What is it that draws women to these guys? Lately, I heard a piece on the radio about this very thing – that a recent study found women to be drawn to men dark and brooding—or forceful and swaggering. Happy men? Out in the cold.
The odd corollary to this is that men were most commonly drawn to happy women. Not to the ones you see on the run-ways of haut couture – you know, the very tall, half-starved chicks who look like they’d kill you if you gave them half a chance. (Which sort of begs the question, who are fashion shows really staged for?)
But this revelation about women is no surprise to anyone who’s ever cruised the Romance shelves of any book store. And I always find myself wondering if the women who buy these books can actually fancy that they’d feel anywhere near comfortable in the company of the men on the covers.
But my real study here concerns – maybe not a more legitimate literature so much as less niche-y stuff. I could start with Mr. Darcy – aloof, preemptory, impossible to please – and rich. Would any of the women in the room have been so interested in him without that last, always attractive attribute? Well, he was also said to be handsome – but what made him so hot? Probably – his very pride. The pride in his face made him handsome. His very rejection of the women reels them in.
Happily for our heroine, he oddly and wonderfully turns out to be warm, compassionate and self sacrificing in the end. But how believable is that sudden transition? The housekeeper testifies of all his goodness, though it’s definitely been hidden from the rest of us. And it’s not until he finally is reduced to humility and action based on his hopeless, burning love and respect for Lizzy that he changes for us readers into the hero we always assumed he must truly be.
And this, I think, is the crux of the matter.
Look at two of our oldest stories: “Tam Linn” and “Beauty and the Beast.” You see the same pattern here – the hero is – for some reason beyond his control – (magic, abuse, bad parents, bad luck, bitten by a vampire, abandoned by family, sold into slavery, cursed by heaven – whatever) awful. The awfulness can be anything from physical ugliness to being completely unable to control his own fate to violent and selfish behavior. BUT, he is saved by love. By HER love. ONLY her love. She holds on to him, no matter how terrible he is to her, no matter how he protests, no matter how he hurts her – she believes in him and he finally changes, suddenly and completely, into the Man He Should Have Been, the Man She Always Knew Was Inside. In the case of Lizzy, all it took was her mere presence over time – simply the staunch truth of her character – to pull out into our view all Darcy’s so far totally hidden virtues.
And so I ask: are women attracted to the wounded, the cruel, the angry, the sad – on because of the nurturing nature of women? The nature that, evolutionarily speaking, was built to protect and teach the helpless, regardless of the cost to herself? Or is this attraction also attributable to a sort of need for self-realization, a validation of our prowess on the scale of female success, testing the potency of our nature – almost the way men are always testing the potency of theirs?
If she loves him, and she is woman enough (and gives him enough good lovin’), the toad will wake up and become a hero. The “Sleeping Beauty” story is probably the most wrong story in the world. It’s told backward. The true romance would have her waking him – maybe I should write that. But then, it’s already been written, as I just showed you. It’s a statement on our times that some romance novels now actually center on predatory females and their blithe manipulation of innocent, usually rich and lovely men. I find that really, really disturbing. It’s like the place where fascism and socialism meet.
I know the pull of this bad boy thing. I know the pull of the female-redeems theme. But I have to say that when we write these stories, it’s like buying whiskey for a bowery bum. It’s an easy sell. But it’s feels wrong. A wrong thing to do. A recent hit series of books paints an anti-heroine who – and this is justified in the book as acceptable behavior – complains about every single other character, lies to her father, allows herself to be dominated and put in danger by her love interest, and in the end, surrenders any identity she ever had (you’d have to search pretty deep to find any, actually, so it wasn’t that significant a surrender) to meld herself with her “man.”
And what is the author teaching young women? Because we do teach when we write, whether we mean to or not. Isn’t the author teaching this: that woman have no value until they find a man? That a woman doesn’t need to be strong or have her own identity, if she can follow where “love” leads? That lying, sneaking, cheating and putting herself in danger for the sake of “love” is admirable and more – that love will make all turn out right in the end for her? That a woman can trust a man’s heart in spite of any behavioral problems he might have as long as she loves him? That love conquers all – including wisdom, dignity, personal safety, rational thought?
Is this what we want the women under our influence to believe about life? Because if we take on the responsibility of the Public Voice, don’t we also have to realize that we are responsible for our influence on the people who shelled out the bucks to experience that influence?
I know plenty of writers who don’t feel any such responsibility. And frankly, I think they are flat out irresponsible for closing their eyes to real life. If you write a song that make suicide sound like relief, and you sell it to the general public so you can afford to drive your little black caddy and eat out all the time – and the song falls into young ears, and that young person ends up committing suicide, can you REALLY claim to be blameless? Can you not see that you chose to create something of powerful influence, and that influence pushed somebody else over the edge?
And if you spill (I was really thinking in terms of regurgitation here) your fantasies out in public for money, knowing that women will point to your story and say to their better sense, “See? It’s in writing, so it must be true,” (which readers do ALL THE TIME ) and some reader goes on to duplicate a pattern that – in real life – damages her life, can you honestly turn your back and shrug and take no responsibility at all? You convinced her to believe a lie. And when that woman ends up raising her children alone, or living in a shelter, or cries in her closet because her husband is STILL cruel or irresponsible, or violent or dark minded or untrue – regardless of his having been deeply loved by her, regardless of the fact that he married her – can you really say, “She didn’t have to read me. She didn’t have to believe me. I had nothing to do with it -“?
They don’t let you pick even one wild flower in a National Park. Because – what if everybody picked just one? Well, there is also an aggregate to the little tiny, throw away stories we tell each other. And it can end up leading women into fairytales that turn into horror stories.
It’s not that I believe that every story we tell should be preachy. I just think honesty – with ourselves – about the realities of life is important. Fairy tales don’t have to be lies. We think of magic as superseding the harsh and relentless laws of reality – but if there truly were magic, it would work by rules, too. And truly powerful story telling is like poetry – it does its job within boundaries. Organically. With true cause and effect. The most powerful fantasy, like the worlds of Tolkien, also play by rules, not by arbitrary quirks that bend worlds to the requirements of the plot.
I am thinking now of Emma Thompson at the end of Stranger Than Fiction when she considers her own main character. She says something like, “If a man in a story dies to save someone, that’s sad. But if a man knows before hand that in saving someone he will die – and chooses to do it anyway – isn’t that someone you want to keep alive?”
So why can’t women be drawn to the good men, the real heros? Why do we find the good men boring?
Is happiness just not satisfying enough?
Because after all my time on this planet, I find that I much prefer joy to drama.