Romance Trope: “Any Man/Woman Would…”

Fellow authors and readers, I have a confession: the quickest way to undermine my belief in two characters’ romance is to tell me this: Any woman would have [swooned over his angelic looks/smouldered over his muscular physique/gasped in astonishment at the implausible proportions of his wedding tackle].

There’s a lot of useful repetition in romance, so it is not the frequency that bothers me. And I know you have the best of intentions. You’re trying to demonstrate the impressive desirability of your hero or heroine in quantitative terms. The more people who lust after Lord Dudelypants, the more potent his appeal, right? It’s Science (TM)!

The problem with this approach is that attraction is very, very individual.

Granted, I come at this from a feminist perspective, so when you say, “Any woman would drool over this dude,” my immediate response is: “Not the gay ones!” Nor even the straight ones who prefer blonds to brunettes, or lean and lanky over broad and muscular, and so on. Both Daniel Craig (fair, burly, with a raw kind of edge to him) and Benedict Cumberbatch (dark-haired, thin, brainy)  are pretty well-known lust magnets these days — and there’s still plenty of room in people’s hearts (and pants!) for Idris Elba (black, muscular, appealingly chilly) and Martin Freeman (practically perfect in every way).

Telling me that Any Woman would desire Lord Dudelypants translates, in my prickly brain, as this: It is required of all women that they desire Lord Dudelypants. It starts to feel like a rule that even I have to follow, a rule built into the fabric of the world.

Now, if it’s actually a rule built into the fabric of the world, that’s interesting and worth exploring. That’s why I love incubus/succubus stories (including this one of my own!) and the Cupid trilogy of Karen Harbaugh.

But too often the Any Man/Woman trope is coupled with extreme gender essentialism. Men are like this; women are like some other thing; each gender is a monolith of its own, and never the twain shall meet. It’s profoundly reductive and even dehumanizing to have every person of one gender obliged to slaver in the hero or heroine’s awesome hottness — regardless of age, inclination, or orientation.

In sum, like all the tropes I hate, it’s pretty obviously lazy writing.

We don’t care what everyone else in the world thinks. In romance, we care about these specific people. Show me how they affect one another. Show me how they get tongue-tied when the object of desire appears, or how they lose control of themselves. Show me romantic rivalries if you must — tired as the Other Woman trope can be, I will always have a soft spot for the Caroline Bingleys and Blanche Ingrams of the genre — but make those specific as well.

Show me why these two deserve their happy ever after — and let the rest of the world go hang.

 

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