Letters from the Loveseat – Romances

By Jennie Goloboy

We all know about the romances for women, right?  They’re the books you find in the checkout line.  They’ve got someone’s torso on the cover.  The title’s in a big loopy font.  The author’s named something alliterative.  Those things: romance novels.

What I’d like to suggest is there are also romances for men, though they never get labeled as such, and they’re structurally different in some pretty interesting ways.

Romances for women start with two people who both have problems that keep them from being in a relationship.  For example, one character might be emotionally closed off after a trauma; the other might be in a relationship with a pretty awful person.  The plot of the book shows them getting past these issues and earning their Happily Ever After.

In romances for men, there’s a protagonist and an object of desire.  The object of desire is always a very together person when the story starts– not only attractive (which is kind of a given in a romance) but good-humored, funny, strong, resilient, intelligent, and likable.  The protagonist is a mess, and the plot has to do with the protagonist becoming worthy of the object of desire.   Here are some examples:

Jennie chart

What’s great about romances for men is that the protagonist (and male audiences) is taught to pursue someone who’s already worth loving; the ideal partner is not someone you have to fix before they can love you back.  Critics often argue that romances for women teach that doubtful romantic prospects can be trained, with patient affection, to become good partners.  Christian Grey and Edward Cullen, for example, don’t look like prospects for long-term happiness to many (including me).  The better romances for women, for my taste, are about two people who decide to address their own issues so they can have a relationship.

The problems with romances for men are different.  First, there’s the issue that because the female lead is not the protagonist, she isn’t really crucial to the plot.  She won’t change over the course of the story; she might even disappear for a good chunk of the story.  If the stories we tell include a disproportionate number of romances for men, it leads to the problems we see so often in our fiction: Trinity Syndrome/ Strong Female (Non)character/really boring parts for actresses.

Romances for men can even shade into genuinely creepy territory when the woman has no interest in the relationship, or no other good options.  In the book version of The Bourne Identity, for example, Marie only runs away with Jason because he saves her from a rapist.  Then the OOD becomes less like a character, and more like a prize for the protagonist.  A good romance for men, like Captain America, avoids this: watch Peggy and Steve flirt even before he takes the super-serum.

Finally, there’s the problem that we don’t acknowledge that romances for men are romances, even though the desire to win a partner is a fundamental driver of the plot.  We should understand what powers the stories we love, shouldn’t we?  Even without a torso on the cover.