author – activist – faculty – mom
So my freelance editor gave me a contemporary Kimani Romance to read. (See previous post). She wanted me to learn how to develop a romantic storyline. Kimani is the African American imprint of Harlequin romances, so there’s a rigidly predictable type of storyline in which the protagonists get together. When she gave it to me, I couldn’t imagine how it could be helpful, but I did learn a lot. These contemporary romances often have busy, driven, workaholic women who are afraid of vulnerability. They mask their fear of taking the risk of getting hurt in a relationship with the excuse that they “don’t have time.” These women have a need to be in control at all times, and the intimacy of romantic partnership is too threatening to their control issues.
So part of the formula includes the woman being overwhelmed by sexual/romantic attraction and circumstances forcing her and the male lead together. Also, in order for him to get past her “armor against love” the story includes situations of vulnerability beyond her control. The man pursues her, and she is ambivalent, but she resists. Eventually, despite her best efforts at resistance, she gives in, and they get together.
After I finished the book, I understood my editor’s rationale. The protagonist of my novel has these exact fears of intimacy and control patterns, so it was useful to think about romance for this character archetype. However, I’m probably writing about this archetype in the first place because it’s also my archetype, and reflects my own resistance to love and romance. But I didn’t transform my own intimacy issues by getting caught during a monsoon in an abandoned shed with a hunky microbiologist.
About 15 years ago, I made a decision to change my patterns, and I got some help. I decided that I wanted to be in a relationship, so I dated different men, and kept them at some sexual distance while I processed the experiences with my support system to see if it made sense to move forward. This, of course, is not at all what the romantic storyline of a novel demands. Scene after scene of women in support groups, talking to therapists, checking in with their friends. Women going on with the many rich and interesting parts of their life that have nothing to do with romance. Maybe one in ten scenes would be the occasional date with two people talking about their lives and getting to know each other with no sexual innuendo. It took me 7 years being single (including a couple years of dating) to turn my patterns around, and I met my current partner.
A lot of what I learned during my period of dating was that men are generally even more afraid of vulnerability than women due to harsh social conditioning during boyhood and brutal emotional isolation. This complex picture of men is also not part of the romance narrative.
So I don’t have much to work with from my own life when writing a formulaic romance. No burning glances from across the room; no trading double entendres during the board meeting. And even though my protagonist and I are the same archetype in our workaholism and core fears of intimacy, we are different in other ways. She’s definitely not someone to get into a lot of personal growth work and decide to break through her intimacy issues by using a support system of her community. So it would make sense to have a man who pursues her, and a set of circumstances that bring them together despite her resistance.
So here’s the problem. As a feminist, I am more interested in women taking charge of their lives than being overwhelmed by a man’s agenda, only to turn out that he knew all along what was best for her. Also, the level of convenient coincidence in these storylines can be absurd: she “just happened” to need to go over to his house at night to get something, and it “just happened” to be a thunderstorm, so she “just happened” to get drenched, and then “just happened” to be deathly afraid of thunderstorms, so she “just happened” to end up in his arms, all defenses down…
You get the idea. I don’t like that type of contrived romantic moment. So the challenge for me as a writer is to have a series of reasonably believable situations in which people could get thrown together in close quarters, at least believable enough that I’m not rolling my eyes as it happens. Also, in the formula, the woman is always in a vulnerable position, while the man is in a position of power. So an additional challenge in any given scene is to even the power dynamic a bit: I am either creating equal vulnerability for the man or at least equal female strength. This challenge is actually turning out to be fun and interesting as a writer. I hope it turns out to be great for readers, as well. But I promise you this: no rainstorms, no fainting spells, no getting caught together on a desert island, and no running to the airport to tell her he loves her before she gets on that plane.
POSTSCRIPT – Whitney and Romance Problems: So in a previous post I was complaining about the NBC show Whitney, which I used to really love, but right now it’s really bothering me in the area of romance. (Spoiler alert!) Part of what made the first season so funny was that the roles were non-traditional. Whitney was the obnoxious, commitment-phobic party girl, and Alex was the nerdy guy who loved her anyway. The couple is in the center of a six character ensemble of friends. The writers spent the first season building up one of the ensemble characters, Mark, to be a real insensitive, sexist, self-absorbed jerk. And now they’ve spent the second season building up a romance between Mark and Roxanne, another ensemble character who’s a bitter alcoholic type. At the beginning, it was downright creepy. “Oh yes,” he tells her. “This thing with you and me is going to happen.” (See creepy meme from the internet). Which is extra disturbing, because he’s smugly insisting that their relationship will indeed get sexual, even as she’s objecting to it. These storylines are deeply based in male domination, because they forward the notion that the man knows better than the woman about what should be happening in the relationship. In these storylines, the woman eventually comes to see how right he is. In the real world, these guys are called stalkers.
Throughout the season, they’ve built up that he really “gets” her. In a recent episode, she finally admits her feelings for him, but is hesitant to get intimate. He tells her she should get involved with him so she doesn’t end up at the age of sixty still living with her female friend. Instead of telling her how much he cares about her, he just sort of threatens her. What a sleazebag.
Roxanne might need to use my method of addressing her intimacy issues: get therapy, maybe even take a look at her heavy drinking. Maybe she should go on some dates with new men and get to know them.
I can’t tell if Mark was conceived as a socially awkward character whose sexism is just a defense mechanism, and the writers had always planned on this storyline. Or maybe he was intended to be a creep in season 1, but the writers have softened up to make him palatable for the romantic storyline they added in season 2. And it matters to me. Because romantic storylines are always giving women the message that men who are self-absorbed, sexist, and insensitive are really sweethearts inside. These men may indeed be sweethearts inside; however, if that’s how they behave in the world, then they don’t actually represent good opportunities for women to take the risk of being vulnerable. And the fear that the male character Mark invokes—that Roxanne will be still living with a friend at the age of sixty—is a fear based solely in sexism. Statistically, women in their sixties in marriages to men are not as happy as their single counterparts who have strong companionship with other women. But in the sexist paradigm of our society, having a man=happiness, research be damned. Finally, Mark says “we would be good together,” which is extra creepy, because she’s a hardcore drinker and he owns a bar. So sixty is more likely to find her hospitalized with liver failure, and no eligibility for a donor due to her alcohol history. But don’t worry, Roxanne, you’ll have all the advantages of being with a sexist, self-absorbed, insensitive man.