of the plot allows.
- Rape scenes. The fear of rape is lightened as the rape is not real or can be controlled and overcome emotionally.
- Conclusion of the plot. The heroine draws the hero's attention away from the public world and he pays attention to her - a utopian moment - suggests it is possible to get genuine emotional support from a man - a feminist ideal for heterosexual relationships.
This is not a good message for feminism because it tells the reader that men's emotional indifference is really love - so the reader may think her spouse really loves her but just doesn't know how to show it. Doesn't help the reader to deal with men who really are insensitive.
- The hero only appears to be insensitive. The reader can enjoy the feminist critique of male behaviour in the first part of the plot but she knows that it will later appear that the hero is really considerate underneath this harsh exterior.
The message is that the only way to improve a man's behaviour is to be nicer to him! This is unlikely to work - making demands and sticking to them or leaving the relationship are the only successful recipes for women in relations with men!
- The novels offer no realistic recipe for changing men's bad behaviour. In the novel the hero's change is a bit of a mystery. The only explanation is that the hero really is a nice man but he just needs the loving attention of the heroine to express this side of his personality.
The novel supports the myth that a man can be both competitive and successful and macho in the public world and also nice and sensitive in the domestic world. Yet in reality these two kinds of personality are not likely to be found in the one person.
The novels don't help the reader to see that it is basic facts about the family and the way children are brought up which explains why men are so typically incapable of giving emotional support.
For Radway the bottom line is that men as adults would only be capable emotional connection if, as children, they had experienced a lot of attention and emotional support from their fathers. This is impossible if men are preoccupied with their work and women are the only ones who have much to do with children.
"She led me on" is the oldest excuse in the book for men who go on to rape a woman. From a feminist point of view women need to be able to express sexual desire through casual as well as more monogamous relationships. In either case they need to be able to say no when they don't want to go any further. The novels undermine this feminist demand by excusing rape under certain conditions.
- The novels excuse rape. While the novels treat rape by villains as a real problem, rape by the hero is always excused - the reader ends up thinking that the rape just shows how much the hero is attracted to the heroine and demonstrates the intensity of men's sexual drive. The reader is told that the reason for the rape is that the hero is mistaken about the heroine and thinks she is a loose woman. If the reader buys this line, she is saying that it is alright for men to use sexual violence against women who are promiscuous.
Feminists would agree with these novels that personal relationships are very important. However they also think that women's relegation to the domestic role is a source of problems for women - e.g.women have little economic power and do not contribute much to decisions in the public sphere that have implications for everyone.
- The novels endorse women's relegation to the domestic sphere. In the end of the novel the heroine always gets married and leaves her career to devote herself to marriage and children. The hero still goes on as a powerful and successful man in the world of work.
The utopia offered by the novels is one in which women and men stay in their separate roles but it is alright, it works for women. Feminists believe that a sharing of these roles between men and women is the only structure in which personal relationships between men and women could actually work well for women. Inequality of power in the public sphere leads to problems for women in the personal sphere.