Monday, June 21, 2010

R - E - S - P - E - C - T.

Over lunch today, I was boring my husband to tears with talk of the romance genre. While he was probably ready to cut his own throat with a plastic spoon, something struck me. No, not a plate swung by my husband in hopes of knocking me out and shutting me up. This was more of an epiphany.

As with any genre, romance has its trends. Whether it's heat levels (sometimes everyone wants highly erotic, sometimes the preference is for "sweet romance"), time periods, man boobs on the cover or no man boobs on the cover, trends come and trends go. One in particular has been bothering me for some time.

I'll preface this by saying it started out as just personal taste. This trend was not my cup of tea, hasn't been since the beginning, and it's not something I've elected to write. I've read a few because I wanted to see what was selling and what wasn't. With time, it went from simply not appealing to me to actually making my skin crawl a little bit. But I couldn't put my finger on why.

Now I've figured it out.

The trend?

Wealthy jackass knocks up not-so-wealthy woman, and she and the baby turn him into God's gift to women. Usually involving no shortage of groveling, apologizing, and "I've changed, I love you, please forgive me!" on the man's part.

And why does this bother me?

Among other reasons, because I think it's insulting to both men and women.

Men, in many romance novels, are portrayed as complete and utter dickheads, but they are still the object coveted by the heroine. The arrogant asshole (sorry, "Alpha male") archetype is incredibly common in romance, and it bugs the hell out of me. Not because it's unrealistic. There are some guys out there who are complete dicks. And there are women who are, for inexplicable reasons, attracted to them.

Nice guys are usually either wimpy, unattractive, "someone I love like a brother", or closet dicks...their bad side comes out later in the book, right about the time the dickhead hero is proving himself to be A Really Good Guy Who Deserves Another Chance (tm).

Now, I know fiction is supposed to be fantasy. It's not real. People are larger than life, they behave in ways we wouldn't, etc. But there has to be some realism in order for us to suspend our disbelief enough to accept the fantasy.

If a woman is attracted to a man, I need a believable reason. I can accept chemistry for initial attraction, but there needs to be something a little more substantial to maintain it after that point. Dollar signs in his semen don't count. Nor does a diamond mine with his name on it or a yacht large enough to compensate for the other areas in which he's lacking, particularly when she mentiones every 3rd paragraph that she is not a gold digger. Major negative points if she's attracted to him because he obviously needs "the right woman" to show him that "he needs love", which will motivate him to "give up his materialistic/carefree/totally-miserable-even-though-he's-obviously-happy existence". In short, I want to see a woman who's attracted to a man for reasons that do not include his wealth, his potential to "change" if she plays her cards right, or the doings of his sperm.

Now, assuming there isn't a reason for two people in a romance to want to be together, presumably they are thrown together against their will. I'll grudgingly accept a pregnancy as a result of an "oh shit, what was I thinking?" one night stand as a reason for two people to be stuck in each other's lives, if only as parents to their child. However, I can only take so many pages of those two people obviously hating each other and being irreconcilably incompatible before I expect one to say, "Look, we obviously aren't cut out for each other. Let's see how we can work this out and be responsible parents to our child without forcing ourselves to be together, since we'd be miserable." Obviously that can't happen in a romance, but I think we understand each other here. After two or three hundred pages of them glaring at each other and sniping at each other, don't expect me to believe that he'll suddenly get all googly-eyed for her and worship the ground she walks on. If he does, she'd better have the self-respect to say, "You've treated me like shit for 279 pages, and now you want me to marry you? Fuck off." Even if they do end up together after he's been a right jackass to her for that long, he'd damn well better have to work at it for a while before she forgives him. I want to read about two people falling in love, not one falling over and turning into someone's doormat.

And why is it always the guy being the jackass? I will send, via PayPal, USD$5 to the first person who can provide me with a link to a romance novel in which the hero is a good guy, really going out of his way to be Mr. Right (unintended pregnancy optional), and the heroine is the insufferable bitch who does a one-eighty, realizes she's been a total harpy, and begs forgiveness from Mr. Right, who left because he got tired of being treated like shit.

In the "rich guy's baby" books, it always seems even more pronounced. People have sex without condoms, are stunned when a pregnancy occurs, and with a little TLC (that always requires less time than the gestational period), Mr. Entitled Playboy Asshole will suddenly turn into Daddy McHusbandMaterial, and everyone will live happily ever after.

So why do I think this is disrespectful to men?

Simply put, I think men are, on the whole, better than that. An asshole will be an asshole and likely stay that way. Or at the very least, he'll fall in love with Mom and baby, have floaty hearts above his head for a few months, then - after a few hundred diaper changes and the not so fun realities of marriage and parenthood - slip back into being Mr. Entitled Playboy Asshole. Perhaps with a bit more vigilance in the condom department, not to mention being discreet, but...well...yeah.

Most men are better than that, I think.

In reality, most men who aren't complete dicks to begin with (as opposed to the guy who usually knocks the heroine up in the first place in fiction) will at the very least step up to the plate and be responsible. Maybe they won't marry the heroine. You know, since they're smart enough to realize that parenthood does not equate to a happy marriage. Perhaps not marriage, but not turning tail and running for the hills, either. There are different degrees of responsibility between "complete deadbeat" and "perfect husband and father."

What I'm saying here is that I don't think it takes an oops baby to make a guy into a nice, responsible guy. And a guy who does need a child to make him into a tolerable human being is not someone an intelligent, self-respecting heroine would pursue in the interim between the one night stand in which she gets pregnant and his sudden "ZOMG I ARE NOT LIKE THAT ANYMORE" transformation.

What I also hate is that it paints Mr. Entitled Playboy Asshole as attractive to begin with. As someone a woman should want to be with, and not just for a roll in the hay. As if the nice guy - who doesn't happen to own an oil empire or a diamond mine - isn't worthwhile, especially since the guy with the diamond mine will become just as nice and good once his sperm reaches its target and he has a magical personality transplant. In reality, he's just the kind of guy who will slip her a handsome sum of money, make her sign something stating she'll never speak of the child's paternity, and continue being an entitled playboy asshole. But, for whatever reason, he is attractive.

Needless to say, I think paints a less than flattering picture of women, too. I'm tired of heroines who are spineless, helpless, and, when it comes to being reproductively responsible, too stupid to live. I'm tired of heroines who emphatically tell me, the reader, that she is absolutely not a gold digger...but damn if she lets him get away with a lot of shit that a man with fewer zeros on his bank statement wouldn't.

Finally, this whole thing plays into the fantasy that women can change men, and the notion that men are incomplete, immature, unemotional, or otherwise flailing aimlessly through life until His Soul Mate (tm) comes along and has his child. Men and women are, on the whole, better than that.

It also paints the "oops, I'm pregnant, marry me" scenario in a far too positive light, which is just too squicky for words to me. I know far too many women who've admittedly done it on purpose, so I can't say I find anything remotely endearing about this scenario.

As I said, I understand that it's fantasy. What bugs me is how that fantasy stacks up against reality. Romance needs conflict. That's the whole point. But when I see the same archetypes and scenarios playing out over and over, in ways that are demeaning to either gender, it doesn't sit well. The thing is, romance should be about two people falling in love and getting past obstacles that keep them apart. Maybe I'm in the minority, but when I read a romance, I'm not out to see a woman manipulate a man into being the right guy. I want to read about a guy who's actually worth the effort...and the woman should be worth the guy's effort, too.

Respect your characters. Respect your readers. Give us flawed but sympathetic people and obstacles that make sense.

Oh, and one last thing: If your hero rapes your heroine, but then realizes it was a mistake because now he's in love with her (whether or not she's carrying his child), and she doesn't kick him hard enough to lodge his balls behind his lungs? Consider your book summarily thrown against the wall and your heroine permanently inducted into the Too Stupid To Live Hall of Shame.


  1. The $5 has been claimed by none other than Scarlett, citing her own book, Long Time Coming, which definitely fits the description. (And no, I wasn't thinking of it when I posted that challenge)

  2. GREAT post.
    I am now having the urge to write a story about an Entitled Playboy Asshole(tm) who meets a Classy Rich Bitch(tm) and can't get her into bed because she has too much self respect, but also can't get her out of his head...because she has too much self-respect. But I can't decide how to end it. Should he change enough to become acceptable to her, or should she end up sleeping with the Nice Guy Friend(tm) instead? Decisions decisions...


  3. Ooh, I like that idea. :D Will be interesting to see how you decide to end it.