How Much Do Romance Novels Reflect Women's Desires?
I study Harlequin romance novels to understand women better.
Posted July 16, 2010
A while ago, I started studying Harlequin romance novels. (And I'll confess right from the start that as a result of my research, they hired me as a consultant for them in the spring; this material is not related to that job.) Yes, those ones you see at the grocery store - with "Presents" or "Intrigue" across the top, with the titles that are something like "The Italian Billionaire's Virgin Bride." The picture is often of a guy and a girl, both stunning and looking like they might kiss at any moment. Don't dismiss them so fast - just so you know, romance novels are extremely popular - they continually are the most sold fiction genre in the USA. Harlequins are huge moneymakers, as the company is one of the industry leaders in sales, and globally sells the most series romance.
When I found out how popular they were I thought it would be interesting to explore Harlequins in an effort to understand women better. (Which might be at least partly why 9.5% of readership of romance fiction consists of men - maybe they want to figure women out, and if so, these men are smart.) When I had tried to read them for pleasure as a teenager, courtesy of my grandmother's extensive collection, I couldn't get into them. Either they were short so the characters weren't well developed, or they were simply too boring - where was the adventure? But what baffled me the most was that the plots were rather formulaic: girl meets boy, boy isn't good enough, boy transforms, girl changes her mind and they get married.
A little older and wiser, and trained as a researcher in psychology, I now ‘get it.' These books are candy for women's brains. The reader can live vicariously through the heroine and fall in love with the hero, but without any of the consequence. She's not cheating on her husband (most readers are married) because it's just a novel. She isn't at risk of becoming pregnant, but she can imagine the seduction by the hero. She gets the thrill, the rush, of falling in love, all for a few dollars.
Authors of these books seem to know this because they rarely describe the heroine in much detail. Presumably, they want to allow the reader to get into the shoes of the heroine with some ease. The heroine often sees herself as average in appearance, although the hero thinks she is incredibly attractive. She is loyal to her friends and family, but at the same time, independent enough to make decisions, which the hero likes. It goes on and on, but you get the point. She's supposed to be an average woman who the hero thinks is amazing and special, and he can't help but fall in love with her. He resists it, but she's just too much and he readily decides that she's ‘the one.' The plot, then, usually revolves around her trying to decide if he's Mr. Right.
The hero, in contrast, is described in immense detail. The colour of his eyes, his height, his desirable athletic body, his clothing choices (which he always looks good in, according to the heroine), his confidence and masculinity, the way he moves his face, his voice...it's all there, laid out so that the reader can see this man in her mind. So, these books tell us that women most want a certain type of man - an attractive one. Science and common sense has been telling us that already, so nothing new there. They also tell us what sort of personality features they want, or how a good mate's voice should sound, and interestingly, these descriptions fit well with the scientific literature on women's mate preferences.
The real magic of these books, at least in the analyses I've done, is how the hero changes. He starts off gruff, rude, arrogant, and cold, but with fantastic looks. In the middle of the book, he tries to prove that he's good enough for her, and that he's changed to meet her criteria. Something happens by the end of the 180 or so pages, and he turns into a man who wants to settle down and have a few children in a monogamous relationship. He's happy to be loyal and adore the heroine for the rest of their lives. (As an aside, am I the only one who wonders how this story plays out? I'm curious to see what their lives are like 20 years in the future. How does the married couple keep it going; are they still together, happily? The magic of falling in love is all well and good, but the long-term is never really considered.)
So, basically, women are reading stories where they meet a ‘bad boy' or cad and then he manages to turn around and become a doting dad. She gets the best of both worlds! And the way that this dual-hero is solved for readers is the hero claims that he's loved the heroine since the very start, and that reason he had to behave so badly was to hide the fact that he was overwhelmed by his love for her. Either that, or she made him see the error in his ways.
What woman doesn't swoon at this? What woman can resist wanting a daring, confident, attractive man who also is so deeply in love with her that he can't even look at another woman? And he wants to marry her, on top of it all. She's having her cake and eating it too. She gets all the benefits without any of the costs. The cad won't expect hot, casual sex and then take off- he becomes the dad, who, given his history, isn't boring.
This poses an interesting problem for real world men. Can a man who is a cad or a dad truly change his ways? The research suggests he can't. For a variety of reasons, including the way he was raised (such as the presence or absence of a father) or the way testosterone works in the body, men tend to stay pretty much consistent when it comes to mating strategies. That is, a nice guy who wants to be a dad and settle down can't usually fake being a cad (although the author of "The Game" will have you believe otherwise). Likewise, a cad really can't convincingly pull off being a dad.
What we want in a fantasy world isn't what is usually best for us. As a friend of mine said, when it comes to romantic relationships, it's like we're all children learning a new skill. All children start off drawing people with a big circle head with long stick legs - is it because they see people in this way? No! It is because they lack the skill to adequately recreate what they see. Women who are dating are similar - they have this ideal of having a cad who is also a dad. In real life, they can't recreate this incredible man because he doesn't exist! You can't have a cad and a dad - you have to settle for one, or risk compromising dad by sneaking out with cad. In the meantime, though, there's a Harlequin out there that allows women to live this fantasy, over and over and over again.