Reflections on the Welfare State as Understood by Romance Novels

In romance novels, the man-with-the-job reins supreme. This is, of course, entirely non-historical. Modern women tend to perceive men-without-jobs as spongers. Therefore, the historical hero, however wealthy and titled, MUST have some career, hobby, extracurricular activity other than being a dilettante and going to clubs.

A number of romance writers will give their heroes jobs in trade. For romances set in 19th century England, the heroes might be lowerclass barrow boys who make good or improverished lords who have to enter the stock market and invest in railroad building or tough American lads who have come over to England to buy up the railroad and marry improverished noble women. This is actually fairly smart since the 19th century was a time of enormous upheaval in regards to trade and aristocracy.

And, when done right, the information about trade can be downright enlightening. I've learned a remarkable amount about 19th century banking and gunpowder manufacturing from romance novels.

Other romance writers will give their heroes philanthropic hobbies: rich lords who set up group homes for ex-prostitutes and who save pickpockets from themselves.

And I just don't buy it.

Not that there weren't reform movements in England at the time. It's that the writers inevitably make it far too easy.

Let's set aside the 19th century mindset which states that poor people, however needy, are born with that mindset (and the reformers thought this, not just the crass, evil aristocracy). Money and war have much more universal moralities. Cheating people is wrong. Selling people bad gunpowder is too. But why people are poor . . . eh, pick a century.

The problem that most of these romance writers face is that group homes are not that easy to run. Anyone who has spent even three seconds dealing with a government-funded institution knows this. I worked for a counseling clininc in Washington State where a number of therapists dealt with disabled clients living in tax-funded group homes. There were problems with fights (involving feces), sex, drugs . . .

The underlying assumption (and romance writers aren't the only people to make this assumption) is that the system is broken, not the people. And truthfully, often the system isn't so hot. So it needs to be fixed. But that doesn't automatically mean that prostitutes will stop soliciting or that pickpockets will stop getting their wrists chopped off.

The underlying underlying assumption is that people would change if they could. When I was teaching my Working Women in America class, I did some research on prostitution. Back in the 19th century, some gung-ho researcher went into New York City's slums and did a survey of prostitutes. Basically, he asked them why they were prostitutes.

The overwhelming answer: Choice.

No kidding. In the 19th century.

Granted, it may have been "I had to choose between working in a factory, a laundry, or prostitution, and I decided prostitution was less boring." Nevertheless, the survey was a huge shock to the 19th century mindset which was sure that prostitutes were all innocents who had been deflowered by debauched letharios and then left on the streets to die.

I watch way too much Law & Order to be a fan of prostitution (health crisis, anyone?), but I find it bizarre (and rather endearing) how the myth of the innocent victim has continued in our society. Abused women never stay with their abusers because they actually get an emotional/financial pay-off! Thiefs never keep thieving because they like the thrill and ease of getting stuff that doesn't belong to them!

The point with virtue isn't that everyone secretly hates vice; the point with virtue is that it puts long-term personal and public goals before short-term gains. And it's less trashy. I do, in fact, think staying with an abusive spouse is stupid and harmful. But I also think that some women in these situations (and some men) are not just victims. And until that is recognized, how on earth can they be helped? Until you can say to a woman, "Look, I know you like the ease of having no choices and the buzz of your husband being SOOO sorry after he beats you, but you have to grow up and live without it," why should she listen?

And she might choose to make no-choice, not because she doesn't know any better but because she actually prefers the way she lives.

The problem, of course, is that there are people caught in bad situations who can/should be helped by compassion and a leg up and distinguishing exactly who those people are before the fact is impossible. Welfare programs, like Reform, are catch-alls: catch 1,000, throw 980 back.

This may be too cynical; believe me, as a religious/ethical/American/libertarian person, I believe in looking for the 20, but it is also why I believe far more in the reformed pickpocket who becomes his lord's valet than in the group home. People can make even broken systems work. But the solution isn't warm and fuzzy, and an alpha male showing up and charming everyone into virtuous behavior just doesn't make the grade.


Moriah Jovan said...

Oh, amen, honey, amen.

My dad used to say, "I believe people are basically good."

My Southern Baptist educators would say, "We are all evil and subject to the natural man. There is no good in us."

I think the truth is along the spectrum of all people who ever lived.

Here's the thing: Nobody wants to admit to believing that some people a) LIKE their crappy lifestyle and b) aren't physically/mentally capable of doing any better no matter how much you push and prod and teach.

After all, the jobs of Wal-Mart greeter and sacrament meeting bulletin-passer-outter exist for a REASON.

Kate Woodbury said...

Moriah: Sorry it took so long for me to post this! It went into moderation; like with email, some things go into moderation and others don't. Apparently, this is a new Blogger feature! From now on, I'll be sure to check my moderation file!

Kate Woodbury said...

BTW, your comment describes my job! As a freshmen composition instructor, I can make a functional writer out of *almost* any student (but not all!). And I can help a number of okay writers improve, and I can provide helpful feedback to good writers who want to get better.

I CANNOT make a profound/insightful/critically-thinking/beautiful-language-using writer out of ALL my students. It simply isn't possible. (Or fair--to any of the people involved.)