Reading the Romance. Women, Piz~n’archy, a d Popular Lzterature. J A N I C E A.. R A D W A Y. With a Nav Intmductwn by the Author fiQ1). The University of. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature [Janice A. Radway] on *FREE* shipping on qualifying offers. Originally. Women Read the Romance: The Interaction of Text and Context. Author(s): Janice A. Radway. Reviewed work(s). Source: Feminist Studies, Vol. 9, No.

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Radway plainly states that simply reducing the practice of book buying to a relationship between the book and its audience leaves out the institutional and economic concerns of book publish and distribution. Radway summarizes the history of romance novel publishing in the United States, concluding that economic demands dictated a system in which ideal audiences for novels were selected ahead of time rather than engage in complex and expensive advertising.

Publishers set out to create lines of novels that were known quantities among these groups, controlling the production and creating a set formula that was facilitated by new binding and production technologies allowing for more books to be published faster. The goal with these lines was to reduce uncertainty and increase the predictability of sales without having to find a new audience for each book – if women knew what to expect from the line of novels, they would know what to expect from the new one.

This essentially turned romance novels into a commodity, unlike more traditional forms of literature sold through traditional revenues. Over time, as companies consolidated and the pressure to increase profit has increased, most publishers sought out new manuscripts rather than reprinting old ones, seeking out original works by authors who fit into the existing publishing framework and providing guidelines about house style and story structure to those they publish.

In the s, specific brnads like Harlequin were introduced to further facilitate the commodification of literature, consumer research into audience buying habits and motives for reading made it easier to target these novels to their specific audience.

Such tactics made the romance novel incredibly popular, though similar tactics were not successfully applied to the same degree for other genres because of the huge number of female readers and the fact that romance novels appeal to women to the degree that they will repeatedly engage in the experience. Understanding why women choose these novels becomes the focus of Radway’s work.

Through her study of the Smithton women who shared the common experience of reading romance novels, Radway discovered several common characteristics. First, the Smithton women sought out romance novels rsading to their difference from real life and the escape they offered rasway everyday concerns and responsibilities.

They also sought out stories that were unquestionably about women and relationships in which both involved grew and worked together to reach a readinf ending.

They also tended to prefer stories written by amateurs interested in writing such stories because they shared a common value and interest in the qualities of romantic literature.

Rather than being a means for sexual gratification, many women used romance novels simply to seek out stories about “mutual love” with heroes that possessed the ability to “express readnig devotion gently and with concern for his heroine’s pleasure” p.

Radway suggests that there may be readkng lack of such feelings in the women’s lives that drives them to consume such media.

The two are on more equal footing but the male still takes up most of the cover and is enveloping her in an embrace, furthering the idea of “nuturing”. In summary, the Smithton women more greatly valued stories in which heroines essentially claim happiness and “integrity” by getting a commitment from their heroes, reaffirming gender roles while also underscoring female power and agency p. The women preferred stories with strong male leads, which also reaffirmed traditional gender roles of male strength; at the same time, however, the men were not prized for their individual characteristics but rather for their role in relation to the heroine.

Radway suggests that this allows women to ths periods in their life where romwnce were nurtured and vared for by an individual that was signularly devoted to their welfare essentially reclaiming their childhood and parental relationships. Essentially, the romance is part of a culture that creates “needs in women that it cannot fulfill”; raddway, the ability to vicariously fulfill these needs makes the romance a powerful genre and leads to “repetitive consumption” by women p.

As discussed above, Radway states that romance novels act as a means of escape and catharsis due to their status as material that can be picked up and put down easily.

Essentially, Radway argues, romance novels act as a “highly condensed version of rpmance commonly experienced process of explanation, doubt, and defensive justification” that also allows women to “diversify the pace and character of their habitual existence” p. Reading romance novels is a private activity that provides a dividing wall between the reader and their real world obligations, providing them a “free space” in which they can escape into a world where a woman with needs similar reaidng their own can have those needs met; essentially they “vicariously attend to their jankce requirements as independent individuals who require emotional sustenance and fortitude” p.

Radway invokes elements of the superwoman myth by suggesting that women are expected to not only uphold familial and homemaking duties but to do rlmance without a significant amount of “reproduction” or support; women, by comparison, offer these services to men p.

Reading The Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature

Romance readign acts as “compensatory literature” janics allows women the chance to engage in guiltless pleasure activity without removing themselves too far from their familial obligations; the more a reader identifies with the central character the more powerful this feeling will be p. However, women may often feel guilt over their reading.

Romance reading, in Radway’s view, allows the reader to obtain “emotional sustenance” without threatening the power relationship in their marriage relationship. However, readkng reading activity still takes female attention away from their family and their relationship with their husbands, leading them to put the books aside if they come into conflict.

Women also often feel uncomfortable spending money on the romance novels though they recognize that their husbands and family members spend money on their interests; the subject matter and imagery on the covers may also create what the readers feel are false impressions that they are reading the books for sexual gratification.

Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature

Radway puts the onus for these feelings of guilt on a society which prizes work more highly than it prizes recreation, as well as a society that both champions female sexuality as a selling point while still being cautious or restrictive about it in any other context. To combat this many women pull intellectual value out of the novels, particularly those that are based in history, to share historical facts and trivia with their loved ones and in doing so effectively legitimize their interest in the books; as Radway argues, “by claiming for it instructional values, they reassure themselves and their husbands that romance reading is not subversive of cultural standards or norms but an activity in conformity with them” p.

These realistic characteristics are balanced with the admission by those who read romance novels that the stories are fantasies unreflected in reality; however, this is not indicative of the stories themselves so much as it is that the women may not perceive their lives to live up to the ideals present in the novels.


The research and information present in many novels serves to make the readers’ interest in the novels more genuine to outside observers and also represents an opportunity to the reader to learn and expand their intellectual capacity and knowledge.

However, Radway is somewhat skeptical of these conclusions. Radway suggests that while readers may legitimately learn things and accomplish useful goals from novels; however this signifies a genuine interest in and desire for life outside their house that they cannot meet due to their obligations toward spouses and families.

Radway suggests that this makes romance novels compensatory literature because it allows women to live vicariously through a fictional hero whose attractiveness and desirability is confirmed through an ideal or dream male; romance novels also allow the readers to engage intellectually and create a mental space that allows them to continue feeling as though they are learning and growing as people.

Radway contends that these novles then allow women to feel intelligent and deserving of escapism due to their willingness to execute their duties and continue learning. However, such feelings are not necessarily positive, as Radway contends that “the vicarious pleasure offered by romantic fictional finally may be satisfying enough to forestall the need for more substantial change in the reader’s life” p.

Regardless, by engaging in the reading of romances women nonetheless engage in subversive activity, though it is activity that is legitimated by societal and patriarchal values. Turning her attention to which characteristics are possessed by a so-called “ideal romance”, Radway’s research into the texts recommended to her by the readers turns up the notion first that the romances in these stories are generally between one man and one woman, with a distinct lack of rivals for romantic affection; many of them marry the hero and heroine off early in the book.

Heroines in the books are often written to be unusual or outside societal norms and expectations and may often have non-traditional careers in which they are very successful; they are also generally “intelligent”, “spunky”, and “independent” p. Despite their intelligence, the ideal heroine of a romance, Radway states, must also be “innocent” and naive to the ways of sexuality and remain aloof and detached in terms of attracting sexual attention while also being sexually attractive; they can only shed this image in the context of a sexual encounter with a male lover.

Moreover, while the female must be virginal and naive, the male is expected to have multiple sexual encounters to make his transition toward desiring the heroine more powerful.

Radway identifies a general narrative trajectory for these so-called ideal romances, beginning with the heroine losing her social identity and then recovering it through a relationship with the hero p. Radway cites the work of Nancy Chodorowwho speculates that because women maintain “an intense emotional commitment to her mother and all that is female” which in turn informs their desire to “regress into infancy” and dependency in order to reclaim that nurturing relationship p.

Taking this into account, Radway contends that the ideal romance tells the narrative tale of women becoming actualized females as defined by society; the romance shows them “how to achieve emotional fulfillment” in a culture where most men are indifferent to their needs p. Note the position of the female and the prominence and power of the male figure. Radway brings together several of the threads discussed so far to summarize the critical impact of the romance novel.

According to Radway, while romances begin in a place of self-actualization and champion individualism in women, they are written by women who have been socialized into a patriarchal standard in which they must be mothering; therefore, the romance does not necessarily declare that individualism is without worth but it rather champions a form of female identity “demanded by patriarchal parenting arrangements” p.

Effectively, the relationship is cyclical. As the women read the romance which provides them with the ideas and relationships they crave they reinforce existing patriarchal standards which in turn uphold those relationships as valid and important. The romance teaches women how to live in a patriarchal society and “displays the remarkable benefits of conformity” p.

Several of the Smithton women identified certain romances as undesirable or inferior to others. Radway suggests that these romances are often depressing or less female-positive than others or may contain degrading sexual scenes, and that women may see the rejection of such stories as a form of “safe protest against certain kinds of patriarchal treatment of women” that would not jeopardize their social relationships.

Moreover, Radway suggests that the rejection of some forms of romance books and the perceived degradation of women within them suggests that assuming all female readers read all romance novels is disingenuous. Radway suggests that because romances may “explore the meaning and consequences of behavior accepted by contemporary society as characteristically masculine” they may not be engaging in such content for perverse reasons but rather to show that “exaggerated masculinity is not life-threatening to women” p.

However, if readers are seeking more benign and less extreme forms of masculinity they may react negatively to depictions of the forms of masculine power they reject. Moreover, the Smithton readers reject promiscuity and other forms of non-traditional romance or love that does not derive from genuine commitment and attraction; they also tend not to enjoy romances involving individuals who are not the main characters or romances that have unhappy endings that reject the notion of idealized romance.

Radway suggests that these less than ideal romances echo problems in their real-life relationships. In general, if readers cannot identify with a character or see them as someone to live vicariously through they are less likely to enjoy the romance.

In this section, Radway seeks to find out how much of the perspective and values associated with womanhood in the romance novels makes its way to the real world. Building upon her earlier observations about the effects of romance novel reading and the reasons women read novels, Radway suggests that the construction of meaning in romance novels is complex and negotiated between the reader and the text, with the reader bringing their own real-world experience and knowledge to the text and attepting to make connections between the text and their own world.

Citing the works of Terry EagletonRadway points out that texts have an effect on the reader and that the process is not limited to simply a denotative context; Storey makes a similar observation in his book. Radway notices that the women make assumptions about authorial intent when it comes to the words written within the book, believing that the author chooses words that mean what they say they mean; as a result they are not skeptical about the words chosen or what they may represent or the significance that the author themselves assigns to a word as a signifier.

This is further facilitated, Radway argues, by the fact that the stories are written to a particular standard and to an audience that appreciate them for specific reasons; therefore, it is difficult to find examples that challenge these expectations. Moreover, by instituting real-world concepts and places into the stories, they create a sense of reality that blurs the lines between what is fantasy and what is not, leading readers to adapt what is seen in the novels to their everyday lives.


The way that the stories are written also has a significant impact on the creation of identity and the construction of meaning; Radway points out that “repetitive use of the same, limited vocabulary” leads to faster reader comprehension and also facilitates the reader to make quick sense of other entrants into the romance genre by creating frames the reader can then apply to those stories.

Rather than simply being limiting, Radway argues that this use of language creates a reassuring situation for readers who can then apply it to other romance novels while also creating a situation in which readers can simply devote their attention to identifying with the story without asking a lot of questions or being caught up in the language.

Moreover, Radway contends that most readers view the romance stories as part of a “single, immutable cultural myth” and the repetition inherent in such stories not as a negative characteristic but rather as part of what makes the stories enduring p. Similar to Joseph Campbell ‘s understanding of the classic myths and the “hero’s journey’, it is not so much what happens as how it happens; these frameworks provide familiarity and comfort to the audience.

It is for this reason that readers feel betrayed or let down when a romance does not live up to the story promised on its cover or contains material with which the yare personally uncomfortable.

Moreover, the Smithton women were more likely to recall the events that happened in a story as opposed to the characters’ names p. Radway suggests that when the Smithton women called a romance without a happy ending undesirable, it is because an unhappy uanice threatens their ritualized understanding of the myth; essentially the women want to participate in reading the romance novel but want to be sure that it is not a story that is told the ghe way starring the same people.

This too would explain why so many of the readers admitted to reading the last page first – they wanted to be sure that the story upheld its bargain in upkeeping the valorous or mythic elements they were used to. Continued exposure to these messages also has more direct impacts on the reader. For example, the reader may repetitively seek out this form of media to convince themselves janjce the love and other desirable parts of the romance may occur in real life.

However, Radway points out that despite their varying backgrounds, the romance does not ultimately give women a choice of how to pursue or identify with particular female role models because society has already socialized them into patriarchal settings.

Because the romance portrays the successful outcome of a heroine’s union as the result of persoal choice or in some cases luckit negates the influence of “social and political institutions” on the role a woman plays in society and what is expected of her p.

WGS Summary of “Women Read the Romance” by Janice Radway

Again, women use the books as a roance influence or source of protest without fully understanding that these books are placed firmly within the patriarchy. Radway admits that the research she conducted has not provided a conclusive picture of romance reading patterns, as the Smithton women exhibited both signs of using jsnice romance to reject their position in society and signs romwnce becoming reaffirmed readingg societal expectations as a result romahce what they read.

In terms of methodology, Radway suggests that analyzing reading as a specific activity undertaken by actual people will provide a distinction between the act of reading itself and that which is being read; moreover, the act of reading alone may have different connotations depending on the context.

Reading may be used for “combative” purposes or “compensatory” ones, depending on the reader and where and when they are reading p. Radway suggests that romance reading and writing “might be seen therefore as a collectively elaborated female ritual through which women explore the consequences of their common social condition [ However, Radway contends that this does not get to the root of social problems because it allows them simply to address legitimate concerns through a socially accepted and “culturally devalued” space that is still permissible under the patriarchal view p.

In this way the observer becomes important: Still others may take a more ambiguous approach if they study how narratives are formed over time. Regardless, Radway argues, several of the ideal romances showed that many women viewed the romance not simply as the tale of a woman who is successful in love but also as the story of a rpmance or distant man who is transformed into an idealized mate by the love of a woman; this allows them to vicariously demand that men become more trustworthy and accommodating to female feelings and needs.

Therefore, the romance creates a “utopian state” in which men are “neither cruel nor indifferent” nor reluctant to engage in a relationship with a woman and the paternal relationship can still exist p. Moreover, as Radway argues, the romance novels never challenge the power of male authority and do not take into account the benefits of greater feminization may have on society p. Radway argues nonetheless that the romance has provided a space in which men and women alike can examine and re-examien fadway “ideal personalities” and provided an way to bring at least some less threatening jwnice to readong together in a system that is supported by and facilitates the rreading p.

Effectively, romance writers profit from allowing readers to question their lot in life without going very deeply or making radical changes. If nothing else, Radway argues, the romance suggests first that there is a very legitimate deprivation that facilitates the popularity of romance novels and a body of individuals looking to use it for the aforementioned reasons.

Radway concludes by encouraging feminists to look more deeply at the causes and outcomes of romance consumption among the female audience while also examining how the romance gratifies needs rading desires that are created by contemporary society.

She also argues that feminists and other scholars cannot look merely at the texts themselves but must also look critically at who is buying them, why, and what societal forces and market requirements are pushing janicce media forward. Examining the context in which romance novel reading originates can tell more about the qualities of the text and the power of ideology as it goes through this particular lens.

In this way, Radway contends, scholars can learn not only where the phenomena comes from but also how readingg combat its negative effects as well as facilitate the latent feelings of protest and societal challenge within readers toward janife ends. Sign In Don’t have an account? Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature is a book by Janice Radway that seeks to explore the relationship that female readers have with mass market romance novels from a critical cultural perspective.

Radway conducted interviews with a group of women who regularly read and enjoyed romance novels to discover that women seek out romance novels for a variety of purposes, including the idealization of heterosexual romance rkmance the ability to rebel against their status in life, though such novels continue to reinforce patriarchal and heteronormative ideals.