Saturday, September 22, 2007

In Defense of Romance Novels

My librarian mom will roll her eyes. My professors from college will throw things at me. But eventually, the secret will have to come out: I have a not-so-secret love of romance novels.

I think the first one I read was when I was around ten years old. My mom ran the local library, and I had the run of the place. There were some books I was emphatically NOT allowed to take out, though, and among those were romance novels. Of course, once I found out how strictly forbidden they were, I had to read one. So I grabbed one off the paperback rack--I still remember; it was Man of My Dreams by Johanna Lindsey--and I hid it in my backpack. I didn't even check it out, because my mom would find out I had it if I did. I took it home, hid it behind my bed, and waited for mom and dad to go to sleep. Then I took it out and read it under the covers, with a flashlight. I stayed up all night reading it, and man--was I tired the next morning.

Men and women were a bit of a mystery to me when I was a kid. I didn't really "get" relationships. But when I read my first romance novel, it's like a light went off in my brain: "oh--so THAT's what it's supposed to be like!" Which, unfortunately, led me to years and years of comparing the guys I met in real life to the guys I met between the covers of my clandestine books (all through high school, I never actually checked one out).

A lot of people I know don't really get romance novels. People say they're trashy. My boyfriend (yes, eventually I did actually fall in love with a real guy) thinks they're porn for girls. Strong women I respect think they're sexist and demeaning. And I think there's a bit of a grain of truth to some of these things.

But the thing about romance novels is this: much of mainstream media is all about the male gaze. You can't really have an average-looking heroine in most movies; even with romantic comedies geared toward women, the heroine is pretty and the guy can be cute, or not (um...Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally? Ben Stiller in There's Something About Mary?). It's very rare that you find a romantic comedy where the guy is gorgeous and the girl is just so-so. I mean, yes, it's true that a lot of amazing guys aren't perfect tens--but that's not the point. The point is that these movies are, even subconsciously, geared towards men's fantasies, not women's.

Romance novels, however, are completely and totally oriented towards women's fantasies--and that's relatively rare in our society. The heroine in romance novels is often beautiful, but she does NOT have to be. In older books the women are always gorgeous, but in the newer ones some of them can be downright plain. And that's really refreshing to me: because the hero (who's always good-looking) is also always insanely attracted to her. It's not because she looks like Nicole Kidman--she's just got some certain something he can't keep his hands off of.

I read an article somewhere that if guys want to know what women really want, deep down, they should read romance novels. And I think that's true--romance novels speak to many of us more strongly than romantic comedies and television. Because the nice, friendly guy with the great sense of humor is wonderful--but he's not the guy women fantasize about. Our greatest fantasies are all about meeting this incredible Matthew McConaghey-type who is way out of our league and who, somehow, falls completely head-over-heels for us and sweeps us off to travel the world in his yacht. It's kind of a new variation on the old one about the prince who fell in love with the peasant girl and made her a princess. That's what makes our toes curl.

(I think I misspelled Matthew McConaghey's last name. Now he'll never fall in love with my cartoon avatar and sweep me off my feet. So much for my master plan...)

The graphic sex is another thing people tend to misunderstand. A lot of people think it's porn for women. And I guess in a way you could say romance novels are exactly that. But it's emotional porn, not physical. The sex in romance novels always, always serves the relationship. The graphic descriptions aren't gratuitous; they're showing us an intimate moment that the whole book has been building toward. If the author cut us out of the action right at that crucial moment, she'd be cheating us of an enormous emotional payoff.

And I guess if real porn shows you what guys fantasize about, romance novels show you that women's fantasies are more complex. We want the hot sex, yes. But we also want to feel fundamentally desired. Like the guy we're with will slay outlaws, storm castles, and brave anything to have us--both physically and emotionally. The ruthless alpha male is a mainstay of the genre, and with good reason: these guys want what they want, and they don't care what they have to do to get it. And when the thing they want is US, that's absolutely irresistible.

No comments: