Saturday, February 16, 2008

UNHAPPILY EVER AFTER: Romance Novels and Unrealistic Expectations

With the memory of another Valentine's Day slowing fading, this is a good time to consider the possible effects that romance novels may be having on our perceptions of reality as women.

A romance novel is a literary genre rooted in the western culture of English-speaking countries. These novels place their primary focus on the romantic attraction and resulting relationship between two people, which must have an "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending."

The basic theme is about man meeting woman. They fall in love and inevitably discord enters the picture to drive them apart. After a series of misunderstandings, love conquers all and they are reunited, with the implication of living happily ever after.

Bestselling author Nora Roberts sums up the genre, saying: "The books are about the celebration of falling in love and emotion and commitment and all of those things we really want."

It might surprise many, but the romantic genre is big business. Over 50 million women in the United States alone read romance fiction. In North America, romance novels are the most popular genre in modern literature, comprising almost 55% of all paperback books sold in 2004. This is more than literary fiction and mystery thrillers. The genre is also popular in Europe and Australia and romance novels appear in 90 languages.

The modern romance genre first appeared in 1972 with publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower, the first single-title romance novel to be published as an original paperback. The genre boomed in the two decades which followed with the “bodice rippers” novels featuring bare-chested, swashbuckling heroes and voluptuous heroines driven by the madness of uncontrollable passion. Mercifully contemporary romance novels with more realistic plots have replaced the dramatic excesses of the “ bodice rippers” most of which reflected an idealized but quaint Anglo Saxon perspective of courtship and love.

In the past ten years however, African American romances have established a firm foothold in the ever-expanding contemporary romance market with writers such as JS Hawley, Donan Hill, Brenda Jackson and Candice Poarch among hundreds of others. Hispanic and Asian romantic fiction books have also begun making significant inroads in the worldwide romance market as well.

From all indications, the romance novel is alive and doing well today among women of all backgrounds. But why do some romantic addicts fantasize about Mr Strong, Suave and Sexy – the idealized hero, who will adore her for life, even with her angst and insecurities? The answer may be found somewhere in the drabness of her everyday existence, an innate need for love and appreciation seeded in every human heart and the blurring or recasting of traditional male and female roles over time. Another factor worth considering is the possibility that many men, or in particular men of color, have been emasculated by racism, poverty and the lack of strong male role models in their own lives. As a result, they are unable to fulfill the book- manufactured expectations of women who might desire a monogamous relationship with an impossible human ideal: a psychologically balanced individual, who is a good provider, a sensitive soul and a fantastic lover all rolled into one muscle- bound hunk.

One wonders, if over exposure to these saccharine romances can cause some women to have unrealistically high expectations in their romantic relationships?

Are some of us perpetual heroines, conditioned by the “bodice ripper” era, who cannot identify the different phases of love because of our dysfunctional beliefs? Do we yearn only for the heady, hormone-driven euphoria of the first phase, when the attraction is new and exciting? Are we grounded enough to understand that this cycle must inevitably end and love will change its expression during other phases of growth?

A little personal soul searching will give each woman the answers she needs.

But, if some of us are unrealistic in our romantic ideals, then what role do romantic novels play in molding our expectations? The themes of romance novels are influencing the thoughts and perceptions of millions of readers around the world making them a powerful medium.

If indeed romance novels are portraying life, lovers and love in an unrealistic way, then maybe we should take a second look at ourselves and how we impose our romance novel conditioned reality on our significant others. We may be straining our relationships in vain and placing unnecessarily heavy emotional burdens on those we claim to love.

-Carol Ann Mohamed

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