Sentimental Lies

By Poison Ivy,

To the degree that popular fiction is a lie, it doesn’t live beyond its original moment.

It has to be revisited for this to be obvious, though. So go back to an old romance you read many years ago, and read it again. Do the circumstances of the heroine strike you as quaint? Does her conflict with the hero come off as artificial? Some situations and conflicts are extremely topical, which is not quite the same thing as a lie.

An example of topicality would be a contemporary romance written in the 1970s or early 1980s, in which the heroine is trying to work in what previously was an all-male career slot instead of being just a secretary, and she gets a lot of flak from the hero or others about it. And she herself is defensive, prickly, and very determined to not compromise an inch because of how attacked and vulnerable she feels. This was a legitimate phenomenon in the 1970s and immediately thereafter, as the baby boom generation of women pushed its way into the working world. But despite the glass ceiling that was later discovered, the reality of women’s jobs is different now from what it was then. Women don’t have to fight to walk in the door anymore. That there still are battles is understood. But there’s already something antique about a romance in which the heroine is, say, a cop, and the hero acts like she’s a rare bird. Our world has moved on. We take it for granted that there are female cops. That’s topicality, and topicality dates a romance.

No, what I’m talking about are what I call sentimental lies. These are elements of a story that are false to the characters and their situation (whether it’s a topical situation or not), but which are expected by the popular audience. An example of this setup would be any romance heroine of the 1950s or 1960s who has an artistic career and a boyfriend who doesn’t like it. In the popular trend of the day, every woman had to give up her career for a life of domesticity. Even when the heroine very clearly had unique artistic talent as, say, a ballerina. Harlequin published several romances about women whose beloved felt totally threatened by and angry at the demands of the woman’s career. So the woman would give it up. And they would then live happily ever after. Ha! Not so fast.

Did they live happily ever after? Or did these women just try to make peace with being on the losing side of a battle? (Especially since it was a battle whose opponents consisted of the entire male establishment and most other women, too?) The problem with the sentimental lie is that in real life people do not get the result that the sentimental lie predicts. Oh, sure, plenty of women have given up careers for marriage. But then many of them were not happy at all, and they acted out their frustration and grief in various unpleasant ways. They lived through their children; they became alcoholics; they turned into the neighborhood gossips. Or harem schemers, or unfaithful wives, or whatever. Unhappy people who feel trapped and hard done by—and who have little reason to believe their lost cause is noble—do not rise to sainthood; they head the other way.

If you read a romance written in the 1950s or the 1960s, the writer will trot out the party line about how the heroine must stop being a concert pianist or an opera singer or a ballerina (even though these are such feminine, artistic careers) and just stay home and polish the furniture and herself—and that she will be happy. But first, the writer will set up an adversarial situation between hero and heroine that cannot be resolved without someone totally giving in, or there being a deus ex machina like a node on the vocal chords, or a broken hand or foot. The writer organizes the story so that it has to end with the heroine losing. To our modern eyes, this is no victory for love, but rather the destruction of a woman’s hope. The men also come across as incredibly selfish and pigheaded, not attractive or caring at all. It isn’t a happy ending. It was only a sentimental trend for a fairly short period in our society, but these stories are virtually unreadable now. This kind of story’s ending was a sentimental lie. Such stories come across as very obviously false once the public has moved on to other lies. And so later audiences turn away.

Incidentally, this is a major problem with older movies, TV shows, plays, operas, novels, and so on. The audience has moved on. It no longer pretends that the false feelings are real, and thus the story is not believable. Think of Shakespeare: “Othello” still works because insecurity can always fuel irrational doubt (helped of course by Iago’s villainous actions). “Romeo and Juliet” works because to very young teenagers, not to get what they want is still enough to make them want to die. They do not have the leavening of life experience that will allow them to compromise (or sell out). But “The Taming of the Shrew” is a problem because to modern eyes, even at the end Kate isn’t getting a particularly good deal. The power dynamics of the story were always evident. But public acceptance of the outcome has changed.

Why does any of this matter? It’s the reasoning behind the way we tell stories on On the one hand, we want to tell an interesting story that feels credibly modern. And since we know that modern lovers make love before marriage (they always have, but that’s another story) without significant social consequences, we include that in our stories. But we also know that no matter how tough modern people talk, or what their sex lives are popularly reported to be, they still have the same feelings human beings have always had. So we try very hard to get at the truth of their feelings, and to show why the heroine picks this man, and the hero picks this woman. It isn’t enough that they are a man and a woman of marriagable age. They have to make a connection that is believable and unique. And by the story’s end, whatever differences or doubts they have must be resolved in a way that strongly indicates that they are going to be happy together for a long time.

Anything sentimentally conventional about their romance becomes a trap into which the story could fall and date itself. Even the sentimental convention that they make love. Still, human nature being what it is, men and women continue to be attracted to each other. How they get from those initial feelings to a lifelong commitment in which both people will be happy is what our romances are all about.