Romance for Dummies

I’ve been reading romantic stories since childhood: Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, etc. I started on the ubiquitous Harlequin romances in the 1970s. By the time I was fourteen, I’d figured out the formula for a successful romance novel: boy meets girl; boy and girl hate each other; boy manhandles girl; girl falls in love with boy; boy and girl get married and live happily ever after.

I wasn’t sure that was an improvement upon the damsel-in-distress scenario featured in fairytales and mythology.

In the 1980s, heroines in romance novels began to grow up. They no longer aspired to grand career goals of serving as underpaid nannies to wealthy widowers. They acquired post-secondary educations and found professional employment. I’ve seen few romances about women in the skilled trades, but doctors, lawyers, and business owners seemed an improvement over uneducated 18-year-old girls who needed a rich man either to restore them to a lifestyle they once enjoyed before their daddies went bankrupt or to lift them from the lives of poverty into which they’d been born. These heroines might not have been obscenely affluent, but they held their own in a man’s world. These heroines served as role models of women who got it all: a great career, husbands devoted to them, and, presumably, two-point-five children and a dog.

Heroes began to evolve, too. Not much, because women continue to enjoy the fantasy of an alpha male who’s successful, confident, and skilled in the bedroom. But those heroes began to see women as competent, intelligent adults, not just soft, warm receptacles for their lust to be used once and discarded like toilet paper.

Over the last ten to fifteen years, romance has been backsliding. Sure, the Cinderella story remains popular. It always will. My own books take full advantage of that. But somewhere along the line, up and coming authors began to subscribe to old archetypes and to create new ones that really don’t flatter their own gender:

       The ingénue. This is the innocent, young virgin, usually poverty-stricken, who hasn’t gone beyond high school and is sweet enough to rot every tooth in a reader’s head.

       The party girl. This is the shallow, promiscuous young woman who thinks one night stands carry no consequences, is often too fascinated by pricey, name-brand shoes or coffee, and lives with roommates who are also giddy, squealing, fashion-obsessed dimwits.

       Cinderella. This standard character harkens back to the original. She’s hardworking, employed in a menial job for which she is ostensibly overqualified, and either in college or recently graduated with a degree.

There are, of course, variations on the romance heroine tropes, but professional, competent, and intelligent heroines have become scarce. I find that worrisome enough.

Adding to the disappointment are today’s popular heroes. They’re tall, handsome, wealthy, and confident. They go beyond confidence into arrogance. These guys don’t walk into a room, they swagger. They’re unrepentant womanizers and most enjoy having a different woman in their beds every night. The willingness of women to join the vast, lust-riddled hordes that parade through their bedrooms invites contempt toward the entire gender. These heroes fall into standard slots: CEO, biker, fighter, elite military warrior (pick your preferred military branch), cowboy/rancher.

So, there they go, working hard and enjoying the vast variety of female flesh happily presenting itself for their entertainment when--boom!--our heroine appears. She either needs rescuing from danger or poverty, or she’s his administrative assistant (secretary), or he kidnaps her because he wants her and he always takes what he wants.

What a jerk.

Of course, our heroine is so overcome by her raging hormones that she succumbs to his blandishments, thrills in the liberties he takes, and loves that he doesn’t take “No” for an answer.

In the real world, we call this sexual assault and rape.

But wait, there’s more! Let’s go further into the sub-genre of “dark” romance with its descent into the world of BDSM. Yes, we all know who’s dominant and who’s submissive, don’t we? We know who’s obeying whose orders and who gets punished for disobedience, don’t we? And, oh, it’s so sexy that he gets to tie up our heroine and strike or whip her, leaving welts and bruises on her skin.

In the real world, we call that abuse.

Now let’s compound this with recognition of the people--mainly women--who write this stuff. The days of Nora Roberts, Danielle Steele, and Jayne Ann Krentz are far from over--they’re still pumping out novels. But a new generation of authors cranks out an overwhelming number of romance novels that negate the progress women have made over the last fifty years. These writers are women in their twenties and early thirties who don’t remember being denied an opportunity because she was cursed with that second X chromosome. These are women who don’t recognize the term “Women’s Lib.” These are women who romanticize and glorify Stockholm Syndrome in their abduction fantasies and send their heroines back a couple hundred of years when women were chattel. Yet these heroines are content to be treated like chattel, as long as their heroes settle them into lives of luxury and pamper them like prize poodles.

These authors offer their young, impressionable audience heroines that exhibit traits we’d hate to see in our own daughters: unjustified obstinacy, terminal stupidity, promiscuity, shallowness, and an abject acceptance of poor treatment from their heroes because a heady orgasm makes everything okay.

I write romance. I’ve even written heroes who aren’t nice guys. I wrote an abduction romance. But my heroine was clever enough to escape his clutches and evade recapture for years while my hero suffered greatly for his hubris. (Credit that to an early influence of Greek mythology.)  My heroines may be underemployed and occasionally pigheaded, but they aren’t too stupid to live. These characters have human flaws and a level of self-respect lacking in too many of today’s heroines. They’re people you wouldn’t be ashamed to introduce to your family.

So, if you’re a woman of Generations Y or Z, what message do you want to send to yourself and to the young women born in the following generation? One that shows women as helpless, stupid, and enslaved by their hormones? Or one that shows independence, self-respect, and a happily ever after because she wants to be with the hero, not because she depends upon him for her existence?

Romance is the only genre that’s mainly written by women for women and which validates women’s happiness and fulfillment. It should inspire us to become better, not reduce us to weak-minded chattel.

Holly Bargo
Springfield , United States Of America

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