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.

 

Romance Trope: The Redheaded Heroine

We here at Olivia Waite love a good discussion of tropes almost as much as we love not being sick—but we're only going to get one of those today, and it's not the second one. Lately both Smart Bitches and Dear Author (though I can't find the exact citation on the latter, sorry) have mentioned the prevalence of redheaded heroines in romance. It's true the statistical probability of women with red hair is much higher in romance than in the dull and tawdry realm known as "real life"—but then, Romancelandia is also populated with an immoderate number of heroes with Mighty Wangs, so let's not pretend that a strict adherence to probability is our first and greatest concern.

Someday perhaps I'll combine those two tropes and write about a well-endowed, redheaded hero, like this handsome dude:

A muscular, lantern-jawed, slightly bearded young man with shoulder-length red hair. He stands in a sunny forest, wearing a grey t-shirt, and holding a fishing rod in his right hand.

In fact, the high number of redheaded heroines makes total sense if you know where to look.

We talk a lot in the romance community about Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet as foundational heroines of the genre, and their descendents are indeed legion. But there's a third figure, not often cited but always present, whose influence has yet to be fully articulated.

Of course I'm talking about Anne of Green Gables.

Anne Blythe, née Shirley, is the unsung proto-heroine of many a romance novelist (as this post from Heroes and Heartbreakers bears out). She's bright, strange, lonely, and almost terminally optimistic. She constantly spars with über-beta-hero Gilbert Blythe right up until the moment where she thinks he's died and suddenly realizes he's the love of her life. {Author's note: swoon!}

She also, famously, has red hair. It is not simply a happenstance of appearance, but a defining signal of her character, as she explains:

You'd find it easier to be bad than good if you had red hair... People who haven't red hair don't know what trouble is.

Anne's red hair is a mark of difference—of her orphan status, her dangerous imagination, and her unquenchable passion. It's remarked on by others—especially Civilization's Bitch-Queen, Mrs. Lynde—and fought against even by Anne herself, desperate to dye her hair Cordelia-black in a failed attempt at self-reinvention.

If we accept Anne's statement about her hair color as true, then we must also accept the reverse proposition: that people who have red hair do know what trouble is. This may in part explain the proliferation of redheads within sci-fi, fantasy, and paranormal romance. These are also the genres that most benefit from a visible mark of difference to set the heroine apart from her society—whether that society is normal non-magical people or a futuristic race of space vampires engaged in political skulduggery. Red hair always has been culturally linked to the supernatural. (For instance: according to legend, redheads can spontaneously become vampires when they die! No fangs required.)

And to use hair color as a visible difference marker sits much more comfortably with authors and readers nowadays than if we used, oh, skin color as the same kind of tool. (I'm looking at you, Tolkien, with your dark dirty orcs and pure white shining elves.) So the prevalence of red hair could also be seen as a symptom of genre fiction's general and deplorable tendency to whiteness: we want our heroine to look different and special—but still, you know, white. So not that different after all.

To indicate that the prevalence of red hair in the book world is not simply in our imaginations, here is a highly unscientific Google Ngram search for the word 'redhead' from 1880 up until 2000.

Google Ngram for the word 'redhead' between the years of 1880 and 2000.You'll notice the bump around 1900—and how the graph starts to rise after that. Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908. My off-the-cuff explanations for the sharp rise in the 1930s and 40s are: Judy Garland and other redheaded starlets of Hollywood's golden years, plus Alberto Vargas' slew of redheaded cheesecake illustrations. Then there's a bit of a downturn—and then a huge and continuing surge, suggestively concurrent with the rise of romance and later paranormal romance in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

But it isn't just the paranormal heroines who follow in L. M. Montgomery's footsteps: there's a little something of Anne's story in the small-town romance narrative as well, where a heroine arrives in a tiny place and upsets it socially. The orphan or outsider who forces change while also adapting themselves, all while finding love in an unexpected place and suffering just enough heartbreak on the way. These heroines are usually a peculiar blend of stubborn and vulnerable, a combination which is easier to comprehend once Anne Shirley is seen as part of the pattern.

There's an Anne-type redheaded heroine in one of my favorite Regencies, as well: Eleanor Lyndon from Julia Quinn's Brighter Than the Sun. Ellie is a humble vicar's daughter who clashes with her domineering, too-correct stepmother. There's a bit of Cinderella mixed in (evil stepmother, a prince looking for a wife) but much of the romance plot is developed by discussing the color of her hair. For instance:

She'd always wanted her hair to be something more exotic than just plain red. It was an unexpected gift from some long-forgotten Irish ancestor. The only good thing about it had been that it was a constant source of irritation to her father, who had been known to develop nausea at the merest intimation that there might be a Catholic somewhere in his family tree.

Ellie had always rather liked the idea of a rogue Catholic hiding out in her family tree. She had always liked the idea of anything out of the ordinary, anything to break up the monotony of her humdrum life. (Brighter Than the Sun, 42)

Personal Agendas: I Have One

To be perfectly honest, however, one of the reasons I am always glad to see redheads in romance is that I am a redhead myself. A good, solid, enviable strawberry blonde. It's lovely, but it's not a comfortable hair color for someone who preferred to stay quietly in the background as a kid, though having to step up and speak out more than I liked has probably been healthy for me in the long run.

(And no, I've never tried to dye my hair black—but I would have, if Anne Shirley hadn't shown me the folly of it while I was still an impressionable youth. A redheaded friend in college was not so lucky—and the results were indeed disastrous. Every redhead I've ever met has craved dark hair at some point in their lives.)

This may be a significant fault of mine as a person, but it's still hard for me to remember sometimes that I'm the main character in my own life. And outside of romance, we redheads don't get very many starring roles. We're usually sidekicks and secondary characters. For every Lucille Ball there's a dozen Christina Hendrickses; for every Pippi Longstocking there's a hundred Weasleys. (Admittedly, I'm over the moon about Christina Hendricks and the Weasleys.) So there's a very deep, very personal satisfaction I get from seeing redheads working toward their own happily ever after.

So bring on your your Anne Shirleys, your Ellie Lyndons, and your Gemma Murphys—this is one trope I'm never going to see too much of.

{BONUS for those who are still with me: The complete e-text of Anne of Green Gables is available here and at Project Gutenberg. Happy reading!}

Romance Trope: The No-Other-Woman Bed

You've all seen this trope before, in historicals and contemporaries and all subgenres in between. Our hero finally gets the heroine into bed—specifically, into his bed. It's always a lovely room, whether it's sleek and modern with floor-to-ceiling windows or a lushly furnished Victorian man-cave with fireplace and silk bed hangings. After the sex, or sometimes before, the heroine has an attack of the jealous, imagining all the other women whom he's made monkeybacks with in the course of his journey from virgin youth to über-manly sexpert. And to soothe her jealousy he says, "You're the first woman I've ever had in this bed." Am I the only one who finds this a little bit creepy?

An advertising image for luxury bed linens: a warm brown-toned bedroom set with modern lines, and a flat cream-colored bed heaped wtih rich-looking pillows in burgundy, gold, and white.

I know what the trope is designed to do.

It's supposed to mean: I, the hero, may have been around the block and down the street and even in the sewers a couple of times, sexually speaking, but this romance with you is Speshul, because you are a Speshul Snowflake Lady.

But here's what it says to me, whenever I see it: I, the hero, have taken a Sharpie and drawn a big black line between my history of sexytimes and my emotions about women. You, the heroine, are not like those dozens and dozens and sometimes hundreds of other women, who were forgettable trollops not worthy of knowing the Real Me As Epitomized By My Fancy Bed. And now I am hoping to commit to you for the rest of my life, when I've never been in a grown-up emotional relationship before. I'm sure it will be easy because we love each other so much!

Hero, I do not trust you.

Yes, we want the hero and heroine's relationship to be unique and powerful, because romances are about lifelong love on an epic scale. Here is Paul Simon, saying the same thing in a song lyric:

I know I've been in love before and once or twice I've been on the floor but I never loved no one the way that I love you.

See how easy that was? How sweet and romantic? He's had sexytimes but he's used his feeling-muscles too. This romance is more overwhelming than before, but we're not precisely in terra incognita.

And I'll give this trope a bit of a pass in historicals, since chances are that the hero's been keeping his mistress in a different house, far away from his family, for reasons of gentlemanly hypocrisy. But really—a contemporary hero who hasn't let a woman into his bedroom? Unless he's a virgin hero, I'm not buying it. (Related note: let's see more virgin heroes!)

But on the whole I am suspicious of heroes who take the line that all earlier women have been bitches or playthings—until you, honey! You're my snookums!

It gives me the reader side-eye, and I secretly start whispering to the hero that she should get out of Dodge at the first opportunity.