Romance as a Genre Defined

My Essay

6/9/202121 min read

Romance has existed as a written genre for a long time. It has played a crucial role in literature, and its popularity has continuously risen. This genre consists of some of the most influential novels of all time, such as Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. Both novels paved the way and shaped the genre to what is known as romance today ( However, romance as a genre is difficult to define as it is utilized in most fiction novels as a subplot. Yet, using romance in a plot does not make it a romance novel. Merriam-Webster defines romance novels as a “love story” ( Romance novels have a primary plot where two characters fall in love. More traditional definitions of romance include a happy ending: both characters end up together indefinitely. As the tragic love story popularizes, that definition of romance becomes outdated. The tragic love story is where two love interests, because of complicated reasons, can't end up together ( These reasons can vary from strict parents to death. As more romance novels are written, new subgenres are created, including but not limited to, wholesome young-adult love stories to erotica. 

Romance has garnered quite a controversial reputation. Many readers and authors disrespect and look down on the genre even though it proves to be one of the most consumed. Like romance itself, the genre continues to evolve. In the past, love stories were written with a heterosexual marriage focused plot. Now, the most popular romance novels are often sex postitive and provide more character and plot diversity. As society continues to redefine what love “looks like'', the romance genre will too. 

Defining Stereotypes in Romance

A lot of romance novels profit off of gender and sexuality stereotypes. In novels with a heterosexual main couple, the men are usually characterized as strong, powerful, and lacking emotions, while the women are quirky, physically weak, and over-emotional. Cynthia Griffin Wolff states in her essay A Mirror for Men: Stereotypes of Women in Literature, “The flattery frequency with which women appear in literature is ultimately deluding: they appear not as they are, certainly not as they would define themselves, but as conveniences to the resolution of masculine dilemmas.” These stereotypes are created because of the male gaze – which is the way that men perceive women or how they want to perceive women ( These stereotypes are detrimental to women because they push the narrative that women are completely reliant on men and need to be constantly protected. 

Literature centering queer relationships also feature harmful stereotypes. The most common in all types of media is painting gay men as predatory (Canada’s Centre or Digital and Media Literacy). This stems from the 1970s, when people were spreading homophobic rhetoric and spread the false rumor that gay men molest children. It was spread to give people a reason to fear gay men, when in reality the Zero Abuse Project states, “Most men who molest little boys are not gay. Only 21 percent of the child molesters we studied who assault little boys were exclusively homosexual. Nearly 80 percent of the men who molested little boys were heterosexual or bisexual and most of these men were married and had children of their own." Despite the anti-gay rhetoric being false, the remains of the lie can still be found in many TV shows and books today. 

Similar to heterosexual stereotypes previously mentioned, LGBTQ+ stereotypes are also gendered (, meaning gay men are usually characterized as more feminine, and lesbian women are more masculine. Stereotypes are damaging because they often create inaccurate preconceived notions on how one should act. For example, if someone consumes media where a gay male character is predatory, they may internalize that to always be true. It can lead to both homophobia and internalized homophobia. This also applies to gendered stereotypes; when women read literature with more representation of independent women, it can inspire them.

Most Popular Romances in the Past Decade

To better analyze romance as a genre, The Twilight Saga and Fifty Shades of Grey will be used as examples. Written in 2005, The Twilight Saga is categorized as a  young adult romance fantasy series that includes four novels, two companion novels, and one novella, making it one of the best-selling of all time. Twilight is centered around a clumsy seventeen-year-old girl named Bella Swan who meets a mysterious boy in her high school, Edward Cullen. She realizes that there is something different about him and eventually discovers he is a vampire. They fall in love, but there’s one issue: he wants to eat her. While navigating their forbidden romance, Bella reconnects with an old childhood friend, a werewolf named Jacob who is also in love with her. The series consists of Bella navigating these two dangerous relationships while simultaneously trying to balance a normal high school experience. Despite the series popularity, it has faced lots of backlash over the past fifteen years. Some of its criticism is that it is simply ridiculous. Bella has some of the worst luck of all time, constantly finding herself in unnecessarily dangerous situations, with Edward chasing after her trying to protect her while simultaneously trying not to eat her. Other criticisms are more nuanced. Swan’s character is completely reliant on Edward, so much so that when he leaves her for a couple months she enters a serious depressive episode where she can barely make it to school. Throughout the entire series, Edward has a savior complex and Bella is described as fragile and clumsy. This plays into the toxic stereotype that women are weak and need a man to keep them safe (The Daily Targum). Edward even confesses to Bella that throughout the first book he used to watch her sleep every night, however, Bella disregards this stalker behavior as affectionate. The series concludes with Bella giving up her mortal life to be with Edward forever. This can be interpreted as teaching young girls to be submissive to their toxic partners and give up their freedom for them. Jacob, the second love interest, is a werewolf who yet again devotes himself to protecting Bella. In the second to last novel in the series, Jacob kisses Bella without her consent, causing Bella to question her feelings for Edward. The nonconsensual kiss was treated as an act of love true love instead of what it actually was: sexual assault. If Twilight is problematic, why is it popular? Twilight readers do not read the novel through an analytical perspective. Instead they read it with the intention of enjoying the fantasy ( Twilight is a book you read for its absurdness, but it shows a dark side of society where we enjoy reading about women being in toxic relationships. 

In 2011, E.L. James wrote the trilogy Fifty Shades. It was originally a fan fiction of Twilight, but the fanfiction evolved into an erotic story between a college student and rich businessman. Similar to Twilight, Fifty Shades also features a main couple that mimics the protector, Christian Grey, and needs-to-be protected, Ana Steele, stereotype (The Guardian). It is interesting to see how both these series sold incredibly well. For similar reasons to Twilight, this series is also problematic. What sets apart Fifty Shades of Grey from Twilight is that it is not a young adult series. Argurably, Fifty Shades of Grey grew in popularity because of the explicit scenes. Fifty Shades of Grey normalized sexuality in society, and many people think that having books that contain more explicit scenes are beneficial to society as a whole.

Over the last year, there has been a movement to ban porn because it isn't ethical. Porn, similar to lots of famous romance books, is misogynistic. However, porn is argued as being worse because real women as opposed to fictional characters are partaking in the films. Emma Wood states in her article about the ethics of porn, “It’s hard to separate violence and sex in lots of today’s internet pornography. Easily accessible content includes simulated rape, women being slapped, punched and subject to multitudes of misogynistic insults (Fight The New Drug) .” It’s generally positive that sex is becoming more popular through books because it is much more ethical to women and others who are negativily impacted by poronograpy. It’s also good that Fifty Shades’ Ana Steele is owning her sexuality throughout the novel and isn’t ashamed to enjoy sex. The problem becomes that she is extremely submissive to her boyfriend in her day-to-day life, and her character romanticizes an abusive relationship (The Daily Nebraskan). 

Both Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight’s main audience is young women. Having the two most popular romance novels in the past decade showcase women as weak and submissive sends a bad message to young readers. Young girls could read this novel and think it’s an accurate depiction of a healthy relationship, when in reality, it’s quite the opposite. This also has a similar effect on men. A young boy could read Twilight and think that stalker-like affection is what women look for in a partner. 

Andre Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name is one of the best selling queer love stories of all time, selling over 800,000 copies and the film adaptation bringing in 41.9 million dollars in the box office (The Hollywood Reporter). However, it’s one of the most controversial. Set in 1983 Italy, the love story follows main character Elio, a seventeen year old boy, as he develops a crush on twenty-four year old Oliver. After weeks of pining, Oliver reciprocates feelings back, and the story unwinds from there. But some readers were offended by the lover’s age gap. In 1983, the age of consent in Italy was fourteen and still remains as such, so legally their relationship is consensual. However, Aciman, a straight man, wrote this novel only 15 years ago in America. Critics of Call Me By Your Name believe the age gap is unnecessary, adding nothing substantial to the novel except for a feeling of unease when reading ( Especially since Elio has innocent, child-like qualities to him ( Furthermore, since the book is so popular among young queer readers, it might send the message that loving someone much older than you is appropriate, leaving someone at risk for getting groomed or partaking in a power imbalanced relationship. 

On the contrary, many feel strongly that Aciman didn’t purposely play into those stereotypes, and that the novel is quintessential to LGBTQ+ representation in literature. Elio and Oliver’s relationship isn’t about their sexuality, it’s simply about the love between them. Even today, the novel is still relevant. Only last year, popular queer rapper and singer Lil Nas X sang in his song Montero, “Call me by your name.” A song dedicated to him expressing his own sexuality (The 

 The main issue is the concern around a straight author profiting off of a predatory stereotype. Aciman's effort fifteen years ago to normalize a relationship between two men brings more positivity than the harm of the stereotype? 

Profiting Off of Stereotypes

All three of the novels mentioned previously feature negative stereotypes, meaning the authors profited off of normalizing harmful archetypes. Is it the author’s responsibility to avoid using stereotypes to build their characters or is it the consumer’s responsibility to avoid that content? The author’s include the stereotypes, but they were made popular by the amount of readers that enjoyed the content. If the author is just trying to create content that appeals to a wide audience, then it’s important to analyze why so many people enjoy this content. Is it because these stereotypes are so normalized that people find comfort within them? 

Research suggests that in general, stereotyping is a natural phenomenon that all humans do. It’s how people categorize people in their head and make assumptions about their lifestyle and personality. Studies show that a lot of stereotypes in day to day life are accurate. For example, if you meet a young person living in New York City, assuming they are liberal is most likely correct. A lot of writers play into stereotypes to create more accurate or relatable characters. However, this becomes problematic when an author chooses to utilize harmful stereotypes, which are more likely to be inaccurate. A lot of these authors don’t intentionally create these characters to perpetuate these stereotypes, rather, they create extremely basic and simple characters based off of common, outdated stereotypes without even realizing it. Sometimes, characters are just created to be vehicles of the story, as opposed to their own complex beings. Regardless of the author’s intention, it is still something that should be changed in the romance writing world. 

Similarly, lots of popular romance novels feature hyper-sexualized images on their covers. In some ways this is important because when someone picks up the novel, they are aware that the book will feature explicit content. On the other hand, the novel is using the appeal of sex to sell it. Fortunately, it isn’t only sexalized women on these covers; lots show men as well. But these authors are using sex to the sell the novel instead of romance, which can dehumanize the characters in the novel. 

Book Tok 

Reading has been trending over the last year due to Tik Tok’s influence, creating a community colloquially called “Book Tok” ( The social media community has had such an impact on the literature world, — so much so that most popular book stores label books under the tag Book Tok to help readers easily find the most trendy novels ( The trend overall has positive impacts: more people reading. The most popular books on social media are romance novels. Tik Toker’s often recommend romance books that are not romance at all. Most of the books recommended advertise erotic scenes and have subpar writing. One of the most popular authors recommended is Colleen Hoover. With over eleven of her novels making the New York Times Best Sellers list and selling over four million copies since her debut novel, Hoover has become one of the biggest romance authors of our time (The Dallas Morning News). She is labeled as a romance novelist, but rarely are her books actually romance, with her most famous book being It Ends with Us, selling over 750,000 copies (Washington Post). On popular book selling sites, such as Barnes and Nobles and The Strand,  It Ends with Us is categorized as a romance novel, but the book mainly explores abusive relationships. The main character, Lily Bloom, falls in love with a boy who later gets in a physical fight with her. From there the relationship becomes abusive and toxic, but still Bloom struggles with the idea of leaving him. While this book has obvious themes of love and handles difficult romantic relationships, it doesn’t exist under the definition of a romance novel. The main plot is not a love story, this book is just fiction. 

Book Tok miscategorizing books is harmful because representing romance as anything other than love can misinform readers about what a healthy relationship looks like. Even if the intention of the book is to show how detrimental an abusive relationship can be, it can still send the wrong message to young readers, especially since the majority of the Book Tok community are teenagers ( 

Tik Tok miscategorizing book genres also happens with fantasy novels. Another extremely popular book on Book Tok is TheCruel Prince. The first novel of a trilogy, TheCruel Prince is about Jude Duarte as she navigates through politics in an unknown, magical universe. Along her journey, she is forced to work with her enemy where new emotions arise. The Cruel Prince is a fantasy novel that introduces the potential of a romantic relationship throughout the trilogy. Duarte’s story is an exciting one to read, but for a reader expecting a romance story, the dense political fantasy novel is a surprise. Their relationship is interesting and fun to read, but the average reader would be frustrated if they picked up this book for a fun romance and instead reads a dense fantasy novel. 

Romance Writing

Authors that are typically recommended through Tik Tok have writing styles that appeal to a younger audience, for whom the content is too mature for them to be consuming. These book, often have an illustrated cover and are easily accessible to read, despite the content focusing on sex, abuse, and death. Tik Tok’s book recommendations target a younger demographic, and by claiming non-romance books as the genre, it can be disappointing to seasoned romance readers. 

This has created a complete disconnect in the reading community. Long-term readers frown upon and make fun of newer readers that were brought in by the Book Tok community ( While this frustration might seem a little immature, it stems from the fact that people expect more from what they read. A lot of readers feel that, when authors like Colleen Hoover are put on a pedestal, it disrespects the renowned authors that paved the way for the genre. As romance writers are encouraged to write more unique content, their novels should grow to be more diverse and accessible to any reader. Not every Tik Tok recommendation fits this description, there have been novels that are highly rated within and without the Book Tok community. 

Good Romance in the Last Decade

The first highly rated novel is Normal People, a book written by popular author Sally Rooney. Unlike other Tik Tok famous authors, Rooney has an unique writing style and is known for breaking boundaries. She is most known for not using quotation marks ( Her characters have a lot of depth to them and do not play into gender stereotypes. In Normal People, the main character Marianne, is a smart and strong woman who can defend herself and doesn’t let Connel, the love interest, impact her life. She isn’t something unachievable for female readers to feel connected to. This novel is a proper romance unlike the Colleen Hoover book previously mentioned. It is simply a story written about love between two people, which pushes the limits and forces you to think about gender roles and class. Similar to Ana Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey, Marianne isn’t afraid to show off her sexuality and it’s done in a way that empowers her. Female main characters should be in control of their sexuality, rather than sexualized by the author for the reader's appeal ( The novel also navigates how harmful stereotypes impact women. Throughout the novel, Marianne asks to be hurt by Connell. In some ways, Marianne falls into the stereotype of a reliant woman who allows abuse, but it is done in a purposeful way. Marianne is aware she can never leave Connell and she resents it. “You should go, she says. I’ll always be here. You know that(Page 163).” Marianne tells Connell. Marianne wishes she could escape the stereotype that women are dependent on men, but she realizes her whole life she has been conditioned to depend on them. In the novel, her reliance on him isn’t romanticized and is instead discouraged.  

Another revolutionary novel is The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. This book is a retelling of the Greek myth of Achilles and Patrocolus. In the original story, their relationship is platonic, but Miller reimagines them as lovers. The story doesn’t play into to the harmful queer stereotypes stated previously, and the writing is beautiful. The novel is technically historical fiction, but the main plot is a tragic love story. Achilles, the son of a king, and Patroclus, an exiled, introverted boy, become drawn to each other. Despite their many differences and a disapproving world, they fight for each other. The plot consists of them going to all lengths of the world to be together despite a tragic prophecy looming over them. Their pure and honest love for each other is inspiring to read about. Compared to Call Me By Your Name, this novel features a more healthy example of what a relationship should look like. Interestingly enough, similar to Call Me By Your Name, the novel is not written by a gay man. Most heterosexual relationships depicted in romance are written by women, but some of the most popular LGBTQ+ novels are not written by queer authors ( Many argue that the experiences in this novel are not completely authentic or add to the fetishization of queer characters in the media (The Courier). Miller features a sexual encounter between the two main characters when they were both sixteen. While, at the time, like Call Me By Your Name, both characters are consenting adults, but are considered minors in present day. Is it inappropriate to have a sex scenes with two minors, or was it done with intent? Authors who write about the experience of other people must be careful to accurately represent the community, and not fetishize for profit.  

Men Hate the Romance Genre

Since the romance genre is heavily consumed and written by women, a lot of men resent it. Through research, it became clear that most of the literary criticism found about romance novels were written by men. Lots of men think that women like romance novels because they aren't intellectually engaging. Although, this is far from the truth. According to the Washington Post, “42 percent of romance novel readers have at least a bachelor’s degree.” While there are obvious problems in the popular romance genre as mentioned previously, lots of men unfairly criticize the genre for unrelated reasons. When researching literary reviews on Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, women were more likely to criticize sexism found in the novels,whereas men frequently criticized the plot or content of the novel. A potential reason for why men are more likely to dislike romance is because it’s one of the few things that is not created for them. Maria Bustillos explained this perfectly in her essay about men’s disinterest in the genre, “Romance novels are feminist documents. They’re written almost exclusively by women, for women, and are concerned with women: their relations in family, love and marriage, their place in society and the world, and their dreams for the future.” Living in a patriarchal society, the world is built for men, and in spaces where they aren’t actively included, they become uncomfortable. Men look down on romances because they can’t understand them. It’s important for men to consider when hating romance, if it’s because it’s something women enjoy and isn’t created for them, or because they want to help improve the genre for readers.

Why Romance is Important

Above all, romance is widely loved. “In the last five years (2008-2012), no less than sixty-three percent of RITAs were awarded to serialized romances.” Furthermore, romance is the most consumed literary genre. Alyssa Rosenberg stated in the Washington Post “Romance novels are a billion-dollar-a-year industry and make up 46 percent of all mass-market paperbacks sold in America; the publishing company Harlequin claims that half of its customers buys 30 of its novels every month; it also claims to sell more than four books per second.” Romance is important simply because it's an intense representation of women. Lots of the classic novels students are assigned to read in school are male character heavy and rarely relatable for women. To name a few: Catcher in the Rye, Fahrenheit 451, The Great Gatsby, and The Lord of Flies. Romance is a space created for women and underrepresented communities to share stories about love. In this day and age, dating can be complicated, especially for women. Relationships can become dangerous or painful, and talking about love is difficult. Good romances can help ease the pain, fill a void, or just be enjoyable. 


Readers of romance deserve more accurate and diverse portrayals of love. Teenagers need books that don’t heavily rely on inaccurate and offensive stereotypes, the LGBTQ+ community would greatly benefit from more representation in literature. This change would result in readers having a more accurate depiction of healthy relationships. Despite romance’s many deep rooted flaws, it reflects society. As human beings progress, literature follows closely behind, trying to reflect what people deem “normal” in day to day life. Novels such as Normal People and The Song of Achilles act as a beacon of hope for the romance genre, similarly to how Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre were to the nineteenth century. With Normal People selling 184,000 copies and The Song of Achilles selling an astounding 1.5 Million copies, it proves that books that break away from traditional stereotypes of love can be just as successful as other romance novels, meaning future romances will follow in its footsteps, as authors are inspired by these works. 

In the past couple years, life has proven to be particularly difficult. With crime on the rise, a pandemic as a constant threat, and global tension, 2022 has been a grueling year. Romance reading has never been more essential. Reading about love acts as an escape from a sometimes seemingly loveless world. The point of criticizing romance is not to look down on the genre for not being “academic enough”, rather, it’s to push it to the best of its ability. As romance improves, the literary world will have no choice but to finally praise the genre and give it the attention it deserves. Most of the research found has lots of open ended meaning and doesn’t result in one answer. However, there is only one conclusion that was discovered across the entirety of the research done for this essay: romance is awesome. 

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