Heroines: unfilmed, unlisted and unreviewed

As a woman, author and card-carrying member of Romancelandia, I was disappointed but not surprised when news broke this week that women’s representation in film “climbed” to a “historical high” of a mere/whopping 29% of top grossing films in 2016. I had the same reaction upon learning that the New York Times would be discontinuing their mass-market and epub bestseller lists — a decision that disproportionally affects women’s writing, particularly romance novels. Both highlight a stubborn refusal to make or recognize stories by and about women.

The New York Times book review section has only reviewed romance novels twice — both titles by Nora Roberts, who has graced the bestseller list 195 times (as of this writing). In effect, romance novels — by women, about women, for women — are now no longer included in “all the news that’s fit to print.” While excluded from the review pages, these novels by Lady Authors were regularly represented on the bestseller lists — after all, the genre’s millions of readers drive $1.3 billion in sales per year, primarily in the “cheap” formats of mass-market paperback and ebooks. Romance is the second largest category in publishing and the one that provides significant financial support for the rest of the industry. It is baffling to exclude this category from a list of bestselling books.

It seems baffling, too, that movie studios wouldn’t make more movies for, by and about women, given that women are 51% of moviegoers and there have been many, many profitable female-centric movies. Consider a recent film like Hidden Figures, which stars three women of color. It cost $25 million to make and is poised to gross $100 million, it earned rave reviews and an Oscar nomination for Octavia Spencer. So much for the type of movie that supposedly lacks “broad appeal.” A piece on Forbes — ‘Hidden Figures’ Proves Again That Films About Women Are Not And Never Were Box Office Poison’ — provides an extensive list of female driven films that have been incredibly profitable.

Women’s stories, particularly women’s fiction, has a long history of being supremely popular and profitable while critically mocked or ignored at best. Ever since the 1740 runaway bestseller Pamela; Or, Virtue Rewarded (arguably first in genre) critics have been dismissing these books as trashy, formulaic fantasy. In 1855, Nathaniel Hawthorne lamented “the damned mob of scribbling women” whose books routinely outsold his. In the 1970’s The Flame and the Flower was such a huge bestseller it launched the erotic romance genre as we know it. Recently Fifty Shades of Grey was so popular that mainstream media finally had to pay attention to the genre. These are just the mega-bestselling examples of an incredibly prolific genre that provides something no other art or entertainment consistently does: stories where women always win and love always triumphs. Heck, in a romance novel, the heroine always speaks — in contrast to Hollywood where women only have 32% of speaking roles.

Why are romance novels different than film or literary fiction when it comes to portrayals of women? Because women write them. The low barriers to entry of publishing a romance novel, especially once independent publishing took off, meant that women could bypass sexist gatekeepers and write the stories they wanted to read. The low price of romance novels (as low as .99 cents for a digital book, versus upwards of $25 for a hardcover novel) meant that women could afford to buy them in bulk, thus supporting women writers and female-centric fiction. Given the high costs of production for a movie and, presumably, an old boys network in Hollywood, film is a different animal, but the importance of women writers is the same. The study notes that when at least one woman is involved in writing or directing, there are more likely to be female characters who utter sentences or maybe even get to be the main character: “In films with at least one woman director and/or writer, females comprised 57% of protagonists. In films with exclusively male directors and/or writers, females accounted for 18% of protagonists.”

All this goes doubly for women of color. 76% of female characters in 2016 films were white. The study didn’t provide data on women of color in the roles of writer and/or director. Even in romance, authors and characters of color are not represented as much as they should be (and not for lack of audience or authors). This needs to change.

The Times’ decision to boot affordable and likely lady-centric literature from the bestseller lists is absolutely consistent with the past treatment of the romance genre, but it’s extremely disheartening to cut unapologetically female literature right now, when our current administration is hardly one to champion women’s issues, rights or voices. Similarly, as media becomes ever more polarized between left and right, red and blue audiences, cutting what scant representation of romance seems to be a dig at those red state readers in the heartland (romance readers are primarily represented in the south and midwest) and another unnecessary source of division. If Hollywood stars really care about promoting feminism or a more inclusive America, they’ll do more than give politically motivated acceptance speeches at the Oscars this weekend — they make more films featuring female protagonists of all colors.

Romance novels always end in an emotionally satisfying and uplifting manner, so I shall conclude with this: The reason given for this shift in New York Times bestseller list policy to is to expand coverage to include more reviews and features (at least for the comics). Perhaps now romance novels will be included in the reviews section and considered for their literary merits and finally, this genre will get the attention and respect it has long deserved. Maybe Hollywood will then adapt some of these novels for film, too.