Essays

Let’s Stop Asking Romance Books to Have Moral Instruction

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Isabelle Popp

Senior Contributor

Isabelle Popp has written all sorts of things, ranging from astrophysics research articles and math tests to crossword puzzles and poetry. These days she's writing romance. When she's not reading or writing, she's probably knitting or scouring used book stores for vintage gothic romance paperbacks. Originally from New York, she's as surprised as anyone that she lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

How is the happy ending in a romance “earned?” What sort of redemption arc or emotional growth does a main character need to go through to “deserve” love? What mistakes are “unforgivable” for romance characters to make? These kinds of questions trouble me as a romance reader because they can require the genre to provide moral justification for its existence. Not being deep in the discourse for other genres, I couldn’t say if other literature is similarly scrutinized. But I can say that I often find myself wishing people would hand in their romance police badges.

On the one hand, I understand people’s nature to be defensive of romance against all the naysayers. Romance lovers want to hold up shining examples of the genre. There are absolutely romances that show the redeeming or improving power of love. There are romances that demonstrate healthy ways to navigate rough spots in relationships. That doesn’t mean they all need to! There are also romances between people who are really messed up and choose each other in a cruel and uncaring world. Just because a romance can’t be staged as a morality play doesn’t make it bad, or not a part of the genre.

Characters Behaving “Badly”

Here’s an example. One of the best and most boundary-pushing romances I read last year was You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi. It’s rare to find a romance in which 1) a female main character has on-page sex with someone other than a love interest, 2) it’s unprotected, and 3) she doesn’t face punishment for that behavior. But it’s not rare to find reviews of this book specifically mentioning Feyi’s sex life as distasteful to the reviewer.

On one hand, everyone is allowed their preferences and boundaries. If you don’t want to read about a character having unprotected sex for whatever reason, you certainly don’t have to. And of course it’s valid for something like unprotected sex to be potentially triggering to a reader; that’s not what I’m talking about.

Also, pointing out stereotypes and tropes in books that prop up racism, transphobia, ableism, fatphobia, etc. is worth doing. It takes work for people to recognize and unlearn these elements that have been baked into storytelling for too long. That’s different from passing judgment on characters behaving “badly.” So I invite readers who simply found Feyi offputting to consider their assumptions about this character’s actions.

How Do We Interpret a Character’s Actions?

First, is it morally wrong for a person to have unprotected sex with someone they’re not in a relationship with? That depends on your moral compass. I’d put it more in the bucket of a potentially poor decision from a public health standpoint, considering the choice could potentially endanger the character and/or their partner’s health. But I’m not going to bring morality into it. Clearly other people can and will. (Also, it’s not my place to talk about how authors of color and their characters are often judged more harshly, but let’s acknowledge that’s at play.)

The next question is why is it a problem to portray a character making such a choice? Is it because you fear impressionable readers may take this action as an endorsement? I find that rather patronizing. Let’s trust readers to discern a story from an instruction manual, yes? It’s fair to say that the media we consume affects our worldviews. But it’s better to try to understand any isolated action from a character’s perspective than to try to apply it to our lives.

Let’s Get Messy

Does it feel like the author themself is endorsing this choice? I think this would be a hard argument to make. Perhaps because Feyi faces no dire repercussions, it could be seen as a tacit endorsement. Again, authors’ goals are generally to, you know, tell a story. Yes, their worldview will inevitably seep through, but it’s a romance novel, not a manifesto. I’d say that scene is there to establish details of Feyi’s character. She’s someone who enjoys sex, and perhaps doesn’t always think things all the way through. The fact that nothing bad happens because of this action is creating a world for Feyi that is realistically nuanced. A world where action X does not guarantee outcome Y. After all, this is a book about someone who falls for the father of the guy she’s dating! We need some space to maneuver these choppy waters.

Another possibility is that readers might find it difficult to connect with a character who makes a choice the reader deems immoral, illogical, or otherwise unrelatable. And that strikes me as a failure of imagination. Why would I only want to read about characters doing things I would do or think are OK? Isn’t one of the points of reading to jostle me out of my own brain for a bit? Isn’t it more interesting if I meet characters with my curiosity at the fore rather than my urge to judge?

Romance is Literature

All of this comes around to what people’s reason for reading romance is. If someone really wants their romances to always model good behavior, that’s not leaving authors much room to explore the messiness of the human condition. Romance is a genre of literature. It should be able to stand up to the same type of analysis as any other genre. We can assess these books on their literary merit, not whether they meet our standards of behavior.

So what does it mean for people to do something bad, whether ambiguously or not, and still get their happily ever after? In a world of romance populated with cops and mafia and dukes and billionaires and literal monsters, it’s a very good question. Some stories are blithely upholding the status quo, and others are more liberatory. Still others wade in very ambiguous spaces. You don’t have to enjoy them or read them, but maybe fight the urge to wring your hands about romance books and their readers.