I have a confession to make.
When life gets hectic, and I need a quick mental break, I like to read romance novels… and not any quasi-literary historical romances either. I’m talking about the type published by Harlequin each month, about unrealistically good looking, wealthy and unmistakeably masculine men, women attractive in their own right (wealth optional), yet, strangely, lovelorn, some witty banter and even more over the top descriptions of sex, and, of course, happy endings.
Romance novels typically employ one of a few standard plot devices to keep the hero and heroine in each other’s space – being forced together due to a weather disaster, or to care for a sick relative (often a baby), pretending they are in a relatioship for some business or family related reason, or (increasingly often) an accidental pregnancy. While some romance novels’ heroines are women confident in their sexuality, there are many romance novels that like to portray the heroine as a virgin, unaware of her own sex appeal. This was the case in the most recent Harlequin romance that I read, hoping to relax after a stressful week.
Not only was the book’s heroine a virgin, but she became pregnant when she had sex for the first time, when neither her nor the hero thought to use birth control. The heroine, too naive to realize that her flu is actually morning sickness, is told to take a pregnancy test by the hero – who, upon seeing the positive result, then informs her, that, of course, they will be married posthaste. Her protest that they do not have to be married to have a child – and that there, in fact, does not have to be a child at all, are quelled with the hero’s firm refusal.
I suppose that as a woman reading this book, I should have found the hero’s flat refusal to consider abortion admirable, and even an attractive attribute. The author clearly thought that the hero’s firm decision that the heroine should quit her job and move to his estate was that of a strong, moral, and (of course) attractive, man who any woman would be lucky to have as her own, instead of, say, a tyrannical egoist who failed to consider that the heroine was an adult, capable of making decisions regarding her career and body.
Men who take control of women’s lives and bodies away from them are not moral. They are not strong, ethical, high-minded, or attractive for it. Men who believe that they can take away women’s power of their lives, and then have the arrogance to do so, are bullies. They are despots who see women as their territory to rule, and fools for not finding out their partner’s thoughts on unwanted pregnancies before sleeping with them.
Men who dictate whether a woman will marry them, and carry a pregnancy to term, are definitely not sexy or romantic.
That the story finished (as they all do) as the heroine realized that yes, she did want this pregnancy, and oh, of course, she was in love with the hero, and vice versa, is besides the point. At the time of the marriage-and-baby edict, she knew neither – which makes her willingness to be controlled so disturbing.
What is sexy and appealing and yes, masculine, is a man who recognizes a woman’s right to her own body, and her ability to run her own life. A man who offers support in the event of an unplanned pregnancy – whatever the outcome – rather than a high handed and patronizing announcement of what she will do, is romantic, a real man, a mensch, a catch. That’s the Prince Charming I’m looking for – and that’s who I want to sigh over when reading a romance novel, not a self-centered, arrogant boor who sees women’s uteruses as land to be staked for ownership.