I’ve always said that writing is in my DNA. My great-grandmother was a poet, my grandmother was a novelist, and my mother is a technical writer and has now started dabbling as a novelist. While I share the passion for writing that was passed down through my maternal line, I’m also a bit of a black sheep in the family.
My grandmother wrote Harlequin-style romance novels – she wasn’t contracted with the actual Harlequin Enterprises publishing house, but she wrote in the same style and formula. The novel my mother is working on is a paranormal romance. I’ve never been able to get my hands on my great-grandmother’s poetry (I’m not even sure she was ever published), but it would not surprise me if her work featured romantic themes. I, on the other hand, can’t stand romance. I find it tedious and unrealistic, and I find the trope where the main female character’s only goal in life is to find a man dehumanizing.
However, it is a popular genre, especially among women (82% of people who read romance novels are women), so it’s hard to run away from it. There’s even a whole tumblr thread defending romance, and screenshots of it keep showing up on my social media.
I get it. To some, romance is a form of wish fulfillment. People reading these stories see what those characters go through and think, “Yes, this is what a healthy relationship looks like. I wish mine were like that.” Obviously, I disagree.
MasterClass and the Romance Writers of America define a romance novel as having two basic criteria: “a central focus on the development of a romantic relationship” and an “emotional throughline [which] build[s] to an optimistic conclusion.” The tumblr post takes it further and states that the happy ending is specifically for women.
Here’s my problem with this: the vast majority of happy endings in romance novels are purely surface level. In popular contemporary romance, the “hero” of the story is often emotionally abusive and manipulative toward the heroine. Take Twilight. That series started to gain popularity as I was graduating high school and going into college, and since I was a Harry Potter fan, a lot of people assumed I would like Twilight as well. I tried it, but I couldn’t get past the eighth chapter. I found Bella to be a text-book definition of a flat character, and the bullshit Edward started pulling in just a couple of chapters threw so many red flags I felt physically ill. The fact of the matter is that Edward Cullen is emotionally and psychologically abusive, and the only reason he gets away with it in the readers’ heads is that we get the story from the incredibly unreliable narration of a character who interprets Edward’s creepy and abusive behavior as affectionate.
Don’t even get me started on Fifty Shades of Grey.
Because of the pervasiveness of abusive male characters in romance, I don’t see the two characters having a happy ending at the end of a romance novel, especially not the woman. What I see is a victim trapping herself in a bad situation.
According to that same tumblr post, the romance hinges on something called “the grovel.” This is when the male character (the abuser) realizes he’s done a great wrong to the female character (the victim) and makes a grand show of apology. I can see how this particular part of the novel can be seen as wish fulfillment. Misogyny runs rampant in our society. Starting as children, women experience abuse so casually throughout our lives that it’s often hard to recognize it as abuse when it’s happening, and rarely do we ever get an apology from our abusers. I completely understand why people reading these books get a certain amount of satisfaction out of it.
However, I can’t get the same satisfaction from the grovel of a romance novel. In my experience, abusers never apologize, and if they do, it’s never genuine; I’m too cynical to believe that people who make abusing the people they supposedly care about even care that they’re hurting those people, even in a fictional world. In the real world, accepting an apology from an abuser is tantamount to trapping oneself in an inescapable abusive relationship. No matter what kind of change in behavior is initially observed in the so-called hero, off the page he’ll eventually revert back to his abusive behavior. What some might interpret as a happy ending, I see as tragic.
For me, my happy ending is the heroin realizing her own worth – that she is whole and complete on her own and doesn’t need a “soul mate,” especially not one who’s going to hurt her. Relationships aren’t based on destiny. Nobody is made for another person, and a woman is allowed to enforce boundaries with her romantic interest and throw his ass to the curb if he can’t respect those boundaries. That realization is my wish fulfillment; bonus points if the heroine makes the hero hurt just as much as he made her hurt. But that just might be the horror writer in me talking.
To be absolutely clear, this isn’t me criticizing people who enjoy romance at all; I’m critiquing the genre itself. This is just an opinion piece, and my opinion is that the literary genre of romance is tropey and formulaic (to be fair, the same is often said about horror), and it perpetuates the idea that to be loved is to be abused. If romance is indeed wish fulfillment, it’s not my wish being fulfilled.