Yes, I am aware that many stupid people have asked this question in many stupid ways, but a little factoid hit me out of nowhere, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I can’t find the link, for which I’m very sorry; you’ll just have to trust me. It went a little something like this: In a 1950’s poll, many women said they considered belittlement and mockery a normal part of a happy marriage. And then I started wondering–were romance novels in the 60’s and 70’s influenced by this attitude? And are we influenced by bodice rippers today? I may not be able to explain why many women like all types of jerks (because there are many, dear reader, there are many), but perhaps I can shed light on why they like a certain sort. At least in the world of romance novels.
But before we begin, let’s define what a jerk IS, just so there’s no confusion.
No, not you. You’re too psycho.
You’re too angsty.
AHA! At last Daemon is useful for something. Took him long enough. I do NOT mean villains, so for those wondering why some girls go for potentially violent, reclusive outcasts, go here and here. They explain it much better than I can.
To research this project, I read one Harlequin Presents. Please do not make me read another one. Note that I carefully selected FOR badly behaving heroes. Not all romance novels contain jerks or abusive behavior. Rather, I’m exploring a specific type of fantasy and plotline, one which I once understood all too well.
Throughout my childhood, it was subtly implied to me that there was something wrong with wearing makeup, with flirting, with showing emotion, with crying. Part of it came from my parents, but most of it came from the shows I watched and the books I read (and no, I don’t blame my parents–besides, they’re much better now). When I was growing up, I always tried to be different–to be better. I was not like the other girls. I was keenly aware of the need to prove myself as a non-sexual, purely practical being whose only emotions were sarcasm and intellectual fascination. I was lots of fun at parties. (Do you ever want to reach back in time and smack yourself? Because I do. All the time.) Boys, of course, only wanted one thing, but that was all right with me, since I wasn’t interested in them anyway.
Although I had no interest in romance, I knew girls who were interested in it had to prove that they never cried and could hold a rational conversation to be respected by any potential boyfriend.
Which is where the mythical jerk, beloved in books and movies everywhere, comes in. He might be rich, or he might be poor. He might think girls are useless, or he might think girls are sluts (or both). Either way, the heroine must prove herself masculine (read: not useless) or non-threateningly feminine (read: not a slut). After he has seen that she is Not Like The Other Girls, he will abandon his
slutty um, manly, promiscuous ways, but not his condescension and belittlement, and he will “settle down.”
Even in the depths of my self-loathing–because that’s what it was–I never liked the jerk. If a girl went through all that trouble to prove herself, then that guy had better respect the hell out of her.
But yes, I do understand the reasoning behind the fantasy. If you are born female, you may occasionally feel like a giant negative sign floats above your head at all times, as opposed to the masculine positive. You may, in a futile attempt to rid yourself of the last vestiges of femininity, abstain from makeup and emotional expression, but you will constantly worry that it’s not enough. You may think that all guys will treat you like dirt, due to your biological programming. If you expect guys to walk all over you because they walk all over every girl, then you must set yourself apart. If you do a good enough job, he will transform into snarky Prince Charming and the two of you will ride off into the sunset in his nice car.
This is how a lot of romance novels go, in case you haven’t noticed. In real life, so the story goes, boys will mock you and make your life hell and value you only for what you can give them. In romance novels, they will do all of the above, with the difference that it signifies their interest and eventual reformation. Sure, they might not treat you like a princess, even at the end, but you will be valued for who you are, not just your body.
Take Unfair Assumptions (1991), by Emma Richmond. It’s a bit late for our purposes, but it has enough problem tropes to be relevant.
Quick summary: Through the actions of a zany mother, Neile finds herself driving a cold, prickly fellow named Mackenzie to his ex-wife’s house. Since this is a romance novel, Mackenzie develops feelings for Neile during the trip. But oh noes! Mackenzie’s ex-wife is a scheming WHORE who will use anything to squeeze the money out of her virtuous former husband. Including Neile, who becomes the hapless pawn in her war against Mackenzie. Does Mackenzie listen to Neile’s side of the story? No, because this is Harlequin Presents. He drags her along on his mission to prove his ex-wife’s villainy and basically keeps Neile captive in his house.
This novel nearly ruined my New Year’s vacation (thank God I saved The Iron King for last), but I will try to be objective in my analysis. Throughout the novel, Mackenzie makes assumptions about Neile based on her beauty and gender.
‘I barely knew you; why on earth would I want to hurt you?’
‘How the hell should I know? It’s all part of the damned game women play, isn’t it?’
He constantly compares Neile to his WHORE of an ex-wife.
‘I didn’t think anyone could be as twisted as Caroline…[B]ut I was wrong…At least Caroline in her own way was honest; she didn’t pretend to be anything but a bitch. But you, with your winsome smiles, your justifications…’
To earn her hero’s respect, Neile must prove that despite her femininity and good looks, she is not his ex-wife, the bad woman. Neile is good. When Neile finally does establish her trustworthiness, Mackenzie barely grovels for his previous ill treatment of her. No. Instead, he kidnaps her. For the second time. Really.
But this time, it’s an act of love. He’s sorry, he wants her to come back…So he physically stops her from getting on the train that will take her away.
Her hand out ready, as soon as it halted she grasped the nearest door-handle and pulled it open, then squealed in alarm as she was grabbed from behind.
‘You are not getting on this train!’ Mackenzie said firmly.
‘Neile,’ he warned quietly. ‘one way or another, you are coming home with me!’
‘I am not!’ she gasped furiously as she tried to free herself from his grip.
Spoiler: She goes home with him.
Acts of aggression that many women experience, sexual and otherwise, are reframed as expressions of affection. He’s kidnapping her because he loves her. The fantasy in this scenario is not that he’s treating her badly; it’s that his bad treatment shows his love and commitment. In real life, of course, abusers and their victims sometimes fall into this mindset. In novels like Unfair Assumptions, however, the readers and the heroine are guaranteed that the hero will not undergo a sudden moodswing and take out his issues on his wife (again) after they are married. That is the fantasy.