By Corrina Lawson On Jan 5 2011, 1:00 pm
Last week, I offered a giveway at
GeekMom a site that I help edit that features a column by Kari Byron of Mythbusters.
Since the post featured a number of romance novels, to enter, I asked this question of entrants: Romance novels: good or bad for geek girls and women?
I wanted to get the discussion going about romance novels and romance in general to an audience that isn’t our usual readers. I admit that I’m selfishly interested because I’m also a geek girl who writes and reads romance novels.
The responses fell into three main categories:
1. Trashy is fine sometimes! Romance novels are okay because all reading is okay but they wouldn’t be my first choice.
2. Eww….no, no, no! Romance novels feature unrealistic expectations of relationships and women get rescued by prince charming and they’re full of bad role models.
3. Sure, they’re fine. Romance novels are like other genres, some good, some bad.
I honestly expected more of #3 but that was definitely outnumbered by responses #1 and #2. I think there’s likely no way to change those with their minds set in stone, so I discounted the #2 responses. But the first type concerned me because it speaks to the continued and erroneous impression that romance novels are, at best, trashy escapes.
I know there’s the “Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books,” but they’re mostly using that ironically, they’re co-opting the word “trashy,” much as they’re co-opting the word “bitch.” It’s a challenge and an affirmation all at once.
And I can’t figure out exactly why this erroneous impression of romance as all trashy at best and bad for women and girls at worst, continues.
It seems to me that our most popular entertainment is romance and always has been.
Shakespeare, widely acclaimed as the best writer of all time, wrote romantic comedies. They’re among his most popular works and are still performed the world over. even though they fit exactly the definition of a romance novel, right up to and including the Happily Ever After.
It’s my theory that most people, women and men, love a good romance.
The trick, apparently, is not letting the doubters or skeptic realize it’s a romance.
Look at the most popular movie of last year, Avatar. That’s so very much a science fiction romance. Jake and Neytiri meet cute when she saves his life. She trains him in how to survive in her world and their relationship grows as his doubts grow about his past life. He doesn’t know it yet but Neytiri and her life is what he’s been seeking unknowingly all his life. Then there’s the big sex scene which, as good sex scenes do, makes the conflict between them even worse because now betrayal seeps into the mix.
Jake does what he does because it’s the right thing to do, because being in love with someone has taught him to really “see.” James Cameron goes a little heavy on the “See” metaphor but it works for the most part. And, bonus, Neytiri even saves her man at the end. There are a few problems with the movie. It’s a bit too predictable and the villains aren’t three-dimensional enough but it’s a great ride and much of that is due to the fact that it’s also a great romance.
I wonder sometimes if a female direction had made Avatar if it would have been slammed as a “silly romance.” But this was James Cameron of Terminator, Aliens, and Titanic fame, so he gets mostly avoids criticism on those grounds. I have to say “bravo!” to Cameron, too, for finally coming down on the side of the Happily Ever After. The romance is central to the original Terminator but we all know how that ends. And Titanic ends tragically as well, though there is a wonderful coda to the story which does provide a Happily Ever After. Welcome to the dark side, James!
And then there’s my first love, comic books. When I was growing up, the X-Men were the best thing going in comics. And what drove the X-Men’s story?
Scott Summers and Jean Grey were the couple. Despite the movie plot that focused on Wolverine—and I can hardly blame them because, hey, Hugh Jackman—Scott and Jean’s relationship was epic. It featured so many lovely, wonderful and flat-out sentimental moments. One of the most romantic scenes I’ve ever read between them. Jean telepathically held in Scott’s uncontrollable eye beams because she wanted to see his eyes for the first time. It doesn’t get more touching than that.
In one of my favorite comic of all time, Uncanny X-Men #137, it all ended tragically when Jean sacrificed herself to save the universe from her corrupted power.
But here’s where it gets interesting. By that point, the fans loved Jean and Scott and their story.
Jean came back from the dead. (I won’t explain how. It was comic book dumb.) Jean and Scott were married and they were featured as a couple for many years. They even went time-hopping to raise their son by clone. (Again, don’t ask. Comic book clone logic.)
Their romance became the conductor that drove the X-Men train for a long time until very recently. Then it was replaced by yet another romance, this time featuring Scott and Emma Frost. The romances, along with the complex friendships between the huge cast of characters, is what’s made the X-Men so successful for so long. Emotion is what connects the readers to the stories.
The X-Men wasn’t the only comic relying heavily on romance when I was growing up. At the same time, DC was putting out The New Teen Titans featuring incredible art by George Perez and great scripts by Marv Wolfman. At the heart of their story is the romance between Robin (Dick Grayson) and Starfire, an utterly beautiful alien warrior princess with a violent streak.
In what qualifies as a spot-on “meet cute,” when they first encounter each other, Starfire kisses Robin to absorb his language so she can communicate in English. Dick and Starfire were an item for over one hundred issues, the majority of the book’s run. Again, while the book featured all sorts of threats from alien and terrestrial villains, the reason why readers loved it is because of the relationships, romantic and platonic, between the characters. And for those not familiar with Perez art, well, it also featured some absolutely gorgeous men. Dick Grayson has never looks so good and, like Captain Kirk, often seemed to get his shirt ripped. Pixie boots have never looked so nice on half-naked men.
But most male fans of these books would abject vehemently if you called them romance readers. They’re comic book geeks, dammit, and they like explosions and villains and action!
Well, okay, I like them too but no comic sustains itself on villains and action. There’s a reason why Iron Man was so successful and that because it focused on the very human Tony Stark and his relationship with Pepper Potts. That connected viewers to the story.
There’s also the most famous superhero romance of all. Lois and Clark (Superman) Kent.
No, the Superman comics aren’t ‘romance,’ comics but the romance between this two is at the core of the Superman’s story. And readers, especially women, love and adore the comic book Lois Lane. Don’t believe me?
Check out this post from an award-winning journalist about what Lois Lane meant to her. Lois might be a secondary character in Superman’s story but she’s also a role model for a whole generation of women who grew up to become reporters. I’m not ashamed to say she’s one of my inspirations for going to journalism school.
Again, though, I’m not sure how to break it to some readers that if they love the Lois/Clark relationship, they just might like reading some romance novels that feature intrepid reporters and the men who love them. Hey, can’t get those romance cooties! I wonder often how to break this logjam, how to get people past their preconceptions and just read the stories.
I have more than a passing interest in getting superhero readers to enjoy romance as my editor has just offered me a contract on a superhero story called Phoenix Rising. It’s the story of a firestarter and telekinetic raised to be a living weapon by a shadowy anti-terrorist organization that’s really after using his powers to gain control of world governments. His heroine is a latent telepath who’s supposed to be helping him get along better with normal people but quickly sees the problem is that he’s been brainwashed all his life.
Yeah, Phoenix Rising is a superhero story. There are gunfights, explosions, fires and even the detonation of nuclear bomb. (Don’t worry it all ends well.)
It’s also a romance as the fire starter and the telepath have to learn to trust each other and deal with the fact that, together, their powers are greater than apart. A true union.
Maybe I’ll just tell my comic reading friends that it’s a superhero story with explosions and a big climatic fight on a container ship and wait until after they enjoy it to tell them it’s a romance. After all, I got some of them to read my first Samhain release,
Freya’s Gift, by telling them it was an alternate history story with Vikings in North America that also had some racy sex and a fight with a bear.
But I’m open to suggestions as to how to break the overall log-jam surrounding the resistance to romance novels.