Romance novels are commonly dismissed as trash, housewife porn, formula fiction, or bodice rippers. They are accused of committing purple prose, engendering female dissatisfaction, debasing literary values, and forcing men to live up to an impossible ideal. I, however, see most modern romance as positive conservative fiction.
Consider this: most modern romance novels feature a strong female protagonist and an equally strong male protagonist. They generally end in marriage or a commitment to marry; in most cases, the characters plan to have children within the confines of that marriage. I don’t think I’ve seen a single romance novel talk about abortion, let alone promote it as a reasonable alternative; in fact, a common plot device is the “secret baby,” in which the heroine gives birth to the hero’s child despite financial and social penalties, only to have her secret revealed to him later.
Let’s take social conservatism out of the bedroom and into the world at large: workers’ rights, women’s rights, and other large social movements are rarely topics in romance fiction, and in most cases where they are topics, they’re found in historicals. For the most part, though, while romance novels frequently have protagonists who express concern about groups in trouble (orphans, farmers, prostitutes, etc.), most of their solutions are not finding ways for the government to help but rather to find positive, creative ways for those people to move themselves forward (education, lowered taxes, work as seamstresses, etc.) Only a few lean on government solutions, possibly because that is less than heroic.
How about financial conservatism? Well, I’ve never seen a female protagonist on welfare, at least not as an adult. They nearly always fulfill Christopher Vogler’s heroic imperative of being good at their jobs. Common plot devices include saving the ranch or the family business, while others struggle with the problems of paying inheritance taxes. While you’re not going to see rants about paying taxes in romances, neither will you see rants about the proles deserving power over the evil landlords – well, not in most romances.
War. Lots of soldiers fill out romance novels, and you find quite a number of romance novels with wars as their backdrop (most prominently, Gone with the Wind). Most of these soldier-protagonists were heroic on the battlefield as well as off; none were cowards or draft-dodgers. They are nearly always patriotic, and even if they bear visible or emotional scars, they rarely rant about how wicked their countries were to make them fight.
Religion is rarely prominent in romance fiction except as a central element of the Christian romance – but it’s never discounted or bashed either. Even in paranormal romance using witches as protagonists, you won’t see a lot of criticism of Christians.
There are, of course, some problems with the wholesale classification of romance novels as conservative fiction. There’s the victim-as-female-protagonist problem, for instance. Conservative ideology is never about the victim, but rather about the hero, the person who rises above everything; there is a distressing amount of rape fiction still in romance, possibly because modern Western society has a tendency to fetishize victims, mistaking them for martyrs and raising them up as heroes. There’s a lot of sex in the steamier romances, which many conservatives (not me!) are uncomfortable with. Still, from the strong masculine hero to the committed relationship goals to the subtexts about saving the ranch and keeping the baby, there may be more conservatism in romance novels than either liberals or conservatives would like to admit.
Now, I don’t know if I’m right or wrong; I do know this is a question I’d like to see discussed. What do you folks think?