An Embarrassment of Men

By Poison Ivy,

It should be an embarrassment of riches. A typical romance heroine—a virginal young woman with a big problem that keeps her from enjoying love and life—suddenly finds not one, but three boyfriends. Yes, Sookie Stackhouse, the Louisiana barmaid heroine of Charlaine Harris’ paranormal romance series now on television as “True Blood,” definitely starts as a standard romance heroine. She’s young, she’s attractive, but she’s a telepath. That totally kills her relationships with men because she can hear exactly what they’re thinking. (Ick!) Until she meets Bill the Vampire, whose mind is a blank to her. She loves it, and soon loves him, too. And they become lovers. That ought to be enough to make a young woman happy, you’d think, but these days, not so. It is not enough to have found true love. There must be some potential next boyfriends in the picture, too. Just as Sookie is getting involved with Bill, her boss, Sam, starts to show interest in her. He’s a shapeshifter who likes to take animal form as a collie. But wait, there’s more. Eric, an older and therefore more powerful vampire than Bill, also thinks Sookie is attractive. Although maybe as a snack, not a long-term love. Vampires do tend to think of humans as food. But he’s managed to steal a few kisses, too.

Isn’t it just typical that there’s a long drought in Sookie’s life, and then too many men? There’s something attractive about a woman who already has a lover, perhaps. The “Jessie’s Girl” syndrome of longing for the woman who is taken. But what about the heroine’s feelings? In romances over the last fifty years, there has been the standard of the heroine having to choose between two men, one of whom offered a life of wealth but shallow pleasures, and one who offered a life of work but the virtue of sincerity. Naturally, the heroine always chose the poor-but-honest young man. Then we had a long period in romances in which there was only one serious candidate for the heroine, even if he acted like a domineering jerk most of the time. Her only other choice was a far less manly type of man, one who was never described in attractive terms. Of course she always chose Mr. Big. And then romances morphed into tales in which there still was only one man, but he was a nicer person, so the heroine did not seem to be acting like a cretin when she chose him. But in all these scenarios, the heroine definitively chose just one man.

Now, although we still have books being published that are exemplars of all these prior romance situations, we’re seeing something different. In Twilight, the heroine falls for a vampire but also meets a werewolf who likes her. And she has other boys after her, too. In the Sookie Stackhouse novels, Sookie’s attractiveness increases as she gains more vampire blood and becomes stronger and more beautiful. It’s logical enough, but it leaves her with an incipient dilemma, which man to choose? Author Charlaine Harris makes it easier on Sookie by having the other men take advantage of her and surprise her with their advances. I haven’t read the entire series, but I am beginning to wonder just how far such surprises will go. The surprise aspect keeps Sookie from suffering moral ambiguity over the event itself, but it leaves her with guilt—which she conveniently decides to examine later—over responding to being kissed by Sam or Eric instead of by her lover Bill.

This is a new romance situation, that of the lover-in-waiting. It isn’t merely that it tests the limits of sexual fidelity, which it of course does. It also tests the limits of being able to sustain multiple serious relationships. Humans do not mate for life (more or less) by mere chance. We do it because life is too confusing otherwise. Power being equal between men and women (the women not being economically dependent on the men, which is the case in most polygamous situations), the vast majority of people choose single relationships, not multiples. Why is this? Because you are a different person with each person you know. Sometimes slightly different, and sometimes vastly different. Your interactions are different, and your reactions. With one man, a woman might get along very peacefully, while with another, she’s always in a fight, and so on. By choosing a mate, we are choosing the reflection of the person we want to be most of the time. And by changing mates through divorce, we’re changing our minds or acknowledging that the relationship has changed and the reflection no longer works for us. In societies with easy divorce, serial choices happen, but each choice is still a single choice.

So what does a romance heroine do when faced with the possibility that she can have a serious relationship with more than one man, right now? She acts like Scarlett O’Hara and decides to think about it in the morning—or never. She waits and sees. She lets each man show her more of who he is, so she has a better chance of determining which one offers her the most possibility of a lasting, happy relationship. But she does not pursue deepening the relationships on offer. She remains steadfast with her original lover. For a while, anyway. Perhaps I need to read more of Sookie’s adventures, to see if she decides to try to manage multiple relationships at once. My money is on it not going smoothly, if so. Most people have enough trouble just negotiating the potholes of one primary relationship. Add in more, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Or a trashy television talk show.