I’ve written at length about my relationship with the romance genre, as well as my perceptions of the relationship between feminism and the romance genre. The core of my fascination is the dichotomy I see within myself—on the one hand, educated and independent and deeply feminist, and on the other hand, attracted to problematic and sexist fantasies.
In a previous post, I discussed why I think that attraction exists despite the acknowledgement of its problematic elements—internalized sexism. But the next step is dismantling that internalized sexism, and it’s proving incredibly difficult. When it’s what I like, and deeply ingrained at that, how do I fight it? Subversions and turning over these problematic tropes results in far more progressive (and original) stories, but far less satisfying. How can I reconcile that dissonance?
First, I want to think a little more about the essence of that problematic fantasy—the wish fulfillment romance.
At its core, a wish fulfillment romance is the story of an ordinary, normal, average (or even below average), often vulnerable woman who falls for (and is fallen for in return by) a unique, powerful, above-average man. Thus, through the romance, the woman gains power, sometimes wealth and fame, attention or jealousy, protection and caring, and love.
Theoretically, any romance story is about a woman or man gaining love. It’s the other categories that define the particular genre of a wish fulfillment romance, especially (and almost uniquely) when it’s a woman gaining these things through her relationship with a man. A woman who gains power and wealth through other means, and love with a man on the side, could still be undergoing both wish fulfillment and a romance—but not as a “wish fulfillment romance.”
The ultimate examples of this story type are Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, of course, and their insane (and problematic) popularity is an obvious point to how popular the wish fulfillment romance is in our society, especially among women. Through her relationship with Edward, and only through that relationship, Bella gains not just love but also the jealousy of others (fame), wealth, power (in her own vampirism, eventually, but also in the power and protection of those around her), and immortality. And she gains all this simply by being herself and “attracting” this powerful man’s attention, which feels like something any normal girl could do, thus enhancing the vicarious wish fulfillment for readers.
Which brings us to the first point about wish fulfillment romances—the ordinary heroine. I’ve often wondered: can we identify with a heroine who is already wealthy and/or powerful? Male power fantasies often start with the hero already in possession of wealth, strength, and power—Batman, Iron Man, or even negative power like Tony Soprano. That’s not to say there aren’t male heroes who undergo transitions into power, such as Harry Potter or Captain America, but when we turn to look at female heroines, they almost always start ordinary. If they are not completely ordinary, such as urban fantasy heroines or cops/detectives, they are hardly ever quite as overly “fulfilled” as a hero like Batman—and their roles are often enhanced within the story by the addition of a love interest or transformation into further power.
There are a lot of interesting nuances in this particular question. For example, the heroine of the show Scandal, Olivia Pope, is shown as a powerful and intelligent woman who runs her own business and is sought out as a uniquely capable figure—from the very beginning of the show. However, her main love interest is the President, arguably the most powerful man in the country. Their power dynamics are complicated, with Olivia never fully diminished (as shown well by how she helps and improves the President’s actions and goals), but there is an inherent power imbalance.
And there are examples of stories about average guys who “get” the awesome girl… Though they aren’t usually romances written for female audiences, but more power fantasies for a male audience. Usually, I think, the guy grows in power through the story until he “earns” the awesome girl’s respect, who is often gradually diminished throughout the story in return. There’s a great article on that phenomena here. http://thedissolve.com/features/exposition/618-were-losing-all-our-strong-female-characters-to-tr/
But romances are, for the most part, written for women by women—so why don’t we want to see powerful female heroines? Well, we do… but achieving that power through the love of a powerful man.
More on that next time.