Blame it on Disney or the Brothers Grimm. Hell, blame Harlequin Books and the Hallmark Channel, too, while you’re at it. They are all equally guilty—and responsible—for filling little girls’ heads with appealing stories of princes riding to the rescue and big girls’ dreams of bad boys waiting for the right woman to come along to turn them into good men. Oh, did I mention the biggest lie of all? The “they lived happily ever after” ending . . .
We all grew up on them. Charming little fairy tales—that imprint a subliminal message few of us even recognize: “Someday my prince will come.” Where’s the harm? you might ask. (I’ll not even delve into the whole fair damsel in distress needing a man to ride in upon his white horse, to sweep her off her feet.) The answer to the question of harm is this: Sometimes romantic ideals created in fiction develop into unrealistic expectations for life. No, I don’t believe any of us really think birds and mice are going sew us up a ball grown, but these stories do color our wants and shade our desires. After all, how many weddings actually have that Cinderella theme—complete with the coach?
Romantic dreams and expectations are well and good, and fun. But they have their place more in “once upon a time” than they do in everyday life. Ideals can brainwash us. Sometimes an ideal is a goal, a good and better thing to strive toward. But perfection is impossible. Happily ever after is a fantasy. Cinderella won’t ever nag Charming for leaving his socks and underwear in a pile on the floor –a foot from the freakin’ hamper! But real life? Yeah, not so perfect. But let’s leave the fairy tales of our childhoods behind in our childhoods (where they truly belong) and focus upon a much more devious plot line.
Let’s look at romance novels and those stupid movies on the Hallmark Channel. (And yes, I watch them, too.) Romantic comedies as well—FYI, my favorite is “The Ugly Truth” with Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler—talk about your quintessential bad boy! Speaking of . . . here’s a newsflash, ladies. In real life bad boys stay bad. That “all they need is the love of a good woman” tripe is a load of crap! It’s as imaginary as frogs turning into princes with love’s true kiss. Yet the prevailing message endures: You got to kiss a lot of toads before you find your prince. Really? Says who? And BTW, just how many is “a lot?” Because I’m pretty damn sure I’ve long surpassed my quota of toads. And I don’t see a prince in sight . . . I think someone lied.
But back to romance novels . . . and remember I used to write them. Back in the day they were ridiculously formulaic—the hero was older than the heroine, she was a virgin, he was rich, she only discovered her sexual desire after being seduced by him. She was “quirky,” sassy, independent, a firebrand needing and wanting no man—until, of course, THE ONE came along to tame her. Hardly an original premise. Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew,” anyone? And yet that strong hero & sassy heroine/battle of the sexes schtick remain two of the top ten most popular themes in romance novels. The other eight most popular tropes? According to Romance Writers of America, who in 2014 commissioned a Nielsen survey of romance readers, they are: friends to lovers; soulmates; second chance at love; secret romance; first love; reunited lovers; love triangle and sexy millionaire/billionaire (Thank you, Fifty Shades of Grey! But seriously?!? If he didn’t have money, it would have been an episode on “Criminal Minds!”)
According to Nielsen and RWA, the U.S. romance book buyer is most likely between the ages of 30 – 54; 64% read romance more than once a month; 35% have been reading romance for 20 years or more, while 20.4% have been reading 10 to 20 years. That’s a lot of fantasy, ladies! Not that there’s anything wrong with romantic escape. I’m sure I’m not the only wife who has read a romance novel and then got “in the mood,” to which hubby benefited while she fantasized her lard-ass computer programmer was a pirate or a desert sheikh or a highland lord—or whatever floats your personal romance fantasy boat.
But here’s the problem with romance novels, films and other fantasy fare. All have deep underlying strands of escapism, perfectionism and idealization running through them. In other words, they paint a picture of romance that can give women a false view about true relationships. And this isn’t just me saying so. Susan Quilliam, a British relationship psychologist, published her views on romance novels in the July 2011 of the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care. Rachel Rettner, a senior writer for Live Science then wrote a subsequent article about Ms. Quilliam’s insights. According to Ms. Quilliam, such novels give women impractical expectations about what to expect out of a relationship because they portray a “romanticized,” i.e. unrealistic or better than it really is, version of love. While she does make a point of stressing that women aren’t necessarily gullible or incapable of understanding the difference between fiction and reality, she does maintain such novels can be a bad influence, leading women to make poor health and relationship decisions. A woman may feel bad about herself and/or overly critical of her relationship because what she’s living doesn’t measure up to the picture of perfection on the pages she’s reading. Or worse.
Subconsciously seeking the thrill she reads about, she may ignore common sense—hooking up with a stranger she doesn’t know from a can of paint (oops! been there, done that). Or she may forego the use of a condom during sex, because well, let’s be real—stopping to put it on just isn’t “romantic.” Without even realizing it, her subconscious is calling the shots. She wants to feel him, filling her completely and touching that place deep within her no other man has ever reached. She wants to surrender to his mastery, to rise higher with every impaling lunge, to meet his passion while pulling him ever deeper into her swirling heat–until the waves of ecstasy crest and crash, and she floats upon a sea of nearly unendurable pleasure . . . See, told ya, I used to write this stuff.
So what’s a gal to do? Especially a single one, looking? Damned if I know. Unfortunately, I’m much better at pointing out a problem, than I am in offering a solution. However, some relationship experts, like the ones with a PhD on their walls, advise to stop looking for Mr. Right. They suggest instead to try settling for Mr. Right Now. “You need to work on yourself first” is a popular recommendation, too. Or you can keep holding out for a hero, your White Knight/Prince Charming. Helpfully–and coincidentally–there are two little fairy tale ladies from your childhood whose lead you can follow: Goldilocks, who, you’ll remember, kept going ‘til she found “just right,” and the Pea Princess. If you’ll recall, she’s the one who tossed and turned on a pile of mattresses, knowing something wasn’t right. But hell, sometimes a girl’s just gotta do what a girl’s gotta do . . .