Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Making Fun of the Romance Reader

But when I consider a girl, who is nearly entering into life with a susceptible heart, instead of recommending novels in general to her perusal, I would strongly dissuade her from reading them.... Should we even allow, that the generality of novels are written without the least indelicacy, yet as their only subject is love, why should we wish to lead the mind to that disposition, which nature is sufficiently ready to supply without art!  —Honoria, The Female Mentor, or, Select Conversations (1802)

On a rare outing to the movies last month, a friend and I sat down to watch Sally Field in the newly released My Name is Doris. I didn't know anything about the film, but my friend's description of it—a middle aged woman who has lived with her mother all her life gets to explore her own interests after that mother dies—made it sound right up my alley. A coming-of-age story about a middle-aged woman? Bring it on!

Early on in the film, though, a single shot of Doris commuting to work from Staten Island to Manhattan told me that this movie was not likely to be an unequivocal celebration of an older women blossoming into independence and a new sense of self:

Can you see it? There, held in Doris's two slightly wrinkled hands. Yes, readers, Doris his holding a romance novel. A real-life romance novel, in fact: A SEAL at Heart by Anne Elizabeth, which was published in 2012.

Yes, Doris, our frumpy, out-of-touch, sixty-something heroine, is a romance reader. As soon as you see that paperback in her hands, with its hairless, bare chested cover model, sweeping ocean waves, and gorgeous sunset, you're supposed to make the leap: Doris reads romance, hence Doris has wildly unrealistic expectations about what her own romantic life can possibly be.

And the film goes on to demonstrate the inevitability of that linkage of romance reading with the usual clichés: Doris owns a cat; Doris is a secret hoarder; Doris doesn't have a boyfriend; Doris falls madly, ridiculously in love with John, a new coworker decades younger than herself.

Cue the laugh track.

Or, if you are a romance reader yourself, cue the gnashing of teeth.

Doris learning the ins and outs of Facebook from her best
friend's 13-year-old daughter
Doris's story is wildly uneven in tone. At times, it invites viewers to cheer Doris on as she starts to experience life far outside her traditional comfort zone of work, home, mother, and occasional dinner with her brother and his family. But at other times, it asks us to laugh at Doris's ridiculous dreams and expectations, especially when it comes to romance. Not the fault of Field, who does a marvelous job turning what could have been a figure of fun into a fully-realized human being. But because the script in which she is performing can't quite imagine how to portray a sixty-something woman whose sexuality is just beginning to blossom without making her appear, at least at times, a figure of ridicule.

And of pity.

Stalking her handsome co-worker leads Doris to exploring (and abusing) Facebook; attending (and enjoying) a "Baby Goya and the Nuclear Winters" electronica concert in hip Williamsburg; and joining her crush's girlfriend in a lesbian rooftop knitting circle ("I'm not a lesbian, but they are just so welcoming, you know?"). Doris really enjoys said activities, and we are invited to take pleasure in her pleasure, to be happy for her as she tries new things and finds herself welcomed by new people. But at the same time, viewers, more aware than Doris herself, are also meant to catch the cultural critique of hip millennial culture her unsocialized eye reveals.

And we're definitely meant to laugh (and, perhaps, cringe) at her Walter Mitty-like daydreams, daydreams not about her own heroism, as are Mitty's, but about being sexily wooed by co-worker John. Daydreams that are informed by the tropes of contemporary romance, be it in rom-com or novel form. Tropes that Doris has imbibed by reading romances during her daily commute to work.

And, if we've been reading our romance novel symbolism correctly, we should also be prepared for the painful crash when Doris attempts to bring her romance-inspired daydreams into real life. Romance readers are, by nature, deluded, immature, in need of a good dose of wide-eyed reality, aren't they? Or so asserts knowing pop culture.

Uneasiness about women who read, particularly women who read romance, has been a part of social discourse since the 18th century, as Jacqueline Pearson's intelligent book, Women's Reading in Britain, 1750-1835: A Dangerous Recreation clearly demonstrates. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, that uneasiness manifested as fear, in particular, as fear that romance reading would lead to female sexual transgression: seduction, adultery, rape. Many, many novels of the period even used the types of books their female protagonists read as symbols of their virtue (or lack thereof).

Today, though, fear has been transformed into humor: we are invited to laugh at poor Doris, inspired by A SEAL at Heart and other romance novels to pursue a wildly unsuitable romantic partner. But behind that laughter, uneasiness still remains. Uneasiness at female sexuality, at female desire, and a hope that both might be safely contained, if only women would stop reading those damned romance novels.

Keep reading, Doris, I say. A dangerous "re-creation," indeed.

Have you noticed the trope of romance reader = deluded, repressed, or laughable in other current-day works of popular culture?


  1. Very well said! Thank you for this post!

    1. You're very welcome, Tory. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Jane Austen complained about people complaining about others reading novels in her Northanger Abbey. It isn't just romance novels that have been targeted for all novels have. Romance novels are the ones our contemporaries like to slam. Many romance readers read romances because they know all too well that life doesn't work like a novel. Husbands dying and grandchildren with cancer don't go away when you read a good romance but you can escape the pain in a HEA for an hour or two. Few of us mistake our fiction for real life, though we might wish we could exchange them.

    1. Yes, "novels" were definitely looked down upon in Jane Austen's times. But ones with romance in them were looked on with particular suspicion, as the quote that opens this post demonstrates...

    2. "Husbands dying and grandchildren with cancer don't go away when you read a good romance but you can escape the pain in a HEA for an hour or two."


      This is why Romance exists: as a salve to our psyches against the bitter vagaries of Reality.

      Some people have criticised me for writing Romance. I say it serves a very necessary purpose to our mental health, and more people should read them.

  3. My kids love a middle-grade series called "Big Nate," by the author Lincoln Peirce. There's a character in the books - a teacher, female, "of a certain age," who supervises detention. During detention supervision she's frequently reading romance novels with names like "Pyramids of Passion" and is so absorbed in them she doesn't notice any of the mischief going on around her.

    1. Thanks, Abby, for sharing that example. Do you think the teacher's romance novel reading itself is grist for the humor mill? Or the fact that she gets so involved in her reading that she doesn't pay attention to real life?

  4. Thanks for the post and the heads up - I had this movie on my Netflix queue but I think I will delete it!

    The main character in the TV show "Jane the Virgin" is an aspiring romance novel author but the excerpts from her writing are the worst kind of purple prose that wouldn't be found in a real 21st century romance novel. However, she is the heroine of the show and sought after by two sexy men, so she is certainly no "Doris."

    Then again, her advisor is supposedly a feminist -and we know that because she wears glasses, dresses like a frump, and hates romance novels. So either JtV is extremely offensive or it is making fun of tropes and stereotypes.

  5. I do agree with everything you say here. You're totally right.
    The romance reader as somebody deluded, repressed, or laughable is something I've seen at least in three U.S. TV series because, do you know? In Spain we read romance novels as in any other place but they are invisible, nobody ever recognizes it and nobody shows it on TV -at least as far as I know. I don't know what's worse, a stereotyped romance reader or an invisible romance reader.
    Any way, to answer your question:
    1. Zack & Cody - The Suite Life on Deck. Season 3, Episode 12 'Senior Ditch Day' One of the teachers on board, Emma Tutweiller is a romance reader. Wikipedia says that 'Emma has been shown to have self-esteem and/or relationship issues... is also very fond of cats'. There's one episode in which she's reading a romance novels, a piratical one, and she has these fantasies of herself as the heroine, but the joke is that is she's so unlucky in love that has chosen the only romance novel without a happy ending. The captain Hawk is of course, Fabio Lanzoni.
    2. Big Time Rush. Jennifer Knight, Kendall and Katie's mother is a romance reader and they organise a kind of date with Fabio? Yes, another Fabio Lanzoni appearance, as himself, four episodes (you can check it in IMDB).
    3. Shake It Up. The mother of one of the girls is a single mother, and she's shown reading a romance novel, but I don't remember anyone laughing at her, it was more a very stressed mother (the daughter, the job, not a lot of money,...) and the book was part of a moment for herself.
    But that's not something that appears only in popular or low culture but in Literature as well.
    I remember reading Victor Hugo's 'Les misérables' and there's a moment that, in order to represent the low moral level of a character, and why she is worshipful of her husband (a difference with the musical) we are told that Mme. Thenardier has read sentimental novels.
    So there's a long story of despising women that read love stories. Remember Mme. Bovary was unfaithful because of the romance she found in popular novels and that she wanted to find it in real life.

  6. Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian is a favorite of mine. The main character's older sister reads romance novels that feature Native American heroes. There is no judgment of her or of the material. It's a small part of the book, but an interesting and surprisingly respectful take.

    1. I forgot about that one, Jill. Thanks for the reminder!

  7. I quoted you and linked to your blog, in mine Novelbus. An Italian blog here: http://novelbus.tramatlantico.com/2017/03/chi-e-il-lettore-di-romance-romanzo.html#more

    1. Thanks, Monica. I'll have to ask my Italian-reading neighbor to read your post and let me know what it says!