The Fundamental Reality of Romance Novels

A common criticism of romance novels is that they support the worst excesses of patriarchy: heroes who think they have the right to "protect" women by overmastering and seducing them.

Defenders of romance novels will often argue, among other things, that (1) women readers are simply acting out the female version of the male fantasy:
THE MALE FANTASY

Leonard Hofstadter: If we do get a new friend, he should be a guy you can trust. A guy who has your back.
Howard Wolowitz: And he should have a lot of money and live in a cool place down by the beach where we could throw parties.
Sheldon Cooper: He should share our love of technology.
Howard Wolowitz: And he should know a lot of women.
Leonard Hofstadter: Let's see: money, women, technology. Okay, we're agreed. Our new friend is going to be . . . Iron Man.
(2) Women readers are actually critiquing the patriarchal model as they read; as readers, women readers exercise control over the hero and heroine, over what they (the readers) will accept/agree to: the hero is at the mercy of the reader; (3) women readers may participate in the heroine's subjugation to the male, but they do so knowing that the heroine does truly agree since they know her thoughts.

I think all of these are valid arguments and mostly true, but I also think they totally miss a really important point. Romances have nothing to do with patriarchy. They have everything to do with biology.

My personal yen is for cerebral, shortish men. I am not automatically attracted to the tall, looming, massively muscled, broad-shouldered hero of romances, and there are several romances where, despite being told that the hero is tall-looming-broad-shouldered-massively-muscled, I simply don't see him that way because his character dovetails far more neatly with, say, Patrick Jane (in fact, this disconnect is so common that I often get the impression that the writers have their own individual images in mind as they write and stick in the iconic image to make the publisher happy).

I also tend to read romance novels which focus less on the overbearing moments and more on the building relationship moments.

But, having said that, I must tell you about my reaction to Vincent D'Onofrio on Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

First, Vincent D'Onofrio is HUGE. He is 6'3" and, well, HUGE. In the first season, whenever he (as Goren) walks into an interrogation room, he basically fills the room and overwhelms the suspect. If he gets physical, all he has to do is pluck the bad guy out of his chair by his collar and swing him around.

I think this may have created a tension problem in the scripts because in later seasons, all the villains suddenly became at least 6' tall (though Goren's nemesis, Nicole Wallace, is an itty-bitty woman.)

Still, I must admit, this HUGE/effortless physicality is impossibly sexy.

Goren's sidekick, Eames, is played by Kathryn Erbe who is my height, 5'2". The writers make it clear that Eames is more stable than Goren and can more than hold her own (and that Goren relies on her as a constant, dependable presence). But when I first watched Season 1, I became very aware that I--a Libertarian feminist--found Goren's mere physical presence utterly satisfying and comforting. If the villains get crazy, he just has to nudge them, and they are out of the game. Eames is safe.

This does not mean I would appreciate this kind of protection in my personal life. And it also doesn't mean that when I watch Season 1, I am imbibing, interacting with, or considering sexist/patriarchal principles. My reaction is purely atavistic.

Protection--whether it be financial, physical, technological/cerebral, or emotional--is hugely attractive to women. The most telling aspect of romances is not that the heroines are overwhelmed sexually, it is that the heroines can rely on the heroes: the heroes perceive the heroines as a responsibility.

Consider history: Anarchy kills women and children before it kills men and boys. A large part of human history has been the history of anarchy or dictatorships/kingdoms descending into anarchy. Being safe, therefore, is high on a woman/wife/mother's genetic priority list. And, I'm sorry, people-who-get-worried-about-patriarchy, you can't just undo thousands of years of basic evolutionary need with a few decades of enlightened Western culture.

Especially when so many women believe they are still in danger. Since I am not that paranoid, I don't. But I can understand women who feel threatened by war, pedophiles coming onto their children, crime, belligerent politicians, being left/abandoned, poor economies, having to balance work and family, etc. etc. etc. Yes, they should hold their own, but several biological realities still leave women more vulnerable than men to the environment (I mean that in the social AND in the volcanoes/hurricanes sense). Let's not kid ourselves.

The answer is not to blame the patriarchy. What possible good would that do? Herland (and the falsehood of the perfect matriarchy) aside, the biological realities will still exist, whatever the social construct. Squawking,  "But the government--" which is still male-dominated--"should do something!" is nicely Victorian but hardly feminist-oriented and not terribly helpful.

Herland included, Gilman and Paglia have always been right: the male cannot be ignored or bypassed. Thank goodness romances are still doing the hard task of making sure he isn't.

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