Unrealistic expectations

Today I was chatting with a woman I know, and she pulled out that old chestnut about romance novels giving women unrealistic expectations in their relationships. It kind of came out of left field, and I was too taken aback to be very convincing in the ensuing discussion. But of course NOW the responses are flying fast and thick in my mind.

The core of the argument, of course, is that I believe most women can be trusted to tell fantasy from reality, and if a few can’t, that’s not the fault of romance novels. But that’s not quite snappy enough! Right now, my favorite comeback is, “If a woman starts to expect that she can have a great relationship with someone she has wonderful chemistry with, who respects her and treats her well, I don’t see what’s so bad about that.”

Prince Charming kissing Cinderella's hand
For $1,000,000,000: Is this (a) reality, (b) fantasy, (c) back when Disney animation was still really awesome, or (d) a weird use of panniers on that gown? Anyone need to use a lifeline?

What’s your response to the “unrealistic expectations” comment?

19 thoughts on “Unrealistic expectations”

  1. Depends on whether I’m feeling bitchy or not. If I am, I tend to rant that this mainly comes–directly or indirectly–from men, and that their primary anxiety seems to be appearance-based (see also the “death of traditional masculinity” bullshit, and the “anime guys aren’t real men” thing) that women will expect them to get in shape, wear nice clothes, and shave the gen-X-tacular soul patch: like, OH NO, women who have appearance-based expectations about men that are a whole two-thirds of what the entire Western world has had about women for the last two centuries, THE HORROR OF IT ALL.
    Or, more succinctly: “Yeah, God forbid I have standards, huh?”
    If I’m feeling…less confrontational, I’ll note that most women who read romance do just fine in actual relationships–just like most women who read action-adventure do just fine in 9-5 life. Just like most men can separate their fantasy from reality: all the men I’ve dated have watched porn, and none have seemed terribly disappointed that I wasn’t Jenna Jameson.
    Also that having romance does keep me from getting into some relationships: the stupid ones. If I can get my romantic kicks vicariously, I’m a lot less likely to settle for a guy just because he’s the only thing going. I think that’s a good thing. Panicky insecure guys may not, but…really, freaking those guys out is always kind of a bonus.

    1. Yes! So often it seems like these things stem from men’s insecurities. To be fair, I think there are a fair number of women who feel insecure about their husbands lusting after airbrushed supermodels, porn stars, and actresses. Or aren’t there? I should do a poll! But I do think men sometimes feel more entitled to have those insecurities respected and validated, hence the huge cultural currency of the “hot fictional guys give women unrealistic expectations” narrative, while I think the other side usually gets framed in exactly that way, as “women have body image issues because of the media” rather than “men expect women to be super skinny because of the media” or whatever. It’s all on us to both make men feel secure AND feel secure ourselves!

  2. My response to the “unrealistic expectations” thing is to say that romance’s fantasy is actually more realistic than that of other genres.
    I mean, think about it. Mysteries are about justice, and the idea that there’s no case that can’t be solved with the right combination of logic, luck, and crackling wit. Reality? NSM. Fantasy and science fiction are often about justice on a larger scale–the idea of overthrowing some Great Evil and/or bringing back the One True King. And if you’re identifying with the protagonist, you’re often either the One True King yourself, or someone with unique powers to change the world. Not realistic at ALL for like 99.9% of us (and I have this theory that a lot of what’s wrong with the political atmosphere in America is that both sides are acting like they live in this kind of story, but with opposite visions of who is the Great Evil and who the One True King, but I’ll spare you that rant). And I love mysteries and adore and am trying to write fantasies. They’re just…not what the world is like. Which is part of their charm.
    But romance unrealistic? Unless you believe a satisfying monogamous relationship is impossible, I’m just not seeing it. Sure, it’s not going to always feel the way it does in a romance novel, but that’s because romance is about the ESTABLISHMENT of a relationship. Reading romance doesn’t make me want to ditch Mr. Fraser and go out and find some 6’3″ Duke of Ravenwolfheath to take his place. If anything, it makes me remember what it was like 13 years ago when we first met, and to think how glad I am that I found someone like him to do the whole monogamous committed thing with.

    1. That’s awesome! I am adding that to my armament. And yeah, I find the whole idea that women want to “replace” their boyfriends with their fictional crushes bizarre. Especially since probably a minority of my fictional crushes are guys I would put up with for more than fifteen minutes in real life. Spike, for example, is one of my top TV crushes EVER, but if I actually met a former mass murderer I wouldn’t be able to run away fast enough.

  3. Also what Susanna says.
    As far as dudes that don’t actually exist go…I should also point out that my first crushes were Conan, Aragorn, James Bond, and Drizzt Do’Urden. Romance doesn’t exactly have a monopoly on better-than-life guys. 😉

    1. lol, good point! Which makes me wonder, was there a time in the past when people talked a lot about how science-fiction or action movies were making men dissatisfied with their lives? Because you do occasionally hear that sort of thing but not NEARLY as often as you hear the romance-novels-give-women-unrealistic-expectations argument. At least, I don’t.

  4. I suppose my first response would be “Which romance novels did you read that led you to form that opinion?”
    Before I started reading romance novels, I assumed they were all embarrassing wish-fulfillment fantasy along the lines of Disney’s Cinderella (which I do think is a promoter of unrealistic expectations, and much more problematic because it’s targeted at young, impressionable girls). And I suppose there are still a lot of books out there that are all about the fantasy of bringing the Duke of Ravenwolfheath (tm Susanna) to heel.
    But the romances I like to read – and lots of them are getting written these days – are more complex than that. The men in them aren’t fantasy figures, but protagonists whose struggles and triumphs I can identify with. The women aren’t placeholders allowing me to imagine myself with the hero, any more than Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet are. They’re fascinating, often flawed characters I can root for.
    I just find romantic love to be a really compelling part of the human experience, and worth reading/writing about at its utopian best and at its disillusioned worst. The subject can bear both readings, IMO.

    1. Good answer! 🙂 Yeah, I was surprised that she kept mentioning Cinderella because I definitely feel like I see more Beauty and the Beast sorts of stories. And sure, there can be some problematic things about that fantasy, even though I love it myself, but I still shouldn’t blame romance novels as a genre because occasionally some authors mirror messages in the larger culture that I think are problematic. Authors live within that larger culture, of course we represent a spectrum of opinions about gender and relationships. We don’t write in a vacuum! It’s like the whole video-games-cause-school-shootings argument, I just don’t think it makes sense when you really look at it.
      And yes, yay for the recent spate of complex, sometimes difficult heroines! I’m reading Not Quite a Husband at the moment and it is making me so happy.

      1. I loved Not Quite a Husband probably more than I can put into words. When I finished reading it I went right back to the beginning and started it over.
        It made me almost cry a ton of times 🙂

        1. It was fantastic, wasn’t it?? Like my heart was being ripped out of my chest. But…in a good way? I think the flashbacks to their past were actually my favorite part, because their angst and shame was just done so perfectly, but at the same time I knew that happy ending was coming…plus Leo’s childhood crush on her was just SO adorable!

          1. Yes, as much as I liked Bryony, I might have liked Leo even more. I loved that he had to make that journey from “I have no choice in the matter; I just plain belong to this woman” to “I choose, with eyes wide open to how very difficult marriage can be, to make a life with this woman.”
            Also, of all the things in that book that put a prickling at the back of my eyes and throat, I don’t think anything got me more than that bit where his father, addressing L’s suspicion that he’s the product of his mother’s affair, says, “All you need to know is that you’re the son I always wanted.” Geez, it’s making me tear up right now!

          2. Yes!! I loved that stuff with his family! Yay for good parenting, and yay for open relationships in romance. Plus, it reminded me of one of my favorite TV scenes EVER. Have you ever watched Kyle XY? It was this great show about a teenager with superpowers who’s adopted by a normal family, and there’s an episode where Kyle turns out to be great at basketball and the father is all excited, and Josh (the bioson) gets jealous because he’s not good at sports and says to his father, “Now you have to son you always wanted!” and the father says, “Josh, you ARE the son I always wanted,” and yeah, I pretty much cry every time.

  5. I also agree that there are great attributes to romance novels. I don’t think it’s asking too much to find a good person who will be loyal and committed.
    However, obviously romance novels are wrong from a biological stand point, and they are wrong from gender perception stand point. The world is headed in a new direction. Men are no longer playing the traditional roles of tough, protector, provider and hunk. Women expecting a man to be old-fashioned in the positive sense might not be able to find that.

    1. I’m not sure what you mean about the biological standpoint and gender perception standpoint…do you want to elaborate?
      I agree that gender roles are evolving but I would argue that romance novels are evolving with them. (I’m also not sure that men ever really did play those traditional roles in the way they’re represented in fiction…)

      1. Gender roles have changed. We are quickly moving away from this idea that men are the strong vessel, the protectors and providers. Yes, men did play these roles at one point because they were pressured by society to do so. A man who did provide for his family was shamed. A woman working instead of her husband was laughable. So, we did play these gender roles at once. Yes, if you read modern romance novels with a modern setting and plot, they do reflect modern thinking, but the man is still the “boss,” the “alpha.” That’s why the women in the books are initially attracted to them. I mean, if you read a romance novel where the straight, male character was slightly in touch with his feminine side, the writer would have to be really exceptional in order for female readers to turn that character into an attractive protagonist. The 70% of females reading harlequinn romances are attracted to the brute, tough, alpha male who will do anything to protect the woman he loves. Most romance writers still cater to that fantasy.
        So, what I mean is since men are no longer playing those traditional roles because it’s no longer taboo to be otherwise, women will have a hard time finding the old-fashioned man who is alpha, dominant and all the other stereotypes that romance novels portray the male as.

        1. I don’t know…I wish there were more beta heroes too because I’m fond of them (I posted about this recently), but I just don’t think it’s as bad as you’re describing. There are all kinds of heroes out there. Do you read a lot of romance? If you’d like recommendations for romances with beta heroes (or alpha heroes who are in touch with their emotions and care about clothes, I see those too) I’m sure my blog readers will be happy to oblige!
          But I think my main issue with what you’re saying is that you’re assuming that what is popular in romances reflects the actual real-life preferences of romance readers, which was exactly the assumption I was challenging in my post. I might enjoy reading stories about a tough alpha male who will do anything to protect the woman he loves (and I do, although not exclusively), but that doesn’t mean it’s what I actually want from my partner (it isn’t, at ALL). I also don’t think most guys who love The Fast and the Furious actually want to drag race. It’s a fantasy, and I think that most people can tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

          1. Fantasy is a reflection of the things we want, but know we’ll never get. And the truth is, if our fantasy became reality and was laid before us on a silver platter, no one would deny themselves a taste. So, yes, I agree that most people know the difference between fantasy and reality; however, that does not mean they didn’t wish that fantasy were real. I have seen many women become depressed or discouraged after reading romance novels because even though they know the romance novel is a fantasy, they still can’t help but compare the fantasy to real life men and real life situations.
            I love alpha males-the real ones. I know they won’t match up to romance novel situations, but after reading a romance novel, I can’t help but wish it were possible.

          2. And you are right. I am sure it’s not as bad as I say it is. But statistics don’t lie. Men (and women) are horribly incompatible these days. Divorce rates speak for themselves. I am starting to wonder whether we really are monogamous creatures….

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