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Guest Post: Jenna Mandarino-Modern Romance & Reclaiming the Feminine Gaze

It’s not often the female/womxn gaze is considered in media. It seems most things are geared towards the male gaze. Even romance movies targeting the female audience will film intimate scenes mostly from the angle of the man’s POV with shots of the Female’s body. Newer shows with wide success like Netflix’s Bridgerton have been working hard to establish a female gaze, but for most types of media, the media that has traditionally successfully captured womxn are romance novels.

As a life-long romance reader, I have seen the genre change over the decades. It has been a category of books that has been considered by avid readers as a mockery, uncouth, not ‘real’, or even downright corny. From bodice ripping covers to alien p0rn, or epic sweeping romantic books, they haven’t been taken seriously. There isn’t even a romance category on New York Times best-selling list—successful romance novels usually listed under a different category. And it isn’t because they’re not being read and bought—they are. In the article Romance literature takes over bestsellers lists(2021) Maddy Martin states, “Romance novels account for 23% of all fiction sales and generate around $1.08 billion per year. They make the same number of annual profits as the mystery and science fiction/fantasy novel industries combined.”

For many of you, this knowledge isn’t new. Whether you are a romance reader or writer, you’ve heard all the scrutiny despite how well the genre sells. What I think is new is that romance readers and writers are taking their power back and reclaiming the genre and a big amount of that is due too #BookTok or even #SpicyTok and the power of direct digital publishing. Do a perusal of one of the hashtags on Tiktok and you will find many womxn highlighting their love of romance books and sexy scenes, with zero embarrassment, all geared to the female gaze.

While the topic at hand is romance novels, I think the bigger point that stems from direct publishing and TikTok is the paradigm shift of a few things: First, more people, specifically romance readers, are reading. BookTok is good at selling books. Those snippets of quotes and evocative music is compelling and great marketing. Secondly, TikTok is free, so non-traditionally published authors can be seen and heard to the average reader. You don’t need a huge marketing budget to go viral. Anyone can publish whenever they want now, so more voices are being heard thanks to digital publishing, Third, it has increased sex positivity. Womxn can and do enjoy sex and there needs to be no stigma with it.

SpicyTok and BookTok is empowering to womxn all round—more writers are willing to write the scene they may have been hesitant to do before and readers are learning they are not alone when it comes to their own sexual preferences, fetishes, or even kinks—and that there needs to be no shame attached to them.

For myself, as a writer, I have found this movement to be inspiring and extremely liberating. I used to blush and need a glass a of wine when I wrote explicit scenes. I went so far as to not tell people I was close to that I was a writer and hid behind my penname because, God forbid, even though I have two children, I’d have died of embarrassment if someone I knew read my book and those scenes. They couldn’t know I thought about sex, let alone wrote about it. Now, when I write, I write freely and think about the womxn gaze in my writing with intention. I try to make it viscerally from the feminine POV because, yeah, even literature written by womxn for womxn who enjoy men, can still be slanted towards the male gaze because that has been what has been shoved down our throats since the dawn of time (and not in the SpicyTok way ;) ). Now when I am writing, I ask myself, “would this go viral on SpicyTok?” Not because I want to write what only pleases readers and fans, but because I want to write something that is so authentic and intentionally meant for the female gaze, because we deserve it too.

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