"I’m a Feminist, But…”: Popular Romance in the Women’s Literature Classroom

Julie M. Dugger, Western Washington University


The enduring popularity of the romance novel makes it an ideal genre to use in teaching feminist literary theory because it raises two compelling questions. What is the women’s studies critic to do when a genre dominated by women writers and readers appears to conflict with feminist ideals? And what are teachers to do when that conflict turns up in the classroom: when students feel a disjunction between their pre-existing reading practices and the critical theories that inform their studies? The opposition between feminist theory and women’s popular reading practices, in scholarship and in the classroom, is an especially pointed instance of an opposition often expressed in the scholarship of teaching literature more generally. This article examines the conflict between popular and critical literary reading practices. It then focuses specifically on romance by outlining feminist critical arguments both for and against romance reading. Finally, it recommends that we acknowledge these two areas of dissonance (the conflict students may feel as they straddle different reading practices, and the complicated relationship between feminism and the romance genre), and suggests strategies for making them an analytical focus in class.