Saturday, October 4, 2014

Romance - fiction or not?

I’m about to share something with you that is very private.  Forgive me.  I need to tell you to explain my point.

My aunt died this week.  It was unexpected and we are awaiting results to find out the cause of her death.  It’s sad and the family has taken it hard.  But it’s the reactions of my uncles that got me thinking about romance stories.  My uncles are aged in their 60’s and 70’s, and after hearing the news they reacted in different ways.  Anger and lashing out.  Walking out the door and not returning for hours.  Numbness and not speaking to anyone for the rest of the day.  Getting in their car and just driving.

My mother broke down and cried when she heard the news.  Then she asked me through the tears, “Why?  Why are my brothers just walking away?”

I smiled sadly at her.  “Mum.  They are men.  They were never taught how to show their emotions.  They don’t know how to express themselves.”

Which brings me to my rumination – 
   is romance a reflection of real life, or not?

I spent my teens and 20’s reading Mills & Boon and the like.  Like them or hate them, you cannot disagree that they are successful as a genre.  You see them in Target with their own entire bookcase display.  They’re in every major retail store.  Women (and some men!) devour them.  I used to be one of them.  If I ever go back to university to study psychology, I’d love to do an indepth report on the change of the humble M&B novel.

I’ve read tens of thousands of them, and being on a budget, many of them were older ones picked up at second-hand stores for a bargain price.  But, on reflection of my breadth of reading, it is true that the good ol’ M&B is a great indicator of society.

A quick look at the remnants of my paperback library (I’ve had to donate 1000’s of books so that my children could have a bedroom instead of their mother having a book room) shows me the oldest M&B book I own was first published 15 years before I was born.  But I have a dozen or so favourites that were written in the late 1970s which I take as a gauge of society back then.  I love reading them with my 21st century eyes:  All men smoked – and a lot of time it was after sex.  Most men were 15 years older than the heroine of the story, and this was not considered abnormal enough to comment on within the story.   The women worked secretarial or nursing jobs if they worked at all.  But most importantly, the men were strong, forceful, unemotional and rather controlling.

The 1980s saw a surge of strong women appear in the M&B novels.  Women who needed an even stronger and more stubborn man to dominate them.  Every second women seemed to be a model, or an executive, and every woman “melted” when their man got all domineering.

The 1990’s is when I thought things got interesting.  There were a rush of “sheik” novels – the Arabian man with his flowing white robes and desert palaces, falling in love with the white woman who captured his heart.  In the 1990’s there was no terrorism, no Holy Wars, no fear of the Middle East.  There was a romantic outlook about the Eastern male who could (if he wanted) have six wives, and to whom people bowed and scraped.

Then the sheik novels began to morph into prince novels (and about this time I gave up on M&B in disgust).  But the men were rich and powerful princes from “lost” European countries.  Looking back on it now, I think the world was in love with Prince Fredrick of Denmark and Princess Mary (the ultimate Cinderella story).  But our “heroes” were still all powerful and pretty much showed no emotion to the outside world.

It is obvious that the M&B novels written, were written to appeal to the readers of that time.  So real or fiction?  Are M&B a reflection of what society was at that time, or fictional to what reader wanted it to be?

Every couple of weeks, the old argument arises on a blog somewhere about whether m/m romance accurately describes a gay man’s life today.  There is always a reader questioning the condom use in sex scenes, the monogamy of a gay relationship or whether a character is simply a “chick with a dick.”  One obvious different between the male characters I read today, and the characters of the M&B novels of the 1970s, is emotion (hence the “chick with a dick” reference a lot of characters get).  The men in novels today show a full range of emotions.

So, the BIG question of the day for me is: 
                  romance – fiction or not?  

The men in fiction have changed in 40 years, but is it a true reflection of today’s society?  

Have we, as a culture, given men permission to feel emotion and show it without shame?  Do we now like when our men cry if they need to?

My father once told me that the first time in his life that he cried, was at his mother’s funeral.  Since my dad was about 55 at the time, this was very sad for me to hear that he’d spent 50+ years without “allowing” himself to outwardly show his grief, despair or happiness with tears.  As for my uncles?  They will probably bottle it up and push it down as they were shown to do as a young boy. 

But my son?  I hope he feels able to show the full spectrum of emotion as the men we read about in our m/m fiction.

So what do you think?  
          Romance – fiction or not?

How to contact Renae:

Twitter:  @renaekkaye

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