Friday, November 18, 2011

crash course part 2: what's wrong with romance novels?

These are the posts that make me cringe.  What the hell am I doing?  I'm no expert on this stuff.  I've had three semesters of theory.  But I get these ideas and they knock around in my head, and they want to come out.  Y'all put up with a lot.

Anyway.  You already know I read romance novels.  This is the other side of the story from my previous post, and if you're going to be an intelligent reader of romance novels, you should think about this.  (and just where did that soapbox come from?)  

Simply stated, recent literary theory has been about examining our cultural assumptions, which is why it has come to be called cultural theory, or cultural studies.  We generally take for granted that certain words carry a loose definition that we all get:  male, female, straight, gay, white, Hispanic, African American.  Women are nurturing and like to gossip; gays love Barbra Streisand and interior decorating; African Americans are good at dancing and sports.  But first of all, there are exceptions to all of these.  You don't have to work in an office environment very long to find out that men like to gossip just as much as women do (which may or may not be very much at all).  There are straight men who are good at choosing paint colors.  There are black people who can't dance.

You all know that.  If it were that simple, there would be no problem with this.  Of course everyone knows that there are exceptions to every rule.  But unfortunately, not only do we have these loosely held definitions, we attach them to other religious or moral or traditional beliefs that make them take on a life of their own.  The idea that women were maternal creatures who were better suited to life as homemakers took on a revered, almost holy status in the 1950s.  It wasn't just that there was a tendency to think that most women wanted to be wives and mothers, but the idea took on a life of its own, so that advertising, magazines, movies, TV shows, and any number of other venues promulgated this idea of women as saintly madonnas, creating a haven in the home for their husbands and children.  There was no escaping it.  You could do your own thing, and doubtless many women did act in ways that were counter to the stereotype, but those were seen as deviant, unnatural behaviors.  Sometimes harmless, but not natural.  Abnormal.  A generation of women downed valium to fit in.

It's not hard to see how that applies to ideas about race and sexual orientation.  We all know that Asian Americans are good at math.  Homophobia is so much a part of our current cultural mindset that we think it's creepy for a 4-year-old boy to wear pink overalls.  And even if you're aware of how silly it is, you still don't feel like you can put your son in pink overalls, because then he, the little 4-year-old, would have to deal with the reactions he'd get from the people around him.  Which would probably be subtle and not overt, but 4-year-olds are excellent at picking up on subtle cues.  My point being that these cultural ideas take on religious significance, even when clearly there is nothing there but a cultural prejudice.

So how does this apply to romance novels?  Well, with the exception of some of the best ones, romance novels for the most part reinforce all these cultural stereotypes that we would be better off without, and that many of us actively try to undermine in our non-reading moments.  If there are gay characters, they are the loyal sidekicks.  There are almost never non-white characters.  The main character is almost never a servant or a member of the lower class.   All of those reinforce the idea that the straight, white, middle-to-upper class point of view is the "real" point of view.  

Other ideas enforced as "normal" by the entire genre of romance fiction, although they may be rare occurrences in real life:
-that a man and a woman can find completion and even transcendence in each other.
- In historical novels, servants are always loyal and happy to be of service to the people in the big house.  If the steward is not happily loyal, then he ends up being the villain.  The idea that servants might be good, honest people and also resent like hell the foibles of their employers practically never shows up in a historical romance.
-that a man should "take care" of a woman, which involves everything from the ubiquitous "Just lie back and let me take care of you" during intimacy to him being financially solvent--I think I've read two romances in the past two years where the man wasn't at the least in better economic circumstances than the woman, and usually he is flat out wealthy.  (There is a way in which this "taking care" is true, of course, as long as it is mutual, and in the better romance novels, it is.)
-men that are taller, handsomer, and more physically fit are more valuable than short, dumpy, unathletic men.  I can think of one hero that is even about the same height as the heroine (Summer to Remember), let alone shorter than her.
-there are no gradations of sexual orientation in the main characters, even though studies have shown that there are few human beings who are entirely gay or straight.   

I'm not going to argue that you shouldn't read romance novels.  You know that, if you've been following along.  They're great escapism and fun entertainment, and even the most dedicated romance novel reader knows that they are just fantasies.  No one (I hope) expects their real-life partner to never have any emotional needs of their own, which is what you'd think if all you knew were romance heroes.  For me, part of the appeal of reading a romance novel is being able to let down my guard of trying to be vigilant and looking for all the ways that our culture is a bitch.  They're a vacation from reality.

I don't even necessarily think that romance novelists should try to become crusaders for cultural change.  (Historical novelists can often pull this off, because their 18th century characters can act like people from the 21st century and thus seem to be feminist or whatever.)  that's part of the tradition and appeal of the genre.

I just think we should be aware of the implications of what we're reading.

There is so much more that could be said on this topic, and maybe some of you will help me out by saying intelligent things.  And also pointing out romance novels that are exceptions to my generalizations.  There's one more point to make here--about happy endings--but I think it's getting its own post.  Probably not till next week, though.

1 comment:

  1. Dear AB, I will so NOT be the one helping you out by saying intelligent things, lol.