Do you read romance novels? If you said no, are you lying? If you said no again, are you lying about lying? Chances are pretty good that you are.
According to Nielsen statistics reported by the Romance Writers of America (see here), 13% of all adult fiction consumed are romance novels. That’s a lot of romance totaling up to over $1 billion in sales in 2013. A whopping 84% of this market are females, mostly between 34 and 55 years of age.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that men’s notions about romance are pretty juvenile. But men don’t need to snuggle under a quilt and sip wine over a romance novel to experience their romantic fantasies. Men can pretty much just go see any mainstream movie for some vicarious romantic fiction.
Male romantic fantasies are pretty simple. Whether the hero of the movie is James Bond, or a flawed hero like Wade Wilson in Deadpool, or just an extraordinarily ordinary guy like Robbie Hart in The Wedding Singer, the man is lucky enough to meet an extraordinary woman who “gets” him. She accepts his profession, she finds his jokes funny, she cares about what he cares about, she accepts him exactly as he is, flaws and all, and she adores him just like he is. Oh yea, and of course she’s incredibly sexy.
While quite similar, female fantasies differ in some essential respects. If you read any number of romance novels, you find that almost all follow the exact same formula. The woman portrayed in the story is utterly amazing but no one appreciates just how amazing she is – until that one guy comes along. He recognizes that she is one in a billion and immediately becomes so smitten that he will do anything to have her.
This guy is never just any ordinary guy. He is invariably a bad boy, a super alpha male who can have any woman on the planet he wants, who has unlimited resources and power, who is so incredibly alluring that every woman wants him, and so bad ass that every man fears him. But despite all that he only desires the heroine and is helplessly devoted to her.
She however, invariably plays hard to get – very hard to get. Whether the guy is a secret agent, a Pirate Captain, a Persian King, or an ethically compromised billionaire, the hero must overthrow civilizations, vanquish armies, forsake his fortune, suffer torture and agonies that would kill most men, even cheat death itself, before she will finally give herself to him. And most importantly, since he is a bad boy, one essential way he must prove himself to her is by giving up his bad-boy ways for her.
As one example, I recently read the Hidden Fire series by Elizabeth Hunter (see here). I was looking for a good vampire novel and didn’t realize that this was as much romance novel as gothic adventure. The central figure Beatrice was working as a bookish librarian when a dark and mysterious stranger named Giovanni enters her life. He of course turns out to be a powerful ancient vampire who immediately recognizes that Beatrice is the one woman who he must have. He then sets about battling against every incredibly hopeless adversity in order to claim her and convince her of his undying loyalty and devotion. Honesty is almost always a key obstacle in these plot lines. In this story, Gio almost loses Beatrice when he lies to her to save her life.
Don’t get me wrong, the Hidden Fire books are well-written and I enjoyed them, but they follow the same tried and true recipe for appealing to female readers. As a guy I found myself groaning with every other paragraph reading corny lines like “Gio couldn’t keep his eyes from straying toward her ample breasts” or “the ancient vampire trembled with desire as her hair brushed past his cheek.” It all seemed just as ridiculous as gorgeous women jumping into bed with James Bond (especially since they are usually just trying to kill him anyway).
But beyond the differences in style, the key difference between guys romantic fantasies and those of women seems to be that men dream that some alluring woman will love them immediately and unconditionally or at least want them sexually. Women want the powerful bad boy to find them, to be obsessed with her, to feel that they are the most amazing woman on the planet (or the galaxy and/or of all time), to overcome insurmountable adversities to win her, to prove his honesty, and to forsake all his bad-boy ways to eventually win her over.
What these romance novels seem to echo is the reality that while both men and women desire an attractive and capable romance partner, men want a woman who will accept them as they are while women want a guy who not only accepts her as she is but is willing to fundamentally change for her. The old adage that “men want the woman they love to never change and women want to change their man into the guy they love” seems to be a universal truth in romance fiction at least.
In the final analysis, there is one element of truth from romantic fantasy that transcends gender boundaries. Men and women alike both dream of being found by someone who will love them exactly as they are. Both James Bond and Beatrice agree on this. But Beatrice would expect James to prove his love by giving up exactly the behaviors that attracted her to him.
Love has no obligation to make sense, especially in romantic fiction.
Addendum: I received this comment via email. It’s so good I had to add it.
Women have been changing themselves to be attractive to men for centuries. They starve themselves, squeeze their bodies into all kinds of unnatural shapes, suppress their ambition to become equal members of society… Maybe the reason that men don’t want their women to change is that they don’t need to – the women have already done the changing. Maybe the men in these romance novels are attracted to those women who have already become what the men want. And maybe the men should consider the fact that in any relationship, both parties have to make accommodations, including them.