In non-romance-centered stories, such as female-driven fantasy epics, the heroines gain their power through transformations and tragic backstories much like their male counterparts. But they very rarely begin as super-powered, famous, wealthy badasses like some male heroes (again, Iron Man, Batman, James Bond) do. Could we fall in love with a heroine with the same bad but humorous attitude and extreme wealth and genius like Tony Stark? Or with an undiminished intellect and dismissive personality like Sherlock Holmes? Or would we struggle to believe her, to like her—so instead, we want to see an ordinary woman gain those things so that we can understand her in the beginning and go on that journey to awesomeness with her?
But I think what that’s subtly and inherently saying, if we need to see an ordinary heroine gain power and wealth rather than begin with it, is that we can’t identify with a powerful heroine. At least not with the enthusiasm that we see for male power fantasies. As women ourselves, but also as a mainstream male audience, we either don’t believe or don’t like powerful women—but we do like ordinary women who become powerful, especially through a man.
A potentially interesting subversion is the princess fantasy. Ultimately, a princess is wealthy and famous and potentially powerful, although we rarely see this last quality enacted. But the more I think about it, nearly all princess fairy tales are about women becoming princesses—Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and several which take a princess, remove her power, then restore it through love (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Little Mermaid)—and, for the most part, they become princesses through marrying a prince. In essence, the fairy tale is the prototypical wish fulfillment romance.
There’s even a common trope about princesses or noble women characters that open the story in that position but want to leave it so they can be free to love. Again, on its own, not necessarily a bad thing—but as a trend, it is once again enforcing the idea that a powerful woman can only be likeable if she doesn’t want to be powerful, and/or if she wants to find love more than being powerful.
So, essentially, a wish fulfillment romance requires a heroine who isn’t already powerful—though romances can certainly be about powerful women falling in love, the “wish fulfillment” is diminished by being already fulfilled. I suppose my point was that men who are already powerful can still be seen as wish fulfillment because men can still identify with them in an aspirational sense, while perhaps powerful women do not attract the same desire. But I could be wrong.
But my earlier point is that I like stories with these ordinary, vulnerable heroines. That’s not to say I wouldn’t like a story about a powerful heroine, but between not having too many examples and generally not liking them as much, I have to say that there’s a certain inherent desire for the ordinary heroine. For me, at least, though I realize it’s problematic.
The wish fulfillment aspect is giving that ordinary heroine the power and other wishes that to a certain extent all people want, and the romance aspect is giving her those qualities through the love of a man. Could those two arcs happen separately? Theoretically, yes, such as a woman who inherits an empire and falls in love with the bodyguard at the same time or whatever. But it wouldn’t have quite the same draw as a wish fulfillment romance.
Why? Because having a powerful man fall in love with an ordinary woman is a wish in and of itself, and it’s the core wish of the wish fulfillment romance. I talked about the internalized sexism behind that wish in my other post, so I won’t go into it again, but even being aware of that doesn’t take that wish away.
I suppose, for straight men, their wish is the love (or just sex) of an “attractive” woman. The more attractive she is, especially in comparison to the age or status or attractiveness of the man, the stronger the wish fulfillment—similar to the disparity between the ordinary heroine and powerful hero. As far as I can tell, an attractive woman who was also wealthy or powerful or intelligent would not necessarily be more desirable; ‘famous,’ particularly as it attracts the jealousy of other males, does enhance the wish fulfillment. Ability to fight and other aspects of the “strong female character” who eventually falls for the hapless hero may be an aspect of desirability; I’m not sure enough of the general male psyche to guess one way or the other.
I’m not going to compare and assign value to one wish fulfillment fantasy or the other, since that’s not really productive. I will say that the male wish fulfillment fantasy does not have him gaining power through ‘being with’ the woman, but through ‘attaining’ her; the female wish fulfillment fantasy sees the woman being ‘let into’ the man’s affections, not quite attaining him but also not quite being attained.
Both of these fantasies obviously come from social constructs that are built around gender roles and social status, and are reinforced by pop culture narratives that celebrate these sorts of relationships. Despite how quickly they can both get problematic, I don’t want to declare either inherently bad—it’s just their ubiquity, the compilation of trends, and their inherent gender hierarchy that makes them really difficult to make good.
Is it even possible to write a straightforward wish fulfillment romance without being problematic? More on that next time.