Up Front by Emma Hart


Isn't It Romantic?

Thanks to all of you who took the time to respond to my survey from last week. The look on my partner's face when he saw my inbox was well worth it. It seems to introduce a pleasant reciprocity: I write these columns for you, and now you write these columns for me.

And what perfect timing as we roll up to Valentine’s Day – without a doubt, the least romantic day of the year, designed to sell cards, make single people feel miserable, and strip relationships of any possibility for spontaneity. Yay.

The most romantic thing that ever happened to me was a completely wasted wino picking me pansies from the Floral Clock because he was so taken with my beautiful smile. People who've seen my face have no trouble believing he could barely stand. (The second most romantic thing was a trio of men waking me on Valentine's morning by singing 'Do You Want to Know a Secret' outside my bedroom window. This was so touching I slept with two of them.)

I mention this just to lay the groundwork for my own rather jaded point of view here. I'm not big on romance, and I'm not big on romance novels. Nevertheless, I struggle to believe that romantic novels and movies can do people actual harm. Stuff obligingly popped up this morning with a reasonable summary of the 'debate' that's been going on in the British papers lately. The basic premise is that romantic fiction creates a sense of false expectations that damages women's ability to form good relationships. The survey was to test the validity of my own response to this, which can be summed up thusly:

Bollocks it does.

Let's have a look at the experiment they used here:

To test the premise, 100 students were shown the John Cusack romcom Serendipity while another 100 watched a David Lynch flick.
In a questionnaire afterwards, the Serendipity viewers were much more likely to say they believed in fate and predestined love than the others.

That seems a reasonable comparison, right? A romcom and a David Lynch movie. They could have asked which group was more likely to say they believed in carnivorous typewriters too.

On to our own survey. The usual disclaimers about small numbers and the demographic distortions of the Public Address audience apply. (I'm just saying you're disproportionately samrt, kay?)

There was some pointed commonality in response. With only one exception, respondents said they started reading romance novels at twelve or thirteen. This seems to be an age when girls are having first crushes, first boyfriends, and are quite emotionally impressionable. Georgette Heyer was very popular, but so was Mills & Boon, and a couple of people mentioned the teen-marketed romances I read at that age: Sweet Dreams and Wildfire.

Our sample audience overwhelming said that they didn't think reading romance novels had affected their expectations of relationships, or 'correct' male and female behaviour. One common theme was a realisation that those ideals were there, without buying into them:

I think I was always pretty much aware that they didn't really represent the typical behaviour of actual real people. So although you still might daydream of someone sweeping you off your feet romantically, I didn't really believe it happened in real life.

…the men were always gorgeous, domineering, aristocratic creatures who never seemed to turn up around me. And neither did the beautiful heroines. Also, I'd been introduced to science fiction at the same impressionable age, so for every Spanish Don I read about a teleporting criminal mastermind or girl travelling in a asteroid, so the influences were very mixed

And indeed: if I could read science-fiction novels like you’d eat fistfuls of popcorn and still not expect to be serving on a spaceship next to impossibly handsome incredibly intelligent delightfully emotionally-retarded men, why shouldn’t the same be true for the girls reading the pink books?

People were, however, more likely to say they knew 'someone else' whose romance-reading was problematic:

My sister, however, is an avid reader of them still, and I think it *has* coloured her idea of relationships, which conflicts with her general pig-headedness about everything.

The scariest part is when during conversations she makes reference to situations that characters have been in, or occupations they do, as if they are real world people.

This could be a symptom of "I’m okay, you're a basket-case", or it may be that a small minority of people develop a problematic level of attachment to the literature.

Most people, however, seem to be perfectly capable of distinguishing fantasy from reality:

I have a lot of culturally expectations of what relationships should look like (especially at the dating/proposing/having a wedding phase of things) that bear no resemblance whatsoever to any relationship I have ever seen or participated in.

They should: being able to tell what's real and what's not is a pretty good measure of whether or not you're batshit crazy. Part of the appeal of fantasy is that it allows us to go beyond what we'd actually be prepared to do in real life – you can both desire something inside your head, and be aware that you wouldn't really want it if it offered. As evidence, I simply offer up Mr Darcy. "Yes honey, what I really want is for you to stand around being broody and arrogant. In britches."

Nevertheless, romance reading still comes with a high degree of stigma attached. About half of respondents said they were embarrassed about their romance reading habit, and others said that while they didn't feel any shame, they were aware that other people would think less of them if they knew. Self-service library issuing was spontaneously mentioned more than once.

So, in response to the contention that somehow Notting Hill is dangerous to the psyche in a way that, say, Die Hard 3 isn’t, a hearty flibble, and perhaps a protracted discussion about who you'd rather boff: Colin Firth or Hugh Grant.

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