Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Great Expectations or, But What About My Marriage?

Maggie Jaimeson, a.k.a Maggie McVay-Lynch, President of Rose City Romance Writers and published author of non-fiction while daringly also throwing her hat into the romance fiction ring, got into this mess, uh, was forced to blog- well, let's just say she asked a question, so I asked her to answer it for us. She kindly assented after really minimal arm-twisting, and here's the result.

You can check Maggie and her books out at her website here:

and her blog here:

As a reward to herself for finishing a book, Maggie makes herself a "faux" cover for it. You can see her covers below. As a reward for Maggie for being my first daring blogger, I made her a "faux" cover for this blog. You can reward Maggie by dropping by and reading what she has to say, and arguing or agreeing with her thoughts. It's a really interesting question, and a thoughtful answer. (Unlike my punny faux cover).(And no, Maggie doesn't write Georgians.)

Great Expectations: What About My Marriage?
I have been a romance reader since about the age of eleven or twelve. I began with the gothics by Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney in my youth. Thank goodness in those days there wasn't a lot of sex to worry or confused the rather sheltered adolescent I was. In High School I joined a couple of the Harlequin book clubs and had my eight books a month to devour. In college, I would occasionally pick up a romance at the bookstore but they were no longer the category ones. They tended to be what is now called Women's Fiction. But more often I would pick up a Science Fiction book because I was taken with the exchange of ideas. Then there was a long period of time, about 15 years when I didn't read a romance at all. I returned in my fifties to find, to my great delight, that the romance genre had changed drastically and I could now combine my desire for a mystery or SF story with a romance.

As I have watched the divorce rates rise, and have been divorced and remarried myself, I've wondered how my early upbringing with romance novels may have impacted my expectations of marriage. When I see many women today, young and old alike, choosing not to marry (either choosing to live with a partner or to retain independent households even when they are in committed relationships) I've often wondered if the romance genre or any media portrayal of romance has had a negative impact on our ability to be satisfied in a romantic relationship. Have we set the expectations too high? Are novels and media so powerful as to make us dysfunctional? Or is it the dysfunctional who seek out the salve of unrealistic love?

I came of age in the late 1960's and early 1970's with the rise of feminism. In that era there was a great deal of discussion about the portrayal of women in fairy tales as magical figures who are often defined by beauty, danger, innocence, malice, and greed. Researchers called fairy and folk tales the primary source of information about a culture, and argued that humans cannot help acting out roles taught to them by these tales, which specify gendered romantic roles. Because women are depicted as either evil or saintly, the real terror of fairy tales lies in the romantic message--that is, a woman who is not passive, innocent, and helpless must then be evil. And I still find that these fairy tale type roles continue to be the primary images of women in movies and TV. I believe those early romance novels I read also reflected those fairy tale gender roles. Women were usually innocent and men were experienced. Women were passive and men were the leaders.

Though our novels have now changed to reflect more equal gender roles, romance novels still serve as a powerful source of expectations about love relationships. For the most part, romance novels still depict "alpha" heroes. That is take charge men who are larger than life and, of course, physically perfect. Though many novels have "wounded" heroes, they are still able to overcome their pasts and be amazingly whole, particularly in their relationships with their romantic partner. Yes, it is true that now the female protagonists are also take charge women who are larger than life and, at least in the heroe's eyes, physically perfect. I must admit, for myself, though I can be just as interested as younger women in the spectacularly masculine phallic power, for me what really truns me on is the hero's capacity for tenderness, self-reflection, and attentive concern.

When I look at my own marriage, particularly if we've had a bad day together or a bad week, I know I often wonder why my DH isn't more like the romance heroes I read. Why can't he rise above the banality of every day life? Why can't he put aside whatever perceived perturbance ruined his day and still worship the ground I walk on? Or for that matter, does he ever worship the ground I walk on? Uh, I don't think so. On the other hand, often when reading a book with a strong alpha hero I also know there is absolutely NO WAY I could have a long term relationship with that type of man. In fact, it is when my DH acts like those typical alpha heroes -- the I-can't-see-past-my-immediate-needs behavior that I want to walk out the door. So both in the novel and in real life I find that my expectations and the clash of reality and fantasy certainly set up a strong cognitive dissonance for me.

In 1991, Shapiro (a researcher and marriage counselor) did a large survey on the impact of media images around romance and, as expected, she found that respondents with more unrealistic beliefs about romantic love reported significantly less satisfaction with their current relationship than those who endorsed more realistic views. There was a statistically significant trend for married women who reported more exposure to popular media to rate themselves as less satisfied with their current intimate relationships. No significant differences were found based on age. Granted her study included all media, not just romance novels. But makes me wonder.

I've found a way to embrace that dissonance in my life. Perhaps it is a matter of age and perhaps it is a matter of having been married before and so entering the next relationship with different expectations. However, I do still want more. I do still want and expect some of what I read in romance novels. A part of that expectation is that things are bigger, better, get resolved faster and that makeup sex is amazing. Sometimes I get it. Often I don't. I think that's the way life is and if it was perfect all the time I would probably not recognize it or take it for granted. Maybe having high expectations is a good thing. Maybe it makes both of us strive for more. Who knows?

Do you feel that romance novels set up unrealistic expectations for your relationships? If so, how do you bring yourself down to earth? How do you manage to be satisfied in the long term? If you believe that the romance depicted in the novels is, in fact, not only possible but probable then please share how you've seen that reinforced in your own relationships. Happy reading!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Gentleman Wore Lace

When I think of a contemporary man wearing lace, the immediate image that comes to mind is of my very Alpha step-son. Strong-jawed, tanned, six-foot-four, muscle-rippling and lean as a fence post, you'd get a fist in the face if you tried to force him into a dandy's cravat, not to even consider the thick ruffs of lace so prized by gentlemen in the 16th and 17th Centuries. He's no wimp.

But masculinity was not always expressed by T shirts and billed caps with Mariners emblems prominently displayed. And although we understand suits of armor, chain mail (really should be called just mail) and 19th Century military uniforms decorated with miles of gold braid (called lace), some male clothing of the past really makes us wonder. Were the European aristocratic men of the early modern age "wusses", as my step-son would call them?
When you look at their portraits, you can clearly see the arrogance and great pride in their silk hose, velvet doublets. And lace. Just how many yards of lace did they manage to cram into those incredible ruffs, anyway?

Actually that was exactly their point. How much lace could they wear at any given time?

The man you see in this engraving is Sir Christopher Hatton, a distant relative of mine, who was Lord Chancellor of England and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. Although he does bear a strong resemblance to my youngest brother, I'm not bragging about him, though- he was utterly villainous. So he's not hero material.
But he was a very powerful person in his day, and there is no question that the Queen owed much of her success in staying on the throne through her long reign to him. Villain he might be, but he's no wuss. either.

It all goes back to the instinct for survival, one of the most basic of all drives. For all the written history of Europe, masculinity has been about power. Survival has been about power, which was largely about the accumulation of wealth and the conspicuous display of it. To survive a famine, one needed a great stockpile of food. To survive winter, a warm shelter was needed. To survive in the face of danger, the shelter needed to be secure. Such strength also meant survival for his family, clan, or country as well, and so the stronger male attracted more attention from females than a weaker one. Display of wealth became an aid to securing female interest just as surely as brightly colored males in many species of birds. So status symbols have been important to males for a very long time. We love luxury because it automatically triggers thoughts of safety, filled stomachs and solid roofs over our heads.

Take a look at today's economy, and you can see just how much the bottom line of survival means to people, even now. And never in history did money so strongly represent survival. Today most of us can't go live in the woods and shoot deer to stay alive. Money is the currency of survival. Money is power.

Although the precursors of lace go far back into the Middle Ages and perhaps even longer, true lace as we know it did not come into fashion until the 16th Century, when it suddenly exploded into popularity. Being full of holes, lace doesn't keep one warm, so only someone who has no worries about the supply of firewood can afford to dress in it. And it was very expensive, for the intricate designs require hundreds of hours of labor. Some forms of lace can take a full month of long hours of labor to produce a single inch, in length, and only a few inches wide. Going back to my ancestor's portrait, I made a guess on the amount of lace in his ruff, which I figure has about 50 folds of lace, times 2, close to 3.5 inches deep. That's 350 inches of lace, over 9 yards or 28 feet. And we said a month to make each inch of it? What would some manufactured piece in today's market cost us if it took a hundred thousand hours to make?

As the European world emerged from Medieval times, England in particular experienced an enormous surge in personal wealth. A building boom, along with the building of ships to sail to the New World and defend the English shores helped denude the country of its trees. And everywhere, men sought to display to the world their success. What better way than on their own bodies?

If the wearing of lace tells the world a man is wealthy, then the more lace a man could wear, the more powerful and wealthier he would be in the eyes of beholders. Flat lace collars gave way to ruffles of lace, which in turn became more deeply and densely ruffled to the point where no more lace could physically be packed into the ruff. Cuffs were the same. Stealing and smuggling lace makers, then lace patterns and secrets of production into England became a thriving business. But as costs lowered, its great popularity also led to its eventual fall from favor. By the early 19th Century, gentlemen had found other ways to display their wealth, such as watches dangling on gold chains and decorated with not one but several fobs. And the lace ruff became merely the descendant of the dandy's elaborate linen cravat.

Today, you're lucky to get a hero to wear a tie. The open shirt look that is common even in the business office today would cause fainting by being viewed by more fragile women of an earlier day. But in the 16th through 19th Century a bared neck was not just scandalous, it was the symbol of a man who was so poor he couldn't afford to keep his own throat warm. And did women care? You bet they did. Those were the days when very few women had any way to make a viable income of their own, no matter how hard they worked. Nor could they hope future generations would prosper if they did not actually produce a future generation, and one with enough financial security that it could hope to do well.

No, the gentleman who wore lace was not effeminate. He was in fact the Alpha male of his day, as strongly masculine as any man in history.

About Me

My photo
I write write write. Sometimes I travel. Then I write some more. And I have a great family who understand that I write write write.