This topic has been stewing around in the back of my head for a while now. I hadn’t written about it because I really wanted to post something intelligent and thoughtful, and that seemed so difficult. I also didn’t want to just put it off indefinitely, though, so finally I decided to jump in, even if it came out warty. Disclaimer: this is primarily about straight romances, mostly because I’ve read a lot more of those so the patterns are more obvious to me. There’s so much swirling around in my head even just with that that I doubt I’ll be able to fit it all in one post. Probably I’ll just make a start on the parts that most preoccupy me today, and come back to other bits later.
What I keep circling back to when I think about romance in non-romantic fiction is how compulsory romance seems, even in stories that aren’t about romance. I feel as if it’s worse for women than for men – that not only is it rarer for female protagonists to have a story without romance, romance has to be a bigger part of their stories when it’s present. Women are more defined by their relationships with men than the reverse.
For some reason this came to a head for me when I was reading Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. I felt a little bad for being so frustrated because I very much liked the book otherwise. Now that I think about it, in fact, it’s probably because I liked the book otherwise that I got so hung up on the compulsory romance aspect. Particularly, I was a big fan of the main character. She’s clever and determined and compassionate and of course she winds up in a romance with the mysterious vampire guy.
It’s not that I objected to him, specifically. I actually liked him as a character as well. But after reading uncountable stories in which women just always wind up having (male) love interests, I snapped a little bit. Why does she have to have a crush on him? Why can’t she just be clever and determined and compassionate – and be complete without a love interest?
I don’t object to characters having romantic relationships in general. (Some of my best friends have romantic relationships!) People have romantic relationships; therefore, characters have romantic relationships. It would be ridiculous if they didn’t. It’s the ubiquity of it that bothers me, especially for women. It’s as if there’s no comprehensible way for a woman to exist without being involved with a man.
This means that books without compulsory romance (especially for women) appear like oases in the desert. Reason number two why I absolutely adore Dealing with Dragons and always have is that the main character is a princess who doesn’t have to get married. And it’s not just that she doesn’t get married. She doesn’t have a crush. She doesn’t go adventuring with a guy and realize how great he is.* There’s only one male character with whom she might conceivably have any kind of relationship, and she’s not interested in him. It’s not even an emphatic lack of interest – she’s not rejecting him for any reason. She’s just not interested, and she has other things to do. I really have no words for how amazing, how refreshing, how completely delightful that is to me.
It also leads me to something else that bothers me: usually, when characters (both men and women, but again, more so with women) don’t have any sort of romantic interest, it’s an emphatic lack of interest. That is, they actively reject the possibility for some particular reason. A highly non-scientific survey of my bookshelf suggests that for men it’s most often that their prior (female) love interest died. Women’s (male) love interests are usually gone in some other way.** But the possibility that a person (especially a woman) might just not be that interested in the people around them and have other things going on is practically unheard-of.
This drives me crazy. Like I said, it’s not as if there’s anything wrong with any specific example of having a romance or pining for a lost love. But frankly, I’d like a little more variety in my reading. And sure, I can go searching for it – but it’d be awfully nice if I didn’t have to search.
* This does happen in the second book – that is, she goes adventuring with a guy, realizes how great he is, and marries him. I know it’s not unreasonable. Expecting people to never change and develop is just as unrealistic as expecting people to always have a romantic interest. I still found it disappointing. On the other hand, in the third book she goes on an adventure (while pregnant!) while her husband stays home to take care of the kingdom. Which is pretty great, and couldn’t have happened if she hadn’t gotten married. Second book is still my least-favorite.
** This probably says something (probably lots of somethings), though I’m not sure exactly what. Female characters being killed off to serve as motivation for male characters is a well-documented trend in a variety of media, but the reverse doesn’t seem to happen as much. Maybe it’s a bigger deal for a man to be unable to protect his love interest, but for a woman it’s a bigger deal to not be able to hold onto hers?