Thursday, July 31, 2014

Romancing the Stone

When I was about 10, I received a trunk full of romance novels as a gift. My great uncle had been told I was an avaricious reader, and somewhere in his travels between his California home and mine in New York he managed to score a trunk full of books- probably at a yard sale. Even though they might have been slightly inappropriate for a child my age, this huge gift began my love affair with the most popular genre in print. Since then, I've stretched my literary interests into every other genre, but romance novels are to me the comfort food of the reading world. I return to them again and again, even though I'm now old enough and jaded enough to have picked out several major flaws. Here's a list of a few of those flaws.
I call it "How romance novels are full of shit":

1. The couple always manages to overcome every obstacle. In the real world, love doesn't conquer all. Love doesn't even conquer most, which is why the divorce rate for first time marriages is at nearly half, and climbs higher still for second and each consecutive marriage after that. But in romance novels, there's always a major problem, and it's always overcome by the power of love.

2. Speaking of major problems, there's never smooth sailing. How many of us would seriously pursue a relationship if we had to literally scale mountains or change the ocean's tide in order to be with a person we'd barely gotten to know but found ridiculously attractive? A giant part of Husband's appeal for me was that his shit was mostly all huddled together in a corner and the life we would share would be calm and smooth with little need for drama or antics. Obviously we argue and fight, but neither of us had to protect the other from an evil villain, fend off a crazy and dangerous psychopathic killer, or in any other way save the world.

3. Saving the world, while required, is only ever done by the hero.  Can we please talk for a minute about how no matter how strong the heroine that's been written into a story is, the hero somehow still manages to save her, all while being, well, heroic? She's a cop/firefighter/some other noble and heroic profession? Obviously he's going to be bigger, stronger, calmer, and appreciate what she does while still managing to take care of her. No hero is ever an accountant, or an out of work actor, or living in his parents' basement while working on a screenplay. The dude is never just an average guy living an average life.

4. Neither of them are ever unattractive to mainstream society. There are no romance novels about troll-like men or ghastly women. Which is unfortunate, because we all know not every person in this world has an intriguing and sexy mole above their full pouty lip, or a strong, firm jaw with muscular abs. I firmly believe there's a lid for every pot. That doesn't mean we all see our partner as the sexiest man (or woman) alive. Some people settle for less than what their ideal physical type is because you know, looks aren't everything. Some people are genuinely more attracted to taller or heavier to thinner or shorter or whatever type isn't currently being called sexy by modern society. Other people become more attracted to their partner over time because they have an amazing personality or a fantastic sense of humor. Still, in romance novels there's always an immediate and visceral attraction that just isn't realistic.
5. Every romance novel couple's sex life is all amazing, all the time.  Forget how similar every sex scene actually is- how many different euphemisms for penis, vagina, and breasts are there, after all? But there's never one partner with a higher libido, never any sexual dysfunction, never any dissatisfaction with an encounter. No one in a romance novel ever just has sex because their partner wants sex, there's never a quickie that leaves much to be desired, nobody ever gets bored halfway through and starts mentally planning a grocery list, there's no whiskey dick or period blood to deal with. It's always tab a fitting into slot b through either missionary or woman on top earth-shattering sex where the partners either reach climax simultaneously or the man holds his orgasm off until right after the woman has her own, and she always does, most often more than once. This standard alone is impossible to achieve, let alone the rest of the impossible issues with romance novels.

Beyond all of the above, the thing that gets to me the most about romance novels is the lack of planning for the future- well that and the lack of farting. We're left with a couple of people declaring their undying love for one another with no real plan about how they're going to actually manage to make it work. The happily ever after is always implied, with no thought to the fact that these people are going to have to live together.

Do we love romance novels because they're so completely at odds with the mundane everydayness of our lives? Do we not come to expect flowers for no reason and men to save us from whatever impossibilities the world throws at us? Do we not, in some small part of our inner selves, compare our men and women to those written neatly into perfect stereotypical categories, and find ourselves and our partners lacking? Do we not wonder why the earth fails to shatter every single time we have sex?

There's a lot of talk about reality in the media and how impossible standards are setting the tone for our children, daughters especially. Yet we turn, collectively, most often to literature that sets a completely impossible standard for ourselves and no one complains about how unrealistic it is.