Between The Covers
What Romance Novels are Trying to Tell Men
A Woman’s Perspective
You’re making changes in your life. For some of you these will be massive, and others will be fairly minor. I honestly don’t know what kinds of self-doubts and second-guessing you might be doing as you go down this journey to a new, better you. I know for many of my friends, making any changes that run counter to the ‘societal norm’ has been stressful. For some, it even causes questioning of how others, especially those we are attracted to, will react? If you do have concerns about how the women in your life will react, I hope this helps.
Books, Books, and More Books
Not all writers write about real events. Similarly, not all readers read about mirrors to their lives. Many readers, especially women, enjoy escaping into a really good book. The books women read, and the changes in the genres craved, have changed over the decades and, I believe, can provide some insight into the needs and desires of women. As an avid reader (and scientist) I have spent a lot of time thinking about why I enjoy the books I do, what about them catches my interest, so I can find similar books that will also likely be enjoyable reads. I am also friends with multiple writers, so I like to be aware of what is catching reader interest and current trends in the market, and to be able to discuss it.
Whether you like them or not, whether you feel they have substance or that they are formulaic fluff, romance novels make up the lion’s share of the book buying by women. In fact, almost 50% of all mass market books sold are romances, making it the single biggest selling and most popular genre. I personally have contributed a fair chunk of change to the genre, having been reading them since I was thirteen.
There is something you do need to be aware of when talking romance novels – not all of them have the same descriptiveness of intimate moments. The spectrum runs from closed-door to TMI in all its glory. The ideas I am going to be talking about run the gambit of heat levels, so we are going to ignore that aspect of romance novels and look beyond it.
So, let’s examine the romance genre just a little bit for some possible hidden subtext. Hang with me, I promise I have a point I am going to make with all of this.
1960s – 1990s (A Brief History)
If you look at the bodice rippers of the golden age of romance novels, you will find modern tales and stories of old, but common themes running through them. This is due to the culture of the time.
During the first half of the 1900s, women were stay-at-home wives and mothers, not the career women we see today. Then WWII happened and women had to step into the workforce. When the war ended, they were expected to go happily, and quietly, back to the home. Over the next few decades, society saw a shift as women were pushing to be able to do things not previously allowed to all but the few. They pushed to be allowed to be more than wives and mothers; they wanted to be businesswomen, scientists, doctors, engineers, and involved in many other fields. The romances of the later half of the 1900s mirrors this, as most female characters in modern settings were career women.
While the career revolution was happening, a quieter one was also taking place that involved women – a sexual revolution. For many women, the idea of sex (let alone premarital sex) was still taboo and we still see some of this stigma today with slut-shaming. In the romances of the late 1900s a common theme, especially in historical, was ‘forced seduction’. In the fictional world, it was a way for women writers to convey the idea that enjoying sex was possible, and allowed, even outside of marriage. The male lead, despite the female characters resistance to the idea, was able to seduce her into bed and then showed her that sex was a wonderful thing. Because the man instigated it, it removed the shame from a woman’s enjoyment of the act. It opened the door to conversations about sex.
The theme of the times was empowerment of women – both in career and in laying claim to sexuality. But that has since shifted.
1990s to Today
The romance novels out today are often described as ‘not your mother’s romance novels’ and with good reason. Beginning in the late 1990s, a shift in themes started to occur. While the career women driven novels and the forced seduction historicals are still a decent share of the market, other subgenres of romance started to spring up. A portion of the novels feature women who return to the more traditional roles of housewife and mother. Additionally, a whole new one genre divided off of romance – erotic romance. The internet allowed women to delve into even more taboo, and less socially accepted topics, without the shame of being seen reading them. Romances could now involve more detailed sex scenes, and offer more escapism from the realities of life.
It is these modern novels I want to look at, regardless of whether they are labeled romance or erotic romance. Specifically, I am focusing on two of the more popular male character types – the Reformed Man and the Dominant Man.
This is actually one of my personal pet peeve themes, not because of the concept but because of the delivery. It is a big seller and sadly, for good reason. You are here because you want to make changes; well many women want you too as well. Unfortunately, not all men are enlightened to a need to address certain traits society has told you are needed but gave you no examples of how to do it.
Which leads to the reformed man character. The player. The alphahole. The misogynistic workaholic who treats women like they are interchangeable. The male lead that by the end of the book has reformed his ways because he realizes he was wrong for how he behaved. His women basically makes him see the error of his ways.
Women read them in droves. I understand why. When women are surrounded by men who are not self-aware enough to know they were meant to be more, and are driven by biological urges to find a mate, they find someone they love despite issues they are purposefully ignoring. They basically settle and hope the relationship lasts.
The concept of the Reformed Man is not a bad one, as it boils down to the idea that people can and do change throughout their lives. Unfortunately, too many of the authors focus on the book being female driven, which includes the female providing the motivation for the man to change his ways. When change is pushed by an outside force, the female character, it unfortunately perpetuates a few beliefs:
- It often implies a man changes for an extrinsic motivation rather than an intrinsic one. And we all know that changing for someone else never lasts. So, unfortunately, these issues that were purposefully ignored often never go away because there is no internal motivation to change.
- It also gives the impression that a woman loving a man enough will get him to change what we do not like. That belief is problematic for two reasons. One, because it implies that men should change for us. Two, it can also cause women to stay with men who are emotionally/physically abusive because the men will change if they just love them enough.
Players do not often actually stop because of a woman – they become cheaters that blame their cheating on the woman. Alphaholes continue to be alphaholes.
I am not saying the Reformed Man character is a bad idea; it is the way he is portrayed in too many of the novels that I take issue with. Relationships with a reformed man can last, when the man in motivated internally to change. Often this is not how the novels portray them, which leads to the above beliefs being perpetuated.
Believe it or not, D/s (dominant/submissive) romance novels have been around quite a while (and made up a fairly big slice of the romance market) even before that Gray book. And when we examine why, we actually have to ignore that book, because the male lead fits more in with the extrinsically motivated Reformed Man than with the Dominant Men of this theme.
While it is generally a given that in a D/s story, one character (generally the man) is dominant, dominant males are found in other romance subgenres. For ease, we will examine the characteristics all the dominant men tend to share, regardless of if we are talking D/s or other subgenres, and ignore the kink aspects of D/s altogether. For many, including myself, there is something about the dominant man that is appealing – even if we aren’t drawn to the kink.
What is it? Most of the men are:
- Well dressed. Not richly dressed, but well dressed. They take pride in their appearance.
- Quietly confident. Confidence is silent, insecurities are loud.
- Hard working. They do not sit back and let someone else provide for them, and they do not make excuses for why they are not where they want to be in a career.
- Highly intelligent and generally well-read.
- Open to communication.
- Protective. Women like a man in uniform, largely because of what the uniform represents. Police, firemen, and military are all protective fields.
Obviously, there are other character types not discussed here. But if we were to examine them, we would keep coming back to the same central ideas and underlying themes of the modern romance novels. Which boils down to – a desire for men to truly be masculine (not weak facsimiles of it), and to be self-aware.
Fictional Characters and Masculine Characteristics
So what does all of this mean for you? Women might be a lot more supportive of a return to masculinity than you might think. At the end of the day, the Reformed Man and the Dominant Man share a lot of the same traits:
All of these traits, and more, are core to masculinity.
Women joke about their ‘book boyfriends’, but there is something in the characters we read that is appealing, that many women will admit is lacking in the man they are with. Somewhere in the last half of the 1900s, things changed. Masculinity became less the norm, and woman noticed. They may not be aware of what is missing, but they noticed something is – and they are finding it in the pages of a book.
What are your thoughts? Questions? Comment below.