Romance Novels: Do They Give Love a Bad Name?

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This is not really about games, but about how one mass medium treats romance. A few months ago I dove headfirst into the vast, chaotic world of romance novels — not the classics I’d already read and loved but a sampling of novels from massive stars like Judith Krantz and Danielle Steele to the stock of books available from publishers like Harlequin/Mills and Boone. In my quest the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books was a delightfully helpful guide.

I was struck immediately by how diverse and strictly delineated the subgenres are. There are supernatural romance novels, romance novels about danger and adventure, romance novels set in present day, medieval times, and every era in between, erotic novels and chaste ones, Christian romance novels, romance novels for African Americans, for young adults (termed YA in publishing), even NASCAR-themed romances — just check out the list of Harlequin imprints (on their site) for a sense of how many subgenres there are. I wonder if this means that many consumers prefer to read within a very narrow set of parameters.

Which brings me to my main point: within the subgenres, the novels are astonishingly formulaic. The style, the word choice, the vocabulary, the personalities of the lovers are often so similar that I found myself checking to make sure they weren’t written by the same person. I tried to sample from various subgenres to get a sense of the breadth of the field, but I also spent a couple weeks reading through several romance packs comprised of several previously published novels bundled together, and that’s when I got pretty depressed about romance novels. They are so extremely formulaic — and openly so; every article I’ve read on how to write romance novels makes note of the formula and advises the aspiring writer to follow it. It’s defended as being “what the people want”. (We in games have heard that argument many times!)


And maybe they do, and we all want to indulge in something silly, even when you know that it’s not that good for you. I watched High School Musical last night and had a chocolate chip cookie for breakfast, so who am I to talk? But still, reading several dozen romance novels from one imprint back to back was, I have to admit, a pretty depressing experience. Here are a few of the tropes that are burned into my brain from reading these:

1. The power dynamic is inherently and extremely unequal. The man always has the upper hand — money, power, experience, everything; his attraction to the woman is usually based on her innocence (9 out of 10 times the female lead is a virgin) and her sensuality and her beauty (which she’s not even aware of, so inexperienced and innocent is she — so even if she wanted to, she couldn’t use her looks to get the upper hand.)

2. The man always has some vaguely important career like Generic Rich Businessman that has him traveling all over the world and dating lots of beautiful women while the woman’s career is entirely unimportant and/or subservient to his (that is, she is actually employed by him as a housekeeper, secretary, or other employee) although to be fair, my two favorite books had the female lead as a college professor, which was neat.

3. The other women, when they come into play, are presented in contrast to the innocent and sweet heroine as harsh, overly concerned with their personal ambition, success, or wealth, independent, modern, and fashionable. They are clearly gold-diggers and it’s made obvious why the man tires of them and prefers a sweet, unspoiled and unsophisticated girl usually much too young for him.

4. And that’s the other thing — the heroines are almost always in their teens, 19 being the preferred age. A few were 24. None were over 30. The men, however, are all over 30. They have pasts and interesting histories, previous relationships, etc. They have personalities, however unpleasant (see below).

5. The men are always arrogant, harsh, condescending, and full of instant animal desire for the women. They’re often very selfish. But they are extremely chivalrous, protective, and, at times, quite controlling “for her own good” because, naturally, they know best. The women are attracted “in spite of themselves”. I know where this trope comes from — from the great anti-hero Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights mixed with the overly proud Darcy of Pride and Prejudice; the inequality of station, from the romance of humble governess to the rash, rough Mr. Rochester. But please, authors, please inject a little charm into your heroes so they’re not complete assholes. It gets very tiring to read about complete jerks and I often wonder why the woman doesn’t just walk away. Elizabeth Bennet, Cathy Earnshaw, and Jane Eyre more than held up their share of the romance with their intelligence, sharp wit, and their ability to hold on to their own deep-seated independence.

6. Needless to say, the woman is ALWAYS a perfect beauty, slender and with sublimely lovely features. For some strange reason, however, she has never looked in a mirror to recognize her own attractiveness.

7. The female lead generally falls into two personality types: utterly shy, retiring, meek, sweet, uncomplaining; or “feisty”, headstrong, and usually irrational and foolish (I think we are meant to read these traits as charming.)

I could go on, but I’ll stop there. Fantasy is just fantasy, but I wonder about the narrative that depicts love as an insatiable and dangerous attraction between two people who are so manifestly unequal, as if it itself could be an equalizing force. And I know not all romance novels are cut from the same cloth, so there are exceptions, some quite extraordinary (and if you know of some, please email me and give me your recommendations!)

There’s something to be said for tropes in art; just as the FPS genre has its silent-but-strong leading man, romance novels have the hapless-but-headstrong heroine and the surly-but-handsome hero. I think there’s a level of comfort in finding the same archetypes again and again. But in romance games, at least, I’d like to move away from what I found in those romance packs, to move away from comforting predictability and move into a realm that’s more interesting, more challenging; more, I suppose, interactive and engaging because the player, unlike the passive heroine to whom things happen outside of her control, must actively participate in the making of her own game experience.

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2 responses to “Romance Novels: Do They Give Love a Bad Name?

  1. >I don't think there's any real harm presenting this kind of fantasy to adults. Most every 'gender' focused form of media is incredibly formulaic, from the cartoons we grew up with to the movies we see as adults. They just play on base pleasures of the brain and as progressive as we become as a society, some fantasies are just not all that empowering or progressive in of themselves – and I don't think there's anything wrong with that, they're fantasies. It's when you start pushing sanitised versions of these adult fantasies as 'ideal' to younger people that I think there's an issue, women and men can enjoy Sean Connery holding a struggling woman until she submits to his overwhelming sex appeal, if that started happening in R.L Stine's Fear Street it'd be a different story though.While not as visible due to western male culture, you only have to look at Japan to see effeminate, weak willed romantic leads with no confidence cast in 'romance' directed at men. The boys in these games don't have to learn to talk to women, they just all find their shy awkward ass mysteriously compelling, and if effort is required, it's to rescue a broken young women from her past (hopefully with their penis). They don't feel any pressure to perform in bed, because like in female romance novels there's always a confident older experienced character to teach them the ropes. They get to feel up random women guilt free because girls are always falling on top of them, but they are always punished for it anyway. Women are always obviously interested, and the lead's only job is to pick one.Both visual and romance novels rely on barely sketched protagonists possessing traits lots of people relate to, wish to relate to, or did at some point in their lives. I think the reason that just doesn't fly for men here is because machismo is still king, and even the skinniest, nerdiest/emo/hipsterish of men will still see Tom Selleck romancing Sharon Stone as making sense given how we're raised, while Justin Bieber (who is basically an Asian male pop idol packaged for America) hanging out with Kim Kardashian just rubs men the wrong way. The STUD thing from the early 90s was just buff dudes who'd remember to rub your feet, and that was still made fun of.Women however, being presented similar subservient gender roles throughout most of the world have the opposite stigma, enjoying a subservient role in fantasy is the expectation brought about from how each gender judges their peers when it comes to romantic success. It does indeed suck that there's little media portraying women in the dominant role (that's actually aimed at women) for those that enjoy it, but frankly much like visual novels for Japan – the subservient, shy and awkward people are far more prone to indulge in these sorts of fiction (which requires an active imagination and willingness to read) and when it comes to romance and sexual fantasy, if you aim for the majority of current readers to easily embody the protagonist, the majority will be satisfied.If you're going to try something different, it will very likely not sell very well at first and require you to build up an audience over time. In publishing, that's not something many in a position to get these sorts of things known, are willing to try.

  2. >Jane, I plan to read Ash, by Malinda Lo. It's a retelling of a Cinderella story with a lesbian twist, although the love interest helps the main character work out her problems on her own rather than relying on a fairy godmother.

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