Since Valentine’s Day is looming on the horizon, I decided to reread several of my fave romance novels (plus reading a super-famous one I’d never read for the hopefully-only time) and you lucky people get to hear my innermost thoughts on the subjects of love and romance. Oh God, everyone thinks, She’s doing another series.
Yes, yes I am. Don’t worry, I’ll still make you a sammich.
The Twilight books are a great place to start. This is because I am of the opinion that Twilight is one of the best, if not THE best example of what romance novels really are. Twilight is not the best romance novel or even close to it; it’s simply the best example of the genre. The Twilight series is like Romance 101 – a basic introduction to a complicated subject. It’s romance distilled to its most essential form – no history, no exotic settings, no character development. Twilight is a romance stripped down to its chassis, cut away so you can see its inner workings. Over the course of more than 2000 pages (that’s practically as many pages as I’ve written about sandwiches) author Stephenie Meyer illustrates, probably without intending to, why exactly many women like romance novels, and even gives us a window into what a lot of women* (I’m sure there are many exceptions…everyone please share yours in the comments) find appealing in the romance department.
If you haven’t read the books or read about the books or seen the movies or seen one of the many thousands of comedic spoofs of the movies, the Twilight series tells the story of a boring, whiny, and unlikable girl named Isabella Swan (protagonists in romance novels always have really flowery and fanciful names which they replace with much less flowery nicknames). Bella (see?) moves to the ever-exotic Forks, Washington and meets a sexy vampire named Edward**. Edward immediately falls in love with Bella despite her having no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Over the course of time it is revealed that it’s because there is just something about Bella that is superappealling to vampires and is superduperly appealing to Edward in particular. Some innate quality that no other woman on the face of the planet has, Bella has oodles of it and lucky for her since she doesn’t have anything else going on. Thus Edward cannot resist her.
And that, my friends, is the key to romancing the female of the species.
Bella is just special. For no reason. She just IS. There is only one girl like her in the whole entire wide wide world and that’s why Edward falls in love with her. Because she’s her. She is unique and irreplaceable. She is a delicate snowflake that’s somehow better than all the other snowflakes. Her specialness seeps from her every pore. She leaves a trail of specialness behind her wherever she goes, like a slug that oozes glitter, kind of, I guess. Bella didn’t have to earn her specialness, she didn’t have to work to achieve it, it’s simply innate. She was born that way.
Bella Swan is just. so. wonderful. Despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s an indescribable quality, although Edward does go to great lengths describing it to her.
This is entirely by design. The protagonist in a romance novel – particularly modern romances like Twilight – is generally not at all exceptional. She’s klutzy, she’s socially awkward, she’s painfully shy, she wears really baggy and unfashionable clothes, she’s not highly accomplished or witty or interesting or in possession of great sexual prowess (usually quite the opposite). This phenomenon reaches a fever pitch in the Twilight series where Bella really is just the literal WORST. Bella Swan is the the perfect romantic protagonist because there is nothing even remotely lovable about her, but Edward loves her anyway. In the historical “bodice ripper” type romances, the protagonists do usually have beauty and a fabulous wardrobe, but their appeal is NEVER about their beauty and NEVER EVER about their fashion sense. It’s their inherent specialness. Objectively measurable female attributes are not what matter in the pages of a romance novel. Even when our heroine is surrounded by other women far more beautiful than she is (and she usually is) they never turn the hero’s head, not for a moment. He only has eyes for our girl.
I’m not the only person to ever notice this, of course. Some have said that the stars of romance novels are average, mediocre, even, because authors are trying to create a relatable character – one women aren’t threatened by, so they can put themselves into the role and pretend that it’s them getting swept off their feet. I’m not convinced that this is the reason and in fact I find it a kind of a sexist interpretation that infantilizes women. The only thing I have found consistently relatable about the protagonists of romance novels is that they invariably like to read, which makes sense; after all, it’s a book. I personally cannot relate to the insufferable Bella Swan at all, or put myself in her place, even if I even remotely liked Edward, which I most certainly don’t. #teamjacob
I posit modern-day romantic heroines are dorky and accessible because romance for women (not just romance novels, but romance in its entirety) is all about being made to feel like you are the most special person on earth even though you aren’t. And making a girl feel special is a hell of a lot easier when she isn’t special than when she is. You gotta work a lot harder to impress a woman who is, herself, impressive. Not only does a potential suitor have to work harder at the task, but the author has to work harder at the characterization. Stephenie Meyer probably didn’t find it too challenging to make a pallid non-entity like Edward Cullen appear magically delicious to his fellow pallid non-entity, Bella Swan. Bella has no life and no interests so it’s easy for a guy like Edward to come along and totally sweep her off her feet with a petulant glower. Bella is easily impressed, but what if she wasn’t? What if Edward had to work a little harder to win Bella than he did? Would Meyer have had the chops to write that story?
Probably not. It would be far more challenging to write a romantic scenario for a busy adult with a full life and many responsibilities than it is for a bored teenager. If Stephenie Meyer had chosen instead to write a love story involving a highly accomplished woman she’d’ve had to do research about the type of life this person led and the requirements of her busy career. Most women have friends and family and coworkers they interact with constantly and Meyer would have had to keep all those characters straight in her writing. She would have had to juggle all the various events Competent Adult Bella had planned that prevented her from taking long walks in the deep woods with a vampire. Edward would have had to have more to offer than just a mysterious demeanor. Competent Adult Bella, in all her lovely specialness, would surely have demanded more. It’s simply easier for the writer to show some dude showering an empty-lived loner with affection just ‘cuz, than it is to create a love interest worthy of a challenging woman who already has met most of her own needs and knows what she likes and what she doesn’t. That’s why the protagonists in romances are often very young women – they don’t have already established lives standing in the way of the happily ever after.
Lazy writing. This is why you’ll never see Madeleine Albright starring in a romance novel.
Regardless of Stephenie Meyer’s skill or lack thereof, it is the undeserved specialness of Bella Swan that’s the key. It’s the key to romance novels and it’s the key to romancing women in general. Making women feel not only special, but SPECIAL, is critically important. Let’s be honest here – when people say “there’s lots of fish in the sea”, they’re kinda speaking true. From a very young age women have to reckon with the reality that a lot of men see a lot of women as largely interchangeable. One woman is, for many guys, pretty much as good as another. When you’re younger, you do or say something a man doesn’t particularly like, eh, that’s it, they’re all butthurt and on to the next. When you’re older, you start to lose your looks or don’t “keep yourself up” to society’s expectations and, eh, that’s it, there’s someone else waiting in the wings. Women are replaceable and most of us learn that lesson pretty quickly.
In my experience, it’s a pretty important part of female sexuality, to be made to feel special, beloved, to be put onto a pedestal and worshiped like Bella even when you don’t deserve it. Maybe especially when you don’t deserve it, because you need it more. And therein lies the rub – we aren’t really particularly special, most of us anyway. Like Bella. In a world of 8 billion people, there are a lot of people just like us out there. Unremarkable. Underwhelming. We know it and our menfolk know it too. When we’re in love it’s not because we met our Edward and we were soulmates and meant to be together, but because we happened to meet some tolerable guy in a nearby location who didn’t hate us and we didn’t hate him so we cuddle sometimes and discuss old episodes of Gilligan’s Island. He loves us because we’re the ones who are there. Not because there is anything remarkable about us. We’re just accessible.
That’s not very romantic at all.
So it’s compelling and, yes, indeed, sexy to feel like that’s not necessarily the case. To believe, if only in fantasy, that somewhere out there (even if it’s not happening to you personally right this minute and probably never will) that a man really could fall head over heels in love with a woman who isn’t a supermodel, who isn’t flawless and perfectly put together, who makes mistakes and is sometimes dull and whiny and dissatisfied with her life. It’s compelling to believe in the kind of love where a woman doesn’t have to earn it, doesn’t have to prove herself constantly, doesn’t always have to always bring her A game to keep ahead of the younger, prettier model nipping at her heels. The kind of love where someone just looks into her soul and says “there is just something about this chick that I prefer above all others” even though she’s a disaster at least at the start of the book anyway.
It’s not because we’re pretending it’s us. It’s because we want to pretend that kind of love could be real. We want to pretend that men really do see something special in women occasionally. Something unique and irreplaceable. Because we have some ridiculous need within us to feel special and we want the men in our lives to make us feel special, to make us believe that we have something to offer that no one else can give them.
It’s not real. We know it’s not real.
But it’s like reading a book about a sparkly vampire – sometimes it’s ok if it’s not real, if it’s meant as an indulgence. We indulge ourselves in this fantasy for a few minutes now and then and it makes the reality of the cold hard world where we’re just a face in the crowd a little easier to bear.
Shut up about it and let us dream, would you?
*at least women like me. I can’t speak to anyone else’s experience, and I’d never dare to try. YMMV.
** My husband, who actually lived in Forks, Washington for a couple years while in the Forest Service, thinks this part is hilarious. No one in Forks, Washington, is called Edward. They are Ed, or maybe Eddie until their beards grow in.