Hetero Ever After? Romance Novels, Race, and the Limits of Social Dreaming

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In the introduction to the cluster of essays in this journal about "heteropessimism" this essay is described like this:

Chiara Giovanni shows that popular romance novels by and about women of color often indulge a positive orientation toward heterosexual desire. Giovanni calls this orientation "heteroidealism" and sees it as an adaptive strategy to forge solidarity between men and women along racial lines.


I define heteroidealism as a positively valenced ideological strategy and emotional orientation to heterosexuality which sees women of color pursuing what they hope will be fulfilling romantic relationships with men in service of, not in spite of, the desire for liberation from oppression. Here, I see heteroidealist women of color leveraging the predictable structure of the romance genre to imagine themselves a) resolving racist injuries felt at the level of the individual and b) building solidarity in service of an anti-oppressive future at a societal level, particularly though not exclusively with men of color.


At the level of the individual characters, Rai makes clear that the arc of their romance, and all that has transpired alongside it, has gone a considerable way towards helping these traumatized, mistrustful individuals repair their relationship with love, interdependence, and commitment. Here, though, Rai's novel diverges from Guillory's in depicting the implications of the love interests' growth and healing as broader-reaching than individual recovery from oppressive harm. Samson's support enables Rhiannon to protect other women who have suffered or would suffer at Peter's hands, as well as to advance the #MeToo movement more generally; Rhiannon's support encourages Samson to begin his career in CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) advocacy, which Rai implies will have a ripple effect on generations of future players, many of whom are young men of color vulnerable to exploitation within the sports industry.


Romantic love, Rai suggests, firmly setting aside the anesthetic feminism of which Hannah Wang writes in this cluster, is the ideal catalyst for two previously hyperindependent individuals to see themselves as part of broader social communities to whom they bear a responsibility: once this realization is in play, these communities can work together to imagine better kinds of futures for marginalized groups. The path to liberation must be trod as a collective, but the first step, so the contemporary romance novel implies, may well be a classic boy-meets-girl love story. Where heteropessimist thought denies that anything radical can ever come from limply persisting within the often disappointing world of heterosexual desire, Rai and her contemporaries make the case to their hopeful readers that swiping right on cute, politically aware men of color can, in fact, serve as a political act, an expression of solidarity with other people of color, and a gesture towards building a more socially just world through the power of love.


Multiple feminist theorists have converged on an answer that looks, perhaps surprisingly, a lot like these romance novels. Relinquishing personal power and domination in favor of reciprocal care is central to bell hooks's vision of a true love that heals and redeems. For Jane Ward, a radically transformed heterosexuality (what she calls "deep heterosexuality") encourages a longing for women's full humanity and men's sexual vulnerability.


My argument is not that romance novels that dream of beautiful love stories for women of color are useless or unnecessary. Quite the contrary: these texts offer richly imaginative guides for interpersonal vulnerability, benign masculinity, and shared healing from racial trauma. But, as social theorist Karl Mannheim argues, any line of thought, no matter how counter-cultural or radical, that can be seamlessly reintegrated into the status quo without precipitating a total disruption falls short of true utopianism. Texts that beautifully idealize the openings of a lifelong partnership (and stop there) perpetuate the centering of heterosexual romance as the highest life objective for women, encouraging them us into the fray while offering only minimal utopian dreaming about what we might build once we find the love we have always craved. We do not need much more social dreaming about how to fall in love. We need it about how to stay there, how to live a life in love, and care, and justice.