Maybe you think that the romances we all consume are completely without any agenda other than boy meets girl. Nothing could be further from the truth.
There are plenty of social messages in romances. Probably the most visible message in recent years is about women who are in abusive relationships or running from them. Wife-beating, as it used to be called, is an historically longstanding behavior. It is only in the last quarter century that our culture has cried out to stop it by promoting a zero tolerance reaction to it. As mentioned in a previous post, Jealousy, even as late as the 1970s, spousal abuse was something that wives (the chief sufferers) were supposed to accept without complaint. No more, and along with all the public discussion of it today, there are scores of romances that specifically encourage women to recognize and flee abusive situations.
But what about other social messages? By now it is well known that romances in the 1950s promoted the idea that a woman’s place was the home. Career girl romances always ended with the young woman quitting to get married. And any woman with an actual talent, such as art or music or dance, was forced to give it up. There was no acceptance of a heroine who wanted to keep on dancing, or playing the piano for anyone but her husband and children. Today’s romances have long since finished fighting the career wars. It’s not even an issue anymore, but it was the major issue in romances of the late 1970s and early 1980s. And guess who won?
You might think that romances are written merely to entertain, and the writers just use socially relevant themes as part of being current. And of course that is true. But all writers hold certain personal beliefs that inevitably come through in their stories. And at least some writers actively craft their stories to showcase their beliefs. Today, we attend classic plays such as George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara” and “Pygmalion” for sheer entertainment, as period pieces, even. They’re extremely witty and amusing. When we go to “My Fair Lady,” the musical version of “Pygmalion,” we laugh at Henry Higgins’ theories about how an educated tone of voice determined class perception in Edwardian England. But Shaw was a founder of the Fabian Socialists, and he was deliberately crafting his comedic and romantic social tangles of plays believing that playwriting was “the subtlest, the most seductive, the most effective instrument of moral propaganda in the world.”
And talking about romances with an agenda, there’s the entire panoply of evangelical Christian romances being published today specifically with a religious message. They have a crucial requirement: The success of the romantic relationship must hinge on the born-again Christian faith of the protagonists. A roundup of the publishers’ guidelines for writers of these books makes this clear. Yes, the suppression of sexual behavior is extremely important to these romances. Even kissing must not be portrayed as passionate in carnal detail. But the sexual elements take a back seat to the issue of religious faith. It’s not enough to be a practicing Episcopalian or Roman Catholic (and forget being Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist) in these romances. Evangelism is viewed as the only true Christianity, and Christianity as the only true religion. That’s quite a burden to put on a romance.
The grande dame of such romances of the 20th century was Grace Livingston Hill. In the dozens of books she wrote, she covered many situations that related to happiness with Christianity, always drawing the line very distinctly. If the hero or heroine’s love was not a true Christian by her definition, they were as damned as Satan (they might even be Satan) and must be rejected until they repented and came to the fold. There was no room for compromise, or for opposing views of the proper relationship to God. As much as romances have changed over the years, this is still the agenda of evangelical Christian romances.
Ironically, the next most frequent religion covered in any detail in romances is wicca. Yes, wicca, the nature-based religion whose practitioners hold a wide variety of beliefs, sometimes including paganism, priestesses dancing around in the nude, moon goddess worship, and just about anything any sect happens to want. Many fantasy and paranormal romances include wicca elements or characters, often as misunderstood, flaky, or outcast figures, but sometimes as establishment figures in fantasy worlds. But there aren’t any major publishers putting out entire lines of wicca romances. Any proseletyzing for wicca is on an author-by-author basis. Generally, the non-wicca hero or heroine is not required to join a coven by the story’s end in order to win the true love. But learning to respect a different religious view of the world is often a significant element of such stories.
Are there other messages in the romances you’re reading today? Of course. Even a book about The Tycoon’s Pregnant Mistress promotes the idea that money is power, and yet that true love linked to middle class morality can conquer tremendous worldly inequities. You don’t have to look for the message behind every romance you read. But it’s there.