Rethinking Romance

I read a lot—at least by any average person’s standards. Sure, there are plenty of people in fandom who can put me to shame, but I showed Brian my pinboard a while ago, and he commented that I’d read more fic in the past year than he’s read in his life—and that was just the fic. And I read everything from modern literary fiction to fanfiction.

So, while I’m certainly not qualified to comment on a lot of things about literature and stories, I do feel comfortable talking about why I read, and why I think a lot of people do. It’s an escape, certainly—last night I was unhappy and I immediately went after charming short stories that I knew would cheer me up while distracting me from my own life—but it’s also a reflection of the human condition, pretentious as that sounds. Stories are interesting because the people in them are interesting, because they have lives and struggles and triumphs and failures.

And here’s the thing I think we forget sometimes: romance and love are huge parts of the human condition. People fall in love every day, at parties and jobs and while walking their dogs. They also fall in love during wars and natural disasters, and they will continue to fall in love after the world ends. Girls fall in love and boys fall in love; teenagers and thirtysomethings and senior citizens all fall in love; deaf people and blind people and smart people and ignorant people fall in love. Sometimes the love is requited and sometimes it isn’t.

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Remember high school? Remember the constant relationship drama, the love triangles and the pining and how much it mattered whether the person you had a crush on liked you back? Sure, it’s silly and overblown and, yeah, the person you dated or didn’t date in the 10th grade is going to have very little bearing on the rest of your life, but it seems hugely important at the time, for much the same reason that people want to have long-term relationships in college or their early 20s, the same reason they want to get married. Being loved, being in a relationship of mutual affection (romantic or otherwise), having someone who cares for you unconditionally—these things all feel good.

Pining, on the other hand, pretty much sucks. I spent a lot of high school pining after one of my good friends, so I can tell you with authority that (1) it really is not any fun at all and (2) it’s definitely part of the human condition.

So when I read a short story last night that captured, very well, friendship and pining and how those things feel in combination, I thought it was a beautifully drawn depiction of one facet of the human condition. Of course, stories like The West Wing and A Song of Ice and Fire are also beautifully drawn depictions of the human condition, and much broader in their scope than this five-thousand-word short story. But they have romances as well, because their creators understand that people fall in love sometimes.

This isn’t a blanket defense of romances as plots, because a lot of romantic comedies and romance novels are misogynist (I’m not getting into this here), but it’s worth remembering that romance as a plot is not inherently problematic. Earlier today, I read a New York Times column that derided the Hunger Games trilogy as having “violent revolution serving as the backdrop for teen romance,” which is pretty blatantly untrue, given Katniss’s consistent and memorable disinterest in her own love triangle.

But I feel it bears mentioning that the books are not inherently weaker stories because people fall in love with the protagonist and because she struggles to come to terms with her own feelings for the two young men who love her. If anything, that arc serves to underscore the other ways that Katniss struggles to understand both her own emotions and those of other people.

The columnist’s accusation is a fairly heavy one, because if it were true, it would represent a significant failing on Suzanne Collins’s part. I mentioned earlier that people fall in love during wars and natural disasters, but it’s important to handle those stories sensitively. There’s a whole other angry essay about stories that haven’t done so, that have co-opted tragedies in order to tell a love story that’s only quasi-related, and those narratives should be criticized for doing so. Can we not crack down on stories where that hasn’t happened, though? It’s like that mock Avengers poster where all the dudes are posted like stereotypical female comic book characters—it’s hilarious, and a valid criticism of a lot of female superheroes, but not for that specific poster. Natasha’s pose is perfectly reasonable—I’m neither fit nor flexible, and I recreated it in my bedroom.

If we’re going call out problematic trends in narratives—and there are lots of problematic trends in romance stories—can we make sure that we’re accusing the right people?

Maybe we can just accept, as some storytellers have, that (nearly) everyone falls in love, and that romance is a part of life. It’s important to not have romantic entanglements take over a broader story, or, say, have a female character’s entire self-worth depend on having a significant other at every moment. But when I was in high school, I cried over a boy and I felt terrible about it because shouldn’t the fact that the guy I was head over heels for didn’t like me back not matter enough to make me cry? In hindsight, though, it feels pretty normal that it did. My opinion of myself, honestly, took a bigger hit from the fact that I cried over this boy than it did that I spent two years pining miserably after him.

The message that having a boyfriend as a teenage girl (or a girlfriend as a teenage boy) isn’t the most important thing in the world is a good message, but we need to make sure that we remember it’s okay if you do have a boyfriend or a girlfriend or a special friend of indeterminate gender and that it’s okay if you’re in love.

So maybe those five thousand words I read yesterday about best friends who are cute and fall in love and pine for each other a little are telling me something just as important about the human condition as the Dickens I read for my literature course last semester.

Just because one aspect of the human condition is, stereotypically, associated with teenage girls who are, by extension, associated with vapidity doesn’t mean that it should be dismissed or treated as unimportant.

Oh, and thinking that romance doesn’t matter because it’s for girls is not something you should ever say to my face, because I will probably punch you.


One thought on “Rethinking Romance

  1. I saw something interesting the other day. Take out the teen romance from the Hunger Games, and you still have a novel about a televised fight to the death. Take out the teen romance from Twilight, and you have a novel about a girl who moves to a town where it rains a lot.

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