Straight Romance Novels: Stigma and Stereotypes

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Tons of people are reading romance novels, including men. So why is everyone keeping it a secret?

Romance novels make a lot of people cringe. Critics don’t seem keen on them, neither do the general public. Yet, Mintel found last month that 1/10 men buy romance novels, a number which triples for women. A lot more people seem attracted to them that they’d like to admit, so why do they try to keep it a secret?

Modern straight romance novels are mostly written by women and for women. They are advertised as such, with pink covers, bedsheets and/or a half-naked man on the cover. In a way, this is playing into gender stereotypes to project the image that it’s a woman’s thing. This works to alienate men and make them less likely to admit reading romance, and make women feel ashamed of reading it because they feel it’s not something they can share with men.

Things are a little different when it comes to romance novels written by men: they tend to be idolised and more respected in popular culture. As women, we tend to seek validation from men, not because we want to but because it’s a taught habit we need to unlearn. This could be why it’s more acceptable to like works by Nicholas Sparks or John Green. Their books are 1) advertised to be written by men, which makes a difference because people are less likely to buy books written my female authors, and 2) have become so popular they’ve been adapted into films, so there is less of a stigma around reading them.


Something that puts a lot of people off the genre is that it is full of gender stereotypes. The main character tends to be a woman, which again projects the message that it’s a genre limited to that gender. Not only that, a lot of these characters are alike each other. They are weakened by their past or something happening in their lives, and they need a man to feel better about themselves. In recent years, there has been an increase in stronger female leads, who are competent in their daily lives but kind of bland and submissive in their relationship with men. Even if that’s some people’s fantasies, it’s not something they might admit to easily, which adds to the shame.

When the main character is a man, the woman often has some deep dark secret that he needs to uncover before they can fully be happy together. This is the case in Nicholas Sparks' Safe Haven for example, and it puts the man in a position where he feels he needs to protect the woman. They don’t exist as equals, but rather as one being looking after the other in their weakened state. This plays into the idea that a woman should shield herself behind a man to be and feel safe, which frankly doesn’t benefit anyone and is an overdone fantasy.

There is a lot that is wrong with the straight romance novel, as well as how it’s marketed and thought of, and maybe this is why it’s kept as a private indulgence. If people start paying attention to books that showcase more equal relationships, and work gets done to make the genre aimed at other genders, maybe there’ll be less of a stigma associated with liking these types of novels.

 by Melissa Saryazdi