I'll be the first to admit my often scathing hatred of romance. What little I've read, watched, and heard from other people is a gross exaggeration of love and relationships, causes extremely problematic expectations and behaviors, reinforces gender stereotypes and patriarchal nonsense among other things, and even makes light of serious topics like abuse, rape, and controlling partners.
Seriously. I'm not a fan.
Before you click away or leave me a nasty comment, I'm not here to bash on the romance genre much more. Moreso, I'm here to take a moment and understand what good romance looks like, why it's good, and why the trash still gets published and read. I will be taking into consideration cis/hetero-normative romances, as that is the bulk of the novels published and read, and frankly I haven't read enough LGBT+ romances yet to make any remarks about them.
Now that all of that is out of the way: on with the blog!
It's not that I don't find romantic relationships and plot lines appealing. I rather enjoy watching my protagonist fall in love with the wrong person and learn from their mistake, or pine longingly for someone who will not return their affections, or that moment when our lovers finally get their first kiss. I like watching healthy relationships flourish and blossom. I like consent in my sexy scenes. I like tension between people, whether it be UST or simply the desire to get over foot-in-mouth syndrome. I kind of even like the attraction to the 'bad boy' type, or even the actual villain if it fits, but only if the person in love realizes their mistake and fixes it!
There was a time, as I was trying to figure out this publishing thing, that I actually considered being a romance writer. It made my stomach churn, but I considered it. I bought some books and read them all, nearly puked, and then tried my hand at it from what I had learned. The book was... cookie-cutter at best. I had hit all the points necessary for the story to be considered a romance: hot guy, plucky girl, far-off exotic location, mystery afoot, lost heritage found again, fashion make-overs, at least one fancy dinner party, bumps in the relationship with said hot guy (possibly a third guy messing things up), wealth beyond measure, and room for a series by the end of the novel.
If you said, "but that's every romance novel!", then you'd be right! The details almost didn't matter because I told you most of what was in the novel right off. And that bothered me. What was to gain from this experience? What had my novel done that a thousand other romance novels hadn't done already? Why was it that people gobbled this stuff up like candy if it was just all the same stuff again and again?
I started to notice another pattern: escapism. That's nothing really new to any genre. Fantasy and sci-fi are based on concepts that are beyond our own world, to escape our own problems and face new ones in a place where we can leave it when we close the novel (most of the time). But with romance, there is a different kind of escapism. This isn't the sci-fi story that might light our imaginations as to what could be, or the warning of things to come; or the fantasy that mimics our reality so that we might see our problems more clearly, or teach us something about ourselves. No, this escapism is solidly based in the NEED to escape. Protagonists are usually thrown into a new location – a new city, country, class, even time-era – and the protagonist must learn to adapt to the expectations set before her. To escape her old life and settle into her new one, she clings to a few friendships but almost always the strong man in her life. I believe that this reflects the burning desire of escape that most romance readers feel. The feeling of starting over, or starting something new, or just not being where they were to begin with: that's something that we all feel, but romance readers crave it in their adventures more than others.
Then there's the issue of the man in the protagonist's life. He is almost always physically flawless: chiseled features, muscular, "manly", and we if get to see him nekkid his shlong is definitely something to gawk at. He is the protector (though why kind of protector remains to be seen); he is likely rich or part of some upper class; if he isn't wealthy, then likely he's fulfilling the fantasy of traditional family man with angelic morals. The "perfect man" is obviously different for everyone, but the desires of romance readers seem to fall neatly into a few types: rugged bad boy, cinnamon-bun sweetheart, rich and arrogant, broody and damaged, and possibly the exotic one with traditions that just totally clash with the protagonists's background. Admittedly, this doesn't cover everything and the male love interest often is a mix of the above types. These are just the most common of the ones I've seen. Still, no matter what personality he has, this man is an Adonis. He might even make Adonis run away with his tail between his legs in shame.
I'm rolling my eyes as I write this because for heaven's sake this is not realistic. I've dated many-a man in my day, and have known many more. Let me tell you how RARE it is to look at someone that pretty, let alone for him to have the COMPLETE package (and I don't mean down south). You mean to tell me that this love interest of yours is the perfect height, with the perfect hair, pore-less skin, not one bit of excess body hair, smells lovely all the time, and has the body dreams are made of? AND he just so happens to fall in love with the protagonist, who by all accounts is usually very plain and homely. Honey, he's so into himself he ain't got time for you.
That actually segways perfectly to another thing I noticed: the female lead is almost always described as having very few good things about her. She might have pretty eyes, or nice hair, or a good figure, or pouty lips, but she hates everything else about herself. Her self-confidence is a hit or miss (depends on the novel), but she isn't the physical marvel that the man is by any means. I figure that this plays into the fantasy that, somehow, the biggest catch around doesn't care about what his lover looks like: it's all about what's in her heart and mind that will get him. Much of the time, the protagonist is plan, an every-woman type who makes dumb decisions and possibly puts herself in danger. This means Mr. Man can swoop in to rescue her and obviously they become closer. But still, this plays into more fantasies: the reader can just attribute their own traits to the protagonist, and when the protagonist makes errors we drop out of our own attributes and blame it on the character. It makes all the good parts our own and leaves the bad stuff behind. It's rather brilliant, actually, but it's just a psychological trick.
If the protagonist actually does happen to have some gusto to her, she still falls prey to the physical. He doesn't want her because she's smart, or challenges him, or supports him: he wants her to sleep with him. Don't get me wrong: sex is awesome, and on some level our primal brain wants to do the do. I'm just saying that romance isn't all about how badly you want to boink someone. His attraction must meet hers, and not just in the teenage flirtations that seem to be the basis of a lot of these stories. And I suppose that's also part of the fantasy: landing a lover simply because you desire him. That the pining and wishing and time spent writing your first name with his last name would be all worth it because in the end you two were destined for each other. I attribute this kind of fantasy to be similar to the one we all went through with Harry Potter. Someday, we'd be whisked away to Hogwarts with our letter in hand, and we'd be taught how to use magic no matter how mundane and ugly our roots are. The difference between the two is that one can never happen because we know magic isn't real. Romance, on the other hand, most of us make a point to make happen.
The fantasy and escapism of romance novels is actually what makes genre so dangerous if it's not handled properly. Young women often get this idea in their heads that these novels are to be treated like guide-books. Someday, a man will come into your life, he will be perfect, and this is how you want to go about having a relationship with him. The growing pains to get out of that mentality can be difficult, possibly dangerous in and of themselves. In these novels, the emotional turmoils and violences happen almost exclusively to the females, and the males have the sole role of protector and savior. This isn't a healthy expectation to have in real life, and bringing fantasy into reality can blind people as to what is really going on.
Which brings me to other things that I've noticed about the GOOD romances. (I know, finally)
Recently, I was introduced to a rather famous set of novels called "Outlander". I'm watching the TV series because that was faster access than the novels (unfortunately). Short summary: British ex-army nurse gets transported back 200 years into Scotland's past, she must survive as a healer under the patronage of a Laird, falls in love with a good man with a trauma-filled past, and she must choose between her marriage to the Scot and her marriage to the British man back in her own time. This hits a lot of the points I mentioned earlier that make this a textbook romance. It also discusses family life, history, loyalty, and living with trauma. The adventures Claire has with her red-haired Scot, Jaime, are tumultuous, and no one is ever safe. At least in the show, it feels like the heroic adventure story I always wanted to read growing up with a female lead who wasn't a chosen one, and who wasn't out to save the world. She just wanted to stay alive and be happy.
The reason I say this is a GOOD example is because Claire herself is clever, and it seems that it is her cleverness and her strength of will that makes Jamie fall for her. She is quite pretty, and there is a lot of talk about how men would desire her, but it isn't any kind of serious talk: the kind of cat-calling most women experience on the street. Jamie is a soldier with a sturdy build, but has a back full of scars and not well-loved by his mother's family. Additionally, the details of the Highlander lifestyle, society, relations with the English, and even the big history points are excellent. I'm not an expert by any means, but the story takes the time to explain enough where I feel like I know the world. Claire is kidnapped several times, but it is not Jamie alone who rescues her: it's the clan, the family. Claire and Jamie are surrounded by family, and family-related problems. Jamie's relationship with his uncles are strained due to clan politics, but he also has a sister who has been patiently waiting for his return to their childhood home for four years. Jamie wants to have lots of children and be a close father to them. Though the women are not the liberated, free-to-speak ones that we've come to love in modern stories, these women have a different kind of power to them: one that is taken despite the rigid patriarchy. The romance in this entire series (so far) is about home life, the terrible parts about marriage, the fighting, the struggle of power between strong, independent people, the strain that is put on people in love when life decides to throw the worst at them. There isn't really a moment of peace in the entire story, and it's not just Claire who isn't at peace.
As I said, there are quite a few times that Claire is kidnapped, and some of them she is on the verge of being raped. The sexual violence is not met with a simple brush off, or a challenge to let it go. She does have bigger things to worry about, but she is shaken. Further, the victim of rape ends up being Jamie, who surrenders to the villain in order to save Claire. Again, this isn't something that is easily brushed off. It is not handled perhaps the best way, but the violence IS taken seriously. Danger is given on all sides (as in real life), and it fits the era in which it is set. Honestly, if I was somehow put in Claire's position, I hope to manage that transition with as much ferocity and grace as she seems to possess. I imagine that reading through this series, the reader really can't take credit for all the good things that happen because Claire is such a strong character. There's no mistaking that while the marriage perhaps didn't have the best of starts, it grew with the promise of more. It's not perfect, and neither character pretends to be more or less than they are. These characters are secure in themselves, and they understand their power.
At one point early on, a character tells Claire that Jamie doesn't need a little girl to love him; he needs a grown woman. That stuck with me. So many romance novels portray their protagonists as women who don't understand themselves or the world. They stumble and the man is there to pick her up, show her the way. Claire doesn't know the world she finds herself in, sure, but when she stumbles there is no one to pick her up. She pays for all her mistakes eventually, and while Jamie may be there to save her at the very end, it is not because she has relied on him for it. It is because, in 1800's Scotland, by virtue of being a man Jamie had more power. Claire is not weak because she is a woman: it is simply that the patriarchy gives significantly more power to her husband. Their marriage, by law and by society, protects her from harm. Nearly everyone in the story understands this fact and uses it to their advantage one way or another. Another woman in the story even boasts about how she has a sham of a marriage, and that because she has a husband she is free to do as she wishes. These are women, not the little spiteful girls who try to tear each other down. They support one another. I can't tell you how many books I've read (romance or not) that feature catty, jealous girls as the only other female source in the story: it's the 'Mean Girls' syndrome.
Additionally, there is a very clear line of acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior with the men. While there is at least once scene that would never be tolerated in modern society (namely a spanking, which was still in fairly common practice at least through the 1940's), everything that the men do has a moral attachment. Rapists are condemned, and even drunken lewdness is met with reproach. Those characters who have harmed another are not forgiven, and the villain of the story is black to his soul (no matter how sad his backstory, or how aware he is of his actions). There is punishment for wrong behavior and societal consequences. Though the debate of believing a woman about her assault becomes a question, it is because there are consequences. That can't be said for every romance story out there.
If "Outlander" were to be a guidebook, the traits best fit for a woman is to be clever, thoughtful, strong willed, with a clear mind to her goals and an understanding of herself. She would be unflinching in the face of danger, to do what needs to be done, to stand up for herself, and to use her knowledge and environment to her advantage. Her lover would have his flaws, even think of himself as damaged, but her determination and willingness to help makes the both of them stronger for it. They are equals in partnership: when one falters, the other holds out a hand to help. They fight but their fights are resolved, and it is because they love the other person that they come to their truths or compromise. Their lives might perhaps revolve around each other, but not without thought to family. Girls with games of love have no place with her, and they are not played with her lover.
The kind of fantasy and escapism I want to read is not the kind that makes me feel superior to the people in the story. It's the kind that inspires me to be a better person, have a better relationship, try to understand what is going on in my real-life world. I wish these stories of strong, assured women surrounded by love and non-problematic romances were more the norm.