Tracy Clark-Flory has written an interesting article over at Salon.com. In the article, Clark-Flory contemplates the difference between women reading/watching romance and men watching pornography (Yes, I know that porn is not the exclusive domain of men. However, romance novels, by and large, are consumed by women.)
Clark-Flory comes to the exact same conclusion that any sane bookseller eventually comes to: Romance novels are socially acceptable porn for women. I worked at a Waldenbooks for many years, and every month the same group of sad looking guys would come in and buy the latest issue of Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler. And every month the same group of sad looking females would come in and buy the latest romance offerings from Harlequin and Silhouette. There were virtually no differences between the two groups.
I’d like to take Clark-Flory’s argument a step further. I think that the Romance novels are actually far more damaging than pornography. Pornography, by and large, is immediately identifiable as fantasy. Most reasonable people would be able distinguish between real people sex and porn star sex. However, romance fiction is not as easily identifiable, and even more concerning, it taps into and reinforces the gendered roles that have kept women as subordinates for centuries.
Let’s take the Cinderella story as an example because so many romance novels and movies follow the plot. Incidentally, this basic plot line dates back to the 1st century B.C. A young woman lives in an oppressive, abusive, or isolated environment. She feels misunderstood, unappreciated, and unloved–feelings that are quite common. Suddenly, a romantic and sensitive suitor comes along and falls madly in love with the woman. He’s rugged and manly, handsome, and chivalrous, and unlike everyone else around the woman, he recognizes the woman’s beauty and potential. He accepts where she came from, and he swoops her out of her lowly lifestyle and gives her a wonderful new life.
This type of fantasy insidiously reinforces the notion that women need to be rescued by men. The female never really initiates change in these stories, but rather waits on the male to change things for her. This fantasy also reinforces the notion that every person has a perfect mate out there just waiting to be found–the belief that everyone has a destined mate that is perfect, i.e. The One. As in, he’s the one, or she’s the one I’m meant to be with.
What an absolutely rubbish belief. With as many millions of people waltzing around this giant mudball of ours, the notion that each person only has one perfect mate is asinine. We shouldn’t think in terms of destiny but in terms of varying degrees of compatibility. Some might call this outlook cold, but love and varying degrees of compatibility aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s just that we should look at love as rationally as possible or realize we’re increasing the odds of heartbreak exponentially. For instance, if you’re in love with someone and you disagree about films, TV shows, religion, and politics, odds are good your relationship is going to be shit. Love that person all you want, but at the end of the day, you have nothing in common except some nebulous abstraction we humans have titled “love.”
I’ve been down the romantic “she’s the one” road that romance novels and films promise. It’s a road filled with potholes, deadends, and wrongturns.
As I wrote earlier in this post, porn, unlike romance fiction, is easily identifiable. From the costumes to the dialogue to the lighting, porn is nothing like reality. The differences between porn sex and real sex are like the differences between collegiate wresting and professional wrestling. Sure, collegiate wrestling is a great sport, and the competitors are highly passionate about what they’re doing, but not many people actually want to watch collegiate wrestling. It’s boring as hell. That’s real people sex.
But professional wrestling? Huge difference. There’s loud, bassy music that’s cheesy and awesome. The costumes are gaudy and sexy. The wrestling moves are exciting and damn near physically impossible to achieve without injury. That’s porn.
Now don’t get me wrong…I’m not trying to convince anyone that porn is harmless. It can be quite harmful, but so can just about anything in excess.Â My point, rather, is that both romance novels and pornography are forms of escapism, but porn has been vilified while romance fiction has been, for the most part, ignored. Young adults are punished for possessing pornography, yet recent studies show that consumption of pornography does not lead to feelings of misogyny, sexual perversion, rape, or pedophilia. However, the very act of punishing young adults for possessing pornography, especially when coupled with religious fundamentalism, correlates quite highly with sexual depravity. Conversely, society not only condones, but, in many ways, encourages the unrealistic, romantic outlook of love.
Yet again our puritanical roots betray us. We shouldn’t worry so much about the sex. We should, however, be worried about Prince Charming. He’s a liar and a cheat, and quite possibly a serial rapist.