What I Learned From Harlequin Romance Novels
When I was in Middle School (Junior High) our family moved. That is not the best time to move for girls. We are insecure enough, so why make us give up the friends we do have, to move into a new school, and all the new politics it implies...
Being desperate for friends, when I found another book-reading-geek-girl, I was anxious to befriend. Now I was an avid reader (escape via book was all the more important during the move), reading at least one book a day.
I read lots of non-fiction: biographies, anthropology books, books on societal issues, etc. & some poetry. (Told you I was a geek.)
I did read some novels too. I was never a mystery fan (well, when I was 'little' some Nancy Drew, of course) and I had managed to 'skip' that whole young-girl romance fantasy thing.
But this new potential friend, this one girl who stood to make all the difference between eating solitary in the cafeteria & having some sort of social life, she loved romance novels. And not the more elaborate historical bodice rippers, no. She loved Harlequin Romance Novels.
What's a young, awkward, social misfit to do? Well, like any well-conditioned American girl, I read them too.
Now, for those of you who avoided these things (and I hope it is many!), let me tell you a little about these books. An avid reader can polish one off in an hour or two. Once done, you have the vague feeling that you would have been better off watching tv.
After you read 3, you realize that the only thing that changes it the location & the names.
Now readers & writers alike know that there are only so many plots. In reality, most fiction works can be summed up by fitting it into one of a small number of 'genres' and then sub classify it by basic plot outline. The difference is that 'real' authors make you think it is new & original. Each work develops the setting, the emotions, the details so distinctly, you suspend the potential situations & outcomes & get into the specifics of the story & forget to start pluggin' away at classifying it.
But the authors of Harlequin books don't.
This is how they typically go:
Man (Marc with a 'c', rich, handsome & strong) and woman (Clarrissa Devon - she must have a unique name - slender, smart & sensitive) are thrown together by 'fate.' Most often the woman is 'beneath' him: she has no money, she works for him, she is years younger etc.
Initially, they cannot stand one another. They fight (hinting at the boiling, seething passions below).
Both are proud. Both have been hurt before.
At some point, they begin to explore, in their private moments, to themselves alone, that perhaps there is something to this hatred... Could it be?! Oh, no! She is falling in love! (His internal dialog may or may not be exposed.)
But due to pride, neither can admit to those heart-wrenching, nerve-racking feelings. Oh, the pain!
Then, usually due to illness, accident or some 'scare' they become intimate. (Now in Harlequins, this is a 'passionate embrace' and nothing more.)
After the 'drama' has passed, neither is sure that the other one was acting on true feelings ~ enter pride, again, stage left.
This is most often the point at which the man appears to be falling under the spell of some 'evil' woman (Vivian - or other strong but rare name - she is never 'Mary'). She is full-figured, simmering, spoiled & snappish.
Now, this presence of evil has been around before. She is a past lover of his, a woman of equal or higher standing to the man. She is now making her claim on the man, clear enough for slender Clarrissa Devon, but stupid Marc doesn't see it.
He doesn't see Vivian's hatred of his motherless children. He doesn't see her rude & selfish ways. And of course, he is never privy to Vivian's verbal attacks on Clarrissa Devon.
There is much comparison of 'Clarrissa Devon's slender from as she athletically dives into the pool' vs. 'Vivian's voluptuous from lounging pool side, never to get wet.'
Finally, Clarrissa cannot stand to watch Marc love another, so she will either leave, or prepare to leave, only to be swept away with an 'I only love you, Clarrissa Devon' speech. And just like that, it ends.
Now, remember, change 'Clarrissa Devon, American Tutor abroad in Scotland, working for Marc' to 'Kathleen Rose, Irish horse trainer, working for Mathew in Kentucky' and 'Vivian' will be called 'Madison' etc. and you have the other versions.
What troubled me greatly was not so much the flimsy plot & unimaginative emotional depictions, but the fact that I, with my growing, large bosom, was cast as the evil, rude seductress.
Now perhaps the books have improved greatly. Maybe now they even allow for the hatred between Clarrissa Devon & Vivian to be sexual, I don't know. But back then, the pattern was very clear: Men may be tempted by curves, but real love could only be had with slender, athletic girls.
Ironically, the girl I was hoping to befriend was even more well-endowed than myself. Or at least it seemed to me ~ she had a large rack, a 'white girls' ass (made the rack even more pronounced) and a face that was not very pretty (compounded by thick frames that magnified her eyes to 4 times the size of any other human), so her breasts were what you just had to see...
While I was too young at that age to notice all of this with much clarity, I see it all now.
And while I hated the simpering books, I tried to read them & talk with her about them. It so pleased her, but can you imagine how insipid those talks were?!
Eventually we did find other mutual interests. Sure, we still met up at the library, but I no longer checked out any romances.
But that is not the end of the story...
The next year, we started High School. While I certainly was not considered quality enough to be asked out by boys from our school, I was the first one with a boyfriend.
His name was Skip ~ and a less likely Skip, you will never find. A real 'wild child' full of the pain of his parents' divorce, who attached himself to me & my family like glue.
Well, to make a long story short, that girl I became friends with, the one who was more voluptuous than I (at least on top) 'stole' my man.
Yes, Skip skipped off with her. Leaving me to question if bosoms are, in fact, the very location of 'evil man-chasing' ~ and then, if so, how come Skip didn't realize that it couldn't be love...
Harlequins messed with my adolescent mind, my immature heart.
Now, I see that it wasn't the evil bosom to blame. Skip was just hopped on hormones, and someone offered more to help him with that. And that poor girl felt either that her bosom was all she had, or that in the name of true love, all was fair. Fate had brought them together. We had to compete, woman to woman, for a man.
Maybe she even thought I was the evil one... After all, she loved those books...
And that's where the danger lies folks. Young impressionable girls, who lack confidence, will look for any strong savior. If they find it between the covers of a Harlequin novel, ooohh scary.
Now this is only my opinion.
Some could take this very same tale & say 'yeah, well, the one who didn't like them became a slut.' They could argue to make your teenaged girls read those books, to keep 'em safe...
Maybe that's valid.
To be fair, she & Skip didn't even make it to prom. She did, however, 'snake' away another friend's boy & marry him. Only to divorce a few years later... I don't know for certain, but the rumors I last heard were rather the same: she hunts for taken men & tries to get a savior fast.
But for those who think that women aren't conditioned to compete for men, who think that women do that to other women, I say think about it...
Yup, more women write Harlequins (or robots & software now?), women buy them. But it took a man to start that company. Richard Bonnycastle founded Harlequin in 1949, and in 1957 he decided to focus on what we now call the Harlequin Romance Novels. Then he began to put the message before women in a *big* way...
"Rather than focusing on bookshops, the traditional locale for book purchases, Harlequin took its books to where women shop most — supermarkets, drugstores, and department stores." (Read here for more history.)
My point is, that those books were accessible. They were 'allowed' and safe 'happy books.' Now, what if women had been conditioned to other reading materials? What if they were encouraged to read 'what men read' and therefore encouraged to go to other places for reading materials... What if there were different reading choices along-side those books?
Would women be less 'competitive' with each other for men? Would we be less catty?
Are men all to blame? No, of course not! But if we look at the time period, 1950s, & who was in power, men, and see that a pattern was set... A pattern that states women should compete, but only 'slender' girls are worthy. A pattern that says men equal security for women. Shouldn't we then at least see what can be done to counter-act it?
Maybe we need more of those small feminist publications at drug stores, supermarkets & left in beauty salons.
Reach the women. Power to the people.