What Women Want

This article first appeared at the Writers At Play blog, February 2, 2008.

In a recent issue of Esquire magazine, Jennifer Love Hewitt was asked to provide her top 10 Things You Don’t Know About Women. A couple of her answers were dead on, such as “We want to raise children. We just don’t want you to be one of them,” and “We’re not complimented when you call your ex a slut. She dated you, too. So what are we?” The answer that stuck in my mind, however, was “Women are meant to talk and men to listen. We don’t want to be fixed; we want to be heard.”

I’m not so sure about the first part of that last one, but I’ll get to that in a minute. I fully agree with the second part, though, and I’d even say that it speaks to the core of what the Romance genre is all about. This is the part that people who denigrate the genre, especially those basing their opinion on 20-30 year old books, just don’t get.

What women want is to be heard, and in the Romance genre women have a voice. Sure, there are a few guys who write Romance, and we welcome them, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a genre whose sole purpose is to put female characters at the forefront of stories and to see them solve their problems.

There are as many different subgenres of Romance as there are the varied personalities of the women who read and write them. This variation and its constant revision is why the Romance genre continues to be relevant and valuable to the average female. The agility of the genre to grow and change with its readership, to remake itself to speak to the issues important to each generation, is why the genre generates over $1 billion annually in sales. Pop culture is fluid, and as part of pop culture, the Romance genre influences and is influenced by TV, movies and other media. In this manner, the movie Enchanted in many ways mirrors the changes that have occurred in the Romance genre over the past generation.

While the movie has been criticized for what we will call “The Shopping Episode” — and I agree that scene kind of made me cringe — the ending cinched it for me as a great, fun movie (spoiler alert!): Gisele, after freeing the sword from its “stone,” goes after the evil dragon herself to save her prince and together they defeat it and save themselves. In the end, Gisele doesn’t want to stop being a princess, but she also wants to stand up for herself and for the man she loves, like so many women in our modern world.

Sound like a metaphor for so many Romances out there? As one commenter over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books said recently, Romance is the “apotheosis of a relationship.” Romance is about the meeting of the minds (and bodies) of a woman and a man, a couple working together to solve the Big Story Problem.

But back to Jennifer Love Hewitt. The heroes in Romance novels, especially those pesky alpha heroes who have so much to learn, must speak as well as listen. These are men who are expected to explain themselves; their thoughts and feelings, in ways men in real life seem to rarely do (my husband is, of course, the exception). Also, typically, these are men who are the antithesis of courtly princes. The whole notion of marrying one’s prince and living happily ever after is turned on its head in the Romance genre, contrary to typical criticism. Yes, readers expect a happily-ever-after ending, but it\’s after a lot of hard work.

And what about Gisele? The scene that offsets The Shopping Episode for me in Enchanted is the ending, where we see Gisele running her own business. It is albeit a very feminine business, but throughout the movie we see that Gisele is an expert in this particular venue. She’s at the top of her game and making her own money. She started out as a naive bride in a totally inappropriate dress and embracing a love she did not know, but ends up her own woman making relationship decisions based on more than star-struck love at first site. Moreover, Gisele didn’t have to give up what made her special: her ability to respond to people genuinely, without being jaded by the “real” world.

Say what you will about Cinderella and Aurora, Gisele is a new kind of princess: royalty of a new ilk born of accomplishment, not out of marrying the prince. The Romance genre continually tells the story of this very type of woman.

What are some of your favorite heroines from Romance novels and why? I’ll choose one of the heroines mentioned in the comments to profile in my next post on Damsels Not In Distress. For more articles celebrating strong heroines, visit my blog where every Danger Gal Friday I profile strong heroines in Romance and Science Fiction who subvert feminine stereotypes.

Lisa Paitz Spindler a.k.a “Danger Gal” knows how to mix Science Fiction with Romance. Check out her blog, where Danger is a Gal’s Best Friend.