Heteropessimism is everywhere, it seems, from our newsfeeds to our brunch conversations and now, also, in our book clubs. This gender malaise plays out in contemporary literary fiction with the proliferation of the "sad girl novel," where overeducated, underemployed, mostly white women of questionable mental health float into and out of vaguely concerning entanglements with men who treat them pretty badly, in ways that are not always consensual.1 Roll call: Sally Rooney's Conversations with Friends and Normal People, Megan Nolan's Acts of Desperation, Naoise Dolan's Exciting Times, Ottessa Moshfegh's My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Lillian Fishman's Acts of Service, and, to a certain extent, Raven Leilani's Luster, too. The structure of these novels, which treats the self-perpetuating, recursive nature of these relationships as inevitable, even as the narrator dispassionately illuminates their ills, is a neat encapsulation of the vibe shift towards heteropessimism that we have come to expect in our politics, our personal lives, and our cultural production: men are trash, and don't we wish we could stop wanting them so?

Except the romance genre whose very premise is the inherent merits of dating men doesn't quite seem to agree. One look at the recent boom in sales of romance novels, currently at their highest in over a decade, would seem to challenge heteropessimism's claim as the defining mood of our era.2 What's going on?

In her groundbreaking study of the genre and its consumers, Reading the Romance, Janice Radway cautions against analyses that ascribe publishing and sales trends solely to shifts in readers' emotional and political lives, reminding us that book buying "is affected and at least partially controlled by the material nature of book publishing as a socially organized technology of production and distribution."3 This development must therefore be understood in the wider context of the explosion of online self-publishing, which has revolutionized the romance genre in particular, and the growing influence of social media communities like Bookstagram and BookTok.4 Yet commentators both within and outside the publishing industry have, in contrast to Radway's warning, principally ascribed this boom in sales to two sociological shifts within the readerly public. First, there's the desire for predictably happy endings in a moment of social upheaval.5 Second, there's a proliferation of writers of color who are heralded (though perhaps slightly prematurely) as transforming the face of a historically very white genre.6 Revenue-driven "diversity" pushes only succeed when there is diverse talent to be had, and many of these new "star" writers including such household names as Jasmine Guillory and Talia Hibbert, as well as niche favorites like Helen Hoang, Sonali Dev, and Alisha Rai are enthusiastically heeding the industry's call, with loyal fanbases amassing behind them.7

On the surface, though, the enthusiasm of both writers and readers of color for the romance shtick seems even more at odds than that of white women with the heteropessimist zeitgeist. After all, women of color in particular would be well within their rights to adopt a heteropessimist orientation towards gendered relations, with Black and Indigenous women far more likely than white women to suffer sexual violence, immigrant women in general disproportionately affected by domestic violence and related homicides, and South Asian women especially vulnerable to underreporting intimate partner violence in their relationships.8 Yet, because this intensified vulnerability to harm (and the diminished likelihood of romantic satisfaction) is paired with the slightly contradictory sense of solidarity with men of color around the fact of racism, heteroidealism is just as accessible an adaptive strategy as heteropessimist cynicism.9 In this context, 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.

The fact of race (and racialized misogyny) is always present in romance novels authored by American women of color, though different writers allow it varying amounts of space. In The Wedding Date (2018), the sparkling debut splash from "reigning [romance] queen" Jasmine Guillory, heroine Alexa certainly grapples with racism as structuring force through a plot point centering on the criminalization of Black teenagers, but the novel primarily engages with oppression as a social ill experienced at the level of the individual.10 Though highly educated and employed in an important political post, Alexa is a single, plus-size Black woman in her thirties who falls for Drew, a conventionally attractive white doctor who has apparently only ever dated sorority girl-meets-Barbie lookalikes before getting trapped in an elevator with Alexa and convincing her to pretend to be his girlfriend at an ex's wedding. Though Guillory never explicitly addresses the Alexa-Drew union's social improbability, it drives the bulk of the plot development. The novel starts with the classic "fake dating" trope, but Guillory quickly abandons the ruse in favor of the internal turmoil caused by Alexa's insecurities over failing to match up to Drew's previous romantic choices and his perceived unwillingness to commit to a serious monogamous relationship. The "black moment" of the novel a genre-specific emotional beat, always in the form of a misunderstanding between the love interests that leads to a short-lived split is precipitated not by any external event.11 Instead, it comes from Alexa's meltdown after attending a party at which every "perfect honey blond with golden highlights . . . wearing those barely there dresses" confesses to having been dumped by Drew just as the relationship turned serious.12 Wracked with insecurity, terrified of being abandoned, Alexa throws a verbal hand grenade into their budding romance and sneaks out in the middle of the night. "You and I both know this is over," reads her characteristically passive-aggressive breakup note to Drew.13 This, like the rest of Alexa's communication, symbolically vests in Drew all the power in their relationship, because all worldly evidence points to this being true.14

Though Alexa's behavior is objectively wildly ineffective, Guillory does not rake her over the coals. Her readers, likely seeing themselves reflected in this protagonist due to shared identities, life trajectories, or both, will likely also find much to empathize with in Alexa's erratic behavior. Despite Alexa's education, income, and career success, as a Black woman she is statistically much less likely than average to find success in the dating world.15 This probability only decreases further when Drew's race comes into play.16 Her disastrous inability to communicate her desire for a relationship with Drew or manage her hang-ups about her appearance are, therefore, a reasonable response to the overwhelming odds stacked against her: through this climax, the reader experiences the vicarious catharsis of years of insecurities and gendered and racialized hurts, usually kept private, exploding to fill all the space of the novel.

All this, however, is nestled within the predictable structure of the romance novel, which casts a different light on the seriousness of Black women's plight within the desirability politics matrix. As Radway argues, the reliability of the romance plot "contributes to the reader's ability to maintain a kind of dual consciousness" about the story at hand: on the one hand, Guillory presents us with realistic issues that remain unsolved in readers' lives, successfully managing the impression that Alexa and Drew really are at the brink of falling apart.17 At the same time, the narrative structure reassures the reader that even though The Wedding Date "appears to be a novel [with the risk of plausible threat to the heroine], it is, in actuality, just another version of the mythic story whose ending the reader already knows." This is to say that the romance itself is a heteroidealist engagement with the issues it takes up. When the epilogue reveals that, after rearranging his life to move to Oakland to be with Alexa in the novel's grand gesture resolution, Drew has orchestrated an elaborate marriage proposal less than a year after the pair first met, it is a multiply satisfying conclusion. At the level of the individual characters, it is a vindication of the Black heroine's right to fairytale romance with a conventionally attractive white hero who has rescued her not only from creepy (white) men and jealous (white) women over the course of the story, but also from the mire of desirability politics that threatens to deny her marital bliss.

The reader has witnessed the cyclical nature of Drew and Alexa's relationship, especially the repeated descriptions of Drew's intense and unshakeable sexual attraction to Alexa: they meet, they have sex and grow closer, they part, they worry about the other's investment in the romance. The ending is therefore an affirmation, a reassurance that any analogous experiences of their own could plausibly be swept away by their ideal version of a tanned pediatrician who plays basketball, goes jogging on the beach, and enjoys cunnilingus. For women of color, reading romance novels like The Wedding Date that are otherwise realistically written and set in the familiar world of the pre-pandemic Bay Area is, as Radway puts it, "a ritual of hope. Repetitive engagement in it would enable a reader to tell herself again and again that a love like the heroine's might indeed occur in a world such as hers."18 Rather than encouraging her readers to avoid the disheartening and often exhausting dating scene entirely, Guillory presents a heteroidealist fantasy that sees the affection and desire of a (white) man as a panacea for the individual emotional burden of racialized misogyny, looking ahead to a multiracial future in which successful Black women access the marital bliss that they deserve simply by changing their romantic choices.19

While the romance novel is inherently an adventure at the level of the individual (heroine and reader), certain writers throughout the history of the genre have always set their sights on broader social issues alongside the usual love story. Alisha Rai's The Right Swipe, though an immediate contemporary of Guillory's debut, is a more overtly #MeToo-inflected novel that is loosely based on the real-life story of Bumble founder Whitney Wolfe-Herd's sexual harassment lawsuit against her former workplace, Tinder. In Rai's novel, Crush CEO Rhiannon Hunter juggles a tricky romance with former NFL linebacker Samson Lima, who previously ghosted her on her own app, with her attempts to acquire dating site Matchmaker and her professional rivalry with Peter, her ex and CEO of competitor app Swype. Though still structurally a realistically written romance novel based in emotional fantasy, with seemingly every character fantastically wealthy and devastatingly attractive, much of the early chemistry and intimacy between Rhiannon and Samson is later abandoned to make way for Rai's development of the social issues at the core of the story. After a series of injury-induced family tragedies that culminated in him walking off the field and quitting pro football in the ensuing racially charged backlash, Samson is reevaluating his relationship to the NFL and the public eye more generally. Rhiannon, meanwhile, is resistant to publicly exposing Peter's harassment and retaliatory behavior towards her after their relationship ended, even when her silence threatens her own career.

Through shared experiences of marginalization and familial trauma (Rhiannon is a dark-skinned Black woman from a working-class family and Samson is of Samoan descent), the love interests build a supportive, empathetic relationship beyond their sexual connection. When Samson shares with Rhiannon his misgivings about his legacy and activism, she reassures him "You made your industry better for the young men who came after you, and the older men who came before you" in a line that reappears multiple times throughout the rest of the novel, encouraging both characters to make decisions that will help them to heal and to benefit others.20 The triumph of the Samson/Rhiannon union is therefore twofold. 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.

Despite the protagonists receiving plenty of familial and platonic encouragement in these decisions, Rai emphasizes both Samson and Rhiannon's long-standing, entrenched resistance to shifting beyond a narrow-minded focus on their own self-preservation towards a desire to help others through their experiences and their platforms until they think back to the other's support. 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.

Before we get too carried away with the promise of heteroidealism, we would do well to remember Radway's conclusions about romance novels: in supplying women a fantasy world in which all their emotional needs are met by caring men who often make worldly sacrifices for the sake of the love affair, the romance novel disarms any potential liberatory impulse that chronically unsatisfied women in stifling heterosexual relationships might otherwise have nurtured. In this case, we see the invitation for women of color readers to imagine themselves having it all: not only are they professionally successful, financially comfortable, surrounded by loving friends and family (with whom, even if the relationship isn't quite perfect, they are working on growing closer), but they are also adored, desired, and crucially respected by caring, wealthy, emotionally literate and sexually generous men of all races. Heterosexual romance, here, is the cure for many a social ill, from the burden of desirability politics to workplace misogyny. Perhaps the most alluring heteroidealist fantasy of all is the hero's total lack of loyalty to masculinity: when he swoops in to save the heroine from sexist or racist encounters, it is not a comment on her lack of independence, but an expression of his disaffinity with patriarchy. In holding out for a hero who is Not Like Other Guys, like the Nice Guys that Ryan Lackey drily details in this cluster, women of color readers are encouraged to locate patriarchy's ills within overtly creepy or aggressive men, rather than in the attractive sweethearts who, once the fairytale ends, will still probably only take on 35% of the domestic labor while their female partners earn far less than they do over the course of their lives together.21

But the popularity of the romance novel today suggests that highly educated women of color (compared to the slightly sheltered young housewives interviewed by Radway back in the 1980s) are choosing to read romance precisely because they desire that temporary reprieve from the quotidian burdens of racialized misogyny.22 The political imagination works better, after all, when allowed to dream more freely. Young white women may well engage in heteropessimist rhetoric, claiming that men are trash and that heterosexuality is a prison, as a means of disclaiming "[their] own cruelty and power."23 I suspect that, for many women of color, heteropessimism does not overwhelmingly win out as an adaptive coping mechanism with the crushing reality of patriarchy because it is hard to disclaim your own power when you don't have very much of it to begin with. "Particularly for women," Seresin writes, "radically transforming heterosexuality might begin with honest accounts of which elements of heterosexuality are actually appealing the house is clearly on fire, but is there anything worth saving?" We may be striving towards universal queerness and the abolition of gender, but heteroidealist romance novels are an answer to Seresin's original question about what happens in the meantime.

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.24 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. Like Adora Svitak, who, writing about heterosexual yearning in this cluster, contends that a true understanding of women's romantic choices depends on neither trivializing straight desire nor treating it as a given, Ward asks us to unashamedly lean into the erotic "as a potential source of connection and mutual regard built through the channels of desire, joy, and pleasure."25 In this vein, romance novelists advocate for vulnerability, softness, the willingness to hope, and a commitment to a better world, where men are not only part of the problem, but also part of the solution, also worth slowly trusting, and deeply loving. As such, we can also locate these texts at the borders of the Black utopian tradition, which centers "untapped possibilities already embedded within society unconditional freedom, equality, interracial intimacy, solidarity, and social democracy."26

But if utopian texts trade in "social dreaming," what should we make of the fact that these romance novels concentrate their dreams of freedom and solidarity on wealthy, educated characters who already come correct with feminist and anti-racist analyses in tow?27 How much are we really pushing the "boundaries of what seems possible" to have the apex of our imaginary here a simple, likely transient state of happiness between two well-resourced individuals who have avoided many of the structural traps, like poverty and incarceration, that give rise to abuse and violence in the first place?28 Though heteropessimism would have us believe that the worst of heterosexuality's excesses surfaces during the dating stage, the vast majority of romantic discontent, the kind that crushes dreams and poisons happiness, actually takes place well after the appropriately-named "honeymoon period" has worn off, when the reality of labor division (especially after marriage and childbirth) sets in.29 Romance novels by the likes of Guillory and Rai certainly gesture expansively at the post-HEA contentment of their couples, especially in later interlinked sequels, but the romance genre by design is unconcerned with the details of who does whose laundry, how the finances are divided, or what happens to aging parents. The structure and conventions simply do not allow for it, resulting in scores of keenly sensitive, thoughtfully chronicled novels about the same varieties of meet-cute, anticipation, deepening, conflict, and happily ever after, even when the identities and politics of the authors, characters, and readers shift and change.

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.30 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.

Chiara Giovanni is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Stanford University until June 2023, after which she can be found in New York City. She continues to believe in heterosexuality's healing potential, especially between people of color.


  1. Laurann Herrington, "Sad Girl BookTok Romanticizes Whiteness," BuzzFeed News, September 26, 2022.[]
  2. Ella Braidwood, "The Love Boom: Why Romance Novels Are the Biggest They've Been for 10 Years," The Guardian, December 13, 2022.[]
  3. Janice A. Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 20.[]
  4. For more on self-publishing's impact, see Ann Kjellberg, "How Amazon Turned Everyone Into a Romance Writer (and Created an Antitrust Headache)," Observer, September 12, 2022; on the influence of social media reading communities, see Juliana Ukiomogbe, "BookTok Is Revitalizing the Publishing Industry, and POC Creators Are Leading the Charge," Elle, April 22, 2022.[]
  5. Rachel King, "The Romance Novel Sales Boom Continues," Fortune, August 21, 2021.[]
  6. For more on the changes to the genre against a backdrop of resistance to change, see Alexandra Alter, "The Changing Face of Romance Novels," New York Times, July 7, 2018; and "The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report," The Ripped Bodice, accessed February 24, 2023.[]
  7. See Lois Beckett, "Fifty Shades of White: The Long Fight against Racism in Romance Novels," The Guardian, April 4, 2019.[]
  8. For Black and Indigenous women's higher risk, see Jameta Nicole Barlow, "Black Women, the Forgotten Survivors of Sexual Assault," American Psychological Association, February 1, 2020; André B. Rosay, "Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and Men," National Institute of Justice, June 1, 2016. On immigrant women's vulnerability to interpersonal violence, see Anita Raj and Jay G. Silverman, "Immigrant South Asian Women at Greater Risk for Injury From Intimate Partner Violence," American Journal of Public Health 93, no. 3 (March 2003): 435-37.[]
  9. For data on Black women's decreased likelihood of marriage and increased likelihood of divorce, see R. Kelly Raley, Megan M. Sweeney, and Danielle Wondra, "The Growing Racial and Ethnic Divide in U.S. Marriage Patterns," The Future of Children / Center for the Future of Children, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation 25, no. 2 (2015): 89-109. Central American and Caribbean immigrants have the lowest rates of marital stability out of any foreign-born group in the U.S.: see Wendy Wang, "Immigrant Families Are More Stable," Institute for Family Studies, March 3, 2021.[]
  10. Arianna Davis, "Meghan Markle's Mom Inspired a Juicy New Royal Romance Novel," Oprah Daily, April 12, 2019.[]
  11. The oddly and confusingly named "black moment," the conflict between the protagonists that explodes the brewing tension and sets the scene for the HEA (happy-ever-after) ending, is also known as the "80% conflict" and is a required element of a romance novel. Patience Bloom, "The Black Moment: How to Raise the Romantic Stakes before the HEA," Write for Harlequin, August 24, 2018.[]
  12. Jasmine Guillory, The Wedding Date (New York: Berkley, 2018), 238.[]
  13. Guillory, 266.[]
  14. Auelua-Toomey, S. L. and Roberts S. O., "Objects of Desire: How Beliefs about Other's Racial Preferences Influence the Composition of U.S. Interracial Relationships," Cultural Diversity Ethnic Minority Psychology, in press.[]
  15. The strongest biases in online dating, a more easily measurable environment than offline encounters, are against Black women and Asian men. Black women receive 25% fewer first messages on the dating site OkCupid than women of all other racial groups. For more, see Christian Rudder, Dataclysm: Love, Sex, Race, and IdentityWhat Our Online Lives Tell Us about Our Offline Selves, (New York: Crown, 2015).[]
  16. Jeffrey Passel, Wendy Wang, and Paul Taylor., "Marrying Out: One-in-Seven New U.S. Marriages Is Interracial or Interethnic" (Washington: Pew Research Center, 2010).[]
  17. Radway, Reading the Romance, 206.[]
  18. Radway, 207.[]
  19. While Guillory notably includes zero information about Alexa's romantic history beyond multiple comments about her self-consciousness about her body during sexual encounters that happened prior to the narrative's start, The Wedding Date joins the recent influx of materials that advocate for Black women, who traditionally have tended not to marry outside their race, to partner with white men: see Ralph Richard Banks, "Why More Black Women Should Consider Marrying White Men," New York Post, April 2, 2022; Nicole Cardos, "Why One Sociologist Says It's Time for Black Women to Date White Men," WTTW News, April 17, 2019.[]
  20. Alisha Rai, The Right Swipe (New York: Avon, 2019), 337.[]
  21. Kate Mangino, Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality at Home (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2022).[]
  22. Recent research suggests that 45% of readers have a bachelor's degree, up from 42% (according to RWA about 20 years ago, which also suggested that 15% of readers have or are working on advanced degrees). See Dimitrije Curcic, "40+ Romance Novel Sales Statistics [2023]," WordsRated, October 9, 2022; Sharon Arthur Moore, "Romancing the Genre," WriteOnSisters, June 24, 2014.[]
  23. Asa Seresin, "On Heteropessimism," The New Inquiry, October 9, 2019.[]
  24. bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions (New York: William Morrow, 2018).[]
  25. Jane Ward, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality (New York: New York University Press, 2020), 159.[]
  26. Alex Zamalin, Black Utopia: The History of an Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism (Columbia University Press, 2019), 10.[]
  27. Patricia Plaza Ventura, "Introduction: Race and Utopian Desire," in Race and Utopian Desire in American Literature and Society, edited by Edward K. Chan and Patricia Plaza Ventura (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 6.[]
  28. Zamalin, Black Utopia, 5.[]
  29. See Susan Maushart, Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women (Bloomsbury USA, 2002).[]
  30. Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979), 173.[]