Should We Let Our Daughters Read Romantic Novels?

February 24th, 2009

Or will it ruin them for life?

God, I love a good romance.  A book’s just not satisfying to me unless there’s some kind of passionate coming-together in it of a man and a woman.  My love of romance started with The Witch of Blackbird Pond and the manly, frequently annoyed sailor Nat, and continued on through Rhett and Scarlett, every Austen book (although only Emma and Pride and Prejudice REALLY satisfy) and Bronte of course–oh and don’t forget The Scarlet Pimpernel where Sir Percy is so freakin’ in love with his wife that he KISSES THE STAIRS where she walked–after being mean to her because he can’t let her know he loves her . . .  Oh, GOD, it’s fantastic.

Excuse me a moment.

Cold water in the face.  Okay. I’m better now.

The point is, I love that stuff.  I eat it up.  The smoldering, ultra-masculine hero, the woman he loves in spite of himself (very important–he has to love her SO MUCH that even though he knows better, he can’t tear himself away), the various complications and roadblocks, the intricate dance toward each other and then away again . . .  and of course, most important of all, the final blissful realization that they can, do, and will love each other forever.


Best of all, the romances in these books mirror those in real life!  I mean, they’re practically a mirror of the way people all around us meet, fall in love, and get married.

Note: I’m being sarcastic.

But you knew that. 

I’ve been about as lucky in love as a girl can get.  I’ve been married for almost twenty years to a man who’s kind, handsome, manly, smart, funny, loving to me and the kids . . .  I could go on but he reads these posts and I don’t want him to start thinking that I’ll love him even if he doesn’t fix the water filter because that won’t work out well for any of us.

The point is, nothing about our courtship, marriage, or life together has been anything like the passionate, smoldering, “I hate you because I love you” (or is it “I love you because I hate you”?) romances you find in most novels.

We didn’t fight when we first met.  We had a pleasant conversation.  Later, he didn’t try to keep himself away from me, nor did he pursue me avidly.  We got together a few times, mostly with other people around, and then we realized we liked each other a lot, and got together all the time, mostly without other people around.  

There weren’t any real obstacles–I mean, I did have a boyfriend when we first met, but I broke up with him.   Our families were all in favor of the relationship.   There were no huge misunderstandings–a few arguments, a lot of wishing on my side that he worked shorter hours, different internal time clocks–but nothing that tore us painfully apart (so we could one day reunite passionately of course).

There was no smoldering on his part and no archness on mine.  We made each other laugh and liked each other’s friends. 

I could go on, but you get the point.  He was no Mr. Darcy and I, sir, was no Elizabeth Bennet.

Life isn’t like it is in books and that’s truer about romance than anything else.  I’m not sure why the romantic paradigm is so incredibly appealing to me and to most of the women and girls I know.  Maybe it’s because it’s been around so long that we’re steeped in it before we’re even aware of it.  Maybe it’s because women were economically so helpless in previous centuries that their ability to attract a man was the only power they had, so that became the pivot for stories women were likely to read.  Maybe it’s something biological: we want monogamy for the sake of our offspring so we’re naturally responsive to anything that suggests lifelong devotion and passion can survive despite numerous obstacles and difficulites.

I don’t know.  But as I watch my 11-year-old daughter tear through novel after novel, I find myself wondering how I can adequately explain to her that the romances she’s so enthralled by are fantasy, pure and simple, and that if she looks for a guy who angers and enthralls her, she’ll probably end up with an egotistical jerk, that she needs to find someone like her father who’s kind and intelligent in equal measure, and that a man who’s willing to take out the compost so you don’t have to is showing more genuine love and compassion than one who smolders with jealousy when you flirt with another man.  Which you shouldn’t do in the first place.  There are rules.

I don’t get a lot of women’s fashion and style magazines–much as I love them–because I don’t want my daughter to measure herself against a standard of beauty that’s unrealistic, manufactured, and has the potential to destroy her self-esteem.  Should I also be guarding her against a standard of romance that’s unrealistic, manufactured and has the potential to destroy her ability to recognize real love when it stutters, stumbles, and fumbles its way toward her one day?

I can’t deny her the pleasure of reading the books I loved or of the ones she’s avidly pursuing on her own.  (Or rather, I don’t want to:  why deny her a pleasure that doesn’t involve illegal substances or huge amounts of sugar?) All I can do is keep reminding her that real men aren’t vampires with wild passions for teenage girls: they’re just the male equivalent of us–flawed, hopeful, searching, and easily wounded.  

Fantasy is a wonderful way to escape and be entertained.  But in real life, go for the guy whose face lights up when you walk into the room–even if you’re wearing old sweats and haven’t showered in a couple of days.  I tell you, that’s worth more than all the manly smoldering and sardonic grins put together . . .