I started this post as a reply to Jenny Trout’s article No, romance novels are not all the same, but thanks for offering your uneducated, unsolicited opinion, and then brought it here to expand into a full article. While I agree with the gist of the article–that the romance genre gets more flack than it deserves these days, one of Jenny’s comments started my groggy sick-and-still-waking-up brain thinking about why. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard before:
[Superhero comics are] a largely male-dominated genre, defended to the death by a largely male-dominated audience who are just as passionate in pointing out the differences between their favorite heroes as romance readers are in pointing out the abundant variances in their genre. Yet, only the former has reached a place of pop-culture relevance that earns it respect.
Jenny’s far from the first person I’ve seen use superheroes as a contract against romance to show sexism. This is just the first time I’ve really felt compelled to say something about it.
The explanation usually given, and that Jenny touches on, is male writers mean more success. Very often that is true. It’s almost like society is surprised a man can string two words together, but I digress. When it comes to superheroes versus romance, I don’t think it’s the sex of the authors. After all, one of the examples given, of Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook has never come close to the popularity of any of the Marvel or DC films or books either (it does help the comic side that they’re all franchised, and so have the same people paying for multiple movies). The Notebook can’t hold a candle to the popularity of…and this physically pains my fingers just thinking about typing it…the psuedo romance that is Twilight, and the abuse-as-romance that is Fifty Shades. Pardon me while I go have a cry and scream into a pillow….
Now a man wrote The Notebook, but the majority of fans are still women. Should we blame male-readers for their lack of interest, even when a man writes the book? I don’t think the typical woman cares the gender of the romance author. And I know no one today cares that one of the most famous monsters of all time, Frankenstein, was created by a woman.
Ultimately the difference in popularity between superheroes and romance doesn’t have to do with the gender or sex of the writers, and everything to do with some major differences between the superhero and romance genres. It has nothing to do with the superhero field being male-dominated. It as a very, very high number of female adherents too! And the romance genre is dominated by women, with little appeal to men. Let’s look at some of the differences:
One major, MAJOR difference right off the bat is that superhero stories have a lot more franchise-potential. The same characters can be reused in countless storylines, and there are more products to buy per title. The villains can return, and new ones can be created. But you can only squeeze so much out of anything having to do with romance. Twilight lasted for four books and overstayed any resemblance of welcome with five movies, and even a lot of the hardest-core fans ended up feeling that was too much. When you franchise, you get the same people to buy more than one book, to see more than one movie, to buy more than one Blu-Ray special edition with bonus features, and you can sell more t-shirts, costume pieces, and board games. Marvel has put out twelve, TWELVE, movies using the Avengers in the last seven years, and eleven more planned for the next four years. Superheroes are just plain more versatile, and it’s more fun to read about/hear about/watch their next battle than it is to go down the line in a group of romance characters as they get their turn. Nora Roberts has managed to drag the same cast with multiple romances out to three books, as she did with the Dream trilogy, and that’s plenty. Three books with the potential for, at most, three movies, is nothing compared to how many movies you can get out of The Avengers or Batman. By the very nature of superhero movies, there’s going to be more to buy.
And when there are franchises, there will be merchandise galore to help keep fans hooked. Costumes are big, figurines, art-of books, just so much else! Keeping people actively involved is really how you turn something from having a fandom (like Twilight) into an impactful part of pop culture (though not part of either genre, the Harry Potter books are a perfect example). How many costumes are there from Twilight or Fifty Shades? How many items from books like them can be turned into figurines or jewelry or bookends? The sterling silver flogger pendants didn’t have a chance, and, even though there were a few pretty things from Twilight, like replicas of Bella’s wedding hair bomb, most items aren’t easily identifiable, even to other fans. So they aren’t changing how people accessorize themselves. They are dated, and ultimately fizzle out.
But romance? Each story has a limited shelf life, and then you’ve for to find something new. The Avengers have a dozen movies, but Twilight managed five, and that’s a lot. Story over. Now the process has to restart to find a new set of character liked on a large scale. Marvel will dump a lot of money into advertising something Avengers since there’s already an existing audience. Why should any company want to take much of a risk with a romance? Avengers proved themselves prior to any money-dump. It just happened long-ago enough that it’s easy to think it didn’t happen. We’re watching modern romances have to prove themselves now, which makes it look unfair.
The one and only real exception to books holding on to audiences without wide-scale merchandise are Jane Austen’s books, and even those are helped along by reenactors participating in festivals…in costume. Myself included. Yes, costumes matter. They help readers/watchers connect with the characters and the books’ worlds in a very physical way. Merchandise and costumes help make it all more real to people, but you can’t pull sex toys and special event and background items, and expect to find success in merchandising. E.L. James has tried, and it’s embarrassing.
It’s easier for parents to share the excitement with their children, effectively turning adults into advertisers of the genre and hooking the next generation. I can share my love of Thor and Jem (original cartoon, which my daughter just turned on) with my daughter, but how can I share the Bow Street Runners with her? Star Wars is a piece of cake. Heroes! Villains! No sex scenes, which almost every romance has! Twilight faded to black, making it one of the rare non-Christian romances to nix sex scenes. I can’t give my daughter Lady Chatterly’s Lover, but can take her to see the next Star Wars movie.
Those alone show a lot of differences between the romance and super hero genre. That they’re both most prevalent in different media accounts for a lot of the difference in why one genre is larger in pop culture while the other isn’t, as is the sharability and the franchising. I can buy a book for $15 and share it with a few friends. That $18.50 I paid for a movie ticket is only good for one person one time. And, in today’s busy world, it’s easier to turn on the Iron Man movie for a couple hours than it is to find enough uninterrupted time to concentrate on the new book I just bought. I can also watch a movie while I’m working on a commission, but reading and sewing can’t be multi-tasked together.
But even if they were all books and would never be turned into movies, there are still some important differences.
Being a super hero is something you DO whereas falling in love is something that happens to you. This makes being a super hero an active choice. Books where the protagonists are actively doing something rather than responding to the passive things that happen to them tend to be more exciting. No, moving to a small town and meaning Johnny DoReMi and not wanting to fall in love isn’t a protag being active in regards to the main storyline. The protag is responding to it. Now there’s nothing wrong with these (and I used to be a big reader of ol’ Harlequins myself, and have read almost everything Nora Roberts and Lisa Kleypas have written), but they lack the adrenaline rush that helps hook more readers.
None of us will ever have the superhuman god-like powers (or super tools Batman has) that super heroes do, but most of us will experience the love of romance. There’s ultimately more fantasy-fuel in the typical super hero book because of this. Romance tends to reflect things most of us can identify with and, frankly, relationships can be stressful in a way a lot of us can personally identify with, and sometimes the contrast between the perfect male love-interest and a reader’s real-life dying relationship can be hard. But even on our worst days, many, many, many people enjoy a mental break where they’re saving the day and being adored, and this usually happens with super powers. How can you fear harm if you’re stronger than iron and faster than the fastest bullet? But on a low self-esteem day, the praise that comes with saying the world, or at least the city, can be a nice boost, even if it’s mental. It’s the superhero identity we all carry around. No one else can see it, but at least we know we could stop that underworld god from making the state bow to him. We so could stop him.
Books are often mental vacations, a chance to leave our regular lives for a short time. When a lot of romances in some way reflect so many of our own lives (learning to fall in love again after being hurt, entering a relationship that could come with consequences that there shouldn’t be), it’s like taking a weekend trip to the next city over while super hero books are so much grander and full of adventure and accolades than out regular lives, and so are more like taking a dream vacation around the world, all expenses paid.
There are also fewer super hero books out there, but romances are a dime a dozen. It’s easy to look down on a genre when you’ve got a higher chance of picking up a super hero book that’s worth the money than you do of one that’s a let-down, and a higher chance of picking up a romance that is painfully formulaic and dull rather than one of the good ones. The romance-mill books with bodice-ripper covers sold as “special three books in 1!” for the “bargain” price of $1 (quotes, because those books are meant to go to the bargain bin) often outnumber the well-written ones. Basically it’s the equivalent of clothes made cheaply for outlet stores being put in department stores and turning people away from the brand altogether. The market is saturated with cut-rate romances that will only get read once and tossed aside until someone manages to sift out one of the titles that many people will read repeatedly, and despite romance sales being 55% of the US book sales market, how many of them will be read again? A lot of them will be like buying a ticket to the Jem movie, and realizing that it sucks (because you didn’t believe the reviews, or you didn’t read any reviews). Your money’s gone, and you won’t be back for a sequel. The sale means nothing more than someone tried it. It doesn’t mean that someone will be back for more. For one-shot titles and romance-mill books, they’ve got the money, and that’s all that matters. Of those 55%, how many times would readers be likely to say that any given book is worth re-reading? Those books still water down what’s out there.
Epic fantasy books have had their own similar struggle. For every Lord of the Rings out there, there are many more hastily-written epic fantasies. You know the ones. The covers become a blur, but often something like a busty brunette in a red leather bikini holding a sword with a dragon in the background. The market for those books is necessarily smaller since it takes more of an effort to learn about an entirely fabricated world than it is to immediately understand the real-life world usually depicted in the typical fast romance.
And there is a touch of sexism, though not in the way I think most people believe. Yes, readers are more likely to be weary of a superhero book with a woman’s name on it, and publishers seem to favor male names, but that’s not enough to account for very much. After all, the biggest romances are still written by women, and one of the biggest monsters was created by a woman, and six of the oldest books still in wide circulation were written by a woman (granted, Jane Austen did have to have her brother use his name at first, but that doesn’t affect today).
Regarding romance and dating, men, even in 2015-going-on-2016, are still expected to pick up the checks on dates, to hold doors, and generally to be in charge until a relationship has reached the point of Category: Start Thinking About a Joint Lease. Even a high number of feminists are turned off if a check, especially on an early date, is split, and a lot of women still want to be romanced, but don’t return it very often, if at all. To men, romance is something they’re expected to do (being a super hero is a choice), whereas to women, it’s something feel-good that happens to us. Men put out money on a risk. We benefit. The very genre itself is geared away from being feel-good for men because of the role they’ve been expected to take in relationships, and are still expected to take.
And let’s get real for a moment. If real-life men did a lot of the actions in so many romances, they’d be hauled off to jail. What is there to attract male readers when most of the men in romances keep chasing even when the woman has said no? All he has to do is try harder to woo her, right? If women were expected to enjoy a genre where women kept pushing even when the men weren’t interested, and we were supposed to like them, how many women would be excited to go buy more of that genre? Or to even give one “good” one a chance? We’ve all heard how Christian Grey supposedly became good in Fifty Shades Freed, yet he threatens to beat up his pregnant wife when she’s still in the hospital after being beaten by someone else. Edward Cullen’s a lesser-creep in comparison, but still a creep. Why should men in general want to read these books that show their sex and gender to be jerks? It’s insulting. Women can rally behind female superheroes. Men can’t really rally behind rapists. That one little thing right there affects the gender-cross-over appeal.
And when did romances really become a big “thing” overall? There’s been romances for thousands of years. If you believe the bible’s a couple thousand years old, then Songs of Solomon (aka Song of Songs) is a steamy romance crossed with porn (and some bestial references, for good measure) that’s 2,000 years old. And it’s far from the first. But when did the genre hit its stride? I haven’t seen any literary studies on this, but I’m one of those people who’s paid a ridiculous amount of attention to the history of housewives. When appliances began making the housework easier to do, and women were still expected to stay home, they had a lot of spare time. In the 30’s and 40’s, housewives went to work in the factories. At the end of the 40’s and into 50’s, with the men home and, vacuum cleaners and washing machines making things so much easier, what were housewives going to do all day? Cleaning didn’t take as much time. Kids are in school. Husbands are at work. Being lovey-dovey wasn’t manly. It wasn’t unusual for housewives to feel lonely and neglected.
Enter the Harlequin romance! Harlequin opened its doors in 1949, and supplied the romance fodder that lonely, frustrated housewives craved, and with so much time on their hands, this required turning out novels at a high pace. The quality didn’t matter. All that did was the story! How were they going to know the difference with nothing better to compare it to? It’s not like Jane Austen’s snarky romances were available at the corner drugstore. And so what they had were stories of the big, strong, often rich men to sweep them off their feet and away from the drudgery of their daily lives.
And so the genre picked up, and housewives were up to their ears in quickly-written paperbacks. By the time other writers started trying to revitalize the genre, the pool’s already been diluted. How can we blame reviewers and critics when, even today, most romances are the same? I understand that it’s personal for modern writers trying to put out something with more substance in the genre, but readers in general are still more likely to encounter the books written by contracted individuals tossing books to publishers to run off under one pen name.
Romances weren’t written to appeal to men, and today, they still aren’t written to appeal to men. But even the most male-centered of superhero stories either offers something for women, or, at the least, doesn’t give us a terrible woman character and tell us to like her.
And there you have many reasons why superheroes have a huge impact on pop culture while romance is shuttled off to the side, even though romance accounts for more than half of all book sales in the US. Books on their very own simply can’t make a massive pop-culture dent, and inherent issues and difference between the two genres limit romance’s potential fare more than superheroes.