The romance genre (and romance subplots in any genre) is generally accepted as lighthearted, escapist entertainment. Plenty of themes and deeper messages exist in romance books, but the point is generally entertainment only. A deeper responsibility hides in all romance, one that, if overlooked, can cause real damage to its readers: its massive influence over its readers’ lives.
Romance tends to get shoved to the bottom of the totem pole in terms of “literary depth.” In fact, readers outside of the genre often consider romance books trashy or shallow at worst, entertaining at best. And by “entertaining,” they mean “if you like that sort of thing.”
So on its surface, romance seems like little more than fluff, right? A romance book is simply an enjoyable way to spend your afternoon, and a romance subplot simply provides a little spice on a book in another genre.
The Deeper Message
But if you think about it, real life romance holds a much bigger influence on every human being on the planet than any other genre. When’s the last time aliens attacked earth or a magician cast a spell on you? When’s the last time you were compelled to solve a murder? Survive a harsh environment? Make it through the purge?
I’ll wager I know the answer to all those questions: “Never.”
So how about this one? When’s the last time you had a crush? Kissed someone? Had sex for the first time with a new partner? Got your heart broken? Realized you were lonely? Made or received a gesture of love, grand or otherwise?
I’ll bet that’s starting to sound more relatable.
Romance remains so prevalent for one reason and one reason only: In some form or another, everyone has to deal with romance on a regular basis.
Some people enjoy it more than others, it’s true. Those are the romance readers. But romance affects everyone at some point in their lives. Everyone.
That means producers of romantic media communicate with everyone about something fluid, ambiguous, subject to opinion, and a basic tenant of our social biology.
So what’s the big responsibility? Simply to:
Never Portray Abusive Behavior as Romantic
I’ll say it again for the people in the back.
Never Portray Abusive Behavior as Romantic.
There we go. Hopefully everyone heard me.
It’s such a simple responsibility, right? You barely have to think about it. It’s not like the wife beater in this story gets a pass just because of love. No main character enjoys being stalked. How can rape possibly be construed as romantic? That’s horrible!
Well, sure. Those big flashy abuses are easy to condemn. They’re basically carrying around big ole signs that say, “Steer clear!”
Those aren’t the problem. The real trouble comes in much smaller packages. Wolves in sheep’s clothing, so to speak.
I’m sixteen years old! I’m not a child!
Anybody remember this winner from The Little Mermaid? Ariel shouts this line at her father, then swims off to get the fantasy equivalent of major plastic surgery in order to be with a man she’s never met.
Child-me thought this was the most romantic thing ever. A brave, grand gesture if ever there was one. Way to chase your dream, Ariel!
Adult me is horrified. What a terrible, terrible influence for young children.
The Horrible Influence of Twilight
The first time I read the Twilight series, I was worthless. I was working at a hotel at the time, a rather shitty one with very, very few guests. I had so much free time that I wrote an entire book in one month while on the clock. And during another (less productive) month, Edward and Bella took up all of that free time.
I honestly think Stephanie Meyers cursed me, or something. I couldn’t think about or do anything else. It was almost scary to be so consumed by a set of books. Once I finished the series, I immediately started back at book one and read the whole thing again.
And then I put it down and lost all interest in it forever. The movies didn’t help that situation. The magic wore off.
Book one, the book that started it all, Twilight. This book held one of the most well known instances of abusive behavior portrayed in a romantic light: creeping on a girl. Somewhere in the middle, Edward reveals to Bella that, for quite some time, he had been sneaking into her house at night to watch her sleep without her knowledge
AND SHE IS FLATTERED
Oh no, child. Oh no.
This is an excellent example of lack of consent. Every human being deserves the right to refuse in terms of their privacy and their body. Edward couldn’t be bothered to pay Bella, a person he apparently loved, the simple respect of acknowledging the fact that she was a human being with choices. He decided for her that he was allowed to be in her room and stare at her while she thought she was alone.
It’s bad enough that he did this gross thing, but on its own, this isn’t off limits in a romance book. Character flaws are actually good. This tendency toward disrespectful behavior is simply a flaw in Edward’s character.
The real failure was Bella’s reaction.
The fact that Bella learned about this creepy thing happening to her and viewed it as romantic is the absolute worst thing possible. This teaches other young girls (because the audience is teen girls) that stalking and men disregarding your agency is romantic.
I know it teaches girls this, because I remember reading it as a 21 year old and thinking, “Oh, how romantic! He loves her so much!”
(Go easy on me. I was young and impressionable.)
October, November, December, January
This is an ongoing trend in the series, unfortunately. I remember being especially moved by the headers in book two, New Moon. After Edward left Bella, the next four chapters were entirely blank. Only the headers were left on the page: October, November, December, January. Bella was so broken hearted, she was just a shell of herself.
Speaking strictly from a writer’s viewpoint, this was masterfully done. I felt like a shell, myself, flipping through those blank pages. They were powerful communicators.
Unfortunately, the communication (and influence) was this: If your boyfriend of a couple of months moves away, it’s reasonable for you to shut down entirely and sink into a life threatening depression and pseudo-coma.
I know Bella’s father doesn’t condone this behavior, which will be the excuse anyone might give. He insists that she go out and spend time with people (another example of good advice from the only reasonable character in the entire series, btw). But look at this from a young girl’s perspective. Who’s example are readers going to follow when broken hearted? A father figure who probably “doesn’t understand what I’m going through?” Or the lovely, deserving Bella, who they identify with?
Depression shouldn’t be whitewashed out of teen fiction, but Bella’s reaction was an absurd author device, nothing more. Meyers needed to skip four months in her timeline, so she made sure Bella skipped them, too — in the most dramatic way possible.
If you’re looking for depictions of depression in teens, try The Daughter of the Forest, where the MC falls into depression after a traumatic event. Or maybe (if you’re really stuck on teen romance) try the Princess Diaries books 8 and 9. Mia struggles with depression after Michael leaves the country (ringing a few bells?) and Lily drops her as a friend.
Don’t worry, the bad influence gets worse:
Yup, I’m still on Twilight.
Later, after Bella finally comes out of her romance coma, she starts hallucinating about Edward when frightened. So what’s a girl to do? Well obviously she begins doing more and more dangerous and life-threatening stunts in an attempt to hallucinate about him more.
What the hell, Meyers? What are you trying to teach girls about romance???
A person with Meyers’s level of influence should be using their powers for good. I could go on and on about Twilight, but this article is so long already. Okay I’ll just mention a few things briefly
- Edward is super controlling and possessive
- Jacob imprints on an infant
- Really the whole werewolf love thing is just super, super creepy.
- Literally the only thing vampires do all night long is screw. What the hell else are they going to do with their down time while the rest of the world is asleep?
- There is a lot of talk about vampires breaking human women in half because they get lost in the throws of passion during sex.
Phew, I feel better.
I don’t think I should stop.
I recently read (part of) A Country Bride by Debbie Macomber. To make a long story short, Kate repeatedly told Luke to stop kissing and touching her so she could leave, and he refused. Why? Because “I think you love me.”
That’s not okay, folks.
I go into a lot of detail about the “romantic” abuse that occurred early in that book in a review I wrote about it, so check it out. I won’t repeat myself here. And again, this article is really getting away from me at this point, lol. Maybe it should have been a series? Oh well.
Similarly, kissing a woman in order to stop her talking is a common cliche in romance.
Son, if a woman wants to talk, what right do you have to stop her? Just because she’s your girlfriend or wife or whatever doesn’t take away her rights to speak when she wants.
And ladies, if you see the woman in question abandoning her voice, melting into that kiss, and reveling in it, close that book immediately and run for the hills.
Super, Super Sneaky Influence
So much for specific examples. Now comes the sneakiest negative perspectives. Less than optimal character stereotypes in terms of sexism can be very common. When a man only wants a woman because she’s pretty, for example.
Now hold on, of course my male character loves her for more than her beauty! What a thing to say!
Are you sure? Go back and double check. Every time he thinks about her, does he mostly focus on her beauty or other physical characteristics? I’m willing to bet that is the case more often than any of us realize.
Another sneaky problem: when a woman is an ideal — accomplished, capable, beautiful, and perfect in every way — but she has poor self esteem as her only character flaw in an attempt to make her sympathetic and approachable. (“I’m not beautiful.” “No, that guy wasn’t flirting with me. Why would he?” “There’s no way he is interested in me that way.”)
And then you get the frequent poor characterizations in romance subplots. For example, when a woman is only included in the book to provide a shoehorned-in romantic subplot for a man (or vice versa). A good rule of thumb, the romance comes from the characterizations, not the other way around.
So the next time you’re writing a romance book or subplot, go back and ask yourself what you’re communicating to your reader about romance.
And the next time you’re reading romance, what not-so-good lessons are allowing yourself to absorb?
Chime in with your favorite examples (or objections to mine) in the comments below!