One of the most common themes that comes up when discussing romance novels is the idea of the ‘unrealistic expectation’ regarding men, relationships and sexual prowess.
Romance novels create a utopian relationship, critics often squawk. There aren’t any real men like this. Every reader or writer of the genre has heard the refrain in some way, shape or form and there’s a reason for that.
It’s called sexism.
This issue of calling out romance for its ‘unrealistic expectation’ is a two-fold one because there are two major prongs that play into its prevalence. One, romance readers aren’t stupid. Two, why lower the bar when we can just raise our standards instead?
Let’s start out with the easier of the two here: Romance readers are some of the most educated readers out there. Our demographic is varied and highly educated. According to Maya Rodale’s research for Dangerous Books for Girls, when questioned, 89% of readers said that a heroine’s most important quality was intelligence.
That’s because we have it ourselves. We know what the word fiction means. Take a step back. Have you ever heard a fantasy author asked if their books create unrealistic expectations about whether or not dragons are real? Have mystery writers been forced to explain the role of vigilant detective work to their readers with a disclaimer of ‘don’t try this at home’? Find me another genre that has to come with a warning label telling its audience to take their books with a measure of salt because oh hey, they’re not real.
All of this stems back to the theme that because romance is such a female-dominated genre, both in audience and authors, it must require coddling, explanation and footnotes. When you ask a romance author if their work creates unrealistic expectations for women looking for love, what you’re really saying is hey, so your audience is too stupid to figure out the difference between reality and fantasy, right?
Obviously, to any reasonable person, this is an insanely offensive thing to ask.
On the flip side of this is the second reason why the theme of unrealistic expectations is such an archaic and derogatory one.
Romance novels don’t create unrealistic expectations, they raise standards for what women should expect from their relationships, their lovers and their successes, journeys or evolutions in the domestic, professional, personal or sexual sphere.
Let me explain. The fantasy—the part where romance novelists and readers still need to prove how intelligent are—that’s the part where the hero is a lord or a secret millionaire or whatever trappings take him out of the hot guy in the cubical next to yours territory. After all, much of escapist fiction is not having to worry about money or the day to day that makes up so much of our lives.
But the raising of the standard is across the board, whether a character is a pirate, a duke, a cowboy or, yes, the hot guy in the cubical next to you. Romance novels are about communication, respect and support. Does your real life lover listen to you talk about your day? Do you they offer you support when making career changes? Do they split domestic responsibilities? These elements should not be fantasy. These are the things that make a good, strong, healthy relationship on and off the page.
So no, to answer the age-old unrealistic expectations question, romance novels are not detrimental to real relationships or to finding love in the modern day. They are both a combination of fun, fantastical escape, and a guide to what women deserve from their lovers and partners, a bar that is often set incredibly, incredibly low. If romance novels are responsible for unrealistic expectations, that should be a pretty big neon light that the relationship in question isn’t a healthy, supportive or good enough one.
Romance novels get beat up on a lot, mostly for being a woman’s genre. But the things for which it’s so often dragged through the mud are the most progressive, forward-thinking and open-minded elements of all them. Yes. Romance novels ask a lot from their heroes. But just as we do of our fictional lovers, we should be doing of our real life ones. After all, why should we have a happier ever on the page than in real life?
Yes, this genre has its challenges, mostly in the realms of diversity and representation, and we need to own up together and make changes toward being a properly progressive genre.
But when it comes to feminism, don’t you dare let the critics take what is one of the most feminist elements and turn it on its head. Give romance readers and writers the credit they deserve fro being able to tell basic fact from fiction, but more than that, be proud to hold your lovers to the standard of your romance heroes. Ask for the same support, love and respect that your heroines ask for.
And when someone brings up the idea of the unrealistic expectation, you set them straight. These aren’t unrealistic expectations. These are exactly what we deserve. ♥