vol. 2, #6, August, 1996
WHAT DOES A WOMAN WANTDoes it seem strange to you that Freud thought he could explain everything important about human nature but professed to be mystified by the question "What does a woman want?" It does to me. I can't help thinking the man didn't try very hard, because women just aren't all that difficult to figure out.
Of course, in a sense, the question is stupid, because it assumes that any woman is Everywoman, and that we all want the exact same things. It's a question that fails to take into account the splendid variousness of women. Some of us are charming and gracious and serene, some of us lively and incorrigibly "cute"; some of us are determined to mother everyone in sight, some of us equally determined to run the company, the government, the world. Some of us are vapid, some of us victims, while others of us are heroines and pioneers. Some of us are feminine and emotional, some of us are self-assured, opinionated, hardheaded old broads.
But for all that, we do share common experiences and expectations. We know our lives are inextricably linked to the lives of our men. We have a harder time answering that job interview question, "where do you see yourself in ten years?" because we will probably be fitting our careers around the careers of our men. We know that our lives may even depend on their whims, or their rage. The result is, we make a point of trying to understand you guys. We pay a lot of attention to your words and actions. We pick up clues about how your minds work wherever we can find them--which means, among other things, we read books about men.
Unfortunately, men don't return the favor. My professor for adolescent literature, G. Robert Carlsen, for forty years administered surveys to teenagers all over the world about their reading interests, and what held true across time and cultures was: girls will read about boys, but boys won't read about girls.
This is a mistake, because roadmaps to the minds of women are available in the form of the books we read. And the books we consume by the boxload are: romances. If you guys really want to understand us, read some of the romances we have made best-sellers.
O.K., O.K., it's an appalling thought, I know, right up there with playing poker with us and drinking ladies' cocktails that taste like Kool-Aid.
But here you can find in their most distilled form all our ideas about how men and women, especially lovers, should relate to each other. It is where you can find out what it is about men that we fall in love with, and so, a guide to making yourself more lovable.
While there are as many variants on romance novels as there are on murder mysteries, there are certain constants throughout the genre:
- The key relationship for the heroine is with the man she commits to. She may have relationships with friends and family as well, but the man is basic to her life.
- We see the world through the eyes of the heroine.
- Her man takes her seriously. He listens to her. (A hilarious piece in Ms. Magazine many years ago contrasted the dialog in a Gothic novel, where the heroine was breathlessly explaining a frightening occurrence to her enthralled hero, with real life, where the man keeps interrupting and demanding that she get him a beer.)
- Reluctantly, the man admits that the woman is equally central to his life. Not a decorative frill; not something he can put aside whenever he has to do something that's actually important. No, he finds that she is basic to his happiness. (This is not pure fantasy, incidentally, because on every measure of health and well-being, married men come out well ahead of single men.)
- The hero is strong, highly individualistic, isolated, and maybe even slightly dangerous. The woman tames him and civilizes him. And after all, this is a significant part of our role in the world--to bring men into society and channel their energies into the common good of the community.
- The heroines are pretty and the hero is tall and goodlooking. Sorry about that, guys, but hey, this is a fantasy we're talking about here, and if we're fantasizing, we might just as well be fantasizing about Robert Redford. It's not something to worry about, because in real life, we're not that shallow. We're happy enough to find our real princes among men who look like Bill Gates but don't have his money.
The different varieties of romances cater to different psychological needs in women. One standard formula is that of the strong man, drawn against his will to a woman he believes to be unworthy--he thinks she's a slut or a gold-digger or a thief. He treats her brutally, then learns that she is really kind, loving and virtuous, at which point he falls all over himself in self-abasement and apology, offering her his hand and heart.
At this point, one of my generation X male friends who critiques my columns for me said, and I quote, "Gag, vomit." And I entirely agree. Nonetheless, this model of romance is satisfactory for some women on a couple of levels. It would appeal to a woman trapped in a relationship with a brutish man--it allows her to fantasize that he merely misunderstands her, and that someday he will see her as she really is and beg her to forgive him for his denseness.
But this formula is also the standard American archetype of the "good-bad girl." In our country, perhaps because of the Puritan tradition, we tend to divorce good women from their sexuality: good women=pure, bad women=sexy, good women=boring, bad women=desirable. Perhaps we have evolved the "good-bad girl" model in our popular culture so that men can have the best of both worlds--they can fall for the dangerous but exciting bad woman, and still marry the virtuous woman she really is at heart.
I hate that kind of romance. I don't like heroines who allow themselves to be victims. This is why I also don't much care for rape fantasies, though I understand the service they perform. For women who have been raised in that branch of the Judaeo-Christian tradition that regards women as snares to tempt men from the path of godliness, these books are liberating. They can experience vicariously all the heroine's guilt-free exploration of her own sexuality, because, after all, she was forced against her will, and (surprise!) oh, did it feel good. (The down side of this is that, because these rape fantasies exist, many men believe that women seriously want to be raped. They're wrong.)
The romances I enjoy are much more egalitarian. I like a bright, funny, loving heroine, a woman who is spunky and resourceful, as likely, in a pinch, to rescue the hero as he is to rescue her. She is a full partner to her man, who is intelligent enough to appreciate her and respect her. In the books I love, the heroes and heroines have great conversations, trading banter like those witty couples in the screwball comedies of the '30's.
Often the hero and heroine are working together to solve a mystery, like the delightful couple hitting all the tourist spots of southern England in Elizabeth Peters The Camelot Caper, or the endangered couple in Paula Gosling's Fair Game (not to be confused with the appalling movie that was made from it--do read the book). Sometimes they are engaged in helping a needy child, as in Georgette Heyer's Arabella, or Marian Cockrell's The Revolt of Sarah Perkins.
For me, romances have to square with the reality of women's lives. For most of us, connectedness is paramount. We share our lives with friends, families, children. Our men are the most important element in our lives, but if we lose them, we will go on anyway, because other people depend on us. In the romances by my favorite best-selling authors, (Nora Roberts, Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart, Elsie Lee, Anne McCaffrey) we see women in all their complexity, filling multiple roles to meet the needs of the people they love.
Some of these are romances that end with a restrained kiss that promises much, much more, and some of them steam up the windows and serve as advanced sex manuals (as well as to illustrate the difference between "erotic" and "dirty"). But whatever the degree of intimacy offered in these books, I have to warn my male readers that--um, how can I break this to you gently?--you won't measure up.
Sorry about that. But the odds are, your dialogue isn't as witty, your love for her not as openly expressed, and your sexual technique--well, unless you routinely spend hours making sure she has as much fun as you do--nowhere near as good. (I do wonder if women who read lots of romance novels are more likely to sue for divorce.) But not to worry--we're nowhere near as good as the heroines either.
The point is, if you really mean it about wanting to understand what a woman wants, it's easy enough to find out--you just surreptitiously read some romance novels. Ignore Fabio on the covers, because we will cheerfully settle for less muscle and more brains. Pay close attention to the heroes to pick up some pointers. And do pay close attention to the heroine. After all, that's what the hero did, and that's why he got the girl.
Don't Read Just Any Romances. Try These:
Madeline Brent. Merlin's Keep or Moonraker's Bride
Marian Cockrell. The Revolt of Sarah Perkins or Mixed Blessings
Rhonda Dixon. Man Around the House
Dorothy Gilman. The Tightrope Walker
Georgette Heyer. virtually anything. Start with Frederica or Sylvester
Elsie Lee. Wingarden
Anne McCaffrey (yes, the science fiction Anne McCaffrey). Ring of Fear
Elizabeth Peters. The Camelot Caper or The Dead Sea Cipher
Nora Roberts. Anything, but Hidden Riches is particularly amusing.
Mary Stewart. Madam Will You Talk?
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
I'll write columns here whenever I really want to share an idea with you and can find time to write them . If you want to be notified when a new one is up, send me an e-mail and include "My Word's Worth" in the subject line.