The Problems of Romance Heroes

In genre romances, the hero usually has two problems:

1. He hasn't been able to commit to one woman. In Regency parlance, he is a rake. He has slept around; he is an expert in love-making; he has seen it all, done it all. He just hasn't found the right woman. When the right woman comes along, he will change his rake-making ways and become monogamous.

2. An external or internal distress. Modern romance writers have expanded this distress to the psychological. The hero's problem isn't just boredom or a war wound or a displeased father. His problem is depression, mood swings, etc.

Both problems have to be solved and/or confronted in the course of the novel. Usually, the heroine's appearance is the catalyst that solves both problems.

I consider the first problem somewhat more solvable than the second. Granted, it is hard to credit that a promiscuous man will automatically stop being promiscuous just because a wonderful woman shows up in his life. On the other hand, I think a large number of men find the dating/courting/flirting game rather tedious. Some men do enjoy the chase; Scott Petersen obviously enjoyed wooing women more than actually settling down and having children with them. However, I would argue that many (if not most) men would far prefer an available, committed, and agreeable woman on tap than scores of hypothetical women that have to be pursued and sometimes persuaded.

The only snag here, romance-novel-wise, is that so many of the heroes are described as insatiable sex-machines who enjoy displaying their great sexual prowess (they are almost always Alpha males). A good insatiable man might be monogamous; he also might come up with a few excellent reasons he should be allowed to marry several wives (and yes, I am writing that as the product of polygamous ancestors).

However, committing the hero to monogamy still seems a more solvable problem--especially since romance heroines, no matter how virginal, become instant experts in this department--than fixing the hero's distress, particularly if the distress is psychological. I particularly balk at the typical romance-novel solution of the "good woman." Anyone who has been in a psychologically traumatic relationship or has read about Charles & Diana knows that trying to solve other people's psychological problems is a really, really bad idea and trying to solve other people's psychological problems by being "good" for them is a lesson in masochism.

I'm not talking about showing love and support and putting up with the other person's bad side. I'm talking about trying to fix things that now-a-days get a person medicated. Specifically, I'm talking about trying to make another person happy; this, I maintain, is a complete impossibility. A positive relationship can be a source of strength and happiness, but it is the relationship that supplies the strength, not one person taking on the emotional baggage of the other person (i.e., fixing the other person).

That being said, I understand the fantasy: in the romance novel, the heroine who "makes" her hero happy (cures his distress) becomes indispensable. He needs her. It's the sort of thing that makes (some) feminists, me included, nervous: here is this woman subordinating herself all over the place in order to make a man happy. But our nervousness kind of misses the point--basic biology is at work here. An indispensable woman will keep her man and therefore, her security.

And I can understand the impulse to chase after such security even if I don't believe it is possible. It is, frankly, terrifying to enter a relationship knowing that the other person is not under one's control--and yes, I know that sounds vaguely psychopathic. But this lack of control is the risk of relationships: love is not a guarantee, only a hope. In a way, guaranteed love is what makes genre romances not only satisfying to read but also rather fascinating--can the writers solve the hero's problems in such a way that the heroine will still remain indispensable? Contrawise, can the problems be solved without leaving the reader with the impression, "Boy, that marriage is doomed!"?

In one novel (Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas), the hero agrees to marry the heroine for money. He then, of course, discovers that she is beautiful and charming and witty and great in bed (not necessarily in that order) although his distress--cash shortage and unhappiness/boredom--is still a factor. However, part of his new wife's dowry is her father's club, which has fallen on hard times. Our hero becomes fascinated by the club. To protect his assets, he becomes directly involved in running the club and subsequently discovers he has a knack for business. 150+ years later, the guy would get an MBA and buy up a bunch of resorts: same principle.

I found it rather satisfyingly believable on a psychological level. Running a club is a bit low-class, but the guy has nothing to lose and everything to gain by taking charge. His motivation is also believable: his lovely wife doesn't inspire him to take an interest; he takes an interest because he (initially) wants to sell the club at a good price. The impulse comes from him, not her endearing example. (In other words, he works to find a purpose for himself in life; he doesn't wait around for his wife to nudge him into finding a purpose--I suppose the latter works for some couples, but generally, I think being someone's personal standby pep rally sounds enormously tiring.)

One reason Devil in Winter works is because the problems are reasonably solvable--this, however, immediately moves the spousal relationship back onto voluntary grounds. The woman is no longer indispensable (especially since the relationship is, relatively speaking, about two seconds old). In order to keep a heroine of a romance indispensable, the hero's problems must be solvable only in the short term except romance writers want us to believe that the problems are entirely solvable in the short and long term. Yet the woman must remain indispensable. How is that done?

She has a kid.

A number of feminists figured out a long time ago that romances are about the most conservative fiction on the market, and I have to agree. Setting aside the explicit sex (and the odd lack of social--forget religious--guilt), the plots are entirely aimed at creating or obtaining a marriage in which men get jobs, protect their wives, and take care of their children.

Interestingly enough, the female characters express a sense of freedom within this arrangement that is entirely authentic to their writers' voices. So Phyllis Schaefly wins! But why she wins is something all feminists should pay attention to. Frankly, anyone who thinks a well-functioning patriarchy doesn't benefit women to some extent is a fool. However, what those benefits are exactly and what should/can take their place if/when patriarchy falls should be closely examined before babies get thrown out with bathwater.

But I'm not going to do that today.

1 comment:

a calvinist preacher said...

As far as the psychological distress comments go: Amen. Almost every marriage I know of that began with one partner trying to fix the other partner's psychological distress has ended in divorce, usually initiated by the one who needed fixing. Since this distress often has genetic links, it also tends to mean that there are now psychologically distressed children.

If I get even a hint of such a relationship, I won't officiate at the wedding.