A male friend who aspires to write romance complains that most romance heroes, including our heroes at MyRomanceStory.com, are rich. And it is true; the majority of our heroes are business owners, or have high-powered careers, or come from inherited wealth. Sometimes our heroes have fortunes that they themselves built. Other times they manage the money or the business that their family owns. Some of our heroes are talents: they are chefs, singers, TV personalities, and the like. A number have professional careers such as lawyer or architect. Even our heroes who have fairly low-paying jobs such as a park ranger or a conservationist often have another financial ace in the hole like real estate profits or family money. But why?
One reason to make a hero rich is to show that he is ambitious or successful. Most of our heroes are comers, not slackers. They are men who have identified what they want to do in life and are doing it. Nothing describes a comer better or more succinctly than assets. The hero owns a business; that’s an asset. The hero has a successful career in television; that’s an asset. The hero has a track record of achievements; that’s an asset. Money simply is the easiest asset of all to describe.
The second and most compelling reason to make a hero rich is that women want rich men, again, because having money is a major definition of success. When little girls dream of a handsome prince coming to find Cinderella and marry her, they do not think about a prince whose castle needs repair or whose carriage is old and beat up. They are not looking for a loser. They think of a man who will give the heroine a better life than she already has. As a female friend just said, “Take me away from all this!” is the fantasy of the romance reader, and the purpose of the romance hero. A rich man can successfully rescue a heroine. Cinderella is rescued from a life of drudgery as an unpaid servant by her prince. The factory worker in the movie “An Officer and a Gentleman” is rescued from life in a small town with no prospects by her officer. Even Lady Diana Spencer was rescued from a life as an obscure member of the nobility by Prince Charles of England.
However, if you have noticed, lately there have been some media articles, including one in the New York Times entitled “Putting Money on the Table” citing a new situation in our country: Young women often out earning young men. A lot of young women have gotten good educations and advanced degrees and training, and are taking the world by storm. Many own their own businesses, and some even started them while they were teenagers, so they aren’t wet-behind-the-ears neophytes. These are competent women, confident women. They are achievers.
For a hero to be a match for this kind of woman, he has to be successful himself, sure of himself, ambitious himself. Otherwise, the situation is uncomfortable on both sides. Today’s young women want to throw their newfound money around, but their modest-income boyfriends either can’t match that style of spending or can’t handle the idea of a girlfriend who is richer than they are. So that’s a third reason to make our romance heroes rich. To avoid the awkward moment when it’s time to pay the restaurant check. Because awkward does not make for romance.
Given this situation, aren’t women and men changing their fantasies? No. They’re being raised the same as always. A young girl I know grew up wearing Disney princess outfits. A young boy I know plays video games every waking moment. Compare the two role players: Disney princesses tend to get rescued rather than be the rescuer. In video games, boys assume the hero’s role and try to kill vast numbers of bad guys, or they go on a quest to avenge the death of their father and save a helpless princess, and so on. So girls are being raised to dress in pink frilly outfits and wear pretend crowns, pretty much as they always have been. And wait for a rescuer. And boys are being raised on power fantasies, again as they always have been. And be the rescuer.
Despite all this gender role typing, a predictable percentage of adult young men want to become creative artists, or low-paid school teachers, or even unglamorous dentists. And an increasing number of women start major careers of their own. Yet, regardless of women’s level of ambition or achievement, role models on which they are brought up hold sway with them. Women don’t want to dream about the geeky high school guy who might someday become a rock star; they want to dream about the rock star who has arrived.
My male friend is not rich and suspects he never will be. He doesn’t really relate to all these rich guy heroes. He complains that successful career women place a heavy burden on men to be even richer. Given how we are raised, he could be right. And since fiction mirrors life’s truths, we ought to see some evidence of this change in how romances are crafted. And we do. We see stronger women, women who are their own bosses, or who are earning a living via a unique talent, or who in some way control their career destiny. And then we see men who are immensely wealthy, who control empires; in other words, who are bigger than ever. This isn't the only paradigm, but it's very popular.
Still, most of the time, keeping score is not necessary. Once a person has enough money to fund life’s ordinary costs and some extras, it doesn’t have to be a competition or an awkward scene. We at MyRomanceStory.com try to avoid cliché rich guys, men who are all about their money and nothing else. (Although occasionally a hero may wonder if the heroine is interested in him because of his money, we also try to avoid that cliché line of thinking.) Our heroes and heroines generally meet on a plane of financial ease. Even when a hero suffers a business change, as in “30-Day Guarantee,” it is the loss of his status as a success that threatens him emotionally; he still has plenty of money. The hero of “Gone Batty” does low-paid charity work but comes from a wealthy family. The chef hero of “Master of Fusion” is already a local celebrity and has a big career ahead of him, possibly including cookbooks and TV shows; the sky’s the limit. And that’s another ingredient of the wealthy hero concept: hope. The wealth of the hero in a romance is meant to give the reader (and the heroine) hope for a happy, comfortable future. It’s a fantasy, after all. It might as well include unlimited money!
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Recently there were discussions on Romancing the Blog and on Smart Bitches (you can visit those sites just by clicking on the sidebar—but you know that) about whether romance readers like strong heroines or weak ones and whether romance novels should carry labels describing their content. This inevitably fanned out to include discussion of whether readers like bitch heroines or Too Stupid to Live (TSTL) heroines.
It got me thinking about stock romance characters and what has changed in our culture. It’s pretty easy to know what is meant by TSTL. A heroine who minces along in a story, proving her vulnerable femininity by making incredibly foolish choices over and over, who thereupon has to be repeatedly rescued by the hero—well, she’s TSTL. She’s the prototype for the horror movie spoofs, who goes down into the scary basement when she knows there’s an intruder. Bad idea! Or whose inane chatter alerts the secret villain that she knows too much and must be killed. Just shut up! Or who hops in the car when the wrong guy offers a ride. Too compliant! She’s also the heroine who can be easily faked out by a phony call from a hospital saying a loved one is in Emergency. In your entire life, have you ever heard of a hospital calling to tell you something urgent? No. Hospitals call about the bill, or a recording reminds you of an appointment. But the TSTL heroine actually believes a hospital is calling when the evil villain calls to lure her out of her safe house. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
But what about the bitch? This is harder to define because in our culture, aside from “female dog,” bitch means different things to different people. Here I have to go off on a tangent and recall that when I was a little girl playing in the neighborhood and listening to the older boys talk, I came to the erroneous conclusion that “bitch” and “bastard” were the male and female of dog. Well, they aren’t. And technically, they are both insults to a woman. It used to be that calling a man a bastard was the ultimate insult because being born illegitimate (born of parents not married to each other) meant he could not inherit from his father, and his mother presumably was a slut. And since men owned the land and had all the money, being a bastard was being born with the odds against him. But this unfortunate life situation created the bastard personality, that of a man who does not approach the world with an easy, optimistic attitude, or even a set of ethics. Since he has no place in line, he doesn’t wait his turn. Instead, he grasps for what he wants. He creates his own good fortune, often by taking from others. Not a nice guy. And that’s the modern definition of a bastard, too: not a nice guy. Simple.
As for a bitch, well, thinking of dogs, she defends her children to the death, as any mother would. This could mean that if possible danger gets too close for her peace of mind, she will attack unprovoked. Honorable behavior. When translated into human female behavior, though, the definition gets twisted in many ways. A bitch is any woman who will not do whatever a man wants. Yet another definition of a bitch is a woman in a pimp’s stable of prostitutes, that is, a woman who in fact will do exactly what any man wants. Moving up from such degradation, we have the bitch who guards her family’s lives, and who might kill to help them. Thus, Lady Macbeth, who talks her husband into committing murder to gain the throne. Is it to satisfy her ambitions or his? Whichever, Lady Macbeth goes mad from the moral consequences.
And then there are the bitches of romance novels. Several major kinds. One is an almost entirely passé character, the bitchy “other woman,” the glamorpuss who threatens to take the hero from the (usually TSTL) heroine, through her expert use of makeup, hair dye, sex, and mean comments. And lying about being pregnant. And an entire repertoire of emotionally manipulative tricks. As romance heroines have themselves become more empowered and self-confident, the bitchy other woman’s powers have tended to range more in the manipulative area than in the beauty pageant competitiveness arena. Modern women in our culture are not automatically competing with other women the way the wannabes of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders do. (But by the way, may I admit to a guilty pleasure? I like to watch bits of that TV show, just to see girls with perfect bodies and lots of makeup cry. It amuses me to see the older women who are in charge—hmm...are they bitches?—pick these girls apart so ruthlessly: “Her thighs look heavy on camera.” is enough to send some girl home weeping to her small town in Texas. I love it. I wonder if that makes me bitchy? Or just the more minor “catty”?)
Back to bitches. Incidentally, I feel naughty just saying that word. Ladies were not supposed to use the word bitch when I was growing up. Only men, calling us that. Oh, well. Moving on.
The bitch heroine in the modern romance is an entirely different personage from all these previously mentioned. She can be the empowered heroine, obviously. Typically, she’s a woman with an agenda that makes other people uncomfortable. This is new territory. She wants more for herself than her mother wants for her, or her sister wants for herself. She wants more from the people with whom she works, too. Honesty, fair play, whatever. And she will fight to get what she wants. Is that where one group of bitches peel off to become bitch goddesses, women who make men crazy for them, and use them and throw them away? I’m fairly sure that Madonna has been called a bitch during her lengthy, self-motivated career. What an outrage that she uses sex to seduce audiences instead of letting sex control her! And she’s laughing all the way to the bank. But she does have to do all those body-toning exercises and keep after the apparent youthfulness of her face, not to mention update her music style constantly. She works hard for her bitch status.
But enough tangents. The cliché glamorous other woman makes a small reappearance in modern romances as the Evil Bitch Ex-Wife character. Romance heroes may be done with this woman, but she can cause trouble anyhow. But an amazing number of romance heroines just shrug off the ex-wife bitch these days. Some romance writers have indulged in catfights between the heroine and the evil bitch, but these are not popular in romances. Ladylike heroines are supposed to be above such fights. And the tough ones could make the evil bitch scream too easily, so there’s no fun in reveling in the mud. Anyway, these kinds of fights are really male fantasies.
So, what makes the modern heroine a bitch, then? There’s the type of heroine who says no to the hero when she really means yes, and she keeps it up all through the story. This happens even though she has sex with him and lets him open his heart to her. But she keeps her own heart behind a protective shield. She’s a useful character to keep a story going, because she opposes the hero. She refuses the hero’s overtures. She creates the conflict. And stories need conflict. (Otherwise, all we’d have is How Grandpa Married Grandma—a sanitized version of something that was passionate and daring and desperate at the time. Romance has to be written on the desperate edge, not as a calm memoir.) But is this character a bitch? She can be steely, icy, and irritating as hell. Why doesn’t she give in to the hero sooner? Why can’t she recognize his sincerity and his sterling qualities? But is she a bitch?
Or is the urban fantasy, kickass heroine type, the competent spy, agent, warrior, or detective the bitch? She makes waves, she has a central core of identity that is not dependent on the men around her, and she has a mission to fulfill. She knows how to use weapons and her brain, too. If she discovers she’s under some man’s control, she extricates herself. Does that make her a bitch? Have women, in fact, taken over this usually pejorative term and made it a shorthand for self-determination?
I’ve seen a lot of commentary on the web suggesting that women no longer wince away from being called a bitch, and that some in fact embrace it. But I am not sure if that ventures into the controversial n-word territory where it’s okay for me to call myself a bitch but not okay for you to do that. So I’m not going there. Because I don’t know the answers to the questions I have raised. Language and society are constantly evolving. I do know that my childhood view of the world has been modified many times and continues to change as I see the world changing. Yet it is an act of daring for the remaining child in me to use this word repeatedly: Bitch!
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
In case you’ve been dead for the last several years, an important visual art form from Japan, manga, has been sweeping our nation. Manga are comic books. The stories are generally released in anthology magazines, featuring a chapter each in the lives of a half-dozen or so continuing characters. Then when enough chapters have been created, each character’s adventures are gathered up and re-released in a separate single theme manga compilation, a paperback book.
But you probably know this. Or do you? Have you been ignoring manga the way people tried to ignore rock n’ roll? I don’t recommend ignoring major popular trends. It puts you out of touch with the mainstream of your culture. You don’t have to like a trend. But you probably should know something about it. I’m not suggesting that you torture yourself by watching every reality TV show, for instance, but it can’t hurt to know what “American Idol” is, or where Joey Fatone sprung from. And anyway, for years to come, listing the members of N’Sync will be a quiz show question.
Manga stands a good chance of becoming just as pervasive as any music or TV genre, so pay attention. Librarians say that these days the items most checked out are graphic novels. And I’m betting that manga, once the libraries carry them routinely, will surpass them in circulation. Why? Because most manga readers are female. And most book readers are female.
Maybe you think that manga are like the American comic books of the recent past—mostly written by men for men or boys. But not so. A big streak of manga are written and drawn by women. Since the writers and artists (often one and the same) have Japanese names, most of us don’t instantly realize that fact. American-origin manga are pretty much the usual by and for males stuff, emphasizing the typical themes of male interest—violence, sex, horror, and then more violence and sex and horror. Oh, well. But women share some interest in those topics, as the popularity of paranormal romance proves. Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake comics, which feature a manga-influenced art style, plenty of violence, and quite a bit of sex one way or another, are currently in the top ten of graphic novel bestsellers. I don’t know if mostly women or mostly men buy Anita Blake and it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we’re finally seeing a batch of comics published in this country that are about women and that are written by women and that maybe even reflect some genuine interests of women. On that last, it’s a hard call, since what Japanese women find interesting is not necessarily what American women find interesting, and the bulk of manga available in America today so far is Japanese written.
But there’s hope, since once a market has been discovered, everyone wants in on it. That’s one reason that DC Comics launched its Minx imprint. Although these are meant to be Serious Graphic Novels, they’re geared to a teenage girl market that DC Comics abandoned 30 plus years ago—but manga rediscovered. My godchild reads manga. And so does her mother.
Since I have finally stopped ignoring manga as just something my male friends read, I have felt compelled to research it. You’ve surely heard the line “We watch so you don’t have to” or a version of it. Well, I have read a big batch of manga so you don’t have to. It’s easy to do. Manga is widely available in America now. Wal-Mart carries Shojo Beat and Shonen Jump, for instance, respectively girls’ interest and boys’ interest manga anthology magazines. Bookstores carry manga compilations. Libraries have graphic novels and some already stock manga, too. In addition to imports and reprints, there now are a significant number of major American publishers creating their own manga. The material is out there. Of course it’s a big question where this is all going. So far, the answer has been straight to the top. Manga sells millions and makes millions.
Meanwhile, to the basics. Sailor Moon was probably the manga that put shojo manga on everybody’s lips. It’s the one I’ve heard references to for years. I’ve just finished reading a French translation, and my French is pretty rusty, but I definitely got the concept: Cute 14-year-old schoolgirl encounters a cat and gains mysterious powers from the moon, thus being dubbed Sailor Moon. Her real name is Bunny. Well, that’s the Japanese for you: Openly cute and not ashamed to be. Bunny is a pretty blond youngster who is always late to school, doesn’t like doing her homework, plays video games, and gets involved in some mystical adventures. She gets gifted with sparkly, bejeweled weapons to aid her in destroying the demons infesting her immediate vicinity. They’re apparently searching for that common grail of the supervillain, the Item That Gives Control of the Universe. In this case, it’s a silver crystal. It’s in the possession of a princess. Finding it involves dressing up for a ball and dancing with the mysterious glamour boy, Tuxedo, and turning into Sailor Moon—basically, getting glammed up. Sailor Moon uses her bejeweled pen, her bejeweled Frisbee (really!), and her bejeweled brooch (and maybe a few more jewels I have forgotten) to fight the bad guys. Only, she’s not sure if Tuxedo is a good guy or a bad guy. Well, that’s book one. It was charming. Pretty art. Pretty jewels. Very little of the demons—who significantly seem to inhabit previously trusted close relatives or friends.
By contrast, I was just looking at the July, 2007 issue of The Comics Journal, a very long-lasting comics fanzine. It has some thoughtful and thought-provoking articles, and numerous illustrations of current comics of many types and of historical comics material. And I was struck by how ugly the illustrations were. Sure, maybe they were badly reproduced and that explained some of it. The paper was dull and the blacks did not pop, and maybe they were low-res images to begin with. But that’s not the whole story. The selection of illustrations had very little beauty and almost zero cuteness. It struck me suddenly that one main reason I have been able to enjoy manga is that so much of it is pretty.
Call me girly because I like to see pretty things, including a clean rendering with a nice ink line. My favorite American comic books and comic strips have been those drawn with fine attention to detail and with advertising quality finish. For me, it is not enough to draw Mary Jane Watson’s hair; you must make it shine. People ought to look good in comics; that’s my opinion. Ugly exists in reality all too much, so when drawing fantasy, beauty should be a major goal. Sailor Moon is not the only pretty shojo manga. Pretty exemplifies the manga art style.
These samples of manga are very typical of manga, especially shojo manga and yaoi (supposedly gay) manga aimed at girls and women, although they also are common in shonen manga aimed at boys and men. People look pretty. Their clothes are crisp. Their hair shines. Their eyes sparkle. Males look like fashion models, impossibly wasp-waisted and pointy-chinned and debonair. The characters look attractive. This is what I like about manga.
What I don’t like is the idea that demons are all around, or that they could be inhabiting our friends and relatives. But that’s a metaphor for the strangeness of what can pass between people when trust gets mangled or broken. As such it’s acceptable as a literary device. Young children don’t really have a language to explain complex relationships, so demons work nicely.
I’m also not too crazy about a style of idolizing pre-age of consent teen girls and giving them still-childish ambitions and thoughts and then placing them in teasingly grown-up, sometimes openly sexual situations. It’s a version of pre-womanhood that depends too much on good luck or the kindness of strangers, and that has some troubling voyeuristic elements. But when I visited Japan recently and saw girls dressed up as maids and Lolitas (more on that another time), I had to admit that they were showing only about as much skin as American girls do today. Just different parts. American girls and women face similar pressures in our society as Japanese girls and women do in theirs. Manga stories touch on universal issues. Just the treatment is different.
And I think that is what makes manga fascinating. They aren’t the same old thing. What is serious in manga and what is comic and what is sexy and what is silly—and yes, what is pretty—are all different from what we in America have lately seen in any medium. But not so different that we can’t recognize many similarities in the basic human condition, including a love of sparkly jewelry and a fear of close relatives turning unrecognizable, for instance.
You don’t have to read manga. But you might like some of them.