Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The non-demand for androgyny in women's fantasies

Last week I commented on Newsweek's piece "Why We Need to Reimagine Masculinity."  The authors nod at the trends putting women into formerly masculine spheres and tell men that to balance things out and remain relevant and contributing they need to retreat to more traditionally women's jobs and chores.  An androgynous utopia lies at the end of this path, or so the authors and the feminists they cite suggest: a place where men and women are more or less interchangeable except for their reproductive parts.  Peace, harmony, good will, prosperity, and plenty of love and sex because everyone will be so happy.

This is of interest to me because it conflicts entirely with the most obvious trends in women's fiction and romance which are essentially women's fantasies written by women, for women, and consumed by a overwhelmingly female audience.  If you are at all familiar with romance novels, you will have noticed that in the past decade the heroes of these novels have not been written as more androgynous, but instead hyper-masculine.  Readers have gobbled up Navy SEAL books by Suzanne Brockmann and Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series.  The men these authors write aren't just strong and manly, they meet an unbelievably high standard of macho, and in some cases simply can't be killed or suffer harm.  They could render their heroines harmless (or dead) with their pinky fingers if they so desired.  Physically, experientially, and frequently financially, they are their heroines' superiors in every way.

Take the extremely popular In Death/Eve Dallas mystery series written by Nora Roberts (writing under the pseudonym J.D. Robb) and set in the future.*  The latest book is #38.   Roberts's hero, Roarke, is highly alpha.  Here is the wikipedia description:
"Roarke is in his mid-thirties; he is an immigrant from Dublin, Ireland; in NYC, he is the CEO of Roarke Industries, and one of the richest men in the world, possibly the richest. He owns an old mansion off of Central Park that he remodeled to his specifications with very high tech security. Also in the home is his own personal collection of firearms, which are illegal in 2058 unless one possesses a collector's license. Roarke also owns maces, swords, daggers, medieval armor, and other assorted weapons. He is quite skilled in electronics and can dismantle any type of security, lock, or coding, as well as hacking into any electronic database—including but not limited to the FBI, Interpol, and Homeland Security.

He convinces Eve to move in with him in Glory in Death and then proposes at the end of the book. Roarke's house officially becomes a home once Eve moves in, and after this, Roarke is happiest at home rather than traveling. He also enjoys helping Eve with her cases, finding the role reversal quite entertaining." [My emphasis.]
Eve, the series' heroine, is a tough cop, fiercely committed to her job and to finding justice for victims of crime.  She is damaged emotionally from a childhood filled with extreme abuse.  She is not beautiful, and can be brusque and distant.  She doesn't like dealing with children and eschews feminine behavior as weakness.  Before Roarke her relationships with men were limited to one-night stands.

So basically she's a guy.  Nearly all of her behaviors are traditionally male.  But notice that in this fantasy, Eve's romantic partner is not more androgynous.  He's not at home taking care of the kids she's uncomfortable around and making dinner for her to eat when she comes home tired from fighting crime.  Oh no.  He's the unimaginably wealthy, hyper-alpha former criminal who parleyed his knowledge to become the richest man in the world.  

And in 2058 the richest man in the world, the man who can have literally anything on the planet, wants a mannish, emotionally damaged, average looking thirty-year-old woman who is obsessed with her job.  In fact he finds the role reversal quite entertaining.

Eve Dallas's androgyny and the utter inequality of status between her husband and her is a new direction in romance.  In 1972 a novel called The Flame and the Flower kickstarted the modern romance genre, moving it from the tamer very subtly sexy Mills and Boone/Harlequin short novels to historicals with longer longer word counts and love scenes.  It was wildly popular, but its heroine was about as different from Eve Dallas as can be.  Heather was a beautiful English virgin, 18, who met her hero (Brandon, an American ship captain and plantation owner) under inauspicious circumstances when he mistook her for a prostitute and raped her.  When she becomes pregnant, her relatives force him to marry her and her takes her with him to South Carolina.  Hijinks ensue.  What is interesting about The Flame and Flower, especially in comparison with the above, is that while the details of their meeting are fantastic, their pairing is actually pretty uncontroversial.  Brandon is wealthy, handsome, and very alpha, but it is not outside the realm of possibility for him to marry a young, very beautiful English girl of good birth.  Also notable is Heather's extreme submissiveness.  She is 18 years younger than her husband and still quite childlike.  Also interesting: one of the villains who who makes mischief for Heather and Brandon is an older woman, still handsome, but not in the first blush of youth.  She is sexually experienced and adventurous and wants Brandon for herself, but he is not interested even though she owns a nearby plantation and the alliance would be perhaps financially beneficial. No, Brandon has eyes only for the lovely, innocent, docile Heather.

Remember: scores of women ate this up in 1972 and the book is still in print.

As time passed, however, romance novels changed.  Heroines began to have premarital sex that wasn't rape or coerced, and love scenes got longer and more detailed.  Heroines were written as older and more worldly, smarter.  They had careers, they smoked and drank, and the age difference between them and their lovers shrank.  Readers made it clear that they did not want to read about the love lives of teenagers who had yet to experience life.  They wanted sexually experienced heroines and ones that were tough and successful on their own merits - heroines who were, in other words, more like the readers themselves.

Also, while the heroes stayed handsome and rich and alpha - getting richer and more ripped and super alpha in some sub-genres - the heroines got less beautiful, significantly less beautiful than Heather, and older.  The fantasy was no longer just finding an alpha to love, but became snagging one so far out of your league as to be conspicuous.  In the Navy SEAL books Suzanne Brockmann writes the heroes are supermen, and the heroines are, at best, pretty, and frequently have physical trouble spots or figure flaws.  Often they are older than the men they snag.  In Twilight Edward is physically stunning, a perfect looking man.  Bella is nothing special.  Literally nothing special.  Ordinary.  Yet he pines for her.  In the 2010 version of The Flame and the Flower, the villainess would be the heroine, and Heather would be a murder victim or perhaps a secondary character.  There is no room for very young, very beautiful, docile virgin heroines in romance novels today.  They do not exist.

So the romance novel changes, reflecting women more truthfully and men more fantastically.  The gulf in status and desirability may widen further even because - as the genre makes clear - women don't desire feminine men.  Bad news for all those men who take the advice of Andrew Romano and Tony Dokoupil and "Man up!"  Chicks don't dig other chicks.  Unless they're lesbians.  And lesbians aren't who most men are trying to attract.  All of which means men who take that advice can expect to be less successful to the women whose feminist dreams and aspirations they further with their modified domestic and career choices.  Win-win.  Er, wait.  No.

*I did not select this series randomly.  Roberts is a prolific writer and publishes at least one addition to the In Death series annually, and readers regularly vote for Eve and Roarke as favorite heroine, favorite hero, and favorite couple in the All About Romance annual poll.  They are long established characters, but often win or place.


  1. I find it interesting that the protagonist from the Robb/Roberts book is a captain of industry and rule breaker named Roarke. Very similar to the name, in fact only an e separates the names, of would-be captain of industry and rule breaker Howard Roark from Ayn Rand's decidedly unromantic "The Fountainhead."

  2. You make really good points here, Grerp. The fact is that women do not want "girly" men.

    The elephant in the room of romance novels is that men don't want chubby, homely women either. But since when has feminism ever been about reality?

    Androgyny is a dream that will never full materialize into the utopia many hope it will.

  3. I wonder if she divorces him in the third, takes a huge alimony and then finds a lovely dyke who she can relate with.
    Something on the same lines:

  4. Count the Sookie Stackouse/True Blood novels in that genre too. They are basically Southern Gothic romance novels with a supernatural twist. The hunky men are vampires and werewolves.

  5. Hey grerp, I need to amend my comment slightly. Mistakes happen when I start typing without the time to express myself properly.

    When I said that men don't want homely, chubby women, I was referring more to the type of men that are characterized as heroes in romance novels, not insulting less than perfect women.

    I was speaking more to the unrealistic portrayal of these pairings in modern romance novels, not implying that women who don't fit the Hollywood standard of perfection are not worthy of love. That would leave me out. After having five babies my body isn't what it used to be, although I work hard at it.

    But even in real life, rich successful men that are not physically attractive, like say the portly, middle aged Rush Limbaugh, end up marrying attractive, young women because they can. It's just a fact.

  6. PuffsPlus - I would agree about Sookie, and I find it interesting that it has been Charlaine Harris's breakout series in terms of money and reader response. Previously she wrote more or less cozy mysteries with female protagonists. They were edgier than, say, Miss Marple, but not particularly sexy. I enjoyed them. I liked the first Sookie book and the second one, to a lesser extent. When Sookie became a man magnet for all creatures supernatural and the series got really sexed up, I stopped reading. I don't watch True Blood.

    Terry - to me it's the contrast - Superman winds up pining for Plain Jane which is just not realistic. I know it's fantasy, but there's fantasy and then there's NEVER-would-it-happen-in-real-life. The latter throws me out of the story. I don't think you have to be Hollywood standard to find love, but you do if you want to be loved by a Hollywood standard man.

    And Rush Limbaugh - when I heard he had married for the fourth time, I thought, "Wow, a true optimist."

    Ulysses - that's an interesting connection. I missed it.

  7. Strikes me that the more disconnected the sexes become, in the sense of really knowing each other *as people*, the more each will be seeking extreme archetypes of masculinity or femininity in the other. Subtlety that works well in a small community or even in a small-office environment is not likely to work in a bar pickup scene.

    By analogy, communication over noisy channels requires high powers and low information rates..bandwidths to deeply-submerged submarines are measured in bits per minute, not megabits per second, and only very simple messages can be sent.

    Many blog discussions about (whichever) opposite sex almost have the tone of anthropologists encountering a remote tribe for the first time and trying to figure out what to make of them.

  8. Wow, stunning. That's like commenting that in male porn the actresses are hot while the men are... well, whatever. The biggest male porn star in history is Ron Jeremy, who has a lot of cleaning up to do in order to get to even "Eh, he's sorta ok-looking" status. That's the whole point of fantasies. This is evidence of nothing more than the author of the post realizing some psychology 101 in her spare time.

  9. I can think of several books where the main character isn't described as being very pretty (Lizzie Bennet from Pride and Prejdudice, Scarlett O'Hara from Gone with the Wind, Dagney Taggart from Atlas Shrugged) Ayla from Clan of the Cave Bear) and the point, it's a kind of a cheap way for writers to make her readers emphathize with their main character since often once the main character finds her partner there's lots of pages devoted to how amazingly beautiful he finds her. To some degree I think it's true that when you fall in love you become more and more beautiful in your beloved's eyes.

  10. Romance novels are very interesting in terms of how they reflect women, psychology and the changes in the times. I do get frustrated when there's simplification of it all; the novels are as conflicted as the varied population of women who read them.

    Feminist elements have slipped into the novels, as both authors and audience become more feminist themselves.

    What attracts women can't change however: you can't push the beta male on girls. Conversely, while there're more and more flaws being incorporated into the heroines' appearance, I don't think it's massively prevalent... yet.

    But an interesting aside is just how many women avoid romance novels completely, citing feminist reasons too, whilst sometimes reading novels that're considered highbrow (and thus not romances to their mind).

  11. Romance novels are a big part of the woman's emotional pornography industrial complex. This emotional pornography sets up profoundly unrealistic expectations in the context of dating and relationships. While most men understand that sexual pornography is strictly a fantasy, I worry that most women actually believe the emotional pornography.

  12. A nice post, grerp, and I concur with your analysis.

    A feature that I note in literature/media targeted at women is how the "he changed just for me" conceit is fed.

    The passage you quoted:
    "Roarke's house officially becomes a home once Eve moves in, and after this, Roarke is happiest at home rather than traveling. He also enjoys helping Eve with her cases, finding the role reversal quite entertaining." "

    ...speaks to exactly that phenomenon. Worldly dominant alpha male is tamed by the attentions of this woman.

    Of course, we all know what happens next when the alpha male is tamed...he becomes a beta, and the woman's suddenly, inexplicably, finds that she no longer desires him. But does desire his resources and status.

    Interesting how you note that the heroines in these stories are becoming more flawed, more average Janes...thus permitting the reader to relate to them more, to more easily imagine that they too can land the hot top-tier alpha male despite their thoroughgoing averageness.

    All told, it bodes ill for relations between men and women...for such tales instruct women that they can expect, even deserve, the pick of the litter of men. I fear this is guaranteed to leave a lot of men starving for female attention, even foraying into porn, while readying the mass of women psychologically for concubinage.

  13. Bhetti - I agree; there is a tremendous amount of variance in the genre which runs the gamut from no-kisses Christian romance to no-holds-barred porn (erotica). What I'm talking about is a specific trend that I saw developing in multiple ways over my tenure at AAR. I did tech support for the polls so I saw the ballots as they came in and I updated the Special Title Listings, so I know what the most popular lists were, the ones that received the most feedback and the most submissions. One of THE most popular lists was Beauty Is In The Eye - the one with all the plain Jane heroines. There was also quite a bit of interest in the Experienced Heroines list - basically the slut heroines - so much that a whole new list had to be created. I always got way more submissions for Luscious Love Stories than I did for One Foot on the Floor, partly because romance has gotten so sexed up that there aren't that many chaste ones anymore, outside of Christian and teen romances (and even the teen ones have gotten a lot sexier than my old favorites used to be).

    Yesterday I went into a used bookstore and nearly all the visible romances on the first rack were either witches or badass tattooed shemales in leather with guns or stakes. Yes, you can still find milder, homier, chaster stories in some of the Harlequin lines, but they are fewer and farther behind. I left the store having bought nothing and I love books.

    I used to like the genre very much and blamed my reading less and less of it on being "burned out." But the farther I get from reading it the more I think I stopped because I could not identify with the characters anymore. I don't want to read heroines who are tougher and more jaded than the men I know. I don't want to read erotica. I don't like that so many heroines in historicals are now sexually experienced - which completely ignores the mores and morals and dangers of the times these women lived. I hate that so many historical heroines want to do good, socially radical deeds but want to be free sexually. I would not fit in with most contemporary heroines who, outside of a few fetishy Harlequin/Mills & Boon lines, are never virgins. Susan Elizabeth Phillips is an exception to this, but she gets away with it because her heroines pull the biggest alphas into domesticity and that is such an emotionally satisfying fantasy for many readers.

    There was a book that got a lot of buzz a couple of years ago in which the heroine and the hero met when they had a quick coupling on the forest floor. They were near total strangers. He was scary. I realize that fiction is not real life but 1) that's pretty skanky and 2) that's dangerous and shows terribly poor judgment on the heroine's (and the hero's) part. This is not the kind of book I want to read, but this is what we're seeing more and more of. In a strange way it's a sort of self-reinforcing female propaganda that feeds itself.

    I've always been out of touch with most readers' tastes, but I hate the direction the genre is going. When I was younger you could read a nice romance between a manly, usually well off man and a kind, gently bred, pretty, virginal heroine who wasn't at war with herself and her culture. Now it's all boundary pushing, alpha taming, ramped up sexuality, and a re-write of historical values, and I think it is skewing women's ideas of what everyday women can attract and real relationships entail, as Elusive Wapiti says.

  14. I used to like the genre very much and blamed my reading less and less of it on being "burned out." But the farther I get from reading it the more I think I stopped because I could not identify with the characters anymore..

    The whole point of female romance novels is to get the reader "involved" with the plot. A woman's self identification with the main character is the mechanism by which this is achieved. That of course means making the main character "relevant" to contemporary women. The fact that virgin girl romance is dying is probably more a reflection of marketing phenomena than a change in literary tastes. Putting it another way, your average girl/woman today can't identify with the chaste heroine.

  15. Do.Not.Understand....You said that the "Plain Jane" heroine is popular but also said "witches or badass tattooed shemales" are on the cover of the books being displayed. Seems like a contradiction...unless we've reached the point where the typical plain-jane *is* a witch or a tattooed shemale...

  16. David - this is a very big genre. I'm talking about general trends. The books I saw on display were the ones I suppose the store owner thought would be chosen on impulse or perhaps the ones most recently traded in. And if you were to read a 100 romance novels and grade the heroines on the attractiveness their authors bestow on them, the majority still might be considered attractive or very attractive. But there is a definitely a demand for plainer heroines or ones with body flaws, plumpness in particular.

  17. Women will always desire the more masculine men, but men are never going to want androgynous, masculine women. So the present day Romance genre slides even further into a fantasy world for women as far as true relationships go.

    I find it amusing that the bottom line for these stories is still domesticating an alpha male through female wiles and power (I wanted to say "feminine" instead of "female" but as you say in this post, most of the heroines of today's Romance novels are hardly very feminine in the traditional sense). This seems to be a universal female desire.

  18. But they are trying!

    Meet Justina Bieber!


    They are pushing her/him hard! He does probably need to be fixed to have a chance of maintaining his girlish good looks much past puberty though.

  19. Hi grerp, I'm late to this thread but wanted to share two thoughts. Have you ever read the romances by Amanda Quick (a pseudonym for Jayne Anne Krentz)? She writes historical romances, and I got hooked for a while back in the early 90s. What was extraordinary was how she would take the manliest man imaginable, put him in a horse-drawn carriage after a ball or some other event with a woman who he was drawn to, and one of the first thing he would do is bury his head under her skirts and perform oral sex. This happened in nearly all the books - once there was a chemist who hoisted the woman up onto his lab table, threw her back, stuck his head under her skirts....Honestly, I thought it was remarkable how the sex scenes were both historically unrealistic, but also written to make women very aroused. And yet, at least in her books, this aim to please did not detract from the male's alphaness.

    Also, did you read Outlander? I loved it, though didn't make it through Gabaldon's whole series. In that book, the climactic sex scene involves his spanking and physically handling her - I suppose we accept it because it is 18th c. Scotland. I found it very sexy - even though I wasn't supposed to. Same as in the Lena Wertmuller film Swept Away.

  20. Susan, I think I read one or two Amanda Quick books, but I don't remember that particular scenario. What I remember is that her heroines tend to be bluestockings or spinsters, or in her contemporaries, egghead scientists, and her heroes are alpha, rich and strong, but not particularly good looking. Krentz isn't really my cuppa.

    I started Outlander, but couldn't get past the fact that Clare had a husband in the present and this was presented as a non-issue. I really thought he got the shaft - even after he raised Jamie's daughter to adulthood, he's seen as second-rate and not the "real" father of Brianna. I actually know sort of a lot about the series from discussions online, but I didn't make it entirely through Outlander. It is a HUGE favorite among romance fans, though.

    Racer X - I think the feminine/maternal female is pretty much extinct in popular culture regardless of medium. Which is sad.

  21. The thing that drives me crazy about commenters like the ones you cite are that they confuse *equality* with *sameness.* Just because women are successful in the workplace, e.g., doesn't mean men have to (or should) stop acting like men.

  22. Grerp: I’m one of the few male readers of romance novels (the sociology of popular genre fiction is one of my main interests) and I have to say that your analysis of trends in this genre over the past few decades is spot on.

    The paradox is that by creating more “realistic” heroines while leaving heroes unchanged (or making them even more alpha) authors have ended up making romance novels less rather than more realistic. In the language of the SMP, heroes are now almost all 9’s or 10’s, while heroines are generally 6’s or 7’s. It’s important to understand that heroines are not simply (on average) less beautiful than they used to be, but also that their attitudes and behavior have changed in ways that one would expect to make them less attractive to men. Eve Dallas is far from the most extreme example of this.

    It gets even worse. Not only does the hot alpha male could end up with the plain heroine, but in most romance novels he is the one doing all the chasing. The hero utterly adores the heroine and jumps through hoops to prove himself worthy of her – while she often doesn’t behave in a way that is likely to elicit commitment from him. My reaction to many of these novels is to ask: what does he see in her, and why does he value her above all other women? After all, you would think that a handsome, charming Regency duke or a contemporary billionaire would have a very wide range of romantic options.

    In Romancelandia there is a great deal of wishful thinking about male preferences concerning long-term relationships. Men are supposed to admire women for their strength, courage and intelligence. While these are all admirable qualities (contrary to what some feminists claim, most alpha men don’t feel “threatened” by successful women), they are not necessarily the qualities most sought after in a wife. Conversely, heroes are not supposed to care about the heroine’s looks, or how many sexual partners she has had, although in the real world we know that these things do matter. Above all, the “strong, independent” heroines featured in many novels seem notoriously lacking in empathy, the quality that – for me, at least – matters most of all.

    I don’t know (no one does) how literally readers take romance novels as a guide to what to expect in real life relationships. To the extent that they do, however, I would agree with Zammo and Elusive Wapiti that it is bad news for both men and women.

  23. Thrasymachus - Welcome and thanks for weighing in. It's good to know that someone else is seeing the way the genre has been and is migrating. I have asked myself many times while reading, "What is it that he sees in HER?" It's rare that the hero's perception of the heroine is provided in a way that makes sense (other than being blinded by love or lust).

  24. Oh I just found this. I wanted to clarify that Bella on Twilight is not ugly, she think she is mostly because she is not tall and blond, but she is slender and very pretty. I will also say that she is a virgin and not even that interested on guys till she meets Edward. One of the reasons feminist hate her is because she loves cooking and cleaning and its not part of any particular social group thus "boring" again the point you say about feminists thinking that men want women because of education or power. in their opinion Bella is not bitch and sacrifices her life to be with Edward hence unworthy it and the fact the books are so popular burns them to no end. Of course if Eve is what they think Bella should had been, I see many nights with those books and no male company.
    Stephenie Rowling.